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“For me, downtown was normal,” says Bolles, who came here from New York City. “The buses, the grime — it was more normal to me than, say, Westwood. That’s a foreign concept to me — security guards and pool boys? That I don’t understand.”
Though the boundaries of normal were often pushed. One night when Bolles had invited a friend over, and they sat on her living room couch sipping wine and catching up, a giant fireball of red and orange light exploded without warning in front of her seven-foot-tall window, filling the loft with heat. A movie was being filmed in the alley. Film crews still shoot in the alley now and again, but with more people living downtown, full-on pyrotechnics have become harder to pull off.
There were loftwide parties every few months, where residents invited friends and sometimes close to a thousand people hopped through the building in a single evening. Some of them were still there the next day. The neighbors rode their bikes down to Al’s Bar, the local crusty punk club, or went on pizza runs. If you needed to bum a cigarette, even at 2 in the morning, you could find someone in the building, door open, awake and painting. The shared bathrooms and showers were not an inconvenience but another chance for community. Though most times it was peaceful, that community was not without drama. Particularly when it came to romances.
“Oh, my god,” declares Bolles, “it’s a crisis when somebody in this building breaks up. You wouldn’t believe it. There have been breakups where the whole building was involved. You’ll know because the chalkboard will have a big note on it: ‘Do not let him in the building!’?” The chalkboard is sort of the MySpace of the Canadian, a rectangular slate at the landing of the main staircase. Often, passive-agressive anonymous word wars are carried out in multicolored chalk.
And if there was drama inside, it didn’t compare to the performances going on nightly among the homeless outside Bolles’ door. Grown men clucked like chickens, puffing up their chests, winning imaginary arguments. Women who were worse for wear, toothless, with bad skin and matted hair sashayed down the street as if they were Gisele Bundchen. Artists generally have a live-and-let-live ethos, and Bolles didn’t view the people on the sidewalk outside the building as something to fear, get rid of, or even feel sorry for; they were merely participants in the street theater.
“It was almost performance art,” Bolles says. “People knew they were performing. They were trying to climb street poles, the most outrageous things. We called it ‘the nightly entertainment.’?”
Fridgeir moved from Iceland (he went to high school with Björk) in 1986. He briefly settled with his mother in Pacoima, but the pair left for downtown a year later. Fridgeir was 20 and not really sure what he wanted to do with his life yet, so he followed his fashion-designer mother, Stella, to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse off of Santa Fe Avenue, which cost about $800 a month at the time. That was back when Al’s Bar was really happening, when the first wave of artists ran around downtown before real estate speculation priced them out and galleries started moving west, when life down there consisted mostly of parties and underground gallery openings — when Danny Elfman occupied an entire floor of the Canadian.
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.”