THERE IS A DOWNSIDE TO LIVING IN LOS ANGELES, AND THIS IS IT: THE certainty that sooner or later one of the vast horde of screenwriter wannabe types out there will wind up living in the apartment adjacent to your own and suck you into reading one of his miserable scripts.
The neighbor was Joe. Joe had a master's in theater arts from UCLA, and as a grad student briefly interned for some studio hotshot. One day at the hotshot's house, with the hotshot in the can, Joe rifled the Rolodex to score a few names and numbers that he later called. In this manner he sold an option on a treatment for $7,000. He was on his way — or so he thought.
Time passed. He wrote more scripts and treatments and made a few bucks from time to time but nothing that could be called making a living, and he was forced, poor man, to take a job teaching English as a second language.
Time passed. More scripts, more script rejections. He “fired” his agent. He was 43. He had written 18 scripts in 15 years and made $43,000.
We bumped into each other from time to time on the stairs. It was Los Angeles. We talked about movies. It was movies, movies, movies. If you can't make a living in the movie biz, you can at least talk endlessly about it.
Joe and I did. He gave me his all-time Top 10 and I gave him my all-time Top 10. We each had our favorite cult-type films — he told me about Life Is Sweet, I told him about Colonel Redl. There we stood between floors with one foot up and one down, and in this way we could go for two hours.
One day Joe asked me to read a script. Why do writers ask people to read something they have written? Writing is written to be read by an agent — not by a neighbor who would rather have his fingernails pulled out one at a time.
But — he was the neighbor. I said okay.
I read the script in bed, and when I finished I lay there staring at the ceiling in a state of paralysis. My head was spinning. This wasn't writing; it was the literary version of Lou Gehrig's disease.
The story was this: A savvy dishwasher — a Gene Hackman type — decides to blackmail a gorgeous millionaire — a Faye Dunaway type. The action occurs in Los Angeles. One night the Faye Dunaway type, while driving her Mercedes, greases a Mexican cleaning lady in a hit-and-run that is witnessed by the Gene Hackman character. Now, this Gene Hackman character suffers from a seething resentment complex relating to rich people, and he seizes upon this incident to devise a sinister extortion scheme.
But it isn't money he is after — it's humiliation. It's a social-reform/redemption-type situation. He decides the time has come for this rich broad to get a taste of life as it is actually lived by the masses — the un-rich — such as the Mexican cleaning lady she greased in her Mercedes.
I won't bother with the details. The details are: A phone call followed by a meeting, and the Gene Hackman character reveals his scheme — for her to move in with him at his fleabag hotel in downtown L.A. and go to work as a waitress at the pupusería where he has nailed down this dishwashing job.
That is correct, a white guy working as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. It's hilarious. She says: okay. Between shifts he keeps her locked up in the room chained to the bed. The movie continues. She falls in love with him — of course. The movie continues.
At some point the Gene Hackman character is tracked down by a business associate of hers, and he is busted on a kidnapping rap. But the Faye Dunaway character intercedes on his behalf, and he is spared 25 years in state prison.
It was something like that.
I was in shock. It wasn't even the absurd narrative line or the two turnip-heads Joe devised to handle the action. It was the sheer staggering, dismal sappiness and lifeless tone of the writing. There was no energy — balls — the exact thing the Gene Hackman character was perceived to possess in abundance.
And now I had a thought: In what way did this vile script of Joe's differ from all the others that daily find their way onto the desks of agents and producers and proceed to be made into actual movies with huge budgets, featuring the hottest stars, massive marketing campaigns, saturation distribution and all the rest of it?
That was my thought. And the answer was: in no way. These scripts were the norm. They were seriously read and considered entirely makable. We've all seen these films. Now I knew who wrote them: people like Joe.
I guarantee that right now, someone reading this story, a producer or agent, maybe you, is saying the same thing to him- or herself: “I like this script!”
I returned the script to Joe, who stood there waiting for me to render a critique.
Writers don't want the truth. They want praise. They write because in this way they hope to receive the adulation they crave that has eluded them as ordinary human beings, and if you can't provide it, don't bother. I wanted to tell Joe just what I thought of it.
