My wife and I were walking down Hollywood Boulevard, heading towards Musso & Frank Grill for a drink. In Manhattan, looking up at Gotham’s skyscrapers marks you as a tourist. Here, looking down at the sidewalk is a surefire indicator you’re from out of town.
“Look,” my wife said. “Bill Cosby’s star.”
“Take a picture before they dig it up,” I said.
We pressed on through the throngs of tourists; past the snake handlers, hucksters, Jesus freaks, souvenir shops, fast food joints, seedy hotels, bars, liquor stores and head shops. As we walked I noticed the homeless people camped out on the street: many with dogs: perhaps trying to play on the sympathy of animal lovers passing by. The dogs looked infinitely healthier than their owners.
By then twilight was straining to push through the smog, purpling the mansions high in the Hollywood Hills with the last licks of daytime’s fire. As the evening air cooled I wondered if street people congregated by certain stars on the Walk of Fame for luck. James Franco’s star was doing a booming business but Rod Sterling’s star was a bust. Ironic.
“Look at that,” Annie said, pointing across the street. I followed her gaze and saw a building across the street with a large sign that read, “The Museum of Broken Relationships.”
“Weird,” I said. “Probably A gimmick. Maybe it’s an art gallery.”
“Want to go in?”
“Nothing there I don’t already know.”
“We have to cross the street anyway.”
“Let’s press down to Cahuenga,” I said. “We’ll cross there.”
“I know why you want to go there.” I just smiled.
When we reached the corner of Cahuenga and Hollywood, I stopped in front of an old three story building whose ground floor was occupied by a pizza shop. “Here it is,” I said.
“Phillip Marlowe’s office,” my wife said. I had taken her here before.
“Maybe,” I said. “It could be the building across the street. All conjecture anyway. Marlowe never existed.”
“But you like to think it’s this place.”
“Yep.” I said, remembering the first time I was here in ’09. A German media guy let me into the building and gave me a tour, snapping a picture of me standing on the fire escape with the famed Hollywood sign in the distance – before I met Annie. Before I had children. Before my life took off.
We crossed the street, hooked a left, and headed into Musso and Frank. The bar was hopping but we managed to score two empty stools. The red coated barman was with us in two shakes. I ordered a Sidecar and Annie asked for a Pisco Sour.
“Pisco Sour?” the barman, said with mock surprise. “I don’t know if I can make one of those.” I smiled. The bar at Musso and Frank is one of the best in the world. They’ve served everyone from John Barrymore to Chris Pratt and every forgotten starlet in between.
“He’s joking, hon,” I said. “They know how to make a Pisco Sour.”
The drinks arrived with a shrimp cocktail and Annie pronounced her Pisco as the best she ever tasted.
“Good,” I said, sipping my drink. “Remember the first time I took you here?”
“Yes. I was pregnant. I couldn’t have a drink.”
I clinked her glass with mine. “Here’s to your first drink at Musso’s.”
My drink was so good I ordered another. After the barman deposited my Sidecar with a flourish I asked him, “Is Manny still here?”
“Oh, he’s still around,” the barman said. “Comes in once a week or so. He’s retired now, enjoying time with his family.”
“Give him my best.”
“I will,” the barman said. “My name’s Sonny by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Sonny. My name’s Steve. This is Annie.”
“Where you folks from?”
“Jersey!” Sonny exclaimed, “What part?”
“You familiar with Jersey?”
Sonny laughed. “I know nothing about no Jersey.”
When Sonny left, I said to Annie, “Manny was the bartender when I was here eight years ago. He was in his eighties then, worked here for fifty something years. In fact, most of the guys at Musso’s have worked here forever. There’s probably a waiter rattling around who still remembers John Wayne.”
“Lot of history here,” Annie said.
Sipping my drink, I thought about the time I sat at this bar for hours, drinking Sidecar after Sidecar while Manny regaled me with stories about Hollywood’s past. When I finally stumbled out of the bar I was blasted and wandered the streets trying to sober up. That was a tough time in my life. I was alone in every sense – a stranger in a strange town, in a relationship that was doomed and struggling with a book that I had no idea how to write. I was way past deadline and scared – scared of literary failure, scared of being alone, and terrified my dreams of a new life would shatter on the sharp edges of my inadequacy.
Drunk off my ass, I sat on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga: looking like any other nutcase on the Boulevard: and stared at Phillip Marlowe’s building for a long time. As I watched the disembodied humans parading past in varying degrees of insanity, superficiality and frailty I had an epiphany. During my bender with Manny I realized that we had established a relationship and, however fleeting it was, I knew I’d never forget him. Some part of him would stay with me forever – an immortality of sorts. No matter how great or small, life is all about the relationships we make. Only connect. That’s the driving impetus of life. When I made it back to my hotel I finally knew how to write my book. I had also started the process of becoming a different man.
The book was a flop, but that was okay because I discovered there’s no shame in failure when you’ve given something your very best. That was liberating. Then I met Annie, had a baby, and bought a house. Now I spend my days trying to help people. The pay isn’t great and I’ll never have a star on the Walk of Fame, but helping people is what makes living possible. Our salvation depends on how we treat one another. It’s a lesson I’ll always be learning.
I told Annie all this. “No wonder you like L.A. so much,” she said.
“L.A. is a great town if you don’t want anything from it,” I said, finishing my drink. “Otherwise it will eat you alive. But in my case, it gave me a great gift.”
I called Sonny over, paid the bill and shook his hand. “See you again in a few years.”
“Don’t worry,” Sonny said. “I will always be here.” The barman’s words were reassuring; yet another connection had been created, mysteriously intertwining with all the other lives I’ve encountered.
Annie and I stepped onto the Boulevard and began walking arm in arm over the stars back to our rented house. When we passed the Museum of Broken Relationships I smiled. In its own odd way, that weird place was a clarion call to both tourists and celebrities alike. Don’t give up on people, ever.
There’s nothing broken that can’t be fixed.