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Down and Out in Hollywood

I moved to Los Angeles on a bright November day last year, landing at the Burbank airport almost to the minute when the Writers’ Guild went out on strike. I had come out West planning to set myself up in a secluded bungalow in the sleepy hills of Echo Park or Silverlake. I’d had visions of the easy life—relaxing on the patio with a writing pad and a pitcher of iced tea, padding around under the swaying palms—far from the madness of New York. But the strike threw a wrench into things. Gigs fell through and money became an issue, and I was forced to look for somewhere cheap.

I ended up in a two-room apartment on a busy avenue in Hollywood, in the shadow of the 101 Freeway—a sublet in what I gathered to be a rent-controlled building, from the looks of the people I saw in the hall: an old man in a bathrobe, a gangbanger’s girl with a squall of kids, a 35-year-old skate punk.

My first night in the apartment a waterbug as big as a date went scuttling across the carpet: a flashback to the Lower East Side. The next afternoon I went out for the paper and passed a guy on the sidewalk who was wearing an enormous rubber Hulk costume. He was cradling his giant Hulk head under his arm as he clomped home from a morning of shaking down tourists for paid photos in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Soon I was seeing him several times a week and we would nod to one another. Wonder Woman shopped in the little market on Yucca Street.

During the inescapably sunny days, nearby Hollywood Boulevard bustled with visitors, most of whom appeared to come from Illinois or Japan. They walked up and down the wide sidewalks looking for recognizable names on the inlaid brass stars. Chubby Midwestern girls squealed with delight and crouched for pictures upon discovering Regis Philbin. It was a name they knew.

At night, as gentle floodlights bathed the Art Deco facades and a cool breeze rolled up towards the passes of the Hollywood Hills, obnoxious louts from the Valley and the Inland Empire roamed in drunken packs from one velvet-rope clip joint to another looking for drunken packs of the opposite sex. The women were worse than the men. By one in the morning, it wasn’t rare to see pretty girls in miniskirts tearing into one another outside a club on Cahuenga over some perceived slight, screaming and scratching, while up the street a dude in square-toed loafers calculated whether to ditch his date, who was barfing her chocolate martinis into the gutter.

This was the environment in which I began to apply the life lessons of my high school driving instructor: I steered into the skid. I was lucky enough to find a few unglamorous drinking spots that didn’t register with the roaming packs—places with endearing names like The Frolic Room, Tiny’s K.O., the Power House, and Jumbo’s Clown Room, and an astonishing assortment of characters: a menacing dwarf doing fire-breathing tricks with a cigarette lighter; an aging pimp in Huggy Bear duds; an off-duty stripper who looked like Snow White after a night of whoring; Chicano emo kids with eyeliner; middle-aged cowboys. In those oddly relaxing, beer-soaked rooms, I nursed cheap drinks, counted the bills in my wallet and considered my options.

The strike cast a pall over the whole town. Even non-guild work dried up, as union writers scrambled for the freelance animation scripts I was counting on. I had meetings with show runners at studio industrial parks in Glendale—lunches at the commissary that invariably ended with the producer telling me that they were at the end of their run for the season, or they were “all staffed up.”

Eventually, I was forced to look for a job—my first in years.

Jumbo's Clown Room, Hollywood. <I>Photos by Kenneth Dolin.</I>
Jumbo's Clown Room, Hollywood. Photos by Kenneth Dolin.

At the beginning, I took a casual, look-and-see approach, casting around the internet for something I might find interesting. Then, as my bank account dwindled, I adopted more of a scorched-earth strategy. I cobbled together a resume that hid the notable gaps in my employment history behind a razzle-dazzle of font changes and action verbs. I also scared up references from people I hadn’t spoken to in years—several of whom greeted my calls with a vaguely annoyed, “Who is this?”

I sent volleys of e-mails in the direction of any and all possibilities: copywriter, outreach director, youth development coordinator, tutor, tour guide, assistant to the outreach director, halfway house bed monitor, “crew member” at Trader Joe’s.

