The cabs lined up Sunday outside the One-Eyed Gypsy saloon, letting out leggy women in diaphanous tops and shorts. "Lil Death" club night was just starting. And it was almost midnight.
Since I began trying to find out what goes on in Los Angeles after dark, one thing has stood out as axiomatic: Nothing happens until midnight these days. For years, I've been fast asleep when the action jumps off.
"They don't come out until 11:30," a club manager said. "It's like clockwork."
It's partly an economic thing. In a heinous job market, young people can't afford bar tabs. Who can? Hence they're at home earlier in the evening, "pregaming," fortifying themselves with cheap beer and shots for the night ahead.
But there's more to it than that. The L.A. club underground is not just late, it happens on off nights. The really cool crowd doesn't go clubbing on Saturday anymore. That scene is so tired, I'm told, overrun by sorority girls and people from Orange County. They wear mall clothes. They play beer pong on the patio, flinging balls on their neighbors' tables.
Meanwhile, the too-hip-for-all-that hipsters are home designing a clothing line or brand influence campaign. And they're texting madly to find out where everybody else is. Something could come up. If they're out, they might be too far away to get there.
Now it's one thing to go out at the witching hour in New York, where last call is 4 a.m., or Miami, where the liquor flows until 5 a.m. It's another to get a late start in Los Angeles, where the bars shut down at 2 a.m. sharp. If you hit the club at midnight here, there's precious little night left for your night out.
Until recently, after-hour speakeasies stretched L.A. night life New York-style for those in the know. But the police shut them down, Lil Death club kids said.
That leaves the fashionably-latesters about two hours. What do they do with it?
Some of them spent it just trying to get into the club.
Trinidad Valdez Jr., who was hired to curate the crowd at Sunday's neo-Goth event in downtown L.A., stood sentry before club hopefuls waiting in line. Pretty girls in skimpy outfits skated past them to greet Valdez with hugs and kisses.
"You see that? She would have gotten in anyway," he said after one embrace.
Valdez periodically walked to the corner to see who was coming. He can determine "from a distance who's getting in," he said.
A model with double "ox-horn" buns on top of her head drifted in and out of the bar. A famous Belgian DJ arrived with an entourage, including a guy in a retro LAPD DARE T-shirt.
Outside, a crowd of 50 or so stood on the sidewalk, smoking, texting and posing for snapshots. Popped in and out of the bar quickly if at all. They were waiting — for what? What is the what? as Dave Eggers put it.
One of the promoters came out to explain the club night's concept to me.
"We're in this everything-ism world," he said. "I don't really want to put any adjective on it."
I caught up with Camelle Johnson walking to her car about 11:45 p.m. so her friend could change hats. Johnson's look was machine-tooled perfection: a prim puffed-sleeve blouse, short black skirt and modified pigtails. "It's an innocence thing," the Loyola University Chicago student said. "Like a schoolgirl." She spent two hours on it. "Most of it was on my hair."
Johnson pregames — "I'm a Jameson girl" — and she seemed to spend most of her time at the club looking for her friends.
About 12:30 a.m., James Juarez perched on a concrete wall outside the club. "It's actually kind of early," he told me.
Juarez is a stylist with aspirations to make films, direct fashion installations and other creative endeavors, such as coming to Lil Death.
"We are the artists, we are the underground, and we want to bring everybody up where we are," he said.
On Friday, Juarez dressed as a matador while his boyfriend went "Carolina Herrera" in a flouncy red skirt and cropped velvet top. Juarez pulled up a photo on his cellphone to show me.
Saturday found Juarez voguing and working on new dance moves with friends in his one-bedroom Echo Park apartment.
Earlier Sunday, he and his crew got together to do each other's hair. His undercut — like Rihanna's, shaved on the sides, long on top — was styled in a topknot bound tightly with black electrical tape, Samurai style. He wore a long-sleeved black shirt by a designer from Mexico he wants to rep, a cummerbund, below-the-knee leather pants and dress shoes. "I didn't want to kill the outfit with socks," he said.
Of his preparation time, he said: "It could take all day."
So it seems pregaming is a larger metaphor for the club scene. Scenesters spend their nights in wardrobe, rehearsing for their club cameos, which might last less time than it took them to get dressed.
Then they hit 30, complain the club scene is over and finally catch up on their sleep.