Placidia Avenue

44d3ab3c4a664d8836af7df54a54a884

 

Walter sought to get work as a paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko was asleep at 5am when a text message awoke her.

She lay in a dark bedroom next to her husband Eric, inside a warmly furnished ranch house, somewhere in the shadows of the mountains in Toluca Lake.

They lived in an affluent, tony district of clean windows, mowed lawns, and large, tinted glass cars carrying schoolchildren.

She dropped out from blanket onto carpet and sat on the floor. In her hand were illuminated words: “I love you. See you soon. Walt.”

She tiptoed out, walked down the hall, and reached into a closet laundry hamper, clutching a stained shirt and elastic shorts.

After exercise, still in the dark before the dawn, she set out granola, almond milk, sliced bananas, coffee and boiled-eggs for Eric and little Lillian.

Eric came out of the bedroom. He stood near the coffee maker, in a white t-shirt and blue boxers. He was in a cloudy, Monday morning kitchen, a decade past his youth, hurling into mid-life.

He worked at nearby Warner Brothers Studio. His office was a trailer in his own production company, staffed by interns who spent all day online inventing tales, a business of no security and no importance, whose attributes and contracts were purchased ten years earlier with his late father’s money. Something Southern and scatalogical was always in development and just about to get green lit.

At night, after work, Eric pedaled out into the dark. He rode home through Burbank and Toluca Lake, taking wrong roads, turning down unfamiliar streets, places he rode through with no clear direction, in a frenzy of sweat and physicality; elated, invigorated.

In low gear, passing other houses and inhabitants, he processed and archived life with no intention beyond sensation.

Back home on Placidia Avenue, Trader Joe’s food waited: pre-cooked turkey meatballs, plastic bag risotto, and bottles of cheap red wine. Dessert was always those waxed tangerines and tiny containers of Greek yogurt.

His income was largely a trust fund depositing enough for mortgage, dinner and a movie into his account.

His wife was cheating and he knew it but he didn’t.

This particular morning she was naked and locked in the bathroom seated on the toilet texting Walt, a hired photographer from back east whose visit was platonic in purpose. She sat on the throne for fifteen minutes and then wiped up, made up her face, threw on a shirt and slipped like a virgin into bleached white jeans.

Nariko Araki worked inside a converted garage, in back of her well-groomed Toluca Lake garden. Thin, dark-haired, and industrious, she commanded a small textile studio, printing and producing organic cloth whose aura was tactile, natural, handcrafted, and sensual.

She used a lot of blues and whites, careful not to suffocate in pattern. Every marking and shape had plenty of room around it. In her creations objects floated separately in vast white seas.

She looked cool and smelled smoky like cedar.

She mixed brown dyes in a large steel can, standing on a small step ladder, stirring it with a plastic oar as Eric stood by plaintively, like a boy watching his mother make dinner.

She told him that his car payment, house taxes, mortgage payment and credit card bills were due and he had to pay them all. Head down, he turned and walked out, stomping on fallen gold maple leaves.

Back to work she went, tugging, folding, tucking, rolling and lifting fabric. Bolts of linen cloth, in hues of walnut, sage, saffron and henna, were laid down and stacked on the concrete floor. Inks, dyes, industrial poisons and metal stamps congregated atop rectangular wooden tables.

In a corner, a pile of corrugated boxes, packed with fabrics, pasted in mailing labels, waited in silence for the UPS man atop the Dutch door ledge.

In the open air of the workshop Nariko’s mercurial moods moved from anxiety to tranquility, acidic and rancid from chemicals, benignly seductive in rose, jasmine and lavender.

Self-taught, she had taken a home hobby and built it into a thriving little enterprise supplying fabrics for home furnishings, bedding, clothing and tabletops.

In long sleeve black spandex top and dark jeans, Eric came back into the studio with Lillian on his arm. He asked for the car keys and some gas money to drive the child to school.

“I think we are going to have a meeting at Paramount next week. New exec there used to go to Syracuse with Cody Soldinger,” he said.

“Take a hundred out of my purse,” she directed, holding and cutting orange and black fishes printed on white cotton.

On the driveway, he put Lillian into a seat, belted her in and stopped to look up at the sky. Cirrus clouds, wisps of white, blown by a cold north wind, moved across the sky like kinetic sculpture from God’s mobile.

The unfathomable enormity of the blue and beyond was terrifying.

He stopped looking up and got down into the car.

The Photographer

A week before Thanksgiving, Walter W. Simmons was inside Nariko’s studio.

Prematurely gray, he favored his old Nikon F, coffee in a mug, and menthol lozenges that he sucked all day turning his kisses cool and hot.

Lean, up and down, he favored dark denim, turtleneck sweaters, Red Wing boots, and aviator sunglasses.

He moved around the studio, on his knees, lens aimed up. Perched on a ladder looking down.

Nariko wore a long black cotton scarf whirling about her neck. She stood next to the Dutch door, resting her elbow on the ledge, and held a cup of green tea in a gray ceramic mug.

