Twas The Night Before, The Night Before Christmas

Seventeen years ago tonight I was sitting in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel nursing a bourbon or three. Since you asked I’ll tell you.

Shit, is that Lou Reed? I think to myself.

He steps out of the elevator with a blonde woman who’s fighting her Social Security years by sporting one of the shortest dresses I’ve ever seen. The hair color is obviously not natural but those legs are impressive. Think Tina Turner. Her coat is some kind of animal, cut above the waist allowing plenty of space for everyone to take in her legs.

Lou is sporting jet black heavily dyed hair, round dark glasses at night, and he’s wearing a floor length black fur coat. I’m not sure what kind of an animal it was but it certainly looks better than Lou’s hair.

Then there are the old people. You hardly notice them dressed conservatively in overcoats for protection from the elements. They’re easily in their late 80’s.

They come off the elevator together and that’s when Lou makes a beeline for the piano. The regular piano player is on break talking to friends and looking very dapper in his Men’s Wearhouse tuxedo. As dapper as one can look with a receding hairline and a potbelly.

Lou sits down at the piano and stretches his fingers. I’m hoping for Sweet Jane, or at least Walk On The Wild Side?

Come to think of it, is the Blonde really a woman?

Blondie seat’s the old couple at a table next to the piano. Maybe they’re her parents? Maybe they’re his? Can you imagine Lou Reed’s parents?

Lou starts playing some classical piano piece and the parents are digging it, in a parental way, bobbing their heads to the music and smiling.

I’m sitting in the lobby at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel nursing a bourbon. I’m tired, I miss my kid, and I’m cold. And being cold in Los Angeles has got to be one of the most depressing things imaginable. There’s ice forming on the streets tonight.

Sure it’s December but this is the city where the sun shines all the time. When I lived here it was always warm in December. I used to call friends who lived up north just so I could ask them about their weather. Then I’d casually say that it was 80-something here and I’d just come back from the beach.

I was kind of a prick in those days.

I don’t want to be here. I should be happy, but I’m fried. I flew in this morning to screen an answer print of my first feature, Birddog. Two years ago I finished doing the sound design on Good Will Hunting and then poured my heart and soul (along with all of my money) in to Birddog.

During that time I also did the sound design on the remake of Psycho. People think I sold out but what I really did was make enough money to finish my film. I haven’t had a break in two years and even though Birddog looks and sounds great I still need to market it and the next six months are going to be brutal.

I’m exhausted and lonely.

The waitress suddenly appears at my side. “Would you like another drink?”

“Thinkin about it.”

“You should give me your order now if you want one. It’s going to be intermission shortly and it’ll be a while before I can get back over here.”

“Intermission?”

“There’s a play in the theater. I heard it’s packed.”

“Then I guess I better.”

“Bourbon?”

I nod. I love the Roosevelt because it makes no sense. I’ve been staying here off and on for years and I’ve never even seen the theater doors open let alone have anything going on inside.

One night I came back from a screening and decided to hit the bar for a nightcap. I waited at the bar for a couple minutes then finally called out towards the back.

“Hello. Anybody around?”

An exhausted forty year old wearing a white shirt, black vest and a two-day shadow appeared from somewhere.

“Can I get a drink?”

“We’re closed.”

“What time do you close?”

“Midnight.”

I look at the clock on the wall. “It’s only ten pm?”

“Yeah, but it’s dead. So we’re closed.”

He turns and quickly disappears in to the darkness.

The Roosevelt’s seen better days, which is part of its appeal. It was built in 1927 on Hollywood Blvd across from the Chinese theater. It’s kinda seedy and the rooms are small, but it has this feeling of old Hollywood. Old seedy Hollywood. Old decrepit Hollywood. My kind of Hollywood.

The rooms are pretty cheap, parking is reasonable, and you can get around easily because of its central location.

A lot of bands and minor celebrities stay here. One time I was waiting for my car and an exhausted, make-up less Gwen Stefani and the rest of the band No Doubt came down stairs to get their van. I could see the hangovers in progress.

