Karl: *places iPhone on table in front of Chris*
Russo: I love that you’re so low-tech.
Karl: Yeah, they make it so easy now.
Russo: So awesome.
Karl: It’s August 30th, I’m here with “Russo” at Tender Greens on Santa Monica Blvd. We can call you something else if you want.
Russo: Yeah, I want to know why you changed your name too.
Karl: I changed my name because I have a prior career, and I don’t want this to be related to that work at all. I’ve started this whole new thing and I really don’t want it to have anything to do with the other work I’m doing, or have done before. So I use my porn star name, which, you know, is your middle name, and then a street that you’ve lived on.
Russo: Oh, okay. So it’s Karl Clay?
Karl: Clay Road is actually in Rochester.
Karl: So… Anyway…. Occupation?
Russo: I sell motion picture film. *laughs* Officially, I’m an account manager for independent features, for Eastman Kodak Company.
Karl: Current relationship status?
Russo: *pause* In a relationship. *laughs*
Karl: Alright, Russo., tell me a little about yourself, what your hobbies are, what you do outside of work?
Russo: A friend of mine used to kid around and say that I live the lives of three people, because I’m always pretty busy. My free time and my professional time sort of blend together. In my free time I’m an athlete, and I’m also am artist slash filmmaker. So I’m always working on my film projects, whether it’s writing, or directing, or developing stories and pushing them forward. And as an athlete I’m always training for some event, whether it’s a century bike ride or the AIDS/Lifecycle seven day ride or other charity rides. I’m also training to climb another fourteener… And I mountain bike. *laughs*
Karl: Yeah, that’s like four people, I think… Maybe five.
Russo: So I’m really tired. Oh, and the relationship keeps me busy too. But I’m trying to stay focused on all of it.
Karl: How do you find the time? When DO you do the training?
Russo: Well, in the past I’ve worked out in the morning, before work, and then on the weekends. I’ve had a schedule where I’ve worked out five days a week, when I’m in hard-core training. I mean, for the AIDS ride, I’m cycling a couple-hundred miles a week to build up my endurance.
Karl: Is that like a 5:00 a.m. wake up or something?
Russo: Yeah, and I cycle with a group on the West Side… So, living in West Hollywood, it’s all about me putting the bike in the car, driving to the West Side, and then cycling from there. I have done rides from the house, but… I prefer to be in less traffic, less urban cycling areas. So… Yeah… I don’t know, before the relationship, I was working out a lot more. *laughs*
Karl: Yeah, sure. It gets the best of us.
Russo: It’s actually quite nice to sleep in with my girlfriend once in awhile, and forego the crazy fitness events I do on the weekends. In the past I’ve also carved out time, everyday, to work on my projects. You know, I’d go to a coffee shop and spend a couple hours just writing at the end of the day. I’ve got to get a little bit more discipline on that. ‘Cause you have to always kind of be working on it, for it to move forward.
Karl: There’s always something that suffers, right? You have to sacrifice the fitness in order to get the writing done, or vice versa. How old are you?
Russo: Is that important?
Karl: Over thirty? Although you don’t look it.
Russo: You’re kind. It’s all the organic food I eat.
Karl: And the biking. *wink* So what brought you here?
Russo: The film business; I’m trying to make my dreams come true as a film-maker. I started in Rochester with Kodak, I had just graduated from the Visual Studies Workshop where I got an MFA in Visual Studies. My focus was going to be in Photography, but I started making short films, and I had discovered that that medium can reach a lot more people in a theater than making art photography in white-walled galleries. I mean, I would’ve loved to had been an art star, but I just felt that telling my stories through the medium of film, where image and sound, as a photographer, can come together was what I wanted to focus on. So after four years of being a graphic designer and an art director at Kodak, in Rochester, after graduate school, it was time to step it up and give my writing, directing, film-making career a shot. So I applied for three different positions at Kodak. One was in New York, one was in San Francisco, one was in LA, and like, on the third round they offered me the job. They were like, “So where do you want to live, New York or LA?” Since I grew up in New York, I wanted to get as far away as possible, and I thought I’d learn a lot more being in the heart of the entertainment industry. So I chose Hollywood. I grew up in New York, I wanted to get as far away as possible.
Karl: Had you been here before?
Russo: I had been here on business trips, and LA was never on my radar of places I ever wanted to live. It was always San Francisco, the “queer mecca,” the most beautiful city, most intelligent, highly-educated, urban, progressive… city. I also liked Colorado, randomly. I’m a big fan of Boulder, CO. I used to live in the mountains there. I always thought I would, maybe have that kind of life, but I didn’t know how my filmmaking would fit there. So… LA is where I am right now.
Karl: Do you see that in your future? Colorado?
Russo: Yeah. I’ve been trying to make it happen, part-time, for a couple years, but I can’t financially make that happen right now… just yet.
Karl: How’s the film market there?
Russo: There’s really not a filmmaking community there. The University of Colorado at Boulder has a film program that’s actually steered toward a lot more experimental film, which is interesting to me, but it’s not like I could go there and probably survive on making my films. There’s a side of me that’s also very interested in recreation and athleticism, and those kinds of industries, so maybe someday I’ll find work in that field and live in Boulder. ‘Cause I could see myself doing that, and having a nice house, and still making my films. Ideally I’d like to live there part-time, and even own a cabin in the mountains. If I could get to Colorado three or four times a year, I’d be happy. Just because, as you know, living in LA is crazy-making.
Karl: I think that’s totally attainable. I could see you there.
Russo: Yeah, I love it. Someday, you’ll come out and see me in Colorado with your kids.
Karl: How ’bout I just send the kids.
Russo: Sure. *laughs*
Karl: How long have you been here?
Russo: Ten years – 2000.
Karl: Try to describe for me how the area has changed over the time that you’ve lived here.
Russo: I used to live in the heart of West Hollywood, on Palm and Sunset, which was a few steps from Book Soup and Tower Records at the time. I loved that location because, coming from Rochester, it really felt urban and exciting; the Sunset Strip, the Viper Room, there was a lot going on. I’d have a glass of wine and go browse the books at Book Soup to get inspired by all the photography books there, ’cause they have the best selection. Or I’d go to Tower Records and listen to music ’cause they had listening stations, and it was awesome. I was really excited, LA was new, and I was enamored by… you know… at that time, the industry. Now I’m like, whatever…
Karl: So over it?
Russo: I’m so over it. I was starting a new career, it was exciting to me, and something in me said, “You’ve got to buy a place. You’ve got to become more financially responsible.” ‘Cause I was paying, at that time, ten years ago, $1300 for a one bedroom. Which, from Rochester, $450 a month! *laughs* I decided to buy a place on the other side of La Cienega… I was so bummed to lose my 3-1-0! I was so upset about that.
Karl: I don’t get that, I don’t see what’s so bad about the 3-2-3. I kind of like it. It has some personality to it. We’ve got character.
Russo: It’s a little more gritty.
Karl: Yeah, exactly! It’s got some heart to it.
Russo: So, I had to go through these growing pains of buying a condo, and the financial aches of dealing with all that. I moved into a new round of maturity doing that. I totally wanted to buy a place on Palm, but I went from being in the thick of the craziness to a little bit more quiet/residential on Kings Road. For me, what’s changed? It went from being, like totally gay male, on Palm, to a bit more mixed on Kings, which is nice. Unfortunately, there still, to me, is nowhere near the amount of women, or lesbians, I would like to be living amongst. I just don’t think that West Hollywood really attracts lesbians. Or they just can’t afford living in this area. Um, what else has changed? Honestly, only recently, I’ve noticed that every Monday, coming out of the garage, there is a person in every single dumpster on Kings Road. And these are not homeless people, these are young women that clearly have families and kids to feed, and so it kind of freaks me out. Times are really bad right now. I haven’t seen crime go up, because there was actually a lot of crime in my last neighborhood, but I’ve never seen dumpster diving like I have recently. It’s crazy. And again, these are young women, Latina women, just digging around for bottles for the refunds. These aren’t crack addicts, just people trying to survive. What else has changed? I don’t know… It’s all very glitzy and superficial where we live. That seems to be a constant. *pause* There are more cupcake stores.
