Devil's Night

The third of a mile between my office and the Hollywood YMCA is a mundane walk. The most notable structure is the Church of Scientology’s Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which houses the museum exhibit “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.” Other than that, you pass some shabby storefronts, a check-cashing concern and the usual smattering of odd nighttime Hollywood characters.

But a few nights before Halloween last year, as a friend and I started the two-block walk down Sunset to Schrader Boulevard, things started to get odd. First we came upon a group of guys standing outside their white van and urinating onto Las Palmas Avenue. Public urination wasn’t new to either of us, so we walked on without giving it a second thought.

We easily made our way through what seemed like a festive, late-October atmosphere with heavy traffic on Sunset and an assortment of costumed pedestrians, until we came to a police car parked on Schrader, blocking the intersection. Thinking a cop had pulled someone over, we turned the corner.

“Hey,” shouted a police officer. “Where do you guys think you’re going?”

“The gym?”

“No, you’re not.”

“We’re not?”

“Nope. The gym is closed, and you’re not going down that street.”

Puzzled but agreeable to not antagonizing an L.A. cop, we turned back down Sunset and came to rest at the 6565 Sunset building. My friend Mike sat on a ledge while I called the Y.

“Are you guys closed tonight?”

“No, but there was an armed robbery in the neighborhood, and we’re on lockdown. No one can leave and no one can come in.”

We had two choices: We could walk back down Sunset, to where the bad man with the gun might be hiding; or we could hang out for a minute within the protective shooting distance of the constable.

It was at this in-between point where new details started to reveal themselves: A police helicopter did tight circles around the area and shined its powerful searchlight down below. The light illuminated other police cars parked around the neighborhood, establishing a perimeter for the perp. Suddenly the milieu walking up and down the street seemed more bizarre and sinister than usual: It was difficult to discern who was dressed for a Halloween party and who was just a regular in Hollywood’s night army.

Without warning, we had slipped into Hollywood’s own Devil’s Night. That’s what we used to call the period leading up to Halloween back in Michigan because of some Detroiters’ predilection for arson during that time. Mike and I thought that we’d left Devil’s Night behind dozens of years and thousands of miles ago, but Hollywood had other ideas.

Out of this inky tableau, a figure materialized and stood next to me. He was tall, and a sheen of sweat covered his bald dome and the rest of his body. His cheap tank top revealed muscular arms covered with tattoos. He held a loose bunch of crumpled dollar bills.

“I’m a dope dealer,” he said. “I need to stand next to you guys while I organize my roll so it looks natural for the cops.”

“Ah, ha-ha . . . ”

“So what’re you guys up to tonight?”

“Oh, nothing much . . .”

At that, the dealer issued a sharp, maniacal laugh that nearly had me jumping out of my shoes. As he organized his roll of dollars, his body twitched, causing me to flinch, which I desperately hoped would not send him reaching for either a weapon or my throat. Mike — who at the time was taking karate lessons — considered how his sitting position wasn’t remotely beneficial to any of his new martial-arts moves. This thought didn’t comfort me when he told me about it later.

In the middle of all this, as various costumed freaks continued to parade up and down Sunset, I watched through the glass as a man led a gaggle of leggy models through the fluorescent-lit lobby of 6565 Sunset. Just as the man and his beauties disappeared into an elevator, the dealer finished his task.

“Okay, you guys wanna go get a drink?”

“No, no thanks.”

At that, he stuffed the roll into his pocket and lurched down the street, past the cop and into the river of weirdness that flowed alongside the heavy auto traffic. Mike and I took off in the other direction, to the relative safety of a dark parking lot holding our cars and the devil knows what else.

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