The Highland House is a big green house on the corner of Franklin Place and Highland Avenue just two blocks away from the star studded Hollywood Boulevard. Most people who passed by thought it was a shelter for the homeless because of the red iron gates, sloppy 20-somethings running in and out and the empty beer and wine bottles that haphazardly decorated the front porch.
But those of us who knew better called it home.
I moved into the Highland House about 3 months after moving to Los Angeles with no friends, no family and less than $200 to my name. How do you survive in an expensive city if you don’t have support? I had no clue, but I fumbled my way through it to film a documentary about starting over in life that I call The Rebuild Your Life Project -- Los Angeles.
After sleeping on a stranger’s floor for my first two weeks in Los Angeles, moving into a house in Korea Town, and then moving in with a roommate in North Hollywood, I had to leave 4 days later because that chick talked way too much. I found myself in a motel in Sun Valley but it was way too expensive at $238 a week so I had to find a new place to live. That is when I found the Highland House.
Organized like a hostel for more long term stays, I shared this big green house with more than 25 people. Each room had two sets of bunk beds and we all shared 4 bathrooms, one kitchen and one living room. Everyone in the house had made the trek to Hollywood to try their hand at fortune and fame as budding actors, musicians and screenwriters.
And then there’s me, a budding filmmaker with a pocket digital camera and an $8 tripod trying to teach women how to survive a relocation. Who knows where any of us will end up but for right now, we’re all nobodies trying to survive in one of the toughest cities around.
These experiences will live with me forever. I couldn’t have dreamt these situations if I had tried.
I Watched My Roommate Smoke Crack
Just two days after I moved into the Highland House, I finally had a night off from working as a waitress at Denny’s. I packed up my laptop and headed to the common area to sit quietly and work on editing my videos. Late into the night I hear a car pull up and people climb out laughing. Then I hear them as they stumble into the common area and plop down next to me on the couch. I smile courteously and turn up the volume on my headphones. That’s when it happened.
There was this skinny white guy with dark hair who had a glassy eyed expression. I watched him through my peripheral vision (I’m not nosey) as he cleaned the surface of the table and opened a small clear bag. I blinked twice and rubbed my eye in an attempt to hide the fact that I was watching. Inside the bag I saw 3 tiny white clumps or rocks. He took one out, chopped it up, put it in a bong-like thing and lit it up, inhaling through the stem. I froze, wondering if I should run or scream in terror.
After everyone (EXCEPT ME) had a hit, they all walked outside to smoke weed. I quickly sent a text to my friend Ray in Atlanta. “What are white rocks that you smoke in a bong?”
“It’s CRACK!” he wrote back. “You’re living in a crack house! Get out of there!”
Justin Bieber On The Billboard
So I’m just getting home after working the swing shift at Denny’s and I see that about seven of my roommates are standing on the side of the house in a semi-circle. I change clothes and walk over to see what is happening. They offer me a hit of some type of liquid weed and I decline because -- What the f&&k?
Anyway, two of the younger male roommates laugh and make a gesture to the roof and then they disappear inside. I have no idea what is going on but the crowd moves to the front of the house and into the street. We all look up and my two roommates have climbed onto the roof and are standing on top of the billboard above our house. For some reason unknown to me, my roommate Danna points at my two blonde haired roommates posing on top of the billboard and shouts out, “Look it’s Justin Bieber!”
We all start chanting -- Bieber! Bieber! Bieber! Cars whizzing down Highland Avenue start cheering along with us. We’re laughing and feeling like we’re on top of the world until we see flashing lights.
Oh snap! The crowd disperses and I watch as two police cars pull up and demand that the boys on the billboard come down and talk to them. I sit comfortably on the couch on the porch and whip out my camera to watch the events unfold through the red gates.
The boys come downstairs (why did they do that?) and come out to speak to the police. It turns out that climbing on top of billboards is a crime. They are both handcuffed and searched and, le’ sigh, one of my roommates has enough illegal marijuana on him to send him to jail. We all watch as he is escorted to the police car and taken away.
“Man,” Rudolph, my roommate says to my other roommate Jake. “Let’s go get high.”
Kelvin Is a Killer
So I’m sitting on the porch on a sunny afternoon watching the cars whiz by and smiling to myself like a lunatic because I’m in Hollywood, I’m young, I’m black and life is funny. Soon a few of my roommates join me and Benny, one of them asks if I heard what the psycho ex-military roommate did to the rat.
“What happened?” I asked him, not really wanting to hear the story.
Benny’s a well-respected background actor and it is very likely that you’ve seen him on all of your favorite shows. His dramatics don’t end when the cameras stop rolling and I can tell he’s getting into character as his eyes grow wide and he explains, “There was a poor little mouse running around in the bathroom, minding his own business. Kelvin sees it, captures it with his bare hands and slams it against the wall, crushing it rib by rib and the mouse is screaming for help until blood starts squirting out of his mouth but Kevin doesn’t care. He killed the mouse in cold blood and brought it out to show everyone.”
There’s A Lump In This Couch
So I’m working the overnight shift at Denny’s and when I get home at around 6am, I’m not tired so I grab my laptop and walk over to the common room to do some writing and work on my videos. I flip the switch and walk over to the couch when I notice a lump under the cushions.
“Hello?” I call out like I’m some kind of idiot in a horror movie. The lump moves and I realize it’s a person sleeping under the cushions of the couch.
“Who are you?” I ask.
A leather seat cushion slides to the side to reveal a young Black woman who is NOT one of my roommates.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” she says and looks at me nervously.
I back out of the room and run into the house to tell the house manager, “There’s a homeless lady sleeping under the couch cushions!”
Benny and Kumar Fall Out of Love
Benny, the most dramatic man I’ve ever met, has become close friends with Kumar, another equally dramatic and weird roommate of mine. Benny is gay, Kumar is not, but somehow they make it work.
“It’s like we’re married, but there’s no sex,” Benny explained. Ohh. I get it. Right.
After living and loving in the Highland House, the managing partners, Loriff Management, decide that they are closing the house down. Everyone is shocked and hurt and try to make plans to move on. One day Benny comes down to the common room livid, pacing back and forth and cursing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“That damn Kumar! I just found out that he is making plans to move out with those other guys when he promised to move out with me! He’s been making plans with them the whole time after I am the one who has been paying his rent here, giving him spending money and making sure he is eating. I was his friend not those guys!” Benny shares.
“Oh well,” I say and shake my head.
“Oh well my ass, he’s gonna feel it,” Benny declares.
Benny proceeds to make Kumar’s life a living hell. He contacts his entire family via Facebook and tells them that he is on steroids and scamming everyone out of money. Once Kumar finds out what is happening he threatens Benny via Facebook and Benny heads down to the sheriff’s office to file a restraining order which, when delivered, could get Kumar deported from the country. Benny files a law suit against Kumar demanding his money back and the police deliver the summons to his job, embarrassing him in front of his boss, hoping that he will lose his job.
Benny messaged me on Facebook today and wrote, “Someone saw him on a Bus and asked how I was and was and he said he's doing great. My friend said, Aren't you two having problems? He said oh, no. We're fine! He lives in his own world.”
He sure does Benny. He sure does.