Exactly three weeks from today (Friday, that is to say), a long-bodied, tremendously empty moving truck will pull up in front of our house and a few strong people (most likely men) will step out, ring our doorbell, and get to work. When they're done, our life in Los Angeles will have evaporated, nothing left but wisps of cat fur in the corners, a few light fixtures, and some colorfully painted walls. So simple. You make a decision, you follow through, a place goes from tangible fact to memory.
Will I miss LA in the middle of February slush, wax nostalgic for my time in this hyperbolic desert mirage? I doubt I'll miss the overall of my daily life in this place, but inevitably, yes, there are places, things, and people I will miss. If there weren't, my life here would have been far too sad and solemn and utterly lacking in all things necessary to sustain life in any decent form.
Here are some I'll miss or at least remember fondly:
(click on "more" to read the list)
Mashti Malone, an Iranian ice cream parlor secreted in a scruffy Hollywood mini mall. Even lactose-intolerant me can find my bliss there, with the saffron pistachio nondairy ice cream and the fallludeh, a rosewater ice with threads of Ė not sure what, something mildly chewy Ė running through it. Dan loves the peanut butter chocolate ice cream and the strawberry cheesecake (yes, ice cream) and Damian is fond of the cookies and cream flavor.
Sushi Nozawa. The original sushi nazi. "Trust me" signs have been multiplying in the little storefront. That's how you get the freshest fish, if you trust Nozawa to make the decisions for you. So we tell Nozawa's wife, "Chef's choice, please" and get small plates of silky smooth raw fish. Baby tuna sashimi drowning in ponzu sauce, cold crabmeat wrapped up in a warm rice handroll, albacore marinated in mild vinegar. Butter on the tongue, over too soon.
Aidan's Place playground. Admittedly, Damian will miss it more than I will, but I do love the big sprawl of disability-friendly, playfully inventive play structures. When Damian was three years old and scared of heights, he ran up the ramp at Shane's Inspiration (Aidan's Place's sister site), able to gain altitude without ever realizing he'd left the ground. And I sat with him in the armchair-sized bucket swings, giving him that much-needed vestibular motion in the security of Mommy's lap. Now that he's seven and an occupational therapy whiz kid, he climbs to the top of the structure without pause, walks on the swaying mushroom pods while barely holding on, and invents his own scenarios in the shelter of the sand yard's castle.
Vroman's Bookstore. New York, last I remember, wasn't exactly a bookstore mecca. Not like Berkeley or Boston. Los Angeles is even worse, but it does have Vroman's, a gargantuan user friendly independent bookstore in Pasadena. Sometimes on a Sunday we drive east and north to Pasadena for the day, stop for brunch at Marston's (I like the salad with chicken and mandarin oranges and the bread pudding, Damian loves the blueberry pancakes, Dan likes everything) and then heading to Vroman's to wander the aisles and emerge hours later, dazed and carrying a heavy bag of new books.
Malibu Creek State Park. It's ironic, with all the easy-access hillside trails, all the untouched acreage in this huge city, but I donít much like hiking in Los Angeles. Dry scrub canyonland doesn't feed my soul. Malibu Creek is an exception, a taste of Northern California in the south. Tall, slim oak and sycamore trees, hidden pools and of course the creek. Butterflies, wavy marsh grass, a sense of peace.
Clementine Bakery. Oh, the yeasty apricot buns! Oh, the Moravian Sugar Bread, with its buttery sugary perfect mouthfeel goodness! Oh my yes. Wonder if they ship? Wonder if shipped baked goods get stale?
Apple Pan. A total dive with zero atmosphere. No, negative atmosphere. And yet the very name makes my mouth water and my tongue curl. A shack in West LA with lines out the door, people waiting against the wall for the privilege of sitting at the U-shaped counter on high stools to eat burgers wrapped in wax paper and dripping with barbecue sauce. They apparently serve a mean apple pie but I'm always too full after the burger and fries.
Ocean Avenue Seafood. Sit on the patio and look out across Ocean Avenue to the promenade and the ocean. Get a dozen oysters, Hama Hama or something exotic, doesn't matter. Briney, slippery, sometimes surprisingly sweet. Eat halibut wrapped in potato and prosciutto. Order chocolate bread pudding for dessert, walk through the restaurant and gaze at big fish tanks against the back wall. Head down to the promenade overlooking the Santa Monica bay and watch the sun set over the ocean. It's not that it's the best seafood restaurant ever (though it is good), but the ritual of it means something more than the sum of its parts.
The beach, up in Malibu, and the drive along PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). There are beaches on the east coast, I won't go without, but there's something about that blue and the near-white sand, the rocky hills jutting out of the water. Something about the Pacific Ocean on a warm winter day.
Cost Plus. Yes, I know. It's a Pier One type of chain store, so what? But I like their furniture. And I like that they have lots and lots of small rubber frogs for a certain young person who happens to be very fond of such creatures. I guess now we'll have to get our frog fix at the Museum of Natural History (they too sell small rubber frogs).
Bay Cities Deli. Of course, what I like about this place is how New York it is. And Jersey, in particular, is Italian food heaven. So I guess I won't miss it that much after all. But they do have good, crusty house-made bread and they do have a yummy avocado spread for their roast beef and they do have a heartburn-inducing intense meatball sandwich and they do have astonishing crowds surging forward to order lunch en masse.
The new Disney Hall. Frank Gehry gave downtown LA a bit more personality. Silverly sheen, curvilinear multifaceted geometric bits and pieces that jut up here and sweep around there, like a child's unexpected take on building a playhouse. Inside the lobby, soaring ceilings, tree trunk-like pillars branching out. And inside the auditorium, a cathedral of sound, hushed and clear, with a tall, majestic organ at the back of the stage. I like.
The drive up Laurel Canyon, up and over the Hollywood Hills into the Valley. Twisty turns, Moorish rooftops, rows of slim cypress. Fountain grass growing wild by the side of the road. Feels almost like Italy. Feels almost like somewhere I'd like to live. (Except for, you know, the lack of back yard space and the danger of landslides. And the fact that it's still LA.)
Bougainvillea. Didn't know the flowers were actually leaves. Didn't know it came in yellow and orange and pink, not just magenta. Didn't know it grew in such profusion, draping itself over walls and transforming the mundane with its extravagance.
The Hollywood Farmer's Market. Food, yes. Oh, yes. You can get great strawberries, peaches, English peas and white corn on the east coast. Maybe even better. But Fuerte avocados? Fuyu persimmons? Fresh navel oranges straight from the field in February? I'll also miss the sellers I've gotten to know and the sense of community I always feel there, albeit from the outside, as if people belong to clubs I've never known to join.
Santa Monica Seafood. The freshest fish. Glistening rows of fish. So fresh. Too far from our house. But worth the drive. (Mostly because everything closer sucks, but still. Is good.)
Dr. Jay. Damian's pediatrician. Funny and warm and respectful of a child's personhood. Also very good at the whole doctor part. And after our visit this week, Damian has begun trying vegetables. The man's worth his weight in gold.
Lazy afternoons in Tiny Coconut's peaceful terraced backyard. Talking, lolling, watching the kids, talking some more. Not enough of those, actually.
Lunch at Cheebo with my friend Michele. A regular ritual while Damian was in school this year. Meet at my house, walk up to Sunset to a small restaurant with bright orange walls and high ceilings and good food. And good conversation. At least at our table.
California Craftsman architecture. Like this very house. Also Spanish-style architecture. I got sick of it for a while but I'm over that. I like it. I'll probably even be nostalgic for it. (Not enough to come back, though.) I hate the low-slung boxy bland architecture on the main boulevards, yawn at the prevalence of ranch houses everywhere, but I do like the Craftsmans and the Spanish style houses. That I do.
There may be more. Maybe not. It's enough of a list to leave with. Enough to come back and visit, perhaps.
Yesterday I took Damian to the pediatrician. He's had a fever and cough since Saturday; we wanted to make sure he wasn't harboring an infection. But traffic was mindbendingly horrible: a twenty five minute drive took close to an hour. At three p.m. This, my friends, is what happens when an ever-growing city doesn't think ahead to create a strong mass transit infrastructure (or dismantles the one they have, a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was a colorfully clad rant about the death of the Red Car trolley system).
Anyway. As a result, I lost the appointment time and had to sit in an overstuffed chair in the waiting room reading a kiddie science magazine cover to cover as my sick boy snuggled in my lap and discussed volcanoes and magma with me. People came and went, those with check-ups and sick-kid appointments that they somehow managed to appear for at the allotted hour. This is a very desirable pediatrician, progressive and intelligent, with a warm way with kids and an embrace of the alternative but not the quack. (In fact, he was just written up in the LA Times.) I always feel like the poorest person in the waiting room when we go but it's kind of irrelevant. So what if everyone else lives in the Pacific Palisades and sends their kids to private school? He's a good doc and not a snob.
Anyway. A woman came in, elegant and lovely, beautifully put together, poised. She came with her teenaged daughter. I looked at her, then looked again. She looked so familiar, why? Oh, of course! I knew her in college, didn't I? Not well, we weren't in the same communities, but then I saw her last year at a classmate's reading. Yes, that was it. I remember being struck then by the sadness beneath the poise, the pain under the rich gloss. Yesterday at the doc's waiting room, I regretted my own state of, well, un-gloss (sick kid, y'know) and tried to catch her eye. Meaning: I kept glancing at her, hoping she'd remember me.
A minute or two went by. I thought maybe I could say something as she sat down. Tried to remember her name. Did. Along with her name, I got a clear image of her the last time I'd seen her.
Um. Not the same woman. Similar affect, but not the same. Why had I had that flash of recognition, then?
Duh. Because I did recognize her. From the MOVIES. I'd been spending the last five minutes staring fixedly at Renee Ru$$o.
When you live in and around Hollywood, one crucial thing you DO NOT EVER DO is make a celebrity feel overexposed. It's as uncouth as you can get. What did I do in that doc's waiting room? Yeah.
Boy do I feel like a dork.
