Swans Commentary » swans.com April 25, 2005  



Days Of Decay In LA-LA Land


by Joe Davison


Short Story




(Swans - April 25, 2005)  So, yes, my daily routine consisted of getting up around seven, doing my thing in the bathroom, eating a quick breakfast, then going straight to the computer to start work (or what I liked to call work).

I was renting a small studio apartment in Hollywood for just over five hundred a month, which, if you knew the area, you'd know was about as cheap as you could get. My neighbors, those who occupied apartments on the same landing, consisted of the following: one broken spirited and broken down Vietnam Vet who lived off a monthly disability check; two struggling actors, one of whom had found employment impersonating Spiderman outside Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard; one girl who claimed to be a model but who in truth danced around a pole at the strip club down the street; one 66-year old novelist who'd just completed a trilogy of books about a mythical land which he'd titled, The Ring Of The Lords; and one failed musician.

After checking the news and my e-mails, off I would go into whatever project I was currently working on, putting in my daily three or four hours of futile endeavor as if sentenced to do so for some heinous crime.

That done, I'd either hit the gym or else go for my regular run through Runyon Canyon Park.

You never saw many people out in Runyon Canyon in the middle of the day, especially during the summer months when temperatures often reached as high as ninety and above, and if you did they'd be walking at an easy pace.

Yet, though it was punishing, I loved the feeling of the heat against my skin whilst jogging all the way up the winding path to the top, surrounded by sun-baked rocks and scattered brush, the sun beating down relentlessly as my legs trembled with the effort required to keep on going, my breathing reduced to short, desperate gasps as I neared the top, whereupon I would lapse into a five minute coughing and wheezing fit before catching my breath and experiencing the psychological high of having done it, side by side with its physical equivalent in the shape of an endorphin rush to which I was hopelessly addicted.

The view of L.A. from up there is quite simply tremendous, even on those days when a thick layer of smog hangs low over the city, and along with one or two other enraptured souls I would often spend half an hour just soaking it up. After strolling back down the hill and returning to my apartment, there would invariably be a message from Andy on my voicemail to greet me.

"Yo, Scottish, it's me, Andy. Gimme a call."

Andy was from Brooklyn, New York; hadn't paid his rent or bills in two months; hadn't worked in over three; and couldn't for the life of him understand why he was in such a bad position.

I'd been his friend for the past six months or so, after meeting him in the gym, and when I learned that a mere four years earlier he'd had close to a million dollars in the bank, I couldn't understand it either.

"Blew it," he explained to me one night in the small bedroom of the apartment he shared with his buddy, Jimmy, a 44 year-old actor who worked as a bartender up on the Sunset Strip while waiting for his big break to come knocking.

"What on?" I asked him.

"You name it, man," he replied. "Drugs, restaurants, chicks -- just, you know, living large."

Andy was currently in the process of trying to get his life back on track. He was making calls every day trying to sniff out deals (Andy's fortune had been made leveraging venture capital for various start-up companies) and, just like his roommate, Jimmy, he was sending out headshots and resumes for acting parts all over town.

But just like Jimmy, and most everyone else who was here trying to act, Andy was finding that Hollywood is a cruel place when you're down on your luck. He couldn't even get an audition for any of the parts he was submitting for, much less book a job, and day after day he would call me -- sometimes three or four times -- and vent his frustration with L.A., the movie business, women, even with his roommate's cats, to which he claimed to be allergic.

Yes, he was an angry man, and at thirty-five going on thirty-six, a scared one too.

I wasn't doing much better. I'd moved to Hollywood to establish a career as a screenwriter and wound up working at various times as a security guard in bars, nightclubs and at movie premieres, interspersed with extra work on movies and TV shows. I was thirty-seven. Not good.

Then there was Big Nick. Originally from Croatia, he'd moved to Los Angeles ten years prior with his then wife to escape a civil war. Now, after a divorce which had virtually cleaned him out, he was sleeping in the back of the health food store he owned in West Hollywood.

Our common ground, apart from penury and age, was the gym where we all congregated three times a week to kill ourselves on the bags and in the ring sparring. Boxing allowed us to forget our problems and frustrations for a few precious hours, giving expression to a shared inferiority complex. Afterwards we would each get in our cars and meet up at a chicken place on Melrose Avenue for some grub and a half hour or so of intellectual discourse on topics such as the best way to throw a left hook, how to know a slut when you meet one, and the merits of Crystal Geyser as opposed to Evian bottled water.

This was no salon.

Over us all during these chats, regardless of the collective effort we put into avoiding admitting it, was a dark cloud of angst caused by our lack of success, stability and contentment here in the land of opportunity.

Afterwards, arriving back at my apartment, I would take a shower, eat something light, sit for half an hour, then pack up my books and head out for a coffee and an hour or so of reading, thinking and writing in my journal.

I frequented a few different coffee shops around Hollywood, but my favorite was the Coffee Bean on Sunset Plaza Drive. I despised the crowd but still found them interesting to observe. Sometimes you might come across a celebrity there, and whenever I saw one, off I'd retreat to the bathroom to call one of the entertainment news agencies which paid for such information.

You'd get your share of young, good looking girls, dressed and made up to impress, hoping to be discovered by some producer or other, along with the older, sleazy looking guys who chased after them, claiming to be -- surprise, surprise -- those very producers. In addition, and of course, there was always the ubiquitous screenwriter or five, sitting alone bashing the keys of a laptop, convinced this thing they were working on now would be the project to finally sell and make all the groveling, struggling and humiliation worthwhile.