Karl: And who’s going to complain about that? Sweet Lady Jane…
Russo: Do you eat there? Do you like it?
Karl: I take my daughter.
Russo: I should go there more often.
Karl: You don’t want to go often. It’s like… You know, we’ll end up butterballs, but…
Russo: Yeah… I never remember that it’s so close.
Karl: So why is this place not attracting women? What places ARE attracting women?
Russo: They’re all on the East Side, where the rents are cheaper, Echo Park, Mt. Washington. Honestly, they’re all over, they’re just not concentrated in one community here like the gay men are. I mean, we don’t have lesbian bars anymore, you know, except The Palms. It’s just spread out. I mean, that’s true in every city, it’s not just true to LA. In San Francisco they’re mostly in the Mission, whereas the gay men are mostly in the Castro.
Karl: The Normandie Room is now Gym.
Russo: Yeah, that closed down. That was a sad day when it closed; it was kind of an institution.
Karl: A lot of memories there I bet.
Russo: Or lack of memories.
Karl: On that note, how about the social scene? Did you go out a lot more?
Russo: Yeah, it was my first time living in a big city. Even though I grew up in New York, it was a suburb of New York. This was the first time I’d lived in an urban environment, so I went out a lot more. Back then it was the Normandie Room, Girl Bar, they had certain nights, they had girl parties. I think that’s just a phase you go through… One would hope.
Karl: Yeah, you out grow it, you get too many responsibilities. You used to drop $200 on drinks alone… You can’t really do that anymore.
Russo: Yeah. And meeting people in a bar… They’re generally not the kinda people I want to meet. Its more exciting being with my cycling friends, being outside, meeting people.
Karl: Well, that’s probably better anyway, because then your commonality is cycling… And not going out to bars cruising . *laughs*
*waiter refills waters*
Karl: You mentioned The Palms, is that place any good? Do you like that place?
Russo: The Palms is like, still stuck in an era of yesteryear. I’m glad it exists, but… It’s kind of a dive.
Karl: I haven’t been in there in… a long time.
Russo: Why are you going to lesbian bars?
Karl: Well, it’s in the neighborhood, you gotta go in there and check it out, see what it’s about.
Russo: You knew you were moving to a gay area, right? So like, what drew you to this area?
Karl: Well, she got the job, and moved out here, and her gay boss was like, “You gotta live in West Hollywood, it’s close, it’s safe.” So I stayed back in New York for 6-months, to make sure she liked it here, but eventually I came, and I think that’s kind of the whole point of Access Mundane. I’m a very unlikely character to settle in here and really grow to love it so much. I really do, I think it’s a fantastic city.
Russo: Coming from New York City? From Manhattan?
Karl: Yeah, the Upper East Side… Very young… Trendy… You know. I worked in Chelsea, so this scene wasn’t alien to me. But here I’ve grown into this conservative, aerospace, geek, raising two kids… in Weho! It’s not what you would expect.
Russo: Totally not what I would expect. And I’ll be surprised if you guys stay.
Karl: Well, the only thing that would…
Karl: Well, you can get around that. But the only thing would probably force us to leave would be, because we need a bigger space. I don’t know what we’re going to do with that condo when the kids get bigger. We both love it here, but I don’t know if we can afford a house in Weho. But… Anyway, this is about you.
