Heard Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and then Sister Sledge singing We Are Family on the radio just now and it was so nostalgic of another time in another Silverlake when those were the neighborhood anthems and not a Saturday night went by that you didn’t hear them blaring from some long lost bar or another.
We just don’t live in Silver Lake anymore, we live in Waverly Terrace Silver Lake. Or is it Silver Lake Waverly Terrace? This is what happens when Katy Perry moves into the neighborhood. Maybe we’ll be a gated community soon.
Anyway they even invited us to join their private online network. But we’re too stuck up. Stuck up on Waverly Terrace.
Life is rough.
A vast hollow boom rent the silent night, followed by a ragged series of other booms, just as loud. The first one startled me, the others just made me smile. No matter how much they’ve gentrified Silverlake, there’s still little pockets of Mexico where somebody’s tio borracho breaks out the stash of unbelievably illegal fireworks he’d smuggled up from TJ or maybe bought off an ice cream truck across the river and sets them off in a ragged volley because, hell, Christmas Eve is a holiday like any other. Now Silver Lake is utterly silent again as I write this, even in here, where the Christmas tree lights throw crazy shadows on the ceiling and the entire room looks like a Van Gogh still life. Brick needs to take his seizure meds.
Merry Christmas, all.
Some deluded plant around here thinks it’s May and begins wantonly dispersing pollen as the sun sets in crimson fire and giving me hay fever–in December. Only in Silver Lake would some ridiculous exotic from Bali or Martinique or New Jersey go into a horny plant reproduction frenzy at Christmas time, leaving me involuntarily humming Feliz Navidad between sneezes and eye watering and Kleenex like new fallen snow.
You know Silver Lake is not completely gentrified when the crackhead (possibly schizophrenic) babydaddy of your next door neighbor, who rants at all hours about how he is possessed by “el Diablo,” is caught sharpening a humongous machete in front of your house, spends one night in jail, and then he’s back in front of the door, macheteless but still screaming about the fucking Diablo.
Ah wow, nostalgia. This was the Silver Lake (though it was Silverlake then, before all the gueros moved back) that I knew and loved from the mid 80’s till sometime after its third or fourth cover of Los Angeles magazine.
Crack, cool. OK, maybe not cool, but you used to be able to buy that where the Silver Lake farmer’s market is now. Or on Micheltorena across from the school. Or at Parkman, right on the sidewalk, across from the liquor store where my pal Dave got beat up for badmouthing a couple cholos. Dave always was kind of an idiot that way. It didn’t pay to be an idiot back then. Now it does, and you get to write for the LA Weekly or be a reality star or an independent film maker. Back then you got beat up by cholos at Sunset and Parkman, or OD’d on junk or got AIDS. Maybe the cops busted you in somebody’s bushes with some bear you just met on Griffith Park Blvd. Try explaining that one to the new neighbors.
I heard the worst poetry I ever heard in a bar where Cheetah’s is now. A chick screaming in free verse about sodomy. Though she didn’t call it that. She’d written the poem while so engaged. Bent over and hating herself and writing bad poetry. Seriously, that’s what she told us. I wondered why I was there. But I digress.
There used to be lots of gays in Silver Lake too. No really, I remember. You could hear their sounds of love deep into the night, plus they threw great parties. And the dykes would beat the living fuck out of each other outside the club where the free clinic is now. They wore huge boots and drove big pick up trucks and beat each other up. No tea parties in Silverlake. Not then.
There were still a few hippies left, I knew some, theirs was a different world. Talk of soap factories and love ins. We just stared, blinking in disbelief. Then we’d smoke pot together out of some ancient bong. There even remained a few ancient beatniks. Embittered, angry, hating everything…they hadn’t changed a bit. And punks, though getting into their late twenties and beyond, still scared customers away.
There was a gay bookstore, a gay steakhouse, a gay hamburger joint, a gay coffee shop, and bathhouses you could emerge from sparkling clean. We had a zillion gay weekly papers, all outrageous, and one very serious Lesbian News. There was a lesbian auto mechanic.
We had crime too, lots of it. You could have your car battery, your car radio and your car itself stolen, sometimes in the same week if it was your lucky day. We had shootings and murders and a Colombian gang that specialized in pick pocketing and breaking and entering. Suicides were popular.
