Project Tokyo.

10275577374_529550ed4c_c

 

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

Project Tokyo (Downloadable PDF)

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

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

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

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

“Is she somebody big?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked him if he studied acting. No.

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

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

What writers or playwrights did he admire? None.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ye shall know a man by his purchases.

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

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

Matan Sharon

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

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

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

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

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

I was making money.

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

Sun Down Days

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

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

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

I had grown old.

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

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

Life is time passed mostly in looking out.

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

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

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

Sunday in Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christa McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel Celestine 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Gifts 

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Japan,” I said.

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

A Foreign City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at him for a moment and smiled.

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

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

Walter Benton

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

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

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

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

I wonder if he ever got over to Tokyo.

END

 

The Matter-horn

Hollywood Athletic Club by Andy Hurvitz 11/12/06
Hollywood Athletic Club by Andy Hurvitz 11/12/06

HARRY WEINER was nervous. Only 28 years old, Harry was the executive producer of a new NTC (National Television Company) sitcom, “The Matterhorn.” The Matterhorn took place in a fancy Madison Avenue clothing store with crazy customers and silly salespersons.

Five weeks into the new season, “The Matterhorn” was doing terribly in the ratings. It was ranked 59 out of 70 programs in the Nielsen ratings. Reviewers pronounced the new show “dead on arrival”, “sickening”, “juvenile”, “like warmed over pea soup.”

Harry’s work load was excruciating. He would drive, an hour each way, from his apartment in Brentwood to the NTC studio in Burbank.

He would get to work around 10 am. Immediately, Harry would get pounced on by schmoozers, agents, writers, assistants, emails, secretaries, publicists, producers, executives, guests. He barely knew how to manage his time. It seemed that every little problem was a top priority.

Some of these problems included: a strike by lighting technicians which threatened to darken the show on the night of taping; a pregnant head writer who objected to a line about abortion in the final script; a hypochondriacal director who feared getting germs on his coffee which had been served to him by an HIV positive production assistant.

######

Harry had arrived in Hollywood, 4 years earlier, with a recommendation from the Director of the School of Communication at Boston University. Harry had interned at Warner Brothers in the Director’s training program.

He had “tailed” a senior director on “Friends” for a year. Harry joined a “writers” group and met LISA SCHNITZER, the head writer of the hit show, MEET MEGAN ROONEY. Lisa liked Harry. Harry showed her a spec script he had written for MEET MEGAN ROONEY
Lisa read it ,liked it and hired Harry to be a staff writer.

To Lisa, Harry was reminiscent of her ex-boyfriend from Syosset. Harry played up his “eastern” background, continually reminding Lisa how close Toledo was to the Jersey Shore (only an hour and a half by plane.) They constructed a private reality of worldly and well read easterners in a dumb, ignorant, superficial, silly city. They were both destined for great things, Harry told her, and he pushed Lisa to develop new shows, new ideas and—- introduce him to her agent at William Morris.

Lisa was having trouble on MEET MEGAN ROONEY. The lead character didn’t think that Lisa understood her well enough— so ” Megan Rooney” told the executive producer to fire Lisa. Lisa came in– the next day– and found out she and Harry were gone.

Luck intervened. A 21 year old assistant at William Morris liked Lisa (because Lisa had a really great Tibetan tattoo on her navel drawn with henna ink) and the assistant recommended a pitch Lisa and Harry wrote about an expensive store on Madison Avenue with crazy customers and funny employees called “The Matterhorn.”

The pitch made its way to SIMON SHARON, the hottest television agent at William Morris. Simon was born on the day that the hostages in Iran were freed from captivity and considered himself destined for great things.

Simon liked Lisa. She was only a few years older than him and she had a nice butt. Lisa worked out at Simon’s gym and sometimes bumped into him there. Lisa thought Simon was cute, even though he had an annoying twitch. When he spoke, he turned his head on an angle, as if he were a basset hound who didn’t understand his master’s orders. One night, Lisa went home with him and they made love and quickly downloaded their intimacy into each other.

#####

Things move fast in Hollywood, especially when you are under thirty and don’t know where you are going, but are determined to get there.

That summed up Harry, who teamed up with Lisa, post-coital Lisa, to pitch Simon on “The Matterhorn” sit com. Simon immediately christened Lisa “THE MEGAN ROONEY” writer and that was the equivalent of a master’s degree at William Morris. WM had placed many of their clients on the staff of the MEET MEGAN ROONEY show.

Disney agreed to finance THE MATTERHORN, with Harry and Lisa as executive producers. NTC bought the show from Disney and put it on their Tuesday night prime time roster. This Tuesday line up became infamous as “TUESDAY SCHNOOZEDAY” because the programs were so boring, so banal, so juvenile, so unfunny. They were written by young, unread, unschooled boys who thought toilet paper, tits and teenage tantrums were the quintessence of laughs.

Harry and Lisa desperately tried to make “The Matterhorn” more sophisticated. To make sure that the program had some Manhattan appeal, exterior still photographs of an 1889 Rococo Madison Avenue mansion were placed at the beginning and end of each ½ hour. The show was filmed in a dark studio in sunny Burbank but the program took place in New York. This was quite intentional. The most successful sit coms took place in New York City: MAD ABOUT YOU, SEINFELD, FRIENDS, etc.

The writers were graduates of Manhattan prep schools and Eastern colleges. The average writer was only 22 years old, but that was what they reported on their w-4 forms and some rumors went around that one writer was as old as 33.

