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40 Bucks and a Dream 

The lives of a Hollywood motel

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
The first thing one sees upon checking into the Saharan Motor Hotel is a man’s naked butt. He’s lying on his stomach by the pool, shaved head glistening with sweat above a hairy back. Another angle reveals he is wearing a black thong, hiked as high as anatomical constraints allow, which may be why the only other sunbather, an underdeveloped, fair-haired chap, has moved his plastic chaise as far away as possible, turning it every 15 minutes for maximum UV exposure. A tall, thin blond in a yellow bikini daintily dips a toe into the unheated water, and three West African children rollerblade around the courtyard as their fathers, wearing well-cut suits and the occasional dashiki, ferry tribal statuary between rooms. An aged man stands in the shadow of the balcony, silently moving his lips as he smokes cigarette after cigarette. A woman cries softly behind a door on the first floor, an elegiac strain amidst the muffled, tinny sound of televisions from various rooms, human babble thrumming beneath the drone of traffic on Sunset Boulevard.

It is a universal of the motel, any motel anywhere, that when you close your door, it’s just you and your TV and a Gideon bible. But there are no Bibles in the bedside tables at the Saharan. This is not because the residents don’t have faith — they do, in blind abundance — but because, in this city, Hollywood trumps God. Here, travelers don’t simply stop to sleep, they come to dream, to chase the ambitions their hometowns can’t accommodate or won’t tolerate. Their stays are prompted by desire and desperation — for salvation and escape, for the ultimate arena in which to re-create themselves, or to assure their Big Lies eternal lives. If they believe unequivocally in the power of the City of Dreams, anything and everything might be waiting right outside the door.

Besides clean sheets and cabs at the curb, the Saharan offers nothing in the way of encouragement, but neither does it pass judgment. It casts a steady eye on the quiet successes, the malingering failures, the starlets and the suicides. It well knows — even when its residents don’t — that this town’s sine qua non is illusion, and that it is sustained by their hunger for fame, transformation, flight. It also knows — as most of it residents eventually do — that giving up on the illusion is an existential as well as civic betrayal: If you give up, you must go home.

And so they stay. Whether it’s a weekend inhaling stardust at Mann’s Chinese or months in monastic contemplation of a 10-by-12 ceiling, conviction in the illusion can be bought cheap. All one needs to do is pay the tab and play the part.

Room 222:
The Cuckold

Andy, 44, is so thin, his tan is the only superfluity. Elfin and ginger-haired, he lies by the pool every day until 4 o’clock, when he retires to his room for tea, a constitutional holdover from his home in the county of Yorkshire, where he works as a plumber. Still in his navy swimming trunks (which he admits, with some embarrassment, are actually men’s briefs), he offers a "biscuit" (an oatmeal cookie) and a Styrofoam cup of coffee from the lobby.

"I came here to get as far away as possible from a situation at home," he says softly, flashing his wedding band. "I booked a flight to L.A., arranged to stay for three months. I didn’t know anyone, had no plans, just got off the plane and told the driver to bring me somewhere."

He nervously moves his coffee cup back and forth over the Formica "wood" table by the window overlooking the pool. His room smells like freesia, and is pristinely tidy, with only a Bon Jovi songbook lying open on the bed.

"I bought myself a guitar down the street. I haven’t played in years, but . . . I came here thinking it would be easy to talk to people, and it hasn’t been. People are really frightened to speak to each other. They’re not true Americans — those live in the suburbs, eh? My biggest impression of Hollywood is, there’s so much aggression that everyone is deathly afraid to speak to one another. I walked up to a fella, to ask him where the Beverly Shopping Center was, and he backed away, he wanted to get in his car as fast as he could. Back home, people say, ‘Good morning.’"

He sits in silence, listening to KOST 103 playing, as all radio stations do at the Saharan, through the mounted TV. When Celine Dion comes on singing "The Heart Will Go On," Andy gets misty.

"This is the hard part, especially on Sundays, when they play the love songs. Some days I think I’ll make it, and others, I don’t know. The only person to say hello to me is the manager."

He pulls out pictures of his family: a pretty wife and two chubby daughters shielding their eyes from the sun.

"This is when we were on holiday in Greece. It’s been eight weeks, one day and five hours since I spoke to them. It’s hard, very hard. But if I’d have stayed at home, I wouldn’t be alive. I took an overdose. Twice. I feel as though I’ll lose everything I worked for in my life if I lose my family. And I’ve lost them. I think. I hope I haven’t. I know she’s seeing another man.

"I didn’t think I wanted to be on this Earth, you understand? I spent Christmas Day alone. I had three cookies and a lot of beer. I spent New Year’s Eve by myself. It got to be about 11 p.m., and I thought, I can’t see New Year’s Eve. I took some sleeping tablets. I was found, fortunately, but when I was gone, it was very peaceful. I didn’t see myself floating or anything, I just felt this overwhelming relief.

"I tried it again a week later. My older daughter found me the first time, and that was an awful thing. The second time, I booked into a hotel. Then I went to a pub and began drinking. I must have gone to 10 pubs. I went back to the room and started taking pills, and about this time, all my brothers start phoning me on my mobile phone, trying to get to me. Then my wife, Di, called. I was a mess at this point, and she got me to tell her where I was before I collapsed. The police and an ambulance rushed me to the hospital again."

Andy drinks what’s left in his Styrofoam cup and places it about a foot away from a nonspecific point on the table.

"I felt like, this was the Earth [the cup], and this was me [the point]. I was out there, and I didn’t know how to get back. I didn’t just have to get out of the situation, I had to get out of my life, someplace alien, like the moon, like L.A. I thought, if I do this, I’m going to survive.

"I’ve made the hotel my home, and I’m happy here. I feel secure within the courtyard, but I know as soon as I get outside, it’s different. It’s a totally different world from where I’m from. I never lock the door at home. Here, I bolt it, shut the curtains. I won’t go out at night. I don’t even go for a meal. I go to the Ralphs market while it’s still light, get a roll and some salad, a couple of beers, then lock the door and eat in here watching TV.

"Oh, but I did watch the L.A. Marathon, over by the corner near Mann’s Chinese. So many people running, and this Mexican band playing, and up above . . . I’ve never seen so many helicopters, and airships, and a plane making question marks in the sky. And people giving away free cans of pop. I got this."

He walks to the bathroom and brings back a sample packet of a topical analgesic called Stop Pain.

"And the crazy way people dress! I’ve seen people walking along that are just amazing. How they have the nerve! I’d love to be brave, to have their courage."

Andy holds his breath, as if he’s realizing something of cumulative importance.

"I feel, if I go back, I’m going to do it. I’m going to have courage and be comfortable with it. I’m going to make some people — or one special person — think that maybe I’ve changed. Then maybe she’ll want to speak to me."

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