It's not that I dislike Los Angeles, exactly. In fact, there have even been stretches of time Ė long stretches, though not recent ones Ė where I liked this city. Where I enjoyed the stark hills that cradle the sprawl, relished Santa Monica beach and the Venice boardwalk, adored shopping at the farmer's market for fresh fruit year round Ė outside! In shirt sleeves! In February!, and found the ubiquitous red tile roofs of the Moorish style houses charming and the equally ubiquitous profusion of bird of paradise, agave and lavender (Southwest desert meets Mediterranean seaside) appealing. I still do like all those things. I like aspects of Los Angeles. But, equal and opposite, I feel a desolation here. An unrelenting loneliness and sense of isolation. Is it the human condition in the post-modern world? Maybe so, but I think it's worse here. Anywhere on the West Coast, really, (US and Canada both) and probably in a number of western-edged states. To me, it's all about the automobile. This city Ė and much of the countryside around it Ė was built on the assumption of private, individual transportation. Therefore this second largest city in the US was built out rather than up. Relatively few high rises and a whole hell of a lot of sprawl. Yes, where I live we can walk to the store. But why would we? It's not that pretty a walk, and where it is, people aren't out on the sidewalk enjoying the view. There's no crush of humanity when you're all in your cars pulling into the valet station. There's just metal and exhaust and lots and lots of road.
Damian had a play date this afternoon, and as the kids played at being kitties and flying their frogs in Kid Knex rocket ships, his friend's mom and I were chatting. I told her of our plans to vacate this metropolis, vamoose, scram, get out of Dodge. She listened, nodded, contemplated. She asked how long we'd been here. I told her (seventeen years). She said, "And you've never really settled here." Yes. That's it exactly. It no longer feels alien to me, but it also doesn't have the pull of home. It doesn't feel like where I belong. It doesnít Ė or I don't Ė fit.
I can say a lot of negative things about this city's culture and social attitudes. I think some may not be wholly true, just as no sweeping stereotype can capture a mass of people. And in a way I'd like to explore that, if only because my next novel takes place here and I'd like to capture what exactly I feel about this surreal environment, this manmade oasis with its lure of glamour and success and the concurrent and necessary desperate hunger that leaches out of the creaky Yugos and leased Beemers alike as their owners look in the rear view mirror and primp for their next meeting, but also the reality of some very hardworking gardeners who pause and smile so sweetly at the toddler who wanders past to watch with such wide eyes and the reality of people who work well outside the prevailing industry and so haven't taken on the protective coloration therein, who are living their non-glamorous non-hungry lives alongside the confusion of Hollywood. I'd like to put it all down on paper in a way that doesn't fall into the usual clichťs, though they're hard to avoid because so many have a ring of truth, or is it that if you say them enough, they become reality? I don't know. Maybe I'll have more of a sense from a distance.
As I contemplate leaving, I also contemplate this city. What is the essence of a place? I find I'd like to understand. If I can. Before I leave, or maybe after. Because I am indeed ready to leave. To go back to a part of the world where I feel at home. But I'd also like to digest these past years, understand where and therefore to some extent who I was and have become.
I stopped at a light on Sunset Boulevard on this incredibly clear, crisp morning. Passing in front of me, heading up the perpendicular street to the foothills, a steady stream of cars. Blue, maroon, deep green, burnt to cindersÔŅĹ
What? Oh, yeah. That. Old model car, the big American type, black matte finish (ie: consistent with a burned out hulk), billowing a wide swath of smoke or steam behind it not unlike a child trailing a blanket on the floor except a whole lot more impressive.
Thing is, this car? Wasn't stopping. Wasn't trying to pull over to the side. Was just driving on. Oh, that smoke? Yeah, my car's on fire. But, y'know, got errands to run, places to go, can't stop now.
As the light changed and I hit the gas to incite my own combustion engine to action, I thought: maybe the driver doesnÔŅĹt know his car is a coalmobile complete with smokestack because he's DEAD. Places to go, errands to run, the treadmill of modern life, who has time to stop even if you're DEAD? Maybe the bones of his hands were fused on the steering wheel, the long bones in his foot permanently pressed on the accelerator, maybe he's now doomed to drive through eternity or at least until his gas tank dries up. Fitting, really. A quintessentially Los Angeles way to go. Drive till you die and then drive some more.
(Dan thinks the car had a bad oil leak. I prefer my explanation.)
It's been raining practically nonstop for weeks. More rain than I can remember outside the month of April. Who said Los Angeles was the land of sun? Is this a contract dispute with God? Is this Ė more prosaically and (horrifyingly) probably true Ė part of the bizarre weather that comes with holes in the ozone and other atrocities? Is this Mad King George's fault? (Isn't everything?)
It's very disconcerting when you've grown to expect cloudless skies. It feels much like a scene from Bladerunner. Damian was spooked by the lightning and thunder the other night; we don't have thunderstorms here. Who'll stop the rain? Will it ever stop? What will the kids do when they go back to school tomorrow? Schools here are built on the assumption that you can have your snacks and lunches outside on picnic tables, that you can go out for recess every day, that you can walk across the school grounds from your classroom-sized bungalow to the bathroom (not true for the kindergarteners, thankfully). Damian doesnít even have rain boots, and when we went to Target today to get some, they were of course cleaned out. Empty shelves with a few toddler-sized (doll-sized) singlets. No more boot shipments till next fall, sorry. You should have thought ahead, realized that this was the year of the deluge. We drown our sorrows at the world's woes and the city weeps with us.
This is not a city that allows for the possibility of rain, which is ironic because it rains harder here than anywhere I've ever lived. The rains come infrequently, usually just once or twice a year (February and April, generally), but when they do, the sky opens up and the water sluices down in streams for days on end. I remember a few years ago driving through a river on Santa Monica Boulevard, watching cars sink tire-deep into the rushing water, the splash on either side of each vehicle like the Red Sea parting. I don't think it's gotten that bad this time Ė the rain seems gentler Ė but I've been mostly staying warm in our cozy house, watching the cats sleep and wanting to curl up like them on cushions and comforters, to snooze the rain away.
At dinner the other night I was talking to a distant relative about our still-so-tentative plans to move to Toronto. Her comment? Move to Austin. There's a bourgeoning film community there, real estate is cheap compared to here, it's a hip town.
Well, yeah, but. First off, it's still in the US and part of the point of this move is the exodus from said country. Second, and more pertinent to this entry, it's in Texas. I do not want to live in Texas. If I don't feel a simpatico with California, what are the odds I'm going to feel one with a conservative state where people wear cowboy hats without irony? Where winters lack bite and summers scorch the inside of your mouth? I want seasons and I want camaraderie.
Iím sure Austin is indeed a good place to live, and this is not a slam on the town. At all. But I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a place compatible with a person Ė or is it vice versa? And though I donít have any conclusions, I do know that I don't want to live in a town that may be hip and fun and cool but where the surrounding countryside feels out of sync with me. It does matter. The first time we drove to the outskirts of LA, the first time we got out of the car somewhere on the long stretch of I-5 through farming country, and the first time we drove due east toward the desert, I felt so odd walking around in these small desert towns. Redneck country, or so it felt then. The truth is of course more complicated but nevertheless out of sync with me, a New Yorker, a city kid who wore her radical opinions on her sleeve and usually dressed all in black.
I asked my relative what it's like living in her small East Coast city. She shrugged and said she mostly socializes with people from her work community. And isn't that the way it always works? You develop a small circle of friends and acquaintances, building your own community in the larger setting. So why does it matter where you are? You can always do that, right? Especially in a large city. Lots of different kinds of people here. And it's true. As far as it goes.
But as I said to her then, the where matters in ways you might not expect. For instance, everyone here assumes I changed my last name when I got married. Even progressive women who didn't change theirs. Because nearly every woman does. At Damian's school they have the hardest time, not knowing whether to call me Mrs. V or Mrs. B. It never seems to cross their minds that I'm Ms. B. My own person, not labeled as Miss or Missus, not identified by marital status. It's like a time warp, I swear. If I were still in New York? I'll bet you anything everyone would assume I hadn't changed my last name. And nearly every woman here dyes her hair. It's a given. Not in New York, certainly not in Boston (my aunt has lovely gray hair), probably not in Toronto. But in Los Angeles, image conscious capital of the universe? You betcha. And here when I bring up our potential move, most everyone squirms and either changes the subject or talks about what a nice city Toronto is. And these are avowed liberals, people who probably feel dreadful about the political climate in this country. In New York, Laura tells me, they dive into the political rationale behind the move. Different cultures. Different styles.
Where you live does matter. The street, the neighborhood, the town, the state, the country. It permeates everything even when you think it doesn't.
My husband works as an editor on a well known dramatic series. It's a good gig, creative in the first cut, collaborative in the later passes when you sit with the director or producer and make changes. At least in theory. The reality can be different depending on the show. Some producers are nitpicking monsters who prefer their editors to be hands attached to tape recorders in lieu of brains. But Dan is lucky; the showrunner on this series is talented, intelligent, and reasonably willing to set his own ego aside and listen to his creative team.
After the producer's cut, though, it's time for studio and network notes. Usually delivered via speakerphone; editor present and accounted for. A few episodes ago, Dan was in the room listening to the executives give notes. When they got to a particular scene, they complimented the musical choice (an extremely apropos pop song). Kudos all around, everyone loved it. The showrunner commented that the editor fought hard for that song.
Silence on the other end.
Nobody Ė not one single executive Ė said "Good for him" or "Give him a raise" (ha) or the most natural of all, "Good call." Nobody acknowledged the showrunner's classy referral of credit. Why? Because if the showrunner chose the song, it was worthy of praise. If a lowly below-the-line editor made the call rather than a high-paid, high profile producer? Embarrassing to even mention. What a faux pas, oops, sorry we noticed.
I swear, when Dan told me, I wanted to march over to the network and slap them all down. This industry is one of the most horrendously hierarchical businesses I've ever witnessed. If you're not Somebody, you're dirt.
Bullshit. People are people, people are not great-fabulous-loved-your-last-movie kiss-kiss luv-ya call-ya or, on the other hand, dirt. People are people. I've met movie stars, I've met the people who empty their garbage. Sometimes I like the latter more than the former. People are people. This business, because of the aura of fame and fortune, the glory seeking Entertainment Tonight glitzy surface of it and the disgustingly enormous salaries of the folk at the top, because of all of that, it breeds contempt. But people are people. And the people on the other end of that phone line all deserve spankings. I don't believe in corporal punishment but I'll make an exception here. Nothing less will get through to them.
Late morning, pulling my car into the nearly full parking lot. Everyone heading to the Sunday morning Hollywood farmer's market?
Apparently yes. The market is full, people everywhere, weaving in between strollers and carts and kids and people with clipboards hawking free movie previews (welcome to LA, land of the rough cut) and asking for contributions to the ACLU, people with shopping carts, laden down with bags, people carrying huge pumpkins and armfuls of vegetables.
