Itės seven in the morning and I canėt stand still. Today I have the interview at Disney Studios. All Iėve got is nervous energy. This is the beginning. I find my running shoes.
To be honest, Iėm not the athletic type. I havenėt been on a sports team since middle school. That was before I realized that sports were in fact not a requirement for the male gender. My body canėt remember what it feels like to run a mile. But today is different. The sun shines on a beautiful Los Angeles morning, the palm trees sway in the gentle breeze. A postcard of optimism.
I strap on my sneakers. I run down the block and head east on Santa Monica Boulevard. This feels great. I donėt know why I donėt do this. Things are going to change. Iėve got a good pace going when the light changes and Iėm forced to jog in place at the intersection. Iėm about to cross when an suv zooms by. The driver and I make eye contact. He rolls down his window.
"Get a fucking car asshole!"
I am coasting through the San Fernando Valley in my compact. Mountains rise up out of nowhere, surrounding the flat, sprawling grid of intersecting streets. This is like nothing from my childhood. I was raised on rolling hills and winding roads. This is foreign, organized, and climate-controlled. This is a giant checkerboard of suburban strip malls on a sunny soundstage for the perfect consumer culture. This is the porn capital of the world.
The imposing Disney logo commands respect. I pull my car slowly up to the guard station. Taking my sunglasses off, I tell the security guard that Iėm here for a meeting. He takes his off and makes a phone call. I like the ring of my statement. I feel damn professional as I park next to a giant sound stage.
This is a town of cronyism. Armed with a list of fellow college alumni who are successfully working in Hollywood, I canėt say I have a problem with the system. I managed to land an interview with a major Hollywood writer who is about to go into production on the fourth in a highly successful franchise of films. I got this interview because a fellow alumnus who works at Miramax knew John, a former employee of Miramax, who knows Mark, the current assistant to the major Hollywood writer.
Before I walk into the animation building I realize that the thirty-foot columns outside of the building are actually the seven dwarfs. Mark finds me in the waiting room, offers me something to drink, and grins. I take a moment to look over the shelf full of merchandising items that have been spun from this successful franchise of films: a lunch box, an action figure, a packet of condoms with the movie characters on the box.
"I hear good things about you," Mark tells me.
I am thrown off for a moment by his daring highlights.
"Well . . . thank you " I want to appear modest yet confident.
"This is a great office."
Mark smiles warmly and offers me a seat. This guy is so charming and charismatic that I instantly relax. I want him to be my best friend.
I put down my bag, which is empty but looks like it could contain important documents. I settle into a seat. The sale begins, and itės not hard with Mark as my good buddy. I tell him that Iėm excited to work, to give seven days a week. I donėt want a life. Iėm hungry. Iėm eager. Iėm driven.
Mark nods as if every sentence is better than the one before. He often offers the word "perfect" as a response to my pitch. He tells me that this is a tremendous opportunity if I donėt mind doing the personal tasks. I tell Mark I hope I can pick up dry cleaning, take out trash and walk this manės dogs.
"He doesnėt have a dog," Mark holds the straight face for a second and then grins from ear to ear. We both laugh knowingly. We talk about film, about politics and about Markės career. He is moving on to bigger and better things. Heės becoming an agent trainee.
On the way out I see the next applicant nervously shuffling in the waiting room and I canėt help but feel pity for the guy. This is, after all, my new office.
Back at my Disney guest parking spot, I think about this new job. Iėll see how the writer works, how he deals with producers, how a script gets to the screen. I wonder how long etiquette demands before I can show him my work. I open my trunk to grab a tuxedo shirt and a bow tie.
The Burbank Hilton Convention Center, adjacent to the Burbank Airport, is my Monday night. A chaffer. A Queen Mary. A votive. I am a dictionary of catering vocabulary. I am a minimum wage employee. I walk endless circles around the tables, two knives to the right, two forks to the left, one fork facing clockwise above the table setting, a glass of water and a bread plate.
