THE LIDO COULD BE HEAVEN, THE LIDO COULD BE HELL. In its three-quarters of a century at the knot of Yucca and Wilcox, it has been a swank hotel, a theatrical way station, a rooming house, a flophouse, a crack house, a retreat for dancers and writers, mistresses and drunks, the start of something big or the end of it, a Hollywood rite. It has five stories, 110 units, and a rooftop neon sign that never lights. Film and song have fed its legend. Slumlords have robbed its soul. For the last decade, it has been a centerpiece of the city's affordable housing strategy, propped up by millions in no-interest loans. The lobby is a Moorish cavern, all white arches and black chandeliers. Half a dozen other colors blotch the walls, the false starts of a renovation nobody expects to see. The entry is protected by a security door; the dialing codes long ago stopped corresponding to the names. What was once the swimming pool is now a parking lot. There used to be a beauty shop, but it died with its matron, a stripper from vaudevillian days. Some tenants do not last. Some cannot leave.
The occupants of apartment 426 were of a class all their own, the most extreme incarnations of the Lido's spirit. Elvis arrived first, a doddering cold war veteran left homeless by the Northridge earthquake. He walked with a cane and spoke in riddles. He flashed peace signs and puffed on a corncob pipe through the nub of a broken-off stem. He liked to say he was retired from the movie industry. A onetime studio extra, he was, literally; straight out of Central Casting. Lady Jill followed, a foulmouthed street pixie with a heart tattooed just below her belt. Her look was thrift-store western, plaid and denim, anchored by a pair of square-toed, side-buckled Dingo biker boots. On her best days, she wove lace. On her worst, she spewed madness. Elvis got by on a disability check. Jill got paid to be his in-home aide. Together, they built a life of drinking and smoking and bickering, a union of paranoia and necessity. With folding grocery cart in tow, they imagined threats and invented routines, their antics sometimes inspiring delight, sometimes ridicule, sometimes pity. At the behest of tourists, they would pose for pictures, passing themselves off as a Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz act. At Pla-Boy Liquor, their source of $3.99 pints of vodka, they became known as Mr. and Mrs. Taaka. In some joints, they were Ma and Pa Kettle. In others, the Odd Couple. "They were icons of the neighborhood," says Mikee Tyler, doorman at the Frolic Room, one of the Boulevard's hallowed dives. "Hollywood originals," says Charlie Chiarenza, manager at Miceli's, the ageless supper club.
"We were just living an average life," says Elvis, "in our own little time chamber."
I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF JILL and Elvis--and by extension, the Lido--after happening upon an item, no more than a dozen sentences, tucked inside the Los Angeles Times last summer. The headline: "Woman Dies in 4-Story Plunge." A fire had broken out the night before, August 12, on the fourth floor of a Jazz Age apartment building. Trapped and confused, one tenant had gone out the window. She might have jumped. She might have collapsed. Forty feet below, her fall was broken by a wrought-iron fence. Her companion, a man with whom she shared the unit, had escaped out the door. Both were thought to be in their fifties. Neither was identified.
Maybe it was the backdrop of Hollywood and all its illusions, of an end so public and yet so anonymous. Maybe it was the distant echo of the World Trade Center cataclysm, of ordinary people forced to make impossible choices--of having to select, as a final act, one's own manner of death. I found myself consumed by the image: a faceless woman, a fatal leap, a time-warp hotel. I waited for another story. It never came. What kind of city was L.A., I wondered, if you could be cornered by flames, thrust off a ledge, impaled on a spike, then relegated to the ash heap of everyday misfortune? I called the coroner's office, which supplied me with names. Jill had no family; no next of kin to claim her body She was still in the morgue, on ice, awaiting a pauper's cremation. I asked about Elvis. He had no phone, no forwarding address. I decided to try the Lido. It is a battleship of a building, shaped like an E and painted split pea. At the caged entrance, I buzzed the manager. The bitterness that poured from the speaker box caught me unprepared. Jill and Elvis, I was told, were wretched creatures--nasty, vile, toxic, unkempt--so full of self-destructive loathing that the Lido, truth be told, was better off without them. Why would you want to write about someone like that? Before I could mount an argument, I was left with one other rebuff. The Lido was a secure building, and unless I had a specific invitation, I was not to set foot on the grounds.
For a few days I wavered. The story, whatever course it might take, promised to be troublesome, the protagonists blemished, maybe even grotesque. Why did I want to write about Jill and Elvis? The simple answer, I suppose, is that they were people, not types, with lives every bit as human and complex as those of more respectable subjects. But there were things I, too, wanted to know, doubts and suspicions that kept Elvis and Jill's plight, their awful exit, replaying in my mind: What had caused the fire? Who had set it? How is it that Elvis had managed to find the door while Jill's only choice appeared to be the window? Then there was my reception, not exactly brimming with compassion, by a disembodied voice. Why had I been turned away? What was the manager trying to hide? Whose interests were served by continuing to pretend that Jill and Elvis and the Lido, this whole murky and marginalized slice of Hollywood, were somehow unworthy of attention? Emboldened by the snub, I began a search that turned into an obsession--to know Jill, to find Elvis, to unlock the secrets of a crazy old apartment building. I imagined the fire to be akin to a flare, the SOS of a sinking vessel. The Lido was crying out, even if nobody cared enough to take notice. I started wandering the Boulevard, home to a thousand other Jills and Elvises, a streetscape at once in your face and invisible. I was sent from bulletproofed liquor stores to red leatherette juke joints, from coffeehouses and tattoo parlors to bus benches and a revolving schedule of soup kitchens. Wherever I found a wino with a cane, of which there was no shortage, I accosted him, asking if he was Elvis. A few offered to aid in the search if I would spring for their next bottle. I eventually got hold of a photo and showed it around, at Boardner's, at Starbucks, at the free Sunday dinners served by the Lord's Lighthouse. One night, tracing his footsteps, I ended up at a Bible class, holding hands with strangers, praying that Elvis would surface alive and well.
As the weeks passed, my quest became an initiation of sorts, into a once-tattered, now fast-mending Hollywood, a place in danger, I fear, of selling itself out. Its rough edges are still prominent: drifters, grifters, scavengers, hookers, druggies, skate punks, and runaways. But with the arrival of each new tony retailer or restaurant chain or velvet-roped bar, a little bit of the mall comes to the Boulevard, making it less hospitable to anyone who falls outside the desired demographic. By that I do not mean to romanticize depravity; Hollywood's decades of Bukowskian ruin were equally inhospitable, scaring away visitors and investment. It is hard to begrudge recovery. Yet in the rush to upgrade, something is inevitably erased: the layers of history and memory, the creases and wrinkles, all that is untidy and artless and real, which is to say; the qualities that make a community worth saving in the first place.
That is no less true for the Lido, a property itching to gentrify. For Jill and Elvis, it was a lifeboat, their lone salvation from the Boulevard's depths. It gave their world meaning and order, allowed them to pose as flamboyant misfits, not just creepy derelicts. But Hollywood shifted. The rules changed. They overstayed their welcome.