Race, Loneliness, and Wrestling in East Hollywood
There’s no door but there is bass-thumping, stomach-churning, hip-hop and it bleeds across the East Hollywood street. There’s no door but, instead, the street is held back from the bar by the long plastic strips of an abattoir’s refrigerator. Behind the strips, that sway like there’s a breeze to the humid night, there move large, indistinct shapes, slowly and something like fish in dirty water. There’s a faint smell of cigarettes to the air and if I hesitate, I’d find myself turning away, so I part the plastic strips, they’re unpleasantly warm, heavy too, and step forward.
The receptionist of my East Hollywood hotel had directed me here. She looked Indian. Or Native American. That particular colour of skin, midnight hair. She could be any age from 35 to 60. 50 max. She wore a feather in her hair and beads, thousands of them, around her neck. Does she feel obliged to wear these things? I wanted to take a picture, but didn’t know how to ask without sounding weird. She’d not requested my photo. California has the most Indian tribes of any state, although discussing tribal diversity as qualified by state boundary seems inappropriate, colonial almost. See these lines, Leader of the Yuroks, this is California and California is your home. If you stray the other side of this line, this imaginary line that exists only in this here book, you are no longer home. Get it? Due to the remoteness of their lands, some Californian Indians managed to avoid Europeans until the 1850s. These were the lucky ones. Even so, by the end of the century a population of 200,000 had been reduced to around 15,000 and not by guns or alcohol but by disease. I didn’t ask the receptionist which tribe she belonged to. It felt like asking a stranger if they believed in God or was wearing underwear. I imagine Indians get the same question all the time. From idiots like me. So, instead, I asked directions to a bar. It’s a question I always feel more comfortable asking.
‘You’ve not got a car?’ she asked, like the army recruit on the plane over (who followed my response by calling me a dick) and the bemused businessman in the LAX taxi queue, and she was full ready to fall straight off her chair when I confirmed that I didn’t. ‘You’ve come to LA without a car? Honestly, go rent a car. I don’t know what England’s like, maybe you can walk places, but there’s no getting around in LA without a car. Like really.’
I don’t tell her that I can’t drive. And even if I could drive, I’d not be driving to a bar. That would mean limiting my alcohol intake. Responsibility. What’s the point of being thousands of miles away from home if you can’t get battered? Travel is escape. I mentioned somthing about using public transport as a way of meeting people. She nodded, whatever.
‘If you’re really walking, you want to be heading left down Hollywood Boulevard, opposite direction to all the tourist crap. Keep heading that way ‘til you find the bar. I can’t remember the name. It’s before Jumbo’s Clown Room.’
‘Strip club. The performers dress as clowns.’
She didn’t smile because this wasn’t a joke. I said I’d not be visiting Jumbo’s Clown Room. She shrugged because she didn’t care. She already had me down as a weirdo. Probably noted it on the hotel’s computer. Not only was I British but I was staying alone in a double room. Warning klaxon: pervert alert! I promised myself that I’d not watch any pornography on the room’s TV. I felt an urge to tell the receptionist that I had a girlfriend back home, that, actually, I was quite popular. But she flicked through a newspaper, smiled — indicating that the conversation was over.
A thick hand, like a tennis racket made of meat, falls across my chest. It belongs to the bouncer.
‘ID,’ he says.
