From hypodermic needles to hallway ghosts, plus-size models to rockstar hopefuls, every room and resident in one Tinseltown tenement is almost famous.
We were The Ropers once. Like Stanley and Helen of the seventies sitcom “Three’s Company,” my partner and I were live-in managers of a building in Los Angeles, only instead of Jack, Chrissy and Janet we were in charge of thirty units full of artists and dreamers from everywhere else.
The building had no name when we found it. The ad in the paper just read “Charming 1920s Hollywood Hills-adjacent building. Fully renovated. Studios and one bedrooms starting at four hundred dollars.” I came from a family that lived in trailers, apartments and relatives’ houses between Maryland and New York until my parents bought a fixer-upper of their own when I was twelve. Between that and being a restless adolescent who left home at seventeen, I’d lived in thirty-seven different places up and down the east coast by the time I was twenty-six (thirty-eight if you count the few days I lived in my car). So by the time I got to Hollywood, I recognized “adjacent” as marketing speak.
In the mid-90s, my new boyfriend and I moved from our hometown of Washington, D.C. to California together, sight-unseen, in our twenties. Fresh out of college and wielding a film degree, I moved to Los Angeles to work in the movie industry, which I decided I hated after a stint as a production assistant. But we loved the weather and the produce and the laid-back culture, so I took a boring office job while freelance writing on the side; he played guitar in a punk band and held a day-gig in post-production. We answered the ad, landing in a studio apartment in this rent-controlled, unidentified art-deco building on a dead-end two blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard, just over the 101 Freeway.
When a longtime Angeleno friend came to visit she recognized our building — it was the subject of a poem she’d written in the eighties entitled “Tamarind Arms,” its old name. In it she described the dingy hallways and “carbohydrate smell” of the building where people once bought heroin simply by driving up to a first-floor window for their transactions. It had a title at least back then, though it had somehow lost it since.
Later we recognized its address on a map in the back of the book Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, about Elizabeth Short, the forties-era twenty-two-year-old found brutally murdered about seven miles away in Leimert Park. The Tamarind Arms was the only structure in the area at the time, a party hotel popular with young actors and apparently one of the Dahlia’s many hangouts.
It must have been fashionable to christen your hotel with some dramatic description, as evidenced all over the signage of Hollywood’s sun-bleached architecture. Who could feel like a failed entertainer when gazing out the windows of the Starlet Inn, the Shangri-Lodge, L’Amour Arms or the Montecito?
Our landlord was a guy in his forties who lived in Seattle and visited once a year. He bought the building cheap in the early nineties, post-Northridge earthquake and Rodney King riots, when “everyone was scared and leaving L.A.,” as he put it. He said something about keeping it low-income due to the type of loan he’d used to buy it. By the time we discovered it, he’d renovated and retrofitted. An iron fire escape zig-zagged down the middle of its pink frosting-like façade, past burglar-barred front windows. Neatly-trimmed shrubs lined the walkway up to an arched doorway. A black gate surrounded the perimeter, shielding us from unwanted visitors but mostly protecting his precious pansies.
A seventies-era monstrosity sat between us and the freeway. Its hand-painted sign advertised “Luxtury Apartments” (yes, with the ‘t’). If we stood on our roof, which we weren’t supposed to do, we could see down into their dirty pool. Ric-Hard, the neighborhood rapper, lived there. He drove a van with a giant mural of his face, all Jheri-Curl and gold grills, splashed across both sides. The “gold guy,” who painted himself gold each day and posed like a statue for tips on the Boulevard, lived there, too. His gold metal flake Cadillac sat in the building’s driveway with four flat tires for five months, then it was towed away and he rode a matching bike to work.
The landlord offered us a shot as building managers when the previous ones got pregnant and moved away. They bought a townhouse in Tujunga or Tarzana or one of those other jungle-sounding desert suburbs, and we moved from our third-floor studio-with-a-view of an Angelyne billboard down to a first-floor one-bedroom facing the sunset. In exchange for being responsible enough to collect rents and call contractors, we got to live there for free, allowing us low enough overhead for me to quit my job and pursue writing full-force, and my boyfriend the freedom to tour once in awhile, escaping the nine-to-five grind.
At first, whenever a vacancy occurred, ads in the paper resulted in a million answering machine messages from all sorts. The landlord’s least favorite question was, “If I have bad credit, can my parents co-sign for me?” He was a self-described orphan who hated rich kids, so the answer to this was always no.
We decided we preferred weirdos we knew and slowly filled the building with friends and friends-of-friends, gathering a waiting list of people wanting in.
