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Life in the lot

March 13, 2004|Nancy Rommelmann | Special to The Times

A wiry man wearing a parachute jacket in a Hermes-like print pulls a rollaway suitcase through a parking lot. As he nears the entrance, two men in blue knit caps step from the shadow of a key-cutting hut and nod at the bag. The three confer, stepping aside to let a Lexus through. The car parks and disgorges a dad and two teenage girls in pajama pants; they take a wide step around a one-legged man asking for change in front of a liquor store, then pull open the door to an ice cream shop, which releases an incongruous whoosh of rosewater.

It's 10:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, and the parking lot, on La Brea just north of Sunset in Hollywood, is beginning its nightly convergence. Mostly, the parking lot players keep to their quadrants: miscreants on the south side, liquor store and bar customers along the west, AA meeting attendees on an overhanging balcony, and various others lingering in the fluorescent glare of Launderland or near the dark north wall, with its 10-foot high mural for LA Xpress and the colloquial name Pee Alley. But it's a small space for so many groups whose purpose in being here is either the pursuit or avoidance of alcohol.

Booze is messy, it makes people clumsy and loving and incautious, which means that every night on the lot there are cultural collisions. The night before, it was a skateboard that sailed off the balcony and crashed through the windshield of a VW Beetle; tonight, it's a guy in a motorized wheelchair whizzing back and forth, asking pretty girls heading into the Lava Lounge to help him over a 2-inch-high curb.

"The thing is, that guy pushed the chair in here himself earlier," says Christopher Neal, who, from his position working the door at Lava, monitors and mixes with the denizens of the parking lot, which he calls "a vortex."

"You get everybody," he says, as Heart's "Barracuda" seeps from the bar and a DJ loads in milk crates of LPs. "We got a guy here who runs around wearing only half a hood and underwear. We call him Daredevil. We get the girls in the Range Rovers who curse me out when I tell them it's a $3 cover."

Neal returns a wave from the one-legged man. "And we've got Lucky," he says. "He's here every night, trying to sweep up."

Sweep up? "Getting whatever's left in the parking lot," he says, as Lucky makes his way over on crutches.

"Can you help me?" he asks, holding forth a grimy baseball cap. He has several coffee-colored teeth and a white bandage on his knee stump. How'd he lose the leg?

"I got shot, 15 years ago," he says. "But I'm still here. I tell everybody here, if I die I'll let you guys know." He nods as a guy speaking Italian into a cellphone drops a few dimes into his cap. "I'm the only one in this lot keep to myself, doing my panhandling night by night."

Lucky hop-steps back to his spot in front of Roman's Liquor as the drama group from the Next Stage Theater tromps down the stairs, as it does each Friday around 11 p.m. The dozen or so guys in Ugg boots and girls trailing long crocheted scarves loiter in the lot, reciting lines and trying to belt out Christina Aguilera's "The Voice Within," which apparently annoys a transvestite in pink Spandex near the key hut, who shouts a slur challenging one actor's masculinity. The actor tears off his shirt with swashbuckling flourish, and the two shout unprintable words for a few minutes, a free tinderbox of a show for customers at Mashti Malone's, who sit 10 feet away on the Iranian ice creamery's small patio, working through cups of orange blossom gelato. A friend of the actor's convinces him to get in her car, and as she backs out the rollaway suitcase is revealed, sitting unattended against the south wall.

Around 11:30, dozens of young people start up the urine-steeped staircase on the north wall. They're here for a late-night AA meeting, and most arrive on foot, wearing Mohawks and prom punk, carrying Burger King bags and puppies.

"HOO HOO HOO," chant the 70 or so attendees, before they break and sit through the midnight meeting inside the Next Stage, with its posters for "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" and a stage the size of a dining table. Or most do.

"What are you doing? Move it!" shouts a guy in a Honda Element as a red Cherokee with a dangling grille stops in front of Roman's, blocking all traffic.

"It's not in the way!" shouts the driver, getting out of the car and taking the stairs two at a time. The guys in the blue knit caps, spitting out sunflower seed husks as they lean against the hood of a nearby car, watch impassively as the driver of the Element leans on his horn.

"Easy, easy now," says Lucky, patting the air, indicating the guy should lay off the horn.

"A lot of them are court-ordered," says Neal. "She's probably just going up to get her paper signed." Sure enough, in two minutes the girl is back from the AA meeting, and, after buying a 12-pack of MGD, drives off, while flipping Mr. Element the bird.

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