The banquet hall wall is a collage of pictures. I put down my pile of salad forks to look at a series of posters of men in karate outfits holding up trophies.
"Do you know what the event is tonight?"
"No s. Es . . ." I dig through my high school Spanish as a Latino waiter repeats himself and looks annoyed. The waiters end most sentences with "my friend" when talking to me. I know that they say this to everyone but when working beside them I canėt help but feel validated in a hollow-liberal-arts-politically-correct kind of way.
The room fills with the legends of martial arts competition. I grab a pitcher of water and watch the parade of black-tie guests. Barrel-chested men, with ponytails, in their seventies, sip champagne. Their wives pick apart salads and look like alien corpses with supermodel figures. I find an empty water glass on a table and pick it up to refill. Iėm about to move on when a wrinkled and veiny hand begins to stroke my arm.
"Youėre doing a wonderful job, young man." Bulbous collagen lips part, revealing a porcelain smile. I nod and try not to stare at the tiny cartilage remnants of one too many nose jobs. She wonėt let go of me. My eyes search for anything else to hold my attention. Perfect spheres poke from her low cut dress. I am both aroused and nauseous.
The center of the room is roped off for various demonstrations. I look at the mcės dojo business card while a ten-year-old girl dazzles the crowd with nun-chucks. She grunts wildly and kicks the air.
We serve dinner and then step back into the hall as the mc welcomes everyone to the roast for Robert Hill. Bob is apparently a legend of the ring and screen, and a successful entrepreneur of dojos across southern California. Chuck Norris stands to talk about his old friend.
"When Bob and I walked around Japan everyone stopped us and asked to punch Bobės chest." As speaker after speaker stands up to roast Mr. Hill, I notice an undercurrent of violence in what are otherwise sentimental memories of an old friend.
"Dad opened the door and delivered a full roadhouse kick an inch from my dateės face. Boys wouldnėt come near me in high school."
"I remember Bob stopped the car, grabbed the guy and . . . well, letės say the guy didnėt make comments like that anymore, at least not with his jaw wired shut."
"And the night wouldnėt be complete without a fight."
The mc looks annoyed when "Eye of the Tiger" begins to play and no one comes to the roped-off area. After a few minutes of confusion, two small, slightly out-of-shape Latino men wearing boxing gloves are seemingly pushed into the ring. The mc berates them and tells them to go at it. They begin to spar. People stand and cheer. One of the guys looks like heės crying. A woman in a glittering evening gown is ready to throw her drink in frustration as she calls out,
"Come on you bastard, hit him already."
"My friend, look."
A waiter positions me so I have a better angle of the ring. I stand with the wait staff at the edge of the room trying to decide whatės more interesting to watch, the reluctant fight in the center of the room or the black tie guests banging their tables in anticipation.
Morning traffic. Iėm in a giant parking lot. I will move. I will move. I fight my way into the fast lane as the middle lane speeds up. Danny Bonaduce barks at a woman for not expecting her celebrity boyfriend to cheat on her. I flip through the radio stations.
I realize I am going to be late. Iėm headed down to the Long Beach Convention Center in rush hour traffic. I know that getting onto a highway in la is a dangerous gamble, but I donėt really have a choice. It only gets worse. I havenėt even passed by downtown, marked by the sudden emergence of skyscrapers disappearing into the smog.
Yes, I am late. I fasten my bowtie and grab plates of lemons to pass around tables in a gymnasium-sized room. William, a tall leathery-skinned black man in his thirties with horribly crooked teeth, pats me on the back and grabs a plate of lemons.
"Youėre late Ben. Donėt worry, I signed you in."
William and I have become friends over the course of several jobs. He is an actor. He used to live in New York, I assume doing off-off-off Broadway. He is new to la and shopping around his headshots. He isnėt having much luck so far.
