A Walking Tour Of The Places Where I Hit Rock Bottom

Now that I'm sober, they look quite different.

You might not be familiar with the term, "geographic" as used by recovering alcoholics. It refers to a time of geographical relocation whilst in the throes of active alcoholism. Like, your life is falling apart and shit is pretty fucked up and you come to the conclusion that if you just split town you could chill out and be normal again. This does not work, because locale was not your problem so much as your irrational compulsion to consume large quantities of alcohol regardless of the consequences. So, you can move to Detroit or Atlanta or Berlin or New Hampshire or Tucson but you bring your sloppy, slobbery, slurring self with you and re-create some version of your native problem in your fascinating new environment. I pulled my best geographic in 2001 when I moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, my poor codependent, practically teenaged boyfriend in tow. Together we watched me bottom out in our cool new city. Now, 15 years later I’m back in the City of Angels. A lot has changed, no? Join me and my sidekick, Sandwich, as we visit some of my personal alcoholic bottom hot spots.

1. Jumbo’s Clown Room, 5153 Hollywood Blvd.

This divey strip bar is notorious for Courtney Love having danced here and also because it is a clown-themed strip club, meaning there is an array of clown knickknacks behind the main bar, big happy clown faces smiling up at you from the bar that circles the stage, and also a lit-up clown sign pleading with you to tip the dancers. I spent a lot of time at Jumbo’s during my bottom because back then they allowed their patrons to smoke cigarettes, and there was nothing I enjoyed more while drunk than smoking an entire pack of Camel Lights. In fact, in 2001 you could sit in the front row at Jumbo’s, balance your lit cigarette on the brass rail, and a trans dancer would saunter over and pick it up with her ass cheeks. I note that the dancer was trans only to highlight how spectacularly cool Jumbo’s was in that all kinds of women danced there. In addition to the super-sulky brunette with resting bitchface and twin Playboy bunny tattoos on her ankles, or the blonde who always entered the stage in a hoodie or a woolly hat, there was an older woman who resembled Piper Laurie in the original Carrie and who wore a long, sheer peignoir. Meanwhile the trans woman, in addition to her cigarette trick, would take a heavy leather belt and beat the stage floor with it while screaming.

Today, Jumbo’s seems different, but also very much the same, due to the timeless nature of strip clubs. The dancers are less diverse, uniformly young and eight feet tall. They make me feel like a child, like my body is a child’s body. I like Jumbo’s a lot better now that I am sober and 45 years old rather than drunk and 30. For starters, the Russian bartender who suspiciously cards me brightens when she sees I was born in 1971, chirping, “I didn’t expect that!” This is nicer than in the past when I never got carded because I appeared to be around 50. Also, my boyfriend at the time had a sexual ideal that was pretty much Stripper. He loved strippers, and spoke frequently of this love, and of course we spent a fair amount of time watching their asses jiggle inches from our faces. I appreciated this, because strippers are women and you want a boyfriend who loves women, right? And I loved strippers too, because they are the human creatures who have come closest to mastering the magic of flying with their pole tricks, and plus they are so brave and strong and beautiful. But I was very alcoholic and also codependent and figured if my boyfriend had any sort of sexual ideal at all shouldn’t I try to become it? And so all my nights at Jumbo’s were haunted by this nag that I should be a stripper. I would drink my mug of beer — lightweight plastic, not glass as it initially appears, so you would lift it to your mouth with unnecessary heft and splash it all over your face — and try to psych myself up. The dancers at Jumbo’s are never nude and there is no customer contact so in that way it is a wholesome space and very much a show, a performance. I imagined being hardly dressed at all, which I enjoyed, and being encased in sexy red light, blasting my favorite song — something by Marilyn Manson, for sure — rolling around the floor and gazing at myself in the mirrored wall. I would have to be on heroin for this to work, to really feel like I was on the inside of the song, to feel truly sexy and not like the roiling goober I know that I am. Luckily, my boyfriend and I had just started snorting heroin right before we embarked on my geographic; indeed part of the reason we left was to get away from the lure of the heroin, so it would be pretty stupid to pick the habit back up here, but if I was going to be my boyfriend’s ultimate fantasy sex bitch it would have to happen. But it didn’t happen. In addition to all of my other problems I have a huge, dappled scar on my ass from a childhood skin graft and I couldn’t imagine anyone would like to throw dollars at it. So I just sat there loving the strippers and stressing out about what a wild sex failure I was.

