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It’s 6 a.m. and a quiet throng has gathered at the corner of Los Angeles and Fifth streets. They’re outside King Eddy Saloon, an unapologetic pocket of reality in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying downtown. At 6:01 a.m. the bartender unlocks the front door, and the regulars assume their seats around the large square bar, as they have done since the dawn of the King Eddy.
Today’s bunch of drinkers include a leathery-faced lady with lockjaw and fingerless gloves, a gray-suited man with glassy eyes, and an ancient Frenchman who forcefully kisses my hand and begs to know how long I will stay.
“I just want to look at you for a little while,” he explains. He’s a resident of one of the downtown homeless missions.
The bartender, a matronly Latina with thin penciled eyebrows, checks bank notes with a UV scanner and starts pouring drinks while the patrons gaze silently at one of the many televisions in the bar. Currently playing: the Christie Brinkley workout video.
Breakfast is available — an egg is 25 cents, a bowl of chili is $2.75, and biscuits, sausage and hash browns not much more than that — but no one seems interested in ordering food this morning. Why would they, when house cocktails are $2.50, and a pitcher of beer $8?
The bar, part of the landmarked King Edward Hotel, is more than 115 years old — it’s rumored that when Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the King Edward during his presidency, he’d sneak down to the King Eddy for a drink. But despite its age, King Eddy keeps up with the times. There’s even a King Eddy MySpace page, with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as its theme song. “So you think you can tell heaven from hell?” sings David Gilmour over and over again on the page. After a few hours inside the King Eddy, I’m not sure I can tell anymore. The décor is sports-bar bright and depressing. Paintings of nude brunettes line the walls. Miller- and Coors-branded Tiffany-style lampshades hang from the ceiling. There’s a mini Budweiser Blimp floating in the corner and eight nodding dog heads on a shelf above the cash register.
An Armenian gentleman called Caren sits in the bar’s smoking patio, reading the L.A. Times and shaking his head. He’s looking at a story about how downtown loft developers are failing to create enough affordable units for middle-class people.
“$1,700 a month for rent,” he mutters. He’s been coming to the King Eddy for 10 years, and gentrification, he says, is just the latest in a series of challenges faced by the bar and other downtown dives like it.
First there was Prohibition, during which the King Eddy’s owners operated a speakeasy downstairs, with a full bar and a dance floor. It was connected to other basement speakeasies around downtown through an intricate series of underground tunnels. The next headache came during the 1970s, when all the Skid Row alcoholics began spending their money on crack.
“There used to be 18 bars around Main Street — most of them closed down because of crack,” says Caren mournfully, and you get the feeling he has this conversation every day.
He tells us about the Ralphs being built on Ninth and Hope streets, about how Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are still too scared to come downtown, but that there is a Food4Less on 55th Street. The area around King Eddy is in such deep transition that you can’t help wondering how long things will stay the same. And yet, except for the gently rising price of a drink, things often do stay the same at the King Eddy.
Caren talks for a while longer, because that’s what people do at King Eddy’s — they tell you their stories. They’ll even buy you a drink, and not always because they want to sleep with you. Alternatively, they might insult you — and that, depending on your viewpoint, is half the fun.