William and I join the mass of temporary serving staff and prep the tables for the luncheon for The Womenės Conference of Greater Los Angeles. Gray Davis, the governor of California, is the guest speaker. The lunch has to be served and cleared in half an hour. We are an unrelenting army of mesclun salads and chicken pesto. We throw down the food, pick it up as people fight us for the last bite and get the hell off the floor before Gray Davis begins to speak. My tray shakes violently while I pile up the last of the plates. I hate this. I hate this. My back feels like shit. I panic when I pick up a womanės plate and butter begins to fall off of my tray. William signals for me from the edge of the room.
"Iėm not done with that."
The woman yanks the plate from my hand and the tray almost falls. It takes a few seconds to regain my balance. She scowls at me and I can only smile politely. The headwaiter yells at me. I quickly walk off the floor to join William. I take one last look back. Butter hangs off the end of the womanės ponytail and drips into her designer pocketbook.
When I get home thereės a message from Mark. He wants me to come in on Thursday to interview with the writer. I offer my roommate Mary a free dinner, seeing as my financial troubles will soon be over.
Mary just started working as a biology teacher in South Gate where her high school population of five thousand kids is 99.9% Latino. Due to overcrowding, the kids at South Gate High School are divided up into tracks and have school year round. More affluent schools would never let that happen. pta committees would never accept the loss of summer vacation.
Mary and I walk to Marix, an upscale Tex-Mex restaurant around the corner from our apartment. Somehow when looking for housing, we found ourselves in West Hollywood, an upscale island of gay men, also known as Boys Town. This is the epicenter for gyms and dry cleaners in Los Angeles. A neighborhood filled with well-groomed bald men who like tight clothes and small dogs. The police cars blaze rainbow colors across their hood. Billboards of shirtless men hanging from ropes advertise the fight against stds.
Mary and I look over her kidsė writing samples. We have to yell because of the techno beat in the restaurant. Most of the kids canėt form a coherent English sentence, let alone spell. A majority read below a sixth grade level. Many of the kids actually have kids. Mary is thinking about putting up a bulletin board for baby pictures.
On the first day, she tells her students that they are behind the eight ball. The California school system wants to check off that they have learned biology like the rest of the country, but wonėt acknowledge that they need to learn how to write English first. The other teachers are mostly just babysitters. Mary spends the first twenty minutes of every class trying to teach them English.
The day before school started, I helped Mary move books into her classroom. When she went down the hall to get lab equipment an administrator told Mary that her students were the bad ones and that they would break the equipment. Mary is tough. As she fought with the administrator, I could hear the screaming from down the hall. About an hour later, after the administrator left, we went to another classroom and grabbed everything that wasnėt nailed down.
I pull out a studentės paper. The kidės first sentence is missing the verb. I ask Mary what she thinks she can possibly accomplish. She simply marks the paper. "Like a Virgin" blares in the background.
"I can fix that."
I sit back, eat a tostada and watch her attack the papers. When I listen to her I want to do good. I want to make a difference. The truth is I want to make a lot of money and then write a check.
I wake up to the sound of a gentle rain beating against my window. I havenėt seen rain in four months and itės soul food to my Boston heart. la is technically a desert, after all. We canėt be bothered with water from the sky when we can just pump it in from Northern California.
Iėm driving down Magnolia Boulevard to meet Adam Cash, an old friend from high school. Palm trees line the boulevard. Even though I have been here over a year I still get the pangs of an exotic winter vacation when I see these palm trees. I see warm turquoise oceans and cheap bamboo beach bars. The grayish smog clinging to the top of the canyon reminds me that Iėm still in la.
There are railroad tracks that run along the center of the median strip on the road. At every intersection the tracks vanish and then re-establish themselves on the other side with the median. Itės a losing battle against the road. The tracks are the skeletons of what was once transportation for the Valley and the greater Los Angeles area. Following World War II, the gas and automobile companies bought the line from the public in order to run it more efficiently. Once the deed was in their hands, the companies simply salvaged the trains and left the barren tracks as a grim reminder of a new la ruled by the automobile.
