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Sanctuary 

Days and nights at the King Edward Saloon

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
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Photos by Virginia Lee Hunter

FRIDAY, 2 P.M.

LOS ANGELES AND FIFTH. SHOPPERS, six deep on the sidewalk, cramming in and out of discount clothing, toy and tool shops, bumping past roast-corn vendors and the indigent, who offer to watch parked cars for a little something, anything at all. Buses and cars and baby strollers race to beat the light, delivery trucks jam up the alley and lay on their horns, people yell and push -- so much humanity, too much movement.

Tune out the picture, turn off the sound. Head into the King Edward Saloon, situated beneath the 110-year-old landmark hotel-turned-SRO the King Edward. Except for the seven muted televisions showing old movies, and a little Roy Orbison on the jukebox, King Eddy's is quiet. The weak light coming through the windows makes it hard to see people's faces. Slowly, one side of the long bar comes into relief. A dozen men, drinking alone or in pairs, sit so silent and so still they could be made of wax. There's a bodybuilder gone to fat, a loose tank top showing what were his pecs; a thin African in a dusty blue blazer; a few truckers; a handful of men over 60 with dust-bowl faces, sunken cheeks and thousand-yard stares. Take a seat at the other side of the bar, where a livelier group, who look as though they might have a few bucks in their pockets, discuss the political situation. Look to the short end of the bar, where a 50-year-old woman with a blond bob and the leathery complexion of someone who drinks steadily is animatedly making a point.

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"Let me tell you something," she says, getting off her stool and gesturing broadly to her drinking companion, a portly man who looks amused by her vigor.

Catch the attention of the bartender, Jim Hill, who has a Mephistophelean goatee and twinkly eyes.

"Always happy to see a pretty lady," Jim says, setting up a shot of tequila and a beer back. Two bucks.

"That's on me," says a 70-year-old gentleman, making it known he appreciates the company. It's nice to have someone new to tell his story to.

"I live down here now, see," the gentleman says. He means upstairs, in the King Edward, where a room with a bath runs $266 a month. "I worked 40 years, I had a wife. A couple of years ago, she gives me the 'It's the bottle or me' ultimatum," he says, signaling for another round, letting his hand wander over his new friend's shoulder. "Actually, what she said was, I could stay if I just kept drinking beer."

He picks up his glass of bourbon and smiles into it. "I made my choice. The house is paid for, she's got a good life, and I have what I want."

Another round appears, and another, too many to keep up with, flying from all sides of the bar. Any woman under 45 cannot buy her own drink at King Eddy's; she could have a hair growing out of the end of her nose and still be cause for celebration.

"It's good to see you. Haven't seen you in a while," says J.J., a small, dark man who looks as though he'd like to dance to the Harry James tune that's just come on. J.J.'s 55 if he's a day, he's alone, he has nothing to lose. "Yes. I want you so much."

Try to make it to the bathroom, at the far, dark end of the room, where a group of regulars who don't appear to speak English sit for hours at a stretch. On the bar in front of them is the key to the ladies' room, attached to a wooden dowel. One of them hands off the key as soon as a woman in need appears. It's a generous, wordless gesture, transacted with the winks and smiles and little laughs that, to the inebriated, speak volumes.

Exit the bathroom. "You don't love me anymore," says J.J., looking dejected. A middle-aged woman near him suggests a comeback to that particular line.

"When someone says that to you, say, 'I don't love you any less,'" she says. Her voice is sandy. It's a good line.

"At least I'm good for something," she says.

Go back to the well-lit side of the bar. Continue a conversation with bartender Jim, who lives upstairs but is originally from Texas, and has a few choice words about the Bush boys, "whose daddy bailed them out of everything they ever done." Two minutes later, the advice lady is back. One eye and cheek are puffed up and tender, and a tube pokes from beneath the bandages around her throat.

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