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My Robot Is Pregnant theme song!

tough guy poetry and manly stories of loneliness
all contents copyright Jon Rolston 2004, 2005, 2006

September 22, 2007

the nickel is 5th street

This is an interview conducted in downtown LA with a woman who is filming a documentary about the quickly changing face of this gentrifying section of the city. Developers are buying up the warehouses and converting them to lofts, and the city wants the many hotels which currently house the near homeless, the down and outers, to be turned over to non profits who will control the tenants with curfews and social programs.

It is raining on the nickel for the first time in months, downtown LA is having the smog rinsed off. A woman is sitting under the awning of the banquet cafe.

Her name is Aline. She wears a North Vietnamese regular’s green army cap with a bright red metallic star in the center and black leather boots that come almost to the knee, dark blue jeans with an expensive design embroidered into the back pockets and her hands in the pockets of her waist cut black wool pea coat with two rows of big black buttons in perfect lines up and down her chest. She looks like she may be used by the Russians to sexually humiliate captured spies.

“I feel like I’m back in europe, drinking red wine on a sidewalk cafe with these little showers coming in and making the streets shiny.”

A guy in a t shirt missing a front tooth, holding a pink blanket stops short and looks at her, saying, “hey hey hey,”, then turns to me, and asks,”this your wife?” The security guard comes by and the man keeps walking. That’s how it works on this one gentrified corner of skid row in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Private security protects the new colonialists.

Regardless of her fancy dress today, Aline has been living in a flop house with cement floors and a shared bathroom for almost two years. She is filming a documentary about the Single Resident Occupancy hotels of this neighborhood. The life is starting to affect her.

“I’m getting tired of stepping over shit and piss and people screaming incomprehensible things, i’d like to go to a nice apartment with plants and books, have breakfast with a friend and discuss intellectual things. Have you heard of the pathology of anthrolpologists who sometimes can’t connect back to their original culture after being in the field so long? They are stuck in between two worlds and just lose it. I worry this could happen to me, being in this whole skid row hotel world makes it hard for me to smoothly fit in to other social situations – at CalArts or something. Its kind of screwing me up. I have to be conscious of who am and where I come from or I’ll end up…..” she opens her hand towards the crazy man holding his pink blanket by the trash cans across the street.

What’s life like living on skid row?

“You must accept things how they are. You don’t have power to change anything. You’re gonna eat crappy food, its unhealthy, you’ll develop a limp or a heart problem. You accept there’s toxic air streaming into your lungs and I wake up with my throat hurting even though I quite smoking a month ago, everything is bleak so I go have a beer at noon and breakfast is $2.95 but who knows what the salmonella situation is? She wipes off the counter but it just moves the grease, and how can you fuck up eggs? It becomes a task where I have to force it down, force the food down. When I smoked it was easier because I could choke it down and then go smoke.”

What’s this world like down here?

“Its normal that crowds of people are hanging out, there’s weird street rules: don’t stand on this street corner too long, walk fast through here, don’t use the sidewalk here, knowing when to say hello or not say a word…
Who ever I walk with it becomes a whole different experience. A whole different experience if I walk by myself than with Willy, who’s an African American male who helps me with the movie. When he walks by himself, people don’t stare, other black males say ‘whats up’, someone might ask him about when the mission opens – me, I don’t get that question ever.
When we were walking together, a random car stopped and asked if I needed a taxi…

The rain has stopped and the street is wet and the light across the city is stunning, with dark clouds casting shadows and blue sky lighting up the sky between them.

“Police are very different. They won’t look if he is walking by himself, unless he jaywalks, then he may be in some trouble, but if we walk together, depending how I’m dressed, how I actually walk, when I dress down and in the mode and get in there, wear a hat and look down and out cops don’t take notice of me either. Or I can be an obvious counter point, all on how I walk. If I’m out of place, the cops take more notice, to see if I’m lost, in trouble, buying drugs…the people on the street I’ve met, they won’t talk the same to me when i am dressed like now, they know, i know, that I’m someone else.

“The weird thing is, I don’t know in which situation I’m safer – when I blend or not. At first, last year, I thought I was safer when I blended, but now I’m sure. I don’t think I am.”

Why are you down here? We talked about the influence of Bukowski on both of us. How much is he to blame?

“I haven’t found the answer myself. Bukowski might have some to do with it, but it’s not the entire story. He’s part of a much deeper tradition going way back, I’m thinking of Bauldelaire describing a similar world in late 19th centrury Paris, but he was smoking opium, not drinking.”

