Wire-thin and slumped like a question mark, James Maley nurses a watered-down whiskey at the battered bar inside the King Eddy Saloon. Around him a boisterous crowd presses in. Maley taps a cracked fingernail nervously on his glass and stares warily at the newcomers.Well, it's probably for the better, right? Skid row's the roughest of rough-and-tumble hardscrabble habitats, so cleaning up the place is good policy. But if you're down and out downtown, this kind of gentrification can force a relocation to even more dangerous haunts. It's hard out there on the streets. Hopefully folks can hang on to a little stability and continuity.
They've come to see novelist John Fante's son, Dan Fante, read at the bar that inspired his father's 1939 classic "Ask the Dust." They're also here to experience skid row's last dive bar before it shuts down for renovations on Sunday.
"If this happened every day, I would never show up," says Maley, who lives in transitional housing a few blocks away.
Other time-worn regulars, many with leathery skin, bad teeth and watchful eyes, nod in agreement. The bar provides home and family for those who have neither. They come for community and to spend what little money they have on plastic pitchers of beer and $2.50 gin and tonics.
When the Fante reading ends, the interlopers quickly disperse.
"There go the slummers," says John Tottenham, a poet who has been coming to the King Eddy since the 1980s.
Chances are the crowds will be back when the bar reopens under new management. The owners plan to use old photos to restore the bar's Midcentury look. They hope to renovate the abandoned speak-easy in the basement and open the bar's windows that are covered by stucco, letting natural light into the place for the first time in decades.
They haven't finalized their plans, but one thing is for sure. Drinks won't come cheap at the new King Eddy.
The bar is located on the corner of 5th and Los Angeles streets in the King Edward Hotel, which was built in 1906 and was a tony destination for visitors to what was once a thriving commercial district. The hotel now provides low-income housing for many of King Eddy's regulars.
The pre-Prohibition era King Eddy is painted black. With neon beer signs providing most of its light, the room is dim and gloomy. Its black-and-white checkered floor is grimy. Plastic beer flags hang from the ceiling and the place smells of stale smoke and disinfectant.
The bar itself, shaped in a square, commands the center of the room, with cracked vinyl banquettes lining the perimeter. A glassed-in smoking space is set off to the side. Behind the bar is a tiny fluorescent-lighted kitchen where prepackaged burgers, pizza and sandwiches are heated in a microwave. A beer and burrito would set a person back only $4.
Next week, Maley and the other dislodged drinkers will have to find another bar, but they face a new downtown landscape of high-end mixology bars, restaurants and Brazilian waxing salons...
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