March 06, 2007

The Next Block

By Joe Speaker © 2007

"Can you take me home?" the Princess asked, sitting up on my threadbare futon mattress and groping for her bra.

"Sure," I said through closed lids and spent lips. "I am a professional." A lame joke owing to my day job as a messenger.

We fumbled around for our clothes, thrown haphazardly on the grimy floor, not speaking in the hazy dark. The streetlight tossed spare light through the cheesecloth curtains as I watched her lithe body picking and pulling. The little rich girl from up the hill slumming here in my shack, happy to lay down with the lead guitarist, but anxious to get back home, if only to flaunt her Bad Side to her friends and entertainment lawyer Daddy.

We pulled out of the yard still in silence. I turned my sputtering Ford Escort south on Topanga Canyon Blvd., the early hour reflected in the dark of the shabby and gated storefronts looking forlorn in their emptiness. Past Sherman Way and its donut vendors and head shops. Past the crumbling mall, two of its three anchors now vacant, and the solitary figures of shuffling homeless. She stared straight ahead, oblivious to the socio-economic ruin in the periphery. Straight ahead, past Ventura Blvd. and up the hill where the street gets narrower and better tended. Leafy and exclusive, fewer cars and no convenience marts. The houses erupt in size and hide behind manicured walls of green. Only four miles from my fading crash pad, I pulled to a

"That's John Stamos' house," she said, off-handedly, tilting her head at the gated mass of Spanish hacienda. "Good night." And with a quick kiss, she scampered next door to her hearth, sprawling and warm.

Los Angeles is a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods, jammed against each other with little reason. When I'm not hammering power cords in dank nightclubs, I'm guiding my Escort through every nook of this sprawling city, delivering subpoenas to cheating suburban husbands and immigration documents to families of eight living in garages off Pico. The view can change in an instant.

The next morning, I drove to Koreatown, east of Hoover, south of Wilshire, to deliver some business documents to a small import-export business. The only sign of the English language is on the street signs. Garbage litters abandoned doorways where aggressive bums jump out and demand money with closed fists, crazed looks and menace. Dirty-faced kids block the sidewalks in packs, taunting passersby. Mothers hurriedly shoving infants homeward, pulling frantically on the arms of the older siblings who cast admiring glances at the young toughs, sporting puffed chests and spiked hair. The stench of urine pervades the whole area and the blocky tenements blot out the sun. Just north is Hollywood, city of illusions. No less seedy, its imperfections are absorbed by better lighting and the masses of camera-toting tourists, too busy looking down at the stars on the sidewalk to notice the decay, like an aging starlet. But, if you go west from Koreatown, the city's dichotomy reveals itself.

Westwood was my next stop and just a few blocks into the trip down Wilshire, the scenery changes, like leaving an adult movie theater and walking next door into the Disney Concert Hall. Hancock Park appears improbably out of the ruin. At one moment, your eyes notice only blight, exposed wires and fading paint; the next, you're marveling at turn of the century craftsman homes, their expansive porches bordering on all sides. The air loses its sepia taint and greenery whistles in the calm breeze. Harry Warner, the oldest of the Warner Bros., built a house here. It's Old Hollywood, stately and lush. There's Wilshire Country Club, a well-struck three-iron from a collapsing carniceria. Poverty and prosperity separated by mere yards. Rampant crime to Neighborhood Watch. Barred front doors to silent alarms. In the blink of an eye.

The pattern repeats itself throughout the Basin. The working-class concrete city of Alhambra gives way, north of Huntington Blvd., to majestic San Marino, blocks and blocks of sloping lawns, roman columns and servants' quarters. Van Nuys, the barrio of the Valley, withers in the shadow of elevated Encino and Sherman Oaks, the modernist hillside dotted with formidable fortresses of gravity-defying steel and glass. Silverlake, once a bohemian enclave bordering drug- and gang-infested Echo Park, is now the funky and gentrified playground of New Money, conspicuous in their consumption.

That's where I found myself that evening, at a too hip for its own britches nightclub, invited by a perky secretary in the office where I pick up my daily deliveries. The crowd was a stew of unwashed urchins. My kind of people: musicians, writers and hustlers. Feast or famine in this town; the middle class doesn't pass the velvet rope, or lead the newscasts. Sally from Chatsworth is home making fucking meatloaf. We dug in our pockets for beer money, sneered arrogantly at everything and pretended we didn't want to live behind those invisible gilded barriers we unexpectedly pass every day.

The secretary met up with a couple of friends, one of them producing jaw-dropping stares from every male in attendance, breaking each facade of ennui with a simple bump of her hip. She was insanely gorgeous, auburn-haired and fresh, with flawless legs on display beneath her short, black dress. She, like the ostentatious neighborhoods that rise on the outskirts of slums, shockingly out of place. But she was hustling her own product, just like the rest of us.

"Close your mouth," my friend chastised. "She doesn't date musicians."


"No money."

Another one trying to move a few blocks over. Mar Vista to Marina del Rey. Lawndale to Manhattan Beach. People want the other thing. The Princess from up the hill corrupting herself, taking ecstasy and jamming that silver spoon into the eyes of her intolerant parents. This girl, striving the opposite direction, trading on superior genetics and demanding to be raised up.

"What's she doing here?" I wondered. “This group could maybe manage a single mortgage between 'em."

"She dances," my friend said. "There's a bikini contest later."

"And she's hoping to be spotted by Richie Rich?"

"No. $150 for first place."

I laughed. Bikini dancing for grocery money. Dreams and skills on divergent paths. "I think she needs a better venue for finding a rich husband," I mocked, sure in my cultivated superiority. I'm not wealthy, but I am ironic.

"Maybe," the secretary said, trumping me. "But she did fuck John Stamos once."

Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.

No comments: