Friday, February 19, 2016

CITY OF ANGELS: DOWNTOWN


  


I often write about Hollywood but seldom mention downtown Los Angeles. Although only a few miles apart, they are on complete opposite ends of the gamut (I'm sure things have changed now - I'm writing from a long-ago perspective). For me, Hollywood was always a safe haven. Downtown L.A. reeked with danger.

When I was a young teen we lived in Orange County, near Disneyland - about 25 miles away from L.A. My parents worked all day and I didn't yet drive. I'd often take a bus to L.A. and spend the day exploring the city. These were relatively innocent times - before my corrupt years in Hollywood. I'd always buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke - just to look "tough".

From a distance, downtown L.A.  had a surrealistic look - seemingly floating in a shroud of eternal smog and haze. For many years, tall buildings had been prohibited due to earthquake safety restrictions. Later, some of the new structures became daringly tall. The steel company that my father worked for was responsible for most of these new L.A. buildings.

I'd visit the always-intriguing art exhibits at the Biltmore Hotel and the Hilton. I'd haunt the bookstores and record shops, and I'd buy used gear at the big Army Surplus store on Main St. Often I'd walk up to the Music Center on Grand and eat lunch there (since then, an appalling structure called the Walt Disney Music Hall has been built next door).

 The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the L.A. Music Center, which I knew extremely well


The hideous Walt Disney Music Hall which now overshadows the L.A. Music Center (right)

Sometimes I'd sit in Pershing Square and just watch the people. Pershing Square is a small park across the street from the Biltmore Hotel. Long ago, the park was lush with palm trees and exotic shrubs and was a notorious gay cruising area - especially after dark. When I frequented Pershing Square, the park had been cleaned up and most of the trees removed in an attempt to discourage "undesirables".

Once, when I was in Pershing, a stout old man with a white beard approached me. He was dressed all in black, with a black hat, overcoat, and walking cane. He kinda looked like Heidi's grandfather puttin' on the Ritz...

He approached me and bluntly asked if I'd like to make porno movies. "I know some really hot twelve and thirteen-year-old boys," he said.

I told him "No, thank you" and immediately regretted being so polite.

"Do you mean you don't like boys?" His question sounded accusatory. 

"Not that much," I said.


Vintage Pershing Square as it looked about 65 years ago, and the Biltmore Hotel.

Pershing Square in more recent times - the hotel hasn't changed at all

Once, on a wicked whim, I went to a sleazy porno theater on Main Street. It was the first adult theater I'd ever been to and I was scared witless. My fear turned to disappointment when I discovered that the flick was only "soft core". There were a few flashes of female boobs and male butts, and some poorly simulated sex. What a waste of $1.25.

Years later, I still spent an enormous amount of time in downtown L.A. - attending concerts at the Music Center, working as a ballet rehearsal pianist, going to galleries and museums. I used to frequent Frasher's Music Store - which had an enormous selection of orchestral scores and piano music (those were the primitive days before the ease of shopping on the Internet).

L.A. at night was a whole different scene. When I knew it, the place was extremely dangerous after dark. My nighttime excursions were very limited and always fraught with unwanted adventure. Once, I was chased by a group of drunken Mexicans, simply because I was a gringo (and, fortunately, a damn good runner).

Another time a huge black dude followed me for several blocks with obvious criminal intent. I finally ditched him by going into a lesbian bar (no lie). 

My worst after dark downtown experience happened in front of the L.A.County Library on 5th Street. I was completely caught by surprise. A short, swarthy guy tried to mug me - demanding money and roughing me up. My switchblade was my savior. I pulled it out, jabbed the bastard in the hand, and then ran like an Olympic champion. I managed to zigzag away and save my ass.

 The L.A. Library on 5th Street
Dangerous at night

If I remember correctly, switchblades were illegal in L.A. County. I had purchased mine in New York and smuggled it home on a plane (try doing that nowadays!).

I've always considered myself to be a sissy with a faux tough facade - - but in truth I could be fairly tough when I had to.  

This post is much longer than initially intended and I haven't even scratched the surface. I didn't tell about my wild experiences at the ultra-sleazy Midtowne Spa on Kohler Street.
Or some of the downtown characters that I knew - like the fifteen-year-old male hustler whom I called Midnight. My very first published poem, Midnight Blue, was about him.
"His eyes are electric. They will execute you."

(are my California posts boring? I love to reminisce)



http://cabinetofcurioustreasures.blogspot.com 

  




24 comments:

  1. Downtown has become hip these days--the crime is down, but there is still a lot of homeless people, who the hipsters complain get in the way when they are walking, smoking cigarettes, and texting on their phones.

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    1. I'm glad the crime is down - it was a very rough place when I knew it, but the "revitalization" was already beginning before I moved away.

      Yup, the homeless now have cell phones everywhere - - it's a different world (*smile*).

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  2. No! Not boring at all!! I don't always comment, but I always read everything with great interest. Whether it's the cats, the weather or wild memories. :)

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    1. Thanks for your input, Rita. There are many times when I wonder what people are thinking about my posts. I'm delighted to know your thoughts are positive!

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  3. I enjoy reading about California. You lived a different aspect of it than I did so a lot of your stories are eye openers for me. I spent several years hanging out in East LA and I was often the only gringo around. Fortunately my Chicano friends were more than happy to defend my being there. I love libraries and regret that I never went into the one you pictured. It looks like you could get lost in there. The only music store I remember by name was Tower Records (and I had to research that. My memory's not what it used to be. Plus 40 years gone by!)