I said: “I like the script!”
MEMO FROM NEW YORK: Subway Story
LAST SEPTEMBER COMPLETE strangers could be seen hugging on the streets of Manhattan. I've been back to New York four times since then. The first time, a couple of weeks after the attacks, people were still looking each other in the eye on the subway, smiling in mournful solidarity. But empathy withers in the heat, and is easily pushed aside by its bastard cousins: etiquette, civic-mindedness, pedantry. The subway spirits do not, apparently, approve.
I'm in Brooklyn on a Manhattan-bound F train. It's late morning or early afternoon and I'm underslept and unshowered, crusted with sweat from the 90-degree heat of the streets and the 100-degree heat of the subway platforms, thankful for the coolness of the car. Sitting across from me is a woman in her mid-30s, her slacks well-pressed, her sleeveless shirt miraculously free of sweat stains, reading what are perhaps the only papers in the city unwilted by humidity. Let's call her Miss Baldridge. Sitting beside her is a frumpy man with a comb-over, a goatee, tasseled slip-ons. A couple of seats to his left are two African-American girls, maybe 15 years old, chatting quietly.
The train stops in the tunnel for 10 minutes. (One of the more obvious, lingering effects of the September attacks, besides the truncated skyline, is residual subway chaos — longer-than-usual delays, an ever-shifting schedule of what goes where when.) One of the girls gets up to consult the map, leaving behind her, on the seat next to Comb-over, an empty clear-plastic container, the pleated kind used at deli salad bars to hold chunks of fruit or pasta salad. Miss Baldridge's shoulders tense visibly. When the girl sits down, Miss B. confronts her. “You're not going to leave that there, are you?”
“What?” the girl asks, one eyebrow raised in suspicion.
Miss Baldridge points to the plastic container. “You're going to throw that away, right?”
“No, not now. When you get off the train. You can put it in the trash can on the platform.”
The girl shrugs — another crazy on the F train — and resumes talking with her friend. Miss B and Comb-over exchange sympathetic glances. At last the train emerges from beneath the river. The girls get off at Delancey Street, leaving the offending article sitting guiltily beside Comb-over. Miss Baldridge doesn't notice till they're almost out the door. She shakes her index finger at their receding backs and scolds, with the voice of one addressing a dog that's left shredded tampons scattered about the bathroom floor, “Bad! Not nice!”
The doors close. “They're just children,” Miss Baldridge shakes her head, “but someone's got to teach them.” Comb-over mutters in agreement.
The train stops again, and a frenetic young man begins panhandling at the opposite end of the car, unleashing a lengthy rant for the entire car's benefit (“Ladies and gentlemen . . .”). When he gets to Miss Baldridge, she tells him she doesn't have any change, but can offer him an apple.
“An apple will do,” he responds, taking it from her hand. He raises it theatrically above his head for one huge, juicy, essence-of-apple-enjoyment bite. Miss B. is so ä excited by this performance that, as he moves on to the next car, a bottle of diet soda falls from her bag to the floor.
What possesses Miss Baldridge, a few minutes later, to twist open that bottle? Is it just thirst and forgetfulness, or some insidious self-hate, a not-so-well-buried desire for public shame? Or is it some force greater than Miss B.? No matter, she does it. The soda sprays sticky brown foam all over Comb-over's tasseled loafers, all over the floor of the car. “I am so sorry,” gasps Miss B., as the soda puddles at her feet.
“It's okay, you didn't get me,” Comb-over lies.
The train starts up again. It shakes and twists through the tunnels, and little rivulets of soda spread out in all directions. Miss Baldridge watches anxiously as liquidy fingers reach out to the gym bag of the man sitting beside me. “Sir!” she says. “Your bag!” He puts it on the seat without a word. Miss Baldridge grows steadily more ashen as tributaries begin to run down the length of the car, forking off in streamlets here and there, befouling every last corner. When the train pulls up at 14th Street, and I get off, she looks stricken, bloodless, as if shaken not only by the immediate horror of her circumstances, but by the manifest perversion of the cosmos.
THE URBAN NATURALIST: Invasion of the Calliopes
WITH A NAME LIKE CALLIOPE YOU'D think they'd have announced their arrival like a circus, suddenly filling an empty lot with noise and commotion. But these Calliopes just sneaked in, silently hiding in bushes and flower beds in places they've never been before. They were so silent and so difficult to detect that if it hadn't been for a few bird watchers who keep an eye on their local yards, parks and hillsides we would never have known about the “unprecedented numbers” in Los Angeles, according to the ornithological publication North American Birds.
At just over 3 inches, Calliope hummingbirds are the smallest birds in North America. They migrate from wintering grounds in Mexico to breeding grounds in the high mountains of California, Oregon, Washington and Canada in the spring. They pass through the foothills of the Rockies and Sierras and the deserts between — but normally stay clear of the coast. The bird's Latin name, Stellula calliope, translates to something like “pleasant-voiced little star,” yet there is nothing pleasant about the hummer's shrill, metallic chirp. Maybe calliope refers to something else?
In Greek mythology, Calliope was the first-born of the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory) who preside over — and inspire those who excel at — the arts and sciences. Calliope, who inspires poetry to flow from the creative mind (memory) to a tablet she carries, is the writer's muse. As a bird watcher and a writer, I can't help but be delighted by the thought of such a bilateral visitation.
Hummingbirds are the only species of bird that can fly in four directions, an ability honored by indigenous peoples of the Americas, who revere them as visitors from the spirit world. There are more than 300 species. Anna's and Allen's are the two we Southern Californians see at our feeders and in our gardens. But three more species generally migrate through during spring and fall: Costa's (Calypte costae) from the deserts, with a flared, purple-blue gorget on the throat; the Black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), with an unflared, small purple gorget on the throat; and the green and copper Rufous (Selasphorus rufus), indistinguishable from the Allen's except that the back of the male is mostly copper instead of green. Females of all species are green and gray and impossible to distinguish except by size. Every once in a while, there's a surprise — like the Calliope invasion.
“It's the extreme drought,” suggests Kimball Garrett, resident ornithologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. “The desert is dormant and the foothills are dry. The Calliopes are drawn to coastal areas where landscaping, imported water, citrus groves and hummingbird feeders are available.” It's one of those rare cases where we might be inadvertently nurturing nature — unless of course we've brought about the global warming that caused the deserts and foothills to be dormant in the first place. Does the appearance of the Calliopes provide evidence of catastrophic changes in the environment, such as global warming? Or did the magnetics in their heads just go haywire and send them in the wrong direction, like the poor lone Calliope that went east instead of south last year and wound up in a garden at the Cloisters in New York?
I think about this as I gaze out of the window at my feeder. One afternoon, on my 20th look through the binoculars at what I thought was the same damn hummingbird, there it was, perched on my Santa Cruz Island mallow. This hummingbird was different though. Tiny, like a moth, wings extending past the short tail. The purple gorget was streaked and separated. Calliope was visiting not from myth but from nature. My muse was in my back yard.
LOCATIONS: Just Over the Hill
This is where I live.
Barbecue joints with signs depicting pigs in aprons with big forks.
There has to be some lure.
To the condo born, baby.
I keep saying to myself: Pretend you're on vacation,
Pretend you're on vacation.
When the electric range catches fire,
Pretend you're on vacation.
When the neighbor uses my spare key to jiggle the toilet handle,
Pretend you're on vacation.
When the board of directors tells me I open the screen door too loud,
Pretend you're on vacation.
When the words in the walkway speak of arthritis, Alzheimer's and hearing loss,
Pretend you're in Italy and can't understand.
It's just over the hill.
That hill is so large.
It's a mountain standing between me and my former self.
My young life vs. this old one.
I tend my co-op like a chicken.
Pretend you're on vacation.
Like an actress visiting from Chicago during pilot season.
Like a singer from Ohio cutting an album.
Like a kid from Albuquerque visiting her grandmother.
Like your past visiting your future.
Pretend you're on vacation.
Like the Sepulveda Dam pretends it's the L.A. River.
Like Tujunga pretends it's Larchmont.
Like Ventura pretends it's Sunset.
Like a Studio pretends it's a City.
It's the Valley.