Welcome to Santa Monica and Highland—the nexus of one of Hollywood’s largest prostitution tracks for more than 30 years, and the setting for Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a stark and mesmerizing film exploring the friendship between two trans prostitutes during one manic, unraveling Christmas Eve.
Goes the adage: nobody walks in L.A. Or so says Missing Persons, as well as a certain socioeconomic set ever since. But as the narrator in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself states, that’s just not true:
Who knows the city? Only those who walk. Only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways. They say, ‘nobody walks.’ They mean, ‘no rich white people like us walk.’
Baker’s Tangerine is a walking film. It's also an astonishingly, geographically congruous depiction of a bright, Angeleno December day—primarily through the eyes of those who walk. Sin Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are walkers. The mile radius surrounding Santa Monica and Highland, their community, is full of people who walk.
Take a stroll with us down Tangerine's Santa Monica Boulevard, not exactly the casual, aimless one from Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do." Though, the bar mentioned in the song is likely the Formosa Cafe, if you were curious.
In the ‘80s the area’s prostitution workforce began to shift gender. “For years, it was the female prostitution trade flourishing along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards,” writes Josh Meyer in a Los Angeles Times article from 1990, titled, “The Boys of the Boulevard.” “But now, Hollywood vice officers say, male prostitution has become a far worse blight.” The article goes on to stoke the AIDS scare of the era, chock up the gay-for-pay angle, and caution the runaways who shared needles.
The year that article was published, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia began documenting male prostitutes in the same area. One of my favorite portraits from his series, which would later be published in a book called Hustlers, is of a young man sitting across the street from Donut Time, a landmark of the seedier community in the area and a primary location in Tangerine. The only thing that’s different about the intersection today is that the Del Taco has been replaced with a Walgreens.
"Ralph Smith, 21 years old, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, $25" Philip-Lorca diCorcia, via Vice
And as the community’s makeup changed from female to male, the number of transgender prostitutes also rose. In 2004, Los Angeles Magazine reported on Hollywood’s vice squad, interviewing Vivianna Hernandez, a trans woman and victim advocate for the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center who came to Hollywood in 1970. Hernandez says that in the '70s, prostitution was kept in the clubs along Cahuenga and Ivar. But not for long:
After the Hollywood vice squad worked to close down those establishments, L.A.’s transgender community broke apart. “It shifted to different places in the ‘70s,” says Hernandez. “It moved to Studio City, to a club on 6th and Main downtown called the Waldorf.” Then, in the early ‘80s, the community regrouped, landing in the neighborhood surrounding Santa Monica Boulevard.
This would be a hard-kept statistic, as many reports would file these particular sex workers into categories “male” or much more derogatory. Even as recent as 2013, the Los Angeles Times blundered its way through the reporting of Cassidy Vickers’ murder, a trans prostitute who frequented the Santa Monica Boulevard area. She was last seen alive at Donut Time.
It’s a rough gem, and an anchor of the local sex worker’s community. It’s where Tangerine opens and, plot wise, climaxes. The rest of the film bubbles outward from here:
Moving east down Santa Monica one block, at McCadden Place, is a strip mall housing Studio Liquor, Crown of India, and a gruesome looking pawnshop. This is the parking lot where Sin Dee susses out a name, and where Alexandra will later tussle with a john. There used to be a marijuana dispensary here called Eden Therapy, as discount and disorienting as you can imagine—upon multiple visits I witnessed trans prostitutes harassed here, usually by teen boys. In the daytime, at least.
They continue in the same direction to ask Nash about Chester’s whereabouts, meeting him at his office, El Gran Burrito.
Which sits beside the Vermont/Santa Monica Red Line station. For those who walk in L.A., this is the opening to a major vein (a vein some residents don't even know exists).
Briefly, the geography transfers. Sin Dee marches to a rundown motel to yank Dinah from a drug-fueled in-call session, and continues yanking a single-flip-flopped Dinah across Hollywood.
Photo via Rocor on Flickr
It’s the Grand Motel, which could be the “bargain-priced room on La Cienega” from the Mountain Goats’ “You or Your Memory,” if John Darnielle didn’t admit that he actually checked into the Royal Hawaiian (about a mile east, on Venice and La Brea).
After a stop at Hamburger Mary’s for Alexandra’s dark, beautiful rendition of “Toyland” (the interior is actually The Cork Lounge in Sherman Oaks), the women visit Donut Time again to finally confront Chester, and to watch Razmik’s family unearth his secret life. After this emotional firestorm quiets, the film ends softly—two blocks down Santa Monica at Las Palmas—in the Launderland Coin Laundry.
This is the world of Tangerine—the people who walk Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard, a rare humanizing glimpse at the Armenian population of L.A., an artistically-licensed look at the hardships of the trans sex worker, and the community that surrounds them all. What does that community need? Mya Taylor told The Daily Beast:
I think there needs to be more acceptance of transgender people. And more housing opportunities. And food. And just the chance to live a better life because sex workers want to have better lives.
Tangerine is currently streaming on Netflix.