The hardest part of managing the building was not kicking junkies off the stoop when the back gate was broken, or calling the Luxtury Apartments’ owner a million times to get that wasp nest removed, or dealing with the naked girl and her pit bull puppy on the corner one morning (a nurse living in 202 gave her a blanket and some flip-flops to wear until the cops came).
It wasn’t the lack of parking, or waking up before eight on street-sweeping Mondays to move your car a block away, or having the locksmith blame the gate company and the gate company blame the locksmith for the constantly-sticking front entrance. The worst day for me was when we were told potential buyers were coming.
* * *
We were all from somewhere else, and our biggest collective fear was losing this space. A sale most likely meant the rent control would disappear, and if the new owners had a management company in mind, we’d be gone, too. By this time, we’d lived there seven years, longer than anywhere I’d ever lived in my life. A year earlier we had gone from being “boyfriend and girlfriend” to husband and wife.
We were not to tell the tenants about the buyers. The landlord said that it would scare them and they’d start moving out. “Tell them it’s another inspection,” he said. “And have the cleaning lady come do the halls once more before they come.”
The buyers needed to see every apartment as well as the roof and basement. I replaced my messy work-at-home writer’s outfit with nice jeans and a white button-down shirt. My phone rang right at noon and I buzzed them in, greeting them in the lobby. There were four, all sporting Brooks Brothers suits and slicked-back hair. They were our age, late twenties and early thirties, all equally aloof save for one holding a clipboard. He shook my hand and introduced himself.
“I’m Michael. These are my partners,” he said with a sweeping gesture across the suits. They barely nodded in my direction while admiring the Mexican tile and wrought-iron chandelier of the tiny foyer. As we stepped up the two terracotta steps and into the hallway, I became self-conscious of the worn grey indoor/outdoor carpeting beneath their feet. Sun shone through the arched windows above the front door and I noticed they were spotless — Ana had done a great job.
“We’ll start at the top and work our way down, if you don’t mind,” I said, pulling the front door to my apartment shut and heading up the stairs. “We won’t all fit in the elevator, so follow me.” The sluggish elevator and its heavy wooden door with little metal screen window always inspired the Act of Contrition in me, so I avoided it.
“The six apartments in front are all one-bedrooms,” I explained, knocking on 310, and knocking again just in case. “The rest are studios.”
I unlocked the door and stepped to the right, into the living room and out of the way. Apartment 310 belonged to Kenneth. He was a tall, dark-haired guy in a band. His living room was an explosion of amps, guitars, cables and overflowing ashtrays. A Playboy peeked out from beneath his brown leather recliner. Kitchen was semi-clean. Rumpled bed. Dirty bathroom. And there was the usual pair of underwear (tighty-whities) lying in his hallway. I swear he always did that on purpose for inspection days.
Years and years of white paint called “Swiss Coffee” coated everything in each unit, from the cottage cheese-textured ceilings to the built-in glass cupboards and hide-away ironing boards, right down to the latches on the original inward-swinging windows. The kitchens and bathrooms were thick with it, giving the walls and crown molding a sort of melted-sugar look. Some units had French doors separating the tiny living rooms from their kitchens; some offered deep-set built-in shelving; most had built-in wardrobes in the huge walk-in closets, though some were missing the doors on top and or drawer knobs on bottom.
We walked across the hall to 309, home of the second-oldest tenant in the building, a former street kid known in the local punk scene as “Stage-Diving Daisy.” She was the first person this owner had rented to. When we first met her she was going to college for her social work degree and by this time she was working on her master’s degree. She was a curvy girl with purple hair, rockabilly boyfriends and psoriasis covering her face. “I’m so punk I’m leopard-spotted!” she’d say, making people laugh uncomfortably, which we thought was rad. We’d seen her chase vandals out of the building in her pajamas but she was always the first to help loitering teenagers find a shelter or a twelve-step meeting. I knew she’d have her two cats crated up and ready for the inspection.
“Whoa, creepy,” one of the suits said, peering into her room. A huge canopy bed took up most of the space, with black sheets, black pillows, and black chiffon hanging from its black metal frame. One of the men turned the crystal knobs and pulled on the doors to her closet, which, like ours, sometimes stuck together at the top from the years of paint. Finally the doors burst open, revealing her huge collection of velvet Creepers, Doc Martens in every color, and an obvious affinity for animal-printed clothing.
