The first thing one sees upon checking into the Saharan Motor Hotel is a man’s naked butt. He’s lying on his stomach by the pool, shaved head glistening with sweat above a hairy back. Another angle reveals he is wearing a black thong, hiked as high as anatomical constraints allow, which may be why the only other sunbather, an underdeveloped, fair-haired chap, has moved his plastic chaise as far away as possible, turning it every 15 minutes for maximum UV exposure. A tall, thin blond in a yellow bikini daintily dips a toe into the unheated water, and three West African children rollerblade around the courtyard as their fathers, wearing well-cut suits and the occasional dashiki, ferry tribal statuary between rooms. An aged man stands in the shadow of the balcony, silently moving his lips as he smokes cigarette after cigarette. A woman cries softly behind a door on the first floor, an elegiac strain amidst the muffled, tinny sound of televisions from various rooms, human babble thrumming beneath the drone of traffic on Sunset Boulevard.
It is a universal of the motel, any motel anywhere, that when you close your door, it’s just you and your TV and a Gideon bible. But there are no Bibles in the bedside tables at the Saharan. This is not because the residents don’t have faith — they do, in blind abundance — but because, in this city, Hollywood trumps God. Here, travelers don’t simply stop to sleep, they come to dream, to chase the ambitions their hometowns can’t accommodate or won’t tolerate. Their stays are prompted by desire and desperation — for salvation and escape, for the ultimate arena in which to re-create themselves, or to assure their Big Lies eternal lives. If they believe unequivocally in the power of the City of Dreams, anything and everything might be waiting right outside the door.
Besides clean sheets and cabs at the curb, the Saharan offers nothing in the way of encouragement, but neither does it pass judgment. It casts a steady eye on the quiet successes, the malingering failures, the starlets and the suicides. It well knows — even when its residents don’t — that this town’s sine qua non is illusion, and that it is sustained by their hunger for fame, transformation, flight. It also knows — as most of it residents eventually do — that giving up on the illusion is an existential as well as civic betrayal: If you give up, you must go home.
And so they stay. Whether it’s a weekend inhaling stardust at Mann’s Chinese or months in monastic contemplation of a 10-by-12 ceiling, conviction in the illusion can be bought cheap. All one needs to do is pay the tab and play the part.
Andy, 44, is so thin, his tan is the only superfluity. Elfin and ginger-haired, he lies by the pool every day until 4 o’clock, when he retires to his room for tea, a constitutional holdover from his home in the county of Yorkshire, where he works as a plumber. Still in his navy swimming trunks (which he admits, with some embarrassment, are actually men’s briefs), he offers a “biscuit” (an oatmeal cookie) and a Styrofoam cup of coffee from the lobby.
“I came here to get as far away as possible from a situation at home,” he says softly, flashing his wedding band. “I booked a flight to L.A., arranged to stay for three months. I didn’t know anyone, had no plans, just got off the plane and told the driver to bring me somewhere.”
He nervously moves his coffee cup back and forth over the Formica “wood” table by the window overlooking the pool. His room smells like freesia, and is pristinely tidy, with only a Bon Jovi songbook lying open on the bed.
“I bought myself a guitar down the street. I haven’t played in years, but . . . I came here thinking it would be easy to talk to people, and it hasn’t been. People are really frightened to speak to each other. They’re not true Americans — those live in the suburbs, eh? My biggest impression of Hollywood is, there’s so much aggression that everyone is deathly afraid to speak to one another. I walked up to a fella, to ask him where the Beverly Shopping Center was, and he backed away, he wanted to get in his car as fast as he could. Back home, people say, ‘Good morning.’”
He sits in silence, listening to KOST 103 playing, as all radio stations do at the Saharan, through the mounted TV. When Celine Dion comes on singing “The Heart Will Go On,” Andy gets misty.
“This is the hard part, especially on Sundays, when they play the love songs. Some days I think I’ll make it, and others, I don’t know. The only person to say hello to me is the manager.”
He pulls out pictures of his family: a pretty wife and two chubby daughters shielding their eyes from the sun.
