The Alternative Coast (Back in the World, Part Two)

The Alternative Coast (Back in the World, Part Two)

Written by Ken Sander

Ken’s article, “Back in the World,” about events in 1966 that led up to this story, ran in Issue 141.

In a few minutes Pete Johnson arrived at the downtown Los Angeles bus terminal. I was pleased at how quickly he had come. He waved me over and I got in his car and shook hands and we introduced ourselves. Leaving the downtown area, he told me he lived in Pasadena, which meant nothing to me. I had no sense of direction or location.

Not long afterwards we arrived at his house. It was a modest, small stucco house built in the 1930s. Not the house I would have imagined for the Los Angeles Times rock critic; my thinking was that writing was a lucrative profession. Okay, I know, but I was a naïve 21-year-old, street-smart, yes, but worldly? I still had a way to go.

He gives me a pillow and sets me up on the couch in the living room, and that is it for the evening. Next day I say I want to go to Hollywood; Sunset Strip to be exact. Pete points me in the right direction, and I head out, hitchhiking for the first time in my life. In less than five minutes a car picks me up and we have only gone a few blocks when I ask the driver if we were going the right way. He says, “sort of.” “What does that mean?” I ask. He replies, ‘’If you sit on my hand, I will take you anywhere you want to go.” I demand that he stop the car and let me get out.

Next guy who picks me up is going the right way, but as I look at the passenger door I notice there is no door handle. WTF? I say, “let me out.” He stops and I ask, “how do I open the door?” He reaches over me and pulls a rope and the door opens. This hitchhiking thing is not how I imagined it.

Next a car of four Mexican guys about my age picks me up. They say Sunset Boulevard is exactly where they are going. I notice they are drinking beer and seem buzzed. They do not offer me any and I do not ask. They start to act a little threatening, but I stay polite and unfazed. They are attempting to unnerve me and, having failed, they settle into silence. Not much later we come in the Sunset Strip part of Sunset Blvd, and they let me off.

I think to myself, this hitchhiking is just too weird and seems risky. I’d better sort out how the public bus system works.

I walk westward on the Strip and it’s certainly alive. Kind of like 42nd Street around Times Square but with young people. I am soaking it in; sure is different. I get the bus information, but most bus service ends by 11:00 pm so around 9:30 I get on a bus toward Pasadena. I must switch buses downtown and the trip takes about 90 minutes. This works for me, kind of. It certainly is safer. I never want to hitchhike again.

A couple of days later Pete says to me, “you know, this is not permanent. You are not my roommate. You are staying here as a favor; this is just temporary, remember?”  “Sure, I know,” I answer but inwardly I am embarrassed. In my excitement I had not given one thought to this temporary living situation.

Next day I am back in West Hollywood. I meet a long-haired kid about my age, and we hang out. He is staying at a friend’s and says I can sleep on the couch that night. We get there and his friend is an older man, he seems okay. The kid sets me up on the couch and they both retreat into the bedroom. Hmmm, well, okay, and they leave me alone. Next morning my new friend and I leave that apartment. I suggest we take a bus out to the beach and look around; you know, check it out. We get a bus on Santa Monica Blvd. and travel west.

The last stop is Lincoln Blvd, and we get out, but we are still a ways from the Pacific Ocean. We walk around some. We stop at a Sambo’s (which will eventually become a Denny’s) for an early dinner. While eating, the kid tells me he is AWOL from the Army. I am surprised; I would not have guessed that. I say, “but you have long hair,” and then he pulls his hair off. It is a wig. I would not have guessed he was a deserter, but his living from hand to mouth now adds up. I say maybe he can go back; he is just AWOL, and he answers, “no. I hate the Army and I am not going to Vietnam.” “Okay,” I tell him, “but the longer you are AWOL the more trouble you will get into.” “I don’t care and they won’t catch me,” he answers. I am sympathetic, but am thinking that someday they will catch him, and if he is considered a deserter, he will get a few years in Leavenworth. Some serious prison time. I keep this to myself.

After dinner we are walking north on Lincoln, and we pass by a used car lot. They have a couple of used motorcycles for sale. That gets my attention and the inspirational light bulb in my head flicks on. This is perfect. I never considered a motorcycle before, but in Los Angeles you need a vehicle, and a motorcycle in this climate is right on the money for me. The public transportation for a city this big and spread out is pathetic.

Here I am, looking at a 90cc two-stroke Kawasaki priced at $250.00. I can afford it. I have about $700 or so in my pocket. I walk in and I ask about the bike, and the salesman says it is a good motorcycle and in good working condition. Okay, I’ll buy it. My new friend says he is heading back to West Hollywood, “see ya all later.”

It takes about 30 minutes to do the paperwork, registration, insurance, and such. Then the salesman walks me out to the bike and shows me how to shift the gears. He hands me the keys and I kickstart the bike and ride out of the car lot, making a right turn north on Lincoln, then east on Santa Monica Blvd. I am incredibly happy. This feels so right. I take it easy as I get myself familiar with my ride.

A Kawasaki 90cc motorcycle similar to the one bought in the 1960s. A Kawasaki 90cc motorcycle similar to the one bought in the 1960s.

Back at Pete’s house, he says he might have a job opportunity for me. Am I interested? Sure, tell me more. He says Les Carter, a well-known Los Angeles disc jockey, owns a record store in West Hollywood and needs help. Sounds good, I say, and he calls Les. Pete comes back in the room and tells me that I am to meet Les at The Music Revolution at 8709 Santa Monica Boulevard tomorrow at 1 pm. It is about a block and a half west of the Tropicana motel and Dukes restaurant. if I see an Orange Julius I have gone too far.

I meet Les and his wife Susan in the small but very cool-looking record store. Ten minutes later I get hired to start Monday at noon. (in 1976 Les began a successful career writing and producing for television and films. He worked-on scripts for Cagney and Lacey, The Marshal and L.A. Law among others.)

Time to look for an apartment, and now I know what neighborhood I am going to live in. Riding around West Hollywood, I see a For Rent sign on Larrabee Street between Sunset and Santa Monica just a few feet north of Cynthia Street. I go in and meet the landlord. She shows me a ground floor apartment with a bedroom, and a living area with a kitchen and a bathroom. It is all in one line.

Back in New York this is known as a railroad flat, common in the row houses called brownstones. These apartments run through the building front to back, with the toilet in the middle. Just like a railroad train, and most of the older ones had the bathtub in the kitchen. The ones in New York were built with 6-inch brownstone facades. The rest of these buildings were brick. These walk-up apartment buildings were built in the 1860s through the early 1900s. The older ones had stoops for elevation to provide sanitation. It was to rise above the swamp of animal waste and muck that covered the cobblestone streets of 18th-century New York City.

I rent the flat on a month-to-month basis for $55 a month. I hop on my bike and go back to Pasadena. When I get there, I tell Pete I am moving out and I got the job, thank you, very very much. Pete is happy for me. I gather my things and head back out to my new apartment on Larrabee.

I move into the apartment, and it is not great, but okay for the moment. The very first night I am disturbed by the tenants’ cars when they drive within a foot of my window on their way to the parking lot in the back of the building. In addition to the noise of crunching gravel, their headlights flash into my apartment’s window, totally lighting up my bedroom. Apparently, this is gonna be a temporary place for me.

There are still a few days before I start working at The Music Revolution, so I start exploring. I have driven enough miles that I need to get gas. That is solved easily enough, and I head toward Griffith Observatory up in the hills. When I almost reach the top, the bike shuts down, stalled. It will not restart, and I have to say that I am genuinely concerned. About five minutes later I kick it over and it starts. Phew, it must have overheated. Back down in Hollywood I stop at an auto repair shop, and I tell them what happened. They look at the bike and ask, “did you mix oil in with the gas?” “No,” I answer, “why?” They tell me a two-stroke engine must have a mixture of oil and gasoline. I had just learned the difference between two-stroke and four-stroke engines.

Well, go figure. We city folk have limited knowledge of motor vehicles. But I do not see that as a character flaw. Be that as it may, I am having fun now.

To be continued…

Header image: Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California.

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