For the Facebook crew xx
With no job and no connections, I head to LA, where my brother Chris has moved the year before. He says he has a room for me. He’ll take care of everything.
He’s not home when I pull into his driveway just before midnight. I’ve been driving for five days and the warm air feels good to stretch in.
It’s Ron, Chris’s friend coming out of the house. I ask if I can leave my car where it is. He looks at what I’m parked beside, a VW Rabbit with no driver’s side door and a four-by-eight piece of Plywood painted like a box of Wheaties, and gives me a look that says, what do you think?
I’ve known Ron since we were kids; know he moved to Los Angeles to be an actor, and as he carries my bag inside, through a living room that smells like stale beer and bong water, I ask how it’s going.
“Okay,” he says. He isn’t getting much acting work, but he’s going on auditions.
“It’s cool,” he says. He has a job as a production assistant on The Cosby Show, and he likes it, and he’s making dough.
I look around the house. It’s small, with cracks in the stucco walls. The appliances in the kitchen are from the 1940s. There’s a refrigerator whose freezer has become a block of ice, and an enameled stove topped by a Deco clock. The counters are made of tile the color of Easter eggs, beautiful glazed tiles. I imagine they have been scrubbed over the years by a dozen different women, young women who looked out the kitchen window and wondered if they’d made the right decisions. The only modern thing is a water-cooler of the kind you find in an office. Ron says this is because you can’t drink the tap water in Los Angeles; no one does; that they have water delivered. On the counter are four months of unpaid water bills.
I ask Ron if Chris will be home soon, and he says, probably not, but that he knows where I might find him. He takes me back out to the dirt yard, where the air is sweet with something I don’t recognize. It smells… white, and is so heavy I feel narcotized.
“Orange blossoms,” Ron tells me, and then, how to get downtown.
I find my way to the Park Plaza Hotel, a Deco skyscraper across from a park. There are sword-carrying angels on its flanks, and carved into its face, in their own little porticos, effigies of soldiers and nurses in WWI uniform. It looks like a building that should hold evening galas, men in black tie and women trailing fur-trimmed cape. As I approach the hotel’s double-tall brass doors, I know they’ll be locked. Why wouldn’t they be? The whole street is deserted, the park is deserted; the nearby store closed for the night. Odd, to be in the middle of a city and have everything closed. Strange, too, is how dead the sidewalk feels under my feet. I am thinking how bizarre and also how lovely it is to have this whole building to myself when a motorcycle passes, doubles back, and parks next to me. The driver takes off his helmet.
“Hey, sis,” says Chris. I haven’t seen him in a year. His black curls are mashed to his head. He has a tan. He looks like a Greek statue. I register the tableau of my brother and me standing in the street, in the light of a streetlamp, before a magnificent building, and I think, everything in LA will be this dramatic and new.
Chris tells me to follow him. I keep his Triumph in sight as we pass blocks of neon signage in Korean, and residential streets canopied with trees, and finally up an avenue called La Brea. There’s a line of people at Club Lunch, but the guy at the door sees Chris and waves us in.
We head down a narrow stairway, a tunnel of music that lets out in an octagonal room painted a nauseating magenta. There are mirrored doors out of which club-kids come and go, and at our feet, sprawled across the bottom step, a lanky kid with black lipstick smeared across the bottom of his face. Another boy, his auburn hair pulled into stiff little tufts, whispers to Chris while repeatedly whipping a hot pink feather boa in the eyes of passersby. My brother does not introduce me to these boys. The one with the lipstick appears to be falling asleep. The one with the boa is sneering at no one in particular, though does make a point of looking everywhere but at a young man in the crowd waving and shouting his name. Getting no eye contact, eventually the young man looks down and walks away.
“Bitch,” says boa boy, in falsetto, seemingly to the air, maybe to me. I can’t tell. I later ask my brother about these boys. He says one was in a film he’d just seen, about a teenager who murders his girlfriend and shows off her body to his friends, who don’t feel one way or the other about it.
I meet more young men who seem to go out of their way to feel neither one way nor the other. I meet them through my brother and his best friend Nick, a strawberry-blonde kid we grew up with. Nick is a junior at UCLA, and many of his friends still live with their parents, parents who are either very tolerant or out of town a lot, as nearly every night there are parties in their homes, homes on narrow climbing roads with Spanish names that sound identical and which loop into each other until you are impossibly lost but somehow always find the party or at least a party.