“This is when we were on holiday in Greece. It’s been eight weeks, one day and five hours since I spoke to them. It’s hard, very hard. But if I’d have stayed at home, I wouldn’t be alive. I took an overdose. Twice. I feel as though I’ll lose everything I worked for in my life if I lose my family. And I’ve lost them. I think. I hope I haven’t. I know she’s seeing another man.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be on this Earth, you understand? I spent Christmas Day alone. I had three cookies and a lot of beer. I spent New Year’s Eve by myself. It got to be about 11 p.m., and I thought, I can’t see New Year’s Eve. I took some sleeping tablets. I was found, fortunately, but when I was gone, it was very peaceful. I didn’t see myself floating or anything, I just felt this overwhelming relief.
“I tried it again a week later. My older daughter found me the first time, and that was an awful thing. The second time, I booked into a hotel. Then I went to a pub and began drinking. I must have gone to 10 pubs. I went back to the room and started taking pills, and about this time, all my brothers start phoning me on my mobile phone, trying to get to me. Then my wife, Di, called. I was a mess at this point, and she got me to tell her where I was before I collapsed. The police and an ambulance rushed me to the hospital again.”
Andy drinks what’s left in his Styrofoam cup and places it about a foot away from a nonspecific point on the table.
“I felt like, this was the Earth [the cup], and this was me [the point]. I was out there, and I didn’t know how to get back. I didn’t just have to get out of the situation, I had to get out of my life, someplace alien, like the moon, like L.A. I thought, if I do this, I’m going to survive.
“I’ve made the hotel my home, and I’m happy here. I feel secure within the courtyard, but I know as soon as I get outside, it’s different. It’s a totally different world from where I’m from. I never lock the door at home. Here, I bolt it, shut the curtains. I won’t go out at night. I don’t even go for a meal. I go to the Ralphs market while it’s still light, get a roll and some salad, a couple of beers, then lock the door and eat in here watching TV.
“Oh, but I did watch the L.A. Marathon, over by the corner near Mann’s Chinese. So many people running, and this Mexican band playing, and up above . . . I’ve never seen so many helicopters, and airships, and a plane making question marks in the sky. And people giving away free cans of pop. I got this.”
He walks to the bathroom and brings back a sample packet of a topical analgesic called Stop Pain.
“And the crazy way people dress! I’ve seen people walking along that are just amazing. How they have the nerve! I’d love to be brave, to have their courage.”
Andy holds his breath, as if he’s realizing something of cumulative importance.
“I feel, if I go back, I’m going to do it. I’m going to have courage and be comfortable with it. I’m going to make some people — or one special person — think that maybe I’ve changed. Then maybe she’ll want to speak to me.”
They congregate in Room 114, a suite that belongs to Abdullah, a 32-year-old native of Mali who comes to Los Angeles for “a month at a time, to do business.” A steady flow of men enter and exit the room day and night, carrying pieces of West African art, mostly wooden statues of pregnant women and animal gods. Though the art looks expensive, Abdullah insists it is not.
“It’s not old,” he says in a thick, sing song accent. “Maybe the most goes for $1,600.” He points to a 7-foot “mask” covered with red and green felt, gold sequins and cowrie shells standing sentry beside the bed. At a nearby table, six men drink Cokes and discuss the business of the day in French and various African languages as Notorious B.I.G. plays on a boom box and the local news flickers silently on TV.
“We stay here because it is a deluxe hotel and a good place to congregate,” says Abdullah. “It’s very central, and most of the dealers, they come here, to the room.”
“They come because they like me,” says Ahmed. He has a cherubic face, which Abdullah says is typical of the Itni (“He looks like a baby, but he is 10 years older than me!”), with extremely dark skin marred only by a golf-ball-size scar in the middle of his forehead.
“I used to own Timbuktu BBQ, on La Brea and Jefferson,” says Ahmed. “That was burned during the riots. Now I deal in art, do a little business. Hey, settle down!”
He’s calling to the kids squealing around by the pool, one of whom is his daughter. Omar, a tall, lean, handsome man who is outside painting a Congolese stool called a dengeze with wood stain, picks up a child’s toy megaphone and calls to his wife, directly across the courtyard. She walks out of Room 128 with a five-month-old on her fleshy hip, dumps a bag of dirty diapers in the trash by the pool and tells the kids to come in for supper.
At 7:20 p.m., the manager turns on the Saharan’s pink-and-blue neon sign, and serenity settles over the motel. The only sound is the shutter of a photographer doing lighting studies for a Nicolas Cage movie that will begin filming here in several weeks.