Before Daisy moved to that unit from a smaller one, there had been a couple we had to evict. We inherited them from the old managers and I remember removing the items they left behind before we called the cleaners: a purple couch we had to cut in half to get through the front door, one lion-sized wooden cage, an expensive Indian vegetarian cookbook (which I kept for myself), two hypodermic needles, and the printed-out results of an HIV test (negative). The guy once asked me if I’d ever seen a ghost-woman floating in the hallway. I told him no but that our friend, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu-trained professional bodyguard, came to visit us once and swears he saw her, and he never stepped foot in our building again.
Inside 308 was the oldest tenant. Jack had been there twenty years and through three owners since moving from Michigan in 1977. “Beware of Cats!” warned a pixilated sign on his door. He told us squatters were living in the hallways years ago, and he remembered more than one shootout happening on the first floor. Our landlord did mention pulling bullets out of the walls when renovating. Fading astronaut posters adorned his walls, and he’d often call after an inspection asking if we had accidentally let one of his cats escape. We’d always say no, we were careful, and then he’d call later to tell us the “missing” cat was found in a closet/under his bed/in the couch.
Unit 306 had once been our place. Now it belonged to the assistant manager, Tony, whom friends called the Mexican Elvis. He grew up in Downey and was working in special effects while developing his own line of hair gel on the side. His apartment was covered with his paintings of robots done on found wood. When he first moved in, he told us he woke up one night being choked by “an invisible female presence.” She had never bothered us.
Next was 305. Elaine, a plus-sized model, had painted it mossy green despite “Addendum A” in the lease forbidding tenants to paint. She promised to put it back to white when she left and we promised to act surprised when the landlord did his annual inspection.
The suits inspected the books lining her massive shelves. One touched the sticks tied together as a pentagram on top of her TV.
“What is she, some kind of witch?” he asked, laughing.
“Better get out before she puts a spell on us,” said another, pulling a book from a shelf.
“What does a unit like this go for?” asked Michael.
“This one’s $435 because it faces the alley, but the ones on the street side run a little more,” I said, my throat getting dry.
Michael made a note on his clipboard. I should have told them about the time we were cat-sitting for her. We’d been slack one time, not getting to feed Paca until really late one night. As I poured the dry food into his bowl, the thing turned its head up to me and clearly said, “Hello.” Had I been alone I would have dismissed this as a “mew” or weird “meow,” but my very level-headed un-superstitious husband confirmed my fears out loud, asking, “Did that cat just say hello?” We quickly put the food away and backed out of the apartment, never remiss in our pet-feeding again.
I continued showing them around. The next place once belonged to an actor who got a big-time fast food commercial, lived off the money for awhile, and then moved back to Indiana or Idaho or one of those “I” states I’ve never been to.
I showed them Vlad the Russian’s place, which was nothing but a Marshall half stack, two guitars, and a futon mattress on the floor. My husband admired its austerity and still jokes that “that is all you really need.” Vlad had moved to The States a few years before “to be a rockstar,” he told us. He played arenas in Moscow and was living off the money he’d made there but had only gotten gigs in the smallest of LA’s clubs so far. When the quiet tenant below him complained of ceiling leaks, we looked at Vlad’s bathroom and found the linoleum was warped and a carpet of mold covered the ceiling in the complete absence of a shower curtain. “I thought you just take shower and get wet in bathroom,” he shrugged. He looked so sad standing there in his too-tight too-short cut-offs, his dirty blond ponytail hanging to his waist. I brought him down to our apartment and showed him our shower curtain, and he promised to buy one after scrubbing the ceiling with bleach, as I’d asked.
Me and the suits moved on to Laura’s apartment. She was an actor who sometimes slept with Mick, a comedian living on the first floor. During smoke detector or sprinkler inspections one was often found coming out of the other’s place with rumpled clothing, all bare feet and sheepish looks.
Ava’s apartment was a work of art. She’d built a wooden loft bed in the living room and strung plastic flowers and yellow paper lanterns from post to post. The breakfast nook in the kitchen was filled with a red vintage table and matching heart-backed metal chairs. She’d made the mosaic coffee table herself, and the dresser in her walk-in closet was painted red with tiny green leaves creeping up the sides. She was a makeup artist who traveled a lot for work, and her cosmetic cases always sat neatly stacked on the closet’s floor. A guy named Jim had lived there before her. He worked for a catering company and often brought us dying flower arrangements or bottles of wine after work. One time I buzzed in paramedics when one of his unofficial roommates passed out in the hall from huffing cleaning products.
The suits noticed the odor in Tessa’s place right away. No, it wasn’t the cat or the handmade soaps or candles or garbage, I assured them. We never figured out exactly what it was. She had plastic boxes of buttons, yarn, fabric, googly eyes, felt, knitting needles, Martha Stewart magazines, glue guns and who-knows-what-else stacked from floor to twelve-foot ceiling both in the closet and behind her couch. She and her boyfriend used to live there together but after ten years he left her and married a girl he met on the Number Two bus.
