Nights of Melrose

As a connoisseur of the Great American Layover, I am always looking for interesting places to stop on the way from Canada to Mexico. Last year, I was lucky enough to find a cheap ticket from Boring City, Canada to Los Angeles, and another cheap ticket from Los Angeles to Mexico City. And so, my latest American adventure began.

Although the United States is not a cheap country, I do find a certain adventurous joy in trying to find ways to travel it cheaply. Perhaps it’s because the country’s seamy underbelly is so utterly enthralling, and there’s no better excuse to come up and close with said underbelly than by doing America on the cheap – which for me mostly means riding public transit and eating gruesome quantities of fried food. Regardless, one crucial ingredient of a cheap LA trip was cheap accommodations. In that regard, I got more than I could ever hope for from my Melrose Flophouse. One of the weirdest Airbnbs I’ve ever encountered, this $25/night West Hollywood wonder came pre-sold with reviews from people who essentially described it as either the greatest or worst place ever, depending entirely on one’s perspective.

And indeed, after arriving at the waking nightmare that is LAX and wading through Welcome Traffic on an airport bus and an Uber, I discovered that the flophouse was all I dreamed of and more. I was warmly received by the host, a woman who appeared to be from mainland China and had limited English skills to match. We had a pleasant chat, and she told me how the flophouse business was more lucrative than her previous business ventures – Truly, living the American dream. Soon enough, I was escorted to my “room”, which was basically a converted tool shed. Compared to the longer-term accomodations offered by the establishment, however, my room was strictly VIP. My neighbours appeared to be sleeping on mattresses on the ground, with whatever privacy they had provided by hanging sheets. Along with the sheets, the common area was scattered with assorted junk, brickabrack and deteritus, although amidst it all, the bathrooms were freakishly clean.

Over the coming days, I would get to know the sheet-dwellers of the flophouse – the salt-of-the-earth types who lacked the mad lucre needed to live large inside a converted tool shed. Many seemed to be transient young men who were in LA for a few months, trying to find success, like so many LA transplants before them. Their main hobby appeared to be sitting around in the common areas smoking weed. Unlike drunk slackers, I found these high slackers to be pretty charming – They seemed to find everything I said totally fascinating and hilarious, which worked out pretty well on the occasions that I was actually trying to make a joke. One of my neighbours seemed to be a sadder case – A friendly but rather worn-looking woman who, I noted, wore long sleeves even in the LA sun, for reasons I’d rather not publicly speculate about. I met her when she was about to move to other accommodations downtown, and we exchanged Facebook contacts. Later on, she messaged me to tell me that she had ended up in the hospital, for reasons that she never explained.

Regardless, I began my three day sightseeing tour of LA in earnest. On the first morning, I walked to Trader Joe’s on Santa Monica Boulevard and loaded up on Lazy Man Survival Food – provisions for DIY breakfast, basically, like bread, bananas and yogurt. I purchased the world-famous Trader Joe’s Coffee and made it in the French Press that I valiantly lug around the world with me – and it was indeed delicious. After breakfast, I would do a bit of online work in the shed and then begin my sightseeing. I tried out LA’s bus system – buses that consistently run ten minutes late and are filled with the kind of mentally illness that puts Canadian transit utterly to shame. Whereas Houston public transit is primarily an opportunity to marvel at how much cooler all black people are than me, LA public transit is a little bit of that and a lot more sheer, stark terror.

I continued to ride the buses regardless, because sometimes I feel like my life is rather lacking in terror. I also made frequent trips in Uber Express Pool. For those not in the know, Uber Pool is a service where you share your vehicle with other passengers whose pickup and dropoff locations are, at least hypothetically, somewhere along the way of your own route. Uber Express Pool is similar, except that instead of providing door to door service, it tells you where you will be picked up and where you’ll be dropped off. I found the directions easy to interpret, and I could hardly complain when I was zooming around West Hollywood for $5 a ride.

Aside from any cheapness, I genuinely enjoy the Uber Pool experience. Whereas ride share pooling in Southeast Asia is characterized by uptight yuppies staring at their phones and trying to avoid eye contact, Uber Pool in LA was an opportunity to either meet cool-ass Americans or fun-loving tourists. My experiences with the drivers, however, shed some light on the articles I’d read before and have read since about the exploitation of underpaid drivers by the malevolent Uber algorithm. I reflected on the articles I’d read about the gimmicks drivers would due to maintain a 5.0 average and avoid having their number dip down to, God forbid, 4.9 – a form of gameification that offers a high “score” as a substitute for a living wage. I thought about the complimentary water bottles, the sycophantic small talk. In one ride I ended up with an entire carload of tourists who were all heading to the Hollywood Walk of Fame (probably the worst place on Earth), and the driver regaled us with his well-practiced story about picking up Ariana Grande in his Uber, having her hand him a homemade smoothie, and not realizing who she was until well into the ride. I wondered how many passengers he had regaled with the same story in the past.

The sightseeing itself was, well, OK. I made it to the Griffith Park observatory a little too late, after spending way too much time eating in Little Armenia and Thai Town. On one day my downtown sightseeing plans were somewhat curtailed by chatting up a Turkish woman at an art gallery – a Turkish woman who was quite distracting, as Turkish women tend to be. We ended up going to Chinatown to eat Japanese food, for some reason. (Oh, yeah – Because she was pretty and because I’m stupid.)

But my single most interesting experience was, yep, at a bar. As I’ve mentioned before, the United States has the most interesting nightlife in the world, because in cities like Houston and Los Angeles, pretty much everyone is nuts. The best ones are just crazy enough to be absolutely amazing, and the worst ones are at least not boring.

Within a few blocks of the flophouse, on Melrose Avenue, there was a rather mingly bar with the usual LA mix of weirdos, hot people, and hot weirdos. I went a couple of times, and the more intersting of the two nights ended up with me inside a clothing store at 2 AM, fearing for my life.

I arrived at the bar, awkwardly ordering some dorky non-alcoholic drink and searching for someone to latch onto. I saw a really rough-and-tough-looking, heavy-set Latino man with his arms wrapped around a stunning blond. (Or, perhaps more accurate to say that I saw the stunning blond, and then saw her pockmarked companion with his arms around her.) I thought they were together, but soon enough she left with her friends without much of a farewell with her affectionate new friend. After that, another real man’s man drew my attention, initiating contact with a raise of his glass or some other, equally manly gesture. Our repartee initially seemed to consist of feigned homosexual innuendo – actually, a lot of my repartee with men seems to consist of that, which I’m sure means nothing. In the course of our not-gay flirtations, I learned that he was an authentic New Jersey stereotype. In another life, he could have had a fruitful career as a character actor portraying folksy-yet-menacing Italian mobsters. He told me that he was staying at a friend’s fancy house nearby, and seemed to think this friend was famous enough for me to know who he was. (I didn’t.) This New Jersey mensch didn’t tell me his name, and I never learned it.

Amidst all this male bonding, I got distracted by a pretty British woman in the midst of a loud group of her countrymen. I finally managed to get her attention amidst all the hooliganish yelling, and seemed to have a decent conversation going. She was on vacation with her sister, who was drinking happily next to her. As usual, I was being some combination of too forward and too shy, but I was trying my best. She told me that she had a boyfriend, but she didn’t quite seem to be presenting this fact as an absolute deal-breaker.

During a brief interlude of man-talk, the Jerseyite reflected to me on his past prowess with the ladies, and his former conquests at bars – back when he was skinny and single. Finally, he told me, he found someone who was worth taking him out off the market – I certainly imagined his wife to be quite the woman – and was now happy to just witness the human spectacle from a distance. In the course of his story, he offered a few pointers. It must have been his Jerseyite folksiness, but his tales sounded much more like sharing and advice than bragging. At some point we raised our glasses to the tough Latino fellow, and pretty soon I had two extremely manly men offering me their advice on how to effectively flirt with the British woman. (Incidentally, the tendency of American men to offer unsolicited flirting advice – rather than, say, engaging in spiteful cockblocking — is supremely strange and charming, like so many other tidbits of American culture.)

Through the course of the evening, the virile young Latino bartenders would step in to whisper suggestively into the ears of the two sisters. I thought nothing of it, at first, but our pleasant evening was unceremoniously interrupted at cleaning time by a loud announcement from one of the young stallions. “Only people who want to have sex with us can stay!” he loudly announced. Because sex is a bloody savannah or a ruthless gladiatorial arena, rather than a meritocracy, this announcement was not met with any apparent revulsion by the two sisters. Pretty soon all men but the lucky few were being escorted out of the bar by the bartenders, who were somewhat apologetically thanking us for our business. Their chosen women stayed behind.

The Jerseyite, the Rough-Looking Latino and I found ourselves outside the shuttered bar, gently stewing. “They’ll be out in five minutes,” the Latino declared with unwarranted confidence. We waited a while, presumably looking quite silly, and nobody emerged. Another very pretty woman approached and was granted entry into the bar, presumably invited by her slick bartender suitor, and still we waited. Meanwhile, with the sound of female laughter echoing out onto the street, the Latino grew increasingly irritated. He told us that he was friends with the owner, and that he wouldn’t tolerate being kicked out. Then things got darker. He told us that he was an O.G. (an Original Gangsta, for those not in the know), and that he rolled with a very serious-sounding L.A. gang. He expressed his desire to “check” one of the bartenders in retribution for the indignity of our forced expulsion. From the looks of him, I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his checking intentions.

As one of the other staff came out and listened to the O.G.’s angry complaints and threats, the situation seemed to be on the verge of escalating. I was torn between wanting to avoid being an accessory to an assault (or at least a witness) and wanting to stay and witness something truly amazing. (By this point, I had given up any hope of seeing my Lady Love again.) For his part, the Jerseyite was a little more responsible, and tried to talk him down, for which I am grateful.

Suddenly, the O.G. was telling us that he owned a clothing store nearby, and that we should drop by. He started criticizing my choice of shirt, and told me that he would get me straightened out – at 2 AM, I must emphasize. I walked with them to the shop, and reflected upon my mortality. Pretty soon, he was unlocking his darkened storefront – so at least, he did have a set of keys – and I was planning my escape. And yet, morbid curiousity won out again, and pretty soon I was inside a clothing store at 2 AM with two certifiably tough strangers I had met at a bar. “Go in the back and get yourself a nice shirt,” he told me. My heart was pounding as I wiggled between the racks, trying to find something, anything that would satisfy him enough to conclude our business. I grabbed a rather oversized flannel shirt off the rack, confirmed that it sort of fit, displayed it proudly to him, and got the hell out of the store.

Soon after that, we bid the O.G. farewell, and off he went onto new adventures untold. Finally, it was time for the Jerseyite Man’s Man and me to exchange our farewells. We thanked each other for a fun night, even as I felt that nagging desire to make this strange and fascinating man an ongoing fixture in my life – if nothing else, he seemed like someone who could offer some much-needed advice in regards to the ladies. But in the end, we decided to keep that night as a singular experience. I never learned his name, we exchanged no contacts, and I’ll never see him again. But still, it was a pretty good layover.

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