A rainbow breaks over downtwon and the kids on the street are standing there watching it, it rarely happens in Los Angeles. For some, it may be the first one they’ve ever seen.

“I think being here is a way to transgress yourself, your background, to see if you can connect with something that’s on the other side, far away. I’m curious what I’ll find among all these down and outers. I want to know if there’s anything at the bottom of something.

“There is a general fascination with failure, human failure and societal failure, it talks about the frailty, for me, of human beings, human life.

The girl comes out of the coffee shop from behind the counter, cell phone in hand, saying she’s looking for the rainbow to the person on the other end.

“Failure seems more authentic than success. Look at two people. One, they failed. They thought they’d get married, get a house, whatever, there’s something they didn’t become because they fucked up. When they can recount that story, it comes across more authentic than some guy who was a successful business man who tells his story, it will sound like only what he’s not telling is true, because he has much more to lose. Through being successful you aquire successful ways of using language to protect yourself. He can use it as an instrument to his success.

“But it could be that the guy who failed is trying to keep up a certain persona too, so it could all be bullshit. I don’t know… I wonder how instrumental that language is… At The King Eddy bar (the bar connected to her hotel room) in the smoking room you feel like you need to somehow record, somehow document these people’s language, it comes from an unstreamlined place, a place of no resistance, it has nothing to do with the language of advertising, business.

“I want to capture their language. There’s a much more heterogenous nature in the language among that group, many more individual accents, the unique words they use. Everything. The whole deal. They are individuals more so than any other group I’ve encountered.

“I’m looking for something not controlled. Any kind of transition is possible here. It’s a liminal space. An undefined space. American society is trying to eridacte those liminal spaces. You don’t want something undesignated for use, something not immediatley legible: this is a shopping mall, this is a loft space, this is a hotel. but these residential hotels are still liminal, you have no idea whos in there, no control over who’s in there. Pedophiles. Junkies. Illegal people. Those liminal spaces are exactly a democracy, what it’s supposed to be. When you’re in Europe you think that’s what America will offer, but you have to go way out into the desert to find it and even there they are trying to control it.”

When will this movie project be done?

“It will be arbitrary. At some point I’ll get sick of it. There are so many stories I could go on for a really long time, but I don’t think that will be healthy for my psyche. I’m gonna need to see rich people who are beautiful and healthy affter this.”

So Aline, the lady bukowski, laughs.

4 Comments

  1. seems luxurious to me, dabble in international travel and then do a movie of other people’s misery in a flop house. i stay out of flop houses because it’s too much of someone else’s pain. i’ve got plenty of real my own just from just living life and i’m no schaudenfreuda.

    you know tend to your own garden kind of thinking. maybe lend your neighbor some seeds so they can feed themselves not so you can steal their food.

    Comment by toorichformyblood. — September 24, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

  2. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Someone who takes out a huge loan to come to America and go to school to learn cinematography(a skill that won’t likely ever pay for the cost of the education) and has so powerful a desire to tell stories they do it all anyway, and rather than tell the story of the rich and successful, which is the majority of the stories told in all media, she chooses to tell the story of the people who are seeing their world come apart around them.

    Perhaps I did a poor job of fully explaining the situation. I did a disservice to you and to Aline. I beg your pardon.

    Comment by Rolston — September 24, 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  3. i liked to see things like this posted anywhere. i also like the idea of this documentary, i think i actually heard about it already somewhere else. i’m tired of rich people barging in and quadrupling the cost of living. i don’t know how everyone around me doubled their income in the last five years, mine’s only gone up about 30 percent and my annual rent controlled rental increase is perfectly half of it almost every time. all these assholes have given my landlord the idea that he can double the rent even though the wood inside my walls is termite carved splinters and no one’s done repairs for me for the last…. dunno how many years. last month my landlord left me a ‘pay rent or evacuate in 3 days’ notice *after* he cashed my rent check (?!). i think he wants me out. and yes, it is difficult even for me *not* living that badly, to go about being light and carefree knowing that the wealth in this city might knock me on my ass and step over me any day. i’m sending huge waves of good vibes out just for Aline.

    Comment by rosie — September 27, 2007 @ 6:14 pm

  4. I think it’s hard for anyone to grasp that someone would pursue an education/career in the film industry without being solely motivated by fortune/fame. Love the art, hate the artist.

    Comment by Lyle_s — September 29, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

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