Welcome to the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The market ripe with palm-sized Fuyu persimmons, squat white winter squash with pale orange stripes, Fuji apples and bacon avocados. The buffalo meat lady is here, so is the Gouda guy and the goat cheese lady ("Goat cheese, yummy yummy goat cheese!"). So are the musicians: the atonal ancient Japanese muppet hunched over his guitar, the small lively jazz ensemble with the white-haired drummer sliding his brush over the snare drum, swish-boom. So are the flower merchants, selling the bright orange spikes of bird-of-paradise, the bouquets of sunflowers and tiny rosebuds, the sachets of lavender out on a table with the massive Rasta-haired lavender vendor singing his "Smell so good! Come and smell the lavender!" chant.
I love this market. I love the sweet bite of persimmon, I love the tart winter raspberry, I love the date sellers and the avocado lady (no avocados this week, she says, but next week the buttery Fuertes are back) (and her dark hair is now streaked and lush) and the tender hydroponic lettuce, sold by the tiny Japanese lady who has watched Damian grow from infant to toddler to long-legged child, who encouraged me to eat her (amazingly tender) Japanese spinach when I was pregnant and then nursing him.
I love this market, the rush of people, dark hair, light hair, pale skin, olive skin and earth-toned skin alike, the mess of it, people stopping along the way to say hi to friends, people talking and smiling and exclaiming, every single one, about how cold it is today, brr, even the little dog in the red wagon is shivering. (How cold? I check later in my car: 56 degrees. Mmm-hmm. Winter weather for Los Angeles.) Shivering and smiling, everyone, as I walk back to the car, I smile too, my sweatshirt zipped all the way up and my shopping cart filled with tiny sweet grapes and crisp Asian pears and blue-green feathery Russian kale and a five pound bag of yams for Thanksgiving dinner. Food for the week, food for my soul.
Today driving down a pretty tree lined street in Mar Vista (a neighborhood in West LA), we were struck by the reds amongst the green foliage, the brown leaves on still-lush lawns. It was warm today, a change from the we've had. Today was a sunny California day, this week felt more like sweater weather, more like East Coast October. Drizzly gray days, turn the heat on in the morning, pile under the downy comforter at night, dig out your sweaters and your jackets and let the rain kink your hair and kiss your face. With the car windows closed today, that street in Mar Vista turning red and brown, we could have been anywhere but here. We could have been in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts. We could have been home.
Yes. Home, still, after all these years, is there rather than here. Here is where we live. Home is where we feel most comfortable, that sense of rightness, where outside matches interior landscape, where the people sound right and where we can find far more like-minded souls per square foot than we ever could in this Land of Sun. But I've talked about all this before. What I haven't talked about is this:
What would happen if we moved back tomorrow? What would it be like if we found a comfortable Colonial style house across the river from downtown Manhattan, a short train ride from Penn Station and a local phone call to so many of our friends? Part of me thinks it would be fantastic, that I'd fit right back into that world. We'd go down to my mother's family's house in Delaware each summer. Head to the Berkshires for fall foliage and stay at Dan's aunt's cabin there. Go for Thanksgiving dinner in Boston every year at my aunt's house. Drop off Damian with Dan's parents across the state line at least once a month so we could have a cozy dinner in a local restaurant. Not to mention Passover seders with close friends and undoubtedly many weekend days wandering around old haunts (and new ones) in the city, or should I say the City, as all good tri-state area residents do.
Sounds idyllic. I want to dive into the screen and make that my new reality. But even if we could afford it, even if Dan could find reliably steady (and satisfying) work there in film editing and I could, well, start to make money too, even then, would it work? What would it be like, really and truly, to move three thousand miles in our forties, with a child in tow? I don't know and the idea gives me pause. The climate would of course be a shock. The first winter I'm sure I'd curse my decision daily as I stamp around and try to recover from incipient frostbite and the first summer, too, drenched in sweat, wondering what on earth made me move to that hellish mosquito-infested jungle-wet-hot land. But other things too. Finding new dentists and mechanics and favorite restaurants and libraries and local produce and, yes, missing friends and colleagues and also the depth of knowledge of the place, the roads and the flow of life.
It's one thing to move when you're in your 20's and god knows, that was hard enough. Terribly hard. I was in a deep depression for over a year, lost and lonely here. It seems on the surface like it would be simple to move back but Iím not so sure it is. I'm not a California native and I may never be one but I've tentatively, gradually grown roots in this sandy soil. And it might hurt to pull me up. Would I transplant well? Who knows? Am I after all an Angelino now? Or am I this hybrid, half New Yorker and half sunbaked Californian? And will I ever have the chance to try and re-acclimate? If I had that chance, would I take it? I think I would, but in truth I don't know. I just don't know. And that thought is odd. So very odd.
At Tiny Coconut's house this weekend, a group of us got into a conversation about Prop 13. This is the 1978 proposition that California voters passed into law, rolling back property taxes to 1% of a house's value with a small (2%) increase every year. This way your tax rate is more or less locked in when you buy your house and it makes no difference what the home's current market value might be. Conventional liberal wisdom on this is that it's a very bad thing because it drastically cut California's revenue and has had a ripple effect on services, education, etc. That's what I always heard, what I always believed.
But now? Well. A modest Ė not fancy, not huge, not anything much special Ė house in a decent LA neighborhood costs a million dollars, right? The little old lady who lives across the street from that not-a-mansion is probably living on a fixed ungenerous pension. If she suddenly had to fork over one percent of her house's current value, ie: $10,000 a year in property tax, she'd be royally screwed. And what if her house is worth more than that?
One day while my mom was here, we wandered into an open house near Damian's school. Nice house, pleasant neighborhood. Not especially large and not in Beverly Hills or Bel Air, not Brentwood nor Malibu. How much did they want for it? $1,450,000. Yeah. And you know what? I think it's already been sold. For that price, maybe higher. Who knows, maybe there was a bidding war. Property tax on that sucker comes to $15K. A year. All the people who live on that block, people who moved in ten years ago when prices were sane or thirty years ago when they were even saner and this wasn't such a hot neighborhood (though by definition any neighborhood on LA's Westside is hot), they probably pay more like $2k a year. Or 1K. Or $500. Some of them can certainly afford to fork out more. And maybe they should. Because to have that tax amount fixed, in defiance of inflation and higher costs and runaway deficits, that's not such a good idea. It affects our schools and roads and police forces and parks and intervention programs, which are all clearly suffering. But if you were to send everyone a tax bill commensurate with the current value of their homes? You'd see a solid row of foreclosure signs on that block.
It's a terrible conundrum. One that affects me personally. Because our house has more than doubled in value since we moved in. I'm sure I've mentioned this before. It took about two and a half years to double, I think. And since we didn't buy quite soon enough for our pocketbooks, our tax bill is already hefty. I have to breathe deep and bite my lip every time I write the biannual check. But we want to move, right? If we sell our place and move laterally, ie: move to a house with an equivalent value, we'll instantly be paying several thousand dollars more per year for our trouble. Even if we downsize, we're looking at a few thousand dollars more a year. And if we somehow scrape together a larger downpayment and want to move up a bracket? More tax. Big tax. Closing in on five digit numbers. For a modest house in a modest neighborhood. Are we stuck here, trapped by Prop 13? For now, yes. Until we (I) have more income or prices plummet.
I doubt anyone in the 70's imagined that million dollar houses would become the norm around here. And if they did, they might not have taken the leap and imagined that people might not want to stay put in their starter homes forever but still might not actually BE millionaires themselves. I doubt anyone's going to repeal Prop 13 tomorrow, but if they did and instead instituted a more reasonable tax, say a tenth of a percent of your house's current value, that would still line their coffers more and would eliminate that wallop of a surcharge we all face for wanting to move.
Today I saw a strange car parked in my driveway. This happens occasionally in this very urban neighborhood. It seems like it's been happening more lately. I did what I always do, I went outside to ask them to move. Some people might not bother, but some people don't live around here. We have to assert our dominion over every inch of our space or our neighbors will trample over our rights. If you have, say, a floor time therapist coming by who needs a parking spot and it's filled with some strange dude's car, that's very uncool.
Besides, it's ours. Simple as that.
Anyway. I went outside this morning to chase the strange car away. One man Ė young, black, hooded Ė sat in the passenger seat. Another stood leaning against the car. Handsome. Indeterminate race, though certainly not white. Mixed race, probably. I had no opinion about either of them except they A) seemed young and B) shouldn't be cluttering up my driveway.
"Would you please get out of my driveway?" Polite tone but pitched loud enough to carry across my front yard.
The standing man let me have it. A torrent of words. An excerpt: "We're not drug dealers, I've lived on this block Ė just up there Ė" (pointing to an apartment building up the block) "for eight years. You should ask nicely, not just chase us away like that."
"I did ask nicely. I said please get out of my driveway."
"No, you should say 'Please move your car.' Don't assume anything about me like that. You should treat me better than that."
By this time he was in the car, window rolled up, pulling out of my driveway. Not interested in my response, not in the least. Satisfied with his own hissy fit and not wanting to hear anything that might contradict it.
I found myself bemused more than anything. When I chase the ubiquitous Russians out of our driveway, they nearly always respond with peevishness too, but it's more of the "I have every right to squat wherever I want" sort. "I was only here for a minute" (when I know it's been half an hour), "I was getting these things to my aging mother" (maybe so, but there's a spot on the street over there) and so on. Self-justifications, an assumption that I should let them off the hook, that rules don't matter. And the stately African woman who lives next door is always super nice when she's caught. Very apologetic, says very sweet things about Damian, understands completely. Won't stop her from doing it again, but she's a pleasure to talk to.
This guy, though. He has a chip on his shoulder the size of South Central LA. He immediately assumed I was reacting to his skin color and making racist generalizations from that. And didn't let me explain that I'm an equal opportunity bulldog. Just raced off down the street, Iím sure complaining to his companion about the haughty white bitch who chased them away because she thought they were dealing drugs in her driveway. (Never would have occurred to me. This is not a druggie strip. Musician central, yes. Ancient Russian Crone central, yes. Drug Capitol of Hollywood? Not even remotely.)
I find it all fascinating. The way you react when you've done something wrong says volumes about you as a person, your beliefs, your attitude about life and ultimately about yourself. Who'd've thunk?