The acting talent was top notch. William Morris placed the young, wacky and busty blond comedienne, VIVIAN VON VECTOR, as the head of the posh emporium. Her assistant was played by the plump and rosy cheeked CHARLES LEADER who was on Broadway last year as a gay baritone in “I’LL SING TOMORROW.” Other William Morris clients became guest stars including: YOLANDA CHUTNEY, an ex-Sri Lankan former stripper who was in an episode where the owner of The Matterhorn was embarrassed when he was caught on videotape with Yolanda in a sexual act by the store security.

Seven shows had already been aired as November sweeps came on. The Matterhorn was slipping further down the ratings barrel. NTC was impatient and doubtful about the show’s survival. Commercial spots, which originally sold for $250,000 for thirty seconds, now were discounted at $175,000. The Matterhorn was also an expensive show to produce with all the costumes, beautiful mahogany store interiors, antique furniture, crystal, perfume, glass props. It was a drain on the budget of NTC. Cancellation seemed at hand.

#####

One balmy, misty November evening, Harry met Lisa at the bar of the HOTEL Peninsula in Beverly Hills. Lisa drank echinaccea flavored water while Harry opted for a pink grapefruit Kava herb cocktail to calm his nerves. Lisa heard from Simon that the NTC executives thought that the show lacked “ethnicity.” Simon said a New York show needed at least one Jewish character. All of the actors were white and Waspy, except for Yolanda, who was Sri Lankan. Who even knew where Sri Lanka was?

Harry and Simon agreed that it was the eleventh hour and time was running out. As Simon spoke to Harry, actress and client RHODA MOSKOWITZ walked in to the office. Rhoda had been huge at William Morris back in the 70’s when her New York, Jewish, schmaltzy and hamische voice charmed and annoyed audiences on such shows as: RHODA, MARY TYLER MOORE, BOB NEWHART, and THE LOVE BOAT. Rhoda was friends with Simon’s mother so this was more of a social call. Simon looked at Rhoda and thought that she might be the one to re-invigorate THE MATTERHORN.

Simon could only look at this 6o-year-old friend of his mother’s and laugh. She had black hair which she piled up like fancy croissant atop her head. She wore big glasses with dainty chains, a huge “chai” necklace, and several large rings with opals, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. She preferred tailored clothing a la Ralph Lauren, with cashmere, fine woolens and Italian shoes to her liking. She was in excellent shape and followed a diet rich in fresh fruits, fish and eight glasses of water a day.

Rhoda had been on the stage in New York, and on the tube in LA. Now living in Sherman Oaks, CA she was asked by Simon if she would like to appear as a guest star on The Matterhorn? “Sure.”
Immediately, Simon’s brain waves started to spin with 15% commissions and the possibility of more to come.

Simon and Rhoda hopped into his Porsche and drove to the Peninsula. Harry and Lisa met Rhoda and Simon and the foursome decided to develop a character for Rhoda which would make the audience stand up and laugh, advertisers buy spots and the executives dance with delight. Simon, Rhoda,Harry and Lisa shook hands. Harry went home to try and dream up how to convince his boss that Rhoda was needed and more importantly, might just be the saviour of the show.

#####

Just 31 years old, Helene Reisman had a reputation as one of the toughest S.O.B.’s at NTC. She was paid well over $1,000,000 a year and had put MEET MEGAN ROONEY on the air over the objections of her entire junior staff.

Harry met HELENE REISMAN at her large glass and synthetic white panelled home in Encino that evening. Harry pitched the idea of “Rhoda” while Helene played patty cake with her 3 year old son, O’RYAN.

She barely contained her glee at her young child’s smile, but grew angry as Harry laid out his plans for Rhoda.

Helene was blunt: “Listen I don’t like it when you say a typical Jewish older woman in New York who has a lot of money and is very demanding. It’s Anti-Semitic stereotyping.”

Harry grabbed a rattle and danced it in front of O’Ryan’s blue eyes. The child laughed and tried to grab it. Harry wouldn’t back down. “Helene, they’ve had successful Jewish characters on TV for years. You know them by name: Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, David Schwimmer. None of them admit being Jewish. It’s like a joke. Act Jewish, but don’t celebrate Jewish holidays, don’t wear a yarmulke, don’t let the audience know what they already know. It’s like its Ok to have a Jew on TV as long as he or she is in the closet.”

Helene cooled off. She picked up the baby and danced with some rhythm around the nursery. “O’Ryan, what should Mommy do? Should mommy say yes to the nice man?” O’Ryan seemed to point at Harry. “He likes you Harry. My son thinks you’re OK.” Harry smiled that broad, salesman’s smile ready to close the deal.

“O.K. Try Rhoda. If she doesn’t work, which she probably won’t, it will just be a one time thing. Don’t say I let you have an anti-semitic character on the show. Leave me out of it. If the ratings go up, then by god we either have a real dilemma or a godsend.”

With Helene (and O’Ryan’s)blessing, Harry was back at the studio for an all night session with Lisa and the writers to come up with a story which would eventually revolve around Rhoda as a pushy and wealthy woman who is furious when her grandson’s bar mitzvah suit is lost in the store’s alterations department.

The new character would be called MISSY MISHKIN, the doyenne of Park Avenue. Missy was no push over, had a strong Bronx accent, and was not above arguing with a sales clerk if she thought she had been ripped off, treated unfairly, or paid little attention to.