Today, in order to be closer to my current partner’s ideal, I would have to become more mindful of not leaving the glass I drank strawberry agua fresca from on the kitchen table for two days so that when she goes to wash it the strawberry crud is all stuck to the sides and it is a fucking pain in the ass to clean. Doing this, as well as wiping up drips of water from the floor when I have caused them to be there, would bring me closer to embodying my wife’s fantasy sex bitch. But because I am 45 and comfortable in my own skin I’m actually fine with just being whatever sex bitch I naturally am.

I can’t help but forget to rinse out a glass, because my mind is so busy thinking about incredible things, such as the possibilities of a multiverse or how deadly bacteria, parasites, and disease are rising due to climate change or, like today, the perfect bleached pigtails on my favorite dancer’s head, or the peacock tattoo that completely covers her back or the way she can lift one ass cheek at a time and also one breast at a time. The move is a full-body wink, first in my direction and next in the direction of my good friend Sandwich, and we, of course, keep flinging bills at her as she does this because to not do so would be fucking rude and plus, she is working so hard, using all of her big, creamy, woman’s body, dipping herself over the railing at us, lying back and doing that incredible clack with her monstrously high heels — the clack that me and Sandwich and surely everyone who has ever heard it is wild about. It's practically why you come to a strip club in the first place. What is it about the clack? Me and Sandwich try to solve this riddle but it would be easier to prove the multiverse. The dancer calls us Wunderbar as she collects her dollars, then tells us it is German for wonderful, and thanks us so much, as if we have done something. We have done nothing. She has done everything. I love coming to Jumbo’s now that I’m sober because I have a spiritual practice and I can leave my self-obsessed fears behind and groove out in the presence of god.

2. 101 South On-Ramp, Hollywood at Van Ness

Well, this place has really changed since I bottomed out here in 2001 after a fight with my boyfriend. The fight had started at Akbar, I can’t remember why, he probably wanted something outrageous, like to go home. The fighting reached a critical point as we cruised up Hollywood Boulevard and I jumped out of the car and hopped over the small gray wall you see here, skipping down the embankment toward the freeway. He’d never find me here, am I right? Especially when you consider this was pre-drought California, so where you now see mostly dead, mashed grass and a palm tree so shaggy with dead leaves it looks like a Nick Cave sculpture, back then it was filled with leafy green shrubs that I could hunker down in and smoke eight cigarettes while crying about how nobody really knew me. Besides the foliage, the main difference between 2001’s on-ramp and today’s is that someone appears to be living here, as deduced by the velvet-backed chairs and the little table set with baseball hats and framed photos. It’s quite quaint — "Salon-y" is how Sandwich describes it, and I concur. I am sorry to say that due to this development and the lack of shrubbery to hide in, this on-ramp is no longer a good spot to hide from your boyfriend during a blackout.

3. My Old Apartment, Tamarind Avenue, Hollywood

Sandwich is shocked at how beautiful my old apartment is, and I must say, I am too. I do remember being impressed by it, but my standards in 2001 were so low. I was charmed to be living somewhere that had a tree out front and not heroin addicts barfing into cereal boxes literally right outside my door. But, no — by any standards this apartment building, ringed in a wrought-iron fence, ivy scrambling over its brick façade, up and onto the little fire escapes where I would run to smoke cigarettes and cry during more fights with my boyfriend, is lovely. There is grass inside that wrought-iron fence, and trees that drip small white flower blossoms. A girl arrives as we are creepily evaluating her home; like the apartment itself, she is adorable, with fashionable round sunglasses and her hair up in a complicated something. She smiles at us a bit and almost holds the door open for us, because as a sober person I look that unthreatening, but, lo! we are too slow and miss the gate and miss out on peeking around to see if the inside, with its rickety elevator and polished wood staircase and scabby green carpet, is still the same. I will say that in 2001 I paid $400 to live in a studio apartment here, and on the night I moved in a fellow tenant, a hopeful actor, helped drag my futon in and then offered a line of cocaine. Which I declined, as I was already sampling from a matchbox of crystal meth my dealer had given me as a going-away present. $400! Could you die! The studio was pretty great. It had roaches as well as an assortment of otherworldly looking bugs I had never seen before; a lot of the kitchen cabinets had been painted shut and the bathroom windowsill was so rotten panes of glass would occasionally fall out and smash in the alley below. But it was only $400. That cannot possibly be the case today. You win this one, 2001. My former building manager, the writer Shawna Kenney, wrote this essay about the eccentric scene at my old place. Who knew it was called The Tamarind Arms? Probably everyone who wasn't phoning in booze deliveries from the Pink Dot each night.

4. The Frolic Room, 6245 Hollywood Blvd.

This teeny-tiny bar situated on the walk of fame was the last place Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, was seen alive. But as much as a death wish as I appeared to have, the bar’s real draw was its status as one of Charles Bukowski’s primo haunts. Like all alcoholics who write, I adored Chinaski because he made my drinking seem literary, the activity of a working class hero, dirty and rebellious — which meant, since I was a girl, also feminist. I loved the redness of the bar, a vague redness, as well as how fucking awful the Hollywood mural on the wall was, and I loved the carnival promise of the neon sign outside and the weird, large, round, flat lamps on the inside. The Frolic Room was where I went when the 101 on-ramp had become tiresome and I needed a drink. Seated alone on a barstool I ordered a vodka whatever and sullenly nursed my drink. Eventually the phone rang, and the bartender answered it; turning to me, she said, “Someone is looking for a girl with blue hair. Are you her?” My boyfriend came to fetch me from The Frolic Room, took me to the taco truck down by the gay center for some food to help sober me up, then back to Tamarind, where I ate them with aggressive resentment, spilling cheese down my shirt.

Today, The Frolic Room looks much the same. The perfect sign sparkles, sending its festive cheer across the street to the larger-than-life billboard of Ellen DeGeneres rising above us all. Amazing. I mean, who could have imagined this? Back in 2001, when I was moodily slurping my drink, could I have imagined that someday I’d be sober, and a lesbian like Ellen DeGeneres would tower over Hollywood? No way. Life is so cool.

This doorman is new. I don’t recall anyone caring how old I was at The Frolic Room, but this bald and suited man looks at our IDs as if he is trying to solve the Black Dahlia murder and nobody is above suspicion. Inside there are those weird, big lamps on the ceiling, and the wall of autographed photos. John Belushi! Sylvester Stallone! That guy from Thelma and Louise! Way up high, in the shadows of the ceiling, on what appears to be black velvet, Hank looks down on us, his alcoholic nose classically bulbous, holding a rocks glass. The young bartender is not the kind of guy you’d think would pump his fist to I Wanna Dance With Somebody, but this is what he does as he pours my dirt cheap, $2.25 Red Bull. Sandwich sits down next to a woman named Neesy who just got off work at Sephora and who goes totally apeshit over Sandwich’s Oakland A’s baseball hat. The red vibe I remembered is courtesy of the quilted red leather that lines the bar behind us, beneath that mural I liked to goof on which, actually, is fucking amazing. It’s a goddamn Al Hirschfeld mural! Okay, it’s Al Hirschfeld wallpaper, but still. It’s wonderful. Look, Joan Crawford, in furs! Tallulah Bankhead, rising from the white coifs of Einstein and George Bernard Shaw! Freaking Marcel Marceau, seemingly eavesdropping on Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe! The music changes from Whitney Houston to Donna Summer to Nirvana to Bauhaus and I’m trying to talk Sandwich into having a writing date here at the Frolic, below the ghost of Buk. She insists I could not bring my computer in here. I would have to return to one of the more admirable habits I kept in 2001, writing on paper. She’s right. Though they have introduced a couple of flatscreen TVs and a digital jukebox, and flung some plexiglass over the wallpaper-mural to keep it safe from drunks who might not know art when they see it, The Frolic Room retains more than a touch of it’s original 1930s vibe. A laptop would be an affront to the ghosts who surely haunt this joint.

It took my boyfriend another six years to come to his senses and put an end to our romantic insanity; it then took me about seven years to stop referring to it resentfully in my writing. Meaning that I just stopped now, like in this very essay! For a while I could only think about all the ways he'd done me wrong, but today I just imagine what a nightmare it must have been to have his youth kidnapped by a crazy lady who stayed up all night chain smoking and straining the fruit flies from her wine bottle while he was trying to learn to be a grown-up in this terrible world.

Many a sober alcoholic has pledged to neither regret their disastrous past past nor wish to shut the door on it. It certainly is a hard vow to uphold — I do indeed wish to shut the door on that night in 2002 where, stumped as to what to do once the cocaine ran out, I played an embarrassing game of strip poker and wound up in a dark psychological drug crash, naked, my tampon string dangling in the wind. But revisiting such scenes are said to humble us, and to provide assistance to those whose own tampon strings might be blowing in the winds of addiction.

Michelle Tea is the author of 10 books, founder of literary nonprofit RADAR Productions, the co-creator of Sister Spit, and the curator of Amethyst Editions, a collaboration with the Feminist Press.

To learn more about Michelle's newest book, Black Wave, click here.

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