Trade For Print

trade-for-print-photo-1

Trade For Print

a short story

 By Andrew B. Hurvitz

 

An unscrupulous photographer lures a postal worker into fraud by offering young love for sale.

There was a photographer who lived and worked at the Tri-Pines Manor apartment on Chandler Bl. in North Hollywood.

After leaving work at the post office I’d see him, in the late afternoon, from the windows of my moving bus. He stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring out somewhere, camera around his neck.

He had short gray hair and a handsome tan. He favored dark, cuffed jeans, and black lace shoes worn sockless. And, white t-shirts with sleeves rolled up, in pre-determined casualness, around muscular arms.

If my bus stopped at the red light at Colfax, I might get to see him shooting a young, fit person leaning against a decrepit, shabby apartment building.

Seeing him work with sparkling young people was a vicarious pleasure for me, neither erotic nor spiritual; but uplifting, like a bubbly, lemony gin and tonic.

The Woman at the Counter

Once a week, on Friday mornings, Luisa Lopez visited the post office. She was old and proper. Her silver hair was tied in a bun. She always wore a wooden cross around her neck, a belted cotton dress and black safety shoes.

She brought packages for her son, Sr. Guillermo Calderon Lopez, who lived at the Hotel De Mendoza on the Calle Venustiano Carranza in Guadalajara, Mexico.

One day, for no particular reason, I put one of her un-mailed packages into my backpack, waited until my 4:45pm release and left work with it.

Something dark and imperceptibly wrong propelled me to act badly. I have no other explanation.

Mediocrity

Dina, my ex-girlfriend, who still works at the North Hollywood Post Office, told me I was a mediocre man who never did well at anything. She said my joy was watching other people fail.

For an excuse I offered my childhood in celebrity-saturated Studio City. I grew up with gorgeous parents all around me: blonde mothers who booked shampoo commercials and drove convertibles in dark sunglasses. They were married to heroic fathers who coached Little League and squinted into the sun like Clint Eastwood. My own family compared unfavorably to these perfect nuclear units.

My parents were not good looking. They ran a lock and key shop on Sherman Way. Later on they expanded to sell fireproof safes and burglar alarms.

In pursuit of not failing and not succeeding I went through North Hollywood High School, Valley College, a stint at Ralph’s Market, a four-year sojourn living in Idaho working at Walmart, then back to North Hollywood. I took a civil service exam and got into the Post Office before thirty.

I also had a secret routine at work involving my breaks.

I would go outside into my blue, vinyl upholstered Chevy Nova, turn on the air-conditioning, open the glove compartment, take out and swig some Old Smuggler Blended Scotch Whiskey. I’d stay there for ten minutes and go back into work.

Buzzed, selling stamps, sorting mail, pushing carts full of packages, the clock moved quickly, the day was over and I had completed my tasks.

Accomplished nothing but earned money.

 At Work

There was a kitchen in the back of our workplace, adjacent to the loading dock, where they had industrial strength coffee and those powdered packets to flavor it.

On Fridays, we ordered pizza from Little Toni’s. Dina was there too. Unfortunately.

She wore a frumpy blue uniform to compliment her bleached streaked hair and goldfish shaped brown eyes.

One day she accused me of grabbing the last greasy slice of cheese and sausage.

“You’re a lonely, self-centered drunk. So I wouldn’t expect you to think about common courtesy,” she said.

“I’m glad you think I’m selfish, lonely and drunk. Now I can be like everyone else,” I said.

Her summing up against me felt good, for now I mattered again.

After that I had to blow off some steam. So I walked home on the sidewalk, under the shade trees, beside the Busway, along Chandler Blvd.

As I reached the red light at Colfax, I passed the two-story tall Tri-Pines Manor Apartments. It had no pines, no plants, no grass, no charm.

The photographer was outside, smoking a cigarette, talking on his mobile phone, gesticulating, arguing in Hebrew, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.

I had empathy for his angst. I thought, maybe, he was screaming at a woman.

I stopped, smiled at him and waited for the light. He looked back at me, nodded and walked over.

“The only people who are worse than the Jews are the Armenians! And I’m a Jew so I can say that! My landlady won’t let me back in my apartment and she lives next door!”

“Are you locked out?” I asked.

“Of course I am! Ani is angry because a few times a week I lock myself out. I come outside to smoke, so I don’t dirty the apartment, make the carpet smell, turn the walls yellow. I do it out of consideration for her! And now she is making me wait out here. To punish me!”

He threw his butt over a frayed rope fence enclosing a drought-murdered dirt yard. It landed in a yellow porcelain toilet next to the sidewalk. “I have to call her and she lives next door!”

“Now she comes,” he said motioning to the landlady on the second floor. “Ok. See you later Mr. Postman.” He ran upstairs into his unit.

He must have recognized me from the post office.

 A Confession

On Saturday’s, my half-day at work, there was a North Hollywood Farmer’s Market set up on Bakman Avenue near the post office. Stalls of produce, along with unbearably ugly crafts, jockeyed for dollars.

Well-meaning people were always there under tents peddling brochures for CPR training, massage therapy, welding internships, immigration services, pre-natal care, and nighttime biking outings for the transgendered.

It was an attempt, along with a recently constructed subway train, to hobble together a real town and a real place amidst the wasteful, sprawling discordance of the San Fernando Valley.

South of Sunrise Ford, there was an imaginatively named “Arts District”, without much art, but plenty of bars. In Los Angeles, some people believe that imaginary names, like Little Tehran or Little Tokyo, create actual places resembling their antecedents.

I had come to the outdoor market with my recyclable bag to load up on provisions, such as turnip greens, parsnips and jicama, foods whose preparations were beyond my abilities.

But I didn’t go there just for food. I had placed myself where gorgeous people gathered. My homely invisibility allowed me to watch, without being watched.

After buying some yellow tomatoes, I sat under a shaded canopy on the steps of SGI Buddhist Center.

A lean, tall, young Asian man in white t-shirt and 1950s rolled-up Levi’s approached me. He had extraordinarily wide-set eyes set symmetrically into a high cheek-boned face. His black hair was pomaded back, brushed high, and parted straight. His cinematic handsomeness reminded me of an old Kinoshita directed melodrama.

“Are you waiting to get in?” he asked, holding his head inquisitively. He spoke with a Japanese accent.

“No. Just sitting,” I answered.

“I am waiting to go into the center. Do you want to come inside with me when the doors open?” he asked.

His manner, so gentle, so caressing, traversed some strange territory of inquiry I could not ascertain. Was he hitting on me? Was he being kind? What were his motives?

He extended a hand to introduce himself.

“My name is Sora Kumo. And yours?”

“Al Stephenson,” I said.

“You must come in Mr. Al. Join us in chanting. We are a very special place. We are a community. We welcome all people. You will like it. We will surround you in love.” He spoke mechanically, like Siri on iphone.

He chop-sticked two long fingers into his wallet and slid out a card, handing it to me.

It said, “Chant the words Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo every day and you will find bliss and harmony and a place without worry.”

He leaned his wiry frame along an angled steel bannister beckoning me to follow. He continued to look into me as if he were trying to pull truth out.

“Sometimes I am lost in the grip of sadness. You see my mother in Japan died last year. She wore wooden shoes and had beautiful feet. She fell down on the rocks near the sea. And I was very sad. I cried because she was gone so young. I was only 25. Now I have no mother. Chanting gives me serenity,” he said.

My induction into the cult was stalled by a new arrival. The photographer.

“Mr. Postman. Are you shopping for fresh foods?”

He carried a camera hung around his neck and a backpack.

“I see you and Sora are friends. Hello Sora,” he said.

“Hello Amir. Good to see you again,” said Sora.

A woman inside the center unlocked the doors to the Buddhist facility. Sora made his way up the steps.

“Please come in Al,” he said and then turned icily towards Amir. “You reject our community so I won’t ask you.”

“Nice meeting you Sora,” I said, declining an invitation into a world of magical transformation.

After Sora left, the photographer smiled at me and shook his head. “He was a big model a few years ago. I shot a campaign with him for Levi’s. Then he got into this place. And all he talks about is chanting. Praying to what? I don’t know. And he doesn’t even want to model now. I got out of Israel because I couldn’t stand all the religion. And in LA you have it even worse. They pull in all the weak people. Tell them lies and they believe it,” he said.

He spoke in muscular, sweeping pronouncements, delivered in a guttural, militaristic, unsentimental way. He verged on steely obnoxiousness, but it was tempered by a kind of fatherly kindness, and weary wisdom. He seemed accepting and tolerant. When he spoke of all the weak people I felt he understood me.

“On the day I met you I stole something from work. I have been torn up and destroying myself over my misdeed. I guess I’m weak too,” I said.

“Do you still have the stolen item?” he asked.

“Yes. I didn’t open it. I put it under my bed,” I said.

“So go home and take it back to work. Mail it out. If you don’t interfere with the delivery you are fine. Everyone knows the mail is slow,” he said.

“Yeah but why would I steal in the first place?” I asked.

He lit a cigarette, inhaled, and slowly, intentionally, exhaled.

“Don’t ask why. We don’t live long enough to know,” he said. I had no response.

We sat silently, lost in the torrid, heavy air of Los Angeles, marooned in wordless speech.

That hot afternoon, the sky was full of wispy cirrus clouds so feathery, so brushed, in streaks of cream on blue flying by fast on desert winds; powerful winds that assaulted the ground and bent the palm trees into frightened old men and blew street trash out of town.

“You want to get a beer?” Amir asked. And I agreed.

We walked to The Federal Bar, a brown-brick, former bank building restored in stylish dilapidation. Inside were many craft beers on tap, and many stools and chairs occupied by pretty people who examined everyone who entered, except me.

We sat down on green velvet sofas, away from the crowds, in a wood paneled, grimy windowed, dark back room. We drank, for two hours, chasing obliteration before sundown.

An Offer

 We left the bar at dusk and walked down Wellington, stopping to chat at an empty lot. He took out a pack of Marlboro’s.

“Do you mind?” he asked.

“No. Go ahead. I grew up with cigarettes. When I’m in their haze I feel like a kid again,” I said.

“Tell me. Are you satisfied?” he asked.

“Not really,” I answered.

“What’s missing?” he asked.

“Sex. I make enough money to get by but I really want sex. I’m lonely, starving,” I said.

As we talked, three teen-aged girls walked by.

“Like them?” he asked.

“Who wouldn’t? I haven’t kissed a 16-year-old girl since I was 17. I try to stay innocent,” I said.

“You Americans are guilty of too much innocence!” he said.

“And you? What is your angle?” I asked.

“I photograph young women. They’re school kids walking from high school past my apartment. I get them right in the door,” he said, as if he were recounting the capture of fireflies in a glass jar.

“I tell them I’ll make them famous. 9 out of 10 do it for free. I call it “trade for print,” he explained.

“Do you have a website?” I asked, intensely curious to see his work.

“I never use the internet. I shoot film. I print up magazines. I have subscribers around the world who subscribe to Junior Pussy. It’s the name of the publication. It costs $110 a year, it’s published quarterly and I have 16,000 subscribers,” he said.

His journals were sent out internationally the old fashioned way, through the mail.

I asked him if he were afraid of getting caught.

He was sanguine in his response.

“My work is artistic. I’m contributing to the self-confidence of young people. Some of the girls are very sophisticated. They are sexually promiscuous. They take money for sex. Not for modeling. I never pay them to model. That would be wrong.”

He made an offer to me. He said he would pay me a few hundred dollars a month if I would help mail his items to international destinations by officially falsifying the contents.

“What do I get out of it besides money? I’m pretty satisfied with my income,” I told him.

“If I showed you a few girls who are open to meeting you, I mean really gorgeous, precious, soft, kissable, hot young things, you would melt and get down on your knees and thank me. They are like manna from heaven,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Sorry Bud,” I said.

His smile turned acrid. He now looked at me with derision and disgust.

“You’re a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bald spot and an average face. I’m offering you opportunities you can only dream of,” he said poking my gut. “Look at you. What woman would consider you? I’m giving you a free pass to ecstasy.”

“Thanks. But insulting me isn’t winning me over,” I said. He was not dissuaded.

“You told me something today you shouldn’t have. If I wanted to I could contact your supervisor and get you fired. Or worse,” he said.

He was referring to my earlier admission of mail fraud. And now he made me an offer to commit more of it.

“I’m only human. I told you something because I trusted you. Why do you want to hold that over me?” I asked.

He told me that financially and sexually he was helping me in two ways. Why would I stand in the way when there was so much mutual benefit?

He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and gave me a friendly, thumbing massage.

“Relax. Don’t try to be so human. It will destroy your life,” he said. We crossed Bakman and passed the SGI Buddhist Center where we again sat down on the steps.

“Keep repeating nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” he said.

He had co-opted that sacred chant for nefarious purposes.

I began to repeat it to calm myself. Words to soothe my guilt over future crimes. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

 

The Law

In our postal cafeteria, tacked to a corkboard, was the following notice:

 “Section 1470 of Title 18, United States Code, prohibits any individual from knowingly transferring or attempting to transfer obscene matter using the U.S. mail or any means or facility of interstate or foreign commerce to a minor under 16 years of age. Convicted offenders face fines and imprisonment for up to 10 years.