Rehearsals began. Vivian Von Vector put her best WASPy accent and superior attitude on. Charles Leader made sure that his vulnerable gay sensitivity was on full blast as the assault of Missy began on stage. After four days, Harry and Lisa were pleased with the chemistry between Rhoda’s guest character and the rest of the leads.

But Yolanda Chutney was disturbed by some of the dialogue. One late,fatigued Thursday night, the cast had been rehearsing all day. Yolanda asked if she could please not refer to Missy as “that demanding and annoying woman from Hadassah.” Yolanda had always been a liberal person, and had battled color prejudice her whole life as a darker skinned person with sub-continental hues. Harry refused to alter the line, and Lisa backed him up. Yolanda threw the script up in the air and walked right up to Harry and thrust her finger in his face.

“You as a Jew, of all people, should know how mean, how vicious these words sound. Are you gonna tell everyone that the dialogue is funny and that’s how you’re gonna worm out of it this bigoted bullshit?”
Harry was unmoved. “Yolanda, you are totally fuckin’ out of line. Missy is a fictional character who is only a guest star. She is not a representation of all Jews any more than Charles Manson is a stand in for the Christians!”

Rhoda Moskowitz stepped up to the plate to defend herself, her role and also score with Harry. “Listen Yolanda, I’m Jewish and believe me, if I thought there was anything wrong with this I wouldn’t do it.”
Yolanda seemed to be slightly comforted by these words, and besides an argument (by a lowly actor) on principle in Hollywood assumes a ridiculousness when arrayed against the necessities of work, money and the imperatives of executive power.

Yolanda picked up her script.”O.K. let’s just get this fuckin’ scene over with.”

#####

At the Friday night dress performance, before a half empty studio audience, Harry and Lisa nervously watched as the first scene was shot. Director CAMERON SCHNITZER, a 24 year old MTV video editor, and Lisa’s younger brother, was confident and sure of how to direct his cast.

At Cameron’s personal urging, the costume for Missy was particularly elegant. A fur collared black knit suit with a velvet pill box hat anchored by a diamond pin, was sewn especially for Ms. Moskowitz. Missy would enter “The Matterhorn” with a retinue of servants: a driver, a maid, and her nurse. She would demand of Ms. Von Vector that the management provide a free bar mitzvah suit for her grand son or she would sue the whole store and possibly put it out of business.

Rhoda pronounced her words with the maximum nasal affect and made sure to drop her “r”s. Helene Reisman watched the show from the side of the stage and thought it stunk. She found Missy to be a cartoon. Helene blamed herself for the failure but outwardly she was livid at Harry and Lisa. Now Helene might lose her job in this universe of short memories, and her previous success would be buried under the defeat of THE MATTERHORN.

At one a.m., the show was finally wrapped. The cast went home, and Lisa decided that she was too tired to go out for a drink with Harry. Harry went up to Helene and kissed her, but she turned her face away. Helene just looked at him with wounded eyes. “I don’t know what you were thinking.” She turned and walked out of the studio and into the black Burbank darkness.

#####

A week later, the show aired. NTC Executives had put the cancellation on hold, awaiting the pleas and the desperate bargaining of Simon,his bosses at William Morris, Harry and Lisa. Word from the affiliates was encouraging. One station manager in Cedar Rapids called to say that they loved this new character. The station director in Uttica said that callers were phoning in their approval for Missy.

Fate intervened again on the day of the airing. A pro-basketball player, RILEY HIGHCALF, was shot and killed outside of the mansion which served as the exterior location shot for “The Matterhorn.” Folks in Seattle, Seneca Falls, Peoria, Tallahassee, Denver, and the Ozarks were saying, “Did you hear that Riley Highcalf was shot outside of the that Matterhorn store?” Suddenly, a real life news event created a buzz about the show which the writers, the actors and the producers could not.

The show had been typically earning a 15 share but after the “Missy” episode, the show almost doubled its audience to a 29. Harry and Lisa arrived at work on Wednesday to find a huge vase of fresh flowers sent by Helene Reisman. A note to Harry read, “Sorry about my lack of faith. I have a lot to learn. Helene.”

Her humility touched Harry.

Emails were pouring into The Matterhorn WEB SITE. KCBS sent a crew over to interview “the return of Rhoda Moskowtiz” and KABC did an interview with Vivian Von Vector who could barely contain her “love” for Rhoda and delight at the old lady’s return to the small screen.

YAHOO.com suddenly had two chat rooms with MATTERHORN themes. Amazon.com contacted NTC to create a link between NTC’s web site and books about: RILEY HIGHCALF, PRO BASKETBALL, JEWISH WOMEN, MEGAN ROONEY, NEW YORK CITY, MADISON AVENUE, TELEVISION SIT COMS, CHARLES LEADER, YOLANDA CHUTNEY.
#####

Three days after the “Missy” episode, a meeting was held in Helene’s office. Harry and Lisa were told that the show would be renewed for another six episodes, provided that Missy stayed. Rhoda Moskowitz jumped for joy when she found out that she would have a recurring role on the program, and Simon negotiated a contract for her paying $20,000 an episode with residuals and agreements to have Rhoda guest star on other sit-coms.

Everyone, it seemed, was happy. Ratings were up, NTC had new viewer interest and increasing advertiser revenues. The media jumped in to find out what the buzz was about. TV GUIDE did a small story about Rhoda’s return; VOGUE featured Charles Leader in drag; THE WALL ST. JOURNAL called NTC “the corpse who came in from the cold”.

Three more episodes were written with Missy as the main focus. One story was about how Missy took offense at a perceived anti-semitic remark by an employee of the store who accused Missy of being ostentatious after Missy spent $500,000 on a bar mitzvah cruise party. Another episode had an ALAN DERSHOWITZ look alike who dates Missy and defends serial killers just to get himself on television.

#####

RABBI MARTIN NIER was the first clerical voice to speak up. The dean of Los Angeles rabbis, his congregation had many prominent members from the entertainment community.

His grandfather had been the chief Rabbi of Cracow and had perished at Auschwitz. Martin Nier was a Rabbi who had travelled the strange and wondrous route of the the 20th Century from shtetl, to concentration camp, to the freedom of America. The freedom which promised that the voices of the persecuted would never be silenced. Now those voices took a vulgar and warped transformation into sit com hatred and Rabbi Nier was outraged.

Rabbi Nier contacted THE ANTI DESECRATION SOCIETY and began to circulate a petition to protest THE MATTERHORN and the character of Missy in particular. He preached a sermon entitled, “WHEN LAUGHING BECOMES DEADLY” which begged that his congregants understand that even in humor, there were messages which preached hatred regardless of whether they were intended as entertainment.

Reviewers in the BOSTON GLOBE, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, MIAMI HERALD, all wrote about the show—which they generally thought had gotten funnier—but had somehow descended into the depths of meanness, vindictiveness, and anti-jewish scapegoating.

A particular warning came from THE CATHOLIC EYE, a conservative journal which wrote, “Our brethren in the Jewish faith cannot condone comedic hatred in the name of commercial success. For ultimately ideas conceived in the poison of bigotry pollute the author.”

While mainstream media fixated and debated upon the role of Missy and what she might or might not represent, the show jumped to third in the ratings. “It was unbelievable”, Helene said, “to see a show go from almost cancellation to the top of the game.”

Almost forgotten in the adulation, was the growing volume of hate letters pouring into the web site from around the country. At “www.matterhorn.com” such comments as, “you fuckin’ Jews deserve everything you have coming to you.” Other viewers were kinder. One 11 year old Nebraska girl wrote, “I used to be mad at my Mom for talking badly about Jews, but now I know cause of Missy, what my Mom is talking about.” At the University of Wyoming, Tuesday night Matterhorn parties the participants throw pretzels at the screen and shouted obscenities whenever Missy came on.
#####

At the annual NTC affiliates meeting in January, there was huge exaltation and applause for Helene Reisman who told the audience, “We will not be bullied by the army of the politically correct telling us how we to portray our artistic creations.” Joined on stage by stars Vivian Von Vector, Charles Leader, Yolanda Chutney, and of course, Rhoda Moskowitz, the entire cast and creators received a 5 minute standing ovation. Surely, the furor would die down.

As spring rolled around, and the final episodes were shot, there was little doubt that THE MATTERHORN would be renewed. Harry was exhausted, but he suddenly couldn’t believe how ironic his luck was: he was now earning over $400,000 a week with the prospect of earning tens of millions from syndication sales. He would be rich forever. But his heart was heavy from his complicity in creating something that he knew might blacken his name and the reputation of his people.

#####

Lisa was changing too. Once she had been a fairly devout Jew. She had looked forward to celebrating Passover with her friends. But this Spring, she hadn’t heard from her usual friends who conducted a seder and always had included her. Lisa went to see her girlfriend, MOIRA, a strictly Orthodox young woman who wore a veil outside of the house and walked her four children to shul every morning and kept a kosher house. If Moira fell out, then Lisa knew she might have made the fatal choice.

On a warm and smoggy Saturday, Lisa drove from her nice house in the Hollywood Hills over the mountain to the flat, hot plainness of Moira’s modest and mostly Orthodox valley neighborhood. Here, the timeless tableau of bearded men in dark suits said their morning prayers to the Almighty. Women dressed in modesty, with the children as the center of their lives. God was so present here, he supplanted the materialism, the artificiality that Lisa had come to expect of Los Angeles. Under these sturdy and rigid palm trees, respect for the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and the word of the deity were supreme.

Moira was only 27, but she had the dignity and repose of a 50 year old. She was alone on this morning, with her children at school.
She spoke: “So much to do about your program. I watched it myself just to see what all the fuss was about.” Lisa waited, wondering if Moira would point her finger at Lisa and indict her for inciting the hatred against the Jewish people which others had accused THE MATTERHORN of fanning.

Moira poured some hot tea for Lisa. It was served in a homely and old fashioned teacup. Lisa thought it could have been a teacup in a bubby’s apartment, circa 1920.

“Lisa, you obviously earn a lot of money. You can buy things. You have a beautiful car. Lots of nice clothes. You keep yourself thin…..” Lisa thought Moira was asking her at what price these goodies had been bought. But Moira had other things on her mind….

Moira asked:”So who are you dating?” Lisa was aghast. “Oh, nobody right now. I was seeing an exec at MGM last year. But he was so busy. And I’m so busy. You know.”

Moira wasn’t convinced. “You’re busy? What about me? I have four children. I’m 27 years old. And yet I have a husband, a home, a life.”

A life. It was that horrible phrase. A life. Moira had just put it out in the open. Lisa had a life. Or maybe she didn’t have a life. That’s what Moira meant. For what was life without a man, a family, children, a house, meals, memories?