After two or three weeks of this, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with my computer. Then I got a nibble from a healthcare workers’ union looking for a Communications Specialist. By then I had refashioned my resumé several times, layering in more and more experience in a wider and wider array of occupations, and I hadn’t kept track of which inflated version of myself I had forwarded to them. But after a taxing phone conversation with a numbingly thorough recruiting officer, I was invited for an interview.

At a grim building overlooking a cloverleaf highway exchange in Commerce, a bleak, blistered patch of auto repair garages, warehouses and taquerias southeast of downtown, I was interrogated by a rotating cast of earnest activist types and the tired-looking hacks who supervised them.

They wanted to know that I was in it for the long haul, that I was passionate about the mission of the organization—excited about being part of the team.

The thing about having no money is, you’ll say anything. And I did. Over and over. A week after the first interview, I was called back for a follow-up session with members of an advisory board, and a few days after that, for a writing test. I was spending so much time at the place, I felt as if I already worked there. Increasingly desperate about finances, I even began to convince myself that I truly wanted the job. Maybe it’d be nice to be part of a team, I thought. Lunches with the gang, joking around the office…dental insurance.

I was invited back for one final interview—this time with the big cheese, the statewide president of the union, a charismatic man with vaguely threatening eyes who had worked his way up from shop steward. I imagined it was mostly a formality at that point—that he simply wanted to meet me to make sure we clicked. So I laid it on thick, throwing in a lot of regular-guy banter and cracking a joke when he asked me where I saw myself ten, twenty years from now, something to establish my leftist cred.

“I’m like Lenin,” I said with a knowing wink, “I only make five-year plans.”

The next day the recruiting officer called to say that they were going in another direction. She wished me luck.

By now I was hand-washing clothes in the sink to put off trips to the laundromat, skipping haircuts and reusing paper towels. I brown-bagged cheap beers from the store before heading into bars. And I took the bus: me, thirty Mexicans, and the obligatory crazy guy. Sometimes there were just the Mexicans, and I could see them looking at me as if I were the crazy guy.

I found myself taking note when an item in the paper listed places where homeless people could get free meals. Scrolling through Craigslist for money-making opportunities, I discovered that, in my forties, I am too old to sell my sperm. That stuck with me for the rest of the day.

My back to the wall, I began to develop an unusual, almost feral alertness. It was as if I could feel the limbic nerves in my head—the reptile brain—pulsing with activity. I seemed to need very little sleep, going to bed late and getting up early, ready to chew through the day like a distempered cur. Moving through the streets, I became acutely aware of everything going on around me, and rated it all in terms of the possibility of getting money. If I saw a man waving cars into a crowded parking lot, I thought: How do they even know he works there? Because he’s wearing a black windbreaker? Maybe it’s somebody else’s lot and he’s going to pocket the money and take off…

Around this time there was a continuing story in the paper about two women in their seventies on trial for murdering homeless men in Hollywood. The pair would befriend a street fellow, put him up in an apartment for a few months and buy him groceries, get him to sign a life insurance policy listing them as beneficiaries, and once the probation period of the policy had elapsed, lure him to an alleyway in the middle of the night and run him over with a station wagon. They collected several million dollars over almost ten years before the cops put it together.

It struck me as a very L.A. crime. The women, despite their age, were attractive and well turned out. Neither had a criminal record. One was a Hungarian immigrant who liked nice restaurants and staying up late listening to jazz records in her Hollywood flat; the other, a retired real estate broker living in a big house in Santa Monica. And, of course, the murder weapon was a car.

Reading daily accounts of the trial, I came to see the affair through their eyes. Clearly, they had done some horrible deeds. But now they were in the soup. And what would it be like to go to prison in your seventies? No staying up late listening to jazz records, that’s for sure. The simple truth was, my feral mind reasoned, they had seen an opportunity and taken it. With quite a lot of effort, too. And maybe they had money issues—we can’t know.

