Tuesday, March 19, 2002

The Holy Grail of LaLa Land

Submitted by Melinda Murphy

Before Christmas, I decided to vacate Draino, Nevada. I spent the holidays packing and chucking anything I wouldn't absolutely need in Los Angeles. I'm part gypsy and creative minimalism comes easily. I even toyed with the idea of eighty-sixing my thermal underwear - for good.
Of course, I couldn't attempt this wild escape without hearing "The Word" on L.A. over and over.

"You think the people here are rude? You have no idea!" fumed my friend and former San Diegoian, Jen. She is another frustrated writer, mother of three who lives in a cluster of tract homes and trailers seventeen miles north of Reno, where the shakedowns on meth labs are continuous.

"The Final Word" on L.A. came from a woman I met while at a gas station.

"I used to live in West Hollywood," she said, smiling sadly. "But I had to leave. I was into some bad shit."

She then regaled me with tales of buying and dealing rock cocaine amongst a backdrop of gay prostitutes, teen runaways, and former television stars.

"Besides," she added, "I really missed winter. I missed the bundle-up weather you have here."
It was eighteen degrees Fahrenheit and the latest winter storm was hanging fatly over the rim of the eastern Sierra like a thundercloud over Dracula's castle.

"But I'm better off now," she finished, "At least here if you want crack, it's more expensive and the rocks are a lot smaller."

Yet another reason to hate Reno. It's hard to get decent crack.

I spent New Year's Eve sitting on the bare oak floor of my frigid rental, watching television. I downed a Valium and some Tuaca and went to bed, intent on avoiding anything Auld Langsyne.
I jerked awake at 7:30 a.m. with a heavy feeling in my stomach. I started stuffing, cramming, and squeezing everything into my thirteen year-old compact car. My aunt pulled up at 11:30 a.m. pealing with laughter.

"My God, it's the Beverly Hillbillies!" she chortled.

She snagged my furniture and the miscellaneous items that wouldn't fit inside the car and hauled them off to storage.

For the uninitiated, the best way to pack a beatermobile for urban invisibility is this - always put the vitals - VCRs, computers, stereos - underneath the clothes, Tupperware, and other priceless heirlooms. Make the thieves dig for the electronics.

I drove off with orders to call on my cellular as soon as I hit the Motel 6 in Mojave, a truck stop about two hours north of L.A.

I cruised smoothly past Mono Lake, favorite brine-fly-covered destination of celebrity Ed Begley, Jr.

In Bishop, California it was dusk and the gun-metal sky was spitting rain. The greatest sandwich shop in the world, Schatt's Bakery, was inundated with Yuppie skiers on their way back to L.A. from a weekend in Mammoth Lakes. It was a sea of ugly sweaters, cell phones, and pushy bimbos with that reverse liposuction in their drooping Mick Jagger lips. I clawed my way to the front of the line and bought a sandwich.

At the Motel 6 in Mojave, there is a minor incident. I open the right front door of the Hyundai and a box of See's candy given to me for Xmas flies out of the car like it's spring loaded. The next morning, I hear the maids arguing over who has to pick up the chocolate strewn across the parking lot like little brown anti-personnel mines. They hate me now. I can never go back.

In the late morning sunlight I climb a ridge of rolling red hills and catch a glimpse of Santa Clarita to the west. The hills are so red, I keep expecting Mister Spock to pop out behind one with a phaser, or maybe see Jack Palance come trotting onto the asphalt on a nice Spanish pony.
The traffic gets tense. The slow lane is suddenly the eighty mile-per-hour lane and semi-trucks and Mercedes in the far left lane bomb past me at ninety-five.

I make some frantic lane changes and I get off in 'Weird and work my way through perpetually heavy traffic to a Trader Joe's on Santa Monica Boulevard, because it has public potties and the other shops want you to pay to pee.

I spend twenty minutes sitting in the humid parking lot studying a 1998 Thomas Guide. My former actress friend, Veronica, gave it to me. Her exact words were: "This is your bible. Keep it with you at all times." I map out the first six of three-dozen rental listings I'd gotten from one of two sketchy "renter referral" sites on the 'Net. They are sketchy because they want you to shell out money just to get the names and numbers of realtors who might have listings.

I drive up Santa Monica and make a right on Poinsettia. Bang, the first listing. It's a two-story blue building with a big fat FOR RENT sign. I call on my cell. "Oh, we just rented that bachelor unit," the realtor/slumlord/gopher tells me, but they have another, even nicer for $300 more near Hollywood High. This is a part of the world where bait-n-switch was invented.

I lean out my car window and ask a nice sort-of-unemployed-probably-gay-actor type what the Poinsettia rentals are like. He laughs and says that same sign has been in front of the building since he moved in two years prior. He thinks his landlord keeps it up to intimidate the tenants and suck potential renters into his other hovels.