Walter sought to get work as paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko guessed that Walter saw in her something that fit into his own marketing plan.

Walter set up a mise en scène plate of oatmeal cookies atop the oatmeal dyed linen.  He was a master of the subtly obvious.

He went into the garden and took close-ups of lambs ears and succulents, jasmine vines and hanging lanterns. He went back in and grabbed her from behind, kissing her on the neck.

Before he jumped in a cab to Burbank Airport he had both hands under her blouse, clasping her breasts, rubbing against her, man to woman, breathing into her ears, sticking his probing tongue into the ridges and spirals of her sonic hinterlands.

He aimed to dominate. But he wrapped his industrial sized dreams in benign sustainability.

Walter’s visits invigorated her. He found sunlight and shadow in her Southern California studio as only a visitor from a dark, northern place could.

The conjugation of her printed fabric and his printed photographs bore real emotion and sentiment, connection and intimacy. His departures left her empty, sullen, and morose.

She needed activity and threw herself back into projects, chores, and work.

On the studio wall she had a large chalkboard grid for the year, scheduling each month’s production goals and deadlines.

Two years ago none of this existed.

Last year she called it a hobby.

And this year it was a business.

And some of it was an affair: illicit, dangerous, exciting and energizing.

Auntie Tammy

In a little yellow VW, 80-year-old Auntie Tammy sped up the 405 and across the 101 for her once-a-month visitation with her niece.

Tammy Shibuya was the youngest and only survivor of a family of four who had lived in Mountain View, CA before WWII. Rounded up after Pearl Harbor they endured more than three years in an internment camp, returning back home to a looted hardware store.  Unable to rebuild on land stolen, the Shibuya clan went south. They joined family in Oxnard, farming strawberries and asparagus, later migrating southward into West Los Angeles property development in the 1950s.

Auntie Tammy never married and worked managing apartments. She was tough, able to get under a leaking sink and clear pipes, wire fixtures and hang doors. She scoffed at spendthrifts who wasted money on plumbers and electricians. Thin and fastidious, she ate carrots and ramen soup, washed her hair in bar soap, and kept her furniture for 40 years. She barked out orders to tradesman, and knew her way around blueprints, drains, circuit breakers and lathe saws too.

Unreligious, unromantic and clear-eyed, she spoke the truth, making many enemies. If you were fat, indebted, bored, failing school, falling into self-pity, she let you know. Hardy, blunt and clear-eyed, she lead a life of flinty independence and self-reliance.

Nariko and her aunt walked around the brightly illuminated studio as ductless air-conditioning blew, and a new 55-inch smart TV played.

Her Aunt stood glumly, shaking her head.

“You spend too much. Air-conditioning? New TV? New computer? How much are you selling and how much are you spending?” she asked.

Nariko had expected the assault. She was armed with figures and produced an optimistic report. Tammy did not budge.

“I’m no spoil sport Niki. You have a creative mind and you do good work. But keep your ego in check. Don’t overdo it, don’t try to impress with a big fancy operation,” Tammy said.

Nariko attempted to get up from the tackle and threw parental responsibility and wifely duty back at the old childless woman without a husband.

“Who is talking about your kid or your husband? I’m speaking about your money. Spending it like you have so much to spend. One day you might be in trouble. Or your husband loses his job. Or God forbid you have to go into the hospital. Save money. Save money. That’s what I tell you. I didn’t buy a TV until I was 40 years old!”

Tammy asked about Eric’s work.

“He’s got some promising leads at Paramount,” Nariko said quietly.

“Ha! The so-called industry! The business! I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to see generations of young men and women go broke trying to catch fire in Hollywood. I think your husband is headed for calamity. He’s too old to play that fucking game,” she said.

The Virtual Dog

Walter emailed his edited photographs to Nariko. She waited until Eric came home that night to unveil them to him. It had been a long day with Tammy ignoring putdowns and hiding wounds.

She fortified herself with several large glasses of Cabernet, numbing potential joy and carnal guilt.

It was dark, about 8pm. Drenched in bike sweat, Eric came through the back door. He soaped up his hands, washed his face, poured himself a glass of red wine and kissed milk-lipped Lillian.

“Daddy is home. Aren’t you happy?” he asked, wetting a paper towel and dabbing his daughter’s chin. She smiled and turned away to the hopping rabbit cartoon.

Husband and wife walked out into the studio and sat down at the desktop monitor. Before receiving her digital photos, Nariko sprayed the screen with glass cleaner, as if preparing to receive a holy sacrament.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“My aunt was here today spreading her joy,” she said.

“Let’s look at these photos from Walter. I think they might distract me.”

Scrolling down the selections, andante, reverently, Nariko put her finger on the screen each time a new photograph born into being.

Walter’s camera had captured and enhanced the textures, the linens and cottons, and the richly dyed silks. Next to the fabrics, he contrasted food and color: red wet cranberries, blue soaked blueberries, rinsed romaine lettuce, green and alive.

