I’ll never forget the first time I climbed the dark steps into the Brighton Hotel lobby. The air smelled of cigar smoke and decay. The lobby had only two windows, both at the end of hallways, and both too far away from the center to provide much light. The worn wooden floor had an old Persian rug covering the middle. Thick white threads showed where it was worn all the way through. There was an old TV sitting in the back of the room, and two battered couches forming an L in the middle of the room, both oriented to see the screen. The main light came from a booth that had a metal cage around it. The cigar smoke emanated from behind the cage.
“What do you want, son?” asked the man sitting behind the cage. He was chomping the smoldering cigar as he talked. A naked light bulb above him lit the booth in dirty yellow.
“I’m here to see Harry,” I said. “I think he’s in room 12.”
“Oh, yeah, the kid. Just over to your left there.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked over the door marked ‘Room 12’ and knocked. There was movement inside the room, and the glass doorknob turned, sounding loose and fragile.
“Hi, Jim,” said Harry. He had a big grin on his face. “Welcome to my place.” He ushered me in.
“Hey, Harry,” I said as I walked in.
“What do you think?”
I looked around the room. It was a decent size. In the middle of the room was an ancient brass bed, which had been painted many times over. Harry sat down on it, and the springs squeaked. To the left of the bed was a small round sink, with a rubber plug dangling from a chain wrapped around one of the two faucets. There was a cracked mirror above the sink. The window was opposite of the bed, and it gave a nice view of Cabrillo Street, with the Ding How Café across the street. Under the window was an old radiator which, like the brass bed, had been painted many times.
“Does that thing work?” I asked, pointing to the radiator.
Harry shrugged his large shoulders. “Don’t know. Not cold enough to try it.”
“Reminds me of the old main building at Torrance High,” I said.
“Me too,” said Harry. “I think this place was probably built at the same time.”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Down the hallway. It’s got showers too.”
“Sounds like a pain.”
“It’s not bad. Have a seat.” He nodded towards the chair that was against the wall by the window. I sat down.
“I think your place is pretty cool, Harry.”
“Not bad for $13 bucks a week. Wish it had a stove, though. I need to get a hot plate or something.”
“A fridge would be nice too,” I said.
“They won’t let you put one of those in here. Not even a small one. They say the wiring can’t take it if everybody gets a fridge. There’s one out by the lobby, but things get ripped off from there.”
“How about an ice chest?” I asked.
“Not a bad idea. Wonder if I could make ice in the lobby fridge?”
“Probably depends on if people would leave it alone or not.”
Harry got up and went over to his dresser. He opened the top drawer and pulled out some magazines.
“Look at these,” he said. “My mom used to throw this stuff away, but now I can have them.” He handed me a couple. One was a ‘Sex to Sexty’ comic book, and the other one was a cheaply shot full nude magazine. I thumbed through them. The picture magazine had graphic shots of women below the waist, something I hadn’t seen yet.
“Wow,” I said. “Where did you get these?”
“Over at a used bookstore on Cravens, a couple blocks down from the Pussycat. They’re behind the counter, but the guy knows me, so he pulls them out when I come in.”
“What’s the Pussycat?”
“You know, the X rated theater over there. I went there last week. It’s cool.”
All kinds of prurient thoughts filled my head. Those places are for adults.
“Wow, how did you get in there?” I asked.
“Well, I am eighteen, you know,” Harry said. “But it doesn’t even matter. They don’t care. I just showed my draft card and that was enough. It doesn’t even have a picture on it.”
“Really.” I said. Harry could see my interest.
“Want to go? I can get you in.”
“I’ll just show my draft card, and then hand it back to you. They won’t even care.”
“How much does it cost?”
“That’s pretty expensive,” I said, wondering if I had that much with me.
“Yeah, it’s about twice as much as a regular movie, but they show everything, and it’s always a double feature with shorts too. It’s worth it.”
I tried to look cool, but my head was spinning. At sixteen, this was all racy and exciting to me. The neighborhood and this building were suddenly intoxicating too. It was total lack of supervision, coupled with raging hormones. It was pretending to be a grown up, and looking at things that I wasn’t supposed to.
“How are things in the neighborhood,” Harry asked, breaking the spell.
“I saw your brother Dan walking past my house yesterday.”