I cruise over to the ones near Hollywood High, which looks like a fearsome inner-city P.S. Near by, the apartment buildings are varying shades of dirty yellow, with iron fences and bars on everything -- sort of like county jail if the inmates all had private rooms. The slumlord tells me over the phone that the units don't have actual kitchens, just a hot plate and a dormitory fridge and that they require first and last month's rent, a deposit, and a $35 non-refundable credit check. They're going for $800 a unit and there are about thirty apartments per three-story building. Someone is sooo rich, and it's not me.

I drive to Silver Lake. It's another G.G. (Gay Ghetto) I've heard so much about, renovated 1930's bungalows, impressive stands of eucalyptus tress, and tiered rose gardens. Friends neglected to tell me that Silver Lake is directly up hill from Echo Park, right up hill from Rampart, the infamous street where the L.A.P.D. meted out corruption and brutality. Scenes for Training Day were filmed near Echo Park. I am literally the only white person for ten blocks in any direction, even the sales signs in the store window are in Spanish. Occasionally, someone points and giggles at my wheezing car stuffed to the gills with boxes and bearing the ultimate goober plates, Nevada The Silver State. I head up Silver Lake and up and up. The neighborhood defies gravity. Duplexes and parked cars perch on the edge of streets that make San Francisco look flat. After a half hour, I find one of the listed rentals. The FOR RENT sign is gone and there's a filthy Toyota Pathfinder parked out front with New Jersey license plates. Shit.

I coast back down to Sunset and Santa Monica and spend the rest of the afternoon wandering between Melrose, West Hollywood, and the Hollywood Hills, where all the Mexican landscape crews drive nicer cars than mine. I see one FOR RENT sign in Melrose, for condos at $1,300 a month.

I make the long commute down to Torrance and the familiar Ramada Inn where I'd stayed just before Christmas on my "Looking Around Trip."

The next day, I stupidly check out of the motel, re-stuff the car and head back to 'Weird. I find a "studio" in Hollywood. The real estate agent has his on-sight person wander over in his flip-flops to show me the place. It's actually an up-stairs room with a private bath and a tiny "pantry" with a mini-fridge and a microwave. There's a full-size kitchen on the ground floor that I would technically share with five other strangers in the building. It is nicely renovated but noisy with bare hardwood floors and is just a scant six blocks north of Korea Town and some ugly gang graffiti. The current tenant hasn't moved out yet. They want $835 a month for the room plus an $800 deposit, a one-year lease and the ol' $35 non-refundable credit check.

I call my former actress friend, Veronica. She screams, "TAKE IT!" I call the real estate agent back. He tells me he rented it at 4:30 p.m. to a new tenant who already paid him cash. He says he told the current tenant he has forty-eight hours to move his furniture out. Just like that.

This time, I make it as far as LAX on the Pacific Coast Highway. I'm whipped. I check into a Budget Motel. Los Angeles International Airport is a city unto itself. There are hotels, condos, restaurants, lounges, and an entire mall somewhere in the innards of the parking garages and terminals straddling the highway for more than two miles.

The front desk guy at Budget is the rudest person I meet in L.A. Judging by his accent, he's probably from New York. He slaps my card key down on the front counter and then turns his back on me and the Asian tourists with five-hundred pounds of luggage to yell at someone on his cell phone. He does a good imitation of some freak on The Sopranos. I hate that show.

I go to a hamburger joint a few yards down PCH from the motel. It's called Woody's Smorgasburger. It's the best hamburger I've ever had in my life. Dazed tourists sit at tables around a fireplace and sip microbrews as a light fog drifts in from the coast. It's fantastic. I go back to the motel and listen to the steady stream of traffic all night.

The next few days, I spend trying vainly to find the "nice" part of Long Beach where fabled affordable rentals exist. In San Pedro, I call on a one bedroom partially overlooking Long Beach Harbor, which really isn't worth looking at. It's $950 a month, first and last.

I go through northwest Long Beach - terrifying during the day - because I'd found an ad in the paper for an "artist's loft." It's a studio upstairs in what looks like a crack house. I don't even stop. The agent wanted $625 for it, which is comparable to Reno's housing prices. I keep thinking if they'd just do an episode of Fear Factor where the contestants had forty-eight hours to find a place to live in L.A. it might be worth watching. Ditch the eat-a-cockroach episodes.
Finally, on Thursday, I start hunting around Harbor City and Coloma, which are sort of south of Torrance and north of Long Beach. The price is right. Most of the rentals are around $600.

