The Sunset Strip was the business long before the eighties. Name a classic rock band and they probably played the Whisky—Van Halen, The Doors, The Kinks, on and on. The Strip was such a scene in the sixties it even earned its own film, the cult classic Riot on the Sunset Strip.
The punks took over the Strip in the seventies and early ’80s, and that’s the era that I idealized: dirty, dangerous. I bought that whole Valley Girl image at full retail price. When most people think of the Strip, hair metal is what they imagine: Spandex, sleaze, and hairspray; bullet belts, boots, and shredded acid wash jeans. That was the Strip as the ’80s came to a close, a high bangs and eyeliner Sodom blissfully unaware that its days were numbered; that a vengeful god prepared to rain flannels, cardigans, and Doc Martens down upon the pretty boys and the girls who loved them.
I never got into the Strip scene. I thought that the glamor boys were obnoxious pricks: all style, no substance. Jody loved it, though, and that girl rocked a leather mini and a giant Madonna belt. She’d come home telling tales of bands like Little Caesar and Faster Pussycat or of her new friend, Chandra. Chandra never came around, but over time I got to know her pretty well via Jody’s tales of the Strip. She was fun, wild, nineteen, cute, loved bands, and liked to party. Chandra was the Strip.
Strip kids loved to party. Jobs? Bills? Fuck that. Those were someone else’s problem. In that regard they weren’t much different than the Hollywood kids–the street rats who huddled in the doorways and bummed change. Where the two groups differed is that the Strip kids didn’t want your coins. They wanted your apartment.
Jody and I were doing a little better financially. We could finally afford to turn on the gas and the telephone, and we were sleeping on a futon rather than the thin foam mattress that we salvaged from our Savannah apartment’s fold out couch. Now and then I even managed to push a full cart home from the Rockin’ Ralph’s grocery store at the end of the block. Life wasn’t just ramen noodles and bean burritos anymore, but it was close.
I was talking to a customer at Music Plus one afternoon. He told me that he hurt his back doing construction, which led to homelessness within a year. That’s all it took to be ruined—one bad day, a van turning right on red, anything. We may have been doing better but our margin of error was zero, so when Jody asked me if Chandra could crash at the Su Casa Apartments for a little while I wasn’t pleased.
“We can’t afford it,” I said.
“Why? The rent won’t change.”
“More power, more water, more food.”
“She’ll buy her own food,” Jody said.
“I know that’s what she says, but once she’s here the refrigerator’s going to be a free for all.”
“She doesn’t have anywhere to stay, Jim.”
“We can’t afford it.”
“You’re as cheap as your dad,” she said. Game, set, match: Chandra moved in. We tossed the old foam mattress into the living room like a dog bed.
I hated her immediately for four reasons:
- She was in my space
- I couldn’t afford her
- She was competition for Jody’s attention
- She was hot.
The latter was probably the biggest problem. At 21 years old I had no idea how to deal with an attractive woman living in my house. I don’t know that I’d do much better now, but at the time I did not have any tools to deal with a perky young blond leaving her dirty panties laying around or asking me if her thong showed through the cutouts in her miniskirt, or leaving the bathroom door open when she showered. Every day I saw her, smelled her, heard her, but there was no way I was going to touch her. The whole scene was like waving a honey pot in front of a hungry bear.
“When is she leaving?”
“She doesn’t have a job, Jim.”
“But she has money to go party?”
“Don’t be such an old man.”
My days off were never alone. Chandra was fastened like a barnacle to the mattress in the living room.
“Why don’t you go do something?” I asked her.
“I can’t. I don’t have any money,” Chandra said.
“Go get a job.”
“I don’t care. Go apply at the Seventh Veil. They’re always looking for strippers.”
“I will if I have to,” Chandra said. She sounded like Mother Teresa offering some kind of saintly sacrifice.
“Good. Do it. Want a ride?”
I complained constantly about the mooch in the living room. “Why are we busting our asses to get by and Chandra gets a free ride?”
“She can’t find a job,” Jody said.
“She doesn’t look! She parties on the Strip all night and lies around all day.”
“Maybe you should ask her to model for you. You haven’t drawn much since we got here.”
“That might get awkward,” I said.
“Why?” Jody asked. “You always say drawing naked people isn’t anymore of a turn-on than drawing a blender.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re an artist. You are a great artist. I get that.”