We went to The Grove yesterday to pick up my now-fixed computer at the Apple Store. (Which now has a new sound board and a new i/o something or other, take that, silly AppleCare dudes who thought I could just zap the firmware and fix the problem.) My mom came too, fresh off the plane from Nova Scotia via San Francisco. The Grove is a relatively new mall and somehow we'd never brought her there. I think she liked it. And why not? What's not to like? It's a carefully designed outdoor space with a grassy center park much like a town square, a circular dancing fountain a la the Bellagio in Vegas, a picturesque double-decker trolley that trundles through every few minutes, and shop facades designed to look like a small California town's homey architecture. A small town in a big city. Main Street USA, but calculated down to its cobblestones and streetlights.
When it opened, I loved it and hated myself for loving it. Twenty years ago? I would have laughed at the absurdity of this enclosed faux community filled with national chains like Crate & Barrel and Victoria's Secret and nothing else. It may put on airs but it's an ordinary mall in fancy dress. Just like the enormous Vegas hotel casinos that create cities inside their doors, ancient Rome, Venice and Cairo, an art deco New York, but beneath their intriguing production designed surface, they're just buildings with slot machines, baccarat tables and adjacent tourist trap shops.
The fact that I loved The Grove Ė and, honestly, still love it Ė means I've been in Los Angeles too long. This is a city without a center. It's got a lot of character but it sprawls so much, as if someone took all the tall buildings, shook them up and spread them out along the major boulevards, that it's impossible to walk around and soak up the flavor. You have to drive to the flavor, stroll along half a dozen streets, get back in your car and drive somewhere else. So a mall that encapsulates a community, no matter how manufactured that community may be, feels fresh and new and needed. People jam onto the main "streets" of this "town." A band plays on the "town square." We throw pennies in the fountain and watch the goldfish grow ever bigger. We enjoy this environment even though it's not the one we truly want. It's main street Disney-style and yet it works. And so every single time I go, I both love and hate it. I wish for a real walking city, one with architecture that holds history and truth and messiness and graffiti and shops that don't have to be pre-approved by Management. But this is the city where we live and this is the compromise we make.
And you know? When I watch a woman shake her hips to the band's music on a balmy night, when I watch a child peering over the bridge rail into the dark water below in utter fascination, when Damian pulls me by the hand, "Come see the dog, Mommy!" and I look at the miniature pup sitting patiently by a genial woman resting on a bench, when I go to The Grove and live it instead of contemplating it from a distance, I realize: sometimes the environment is not all. It's a fun backdrop, pleasant scenery, an excuse to gather. What people bring to the place is not ersatz, never manufactured. And ultimately that's why I love it there.
I was chatting with Tiny Coconut yesterday, and we started talking about the immense and absurd age bias in the film industry. She wondered why it exists. I wonder too. I have some thoughts, but no answers.
Partly, I think, it's a young industry because the conventional wisdom for the past few decades is that young people go to the movies. Who knows what a twentysomething will pay money to watch? Another twentysomething. False reasoning, of course. But pervasive.
Partly, too, actors have expiration dates. Past a certain age and they're relegated to playing the mom or the kindly neighbor. Well, okay, more true for women than men, but nevertheless, this is a town seeking new blood. Constantly. Vampires on the prowl, looking for fresh flesh to devour.
And partly as the people in power get younger and younger (see above), they're most comfortable with their compadres. I remember taking a meeting with a development executive at a high powered production company. Somehow we ended up talking about college. She seemed to assume I too had just graduated. I went along with it but I felt a little dirty afterwards. I suspect if a grizzled older man walked into her office, she would have squirmed right off her chair and cut the meeting short. Who gets the jobs, then? The one who can schmooze about keggers and the latest hot band or the one who has kids in college but who knows her way around the three act structure and then some?
It's a screwed up system, of course it is. We learn as we get older, we learn from experience, the school of hard knocks, whatever. We have more chops and more to say. If you toss all that out the window because you're scared of a few gray hairs? Well, it's no surprise movies have gotten so bad.
The other day we were in the trendy part of Santa Monica. Now, one could argue that all of Santa Monica is in fact trendy and one would be right but this is a particularly trendy stretch, with boutiques and restaurants and a larger percentage of pretty people per cubic yard than in, say, Culver City.
At any rate, we were there, heading to dinner and enjoying the late afternoon sea breeze, when we spotted a photographer with a huge lens on his camera. He was rushing, crouching, rushing again. A gaggle of people stood and watched, then hurried to catch up.
The prey in his sights appeared to be an attractive couple walking across the street. They nuzzled and smiled at each other, then meandered to a car in a nearby parking lot. The photographer rushed after them.
A commercial or fashion photo shoot? Didnít look like it. Iíve seen those. Theyíre much less, well, rushed. Okay, a paparazzi stalking a celebrity? Thatís more like it. But who the hell was the celebrity?
I asked one of the gaggle. He shrugged, ďSome musician.Ē And yet somehow he also knew this musicianís name. I canít remember it right now, Keith or Kevin something-beginning-with-a-B. We shrugged and walked on. Iím not exactly a pop culture maven, but I usually recognize names big enough to attract photographers as they stroll down the street. Not to mention that I've seen very big stars indeed with no entourage and no cameras pointing at them.
A few minutes later, we were a few blocks further toward our personal target, a seafood restaurant with a glimpse of ocean. The pretty couple walked across the street, still arm in arm. This time a new photographer had picked up the chase. Guess they didnít get into that car after all. The winsome twosome walked as if they were in a commercial after all, and Dan and I came to the same conclusion: they were.
I believe this musician is no celebrity. Heís trying to gain attention by making people believe he is one. By paying photographers to act like paparazzi and rounding up a group of buddies to act like they know who he is.
Itís such an LA phenomenon. Image above all. Fashion yourself as the image you want to present and maybe you can manufacture the fame you crave.
I admit, I learned to drive as a young adult so I'm not quite as fearless as some. I have certainly gotten more adept at juggling juice bottles, iPod wires, and a steering wheel at the same time, but somehow I don't think I'll ever be quite this relaxed while driving down a congested city street:
(Yes, that car was in motion. As were we. After a while she tucked her foot inside -- just barely inside -- the window frame. The foot remained elevated and she read the paper at every millisecond pause in the stop-and-go traffic. I watched for a while, fascinated.)
Los Angeles is like New York City in that itís got the largest Korean population outside of Seoul, the largest Jamaican population outside of Kingston and so on. (I made those up, by the way, so donít fact-check me, okay?) It doesnít surprise me to come across ethnic enclaves all over this smoggy sprawl of a metropolis, anything from Ethiopian to Cambodian, but one enclave still does surprise me. The Brits love Santa Monica. I donít know why, exactly. Maybe the slight fog in the morning reminds them of home. Maybe they just like it. Maybe they came over early enough to afford the now-astronomical housing. But theyíre there. And so are the pubs and tea shoppes and ah yes, Ye Olde Kingís Head restaurant. The finest fish and chips in the city, maybe the country. Equal to some of the best I tasted when I was in England. Light, flaky crust, nicely cooked fish. Dense, meaty fries with a nice crisp to the edges. And the shepherdís pie is fluffy and yummy and the bangers and mash, well, I havenít had that, but I just love the way it sounds. And the desserts are all drenched with Birdís Custard and have names like sherry trifle and sticky toffee pudding (dark and caramelly and delicious). And the waitresses accents are so strong you might think theyíre making it up only theyíre not and the people in the booth next to yours have lighter but equally authentic accents and the dark wood all around you with antlers on the wall and ads for Guinness and Black and Tan and so many photos of celebrities hanging out in the restaurant looking drunk and shooting darts at the bar, it all feels so transporting you canít believe it when you walk outside and smell the salt air and feel the last late evening kiss of California sun on your cheeks and look up to the clear cloudless sky and see palm trees dancing in the wind. Palm trees and Cornish pasties. Why not?
Dan found a notice at our door today. Apparently they're shooting a movie around the corner this week. They did last week too. Different movie, though. This one stars Sandra Bullock.
This is how I know I've been in LA too long. My response to the note each time was, "Oh man. Big trucks lining our block. Hope they're not here too long."
Will I crane my neck as I drive by? Probably, yeah. Will I walk up the block to watch the "walk and talk" exterior scene? Probably not. Watching a shoot is interesting... for about five minutes. It's more interesting if you're doing something on set. Otherwise, well, lots of waiting around. A little action. Then more identical action. And then again, only this time from a different angle, necessitating lighting changes. Men and occasionally women moving huge light stand around, putting up scrims and gels. Then the same exact action all over again. Send me a postcard, tell me when the movie's in the theater.
So yeah. Big white trucks lining both sides of our street, making it hard to get past. Cops stationed at the perimeter. Intermittent traffic blockages. Blindingly bright lights at night. Coffee cups in our driveway. A film shoot coming here. Glamour? Just life in action. Slow motion action.
On the other hand, it's fun to go to the movies and spot familiar landmarks. In An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh barfed into a trash can around the corner from where I grew up and I grinned at the scenery. In The Player, Tim Robbins had lunch in the Fox commissary and I grinned at the extra who was my next door neighbor and the studio lot I called home for a year. Glimpses of my tangible reality on celluloid. That part is very cool, like a snapshot writ large, real life turned into the background for fiction.
I just don't like the coffee-cups-in-the-driveway part.
Hovering near 100 again today. Give us a break, neophyte weather god with your too-heavy hand on the "hot" button! If this is what you trot out at the beginning of May, what will you have left for August?
This afternoon as we were strolling through The Grove, LA's Vegas impersonation in the form of an outdoor mall, Dan said "Did you see?" and I thought he was referring to some celebrity or other passing by. This being LA, I didn't really care to look. I spot minor and major celebrities everywhere: in movie theaters, bookstores, grocery stores, at preschool with their toddlers. Hardly worth turning my head in the heat to watch another larger than life face become normal sized. But I was wrong. Turns out Dan had just watched a G5 walk by. Now that I would like to have seen. An ambulatory computer.
(Apple Store at The Grove. Possible person holding said computer. Simple explanation. But I prefer the other image better. Sexy computers walking among us.)
If you donít look forward to something, it always turns out to be enjoyable after all. (Well, except for dental work.) Itís like Murphyís Law in reverse.
