They congregate in Room 114, a suite that belongs to Abdullah, a 32-year-old native of Mali who comes to Los Angeles for "a month at a time, to do business." A steady flow of men enter and exit the room day and night, carrying pieces of West African art, mostly wooden statues of pregnant women and animal gods. Though the art looks expensive, Abdullah insists it is not. "It’s not old," he says in a thick, sing song accent. "Maybe the most goes for $1,600." He points to a 7-foot "mask" covered with red and green felt, gold sequins and cowrie shells standing sentry beside the bed. At a nearby table, six men drink Cokes and discuss the business of the day in French and various African languages as Notorious B.I.G. plays on a boom box and the local news flickers silently on TV. "We stay here because it is a deluxe hotel and a good place to congregate," says Abdullah. "It’s very central, and most of the dealers, they come here, to the room." "They come because they like me," says Ahmed. He has a cherubic face, which Abdullah says is typical of the Itni ("He looks like a baby, but he is 10 years older than me!"), with extremely dark skin marred only by a golf-ball-size scar in the middle of his forehead. "I used to own Timbuktu BBQ, on La Brea and Jefferson," says Ahmed. "That was burned during the riots. Now I deal in art, do a little business. Hey, settle down!" He’s calling to the kids squealing around by the pool, one of whom is his daughter. Omar, a tall, lean, handsome man who is outside painting a Congolese stool called a dengezewith wood stain, picks up a child’s toy megaphone and calls to his wife, directly across the courtyard. She walks out of Room 128 with a five-month-old on her fleshy hip, dumps a bag of dirty diapers in the trash by the pool and tells the kids to come in for supper. At 7:20 p.m., the manager turns on the Saharan’s pink-and-blue neon sign, and serenity settles over the motel. The only sound is the shutter of a photographer doing lighting studies for a Nicolas Cage movie that will begin filming here in several weeks.
"Get the sun while you can," John says, his skin the color of uncooked flank steak. It’s 10 a.m., and he’s sitting by the pool passing around his "press book": "John C., b. Marion, North Carolina, 3/11/45. Since March 1993, John has dedicated his life to the pursuit of his visions. He has resolved himself to the fact that he cannot manipulate or control the images that are within him . . . the paintings of John C. celebrate the essence of life." And the end quote: "Since I was very young, I could always see beyond what other people could see." The large book includes 100 color Xeroxes of facile abstracts shot through with vivid primary colors, which is something of a surprise, considering the circumstances that spurred them. "My wife was murdered during a robbery six years ago in Houston," John says, betraying no emotion. "They took $3,700 and shot her 12 times with a pistol. At the time, I had the largest wooden-pallet business in Texas, but I sold it. In five years, I went from having homes in Houston and Carmel and Jamaica to living in my car. After I scattered my wife’s ashes, I began painting. I’d never painted in my life, then I painted 800 pictures in two years. "I came here in 1996. I’d been out here in the early ’60s, to be an actor and a stuntman, but got sidetracked. I had an accident that left me paralyzed for six months, then I flipped hamburgers up the street at All-American Burger, went to hairdressing school, traveled. I told myself that, in my old age, I’d come back. In 1996, I was sleeping in the parking lot at Denny’s across the street. I’d wash up in their john, get my 99-cent breakfast, then try to sell my paintings on the street, but the cops would chase me away. I parked up on Mulholland and Coldwater and sold $16,000 worth of paintings in eight days. Then I went to Vegas and blew it all in two. I came back, started driving trucks for the movies and got enough money to move in here." John lolls over on his side, sweat rolling down his big belly and from his close-cropped beard. It’s clear he is comfortable wallowing in the limbo between tragedy and transformation, that he considers what he’s been through a writ of exoneration from enterprise. "I had an art show in Carmel once, at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch. He didn’t buy any, though. He wasn’t there. Now, I’m mostly doing acting. I shave my head every day. It gives me that bad-guy character look. I was on Seinfeld, in a jailhouse scene when George and them were being booked for bootlegging videotapes. I was the guy getting arrested. Jerry Stiller requested to have his picture taken with me afterwards. I wanted to send him one of my paintings, but I never got around to it. But I can say I was on the biggest TV show ever." He opens the first of what will prove many Miller Lites. "Up until three weeks ago, I was drinking a gallon and a half of scotch a week. It was getting expensive, since I’m not really working. I’m not really painting anymore, either. I only painted eight pictures last year, and none this year, just my car," a 1989 Buick Century irresolutely plastered with fabric and house paint. "I don’t want my wife’s insurance money — that’s blood money — so now I just stay broke all the time. Sometimes I do transportation, or extra work, but I don’t feel like pursuing either of them. I’d rather lie here in the sun and soak up energy. It’s the closest I can get to being nude without being arrested. "I’ll stay here until something breaks, or I win the lottery. I won $85 last night, then loaned it to a casting-agent buddy of mine. He’s going to put me in a Bud commercial next month. I’d like to get a big commercial, collect residuals, and lay back and paint. And sunbathe. You could say I’m waiting for some miracle to happen." The Lobby:
The Day Manager The lobby always smells like burnt coffee, and features a kiosk with pamphlets for the Guinness World of Records, the Hollywood Wax Museum and Camarillo Premium Outlets, as well as a half-dozen takeout menus. Bashir Ahmed, whom everyone calls Bob, sits behind the sliding glass reception window. A native of Bangladesh, Bob, 33, has been the day manager of the Saharan for 10 years. "John, he’s crazy. He lies so people can see him on the street. He tells me it’s because he is a nudist. Sometimes people complain, and I tell him he has to cover up a little. But he lies there every day, he doesn’t work. He tells me he lives on his wife’s insurance. He’s been here three years. "The hotel change a lot since I start to work here. Used to be too many junkies, prostitutes, troublemakers. Now it’s quieter. Did you see any bad girls here? No. We control it. They come always, but we tell them we’re full. If I rent to them, you wouldn’t be here. Oh, it happens sometimes. At night, you have a guy driving a Porsche, he gets a room and comes back with his company. What are you going to do? But I can spot drug dealers from experience. Don’t think I’m a psychic, but 90 percent of the time, I am correct. Sometimes, I find strange people sitting in the yard. If you are tired, welcome, have a seat. But if you have a bad intention, I’m going to use my baseball bat." Bob leafs through registration cards. "Sweden, Australia, Paris . . . oh, Hollywood. But we have mostly tourists. How long they rent depends. We have to lose good guests if we have bad people, so I watch them, then decide how long they can stay. Some stay a very long time. We had two mental patients, now in prison. They were a couple, they said they were Jewish, but I don’t know what kind. When they checked in, they were nice people. But they went crazy, and he started writing letters to Clinton and Rabin and God. He wears a robe and has a bald head — but if your hair is 10 feet long, what should I do? It’s their business. But they keep putting the Torah in everyone’s face all day. And he has a diary with all the phone numbers and addresses for the government and home minister. After four years, I put him on eviction, and he writes me a letter saying, ‘I hope someone in your family gets sick and dies.’ "We have lots of people who want to be in the movies. Some people disappear. I had one pretty girl named Carrie, from Canada, and everyone trying to take advantage of her, and she was crying from that. It’s bad. She would tell me, they give her a script, and tell her she can do the role if she does sex with them. She went back to Canada." He lays out some Polaroids of a Mercedes in the pool. "It was a criminal lawyer who used to stay here with a little poodle. One morning, he was drunk and puts his car in reverse and backs into the pool. "We find a lot of stuff in the rooms. We find iguanas, money, one time four pounds of marijuana. And the cops tell me it’s good stuff. My friends ask me why I don’t keep and sell it, but then maybe I get arrested. And we find two bodies, both suicides. One was a young guy from Switzerland. He was a nice, smart guy. He had a laptop and an Alfa Romeo. He hanged himself with a belt, but when I hear this, I think, the room is not big enough to hang. If you want to hang, you need 10- or 12-feet ceilings. The room is not that big. The other was an old guy. He overdosed. He left a note, ‘No one is responsible for my death.’"