By Aaron Gilbreath
January 11th, 2013
At dinner in Koreatown this past summer, a friend mentioned the King Eddy Saloon in downtown Los Angeles. I’d never heard of it. “It’s crazy,” she said. “You have to go.” She warned me that it could also be dangerous. The bar sits on the northwest corner of 5th and Los Angeles Street, where Skid Row’s edge overlaps with downtown’s creeping gentrification. Located on the ground floor of the historic King Edward Hotel, The King Eddy is the last original Skid Row bar still in operation, or what some call an authentic dive. LA’s Skid Row contains one of the largest permament populations of homeless people in the US, with estimates reaching as high as 5,000 residents. During the Prohibition, the saloon was a hub of alcohol bootlegging, and part of an enormous network of underground tunnels in downtown Los Angeles. After alcohol sales became legal again, novelist John Fante drank there, and poet Charles Bukowski drank and wrote there, too. “I’d come in and he was sitting over there, writing on his little scrap pad, making a poem,” said bar manager Bill Roller, age seventy-four. “I still have one of the original ones that he threw away.”
Various blogs, newspaper articles and Yelp reviews paint a conflicting portrait of a bar populated by alcoholics, homeless people and fleabag hotel residents. Drug addicts and working class people drink side by side, along with prostitutes, drifters, ex-cons, transvestites, veterans, retirees, itinerant hipsters, regular 9-to-5, rent-paying locals, and an occasional tourist. One article mentions that the King Eddy was the favorite bar of Dez Cadena, one of Black Flag’s early guitarists and singers. A guy on Yelp describes the night he spent at Eddy’s talking with one of Bob Seger’s old drummers and a woman who acted in Up in Smoke. Other Yelpers describe “patrons who look like they could very well shank you if you talked to them funny,” yet in the LA Weekly, Bill Roller—who’s tended bar there for over thirty years and lives in the upstairs hotel—said of his patrons: “They’re not rowdy. We won’t let a rowdy crowd in. We ask them to leave. They don’t leave, we pick up the phone and have an escort get them out of here.”
As I researched the bar before my June visit, I realized that if all these descriptions were accurate, then the bar was a microcosm of LA itself, a mix of people who, despite great differences and tensions, somehow coexist. Also like Los Angeles, the place was too complicated to get an accurate read on. It sounded sketchy but feasible, insular yet welcoming, a secret spot in a city with few secrets. But the bar was no secret. Many Angelinos know about it, especially downtowners who live in nearby apartments and lofts, and there are more lofts going up each year. Not all of these downtowners, though, are comfortable enough to go inside.
In April 2012, Blogdowntown reported that a developer named Bristol 423 purchased the King Edward, Baltimore and Leland hotels at a bankruptcy auction, with the intent of cleaning up the properties and neighborhood, along with the saloon. In order to draw a younger, artsy crowd, Bristol 423’s planned saloon improvements include “renovating the bathrooms, restoring the giant glass windows looking out onto the streets and raising the ceiling to its original height, which would match the lobby of the King Edward around the corner.” (It has now closed for those improvements; more on that later.) The bar added wi-fi for paying customers, and launched a website plus Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some bar regulars are uneasy about the changes, according to the Blogdowntown article:
Frank, who said he’s been coming “seven days a week” since moving into the hotel in the late ’80s, isn’t sure he will be sticking around for the changes, but admits he doesn’t know where that leaves him. “I’ve got a lot of friends here,” he said. “That’s the whole problem. This is the last reasonable bar, [price-wise].” Another regular customer sitting next to Frank, who wished not give his name, agreed and said it felt as if everything was happening too quickly.
As a dive—before it closed for renovations—the King Eddy served some of the cheapest booze downtown. It was the last place you could order a whole pitcher of beer for $12, a shot for $3.50 and a bottle of Bud for $4. They also sold $4 microwaved cheeseburgers. (Prices had been lower, but rent went up.) A banner above the entrance advertised “The Best Dive Bar In Los Angeles.” The website listed their motto: “Where nobody gives a shit about your name.” To adapt, the King Eddy was starting to market its authenticity, a process which inevitably diminishes authenticity. In this age of heavy-duty lifestyle marketing and urban renewal, when does a dive cease to be a dive?
One Sunday in June around 11 a.m., I parked downtown and walked north toward 5th. Multiple signs on tall old buildings advertised their availability. “Film Here Loft With View” one said. “Location Filming Building and Alley,” said another. When I crossed over to Los Angeles Street, I entered a bustling Latin America: wholesale clothes and electronics, inexpensive zapatos. A radio in front of “Blanket World” blasted a song with a funky guitar line, and people lined up to order from the El Boli Hot Dogs lunch truck. Then, there it was, the King Eddy, seeming more like a film set than a real place, thanks to everything I’d read.
Yelp said that the bar opened at 11. It actually opened at 6 a.m. Various online sources described people standing out front, awaiting the click of the deadbolt so they could take their favorite seats. I saw none of that. I pushed open the door and eased into a snug warren of subterranean coolness. The air was moist, the interior dim. The bartender smiled and gave me a nod. “What can I get you, hon’?” I said hello and ordered a glass of iced tea. It was strong and tasted like the air smelled: tart and faintly mildewed, with an appealing astringency. I sat on a section of red vinyl at a table against the wall. The bar was quiet. TVs played sports on mute. There were ten customers, all but two of us seated at the bar.
A pudgy man in black slacks and a gray sweater sat at one corner of the bar, drinking two cups of coffee. He wore a small mustache and stared at soccer while the man beside him drained a Budweiser bottle. “I miss the eighties,” the first guy said. “The clothes, the look, all that. You miss the eighties, Monica?”
