Originally appeared in Vanity Fair, October 1994
Nestled into a steep Santa Monica hillside, 189 concrete steps are giving new meaning to the term ‘social climbing.’ At dawn, at dusk, even in the middle of the night, the fit and would-be fit battle for parking spots near the top of the well-worn stairs, which offer panoramic views of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Leaving their bottled waters curbside, they move down the narrow zigzag and climb back up again, over and over until delirium sets in.
Desire for a tight derriere lures most people to the tree-lined stairway, where there’s more than one way to escalate. Arms swing or are clasped tightly behind the back. Legs kick forward or out to the side. Some people climb backward. So-called commandos, who do as many as 50 sets (that’s 18,900 stairs) a day, are easy to spot: they run the steps, usually several at a time.
But many who put on spandex and sweatbands to visit this neighborhood of million-dollar homes seek more than mere sinew. They want to be seen.
‘It’s a chic place to break a sweat,’ says Eric Moore, a real-estate broker who avoids the crowds by climbing during the wee hours. Habitues are still chuckling over the novice who used to do a few laps every morning and then jump into his Mercedes and make phone calls, as if on display. Some here have much more than exercise on their mind.
‘The pickup scene is everywhere – and her is no exception,’ says Daniel Paul, a production assistant at Paramount who claims that on his first visit to the steps he was approached by ‘a bunch of older Swedish women.’
Gloria Charles, a screenwriter, adds, ‘After 10 sets, nobody looks good. You’ve got to catch them coming out of their car.’ A regular for four years, Charles is an expert on proper form, both athletic and social. When passing, give a polite warning (she recommends ‘On your left!’). And never, ever wear perfume – it has a way of overpowering the fresh salt air.
Local homeowners, however, feel their neighborhood is overpowered by the climbers. The steps are a nuisance, they say, bringing traffic jams, noise, and loitering.
‘All the traffic – it’s a definite negative,’ says one real-estate agent who is trying to sell a house near the top of the steps. But even she hesitates to condemn the climbers – after all, she’s one of them.
‘Got to keep the butt up,’ she says.