People refer to all freeways with the preface, "the." For instance itės not route 5, itės the 5; itės not highway 101, itės the 101. Itės as if when the cars were crowned king, the highways were knighted.
I meet Adam for lunch on Sunset Boulevard. We are at Miyagis, a trendy three-story restaurant. We sit next to model/actor hipsters, marked by designer jeans that look fresh from the thrift store, extra small t-shirts that have something ironic written across the chest, hair perfectly gelled and molded to achieve the I-just-got-out-of-bed look. It is said that Los Angeles is the only town where you donėt fail, you just stop trying. So this small percentage of genetic superbeings migrates west to try.
When Adam and I sit down I canėt help but notice that his eyebrows have been recently plucked and reshaped. This is the guy who used to wear the same pair of sweatpants to calculus every day. Finally, he puts his phone down and holds his hands up.
"I love it out here. I know Iėm a walking clich but I get up every morning an hour earlier and surf. Itės addictive, the ocean. Been doing yoga and pilates too. What gym do you belong to?"
"I donėt go to a gym."
Cash looks deeply offended when I admit this. But we settle down to sushi lunch and talk about writing. Cash tells me that itės all high concept these days and I tell him Iėm not sure how to describe my script in one sentence.
"Iėm working on something actually," he tells me.
I lean in. I didnėt know Cash was a writer.
"A hard-boiled cop, hot on the trail of a magician whoės a murderer, wanders into an abandoned mine shaft and finds a time portal to King Arthurės Court. Itės kind of a fish-out-of-water story meets the whole thriller thing, but with the magic element. Iėm really trying to shape it for Tobey and Leo. Theyėre looking for more mature roles."
He works in Beverly Hills for Leonardo DiCaprioės manager and digs through endless DiCaprio vehicle scripts. Cashės boss doesnėt like to read.
As our check comes, Cashės phone rings again. I wait patiently while he apologizes repeatedly to someone yelling on the other line.
"I gotta jet. Donėt worry, Iėll expense lunch."
Cash pulls out a credit card and heads for the hostess. Apparently, due to a miscommunication earlier in the morning, Leoės personal chef is about to get on a plane flying coach and the chef isnėt pleased. Cash has 20 minutes to make the man who feeds Leo happy.
Rain beats against my glasses on the walk to my door. I shut my eyes to focus on the sound of drops hitting the sidewalk when I hear tires screeching and the sound of metal slamming. I turn onto my street and see two mangled cars pulled to the side of the intersection.
LA roads are at their most dangerous when it rains. The streets slowly build with grime and oil. When it does rain, the roads become waterslides. A man sits patiently in his mangled car and reads over a screenplay, waiting for the police to arrive. He looks annoyed that his shoes have gotten wet. There is a little bit of blood running down his forehead.
Itės crystal clear. The rain has cleaned the smog and everything is sharp. From Sunset Boulevard you can see all the way to the ocean. Itės like getting a new pair of prescription glasses. I have a second interview this afternoon and Cashės words echo in my head.
"I love this place."
I am back at Disney and walking down the re-creation of an old city street. Itės all here, from the old fashioned barbershop pole to the mom and pop flower shop. This is that kid-in-a-candy-store moment for young filmmakers. We hope that no one sees us. Of course itės when Iėm in a full swing around the lamppost that a Disney employee in a headless leprechaun costume stops me.
I cough and step down to the curb.
"I was . . . looking for the animation building."
He points me down to the right with a giant green finger. When I thank him he turns back to me, smiles crookedly and looks me directly in the eye.
I take a few steps back to regain my personal space.
"Have a Disney day!"
He puts on his head. I thank him again and walk quickly away as he continues to stare at me through his yellow leprechaun eyes.
Mark greets me in the waiting room, tells me the writer will be a few minutes late and offers me a drink. I joke with him as if we are old friends.
"Oh please, of course. Tell him to take his time."
After all, weėre practically coworkers. I settle into a seat and peruse a copy of the Hollywood Reporter.