The Tragic Clown
“Get the sun while you can,” John says, his skin the color of uncooked flank steak. It’s 10 a.m., and he’s sitting by the pool passing around his “press book”:
“John C., b. Marion, North Carolina, 3/11/45. Since March 1993, John has dedicated his life to the pursuit of his visions. He has resolved himself to the fact that he cannot manipulate or control the images that are within him . . . the paintings of John C. celebrate the essence of life.” And the end quote: “Since I was very young, I could always see beyond what other people could see.”
The large book includes 100 color Xeroxes of facile abstracts shot through with vivid primary colors, which is something of a surprise, considering the circumstances that spurred them.
“My wife was murdered during a robbery six years ago in Houston,” John says, betraying no emotion. “They took $3,700 and shot her 12 times with a pistol. At the time, I had the largest wooden-pallet business in Texas, but I sold it. In five years, I went from having homes in Houston and Carmel and Jamaica to living in my car. After I scattered my wife’s ashes, I began painting. I’d never painted in my life, then I painted 800 pictures in two years.
“I came here in 1996. I’d been out here in the early ’60s, to be an actor and a stuntman, but got sidetracked. I had an accident that left me paralyzed for six months, then I flipped hamburgers up the street at All-American Burger, went to hairdressing school, traveled. I told myself that, in my old age, I’d come back. In 1996, I was sleeping in the parking lot at Denny’s across the street. I’d wash up in their john, get my 99-cent breakfast, then try to sell my paintings on the street, but the cops would chase me away. I parked up on Mulholland and Coldwater and sold $16,000 worth of paintings in eight days. Then I went to Vegas and blew it all in two. I came back, started driving trucks for the movies and got enough money to move in here.”
John lolls over on his side, sweat rolling down his big belly and from his close-cropped beard. It’s clear he is comfortable wallowing in the limbo between tragedy and transformation, that he considers what he’s been through a writ of exoneration from enterprise.
“I had an art show in Carmel once, at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch. He didn’t buy any, though. He wasn’t there. Now, I’m mostly doing acting. I shave my head every day. It gives me that bad-guy character look. I was on Seinfeld, in a jailhouse scene when George and them were being booked for bootlegging videotapes. I was the guy getting arrested. Jerry Stiller requested to have his picture taken with me afterwards. I wanted to send him one of my paintings, but I never got around to it. But I can say I was on the biggest TV show ever.”
He opens the first of what will prove many Miller Lites.
“Up until three weeks ago, I was drinking a gallon and a half of scotch a week. It was getting expensive, since I’m not really working. I’m not really painting anymore, either. I only painted eight pictures last year, and none this year, just my car,” a 1989 Buick Century irresolutely plastered with fabric and house paint. “I don’t want my wife’s insurance money — that’s blood money — so now I just stay broke all the time. Sometimes I do transportation, or extra work, but I don’t feel like pursuing either of them. I’d rather lie here in the sun and soak up energy. It’s the closest I can get to being nude without being arrested.
“I’ll stay here until something breaks, or I win the lottery. I won $85 last night, then loaned it to a casting-agent buddy of mine. He’s going to put me in a Bud commercial next month. I’d like to get a big commercial, collect residuals, and lay back and paint. And sunbathe. You could say I’m waiting for some miracle to happen.”
The lobby always smells like burnt coffee, and features a kiosk with pamphlets for the Guinness World of Records, the Hollywood Wax Museum and Camarillo Premium Outlets, as well as a half-dozen takeout menus. Bashir Ahmed, whom everyone calls Bob, sits behind the sliding glass reception window. A native of Bangladesh, Bob, 33, has been the day manager of the Saharan for 10 years.
“John, he’s crazy. He lies so people can see him on the street. He tells me it’s because he is a nudist. Sometimes people complain, and I tell him he has to cover up a little. But he lies there every day, he doesn’t work. He tells me he lives on his wife’s insurance. He’s been here three years.
“The hotel change a lot since I start to work here. Used to be too many junkies, prostitutes, troublemakers. Now it’s quieter. Did you see any bad girls here? No. We control it. They come always, but we tell them we’re full. If I rent to them, you wouldn’t be here. Oh, it happens sometimes. At night, you have a guy driving a Porsche, he gets a room and comes back with his company. What are you going to do? But I can spot drug dealers from experience. Don’t think I’m a psychic, but 90 percent of the time, I am correct. Sometimes, I find strange people sitting in the yard. If you are tired, welcome, have a seat. But if you have a bad intention, I’m going to use my baseball bat.”
