by Dan Johnson
I’ve gotten my kicks on Main St. I’ve seen some shit on Fig. Grand has its moments. 6th has some sights. I’ve taken 4th clear over the river and into Boyle Heights. I’ve motored Wilshire from city to sea.
I salute them all, but they ain’t 5th.
Accept no imposters. The celebrated avenue exists in earnest only between Central Avenue and the 110. There’s a dusty knock off over in Ktown, but it ain’t worth its salt. Our 5th St may be short, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in poignancy.
The Nickel is a special place. It is the mainline. From its pinnacle at John Fante Square, there’s a straight shot down into “the sad flower in the sand” that is the gritty bowels of Los Angeles. East of Main, the block takes a further dip towards the literal and metaphorical bottom that is Skid Row.
The Nickel between Main and Los Angeles is exactly the sort of living museum we deserve. The block is a cosmic oracle—seek and it shall speak.
The neon hearts atop the Rosslyn Hotel and Annex shine outdated lodging advertisements east towards the long defunct Le Grande, Arcade and Central rail stations. Below the Hotel on the southwest corner of 5th and Main, a shattered street lamp is all the remaining evidence of a particularly lurid death not long ago—a botched suicide or an instance of vicious loan shark retribution depending on who you talk to.
Across the street, low income housing in the New Pershing and New Genesis bleeds down towards the stalwart King Edward Hotel and G.M. Hoff buildings. Both date back to the turn of the twentieth century. At the Baltimore Hotel, you can see where Frank and Nada found sanctuary after they ran afoul of the capitalist alien plot in John Carpenter’s They Live!
If you’re lucky enough to glimpse the murals in the basement of the King Eddy, you’ll see a snapshot of prohibition speakeasies. If you settle in upstairs, you can dive headlong into a shot glass and explore a century and more of ceaseless depravity. Up the block in Werdin Place Alley, the Winston Death Squad have painted a wall of portraits honoring noteworthy Nickle-goers from John Fante and Charles Bukowski to Woody Guthrie and General Jeff.
We arrive then at the Monte Carlo Cafe. This inauspicious haunt is a flavor saver that remains true to the identity of a fulcrum block where the boundary between past and present swings as wildly as the winds of fortune.
Two-tone cream and burgundy walls flank a low horseshoe counter ringed with sixteen swivel stools and chairs. One of the stools is busted—deal with it. Parallel fluorescent tubes protrude from the ceiling with a janky pull cord hanging below. There’s a hand drawn sign on the wall that reads “No Credit.” Some of the stools are full. Most are empty. No one is excited to see you walk in.
In his classic lament “On the Nickel,” dirtbag bard Tom Waits asks, “so what comes of all the little boys/who never comb their hair?/they’re lined up all around the block/on the nickel over there.” More specifically, they’re inside the Monte Carlo chowing down on some mighty fine eggs served dirt cheap.
From early in the morning to mid-evening, you too can plop down in this greasy spoon turned sightseeing gallery. The breakfast menu is served all day with a variety of options from Rib Eye Steak to Liver and Eggs. Just about everything comes in under six dollars. The hot cake specials come with free coffee. Yes, there are daily specials in the vein of spaghetti and meatballs and pot roast, but why tease fate?
I’ve been taken to task recently for displaying an ignorance of revolutionary organic food sourcing and championing an insensitivity to bargain barrel price points that only perpetuate a below-living wage for food service personnel. Deep societal change, I’ve been made to believe, will come when people are willing to spend a little more on their meal and consider the repercussions of the various processes that bring food to table.
Unfortunately, the reality of places like the Monte Carlo Cafe is that an inexpensive diner does a good trade not because people give a shit about helping the world, but because the place meets a need. Decent food served locally at just above cost speaks to a variety of people who work in nearby wholesaling businesses, live in an SRO without a kitchen or generally can’t stomach another meal of SOS at a Mission.
You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t feel guilty for chowing down on a $5.50 Denver Omelette. In looking around the room, I can’t help but notice a lot of other folks happily hoovering up their meals. If they’ve got remorse in their hearts, I’ll wager it comes from a deeper, darker place than nagging concerns about the hypotheticals of sustainable food culture.
What does weigh heavy is the counter-girl’s inhospitable countenance. She stoutly refused to acknowledge my first query for water. So I ask again and cross an invisible line of reasonable behavior to earn a rebuking, “I heard you the first time!”
What is reassuring is the immediate camaraderie with the woman next to me who is packing in a Ribeye and Eggs breakfast. She tells me I have a beautiful aura and “must be a good person.” Rarely am I mistaken for someone of merit. How nice.
The Denver omelette is also nice. It’s a garden-variety batch of eggs done up with mushrooms, onion and pepper. There’s a monolith of hash browns attached and a plate of wheat toast with a glob of margarine. Like a traditional 5th St crime scene there’s “nothing to see here.” It is ordinary and sufficient. Please and thank you. Here’s your six dollars, miss. Have a great day.
Outside the busses crawl west up the hill. An assortment of individuals in various states of emotional disintegration or mobile catatonia make their way up and down the brief slope. It ain’t pretty, but it’s home.
The Monte Carlo is something we’re on the brink of losing—a restaurant that is average and unspecial. It accepts all paying clientele for better or for worse. It is functional and stark. It’s the dank pancake parlor where Arturo Bandini or Hank Chinaski would part with a few dollars to quiet a hangover. It’s a familiar godsend to hungry folks that Woody might identify as “Cowards, brave guys, stools and snitches; Nice people, bastards, sonsabitches; Fair, square, and honest folks; Sneaking greedy people.”
I award the Monte Carlo a highly sought after “1” on the binary and a “Featured in the music video for Hoobastank’s ‘The Reason’” merit badge.
Give the Monte Carlo a few bucks at 109 E 5th St.