Mark opens the door and another applicant walks out. We smile at each other. I walk into the room and a small man with glasses, wearing all black, stands up to greet me. This will be my mentor. We shake hands but he doesnėt offer much of a grip. He is quiet and awkward. This throws me off and I feel a sudden mild queasiness. Mark sits next to him silently looking at the floor. His highlights look duller. The writer asks me if I know what the job will entail. He tells me that most of the job will be personal tasks.
"Iėm very comfortable with that."
He tells me that he bought a new house and will need me to go out and take pictures of different coffee tables for him to choose one.
"That sounds great."
I donėt even blink at the prospect of being his errand boy. The writer nods but does not even smile.
He asks me about myself and what it was like being a film major in college. Here is a chance to show him that I am a sharp, intelligent candidate.
"I loved being a film major. I remember writing term papers on the cinematic universes of Scorsese and Hitchcock. Actually, I used Mean Streets as the template for the stylistic and thematic elements that would come to define the Scorsese Universe. Everythingės there: from Scorseseės take on women, religion, friendship to his mise en scĻne and camera movements to emphasize the"
I speed up in a desperate attempt to finish and realize that Iėm not taking in oxygen. My face turns red and I begin to see little white spots. Finally, I manage to finish.
The writer looks at my resume in silence. I shift and smile in my seat. He leans back and says, "I was a film major in college. I didnėt really like those guys. Thatės why I wrote this kind of movie."
"Oh yeah definitely. I hated . . . uhm"
"What directors do you like?"
"Oh, I really love Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson."
"So . . . artsy movies?" He taps my resume.
Think damn it!
"No, I mean I also like Spielberg and MIB2 and"
"Well, to be honest a lot of what you contribute in writing meetings is going to be on the screen. We basically write a lot of cock and ball jokes."
I nod. Cocks and balls, right.
He rubs his eyes.
"I love cock and ball jokes! Letės write some cock and ball jokes!" I laugh and deliver a desperate shit-eating grin.
Mark laughs uncomfortably.
The writer sighs and puts my resume down on the table.
We shake hands.
When I get home Mary is fuming. Sheės ready to quit. None of her kids did the homework she assigned. She was hoping that one-third would. The kids were excited and ready to jump at her challenge to them. Not a single one brought in a piece of paper. When she came back from lunch, her cigarettes and several cds were missing from her purse. The police are involved. Some of the kids already have parole officers so this is a huge mess. I ask her if she knows any cock and ball jokes.
The thick cloud of incense rising up through the room at the Native American National Alcoholics Anonymous Luncheon is beginning to give me a headache and serious doubts about my existence in Los Angeles. Iėm feeling lightheaded trying to lift a tray of twenty empty plates above my shoulders to carry back to the kitchen.
A large group of us sit in the hall and polish a never-ending stack of silverware. William and I dig through a pile of dinner knives. We can hear the confessionals of the alcoholics inside of the conference hall.
". . . I had to get out of there, so I packed my bag, bought a discount ticket on Greyhound and left. A month later I was in Phoenix and back in a bar."
I move on to forks while William polishes knives.
"You know Ben, I feel it. I just do. And Iėm not in a rush. I put in my time and you know once you have the whole celebrity thing, your life changes, you canėt go back."
I nod in agreement and notice that many of these forks arenėt clean at all.
"And you too, you got some stuff goinė. Iėm not saying I need the Academy Award, but it would be nice you know. Weėre going to be sitting around the table, the table, and maybe working on projects together. It just takes time."
"Itės tough," I say.
William sounds earnest and humble when he says these things to me. I just feel sad and listen to the alcoholics in the other room.
"Whiskey, Vodka. It doesnėt matter. They got you and you have no control. Welcome to the club," the Native American woman in the other room laughs self-consciously and is met with comforting applause.
"God grant me the wisdom to . . ."
The headwaiter calls us back into the room to clear the chairs.
At home there is a message on the machine. I press the button already knowing the speaker and the speech he is regretfully delivering.
