The American Hotel
It was April 29, 1992. That day I threw on my Alice-in-Wonderland print dress and laced up my Doc Marten boots. I stepped into the hallway of The American Hotel — where very few people had televisions and Internet access was many years in the future — and was told this:
“You’re lucky you’re moving to Seattle next month because as soon as this verdict comes down, all hell is going to break loose in this city.”
For some reason, I don’t remember which one of my colorful neighbors told me this, but his words are seared into my memory. I paused outside my door and then, almost without thinking, as a primal, self-preservation instinct, I walked back in and changed into jeans and a T-shirt, grabbing my jacket that had a huge picture of Robert Smith from The Cure on the back. The future was uncertain and I felt too vulnerable to step onto city streets wearing a dress that day.
We were awaiting the Rodney King verdict.
Little did I know that I would be wearing those same clothes for the next three days.
About a half hour later, I was on the 710 freeway that snakes from Los Angeles to Long Beach — where my boyfriend was waiting for me. The 710 freeway travels right over South Central L.A. In fact, it swoops very near Florence and Normandie.
As I drove to Long Beach I listened to the radio news announcing the Rodney King verdict and it’s aftermath. First, reports of what was happening at Florence and Normandie near where I was driving: a man later identified as Reginald Denny was yanked out of his car and beaten. A helicopter hovering above captured the beating on camera for the world to see as it ignited rioters across Southern California. The news reports said rioters were attacking drivers, reporters, anyone who wandered into their path.
In Long Beach, the entire town was in an uproar talking about the violence and chaos just north of us. Everyone was in a state of shock and disbelief. It suddenly felt like we had been thrust into a third-world country.
I don’t remember much about those first hours. I think everything was overshadowed by the riots. People were gathered in front of radios and TVs everywhere. All we did was stand around and watch what was happening. On street corners. In restaurants. In coffee shops. At the beach. At the bars. Nothing else existed except the riots. Oddly, I remember that there wasn’t a lot of conversation about it at the time. People were too stunned. Most of us stood there, stricken into silence, watching the news reports.
Later, tired, and ready to go home, I was on the freeway again, this time toward L.A. I was about to exit onto the 101 freeway, which led to The American Hotel. But what I heard on the radio made me change my plans:
Rioters had swarmed onto the 101 freeway and were setting fire to cars and palm trees.
One of the scariest moments of my life was exiting the freeway right then to turn around and realizing there was not an easy entrance to get back on the freeway heading south. My memory is hazy, but I remember the fear that coursed through me and verged on panic. In the dark streets I drove, frantic to get back on the freeway as I saw clumps of people less than a block away swarming the streets with their fury.
I somehow managed to get back on the freeway and, unsure where to go, since I couldn’t go home, headed back to Long Beach.
Meanwhile, as I later learned, back at The American Hotel, my neighbors in our small down-and-out community had taken to the rooftops with their guns, vowing to protect our building, as piss-filled and worn-down as it was.
The guns were a bit of a surprise to me. The UZI that Nicki* had still astonishes me. If you’ll allow me to digress, I have one more character to introduce to you in my life at The American Hotel.
Many, many years later, Nicki still symbolizes L.A. for me. She is a has been, a was, a potential that has shriveled up and died without chance of resurrection.
When I met Nicki, she still had a hint of that Cosmo Cover Girl look, the same looks that graced covers of magazines in several countries; the same looks that had men fork over thousands of dollars to send her on Parisian shopping sprees; the same look that made men leave their wives for her. But her looks had hardened. They were harsh. Worn out. Has been.
Although she still had the flowing blonde tresses, the big blue eyes, the regal stance and profile, her one-time beauty queen figure had spread, filling out her tight Levis. Her skin was sallow, her eyes perpetually ringed by black.
Somehow, she still got the attention she so desperately needed and craved. She demanded it from everyone she came across. Her Bitch Queen attitude, her little Rich Girl persona just had been transplanted to a 12 x 12 room at The American Hotel. A tiny little room without a kitchen or bathroom that was crawling with huge cockroaches.
Like the rest of us, she showered in the communal bathrooms on either end of the fourth-floor hallway, but unlike the rest of us, who lived like Bohemian artists (aka starving artists) and threw futons on the floor and lived out of crates and cooked on hot pads, her room had been turned into one of an adored child.
Her tiny space was crammed with a giant big white bed. Flowing white curtains covered the windows and billowed above the air conditioner that her married boyfriend had installed in her room. He also had constructed built-in bookshelves, a closet, and a tiny desk/vanity with a shelf above it that contained children’s books. She also had a plush area rug and a television on a stand.
Like me, Nicki was a waitress at the Mexican Cantina on the border of East L.A. a few blocks away from The American Hotel. Yet she rhapsodized constantly about the day her boyfriend would leave his wife and kids and move with her to the WEST SIDE of L.A. where she would find a waitressing job at a posh restaurant and make the extravagant tips her haughty look deserved.
Meanwhile, she whined likes a pouty child if she didn’t get her way and argued in a high-pitched petulant shout. She was not innocent. She had been in jail once and mugged twice. Her friend died in her bed of an overdose. When she lived in New York City, men broke into her apartment and tied her and her boyfriend up while they robbed the place. She said she was very nearly murdered that night.