Moira’s innocent and simple comment stung more than all of the months of incrimination in the press. Lisa was no anti-semite. She wasn’t guilty of anything. Lisa was just alone.

Moira seemed to offer no answer to Lisa about The Matterhorn. Lisa almost didn’t want to know what Moira really thought. Besides, hadn’t Lisa done as well as Moira? Lisa had a gorgeous home in the Hollywood Hills. She worked out five days a week and now had a personal trainer, a masseur and a dietician. Moira looked old, paunchy, frumpy—and she wasn’t even 30 years old! Lisa reassured herself that Moira was just jealous.
#####

Back in Burbank, Harry was leaving the studio when he decided to check his email. There was a message from his mother in Ohio. She wrote that she was pleased that he was doing well, but she could not endure the social ostracization from her friends who were angry and hurt about the character of Missy Mishkin. She wanted to talk with him, but she couldn’t bring herself to dial the phone. She was a mother shamed.

The success, the money, the ratings, the fame—he had done it all for his Mom. No matter how wealthy he got, Harry never forgot his mother in Toledo. Her disapproval was the fatal poison which could turn him from an optimistic man into a fatalistic basket case.

Harry sat in his corner office and he breathed heavily upon the surface of his glass desk top. He took his index finger and on the mist which his hot breath created, he wrote the word, “JEW”. Never particularly observant, never one to identify with the bearded, the learned, the Orthodox—he now had constructed a box which he could not break out of. He had reached for commercial success by using the one poison forbidden to him.

The phone rang. It was his assistant telling him that Geraldo wanted an interview with him. Harry would not keep Geraldo waiting. The few seconds of introspection were closed and Harry prepared to say yes to Geraldo. The show would go on…..

“The House of Hollow Pillars”

screenshot_282

 

In every town, there is one young lady whom everyone knows and expects great things from.

Carla was Mansfield, Ohio’s mascot of bigger things to come. The town knew of Carla even when the little girl was 5 years old and tap danced her way to win the Little Miss Mansfield contest.

The town again heard of Carla when she was 7 and won the best young equestrian goldmedal in the Allegheny Mountains Horseman’s League.

She was an only child and not competitive with any sibling. She didn’t have to be. She beat out her friends, her cousins, her classmates to try and win whatever she could. She had a need for recognition. She also knew how to kiss ass.

When the Mansfield Town Star paper held a “If I could meet Santa Claus” essay contest, Carla wrote in:

“If I ever met Santa Claus, I’d tell him that he has already given me the best present any little girl could have: my favorite teacher in the world, Miss Lockhart.”

Carla got straight A’s from Miss Lockhart, incidentally or coincidentally.

Her childhood was not all rosy though. When Carla was 13, she and her friend Caitlin were arrested for shoplifting. They were accused of taking aspirins from Long’s drugstore. Carla later defended herself by saying, “My mother has horrible migraines and I couldn’t ask her for any money because she was so ill. I felt I had to help her any way I could.” Judge Norma Johnson looked benevolently upon the young defendant and said, “Young lady, if all of the young people who passed through my courtroom were as sincere and kind as you, then I might retire from this bench.” Carla had kissed ass again—and won.

But good little girls, in good little small towns, can get bored. Carla had gone to a local college and looked ahead a few years and didn’t like what she saw around her:

Early marriage.
Hamms Beer.
Fat asses.
Stretch pants.
Pickup trucks.
Barcaloungers.
Smokers.
Passive living.
Many children.
Drudgery.
Secretarial work.

She had to escape this, somehow.

#####

She matured into a five foot nine inch woman with athletic legs and a narrow waist. Her hair was cut short for she liked to shampoo and towel dry. She didn’t have time for lengthy grooming. She had more important ambitions.

She was indeed in a hurry and one day her mom was suprised when Carla told her that she was moving west to Los Angeles. Mom had expected her daughter to leave, but still the thought of her lovely, only child going to the land of the lost was frightening.

If Mom had fears, Carla only had hopes. Where Mom was cautious, Carla conquered. So it was off to the West Coast, without a second thought for Carla…

Three days later, she stopped to eat at the Main Street McDonalds in Barstow, California. It was a frying pan day with a 109 degree temperature and a sun so enervating that she took cover under a large umbrella in the McDonalds front yard and went to sleep for two hours. When she awoke, she found that someone had stolen her car and all of her belongings. It was also night . She was alone and a woman. No money in a strange desert town.

Twenty-two years old, torn jeans, pink tank top, dirty sandals. She hadn’t showered since her stopover in Tulsa. She had hamburger stains on her behind. Her breath smelled of onions and mustard.. No: wallet, purse, car keys, driver’s license, credit cards, cash. Yet somehow, luck would be hers that night.

#####

Across the desert, just outside of Vegas, 48-year-old Caneer Iverson had left a business meeting and was headed home for Beverly Hills. He had just purchased, for two million dollars, the “Little Chapel by the Lake Casino”. It was far outside of Vegas, near Hoover Dam, but it was a good buy. Forty rooms, a small casino, and a loyal and free spending clientele made up of local residents, retirees, RV nomads, and wealthy divorcees from the area.

Coming down the steep mountain, into the dark night of the desert valley, Iverson put his Eldorado into low gear. He had money, a new acquisition and he didn’t know it but he would soon find a mate..