So yes, the party was fun. It was fun to watch the younger cast members enjoying their bits of limelight, mostly with refreshingly little affectation. It was fun to sit with the post-production folk and hear about their world which used to be my world. It was fun to talk to a guy who shared some former employers with me, to trade gossip and snide comments about these ghosts from my past. It was fun to watch the gag reel and hear the crew guffaw at their lives onscreen. It was fun to meet the show runner, an extremely talented man, and tweak him just a little. It was almost fun to meet the show creator, except that I forgot to say how much I love the show. Um, oops. Next time?
But really three encounters made the evening for me. Each in different ways, but ultimately all in the same way. First Dan and I made our way to one of the stars of the show, someone whose work as an actor Iíve admired for a long time. Heís gone on record as the father of a high functioning autistic child. Naturally, that made us want to talk to him, to touch base, acknowledge that other part of our life. And so we did. He responded warmly and appropriately. Very present in the conversation. And that felt good, that reminder that even in this shallow, self-involved world, some people are solid and real.
(If this paragraph makes you want to run to Google and figure out who and what show Iím talking about, email me instead. Iíll tell you.)
As we threaded through the crowd a bit later, Dan nudged me. ďThereís someone over there you know.Ē I looked. It took me a moment. But yes. And oh. And we went over. It took her a moment too, until she got that click. Itís been a while. More than a decade ago, I was an assistant editor on a show Iíd loved since it premiered. It was a good experience, partly due to this woman, a director/producer on the show, who treated me with respect. She has a knack for cutting through the chitchat and really talking. I loved seeing her again in that place, a reminder that Iím not so far removed from this world after all. We talked about working so hard together the day after Christmas that year, fixing a just-fired editorís mistakes. I was her hands, hers and the directorís, and I learned so much that week, seeing the editorís disastrous mistakes and then seeing how these two brilliant former editors fixed those mistakes. She said what Iíd done was a mitzvah, but I remember feeling lucky.
When she asked what Iíve been up to, I said something I almost never say, because it makes me feel like Iím admitting to being a second class citizen or, worse, living some retro-fifties antifeminist life. But this time I went ahead and said it: ďIíve been staying home with my son.Ē She beamed. She told me that was great and that was important and that was a gift to my child. It was clear she meant it and also that she understood itís not a forever thing, this mom at home business. And we talked a bit about children and the teen years (her children at the moment) and I ended up telling her about Damianís diagnosis and his progress, which I hadnít intended to but felt right, and she gave me a hug.
The third encounter was less profound, maybe, but still had an impact on me. Remember when I visited Dan in the cutting room a while back? When I saw the star of a show I once worked on? And decided not to say hello? Well, this time I did. Went over, introduced myself and my subterranean relationship to him on that series. And you know what? He was nice. A little chatty, even. We talked a bit about that show and the producers and then segued intoÖ our children. Being parents. In this case, the decision to have only one and the odd pressure to have more.
Yep. Once again. Children, the common bond. And I didnít need to Be Someone. Just to be.
That, to me, was the lesson of the evening. I used to want to impress. Hell, Iíd still prefer that. Iím human, after all. (And a Capricorn.) And maybe someday I will impress with my latest book sale or what have you. But what Iím learning is that sometimes nobody cares about that stuff, nobody but you. And if you stop caring about your lack of resume, you can just be who you are and that really truly can be okay. Even in Hollywood, land of the status symbol. If youíre comfortable in who you are, it shows and others will be too.
Though apparently it helps if youíre a parent.
When Damian got home tonight, he ran up to me with a big grin and told me he wanted to go out to eat. He wanted to go to his favorite restaurant and it begins with a C. It also has a P and the last letter sounds like ďkkkĒ but isnít C. Itís K. So we went to California Pizza Kitchen. What can you do when a child smiles at you so winningly?
As we walked to our booth, I saw something strange: a man and a woman sitting across from each other, both talking on their cell phones instead of to each other. ďHow LA,Ē I thought, and slipped into the booth next to theirs. Where I shamelessly eavesdropped.
The manís voice was penetrating, it wasnít hard to hear most of his conversation. He was talking about someone having an MRI, about tests and diagnoses and prognoses as yet unknown. Thatís when I understood the womanís haggard face, the way they spoke, not to each other, but each into their phone, their lifeline, their way to communicate to the people who needed to know. Iím guessing that these two werenít close, that they were brought together by this crisis and their mutual feelings for the person in trouble.
It was a baby. He was talking about a newborn baby. The mom was spending her days back and forth between the hospital and the hotel across the street where she would catch a few moments of sleep. ďDonít try to stop a lactating woman!Ē the man said on the phone.
I remember photographs of Damianís cousin, born just two months after him but so fragile, with a damaged heart and lung. The only photos we saw were of him in the NICU crib, tubes running from every limb. Big eyes, tiny baby. He didnít survive, though they tried everything. At the time, with a little one of my own, I felt almost guilty but so grateful for his health and vigor, for his coos and cries.
And this baby, the one I heard about tonight, is in the very hospital where Damian was born. His birth was precarious, dangerous. Horrible, if you want to know. I havenít talked about it here. Even after nearly six years, itís still too raw. We were so lucky that he was healthy, that he had no meconium in his lungs, and that his heart was beating regularly after the stress of that birth. I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about it. Imagining life in the NICU for that unknown baby and his family.
The oddest thing, though, was the man in that booth. As Dan commented, the guy seemed relaxed. He had a healthy appetite. I think he was the father, Iím pretty sure he was. The way he talked, about the money issues involved with the hospital stay (ďMoneyís not important at a time like thisĒ) and about the mom, it sure seemed like it. But he was far more detached than I could have been or Dan could have been. I make no judgments. I know everyone responds differently to intense stress. It could be that heíll fall apart six months from now. It was just a singular moment, a glimpse into someone elseís crisis. You canít help imposing your own feelings onto them, like a mirrored reflection of your mental state and your memories. But though we can overhear all we want, we know nothing of the reality in the next booth.
I read this article in the LA Times today and immediately got depressed. Well, more depressed. Yesterdayís bill-paying stint led to last nightís entry. This, however, sucks more. Not that itís exactly news. Middle class families cannot buy houses in our local real estate market. For example:
Kristin and Jayce Murphy, after looking for a year and bidding on four homes, have decided to stay in their Fairfax area rental and wait it out.
The coupleís household income of about $100,000 annually is too high for them to receive FHA help but not high enough for them to buy a satisfactory home at today's prices. Their decision to give up came after realizing they were putting offers on homes they felt were subpar.
"We were really settling," said Kristin Murphy, 38, nonprofit project manager at KCRW-FM. "We would say to ourselves, 'Gee that house is only $350,000 for 700 square feet and one bedroom and one bath.' "
Such luxury, huh?
It's insane. Houses are getting ten, twenty, even thirty bids the second they hit the market. Buyers canít complain about basic problems, like cracks in the foundation or they'll lose the house. And the only buyers who are winning this race are the ones who can plunk down hard cash with no contingencies, which means if you already own a house you have to sell it before you even look for a new one, which is an enormous gamble because the housing prices are going up 25% per year. And with so few houses on the market, it can take a long time to find the right one. At which point the selfsame house is worth more but your down payment is the same because you already sold your place. Which means youíre priced out of the market because you sold your house so you could get into the market. A real catch 22, no? Starter homes, according to this article Ė and I would concur based on my own research Ė will cost you $700K to 800K, and thatís today. Next year? $900K to a cool million if this keeps up.
Conventional wisdom says wait until the market cools down because it always does. But thereís no reason to think this is a bubble. There are more people immigrating to California every year (definitely including this gridlocked city), and how can you build new houses without tearing down buildings? You canít. So itís a simple equation. A flood of buyers, too few houses available, prices go up. And up. And up.
All of which should be fine with me. I mean, we own our house. And thank god for that. We bought it three years ago, in the proverbial nick of time. As it was, we had to compromise. If weíd waited another year, we couldnít have found a compromise we could live with. Three years later, our humble house wedged between ugly-ass apartment buildings in an up-and-coming but convenient neighborhood with nearby restaurants and malls and such? Has doubled in value. In three years. What kind of investment does that? But we canít cash out because we still have to live in this city. When we bought the place, we expected to stay here, oh, three years and then move on. Well, guess what? We canít move on. Because the market is so insane, weíd need an extra hundred thou or maybe two or we end up with something thatís an equal compromise. Another starter home. And whatís the point of that?
So Iím looking around me tonight and liking my house. Itís not everything we want. Well, the neighbors arenít everything weíd want. The house, though smallish, is awfully pretty. And thereís a Whole Foods nearby. And oh, hell, itís not that bad. Could be worse. Itís justÖ itís a good first house. I donít want it to also be a last house. Not unless we buy land somewhere better and put the house on a truck, cart it to a more desirable block. And weíd have to be able to afford the land. Not gonna happen, not unless something changes.
But thatís just me and us and our myopic view of the world. The bigger picture is worse. I realize that home owning isnít the be-all and end-all, and I have plenty of friends who donít own. Hell, I grew up in a rambling, sunny rent controlled apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and nobody owned back then. But itís very difficult to create a nest egg without property of your own. With a house, youíre paying in every year for thirty years and then youíre done and you have a place to live as you grow old or you can cash out and have a real source of income for your last years (my grandmother did this and itís supporting her in a nursing home right now). Itís a security blanket. Itís a safety net. Itís your house.
Itís bad enough that working class folk canít do this. Now middle class folk canít. You rent, you have nothing. When a hundred thousand a year isnít a big enough income to buy more than a closet, thereís something seriously wrong. Worse, when the housing prices go up and up like this, rental prices follow suit. If youíre not lucky enough to have rent control, you might be priced out of your own home in a few years. Thatís scary. The gap between rich and poor is now a gap between rich and middle class. Itís a strange world. A mad, sad, bad world.
Want to know what the Academy Awards show means to me? It means Sunset Boulevard was a parking lot this morning when I left the house heading to the farmerís market. I had to duck down side streets and even those were jammed. It means cops were out in force, traffic cones everywhere.
It means when I walked from the farmerís market with my cart full of produce, I passed not one but three tow trucks on the block between Ivar and Vine. Is the Kodak theater there? Not at all, itís a good dozen blocks away at Highland. But apparently on Oscar day, you canít park on Sunset. Period. End of story. Die if you try. Or at least pay big bucks to get your car out of hock.