In addition, Section 1466A of Title 18, United State Code, makes it illegal for any person to knowingly produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to transfer or distribute visual representations, such as drawings, cartoons, or paintings that appear to depict minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and are deemed obscene.”

 On lunch break, drinking my usual pint of chocolate milk, I’d stand near the vending machine and review the US Federal Obscenity Laws, taped to a wall, while casually and quickly denying any of them applied to me. Often a milk mustache would walk out of the cafeteria with me indicating my carelessness and disregard for detail.

I wasn’t sending obscene materials to minors. I certainly wasn’t sending illustrations such as drawings, cartoons or paintings. My reading of the law was selective.

So I continued my arrangements with Amir.

I walked over to his apartment, a couple times a week, and went upstairs, into stale smoke, trampled shag carpeting, and yellow curtains, pulled shut against invasive, blinding afternoon sun.

In his living room, he set up a soft-box light, camera on tripod, and sheets pinned to the walls and the ceiling. The young and pretty students came, undressed, and sat on the sofa, naked, under our gaze. Amir directed them to curl up, spread out and seduce.

After the shoot, he’d hand some of them two-hundred bills and guide the girls into another room, a bedroom, where they would climb under a white comforter, pulled up to their naked necks, and wait for me to enter.

Every week I had a new, young delight. After exhausting myself in sexual intercourse I’d marvel that I had somehow stepped into a world of fantasy that few middle-aged men experience.

After the client had left, I’d hang around Amir’s apartment. He handed me dozens of brown, soft packages, ready to mail to Dubai, Russia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Greece, Sweden and Israel.

I sent out his subscription magazines at work. He became my second employer, turning me into a shadow broker of sorts between him and the US Postal Service.

Renata

One day Amir asked me to go by myself to meet a new client, 18-year-old Renata Lopez. After work, I walked over to North Hollywood High School, wearing a red cap as an identifier. I was there to bring her to a hair stylist for a pre-shoot blowout.

At 5pm she walked out of the school, down the steps, and shyly said hello. She was short, with brownish reddish hair, deep brown eyes and pouty lips that curled into a sardonic smile. She effused wholesomeness in a petite blue cardigan and pleated gray skirt. I introduced myself and we crossed Colfax over to Rita’s Salon.

Rita, a stout Vaca Negra about 40, with cherry red lips and linear eyebrows, ushered Rita into a chair. I sat down on a bench amidst old copies of Men’s Journal, Esquire and dog-eared National Enquirers.

I watched as Rita enrobed Renata in a white cotton smock. Its angelic countenance flattered her dark, brooding beauty. Adjectives danced around inside my head.

Mesmerizing

Soft

Alluring

Pure

Girlish

The procedure began with washing, then blow dryer and brushing, more blowing; and then the combing, the fluffing and the drying. The hot air lifted the young woman’s hair up, like the windy, fluttering tail on a galloping horse.

The shop got hot. Rita turned on a tall, metal floor fan. It blew out chemical, childish, adult scents of baby powder, peroxide and hair spray.

I had placed the LA Times sports page over my crotch, covering a growing erection. I was quite ready to explode.

And then the blowout ended.

Renata was un-buttoned, brushed all over. She sauntered over to the register. I paid $40 plus $5 tip. We walked out and proceeded to Amir’s apartment.

The Fruit Cart

At Chandler and Colfax, Cesar operated his snack cart. Renata and I stopped there. She ordered fresh fruits seasoned with red chili powder.

“Hola Cesar! Me gustaría melón, pepino, melón, sandía, plátano, piña, aguacate y un poco de chile en polvo y cal por favor,” she said. And then turning to me, “Would you like one too Al?” I declined but watched her partake.

Wistfully observing this Latina, I thought of how I grew up in this state, thinking my ethnicity the norm, only to find myself living in another country.

We white, monolingual fools who were born, work and live in [I wrote this down on a slip of paper] “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”, who are we but Anglo aliens in Latino heaven? We are wandering, plastic, pale, dumb, blank-faced, insensate orphans of language, faith and culture. We are lost, dreadfully marooned, and insignificant in a sea of Spanish.

The young, beautiful girl next to me spoke it and I didn’t. She knew something deeper, felt it, and consumed it. Something I could not. I realized all this at Cesar’s Fruit Cart.

Box City

We walked up to Amir’s apartment and knocked on the door. I also rang the doorbell to no affect. I texted him, and called him. No answer.

“I can’t wait too long. My grandma is cooking dinner. I have to leave by 6:30,” Renata said.

“This is strange. He told me to go meet you, to take you to the hair salon, and then walk over here,” I said, attempting to stall her.

She sat down on the steps and I tried his number again. It was a strange evening of events, of actions undertook under weird directions, and I was here, with an underage girl, waiting for an appointment from a man I did not trust.

“It’s raining,” Renata said. She held out her hand to catch the first few raindrops. I was in disbelief not imagining it was real.

“I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for the rain since March,” she said.

“I’ve been waiting for 25 years,” I answered.

Under the building overhang, we waited and we watched the trickling rain. We heard the car tires on Chandler as they slushed through puddles and slid. We were periodically deafened by the timed regularity of planes landing at Burbank Airport, their acoustics amplified by mountains and clouds.

For now we stayed still, but all around us, on road and sky, movement.

I wanted more of a hard, cleansing rain, but it never came. And that begrudging, stingy deity who reigns over Los Angeles withheld his baptizing showers, again.

Renata said good-bye and we both left Tri-Pines.

Waiting

A strange interlude of silence, a malignant calm, descended upon my life.

I went to work as usual, riding the bus to the post office. I processed packages, pushed baskets of mail on the floor, waited on familiar faces. Reliably, assuredly, I stayed inside of my routine, unaware of impending events.

I stopped at Amir’s place and bumped into Ani, the building manager. She told me her tenant had cut out of town and moved back to Tel Aviv. “He has a lot of money. He owes me three months of rent. I bet he screwed you too,” she said.

Back at work, on Friday, Luisa Lopez came in. She walked up to my counter, but she had no package in her hand. Her face was full of sorrow and grief.

“My friend I come to tell you that my dear, sweet, wonderful granddaughter was killed. Crossing the street in front of the bus. Just like that. She is no more. So I have no reason to come here. Her father, my son, has come back from Mexico and is staying with me. I am in such pain you can’t know. I hope you don’t suffer as I am suffering,” she said.

I reached for some quick words to comfort her, but I was lost and blindsided by self-pity.

“What can I possibly do?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just nothing. I did not want you to worry. Now you know why I don’t come here any more. Please go to the church or wherever you worship, and say a prayer,” she said. And she elbowed out of the building, through the old wood and glass doors, a black shawl draped around her shoulders.

Under the Bed/Beyond the Window

That night I went back to my apartment, dug deep under the bed and pulled out the taped package stolen from Luisa. I sliced it open with a steak knife.

I found printed photographs of a young woman, 4 x 6 snapshots paper clipped together. And a cheery looking letter, in Spanish, hand written on yellow stationary decorated with white daisies.

I perused each picture. I saw a young woman at Disneyland, then she was on the beach, then sitting at a picnic bench surrounded by family, in another holding a small white dog.

All this was useless to me. What did I care?

Then I looked closer at the girl in the photos.

It was Renata Lopez.

Return

The next morning on my way to work, I followed the return address on the envelope and found myself on Lemp Avenue, a street of pleasant homes next to the Hollywood Freeway. I held the package with the photos inside and walked up the street, feeling as if I were falsely impersonating a postman.

As I neared a small 1940s ranch house, there was Luisa, corn broom in hand, cleaning her driveway. Lost in grief, she was assured in her chores. Leaves were swept aside, a reassertion of woman over nature. How many times in history have brooms assisted in the rebuilding of ravaged lives?

“My goodness. Now you deliver the mail too!” she said.

“Actually I came to give you your package which ended up in our lost and found. I apologize for this,” I said.

She took the package from me and examined it in frank heartbreak. Her eyes swelled up again. Her frail hands pried open the tape. She removed the photos, cautiously, for they were irreplaceable. Yet she did not look at them.

“God bless you. You are the one who brought me something beyond words. This is holy. This is sacred. This is my Renata and here she is alive. She is young and full of hope. This is whom I lost. Such love and innocence. When she walked in the house the first thing she would say is, “Hola mi querida abuela estoy en casa!”

Mi querida abuela.

My dear grandma.

Heard no more.

 Epilogue

After my scene with Luisa, I walked down Chandler, past the park, past the fire station, and into the post office parking lot. A small world taken for granted, mine enjoyed in liberty.

Outside of the back entrance were four men and a woman, officials from the Office of the Inspector General. I walked past all of them standing mutely, emitting their static electricity of suspicion.

Dina stood in the doorway, arms folded, almost blocking it.

She looked at me and shook her head. “These people are here for you,” she said. I turned around and saw law enforcement walk up the stairs, onto the loading dock and surround me.

A navy shirted woman, armed, with badge, approached me. She informed me that I was under arrest on suspicion of fraud and intentional misuse and violation of international mails, of sending indecent materials related to child pornography.

You have the right to remain silent, to consult an attorney. It all rushed past my ears like wind.

I was handcuffed. Then Dina came out and stood in front of me. “I knew you would get it bad. I just didn’t know how or when or why,” she said.

I could sink no lower. Her newest appraisal of me now rested on empiricism not emotion. But nothing she said mattered really. I was, admittedly, loathsome.

They led me into a vehicle and I was taken downtown. And that is how I will end this part of my story.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decline Press

“Decline Press”

Short Story/Fiction

by Andrew B. Hurvitz


 

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.
I spent hours hiding: at the gym, on the treadmill, on the bike.
I wore red headphones. It was the color of the rage I felt inside.

When a cop dies, and, if you are somehow connected to it, you are left dazed, morose, and unshakably sad. Someone should have shot me dead that day.

One passable Tuesday, many months after the tragedy, I was at the gym pedaling a stationary bike. And a font of mid-century wisdom, Steve, red-faced, sharp-nosed, white-haired, came over. He carried a plastic water bottle and a Bible. He put his hand over mine on the handlebar grip.

“I am so sorry about what happened to you. That was truly a tragedy. And that cop who died. My heart breaks for her family.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“What’s important is getting into a routine. Stay busy. You’ll feel better. Be positive,” he said.

“Thank you. I appreciate it,” I said.

“Your friend was a loser. Even if your own life is crap, you don’t have a right to kill a cop. I thought your friend was a jerk from what I heard on the news. Wasn’t he a Marine too?”

His last question implied that there was honor and stature in a Marine. Something we both agreed on.

“He was a good man. Everything fell apart for him in rapid succession,” I said, attempting suture for my dead friend’s torn character.

Old Steve shook his head, muttered good man and walked away.


Smoky or Sweet

Early last year, before any of the bad business began, I worked as a stylist for fashion photographers. My specialty was boxer shorts and briefs. They paid me about $150 a day. I worked 2 days a week on average.

One night, after a jockstrap shoot in Echo Park, I rode out to Van Nuys and disembarked with the rest of Las Vacas Negras near LA Fitness, across from Costco.

I biked over to Bevmo on Sepulveda. There was a 5 Cent for a Second Bottle Wine Sale going on. But I was there not for wine, but whisky.

I ended up in front of a locked glass cabinet holding expensive Scotch, teasingly alluring and expensively unreachable. My eyes were locked on the labels beyond my budget.  And then a deep, male voice spoke.

“You like it smoky or sweet? You could spend up to $250,” he said.

“Can’t do it. I’m low paid. My job is kind of futile. I’m a lowly fashion stylist. I pick out boxer shorts for models to wear. There’s nothing lower than that,” I said.

“Yamazaki from Japan. It’s our last one. It was voted best whisky in the world last year.”

“If it’s under $100 I’ll take it.”

“I’ll give you a 5% off coupon. And if you join Bevmo you’ll get it for $89.99. Good deal huh?”

At the checkout line, shy eyes down, earphones on, I did glance up briefly.

A name badge pinned to his red company shirt, a shirt tucked into his plain front khakis:

Derek Moss, Store Manager.


Good Child

Frank Young Loh, also known as Dad, taught me humility and to never think of myself as above anyone else. “See the woman at Starbucks sweeping up the sidewalk? She has a job to do too,” Dad once said as we parked outside of a coffee shop near our home in Bountiful, Utah.

He had grown up in Taiwan. He was converted and later fished off that island by Mormon missionaries. He came to Salt Lake City, graduated from Brigham Young, married a white girl from Provo, had a kid, me; got widowed and later took Mom’s life insurance payout and opened a hardware store.

He had an Asian work ethic, nose to the grindstone. He had the pure heart of a believing Mormon and the coldly indifferent soul of an ice pick. He was ready made for Utah: flinty, bland and obedient.

We were two men living together. Yet we were all alone. Carol Brady never came around.

My ambition, under his tutelage, was to reach for the average. Make no waves. Broach no controversy.

I thought I got along OK by not challenging him. And then my dick got in the way.

I told my father I was gay and I was ejaculated into exile.

“Get your bag or your purse and get the hell out of this house. There is no place for this in my home,” he said.

I quickly stuffed a backpack with underwear, socks and a toothbrush and ran out of the house on S 50 W.

S 50 W. Does that sound like a human place, a loving home? I think it sounds like coordinates for a place on Mars.

That’s the last I saw of him. People ask me if I miss him.

Nope.

I lost my virginity through honesty.


 Decline Press

Along the mirrored wall at LA Fitness in Van Nuys, are men and women staring at their reflections as they move weights. I never went into their area. I was too intimidated.

Then one day I said fuck it. I’m going in. 5’8, 148 pounds, determined.

I entered their space and laid down on their Decline Press. I started out light and put two, ten-pound plates on each side and got into position on the padded bench. I wrapped my sneakers under the cushioned poles. Supine, low angled, head lower than feet, I felt light-headed, blood rushing down.

I grabbed the bar and tried to raise it but it lost balance as the right side plates slipped down.

Quickly, a solidly built black man in a blue spandex shirt stood over me and held his palms open under the steel, leaning over and smiling.

“Slow-ly. Raise it up, breathe brutha. Let it down. I got you. Up, slow, bring it down, slow. Good. Keep going young man. I’m right here. Ok. Get it up, up, push. You got it. You did it.”

The voice was smooth, like Nat King Cole, sonorous, soothing. His encouragement was gentle and kind.

“Thank you,” I said. He had an earnest gaze, a wide smile and broad shoulders. He walked over and extended his hand.

“I’m Derek. If you need me I’ll be over there.”
“Conner,” I said.

He went to the chinning bar and raised himself up and down. He stretched his arms out and raised them overhead. His lats opened like butterfly wings. He dismounted and wiped his mouth and walked over to the water fountain. I thought of a panther, an acrobat, a dancer.

I watched him in his tall, assured dexterity, an adroit form of athleticism touched with decorum.

I wanted to know him.
He looked back at me and smiled.
I felt a chill.
Recognition for the lonely is dear.


Why Don’t People Have Respect?

Later on, I walked out the door of the gym, into the sun. I encountered him in the expansive parking lot picking up discarded bottles and trash, in between shrubs, the people’s plantings of Van Nuys.

“They dump shit everywhere. Why don’t people have respect?” he asked me, taking a handful of crap and dropping it in a wastebasket.

The ground was dirty, the air was smoggy; and that day, a mushroom cloud of fire in Santa Clarita pumped toxins into the atmosphere: thick, black, toxic, ashy, smelling of burnt wood.

“I think there’s a fire out in Santa Clarita,” I said.

He laughed. “I drove through there five years ago What a lost place of look-alike houses. Every house alike! Tens of thousands!”

“Were you going somewhere?” I asked.

“I left Los Angeles in search of California. Then I took a job in San Francisco. I went to work in a tech start up. They had a program for vets to learn coding,” he said.

“Why didn’t you stay there?” I asked.

“I had dreams of greatness. Then I realized I was doomed. I tried to concentrate. But I was no coder. I was working in a tall high rise on Market St. I rode the elevator up to my office on the 32nd Floor. One day I ran out of the building screaming. Right on Market St. I had a complete collapse. I could not go back in an office building in an earthquake zone. It might collapse on me. I had a building fall on me in Iraq,” he said.

“San Francisco scared me. But down here in the heat I think about it. What I miss most is the rain. And that cold, blowing fog.”

I tried to empathize with him.
“People live and die in LA for no good reason,” I said.
“I won’t dispute that. But my life has been on the upswing since I settled here,” he said.

He got into a new, red Ford Focus. It looked like a just licked lollipop. It made me salivate.
He opened the window and looked out at me.
“Aren’t you tired of walking across this endless stretch of asphalt? Too hot to walk. You want a ride?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure. Can you drop me off on Burbank and Kester?”
“Get in,” he ordered.

We were stopped at Sepulveda and Oxnard. He looked at me. “I know how I know you. You came into Bevmo and bought some Yamazaki whisky. Smooth and Asian.”

“Me?” I asked.
“No the whisky,” he said.

He reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of Diptyque’s Tam Dao fragrance.  He sprayed it on his neck.

It smelled like sandalwood and cedar, like the fire burning in the mountains north of Los Angeles. It enkindled desire.

We parked, in front of the mini-mall donut shop at Kester and Burbank, and sat in the car, air-conditioning blasting.

“Tam Dao keeps me calm,” he said holding the bottle in front of a chilled air vent.
“I got it in Fallujah. My buddy gave it to me. He had the bottle on him,” he said.

“It was a hot day. Just like today. But Iraq hot in war hot. We were resting on a bench inside a walled, arid garden courtyard. It was house-to-house combat but this place seemed quiet. A family lived there. My buddy, Lance Corporal Jose Martinez, was talking with me. We were both scout snipers. He had this bottle of Tam Dao in his pocket. He said it made him calm. Then, out of nowhere, but actually up on a roof, an enemy shooter hit him, right in the heart, and he collapsed. He died quick. No scream, just death. Lord, mercy, no. I had no time to think. I dove behind a wall and started shooting at everything around me in the air. I think I hit that sniper on a roof. I stayed there until I was rescued. It was three hours. See that black and white Tam Dao label? It was covered in his red blood. I felt ashamed to wash it off. Somehow dishonoring him,” he said.

“I never saw someone die. I never fought in a war. I respect you. How do you, how do you deal with death?” I asked.

He looked at me and took his hand and rubbed my shoulder.

“You think it will all go on but it won’t. Once the heart stops it’s over. I never went looking for death. It just finds you.”


Last Year in Van Nuys

He became my workout buddy. He took care of me on the machines, especially on the Decline Press. On there I felt most vulnerable, most in need of support and encouragement.

One of my favorite lines was “I can’t do it.”
But he would challenge me and shame me in a joking way.

“C’mon Loh you ain’t so Loh. Get it up!”

I’d push and surprise myself in getting it back up.
I’d daydream when I had to spot him. I’d look around at other men on the floor and he’d tease me.

“Stop looking at the chicks. Concentrate. Look at me Loh and say I Concentrate on You!”Inadvertently, I’m sure, he named a song I loved, a song once sung by Sinatra.

Whenever skies look gray to me, and trouble begins to brew
Whenever the winter winds become too strong
I concentrate on you

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me
And people declare “You’re through”
Whenever the blues become my only songs
I concentrate on you

On your smile, so sweet, so tender
When at first my kiss you do decline
On the light in your eyes when you surrender
And once again our arms intertwine

And so when wise men say to me
That love’s young dream never comes true
To prove that even the wise men can be wrong
I concentrate on you[1]

[1] Cole Porter, Songwriter. © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

I listened to that song, covertly; hummed that song, secretly; absorbed the lyrics, furtively; and never confessed it anyone. It was too soft, too romantic, too tender. To admit to liking or believing it, was to surrender myself to persecution and ridicule.


Fatburger Confessions

One night, under the red neon Fatburger sign, we devoured turkey burgers after the gym. He twirled a fry and divulged a secret about having a kid and an ex-wife back in the Bronx.

“She wanted to instantly shape me up: job, attitude, love-making. Men are sometimes lethal. But woman are always toxic. She was too much,” he said.

“I used to be irresponsible. But hey, look at me now.  I’ve changed. I got on my feet! I manage a liquor store. I bought a new Ford Focus. I go to the gym. I put it all together,” he said.

He leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach and laughed like the Devil.


Styling Men’s Socks

One day last year, Polo Ralph Lauren hired me to assist on a shoot for men’s socks, a step up for me as a stylist. I earned two grand.

I remember the day well. I wanted to celebrate my good fortune. I met Derek at MacLeod Ale Brewery on Calvert Street and we played golden hour darts, and drank beer in the large room with the open-to-the-sky garage door before sunset. The setting sun bathed the room in an amorous glow: rose and amber on cinderblock and concrete.

I hadn’t eaten at all that day, and I was quickly drunk. My tongue was loose and I said whatever came to mind.

“I’m glad we are buddies,” I said. He threw a dart that missed the board and hit the wall. He looked annoyed.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
“I got a parking ticket before you got here,” he said.
“I’m sorry.”
“The back tires were barely in the red zone. And the parking enforcement dude, fat white guy, he knew my Ford Focus. He wanted to aim his $75 dart at me. I don’t have to tell you why,” he said.
“I’ve had parking tickets too,” I said.
“Dude I’m telling you this was not normal. Sometimes only revenge makes you feel like there’s justice in the world. I have a semi-automatic rifle at home, a Saiga AK-74. Only my excellent self-control as a man and a Marine prevents me from turning lethal.”

He took a sip of the pint. He smiled at me benignly and patted me on the back. Then he stepped out of the room onto the driveway.

He looked out across the chain link fence, out across the auto repair shops, the parked tow trucks and the darkly silhouetted palm trees along Calvert Street marching tall against the orange sky.

There was lament and sadness in his eyes.

“Was anyone ever happy in Van Nuys? Why do they come here? Why the hell do they stay?” he asked.

We sat on a ledge. “At least today I’m happy. I made some good money. I’m going to give you $75 for your ticket. It’s my fault you were waiting for me,” I said.

“Silly little boy. You ain’t got nothing to atone for. Keep your money. Or use it for dinner Tuesday night. My place. Bring some prime meat. We can cook on the balcony. You can see my pink building on Kittridge and Sepulveda where the whores hang out.”


Up Tempo

I wanted to be loved that Tuesday night.

I walked into Whole Foods and picked up two, solid, meaty pork chops, bone-in, a bottle of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a crusty, fresh baked apple pie and a pint of high fat vanilla ice cream.

At home, I showered and dried, picked out navy cotton trousers, a white oxford cloth shirt and suede wing tip shoes. I pomaded my hair and parted it precisely.

It was Tuesday, April 1st. A day when I last fooled myself into imagining happiness.

There was something in the cool air that spring night: a sense of expectation, wonderment, mystery, and desire. I rode my bike, hopefully, up Sepulveda, with a backpack full of food and liquor.

It was one of those evenings when the ocean breezes blow up into the valley, slithering through the passes, over the brake lights, and lay onto the land a soothing blanket of coolness. Ecstasy is when you are alive, and aware, and intoxicated, at the hour your events align with meteorological events.

I had arrived at my destination on Kittridge.

He was up on the balcony, shirtless, in shorts, surveying the sky. His carved arms were clenched on the bar of the steel rail. He looked out onto the street, and beyond, with that same faraway look he had on Calvert Street, at the brewery, the night before. He did not see me down below.

I waited and watched, in silence, on my bike, admiring him, not wanting to end our moment of separate but equal gazing.


A Lost Place

I carried my bike into the elevator, wheeled it up to his apartment door and knocked. He opened it wearing only green paisley silk boxers. I smiled and handed him my food and booze. He put it up on the counter, examining it. And frowning.

“Why pork chops?” he asked.
“I thought you would like that instead of beef,” I said.
“Yeah, I always eat pork chops. Did you get collard greens too?”

He left the items on the counter and walked over to his chinning bar/dip station in the living room, lifting himself up and down.

He was the trained soldier and the focused athlete up for inspection: advertising his fineness, keeping me away.

He went over to the kitchen counter and opened the bourbon. “You drink it straight or with ice or water?”

“Water please. No ice,” I said.  He poured water into a glass, added bourbon and gave me the drink. I sipped it and waited for the sedation to soothe my rattling.  “Do you want to see my Saiga AK-74?” he asked non-chalantly.

“You mean your gun?” I asked. “Ok.”

“Semi automatic rifle,” he said picking it up and carefully pointing it down towards the floor. He brought it closer to me and I reached over and touched it.

Ignorant of its uses, it appeared to me like a three-foot long, black metal toy.

“Obama stopped importation of these after Putin invaded Ukraine. But I got this ten years ago. It’s the same folks who make Kalashnikov,” he explained placing the gun back carefully on the floor, sliding it under the sofa.

“Let’s go out on the balcony and cool off,” he said.

“When I was in the Marines they would make us drink bourbon out of the bottle. We had contests to see who was toughest, who could hold out the longest,” he said sipping his bourbon in his boxers.

I went to move closer to him. But I dared not touch him. “You’re so lucky cause you were born with such a great, natural body. I have to work for mine. And I still could never look like you,” I said.

“That’s a shitty thing to say,” he said. “I’ll go inside and get the pork chops.”

He brought the pork chops out to the barbecue, dropping them on the gas grill.  They sizzled, smoked, burned up with black marks.

We forked them done, went back inside, and ate them on the couch, watching “The Bachelorette” in distracted silence.

I had spent an evening with him. A first date really. I had seen his home, his gun, his body, and his hospitality. And it left me in a suspended state of frustration and incomprehension. Was it all for show? He was so undressed, yet so hidden.

Front door open, I paused before closing and looked back. He sat on the leather couch, eating his bowl of vanilla ice cream and laughing at the blue flickering light without acknowledging my departure. I closed the door, slowly.

I rode back home on the sidewalk, like a boy on a bike, sulking and morose, in the brightly lit night along Sepulveda Boulevard, a high wattage ugliness of billboards, burgers, and cheap motels, where everything worthless on earth was for sale.


 French Toast With Butter and Syrup

The French Toast was soft, soaked in butter and maple syrup. The bacon was crisp and crunchy. The hot coffee was roasted dark and diluted in vanilla cream.

It was Sunday morning and I ate at Nat’s Early Bite on Burbank and Hazeltine. Above me, along the wall near the ceiling, a long shelf held dusty plastic trinkets, artificial plants and imitation flowers. The walls were hung with photos of actors who once acted.

And then he entered the restaurant. We hadn’t spoken for weeks. He saw me sitting alone at a two-man table near the door and walked up to me.

“Can I sit with you?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“I had a lot of bad problems,” he said.
“What?” I asked.

“I got fired. I forgot to ask a company spy for her ID and she purchased some alcoholic lemonade that looked like regular lemonade but had vodka in it. The minute I rang her up, I was called back into the office and dismissed that very second. Bevmo is mean and cruel,” he said.

“Oh my God. I’m sorry,” I said.

“And with no income I missed a car payment and then I thought I ain’t going to get no $45,000 a year job like Bevmo so I turned in my car and I owe money on that car but I don’t have no car,” he said.

“My ex-wife’s been texting me for child support but I have nothing to send her. I can’t pay the rent so that will be the next thing to collapse. I’m sorry I’m telling you every woe in my life,” he said burying his face into his hands.

“Let me get you something to eat,” I said.
“No I couldn’t let you do that,” he said.

A waitress walked over. “Please bring my friend the same breakfast you brought me. French Toast with well done bacon and a cup of coffee,” I said.

“You’re a good man. I mean you are a good man. You know what I mean!” he said and laughed.

His weary eyes were open, focused on me, singularly and poignantly.

“I went to return the car to Galpin Ford. I was pulled over on Roscoe by a cop, LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, a Latina bitch with her hair in a bun. She said I was going too close to the car in front of me. She wrote me a ticket, a moving violation, just as I was heading into the dealership driveway to dispose of the vehicle. Am I cursed or something?” he said.

“No. I think you’re blessed,” I said.

The Second French Toast with butter, syrup and bacon arrived. Derek tore into the bread, plastered it with butter and drowned it in syrup. He looked grateful for a meal.


Clearing Out

On another very hot day I told him he could stay with me.

We went over to his apartment, packed his clothing, Frosted Flakes, pillows, sheets, towels, and toiletries into heavy plastic garbage bags. He did not seem sad until he went back out on the balcony, sat down on a plastic stool and started to cry.

“I see those homeless people living in their cars. And I think, God, I don’t want to end up like that,” he said.

“You’re going to climb out of this sad time. I’m not going to abandon you,” I said.
“Just when you think you are winning you fail. Nobody ever escapes enslavement,” he said.

I took a cold bottle of water out of cooler and rolled it up and down the back of his sweaty neck.

Here was the battlefield Los Angeles. Here was the heartbreak of a war vet struck down by life.

I found that bottle of Tam Dao, the one that belonged to the dead soldier, and I brought it out as an offering, out to the wounded man on the balcony. I sprayed it on the side of his neck.

“Breathe deep. You’re going to win again. You’re a King, ” I said, saying those hyperbolic words as if I were administering an anecdote against suicide.

He unhooked his silver cross chain, put it in his hand and rubbed his finger on it. Rubbed it as if its essence, its power to confer eternity, justice, and compassion could come to life in his palm.

“Sometimes I think God’s gone away. Do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.
“I left Jesus back in Bountiful,” I answered.

I hugged him and pressed my head against his chest. I wanted this for so long but it was affection conceived in mourning, not joy.

“Should we continue packing?” I asked as we went back in.

There was a Holy Bible with a bookmark in it. He brought it over to me.

“Look here. This is something I want you to read,” he said. I read it aloud.

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”-2 Corinthians 4:8-9

“You didn’t leave Jesus back in Utah. He is here in Van Nuys.”


 Covert Operation

After Midnight, under cover of darkness, he came into my apartment, tiptoeing along the exterior hall and sliding into my studio.

I spoke softly. “You can sleep on my bed, or you can sleep on the sofa. House rules. No dirty dishes in the sink. Hang up your wet towel on the door so it dries and doesn’t get musty. I have an extra toothbrush for you. It’s red. Don’t forget. And don’t pee on the toilet seat. Lift it up before you urinate. Ok?”

“I’m going to crash on the couch buddy. Thank you for extracting me from desperation,” he said.

I laid out a bed of bleached, fragrant, white sheets.  His Saiga, covered in its own protective wrapping, slept next to him.

“I have my protection here. I just keep it here. I won’t take my eyes off it. You understand right?”
“Of course,” I said.

Around 3am, I got up to piss, and looked out into the living room to see him asleep in the nude, fan blowing, but uncovered, and resting comfortably.

I tiptoed next to him and bent down on my knees and with no trepidation, kissed him softly on his lips.  He stayed asleep and again I laid my head down on the pillow and kissed him on the neck. And he didn’t awaken. I raised myself up and went back in my room.

At 6am, I was up for good, already showered and dressed.  I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He turned over and spoke. “You going out Conner?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sorry to wake you. I got a job in Hollywood. Make yourself at home. If you go out just make sure to avoid the building manager Jen Broadbent. You’ll recognize her. She’s a fat blond lady about 40. She waters the plants with a hose and wears a red hat. Try and be quiet and don’t tell anyone you are staying here,” I instructed.

As I grabbed my keys he spoke up. “I know what you did to me last night,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You took some liberties with me when I was sleeping. Or you thought I was sleeping. I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“Are you mad?” I asked.
“I’m not mad for the reason you may think. I’m mad because you took advantage of me without asking,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And then I walked out.

I left for work with an uneasy feeling tempered and jolted by an electric surge of eroticism and guilt.


 House Rules

I worked on a breath mint commercial in Hollywood and picked out the skateboards and t-shirts for young actors who ate mints, rode boards downhill and smiled for multiple takes.

When I got back to the apartment, he was in the bathroom. The countertop was full of open Styrofoam food from Zankou Chicken smelling of garlic and grease.

A wet towel was crunched up on the couch and his clothes were thrown onto the floor and across the coffee table. Open cans of Diet Coke sat atop the TV. In one day it had all turned slummy.

He walked out of the bathroom, trailing a shit smell that leaked out into the living room.

“How you doing dude?” he asked.
“Tired man. You need to clean up this room. This is my home,” I said.
“Hey I’m sorry. I was online trying to get work. I walked next door to the Laundromat to do my laundry and they had a help wanted sign so I applied,” he said.
“Close the bathroom door please,” I said. I wasn’t pleased.

“I’m sorry to get on your ass about cleaning up. I had a long day at work and when I come back I like things orderly and clean,” I said.
“I know man. You’re in command here. I will obey you. You have my respect. I’ll shape up,” he said smiling.
“I’m still in the mood for Lido Pizza if you want to grab dinner. My treat,” I said, attempting some reconciliation and niceness.

“Yeah sure,” he said.


Incident at Lido Pizza

We were in the rococo red sauce and vinyl booth restaurant on Victory, eating plates of spaghetti with clam sauce and drinking glasses of ordinary red wine.

The earlier confrontation in the apartment dissolved as we twirled pasta and soaked bread in the clam sauce, forgetting the problems in our entangled and undefined relationship.

Three LAPD officers, two men and a woman, came in and sat at a booth across from ours. Derek’s expression changed into agitation.

“That’s the bitch who pulled me over on Roscoe. Sgt. Veronica Montez. The enemy,” he said.

“Have another glass of wine,” I said.
“I need some air,” he said as he got up and rushed out the front door. I followed.

Derek, furious and gasping, pounded his fist against a steel sign pole in the parking lot.

A fire truck passed with deafening sirens, and Derek let out a scream. I held onto him as he screamed more. He fell down on his knees and cried out.

“I can’t stand it! I can’t be around this war, these cops, and all these people trying to kill me! What if the building falls down? What if the cops kill me? This is war! This isn’t Van Nuys. This is a war zone!”

In the midst of the asphalt melodrama, our gallant waiter came out to the parking lot with a glass of water on a silver tray.

Derek took it and he drank it. The waiter stood back observing.

“He just found out that his mother died. That is why he was so upset. If you could bring me the check I can pay you,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” he said and went back into Lido Pizza.

I took a cloth napkin, dipped it in the water glass and wiped Derek’s forehead. And then I lightly kissed him where I had dabbed him as he lay seated on the ground, his back against the steel sign.

“How do you feel now?” I asked him after he had thrown off his uncontrollable emotional convulsions.

“I realize now I tried to superimpose happiness upon this sad city but it never truly worked. I either have to leave here. Or I will die here,” he said.

“We can go to the VA tomorrow. Maybe they have some medication for you. We need to get some help,” I said.

“Lorazepam. I need that drug. If you can get that from the VA,” he said.
“I will,” I said, stroking his arm.

It was a night of emergencies. Another red LAFD fire truck, lights flashing, sirens blasting, sped down Victory west towards the 405. Something was on fire somewhere, out there beyond our view.


What We See Is What We Want to See

The next morning I carried a bag of just cleaned laundry and said good morning to Jen Broadbent who was out in the courtyard watering her clay pot plants. She wore her red cap and a satisfied smile, resonating confidence in her small triumphs of apartment management and horticultural husbandry.

“What are you up to today Conner?” she asked.
“I’m trying to get my buddy an appointment at the VA Hospital in Westwood,” I said.
“Your buddy a vet?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s a Marine who served in Iraq. He desperately needs some medication. I wish I had a car,” I said.

She turned the water off and dried her hands on a rag and looked at me with compassion.

“Take my car if you want to drive your friend down to the VA,” she said.
“Oh that is too much to ask,” I said.
“My father served in Korea, my older brother served in Vietnam. I come from a family of service members. We help each other out!” she said.

She pulled a set of keys out of her pocket and handed me a black one. “It’s the Toyota Yaris parked right across Burbank. Go move it by 10 O’clock cause they’re street cleaning today. Use it for today and bring it back in one piece. I’m proud of you for caring for a veteran. We don’t do enough for them. God Bless you!”


Appointment At Noon

He cleaned up the apartment, put his dirty clothes in the basket, and wiped down the toilet, even turning down the seat.

I came back with the laundered clothes and placed them near my bed. “Let me fold them for you,” he offered.

“We have to be there by Noon,” I said. “I have to move her car by 10. And I need to shower,” I said.

“Let me get the car. I’ll drive it over to this side of the street,” he said.
I handed him her car keys and he went out.

In a few minutes my phone rang. It was Jen. “I just saw a black guy in the courtyard and asked him who he was and he said he was your friend. Is that true?”

“Yes, that’s Derek the vet. He is moving your car because I need to shower,” I said.
“Ok,” she said.

He couldn’t even go out of the apartment to do an errand without arousing suspicion.

I went to take a clean, quick, water conserving, shower.

Rinsing the shampoo out, I heard, over the running water, shouting. I turned the faucet off, grabbed a towel, tied it around my waist and ran out into the living room.

“The bitch! The bitch! She’s out there. That cop I told you about! The one we saw at Lido! She pulled me over for an illegal U-turn right in front of the building. I swear that bitch she gonna die! She gonna die!”

“Ok. We can’t let her get to us!” I said. But he wasn’t hearing me. He was lost in wrath. He pulled off his rifle cover, grabbed the gun, loaded it, cocked it, aimed it, and defended his position in the apartment.

I pulled the drapes shut, sealing in heat and fear. The room was daylight dark, encased in danger, sparsely oxygenated. A lone goldfish swam in her bowl obliviously.

Derek stood ramrod, next to the door, no longer a civilian, but now, monstrously transformed into a sniper. The air in the apartment was still- then shaken- as a police helicopter circled and sliced in concentric menace.

A megaphone voice, a pounding on the door. We were in the siege of my house, the closing in of law enforcement, the sounds of police sirens, voices in the courtyard, panic all around, panic inside and outside. I pleaded with him.

“Don’t escalate this any more! Put the gun down. Let’s open the door and put our hands up!”

“This is the only honorable way to finish it!” he said.

I could see cops down in the courtyard. I motioned to Derek with my thumb their location. He moved away from the door, over to the sliding doors on the balcony. He stood behind the drapes aiming his weapon down to the courtyard.

He let loose maybe a dozen rounds.  I screamed and ran over to the bathroom and locked the door. In my own deluded and crazed insanity I grabbed the holy bottle of Tam Dao and curled up into the bathtub. I heard more gunfire and then nothing.

I opened the bathroom door slowly into smoke, glass, death and carnage.

Glass shattering the sliding door; and Derek hit. The white drapes pulled off their rod, grotesquely splashed with blood. His brains blown out, his skull ripped open, his body on the balcony.

I crawled on the carpet, right up to the Saiga, grabbed it and pulled the trigger, and aimed it at my windowless front door, shooting furiously.

The bullets I engaged killed LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, 32-years-old, married mother of two, on the force for 4 years.

Who was the cop killer? Who cares? The answer was already officially adjudicated. I was never charged. Only God knows the truth.

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me

And people declare “You’re through”

Whenever the blues become my only songs

I concentrate on you.

END

The Fitness Guru

 

The Fitness Guru

/At Oxnard Fitness in the San Fernando Valley, I see the same people doing the same dumb things for several years.

If there is a badly conceived exercise, they still blindly do it and never cease doing it.

 

 

 

“The All-American Car Wash”

A dark brown BMW sedan sped down Ventura Boulevard past the sprawling mess of commercial Sepulveda Hills. Bronx born Larry Rivers, 40ish, a still aspiring screenwriter, was on his way to an appointment with a free-lance producer, Mark Evans. Passing the All American Car Wash, a booming business near the intersection of Casa Endora and Ventura, Larry turned into the car wash. A large, black Lincoln Navigator parked behind him. Rail thin Nathalie Newman and her four-year-old daughter Zola stepped out of the SUV.

Larry exited his car. The cell phone rang. He answered.

“Rivers here….Hi, Mark….Oh, you can’t make it. Listen no problem. Let’s do it again next week. I think you’re gonna love my idea. Ok. Bye.”

With hands full of orders for specialized car cleaning, Iraqi native Ali Hassan approached Larry. Ali Hassan is a charming man, one who easily persuades his customers to purchase vanilla air fresheners, tire detailing, hot wax protection, and steam spraying under the hood.

“My friend, my friend how have you been? Your BMW is what model? It looks like a custom car no?”

“Give me the $5.99 special Ali.”

“Larry, you say that every week. How am I supposed to make a living on $5.99?”

“Hey, I’m just a struggling writer. Give me a break.”

“Struggle? You are the best man! I saw your episode of Law and Order last week. Very clever!”

“You liked it? I worked my butt off for that.”

“It shows. Hey, how about I throw in the windshield protection? When it rains, the water will just drop off. Much safer driving.”

”OK, Ali. You always get your way!”

Inside the car wash viewing area, the procession entered under each owner’s watchful eyes. Larry watched as spray guns and brushes sprayed chemicals against the gleaming surfaces of chrome and metal. The electric conveyer chain grabbed the tires of the Lincoln Navigator, the car ahead of his. For a moment, Larry looked at the brushes, the soap, the blowing air and thought of Auschwitz. The passive march of the affluent vehicles as they entered a sterilization room………………..

A little girl with a reassuring blond and fresh face ran towards Larry. Her mother was running after her.

“Zola! Come here. You can’t run wild in the car wash!”

Nathalie swooped up the laughing daughter in her arms and looked at Larry with empathetic eyes.

“Larry, hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. As you can see, I have my hands full. Stop that young lady or you won’t go to day care!”

“She’s big enough for day care?”

“Yep. Right next door to the car wash!”

Larry asked, “ Are you and Eddie still living in Tarzana?”

“No. We moved to Sherman Oaks. We bought a house on Valley Vista. I love it there. Eddie is fifteen minutes from Universal.”

“Great. Is he still……”

Nathalie deepened her voice: “ He’s Vice President of Non-Fiction Television Development”

“That’s right. I remember pitching a show to him once. Did he ever do anything with that History of Ice Cream show?”

“No. I think they put it into the maybe category….. Zola! Stop pulling my hair!”

“I’m just getting done with a screenplay I wrote. It’s a suspense thriller about terrorists in LA.”

“Oh, pleasant” , was her disinterested reply.

Larry’s BMW entered the purification ritual, following the usual steps of detox prescribed by the car wash. Larry walked along the glass windows and kept pace as his transport vehicle moved along, dumb, mute and progressively prettier.

Fifteen years earlier, Larry had arrived from the Bronx determined to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry. He had answered an ad for a one bedroom guest house rental in Tarzana, and was awestruck when he arrived at the one acre estate with its orange groves, swimming pool and circular drive-way . The owners: Nathalie and Eddie.

Larry moved in and in that old Hollywood tradition of making friends to make it, began to “hang out” with Eddie. The good times turned bad. Larry struggled to write, becoming poorer as his output of words increased. He couldn’t pay his rent. The deep relationship between tenant and landlord turned hostile. Larry was thrown out and had to leave after six months. He vowed to never forgive the Newman’s cruelty, until the day he found out that Eddie had become a somebody in the senseless entertainment industry.

Now it was the new millennium—times were different—and the American dream still lurked beyond the next corner, even as its pursuer turned 40.

Nathalie stepped up to the cashier and handed her a coupon for the $4.99 special. Dark haired Leila Hassan looked at Nathalie harshly.

“I’m sorry. This coupon has expired.”

“What! I just got it in the mail last week.”

“Are you sure Miss? It says it’s good until July. This is November.”

“I want the $4.99 special. That’s what I told Ali outside!”

“I can’t help you. We don’t take expired coupons!”

“OK. How much is it then?”

“$8.99”

“$8.99! I only have five bucks in my wallet!”

“Do you have a credit card? We take Visa, American Express….”

“No! I don’t use credit cards! I have a debit card!”

“No debit cards. Do you have a check book?”

Larry stepped into the conversation. He handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill.

“No. Larry you can’t pay for my car wash. This is ridiculous”

“No problem. You are my friend Nathalie. I don’t mind paying at all. And look I have a coupon here that hasn’t expired yet.”

“Thank you Larry,” Said she with due politeness.

Fifteen years after they had thrown Larry out for late-payment of rent, he paid for Nathalie’s car wash. Maybe she would go and tell Eddie about the newly Christened good Samaritan.

On this sunny and hot December morning, Larry was on his way to Starbucks to once again meet the free-lance producer Mark Evans. It was 9.30 am and Evans said he would be at Starbucks “around 9.30”. Larry ordered a decaf coffee and sat down. He had brought along his script: “Poison 818”.

818 is the area code for the San Fernando Valley. Larry had convinced himself that this special numeral would become the theme for a script based on Arab-American espionage and terror directed against the Jews in the San Fernando Valley.
“Poison 818” was the code used by the main protagonist, Ibrahim Abdulla, a Muslim fundamentalist who hides behind a seemingly placid façade though he is the head of an international terror cell.

“A timely and frightening story!”

“A bite-your- nails to the end saga”

“Do you know who your neighbor is?”

Larry ran the imaginary film slogans in his head. He pictured himself on stage at the Oscars thanking his widowed mother on Pelham Parkway for her patience and understanding.

In the real world, at Starbucks, the intended meeting looked again as if it were cancelled. Mark didn’t ring, but in the time-honored etiquette of Hollywood, he simply did not show. Larry was left drinking his coffee alone. All around him were customers; many of them black haired men with black mustaches living on their own diet of coffee, conversation, cigarettes and cell phones.

The All American Car Wash, with its thirteen American flags planted on thirteen pillars, might have earned praise for its vernacular style. In the land of the hot dog shaped hot dog stand, and the donut shop shaped liked a donut—the All American was simply another wonderful example of the triumph of commercialism over symmetry.

It was impossible to pass by the wash and miss its patriotic theme. Here, a family named Hassan had fled Baghdad and by way of Damascus had emigrated to Los Angeles. Six brothers: Ali, Hisham, Jordan, Saddam, Esu, and Abdullah had settled with their wives and children into a section of the US that had once been Mexican territory. The newly arrived men, looking for a sure way to ingratiate themselves with other transplanted customers, chose the red, white and blue for their business.

They had struggled to find the capital, the $150,000 it took to open the car wash. They had to deal with enormous bills—the water alone amounted to $4,500 dollars a month. Working 12-14 hour days, these brothers had unique personalities, interests and ambitions that ran beyond the car wash.

Ali, the oldest, wanted a stable business for his brothers. Hisham was the good-looking one, who hoped that his exposure in the car wash, might lead to an acting career. Jordan was the intellectual, he had once hoped to study physics, but his sudden flight from Baghdad had dashed his hopes of scientific higher education. Saddam was a liberally political man, who read every book he could on the American Revolution. He hoped that rational and enlightened thought might help him understand his new and weird surroundings. Esu was a lost child, he smoked pot and came to work without ambition to progress to either affluence or self-worth. Abdullah was the angry one. He had a quick temper and resented the power his older brothers had over him. He longed to make a name for himself outside of the car wash. He hated American life, with its promise of material wealth. He imagined himself as a spokesman for the powerless, the downtrodden, the ones without education, money or political freedom.

It didn’t escape the brother’s notice that Abdullah was sullen and withdrawn. Many times Ali had tried to talk to him, only to have Abdullah lash out at Ali with charges that his brother had hijacked the family to pursue a worthless American life. Why did they have to leave Iraq, Abdullah demanded? They had been there for hundreds of years, and now they lived in America and worked washing cars. What humiliation! Ali did not have an answer for his youngest sibling. It was simply inconceivable to Ali that Abdullah would fight against betterment and riches. What was so bad in America? All six brothers and their wives had s, they drove nice cars . Only last year the entire Hassan clan took a vacation in Arizona, where the desert environment recalled the Mesopotamian plain in Iraq.

Larry read the trade magazines with envy. There was a recent item concerning a story that had been optioned for “the low six figures”. It described a plot about “a college guy who hides out in the broom closet of a sorority for the weekend.” The idea was written by a 24 year old recent college grad named Dylan Weed. Larry felt himself in the grip of the old low self-esteem.

On lonely Friday evenings, the 40-year old man would walk around the plastic and insipid confines of Sherman Oaks, dodging skateboarders and stroller-pushing couples. Hamburger eating punks –who wore oversize pants exposing their ass crack– sat on the sidewalk in front of McDonalds.

It had been a decade and half of wandering around in an arid wilderness and still there was no deliverance. Los Angeles was Egypt without God, crowds of faithful without a Moses. The miracle of fame and fortune, was a special effect, like that cheap trick of parting the Red Sea they performed for the tourists at Universal City.

He couldn’t hide his anger anymore when he met “successful” people. Almost everyone seemed more fulfilled than he. If they were younger, they might be unemployed, but they had six pack abs and 30 inch waists. If they were older, they had children , a wife or a career. He had none of the above. He could go on pretending to take calls from important people who might be interested, but eventually he was just fooling himself.

He thought once of just leaving Los Angeles and returning back to New York. But the metropolis on the East Coast was a dangerous place. It had old memories and people who knew who you really were. He couldn’t hide out and affect achievement. The jaded facades which run so deep on the West Coast, seem like stage make-up to the battle hardened veterans of the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

“Poison 818—-how far will they go to destroy America?”

“Poison 818—one psychopath who could murder children unless he is stopped.”

“Ok, enough already. I get your point!”

Sally Sheinman sat behind the glass-tabled desk with the white orchids. A polished and no-nonsense William Morris agent, she had been pushed by her mother Ida to meet with cousin Larry.

“What else do you have Larry?”

“What do you mean, what else?”

“What ELSE do you want to pitch?” she screeched.

“That’s it. I wrote a 110 page screenplay and I want you to take it and sell it!”

“Larry, darling…..I only work with clients who can bring me a lot of great material! I can’t just go out and sell one thing. You haven’t even sold one thing!”

“You know what Sally? I thought you would have a little heart. I come here and pitch my heart out and you slam the door in my face.”

“I’m not slamming the door! I’m trying to OPEN it!’

“Just because your Uncle Dan’s daughter, you grew up in Scarsdale and you came out here with a silver spoon in your mouth…..”

“Good bye! I said get out of here. I don’t need to have me or my father insulted!”

“Fine! I knew you would never help me. You’re too self-centered. It runs in all the Sheinmans!”

He walked out of her office and to the elevator where he punched the button so hard that his thumb almost broke off from the hand. Inside the mirrored elevator on the descent to the parking garage he muttered to himself: “Fuck you! Fuck you!”

At the car wash, Abdullah was the vacuum man. He had first entry into his customer’s cars. In the affluent world of Sepulveda Hills, he could temporarily sit inside a procession of recent model Jaguars, BMW’s, Infinitis , Lexuses, Lincolns and Mercedes. These cars came with a variety of gadgets: GPS navigation system, DVD / CD players, and speaker phones. The smell of leather often mixed with French perfume. On the seats of these cars, errant and forgetful men and women might leave behind Armani glasses, Dior scarves and even $100 dollar bills.

He was a good Muslim. He did not steal. He left everything where he saw it. He knew that God was watching.

Next to the Car Wash, was a day care center operated by the Jewish reformed Sepulveda Hills Congregation. In the rounds of chores performed by mothers in their 30’s and 40’s, was the depositing of children at the center, kids who ranged in age from 3 to 6 years old. A steel fence, about 10 feet high, separated the day care center from the end point of the car wash. As the dried autos exited, the children often stood on the other side of the fence, their hands grasping the metal, as Mommy’s car emerged with a temporary hydro facelift.

To those who think they know what Jews look like, the Southern Californian experiment in assimilation and inter-marriage has produced some surprisingly varied offspring. Many of the wives are Non-Jewish, as a result some of the kids look Scandinavian. For many months, Abdullah had smiled at the children, just thinking they were sweet young innocents. He stopped grinning when he found out that the day care center was operated by a Zionist entity.

It bothered him that these Jews had money. Here they had everything—beautiful wives, fancy cars, and they seemed to live in a world where politics was somebody else’s problem. For the Hollywood elite, the only things that mattered were self-empowerment. He felt pity for himself, his Iraqi people, and for the persecution of the Palestinians. How could the world ignore the suffering that existed in the Middle East? Surely it was not the fault of the good works of Islam that kept people impoverished. A malevolent force had to be working to keep the Arabs down.

He also “knew” that the Jews conspired, especially in the entertainment industry, to help one another. He “knew” that the Jews looked out, for family members, and helped to promote “their own kind” to influence in the media. Their goal was eventually world domination.

As Abdullah ruminated on those thoughts of the evil Jews, up drove Larry Rivers, one of the great beneficiaries of Hollywood family benevolence.

“Hi,” Larry said. He handed a coupon to Abdullah.

“This has expired sir.”

“Oh. Is your manager around?”

“Yes sir.”

Abdullah motioned to Ali, who came over with his widest smile.

“Hello, Larry! My friend, what can I do for you?”

“I think my coupon has expired.”

“How about a special? I have the $11.99 herbal car wash. We put retinol on your leather seats to preserve the youthful appearance. We also have aloe vera for the dashboard. You should see how beautiful and sexy a moisture rich car can look!”

“No thanks. I’m not feeling too rich today!”

“Oh, c’mon, you’re a successful screenwriter!”

On the seat of Larry’s car was a copy of “Poison 818”. Ali smiled as he looked at the script.

“I bet you gonna sell the script my friend. Come, let’s get a real car wash for you!”

Before Larry could answer, the hulking mass of the Newman family’s SUV pulled alongside the gentlemen. Eddie Newman, not seen since 1986, flew out of the car and shook Larry’s hand.

“How are you doing! Nathalie told me that she ran into you here! My gosh, it’s been what– ten years?”

“Fifteen!”

“Well, I’ll be damned. What are you doing these days? Still working free lance?”

“Yes. But I’ve got a couple of deals that may come through…..”

Eddie was tanned, trim and dressed in ninety eight dollar Lucky Brand jeans. Nathalie sat in the passenger seat and waved daintily to Larry. Ali looked to lock this newest deal.

Eddie pulled out his calfskin wallet. “Let me pay for Mr. Larry’s car wash. What kind of specials do you have Ali?”

Ali beamed, “I have a two for one! I’ll do both your cars, detail work with the herbal wash and the aloe vera. The works! Normally, this would be forty dollars—you two together, I give you for twenty five!”

“Wonderful!”

As Ali wrote up the receipt, Larry briefly protested.

“This isn’t necessary Eddie. Really.”

“No. I think it’s the least I could do for you. You took care of my wife and little girl. And now I’m repaying you. Besides you’re poor!”

Larry immediately felt reduced and gratified. As Eddie sauntered happily into the car wash viewing area, with wife and tyke in tow, Larry slouched outside with hands in his pockets.

Meanwhile, Abdullah watched everything from his seat against the wall. The mind hummed. Those people stick together, they even pay for each other’s car wash.

Abdullah grabbed the long plastic vacuum tube and started to clean Larry’s car. “Poison 818” sat on the front seat. Abdullah felt annoyed and insulted that Larry had gone over his head and asked for Ali. In revenge, just slight revenge, Abdullah took the script and put it into his pocket.

Fifteen minutes later, the cars emerged freshly washed and ready for a mating dance on the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Eddie hugged Larry, a physical bond ten times more real than the emotional connection.

Eddie bit his lower lip Clintonly, “In all sincerity. I really missed hanging out with you. I’m going to have you over to our new . You should see what we’ve done with the kitchen, Lar—“

Larry waved good-bye to his old friends. He got into his car and looked for his script. It was gone. Oh well, the hard copy was on his PC at . No biggie.

Leila Hassan was worried. For six months, her brother-in-law Abdullah had been back in Iraq. He also sent post cards from Hamburg, Germany; Turkey and one from Damascus. She didn’t understand how her husband Ali could allow his brother to take so much time off from work.

“He should be here in the US! He is supposed to be an American citizen. Why is he all over the Middle East! Why don’t his own brothers know where he is?”

Ali was staring blankly at the large screen TV. In a living room with thirty-foot high ceilings, the black box and the man watching it looked miniature.

“I don’t have the answers my wife. He said he needed a break. Too much stress.”

“What about his older brother? What about your worries?”

Handsome Hisham walked into the room wearing a muscle t-shirt and basketball shoes.

“I just got an email from Abdullah. He is flying back to New York this Sunday and will be in LA on Monday afternoon!”

“You see Leila. You worry about nothing!”

Spring came to Los Angeles, but nobody was sure when it had actually arrived. The roses had bloomed in December. By January the trees were sprouting buds, and in February the nurseries displayed racks of geraniums, marigolds, and vegetables for planting.

Another season had passed, and emerging from winter, Larry felt as if he were on the verge of some new possibility. He had been tough on himself, lonely and despondent—but now he knew that if he were to succeed he’d have to marshal his strengths once again.

Before his latest rerun episode of self -confidence wore off, he made a phone call to free lance producer Mark Evans. To Larry’s surprise, Evans agreed to meet him at Starbucks because “it’s on the way to my dentist’s office”.

Almost nobody in Hollywood had really read Larry’s work. If they did, it was in a cursory, dismissive way. But one reader took every last word of Larry’s and absorbed it totally: Abdullah Hassan.

“Poison 818” was to him the ultimate story of terrorist glory. He imagined himself as the lead character who poisons and kills hundreds of innocents and is remembered in America as the man “who let the Jews have it”. While Larry wrote with the intent of illuminating evil, Abdullah fashioned the screenplay as his own life story. With Larry’s blueprint, Abdullah could fashion one of the most heinous crimes in American terror—and earn the respect of people the world over.

A short, slight and meek looking man, Mark Evans seemed the polar opposite of what Larry had imagined him to be. He seemed to be the quintessential nebbish. He actually had washed his hand with sanitizer before he picked up his mug of latte. He looked to be anywhere from 25-40, and might be gay—but again might not be. The important thing is that he showed up and kept the appointment.

“Larry I’m so sorry about last fall. I was busy with a million things—and you unfortunately came off my to do list!”

“That’s cool. I understand.”

”I read your script, Poison 911….”

“818”

“I mean 818.”

“It’s just too…..I don’t know….weird. I mean you’ve got a lot of good points: the terrorism, the domestic underground. It just doesn’t fit any type of genre. You look at the best movies, like Armageddon or The Rock—they fit into a pattern. Yours is just almost like a science fiction comedy drama suspense mystery. Life isn’t like that. Neither are movies.”

“I’m sorry that you didn’t like it. I kind of hoped that our meeting would be more productive.”

“No. I liked it. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

As they talked, loud police sirens and fire engines raced west down Ventura Boulevard. Mark tried to speak, but the emergency vehicles seemed to be endless. Helicopters flew above.

“What the hell is going on out there?”

People inside Starbucks looked nervously at one another. The sick feeling of impending doom entered the cozy confines of the café. Mark’s phone rang.

“Hello…..”

Just as Mark was speaking, a screaming middle-aged woman spilled her hot coffee as she ran through the door.

“They’ve bombed the day school! The children! Oh, my god! The children!”

“Hello. Jennifer, what’s the matter? Oh, my God! Oh, my God. This isn’t true! Oh, my God!”

Mark stood up. His face was a ghastly alabaster.

“You said it in your script! What you said came true!”

“Where? What happened?”

“A car wash attendant detonated himself in the temple children’s playground! There must have been a hundred children there. It was suicide. Just like you said………”

Days later, the normally placid sunshine ennui of Los Angeles was covered in a blanket of mourning. The nation looked to the Golden State and wept. One actor in a script of destruction had died, hundreds of innocents had been murdered. The obscure writer who couldn’t sell a screenplay became infamous, not for his movie, but for the collateral damage it caused.

“Such Happiness!”

Isabelle/Model/2017


A beautiful and privileged young girl is blissfully unaware of a shy man’s affection for her.

My mother told me that I’m one of those young men with low self-esteem who will always be grateful for the attention that any young woman throws my way. My mother told me that I did not have athletic ability, or the greatest mind, but that I was the most loyal friend anyone could have. “Women only love one man”: the last words I remember my mother telling me when I got on the bus in Omaha on my way to become a nobody in Los Angeles. Was Mom telling me to be faithful to my next love–or to remember Mom always?

Nobody ever said they knew me from anywhere. I was transparent, average, just a John Doe from the Great Plains. When I was in high school, people said I looked like Jeff Bridges. In College, they said I looked liked Beau Bridges. I had only one question for those people: Who are Jeff and Beau Bridges?

“I know I know you from somewhere…..Don’t I look familiar to you?”

One day I met Julie Cadogan, a tall, thin, regal looking young woman who had just joined our television production as a supervising producer.

“Honestly, I don’t think so. Where do you think we could have met?”

She was looking me over intensely. Her 5’10 frame and waspish waist was dressed in a long Indian print skirt and tight short sleeve burgundy sweater. Ingrid Bergman at a Grateful Dead concert. In the frantic light of a Monday morning at the office, this new arrival was taking her time.

“I think maybe….did you ever attend NYU?”

“No. BU.”

“Oh. Well, did you rent a house in San Luis Obispo, or Palm Springs last summer?”

“I did!”

“Right! Well I stayed in a house in Palm Springs last year with my best friend Bridget and she loved to go out and maybe we saw you at some bar out there!”

“I did grow up in Omaha, Nebraska.”

”No!”

“Why? Do you come from Omaha also?”

“No! But I lived in Omaha for a year after graduation and worked at WOMA TV! That had to be where I saw you!”

“When was that?”

“Last year!”

“I moved out of Nebraska in 1992.”

“Oh.”

It was late November in Los Angeles and I had been working on a horrendously stupid television show, “Beat Me.” It was an MTV program where young, dumb men posed questions to young, dumb women and if the woman answered right they got to date the young, dumb man. It was my job to go out and recruit young, dumb and good looking people. Fortunately, this was easy because I lived in Los Angeles.

We lived on a quiet, conservative street in Omaha. It was so law abiding, church going and upright that my mother once called the police when a poodle peed on our lawn. Three cruisers came out in about 4 minutes to arrest the poodle. “People should keep their dogs on a tight leash” my mother said, the next day on her way to church. I remember another thing about growing up in Omaha: I was never awakened once during the night. It was so quiet, so peaceful, so dead.

“Hi ya Charlie!” It was Julie waking me up at 2 am. I was sound asleep and pulled the covers over my head when the phone rang so horribly loud one early Saturday morning.

“Who is this?”

“Julie! I’m in your neighborhood and I have a big favor to ask! Could you pick me up? My car broke down on Fairfax and Beverly and I know you live right around here and I was wondering if I could crash at your place and then in the morning I could call a tow truck company to come and get it…Please, please, don’t say no!”

I grabbed my jeans off the floor, wacked some Vaseline on my electrocuted hair and ran out with my keys, sandals and wallet. I drove only 4 blocks to where Julie said she would be waiting.

At the corner of Fairfax and Beverly: 2:45 am and Julie was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t stay awake much longer. I had been waiting 45 minutes, didn’t have a phone and was losing my patience. I went home.

On Monday morning we were having a production meeting at 9 am and the news was pretty good. “Beat Me” was doing well in the ratings and it looked like we were going to go to a full hour. This meant more work and more weeks of work. But it was lousy because I would have to get more contestants. My job would be harder but my pay would stay the same.

Julie came in smiling. She was dressed in a beautiful suede skirt with a cream-colored angora sweater and a stainless steel jewelry—bracelet. She hardly looked like a cad, a liar, or that disturbing bitch who woke me up in the middle of the night and got me into the cold to pick her up.

“I’m so sorry Charlie! I got back into my car and it started and then I didn’t know how to tell you, because I called your house and the machine wasn’t on and there was no way to leave a message. So here is a present.”

She handed me a small box of Godiva chocolates.
“You’re probably furious at me. You really have a right to be furious. I would be just as mad!”

“I’m not mad Julie!”

“Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh!”

“Women who grew up with money love to talk about themselves son. Just remember to listen if you ever get involved with a rich girl.”-my father’s sage advice which he wrote down in a letter to me after he lost his job at the Ford plant.

Six months after Julie started, we had become the type of friends who go out to lunch and talk about work. But there was nothing else going on there. She would talk about her boyfriend and I would listen. I looked at my watch more than her eyes.

“He won’t commit to marriage because he is scared. So I told him that he has three weeks to decide—because if I don’t get a ring on my finger I’m going to move back to New York and work on my documentary! I told him I had a life before him and I meant it!”