Russo: That’s fascinating. I’ve wanted to have kids, but I don’t think I’m going to at this point. Financially, I just like being free, and making my art, you know? I can spend a few thousand dollars on a movie that I want to make. I always thought that I’d want to have a family, and I feel like that’s really important, but my cycling community to me has become my family, and my friends, and LA… They’re such strong bonds. Honestly, if you meet anybody from Shifting Gears, which is the group I ride with, they’re like my brothers and sisters. It’s like a HUGE family. So… I don’t think kids are gonna happen. *long pause* It’s okay. *swallows bite* Mmm, so good!
Karl: Yeah, that WAS good. Thanks for the introduction to this place.
Russo: It’s phenomenal.
Karl: Tell me a little about the attitude of West Hollywood itself, and how that’s changed… If it’s changed.
Russo: Well, in general, I’d say there’s definitely a very superficial, elitist, entitlement sort of attitude going on in West Hollywood. Those might not be the people that live here though. Now being a homeowner, it’s different. I have a different relationship with my community than I did as a renter. West Hollywood is interesting, as a resident, because I feel like there is a mixture of people that come together that are the wannabes, and the people that actually pay the taxes here. And frankly, I cannot stand some of the wannabes, and people that come through here, with their showiness, and their attitude, with their big fucking cars. I honestly have had trouble finding community for me in West Hollywood. Coming from Rochester, or a student neighborhood in Buffalo, I honestly really haven’t felt like I fit in. I don’t know where I fit in this city. I honestly feel like I might fit in the best in Santa Monica because I’m an outdoors person, and there’s lots of women there, and it’s a mixture of outdoor lovers, and maybe I would identify more with that community, while our community, I would say, is 75% gay male.
Karl: Do you feel that it’s always been that high? Has that increased or decreased over the last decade?
Russo: It’s hard to say… But like, you guys have moved in, and more mixed professionals have moved in as well. I’ve never felt that I fit in with the gay male community. The reason for me buying my place was as an investment, and the proximity to my office. And, as someone who doesn’t have a cushion to fall back on, if I needed to turn it over, I could. I don’t feel like I fit in in Silverlake because I’m not the tattooed, pierced, edgy, scenester kind of person. I don’t feel like I belong further east because I kind of like to gravitate toward the ocean. I don’t feel like a Hollywood person because I’m not enamored by Hollywood. So I struggle to find where I belong in LA. My point is just that it’s been really hard to find a sense of belonging in West Hollywood. Even though West Hollywood is where the gay community is, to me, an out lesbian for many years, it seems like its so high end, and glossy, and male, and I just don’t relate to it at all.
Karl: And you felt this arriving here? You felt this conflict from the beginning?
Russo: I didn’t know any better. I knew I needed to be in West Hollywood because I was gay, and my friends always said, “You need to live in a gay ghetto for part of your life to really understand what it’s like to be a gay person living in an urban center.” So… Okay. But still… It’s overwhelmingly male gay.
Karl: What did it teach you? Having now lived in a gay ghetto?
Russo: To really appreciate living in a mixed neighborhood; I don’t need to live in a gay ghetto. I mean, I identify as a normal fucking person, a person like you, interested in the arts, interested in kids, living in a mixed, diverse community. I don’t need to be with the gays. I have enough gay friends, I don’t need to live side by side. It’s brought me back to… I just want to be in a diverse community of thoughtful, caring people, that care about the neighborhood. It’s nice to have things in common with people, and have the same philosophies, but that’s also a given in California.
Karl: Over the last decade or so, has it grown for the better, or for the worst? *looks under table* Am I kicking you?
Russo: No, you’re good. We’ve seen some ups and down over the last ten years, as property owners. I think it’s going to come back, but with the economy being the way it is, as with everywhere, it has taken a turn for the worst. The state’s almost bankrupt, people are in dumpsters, prices at the supermarkets and gas pumps are insane, it’s not pretty. It’s going to continue to get harder to afford living where we live, with the taxes and the high cost of living, and it’s not just West Hollywood, it’s the state of California. Having said all that, you have to find happiness with your children, or on a hike, or on a bike ride, or making your art. We are lucky to have all we have, and West Hollywood is ultimately a nice place to live. It’s important to recognize and be grateful for that. Life is pretty good. The weather is great. But the air quality’s gotten worse. *laughs* If you are talking about what’s gotten worse… I’m all over the map with this. Personally and truthfully, I’m just not in love with West Hollywood.
