Exiles On Main Street | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Exiles On Main Street 

Portraits of downtown's endangered artists. Case study: The Canadian Building

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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Page 8 of 11

“Most of them tend to be older, but when he came up, he reeked of crack. He sat on the drums and he was John Bonham. He’s high and once he’s wound up he can’t stop. After a while, it’s this barrage of drums. I’m playing guitar and my other friend is playing bass, but we can’t keep up. .?.?. He was so good, I invited him back the next week.”

Wagner doesn’t see Nicholas around anymore. “I knew something was happening when Pete’s went in,” he says. To him, Pete’s Cafe seemed like the yuppies’ Maginot line. “They were going into defense mode.”

Recently he got some complaints about the noise. “I had the cops call me a couple of times,” he says. “One time, it was because someone was screaming on the mike and the windows were up. I try to be polite as possible, but those buildings didn’t have anyone in them before, and I was doing this for years before anyone came. It’s not like I’m going to change. I don’t even know them.”

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The Orphan

In an Illinois cornfield, getting burned under the morning sun, 14-year-old Aileen Duke would dream of Hollywood as she pulled the top tassels from the cornstalks so that the females could fertilize the males.

“I always thought I was a big fish in a really small pond,” she says. “I always longed for the glitter. I thought I’d find it here.”

She made it to L.A., by way of Tempe, Arizona, where her family moved when Duke was in high school. In Tempe, Duke had her eyebrows, lips and nose pierced, and even got her first tattoo, a star. She decided every time she lived somewhere new, some place farther from Illinois, she’d get another star. She wanted to be a walking constellation.

She remembers her first drive in from Arizona as a 17-year-old with big ideas. “My eyes were as wide as saucers that day,” says Duke, a curvy blonde with a touch of trailer park. You can see the milk-fed wholesomeness under all the makeup and face piercings. But in L.A., she and her friend Casey got kicked out of student housing while attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Duke had nowhere to go when a girl she knew from school invited her to share her space at the San Fernando. They got another roommate off of Craigslist, a guy who listened to Bob Marley all day and started to smoke crack.

One day, while she and Casey were watching TV, the roommate came in, unplugged the set right in front of them, and pawned it for crack money. When their lease wasn’t renewed, Duke and Casey were left with nowhere to go except the Cecil, another notorious, drug- and prostitution-plagued SRO.

“We paid extra to have our own bathroom,” says Duke, “and there were many nights where I curled up at the bottom of that shower crying.”

The rule back in those days was that you had to leave an SRO after a month, so when their time was up, the girls carried their stuff in FIDM duffels and plastic garbage bags and moved into the Rosslyn, still another SRO. “Because we had no fuckin’ other thing to do,” says Duke.

One night, when Duke had been up for three days on a meth bender — explained away as a combination of college experimentation and easy access — she thought she had begun to hallucinate while doing her homework. The walls were crawling with cockroaches. Duke realized that it wasn’t lack of sleep causing this vision, but that a steady stream of roaches was streaming out of cracks in the windows and crown molding. She knew she had to get out of there.

In March 2005, she met a 25-year-old girl named Krista who lived with a friend at the Canadian. Krista offered Duke her place since she was always at her boyfriend’s. “I idolized her,” says Duke. “She took me in, ’cause she was made of fashion-design blood also. I thought she was wonderful.” Before long, Krista got married and wanted Duke out. She told her so by emptying the fridge of all of Duke’s produce, and scrawling, “God protect me from my friends. I can take care of my enemies,” across the kitchen wall. But in the end, Krista left, leaving Duke with the loft.

That was the same year Duke started working for Trashy Lingerie, just a month before she was to graduate from FIDM. She was helping a girl named Winter Rosebud, who is also a good friend of Liz McGrath’s (see “Lady McGrath”), make pirate hats for Halloween costumes and do odds and ends. On Halloween, the owners of Trashy Lingerie asked Duke to start designing for the company. Duke was so happy she cried.

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