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  4. Unfortunately my memory isn't quite as sharp as it used to be, either.
    The Central Library in downtown L.A. was a huge and fascinating place. From what I've heard, it's still there - much like it used to be.

    I certainly remember Tower Records. There were several of them, including one in Orange County.

    Strangely enough, at that time, there weren't very many stores where you could buy piano music or orchestral scores. The three biggest music stores that I frequented were Frasher's in downtown L.A., National Music in Anaheim, and Ralph Pierce in Pomona.
    Frasher's and Pierce are now gone.

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  5. A most emphatic NO. Your posts about California are NEVER boring. You paint pictures of a world most of us have never known, and you use a delightful palette of words to do it, too!

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    1. I really appreciate that, Susan. I always (well, almost always) like what I write - but sometimes I think that I might be boring or sound like I'm full of myself.
      I could easily write a LOT more details, but looong blog posts aren't appreciated by everybody.

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  6. I have never visited LAX, so your posts/pix are interesting. I have been to CA, but only as far south as SFO.

    there is a lakefront hotel in chicago built in similar style to the biltmore: the drake.

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    1. I Googled the Chicago Drake and it does resemble the L.A. Biltmore. The Drake came first, in 1920. The Biltmore was built in 1923. I'm glad they're both still around.

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  7. Absolutely, not boring! That world you depict seems surreal ... so far removed from the homogeneous hick towns in which I lived.
    Love the original - classy - architecture.

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    1. In retrospect, I did have an unusual existence and - despite all the bad times - I really savor the memories.
      So many of the beautiful old buildings in L.A. have been demolished - it's reassuring to know that some still exist. The ugly Disney Music Hall reinforces my love for the past.

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  8. Agreed, not boring. I remember taking a Greyhound Bus to visit my sisters in Long Beach. LA depot at 7a.m. with the sky lit up over the Watts riots --what, 1965? A month later I was a sophomore in high school and Russ Solomon and wife helped set up our student bookstore in an unused English Dept. office at the request of my friend and teacher, Willie. Their record rack was still in the drugstore at 16th and Broadway but expanding across the street rapidly --and then around the world. It was a strange and exciting time, even up north from you. I enjoy hearing about those years from all angles.

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  9. Wow - Russ Solomon! That is a fantastic story. From what I've heard he is still living and around 90 years old. He out-lived Tower Records.
    That was indeed a wonderfully exciting time, especially in California.

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  10. More, more, more!!!!! Miss Moorecock would probably say I'm a greety bitch. I love your stories. While I have alot of beaus and friends to do things with, I love that you too could just venture and entertain yourself. I'm like that too, and prefer to do things myself sometimes. Spa? I went to one in new York once. I was in my "room". These two guys came in scarred the shit out of me. They tied me up. I though this was it. Curtains. But it was one of the most enthralling sexual encounters I ever had, except for one other.

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    1. I love greedy bitches.
      Wow, no one as ever tried to tie me up - - that's a frightening story. I once had a guy beg me to beat him with a big-buckled belt. I probably disappointed him, because I'm not into pain.

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  11. Hello Jon - When Ron and I visit LA it seems great wherever we go. I'm thinking that maybe the downtown core was a little more deserted in those days. Now so many of the office buildings and others have transformed into lofts and condos bringing about a night time vibrancy. As you've mentioned before in replies to Ron's blog (which I enjoy) you mentioned the Hollywood and Vine area once being somewhat tacky. True - but not that tacky - maybe it's my taste. It's an area we only make a brief visit to usually. But I find it clean and civilized. In fact I think what I see of LA is kept up very very well. Melrose now seems like any other street in the neighbourhood. Fountain, Santa Monica, Beverly, Romaine, and some others I can't remember all seem really nice. Ron and I in fact visited a modernist furniture store on Melrose a few blocks west of Fairfax - Blu Dot. Also the second store which promotes Shag the artist is on Melrose. It is the second location - first is in Palm Springs. I'm sure you would enjoy visiting it again Jon. All the best.
    Pat

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    1. Hey, Pat - - I actually feel like I know you, from reading Ron's blog. I always enjoy hearing about your Hollywood escapades - they really ignite memories. I was raised in Southern California an lived there for about 30 years. Hollywood and downtown L.A. have changed a lot since I knew it. Some of the changes are big improvements - - but I prefer the good old sleezy days of my youth.

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  12. Jon,
    During our recent trip to Los Angeles, Pat and I took a subway to downtown LA and spent the day walking around. We didn't encounter any danger, but we were there during the daytime in the bright sunlight. We did have to step over some homeless but not near as many as I've stepped over in Philly. Thanks for the information about the Biltmore Hotel and Pershing Square. We missed those iconic LA landmarks during our visit but will see them next year. Please post more about downtown LA. You are a wealth of information about LA Jon. Of course the best would be if you visited the same time we visited. Think about it (smile).
    Ron

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    1. I'm astounded when you mention subways in L.A.
      When I lived there the mere thought of a subway was inconceivable due to the earthquake dangers. I still think it's a bad idea. So much of the original charm of L.A. has been eroded in favor of financial gain and "progress". I'm glad that a few of the old things still remain, like the Biltmore. I haven't told a fraction of my "downtown" stories.
      I have so many stories of

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  13. Keep telling us. I have never been to any part of California and now I never will because of age and health.

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    1. The glorious Southern California that I once knew seems to be quickly eroding. I always enjoy writing about it.

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