We had a laundromat that had poetry readings, next to a gay bar with oiled musclemen dancing on the tables. We don’t have that anymore. Plus we had a surplus store, and still do. That, and me and my wife, are still here. Surplus and antiques.
Nowadays we have breeders and lawyers and hipsters and a zillion lovely young women who I refuse to complain about.. And oh yeah, the food was better then. I mean it was worse, but it was better. At least you could afford it.
Anyway that story I opened with was from my former editor who yelled at me for spelling Esperanza Spalding wrong (I had whooping cough, no one can spell right with hooping cough) and who I once got in trouble because I said Lemmy beat me up. And that story of his brought all that wonderful old Silverlake back. Nothing like a good machete story. Especially if no one gets hurt. If it was a machete story and someone did get hurt, well, that was what Echo Park was for. Maybe hurt is an understatement. They fished him out of the lake. Maybe they found the head when they drained it.
Or maybe they’ll find it when they drain the Reservoir.
I like to think it was used by Santerias. We used to have them in Silverlake. The botanicas on Sunset sold powders and spells, and you’d find dead chickens in the park.
I’ve never told this to the lovely young neighbor ladies. They’d be outraged. Chickens have rights too, you know. Some stories are best left to the aged and cynical.
My wife and I have lived in Silverlake for over thirty years now. Excuse me, Silver Lake. Back when we moved to Silverlake people who had been here thirty years called it Silver Lake. Then they all died and it was Silverlake for a few years. Then it got on the cover of Los Angeles Magazine and was Silver Lake again.
Thirty years. Maybe 31. Maybe 32. Whatever. You think we would fit in by now. But every time we start to fit in the neighborhood changes again. Now we know maybe four people in Lago del Dorado, and none of us fit it. Sketch Hall, who lives over by the Bates Stage and does his laundry in the San Gabriel Valley because that is where all the Chinese restaurants are; Carey Fosse, who also lives over by the Bates Stage but never does his laundry; and Mikaleno, would hang out by the Bates Stage a couple sheets to the wind before heading off to Sketch’s for a night cap but who lives south of Sunset and you know how we north of Sunset people are. Actually all three of these guys lived south of Sunset. That just occurred to me. Shows you the class of people I have been hanging out with. But at least Mikaleno does some great laundry, perfect Navy creases, he gave me a lesson in folding a handkerchief once but no matter how I tried his looked like a guy who had folded handkerchiefs in the navy and mine looked like a guy who had been a college drop out. I can’t remember who the fourth person is. Maybe they bought a fixer upper in Highland Park and are being picketed as we speak.
Anyway, we used to be the cute straight couple on the street and now all the unstraights have moved to Boystown or out to the country to live in a cute little cottage and go mad with boredom and have been replaced by beautiful young starlets who could be my children if not grandchildren but they are far too beautiful so I must have adopted them.
And that is Silver Lake to me.
Damn, man, I forgot.
I was gonna pass by Raymond Chandler’s place in Silverlake. Just drive by it. Slowly. Pass by slowly and think that Raymond Chandler used to live there. It’s was his birthday. He’d have been 125. People don’t get to be 125 years old. Not yet. And certainly not writers. Too many vices. Too little money. Too much truth, and lies. A lotta lies. But if you’re good no one can tell you’re lying.
He lived on Redesdale, on the eastside slope of Micheltorena Hill, maybe a third of the way down. The streets are like switchbacks there, the way they wind, and they send you back and forth, never really getting anywhere. You can get stoned and be lost forever up there, wending your way this way and that, at random. If you get to the top of Micheltorena Hill you can pull over. It’s dark there, with a view that goes all the way to Japan almost. The lights are intoxicating, scattered across the city’s plain, over that vast flat expanse of one story houses all the way to the beach. There would have been less lights in Raymond Chandler’s time. Less houses then. Less trees. Less cars. Less people, too. But the ones there were, what a lode of characters they must have been.
I started this a long time ago. I was gonna write about Raymond Chandler’s procrastination. But I waited so long I can’t remember just what I was going to write about. So now I’m never going to finish it. They call that irony. Like those pretty orchids reeking of corruption. Me, I like orchids. But I don’t write hungover.
