“Frances is gone. And he turned this fucking place upside down. But we’re safe now . . . I think.” This was my mother checking in from Green Acres, where she had hunkered down in her condo through the hurricane. “And you know me — I don’t flinch. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
At the time of the previous call from my mother, Frances’ eye was approaching the coast of Jupiter, Florida, a town a few miles north of where she lives. There was a garbled message on my voice mail, which sounded like an SOS transmission from a colony on Mars, just as it’s being overrun by howling cosmic shape shifters. Between the static was an ominous wind and a few intelligible words: . . . no power . . . trapped . . . phones dead . . . try Germaine’s number . . . 561 . . . what’s the rest? . . .
Germaine is a friend of my younger brother, David, a.k.a. Skrap. Skrap is David’s hip-hop handle, which, as an aspiring rapper, David must have. When Germaine is not working at the Olive Garden, he is Skrap’s producer/manager/accomplice, and he lives with Skrap and my mother in Green Acres. Before Frances’ full force arrived, the three of them stocked up on batteries, water and food, and they retrieved my mother’s long-unused Coleman camping stove from the closet.
“But we had no idea what we were in for,” she recounted after the storm was gone. “This thing was a monster.”
She described the carnage: flipped cars, uprooted trees, yachts tossed ashore, roofs torn from houses. “With my own eyes,” she said with the almost gleeful amazement of a witness to catastrophe, “I saw trees flying out of the goddamn ground, Joshuah. Right out my window. You know I don’t like to swear, but this was absolutely un-fucking-believable.”
Worse than the storm itself, says my mother, was the aftermath. The power was still out when she called, making refuge from the miasmic summer of southern Florida impossible. An underground economy quickly developed with ice as the pinnacular commodity. “People are fighting over ice!” she yelled into the phone. “I mean fist fights — right in the parking lots!”
“What are they doing with the ice?” I asked.
“It’s hot!” she cried.
“But the power’s out, so it will just melt in a few hours — right? Seems like ice would be a luxury item compared to food and just regular old water.”
“You don’t understand: WE NEED THAT ICE!” she cried. “Some of Germaine’s friends brought us ice from Naples in the back of their car” — such a trans-state delivery, I should point out, requires a three-hour drive — “and when they got to our parking lot, people were clamoring to buy the ice from them before they got it up the stairs. This morning, David went to the store and there were police guarding the ice. They have to keep the hordes away. They’re scalping it in some places — for 20 bucks a pound!”
It’s always surprising how easy it is to peer through the thin veneer of civilization and witness humanity’s intrinsic impulse to madness. Little glimpses appear here and there in daily life — the beer line at Coachella; the Barney’s Warehouse Sale; the Dutch tulip craze — but what my mother described was a direct preview of the mechanics of apocalypse.
Forty-eight hours after Frances was gone, the whole area was still under curfew. No power meant no television. The radio was broadcasting only emergency information: damage reports, shelter locations, food distribution points, and what few stores were open where you could buy things like . . . ice.
And fuel. Only a few gas stations were functioning, and the lines there were “absolutely un-fucking-believable.” The same was true, my mother said, at the grocery stores, where it was illegal to sell perishables because of the lack of refrigeration. “But I snuck out of there with some cream cheese,” my mother said. “Because I need to have my cream cheese.”
The FEMA food distribution sites, manned by the National Guard, were also taxed. Green Acres is in Palm Beach County, where FEMA brought in 200,000 pounds of ice, 120,000 bottles of water and 1,000 meals. “But they ran out fast,” my mother said. “And some of the relief trucks were hijacked anyway.”
“Yeah — there was a truck coming down to Palm Beach with those army meals and some water, and it was hijacked. Taken before it got here.” Thus had Frances created modern-day brigandry right in the middle of suburban Florida.
But it turned out my mother didn’t have to depend on the National Guard for food. Her neighbor, Jean, is one of those ladies who has an extra freezer stacked solid with meat, and, as my mother explained, “she had just filled it up before Frances hit with $250 worth of steak and everything. And I mean good stuff, not like your grandmother used to cheap out on. She had this beautiful rack of ribs in there, a nice veal, some pork chops . . . ”
With no power the meat would go to waste, so they decided to cook it all right then and there. As Frances still raged, my mom fired up the foot-wide, propane-powered Coleman. One neighbor brought over some vodka. Another brought bread. Skrap worked the grill, Jean lit candles, Germaine poured drinks, and the whole wing of her building proceeded to have a gourmet apocalyptic barbecue in my mother’s apartment. “It was a little weird,” my mother said. “But, why not? Everyone else was eating canned beans; but we threw a feast. When it seems like the end of the world is coming, you might as well live a little.”
The Swell Factor
The lanky girl with the wry smile raises a bulbous red glove as the Vegas-style MC booms: “In the blue corner, weighing in at one hundred and forty pounds and with a professional record of one win and no defeats, Suswella ‘The Swell Factor’ Roberts.” This is Hollywood Fight Night at the Henry Fonda Theater, a multi-bout event promoted by celebrity work-out guru Terry Claybon.
With the crowd restricted to one side of the ring, its other three sides are speckled with sometimes eccentrically attired managers and trainers, ring girls in barely existent bikinis, corner hands and hangers-on. In two corners are cable TV cameramen, one of whom sports Rastafarian-style headgear of Marge Simpson heights, effectively blocking the action from certain angles.