Like many white people, I like to think I’m not racist. However, as the bar opens up and all I see are black men, something within me tightens and I’m sure it’s my bladder. I pull out my passport. Between its burgundy cover, there’s a direct request from Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State that ‘in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary’. The bouncer chuckles, murmurs something. I don’t ask him to repeat himself. This is my first night in Los Angeles and I associate the city with gang violence and rioting. And Hollywood, of course, you can’t forget Hollywood. The movies. I was 13 when the Rodney King riots happened. I remember the grainy footage of the police beating King, and the Molotov cocktails and overturned cars that followed. These memories are stored in the same mental pigeonhole as violent films from the 80s, the type a friend of a friend might sneak to me on an illicit VHS at the end of double Physics. To a child, it seemed a fiction that the police could beat up a man because they didn’t like his skin colour. It seemed equally fantastic that people would loot shops and set homes on fire. I’d seen my parents angry, especially my father, but, to my knowledge, they’d never looted a cornershop. The Rodney King riots weren’t LA’s first. Neither were the Watts riots, 1965, further violence provoked by institutionalised racism and the associated shitty living conditions forced upon the black community. The $40 million of property damage might have given the city a cynical enough reason to improve things. It didn’t. It doesn’t. LA’s first mass incident of civil unrest took place almost a hundred years earlier. Although these riots were located on Calle de los Negros, colloquially known as ‘Nigger Alley’, the racism of the white rioters was focused upon another ethnicity, the local Chinese community. 18 Chinese immigrants were hanged in the largest mass lynching in American history. Of the eight convictions made, white men, all were overturned on a legal technicality. In this East Hollywood bar, I’m concerned that I’ll stick out. I’ll become a focus. Might this be the first time I’m conscious of my skin colour? Maybe. The bar may be dark but not sufficiently so to disguise that I walk like a white man. No, scrub that — like an Englishman. Am I being racist? Can I blame the media for forcing associations between young black men and violence? We’re all products of the TV watched when growing up.
‘You’re English, eh?’ asks the bouncer, satisfied that I’m over 21. He looks like a bouncer from a film. Everything in Los Angeles looks like it’s from a film. Apart from me. I nod. I’ve left my voice in the hotel. ‘James Bond,’ he says, attempting an English accent, moving his attention to his phone’s bright screen.
I’ve got this far. I’d draw more attention by turning around and sprinting off sobbing down the street than by being white. It’d be more racist to leave. I step forward. Hip-hop plays at the same volume as the crowd’s chat. The marriage of noise creates a strange dissonance, as if hearing underwater. I was at university, a provincial city in the East Midlands, when Dr Dre’s 2001 was released. I’ve a distinct memory of spending a house party (part of it, at least) arguing with a friend of a friend as to the merits of hip-hop. I said that I felt no connection to Americans rapping about shooting each other and being mean to women. His response, and fair enough, was that you don’t have to have worked on a whaling ship to enjoy Moby-Dick. He also kind of implied I was racist by only liking hyper-white bands like Belle & Sebastian. It’s not The Next Episode playing as I move deeper into the darkened bar, a long tracking shot, but it should be as it’s the very track that Compton gangsters or middle-class English teenagers must listen to. My bladder tightens further, as I excuse-me past thick bodies, and I notice a woman. And another. And another. And I notice that nobody is paying me the smallest amount of attention. I buy a beer. I leave a dollar bill on the bar because it’s confettied with dollar bills and both Pulp Fiction and The Rough Guide to Los Angeles warn that bar staff expect tips. The bartender, female, covered in tattoos, makes a point of not looking at my dollar bill. It sits in a puddle of beer but I don’t move it, even though its corners sag with beer, making it look melancholy.
‘You’re English?’ smiles a woman sitting on barstool and a woman I’d not noticed until now as I’d been 17 again and nervous about the process of buying of a beer. She speaks with a heavy Mexican accent, which sounds like a heavy Spanish accent. I take a sip of beer. I need anesthetising. How does she know? Do I really ‘look’ English? The room, the sound, the people, they draw sweat. Are there dark circle under my armpits? How do I check subtly? ‘Manchester United, yes?’
‘Yep,’ I say. ‘Yes,’ I add, in case she doesn’t know what ‘yep’ means, in case ‘yep’ is British English.
‘Where do you live?’
She isn’t with anyone. Behind her - a thickset back of a customer leaning against the bar. She’s been to London. With her boyfriend. It is a beautiful city, she says. Rock and roll, mother-fuckers.
I nod agreement and drink more beer.
‘Where in London do you live?’
I say Greenwich because it’s the closest part of town that she may of heard of.
‘Greenwich. It’s where they invented time. The line.’