Oscar Day also means periodic sweeps of helicopters overhead, strafing the neighborhood with their sudden bursts of sound. An odd sort of war zone. A war of images and glamour. And it means traffic through West Hollywood in the early evening is like a weekday rush hour, which makes no sense (we were a few miles from Ground Zero there) until you pass a restaurant on a side street with a white tent engulfing its front patio and a limo out front Ė and absolute gridlock down that narrow street. Oscar parties. Ah yes. Glitz, smiles, and the constant lightning strikes of camera flashbulbs. We turned onto a residential street for the rest of our journey, bypassing the official party trail.
On a different note, Oscar night means walking into a restaurant thatís normally a minimum of a half hour wait for tables and being seated Ė immediately? Oscar night means no traffic at all heading home. Everyoneís at their viewing parties, the after parties have yet to begin. The town is ghostly, everyone glued to the flickering light of their TV screens, jeering and shouting and quipping and clapping. Except for the few hundred in the theater up there on Hollywood Boulevard, a mere mile from here.
Know how Iíll know what time the show ends? When the copters come back overhead. Right now they're still quiet.
Oh, the awards themselves? I think Tim Robbins totally deserved the best supporting actor award. His performance was perfectly pitched. In a role that could have easily been histrionic and horrid, he was raw yet understated and wasnít afraid to let himself be both pathetic and frightening. Wonderful, wonderful acting. Sean Penn, on the other hand, was too one note in this. I guess his award was cumulative, though, and I can get behind that. Havenít seen the other Oscar bait movies yet. Will comment after I do.
Also? Did any of you TiVO the show? I forgot to set it up beforehand; weíre missing the first half hour including Billy Crystalís opening monologue. Iím not happy. If anyone can send me a tape, Iíd love you forever.
Sometimes when it rains in Los Angeles, not a wild downpour like someone dumped a ton of water from some storm drain in the sky, not like the fierce rains of spring, but a milder, gentler spattering of misty drops, sometimes when the streets are so wet they shimmer and the clouds rest on the hilltops like pillows on dark green beds and the palm trees are hidden in the mist, on days like that I relish the rain. The clean, sweet air, the way the tip of my nose gets wet, even the way I shiver in my leather jacket. Watching Damian trot ahead down a deserted park path, his little blue umbrella cocked at an angle over his hooded head, his thick socks showing with every step, yes, that too.
Sometimes when it rains in Los Angeles itís almost like we live somewhere else for this small snippet of time. Somewhere with drama in the swirling clouds, with cold that sweeps through you, with weather worth comment. After all these years in Southern California, this is almost like playing pretend, like stepping onto a movie set: cue the rain machine, cue the wet and cold.
Sometimes when it rains in Los Angeles, I sit in a cozy bungalow of a brunch place and look out the curtained window, watching the steam swirl up from a Styrofoam cup of coffee outside on the porch rail. I imagine the sensation of that liquid sliding down my throat, chill outside and curling warmth in my belly. Sometimes I sit inside on a cloud-filled day and watch the incessant pattering rain wilt the flowerbeds and oh, sometimes I like my world.
Something odd happened today. I went to Danís cutting room to pick Damian up. No, thatís not the odd part. Though yes, it is odd, because Iíd completely forgotten that Damianís morning preschool had the day off. Thus precipitating a phone call from Dan standing outside the preschool in question, which, though mere blocks from his workplace, is miles away from our house. Thus precipitating a scramble to get out of the house, said scramble involving unwashed hair scrabbled into a dreary ponytail, some random shirt thrown on Ė you get the idea. Run out of house carrying way too much stuff. Twist ankle. Cry in pain. Hobble to car. Drive to the studio lot. Walk into the cutting room to discover my men both on computers. Dan actually, yíknow, working while Damian was engrossed in Kid Pix on the TiBook. So engrossed, in fact, that I didnít even get my usual ďHi Mommy!Ē
None of that was the odd moment, though it did lead into it. Me, in full dowdy mom mode, chatting with Damian about his toy frog as we walked out of the building into the drizzly day. As we approached the front door, a man came in. Beret, long jacket. Sleek looking. He said hello, brushed past. Went into the main post-production room. I could easily have turned around and gone back in.
I was tempted. You see, I worked on a TV series several years ago, a very successful show. I was an assistant editor in LA, the show was shot out of state, I never met the cast. This man who just brushed past? The star.
So I thought about introducing myself. ďThat show, the one that made you famous? I worked on it too. I spent hours alone with your face in a dark room. I know your line delivery, your intonation, the rumors about you on the set. And you donít know me from a hole in the wall.Ē
Thereís a class divide in Hollywood, and itís not just the blatant one between illegal immigrant gardener and home owner. Thereís also one between so-called above the line talent Ė director, writer, also obviously actors Ė and those below the line Ė everyone else. On top of that, editors, though theyíre at least as important to the process as cinematographers and production designers, usually make half as much money and have far less respect. I think itís partly because nobody really knows what they do, a topic for another time: what do editors actually do in those dark cutting rooms? Which may call for a guest blog appearance by my spouse. But itís also because theyíre practically invisible. You can see the cameraman strutting around between takes, the boss of his crew; he says ďLet there be light!Ē and ten burly men and a woman rush around moving stands and plugs and wire and then Lo! There is light! You can see the production designer huddling with the director and then instructing a crew of burly folk to paint and assemble and generally do very visible things to massive chunks of scenery. The editing crew Ė on a TV show, thatís three editors in rotation with two or three assistants between them Ė they just sit in their rooms far from the set. Thatís all. Itís a lot, in actuality. But does it look like a lot? Does it look like anything? And then afterward, the director and the producer talk as if they were the ones working the material. ďI tried that and then I recut it this way.Ē Like a homeowner saying he remodeled his kitchen when all he did was get out of the way while the contractor and crew did the work.
Hmm. I guess I have more resentment built up around this than I thought. Anyway. I remember the first show I worked on. The first wrap party. I was young and unafraid. And this was not an ongoing episodic series, this was a show in which every episode had a different self-contained storyline with all-new characters and very few of them were big names. So at that wrap party, I had a little to drink, I flirted with a producer or two, and I went up to one of the episode stars (a little star, not a household name) and said I was an apprentice editor and that Iíd seen her face on my Steenbeck every day for the past month. She looked completely blank. As if Iíd said something so gauche no response was possible. I was mortified and backed away quickly.
Itís an odd relationship, that between actor and editor. Very one way. It shouldnít be, if you think about it. The editor knows an actorís performance highs and lows better than anyone, and is therefore an actorís best ally (or worst enemy, hah). And yet the editor is strangely anonymous. And me, I was never a full-on editor. I left before I was promoted up from assistant. Iíd cut a decent amount of footage, especially the last year or so, but I wasnít The Editor. So what was I going to say to this beret-wearing star today? I once knew you intimately but anonymously? Heíd smile and look blank and say something polite and think ďI should care?Ē
There was a time Iíd have done it anyway. Looking for some kind of affirmation, I think. Some acknowledgement I wasnít about to get. But really, he and I have no relationship. We did, but Iíve left it behind and he never knew about it.
So I walked out into the grey morning with my little boy and enjoyed that tangible, two way relationship. Living in the present.
For a while this morning, several blocks at least, I drove behind a large black SUV, an older model, chipped around the edges and festooned with bumper stickers. The license plate frame caught my eye. ďBoycott Hollywood,Ē it said. ďHeh,Ē I said, and kept driving. The words attracted my eyes again. Hm, I thought. Boycott Hollywood, huh? How would you do that? Stop seeing movies, unplug the TV, yeah that could work. Not that you could get anyone to actually do it, but if enough people did, itís probably more powerful than avoiding grapes. Hitting a bigger industry, at any rate.
But why would you want to do that? Whatís your boycotting slogan, whatís the picket line chant? Well, itís kind of obvious, isnít it? ďMake Better Movies!Ē ďNo More Bad Films!Ē ďWe Hate Lame-ass Action Movies!Ē ďEnd Sequelitis!Ē ďDonít Fuck With The Writers!Ē (Well, okay, maybe that last one is just me.)
Think it would work, if we stopped going to the movies? Would they make better ones or just spend less money on the same dumb ideas? Think it would work if we shut the TV off? Could we shut the TV off? Itís on grocery store checkout lines now, in emergency room waiting areas, itís background noise and an inanimate babysitter. How could you organize a big enough boycott to make that change?
Nevertheless, itís an intriguing idea. Power to the people. Make your voice heard. Demand quality, let your eyeballs do the walking.
Of course, a few blocks later, still gazing at the carís rear bumper, I realized. The American flag waving from the roof rack, the bumper sticker extolling the war in Iraq, they were clues. US out of UN, another sticker said. I had to think about that one for a bit, itís so foreign to my thinking, but I suspect it was another attempt at a futile boycott Ė this car seemed to feel strongly about boycotts and withdrawals, except when it came to war-type invasive behavior.
Itís kind of obvious, huh? The carís owner thinks Hollywood is too liberal and thinks if you turn off West Wing and donít go see Cold Mountain, thatíll make studios start propagating pro-war propaganda. Sadly, it might work. But it might work for a very simple reason: Hollywood is not that liberal. I mean, think about it. Our current governor, that Republican promise-breaker and education-decimator, was a movie star and producer and go-to greenlight man for macho shoot-em-up reactionary gorefests. And heís hardly the only one around here. But letís say for the sake of argument that the majority of Hollywood professionals are indeed liberal. Itís quite possible. But really. Do you see many movies taking chances, going out on a limb to validate gay marriage, condemn modern day warmongering, say anything controversial about the world we live in? Come on. The most daring politics in most mainstream movies say things like Racism is Bad and Gays are Not Bad (but we wonít show them kissing anyway). And maybe, if theyíre really bold, theyíll say ďGovernment is Not Trustworthy. Yeah. Shocking, ainít it. Really makes you think, no?
And I question how liberal the so-called liberals are here. Yes, theyíre probably mostly registered Democrats, though thatís a majority, not a given. And itís also common to most other urban areas. I donít think LA is as liberal as Boston, for instance. And certainly not San Francisco. Or New York. I remember the first Iraq invasion. I was working on LA L@w at the time. A show with a political bent, wouldnít you say? But when the bombing started in Baghdad, everyone headed over to the main production building to watch on the snowy television someone had set up in an office upstairs. Their faces were eager, watching the TV. Fascinated. I looked around the room and realized I was the only one there sick to my stomach. The rest of them saw it as fireworks, a spectacular video game on a large scale. I felt very alone in that room, too liberal for the crowd I was in. So I got up and walked out, back outside to the green grass and the rickety editing bungalow on the edge of the studio lot steeped in history. Alone with my thoughts.
