UNITED STATES—The revamping of the Palmer House, a fleabag of over 100 rooms, didn’t just occur out of the blue. Nothing ever did in Wylie’s world. The city was tightening the thumbscrews on landlords. There had been cases of landlords in Pico Union and Westlake, slumlords chained to their own apartments in punishment for renting substandard apartments. That said, the Palmer House was in my opinion the crème de la crème of Skid Row lodgings before fresh paint ever touched its walls, before any workman hustled through its drab corridors. No better and no worse than one of the fleabags in my hometown that agricultural workers overpaid for, living five to a room, so they’d have a roof over their head. My dad’s drug store was on the ground floor of such a hotel.
The work—the paint, plumbing and glazing—continued unabated through the summer. And there were a lot of mattresses to refurbish. Besides scoring fake Social Security Cards in MacArthur Park, I got a daring new errand. I got to drive Shree’s Econoline van, loaded high with mattresses on top, from Wall St. to Montebello.
I was really getting way out of my comfort zone, first with the mission to Reseda, and now this. That first morning we strapped a tall stack of mattresses atop. In front of the Palmer’s northern exposure façade the morning was amazingly fresh, the street empty and the buildings Brooklynesque. Soon the mattresses were lashed down by ropes, but not lashed down enough, as I would learn.
“You know how to drive a van?” Wylie asked.
“Yes,” I said sunnily. The same way when I was a kid and we first went to the stables to rent horses, the guy asked if I knew how to ride and I said yes. I about got into as deep a trouble as with that horse that threw me in Felton.
On the Santa Ana Freeway I discovered the steering on the Econoline was a bit wobbly. The mattresses started to slide. As traffic sped up and slowed down I got rope burns trying to hold the mattresses down. They angled to one side and I could see one mattress drooping around the passenger window. It slid more and I pulled harder, fully cognizant of the risks of a fallen mattress.
Once in my part of California just this had happened. A mattress fell from a pick-up into the path of a sports car driven by the son of a pharmacist colleague of my dad. He flipped over and was killed. Here I was driving the Econoline with the wobbly steering and was about to commit another mattresside.
This is the one time I was grateful for freeway slow-downs—the mattresses behaved. But traffic picked up speed the farther east I drove. We were going 65 easy. Somebody drove by, honking and pointing. I gasped. One mattress was halfway down to touching the roadway, falling off and getting caught in the wheels of a car.
After a pit stop on the side of the Santa Ana Freeway, which had its own perils, I got the mattresses lined up again and tightened the ropes. On we sped to Montebello. On the exit turn, though, they all turned askew.
Well I made it, just barely, with all the mattresses lashed on the roof of the van. When I picked up a load of reconditioned mattresses, newly stuffed and lined, after being rid of the stained lining produced by decades in a Skid Row hotel, cigarette burns, spilled drinks, piss, vomit and you get the idea. Anyway, at the mattress factory they showed me the Boy Scout knot to keep those mattresses firmly on top. Shortly, thereafter my heart reentered by body, and I was equipped for many more runs to Montebello and back.
Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood.