WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: SAMORA CHAPMAN
HOLLYWOOD: THE PREAMBLE
I was staying at the London West Hollywood hotel on Sunset Boulevard along with a handful of other South African journalists who’d hit the crackpot. The view from the roof of the hotel overlooked Los Angeles bathed in honey-gold light. Whoop there it is – the silver-screen mecca of the western world. A beautiful illusion.
We, the press, were being treated with undeserved grace – tours of the city, workshops with accomplished filmmakers, expensive restaurants and more. But the jet lag, decadent food and hard liquor gave me a bad feeling… like I was wading knee deep in the concrete.
I sat nervously outside the designated hotel room at the press junket waiting for my turn to interview Adrien Brody. It was time to prove my worth in five minutes flat. Inside, Brody sat like Buddha under the hot camera lights – hansom, intense, self-assured. I plucked up my courage and strode in under the fierce gaze of the big shots and did the little dance I’d come for…
“Is it important for you to identify with the characters you play?” I asked sometime during the interview.
“Yes it is,” croaked Brody, as the entire room of regular humans sat mesmerized. “I’m a very conscious being. As actors, we get to enter these lives, play these roles, and then leave them…”
He spoke like a faux-guru… channelling messages from the divine. I felt like I was watching a movie. But it was over before it had really begun. Brody was interrupted at seven minutes on the dot and I was ushered out of there and kicked to the curb. The whole dream sliced like a guillotine.
I headed out into the Cali heat, squinting, as the rest of the press hopped in a sleek black cab destined for the airport. It was time to taste some real America, so I left that whole movie behind me and dragged myself to the nearest bus stop.
The last thing I saw, as the bus growled across Hollywood Boulevard, was two Spidermen fighting for the best spot on the Walk of Fame. I plugged some sweet Flying Lotus beats into my brain and exhaled a sigh of relief.
SILVER LAKE, SMOKE AND MIRRORS
The moment I descended into the Silver Lake area code I felt more at ease. Splashes of graffiti stuck to the walls, taco trucks parked on the sidewalks and crazy cats lurked everywhere. An old scraggy hipster in a grey suit skated across the road on a tiny green skateboard and cornered me for a chat. He told me about a string of B-grade films he had acted in the 60s while devouring pre-rolled spliffs like cigarettes. Everyone in Silver Lake is a superstar incognito, regardless of class, age or gender.
I walked a few blocks taking it all in and eventually found the address I was looking for – an artists’ apartment just off the main drag, where an expat South African called Lyle had taken up residence. We were just acquaintances back home, but he welcomed me in like a brother.
Lyle is meek and scrawny with the great big beard of a lumberjack and a heart to match. He’s is a designer for the clothing brand Iron Fist, which was born in Durban about a decade ago. The owners moved the business to LA, where it’s now flourishing… they’ve even bought a number of other labels over the years. Living the American dream.
We made vast plans to conquer LA over the next five days… but the week passed by in a haze of strong herb and strange visions. I shopped at the 99c Store and caught tags on billboards, memories of Hollywood decadence still fresh in my psyche. Oh the irony.
One afternoon I rode a bicycle up Mount Hollywood to the Griffith Observatory, where the famous Hollywood sign glowed in the dusk. LA really is like a familiar stranger. You’ve seen her a thousand times before you’ve even met.
The City of Angels, the most populated city in America at 4 million, truly is a monstrous metropolis. LA leads the world in the creation of television, films, video games and recorded music. From a distance, it’s a media/art machine. But up close, it’s just a regular city – full of humans fighting for significance… whether they’re cleaning the street or conjuring blockbusters.
From Mount Hollywood, Los Angeles stretches out as far as the eye can see in every direction. That evening, I rode back to Silver Lake on a path of clouds like that kid in the E.T movie.
Every evening the Taco truck would pull up outside Lyle’s apartment and we’d treat ourselves to a square meal. The Mexican street food in LA is truly spectacular – a $5 burrito and a Mexican Coke in a glass bottle (which is far superior to American Coke, I’m told) are fit for kings.
When I tired of the Silver Lake ‘hood, I caught a bus to Venice Beach. The whole place was intoxicating – full of the sweet stink of marijuana, sunscreen and sex appeal. Along that endless ocean strip, misfits, madmen and tourists played in the sun. Skate bums camped under palm tress, buskers made an excellent racket, artist painted up a storm and the fashion was like Camden Town by the sea.
That night at a club, I met a cool Korean photographer called Barry. He told me “Downtown LA is where it’s at yo.” So the next day I packed some lunch and headed for the jammy centre of the sticky bun.
SKID ROW MISERY
I wandered Downtown for hours, feeling alien. I couldn’t afford anything and I couldn’t find a single park to chill in or public toilet to piss in. What kind of a fuckin’ city is thisI thought to myself hopelessly…
In that state of mind drifted down to the infamous Skid Row.
Skid Row is the dark side of downtown, where drug lords, immigrants and addicts have taken over several blocks. It’s a place where life is cheap and highs are sweet. I’m from Africa I thought. How bad could it be?
But as I walked into the mess I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. The alleys were literally lined with squatters – multi-coloured tents mushroomed out of the concrete… it looked like a refugee camp. I passed a Mexican with tattoos all over his face, he stared cold knives into my soul.
“What YOU doin’ here honkey?” he sniggered as we crossed paths. It was like a movie scene, I tell you.
I held my camera tight and kept going. Around me, some junkies fought and chuckled while others lounged in deck chairs and stared out into the middle distance. It smelt like urine and crack pipes. Skid Row is heroin heaven – this is where the stars come for their China White and where the strugglers come to ease their pain.
I took a snap of the street, setting off angry voices like an echo down the road. My only option was to put my head down and walk. There was no going back.
I walked in the centre of the road, along the dotted white line, while junkies and gangsters cursed me. Just as the walls felt like they were closing in, I spotted a cop station, to my huge relief, and I ran to its gates like a hunted man.
As I ate my packed lunch on the steps of that cop station, I wondered how a place so broken could exist right in the heart of the city. I’d never seen anything like it… except, perhaps, Durban’s Whoonga Park.
On my search for a bus to get the hell outa there I met an ancient man called Samuel from Haiti. He was playing electric blues guitar out of his tent and selling cigarettes from a carton. Behind him was a 30ft mural. When I looked over the pics later that night, I realised that the mural depicted Samuel’s own worn face.
At least the graffiti writers still visit the harrowing Skid Row.
I left LA, pining for the ocean. I hitched a ride to Malibu with a friend called Drew from San Diego. It was 4th of July, time to revel in American glory, eat mountains of meat and drink Budweisers. I didn’t care. I got to surf some kak-small reef breaks on a longboard and wash off the city grime. The fireworks that night would have impressed the Gods. Americans don’t skimp when it comes to national pride.
From there we headed back down south to San Diego, a flavourless city that had been invaded by cosplayers for comic-con. I dodged the delusional super heroes and went surfing at Blacks, a renowned beach break set beneath a great big canyon of yellow sandstone.
After a few days in SD, I decided I needed to keep moving, further south, toward Mexico.
TIJUANA IS A DIVE
For a couple of dollars you can catch a short train ride from SD to the Mexican border… where everything changes.
Tijuana is a border town in California Baja. It’s seedy, noisy, filthy, delicious and dangerous. I’d been warned not to go alone, but the moment I arrived I felt alive, I felt home. The place was ten times more bombed with graffiti than LA, the colours and smells exploded like India and the noise reminded me of an African Metropolis.
I slid through the border and caught a cab to the main tourist strip, Avenida Revolucion. The moment I stepped out of the cab I came face to face with a shifty but friendly cat in oversized clothes. I knew we were gonna be friends.
The guy’s name was Ace Boogie. He showed me to a cheap hotel at my request. $18 a night, as decrepit as it gets. I feared for my belongings as I locked them in my room, which was so dark I had to turn the lights on, even though it was the middle of the day.
Back in the street, I bought Ace Boogie lunch and a beer. He told me that he was from the Bay Area, San Fran, originally but that he’d been thrown in jail a couple times for promoting prostitution (and other misdemeanours) and was eventually deported.
“I guess you could say I was a pimp,” he said in a forgivable way, “but I’ve left that life behind me now, y’na mean. I’ve been here for five years. I’ve got a kid on the way, I need to get me a job and take care of ma queen, y’na mean!”
Ace Boogie spat some raps he wrote in jail while I ate tacos. Then he suggested we head to the red light district as I drained my Modelo beer. Hmm I thought, feeling heady and suspicious. I guess we’d better get on with it then…
We walked down the road and hung a left down an alleyway, where gorgeous Latino women with long, silky dark hair stalked up and down and hung in doorways. The Hong Kong Gentlemen’s Club shone like a neon pink flower. We were beckoned in.
I slid into a seat like a nervous kid on a first date and ordered drinks. The seats were made of red pleather, they were spacious and reminded me of the back seat of my dad’s beetle back in the day. A naked feline slipped into the space beside me and rubbed up against my thigh, purring. The dancer on stage was a vision.
I ran out of money, so we moved onto deadly homemade tequila. I fought demons in my head and heart as the liquor took hold.
“Get me out,” I eventually said to Ace. He just chuckled telling me that I could have any girl for $60 dollars. The dancer was doing a routine with foam, lathering herself seductively. She was smiling… but her eyes were dark holes. An old man in the periphery of my vision was rubbing a young woman’s breasts. It made me sick. “We need to leave, I’m good thanks,” I said as I got up and escaped the spider’s web.
I later learned from a strange old American man at a bar, that most of the strip joints in TJ are in fact brothels. The women live in tiny rooms upstairs and they’re all hooked on crystal meth. TJ is frequented by Americans for the cheap drugs and stunning women.
Men are the scourge of this earth. And I’m one of them. At least Ace Boogie redeemed himself by drawing me an awesome portrait in exchange for his dinner.
THE MOURNFUL ZONKEY
The next few days were a bender. I dipped into the skateboarding, art and party scenes, which are thriving in the dusty little border city… I met some incredibly friendly and creative characters – a mural artist who looked just like Rodriguez, a 40-year-old skate legend who still shredded and a photographer girl covered in tattoos. She looked like Frida Kahlo and almost stole my heart. I got portraits of a skater kid in a wolf hat and a man who rode a motorbike from hell. Walking the TJ streets is like watching a Tim Burton film on hallucinogens. Bizarre, beautiful and frightening.
Every night I went to bed a wreck, only to be woken in the dead hours by the mournful bray of the ‘zonkey’ – a sad creature that worked the tourist trap all day and was tethered alone in the alleyway at night.
It was time to go home, before I ran out of money and power. It took four days to travel from TJ back to Durban. I only made it by the skin of my teeth.
“Do you know why zebras have stripes dad?” my four-year-old boy asked me when he saw the picture of the zonkey on my laptop.
It was a rhetorical question. I knew he was cooking up a magical explanation.
“…Because they have tiger’s blood,” he said, matter of fact. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was just a donkey painted with zebra stripes.
I guess we’re all actors anyway. We get to enter these lives, play these roles, and then leave them…