One evening I tagged along with a new acquaintance—a self-styled impresario and maker-of-the-scene—to a party in the Hills. It was in honor of a young writer, the son of a famous cowboy playwright. The house wasn’t enormous, but it was etched into a slope high above the flatlands, with a ten-million-dollar view. The cowboy playwright wasn’t there, but some of his contemporaries were, along with those of his son—all of whom carried an air of hippies-with-money. There was a lot of talk about furniture and food.

I felt like a nineteenth-century anarchist at a debutante ball. How can I separate these people from some of their mysteriously obtained income? I asked myself. Surely there had to be a way to scrape a little off the table.

“That’s an original Ruscha,” my friend said of a small painting on the wall by the bathroom.

“Really,” I said, looking at it with new eyes.

What if I walked out with it? I wondered. They’re all so stoned, they probably wouldn’t notice…

I realized, though, that, as the interloper at the party, I’d be the obvious suspect.

My friend wandered off after the girlfriend of the young writer, and I poked my head into the vacant study. It was an ordered space, the kind where very little real work is done. On a polished woodplank desk there was a leather-bound writing pad open to a blank page, and a quill pen and inkwell. They looked as if they’d been placed there for a magazine shoot. On some shelves above the desk, displayed among what looked like limited edition books, were the usual knick-knacks: a pendulum, a crystal statuette of a dancer, silver-framed photos of weathered villagers in Tibet or some place, and at the far end, partially eclipsed by an antique tobacco tin, a pocket watch. Also antique. Probably white gold, I surmised. That was something I could easily slip into my jacket—something that wouldn’t be missed for some time, if ever. Just the thing to unload at a pawn shop, too—and there are as many of those in town as there are burger joints. Or so I guessed.

I glanced over my shoulder, then gave the room another scan to see if I was overlooking anything better. Just then, someone grabbed my elbow.

“That girl is crazy,” my friend said. “Let’s get out of here before she makes a scene.”

With some urgency, he whisked me out a side door, down the driveway and into the car.

On the ride into town I thought about the pocket watch. A new range of possibilities was presenting itself. I knew that I had no moral qualms about taking the watch; that was obvious. I realized, in fact, that the only thing that ever deterred me from crime was a fear of getting caught—and the knowledge that I would not do well in prison. Not that most people do well. But I would be particularly bad. Growing up, I had recurring nightmares about being taken as a POW, fueled mainly by the grotesque stories my brother and his buddies liked to tell about the local men coming back from Nam—mostly apocryphal stories, I prefer to think, about this or that vet who had his biceps cut out by the Viet Cong, or a glass rod inserted in his penis before being forced to endure a handjob from a pretty V.C. girl. These are the things I associate with captivity.

But maybe if I could come up with something more… removed; something sophisticated and intricate—a financial maneuver, perhaps, with a series of firewalls between me and the actual event. That, I admitted, I would do in a heartbeat. It’s not as if I’d be running over homeless people.

I was invigorated by the idea. I will never live in a refrigerator box; I will do what has to be done! My safety net—a windfall from a staff writing job on a puppet show years before—was entirely gone, thanks to the strike. But it didn’t matter. I am pure purpose, I resolved. I move forward like a shark.

That night I treated myself to cocktails in the lounge of a restaurant off Melrose and lingered over a story in the paper about the sketchy security of online auction sites. With the blood-red walls, wrought iron railing and dimly lit sconces of the place, I had the feeling of being in a ’70s TV movie, where the charming rogue in a wide-lapelled jacket sips whiskey from a tumbler and prepares to work the amoral landscape of Los Angeles on its own terms. Looking up to order a drink, I saw the autographed headshot of Tony Franciosa above the cash register.

Two days later a producer called. He was intrigued by something I’d sent him—an idea for an episode of his long-running show, a cartoon for four-year-olds featuring an industrious repairman and his set of talking tools.

My take on the material was a little off the formula, he told me.

“We don’t want it to look like the tools have something to hide,” he said.

But he liked the story—thought it opened up new terrain for the show. He was willing to go forward with it, as long as I was comfortable walking a fine line between incidental misunderstanding and outright deception.

I was, I told him. Very comfortable.


Doug Cordell

DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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