Between the brawling, ring girls strut with hand-Sharpied round cards and similarly (un)dressed dancers shimmy in the elevated alcoves flanking the ring. Unbeaten up-and-coming warriors face off against wily journeymen from all over the country, making a few hundred dollars for their efforts in front of a chiefly African-American and Latino crowd of undulating enthusiasm. A big screen behind the ring advertises Claybon’s keep-fit videos.
The previous afternoon a relaxed Suswella Roberts drapes herself into a deep sofa on the Fonda’s mezzanine. She speaks passionately, making unflinching eye contact. Though pretty and leggy with almost contagious charisma, she bemoans her lack of dates. “Guys say ‘I would never date her, because if things didn’t work out she’d beat me up.’” She doesn’t deny it.
The college-educated Roberts is a promoter’s dream: Vivacious and charming out of the ring, tomboyish and relentless in it, she’s permanently prepped to have her picture taken, her quotes recorded, to press the flesh and gently flirt. She’s a walking advertisement for her assertion that female boxers won’t remain undercard novelties for long. She works in a Hollywood convenience store to make ends meet.
Her fighter’s disposition revealed itself early: “It started at elementary school — I was a bit of a troubled child and they would isolate me, they’d put me in a room on my own . . . and being alone is just like being in the boxing ring: you’re alone, and really you’re not fighting your opponent, you’re fighting yourself.”
At her weigh-in, Roberts’ cartoon, lipsticked smile never wanes. She goes eye-to-eye with her opponent, a reserved, corn-rowed girl from San Jose called Danille Chirtensen, turning her body three-quarters on to the cameras, instinctively making herself shootable, saleable. But once she’s in the ring the following night, it’s all about fighting.
Chirtensen, making her debut, is overwhelmed by the rangy Roberts’ mechanical left/right barrage from the get-go. Bell-to-bell, Roberts — her normally electric ’fro tamed back, her gaze hole-boring — advances against her increasingly red-faced opponent. The crowd warms accordingly, a crescendo of appreciation building until Chirtensen (though almost propped up by Roberts’ blizzard of punches) is declared knocked out midway through the third of a scheduled four rounds. The music throbs, lights swivel, dancers gyrate, and Roberts is 2-0.
During the following bout, Darius Watson and Preston Tony Kenney prance purposefully around the ring for six rounds but barely touch one another. The crowd boos and then yells, “Bring back the girls!”
Gloomy Sunday Never Ends
The older Hungarian woman and her adult children ask me to snap their picture with the most famous person in the room, the young Hungarian actor Erika Marozsan. I’m waiting patiently for the crowd of well-wishing seniors (and a local film critic who’s peddling a script to Marozsan) to clear out of the lobby of Laemmle’s Music Hall — I’d like to get in two quick questions myself — so I really have nothing better to do than oblige the photo-op request.
Marozsan isn’t here for a movie premiere. Gloomy Sunday, the German-language romantic drama in which she stars, opened in 2003 to generally favorable reviews from U.S. critics and closed months ago in most of the major markets where it’s been shown. But the film is still going strong in its 46th week in Los Angeles. Marozsan has come to town to participate in several weekend Q&A sessions. And as with other events like this, the inquiries from this mostly packed house of the graying are less questions than they are opportunities to feel close to a movie star. No one, it seems, no matter what his or her age, is immune from the hypnotic power of celebrity, even a celebrity who’s a virtual unknown outside Eastern Europe. There are glowing moments of praise (“You’re not only beautiful, but a great actress!”), testimonials from repeat viewers (“It’s even better the third time!”), demands to have ambiguous plot points from the film explained, and — after the official questioning has ended — private queries spilling out in rushing torrents of Hungarian and bold requests to take the talent to dinner later.
The plot of the movie inspiring this minor-scale mania is a strange one: A beautiful young restaurant hostess in World War II–era Budapest named Ilona (Marozsan) falls into a ménage à trois with two men, one of whom happens to compose “Gloomy Sunday,” the legendary suicide-induction ballad. A third man, a Nazi, wants her too, and will go to great and treacherous lengths to sleep with her just once. As with most wartime movie romances, tragedy is right around the corner, not only due to Nazi domination, but also, the film asserts, from the relentless death-pull of the cursed song (played a stunning 13 times during the film’s 105 minutes). And without spoiling the ending, a certain amount of postwar wish fulfillment comes into play in a plot twist that left the audience applauding. In that way, the film functions like a morose Life Is Beautiful, if Roberto Benigni’s movie had included a three-way make-out scene.
The film’s box-office history is strange too. Hero notwithstanding, Los Angeles audiences usually aren’t on speaking terms with foreign-language films. If it’s saddled with subtitles, chances are a movie will do bigger box office in New York or San Francisco. An L.A. release may never materialize at all. A call to the Laemmle Theaters offices yielded an enthusiastic yet still mostly bottom-line response from Greg Laemmle, vice president of the family-owned chain of art houses. “The film never did sellout business,” he said, “but it was consistent, and it’s never really dropped off. Word of mouth keeps it going and going.”
In the theater lobby, Marozsan tries to sort it out for me. “It’s not fast,” she tells me. “Everything about it is slow. It’s a slow, beautiful movie about food and love and music, and it’s been given time and love from audiences.”
From the demeanor of the assembled, though, it’s clear that the whys aren’t that important. Where nationalism and nostalgia are involved, warm feelings tend to trump film analysis. To try to dissect this anomaly of a thoroughly old-fashioned movie about young, handsome people in love during the most traumatic moment of the 20th century is pointless. To feel is all that matters. That, and making sure to get a good photo for the Hungarian matriarch, who, before I snap the fourth picture, enthusiastically announces, “I take my children twice to see it!”