I once lived in the ugliest building on earth. It sits at the top of a hill on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. Ivar Avenue is famous for several things people would like to forget… The Knickerbocker Hotel is one and the remnants of the Hollywood Spa is another. Before he passed away on Halloween 1926, Harry Houdini told his wife that if he died and there was an afterlife, he would come back to her to prove it once and for all. For ten years Bess Houdini held a séance every Halloween, waiting for Harry to give her a sign. The last séance was conducted on the roof of the Knickerbocker. It was a media sensation but when Harry failed to appear the media was anything but kind, and Mrs. Houdini was never welcomed at the hotel again.
The now dumpy Knickerbocker is a seedy and unsafe refuge for Russian senior citizens living on government checks. It is unsurprising that now many ghosts supposedly haunt the Knickerbocker. It is said a beloved bellhop named Roger walks the halls, while Marilyn Monroe stares at herself in the powder room vanity. Many anonymous hotel patrons have been seen. Doors slam on their own. In the most ironic twist, Rudolph Valentino is often sighted, even though he died four years before the Knickerbocker opened. That’s Hollywood for you.
The Hollywood Spa opened in 1974 on Ivar Avenue and, before the advent of HIV and AIDS, was a major destination for gay men who had few other places to meet one another. It had 100 private rooms, a DJ, a steam room and Jacuzzi, an “adult video” lounge, a gym and a cafe. The spa boasted it hosted over 100,000 visitors a year. It is speculated that the first diagnosed case of AIDS originated from the Spa in 1980… who knows… who cares? It’s now closed and the homeless sleep in the doorway.
Nothing is as dismal as the Alto Nido Apartments. The building sits at the top of Ivar Hill like a neighborhood Alcatraz. To get to it you must climb an incline so steep that personal trainers bring fat, midlife victims there to feel the burn. The building has no parking, no air conditioning, no heat, no hot water, no elevator and no window screens. My apartment actually had no kitchen window. It wasn’t that a pane of glass was missing… the entire window was gone. It was simply a massive, gaping hole in the side of the building large enough to push a stove out… It is a place where God sends you 10 minutes after death while Satan is preparing your eternal digs in a lake of fire.
My apartment was on the top floor… the place was vacant for more than three years when I took it… I understood why… from the kitchen, the missing window allowed my dog to walk onto a poured tar roof. This was perfect for me … I’d found a place with a private dog walk 8 floors above Hollywood. For a year, my pug pooped and peed there and never once did I bother to clean it up. Why bother? The only thing good about the Alto Nido was the 180 degree view. I could look west on a clear day and see the Pacific Ocean, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, the Hollywood Sign and Runyon Canyon… Places so beautiful and so far from life at the Alto Nido.
In 1951, a scene from Sunset Boulevard was filmed in my apartment. It was where a young William Holden lived before he becomes Nora Desmond’s boy toy… that was the last good thing that ever happened at the Alto Nido Apartments. Actually, Renee Zellweger and Jonny Depp lived there for 10 minutes before fame allowed them to escape.
The Alta Nido is where I gave fear a face… I call her the bread lady. Every day I would see her sitting on the stairs of the building, in an old housecoat and those orthopedic shoes old people wear. Her hair was the strangest color I’ve ever seen on a human. It was some kind of purplish red and was always braided like old German women wear. I think she actually colored with a Sharpie marker… nothing else could have created it. Regardless, every day she sat on the steps in the blazing California sun and said nothing. I have no idea her age, but by my calculations she must be 80ish.
The bread lady never spoke to me or even acknowledged my existence until one day I saw her trying to drag a broken cart of food up the hill from the corner store. She would take five steps stop and then begin again. I have no idea how long she had been trying to get up Ivar Hill but I do know the ice cream in her cart melted and was dripping onto the pavement. I finally introduced myself and offered to pull the cart to her apartment. She agreed but her response took me off guard… she said, “I know exactly what’s in this cart and you damn sure better not steal any of it!”. I was instructed to put the cart in the lobby…. There was no reason for me to know her apartment number. Wow… what a total bitch!
Eventually, we began to speak on the steps when the sun was at its hottest. One day, I bought a couple loaves of rye bread from a bakery of Fairfax and gave her one. I remember she grabbed it from me like something of great value and said “I don’t eat bread… but, I might eat this!”. This woman was the devil! I had just broken bread with Satan… that couldn’t be good.
Hollywood is hotter than hell in September. Once it was 107 degrees in my kitchen and my dog was on the broken bathroom tiled floor trying to survive. Fans were blowing and the sun was blazing into ever open window. I had to get out of that horrible place or die trying… as I left the building there she was… sitting on the steps in the blazing sun just staring at the traffic on the freeway and the Hollywood sign. She was motionless.
I’ve heard just before death people find a need to open up about life and their regrets… she must have believed her time was coming because she wouldn’t stop. She explained that nothing good ever happened for her at the Alto Nido. Her life mirrored the building and neither were pretty. She lives in a windowless apartment in the basement that may have been a maintenance man’s shop. Maybe that’s how she got there, maybe she followed a man.