Bob leafs through registration cards. “Sweden, Australia, Paris . . . oh, Hollywood. But we have mostly tourists. How long they rent depends. We have to lose good guests if we have bad people, so I watch them, then decide how long they can stay. Some stay a very long time. We had two mental patients, now in prison. They were a couple, they said they were Jewish, but I don’t know what kind. When they checked in, they were nice people. But they went crazy, and he started writing letters to Clinton and Rabin and God. He wears a robe and has a bald head — but if your hair is 10 feet long, what should I do? It’s their business. But they keep putting the Torah in everyone’s face all day. And he has a diary with all the phone numbers and addresses for the government and home minister. After four years, I put him on eviction, and he writes me a letter saying, ‘I hope someone in your family gets sick and dies.’
“We have lots of people who want to be in the movies. Some people disappear. I had one pretty girl named Carrie, from Canada, and everyone trying to take advantage of her, and she was crying from that. It’s bad. She would tell me, they give her a script, and tell her she can do the role if she does sex with them. She went back to Canada.”
He lays out some Polaroids of a Mercedes in the pool. “It was a criminal lawyer who used to stay here with a little poodle. One morning, he was drunk and puts his car in reverse and backs into the pool.
“We find a lot of stuff in the rooms. We find iguanas, money, one time four pounds of marijuana. And the cops tell me it’s good stuff. My friends ask me why I don’t keep and sell it, but then maybe I get arrested. And we find two bodies, both suicides. One was a young guy from Switzerland. He was a nice, smart guy. He had a laptop and an Alfa Romeo. He hanged himself with a belt, but when I hear this, I think, the room is not big enough to hang. If you want to hang, you need 10- or 12-feet ceilings. The room is not that big. The other was an old guy. He overdosed. He left a note, ‘No one is responsible for my death.’”
Unshaven and with a hangdog face, Frank, who appears to be in his 70s, nonetheless wears wonderfully natty clothes: crisp navy slacks, an expensive-looking woven-silk cardigan and well-shined tasseled loafers. He seems to be awake at all hours, chain-smoking as he does laps around the courtyard, jingling the change in his pocket and waiting for someone to give him an opening to launch into a tale about old Hollywood, and specifically Errol Flynn.
“The motion-picture business doesn’t get enough credit. Over in WWII, those boys really appreciated it. Errol Flynn, he was loved by those guys. He couldn’t go in the service himself, you know, because he had a heart murmur. When Jack Warner discovered him in London, he said Flynn was the most handsome actor he’d ever seen. He saved the studio from bankruptcy. Bank of America told them, ‘If you sign Flynn up for eight years, we’ll give you $50 million.’ They starred him in Captain Blood, and audiences around the world thought he was the most adventurous, handsome man.
“I was a kid actor at MGM. Did all the Judy Garland and the Hardy films. I did at least 150 films in the ’30s and ’40s. The last picture I did was The Real Glory. I remember being on the lot, and Errol Flynn said to me, ‘Acting is like stealing money. I get a check for $5,600 every week and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I come here and stand around with a sword in my hand.’
“I sold my house in Torrance because I like no responsibility. My wife is being taken care of in Nebraska, see, she’s an invalid. She said, ‘Frank, I don’t want to be here with you while I linger on and you being unhappy,’ so I moved here three months ago. I was married 43 years.
“I remember when I brought my wife out to Hollywood. She’d never met any movie stars, so I took her to Ciro’s, where they all would hang out, and here comes Errol Flynn, handsome, drunker than the devil. I says to him — ’cause he knows me, you know — ‘This is Donna,’ so he kisses her and says, ‘Why don’t you get rid of Frank and come with me?’ And I ask her later, would she have done it if he’d meant it? And she has to think about it, and says she guesses she would.
“If any man could ever be called a cocksman, it’s Errol Flynn. All his wives wrote that they loved him, but they knew he’d never be faithful, and he never was. It’s the rotten media that insinuated that Errol was gay. It’s an out-and-out lie. Even the bad parts, like when he was charged with rape. That girl was not a nice girl. When I saw there were women on the jury, I knew he’d get off. After he did, he gave them each a kiss.
“I saw him two months before he died, and I coulda cried. His body had shrunk, he had a face you’d never recognize from drugs and booze.”
Frank seems to deflate a bit. When he is asked about his room, it becomes clear that he’s hard of hearing.