The wife drew open the drapes and the sun is pouring in through the windows. There’s ten feet of window across, I think, another six feet high. You could see the whole city all the way to the ocean but for that ridge in the way. Because of it the rest of the world besides our hill and that hill and the little valley in between appears cut off from the rest of the city, the state, the planet. There’s just us and it, that ridge. It’s steep and green and cluttered with houses that go back to the late thirties and through the war years. We breathe art deco around here, scarcely notice it. The slightest little shop is deco, the fronts of houses, even an old gas station they just tore down and left an empty lot. Famous architects went nuts around the lake, building crazy wild modern homes for the moneyed hipsters of the day. A lot of movie star money here once, long ago, a lot of industry people. A couple guys–now dead–told me about the old days. The castle across the way–it has multiple floors and a turret, and while it looks like a house from the front over there, it looks like a castle to us over here–would throw huge parties, with orchestras, and Judy Garland would sing into the wee hours, echoing everywhere, keeping people awake. Drove them nuts.
Raymond Chandler was gone by then, dead, unfinished. A little forgotten. Drunken writers, I mean the truly sodden, generally have to wait a generation to be discovered again. The people that knew them die, the fumes dispel, the sad later years are forgotten. Kids read the books, the wonderful classic books, and try to figure out what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep (I’ve watched it a dozen times, easy, and still I’m lost by the time he leaves the bookstore) and they marvel at just how good a writer Raymond Chandler was, and how he shaped in many ways who we are. You don’t live in Hollywood and thereabouts and not have your Philip Marlowe moments. The dame wraps her stems around the barstool and no way you’re not gonna answer her look, buy her a drink, take her up on the smoke. You might not even smoke cigarettes but there you are, looking cool, smoke wreathed around your head, thinking of detective novels and jazz and sex. I told a little prick off once, he was being an asshole to a couple dames next to me at the bar. He scuttled off, scared. I let him go. He gave me the eye. I laughed. The women laughed. He stumbled backward, fell. I reached out and helped him to his feet. Careful fella, you can break a leg that way. He laughed nervously and thanked me and came back to the bar. Scene ended. Just one of those things. Phil Marlowe wouldn’t have handled it that way at all. Phil Marlowe would have socked him one, the little wop, and the punch would catch him straight on the chin, knock him out cold. Glass jaw. The barroom beef would drag his crumpled form out and dump him on the sidewalk. The cops would pick him up. He’d come to, spluttering, say the wrong thing, get the hell beaten out of him. Thirty days. Later he and his paisans would come looking for revenge. Vendetta A rough town this place used to be. Nothing hippie about it then. Men were men. Women women. They’d fight and fuck and cheat and fall in love. That took care of everything by the end of the book or the closing credits. The sad divorce tales were a generation in the future. Lana Turner. Mrs Robinson. One word: Plastics. But for now, two words: It’s Chinatown.
Raymond Chandler didn’t write Chinatown, of course. Getting way off track. Free associating made up stories. They didn’t free associate in Raymond Chandler’s L.A. That was far in the future. Things were too tough to wander off into random connections. Stories needed structure, narrative, had to make some sense. Even The Big Sleep‘s screenplay pretends to follow a narrative. Bogart pulls it off. The breathless pace that allows it to work. Had they stopped still for a couple scenes, the unconnected dots would stand out, drive you nuts, ruin the movie. But they don’t. You blow through that like Illinois Jacquet blowing through Flying Home in 1946, the Basie band a great roaring machine behind him, unstoppable. That’s Bogie in The Big Sleep. Unstoppable. But you couldn’t fool Raymond Chandler. He sat in his upstairs studio office, smoking, pouring rye after rye, wondering if he could ever write a good story again. The secretary walked in, said something, walked out. He watched the seams disappear up the back of her legs. She swished, each step perfectly placed, like choreography. He wondered if her lipstick tasted like apple or strawberry. He wondered, wandered, stared out the window, and a story disappeared, forever.
This story can also be found on Brickspicks.com, along side all the cultural stuff I’ve written about.