"Ben, itės Mark. Iėm really sorry but we decided to go with someone else. I can say honestly that it was a really hard decision and it just came down to experience. I wish you the best of luck. Let me know if there is anything that I can do."
I press delete and then remember the computer voice.
"Your message has been erased. You have no new"
I slam the phone with my fist and jump when it replies with a ring.
Cash is on the other line.
"Ben my man, we are going out."
"Iėm not sure Cash, Iėm not really in the mood for"
"Garden of Eden, my friendės on the list, fifteen minutes be outside."
"Is it "
Cash has hung up and is already on his way. I look through my closet wondering what I have just agreed to. I have an old T-shirt that says "American Cancer Society." Itės not really ironic but an actor wouldnėt know that. I have jeans, regular. My hair always looks like I just got out of bed. I donėt need gel. I can be an LA hipster.
Sure enough fifteen minutes later, Cash pulls up wearing sunglasses and a jogging suit top. His friend Mike, a tall, fully-gelled, blonde hbo accounting assistant, is wearing an open-collared silk seventies shirt with "I pity the fool!" stenciled into the back. Iėm at a Halloween party.
Mike asks me what I do.
"Iėm a writer."
I can see his eyes squint as he tries to figure out whether I can potentially help his career.
"Yeah, so . . . never mind."
We drive on to the club.
Thereės a crowd outside, but no formal line. Garden of Eden has the mysterious list that grants validation to the few. Many come and spend the night trying to get in. Of course, itės hopeless. I have no interest in coming here except for Cashės promise. I do sometimes wonder what the other side of the rabbit hole really looks like.
Ten minutes pass. Twenty. Apparently, Cashės friend is not on the list. We try to get the bouncerės attention as he lets in models and friends. Thirty minutes. We push and shove and fight on. Forty minutes of pleading pass.
In the madness Mike befriends a model. She finds the bouncer, gives her name and is given permission to enter. The bouncer asks how many people are in her party. She points to Mike and by extension, to us.
The red velvet rope comes up and Mike passes through. Cash passes through. I walk forward. As I am about to pass, the velvet rope comes down. I point to my friends now on holy ground. There has obviously been a mix up. Cash tries to explain on the other side. Mike is already at the door at the top of the steps. I try to get the bouncerės attention. Mike signals for Cash. Cash looks to Mike and then back to me. I watch Cashės face as he now registers the situation and ponders the weight of our friendship. Cash turns to Mike, who slips inside. Cash turns back to me and shrugs.
I walk home alone.
Mary is still grading papers at midnight. I ask her how her day was. She just smiles. At the beginning of first period she pre-empted the kids by launching into a speech.
"Look guys, you need to do the homework. Itės the only way . . ."
One of her girls interrupted.
"Ms., donėt be mad. Please turn around."
Mary obliged. When she turned around there was a pile of papers. She counted through the pile of homework on her desk and realized that all of the kids had turned in work. There was a pack of cigarettes and some cds next to the pile. She had to turn away and write something on the board as she fought away the beginnings of tears.
I feel aimless and self-centered looking at her stack of papers. And although it doesnėt matter to Mary, I take my laptop and find a caf to work so I donėt disturb her.
Thereės an open table at a dimly lit, new-agey coffee shop on Melrose. The walls are black and covered with quickly rendered quasi-abstract paintings. A perky waifish punk gives me an oversized coffee cup. When I open my laptop I notice little glowing white screens surround me. la hipsters fill the room with the tiny pecking sounds of keyboards. They are intent, isolated and relentless. The occasional coffee cup clinks and breaks the library silence. I wonder how many hard-boiled cops are being created tonight. I wonder if Cash is enjoying buying overpriced drinks for women who wonėt give him much more than the time of day. I wonder if I am working with William at the Burbank Hilton tomorrow night. I try to focus on my empty screen. The skeletons of train tracks run down the median.
Illustrations by Shawn Cheng.
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