Nobody wants to take a chance here. Nobody cares that much, except the independents who havenít grown too accustomed to the horn of plenty and are willing to say what they truly think and think what they feel instead of whatís easy.
Boycott Hollywood? For what? They censor themselves.
Now about that other kind of boycottÖ let me know where youíre holding the rally. Iíll be there, chants at the ready.
Thereís a long article in todayís LA Times (registration required) about a young woman who was found dead in Laurel Canyon, about two miles from here. She was an aspiring actor. She thought she was going on an audition for a role in a James Bond film. The guy apparently had used this scam before, though itís unclear if he was aiming for rape or murder. Itís so ugly I could scream.
I think what gets me most about it is how vulnerable ambition makes us. Iím sure many, if not most, women would be suspicious of a man approaching in a shopping mall, offering a chance at a movie role. But what if he sounded like he knew what he was talking about? There are all sorts of stories of careers that got started in public places, from the legendary discovery of Lana Turner sitting on a fountain stool at Schwabís on down. And hell, Iíve been approached in a mall. Someone wanted me to bring Damian in to get auditioned at some kiddie casting company. I never followed it up, but I did and do think the woman was for real.
So hereís the question: what if you were young Ė very young Ė and hungry, oh so hungry. Youíd moved to the City of Angels thinking the roads would be paved with gold and your name would be engraved on a star on Hollywood Boulevard by the time you turned thirty, and yet here you were, three or five years later, waitressing at some dive or someoneís gofer or nanny, with maybe a commercial under your belt, maybe some student shorts, but really nothing to say you were the next big thing, and now youíre having trouble paying the rent and youíre looking in the mirror and the face that looks back at you doesnít look so fresh anymore. And then a man comes up to you in a mall. Smart, well dressed. He says you have the right look, itís a small part, mostly eye candy, but it will get you into SAG and Iíll make sure youíll be noticed after that. Please come in and audition for us.
Would you do it?
Someone desperate enough, hungry enough, someone whoís been hoping for her big break but seeing the possibilities slipping away, someone like that might have her doubts about this guy, but might feel like it was worth that risk. One guy, what could he do to her anyway? And what if it was for real? How could she pass up the chance?
The horror of Hollywood is that that brass ring is so close. You brush up against fame practically every day. Itís driving the Ferrari zooming next to you on Olympic Boulevard, itís strolling down Montana Avenue on a mild Saturday afternoon, itís even shopping at Bristol Farms for eggs and oranges in the next aisle. What do they have that you donít? Success, thatís what. Someone gave them that chance or they created it for themselves. And you can taste it too, itís in the air and in the over-chlorinated water that nobody drinks. You can smell it in the perfume of night blooming jasmine on February nights. You pick up the trades, read about the latest hot thing. You overhear conversations at the local Coffee Bean, someoneís casting that role but itís too late by the time you get there, the partís been filled. Fame. Success. Itís so close. So impossibly far. And so you go up Laurel Canyon wearing the stilettos and stockings he gave you. You go up to your death because you wanted fame too much.
Itís an old story. Clichť, even. But damnit all, itís still too horribly true.
When we first moved out here, those first few years of sunshine, I felt a delicious sense of getting away with something. Iíd call people back home and listen sympathetically to their tales of snowed-in driveways and frozen noses while looking outside at the palm trees blowing in the light breeze. Iíd walk down the street later, in a light jacket or even shirtsleeves, past displays of orange birds of paradise and enormous cacti on peopleís front lawns, and Iíd keep expecting to wake up. What an odd, impossible thing, a place without winter. With the memory of cold still in my bones, I felt like Iíd stepped through the looking glass and nothing was real anymore.
After a few more years, I started to resent it. Thereís something wrong with a place that doesnít have real, intense seasonal changes. Nobody has to dig in and deal with the hard stuff. Besides, I missed the feeling of wind on my cheeks (thirty or forty degree weather, Iím talking here, not the current minus twenty thousand back East). I missed changing wardrobes, colorful winter sweaters, those soft furry earmuffs stuck in the back of my drawer, the way your body melts as your blood unfreezes when you get inside after a long walk in the frozen afternoon. The way the air is so clear and cold, like glass. The puffs of breath made tangible. The way the spring easing of seasons feels like a celebration. I would walk through LA in my light t-shirt in fucking January and curse the near-eternal preternatural pact-with-the-devil warmth. I wanted drama, damnit. I wanted to suffer but also to take that pleasure in the chill and in the smoke smell of autumn, the first taste of falling snow in December and the blanket of bluish white layering the countryside, crunching through it with my boots. I hated that I was here and real life was so far away.
Lately I think maybe I romanticized it a tad. Lately I talk to my mother about how sheís got the heat up full blast and itís still 58 degrees inside the house and I read the reports of the wind chill factor and temperature records broken and so many kids getting frostbite that schools are closed and one shocking story of a hiker who actually camped out overnight in the mountains in New Hampshire and not surprisingly died. I hear and read all that and I think, you know? This warm thing weíve got going here? This ďDo you want to go to the park this afternoon, Damian?Ē and ďWhat did you do outside at yard time?Ē and ďIím bringing my jacket along just in caseĒ thing? It still feels like cheating. Like I should be back there in the cold depths of hell too, itís my birthright and my blood, but you know? Itís kind of nice to be warm.
My apologies to those of you who are suffering right now. I do know what thatís like. I remember crying with the cold. Hell, I hope one day to move back there and I know if I do Iíll cry and curse again. Maybe thatís why I can appreciate this sunbaked California desert so much more right now. Because it may be ephemeral. Iíd better enjoy it while Iíve got it.
Last night at eleven p.m. I found myself at the local Rite Aid (huge chain pharmacy, bright flourescents and miles of cough medicine). I waited in line at the cash register, barely holding onto the slippery rolls of wrapping paper and the heavy bottles of apple juice, until I got to the front. The cashier smiled at me cheerily. "How are you doing?"
I told her the truth. "I've been better."
"Sorry to hear that," she chirped, and rang me up without another word.
I stood there, feeling positively muddy with angst. A spouse at home with fever and chills, the fifth time in ten days someone's been sick in my house. A child (finally asleep) who'd seen some of his unwrapped presents earlier in the day because I was too lame a mom to either wrap them quickly enough or hide them well enough, a devastated child because I was then a terrible enough mom to yell at him to get out of the room. And my mother who lives too far away was leaving the next day after what felt like a telescoped short visit. Other things roiled in there too, uppermost of all, evil raging PMS.
I didn't care that the cashier didn't respond with any genuine empathy to my non-standard response. Big deal. What did bother me was what happened after I paid. She put on a pre-programmed happy voice and said, "Have a great holiday!" And then waited. Staring at me. I was apparently expected to smile back and wish her the same. If I didn't, I was a bitch.
Well, guess what. I was a bitch.
It's not that I think it's okay to be rude to cashiers. The opposite, in fact. And for cashiers working late on Christmas Eve, yeah, especially them. She was probably not in the best mood herself. But come on. Be human. Allow me my feelings. I wasn't hurting her. I was being perfectly polite. Just not faking it. And that, apparently, was my failing. Because the world revolves around her and I only existed to pass that ridiculous test of false bonhomie. Even though I'd been very clear (though not in-your-face) about my own state of mind.
Things got better after I got home, thankfully. The people that matter do care how I feel and don't demand fake smiles. But I'm still appalled by that woman and the way she looked at me. Waiting.
Sunday afternoon we went to the annual Venice Boat Parade, a motley collection of home-decorated boats and homemade costumes all floating along the man-made canals. It was a beautiful afternoon, just post rain. The clouds like soft swirled ice cream, the air cool and clear. The water shimmered in the late afternoon sun, the mallards quacked their hoarse calls for scraps of bread, the pirate ships threw fake cannonballs at each other on the water, someone in a tiny rowboat drummed a backbeat giving rhythm to the event.
People walked alongside the canals, spilled out of houses Ė everyone who lives in those narrow, tall houses has a party on this Sunday, it seems, inviting their friends to come see the boats together. Lots of kids. Lots of smiles. A real neighborhood feeling.
I imagined living here, in this almost-secret (but so-expensive) pocket of city. Water, palm trees, no cars whizzing by in front of your house but no back yard either. Houses built so close youíre forced to know your neighbors. So narrow you canít turn around but the roof garden is lovely. Itís a different life from our also-urban existence in our Hollywood bungalow.
There are so many different LAs. Thereís one where you live on a windy canyon road and hear coyotes at night and your backyard is a steep dry brush slope and the city sparkles at your feet every night like the contents of a jewel box dumped on a bedspread. Thereís the one where you live on a street filled with fifties ranch house boxes with every back yard the same size and shape and all the modern amenities and you have to drive in five miles of infuriating city traffic to find a non-chain restaurant. Thereís the one where you live on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the one where you live in a dilapidated fourplex apartment building or a Spanish-style apartment building, two stories, surrounding a courtyard with banana trees and you feel like youíre inside Day of the Locust and you hear every damned word your neighbors say. So many cities in one. (Yes, I know, Iíve stayed solidly middle-and-upper class here in my imaginings; thatís the reality of my life and my friendsí lives.) So many cities. So many lives.
I think sometimes about trading houses. It means stepping into a new life. Like moving to a different city. How do you decide what city, what life suits you? Even within a certain financial constraint (we canít live in one of those houses lining the canal even if we wanted to), you can make a choice that defines the quality and flavor of your daily life. Where the grocery stores are, who your neighbors are, what farmerís market you shop at (if you do), what church or synagogue you attend (if you do), how you feel when you pull into your driveway or walk up your walkway or steps and slip your key into the front door lock. How can you choose that? Is it just luck that says ďMy job is here, my friends are there, my budget is this, therefore I live in this radiusĒ? We choose the way we want to live but it also chooses us, doesnít it? More money means more control, of course. But Iíve chosen so far to mainly stay close to Hollywood. Sometimes now I think about moving further south, further west, even further east (Silver Lake). Each time itís somewhat like trying on a new set of clothes but more like finding a new me in the mirror. A new definition of my life. Iím looking forward to that, whenever it happens and whatever it turns out to be.