“Oh, I will work again. I can,” he says. “It’s in your blood, see, it never goes away. Acting is really being yourself. You have to learn the facial expressions, but be yourself. There are only two great actors today, Harrison Ford and Robert De Niro. The rest are flakes. None of them could be in any movie in the old days. Dashing, tall, adventurous, handsome — back then they never left their homes not looking like movie stars, the talent departments made sure of that. I don’t want to see real people. I live in the real world.
“Hollywood used to be beautiful, yes, it was. Now, I hate to tell people this is my town, that I was born here. It really is a sad thing, when you knew a Hollywood that was the most glamorous place on Earth.”
“You cannot have a sound sleep here like you have at home,” Bob says. “Different people, the street noises, every half-hour an ambulance or police car, 2 o’clock in the morning someone with high heels on the balcony. One week, two weeks, you can tolerate. Then you have to leave. Like Mark. He leaves to go hiking every six months.”
Bob points to a door on the east side of the hotel. “He works on many TV shows, here and in Korea. Don’t think because he is staying at this hotel, he’s not upgrade. He is genius people.”
Mark, a Canadian-born animation artist and layout supervisor in his 30s, sits all day and most of the evening at his window, working on an Apple Powerbook. Handsome and husky, his appearance nevertheless belies someone who works too hard: uncombed hair, and clammy skin that doesn’t look to have seen the sun lately.
“I’ve been here six months this time,” Mark says of his latest tenure in one of the Saharan’s suites, which features a second bedroom that he uses to stash a backpack and some camping equipment. Otherwise, the place is spare, nothing unessential, with the exception, perhaps, of a Post-It stuck to the television that reads “Omnia Exeunt Mysterium,” which he says means “All things go forth in mystery.”
“Motel etiquette demands that you interact with the TV,” Mark says, mentioning a few shows on KPFK radio he thinks worthy, and offering the loan of a Gore Vidal tape. It’s clear this guy is neither delusional nor desperate, and that his being at the Saharan is in service to a higher purpose.
“I’ve been living out of a shoulder bag and backpack for 18 years, in Asia, Canada and the United States. When you have no possessions, you can work harder, because there’s less to be concerned with. If you stay in a place too long, you collect trinkets.” He points to a desk lamp and a coffee pot. “I’ll give them to the Goodwill when I leave.
“I’ve tried other places, and I can tell you, it’s the best of the bad hotels on Sunset. They’re like family here. Plus, I get a discount for teaching the owners’ kids to draw. I give them lessons twice a week, here in the room. They think cartoonists are cool. Also, the ‘no smoking’ thing gets on my nerves, and you can smoke as much as you want here. And I don’t drive. If I were stuck in the Valley, near the studios, I’d be doomed.
“It can be kind of a dodgy area, though. The first time I ever came, they were rolling out a stiff. A cop car and a coroner’s wagon were outside, and I came in asking for a room. Bob looked at the body and said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ Hookers like to camp out on the corner, there’s a drunk who drove his Mercedes into the pool. But that’s why I keep coming back: It’s a fascinating place. The neighbors are all either notorious or dramatic.”
They’d be hard to miss anywhere. Nathan, 27, is hairless, a victim of some follicular disorder; Ginger, 19, is the long, leggy blond by the pool. They met in Quebec three years ago, and come from opposite ends of Canada: Nathan from a logging community on Vancouver Island, Ginger from a fishing village in Newfoundland.
“For fun, we’d chip ice chips off the icebergs and sell it to people for their drinks,” says Ginger, opening a Zima. “It tastes so good, but it would freak our parents out, because if the icebergs melt too much they tip over and swamp you. That was the biggest thing to do up there — iceberg tipping.”
They arrived in Hollywood two days ago, having taken a bus from New York.
“Last year I was here, I stayed four months, trying to start some music and stuff,” says Nathan. “I started a band called the Children of the New Millennium. It’s just me. I have like a white robe that I wear. I wanted to have an image, because groups have to have an image to sell their stuff.”
He has a portfolio full of pictures of himself in the robe, his bald head superimposed with a corona of fire, a clay alien he sculpted hanging around his neck.
“It’s sort of like a cult thing. It’s all about image, you know? That’s why I shaved my head. Now it’s stopped growing, and the pores have closed.”
“Feel his arm. It’s so smooth,” says Ginger.
