Hungry and Loaded on Hollywood Boulevard

When writer Emily Sullivan thinks about her time as a heroin addict living a stone’s throw from the Walk of Fame, she thinks of an insatiable hunger and the sustenance that kept her alive

I walked east from Whitley Avenue down Hollywood Boulevard, and somewhere around Dean Martin’s star, I turned left into Los Burritos. Although I played Goldilocks, alternating between a barstool at the counter and one of many tiny brown booths that lined the wall, I was a loyalist when it came to my order: a chorizo and egg breakfast burrito or bust. I’d ask for sour cream and salsa on the side and eat three well-sauced bites before wrapping it up and taking it to go. The heroin curbed my appetite and made chewing a chore, any bite after more than a few would be swallowed with a strenuous gulp. I always finished it, two to three sour cream-and-salsa-drenched bites at a time. It would feed me for a day. A burrito a day to keep the doctor away. When I think of how Hollywood Boulevard nearly killed me, I think of the burrito that helped keep me alive.

Hollywood Boulevard is where dreamers go once they’ve stepped off buses they rode in on from small towns they were desperate to leave. Some of them achieve those dreams, most of them don’t. Hollywood Boulevard is where wide-eyed tourists arrive anticipating glamour then adjust to jarring grime. Hollywood Boulevard is where movie stars push their hands into gooey cement and smile at adoring fans. Hollywood Boulevard is where runaway teenagers live in the gutter with their flea-ridden pet dogs. Ten years ago, Hollywood Boulevard was the place I called home.

I moved into a studio off the main drag after seeing the exposed brick walls and black-and-white patterned kitchen floors. I wasn’t an aspiring actress and I wasn’t looking to get into the biz. I just wanted a life other than the one I had. The leasing manager sold me on the property’s history as an old Hollywood hotel. After some digging, I discovered the building was once a mecca for L.A. punks of the 1970s. The complex was then known officially as the Canterbury and unofficially as “Disgraceland,” coined by Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times called the building a Hollywood punk rock dump.

emily sullivan
The author during her time living on Hollywood Boulevard

Courtesy Emily Sullivan

In the lobby, I found comfort at the vending machine when it was too early to call my dealer and too early to drag my feet to Los Burritos. After inserting a dollar fifty, I’d punch in my selection and out would pop a “Big Texas” cinnamon roll. A gold emblem on the corner of the package read “Pastry of the Year, 5 years in a row.” I’d rush home and place the doughy treat onto a plate and arrange chocolate chips over the pastry’s swirls with the care of someone garnishing a fruit tart or piping filigree onto a wedding cake. After a 20 second zap in the microwave, “Big Texas” would come out with warm glaze melting over the sides and soft milk chocolate morsels seeping into the grooves. I ate it with a knife and fork. Sugar lights up the same reward system in the brain that drugs like cocaine and heroin do. For a brain that’s been rewired to feel starved without its chemical fix, a vending machine cinnamon roll has satiating powers.

A brick-lined window allowed light to cut through the darkness that permeated my studio. On a random rainy morning or a rough night, the sound of knuckles tapping glass woke me up. There were two homeless teenagers, Sebastian and Bobby, that would come by from time to time, always individually. Each didn’t know about the other. Sebastian would ask to come in when it was wet outside. He’d bring me flowers he picked from a neighborhood nearby. Bobby would tap on the glass when he was hungry or wanted to sleep. If I had the odds and ends in my cupboards to throw together a sandwich or offer them a snack, I’d feed them and thrust glasses of tap water toward them. “Hydrate. Eat. I won’t live here forever.”

Routinely, I found myself leaning against the exterior wall of Starbucks a block east of the Kodak Theater, a Marlboro menthol growing soggy between my teeth. I tended to chew on the filter when jonesing. When money was tight I had to choose between the drugs or eating. Naturally, I’d choose the drugs. Without another immediate solution, I’d walk into the ever-bustling coffee shop, filled with tourists and locals waiting for their caramel macchiatos. Feigning nonchalance, I’d act like it was my name the barista had called, snag someone else’s sustenance from the counter, and walk out with a slice of icing-glazed lemon loaf or a bacon and gouda egg sandwich. Characteristically, I’d be opposed to stealing, but I justified this specific act of petty theft, remembering the countless pumpkin spice lattes I’d purchased in my past life, pre-heroin, when I lived in the suburbs of L.A.

Money wasn’t always so scarce that I had to steal lemon loaves. I waited tables at the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where I picked at my table’s leftover fried mozzarella or a spare stuffed mushroom. At one point, my boyfriend’s rich uncle sent a check in the mail to help us buy “furniture.” For $350 a month, I rented out the dining nook of my kitchen to a bouncer that worked at the Whisky a Go Go. He’d moved to Los Angeles from the Bronx with only $10 in his pocket. I recognized his instinct to run away as the same one that had led me to Hollywood, hoping the city would make me someone new. I also helped neighbors, friends, and patrons similarly afflicted get their fix, for a profit. So I did have sources of income, but they were unreliable; and addiction is a progressive disease that gets worse with time, more expensive as your tolerance increases, and harder to sustain as bridges are burned.

After the city of Los Angeles impounded my Honda Accord indefinitely for the piles of unpaid parking tickets I’d accrued, I’d take the Metro Local Line 2 bus to and from work. After my shift I’d ride the bus east on Sunset Boulevard to Cherokee Avenue and walk the rest of the way home. The upside to my downgrade in transportation was the tipsy stroll past the Hollywood dirty dog carts where the aroma of bacon, onions, and peppers guided any proper drunk stumbling toward them. For a tiny skim off my night’s tips, I could score one of the notorious street dogs and slather it with ketchup and Mexican crema. There’s something sacred about getting hammered and devouring those bacon-wrapped hot dogs and yet something suspiciously disappointing about failing to enjoy one sans alcohol. The humble carts of Hollywood Boulevard have largely been outmoded by trucks, their less charming counterparts.

Waiting tables at the Rainbow, regulars occupied my section for hours of my shift and then left a measly tip on their dinner bills. C-listers and has-beens insisted they knew the owner, an elusive figure named Mario. Sometime around last call they’d slur, “I know Mario, he’ll comp my bill.” I didn’t even know Mario. You’d think the money would be great at a Sunset Strip cult staple like the Rainbow. It wasn’t. Every now and then, I’d close out with a decent wad of cash, two or three hundred bucks filling my apron, and skip home. One such night, I did so well, I made a weekend dinner reservation at Musso & Frank, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood.

I passed Musso & Frank anytime I walked anywhere considering the restaurant was less than a smoked cigarette’s walk from my front door. The old steak house is iconic and rich with Hollywood history, so much so that Quentin Tarantino filmed scenes of his love letter to Los Angeles, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in the restaurant’s dining room. Before my dinner reservation, I spent hours primping, trying to shed my heroin chic mien. I was desperate to feel like I wasn’t a junkie for a night, to channel the sides of myself that people once looked up to rather than down their noses at. I wore a red dress that clung to me like a second skin and a string of my mother’s pearls. I could go on about how tender and flavorful the filet mignon was or gush over the creamy potatoes gratin with their perfect golden crust, but they were as delicious as they’d be at any top of the line steak house. That’s not what makes Musso & Frank’s special, it’s the lore. From a round red booth adjacent to the long wooden bar, I sipped on a glass of pinot noir while visualizing Humphrey Bogart nursing a scotch after a long day on set and F. Scott Fitzgerald perched at the bar with a dirty gin martini in a frosted glass. I wondered if Keith Richards had shot dope in the bathroom.

After dinner, I left Musso & Frank the same way I’d walked in: gravely ill, killing myself slowly with drugs. I could spend a night as a romanticized version of myself that didn’t exist, but I couldn’t escape reality looking into the mirror and cringing at the purple hues underneath my eyes and in the crooks of my arms. I could see each of my ribs through my red dress and my mother’s pearls only brought attention to my protruding collarbone. The steak dinner, the vending machine cinnamon rolls, Hollywood Boulevard dirty dogs, and even the chorizo and egg burritos couldn’t sustain me when I was inevitably withering away. My appetite for heroin had surpassed my appetite for food and although I ate when I could, I wasn’t eating enough and I struggled to keep it down when I did. It was frightening, watching myself disappear.

When I finally left Hollywood Boulevard, it was a hasty departure driven by a life-or-death urgency. I weighed just under 100 pounds. I was estranged from my family, felt alienated from the parts of me that were once good, and I feared my fatal fix was lurking up ahead. I fled my studio, packing up what I could. I left so much behind. Sitting on the stoop of a Glendale rehabilitation center 20 minutes away from the apartment I loved and left, I reflected on the bitter-sweet relationship I had with the boulevard that broke me. That’s what you do in rehab, reflect. The stoop faced a neighboring cemetery and I felt like I’d somehow cheated, to be sitting where I was rather than occupying a casket close by. Between my hands, a mug filled with chamomile tea and a generous drizzle of honey heated my cold-stung palms. As I took a sip and let the warmth fill my throat and chest, the restlessness in me relaxed and my discontentment calmed. It was then that it occurred to me maybe that’s what I had been after all along: simply to feel fed and soothed, in one way or another.

emily sullivan
The author today

Courtesy Emily Sullivan

Back in the suburbs and once again paying for my pumpkin spice lattes, I now spend weekday evenings and Sunday mornings preparing meals for my fiance and twin six-year-old daughters. I often recreate the meals that gave me comfort on the boulevard all those years ago. My daughters help me to crack and scramble eggs and use a spatula to break up chorizo as it browns. They haven’t yet mastered the art of folding a burrito so I handle tucking the tortilla’s edges into one another before plating and serving. At my retro diner table, I feel grateful to eat the whole burrito in one sitting, a rapid succession of sour cream-and-salsa-soaked bites.

I often think of the ways Hollywood Boulevard taught me about hunger—not the growl that emanates from an empty belly, but the feeling of needing something and the authority that has to control your motives, your choices and your nature. I think of the term “hangry,” which describes the anger that results from hunger and the power of unfulfillment to flip a switch inside someone. Hollywood Boulevard is where people arrive when they’re hungry, where sometimes they let it kill them, and other times, they use it as a catalyst to achieve success. Hunger for fame, adventure, sex, or drugs. Hunger for food—whether it’s a pastry for a buck fifty from a vending machine or an extravagant spread from an iconic steakhouse, it’s all there on Hollywood Boulevard.

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