My Dark Places
Before he started writing, James Ellroy was busted for being drunk, drunk driving, petty theft and trespass. He was hassled as a suspicious pedestrian, had police shot-guns shoved in his face for squatting in a deserted house, and found himself locked up with pimps, killers, drug addicts and winos.
His diet was bennies and booze, and jail time was his “health retreat”:
I abstained from booze and dope and ate three square meals a day. I did push-ups and worked trusty details and got a little muscle tone going. I hung out with stupid white guys, stupid black guys and stupid Mexican guys—and swapped stupid stories with them. We had all committed daring crimes and fucked the world’s most glamorous women. An old black wino told me he fucked Marilyn Monroe. I said, “No shit—I fucked her too!”
Jail taught Ellroy a few truths—he was big, but not tough; he committed crimes, but was no criminal—but he knew he could ride it out.
I worked the trash-and-freight detail at the New County Jail and the library at Wayside Honor Rancho. My favorite jail was Biscailuz Center. They fed you big meals and let you read in the latrines after lights-out. Jail was no big fucking traumatic deal.
I knew how to ride short stretches. Jail cleaned out my system and gave me something to anticipate: my release and more booze and dope fantasies.
One day Ellroy woke-up tied to a hospital cot, his wrists bloodied by the restraints. He was 27, and near death—an abscess the size of a fist on his lung.
‘If it’s not working, then get the hell out.’ Ellroy once told me. ‘If your life isn’t working the way you want it, then do something to change it.’
We were in a car, driving down the curve of road from the Griffith Observatory. It was Fall 1994, and he was giving me advice he had learned on a hospital gurney some 20-years earlier. We had been filming an interview for a TV documentary. For a week Ellroy had given a guided tour of his life: El Monte where his mother had been murdered, Hancock Park and the houses he had B&E’d, the panty sniffing, the pill-popping, the drinking, the parks where he jacked-off, the Sav-On where he stole Benzedrine inhalers to get buzzed, the empty apartments where he lived off booze and drugs, bad sex and fantasies.
Then it all stopped. He woke-up in hospital, and knew he was no longer invincible. And that’s when Ellroy started writing.
Previously on Dangerous Minds