I overheard one of them say to another guest the previous night’s show was a good one but the after-party went on forever. A few weeks later their record Tragic Kingdom came out. I’m pretty sure Gwen doesn’t stay there anymore.

My drink arrives.

As Lou plays I’m watching a very skittish guy nervously circle the lobby looking for someone. I doubt he’s staying here. He’s dressed too shabbily even for this place in a worn Levi jacket, torn jeans, and acne scars. He grabs an old coffee cup someone left behind. It has the Hotel logo on it. He takes a swig then realizes it’s empty.

He walks over to the coffee stand and refills it with whatever dregs are left from the day. I count as he dumps ten packets of sugar in to it. Not the phony sugar either. The pure cane stuff. Mr. Coffee takes another lap around the lobby gulping this mixture down. He disappears out the back door.

Lou plays on. The Blonde beams the parents continue nodding to the music while the Tuxedoed Piano Guy talks to a couple guys who’ve dropped by.

I think I’m getting a cold.

Tuxedo Piano Guy’s friends are dressed to the nines and talking about a party happening later. They’re trying to get him to join them. I hear one of the fellows use the term, “lotsa young cute guys there…” the rest is lost in Lou’s piano as he switches tempo.

Across the lobby the side doors of the theater are thrown open and over dressed people pour out in suits, long gowns, furs and too much jewelry. It looks like a Christmas show crowd. The noise level in the lobby shoots up and competes with Lou’s playing. The old couple turn and look as the crowd stampedes towards the bar.

It reminds me of a herd of thirsty steers coming upon a watering hole. The bar isn’t big and it’s quickly engulfed in a sea of people. I watch my waitress shove people out of the way in a vain attempt to get to her station.

Mr. Coffee has returned, weaving in and out of the crowd with a too skinny guy in tow. Too Skinny looks worse than he does. Hanging on tightly to his cup Mr. Coffee makes his way back to the coffee stand. Grabbing another refill I watch as he adds another ten packets of sugar. Too Skinny is frantically searching for someone. Mr. Coffee offers the cup to his buddy who shakes his head in quick jerky motions as he continues to scan the crowd.

Lou decides he’s done playing the piano for this larger unappreciative audience. He and Blondie help the old couple up and push their way through the lobby crowd and out the front door. I’m left wondering what’s next on their itinerary.

It dawns on me that the shabbily dressed guys are junkies as they continue making their way through the crowd in desperate search of someone. Mr. Coffee continues gulping down the mess in his cup.

Sitting at a high table on a stool by the bar I realize I’m pretty exposed. As the junkies move towards me I notice my drink change is sitting across from me. In a not so subtle way I grab my cash and pull it close. They change direction and disappear out the door.

A voice shouts from across the lobby, “The play resumes in five minutes. FIVE MINUTES!”

It’s an amusing site to see such a classy group chug their white wine and cocktails like a bunch of longshoreman.

Again the voice booms, “PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR SEATS. THE SHOW STARTS IN ONE MINUTE!

Like the outgoing tide the crowd quickly recedes back towards the theater. In just a few moments the doors close and the lobby returns to normal. Whatever normal is here.

It’s not very late and even though I’m exhausted I know I’m not going to be able to sleep. It was a stupid idea to come down to Los Angeles this close to Christmas even if the print needed to be screened. I could have done it after the holiday.

What am I even thinking? I don’t like holidays. Well Christmas is okay but only because my daughter is seven years old. I like how she loves Christmas. I realize there’s been too much travel lately and too much time away from home.

“Do you have any requests?”

Tuxedo Piano Guy is standing at my table.

“Excuse me?”

“I take requests is there anything you’d like to hear?”

“Naaa. I’m good.”

“Mind if I sit down?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”

“I still have a few minutes.”

He pulls out the other stool while I’m thinking this is the longest music break I’ve witnessed anywhere.

“So what brings you to LA?”

“A couple meetings. I’m headed out early tomorrow.”

“Oh.” He looks sad. Why the hell does he look sad? And why the hell is he talking to me?