“I’m glad to be away from that weirdo. He hated me. He was glad when mom kicked me out.”
“It was your mom that kicked you out? I thought it was your dad.”
“Naw, it was my mom. She runs things at home. He doesn’t care what she does.”
“That sucks, man,” I said.
“It’s alright. I like it better here anyway.”
“It’s still nasty what they did to you.”
“I know, but at least my dad didn’t beat the crap out of me like my uncle does to my cousins.”
“What are you planning to do? I mean after you’re settled here and everything.”
“I need to get a car. Taking the bus sucks. I was late to work last week, and my boss said he’d fire me if it happens again. I can’t get fired. So now I go way early.”
“Cars are expensive.”
“You got one,” he said.
“Yes, but I bought it from my uncle, and he only charged me two hundred bucks for it.”
“It’s a nice car, though.”
“Well, yeah, that’s the point. I paid less for it than it was worth because my aunt and uncle wanted to do something nice for me.”
“I have a friend at work that knows somebody selling a car for three hundred. I’ll buy that if I can save enough money before somebody else buys it.”
“What is it?”
“Impala. Sixty-three. Pretty clean.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in, it’s open,” Harry said. It was the man from behind the cage. He looked shorter when he was standing up.
“Hey, kid, you got the rent?” he asked with a Bronx accent.”
“Sure, Ed.” Harry got off the bed, got out his wallet, and pulled the bills out. He handed them to Ed, who was still chomping on a big cigar.
“Thanks, Kid,” he said. “What are you two doing tonight?”
“I’ll probably take Jim to the Pussycat.”
Ed laughed. “You’re going to pay three bucks for that joint? I can get you the real thing for about twice that.”
I turned red as a beet, but Harry just laughed.
“No way, Ed, I’ve seen the broads you bring around here.”
“Alright, kids. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He flashed a wicked grin, and then left the room, closing the door behind him.
“You got enough money for the movie?” Harry asked.
I pulled out my wallet. I found four crumpled dollar bills in there. I also had a pocket full of change.
“Yeah, I’m good. Even have enough for snacks.”
“Well, alright, then. Let’s go.”
We left Harry’s room. I looked around the lobby. There were several men sitting on the couches watching TV. They all looked over as the light from Harry’s room washed over them. There were two men sitting on one couch, drinking something out of bottles which were hidden in paper bags. There was an older man lying on the other couch. He got up when he saw us, and grinned. He looked like he was missing about half his teeth.
“Hey, Harry, is that your new girlfriend?” he asked.
I felt like I wanted to sink into the floor. Why do all these old guys have to joke about my long hair? Isn’t that over yet?
Another of the men joined in. “Yeah, Harry, I’d better not hear your bed springs creaking again tonight.”
The first man motioned me over. I approached slowly. He looked even worse close up, with pockmarked skin. He smelled.
“Hey, kid, want a hit?” he asked, holding out a bottle of Ripple wine.
I shook my head no. Then Ed hit his cage with something, making a rattling noise.
“Jake!” he said from behind his cage. “Knock that off or you’re out of here.”
“Alright. I was just foolin around. Don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”
All three of the men laughed. You could see Ed shaking his head in disgust under the dim light in his cage.
Jake wasn’t done yet. He sat up on the couch now.
“Hey, Harry, where are you takin your date?”
Ed started cracking up, his laughing turning into a cough.
“Harry here is taking his buddy to the Pussycat,” he said, laughing.
Jake got a big grin on his face, showing those awful remaining teeth.
“Well, dammit, Harry, no abusing yourself in the bathroom tonight. I heard you last time, and it upset me.”
“Oh, really,” said Harry. “Bullshit.”
“No really, Harry, I could hear you talkin in there while you were doin it.”
“Oh yeah? What was I saying?”
“You were sayin ‘Giddy up, little dimper, you hurt so good’.”
All three of the men started rolling around laughing. Even Ed joined in this time.
Harry looked over at me with a sheepish grin. “Let’s get out of here.”
I nodded, and we walked down the stairs and into the cool late afternoon air. It was almost dusk. Harry leaned up against the wall by the door on one side, and I leaned up on the other side.
“Do those guys always give you a hard time like that?” I asked.
“Mostly. I don’t care. They really aren’t bad guys. They tell good stories too. Like Jake. He used to be a real live hobo. He rode the rails all over the country back in the thirties and forties.”
“He still looks like a hobo. Smells like one too.”
“I know,” Harry said. “I won’t sit on the couches with those guys. I’ve never seen any of them in the showers. Those guys are either drunk, getting drunk, or asleep.” He snickered.
“Are you going to stay down here very long?” I asked. The excitement of this place was leaving my mind quickly.
“It’s good for now because of the bus stop and the cheap rent, although you can’t have good stuff here. Anything worth much gets ripped off.”
“That isn’t cool.”
“The Brighton is better than most of the places around here, at least. Ed doesn’t steal, and he’ll get on anybody who does if he’s awake. That’s a lot different than the other places.”
“You mean the management rips stuff off in the other places?”
“Some of them do,” Harry said. “Jake said the guy who runs the hotel over the Ding How is the worst.”
I looked around. The wall that I was leaning against was an old vacuum repair shop. The opposite wall that Harry was leaning against was an old pawn shop. The buildings here were all from the early 1900s, giving the place a feeling very much different than the rest of Torrance with its 1950s tract homes and newer department stores.
“We have some time before the movie starts, so let’s take the long way over,” Harry said. We took off to the right on Cabrillo. The Crest bar was next to the Brighton. Cars filled the parking lot.
“Is that the same Crest that you hear about?”
“What about it?”
“I heard there were gunfights in there all the time.”
“I haven’t heard any guns going off since I’ve been here. Lots of really seedy looking people in there though. And old women trying to look sexy. Remember what Ed said about getting women?”
“They hang out there. Nasty.”
“Geez, how many pawn shops are around here?” I asked, as we passed another one that was to the right of the Crest.
“Lots. Lots of bars, liquor stores, and used bookstores too. And creepy old department stores. Before the stores on Hawthorne, this was the place to come.”
“I know, my grandfather likes to talk about how it was back in the old days. Twenty – thirty years ago.”
We got down to the corner and went left on Gramercy Avenue. The sun was coming down, making the street look a little foreboding.
“Looks like most of these places close down before dark,” I said.
“Yeah, they roll up the sidewalks at about five, everywhere except the bars, liquor stores, and the Pussycat.”
We got to the intersection with Cravens Avenue, and went right. That’s when I saw it. The big pink building stuck out like a sore thumb, with its garish sign, emblazoned with ‘Pussycat’ and it’s marque with racy descriptions of what lay in wait there. My excitement built as we got closer. It was on the other side of the street, so when we got close, we looked both ways for a break in the traffic, and then ran across.
“Ok, here’s what we do,” Harry said. “I’ll go in first, show my card, and pay. Then I’ll pass the card back to you. Looks like Jesse is working today. She’s cool, and she’s only about nineteen herself.”
I nodded, but I was nervous. I expected to be called out.
“Hi, Jesse,” Harry said. The girl in the booth’s face lit up and she smiled.
“Hey, Harry, how are you doin?”
“How’s the show?” he asked as he showed his draft card and slipped money into the opening of the box office window.
“Oh, you know,” she said, with a bored look.
Harry thrust the draft card back to me. Jesse glanced at me and smirked.
“Who’s your friend, Harry?” she asked as she slid the ticket out the window.
“Jim, a friend from the old neighborhood.”
I got up to the window as Harry walked into the lobby.
“You got ID, Jim?” Jesse said, grinning. She was chewing gum.
I held up the draft card. She smirked again.
“So Jim must be your middle name, I guess,” she said, laughing. “Whatever….three dollars please.”
I slid the money to her, and she slid out the ticket. Then I walked into the lobby, my heart banging in my chest.
“See, I told you,” Harry said. “Let’s get some popcorn.”
I nodded, trying to calm myself down. Now the excitement was starting to build.
We got our snacks and walked over to the red velvet curtains. The usher took our tickets, and in we went.
The theater was dimly lit, and the red velvet curtain was still hanging in front of the screen. There were half a dozen men in there, scattered around. At least one of them was asleep and snoring.
“Let’s sit in the middle,” Harry said. “Away from the balcony.” He looked at me and laughed. I pretended to get the joke. My heart was still pounding in my chest. We made our way to the middle of a row down towards the center. I heard some laughing, and looked back towards the door. It was a group of kids about our age, joking with each other as they found seats.
“I’m glad we didn’t miss the previews,” Harry said. “Sometimes those are better than the movies.” We sat down. After a few minutes the red velvet curtain parted, and the lights were brought down.
The first preview was for a movie called ‘Country Cuzzins’. It looked like a real romp, and it took only seconds for the first naked women to splash across the screen. The noisy kids in the back started laughing and clapping their hands. Harry and I looked at each other and laughed.
There were several more trailers, all showing fairly light romps. Then came a scratchy looking short, about a plumber who got a little frisky with the housewife that had called him. It was silent and badly shot in garish color.
The main movie was a soft-core version of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, with a twist. When the good Doctor drank the potion, he turned into a beautiful blonde woman, who of course was a killer. Harry and I cracked up through much of the movie. I don’t remember what the second feature was. Some of these movies were more memorable than others.
I remember thinking how racy these movies were at my young age, and that I had taken a big bite of forbidden fruit. Looking back on it now, these films were pretty gentle. About a year after this, the Pussycat started showing hardcore movies. That was a whole different kettle of fish.
Harry and I left the theater after that feature and started back to the Brighton. It was a really dark night, and I was relieved when Harry picked the lightest route to get back. We got to the front door and climbed the long dark steps. I expected another onslaught of teasing from the old men up there. We heard snoring when we were near the top of the stairs. Everybody in the lobby was asleep, including Ed. We went to Harry’s door, and he used the old fashioned key to unlock it. We went in quietly.
“Well, what did you think?” Harry asked.
“It was fun. Nice looking women, too.”
“Yeah, at least in that first movie,” he said. “I liked the Doctor’s fiancée the best.”
“Yes, she was gorgeous. How often to you go to that place, anyway? They seemed to know you over there.”
“They change the movies once a week, and I’ve been there every week since I’ve been living here. I like to flirt with Jesse, but she’s out of my league.”
“Well, she’s older, but she is cute,” I said. “I probably should get going. It’s getting late.”
“You can spend the night here if you want to,” Harry said. I could tell by the look on his face that he wanted me to stay.
“My folks won’t go for that, but thanks. I’ll be back pretty soon, though. This was a blast.”
“OK, don’t be a stranger,” Harry said. The look on his face struck me. It was the look of a scared child. Suddenly I hated to leave him alone, but the thought of staying there made me queasy. I was ready to leave the steamy underside of Downtown Torrance and the intoxicating freedom that I felt there earlier. People didn’t live there because they wanted to. They lived there because there was nowhere else.
I walked over to the door and opened it.
“Later, man,” I said.
“Yeah, later,” Harry replied.
I walked through the lobby as quickly and as quietly as I could, and sped up down the dark stairs. As I got onto the sidewalk I heard a bottle hit the asphalt over at the Crest parking lot. Then I heard a dirty laugh. I had to walk by there to get to my car, and I went as quickly as I could, trying not to look scared. A drunk old woman saw me and smiled. I sped up.
I was almost to my car, which was parked in front of another one of the flop house hotels on Cabrillo called the Torrance Hotel. Suddenly I heard shouting and laughing. A car full of kids about my age was cruising down Cabrillo, making obscene comments to anybody they saw. They shouted something at the Torrance Hotel. I saw somebody get on the fire escape. It was an old man, heavy set with boxers and a tank top on. He pointed a snub-nosed revolver at the kid’s car. They sped off. The man looked down at me as I approached my car. He shook his head, and then got back inside. My heart was going a mile a minute. I fumbled with the lock on my car door, and got in. I turned the ignition key. The starter took what seemed like forever to get the engine running. I took off at a good clip, in a panic to get back onto home turf. I didn’t settle down until I was west of Torrance High on Carson Street. I was back into the gentle safe world of the American middle class.
I went back to visit Harry many times, but after this night I always took some of our mutual friends with me. Harry drifted from one fast food job to another, and lived in several different places over the next couple of years. I lost track of him in about 1976, and haven’t seen him since. I’ve often wondered what became of him.
And what of the Brighton Hotel? It’s still there. The Pussycat is gone…..knocked down to make room for condos. Few in the city lamented that. Most of Downtown Torrance remains as it was on that heady night in 1972.
Copyright 2014 Robert Boren