Recollecting an artist's life in Los Angeles, circa 1989
We began living in Hollywood in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down and much before they gentrified the neighbourhood. It was dirty, grimy and fantastic. The hookers walked further east of us, around the pink and mauve lingerie of Frederick’s of Hollywood, but essentially the action was between Fairfax and Vine. Floating populations of grifters, hopeful actors, wannabe musicians, real time drug pushers, porn producers, bums and others with either desolate or wide eyes with two things in common – poverty, for the rents were still relatively cheap, and dreams. Konarak was at Musician’s Institute on McCadden Place and I schlepped around working various part time jobs as a hostess at the Gaylord in Beverly Hills, an ice cream scooper at the Haagen Dazs opposite the Hotel Roosevelt, a dental assistant somewhere in the Valley and a telemarketer at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre on Spring Street.
We lived just off of Hollywood Boulevard our whole time in LA. Our first apartment was south of Hollywood Blvd, on Hawthorne, the second was on N. Sycamore, alongside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the third was south of Sunset and east of La Brea on 3rd and Fairfax. It was so much another life that I put it away somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind after we came back to India which turned out to be a bit of a shock, gobsmacked as it was by instant karma and globalization. But in one of those marvellous tricks of serendipity, our daughter went back to Hollywood Blvd today for a screening of her video at LA Contemporary Exhibition, met old friends of ours from LA and just like that, it was back again. Still some pockets of grime, still some dreamers and freaks behind the malls and glassy stuff, thank heavens.
It was my first time away from India and I was 22 years old, the same age as my daughter today. A really large, Rastafarian bum would follow me around with the bum’s ubiquitous Ralph’s shopping cart and I would leap into the post office or a book shop as soon as I saw his dreads and Lion of Judah robes. But he wasn’t a bad sort, I don’t think, because his smile was beatific. The post office on Wilcox was my haunt as I posted innumerable blue airmail letters back home, filled with the tiniest scrawl so I could fill as much information as possible into each missive. It’s an art deco building, part of the old Hollywood, but I paid it no attention, more concerned was I with the panhandler who wanted me to give him some money. I scrambled with unfamiliar coins and handed him something. “Thank you, Mam, (BIG PAUSE) for the penny” he said and I wilted in embarrassment.
We were really and truly alone in Los Angeles when we first got there. How is that possible? Well, perhaps because we were artists living in an Indian never-never land. Indians in those days were doctors living in Orange County or students at USC with apartments downtown. No Indian would consider a life off of Hollywood Blvd. It was that perfect for us. So we shopped for blue and white packets of generic ramen, generic cigarettes and cheap gallon bottles of Gallo at the Ralph’s on Sunset, made friends of our neighbours and fellow gypsies either from MI or just around, cooked big pots of ball curry and staved homesickness with Thai take away and each other.
Our neighbours, especially at Sycamore were a great crew. My best bud, Mary Jane, lived downstairs. Eighty years old with a strawberry blonde perm, she chain smoked Lucky Strike Lights and was my LA mama. Hauling out an old couch for me, chastising me from her McCarthy era perspective when I went to the first Gulf War protests downtown. She was from Boise, Ohio and I have many a lingering curiosity about Mary Jane. Why she was single, why she ended up in Hollywood but most particularly, who did she entertain. I noticed a blender in her otherwise untouched kitchen and said “Oh, so you cook?” and she said “No, I only ever used it to blend cocktails for my gentlemen friends.” When we returned to LA for a holiday, some years after we came back to India, I visited her. She wanted to take us out – wherever we wanted. Stupidly I suggested some new place on La Brea with exposed air-conditioning and rude waiters who chucked rolls directly onto your table. Two women were kissing on the table next to us and looked at Mary Jane askance for smoking. I regret this. Wish we had gone to Denny’s instead.
Next to us lived a lovely girl, Catherine Dent, from Baton Rouge. She too was an actor and would be in and out for sugar or a chat. When our beat up little Rabbit eventually gave up its ghost, Konarak used her car to get to gigs. Her boyfriend was a tree surgeon, a profession so unfamiliar, I had to ask him what that was. The land lady and her metal head man were Buddhists and we heard them chanting Nam myoho renge kyo when they weren’t killing each other. Once, our Danish roommate Mads took us for dinner to the home of another Danish ex-pat. She worked as a call girl and lived in a penthouse apartment with a big dog. She was very hospitable and told us the money was easy and involved little more than whacking men with salamis.