Her print making, drudgery in reality, was transformed in his images to an artistic blur of human at razor-sharp machine. Her specter brushed across his wide angled shots, morphing into a dark form floating across a bright white room.

“I’m dazzled,” she said. “I can’t believe how wonderful these are. I wish I could send these to Aunt Tammy but she doesn’t use a computer!”

She was breathless and exhausted from excitement and got up to get a glass of water.  As she stood at the tap, Eric inspected each photograph.

Schooled in the falsehoods of the edit bay, he stared closely at the photographs, one in particular. “Whose dog is this?” he asked as he pointed to a lovely, shiny Golden Retriever online.  She sat down quizzically.

“That’s so weird. He must have put that in,” she said.

“Photoshop.” he said. “That CG dog is so real he probably barks.”

“I’m baffled,” she said.  They looked at another image of the patio. Instead of a few pots of succulents, there were perhaps two-dozen pots of succulents, and many flowered vines.

In several close-ups of her, her dark eye circles had been removed, something she did not mind. But magenta lipstick floated across her virtual lips and her teeth were as white as a just scoured ceramic sink.

“I guess he thinks he can make you look better,” Eric said without malice.

“The whole reason I hired him was honesty. That’s what I wanted from Walter,” she told Eric.

Did she look old in real life? Were her teeth yellow? What else was Walter not telling her? Why did he not ask her before mangling reality?

The photographer’s uninvited artifice, the redrawing of her face and space, violated her integrity and trust. His godlike belief in overt digital correction sickened her.

And then there was the $4,000 invoice.

“Are you going to say something to him?” Eric asked.

“Not yet. He knows many editors and people in New York. If I confront him he may break up with me. Let me think about this,” she said.

“Break up?” Eric asked laughing. “Are you two dating?”

“Of course not!” she answered.

Walter’s methods had exposed client and vendor, in flattery rendered dishonestly. Eric had uncovered it, as baldly as if he had walked in on her with another man.

Before the discovery of the artifice, she held Walter on a higher plane.  She believed in his moody, faded photographs of tin crosses, rough hewn wood beams, long haired bearded men, brick warehouses on the waterfront, ales poured, cows milked, corn shucked.

Eric consoled. “This is what they all do. Do you want to play the game? Don’t you want your work presented professionally? You’re going to get a lot of orders from these,” he said.

Ash Ritual

New orders grew.

Hits and tweats, posts and emails multiplied. Bloggers blogged.

Nariko hired a part-time student assistant.

Lillian graduated from Kindergarten, and Nariko threw a little party with some local children and parents. Walter was in Pacific Palisades photographing designer Ross Cassidy’s mud room.

He came over to Toluca Lake to photograph the Kindergarten graduation party. He had hoped, and was delighted upon arriving, to see Eric absent.

Eric knew the end was coming for his production company. His partner dropped the news that he would no longer look for investors. Eric was leaving entertainment for good.

But God, how he loved the make believe land of Warner Brothers back lot.

He biked around the empty, dark studio streets, an ersatz neighborhood of parks, lampposts, carousels, brownstones and gracious brick homes planted with plastic flowers and portable trees.

Riding out of studio gate, on his evening bike ride home, Eric stopped to pick up some wine at Trader Joe’s. He saw an old classmate from Ramaz, attorney Theodore Gettelman, tall and middle-aged, but dressed boyishly in blue crew neck and khakis, backpack slung over one shoulder.

Eric observed him silently. It was too much, now, to catch up in banalities and wrap-ups with someone from that era. Gettelman was that former cool kid, snarky; amused when someone tripped on ice at Wollman Rink.

Pity, not envy, came to Eric’s mind as he imagined Gettelman, now entangled in Los Angeles and her hothouse fictions, an urban magnet for deluded idiots, insane ambition and unavoidable disappointment.

Eric bought a $4 bottle, paying without speaking. On the sidewalk, he watched Gettelman drive east on Riverside in a black Tesla, no doubt on his way to a meeting with someone behind a guardhouse.

Cars sped by as Eric unlocked his bike.  He walked it into an alley without prying eyes. And leaned against a dumpster wall to cry. He stayed within his sadness for a few minutes.

A dry wind picked up. Eric got back on the bike and rode home against it.

Little LEDs

It was a backyard Kindergarten graduation party. Arthur Rubinstein played Bach on Bose.

A small group of neighbors, parents, and a few children who attended school with Lillian, ate gluten free cakes and drank organic juices. The decorations were Japanese lanterns and Nariko’s linens and napkins.

Walter reveled in the waning sunlight and cinematic colors of the hanging lights. He could be seduced by naturalism but only if it had some payoff. And this event, he told Nariko, reminded him of one of Ina Garten’s East Hampton summer parties.

Nariko walked into the kitchen where Auntie Tammy conservatively turned off kitchen lights. “Everyone is in the backyard!” Tammy protested. Nariko turned the lights back on and guided her aunt into the yard.

Auntie Tammy carried a large glass of red wine in her hand, carefully stepping over the irregular stones, making her way over to Walter. “I hear you are a lawyer who gave up practice to do photography,” she said.

