I remember a long ago summer when I got an offer I could not refuse. My brother-in-law was managing the bar in the basement at the Holiday Inn on 9th and Figueroa, and he needed a band. “Nothing, huge,” he said. “Maybe just a trio, or a quartet. Jazz.”
I jumped at the chance. A real gig, Wednesday through Saturday, at a club, just like the pros. Not a club exactly, but a hotel lounge. A lot of great musicians started in lounges, and some of them never escaped, but I was willing to take my chances. We worked out a system where the band could eat for free and drink whatever they wanted, all for the door. We’d start with a five dollar cover and see what would happen.
The first night, we packed the place. All our friends came, and the money poured in. Altogether, the other two musicians drank two hundred dollars in imported beer. I stuck with Coke. We also had a nice meal upstairs in the coffee shop before our set started. The next night, the crowd was equally large. I heard several regulars complain to my brother-in-law that they’d have to find another place to hang, as this dive was too noisy and too crowded.
By the second week, the place was only half full. My brother-in-law had put a stop to the imported beers, and we were now allowed a meal and a soft drink before our set. The regulars were still there, although obviously disgruntled. During a break, one grabbed my arm: “This used to be a good place till you all showed up,” she said.
By the third week, we were drawing three to four people a night. And they refused to pay the cover, seeing as their goal was to get drunk. They thought the fiver would be better spent on the first shot and not on us. We kept a brave face and played on, but I had the feeling things were not going to work. My brother-in-law started running specials like an “all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.” No one wanted to go upstairs to get food; they were there for liquor, and once seated at the bar, they wanted full glasses, not plates of questionable clams.
Week four saw people lumber down the stairs only to see us and climb right back out. The regulars now demanded the barkeep leave the TV on while we played, so we developed a repertoire of television theme songs and played them at the start of each show. No one was amused, nor did they want to hear extended versions of the theme from Hill Street Blues. One regular at the bar would drink until he passed out, sitting upright on his stool. A long string of drool would trickle off of his lip and pool on the bar. Slowly, over the course of a few hours, his head would dip lower and lower. We realized that his head sunk to its lowest level right about quitting time, so we now gauged the length of our sets by the Drooler. We were bored. We were also hungry, because the free meals had dried up.
By week five, my brother-in-law moved on to greener pastures, a smorgasbord out in the valley. I lied to the new manager and said we had a contract. He barely spoke English and assumed I was on the level, so we continued to play for an empty bar. The Drooler was there, but since he was unconscious most of the time, the place could still be considered empty, I guess. Our facility with TV theme songs was prodigious, and we continued to explore the harmonics of each tune with everyone, including the drummer, taking a solo. The bartender kept yelling at us to stop so he could hear what was happening on the set. Since the cover charge had long been abandoned, we rarely covered our gas to drive down to play. I didn’t mind though, because if you are not being paid, how can you be fired? Still, the other musicians were beginning to see the futility of the enterprise and I was having trouble fielding a full band. One night, it would be just my piano and a bass player; another night, I’d trade fours with the drummer. Not many people hear the melody in a lead drum version of “My Funny Valentine,” and once when we had finished a particularly lengthy back-and-forth, the bartender yelled out “What the hell was that?”
Managers came and went on a weekly basis, and finally one got up the courage to tell us we were through. On the final night of our big summer gig, I showed up to find the bar flooded with six inches of raw sewage. A pipe had exploded. Gagging at the stench, I dragged my piano and speaker up the stairs to my car. We were not the only ones out of a job; the waiters and busboys from the restaurant, as well as the bartender, were all given their walking papers. The place would be completely shut down for six months of remodeling.
As I sat on the hood of my car that night wondering what next, a homeless woman approached me. I’d seen her several times around the hotel, and I’d often slip her some money, usually our meager pocket change from the door that night. The marine layer was particularly thick over the city, and fog enshrouded the tops of the nearby skyscrapers. The air was cool and moist. I could smell the ocean. “How’s it going?” the homeless woman asked me.
“Great,” I replied.
“You guys finish early tonight?”
“Never got started,” I said. “Place is flooded.”
Up close, I realized she was a lot older, even though she wore a tube top and dirty jeans. Her bag was slung over her shoulder, and some of her ratty hair was tangled in the strap. “Well, that means more time to enjoy the night,” she replied.
I took out my wallet and handed her a five. It was all the money I had. She thanked me and tucked the bill into her tube top. She leaned up against the hood of my car, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes, drawing in the city.
“You gotta love this town,” she said.
“No, I don’t,” I replied.
I am no longer a musician, and the Holiday Inn was torn down several years ago. It is a parking lot now, across from the restaurant, The Original Pantry, opened in 1924, “never closed, never without a customer.” As for the city, I’m not sure she can be loved, but that is another story altogether.