Matthew and I are having a debate. He’s pretty sure there’s a reason only Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock types get all the plum movie roles. The only parts Hollywood reserves for black men, he says, are “clowns and crackheads, all of them.” He’s sure the industry doesn’t like to put respectable, nice-looking black men in the movies.
I tell him I’m not so sure I agree, and ask, “What about Denzel Washington? He’s gorgeous. He’s in the movies.”
Nope, Matthew’s not having any of that. “What’s he been in lately?” he asks me, a frown on his face. Apparently, he’s already forgotten this year’s critically acclaimed Inside Man and is oblivious to the upcoming, and heavily advertised, Déjà Vu.
Matthew’s hair is white and grizzled, his skin a contrasting light brown, and one eye seems to be wandering in the opposite direction when he looks at me. I learn to look at his good eye, the one that’s sharp and clear.
He disagrees with the L.A. Times op-ed pieces about the issues between blacks and Latinos in what he still insists on calling South-Central. “It’s all media hype,” he says with a laugh. “They want to see us at each other’s throats.”
He’s working on an op-ed for the Times, a rebuttal of sorts that speaks of his experiences in Koreatown and South-Central living among Latinos, with whom he says he’s happy to live. “You just know to stay away from the bangers, that’s all,” he says.
“Excuse me a minute, please,” he interrupts himself, then dashes across the underground parking lot to fetch a gleaming Acura for a high-heeled ad-sales type with red claws and a $400 bag.
I glance at the book sitting on his chair. It’s something on conformity in American popular culture written by a Canadian. Last month, it was a tome on Bush’s White House. On most days when I come down to get my car, I find him scribbling furiously in a spiral notebook with a short pencil. He tells me he writes poetry and is looking for a publisher. Maybe a literary magazine to start. He asks me for my business card, and as I hand it to him, I tell him my publication, which caters to upwardly mobile Latinos, doesn’t run poetry. I make a note to myself to look up some presses for him, to give him some leads, since he says he only ever gets Internet access at the library.
When he’s not bringing magazine editors, radio producers and the other media types who work upstairs their keys, he’s either writing or standing in a doorway doing stretches or jogging across the garage. (He tells me he’s on a diet, though he doesn’t look like he needs it.) Or else he sits in his chair with his books, a large industrial fan blowing warm air in his face. It’s sweltering down in the basement parking lot, and after a short while chatting with Matthew, I feel the sweat begin to form on my back, and cast longing glances at the elevator. Guilt sets in. I get to go upstairs to an air-conditioned office with a view of the Hollywood sign. Matthew gets to swelter in the basement of a Wilshire Boulevard office building on a beautiful sunny day.
Matthew earns $6.75 an hour, with no health insurance or paid vacation days, he tells me. He’s a long-term contract employee, and says he’s trying out for another attendant job at a building down the way that’s got union employees with health insurance. He’s been a lot of things in his 60-something years of life, he tells me. Labor organizer, teacher, counselor. He’s lived in New York, the South, up north. He has a daughter and grandkids, but they don’t live in L.A., and so he’s pretty much on his own, just Matthew and his books in a small apartment in Koreatown.
On my way out on a Friday, he brings me my car and winks. I ask what he’s got planned for the weekend. “Probably work on that op-ed,” he tells me. “I’ll put it in the mail for you.”
I can’t wait to read it.
The following week, I get laid off from my job. I walk back from the business manager’s office to my own glass-walled office, stunned. I look out at Wilshire Boulevard and over at the Hollywood sign. There’s an envelope on my desk. It’s from Matthew and has my name and title handwritten in pencil on it. I bring it home with me to read at my leisure. I imagine myself reading it in my backyard with the sun on my face and a glass of iced tea in my hand.