“I tell people I got picked up by aliens, and when they brought me back I didn’t have hair,” he says. “It’s good for the look, but it doesn’t have any other significance. I’m not religious or anything.”
“Except for the Raëlian Movement,” says Ginger.
“Oh, yeah, it’s this cult that believes aliens came down and created humans. I heard about it because I do market research and stuff in Montreal.”
“I believe it,” says Ginger. “I believe we came from aliens. I do. I don’t believe in God and stuff. It cracks me up that with all the science and technology, people still believe there’s some guy sitting in the clouds up there.”
“It’s easier to believe in aliens,” says Nathan. “I saw a billboard in Toronto with a big picture of an alien, saying ‘The Face of God.’ We went to a convention and bought the books. They believe in sensual meditation, that you and a partner should achieve orgasm during meditation. They’re centered in France, and their leader is Raël.”
Nathan brings out one of Raël’s books, The Final Message. The back-cover blurb explains that Raël used to be a race-car driver until he was abducted and sent back to Earth to spread the word.
“I believe in the concept, but not all their stuff,” says Nathan, “like giving 5 percent of all your earnings to them. To hell with that.”
“I’ve got some modeling job offers already,” says Ginger, who, after a little prodding, says she usually works as a stripper. “I was over at Crazy Girls last night. I was totally blown away, because in Montreal you can pick any club and just walk in. Here, you have to wait. The guy from next door [the Seventh Veil] said he’d hire me, but I didn’t like that place, it’s kind of slimy, they basically want you to put a twat in their face — sorry to put it like that. But Crazy Girls is really classy. They were doing a photo shoot there last night, and they said I could get a Monday or a Tuesday, I just had to get some shorts. Here, you’re not allowed just to wear a g-string, you gotta have shorts if there’s lap-dancing. There’s only all-nude if there’s no booze. I want a place with booze, because they get a bit more in the party spirit.
“I started dancing when I was still in school, though my family never knew it. My God, I think my father’d shoot himself. Really, I do. There’s just different levels of thinking in Newfoundland. It’s my life, you know, they don’t need to know about it. We’re happy here.”
“Oh, totally happy,” says Nathan, who, in fact, does look totally happy, his lashless eyes beaming beneath the bandanna he ties around his head. “Except she won’t let me watch her dance.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ginger says, though for the first time she seems uncomfortable with the subject. “It’d just be weird. I’ve never had anyone that I know see me in a club. It’s like I have another personality when I’m dancing. It’s like acting. This is my life, and that’s my other life, so I try not to cross them over.”
Nathan no longer seems to be listening as he flips through his book.
“You know where I got the idea for the robe? From these Jews that were evicted from here last year. They were really trippy. But I bought a white robe like theirs. They kind of inspired me.”
The New Tourists
With their charges on spring break, 20-something nannies Esme and Kim have driven down from San Francisco for a long weekend. Though both admit they’d like to “just lie around the pool and relax,” they cannot resist the bid to be good tourists, and, at noon, begin planning a day that includes Venice Beach, the Hollywood sign and Mann’s Chinese.
“We stayed at the Travel Inn yesterday, and it was a nightmare,” says Esme, a tall, slender golden girl originally from London. “First, there were bars on all the windows, and then we ran into two gals who said the cops had been there the night before. We piled all the furniture in front of the door before we went to bed.”
“The first time I came to L.A., in 1990, I stayed on Sunset, near downtown,” says Kim, a chatty fat girl with a diffuse gaze, “and three bikers tried to break in!”
“We saw this place this morning and asked him for a room, and he gave us one,” says Esme, audibly relieved. “We feel really safe here.”
“And the pool is gorgeous,” says Kim. “The other place could’ve had a body in its pool, but you wouldn’t know, because it was so dirty.”
They look dreamy as they spread open a Map of the Stars’ Homes.
“We drove by those houses in Beverly Hills yesterday and got really depressed,” says Esme, pouting. “We got very upset.”
“Jealous,” says Kim. “Well, maybe not jealous, but sick, because one block down, there’s homeless.”
“Up here, it’s money, and then, nothing!” says Esme.
They are silent for a moment as they watch Frank pace the balcony. Today he’s sporting a pair of large, dark women’s sunglasses, which give him the doomed, mysterious mien of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
“Hey!” says Esme. “We should book a whole bunch of rooms here during the summer and bring eight of our friends!”