I meet Mister Slumlord at a one bedroom in Harbor City. He's driving a Lexus. It's not even Good Block, Bad Block country. It's more Okay Building, Over-priced Building, and Rat-Infested Tree House. The unit is on the ground floor of a two-story, 1970's concrete box with a security gate. The rooms are large and fairly clean. The view is of a parking lot and the loathsome federal housing building next door where kids run wild through broken glass and the boom-boom of gangster rap never stops. We go back to his office six blocks away. Slumlord demands a copy of my last paycheck stub, my bank statement, and a half-dozen other things. I dutifully dig it all out of my car. Twenty minutes later, he sits reading the credit application and taping his pen on his desk.

"So you haven't actually started this waitress job yet?"

No, I say, I have to have a place to live first.

He tells me my check stub is "totally unusable" in the credit check because there's no actual dates on it. I tell him I was with the U.S. Postal Service in Reno for six months and that's how they print their check stubs. The stub reveals that I was averaging two grand a month in a town where $1,100 a month is considered a lot of money. I pay $35 for a non-refundable credit check with my Visa debit card, which Slumlord sneers at because it's not an actual credit card. He tells me it will take three to four days to run the credit check. It's Thursday, and I'm supposed to have a place by Sunday at the latest and start my new job the following Monday.

I go back to the Ramada and pay up from Thursday night through Saturday night. The rates go up on the weekends. The room is running me $60 to $80 a night. That night, my plan starts to unravel and reality starts to creep in.

I talk to a friend-of-a-friend of my former actress friend, Veronica. Ted is a producer and real estate agent who lives in Bel Air. He has a sound editing business out in San Fernando Valley and a dozen rentals he inherited from his rich parents who were also in The Biz. Ted tells me he has condos and duplexes in Melrose, Culver City (a 'burb that exists entirely under freeway overpasses so it's sort of always twilight), another in Hermosa Beach and several in Santa Monica. For wannabe writers, Santa Monica is the Holy Grail of Housing. I'd sell myself, take a bullet, and steal if I thought any of it would get me a lead on a rental in Santa Monica. His rentals, all two bedrooms, start at $3,000 a month and he hasn't had a vacancy in over a year.

"Landlords have it made right now," he cheerfully tells me, adding that since an earthquake (didn't say which one) awhile back, the constant tide of Mexicans, and an apparent moratorium on building new rentals - L.A. is experiencing the greatest housing shortage ever. When homes and rentals in Orange County rose outrageously in the 1990's, any incentive people had for living outside Los Angeles County disappeared.

"The big trend for the last ten years has been to move back into the city proper because some of the highest paying jobs in California are in L.A.," Ted says. And they're not just in the entertainment industry. Most are in the banking sector, in advertising, and e-commerce.

"Oh," I say.

Friday evening, I get a call from the woman I'd planned to go to work for, an assistant manager with a chain of Denny's-like restaurants. She tells me that she can't wait any longer to actually hire me and doesn't mind continuing to lie for me and say "yeah, she works here" but doubts there will be an actual position by next week.

Saturday, I drift tiredly up to an internet rental referral agency in Redondo Beach. I plunk down $60 for two months membership. I get fifty pages of printouts, this time for roommate situations. Back at the motel, I call fifteen answering machines and leave fifteen separate messages.

On Sunday, I add the third quart of oil to my car in as many days. My Hyundai is bad. I call my aunt in Reno and tell her I'm throwing in the towel, mostly because even if I find a place, the odds of the car dying are good. I don't want to test my survival instincts with a beatermobile meltdown on the fearway at six in the evening returning from a temp job.

I head up the 110 on a misty, balmy Sunday morning. In light traffic, I drive past downtown and catch my first look at the Library Building glinting in the hazy sunlight. It's now the fifth tallest building in the U.S. Last fall it was the seventh. As I get above Hollywood, I see the turn off for Griffith Observatory and the L.A. Zoo. In my seven days of apartment hunting, I never even made it to the park, and now it will be closed for a month for renovations. I'm practically in tears. I pass Glendale and Burbank, where the real studios and celebs haunt. I see a sign for a sports bar where I know a Project Greenlight writers group meets every Wednesday evening.

North of Santa Clarita, I take a county road and jog east until Mojave and then back up to highway 395 and Owens Valley. I stop in Bishop near midnight and it's twenty degrees. My car blows oil and overheats twice between L.A. and Reno, so I spend quality time waiting for the festering heap to calm down enough for me to pop the radiator cap and add water and radiator fluid. I make it up Sherwin Grade to the turn-off for Mammoth Lakes. By the time I hit Mono Lake, the wind is howling and the snow is splatting against the window. At 3 a.m., I fall into my aunt's dusty spare bedroom and defeat.

The next morning, at a local repair shop, the mechanic tells me the car's engine is going - camshaft, piston rings, cylinders - everything.

"You're not planning on making any road trips in this, are you?" he asks.

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