Back in the 1970’s, Iverson ,a Chicago native, had moved to Los Angeles because he mistook his impotence for prostate cancer. He heard of a cure for the cancer, called Laetrile, or Vitamin B-17. It was outlawed in the States, but conveniently for sale in Tijuana. Iverson thought that he could take this wonderful substance, derived from ground up apricot pits, and it would cure his cancer.

He met another believer: 65-year-old Beverly Hills furrier’s widow, Irene Markowitz, who had lung cancer. Iverson pretended to find the smoking, cancerous, hoarse and rich woman attractive. Lonely, lovable and quite vulnerable, Markowitz was appreciative of his attention. Iverson proposed marriage to her, she accepted, and he moved into her comfortable but nicotine stained apartment in south Beverly Hills. He fed her Laetrile extracts and gave her almond oil massages every night. The health of Irene Markowitz continued to worsen. Two months passed, and Markowitz entered Cedars Sinai, where she expired on August 10, 1981.

Iverson emerged from his wife’s death a much wealthier man. He was worth over 10 million dollars, much of it invested in his late wife’s prime Beverly Hills real estate: office buildings, retail stores, restaurants, gas stations. His wife also still owned No. 2 Timbercrest, a once palatial but now shabby mansion near Rodeo drive. He had been told by his late wife that the house was in horrible condition, so he didn’t even look at it. Now he was the owner and he had to go check it out and get it ready for sale.

The colonial had once looked like “Tara” but now mice encamped in the rotted out beams of the roof. The plumbing was antiquated and leaky. The physical appearance was sad and everything about the property said, “tear down.” Yet Iverson, standing outside of the still dignified home, was reminded of the open air rides in his father’s Cadillac deVille convertible through the shaded streets of Evanston, Wilmette and Winnetka. He kept an idelible memory of the green lawned beauty of Sheridan Road as it traced the shoreline of Lake Michigan. In Chicago, money walked with stoicism, it didn’t shout as it did in Beverly Hills. Iverson suddenly changed his mind: he would restore this home and move into it himself. He could pretend he lived on the North Shore of Chicago but enjoy the eternal sun of the southland.

#####

By the spring of 1983, Iverson had renovated the wonderful Palladian artfulness of No. 2. Iverson was 48 years old, wealthy and comfortable, with a fine house and security, privacy and dignity to match. He moved in and briefly relaxed.

One night, on his newly polished burnished parquet floor, Iverson lit a fire and reclined on a wool blanket. He poured himself a brandy and put on a CD of Rachmaninoff. As the piano played lightly and melodically and Russian enchantment overtook the room, Iverson looked around a wished for a little girl who he could make love to. Iverson made the list of the best bachelors of Los Angeles in 1986. He was approached by Playboy centerfolds, curvaceous waitresses, wealthy widows, poor widows, middle class divorcees. He got laid a couple of times. Then one night in the desert, driving though Barstow, on his way back to LA, he got a terrific taste for a hot,steamy and ketchup gushing Big Mac……….

#####

A milk shake, fries, a Big Mac and Miss Shallow. That’s what Iverson got that night in Barstow. It was 11:30 at night. He pulled into the drive-in window of the McDonalds on Main St. in Barstow. As his headlights beamed into the empty eternity of the desert, a dirty faced young woman approached his car.

“Excuse me, I wonder if you could help me. I’m from Ohio and trying to get to LA. My car was stolen and I haven’t got enough money to eat. Could you buy me a hamburger?”
He looked at her: hungry, desperate. Pleading with a pancake flat accented voice of decency and deprivation. Just one hamburger. He reached into his pocket.

“Get into the car honey. You look like you are upset and afraid.”

She looked at him: middle aged, with a kind, open and beaming face. He could have been her father, or Coach Hanna, who taught her how to sprint in high school. Yet, he also could be a serial killer, a rapist, a druggie. God knows.

Dull of mind,hungry and exhausted, she got into his car. They pulled up to the drive-in window together and he ordered two Big Macs, large fries, a chocolate shake. She gulped down the two burgers and then she promptly collapsed into a deep sleep.

An hour later, they were driving towards LA. She woke up and told him her whole misadventure. “I thought I was going to end up in the Barstow morgue.”

Carla was young and spoke young: “At Malabar High School everyone hated me. I was too ambitious. That’s why I got the hell out.” Caneer liked her moxy. He eyed her tanned legs with their chromelike smoothness.

“What about your mom? Doesn’t she miss you?” Iverson asked.

“Oh, her. She’s into do onto others and all that crap.”

#####

He offered her a bed for a night and her own room at the house. This is what she remembered from her first evening in Beverly Hills: the smell of the lavender. White lights shining upon the red brick. A butler, Darrin. A fresh closet full of white, fluffy towels. A warm bath. Swiss bath oils. A queen sized bed. A white linen canopy.

A mass of pink roses which scented the air.

A stranger had invited her into his home. She did not know him, yet she felt safe, warm and protected. Carla had never been bullied, she won battles. She had won a spelling bee, in the seventh grade, by spelling the word, “conquistador” correctly. Carla went to bed in Beverly Hills that night with a vow: she wanted to stay in this house and she was going to earn the right to stay there.

#####

On her first morning in her new home, Carla awoke to some good news. The police had found her stolen car, with all of her belongings intact. Better still, the car was parked on a residential street in Beverly Hills, about ½ mile from No 2. Timbercrest. The thieves had also been on their way to Beverly Hills.

Caneer was beaming as Carla descended the winding oak staircase and joined him for a breakfast of fresh strawberries, a basket of sougherdough bread, raisin muffins, and cranberry scones. The butler was on hand to serve coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice.

She finished her breakfast. Caneer offered help.

“Carla, don’t worry. Anything you need—a car, cash, just ask.”

He offered to drive her to the towing yard where she could reclaim her car. It was in Mar Vista, and she obviously didn’t know her way around Los Angeles. She also didn’t have any clothes to wear. No problem. The butler came back with all of her previously dirty clothes freshly cleaned and pressed.

Caneer’s keen eyes saw a crack saleswoman. Carla might just become the kind of money maker that he needed in his real estate ventures. He would wait quietly though, like a bobcat stalking his prey, before proposing to her that she join him in selling houses to the very, very rich.

#####

Six months passed, sunny summer turned into sunny fall. Carla had stayed with Caneer, and had joined him as an “assistant” in his real estate ventures. “Caneer and Co.” as he now called himself, moved into a Rodeo drive office. He was the man whom Demi Moore sought out to purchase her first home in Los Angles.

Caneer and Carla now regularly showed up in the columns. They attended charity events, studio premieres, hospital benefactor dinners. They were a power couple in the marble-paved Reagan era.

Carla now watched what she ate. The days of Roy Rogers, Arby’s and McDonalds were over. Her new daily prayer: “How many grams of fat are in this?”

Caneer set out to break the two million dollar mark every month and he held Carla to his goal. He needn’t have feared her dedication. For Carla surpassed the two million dollar mark and doubled it. She sold four houses in one month—but she wasn’t satisfied. She told him, “If I’m not producing, I want you to throw me out— of your office and your home. I need to be producing.”

She was equally as tough on Caneer. She cleaned up his sloppy bookkeeping with Microsoft Excel. There wasn’t a number, a dollar, a transaction that she wasn’t aware of. Every night, she worked well past eight o’clock and would not leave the office until she had made the last sales call.

She ribbed him about his computer illiteracy: “Excel is so easy. How could a multi millionaire like you be so good at business and so dumb in computers?”
She also hated imperfection and fired an accountant with 20 years experience who didn’t inform them of a deduction.

Carla possessed tremendous drive and physical energy. As she told LA MAGAZINE, “I run 5 miles a day, work out with a trainer, and I can outrun my Porsche.”

When Caneer was hungry, and wanted to go to lunch, Carla stayed behind and drank bottled water as to not miss a single incoming call. When Caneer got the flu, Carla didn’t stay home to nurse him. Instead, she called him from the office with exciting news of new conquests and sales to perk him up.

Carla made friends with a couple from San Jose who were developing something she thought promising: micro processors which would eventually be installed in every computer around the world. She loaned this couple $10,000 and saw her investment explode 1600% in two years. Money magazine quoted Carla: “It was just a lucky accident.” Anything but……

#####

Home life was conducted with the organizational efficiency of a military operation.

In the month General Schwarzkopf was blasting towards Baghdad, Carla was organizing a fifteen- man division of salespersons who were selling over 30 homes a month in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Westwood and Pacific Palisades. Her Porsche driving panzer patrol would drive up the streets of the Westside, targeting sites for invasion, setting up traps to ensnare buyers, strategizing, and conducting a propaganda campaign to sweep up the Westside real estate market and grab commissions.

Bitter rivals at other agencies nicknamed her “Leona” after Leona Helmsley, the New York hotel queen who ruled over her properties with imperious authority. Carla liked the name Leona and even had a brass plaque made for her office door with the name “Leona” inscribed.

The aggressive woman,however, turned into a compliant kitty at night. She made sure to flatter Caneer with reminders that he had made her success possible: “Darling if it weren’t for you, I’d probably be working at McDonalds.” She credited her drive to his encouragement: “I want you to become the biggest broker in Beverly Hills” Every day that passed saw her wealth, success, energy and fame increase—even as it occured under his rubric, “Caneer and Co.”

#####

Farsi speaking, internationally travelled, tall, dark and athletically handsome, George Shahran was already the talk of the Persian exile community when he walked in Caneer’s office and was hired on the spot to sell houses. Shahran was seen by Caneer as a key player in penetrating the hugely wealthy community of Iranians who settled in Beverly Hills after the fall of the Shah in 1979.

Shahran was something else too: a ladies man. He had played water polo at UCLA, rowed crew, and had been known as a track star on the UCLA team. He majored in business and finance and drove a fast,shiny red Porsche which regularly collected tickets in the vicinity of Bel Air. He had a legendary way with women. He kept a suite at the Beverly Wilshire for his romantic afternoon adventures and if you were a lady looking for property…..

Shahran was ambitious and driven in business. He asked Caneer to double his commissions if he sold a certain amount of property every month. Caneer was impressed. Shahran deserved the extra pay if he was indeed the rain maker that he presented himself to be.

Carla already knew about Shahran—and she considered him a territorial, financial and social threat to her hegemony. She would not confront Shahran directly, but she would let her beloved know that she had no intention of being displaced by this nouveau Iranian.

One of the first big fights and dramatic confrontations between Carla and Caneer occurred the very day that Shahran started work at the firm.

#####

Shahran had come over early in the morning for coffee, on Caneer’s invitation. Carla knew about the invitation, but had not been consulted first by her beloved. She was angry, jealous and feeling displaced by the “successful” newcomer. As Shahran rang the bell, Carla was upstairs getting dressed. Caneer went to answer the door. Before he could open it, Carla came storming down the stairs. Her face was blazing with meanness. Her still wet hair was imprisoned in a terry cloth towel. She pointed her sharp, red, polished index finger at Caneer.