This was Jody at her best: muse, cheerleader, generous supporter. My self esteem fit inside a thimble with room leftover for a fingertip, but Jody never wavered in her belief in me as a maker of things. On any given day the only thing sustaining my artistic ambitions was Jody. If she believed that some sort of gift lived in my pocked then it must, because Jody would never lie to me.
I still own a few journals and sketchbooks from that period. Both show flashes of competence, but they are brief. I don’t know why I believed so enthusiastically in my creative aptitude. My stories read like the ramblings of a functional illiterate, and my drawings from the period are, well, bad, except for the figure drawings. I was in my junior year at the Savannah College of Art and Design when I dropped out and followed Jody to Hollywood. My ability to render a figure had progressed to at least basic competence.
But that was months in the rear view mirror now. By day I sold records and by night I worked for free on shitty movies, drank cheap beer at the Frolic Room, or shot pool at Penthouse Billiards. Delusions of grandeur and happy times in life drawing classes were things of the past.
“Are you just going to lie around all day?” I asked.
“I’ll go look for a job later, okay? I just want to finish this book,” Chandra said.
“If you’re just going to lay there, do you mind if I draw you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
“You mean, like, naked?”
“Preferably, yeah,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Chandra said.
“Jody’s the one who suggested it,” I said. “Look, it’s nothing. I worked with lots of models in art school. It’s just work, there’s nothing sexual about it. Hold on.” I grabbed a sketchbook and showed her some figure studies. “See? It’s just art.”
“Why do I have to be naked?”
“Because I want to practice anatomy, not drapery.”
“Can I keep reading?” she asked.
“As long as you’re still.”
“Can I keep my panties on?”
“If you have to.”
“Okay,” Chandra said. I went to the bedroom and grabbed a large newsprint pad and a piece of charcoal. When I returned Chandra was nude but for a pair of silky light blue panties cut high on the hips, almost like bikini bottoms. I fastened the sketchpad to my drawing board and sat cross-legged a few feet from the mattress.
“I’m going to warm up with a few gesture drawings, so don’t worry about staying still or posing or anything like that.”
“Okay,” she said, and she rolled onto her side and returned to her book. Gesture drawings are quick scribbles. One might argue that their purpose is similar to stretching before running, or playing scales prior to performing. Some of the benefit is musculoskeletal, some is getting the hand and eye in sync.
For me, though, the real benefit is the shift to that magical space on the right side of the brain, that place I call The Hum, where words and time don’t exist; where everything is beautiful; where no object has a name, just mass, volume, form, shadow, line, value, color, and contrast. All that exists is the warm embrace of The Hum. The only way to get there is to do the work, so a few minutes of quick gesture drawing is the price of admission.
I started scribbling, but until I got to The Hum words existed—labels, obstructions, distractions. The line flowing along Chandra’s hip was interrupted by her underwear. The problem wasn’t technical but mental. I knew how to draw the line, but her clothing kept jarring me away from The Hum. Every time I hit that hip, words distracted my monkey mind: Blue. Lace. Panties. Silk. Soft.
“Can you lose the underwear? It’s too distracting.”
“Okay,” Chandra said, and she brought her knees up to her chest and slipped out of her panties.
“Thanks. Get in a position that’s comfortable and hold it. I’m going for a finished drawing.”
“Okay.” Chandra rolled back onto her side and held her book out of the way, and I began to draw. She was beautiful, but everything is beautiful inside The Hum. The shapes and shadows came together, the clock stopped, and my head buzzed. When I was finished a passable facsimile of Chandra’s torso emerged from the sketchpad. “Can I see?” she asked.
“Sure.” I turned my drawing board toward her.
“Wow. That’s good. You’re good.”
“Can I have it?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Why don’t you do another one for me?” Chandra said.
“Can I change positions?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” I said. She rolled away from me and pulled her knees toward her chest. Her back was tan and lean, the bones and muscles well defined in the afternoon light. Her spine traced a perfect line from her neck straight between the dimples crowning her glutes. Downward still, past her firm haunches to the dark secrets peeking from between her thighs. Her vulva looked rosy, swollen, labia parted and glistening.
I tried to draw. I tried to find The Hum, but couldn’t even hold my drawing board comfortably on my lap. The telephone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, what are you doing?” Jody said.
“Bye,” she said, and she slammed down the telephone. The Hum was lost, as was the voodoo in the room.
I never finished that second drawing, and Chandra was gone not too long after that.