This Labor Day weekend marks thirteen years that I’ve been in Los Angeles. I drove out here in 1993 from Old Lyme, CT, barely knowing only one guy, a screenwriter no less, and less than $2000 in savings.
I had mentally prepared myself for struggling to get into the film industry by literally working seventy to eighty hours a week in the months leading up to my move (as a barback, staffing a video store, helping out at my mother’s flower shop, and working as a “firewatch” at a nuclear power plant). Even in the early nineties, two grand wasn’t a lot, and I knew I’d have to take any job to stay afloat until I made my millions as a film director.
Before I’d even arrived, the screenwriter had offered me some work assisting him and his family. His wife was bedridden, pregnant with a third child, and so I would help her with grocery shopping and other errands, as well as keeping an eye on their other two young boys, aged three and five. In addition to the financial support, they became my extended family. As an ignorant 21 year old who’d never lived on his own, they served as my lifeline.
Still, this was only part time, and I was eager to find something else to fill my time and maybe help me meet new people. For some reason, I was drawn to the dive bar and restaurant that occupied the space below the screenwriter’s rented office.
The place was called The Oar House, down on Main Street in Santa Monica on the edge of Venice. The place reeked of stale beer that had soaked into its mostly wooden decor, and even though I’ve never been a drinker, that smell has always been a favorite (along with the smell of skunks… ironically, I’m repulsed by the smell of pot). I remember a couple days before I applied to work there, on my first visit, I’d gone in at night and found the place (and the other bars around Santa Monica) largely empty. A bartender explained to me that it was because the MTV Video Music Awards were on, and everyone was at home watching (again, this was thirteen years ago).
The Oar House was the definition of a dive bar. Besides the phonetically inviting name, the place itself looked like a TGI Fridays that had exploded, and all the chairs and antiques had stuck to the walls and ceiling. If you’ve been on Pirates of the Caribbean and can recall the part towards the end of the ride where it looks like wooden planks are about to drop on you, you can probably get a good mental image of what the Oar House looked like.
During the days while the Oar House was closed, an adjacent restaurant served as its daytime bar. The place had an equally interesting name – Buffalo Chips – and was connected to the Oar House by a secret door toward the back. Both, I’d learn later, were part of a chain called Grand American Fare, which at the time owned a ton of restaurants in Calfornia and Arizona, including such local spots as the Omellete Parlor and J. Sloans in West Hollywood. More important to me at the time were its good, cheap burgers, and cute, flirtatious waitresses. I’d asked one of them if they were hiring, and I think she told me to wait about thirty minutes and I could get an interview.
The interview process was brief. The manager asked me what I was looking for, I said I had experience as a barback. He pointedly said they were only hiring doormen. While I was in decent shape, I had the build of a skinny white guy from Connecticut who’d never seen a fight. But before I walked out the door he’d told me I could start the next night, and that was that.
For the next couple months I’d work for the screenwriter during the day, and if I was lucky, would be a bouncer at night. I loved the job, in spite of the minimum wage, and would call in on my days off hoping someone had called in sick or been fired so I could cover their shift. It was my social outlet, even though everyone I knew advised me to never, ever date a girl who’d frequent the Oar House.
My job was pretty easy – I’d rotate between checking i.d.s and keeping an eye on the line at the front door, and circling the bar collecting used pitchers and glasses, and occasionally spreading sawdust on spilled beer and puke. One night of the week they had 50 cent pitcher (or maybe they were only a quarter, I forget), which brought in a mix of college students, strange Europeans from local hostels, and leathered locals – former famed surfers, washed up groupies, and nearly expired legends from the 60s peace movement.
One regular was a clown who lived in a busted RV in Venice, who’d often complain about the crack whores whom he’d put up but wouldn’t fulfill their part of the deal. We also had a group of guys I was warned were Mexican mafia, so if they happened to get into a fight inside the bar to not intervene. There were also a couple of hot Latina twins who’d I’d always find dancing inside, and on a couple occasions would trap me between their grinding bodies before asking me if I’d want to hang out later – I covered up my youthful cowardice with some moral quandry and always decined.
Tomorrow, the second half wherein I explain how I was almost (but not really) killed in a fight, and how I became head doorman in record time…