One is in a big white house behind mechanized gates nearly as tall as the palm trees rustling behind them. I stand there and think, this is the Los Angeles you see in the movies. The house itself is over-chilled, and the party thus far consists of the host, sitting alone in a glass-walled room overlooking an ice-blue swimming pool. Chris and Nick instantly scale the wall and disappear. I smile at the host, a thin boy in a ludicrously clean tennis shirt, and try to make conversation. This yields one- and two-word answers before it seems to take too much out of him.
I look toward the pool. It’s a hot night. Maybe we should swim?
“You can,” he says. But he didn’t sound like I can. He sounds like he is going to cry. We sat in silence as he glares at an ugly abstract painting suspended above an immaculate white fireplace.
“Maybe we should just drink this,” he says, reaching for the crystal decanter on the coffee table. He smirks as he pours, as though we are doing something naughty. I drink it. It’s Passover wine, sweet as raisins. I tell him I don’t want it, and he falls back against the couch, his face a rictus of misery, as though he might at any moment wail, “Oh, what is the point of going on!”
I have no idea how to act around young men who court weakness. What makes them this way? What do they expect to gain? Soon, I will recognize this particular stripe of Southern California disaffection when I read Nick’s copy of Less Than Zero. A little later, I will learn some of it is the heroin.
But I don’t know these things yet. Nor that the sidewalk feels so dead because there is no subway running underneath it, or that the sun is never going to stop shining. That by noon every day you are going to feel as though your skin is being ironed and will continue to be for another nine hours. That if you mention a little rain would be nice, just to wash out the smog and have a day to hole up with a book and also, for variety, the listener will give you an incredulous, even concerned smile that implies you are joking, dialogues that go like this:
Me: “Does it ever fucking rain here?”
Them: “That’s the single greatest thing about LA! The weather is always the same, it’s always sunny, that’s why everyone in the whole world wants to live here, it’s paradise, and I am never, ever going to leave!”
I want to leave. I don’t like LA and I don’t understand it and as far as I can tell, no one finds me instantly interesting. I tell my brother, I’m going back to New York.
“Is that why you came? So you could leave?” he asks.
Chris does not want to leave. He wants to be a stuntman, which everyone who’s ever met him knows is the right thing, the kid is graced with thrilling reflexes, gets thirty feet of air off a ski jump, scales the Brooklyn Bridge barehanded and once jumped over a DeLorean just because he could. He is taking a weekly class with an old–time stuntman, a class in which he rolls down the dunes of Malibu. To make money, he works the door at a Saturday-night-only club called Power Tools, held at the Park Plaza Hotel.
“Get there at midnight,” he tells me
I am there at eleven. Chris is on a dais in front of the hotel, above a crowd whistling and hooting for his attention, and if he sees any of it, and I know he does, his face does not betray it.
I watch the crowd. I cannot tell what the history is, where the center is. The fashions seem cherry picked, prom punk and catsuits and Madonna wannabes and boys and girls in thrift store housedresses, and boys and girls with DAs, and a posse of beefy bearded dudes in ten-gallon hats, laughing.
I am being pressed against someone in an admiral’s blue blazer, slightly older than me, with the suave/swish looks of the singer George Michael.
“Hi,” I say, since we were both just standing there, eddying along with the crowd. George makes courteous conversation, but I can see him sizing me up: will I be useful toward getting him in? What are my assets? I start to size myself up: I am not famous, or gorgeous, or at twenty-five, very young. I have not, as have many of the girls, made myself lustrous or provocative. I have on a red gypsy skirt and a peasant blouse that slips off one shoulder, an outfit I’ve always felt sexy in but which was starting to feel like the lead cape they give you at the dentist. I am gaining weight by the second, and from the look on George’s face, have become a liability. When I hear myself say I’ve just come from New York, George gives me a patronizing smile and lets the crowd swim between us. A moment later I hear clopping. There is a white horse being led through the crowd, and on top, riding sidesaddle, is a girl of about sixteen, wearing a diaphanous gown the color of starlight. Was this for a movie? Were they filming now? The girl looks slightly dazed, or perhaps just as captivated by the moment as we who are staring at her, she is a shockingly pretty sight that has the regrettable effect of making my lead cape heavier, and I shrink as best I can into the still-locked brass doors of the Park Plaza.
