I knew Hollywood late. I saw it on television. Brightly lit and never-ending ease. Not an intellectual place at all. A place where radios played Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers” loud in convertibles and all those stories of hookers and trips to Las Vegas in the middle of the night. For me, Hollywood seemed scary as in nightmare-daytime scary, two trillion stories intersecting one block at a time. But I am a transplanted heart. Southern body created, but veins and skin all meant for the shadows of skyscrapers. Leaving the cocoon of New York for L.A. is painful. Even in winter. Because inevitably, you will meet someone, and they will want you to stay. Out there in the desert oasis that rides the beaches up the coast all the way to the valley, what they don’t tell you, and you have to find out for yourself, is “they’re all lonely as hell” and “it’s why they dream like that there.” The Big Time, they call it by postcard and letter. Ha. If only they knew what was what.
Hollywood is cruel with nightmarish sunshine on repeat and the “real beach” is where all the dreams and their victims wash up like salt-blasted whales on the Boulevard. For every chic boutique there are meth dealers, bad and easily accessible cocaine origami folders to snort below the counter, watering holes in any place you are at any time. If you make it in Hollywood, you get a golden mask and an entourage of paparazzi. In New York, if you make it, someone will still punch you in the mouth if you cross them the wrong way on the subway during rush hour. Hollywood is, in my mind anyway, the half-tourist, half-hideaway area that stretches from The Frolic Room, a dive bar to end all others, all the way up two blocks past The Roosevelt (where the original Oscars were held) which still has its elegant neon sign, slightly bent cursive letters, totally awesome and gross.
If you stay on the walk of stars ascend or descend (depending upon your mood) on either side of this stretch of road, there is a fork just before a small strip mall with an Italian joint that will lead you to Sunset Boulevard (a different and altogether more compounded fracture of this dream place), or, eventually, to the streets leading you up into those canyons of Ewok perfection, where the beautiful villas of Hollywood’s best-known and not-so-known and never-known residents live. Somewhere in the fuss is the sign. That sign, spaced and mounted on a burnt, corn-colored sand hill, spelling “H O L L Y W O O D” like on TV, just waiting for the sun to go supernova-orange behind it. No matter where you are when that happens, you might as well faint. It is exactly like all the images of it in the movies — Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy are missing, but you sense them anyway. You can bet that 100 cameras go off in synchronicity as that massive sun trips and falls into the ocean once a day as it passes those huge letters. Where are the angels? They must be so busy keeping it from falling into the ocean. They must be getting their nails done. But you can’t order prayers from room service — and trust me, there is a dent in the wine supply from my twenties, and angry hotel staff to prove this.
Walking the stretch of stars, hurry past, because there are fallen dreamers everywhere still hungry for home (but not enough to leave). We lucky ones, if we are lucky at all, scurry off to our jobs or casting calls, “our appointments.” I am a traveling writer, of sorts. Always writing. Always listening with my one good ear. Out in California, luxury is a given. You pretend, if you are an industry type, to disown it, but if you have it, you keep it in the back rooms with the boxes from Barneys like it was nothing. It’s a thing. Plus cars — there are too many of them, and they change like you change your underwear. It’s awful in those things: riding up and down canyons, carsick, midday, the radio on, with DJs obviously brain-damaged by overexposure to light.
On that show Northern Exposure, they had an episode where in winter months you had to sit in front of a gamma light screen for 15 minutes a day, or else you would get too depressed to recover and work or even get out of bed. The show’s characters ended up addicted to the light — they were up for days, reading book after book, with incessant conversation flowing.
This is all California and certainly Hollywood. Even the dark sides. Even the late-night red-glow bars where lies and promises for movie roles go down in the triggered shots of words that fade like the floor does after one too many. And it’s an early town, kids. If you are a boozer, a late-nighter, hell, an insomniac (I am), Hollywood is a blessing and a curse. I wrote an entire book there at the Hollywood Roosevelt one summer when, after making an album, I forgot to check out … for four months. They provided the manual typewriter and paper and Sterling Vineyards wine (the ’97s are gone folks, as far as I know or had anything to do with it). Sometime after I was coaxed back into my rightful shiny New York, by way of the Chelsea (so cliché and another hotel, but no housing board or papers to fill out), I re-read what I wrote.