The bartender leaned against the bar, texting. “No.”
He said, “You don’t? All that puffed up hair?”
An obese man sat alone to my left, his pale knees pressed against a walker. Wearing a ratty blue t-shirt and baggy sweat shorts, he, too, drank two cups of coffee. “The only hair I comb,” he said, “is my pubic hair.”
“Gross,” said the bartender.
The place fell silent. No one laughed. Was it even a joke?
Manager Bill Roller sat at the bar, nursing a drink. Wearing jeans and a white V-neck t-shirt, he had puffy eyes and walked slowly between the bar and food station as if his joints hurt. He grabbed stable surfaces to brace himself. Occasionally he went outside to smoke.
A slow-moving woman in what may have been her early fifties pushed open the door and flooded the ground with white light. She took a stool at the bar and muttered, “A ham and cheese sandwich, please.” They were $3.50. She drank a draft beer while she waited, staring not at the two TVs in front of her, but at the door.
“You want pickles,” Monica said.
The woman said nothing, didn’t even move.
“Lady, you want pickles? Pickles?” Monica’s booming voice grew sharp but didn’t break the woman’s gaze. “Lady. Lady! Pickles?”
The woman turned to her right. “Huh?”
The bartender held up a pickle with a metal tong.
“Oh,” she said, in a slow, narcotized voice. “I like pickles.” As she faced the door, Monica released the pickle. When her sandwich arrived, she ordered two shots of tequila. All straight liquor comes in shot glasses at the Eddy. She drank the shots quickly then shuffled over to the smoking box. It looked just as one LA Times reporter had described: “the most carcinogenic sportscaster’s booth in history.” The woman lit up and sat in a haze of her own exhalations, crossing one leg tightly over the other and rubbing her neck. The bar used to offer sardine cans as ashtrays.
This is how it stayed for nearly three hours. Customers waved at people who walked in, pointed at others and made jokes. They went into the box to smoke. Divey as it was, there was nothing unnerving about the King Eddy on this day, and nothing spectacular. It was a neighborhood bar, welcoming and unassuming. An eclectic mix of people came to socialize and drink cheaply, not to be seen or live some conceived downtown lifestyle—and certainly not to experience something “authentic.” The interior bore the sort of clashing clutter that only decades of unplanned accumulation can produce.
Ten days after my visit, the Los Angeles Times reported that the bar had sold to new owners. On December 16, 2012, the owners threw a party and closed the King Eddy for renovations the next day. In addition to overhauling the interior and updating the bathrooms, the new owners would, as the previous owner said, “put a lot of money into it. They want a full kitchen with full food service, and they want to open up the facade and restore it to what it used to look like.” As the LA Times stated, co-owner Michael Leko “said the bar’s history was its biggest draw,” and that he was going to preserve the bar’s “mythical status.” In September, Leko told an Associated Press reporter that the new King Eddy will have drink prices that “complement the neighborhood.”
Whatever it is that makes a dive “authentic,” it isn’t just interior or location; it’s also price and clientele. Camaraderie and low prices are King Eddy’s main attractions. Higher prices will likely run off many regulars, which will dilute the very character that the bar markets. When it reopens in early spring, its Skid Row neighborhood will certainly remain impoverished, but with the pace of downtown revitalization, it likely won’t stay the skids for long. Hopefully those people on the street will find help at improved social services rather than find themselves run out of downtown by gentrification.
Many people romanticize squalor, especially the young. They want the forbidden. They want the mythic existence of Kerouac on the road or the adventurous hedonists in Trainspotting. They want so-called “colorful characters” to add flavor to their own lives, or at least to their nights out on the town, as a sort of human backdrop to their socializing. But there’s nothing appealing about being down and out, and there’s no romance to suffering.
That day in June, two men clinked their drinks and went into the smoking box. I sat and took this all in as the guy who missed the eighties told his friend, “I used to play pocket pool a lot. I kept losing ’cause the referee’s a dick.”
Then a voice directed at me: “Honey.” It was the bartender. “You gotta buy more than an iced tea if you’re going to sit there on your computer.” She was wiping down the counter in front of Frankie and staring right at me. I and my wi-fi-using laptop were the faces of gentrification.
I thought of what I could buy: a sandwich, some chips. A $4.50 plate of sausage, biscuits and gravy didn’t sound too appetizing, and I was too caffeinated to buy more iced tea. The music was now making eavesdropping difficult, so I laid a two-dollar tip on the counter and told her I’d split. “I don’t really drink.”
The blinding sunlight outside warmed my face and lit the front of Don’s Mart Wholesale Center in a caustic white. Shadows had shrunk up against the buildings, cowering in the heat like salted snails.
Hispanic families ambled by, browsing shop windows. Two little girls licked popsicles with their mother, their tan toes peeking from pink sandals. Even though the sidewalk was dotted with cigarette butts and gum stains, the street wasn’t so gritty that you’d ever guess that further south and west, Skid Row residents passed their days sitting in doorways and on curbs, reading, sleeping, drinking and playing cards. From the calm movements of shoppers, you wouldn’t guess that later in the day, many people in Skid Row would line up for food at the missions, or that later still, those without rooms would set up tents on the sidewalk, and those without tents would build shelters from cardboard, or simply lay their bedding on the dirty concrete.
About the author: Aaron Gilbreath (@AaronGilbreath) has written essays for The New York Times, Kenyon Review, Paris Review, Tin House, AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Brick, The Threepenny Review, Gettysburg Review and Hotel Amerika, and articles for Oxford American, Yeti and The Awl. He sells tea in Portland, Oregon. Visit him online.
Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood