I’ve always loved the euphemism, “a friend of Dorothy’s,” used to indicate a gay man, but was never sure whether it referred to Dorothy’s camp comrades in The Wizard of Oz, or those flamboyant fags who hung out with Dorothy Parker. While Wikipedia mentions both my assumptions, it also throws in the fact that, “in the early 1980s, the Naval Investigative Service was investigating homosexuality in the Chicago area. Agents discovered that gay men sometimes referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy.” Unaware of the historical meaning of the term, the NIS believed that a woman named Dorothy was at the center of a massive ring of homosexuality military personnel. The NIS launched an enormous hunt for Dorothy, hoping to find her and convince her to reveal the names of gay service members.” Priceless! That’s a movie I’ve got to write.
I was very happy living in West Hollywood for a while. Not only is the Halloween parade the most dazzling display of human creativity I’ve ever seen, there is something comforting in the knowledge that not a single hot guy is available to me. It’s kind of like living in a Midwest suburb where you know all the men are off limits because they’re all married. Only the men in West Hollywood obviously don’t stare at your breasts when their wives aren’t watching. I probably could have walked through my neighborhood of West Hollywood naked without causing much of a fuss. But in the end, the narcissism and the drama and the smell of poppers kind of wore me down and I felt like a change of scene.
Before I even started looking, a friend of a friend of a friend (no relation to Dorothy) told me of an “opportunity” he knew about. A friend of a friend of this friend of a friend of a friend (this is a really good description of how people know each other and connect in LA) was looking for a housemate. In actual fact it was a rather sweet deal. This woman was moving to another state for work and needed someone to rent the place, look after the cats, and she’d be back and forth once every other month or so. I thought I should at least check it out.
About half way down Riverside from Los Feliz Blvd, I started to get nervous. I’d lived in Silver Lake, I’d even gone out drinking in Eagle Rock, but this was further east than I’d ever ventured before. As Riverside curved around to the left, over the railway line and under the I5, I knew I was, quite literally, now on the “other side of the tracks.” And still I kept driving. Where the hell was this place? As I drove I noticed the signs on the billboards were changing – they were all in Spanish. I drove past three markets. Not Vons, Ralphs and Pavillions. These markets were called “Superior Foods” and “Big Saver” and “Best Foods.” Londoners will be familiar with the British equivalent of all three... Lidl.
Finally, nestled behind a disused movie theater and within yards of the Gold Line metro track, I found the address I’d been given. And what a surprise it was. An incongruous haven in the middle of the ghetto, this house was charming. Old Spanish style, it had been lovingly cared for and everything was in perfect working order. This girl was a class act. So why was she living in gangland?
I actually had no idea it really was gangland initially. Shortly after that first recce, I mentioned the area to some random guy at a party and he launched into a vivid description of the gang from this particular neighborhood. My friend who works in the DA’s office confirmed all this but assured me that gangs don’t “shit on their home turf.” She reassured me that the crime rates were actually very low for this area.
After much deliberation, I moved in.
If you’ve never been to LA you probably think of it as being synonymous with Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Hollywood exists. You can arrive at LAX, take a cab to your hotel in Santa Monica and sign up for all the tours. In a week you can go to the Hollywood sign, visit Disneyland, Universal Studios and Six Flags. You can go to the Chinese Theater (I still forget if it’s officially Grauman’s or Mann’s these days) and see the Walk of Fame and eat a Dodger Dog and buy your fake Oscar for $10. You can do Santa Monica pier and Muscle Beach in Venice, and if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll see some celebrity walking their dog on the beach when you visit Gladstones in Malibu. If you’ve really done your homework maybe you’ll go to the Getty. You’ll have a great time. But you can’t really claim to have done Los Angeles.
If you want to visit Los Angeles, I’d recommend getting the Fly Away bus from LAX to Union Station. Then get a local bus to Echo Park or Silver Lake and check in to a local bed and breakfast. After a day hiking through Griffith Park and checking out the incredible Griffith Observatory, spend the rest of your vacation time exploring some of the historical sites in Downtown LA. Visit the Biltmore hotel – built in 1923 – and marvel at all the frescos and murals and the marble and travertine tile work; ride the “Angel’s Flight,” the smallest railroad in the world, that’ll take you back in time. When’s the last time you got a ride anywhere for 25 cents?! Go to MOCA and see some Jasper Johns flags and the stunning Andy Warhol telephone. Marvel at Gehry’s Concert Hall (and try to forget it is officially the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which feels incongruous, unless you know and really understand Fantasia). Visit the Japanese American National Museum after a spot of sushi in Little Tokyo, and then get the train to Highland Park to see the largest collection of Native American artifacts in the Southwestern Museum (pop in and have tea with me on your way, it’s about half a mile from my house). The next day take the same train all the way to Pasadena to see the Huntingdon Gardens, with it’s tea room and rose garden and herb garden, before stopping by the Norton Simon museum – a more intimate place than the Getty which holds as many – if not more – iconic pieces of art.
I walk out of my front door these days and feel like I’m in Another Country. I only recently looked into the history of California and realized that the whole area, not so long ago, was technically Mexico. The locals are clearly not in a hurry to forget that. They may have given up the majority of Southern California to the consumer machine, but here and there remain pockets of authenticity and raw culture. Yesterday I went to Big Saver (or Super Foods, I forget which) and here’s a transcription of my conversation with some sweet young girl who worked there:
Me: (holding up a bag of regular carrots) “Hi, do you sell organic carrots?”
Me: “Carrots. Organic. Do you have organic carrots?”
She: “Si. Si, carrot. Si”
Me: “Yes, I know these are carrots, but I’m looking for organic ones.”
Me: (slowly) “Carrots. But organic ones.”
She: (exasperated) “Si. Si, carrots.”
We went around in the same circle about two or three more times before I suddenly blurted out, “Cucumber!” just to break the cycle, and she kindly showed me all the varieties they carried. Whether or not any of them are organic, I’ll never know, and don’t even care any more.
When I first moved to Highland Park (having only previously heard of the Highland Park that is an affluent northern suburb of Chicago) I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I imagined police sirens waking me up in the middle of the night, and helicopter search lights making night day as they followed the most dangerous gun-wielding criminals on the run. I thought I’d be racing the thirty yards between my car and the house, as early as 10pm, heart pounding in terror at the thought of being knifed as I flung myself at the front door. I thought I’d be looking over my shoulder as I walked out of the house in the middle of the day, fingering the keys in my pocket as I went for a walk, ready to jab them into someone’s face if I felt threatened. But here’s the irony. Those are all feelings I’ve experienced in every other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in during my years in LA. Now? I have never felt safer in any place I’ve lived my whole life. Now, I leave the front door wide open up to midnight, while I’m not even physically in the room; I sit on the porch and stare at the stars, on my own, at 4am. I regularly forget to lock my car.
And the gay couple who run the donut store on the corner of my street? The ones with the gang tattoos encircling their necks? I can assure you they are no friends of Dorothy’s. But they’re becoming friends of mine.