Standing outside a bookstore on 8th Street a decade ago, novelist Susan Straight looked across the street and saw a vision of Los Angeles loneliness.
Men clustered around a black door, surrounded by a wall of black tile. They filled the dark, narrow space inside, reeking of cheap liquor and hurt.
"It was just the saddest place I'd ever seen," Straight told me as we stood outside the Golden Gopher bar this week. "There was this lingering melancholy all around this block. You could just smell the desperation of all these men."
These days the Golden Gopher is a hip hangout whose patrons include guys in suits. Its kitschy glass chandeliers have been restored, its leather booths reupholstered. At the old takeout counter inside — a quaint reminder of the bar's seedy past — patrons can still buy bottles of liquor, cigarettes and condoms.
Straight, 50, took me to the Golden Gopher to show me an "essential" corner of L.A. In her imagination — in the pages of her new novel — the Golden Gopher is a place where L.A.'s hopes and desperation collide.
"To me, it captured all the weirdness of the city," she said of the bar and the block that surrounds it, with its abandoned office buildings, low-rent hotels and men in cowboy hats lined up outside the Club El Gaucho.
How did all these different people get here? A writer of fiction can answer this in ways the sociologist and historian rarely can.
We have Chandler, Fante and West to peer into the soul of the old L.A. And writers like Straight, Jervey Tervalon, Gary Phillips and Mona Simpson to hold up for us the hidden lives of Southern California's here and now.
In Straight's "Take One Candle Light a Room," people come to the Golden Gopher in various states of desperation. They seek reinvention. Or just a drink, or two or 20.
There is Hattie, a young woman who resettles in L.A. thinking she'll become the next black movie star — a new Pam Grier — only to get stuck behind the bar's takeout counter for 15 years. Her brother Grady appears and then disappears, again and again, into downtown's crowds of homeless men.
Most of Straight's characters grew up in Rio Seco, a fictional suburb inspired by Straight's hometown, Riverside. They came there from a violently oppressive, segregated but beautiful corner of Louisiana. They are never able to escape their memories of that place, even as they make new lives in California.
Straight's imaginary world is, of course, rooted in the real. Southern California is filled with people only a generation or two removed from the countryside.
"You cannot leave behind the way people got to Los Angeles," she told me. "Often it was the place of last resort. They were people who came from the rural South. And now they come from rural Oaxaca."
To write about this journey, Straight draws on the experiences of her extended white and African American family.
"I grew up all my life around older men telling stories of lynching and violence," she told me. "Of people having to flee the South because they punched someone. Or because a white mob rampaged their home."
She also remembers her own arrival here as a "country girl" from the Inland Empire, newly accepted to USC circa 1980.
"At home I had a different kind of beauty: the orange groves and the blossoms, and the snow and the mountains in the distance," she told me. "Here it was the bougainvillea, the ivy spilling over the Golden State Freeway, the architectural details on the buildings."
As a teenager in L.A., "I was always looking up," she said. "Riverside was horizontal. L.A. was vertical."
Straight would take long walks across the city, from downtown to Echo Park and other neighborhoods. "You can see every panaderia, every botanica," she said. "And in the afternoon, the morning glories bend and close up."
She'd also take the bus from the dorms to jobs downtown, and was thus in a state — rare for many of us here — of constant, forced intimacy with strangers.
The memory of one stayed with Straight for three decades — until she made her the tragic center of her new novel.
"She had to be the most beautiful woman I had ever seen," Straight said. "She was iridescently beautiful. She was the kind of woman men want to own. And she was so sad."
At the beginning of "Take One Candle Light a Room," the striking, drug-addicted Glorette is five years dead. Her old friend from Louisiana and Rio Seco, a travel writer named Fantine, sets off on a journey that will unlock the mystery of her murder.
Fantine travels back and forth across the Southland: from her home in Los Feliz to downtown and the Golden Gopher, and eventually back to the tumbleweeds and the projects of Rio Seco.
It's a tale that seeks to take the many strands of Southern California life and pull them together.
Writers are people obsessed with listening, observing and imagining the lives of others.
"I was the girl who sat in the corner and listened to stories," Straight said. "They were stories told by people who I knew I shouldn't forget."
Susan Straight saw not just a dive bar, but a bar that was like the city itself, where travelers with so many hard stories converged. In telling us about them, she pulls Southern California into sharper focus.
Enter into that imaginary L.A., and afterward you too may notice a little more as you wander through the real one. Perhaps you'll pause at a doorway or two and wonder about the tales that lie within.