Karl: Do you want to talk about that?
Russo: No, I actually don’t, but I just feel like, in a bigger picture, you and I being peers, it’s going to continue to get harder to afford living where we live, with the taxes, and the stuff that’s coming down all the time. And it’s not just West Hollywood, it’s just this state. That’s a loaded question… Is it getting better? Financially? No, it’s not getting better for people that own, and want to spend a long time here. But… Is the community getting better? I don’t know, what does that mean?
Karl: Well… It’s a pretty subjective question… Like asking someone if blue is better than red.
Russo: It’s pretty stable. Thankfully we live in a low crime area. It hasn’t gone up or down. Life is pretty good. The weather is great all the time. We feel okay… The air quality’s gotten worse. *laughs* If that’s what you’re talking about… I’m all over the map with this. I’m just not in love with West Hollywood.
Karl: No, it’s all good. It’s honest.
Russo: I hate to sound like a complainer, because I feel really lucky. I know how lucky I am to have the life I have. But about personal identity, if you’re being specific to this location, I struggle with that.
Karl: Continuing on the city maintaining itself… What would you like to see more of?
Russo: Honestly, I’d like to see more steps toward a better public transportation system. I think that would make this city a lot better, if we would get a subway stop, or elevated trains that would reduce the traffic. Every time you want to leave, you gotta be strategic. “What time of day is it? What’s the traffic like? Can I do this errand tomorrow at 3:30? Do I have to leave my apartment now at 5:00 to travel to the supermarket?” There’s so much forethought that you need to have before you leave, and you just gotta be smart about it, or I’ll be shooting myself in the head. I’ll have panic attacks in the car because I’m sitting in traffic. *laughs*
Karl: On your note earlier that West Hollywood doesn’t attract many lesbians, or enough lesbians… What if it did? Would that change anything?
Russo: Um… No, I think it could. Because I would like to see more businesses being run by women. I’d like to see more community spaces that I feel comfortable going to. The lack of independent coffee shops… I mean, as a writer, and as an artist, I really take pride in putting my money back into independent businesses. I’ll go to an independent coffee shop over a Starbucks, and there’s such a lack of that here. I would love it. There used to be a coffee shop here ten years ago, in the strip mall across the street, that’s now a twelve step store, that used to be a lesbian owned coffee shop that I was in once or twice. And there’s been nothing like that ever since. I know there might be some places like that on the East Side, but there’s nothing around here that’s like that. And I know coffee shops are hard businesses to make successful, but with the closing of the Normandie Room… I wish, like in Seattle, or Portland, where there’s this mixture of spaces, I wish we had that amongst the gay neighborhoods. I really wish we had that. Seattle is a great example. There’s so many wonderful coffee shop hang out places in Seattle, and a lot of them are run by women. And we have nothing like that here.
Karl: And less of?
Russo: Um… *thinks* See less of? The canvassers in front of the fucking supermarkets.
Karl: *erupts into hysterics* No shit! *laughs*
Russo: *laughs* I’m filled with dread every time I exit Whole Foods or Gelsons.
Karl: It’s like Vegas, when everyone’s handing you the cards with the naked women on them, sometimes you have to like… *makes thrashing football sprint gesture* fight them off. *laughs* I think they’re working towards that. They’re getting a lot hotter, have you noticed that? It’s like, they weren’t getting enough signatures before…
Russo: You mean cuter?
Karl: Yeah… It’s like they all became more attractive all of a sudden to try and lure more people in, I think they started hiring models.
