It's a poorly kept secret that most of the world thinks Los Angeles is a shithole. The only question is, where is the epicenter of shit? Where do all the horrible crawling things in LA congregate, make weekend plans, and compliment one another's handbags?
The answer I've come up with, after a long period of research, is the Jack in the Box on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga.
Night and day, a ragtag mix of Hollywood’s finest (indignant bums, semi-professional DJs, balding men in ill-fitting suits, drunk girls wobbling around on stiletto heels like drugged fawns, etc.) congregate there to nosh on genetically modified meatstuffs. It's a Dante-esque place where:
1. A disembodied voice periodically comes over the loudspeaker to tell loiterers to disperse. (SPOILER ALERT: they do not.)
2. I once witnessed an obese, filthy redheaded woman scream at the above-mentioned disembodied voice that she didn’t have to leave the premises because she was “full-blooded Cherokee Indian, motherfucker!”
3. Customers routinely threaten employees with physical violence.
3. Customers’ cars are often illegally towed from the parking lot. (Don’t believe me? Read Yelp user Teresa R.’s gripping narrative: “My mom and I grabbed a bite to eat here one night and after our meal walked to return a shirt. We come back... seriously 10 minutes later and my car is towed! SERIOUSLY!?!?!?”)
4. A sanitarium’s worth of homeless people, surrounded by plastic bags filled with their meager possessions, nurse value sodas or, if adventurous, flagrantly drink soda from translucent water glasses.
5. A Rolodex’s worth of current and former Hollywood dreamers share the creamy, buttermilk ranch-like taste of present and future failure.
It is living, breathing, theater of the absurd. It is the closest thing to purgatory that exists in a godless universe. It is a place I affectionately refer to as “The Jack in the Box of the Damned,” a title it has earned a thousand times over. Friends, allow me to paint you a picture.
8 PM on a Wednesday. A man who resembles an African-American Zach Galifianakis (I dub him “Blackafianakis”) ravenously eats his Jumbo Jack on top of a newspaper box outside. Scaffolding surrounds the building’s exterior. Windows, covered with dirt and plastic, render it impossible to see in or out of the restaurant.
I step into the Parking Lot of the Damned. As soon as I do, a dead-eyed gentleman sporting a blue tracksuit desperately tries to get my attention. “Excuse me... excuse me... excuse me,” he pleads. I finally take the bait and meet his eyes. “What do you want?” I ask. “I like your eyes, they look nice on you. I’m a club promoter... can I invite you to my club sometime?” I decline.
I take a seat inside. Almost immediately, Blackafianakis waltzs in with a trash bag full of Christ-knows-what and sets up shop in the corner, away from the all-seeing eye of one of the four security cameras installed in the ceiling. A man in a beanie roots around in the trash can while waiting for his food. He leaves after getting his order, but 30 seconds later he comes back with a styrofoam cup, approaches the soda machine, which is directly in front of the counter, and fills it with orange soda, as if mocking the powerlessness of the employees. He makes an uncomfortable amount of eye contact with me yet says nothing.
The silence is vaccumesque. It's incredibly cold, presumably so people don’t spend any more time there than absolutely necessary. The only sound I hear is Blackafianakis muttering to himself in the corner.
An elderly white guy slowly hobbles in, schlepping a cart filled with trash. He asks the employee behind the counter for “two tacos for $0.99 and a value drink.“ His cart is covered in entertainment-related paraphernalia, the likes of which one could purchase at a Hollywood Boulevard novelty store: a Nevada license plate that reads “ELVIS,” a plaque with Marilyn Monroe’s open-mouthed visage airbrushed on it, a miniature California license plate, the kind you’d put on your bike, that declares, “Girls Rule.” He gets his tacos, sits down, and cracks open a tattered copy of Vanity Fair.
A disembodied voice comes over the loudspeaker and announces, “This is security, audio recording and filming everything going on in this location. How’s it going?” An employee yells, “Fine! Everything’s fine!” The disembodied voice ignores his cries and repeats its query. Again, the employee screams. “FINE!”
The ambience was uncomfortable, sure, but not as intolerable as usual. Where’s the drama? The intrigue? Disappointed, I take my leave. I've got places to go, and a Groupon deal ($16 for $30!) to a The Hills–eque, pseudo-bourgeoisie bar down the street with a name too cliché to type.
10PM on a Wednesday. The bar smells like cat piss. The jukebox is playing “Living on a Prayer,” I assume ironically, so loudly you can feel the bass in your bones. Nondescript dance/trance/techno/who-gives-a-fuck plays at an ear-splitting volume (yes, simultaneously with "Living on a Prayer"). On this night, at least, the Jack in the Box of the Damned is more pleasant than this bar. At least the Jack in the Box was quiet; I could sit with my thoughts and decisions. The bar, however, is too loud to think in, which might be for the best. After all, its target demographic has no regrets to ruminate over yet.
As I watch a man in a Hurley cap text for what seems like an eternity, I realize that the Jack in the Box of the Damned is simply a time-lapsed version of the bar. The bar is where Wide-eyed Midwestern dreamers, fresh from their cross-country treks, exuberantly yell over pop songs in v-neck American Apparel shirts. They're at the beginning of their journeys, which end with dead-eyed also-rans pushing around carts filled with Vanity Fairs while stoically consuming tacos out of paper bags. The lesson? While the Jack in the Box of the Damned is where dreams go to die, the bar is even more depressing; it’s where dreams go to rub their hubris in non-dreamers’ faces. I prefer the honesty, the resignation, of the Jack in the Box of the Damned. After all, we can’t all make it.
For more tales of woe in Los Angeles: