It was January 2000 and America breathed a collective sigh of what-ever at the undevastating non-effects of theY2K bug. For months prior, the algorithm had been fear-mongered onto every front page, TV zine, and water cooler conversation because really, what else was there to talk about at the start of a new millennium?
More importantly, March 2000 is my first adult visit to Los Angeles. I am driving convertible-style to an area known as Los Feliz to scout The Tamarind Theater (now UCB) for a possible production.
Somewhere between playing Hotspur in Henry IV pt. 1 and a European Sprite commercial that paid more in one day than the first six months of my internet gig, I had decided with egregious miscalculation that doing theater in Hollywood was a sure way to get a foot in the door, or at least, into a pool.
The first discrepancy I log about LA, one conspicuous enough to miss, is that the streets here are white. White concrete streets. Blinding without sunglasses. It has something to do with heat expansion, I’m told, but it’s an odd common denominator en route from noir-darkened Manhattan.
Driving gets old quickly in Los Angeles, even in a topless Mustang, and the guarantee of traffic is not the only contention. The central issue is the dearth of visual sensoria. Most of the city is a repetition of fast food, gas stations and sidewalks sans pedestrians. It begins to have a disquieting effect.
For Philip K. Dick, it was a mix of schizophrenic paranoia and barbiturate-induced bi-polaric giddiness, something many Angelinos embrace, I’ve learned. But for me, it’s the “everything’s so familiar, I feel lost” syndrome.
I become more optimistic turning onto Franklin Avenue, just east of highway 101, where a block of shops and non-chain restaurants team with life: an oasis of civilization in contrast to the grease-streaked donut holes and iron barred-windows of the Raffalos pizza preceding it. The security seems misguided. Slices are a thousand times better in the rougher parts of Manhattan, and they stop at 3-inch bullet-proof plastic.
The Franklin Strip, as a friend calls it, starts with a late night magazine shop with two al fresco entrances. After purchasing a locally published Art Ltd., I head to the The Bourgeois Pig next door.
Outside, Chai drinkers tap dialogue into laptops. The interior, also furnished from lost-their-lease antique shops, harbors a few scattered chess players: a sign that subversive thinking still gets done here.
The next spot over is an actor haunt called Birds, catering to pre/post improv show audiences and late night diners in search of adequate grunge. The Tamarind theater was the tenant next to Birds: a well-maintained 150 seater at bargain prices compared to New York rates.
I ran production numbers at the Italian restaurant next to it. Prizzi’s (now Franklin Taavern) felt like it had been plucked out of Burlington, Vermont with its pine smelling, vaulted wood ceiling and authentic granola bartenders.
The storefront next to Prizzi’s is selling hand-made t-shirts, rice paper lanterns, and other astrological chachkies. Couples peruse while waiting for tables at the sushi joint next store which serves till the astounding hour of 11pm, a near miracle in Los Angeles in the year 2000.
For those keeping track, that’s 6 places on the same block, in a row, and open to the public; a larger miracle in the city of lost angels. Los Feliz is all right.
The jewel of the block is the 7th place; Counterpoint used-books, smack in the middle of the strip. Its shelves brim with first editions in protective plastic. Vintage EP’s await rediscovery in paint-peeled record bins. The stoics behind the register spin frantic jazz, partly to lose time and partly to keep cultural loiterers from reading entire volumes.
La Poubelle, a bona-fide bistro transplanted from the Left Bank, proudly occupies the block’s corner plot. Its proprietor is a chain-smoking Grand Dame whose glasses are thick enough to ignite dead leaves on the gated Scientology grounds across the street. She can carry more plates in one hand than most can in both, and picks up a conversation from the last time she saw you, even if it was a year ago.
After La Poubelle there’s… a sprawling suburban void. The strip’s abrupt end is oddly disorienting. For two hundred bustling yards you’d swear you were in the West Village, only to have it drop off dramatically. An over-priced Gelson’s looms in the lot east of the strip, but the New York feel is long gone by then.
Only palm trees remain, an immutable reminder of where I really am.
There are several genera. Mexican Fan Palms are the lanky skyscrapers made famous in stock footage shots of Beverly Hills. Spiny Royals are shorter, fatter, and more robust. Triangle Palms are… triangular. Date Palms are medium height, and look like a cross between a green fireworks explosion and something you’d find on a coral reef. A few time sa year they produce copious amounts of dates, orange and sumptuous and positively odiferous. Staring at them is a vacation in itself… but I’m here for work.
I leave La Poubelle and partake in the hallmark of LA culture, waiting at the valet vigil. Just like in a New York elevator, you don’t make eye contact with others who are waiting. A tip for the valet and I’m off.
I hang a louie on my way back to Hollywood and find myself on Cahuenga Boulevard. Just on the corner is a sequenced strip club (now Cafe Solar) offering a gaping 11 am to 7pm happy hour. If the battered façade is indicative of the talent within, one hopes the clientele are blind.
A block south is another of the city’s omnipresent donut shops: ABC Donut, (now It’s Pho!) in this instantiation: a cut below Winchell’s, it’s competition, because it offers… lo mein, and other Asian delicacies, indubitably prepared in the same oil.
A block closer to Hollywood Boulevard is a Greyhound station (now XIV Club), the icing on the area’s seedy patina. A fascinating nexus of luckless mendicants and the best looking twentysomethings you’d ever hope to take advantage of. They come on buses, wide-eyed and fresh breasted, from Wisconsin, Missouri, the Badlands to bartend and waitress and wear Spiderman tights at Malibu kiddie parties in hopes of claiming their strip of the tinsel.
Moments after de-boarding, the dreamers absorb their sordid surroundings and vow never to set foot in the neighborhood again. But this won’t always be the case. The block will soon be Destinationland, just like it was fifty years ago.
This part of town used to be a dreamer’s Mecca.
Only a few meters away stood the Walker + Eisen designed Taft Building where film’s bigtime talent signed long-term studio contracts. One hundred meters in the other direction was Musso & Franks. Chaplin scripted sublime silent film bits there, and in the tradition of all great thespians, impregnated several of the wait staff.
Around the corner was The Pantages, America’s first Art Deco theater and from the 1930’s onward, home to innumerable red carpet premiers.
All this had faded, and though its comeback was imminent, you’d never have guessed from the amalgam of arm scratching homeless wandering the parking lots. Had those young aspirants ventured south, they’d have passed a slew of check cashing neon, an adult DVD store, a head shop, a tattoo parlor guaranteeing sterile service on a handwritten cardboard sign, a Russian restaurant that didn’t serve food, A grimy BBQ shop offering pulled pork po’boys in a prison cafeteria atmosphere, and several abandoned structures plastered with peeling B level movie posters.
The Dive bars followed, inured to the post-Swingers wannabe crowd: Burgundy Room, enter without a tattoo at your own risk. The Room, with secret back-door entrance, and The Spotlight, if hanging with gender bangers is your cup of tequila. None of these bars discriminated. They were too busy being nocturnal haunts to a myriad of yet-to-make-it musicians, actors, artists and poet-kings.
It was like the Lower East Side in the seventies with a few conspicuous dissimilarities. In addition to the light reflective streets and the absence off Sam Shepard and Lou Reed, the biggest difference amidst the limping pigeons, and the dulled Walk of Fame, are those towering palm trees.
In New York, there’s a consistency to our decaying neighborhoods: nature never steals focus. But those looming palms are a constant reminder of where you’re not (Topeka, Detroit, Bed Stuy) and where you could be. To amend Mr. Wilde: “We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the… palms.”
The Kodak Theater will anchor as the new home of The Academy Awards, replete with a forty-floor hotel, and accompanying tourist-processing center (Hollywood & Highland). It promises to push business east for miles, and makes good on it. In the six years that follow, the proverbial shit will be cleaned from the fan.
White Lotus will spring up in the parking lot next to the Greyhound station. Cafe Solar will displace the titty bar. Hotel Café fits ever so nicely into the vintage clothing shop, eventually expanding into the storefront adjacent. Tokio Sushi will slide into the former headshop, and Beauty Bar knocks out tattoo parlor number one. They’ll all turn over ten more times, but a few will root deep enough to remain.
Then, in quick succession, up and down the block, room is cleared for Citizen Smith, Big Wangs, Avalon, Velvet Margarita, Cyber Café, Hollywood & Vine and K24 for all night dining. Madera supplants the Russian key cutter, across from 7/11, and Dublins usurps the dead space behind Sharky’s Mexican.
The next phase lengthens the velvet rope with Spider Lounge, Katsuya by Stark, S Bar, Basque, Café Wa s and the soon to be capper, a W Hotel / Trader Joe’s combo. The mere announcement spikes property values north. And by the time you are reading this, half of them will have closed and re-opened under different monikers yet again.
I first hear Cahuenga Corridor from cousin Dean. We’re cruising for parking near Chan Dara Thai food, a relic at 24 years old, but you couldn’t double park if you tried. Valets scamper like rats in red jackets, charging $25 for the night as the corridor morphs into a twisted collage of Beverly Hills and Bourbon Street. Whiplash women spill from cocktail dresses, yanked off their heels by cookie cutter hipsters, hair combed into their faces. I harbor no resentment. It’s free Bread & Circus as far as I’m concerned and by far the best people watching this side of Venice beach.
But the most intriguing moment occurs after last call. After the pimped out rides speed back up into the hills. Only then do the very vagrants who called the corridor home before the transition seep out from between the postmodern cracks and reclaim the alleys usurped by valet umbrellas.
There are treasures amidst the detritus: lost jewels, loose beers, broken organic cigarettes. The nightly scavenger hunt helps pass the time till the inevitable bust replaces the boom.
The law of entropy applies to culture as well as nature. In time, this now classy corridor will swing back to shady strip clubs, and the tired, the poor, the huddled masses will take back their turf.
Above them, as always, the palm trees will sway.