A traveller’s tale. By Duncan Fry
In the early 70s I was on the last leg of a world sightseeing trip. I’d been to Barcelona to see my mother, and in a bar we’d become friendly with a guy from LA who had a couple of record shops.
“We must catch up when you get to LA,” he said ” – call me and we’ll go around some of the wholesalers and rustle up some bargains for you.”
His name is lost in the mists of time, but instead of Mr X we’ll use some artistic licence and call him John.
When I finally arrived in LA by Greyhound bus, I found a taxi and told the driver to take me to a cheap hotel.
“Hollywood or Downtown, buddy?
Hmm. “Which is cheaper?”
He pondered this for a moment, then said, “Probably downtown. I’ll take you to the Clark Hotel. I take a lotta people there and they all seem to come out alive!”
I must have looked horrified, because he laughed and said “Nah, just kidding ya. It’s a really good hotel and only $20 a night.”
As we drove through the streets of downtown, though, I kept seeing signs for much cheaper hotels – $2 a night, $3 a night. $5 a night.
“What’s wrong with those ones?” i asked. “They look cheap enough.”
“What? Those places? I couldn’t leave you at any of them,” he replied. “They’re real flea pits. The sort of places where you have to put a leg of the bed in each shoe while you’re sleeping, so no-one steals them!”
“Don’t the doors lock?”
“Well, they give you a key, but doesn’t mean the door locks, you know. Same key usually fits all the rooms – it’s cheaper that way!”
We swung into the courtyard of a large older style hotel opposite a small park. Built during the days when downtown was the place to be.
“OK here we are – the Clark Hotel. Have fun buddy.” He handed me a card. “Here’s my number – call me if ya get lost!”
Straight after checking in, I went to my room, picked up the phone and called my old drinking buddy.
“Hi John – it’s Duncan here.”
“Who?” Uh oh.
“Duncan – I met you on holiday in Barcelona when I was visiting my mum.”
“Oh yeah, the Australian guy in the record biz, right?”
“Yes – I’ve just arrived in LA, and you said to call you, so that’s what I’m doing.”
“Fantastic – have you got any plans for tonight?”
“Nothing so far – I’m staying at the Clark Hotel downtown.”
“Whoa – downtown? You like to live on the edge, doncha? Tell you what, I’ll grab a couple of buddies and we’ll come by and pick you up, get something to eat, then we’ll go and check out the store. See you at about 7, OK?”
At around seven I went down to the lobby and stood outside the hotel’s big glass doors. Suddenly a dark blue very beaten up old Cadillac convertible screeched to a halt outside, and a guy who I guessed was John got out and stared at me.
“Are you Duncan?” he yelled.
I nodded “Yes, that’s me.”
“Ah thank Christ,” he said “I gotta admit I was a bit pickled when we met in Spain. Your Mom could drink us all under the table, couldn’t she, so I was hoping it was you standing there.”
He shook my hand and slapped a hand on my back.
“C’mon, get in we’re hungry.”
He had a couple of friends with him, who shuffled around in the seats and made room for me. There was plenty of room in the back and as he accelerated away from the hotel I slid from side to side as the Caddy lurched its way around the streets. It was my first experience of a big American car and their soft floating suspension.
We pulled up outside a diner and went inside. It was obviously John’s home away from home as everyone there seemed to know him, from the chef to the waitresses.
“Hey I gotta visitor from Australia here,” he said, pointing at me, “so look after him as well as you look after me.”
“No way,” they all laughed, “we’ll treat him much better!”
I ended up having a salad with lashings of Roquefort cheese dressing, a steak, a bucket of fried shrimp, a side of fries that would have choked a donkey, and a beer. It was delicious, and when I’d finished I would have been quite happy to just curl up in the corner and drift off to sleep. But no, there was more to come.
When we had all said our goodbyes to everyone in the diner, we started to walk down the street back to the car. Passing a basement pool hall, one of John’s buddies said “Hey, how about grabbing some beers and shooting some pool?”
“Great idea!” they all chorused, and ran down the steps. Banging open the door, John yelled out “OK we’re here to play some pool. Everybody make some room, alright?”
The room went silent. A sea of black faces stared at us. Shit we’re all going to die, I thought.
I should point out that this was 1975, a few years before a similar scene in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), when the college students go to see Otis Day and the Knights in a black club, with disastrous results!
Luckily this didn’t happen to us. As soon as everyone realised that it was John, who was obviously well-known in the area, they all started laughing and poking him with pool cues. Beers all round soon got us a couple of tables and a few games. I lost every time!
“Right, let’s go and see the store, Duncan, and you can see how we do things over here,” said John as we piled back into his old Cadillac. It turned out to be just a few blocks away down West Pico Boulevard.
“Hey what’s happening here?” yelled John as we got closer. Two police cars were outside the shop, lights flashing, and the police were standing looking through the windows into the shop and laughing!
“Shit – there’s someone in the store.” said John.
Sure enough there was. It turned out that the shop’s air conditioner which was above the door of the shop had been taken away for servicing, since you couldn’t NOT have an air conditioner in a record store during an LA summer! In the resulting hole, a thin sheet of plywood had been temporarily nailed, and which now was knocked out.
By climbing up on a garbage can, a young 16 year-old kid had managed to crawl through the hole and drop down into the shop.
However, once inside he realised the door was deadlocked and he couldn’t get out. Nor could he climb up on the inside to get out of the hole. So he had stacked up vinyl albums on top of each other like steps, and was trying to climb up them, but being shrink wrapped and slippery they started sliding sideways as soon as he stepped on them. Which caused him to fall off onto the floor every time, much to the amusement of the onlookers!
When he finally stopped trying and just sat on the floor, John opened up the door with the keys and the police took him away, as well as a few copies of the latest albums. “That’ll make sure they keep an eye on the place,” he laughed as they drove away.
Apparently the silent burglar alarm had alerted the security company, who had told the police, and they had been calling John at home, but of course he was out partying with yours truly. No cell phones back in 1975!
And true to his word, the next day he took me around some record wholesalers, where the low prices absolutely floored me! So much so that I filled a whole suitcase with albums to take home as my luggage, and also regularly shipped a 50 kilo carton back to Oz that I sold for at least 300% margin at Sunday markets!
Ah, those were the good old days!