And yet, it is still hard to fathom that during the L.A. riots, Nicki was up on the rooftop with my neighbors with an UZI. That detail alone makes me wish I had never left that night, but stayed in L.A. to ride out the riots.
Days later, when I returned to L.A. my neighborhood had been turned into a war zone. Parking lots that usually were full with commuter’s cars had been turned into armed camps, with camouflage nets strung across the tops. An empty dirt lot near The American Hotel now had trenches dug in it and was patrolled by National Guard members in full body armor. Old hangouts were burned to the ground. Tank-like vehicles rumbled down my street.
But that first night, I knew none of this. That first night, reports of the rioters on the 101 freeway were enough to send me scuttling back to Long Beach. That first night, I got a hotel room and stayed up all night with my boyfriend, glued to the TV. At one point I realized I should call my mother (this was pre-cell phone days, people).
When she sleepily answered the phone, I told her I was calling to let her know I was okay.
“What do you mean?”
“Mom, turn on your TV.”
A few seconds of silence and then: “Get in your car right now and drive to Northern California.”
Not going to happen, I told her, and said I would keep in touch.
We stayed up until dawn, until we could no longer keep our eyes open anymore. We stayed up watching footage of L.A. burning, of rioters looting and carting shopping carts full of merchandise, of bricks hitting people’s heads. My neighbor was right. All hell had broken loose in my city.
The next day, blurry-eyed, I hung out in coffee shops all day long. I remember calling in to the Mexican cantina and being scolded by my boss for not coming to work that day. I told him that there was no way in hell I was going to go to work at a restaurant that was notorious for being a hangout for off-duty LAPD. Screw that. It would be fire-bombed, I’m sure.
I was sitting at one coffee shop, the last in a long series I had visited that day, when the Long Beach cops came in and shut the place down. They said they were closing all businesses on that street because “The rioters” (they had taken on a life and entity of their own) were a mile up the road burning the mall.
“The Rioters” — an unidentifiable group of people — had become a solid mass that struck fear in people. What I hated, what I loathed with every fiber of my being, was this sudden acute awareness of race and skin color that faced me at every turn. I hated thinking that the color of my skin was defining me in that moment and defining others, as well. It was shameful to realize that the world had suddenly turned into “us” and “them” overnight. It scared me to think that the L.A. population was being viewed in terms of black and white. Literally. To me, that was more frightening than rioters burning palm trees and cars. I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I knew that people black and white, felt exactly the same way as I did.
With nowhere to go, my wandering eventually led me to a bench on some cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I sat there with my head in my hands for what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes.
Then, I noticed somebody had sat down beside me. I looked up. It was a black man about my age. He sat in a similar position, holding his head.
When I saw his similar pose, I chortled a sort of delirious, sleep-deprived laugh. He looked up at me and laughed, too. We both were in hell and we knew it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon together. We tried to figure out what had gone wrong in the world, how we had grown up in the middle of it all, and what we could do to stop something like this from ever happening in the future. (Remember we were idealistic college kids!)
We especially talked about “them” — the rioters. Because whatever “they” were thinking, we sure didn’t understand.
Postscript: Not long after, I left L.A. and The American Hotel to move to Seattle in some crazy hope to capture the last of the grunge scene, I guess. The following January, I came back to L.A. Before I headed over to The American Hotel, I stopped to fill up my gas tank at the old corner gas station where once, the clerk had given me a free pack of cigarettes when I was short on cash. He was still working there but didn’t recognize me. But out in the parking lot, my old homeless buddy — the one I had given a blanket off my bed to — did. Chris wandered up, asking for change, and then recognized me: “Hey, you don’t live around here any more do you?”
A few blocks away, I pulled in front of The American Hotel and got out of my car, stood in the middle of the street and assuming the correct stance of a visitor at the hotel, and in typical American-Hotel-fashion, screamed at the top of my lungs the names of the residents I wanted to see:
“Carrrooooool! Deeeeennnnis! Jooooooee! Stuaaaaart!”
Nothing. Silence. I was about to turn away, dejected, when Stuart popped his dreadlocked head out the fourth-floor window.
“Hey, man, where you been?” he said. “Thought you moved to Seattle?”
For a few moments, we caught up on the last few months. He told me what everyone else was up to. Most people were doing the exact same thing. Although my life had changed dramatically, life at The American Hotel apparently hadn’t. Carol was still a waitress. Dennis was back in jail. The Iowan farm boys were still working as bike messengers. Nicki was still trying to get her married boyfriend to leave his family for her.
As I drove away, I was suddenly filled with melancholy. I had moved on. I no longer fit in at The American Hotel. It would always have a special place in my heart, but for me, a new era had begun. It was a bit sad to let this bit of my past go; to say goodbye to it, but suddenly, sitting in my car alone, I burst into laughter thinking of crazy Dennis sitting in his jail cell playing his unplugged electric guitar and hollering “I wanna burrita!”
*Name changed.Share This Post: