To Live and Drive in LA

I had decided to go downtown and shoot bums and hookers (for all the NRA people out there, I'm talking about a camera). I loved downtown Los Angeles at night when the only people out were the drunks, the homeless, ladies of the evening, lost night-clubbers, Guardian Angels, cops and crazy people like me. Several times I went on late night expeditions with the Guardian Angels, walking around downtown looking for crime and evildoers. If you don't know about the Guardian Angels, they are a group of self-styled protectors of the streets that began in New York City in the 1970s, with a branch opening in Los Angeles presumably for the weather. Some would call them selfless guardians of the innocent; others might call them vigilantes, but whatever you choose to call them, they were great to have along as I tramped through the dregs of humanity in the wee hours of the morning. In fact, the only problem with them accompanying me was that I couldn't actually take any pictures while I was with them. Apparently, they prefer to work anonymously. However, I would try to remember certain strange places in the seedier parts of town and return later to shoot them, with a camera.

On the nights I ventured out by myself, I had a whole routine that I would follow. First, I would load my car with cheap wine and beer – not too cheap though because I was usually drinking too – and sometimes scotch and gin as well. Then I would cruise the mean streets in search of good shots. On a typical night I would start around 1st Street and Figueroa, moving up to 5th Street where I could check out the bar at the Alexandria Hotel where Charles Bukowski used to hang out – a very sketchy place but cool. From there I would go down the alleys where groups of drunks and ne'er-do-wells would be huddled around barrels with roaring fires for warmth, just like you see in the movies. After awhile the bums began to remember me and when I would rive up they would go directly to the trunk, take what they needed, and after we all drank and chatted for awhile, they would pose for me. Maybe pose is too strong a term, but they would allow me to photograph them. It may sound scary, but to a young, slightly drunk, camera-wielding Frenchman, there was no fear. Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss.

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One night, when I was sitting in the car taking pictures of some particularly interesting street-walkers, I noticed a car coming up fast behind and heading right at me. Something about the ferocity and directness of the oncoming car told me I'd better get the hell out of there so I drove away fast, leaving rubber burning on the pavement all the way to the next intersection. I had a powerful American car at the time, with a big V-8 engine (welcome to America) that could outrun most other vehicles. They had a smaller car but it was very fast. Since I was afraid they had guns I didn't dare slow down or allow them to pass me, which is exactly what they were trying to do. I kept swerving from side to side for about 40 minutes as we careened through the streets of Los Angeles, first downtown and them out towards West Hollywood where I lived. I was hoping to discourage them by going through a "nicer" part of town, but apparently these guys were unimpressed and the chase continued. As I drew nearer to where I lived I began to get concerned. I realized that I was trying to lose some angry, crazy people and I was in L.A. where people do crazy things all the time.

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Flying along Hollywood Boulevard, just before Laurel Canyon, I made a hard left onto Fairfax Avenue and lost control of the car for a split second, swerving to the left side of the road. Trying to take advantage of my position, they attempted to pass me on the right, but as they did so I too swerved to the right, realizing with a mild sense of panic that they were right along side of me, exactly what I had been trying to keep from happening. Before I had too much time to think about it, I jerked the wheel and rammed their car – once, twice, three times a lady. The third time was the charm as they suddenly were no longer next to me and all I could see in my rearview mirror was a cloud of dust and a noticeable lack of angry pimps. It was now about 5:00 in the morning. I drove around for another 15 or 20 minutes to make sure they weren't following me, drove home, parked the car, and I didn't drive it or take any more pictures for the next week.

The sun was just disappearing behind the Bank of America building as James drained the last of his rosé.

JM: My, that sounds harrowing. Did you learn anything from your near-death experience of being chased through the streets of L.A. by a car full of angry and no doubt inebriated pimps?
O: Yes, that you can drive for a long time in Los Angeles without seeing a police car.

JM: Surely there is something else you've gleaned from this dangerous life lesson?
O: Don't take candid photographs of hookers while they are working?

JM: And?
O: Oh yeah, always keep your gas tank full and never pass up an opportunity to use the bathroom.

Olivier's Story:

A Life with Recipes,
or A Parisian in America

By Olivier Said
Translated into English by James Mellgren


The Limo Driver
Racket Lesson
Now I have stayed
Live and Drive
Les Anges
Leaving LA
Coyote Ugly
Drinking in English

Olivier Said

Les Anges Magazine

I've always believed that you can learn from any situation, no matter how fucked up it may be. Of course, if this is true I must be a fucking genius because I've had more than my share of odd situations, including my brief but not altogether undistinguished career as a journalist. It began when I met a crazy French guy, Paul, who also happened to be a talented publisher.