Strange Doings in Los Angeles, California

by Jim Farrar (1981)

It's five o'clock in the afternoon and I'm drunk in downtown Los Angeles. The sun is cold and the air is thick and I'm on the phone yelling at my best friend who lives far away, in Garden Grove.

“I hate this town,” I say. “Why in the hell did you ever give them my play! You’re an idiot, Leslie. Were you born stupid or did you study!”

Les remains calm. “I’m not an agent, I’m an electrical engineer,” he says placidly. “I know a few people. I was doing you a favor and now you’re drunk.”

Which is true enough. I am drunk. I’m babbling like the village juicer in some Irish novel, calling my oldest and best friend every name in the book.

And I’m beginning to doubt seriously whether or not I want to be a playwright anymore. Christ, I’m from Idaho, a country boy, and now I’m acting like one of them. What happens next? Do I end up on the street with the goofball who just tried to sell me some skag, crawling in the gutter and ranting and raving about God-knows-what? (He wanted to know if I needed a fix. Do I look that bad?) I begin to wonder why I came out here in the first place.

I remember all too well. I came out because I’d written a play and somebody said they wanted to buy it, actually option it. Maybe. “Well, that is, what we really want to do is some workshop things with it...and then we’ll see. Will you participate in our summer conference?”

Actually they’d asked Les. And I’d jumped at the chance. He knew someone who knew someone, who knew someone, and so on. Les had never let me down before. But he’s right, he’s really not an agent. Just a friend with some good connections in Southern California. And doesn’t everyone know someone like that? But to call him an agent, well that’s an egregious misnomer.

Which is how I came to be at this writers conference in Los Angeles in the summer of 1981 and why I’m in this bar trying to drink myself into oblivion, about a stone’s throw away from Hollywood. I am the only person in the bar.

Frustration inevitably frustrates temperance and about half a fifth of Wild Turkey later I’ve crossed over the center-line of moderation. I am ready to kill.

But I don’t. Instead, I get in my car and drive up the street.

Earlier in the day, I’d been given two tickets to the Gallagher concert that night. Thinking I can use a few laughs right now, I head towards the theater. By the time I get there the line has already curled around the block, so I park in the alley, not the wisest thing to do in downtown L.A. Since I already have tickets, I go to the front of the line, an action which invokes a small but ugly riot.

As the ushers try to control the mob during the ensuing chaos, I sneak in through the front door and find my seat. About five minutes later, an announcement comes over the P.A. saying that the show won’t start for at least another hour, due to the size of the crowd and some disturbance out front.

My head is cloudy and toasted like a marshmallow.

Too much whiskey; my mind is drifting, my eyes burn and my mouth is dry. Why do I torture myself so? Already, I can feel the hangover setting in. Tomorrow morning there’ll be a tom-tom solo performed on the inside of my head.

So I start ruminating on the past week’s events. Some rumination. I’m closer to passing out than I am somber reflection.

It’d all started well enough. I’d got into town a couple days early, so I decided to go sight-seeing after checking into my motel, the Farm deVille East, across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm – the only place in Southern California I’ve ever been able to find my way back to with any consistency and therefore, my only point of reference in the area, as in “Westwood? Where is it in relation to, uh, to...Knott’s Berry Farm?”

It was getting dark, so I figured I’d check out the action at the Whiskey a Go-Go, a bar on Sunset Boulevard and, as it turns out, on the other side of town. Nowhere near Knott’s Berry Farm.

Not having the sense to buy a map, I got in my car and started driving. Several hours later, there I was. Or at least I was in the right neighborhood. I’d arrived via Santa Ana, Compton, and Newport Beach. Odds are I would’ve toured Santa Barbara that night had I not made a fortuitous right turn – onto Sunset Boulevard, no less – in Beverly Hills.

Whoever it was that said the shortest distance between two points in a straight line certainly wasn’t a tourist. I drove past the Whiskey twice, once all the way back to downtown L.A., past the buildings with Latino graffiti on them, before I found it.

I got out of my car and breathed in the night air. I let my eyes and my nose adjust to the neon haze, to the small of stale cigarette smoke and the hint of about a dozen different restaurants: char broiled decadence. I was surrounded by strangers, by their muffled chatter. Every once in awhile I’d pick out a phrase, an argument here or there, or a come-on. I passed unseen through the night, through their lives and into well-lit darkness.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what I found at the Whiskey a Go-Go. In the Sixties, the club had been home to and provided the springboard for better things for a wide variety of groups: the Doors, the Animals, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart, Them. My music, my generation. This was a bar for us kids. I was revisiting a legend, coming home.

Prosaic but true: times passes, things change. And yes, the Whiskey was still a place for the kids, it played their music. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I’d forgotten that. The idealist kitten had become an ambitious cat. And the Whiskey a Go-Go had gone punk. Tie-dye tee shirts and blue jeans had been replaced by bermuda shorts and purple hair and rude little creeps who believed in nothing but violence and anarchy. They spat at one another and called each other names and slammed into one another on the dance floor. The generation – my generation – of love and peace had been duly expelled from the premises a long time ago. Or so it appeared to me, a relic of another era. Is this how my parents felt about me twelve years ago. I cajoled myself into thinking that they didn’t, into thinking that, if nothing else, I had stood for something and that they had respected me for that very reason, even if they didn’t like the length of my hair. Vietnam had done that. Nobody burned their draft card anymore.

Is this the way the world works? Do we mourn the passage of time, each birthday after, say, twenty eight, and yearn for the “good-old-days?” Is this why we have high school reunions, to recapture this feeling of purpose? Every generation seems to define itself by something. How will these kids feel about themselves in another ten years? I found a table in the back and wondered.

Aside from being in my mother’s womb, I don’t think I’d ever been more alone in my life. I was dressed like a freak, in brown cords, black tee shirt, and running shoes. The kids at the surrounding tables stared at me. I felt like an animal at the zoo in Griffith Park. It was my own fault, I should’ve know better. I come there expecting...what? I’m not sure. I wanted life to stand still, I guess, I wanted to walk through a time warp and listen to a ghost sing “Light My Fire” one more time. Instead, the band on stage was singing a charming little ditty about urination and vomit.

I drank my drink and went outside. The street was littered with hookers and punks and losers, criminals in one way or another. I wanted to go home, I wanted it to be 1970 again. Things weren’t as bad then as they had seemed at the time, not compared to this.

I got in my car, found the freeway with relative ease, and drove back to my motel, to the safety of Knott’s Berry Farm. I turned on the radio. A whiskey rasp that I immediately recognized brought a smile to my face. LA and her passing lights suddenly seemed friendly as I rolled down I-5.

Life is a gentle mystery, I thought, a journey that doesn’t always recognize the boundaries of time. The station I had tuned to was playing, “Light My Fire.”

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