Sweat equity in the American dream

The coolest place in Hollywood is a sauna inside the health center at El Centro and Selma that’s been around since the mid-1980s.

I was reminded of this the other day after a conversation with a Guatemalan maintenance man named Romulo and a retired auto mechanic from Ecuador named Victor.

We sat sweating together as they discussed Victor’s house in Ecuador. He wanted to sell it but couldn’t.

The idea pained Victor, as he’d bought the house hoping his kids might want to experience his home country. But none of them did. Only a son-in-law, from India, expressed any interest in Ecuador.

So the talk transcended real estate and was really about an immigrant’s ache to return home, and whether that was even possible. Romulo thought not. Home is here now, he said.

“People here need to change their dreams of tortillas and beans to dreams of ham and cheese,” Romulo said to me as we sat in the dense heat.

I began going to this sauna years ago when Bally’s Total Fitness owned it. Today, it’s an L.A. Fitness. The sauna room is a simple collection of wooden planks, rising in large steps. A complex cacophony of languages pierces the vapor. They are the voices of thick Armenians and slight Filipinos; emaciated old Korean ladies with hair as black as their one-piece bathing suits; Oaxacans and Russians; and Salvadorans with Chinese tattoos.

We huddle together in the same heat but broken into separate groups, speaking different languages. I don’t know why I haven’t met poets at this sauna, so thick within it are the metaphors for Los Angeles.

Hollywood has always been one of L.A.'s most enduring symbols, but to me this isn’t because of the movies. It’s because Hollywood is a great global landing strip — and nowhere is this more apparent than in this intensely heated sauna.

The sauna remains my distilled vision of L.A.: real and raw; not always pretty.

Those immigrants who help run the city — maintenance men, mechanics, rug merchants — come here to revive. I sit and listen to them and imagine that some are from areas where this kind of multi-ethnic elbow-rubbing has led to mass slaughter.

“One of the things Hollywood accomplishes,” said a cop I spoke to recently, is that “you have incredibly divergent groups coexisting, mostly very well.”

In Hollywood, they can shed the past and find invigorating freedom. Some retain attitudes that would corset others.

One afternoon, the sauna was filled with Latinos when, amid the echo and talk, I heard a man using a vulgar Spanish term for homosexuals. Another stepped in to say he shouldn’t be insulting people “who were a certain way.” He left, and the first man laughed and continued a discourse that I didn’t try to follow.

It’s as if getting half-naked allows people to bare more than flesh.

Outside the sauna I met an American. He went to Hollywood High School in the 1960s and said he never saw a non-white person back then. Nodding to the sauna, he told me, “You know what it says on the Statue of Liberty; it’s like we overdosed on it.”

One day, I watched three guys talk for a good five minutes and only understood the words “car wash” and “Santa Monica.” But I’ve been prodding people lately. Turns out they were from Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Russia — all speaking Russian and talking about a car wash the Armenian owned.

“Hollywood is for Russians and Armenians,” the Armenian told me later, his arms spreading wide. When I pointed out the Mexicans and Central Americans, he said, “Well, it’s kind of for them, too. Thirty percent.”

Ashot was his name, a bear of a guy, with a hairy chest and impish grin.

Across the sauna sat a Oaxacan, from the Sierra Juarez mountains, who spoke with a perfect North American accent. A conversation developed between him and Ashot: what language should a good boss speak?

“As a good boss, you should speak the language of your employees,” the Oaxacan said.

“As a good boss, I should speak English — it’s the universal language,” Ashot replied.

Later, Ashot took me aside and told me that the Uzbek had spent most of his life in Uzbekistan and never learned Uzbek; didn’t know much English either. He only spoke Russian, the language imposed by Moscow during the Soviet decades.

“You see an Armenian anywhere, could be a guy with no education, he knows three, four languages,” Ashot told me, a cross glistening on his hairy chest, as we now both stood dripping outside the sauna.

As Romulo, Victor and I talked on that day, I heard shards of their lives.

Victor had spent time in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, stationed in Thailand. Romulo had had an accident that prevented him from working for a while.

Later, Romulo was talking with a Russian woman, her head wrapped in a white towel, in the English that each could muster.

I rose to leave and shook his hand. The Russian woman waved as I walked off.

“Have a nice day,” she said, with great American cheerfulness.