Walter smiled. “Yes, and I hear that you are the terror of Toluca Lake,” he said.

“Oh, I am. But I don’t live here. I’m in West LA.  Tell me, why do you want to make your living doing something everyone on Earth can do for free?”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying there is no such thing as a professional photographer?” he asked.

“Not any more. Maybe when I was young. I think it’s pure economics young man. What you do anyone can do,” she said.

He was constrained in his response by her oldness. Swimming in his own photographic imagination, this old lady shark had bit off his leg.

“I intend to make a living at my work. I love photography. And I do have more and more clients and more and more recognition for my work. So thank you for your advice,” he said and walked away.

She had picked up on his brittle insecurity and exposed it.

Inside the house, Eric, freshly showered, dressed in a blue chambray shirt, slim tan corduroys, and dark brown suede boots, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife. Nariko told him he looked handsome.

Walter walked in distressed and visibly agitated. He asked Nariko if he could speak to her privately.  She moved with him into a corner, behind a refrigerator, inside a narrow hall between a bathroom and the washer and dryer.

“I’m not enjoying this evening,” he said. “I want to wrap it up and get a check from you if possible.”

“Did something happen?” she asked.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it. I am a professional. Diligence, integrity and honesty—that’s who I am. I don’t need any elderly messengers giving me advice. If you want to insult me do it to my face,” he said.

“What on Earth are you talking about?” she asked, completely mystified.

Someone opened the powder room door behind Nariko. She was pushed and thrust, face first, into the photographer’s chest and arms. He tried to step back, but there was nowhere to move. Three screaming children ran between Nariko and Walter’s legs.

“Your Aunt insulted me. Questioned my professional dedication and career. I don’t even know her. But you do. So she was obviously put up to it by you,” he said.

“She insults you and I’m at fault?” Nariko asked.

“Did she speak the truth? Did it sting and hurt? Be a man.”

“Like your husband?” Walter asked.

It came out of nowhere, anger and raw feeling.

“What do I owe you Walter?” she asked.

He had crossed that third rail of the Asian family, insulting an old relative.

“My rate is $300 an hour. I’ve been here three hours so that would be nine-hundred,” he said.

“For a children’s party? For your friend’s kid you rip me off with almost a thousand dollar fee? You pretentious piece of shit!”

“Oh man. You started something that we are going to have to settle legally,” he said and stormed out of the house.

Legal Entanglement

Walter sent a letter advising her, legally, to remove his name and photos from her website. She complied.

Despite his character deficits, Walter’s artistry, his reading of light and capture of mood and matter was peerless. Divorcing him from the last year of her nascent business, under threat of lawsuit, wounded. For she had formed and built in the backyard, by her own hand and heart, something tangible, recorded for posterity, creatively photographed in collaboration, and now cruelly stolen.

Walter’s erasure also robbed her of a man who was her equal, a self-made artist who made a profit doing what he loved. She still had Eric at home, a husband, a father and a breadwinner, deficient in all these titles.

He still went on his errands, taking Lillian to school, training her to ride a bike, painting the kitchen, even making love as if they were still in love.

Eric joined a swim club that met weekly in Van Nuys, and he rode his bike on Saturdays with other guys in Griffith Park, finishing off his ride with a meet up at the Golden Road Brewery where the men’s talk was always about what it might take to open and operate a brewery.

In pursuit of opportunity he sat many hours alone at Starbucks staring at digital devices while mimicking paid work. Unemployed and content, he was relieved to be outside the walls of Warner Brothers.

Another year had passed and the chill returned to Los Angeles.

The clock fell back one hour into long dark nights anesthetized in wine, burning logs and pine.

Alone on Christmas Eve, the family watched The World of Susie Wong.

Nariko looked around her den, and saw that she was taken care of, surrounded by love and nice things. Eric lay on a fur rug playing checkers with Lillian near the tinsel tree. They were laughing and making up nonsensical words, roughhousing, kissing, hugging and playing together. Nothing Walter might ever add into his photographic fakery could top this.

She got up and walked into her studio to check her email. She had a calendar to work on, and shipments to check up on. She also was conjuring up, in her head, a future of even better things to come.

Her habit of constantly trying to improve, to dream of more, to push into imagined triumphs, deadened these living and tender and fleeting times.

THE END.

Project Tokyo.

10275577374_529550ed4c_c

 

A tired LA talent agent escapes client abuse and seeks solace abroad in Japan.

Project Tokyo (Downloadable PDF)

I was walking around the Hollywood Farmers Market one Sunday in July when I went into an alley to sit down and smoke a joint. A tall, gym-toned,light-skinned black man, in an orange tank top and khaki shorts sat down next to me. “Can I get a drag?” he asked. I gave him my smoke and watched him suck: high cheekbones, full lips, wide open eyes.

He looked down at his phone and started playing a video. It was his Instagram. “WB11. Model, actor, but more a performer than anything,” he said.

I told him that I was a talent manager, but in truth, I was really a failed actor who came from Boston 20 years ago, never getting hired, paid or laid.

“Do you know Matan Sharon?” I asked him. That was my highest performing client.

“Is she somebody big?” he asked.

“Matan is a man. Yes. He’s doing well. He’s on CBS’s The Big Noodle,” I said.

He took another drag, stood up and thanked me again. I never thought I would see him again.

Then it was late October- dried leaves, paper goblins taped to windows, an extra blanket at night.

Alone, after a Woody Allen movie at the Arclight, I walked into the lobby and saw WB11.

His shiny black hair fell in waves on the back of his head. He carried himself in cocky ease, his long eyelashes slightly effeminizing, his broad shoulders and muscled arms disarmingly manly. He smelled like lime and tobacco.

“WB11! How ya doin?” I asked as if he were my best friend. I patted him the on the back, reminded him of the shared joint, congratulated him on Instagram, invited him to get coffee.

“Man, I would but I am waiting for my girl. You know YoungDoll?”

“Young Doll?” I asked. “Is she someone I should know?”

“Yeah. She’s the one I posted the video dancing with Rachel the Sriracha Lady at Spice Alley!”

I could only remember him…..in still images, his blue eyes and peanut butter complexion, his carved and chiseled body, his shirtless hikes atop Runyon Canyon. Everything concerning his face and body was in my mind, and I forgot anyone else connected to him.

“I’m an agent,” I blurted out, a line that functions as a stun gun to disable frantic and fast-moving narcissists.

“I’m 37. You know I was a model for 15 years and I want to transition to acting. Everyone thinks I’m 26,” he said.

“Do you want to sit down and talk?” I asked.

“Sure. Let’s go over to the restaurant and grab a beer,” he said. His previous appointment was forgotten, as quickly as a mosquito flies and lands on its next arm.

We sat down and ordered two ales. I drank mine fast as he ran down his bio. Born in Milwaukee, mom was German, dad was African-American, dropped out of Northern Illinois to model in New York, lived and in NYC for ten years, moved to Hollywood. Never acted, only modeled, had one son. “I’m really an actor,” he said.

I asked him if he studied acting. No.

Had he been on stage, in a theater group? No.

Was he a member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA-SAG? No.

What writers or playwrights did he admire? None.

What movies or TV shows had he seen? He couldn’t recall any.

What books did he read? What productions had he auditioned for? What did he do all day with his time and in pursuit of his goals?  He said he lived healthily and spiritually.

“What I really want to do Mario,” he said to me as he leaned over, “Is go to Japan. More than acting, more than modeling, more than money, I just dream of Japan.”

He spoke of his simple apartment, his barefoot walks atop freshly swept floors, his futon and white comforter on the floor, his burning Cedarwood incense, his daily drinks of green tea, his paper shaded lamps, his dinners of ramen and grilled salmon and noodles, his teenage forays into karate and judo.

He spoke angrily about LA. He hated trash on the street, loud neighbors, rude drivers, stolen bicycles, tagged walls, nightly sirens; helicopters cutting and slicing air, shining down beams of light that woke him up.

He described, in contrast, the peace he imagined in Japan, the civilization he knew existed over there. He was ready and willing to become an exile, to leave Los Angeles.

He licked his lips, dipped two fingers into his water and moistened his hair back. “I shower with Yuzu gel. I rub it into a sponge and then I put it all over my body. I turn the water up, nice and hot, and let it run all over. The suds go down the drain and the whole bathroom smells like grapefruit. I’m relaxed and rejuvenated.”

He told me about hanging copper rain chains from his fire escape and collecting the water in barrels as they do in Japan.

Ye shall know a man by his purchases.

Our curious session was over. He had asked no questions about me. We shook hands. And then, in the modern way, he leaned over, hugging and patting me in void intimacy.

I walked back through the blowing trash along Sunset, crossing Vine, and turned right on North El Centro, a winding, dark and atmospheric old street of worn down stucco apartments and cheap nostalgic sentiment, scented in jasmine and wan gloom.

Matan Sharon

Matan Sharon, my 27-year-old client, born in Israel, destroyed in Los Angeles, got a role on a CBS sitcom three years ago. He was well paid, and I skimmed 15% off and kept 85% of it in the bank and put 15% in the market.

Hollowed eyed, chain smoking, the most compelling young actor on television and the dullest in person, Matan was a manic depressive with wild mood swings and sudden fits of anger. He would tell me that I changed his life and made his dreams possible. And then he’d slam the phone down and say he hated my guts.

Matan introduced me to another actor, red-haired Dominique Mitterand, a Paris born model who came to Hollywood in 2009. She worked in a Silver Lake wine bar, and I signed her. Johnny Depp came into the shop to buy a case of wine, took her number, and within a week she was cast in a tentpole animated/live action squirrel movie eventually strung out into four sequels.

Larry Sheinbaum from Newton, MA was my childhood buddy. He dropped out of rabbinical school, moved to Hollywood, and created and produced “Little F-kn Bitches” a hit TV comedy show. When his son Mark graduated BU, I signed him and within six months Mark was the co-star of “Little F-kn Bastards”, his father’s new TV show.  I took 20% off the top of Mark’s salary and bought my parents a vacation home on Cape Cod.

