Facebook. People slag it off. But the most magical thing has just happened to me via Facebook. Through the profile of a friend, I saw a long lost name from way back, Pleasant Gehman. And through her, I saw the name of my best friend, when I lived in Los Angeles, Iris Berry. For years I have wondered if Iris were still alive. During the years that I lived in L.A. she, influenced by the likes of Chuck E. Weiss (1), became a heroin (2) addict. Although to be fair, I remember a conversation at Cantors deli (3) where he tried to warn her off.
One mutual friend and her lover at the time, Jules Bates, a talented and successful photographer, who had employed me as a photographer at the L.A. Weekly, had already died on a motorbike, strung out on heroin. (I think I was the last person to speak to him).
Iris has one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen: heart shaped, the palest blue eyes (which looked even paler when her pupils were ‘pinned’ on heroin), black hair and white skin. A California punk Snow White. We met soon after I arrived and eventually had apartments in the same building off Hollywood boulevard. Hollywood boulevard was rough at the time, you’d hear gunshots every night.
I had a huge and cheap studio but was driven out by rats, rapists and a free-basing building manager who would let himself into my flat whenever he felt like it. The rapist was always ‘passing’ my door and finally broke in one night. I was sleeping in an alcove and saw a silhouette creeping around. In that brief moment when I had to ponder my options, I learnt a great deal about myself, I’m a fighter, not a victim. I sprang up and screamed with all my might like a ‘fury’. He panicked and made up some excuse that my door was left ajar. Confused by the hour, I wondered whether to believe him. He left.
Months later, when I had returned to London, Iris called and told me that this guy was wanted in another state for rape.
Around the same time, a young woman was found dead upstairs, her body bloated, undiscovered for days.
I never slept in that apartment again. Hollywood seediness got a bit too real, rather too James Ellroy. Instead I moved in with an opera singer friend of mine who taught me all about Maria Callas (oh that exquisite animal sound).
On another floor lived Violet, another blue-eyed beauty who introduced herself as a photographer and a film director. She was going out with this older man, an actor, who turned out to be Anthony Kiedis‘ dad ‘Blackie’. I briefly dated Anthony, an intense brown-eyed and compact young man, who will be familiar to those of you who are fans of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Violet, it emerged, was involved in porn movies and was trying to transform her career to behind the camera rather than in front of it. Her brother was a bit of a psycho who also tried to batter my door down one night. Scary times. (4)
Iris was the LA ‘it’ girl of the underground scene. Everybody knew her. She had endless boyfriends and adorers, Charles Bukowski, the band ‘X’, even Jodie Foster (5). Iris took me under her wing, sometimes taking me to see her Jewish parents in the valley. They’d always make me feel at home, feeding me and providing a link to normality and family life.
We spent all night in clubs. Garage music had just arrived, as had hip-hop and rap ‘White lines’. I worked the graveyard shift in photo labs, getting the bus home at 4 am then going straight out. My attitude was, you can sleep when you are dead. I did have a car when I first lived in Los Angeles, but after it broke down, I got the bus everywhere for 2 years. I know Los Angeles. I learnt about it the hard way. From the bus window I saw a prostitute running away from her pimps across a busy Sunset Boulevard. They caught her and bashed in her head in broad daylight with baseball bats. Nobody did a thing. Nobody moved.
Sundays, forcing myself out of a lonely black fog, you know the kind that starts before you have even opened your eyes, I would wander the streets taking pictures of tramps, the old, the shabbily glamorous, the 1930’s architecture, the steak houses, the observatory where James Dean was filmed (6), the blacks in hair rollers, the kids on roller blades, the beach, the rooftops, the gigs. Photographs looked amazing, courtesy of the wonderful filter the orange smog provided.
I became an aerobics obsessive, spending my time at the Hollywood YMCA and the Jane Fonda studio. I exercised 4 hours a day, to stave away the homesickness. I was so tired I could barely climb stairs. There were other women like me, who would not go out, because they might eat or drink, or get tired which would make them eat or drink. They wondered why they were single. In a city where perfection is the norm, anything ordinary feels inadequate.
On a later visit to Los Angeles, in 1986, I stayed with Iris who was living with Pleasant. Jet lagged, my friend Elissa and I woke up in the middle of the night. A ‘kid from Fame’, one of the dancers, was visiting, still partying from the night before. He introduced us to this new drug ‘Ecstasy’. Never a big drugs taker, I thought what the hell. Fantastic stuff, Elissa and I went straight out shopping, as soon as it was light, hitting all the most expensive boutiques on Melrose Avenue. Not a good idea. I spent a fortune. It will be no surprise to learn that I looked damn good in everything.
Iris Berry, it turns out, is alive and well and an actress, published writer and poet. She’s alive, I’m so pleased.
(1) Chuck E. Weiss of the song ‘Chuck E’s in love’ by Rikki Lee Jones. We often hung out with Chuck at Cantors deli, open 24/7, specialities…’kasha and bows’, lox and coca-cola floats.
(2) Iris and I went to see Nico perform at the Whisky Agogo. Iris breathlessly informed me that she and Nico shared the same dealer. Fame eh?
(3) I once saw a frumpily dressed woman in the Cantors queue. When she turned, I saw it was Bette Midler, lining up just like everybody else. A few months later, at a party, I spotted an attractive young man on the other side of the food table. To get his attention, I did something rather out of character, I threw a piece of food at him. He became incredibly angry screaming ‘That’s what I do. That’s my job’ over and over again. I thought at first he was joking. I tried to escape but he pursued me all around the party, throwing food at me. In the end, it got so frightening I had to leave. I later found out that he was a performance artist named Harry Kipper née Martin Von Haselberg, who threw food as part of his act. He married Bette Midler.
(4) I had Pluto going over my ascendant and was attracting the dark side. Fortunately, with a well-aspected natal Pluto, I came out of it unscathed.
(5) Strange synchronicity: Iris and Jodie Foster looked very alike. Jodie’s most famous role up to that point was ‘Iris’ the child prostitute in ‘Taxi Driver’. Jodie became a regular at a fashionable Tex-Mex restaurant where Iris waitressed. She was entranced by Iris. It was obvious to everyone in the know, even back then, that Jodie Foster was gay. I waitressed later in the same restaurant. On the try-out night, I bumped into Suggs of Madness and his wife. Disconcerted and somewhat embarrassed, I screwed up so badly, I never got the job.
(6) East of Eden.