Chris, however, sees me, and signals I need to push through the crowd. He pulls me onto the dais. Here, I can see a thousand people, in the street and spilling into McArthur Park. They wave and shout and call Chris’s name. A girl positions herself at his feet, tugging down her blouse so he can see all of her breasts. I laugh. Chris gives me a wink and hands me down to a security guard.
“She,” he tells the guard, “always gets in free.”
I am let inside the Park Plaza, the door locked behind me. The lobby is empty. The ceilings are fifty feet high and hung with impressive chandeliers. A staircase runs the length of the lobby and leads to a ballroom, empty, too, save for three girls sitting on milk-crates, sharing food from a take-out container.
“Hi,” one says, waving a French fry at me.
There are marble hallways and inlaid ceilings and a long bar like the one in The Shining. There are also pocks in the granite walls and cigarettes crushed in the carpet. Why, I wonder, has this place been allowed to decay? Sitting on the stairs, waiting for the doors to open, I think the building is like Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, defiant in her decrepitude because she is sure, if she hangs on long enough, the world will come to its senses and worship her for the star that she is.
The doors open at midnight. People pop in, two at a time, two thousand of them. No one stays long in the lobby, they go where the beer is, where the bands play, where the French fry girls have changed into bikinis and dance in cages suspended from the ceiling. Though Chris tells me Power Tools has a theme each week, integration does not seem the point. It is about access to chaos for five hours every Saturday, into which you can launch yourself, or try to. And I want to, but I don’t know how, and end the evening as I started, the only person on the steps, watching a boy with a limeade fizz of hair glide back and forth across the empty lobby, the wheels of his skateboard going chaka chaka chaka.
The house in Hollywood, on Curson Avenue, is a refraction of this scene. Parliament Funkadeklic or Bowie on the stereo, the TV in the living room playing The Cotton Club in a perpetual loop. There is a dentist’s chair on the front porch and someone’s Pontiac Catalina in the yard, and next to that, one of Tony Alva’s skate ramps, an artifact that has a group of preteen Lebanese boys pressing their noses through the chain-link fence, pleading, “Mister, hey mister! Can we try it?” To which my brother invariably says, no.
Because Chris works at night and has never met an object he does not deem suitable for home use, I wake many mornings to find someone’s castoff couch/scuba gear/saxophone/set of friends in the living room. As Chris can ride anything with wheels, staged around the house are motorcycles (five), bicycles (innumerable), roller-skates, skateboards, and unicycles (regular and hi-boy). As he does not understand the concept of blank wall space, there is none. There isn’t floor space, either, what with two dogs, two kittens, two rabbits, three snakes, a tarantula that lives by the telephone, and in a tall glass vase on the bar, a black widow with a red hourglass on her abdomen, which one day disgorges a gray paper egg out of which verily float several hundred babies, each no bigger than this ´.
“You want to do something about those?” I ask Chris, who shoves the whole thing in his messenger bag and drives it to Griffith Park, where he sets the spiders free.
Soon after I move in, Chris has me help him haul most of the objects inside the house, outside. This, in order to pose for a photo he wants to use as a Christmas card. About nine thousand of the assembled items are his, two are mine, and amidst them and below the Wheaties sign, now hung over the front door, we pose. Our friend Doug snaps shots before deciding the siblings Rommelmann are being outshone. And so, in the second version of the shot, Chris and I are naked, he holding a set of drumsticks, if not strategically, I with a six-foot boa constrictor looped around my neck and coiled in my lap.
DH, who played drums with the Dead Kennedys and his spooky/nice buddy Mark, who owns the school bus they’ve driven down from San Francisco and parked in the empty lot next to our house. Though DH and Mark sleep in the bus, they come inside to shower and eat and smoke pot, as do the 468 other guys in and out of the house every day. I don’t smoke pot, but I don’t have a job yet, either, so find my métier feeding everyone.
One afternoon, Mark says he really appreciates all the meals I’ve fixed, and wants to cook everyone his mother’s famous fish stew. This takes six hours, by which time everyone has gone off clubbing; I am the only other person in the house when Mark lifts the lid off the cast iron pot, bathing his face in cod-scented steam. We sit across from each other at the kitchen banquette, a burning candle stuck in a Chianti bottle between us.
Mark, who is usually silent, tells me he is a metal smith; that he loves making knives and older forms of weaponry, such as the mace. Which, he informs me, as I take a sip of the creamy potage, could take off my head with one blow.