Russo: Whatever you say.
Karl: Has the area been good to you?
Russo: *hysterical laughter… then sudden serious expression* Yes. Yes it has. *more laughter* It’s served it purpose. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is, that it takes me seven minutes to drive to my office. Seven minutes door to door, on a good morning. At the most ten.
Karl: Yeah, if you hit the light, right? Is that in a car or on a bike?
Russo: That’s in a car. Probably fifteen minutes on a bike. It’s really served it’s purpose in that it’s allowed me to have a work/life balance, because I’m so close to my job… If the plumber’s coming, I can jet home in ten minutes. It’s just so nice to live so close to where you work. I don’t know how people live in Woodland Hills, West Hills… I really don’t know.
Karl: Well, you’re talking to a guy who drives about forty minutes.
Russo: Yeah. You could’ve been a South Bay family.
Karl: So dull, Chris.
Russo: Yeah but… Do you guys even do nightlife stuff? I mean you say it’s dull, but you guys have a family… I mean, maybe you walk to Gelsons, or go have a drink somewhere but…
Karl: I know… marry straight, have kids… life ends. No it’s true… What am I complaining about?
Russo: I know you come from that kind of culture and you like to go out… I guess you still like to be around it.
Karl: I guess I just like to have it available. Like, I have a habit of leaving the house at 3 a.m. and walking around the city at odd hours of the night. I just need to leave the house sometimes.
Russo: That happens?
Karl: I do it all the time.
Russo: Where do you go? You don’t feel nervous?
Karl: I just walk, look at the car accidents, follow sirens, remind myself that I live in a vibrant city, No, I’m not nervous. It feels pretty safe.
Russo: Well, you’re a man. I would. Where do you walk?
Karl: Sometimes toward La Brea, toward the “bad” *holds fingers up in air like quotes* side of town, or walk Santa Monica Blvd, or Melrose, look for car accidents, sirens and things… Any sort of action of activity.
Russo: Ever go up to Sunset?
Karl: You know, I don’t really like it up there.
Russo: Climbing a hill. *shakes head*
Karl: That damn Sweetzer hill is exhausting! But you know, there’s a lot of activity going on at that hour. Around 2:30, there’s usually lots of mobs outside of the bars. Like the other night I was walking outside of Fubar, and there’s all these drag queens out there with all these people crowded around taking pictures, and there was a bad car accident on Santa Monica Blvd., and cops everywhere, and it just makes you feel like you live in an interesting place.
Russo: Yeah. I get it.
Karl: Right… Now… I’d be a freak if I walked out of the house at that hour in the South Bay and I was wandering around the neighborhood.
Russo: Yeah, you’d be arrested.
Karl: Right. And West Hollywood offers you that. If you walk out in the middle of the night, there ARE really weird people out. I’ve been chased by meth heads before, but I’ve never been fearful of my life or anything. There are some weird homeless out at that hour, high on who knows what, yelling and speaking in tongues but… I don’t know.
Russo: Yeah, I think as artists, we crave that kind of energy, which is why we live in LA, and not Vermont, or Rhode Island, or Virginia… or Colorado.
You know, I think people want to be here. The real estate’s pretty solid. I feel that because it’s the anchor, or the next door neighbor to the film industry, and it’s position within Los Angeles Proper, I feel like it’s always going to be a solid place to have roots and be in. The one thing that can be the game changer is if there’s a major, natural disaster situation… Because we are on a liquefaction area. *worrisome laugh* I’m not obsessive about it, but I think if there’s a major natural disaster in Los Angeles, West Hollywood’s pretty much all going to collapse. That’s a risk anywhere, but here… I think it’s an actual risk. I don’t know… We’ve been having all these little earthquakes here lately, I’m concerned. *sinister look* Are you prepared for that?
Karl: Fuck no.
Russo: No extra water? No cans?
Karl: No, we don’t have shit… We’re so East Coast, we suck.