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For those supporting Hollywood's night life, glamour is scarce

Javier Romero works at a pricey restaurant, but during his commute on the city's transit system, he's a world away.

June 11, 2012|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Javier Romero, 34, of Highland Park, takes the subway and the bus home from his job in Hollywood.
Javier Romero, 34, of Highland Park, takes the subway and the bus home from… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Scene: The corner of Hollywood & Vine. Clumps of young women tumble out of the Metro Red Line subway station, all sequins and sparkle, their skirts as short as their heels are high.

Someone tweets that Jamie Foxx is upstairs at Drai's glassed-in nightclub. A girl crouches at Latin pop singer Shakira's sidewalk star waiting for her friend to snap a picture.

"See, the night is just getting started," Javier Romero says as the escalator drops us into the subway station, beneath a ceiling preposterously lined with faux film reels and supported by pillars shaped like palm trees.

Romero, 34, a restaurant worker, is part of a platoon of busboys, bartenders and other hospitality workers that form the scaffolding that underpins Hollywood's glamorous night scene. For many, public transportation is a lifeline. They either can't afford a car or are undocumented immigrants who lost their vehicles in traffic stops.

Romero would love to have a car; back in Mexico City he drove a bus, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The last Red Line car out of the Vine Street station leaves around 1 a.m., so he and other riders have to start for home just as the late rush of club kids arrives.

Their trips can be epic. Ten miles, and 15 minutes by car, from his place in Highland Park, Romero will travel more than two hours before the night is through. Still, he isn't complaining.

"As long as the place I'm working gives me the money I want, it can take me two hours to get home, I don't care," he says.

Romero arrived in 2007 and quickly mastered English. He worked at a United Nations of restaurants — Japanese, French, American — before landing a position as an expo runner at a Hollywood seafood house, making sure the courses roll out with pinpoint precision.

"Basically what we do is make sure whenever they finish their appetizers, they can start working on the next dish," he says.

His restaurant is one of Hollywood's ubiquitous casual but pricey bistros: you can wear a hoodie, but be prepared to drop $100 a head. Since he lives off his tips, that's a good thing.

"It's expensive, and that's how I like it," Romero says.

Some chefs carry their knives to the subway in rollaway bags, and other restaurant workers stash a change of clothes in their backpacks. Romero travels light: a brown apron rolled up in his hand and that's it.

His disdain for baggage stems from his childhood. After his father died when he was 7, his mother, raising five children on her own, always had four to five bags slung around her neck and shoulders.

As he passes through the station's turnstile just after 11 p.m., he checks the time on his cellphone. We're in luck; he got off early, and we should be able to connect to the Gold Line train, shaving half an hour off our trip.

We'll also avoid some of the seedier parts of downtown Los Angeles, although Romero doesn't care about that. At the age of 11, he ran away from home and lived on the streets of Mexico City.

"Have you been to Tijuana? You know those metal taco stands? In between the taco stand and the wall I'd get a piece of carton and sleep there," he says. He had no covers; if he collected any, they'd be stolen.

I tell him he seems far too cheerful and enterprising to have been up to no good so young.

"My face lies so good," he says with a laugh. "I was the black sheep of the family. What can I say? I wanted money to go to the arcade and buy stuff myself."

Romero checks the time again. We're not going to make the Gold Line connection after all. The subway schedule is messed up; Romero says he could tell because the screens didn't flash when the next train was arriving, as they normally do.

As we walk out of the Pershing Square station, a rat the size of a possum skitters across our path. Romero laughs at my (hopefully) muffled yelp.

"You'll see a lot of rats around here. They even run between your legs," he says. "Let's stay where the light is. They like to be in the dirt and the dark."

It used to be far more squalid around the largely concrete square, but even then, conditions paled in comparison to Mexico, where bodies lay in the streets.

"Sometimes I cried a lot, especially at the end of the day when I would see a family with several kids and a dad," Romero says.

With half an hour to kill before the bus arrives, we sit in a fast-food place, where Romero touches on some of the other dark places in his life: After splitting with a woman he lived with in Mexico from age 16 to 18, he became addicted to crack. His family got him into rehab, and his beloved older brother brought him to Los Angeles.

The brother then was killed in a car accident. A young cousin died last year of an unexplained internal bleeding disorder, Romero says, his eyes growing moist.

Yet he's happy, ebullient even. He took up guitar two years ago, and plays music with friends. An extra bed is always ready if one of the guys wants to stay over.

"I used to complain about everything. Then I realized I was making my life miserable," Romero says."There are people who don't wake up. If I wake up in the morning, I'm a lucky guy."

The 81 bus up Figueroa Street is full of men. Row after row they slump against the windows, their eyes closed with wires dangling from their ear buds.

Normally, Romero would stop at a taco truck at 52nd and Figueroa, or grab a plastic-wrapped sandwich from 7-Eleven before heading home about 3 a.m. Instead, I drive him home from our final bus stop.

Deep in Highland Park, we come to a tree-lined rise in the street where the sidewalks disappear. Several families are outside talking in their canopy-covered driveways.

"I love it here. It reminds me of my country," Romero says. "Some people are born poor instead of rich. But why not try to enjoy your life instead of complaining? That's my philosophy."

He'll be up by noon, then at 5 p.m., the whole thing starts all over again.

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