The blue awning to the left was the entryway to The American Hotel. My room was on the top floor, probably just above that turquoise-bluish car. There was no “Blooms” but shortly after I moved in, that space became a nameless coffeeshop, which all the residents treated like our living room/kitchen. The entrance to Al’s Bar was just left of the blue awning. – editor’s note.
THE AMERICAN HOTEL
“I know someone who just moved in. Yuck. What a s*&t hole! The tenants are not artistic. They are people who have to stay there because they have no money. The halls smell of pee and smoke. The vibe is totally depressing.”
— Missy (a reader who saw my first post on The American Hotel and left this comment)
In 1991, I paid $250 a month to rent a room at The American Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, an area also known as Skid Row, located right between Little Tokyo and East L.A. If you pulled onto my street at the time, you would be greeted by fantastic graffiti art on all the old brick walls: beautiful Victorian ballroom murals; crazy, larger-than-life cartoon characters; even a tribute to Magic Johnson. It was the result of some city or arts grant to spruce up the warehouse district and give graffiti artists a canvas for their talents.
My neighborhood definitely needed a facelift. At one time, the American Hotel housed traveling movie stars, musicians, and artists performing Hollywood. But it had transformed into a hovel for down-and-out artists, writers, junkies, hookers, and has-been starlets.
I called it home. The small space, shared bathrooms, and homeless people didn’t bother me.
In fact, I knew many of the homeless people in my neighborhood by name. And while I didn’t usually have money to give, I often shared food and cigarettes, and once, a blanket from my bed.
For the most part, I got along great with the homeless people, except for that one time. But that’s another story for a different day.
What is worth noting is that the homeless guys ran a racket in our hood. You see, the basement of The American Hotel housed Al’s bar, a punk-rock bar where bands, such as Sandy Duncan’s Eye, played. Side story: On my first date with my husband I took him down to the bar to see my friend’s band. I walked up to say hi and the lead singer leaned down and gave me a kiss right on the lips. Twenty-one years later, my husband still gripes about this, but it honestly took me by surprise, too. (I’m still friends with the lead singer.)
If you were a visitor to the neighborhood, you’d usually fall for the homeless guys and their scam: When you parked, between one and five homeless guys would bum rush your car, offering to watch your car for a dollar or two while you were inside the club.
Of course, to an outsider, our neighborhood looked scary and most people saw the offer for what it really was. A threat: fork over a dollar or two or risk having your car broken into.
The residents, of course, were onto the ruse. After only a few days, I was fed up with telling the homeless guys I lived there and that I wasn’t going to pay them jack shit. After a few months, they finally caught on. One day, I pulled up and saw a homeless guy begin the mad dash to my car. This time, another homeless guy grabbed his shoulder, saying, “No, man, she lives here, remember?” Finally.
“This place changed my life. For better and worse. A true legend. We sat with Bukowski’s ex wife the day after he died and everyone from the hotel shut the street down and had a funeral pyre with all the Burgundy wine a belly could hold. I mean rot-gut shit. The only way Charles would have it. Al’s bar right below the hotel where Beck, The Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, Cypruss Hill, RHCP, Jane’s addiction played for $3. Drag queens, junkies and lunatics gather in a clever ruse of an artists community. This place is a slice of Americana at it’s finest.” — Adam J, St. Louis, MO on Yelp.com
My room was on the fourth floor, the top one, with roof access 99 percent of the time. (Every once in a while management would fix the lock we broke and it might take a few days before someone broke it again.) From the roof, we had the most spectacular views of downtown Los Angeles surrounding us. But that’s another story when it is time to tell you about the riots.
Back inside, for now. My room was in the middle of the building. There was a bathroom on each end of the hall. My window faced the street and the artist lofts across from us — the place where the people with money lived.
It was like Italian living: they could see us and we could see them, so I quickly hung a black sheet over my window for privacy.
My room was about 200 square feet. One wall was crumbly, dirty red brick. The floors were wood, but plastered with untold layers of grayish, hospital-looking paint, which made it easy to pick off the huge cockroaches that were stupidly far from the smorgasbord of spilled beer in the basement bar.
My room was spartan. I had a black twin futon on the floor near the window. I stacked a few purple milk crates and used them for shelves and storage bins. One crate served as my desk and held my cutting-edge word processor that actually printed out what I wrote. The screen only showed about eight lines of green type at a time, but it was my most prized possession.
After living at The American Hotel for a while, I collected hand-me-downs from tenants moving out, so I ended up with a rolling clothes rack for a closet, a small ghetto blaster, and a hot pad where I boiled rice and pasta for my meals. I also ended up with a dorm-size refrigerator that I used as a small table for a tarnished brass lamp.
Sticking out in all this austerity was a plump, luxurious Victorian chair whose turquoise and faded green damask upholstery stuck out in all its glory. I sure as hell wish I could remember how I ended up with that splendid piece of furniture.
My décor was comprised solely of religious candles with Mexican inscriptions featuring Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and assorted saints. I also might have still had my pen and ink drawing of Robert Smith from The Cure. The only other color in the room came from the paperback books scattered everywhere.
“She’s either really, really cool, or really, really fucked up,” — my new boyfriend’s brother upon visiting me at The American Hotel. (editor’s note: I’m not sure which one was right but 21 years later I’m still with his brother.)
At the time, I worked as a waitress at a Mexican cantina on the border of East L.A., catering to LAPD and gang members, but my shift didn’t start until afternoon, so I would spend the mornings walking around downtown Los Angeles talking to homeless people and trying to get them to tell me their stories. Many said the same thing: they had some chip implanted in their brain sending them signals and that is why the government was after them.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were right, the government WAS after them. In fact, the government not only was AFTER them, it had already GOT them, in the form of California governor Ronald Reagan kicking all the mentally ill people out on the streets.
I was just out of college and still infuriatingly idealistic.
The American Hotel fit my dreams of a John Fante-styled writer life. I intended to make the most of it. During the day, I would sit cross-legged on the floor in front of my word processor and write furiously.
At night, I would lie on my futon, writing by candle light in the big artist sketchbook I used as a journal. Usually Billie Holiday or Nirvana would be playing in the background
I spent my time writing stories about the injustice in the world and promised to myself that no matter where I lived or how much money I had, I wouldn’t forget the faces I saw every day on the streets of Skid Row. I wouldn’t forget my neighbors: the has-been starlet, the young gay boy with AIDS, the down-and-out rocker. I also promised that I wouldn’t forget the bus boys and cooks I worked with at the cantina, who came from their job at the breakfast joint straight to the nightshift so they could send every spare penny back to their families in Mexico. Their idea of a good time? Maybe they’d fit in a beer before bed every once in a while.
Every night, I’d sit outside the cantina on my 15-minute break, pulling on a Camel Light as I gazed at the Los Angeles skyline and dreamt of the day when I would be a real writer.
Oh, if only I had known at the time what I now realize: I already was one.
Better run now, this post has grown much too long for a blog. Dear reader, I hope you will stay tuned and read more about my life in The American Hotel because I still have a host of fascinating characters I’d like to introduce to you.