“Yes!” Kim concurs. “We have, like, eight friends.”
“And it’s like a dorm here,” says Esme. “People hanging over the balcony, talking to each other. And I really like the palm trees.”
The Old Tourist
Bill C., 59, a portly electrician with Union Pacific who lives in Omaha, is content to pass the afternoon in a Naugahyde chair in the lobby.
“I been stayin’ here 15 years. Bob lets me stay in what room I want, and if it’s noisy, he’ll let me move. I usually stay on the back side — I like 230. It’s a double, but he lets me have it for a single. At Christmas, I come out, I bring them a railroad calendar, and they always give me a box of chocolate.
“I came in from Vegas this time, from a convention for the company. I don’t gamble, but they have all that good food — steaks, pork chops. But I’ll be damned if I’ll stand in line for an hour to eat. But this time, we had a big sit-down, with prime rib. This was Friday, and then we was all supposed to get on the plane and go home. I told my boss, ‘Make my ticket for Monday morning, I’m going to L.A.’
“I like L.A. because it’s away from everything. I come here and do nothin’. It’s away from home and away from people. Sleep ’til noon if I want to. I go out to eat. I used to go to Snow White’s coffee shop, but Russians took it over. Now I go over to the Studio. I go to that bar Coach & Horses, but it ain’t like it used to be. First time I walked in, I seen this old gray-haired guy rassling with this young gal, so I say to this guy sitting next to me, ‘What’s that old guy doing rassling that girl?’ and he laughs and tells me, ‘That’s the owner!’ His name was Bob, and he always called everyone ‘mate.’ I guess he was in the Navy. But I take it he died. Last time I stopped in there, it was packed with young people. I gather from their talk they’re working in the movie industry, or trying to. Everybody tryin’ to get somethin’ for nothing.”
The Bullshit Artist
Short, bowlegged, pushing 40, Bill is well-muscled, with a straggly blond ponytail and a leathery, surfer-dude complexion. He sits in his room, the TV tuned to Maury Povich, showing highlights of the old Newlywed Game.
“I’m originally from San Bernardino. I work for real estate companies, cleaning out condos, so I usually just stay there during the week and stay here on the weekends. I come to the Saharan to chill out. I might get a girl, a dancer, and bring her here. I knew a girl who worked next door at the Seventh Veil, Megan, a beautiful girl. But she wanted to fall in love, so I had to let her go.”
As he speaks, he affects a predatory juju with his savagely untrustworthy blue eyes.
“I’m in a band. It’s called Excalibur, kind of medieval, Led Zeppelin–type rock & roll. When I came here 10 years ago, I had some talent scouts after me, and I’ve upgraded my talents so much since then. I’m so close to signing a contract. Steven Tyler’s been following me around for nine years. He said he wanted to pick me up and promote me, but it turned into too much of a spiritual war. His offer to me was 2 percent — 98 percent for him. They like to make life hell for you. So I’m a little shut down now, just doing standup comedy on Slow Ride radio. It’s part of Crystallized Incorporated, which is part of the Psychic Network. What I’m involved in is a form of coordinating people’s minds and setting their goals — kind of revelational to events taking place right now.
“I have a lot of people checking in with me because of things I prophesied that came true. I have connections to the Man Upstairs. I’m up against those into witchcraft and atheists and people into black worship. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has nothing on me. I know the casting director for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I do a lot of spiritual warfare that makes that show look so real. I imagine they can get a lot of scripts from what I do, because I channel spirits. I feel like that guy in Hitchhiker. I have the ability to exorcise demons, and to do cybersex, which involves a lot of spirituality and demonology. There’s a spiritual arousement when you see certain females, for masturbation. But it’s gotten out of hand and abused. Where my political statute comes in is to get people to bring about a law to stop this abuse. I’m waiting for this offer to come through so I can bring more awareness to middle-class families, businessmen, and give them information through channeling and prophecy.
“I’m a poet, and I do lyric structure, when I’m not doing psychic evaluations. I can create so fast, people wind up following me around. I deal especially with women who are in trouble — drug abuse, pimps. I step in between them and trouble. Sometimes I get involved with them, sometimes it’s sexual. It depends what they have to offer. Then, if they start to get dependent, I make it clear I don’t have the time, because I deal with a whole lot of people, all the way to Washington.