One day, wandering through the LA County Museum which was free and had the La Brea tar pits alongside, I saw what looked like an Indian head bob in surprise on seeing me. I bobbed as well, in equal surprise because this Indian had long hair. Wow. What’s going on… This was Shishir Kurup, of Indian origin but from east Africa via Japan as a student of Tadashi Suzuki and at that time, director of the Asian-American Theatre Project at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre and working part time as a projectionist at the museum. What’s going on is about right. It was thanks to Shishir’s invitation that I began making it to rehearsals in a black box at the gorgeous old LATC building on Spring Street. Nights after rehearsal, we were escorted out by armed guards because of the number of shootings that would go down between Skid Row and Grand Central Market with its heaving piles of queso fresco. This went on for the next few years. I owe Shishir many thanks for seeing a girl in a museum and offering her a world of theatre that popped my eyes so wide open they never closed again, for giving me Reza Abdoh, performance art in Griffith Park, performing Butoh naked at the LATC, Danny Glover batting to keep the radical LATC going and the knowledge that this was all more earth shattering that the Phantom of the Opera that was happening ceaselessly and seamlessly at the Mark Taper Forum next door.
One of those years, it was the Summer of Lambada and Konarak was moonlighting with a variety of lambada and afro-reggae bands. Afro Brazil, Banda Esmeralda, Queen Ekinem etc. He’d pick me up after my illegal work at the dentist’s, I’d slap on red lipstick in the car and we’d head to whichever club the gig was at that night. Cuervo Gold, dancing lambada, Flavia and Carolina the smokin’ hot singers and there would always be sambistas and capoeiristas to make the night cook just on the off chance the Cuervo didn’t do the trick.
There was also a time when Queen Ekinem did a New Year’s Eve gig at a club on Crenshaw Boulevard and there was exactly, well, no one there besides the band. But it was a great gig or maybe it felt like that for we were baked. A singer called Gigi (her boyfriend had hired the club for the night) who I quite adored did the most grooving, seriously pulled back version of J.C. Lodge’s reggae/dancehall classic Telephone Love. No complaints, that’s for sure.
Another time, our friend Ram Menon was down from Seattle and suitably stunned that Konarak was playing in Compton, the Compton, infamous for its race riots and a rough neighbourhood. We had the best day, eating Jamaican barbeque, dancing in the sunshine, drinking beer on the street and basking in the warmth and flirtation of many black people in one hopping place. It was far more aloof at a reggae Love Fest in Topanga Canyon with a beautiful outdoor wooden gallery theatre filled with girls in bright tie dye and blond dreads probably all from UCLA walking on the wild side for the weekend. Once we laughed hysterically at the Long Beach Festival… A trailers full of musicians and another full of sexy sambistas and the latter squealing high shrieks of modesty when the musicians walked into their trailer only to come out minutes later and dance energetic samba in front of a crowd of 2000 wearing nothing but pasties and a thong.
Always the moment, always the experience. Playing music with Patricio Munoz in Long Beach, his wife Beth cooking beans and rice with kielbasa sausage, jalapeno and garlic. Richard Young talking to my baby-filled belly at Hollywood Bowl, we should have held him tight and not let go. Getting high in the hallway with Paula Weston, never making it out the door. Andy from Lagos, Charlene from mainland China, John from Yorkshire, the great jazzman Joe Diorio and the Vedanta Society, Page Leong from San Francisco, Han Ong from Manila and the two of us from Bangalore, India. Seekers, mystics, sinners, saints journeying together for a while.
Our friend Gretchen lived in Venice so we’d head there on weekends. And there she’d be in her pink and white alley home, cooking shrimp bisque with brandy, making plans for Christmas with great big lemons hanging over her always open doorway. Beat Santschi, a musician friend from MI, rented an apartment in Venice that apparently Jim Morrison had lived in. We cooked pasta there and watched the sun set over the ocean. He bought a convertible and lived the rock star life for a couple years before heading home to Switzerland.
If I could take me back, it would be to a white bikini and Jody Maroni’s hotdogs on the boardwalk. It was another life, that’s for sure. Some of it too painful in its sweetness to dwell on. Another life, and it was good.