How fortunate her life was, I could not have guessed. But I found out that her father was Anton Cadogan. He is a New York developer who built such landmarks as One Park Plaza Place and that enormous post-collegiate cellblock apartment complex known as Devonshire Court on Second Avenue in the 90’s. Julie didn’t like to talk about her family. Yet there was something in the ease and carefree way she talked about leaving jobs and leaving boyfriends and leaving town that let me know that she would never be down to her last nickel.

“I used to have an apartment on Second Avenue and it was so wonderful! Such happiness! A typical day for me would be…wake up, go to the gym, meet my friend Heather for lunch. We would hang out at the Met, go for a walk in Central Park, shop at Barneys, go to this fabulous cheese shop on Jones Street….Oh, I’m getting so depressed, I just wish I could move back to New York! Los Angeles is just not a city!”

“Oh, I agree. I’d like to move back to Manhattan myself. But it just isn’t easy with apartments so expensive. I think I read that some studio apartments start at $3500!”

“Well if it’s just an apartment that’s holding you back—they’re easy to get. I could find you one like that.”

She was so young. So used to luxury. Her work was just a hobby to fill time. What did she know about earning a living? I had graduated college 13 years ago and I was still paying student loans! Why did God create it so that some people have it so easy and still think it’s so tough for them?

When I think of people who have had it easy I think of people who have never shoveled snow. Yes, Julie Cadogan never shoveled snow in her entire god-damned life.

“Hello, handsome!”

“Hi.”

Julie was standing in front of my desk as I entered the list of possible contestants on the show. It was 4 O’Clock, an awful hour in the awful part of the day at work. She was smiling with just the widest grin this side of Montana.
“Look at what I’m wearing! Notice anything?”

I looked at her blue silk blouse, the grey nylon sweats, the open toed $250 dollar shoes…..Absolutely nothing unique. Expensive, yes. Different, no.

Then she extended her right hand in a screw like fashion aimed right for my nose. A glistening, enormous diamond ring was living atop the smoothest, longest, most polished fingers and nails I had ever seen.

“He did it. Wow. You must be happy.”

“Oh, my God! Charlie, I’m so happy! I have been waiting for this forever! We’re getting married in exactly six months on October 7th and I’ve got to get everything together and I just don’t know how I’m going to do it!”

“Wow. Julie, I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks Charlie. I’m going to go and show this to the receptionist. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

I was ready to quit my job the day that Sean the producer yelled at me after I forgot to write down the age of that stupid blonde from Witchita. I was through with the crap of television, with the utter mindlessness of the program. I wanted to be somewhere important, doing something brainy, getting somewhere. I was standing still, earning nothing, without health insurance, a car, a life. I was a free lance, hand out taking, goatee wearing, slouchy, sloppy, slob with no self esteem…. handing out vouchers to strangers on the Santa Monica promenade (and hoping that they would think that my smile was cute enough to come down to the fuckin’ studio) and stand in line just to be rejected for the stupidest program on earth. Why did I do this kind of work? To what end?

I finally got up enough courage to walk down to Sean’s office and tell him that I was leaving.
“Hi Charlie.”

It was Julie. She intercepted me as I was on my way to ruin my career. She looked upset. Her eyes were watery, puffy.
“I need to talk to you. Could we go for a walk down to Ben and Jerry’s? I’ll buy you an ice cream.”

My dad was quite cynical. He told me to never trust a woman that offers to buy YOU something. “They always are after you. They all want to be taken care of. So if any broad offers to buy you something…..watch out!”

We walked out into the eye squinting brightness of the palm-lined boulevard and she took my hand. Her gesture was so unexpected. Its intimacy broke down my natural inclination to believe that everyone is full of shit.
“I just got into the worst fight with Van Ness.”

“Who is Van Ness?”

“My fiancee! Oh, I thought you knew that. Anyway, Van Ness wants to move to San Francisco. And I don’t.”

“Some people have to be all fancy and give their kids last names for first names”, my father cautioned. “Don’t expect anyone who is called Henderson or Langley to be a good friend. You’ll find your friends in people with plain names like Steve, Bill or Bob!”
“O.K. Why does he want to move there?”

“He wants it because Michaelfish wants it.”

“Michaelfish?”

“His band.”

“Oh.”

“I said that just because your band is leaving doesn’t mean that you can leave your fiancee behind. He thinks that his career will suffer and Michaelfish will go on and become famous and he will lose if he doesn’t go!”

Then she broke down into tears on Ventura Boulevard.

“But what about me! What about us! I tried to talk to him, but he said I was selfish! I don’t think I’m selfish if I ask him to stay in the same city and that city is Los Angeles. I would go with him, but my life is right here! Oh, my god! What should I do Charlie?”

“What should I do?”, she asks! Geez, who the hell knows what anyone should do! I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do for my whole life. I moved out to Los Angeles, the most lost city on earth, to find out some definitive things about myself. What I found is that I hate the sun and hate work. What kind of an answer is that?

Ben and Jerry’s was just ahead. I put my hand around her graceful and swanlike neck and guided her into the cool parlor of flavours. Her tears seemed to dissipate slightly when she saw the round, cold, chocolate mound of Cherry Garcia ice cream.
“Julie, let me buy this for you.”

“Oh, thank you.”

She was so tender, fragile and sweet. The unwrinkled and dewy complexion, the sudden emotion of a young woman afraid of losing her lover, the appealing vision of a virgin-like creature spooning down the creamiest and fattiest desert known to mankind…..A large Maraschino cherry stood atop the mounds of ice cream as the chocolate dripped down the sides and gathered lava like at the bottom of the dish. I wanted to kiss her and make love right there. This moment had cost me all of $3.50 but it was worth every penny.

“I think I want to go home Charlie.”

“You mean back to Hollywood?”

“No. I mean my parent’s house in New York.”

A House! A 17 room penthouse on Fifth Avenue! You call that a house?

“Do you think I should go? I mean my mother has already hired a wedding consultant and they might rent out this church in Pacific Palisades and then if I decide to hold the reception at the garden in back, they want a deposit. Oh, all these decisions! I just can’t stand it.”

“Your mother and I got married at the VFW hall just outside of Fort Pierce. We’ve been happily married for 34 years! We didn’t have no money, but hell, we were in love. Don’t think that you have to get married in some mansion on a cliff in Malibu! One expensive party never kept anyone happy for life!”
“My advice is not to do anything drastic. Just stay put. Don’t run away.”

“Ok. Ok. You’re right.”

I took a napkin, dipped it in water and dabbed away some chocolate under her lower lip.
“Michaelfish is playing at the Gardena Room tonight! Please come!”

It was Julie pleading for me to attend Van Ness and Michaelfish. She had made up with him, after he found out that he could rent rehearsal space cheaper in L.A. and convinced the band that economically it was better if they stayed in the Southland.
Julie was convinced that LOVE had won over Van Ness. She was so enchanted with Van Ness, so excited about staying in Los Angeles, so ecstatic about the impending wedding—that it seemed senseless and cruel to point out that $4 a square foot had won Van Ness over and preserved the sanctity of their relationship.

I’ve always thought that my clothes were among the homeliest ever. I mostly wear plaid shirts, with short sleeves and button down collars. I have a paunchy stomach that accentuates the cheapness of the fabrics I wear. My glasses look like something that an insurance adjuster would wear in Omaha-say about 1955. I have a chipped front tooth which I’ve never bothered to fix. I am not cool, not at all.

Outside of the Gardena Room, stood a crowd of black draped, gothic styled, cigarette inhaling young people. Many of them were tall, thin like models on speed. They were waiting to be picked to enter the exalted space where Michaelfish was to perform. Two enormous Black men dressed in woolen over coats, searched patrons for concealed weapons and illicit drugs.

A light rain was falling on a late Friday night in early December. Los Angeles, which had remained dry for six months, was inexplicably thrust into a new, temporary, chilly and wet season where the air was pure and such Northern inclinations as sweaters, red wine and contemplation come into fashion. The city, which wore a sunburned and gregarious face, now was forced to don waterproof rain-jackets and subdued emotion.

Inside the Gardena Room, it was dark, smoky and the band was warming up. The no-smoking policy was, as is customary, broken in defiance of state law. Julie sat in a corner, smoking a cigarette. I walked over to see her.
“Hi! I’m so glad you came.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it. Have you found work?”

“No. I’ve been so busy with the wedding—buying a dress, choosing a caterer, flying back to New York to pick out invitations….I just don’t have time to earn money right now. How about you?”

My father once offered me this financial advice: “Just save a quarter every day. At the end of the week you’ll have $1.75, at the end of the month $7, and at the end of the year $84. In ten years, you’ll have $840, and in fifty years it will be worth $4200.”

“Well, it’s Christmas. Not too easy to get a job this time of year.”

“Right. Have you talked to MTV? Do they have anything else?”

“No. I’m mean yes…I heard they’re starting up a new show called BUSTED. It’s supposed to be about men who cheat or women who cheat on men and they catch them on tape. I think they need someone to find the cheaters so that’s the position. But I don’t think I’ll take it….And then I had…..”

Van Ness walked in. He was dressed in a black leather vest, cowboy buckled belt, tight jeans covering a wide load ass. A bald spotted ego with long hair, overweight, tattoos, mid 30’s. He smelled like the inside of a refrigerator filled with old meat loaf that hadn’t been cleaned out for three months. His biceps were big—but not muscular, merely wide. They were covered with eagles, Jesus ,the twelve apostles, and some Chinese letters. He gave me a great big bear hug.
“Nice to see you man! Julie’s been talkin’ you up man! Says you gotta meet my buddy Charlie! Shit, I need a light. Julie can you run out to the car and grab my lighter?”

“Sure honey! Charlie, you’ll still be here when I get back right?”

“Right!”

Julie ran out to the car. Van Ness sneezed loudly. He looked at me salaciously and wiped some mucus off his beard with his left forearm.
“Hey Charlie. I have to run backstage. Thanks for coming.”

I sat down at the darkened table, waiting for the opening number of Michaelfish. A waitress came by. I ordered a Becks and waited for the effervescent Julie to come back inside.

“Incidental in Studio City”

It was a clear, sparkling, blue-sky morning in Los Angeles. Ned Le Reve of Studio City went out for a walk.

Ned, his wife Stacey and daughter Kirsten lived on the quaint Cantura Street just south of Ventura Boulevard. Their house was rented, but it felt like home with its double hung windows, black shutters, white washed picket fence and Iceberg roses in the front yard.

Ned, born in Chicago, had moved out to Los Angeles some twenty years earlier to work as a production assistant on the TV pilot “Twenty Lashes” which starred Potter Palmer, an obscure Chicago comedian who was briefly popular in the latter half of 1984. Ned considered himself a real Chicagoan who grew up in Rogers Park, went to Senn High School and the University of Illinois.

Everyone Lives Near the Beverly Center

In the 1980’s, many young Chicagoans and New Yorkers who emigrated to LA moved to that section of Los Angeles near the brown concrete mass of the Beverly Center. The straight, ambitious, cunning, aggressive and creative aspiring sycophants…all of them… were drawn to an area built up largely in the 1930’s and 40’s with Spanish and Art Moderne flats in gardens of green lawns, ficus trees and Birds of Paradise.

Ned found a 1939 vintage two-bedroom apartment on Orlando, just north of Beverly. His roommate was Alan Blockkopf (block-off), a short red haired and wiry nerd from Skokie, Illinois. Alan had been in Ned’s Secrets of Sitcom Writing class at U of I. He was a connection of sorts. He had just secured a job as a runner on The Cosby Show and was full of advice.

Ned soon found out that Alan never shut up with his helpful hints about making it in Hollywood. A typical Alan comment: “What you want to do in Hollywood is send a postcard to any person you meet at a party and thank them for talking to you.” He was full of career, dating, eating, carnal, social, family and financial recommendations.

As Ned reached into the refrigerator to prepare himself a tuna sandwich he felt Alan’s hand on his left shoulder.” I never eat tuna salad the day after I make it,” Alan said. “Oh, Ok,” was Ned’s reply.

“ Your mother called today,” Alan said. He then added, “You should probably tell her to stop calling you more than once a week. You’re 23 now and she’s treating you like a baby.”

Alan had his way in the apartment with the arrangement of: the closets (he had two of three); the bookshelves (he had all of them for his own books); the keys (he had many keys but allowed Ned only one to get into the front door). Alan used electric air freshners in his bathroom. He asked Ned to used shower gel (not soap because it clogs drains). He paid his bills on the first Sunday of every month at 10am and expected Ned to do the same.

Alan imagined himself as a comedy writer, and he was hard at working writing pilot episodes for Mr. Cosby himself, though Mr. Cosby never read any of Alan’s work. Alan adored the sludgy Cosby’s humor and was especially fond of quoting the droll Jello gelatin commercials verbatim.

In 1985, popular music was recorded on “LP’s” (a long playing phonograph record). Ned would throw his LP albums around his bedroom. Tidy Alan stacked his music alphabetically in the dining room bookcase. If Ned wanted to find a favorite album of his own, he would merely get down on the floor and sweep his hands over the record covers. Eventually he would find what he was looking for.