“So I stay alone. I like it that way. These people at the Saharan make me feel at home. Other places are more erotic, like this place on Fairfax that has all different sex themes in the rooms. I can grab someone, go there, and feel intimate. But this is seclusion, and it’s close to political figures, and the House of Blues and the Sky Bar. Even if I had 2 million in the bank, I’d stay here. I’d give people money to eat, or to a girl and say, ‘Get away from your crack-dealing boyfriend.’”
The Desperate Woman
“Her situation is delicate,” says Gennadi, translating Valentina’s words carefully, afraid, it seems, of betraying her.
Valentina, 30, and her son Ilias, 6, arrived from Kishinev, Russia, one week ago. As Ilias, an adorable kid who never stands still, whizzes in and out of the room, Valentina plays hostess, arranging plates of cold cuts and potato salad and pouring plastic cups of vodka.
“We met accidentally, through friends, at a Russian church, and she told me to visit her,” says Gennadi. “She moved here to get married. She has been corresponding with this man since 1995. She met him once, last year, in Spain. It was arranged through an international agency. He was originally from Nigeria, but is an American citizen. He does something with computers. He’s 51. They were supposed to live together for three months, then decide. Within three days, he decided he wasn’t going to marry her. He put her here in this hotel, gave her $50, and said she can stay until Monday and then he’d send her back.
“She has no place to go. She has a lot of problems in Russia because her child is black. His father is from Cameroon, he was studying in Russia. She got pregnant right before he graduated. He went back to Cameroon, and she was supposed to follow him. Then he wrote to say he already had a fiancée, but he is Muslim, and he wanted two wives. She said no. Five years later, he wrote to say he was coming back and wanted her to love him as she did before, but obviously, she didn’t.
“She came here to find a father for her child. In Russia, she has so many problems with family and friends. The prejudice Ilias has in Russia, it’s been that way for centuries in Moldova. She couldn’t find a kindergarten for him, so she sent him to a private school. One little girl stabbed him with a fork and said she wouldn’t eat with a nigger.”
Valentina stands up and pours more vodka. She is lean, erect, with a Mongolian face: extremely high cheekbones, no eyelids, and paper-smooth, ivory-yellow skin. She wears her hair in a turban, and her cheap checkerboard stirrup pants show off a high dancer’s rump.
“Three days ago, she was crying, she was so scared. She has no money, no rights basically. Now, according to the law, she’s supposed to leave the country. She has no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no bank account. She’s studied music, aesthetics, she cuts hair, she is looking for anything. She needs to work. She speaks German and Hebrew, also. She has no help from her family, but she is not scared. She’s a fatalist. It’s a dream, Hollywood. There might be a lot of opportunities for her here. Her son is very creative, and there could be a lot of possibilities for him. He sings, he dances, he’s good with mimics.”
Valentina brings out a computer drawing Ilias has done, a black blob she calls “The Shining Dream.” Ilias is excited to see it and shouts, in Russian, “Look, Mama, it looks like a dog!” Then he turns to a Toyota commercial on TV and says, in English, “This is a good film.”
“She says her son is considering himself an American, that he is very happy here,” says Gennadi. “She will be very proud for Ilias to be an American. You’re very free here.”
Baby-faced Ahmed suddenly walks into the room. Once he understands the situation, he begins grilling Valentina on her résumé and tells her he can probably find her a job in a restaurant. She slides closer to him on the bed and says to Gennadi, in English, that they need more ice.
With dark shades, tight jeans and a combed mustache, J.J. looks like a detective off a ’70s TV series. A taut 45 and holding, he says he’s from Tupelo, Mississippi, but won’t say exactly how long he’s been here, aside from an opaque reference to a house in Malibu.
“When I had to get out of there, I came here, because my attorney is just down the road,” J.J. says, apparently unaware that this statement might invite qualification. “I use it as an interim place. It’s centrally located. There used to be a grocery store right across the street, and the laundry is next door, and, like I said, I have to deal with my attorney several times a week.”
When asked what he does for a living, J.J. hedges.
“I’m writing my second film for Playboy. I write in the room.” He looks for this information to leave an impression, then asks, in a conspiratorial whisper, “You know what the best thing is about staying here? I have a room in the back, so I can see into the parking lot. I get to see the girls coming out of the strip place next door, and hear what they talk about, and also, you know, see them with some customers out there. I can see everything. Sometimes prostitutes, too, doing their thing right there in the cars. It’s the best room.”
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