The sky is an unusual color or, more appropriately, colors. Pale blue in places, misty gray in others, and also a kind of earthen brown Ė the light brown of dust swirled into mud. The sun, this late afternoon, is bright and yellow-orange, but muted through haze, a daylight moon. My eyes sting, I keep coughing and sipping water but it doesnít ease this burning itch in my throat, my breath sounds like a soft wheeze. My sonís voice is hoarse and he canít stop sniffling. People say they see a fine white ash everywhere. I believe them but I canít see it. I saw a woman standing outside a school in Santa Monica today. Her nose and mouth were covered by a white mask. I simultaneously thought: How dramatic is that? And Where can I get one?
I feel so very lucky to be here and not in Simi Valley or out by Lake Arrowhead or down around Julian, east of San Diego. Our house isnít endangered, our schools and shops are open and life goes on as normal. You might almost think it is normal except for the smoky overlay and the burn in your eyes.
You know why California is called the Golden State? I used to think it was dubbed that for remembrance of the Gold Rush days that made the state famous. But now I think itís so named because itís so very dry. Golden grass waving under the hot sun, golden canyons baking through the summer heat, dry brush ready to burst into flame with the rush of a hot autumn wind. We dare live here in the midst of a desert climate and we pay the price in houses on fire. Every year, people pay the price. This is the worst year since we moved here, fifteen years ago. Fifteen hundred houses engulfed. White ash on the wind.
In case you don't know -- and you may not if you're not a Californian -- the union workers are striking the state's three largest grocery chains: Ralph's, Vons, and Albertson's. They decided to picket just Vons to reduce shopper stress, but, in a display of pure ugliness, the other two chains shut them out.
Every time I drive past a market, Damian comments on the picketers with their signs. He knows what's going on. He knows, too, why I honk in solidarity. It's such a tiny thing to do and I know from my time on picket lines that it means a lot to know that random strangers are in agreement.
You know what gets me, though? When the strike started, I was impressed by how empty the parking lots were, how few people were actually crossing the strike lines. But now, more than a week into it, the parking lots are practically full -- at least, on the wealthy Westside.
It's not like there's nowhere else to shop: true, Gelson's and Bristol Farm are more expensive and Whole Foods (my market of choice) is both more expensive and more granolahead, but there's Trader Joe's and farmer's markets and and minimall markets and Costco and Smart & Final and pharmacies for paper products. You just have to go out of your way, you have to think about it a minute, you have to actually care. I don't get it. How can you be against workers getting decent health insurance?
It's not that, though, is it? Grocery workers aren't real people, apparently. Dan told me today about a guy we know who says he likes the strike. Why? He doesn't have to fight the crowd at Albertson's now.
Welcome to LA, land of the narcissist.
Twelve ten p.m. I drop Damian off at school. A little under three hours to myself, time to get to work.
Ten minutes later, I walk into my cafť of choice. I prefer the library for its peacefulness and plethora of outlets, but itís closed on Fridays and this place is a good consolation prize, with WiFi access for my intermittent internet jonesing. I park, walk to the cafť past film trucks on the way. I guess theyíre shooting in the yoga studio on the corner. Good thing itís not the cafť, that would really bite.
I walk through the busy front room, head to the quieter side room with its few but all-important outlets for my PowerBookís AC adapter. Walk through the room. Boy, there sure are a lot of people in here, guess itís the overflow crew from the shoot. Good thing I have headphones to drown out the chatter. I sit down at my favorite table. A slender woman, her dark hair back in a loose pony tail, comes straight over. ďExcuse me, but you canít sit here.Ē Her French accent is pleasant, light. Her words, not so much. Turns out they are shooting here. I stand up, not too happy. ďYou should put a sign up,Ē I say. She says yes, sheíd hoped the cafť management would do that. I say ďYou should do it, itís your responsibility.Ē Iíve been around enough film sets to know. This is amateur hour and Iím pissed.
I settle in near the one outlet by the front door. The table is pretty; inlaid tile. The air is cooler in here. If I wasnít still so disgruntled, Iíd even admit this is a better spot. I slip on my headphones and get online. (Hey, I have to ease into writing, canít just start cold like that.)
Half an hour passes. The French woman comes up to me again, looking apologetic. What? Youíre going to kick me out of this spot too?
Turns out she needs a favor. Apparently they have to get access to their casting website but the cafťís pay-for-minutes terminal isnít giving them images. Do I have accessÖ?
Soon I have a casting agent and three producers (I assume thatís what they are, they certainly seem self-impressed enough) peering at head shots on my PowerBook, offering me bribes of desserts (no thanks, Iím on Weight Watchers) and coffee (no thanks, I donít do caffeine). Itís more than a little surreal, this cluster around me. I normally feel cloaked in anonymity here, slipping into the cafť to write my pages and then disappear into the afternoon, private with my novel. But now Iím public and in the middle of that which I resent.
Turns out itís not a film shoot, though, but a photo shoot. Which explains why we can still sit in the front room and why nobodyís hushing us every five minutes.
First they look at girls, ages eight to eleven. Theyíre looking for someone young and cute. I like the one they choose, she looks more genuine than the others, more spunky. Then they want someone to portray the dad. The casting director has me click on the "Men, 35" page. Up comes a series of smiling faces. These men look older than Dan. Either these men are prematurely aging or Dan is unusually young looking for his forty two years. Or theyíre lying about their ages. (Ya think?)
I comment idly that my spouse is better looking than just about all the men here. Heís in SAG, too. (The Screen Actorís Guild.) They perk up, say, ďWell, if these guys donít work outĒ (theyíve chosen four possibilities, all of whom look somewhat like Dan), ďweíll take a look.Ē The casting director stays behind to see pictures. I fumble with iPhoto, opening albums, searching for a decent shot. I know I have plenty on CDs at home, but do I have any here, where I need them? I see money, I see a fun unexpected Saturday photo shoot to give Dan something to smile about at work the next Monday.
I find a few tolerable shots, show them to the casting director, telling her Iíve got better but these will do for now. ďYou werenít kidding, he is attractive.Ē She sounds genuinely surprised. Heh. I say ďYeah, Iím not prejudiced.Ē Well, not too.
If this were a true Hollywood Fairy Tale story, the other guys would all have fallen through and weíd be hustling Dan off to the set for his day in the sun tomorrow. But itís real life and one of the guys comes through. Of course he does; itís his job and Iím sure he needs the money too. But as I pack up my things to go get Damian, I decide to look around for that casting director, show her the better pictures Iíve unearthed. Sheís sitting in the corner by the shoot. She thanks me again, gives me her card, and says she wants me to email the pictures of Dan. ďYour son too,Ē she says. (The pictures I showed her of Dan had Damian in them too.) ďAnd you. Weíre always looking for real families.Ē She sounds serious.
I have no idea if this will come to pass. Iím not sure I care. It would be something a bit different, a story to tell, nothing more. It brings back a memory Iíd forgotten, of a photo shoot at our loft in SoHo when I was a young teenager. It was for some brochure on textbooks, I think. I remember lying on the floor looking like I was having such a good time reading these thick tomes. That was fun. This might be too. If it ever happens.
Mostly, though, I walk to the car Ė my beat-up old Honda Ė thinking, Man. How Hollywood is that?
Last night at a Greek restaurant, I saw a large Asian family: nine adults and one child. Everyone was talking, engaged, familial. Seemed like a good group.
Then I noticed one woman. Early, mid twenties. Seated in the back corner. Facing down. Looking intently into the cell phone in the palm of her hand. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was doing. Might have been email, I guess, but I think she was playing a computer game. In the middle of a family gathering.
They seemed like nice enough people. Why did she feel the need to retreat so far away?
A strange thing happened last week. I went to a get-together, a group of screenwriters and would-be screenwriters. I liked everyone there, some of them very much. I was looking forward to it. But once thereÖ wellÖ something didnít click. I started making snide comments under my breath, saying things that werenít exactly kosher to say, those ďOh man, did that come out of my mouth? Shoot me nowĒ sorts of in-your-face faux-pas. (And no, Iím not going to relate the specifics, Iíve already forgotten them. No, really. Total blank. I swear.)
Anyway. I started thinking afterwards. Iím fairly social adept, or so Iíd like to think. And people seem to like me well enough. I donít usually have such severe foot-in-mouth disease. Why that night? Someone else who was there later commented that everyone seemed off at dinner, it didnít gel. So it wasnít just me, though I think I was the only snark shark. The rest were super nice, super polite. To the extreme, in fact. Almost everyone there was doing a sales job. I did this, Iím doing that, Iíve got this possibility and arenít I grand? Itís human nature. Especially in Hollywood, the land of the perennial sales pitch. You are what youíve done, what youíre doing, what you claim youíre about to do. Youíre judged as a person by it (well, that and what car you drive). Are you Somebody in Town this week? Did your last movie do good box office? Do you have play dates with the studio chiefís kids? Do you Know People? Are you important, if not in and of yourself, then at least by degree of separation from People Who Matter? Oh, youíre not? Nice talking to you, I have to go replenish my designer water bottle. Waiter!
If youíre not Anyone Important, how do you survive? By making yourself sound like youíre tomorrowís flavor of the hour. Sort of like youíre at an endless cocktail party version of your high school reunion, you want to spin a tale that sounds believable enough to impress at close range, though not necessarily a story that holds up long term.
It gets worse when thereís an agent or producer or manager in the room, though in fact theyíre the worst offenders, adept in the two-step sideways hyped-up dance around the truth. And a manager was there that night. A nice guy too, someone I usually enjoy. And hell, I donít want or need a manager right now. I have no scripts to shill, no finished novel longing for the right adaptation. I donít need anything from anyone. Not right now, I donít.
Thatís the problem right there, I think. I canít do the dance, I donít want to do the dance, I in fact abhor the dance. And so Iím standing outside watching all the high stepping eyes-alight, hands-spinning hip-hop fancy footwork going on and the bile rises in my throat and causes me to spew inane but nasty gibberish. Iím outside it but not far enough outside. I too want bragging rights. I too want to matter in that vainglorious insubstantial Hollywood chit-chat sort of way. But right now I donít. And that has to be okay too.
Maybe I should avoid those parties in the future. Or maybe I should go (these are good people, after all, and some I even consider friends) but learn to stop caring. No bile, just amusement.
Easier said than done. Hunger floats in the sun drenched air here, blows down from the mountains along with the November Santa Ana winds. Hunger to Be Somebody. Itís catching, like the flu. And just as debilitating.
Every day I drive past a clothing store on Santa Monica Boulevard. Sometimes the light turns red as I approach and I have time to read the slogans on the T-shirts in the window. One says, ďFuck Fame.Ē Iím thinking about buying it.