In 2011, I was approached by Breakfast Plate Productions, Inc. and asked to come on as Executive Producer on a new reality show about people stranded in the Arctic who struggle to find hot breakfast in a sea of snow.  Two months after I joined, I had a falling out with Martin Kampfer because I criticized his choice of shoes before an important meeting with executives.

I was making money.

Yet I was empty, so empty, so fed up, so tired, so utterly tired.

Sun Down Days

Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the three holiest days in the American calendar, came and went, and again I found myself pushed into another 21st Century year. January, fresh, untested, unsullied, born free of blood, conflict or tears, came out of the womb of time, enveloping mankind as a tangible measurement of life’s passing and eternity.

I sat at my desk under a skylight into which poured the mockingly happy sun that illuminates all of Los Angeles, daring a city to cry.

I opened the glass casement doors onto my balcony and walked into a living dead winter garden of white roses and pots of lavender, hummingbirds dancing above the electric water fountain, indestructible mossy green succulents, and preternaturally red geraniums from the Home Depot, grown in Supersoil, sold in six pack.

I had grown old.

Now I lived in the new land of online and passed from my late 30s into my early 50s watching a computer screen.

I thought of my old Italian grandmother, Martina, sitting at her window sill at 150 Salem Street in the North End of Boston, a smart, strong lady who raised six children and read one book in her life, chewing rhubarb candy, resting her meaty arm on a pillow surveying the street, every day, for many hours. “Look Mario they put a parking ticket on that car!”

Life is time passed mostly in looking out.

I could not sit and watch my street as nobody walked down it. Instead, I sat out on the balcony in the afternoon sun, resolute only in my will not to walk back inside.

I pulled out my telephone, as men once pulled out their cigarette; my security device, my reassurance, my prop to steady a life unsure of its next step.

Walter Benton had texted me: Come to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market at Spice Alley on Sunday at 11am.

Sunday in Los Angeles

I ran on the treadmill Saturday night, ate a healthy dinner and went to bed at 11 O’Clock. I awoke at 7am, showered and cleaned the apartment, dusting the floors, bleaching the bathroom, washing my laundry and hanging up t-shirts to dry in the wind.

Something existential had bothered me the day before, but I had shaken it off the next morning. As an added insurance of happiness, I checked my Fidelity investment account and it had gained $4,560 in the last three months.

I vowed to eat healthy. I opened a yogurt and poured granola into a bowl, mixing it with a banana and fresh strawberries.

I arrived at the market around 10:30 and made my way over to the landscaped brick alley where the city government and private enterprise startled the City of Angels with pavers, plantings and LED lighting.  As I walked passed Velvet Margarita’s patio, Matan sat and drank a frozen margarita with my other client Dominique.

I walked over to say hello.  Matan smoked illegally and ignored me. Icy eyed Dominique looked over.  Again I said hello.

“I heard you the first time!” Matan shouted. “Get the fuck out of our space Mario!”

“Don’t you know we are sick of you?” Dominique yelled. “Sick of your bullshit, your self-centeredness, your uppity Hollywood attitude. We are eating alone and just want to be left alone!”

“Don’t call me again Mario!” Matan screamed. “We’re finished and we are getting the fuck out of your clutches! We’re having a meeting to figure out how to destroy you!”

Between them both they had both earned almost $10 million dollars in the last five years.  I somehow, against all reason, had considered them friends. For years, I had fought for their successes, covered up their failures, made up excuses for their behaviors.

I walked up the alley shaking and humiliated. And then, I, still bruised, at the Hepps Salt Bar, saw Walter Benton with his phone, filming himself singing to the salt.

I came closer. He was unaware as I watched him dance a trance of mono-choreography.

“You see you just take a little of the spicy salt, the chipotle and sprinkle it on the avocado and then you chop, like this, the tomato, and you take your fork and you mash it around, like this, like this…”

His hips and legs swerved and his arms were akimbo. He sang and rapped a capella, lyrical and lithe, on his feet, his tight tank top and tanned arms performing for his smart phone.  “Come to me, come to me salt, make me happy and give me pleasure!”  It made me laugh and think of Harry Belafonte.

I had walked down that Hollywood alley, for only 10 minutes. But in that time I had passed through satisfaction, assault, degradation, rejection, humiliation and, now, finally, laughter.

“Hey, Walter! I’m here!” I said aloud, almost assuring myself as surely as I was alerting him.  He kept dancing, looked over and nodded.

After he stopped, we went down the alley, sat on a stoop in the sun and smoked a joint. He had invited me, expressly and exclusively, for just this moment. 

Christa McCarthy

After the actors’ alley attack I needed to get away. Revenge of some sort, the subtlest kind, came into my head. I booked a Tokyo flight and hotel.  Before my trip, I erected some talent to bolster my roster.