An hour or so of that and it would be time to depart, driving east along Sunset Boulevard in my Chevy Caprice with the Scotland bumper sticker on the back and the miniature Scottish Flag hanging from the rearview mirror in the front.

I'd turn right on La Cienega and head south down the hill towards the Beverly Center in the distance.

I always parked across the other side of the street from the Beverly Center in a smaller shopping mall called the Beverly Connection; unlike its larger counterpart the parking was free and there were also stores here that I liked to hit from time to time as well.

I used to do most of my work in Bloomingdales, managing to shoplift over a two-year period twenty or so t-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, trousers and sweatshirts. But since then they'd tightened their shit up and it'd become much harder. I don't know why, given it had become harder and they'd taken to tagging every single item worth taking with alarms, but I still always went to there first, perhaps for old times' sake more than anything else.

The only other store I'd found to be a rich fountain of opportunity for the old stealy-steal was Macy's, located way at the other end of the mall. For some reason they tagged everything apart from their designer polo shirts, and it didn't take me long to acquire one in every color.

Back over to the Beverly Connection I would go with my haul, sometimes in a small bag, which I made sure to wear over my back with the strap over my head rather than carry it at my side by the handles: the former and it looks part of your outfit, the latter and you look like exactly what you are: a petty thief. Usually, though, I would have the garments concealed underneath what I was already wearing (how nobody ever noticed the white guy walking out the door with sometimes two extra shirts and t-shirts on I will never know).

My next destination was always Barneys in Beverly Hills. Now this place I especially liked, as it was here that you rubbed shoulders with real movie stars and the big shots that employed them. Located on Wilshire at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, I always enjoyed the looks of disdain which my old, battered Chevy attracted as I rolled down this world-famous street in a cloud of black smoke. Parking in the same public structure on Brighton Way where I always parked (two hours free), I would saunter down Rodeo past the Gucci, Chanel and Prada stores, moving in amongst a combination of Japanese tourists laden down with shopping bags; tired looking gigolos with their pot bellies, sun-drenched skin, and expensive clothes that were all wrong; and old mares with faces full of plastic and hearts filled with yearning for days gone by.

Oh, yes, this was Beverly Hills, made famous in a thousand movies and books, the embodiment of wealth, glamour and excitement. In reality, as with all lies, the truth hits you in the face with a fist full of disappointment.

But what did I care? I was on my way to Barneys to continue building a myth of my own: namely that of the best dressed petty thief in this sorry town's sorry history.

I loved this store, this veritable Aladdin's Cave come to life, where you could for however long you were there enjoy the sights, smell and atmosphere of commodity fetishism gone mad. Floating through ladies' cosmetics, passing the blondes and brunettes stuck behind the counters with the stuck-on smiles of aspiring actresses and models, smiles unable to camouflage the bitterness and disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, I would convince myself they were watching me in admiration, thinking to themselves that I must be some actor or other with that sexy swagger and masculine jaw line, which I always made sure to keep clenched tight. The swagger was the product of a Scottish working class upbringing, developed to ward off any potential enemies, while the clenched jaw was designed to hide a mouth full of squint, yellow teeth.

No doubt about it, I was on, radiating that intangible yet palpable quality required of all petty thieves: bare-faced cheek.

The men's department was on the fourth floor and a swift ascent in one of the mirror-laden elevators landed me there in the time it took to run my hand through my hair three times (for luck, you understand). A perky little "ding" announced the elevator's arrival, the doors slid open and out I stepped into an array of upscale, designer and outrageously priced men's fashions.

Barneys was easy, it really was, and apart from six pairs of a hundred and fifty dollar jeans, I'd succeeded in stealing from there over the past few weeks a couple of expensive tops and a suede jacket priced at over seven hundred bucks. It seemed I was invisible, so effortlessly was I able to glide around picking out this, that and the other, then retiring to the changing rooms to begin ripping off tags preparatory to putting on the new stuff underneath what I already had on. First hiding the tags in the pockets of the few decoy items I'd also taken into the changing room with those I'd selected for expropriation, I emerged five or ten minutes later with a fuck-you smile and a nod to the male clerk, stood there with his plucked eyebrows and fake tan, asking me in that Beverly Hills falsetto voice I'd come to know and loathe if there was anything he could help me with.

Waddling by with two pairs of jeans on, two shirts and a t-shirt tied around my waist, I'd hit him with a polite, no, but thank you anyway and have yourself a wonderful day.

Gliding back over the plush carpet, in and out of the usual complement of tired fashion victims to be found in such establishments, I'd hit the elevator and embark on a smooth descent down to the first floor, whence I would take myself back through the ladies' cosmetics section, passing again the disappointed blondes and brunettes on my way to the exit and the sparkling sidewalks of Beverly Hills.

The drive along Santa Monica Boulevard, taking a right onto Beverly Boulevard and cruising along my favorite street towards Hollywood and home, was always a time to reflect on and ponder events. Yes, I was a thief, a "dirty chore" in the Scottish vernacular, but I was free, a man who moved to the beat of his own drum. In a town of so many lost, disappointed and frustrated people waiting for a break that would never come, I was Sartre's theory of existentialism personified.

As such, there was no waiting around for me. Especially not when there were department stores to visit.

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About the Author

Joe Davison, recently returned to his native Scotland, after spending five years in Los Angeles, California. There, his original objective of carving out a career in Hollywood as a screenwriter gave way to unpaid work as an organizer within the antiwar movement. He was also active within the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist organization, in addition to being a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement. In Scotland, he currently alternates between writing, political activism, and putting food on the table.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/joedav08.html
Published April 25, 2005