“I’ve had a really long day. I started at noon playing at a mall in Sherman Oaks.”

I nod. What else can I do?

“This is a busy time of year so I have to take advantage of it.”

I nod again.

“I’ve been booked from the beginning of November through the first of the year. Sometimes two or three gigs a day”

“Tis the season for live piano music I guess.” What the hell does that even mean?

“So what do you do?” Tuxedo Piano Guy asks.

“Like everyone else down here I’m in the film business.”

“What floor are you staying on?”

I suddenly have a strange feeling.

“I’m really looking forward to getting home and spending time with my kid and my girlfriend tomorrow.”

“The upper floors are nice and quiet. I’ve been in a few of the rooms up there.”

The kid and girlfriend line didn’t even slow him down. I notice Mr. Coffee and Too Skinny are back wandering around the lobby, checking all the corners. I change the subject.

“It must get expensive getting your tux dry-cleaned all the time? How often do you take it in?”

“Oh I have four of them so I can go quite a while and then have three of them cleaned at a time. It’s really not a hassle.”

“So was that Lou Reed playing earlier?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Velvet Underground? Take a Walk On the Wild Side? Sweet Jane?”

He shakes his head.

The waitress appears. “Ready for another?” My glass is over half full.

The Tuxedo Piano Guy looks at me. I realize that besides me the only other people in the lobby are the two wandering junkies and I’m sure they’re not listening to him play.

I look at the waitress.

“Was that Lou Reed in here earlier playing the piano?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“Do you know if he’s staying here?”

She shrugs.

“Even if you did know you couldn’t tell me could you?”

She nods.

She looks at Tuxedo Piano Guy.

“Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”

“I’m just going back right now.” He says as he gets off the stool.

She stands there for a moment waiting for him to leave.

“It’s been nice talking to you.” He extends his hand. I shake it.

“Yeah, you too.”

“And if you have any requests…”

I say nothing so he heads back to the piano.

I turn to the waitress. “Thank you.”

She smiles and is gone. I take a long slow drink.

I see Mr. Coffee plop down on one of the brown leather sofas clutching his cup like it’s the Holy Grail. Too Skinny joins him. They stare at the front door.

Tuxedo Piano Guy starts playing some show tune from South Pacific. That’s not very Christmasy.

In to the Lobby burst two very attractive young men and an older woman all dressed up for a night on the town.

They beeline straight to the piano and loudly squeal as they see Tuxedo Piano Guy. He stops, jumps up and hugs the two guys. He’s introduced to the woman and he shakes her hand.

They sit down at the table next to the piano, previously occupied by Lou Reed’s parents, and start chatting excitedly as Tuxedo Piano Guy sits back on the bench and resumes playing. This time it sounds like some slow classical piece. He effortlessly has a conversation with them as he continues playing.

The waitress saunters over to their table to take drink orders.

The older woman orders drinks for all of them including Tuxedo Piano Guy as he continues to play. The two young men are talking and laughing too loudly. They appear to be in competition with the piano for volume. They are winning easily.

A conservatively dressed older man walks in to the lobby and as he walks past Mr. Coffee and his sidekick they get up quickly and follow him out the back entrance.

Really? No way I would have pegged that guy as their connection.

My eyes are suddenly very tired. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep. I need to be up by four a.m. if I want to shower and make it to the airport on time. Luckily the rental car drop-off is right at the airport so I can dump the car and go straight to the gate.

My drink is almost empty but I wait a few minutes before I kill it. I want to make sure Tuxedo Piano Guy is in the middle of a song because I have to pass right by him to get to the elevators.

I have a ten-dollar bill in my hand as I empty the last of the bourbon from my glass and slide off my stool. I walk quickly to the piano drop the ten in to his mostly empty tip jar and say, “Merry Christmas” as I pass never losing my stride. I’m at the elevator before he can even react.

As I step inside I feel good. The Tuxedo Piano Guy is laughing with his friends, the Junkies have presumably scored, and tomorrow I’ll be home with my kid.

All is right in the world of the Roosevelt Hotel lobby.

Merry Christmas to all!