Sunrise in Hollywood.
Who ever sees it? Who ever wants to be awake and near a window, on the street or in a car, for this moment of urban renewal whose calm, pharaonic grandeur rivals first light over Death Valley or Montauk Point? Nearly half an hour earlier, traffic along Sunset and Hollywood boulevards slowly builds; sparrows begin a shrill chorus as though cheering — or warning — that night is about to end. Then, sometime between 5:30 and 7:15 a.m., depending on the season, the sun cuts the horizon and something happens: The eastern sky is suddenly bordered by silhouettes of palms and billboards, shadows turn gray, and the gathering light almost becomes audible. As far as anyone who’s been on the street during these 20 minutes of daybreak is concerned, all questions and prayers are about to be answered.
Most of us see Hollywood going to or from a job, or when we buy a bit of its nightlife. Even then, it‘s usually from cars that we see the town — a blur of bus benches, doors and people we will never speak to. But between that time when the last bar closes and the newspapers are delivered, Hollywood becomes a silent, mysterious ground — a submerged world whose last two or three hours of night can be glimpsed from cars but felt only by walking.
For many, Hollywood’s sunrise isn‘t merely pretty — it signals the end of night’s longest, coldest hours, when the evening‘s highs have worn off and the body fights its natural desire to sleep, a time when waking appetites for food and drink are at their lowest, and all we desire is a toilet. No one who’s ever spent nights on a bus bench in a strange town ever forgets the punishing blows this time of night delivers to the soul. Anyone who wishes only to be left alone to fall asleep knows the impossible desire to become invisible. But when shelter and sleep are unavailable, the thing to do is walk and, by walking, hurry along the sunrise.
”All kinds of crazy things happen here. Lot of time, the ladies will bring guys into the bathroom and . . . [makes handjob motion]. People come over drunk from clubs. We have a lot of trouble with people running out without paying their bills. One time, my boss ran after a guy and let the air out of his tire before he could drive away.“
Hollywood and Sunset boulevards are central Hollywood’s main drags: Sunset, historical home of recording studios and TV and radio stations; Hollywood, the mannequined street of big windows and sidewalk stars. During the annual Christmas parade, these boulevards appear united by strands of Silly String, rally horns and marching bands. But underneath, their personalities remain vastly different. Sunset has the prostitutes, three 24-hour Denny‘s (Freeway Denny’s, Gower Gulch Denny‘s, Rock & Roll Denny’s) and speeding cars. Hollywood has the cops, brighter lights and a little more foot traffic. Each has its own kind of signs that prey upon different human weaknesses. Hollywood Boulevard‘s whisper Money:
Sunset’s signs promise mastery of the body, of the soul, of the future:
Family Health Center: Movie Stars Training
The future sound of fitness. Details inside.
The family that prays together stays together.
Gym open 24 hours during renovation.
A walk west along Sunset from Gower Gulch Denny‘s to the Rock & Roll Denny’s between the Guitar Center and Fairfax takes about 40 minutes. There‘s no intelligent reason for making this hike before dawn other than to keep warm. The diners may have just one or two people keeping to themselves, and even if you were hungry, the $2.99 Sunrise Grand Slam doesn’t go on the menu until 5:30, when the restaurants begin to fill.
El Centro Avenue, a block west of Gower Street, is a gathering place for Hollywood‘s homeless population, though at this hour its members are mostly dispersed, with a few ghosts huddled in the shadows of the Mark C. Bloome parking lot. If you sleep outdoors in Hollywood, you enjoy a certain kind of leave-him-alone respect, but if you are walking at this hour you instantly become a blip on everyone’s radar, since the reason you are here is because you have no place to go or nothing legal to do.
You, in turn, immediately become aware of all the other people with no place to go, and when their dark shapes approach, you intuitively assign names and threat potentials to them. Cop, rent-a-cop, possible thug, prostitute, shopping-cart man, the Mark C. Bloome phantoms all respectively become Five-O, Four-O, Zombie, ‘Ho, Caveman, Sleepers.
From Vine Street to Highland Avenue, the sidewalk is noticeably spotted with Sleepers under blankets or in bags. (Many of the two boulevards’ flat wooden bus benches have been replaced by composite units molded to fit three behinds, making sleep literally a pain in the ass.) Most of their possessions are stashed out of sight, except for an occasional 7-Eleven drink cup, water bottle or pair of shoes. It takes an enormous fatigue to sleep on a city street, but fatigue is something the homeless have plenty of. a
A few blocks away, a young, tattooed woman in a black evening dress gets pushed out of a car at Hollywood and Vine. The car drives off; the woman scurries up Vine. Hollywood Boulevard doesn‘t have as many people sleeping on the street, partly because so many of the doorways of the boulevard’s shops are sealed off by accordion gates or steel roll-down doors. One night, however, a man in a wheelchair dozes in a detox center‘s small doorway, covered by a blanket, only his feet showing. Hollywood Boulevard seems cleaner than Sunset — or at least there always seems to be a man hosing or steam-blasting some part of the Walk of Fame. It also feels safer, as though there is a little less evil and madness here, which perhaps explains why you occasionally come across people who just seem to be walking for the hell of it and not in search of drugs or sex. Then again, the relative presence of humanity on Hollywood could be because of the all-night CCS check-cashing place at Whitley Avenue, or the 24-hour World Book and News stand on Cahuenga Boulevard, or the ’round-the-clock Hollywood Cabaret topless club (”Girls Girls Girls“) with its large window frame scarred by cigarette burns.
But these few outposts do not make Hollywood an all-night town, to put it mildly. At best it resembles some end-of-the-world movie set whose extras make motions that are unconnected with consequences: No one standing at that phone booth on Wilcox Avenue is really making a call; no one sitting on a bus bench at Cahuenga is waiting to be taken anywhere. You have to credit whoever handles scenic design here: The sidewalk lawns of the Hollywood Athletic Club and the Harmony Gold Preview House are immaculately maintained, even while most of Sunset‘s sidewalks are mottled by the stains of crushed palm-tree berries and vomit.
A small, bloody Rorschach stains the walkway of a KFC on Sunset, just east of Fairfax. A while ago, the night went wrong for someone on this spot. The red droplets, appearing almost black under streetlights, continue east along the sidewalk in a crazy swaying pattern, appearing in two entwining lines of Morse code. At Orange Grove, the droplets cluster again, as though the person had stopped to let a car pass. Across the street they continue, in front of Blockbuster Video and down the side again before vanishing somewhere in the neatly tended curbside grass, near cigarette butts and a Trojan wrapper. By tomorrow night, the blood will have been washed away.
In the necropolis of predawn Hollywood, everyone is a Zombie, everyone looks lurky and ominous. Adding to this Omega Man spookiness is the spectral jazz piped out onto Sunset near Wilcox from two buildings on either side of the street. On one early morning, some old piano riffs blare out of speakers on an office building being renovated behind plywood boards at 6565 Sunset, while a very cool sax solo exhales upon an empty sidewalk in front of Copy Central across the street. The one conceivable reason for these eerie concerts is to keep Sleepers from trying to bed down in the buildings’ shadows by keeping them awake.
Reflecting the patriotic mood of the times, the building being refurbished at 6565 (”Warning. Area Is Under 24 Hour Surveillance“) is now bathed in red, white and blue light; its primary tenant is the Hubbard College of Administration International, a Scientology organization. Another Scientology outfit, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, is headquartered across the street in the old Yale Electronics store. CCHR is Scientology‘s anti-psychiatry arm, whose perennial exhibit is called ”Psychiatry Kills“; its windows are filled with huge posters showing a man receiving painful electroshock treatment.
Across the street, at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, a Sleeper darkens the top of a stone retaining wall, while a man with a flashlight studies a door that opens onto the church grounds. Farther west, next door to the L.A. Weekly, more people are sacked out against the side of a newly renovated office building.
The Sleepers vanish at Hollywood High School at Highland Avenue, where Sunset noticeably changes atmosphere — the shadowy lighting seems borrowed from a Jacques Tourneur film, and a large black cat guards a walkway to the school. Now the air becomes heavy with moisture, and that nutmeggy, peculiarly Southern California fragrance hits the senses, a smell of imported vegetation and watered lawns. Suddenly we remember why we fell in love with Los Angeles: That scent, that perfume of parties and botanical gardens, of campus grounds and well-tended palisades parks, is what hooked us so many years ago. And now we smell it again and once more feel ennobled, encouraged, patted on the back, made aware of possibilities that have been hidden from us.
At Rock & Roll Denny’s, a young prostitute in blue-jean cutoffs is laughing in a booth with a gawky middle-aged white man, telling him, in her ghetto lilt, how she might move back to Arizona, or might not. She goes outside to smoke a cigarette, spots a dead ringer for Donald Rumsfeld beginning work on his Grand Slam and pounds on the window in front of him. Rumsfeld glances up in disdain, continues eating. The other white guy has paid the bill, and she now follows him to his car. They look like sweethearts in a Mickey Rooney movie. Inside the diner, a well-manicured Amerasian hooker who‘s been doing okay business standing in front of the Travel Inn Motel orders a cup of oatmeal to go, with lots of brown sugar but no raisins.
The smell of landscaping lasts more or less until Poinsettia Place, where it gives way to the primal baked-sugar aroma of Scotties Donuts. Yet it is here that Sunset gets gloomier, as office buildings become small, old shops — photography and dance studios, tuxedo rentals, barbers — the backdrop to every Rockford Files. Quaint in daylight, at night this stretch takes on a depressing Main Street opaqueness as 100 doomed actors’ 8-by-10s smile upon the empty sidewalks. The darkest places are the occasional boarded-up office spaces, where old newspapers and a condoms collect in the sidewalk flotsam. Vending racks for the softcore L.A. Xpress seem forever pillaged and plundered, while for some reason all the New Times racks have a Xeroxed page of biblical verses from Isaiah taped to them.
By now, prostitutes are becoming unavoidable. While not as active a carnal corridor as Santa Monica Boulevard, Sunset still offers a sporadic sighting of transvestite and female hookers between Ralphs supermarket and the Travel Inn. Here and there, traffic signs ban any kind of turns between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., but the savvy john will scan the coast and cut a turn into Poinsettia Place or Vista Street, where tall whores shimmer like statues a few feet off the boulevard. Or the randy wallet will drive through the parking lot of Kinko‘s at Spaulding Avenue or a corner strip mall to do business. Whistles and shouts signal pending transactions up and down this Boulevard of U-Turns, while cabbies slumber in their beat-up Dodges.
Forget the movies’ vision of Sunset as an endless rack of Pretty Women in hot pants and feathered boas — except during the first of the month, whores are few and far between, even along this motel-dense territory. Mostly you are aware only of crushing stillness and uneasy quiet that exists inside the swoosh of traffic and the insect hum of neon signs. Everything suggests a city of the dead: the bicycle that‘s always chained to a pole outside the Sunset Palms Motel, the vacant lot next door to the Travel Lodge, filled with Sleepers and empty beer bottles.
Not everyone on the street is bending the law, though. A grizzled but tidy old Zombie with an American flag sticking out of his backpack marches west with the determination of a soldier; an old black lady obsessively picks up trash and pulls fliers off the palms in front of Ralphs, while a few blocks away an elderly white guy is attacking fliers on Gardner Street, and up the street at Genesee Avenue yet another old-timer, with ”Security“ written on his black T-shirt, picks up litter and checks pay phones for left change on his way to work at a coffee shop near Fairfax.
Where have all the white people gone?
Where have all these black guys come from?
Depending on your own personal racial perceptions, you’ll be asking yourself one of these two questions along this stretch of Sunset as you realize that nearly everyone on the street is African-American. Most are men, many are homeless, and many are security guards. Some sit on bus benches, promising the predawn stroller the best women or drugs, others patrol the prostituted sidewalks on bikes, while still others approach white guys they seem to know in the Ralphs parking lot. At Rock & Roll Denny‘s, more men might be found at the counter talking animatedly while checking cell phones or pagers. Outside, a pair of young dudes are following a black prostitute, taunting and cursing at her as she crosses back and forth in front of Ralphs and finally ducks into a 7-Eleven. It’s not clear if she‘s earned their wrath for a territorial infringement or for not being a she in the first place.
On Hollywood Boulevard, one black man is selling drugs to a blanket-wearing white Caveman who’s counting out his change in front of the Highland McDonald‘s. One man in his 30s spends half an hour arguing with a white guy behind the Plexiglas of a check-cashing office window. The employee sits impassively behind the protective window as though he were suspended in a shark cage, while the other tries shouting in different tones, searching for just the right frequency that will unlock the place’s safe.
”I work 10 to 6. I could work the 2-to-10 shift, but I don‘t want it. Way it is now, I go off at 6, get some sleep and maybe catch some movies later. Then I go to school at Harbor College, get my general eds taken care of. I want to go to a place like USC, but my parents don’t have that kind of money to send me. I‘m too short for basketball and not big enough for football. I guess I could be a jockey — how about me getting in as a jockey?“
Hollywood & Highland
With the opening of the TrizecHahn shopping center, the intersection of Hollywood and Highland is now ablaze with more light than ever, and it seems to have at least temporarily cowed away the prostitutes, although one drug-smoked black woman of indeterminate (or interminable) age eagerly approaches a pedestrian across from the Kodak Theater to improbably offer ”weed, crack, sex.“ Between the Gap clothing store and the Kodak entrance to the shopping mall, a small cadre of mostly young security guards makes sure that this and other Zombies don’t slip into the shopping center‘s grounds.
At 6801 Hollywood Blvd., a man power-scrubs Whoopi Goldberg’s new star in preparation for its unveiling ceremony five hours later; soap and pink terrazzo dust stream into the gutter. Just past the Kodak, a Marilyn Monroe mannequin is getting its skirt blown up by fake subway air, while about 200 feet away the first commuters are boarding real trains. Some like it hot, but judging by the dummy‘s feral, rabies-infected look, this Marilyn likes it not. In the window with her are some cutout photographers strapped with old-fashioned Rolleiflexes, while behind them the store offers a big, clean version of the T-shirt-and-ashtray shops found on the other side (the suddenly wrong side) of Highland. Marilyn Manque grits her teeth in a frozen moment of pain or ecstasy, and a cold wind actually does kick up on the block.
Heading west on Hollywood, past the Chinese Theater, the boulevard suddenly darkens, as though someone hasn’t been paying the light bill on this end of the street. A huddle of guys looms on the corner of Sycamore Avenue, and pedestrian radar alarms sound subconsciously. Then a black limo appears, and it becomes clear that the men, all white and all in windbreakers, are Scientology Four-O guarding yet another of the cult‘s Hollywood properties. The Association for Better Living and Education and neighboring Author Services Inc. look like a combination of the Vedanta Center and a Christian Science Reading Room. ASI’s display windows are full of old pulp-magazine covers featuring yarns by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, along with several enlarged photos of L. Ron, one in which he‘s strapped with a Rolleiflex. Take a few steps toward ABLE’s gate, and one of the windbreakers comes over to check you out.
Along this stretch of Hollywood, a few blocks before La Brea Avenue, poles with barn-door spotlights appear along the boulevard, in some misguided allegory of moviemaking. The end — or the beginning — of the Walk of Fame comes at the southeast corner of Hollywood and La Brea. You can‘t miss it — it’s where that gaudy and forgotten silver gazebo celebrating the four film goddesses sits. The gazebo was planted on that corner in 1997, and said goddesses seem to have been chosen by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce‘s diversity committee: Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge, Dolores Del Rio and Anna May Wong. A tiny Marilyn Monroe, skirt once more a-blowin’, stands at the gazebo‘s pinnacle.
Stare as long as you will, but the chromey sculptures don’t look very much like their inspirations. The fiberglass women‘s hair and plunging gowns vary, but their faces do little more than suggest their stars’ visages and seem pretty interchangeable. The gazebo is topped by a little spire whose neon shaft of letters spells ”Hollywood,“ but otherwise the shrine is dark — the footlights aren‘t on, and not even the barn-door lights on a nearby pole are working. The goddesses’ name plaques seem to reflect the town‘s transient nature. They haven’t been drilled in with masonry bolts but are instead held in place by some kind of industrial glue — great globs of which have dripped down and frozen on the pedestal.
On the sidewalk nearby, stars summon memories of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (Later, for one brief moment following George Harrison‘s death, this corner will be packed with mourners and media.) There are no benches for people to rest upon while contemplating the scene. Still, it is a good place to observe the receding night. Across the street, a hooker in a striped top and white pedal pushers emerges from a motel alley, goes to a pay phone and pretends to speak to someone. The first of several old men in shorts and sweatshirts appears, walking briskly in the gutter or cycling with fluorescent-orange safety vests. A tall white trannie, with a gauntly severe expression and black boots covering half of her long bare legs, staggers along Hollywood and turns down La Brea.
At 6 a.m. straight up, the plastic bags of trash cans near the gazebo are removed, while at the exact same moment a Zombie puts down a can of malt liquor on the counter of the Sunset and La Brea 7-Eleven, a young, blond prostitute walks into the Subway sandwich shop next door, and another day of construction starts on the Cinerama Dome site near Vine. And all the while the Sleepers do not stir on their sidewalks. Eleven minutes later, the streetlight nearest the gazebo flickers out, the sparrows begin shrilling, and a dying honeybee trembles on Dolores Del Rio’s arm. The hooker in the striped top leaves the pay phone, walks around her motel again and heads for Hollywood High, where she finally finds a client.
The sky has gone milky in the east, security guards bring in the newspapers that have collected on the steps of office buildings, and cars frosted with dew are pulling out of motel parking lots. At the Chinese Theater, a dozen people have queued for an 8 a.m. showing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer‘s Stone; some sit in beach chairs as though awaiting the passage of the Rose Parade. ”The funny thing,“ a cameraman for Fox TV says, nodding at the tiny line, ”is these people’ve been here [two nights], and there‘s no reason for it. And there’s only one child in the group!“
Fox reporter Lisa Breckenridge confers with the man to set up a shot from the scene, just as a camera truck from a rival station pulls into the parking lot.
”Working press only!“ the Fox cameraman shouts with a chuckle. ”This ain‘t no KOA campground!“
Breckenridge begins her report just as a waste-removal truck noisily rumbles into the lot and begins draining some nearby portable toilets, releasing an unbearable stench.
And suddenly it’s here — that precious desert light, the light of pharaohs, painting the scrubby hillsides the color of pink terrazzo. It‘s that light you first see when you leave a stranger’s place in time to get to work, or when you‘ve kept out of the damp and gotten a little sleep under a patio table. The sunrise clarifies everything, banishes doubts, and signals that, in a few hours, the libraries and parks will open to those who need sleep. But most of all it gives everyone the confidence to walk with their own calm grandeur, believing, until the night, that everything will soon get better.
Ted Soqui’s photo essay continues at www.laweekly.com.