This disorder was too much for Alan. He asked Ned to find a place to store the albums correctly. Ned said, “Like fuck I will.” The next day Alan asked Ned to move out. Ned was unemployed, directionless, single and had no place to live. In a sense, he was on equal ground with every other 23 year old in Los Angeles.

Liza O’Neil of Studio City

“People suck, you know what I mean?” Ned was having a dreadful conversation with another college friend, Liza O’Neil, a Los Angeles native who worked in TV and was fond of such phrases as “you know what I mean” and “people suck…. you know what I mean?”

Liza was 5’10 and had blunt cut brown hair which complimented her big brown eyes and tiny little ears. She was tall and wore baggy men’s oxford shirts and torn jeans. In Ned’s naive assessment of Liza, she was laid back. Unlike girls back in Chicago, Liza never wore make-up and the only tailored clothing she owned was a vintage man’s formal jacket and trousers which she wore to very fancy occasions like Dodger’s games.

Her beauty was compromised by her character. She was self-centered, self-absorbed, a slob who chain smoked and only dated successful fat comedians whom she judged were on their way up in Hollywood. Her leisure time was spent talking on the phone about herself and her failed relationships.

“If you want a place to stay…..” Liza paused after exhaling smoke, “…Then you can stay in my extra bedroom and pay me $200 a month. I live on North Golf Course Drive in Studio City and I have a really nice little gray house that I rent. I’m going to be working on a televised concert in Vancouver this summer. I insist that you move out when I get back in Septmember.”

This was Ned’s second taste of hospitality in LA. You were always welcome as long as you were needed. You were always welcome as long as you were useful. You could be cut out or fired or dropped, simply at a moment’s notice. The one in power reserved all of the rights to dismiss you. It was a tradition dating back to Joan Crawford and her poor, oppressed daughter Christina.

Love in Toluca Lake

One hot Tuesday in May, while Liza worked in Vancouver, Ned was unemployed and bored in Studio City. He had opened up the Hollywood Reporter and sent out his resumes. He had made some calls to his “connections” but found that he had none. He locked up the house and started walking east down Moorpark.

He passed Whitsett, and then Laurel Canyon, Colfax, Tujunga, Vineland, Lankershim, Cahuenga. Two hours later he had entered Toluca Lake, the picturesque and prosperous district– where the institution and sometimes human– Bob Hope lived. In this fairy land, mountains caressed rose covered cottages where little blonde tykes were watched over by benevolent nannies and au pairs and Mom never looked any older than 40 even on her 75th birthday.

It was hot, maybe 99 degrees, so Ned stopped at a gas station and bought a Coca-Cola. He almost didn’t make it to the soda machine. A young woman in a 1986 Taurus came screaching through pump area, her foot on the accelerator. Ned was merely an insect at the end of the woman’s hood ornament. He might have died right there, but he jumped on top of her hood. The woman slammed on her brakes with an expression stunned and sorry. She ran over to Ned on top of her windshield. “Oh, I’m so embarassed. I could have killed you. Let me help you down. ” She was an attractive if innocent looking sandy haired gal with a light blue t-shirt. “It’s so hot,” she said, “that I just wasn’t thinking. The sun got in my eyes.”

“My name is Ned, ” he said. “Stacey, pleased to meet you.”

They exchanged numbers and a few days later they were laughing at a French bakery on Riverside Drive that reminded Ned of the one his mom had back home. Stacey was really funny he found out. She was a Phoenix girl, who moved here to work as a comedy writer, but was supporting herself as a receptionist in a medical office in Toluca Lake.

Crossing Liza O’Neil

Three months after Ned met Stacey, he proposed marriage to her. But he was still staying at Liza’s house. The owner had blown back into town after an exciting summer supplying the refreshments at a crafts services table in Vancouver backstage at U2 Concerts. She had seen wealth and fame and power. She seemed to possess a new philosophical maturation.

“You know what I mean about working in our industry, she opined, as she smoked away on the back porch with Ned, “We work a few months out of the year, and then we are free but we have no money. So it sucks. You know what I mean? I wish I was living in Paris like I did in college. My parents gave me $500 a month. Now they don’t give me anything. You know what I mean? I mean they did buy me that white BMW but so what? I still have to work. You know what I mean?”

Ned broke the news to Liza about Stacey, a girl he really liked and now intended to marry. “That’s really cool. I’m happy for you. We all need someone. You know?” Liza was almost thoughtful. “So when are you moving out Ned?” She asked.

Only Yesterday

Ned had been in Los Angeles for 19 years. He had left Liza’s house at 24, and woke up at 41 with a 40 year-old wife and a 16 year-old daughter. What had he accomplished in the decade and a half since he moved here to work in “TV”? Or was it “FILM”?

One year he was a writer’s assistant on a game show. He hated the hours spent locked up in white walled windowless offices coming up with trivia questions. He quit.

He worked as a researcher on documentaries and checked facts for producers who wrote it into one hour History Channel shows like, “Noah’s Ark: The Mystery Rises” and “Hoover: A Man and a Dam”.

He worked in a producer’s office sorting headshots. He tried acting and ended up in a cult acting class where the teacher, Boris, fell in love with him because his stage presence was so natural and unaffected (and untaught and unpracticed and inexperienced).

Kirsten was a lovely child, and he doted on her. But Stacey had grown into a morose woman who resented Ned’s stagnant career and looked around at other women who enjoyed vacations, cosmetic surgery and weekends in Manhattan. Ned felt that he was lacking in masculine energy, drive or cruelty.

Softball

The only real progress he made was on the softball field. Every Sunday, he met Dick Raymond and other past primers for a men’s only game of softball at the Studio City Park athletic field. Dick was a bearded rebel who grew up in Berkeley in the 1960’s and was forever in search of the meaning of life as experienced between those three bases and home plate. “Ned”, Dick told him one day, “The only thing you need for happiness in this world is a good baseball bat.”

The Good Bat

Ned took Dick’s advice and went out to buy the best bat he could find. At the Sports Store on Ventura Boulevard, he pushed his way past the 11 and 12-year old boys and their dads to lay his hands on a solid man’s bat. A glossy label hung seductively on one of the biggest and best-looking bat models stacked against the wall:

“The Amateur Softball Association of America, headquarters in Oklahoma City, OK certifies that this “Louisville Slugger” model bat meets our standards for ASA Bat Performance.”

Ned immediately made eye contact with one bat. It was the “TPS GENESIS” whose advertising bragged about its aerospace applications and graphite, carbon, and tensile strengths. Lightning bolt graphics in enormous exploding letters promised the ultimate in power hitting for slow pitch softball.

Ned was about to take that item to the cashier. Then he spotted the $159.00 TPS POWER RESPONSE. A glossy brochure attached to the bat explained the enormous technological advances that went into this product:

“The strongest and toughest alloy ever developed for aluminum bats. In aluminum bat construction, the alloy’s “yield strength” is key to bat design, performance and durability. GEN1X, the strongest alloy on the market, is the first aluminum bat alloy to measure over 100 ksi (THE MEASUREMENT OF AN ALLOY’S STRENGTH). The result is the most technologically advanced line of aluminum bats to ever be developed. Years in the development process, Alcoa Research and Development Engineers formulated a breakthrough combination of Aluminum, Zinc, Copper, Zirconium, Magnesium and traces of Titanium to obtain this incredible strength.”

Ned picked up the softball bat. In a dance like configuration of ass out, knees bent he got into a batter’s stance. It felt good, him and the big bat. He carefully swung it and imagined himself as the greatest softball hitter in the world. Like Viagra it put a new virility into Ned. He had to buy it. He ran up to the counter and handed the cashier two hundred dollar bills. This bat might just change his life.

Unnerving

Alan Blockkopf had eventually become the executive producer and creator of “Whoremobile”. The MTB reality show starred a beautiful Playboy bunny who would pick one lucky male winner to ride (and do much more) in her car all night. The winner was selected from three guys who had to eat dead cat meat or drink pig’s blood in order to win a date with her. The supervising producer, just under Blockkopf , was Liza O’Neil. Here were two old friends of Ned who were now in distinguished positions were they could earn accolades and honors.

Ned felt diminished. College friends of Ned’s became neurosurgeons and Congressmen, CEO’s and Engineers, diplomats, designers and producers of “Whoremobile” but where was he? Ned was still poor Ned stuck outside with his hungry nose against the window watching the lucky ones inside.

He was desperate to prove something to himself. He would ask Alan or Liza for a job on “Whoremobile”. He just had to.

Nose Ring Central

“Of course you can come in and talk to us.” Thus, Liza O’Neil invited Ned Le Reve to visit her production offices at MTB in Santa Monica.

MTB (Music Tele-Broadcasting) was housed in a long, low slung brown brick building in a flat and uninteresting section of West Los Angeles.

Ned arrived dressed in his best “I’m still young, cool and hip” style that looked hopelessly out of date to those MTB employees who were not yet born when Ned graduated College. He was wearing a red 50’s style rayon camp shirt with the tails untucked, baggy jeans and leather Steve Madden sneakers. His hair was cut short and frosted blonde in parts to block out the gray. The receptionist was an Asian tattooed young man with nose rings and a laptop on his lap. Ned was buzzed into the offices of “Whoremobile”.

MTB’s architecture in Los Angeles is a circus side-show, a commercially calculating carnival of deception and pretense. Interior design here is fun, crazy and lunatic with an infant’s sense of decorum and the quiet subtlety of a Marine drill sergeant. Acid green walls and unadorned bare bulbs were accentuated by psychedelic carpets and linoleum violently mismatched. The intent: to express how free and cool it is at MTB. The result: it only served to make the Ned feel ill at ease and unsure. Big-framed posters of shirtless and muscular black men grabbing their crotches were advertisements for the best debauchery and merrymaking. This land of MTB: whores and thugs, killers and sluts, singers and salesmen, hell and hucksterism. This is what middle aged, white and nerdy Ned Le Reve saw as he walked down the hall to Liza’s office.

On the 10

It was 5 O’clock and Ned was stuck on the freeway. He was driving his wife’s 1986 Taurus, the one that had almost killed him years ago. He was hot, hungry and tired. He couldn’t stop replaying the ridiculous and sickening interview with Liza O’Neil.

“We like to talk about sex and food. You know what I mean? I mean do you know anything about the new MTB food channel FTV?” Liza said.

“I’ve been working in documentaries,” Ned said.

“We are going to Vegas to do a special with Paris Hilton. You know her?” Liza asked.

“Yes.”

“Well I mean if you want to move to Vegas, I could probably use someone as my assistant there. Do you have a car?” Liza asked.

She had put a tape of the show in the VCR and they had watched it. A tan, 22 year-old blond girl with orange skin peeled off her top and three guys jumped on top of her and the whole scene was blacked out by sensors.

“Why do you bother to show what you can’t show?” Ned asked.

“It’s the idea. They’re jumping on top of her and the audience knows she’s topless and everyone uses their imagination. You-know-what-I-mean?” She said.

“I do. And I think it’s asinine to tease your viewers with explicit sex and not make it explicit!” He answered. He lost his chances right there. Not that he wanted to win the job anyway.

“Well it’s been great seeing you again. I’ll say hi to Alan. He’s so busy. He wanted to come by and say hello but he just doesn’t have time. You-know-what-I-mean?” Liza said goodbye and walked out of the room. MTB had cooked her brain like a TV dinner left too long in the microwave.

North on Laurel Canyon

Ned was crawling up the one lane Laurel Canyon at the height of the rush hour. He looked out his rear view mirror and could see a brown haired young woman in a Lincoln Navigator. She was on the phone, putting on lipstick, driving, and drinking coffee.

His phone rang. It was Dick Raymond, “Hey Ned. I just called to tell you that the game is cancelled tomorrow. I was invited to spend the weekend with my friend Alan and his wife at their beach house in Newport Beach.”

“Oh, that’s OK,” answered Ned.

“Are you all right kid?” Dick asked.

“No. I just had a horrible interview and now I’m stuck in traffic. Nothing out of the ordinary,” answered Ned.

“Interview?” Dick asked.

“Yes. Some fuckin’ idiotic show called “Whoremobile”. I mean can you imagine me on a show like that? It’s like one step above porn.” Ned said.

“But very profitable. My friend Alan is the executive producer of that show. That’s the Alan my wife are going to spend the weekend with in Newport!” he said.

“Hey. I didn’t mean to take a swipe at your friend.” Ned said.

“No. I agree with you. It’s garbage, but I wouldn’t tell him that. Do you know he just bought a nine million dollar house in Brentwood?” Alan said.

“No, I didn’t.” Ned said.

“Well. He’s enjoying every minute of it. The United Jewish Appeal voted him Citizen of the Year. He’s a big guy now. So long. Have a good weekend Ned.” Alan said.

At last Ned reached the top of Mulholland, the mountain summit road that separates Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. The golden haze of the sun was closing on a day full of ambiguity and yearning.

What he wanted now, more than anything, he thought, was to go to the park and hit a few balls.