Photos by Caroline Ryder

I don’t normally start drinking when the sun rises.
After all, only alcoholics and insomniacs need a tall one — and not the caffeinated
kind — first thing in the morning. I’m neither alcoholic nor insomniac, but
I do have the holiday blues, that awful seasonal gloom that somehow makes vodka
martinis for breakfast seem like a very sensible idea.

In California, you can legally start purchasing booze at 6 a.m., so for some
tips on what joints are jumping at dawn, I call Hollywood Community Police Station,
assuming cops would know where to get a relaxing beer after the night shift.
“We don’t drink and we don’t smoke, especially not at 6 a.m.,” says the stern
voice on the other end of the line. “But if we did, there is this place called
the Spotlight on Cahuenga…”

* * *

The Spotlight is a notorious gay dive, supposedly frequented
by the sketchiest of Hollywood’s tweakers and trannies. When I arrive there
just after 6, the sky is pink and swirly, the streets are empty, and parking
is a breeze. No crowds, no lines, no cover charge. Inside it feels cozy and
welcoming, a thick black tarp pulled across the doorway as a defense against
intruding rays of light.

The barman’s name is Boo. He’s been working here only a year but has been a
customer for around 12. “Sometimes the cops come in looking for somebody they
were chasing,” he says. “Or if people are standing outside looking scandalous,
they might roll up and see if they are tweaking. But otherwise it’s pretty quiet
and friendly in the mornings.” A sign informs us that Mount Gay rum has been
marked down to $2 from $4.50. A guy at the bar, Neptune, or “Tuna,” claims he’s
been coming here for more than 20 years. He is wearing a T-shirt that says “Spotlight
Club” on the back. He reads Boo his horoscope and sips on a raspberry soda.
Then he hits the vodka. “I come here because it’s a neighborhood bar,” he tells
me. “We watch the news together, we talk and read the paper. You get to know
the people, and it becomes like a family.” Apparently the Moody Blues dropped
by for breakfast refreshments not so long ago when they were staying at the
West Hollywood Hyatt. “They sure can drink,” laughs Tuna.

A man walks in who is handsome in a young–Don Johnson sort of way — aside from
a missing front tooth. “Got knocked out by some girl’s boyfriend at the House
of Blues the other night,” he laughs. He has been doing blow for two days straight.
He buys me and my friend beers and orders a peppermint schnapps and vodka for
himself. Then he runs across the street to get onion bagels for everyone and,
handing one to my friend, whispers, “I’ve killed people, you know.” This kind
of revelation would normally have sent me heading for the door at light speed.
But I’m perfectly relaxed. Even if my new drinking buddy is wanted for
murder, there’s something about the intimate camaraderie of early-morning boozing
that overrides all that. I feel I could trust this guy with my secrets too.
Hell, with my life. I finish my beer and bagel and wish I could hang
around but I can’t — the sun can’t rise too high before I reach my next stop
in Los Feliz.

* * *

It’s about 7:30 a.m. when we arrive at The Drawing Room. It
is darker and less welcoming than the Spotlight. At one end of the bar sits
a group of middle-aged gentlemen, starting off the day with a beer before work.
At the other end is another group, carrying on its night, from the looks of
things. Among them is a glamorous, busty blond I recognize as the bartender
Jennifer. She’s off duty, and chatting animatedly with a heavy Latino gentleman.
She looks over, smiles and shouts to the barman, “Pour these guys a drink, on
me!” Again, I feel that warm kinship, the secret understanding that exists among
people drinking at a bar while the rest of the world is getting ready for work.
Jennifer is tragic and resplendent in glittery red lipstick. We talk to her
for hours and learn she’s originally from Kansas City and came out here to be
an actress. “I’m still trying,” she sighs, as the barman pours her another.
I think I love her. I tell her she is famous, among drinkers in L.A.
anyway — even the Zagat guide mentions her. I promise to take her out in Beverly
Hills and then stumble out into the now blazing sunshine. Time for bed.

* * *

A few nights later, I am having trouble sleeping. The alarm clock says 5 a.m.
“What the hell,” I think, throwing off the covers. First stop, Del’s Saloon
on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A., one of Lee Marvin’s old haunts. There
are pool tables and darts and it is quiet and a little too bright. I order a
bottle of Bud ($2.50) and start peeling off the label, as per the Sheryl Crow
song. I am alone and wearing a miniskirt and I can only imagine what the two
mature gentlemen at the bar think — probably they’re just relieved I’m not their
daughter. One of them is called Darryl, and he has dyed black hair and is wearing
a tweed jacket and prescription glasses. A key hangs from a string around his
neck and he seems happy to see me. He offers to buy me a gin martini, same as
his. He used to play rhythm guitar in prog-rock bands but now likes to sing
karaoke. “You have a good aura,” he tells me, before inviting me to sing with
him that evening in Santa Monica. He promises to take me to Sizzler afterward.

* * *

Next, I head down the road to The Gas Lite in Santa Monica.
I am first to arrive, and I strike up a conversation with the young barman Ronnie,
an actor. “You get two different crowds in here at 6 a.m.,” he says. “There’s
the kids who have been up all night, and then the older regulars who come here
for breakfast. It can get interesting on Saturday mornings.” He tells me sometimes
they’ll even fire up the karaoke machine if the early-morning party really gets
going. Happy hour lasts from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. so I hang out there for a while,
making friends with a Santa Monica fire chief who buys me a drink, gives me
money for the jukebox and invites me and all my friends down to the station
anytime. I also meet manager Clare Ragge, who has been running the place since
1998. She says 6 a.m. bars are a dying institution in L.A.

“A lot of the old-timers are passing away, so for most bars, there just isn’t
enough of a regular clientele to open up that early,” she says, handing me some
popcorn. “But we’ll always be here.”

I drink to that and head out, squinting, into the midday sun.

The Spotlight, 1601 N. Cahuenga Blvd., L.A., (323) 467-2425 . The Drawing
Room, 1800 Hillhurst Ave., L.A., (323) 665-0135 . Del’s Saloon, 12238 Santa
Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 207-1978 . The Gas Lite, 2030 Wilshire Blvd., Santa
Monica, (310) 829-2382

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