Josh answered the door in his boxer shorts. He had model good looks and a bad drug problem that presented itself at the worst times, usually when over-explaining to me why his rent was late again. We tiptoed over his headshots and poked around for less than a minute.
Max’s was the one right next to ours. He painted local dumpsters with primary colors and messages like “I don’t wanna be your kind of famous,” “welcome to neoplasticity,” and my favorite: “you will read anything.” Everyone in Hollywood had seen the dumpsters but no one knew who made them. He confessed to me when I noticed the paint rollers drying in his kitchen, and I swore I’d never reveal his identity. In my tour I could have mentioned the time Max made fake “no parking” signs out of cardboard. They looked so much like the city’s that nearby club-goers actually obeyed them for a while. Some graffiti kid even tagged one.
We walked to the back of the building and down to the basement. I was sure to show it all, including the two rooms off the side of the laundry room — one where an old incinerator sat, filled with ashes and a few smushed cigarette packs; the other we called “the Freddie Krueger room.” “Some friends of ours shot a horror movie here,” I shared, opening the door to the pile of ceiling crumbles on the floor, a dirty old mattress and water dripping from the cast iron pipes above. They were not impressed.
* * *
A huge mall had just been completed ten blocks away as part of a ninety-billion-dollar revitalization project. The Kodak Theater, new home of the Academy Awards, was there. The renovated Egyptian Theater was back to playing indie movies. Still, on Saturdays while walking to the farmers market, we’d bustle through people from all over the world, all seemingly with the same question written on their faces: This is Hollywood? The streets were sparkly, due to the newer pavement being made from a mixture of asphalt and recycled glass, but they thought they’d see celebrities, film crews or glamorous people. Instead they got wig shops, Scientologists, stores specializing in ‘stripper shoes,’ cheap lingerie, the Wax Museum, peep shows, street performers and liquor stores. By the time they took it all in, they were happy to accept free tickets from a stranger for some lame TV show, where they’d be held hostage in a heavily air-conditioned studio and turned into human clapping machines.
I knew these potential buyers were interested in our proximity to all of the new growth. I wondered if they noticed the cool old shops and cafes on Franklin, all within walking distance. A block east of that was my favorite tree — a fat oak with a wooden fence bolted to either side of its trunk. The homeowners had apparently decided against cutting it, including it instead.
Those suits never bought our building, but soon after their visit, I applied to grad school and we moved back east for me to attend for a few years. Some other suits bought it and raised the rent during the real estate boom, and by the time we moved back to LA, almost everyone we knew from the building had moved out.
I wonder if the new owners know about Gower Gulch, the strip mall down the street — how it was once a sandy corner where cowboys practiced rope-tricks, hoping to get picked by studios. Or if they care about how when I walked up into the hills in the morning, I’d encounter coyotes, deer, rabbits, butterflies, hummingbirds and skunks. Or how if you walked all the way up Bronson you’d get to the Bat Cave, not named for the nocturnal animals but for the fifties television show whose opening was filmed there. A short way from there, through a field of wildflowers, there’s a cement drainage ditch where Tony Alva used to skate.
At times I miss how night-blooming jasmine blew in with the freeway dust through our front windows every spring. I think about the local pizza guy who stopped in to watch TV with us when bringing our orders; Frank the mailman, who turned his truck around to bring me a package he’d just left a slip for on my door when he saw my car pulling in; and the neighborhood panhandler who lived in a tiny apartment at the end of the street and had just started greeting me with “hello” instead of “spare some change?”
Sometimes I think back to the morning two new stars appeared on our end of Hollywood Boulevard. They were mosaics of colored glass cemented onto the sidewalk, shaped exactly like the gilded pink stars on the Walk of Fame. The real Walk ends across the street at Pep Boys — a little too far east for most tourists to venture — but here someone extended it with two tributes of their own. “Arnoldo” was spelled out through the middle of one; “Li’l Mike” emblazoned on the other. Arnoldo’s name was surrounded by dollar signs shaped out of white shards; Mike’s had a rocket blasting out of a black planet.
This was no Chamber of Commerce effort and no honorary mayor presided over the dedication. Probably just someone paying homage to fallen homies. My heart swelled at first seeing them, imagining someone breaking beer bottles and piecing them back together all night beneath the streetlights. I wondered how long those handmade stars would stay.
*Most of the names in this story have been changed.