The Melrose Trading Post flea market spreads like a colony across the pavement surrounding Fairfax Senior High School, home of the Lions and an institution of 2,500 students in grades nine through 12. A hundred years ago, the area was marshy cienega, a “veritable hunter's paradise,” where early settlers chased ducks and mud hens. Today, stylish Angelenos scour the concrete hunting their own prey — unique antiques, handmade furnishings and vintage clothes at bargain prices.
Amidst the bustle of 240 stalls piled with trinkets, one stands out. B-103 is simpler than the others — just eight or 10 tables of thick, weathered wood arranged in a square pattern. There, a handsome man bakes in the sun. He wears a smirk and a camouflage hat that reads “DIRESTA.”
In 1998, John DiResta left his job as a New York City transit cop and moved here with big dreams, his more justified than most. His comedy career was taking off — he had just appeared on Leno and Howard Stern, and had, he says, “killed it” on both. He landed roles in Miss Congeniality and Fifteen Minutes. He even had his own sitcom in the works, DiResta, on UPN.
But, as DiResta soon found out, even well-supported Hollywood dreams are likely just an illusion.
“I thought because I did Fifteen Minutes and Miss Congeniality that I mattered. How could I not? I did a movie with De Niro!” DiResta says in his thick Long Island accent. He eyes a couple with a stroller poking around one of his tables. “But neither of them led to a single fucking other thing.”
In 2001, the phone stopped ringing. DiResta fell flat on its nose — one episode on UPN was the lowest-rated sitcom episode in the history of network TV, according to Nielsen. DiResta, his wife and their three young kids moved out of their dream home up in the hills to an apartment complex in “the flats of Valley Village” in the San Fernando Valley.
Even his agent dropped him. “She cared more about starving dogs than she did her starving clients,” DiResta says.
“In 1999, if you told me I'd be sleeping in a U-Haul out front of a flea market, I'd have said you were nuts,” DiResta says. “?'No, no, I'll be sleeping in my bed in Malibu, and it will be stuffed with money.'?”
While moving from his “palace” in the hills to his “shitty” apartment in Valley Village, he noticed several construction sites piled high with wide, wood planks used for residential siding. His wife asked him to make her a “key table” for the entry of their new place, and he built the table using the planks he'd scavenged around the neighborhood.
“We had this nosy neighbor, who we hated,” DiResta recalls. “But one day she put her foot in the door and said, 'Where'd you get that table?' I told her I made it, and she ordered two for $100 each.”
DiResta's accidental business expanded rapidly, and he now sells his custom-built table-and-bench sets for $600. His clients include prominent restaurants and studios — his biggest is George Abou-Daoud's Bowery Street Enterprises, which runs popular restaurants including Rosewood Tavern and Delancey.
DiResta's consistent presence at Melrose Trading Post is, he says, the key to his success, and his nonstop jokes and stories have made him a favorite. Everyone knows him. Everyone says hello. He repeats the same punchlines and visitors parrot them back to him verbatim.
“John is definitely the most likable guy out here. There's a lot of weirdos,” says a repeat customer for whom DiResta made a table, two benches and a custom “meditation stand.” “There's a lot of gimmicky stuff … but John's stuff is honest. Pure wood.”
The New Yorker's blue humor can be crude and even offensive. He keeps up a clockwork-reliable stream of dirty jokes. He might comment about female passersby, “I'd suck her daddy's dick!” or “She's so tall, I'd have to go up on her.” To male customers, his favorite quip is “Suck it easy!” which leaves them meandering out of his stall with eyebrows raised in confusion.
“He's an asshole,” explains his affable flea-market neighbor, an elderly Asian man who sells antiques. “One time I introduced him to my friend and the first thing he said was, 'How's your dick?' I got mad, said, 'Don't disrespect my friend like that!'?” He shakes his head and grins over at DiResta. “Now I don't say anything though. I've known him for a while.”
DiResta arrives at the Sunday-only market predawn, at about 5:30 a.m. Charlie, an old gent who is the market's unofficial mayor, helps him wrestle eight or 10 tables and benches out of the U-Haul. DiResta then drives to a parking lot and smokes half a joint to ease his chronic neuropathy. He puts on pajamas and sleeps in the U-Haul's driver's seat, awakes around 8:30 a.m., smokes the other half of the joint, dresses and returns to the market for its opening at 9 a.m.
At first, getting a spot at Melrose Trading Post was difficult. It's a nonprofit operation, one of few, and it charges vendors just $60 to $150 per week, depending on the size and location of their stall. For 10 weeks, DiResta waited in his car every Saturday night to be one of the first vendor-hopefuls inside the market Sunday morning. He spent months as a “floater,” meaning he got a different stall every time. Finally, he landed his piece of Hollywood-adjacent.
But then the other Hollywood came knocking again. His bona fides as a comic and his woodworking success brought a new string of offers, to star in reality TV fix-it shows. He hosted Trash to Cash on FX and Hammered with his brother Jimmy DiResta on HGTV. He also played a parody version of a reality star in American Body Shop on Comedy Central.
All were canceled after one season.
“I had so many fucking gigs, I said, 'I'm never coming back to the flea market,'?” he says DiResta. “A year later, I'm fucking broke. Lost my seniority at the market, but they were nice enough to not let me wait in the car. I realized that no matter how much money I make in show business, or if and when I get another TV show, I would stay out here. I was foolish to run away from it every time.”
Melrose Trading Post is run by Pierson Blaetz and Whitney Weston, and Blaetz himself came to L.A. to wrestle for a spot under the limelight. Blaetz and Weston 17 years ago started the trading post as an arts-education fundraiser for Fairfax High School, a once-robust and sparkling school that had seen better days. The market became an instant hit and has operated every single Sunday since, except for a week when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. It has raised more than $6 million for Fairfax High.
Blaetz is used to seeing performers and creatives like DiResta, whose side gigs slowly become their careers. He doesn't think they should be disappointed if that's how things turn out.
“My observation over the years is that the city is filled with dreamers, and practically none of those dreams come true,” Blaetz says. “But what's amazing is that these dreamers build incredible relationships. Their lives are alive. If they just appreciate the bonds they're building with people that are here dreaming with them, it's a damn good life.”
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