By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Six months ago, Fridgeir moved in with Susan Bolles (see “The Expat”). They met at the Banquette, kind of like the neighborhood Central Perk. Sitting in his well-lit, gallery-like loft, he pushes his wire-frame glasses back up his nose and gets kind of excited talking about the old days. “We felt like pirates,” he says. “We did our thing in 1989, then the rents went up and the artists moved to Silver Lake or Echo Park.”
Fridgeir went to New Orleans to learn how to be a chef, thinking he had finally found his calling. He worked there for 14 years. But life began to unravel for him. “I like drugs and I like alcohol,” Fridgeir says candidly. “I got more and more caught up in it. As a chef, it was socially acceptable for me to drink, so I started drinking more and more, until it all crumbled and I came to L.A. to get sober.”
Los Angeles didn’t prove to be the kind of rehab Fridgeir needed, at least not right away. He ended up on Skid Row, on San Julian and Sixth streets, living in a cardboard box, living only to drink. “I drank alcohol like people smoked crack,” Fridgeir says. “My only thought was where will I get my next drink from.”
When he finally hit rock bottom, he went to the Midnight Mission. “I crawled into the mission,” he says. “I was almost dead.” He came back every day for three weeks to see if a cot had opened and waited for hours in a room with 300 people, watching an endless rotation of Chuck Norris movies. Ironically, the room was called the Reading Room.
He finally got in, and at 8 every night he and his 150 roommates pulled their cots out and went to sleep. Slowly, by demonstrating his commitment to staying sober, Fridgeir worked his way upstairs to the bunks. “And when I got a bunk, I felt like I was really moving up in the world,” he says with a smile.
Fridgeir got a job that paid $2 an hour, working in the mission kitchen. “It was a start,” he says. “I remember when I got that first paycheck, I realized how long it had been since I’d had money to see a movie. That was major.” He went to The Aviator.
He lived at the mission for a year and a half and decided to go to film school, winning a full scholarship to LACC. But it was during a prerequisite photography class that Fridgeir discovered the passion and serenity he was looking for.
To support his new love for photography, he got a part-time job as a personal chef to some bigwigs in Venice and moved to the Rosslyn Hotel, an SRO where, until six months ago, he was renting a room for $300 a month. The hotel was 700 rooms of crack, heroin and insane drinking.
“It was hardcore Bukowski,” says Fridgeir, who's been sober for three years now. But a cheap pad allowed him to concentrate on his art. “But not to concentrate on it as a means to a paycheck,” he says. “Making money is what I do to pay the rent; it’s not my driving force.” He pauses and then jokes, “That’s not very L.A. of me.”
Settled in now with Bolles, he’s been shooting downtown landscapes, a series of 4-by-5 images of lonely and forgotten buildings and areas downtown that he shoots in a palette of grays, of light and shadow. Life at the Canadian now is calming, filled with little luxuries, such as being able to cook at home in his own spacious kitchen. He’ll leave the door open when he cooks, allowing the aromas to circulate through the halls, and generously feeds anyone who shows up at his door. Any inconveniences he’s encountered at the Canadian, like the shared bathrooms or the lack of heat in winter, is a drop in the bucket compared to where he’s been.
“When I lived downtown here in the ’80s,” Fridgeir says, “I saw the homeless guys and I thought, I’m never gonna be that. That’s never gonna happen to me. Being homeless gave me a totally different perspective. Anything that comes after that you feel grateful for. It humbles you for the rest of your life.”
Brian “Hacksaw” Williams is a heavy-metal vocal coach at the Musicians Institute and the lead singer of the band Damn Hippie Freaks. Looking a little like Meat Loaf and possessing the raspy sound of someone who regularly abuses his vocal chords, he fits the part. In between sips of his Heinekin — ’cause, hey, he’s on vacation — Hacksaw speaks in bullet points about life at the Canadian.
“I came for two reasons,” he says. “The cheap rent, and I could play music as loud as I want.”
When he picked his loft, the rest of the building thought he was nuts or joking. In the 1980s that loft belonged to a famous architect who built structures inside the space, including three little houses with a gravel moat running alongside them connected by a bridge made of iron grating. The space appeared in a book published at the time called The International Book of Lofts. But by the time Hacksaw got to it a decade later, the loft was caked with soot and grime, the little houses’ floors had started to come up and, what’s worse, he couldn’t vacuum or sweep the years of dirt out of the rock moat.