She’d moved to the building the same week she arrived in Hollywood. It was August 9, 1969, the same day 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of acclaimed movie director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown), was found murdered along with four other people at her Los Angeles home only 7 miles away. The gruesome crime, in which the killers scrawled messages on the walls with the victims’ blood, sent Hollywood into a state of panic. It sent the bread lady into isolation.
In 46 years, she has never ventured more than a few blocks from her dark apartment. She leaves for the necessities of survival… that is all.
As she told it, life was a terrifying sequences of events in the 1970s. Economic hard times pushed Hollywood into the abysses. Banks closed up shop. Check cashing joints sprung up where family restaurants and markets once stood. Stores sold mostly cheap electronics, t-shirts, tacky souvenir shops and trashy lingerie. This is when the courts liberalized obscenity laws. Many ramshackle Hollywood theaters made big bucks showing XXX films. With the porno movies came the hookers, with the hookers came the drugs, and Hollywood had gone to seed. It wasn’t safe walking down the street, especially at night. It was a dangerous place full of people needing money for drugs. The Alto Nido became home to the hustlers, working girls and losers.
It was sometime in the 1970s that “it” happened. In the late afternoon on the sidewalk, in broad daylight, “it” sealed her fate. No one stopped to help her, no one acknowledged her screams, no one called the police. She was only a few hundred feet from her apartment, and nothing could be done to stop “it”. I didn’t ask what “it” was… I didn’t need to know.
In the 1980s, she developed a fondness for an apartment manager who spoke to her and bought her a poinsettia at Christmas. He was a kind man. He never entered her apartment or tried to hurt her. She said one day he was in the lobby covered in large purple spots and the next day an ambulance took him away. She never saw him again. She knew all too well what happened to him, because it was happening all over the building. Young men were dying on every floor. At one point, she said the building was virtually empty. She was terrified of this thing that was killing everyone and she lived in fear of catching it.
In 1992, the Los Angeles Riots terrified her. Thousands in the Los Angeles area joined in a race riot that included looting, assault, arson and murder. The situation became too difficult to be handled by local police, and the California Army National Guard, as well as, federal soldiers and Marines were called in. Before it ended, 53 people were dead. She saw smoke in the distance as the city burned. Someone on a loud speaker screamed for her to go inside and remain there until further notice. Notice never came, so she watched the neighborhood burn on a TV from her windowless apartment on Ivar Avenue.
She had nothing more to say about the Alto Nido, the neighborhood or life after that day. There was really no reason to discuss the past… it was no different from the present. She arrived in Hollywood frightened and will remain that way for the rest of her life. What I noticed was she never remembered a moment’s happiness or peace.
She and I have so much in common!
I’m tired of being afraid.
And I mean afraid in every sense of the word. I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of being robbed. I’m afraid of being raped. I’m afraid of being murdered. I’m afraid to walk pass cars alone at night.
I’m afraid of being alone. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid that when I die I’ll be all alone in that moment. I’m afraid of history erasing me and no one will know that I lived or who I was.
I’m afraid that Heaven might not exist. Or that God might not exist. Or at least in the way that I think He does. I’m afraid I won’t be good enough to be with Him. I’m afraid I won’t make it into Heaven if it is there. I’m afraid there’s nothing after this life.
Oh, how I want to cling to this life just like I’ve wanted to cling onto anyone who has ever loved me. I want to hold it firmly in my hands and never sleep because it might leave me.
I’m afraid to take a chance. I’m afraid. Do you hear me?
I AM SO AFRAID!
We all have fear. If we didn’t feel fear, we wouldn’t be alive. But there’s a big difference between having fear and being driven by your fears. Most people are driven by their fears, leading them to make (or avoid making) particular decisions that pull them down a dark, sticky dead-end road.
Most of my life, I rode shotgun while my fear sat behind the wheel, steering me through life. My relationship with my fear caused me to be a beta version of myself. I maneuvered at a very low frequency and, as a result, learned that people don’t really want to be around that. My feet were not planted in a particular stance. So I pretended. I scrambled. I let my fear inflate my insecurity and anxiety.
I think fear is also caused by ignorance. When we have limited information, we tend to be tense and insecure about the outcome of our actions. Ignorance causes us to fear change, to fear the unknown, and to avoid trying anything new or different. But the reverse is also true. The very act of gathering more and more information about a particular subject causes us to be more courageous and confident in that area. There are parts of our life when we have no fear at all because we feel knowledgeable and capable of handling whatever happens.
The day I moved from the Alto Nido I bought the bread lady a gift and placed it at her front door. Inside a new grocery cart was a loaf of bread and a note that read, “I moved. Here’s my number… call me”. She never did and she never will… I was just something she observed for a few fleeting seconds from the steps of the ugliest building on earth.
I live in an upscale high rise now with all the luxuries money can buy… my life is so good. I have nothing to fear… but from my balcony I look across the Hollywood landscape directly at the Alto Nido and I think of her on the steps watching life move in a city that doesn’t love her. I know she’s still afraid.