With Matan and Dominique plotting something evil, I hunkered down and met a very fat and homely 38-year-old comedian, Christa McCarthy, from Lawrence, MA. She had come by and cried about her bad luck and broken dreams. She grabbed my Bay State heart and I signed her.

Christa booked a recurring role on Fox’s “87”, a sci-fi series about zombies living in Palm Springs. Christa played a fitness instructor who worked undercover as a government agent. She eventually won an Emmy and her salary increased to $500,000 an episode. I took 15% and invested most of it in Asian Mutual Funds.

When I called Christa to congratulate her on the Emmy, she burst out in tears and said, “You were the whole reason that I am who I am today! I really thank you from the bottom of my heart Mario!”

I was touched, and finally felt some measure of gratitude, appreciation and loyalty from one of my most successful clients.

A week later, I received a letter from Christa’s attorney, Rita Kleinfelder, informing me that I was no longer representing her client.

To understand, comprehend or reason why is not for the Angeleno to know. Our city, like Baghdad or Damascus, is cursed by sudden and inexplicable explosions of fraternal disorder, irrational and cruel, inhuman and inane, permanent shearing of ties between lovers, friends and family. In their wake, the victims pick up the shards of love and memory and place them into an emotional suitcase, tied together with frayed string, shoved into the back seat on a journey riding the freeways and potholed streets over and over again. They drive until death, in search of some sure sign, safe exit and smooth pavement, accelerating in futility into eternity.

Hotel Celestine 

The lady clerk bowed when I entered the elevator at Tokyo’s Hotel Celestine. Silently, I glided up to my little white room overlooking the skyscrapers, a room entered into with a key card, a green light, a waiting pair of slippers, terry cloth bathrobe and the comforting hum of the Panasonic remote controlled air-conditioner.

I sat on the toilet, pushed a button and felt a spray of warm water shoot up into my anus.  I walked into the shower and turned the perfectly tuned hot-cold faucet to 40 C.  I worked a foamy menthol shower gel into my jet-fatigued body and stood under the spray for a good fifteen minutes.

I fell down on the bed and curled up under the blanket. I awoke at 3:30am and having nothing to do, decided to get up, wide-awake, put on my khakis, white t-shirt, blue sweater and go downstairs and walk out onto the dark and uninhabited streets of Minato.

Occasionally, at 4am, a taxi drove by. I walked passed a man sweeping an office lobby. But mostly the city was asleep. And I was alone, in an exquisitely safe landscape, without real danger, save for the one in my imagination.

I took a walk, a far walk, into the Ginza, where the lights on the stores and the buildings still burned brightly with energy, vitality, freedom, prosperity and pride.

Just before dawn, I reached Tsukiji Fish Market in the dark, busy as hell, with trucks, workers, and a flood of tourists inside. The air smelled marine, fishy and salty and smoked in diesel.

I entered one of the busy alleys, where boxes and men on wheels, pushing and driving, steering fish and fish parts, passed me in flashes. They hauled large and small cargoes of the sea, loading and unloading, stacking and uncrating oceanic produce: freshly killed, still swimming, captured and sold against their will.

I took out my Fujifilm camera and aimed it at two young guys in vinyl suits, joyfully riding past me in a yellow Komatsu Forklift. “Take more photos!” they exuberantly yelled in English.

A faint sun came over. I walked into a sushi stall, sat down and devoured a dish of fresh shrimp, mackerel, yellowtail, sea urchin, salmon roe; washed down with a hot cup of green tea.

The chefs and owners bowed and thanked me as I left. I walked out of the market and back towards the Ginza and beyond, until, six hours later, I reached the Marunouchi, between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace.

It was a Friday afternoon, around lunch, and suits and dresses poured out of office buildings, an army of homogeneity, not only in race but dress. Gray haired bankers and smooth faced women with designer bags hurried along into basement food courts. I got carried into their crowd and descended into low ceilinged halls of mouth-masked hawkers with plastic gloves selling box lunches of beef stew, rice, fried fish, pickled vegetables.  Skinny men in suits stood at magazine stands reading comics. It was a clean crowd, packed in politeness, energetic, unflappable, professional, but the indoor air was suffocating.

I came up again, into the fresh air of day, and passed along the sidewalk exquisite luxury clothing in the windows: fur collared cashmere coats, tweed jackets, handmade leather shoes, colorful sweaters, gray wool men’s suits, retailers Beams, Tomorrowland, Prada, Tom Ford, Paul Smith. Behind every freshly wiped and dust free plate glass, shop girls and shop guys, waiting and bowing, walking and folding. The servers smiled upon the served, a theater of national manners enhancing the products, living people and dead products: seductive, elegant, tailored and merchandised.

At a sculpture garden carved between tall towers, a trio played for an attentive audience as water dripped through a stream bed of plantings, under the watchful eye of navy suited security guards. Along the perimeter, surrounding the enclosure, people sat at tables drinking wine and coffee.

An old cane-carrying man, in plaid wool pants, tight knit shirt and straw hat, sat on a bench next to me. He discreetly took his little camera up to his eyes and aimed it at me.