She laughs. The throwing head back, flicking hair, kind. I don’t mean to be funny. A combination of heat, hip-hop, jet lag and talking to an attractive woman has retarded my ability to talk cogently. A rumbling movement from the entrance. We turn — a bar fight! Like the Wild West! But it isn’t. A stream of blue police officers, each with shiny golden badge, washes into the room, parting the groups of drinkers. It looks choreographed, so I’m not scared. Could they be strippers? Dancers? It’s Hollywood, baby! The head of the line meets the DJ. The music stops. The lights are flicked on. There rises a mild grumble from the room. We blink at the sudden light. My new friend raises her eyebrows. Had she moved to Hollywood to act? I’ll ask. If our conversation continues after the blue invasion. Police move behind the bar. Police ask for ID. I pull out my passport. They’re not strippers.
‘What’s happening?’ I ask.
She doesn’t reply. A voice from over my shoulder — ‘Unlicensed bars. The Lithuanians,’ it said. ‘Happens all the fucking time.’
A police officer takes my passport. His fingers look like they could inflict unspeakable pain. His hair, blonde, is cut short at the sides, longer on top. His chest is thick and wide, more industrial than human. Not the Terminator, but Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. I could imagine this guy running after my car, extending his hands, those fingers, into huge metal hammers. If I had a car … if I could drive …
‘British?’ he says, narrowing his eyes at the information. I nod. Handing the passport back to me, he says — ‘There are better places to drink.’
The police disappear as quickly as they’d arrived. The lights are dimmed. The DJ, with a grin spreading from ear to ear, plays KRS-One’s Sound of da Police. KRS-One, Lawrence Parker, was born in New York in 1965. That makes him closer in age to my mother than me. Mum, asleep in Somerset, would never be as disrespectful to the police as KRS-One. Not since the Wellington branch of the Avon and Somerset constabulary helped find Billy, the family dog.
The Mexican woman thumbs at her phone. Its screen coats her face in a jellyfish light.
‘My boyfriend’s coming,’ she says. I don’t ask if she’s an actor. I tell her I have to go. I tell her that I’m feeling ill. It’s only a half-lie. It was a long flight, etc. She demands I give over my phone number. She doesn’t believe it begins with a zero. ‘My boyfriend, he once live in London in a place beginning with “A”.’
‘Acton? Angel?’ She shakes her head. I name as many London places beginning with an A as I can. She continues to shake her head.
Outside, even though it’s past midnight, the sky is alight with an orange fuzz, the same shade as the tip of a cigarette. I walk back along Hollywood Boulevard, sure to avoid the glance of any passers-by. Even though they’re likely tourists, there’s no harm in playing safe. At the hotel, the reception is closed. Through the window, I see a copy of Variety on the reception desk. Where does the receptionist go when her shift is over? To the clown strip club? I double-lock my hotel room and fall to asleep to a Dwayne Johnson movie. Once upon a time, he was a wrestler. After an initial flirtation with the name Rocky Maivia, he changed his wrestling name to ‘the Rock’. I guess it made him sound hard. You’d not want to be called ‘the rubber’ or ‘the glass window’. Dwayne Johnson’s maternal grandfather was a famous Samoan wrestler called Peter Maivia and possessed tribal tattoos that covered his abdomen and thighs. These were so large that they took three days to ink. Maivia’s nicknames were ‘the Flying Hawaiian’ and ‘the High Chief’. Johnson’s father is a Black Nova Scotian — a group of people descended from the African American slaves who fled north from the early United States. I’m woken in the morning by an urgent knocking. The sun, its volume turned up by ten notches since England, is desperate to push past the curtains. Before I’m able to speak, the two locks snap back and the door is pushed opened. It’s the receptionist. She stands in front of a trolley. She wears a white apron, the type you’d wear when baking a cake. Heat rolls past her, washes across my bed.
‘Housekeeping?’ she says. It takes the briefest of looks before she adds, sighing, that she’ll come back later. The door swings closed, the room returns to shade. I wonder what the time is in London, GMT, whether I should phone my girlfriend.