It was a suntan on bleached paper. Stained with wine. Littered with little fictional ideas that I had fallen in love with. My wings, if they were words, were made of less than wax but something flammable — and what a piece of shit it was. One hundred full single-spaced pages about how lonely I was and would “so and so” ever call me again. What a drag. I was a drinker then, far too young to know how much of one, and on my way to the cigarette store just outside the hotel, to get not just smokes but vodka and god knows what amount of aspirin, I would cross the star that bore the name of this kindred soul I had only met a few times. How odd that with all my own disgust at attaching to celebrity culture, or culture in general, there I was, misguided, waiting for the gods of Valhalla or California to come down and really “see me” for what half-assed drinking piece of work I was. “Seen” I was, unashamed and new, full of shit with bells on my shoes and a soul not so much for sale but for rent, as I wanted to milk the payback for as long as allowed.
Inevitably I left, and in a few pieces, but big enough to reassemble in one stiff walk through Manhattan.The things that stick with me the most are:
1. Hollywood and Cherokee. Late night, outside this amazing, dimly lit bar — so dim, so red, so seedy (there are chocolate-brown booths with green lights hanging above them), and so filled with common Hollywood proper residents and traveling stars, you can disappear completely into whatever conversation you need to have. And you see “real” stars (like they would be anything else) coming and going but you’d never be able to crane your neck from table to table to gawk or even hear anything … it’s so quiet in that place it’s loud.
2. Los Burritos on Hollywood Boulevard. It still has its Formica counter, free chips, salsa that will blow your head off and food displayed in a harshly photographed menu — but the meals are incredible. The television is always on a channel you won’t understand unless you speak Spanish and the place is equally filled with Mohawk punks, Goth kids, drunken wannabe celebs and musicians as well as a few in-the-know locals who like food that makes them sleep.
3. Hollywood Flats. I like the idea that you can get a tattoo at two in the morning and there is enough Elvis and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia to keep even the faintest of rock ’n’ roll fans way busy. Also, it’s nice to fit in and escape at the same time.
4. The Casting Office. It’s a perfect place to go when you are done, done, done and you have a name, a real name to cover you, so you can drown yourself if needed in that ocean which swallows only your ideas of what fame or fortune might be.
5. The Roosevelt. Not the shithole it once was, it became quite a spot for celebrities when they redid the pool. (Warning to future guests: Stay in the tower. If you stay in a cabana room, and it’s past seven, you will be manhandled by security like you were entering a hostile country, regardless of that hotel room key in your hand.) I used to hide my pot in the ventilator shaft for every time I returned with a few Xanax for coming down from the boozing. It was always there, as they never dusted the place. Not so anymore.
I miss the sunshine of California, but not the mask. Not the idea. I had Christmas there last year, celebrating with a burger and fries at the new, amazing all-night burger milkshake joint across from Mann’s Chinese Theater, with someone I loved very much. We crossed the street, hand in hand, and watched a movie. It was the best Christmas I ever had. In the back of my mind, as my feet walked over the golden stars that line the Hollywood Boulevard, filthy, horrid and bleak, littered with crumpled McDonald’s bags and streams of piss, I thought of home, my bed in my cavernous New York apartment, walls stacked with books like a shield from my own thoughts and the sounds outside. I thought of walking the empty streets alone and about how no matter how sad I or anyone else gets there, New York seems to prop a loner up on his side and up by the bootstraps we go, we loners. Our fair city is here to remind us that we are all alone together.
All the sunshine I really ever saw in Hollywood was in the eyes of a beautiful girl who saw that missing street in my posture and the faint ghostly constructs flickering the lights of a million windows in my eyes. This is how a person might know California for real. Through someone from there, through a fleeting holiday that forever changes your ideas of a place that is far too littered with other peoples’ dreams to ever call your own.
But it’s there; it’s the other side of that coin, and you can feel it as the plane dips and descends someplace just past Las Vegas. Your heart starts pumping in anticipation; you see the beach, or the brightest stars at night. They are all streetlights in an endless web of electric spider casings built to hold one million dreams a second in one million tiny apartments.
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