I was in that strange, enchanted land where strangers considered me special and photograph worthy.

I walked to Yurakucho Station and rode up to the platform, standing in line behind two women waiting for the next train arriving in two minutes, which it did.  On board, I stood silent with the other silent riders.  I watched a young girl, maybe 5 years old, bow to an older seated woman as the younger child disembarked with her mom at Hamamatsucho Station.  It was a touching moment of interaction and civility.

Near Tamachi Station, I purchased a bottle of water at a convenience store and paid with a handful of coins. The clerk took my money and laid it out on a tray as if they were diamonds. With his straightedge, he lined them up and separated the denominations, gently guiding them into his till. Then he bowed and thanked me.

I, an American, passed people on the street on the way back to my hotel, people who walked in security and were unworried about getting accidentally shot or mugged, people who worked at jobs without fear of dismissal, people who ate small portions and stayed thin until death, people who saved money but dressed well, people who lived in unlocked houses and apartments, people who knew if they fell sick they would not die from bankruptcy.

When calamity struck the nation, in typhoon or quake, and people died or suffered, it came from nature, not the Republican Party.

My last hours in Japan were spent on the roof of Narita Airport in the sunset watching the planes take off on the tarmac.  My baggage was already loaded onto the plane, yet I thought, I fantasized, about walking back down to the train and riding back into Tokyo, so in love was I with Japan and so in dread of returning to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

No Gifts 

I had never before taken a trip overseas without buying something to take back to a friend.  Yet this time I vowed to come home with nothing. Nobody would receive anything thoughtful or sentimental. No one.

Ten hours later I was descending into the new international terminal at LAX, a place of soaring spaces and dirty windows, striking architecture and slow luggage. I waited an hour for my one small case to come around the conveyer belt. And then I got in line to go through customs, with all the other citizens of the world yelled at and screamed at in English (the only language!) and told to hand their papers to an fat monster immigration lady strapped and stuffed in tight trousers and black holster.

I turned my phone back on and saw twenty likes on my Instagram page from WB11. I was as delighted as if he had come in person to the airport and thrown his arms around me to welcome me back.

I got in a cab and we drove onto the 405. There was traffic of course and the driver had his radio on. He looked back at me, “Some dude is attempting to kill himself and jump off the 105 bridge,” he said.

“God I’m so tired. I just want to go to sleep,” I said as I slumped into the back seat.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Japan,” I said.

“Oh, Japan. That’s like the world capital of suicide. I heard they kill themselves as easily as we blow our noses.  Why are they so miserable? Is it because they all live so close together?”

A Foreign City

Sanguine, harmonious, unbothered, I came back into town resolved to drop the bitter tics pulling me into inclement alliances, tempestuous furies, thundering madness.  Maybe my peace would come from drinking hot sake, or perhaps from cutting off anyone who wronged me. I would search no more for love and seek no solace in friends.

I bought a blue glass Buddha and placed it on my desk near the south-facing window, dreaming that the light pouring into it might materialize into atmospheric tranquility to breathe into my soul.

For weeks I hardly went online and I put my many phones on vibrate. Clients sent me emails and I answered in rote brevity: yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. 

I went for train rides into the innards of Los Angeles, taking the Metro into East Los Angeles, up to Pasadena, down to Long Beach, over to North Hollywood. I walked and rode and biked and hardly took my Jag out of the garage. I grew a beard and wore a wool driving cap indoors and out.

One night I was alone, at The Federal on Lankershim drinking an Ommegang Ale. Matan Sharon, in black leather motorcycle jacket, white jeans, suede boots, red scarf and perfectly coiffed windswept gelled hair, walked into the bar and sat down next me, apparently unaware that I was there.

I didn’t say a word to him. The new me was silent, observant, full of compassion. I had infused the calm acceptance of Japan into my life.

I ordered another beer, and still Matan was seemingly unaware of me. The full beer came and before I could drink it he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry. I acted like a jerk.”

I looked at him for a moment and smiled.

And then I picked up the full pint and dumped it on his head.  I left the bar, walked across the street, and got on the train.

Nobody genuinely sorry ever apologizes in Los Angeles. They want something for their remorse. Remember that if you think I was wrong.

Walter Benton

Walter Benton was busy renovating his body online. He had fast little shirtless videos- of six seconds each- pumping weights and breathing hard. He posted his Photoshopped face, shaven and unshaven, his hair straightened and kinky, his complexion white one day, black the next. He uploaded a saying: “Seek Respect Not Attention.”

He would probably never make me a dime, but I signed him. He became my client: gigantically insignificant, remotely unpromising, touched with multi-racialism, rap, abs, a tinge of gayness; a synthetic (his description) “semi-nigger” of no particular origin or destination whose streaming form danced on my phone entertaining and titillating me.

He stomped online in cut off shorts, bobbed up and down in the gym, ran fast down the alley, dropping to his knees and raising his hairy armpits in victorious fists.

A year passed and I never spoke to him. We only communicated with hearts.

I wonder if he ever got over to Tokyo.

END