“I don’t want him fuckin’ coming in here. It’s not his house. You hired him to work in the office. He’s not a friend! I don’t want my employees coming in here like they’re my best buddy! Who the fuck does he think he is just bursting in here like that?”

Caneer was stunned.

“My god, what have I done to deserve this?”

“Figure it out!”

She pounded up the stairs, her feet jabbing the treads like a jackhammer on asphalt.

Wisely, objectively and diligently, Caneer put his anger,shock and his left hand in his left pocket and calmly opened the door.

Shahran was smiling, sharp and unaware of the problems his arrival had caused. Caneer extended his right hand with firm assurance.

Caneer fibbed elegantly, “I’m sorry. Carla is very ill this morning. She might have food poisoning. She is so sorry because she wanted to meet you.”

Shahran was kind, “Oh, gosh. That’s horrible. I hope she feels well enough to come to work. I’m so anxious to meet her.”

Caneer had one foot inside the foyer and one foot on the front porch. He smiled at Shahran and held up his index finger to indicate one minute.

The door closed again and Shahran stood outside on the porch waiting for Caneer’s return. Graceful white columns stoically supported the mansion’s roof. Shahran imitated their architectural behavior and waited calmly. Curiosity, however, impelled him to walk away from the house and appraise the exterior with all of the curatorial thoroughness of his profession.

He leaned against the pillar closest to the front door and checked his watch. He had been outside fifteen minutes. It seemed rude but maybe there was a reason: The lover was sick, the house was a mess. He could hear yelling and it sounded as if it were coming down a pipe or through a bullhorn. He put his ear to a column.

Carla’s shrill voice came through the hollow pipe loud and clear: “Tell that big nosed, big cock hot shot that I will never work with him. ”

Shahran was shaken. He now understood that he was hated by the very woman he had once idolized.

Caneer came outside. Shahran feigned innocence. Caneer said apologetically, “Sorry buddy. Go on without me.”

Shahran was let down. On his first day, he had eagerly anticipated meeting his mentor and the legendary Carla. At high income levels, breakfast cancelled in Los Angeles is akin to pulling a veil off of a Muslim woman in Baghdad. An unforgivable insult.

#####

Months passed and Shahran worked hard. He forgot the breakfast slight and began to feel like Caneer and Co. was his home. But his usual good luck went bad. Women passed through and he made love to some, but sold little. His athletic dynamism seemed to cool as he sat on the bench in the office, watching the star player on the court, Carla, close the best deals.

Shahran became good friends with Nancy Johnson, a young,vivacious red haired girl from Portland, Oregon who charmed everyone in the office with her imitation of an Irish brogue. She was talented in impersonations and even could imitate the boss, Carla. Nancy was a fresh wind of humor in a deadly serious office and Shahran loved her kindness and wacky ways.

But Nancy walked into Shahran’s office one day. Her green eyes were bloodshot and she had been crying. She sat down and put her face into her hands.

“Carla says that I’ve been goofing off and she is firing me. I’m saying good-bye.”
“But you’re a really good salesperson, Nance…”
“It doesn’t matter. She said I was a stupid clown that distracted everyone from their work.”
So little Nancy was out courtesy of Carla. The office grew quieter.

#####

Caneer was also seen less his office. Rumors swept the company that he was sick with cancer. Other more unspeakable ailments were whispered about: he might be a closet fag and dying of AIDS; he might be suicidal; he once tried to kill himself. None of it was true, but Shahran suspected Carla might be secretly trying to depose her sweetheart.

When Caneer finally came into the office, after an absence of five weeks, he seemed considerably thinner. He had a strong orange tan, which only served to accentuate his martian-like appearance. He drank prune juice and carried a handkerchief which he constantly was blowing into. He limped and his white hair was much sparser. His murky eyes aged and his feeble voice sounded rockier and shakier.

One day, an office meeting was held with Carla speaking. Caneer, invalid like, sat in a chair while his lover stood and spoke:

“As many of you are aware my beloved, dear partner and your leader has been absent for many weeks from our company. As some of you may have surmised, he is ill. With his sad departure, I am assuming the leadership of Caneer and am confident that we will continue to progress and hit new levels of success and achievement worthy of our founder……..”

#####

Six months after Iverson’s last day, Shahran was doing quite well at Caneer and Co. His sales were right up there under Carla’s. She was still the top performer but he had just closed three deals in the past month and was feeling great about the coming year: more money, more opportunity.

What had not changed was the icy demeanor of Carla towards Shahran. She barely spoke to him. She affected an air of disinterest in his deals and if she mentioned them at all it was to convey Caneer’s appreciation for Shahran. The Persian accepted her personalilty, and though he wasn’t fond of her, he preoccupied himself with the details of his job.

Carla mostly stayed out of Shahran’s space, either out of distaste for him or something else. Yet one day, Shahran was suprised to get a voice mail from Carla with an invitation to join her for lunch at Le Dome, an expensive restaurant.

Shahran began to regain some of the old confidence. He asked of his reflection in a mirror: “Who was that woman to push me around? She would never fire me. She knows I’m good. ” He fed himself these positive reinforcements before he entered Le Dome.

Carla, on the celphone, had already arrived wearing a Dior ivory shantung silk jacket and matching skirt.

A bottle of chardonnay sat in a silver bucket next to the table. Shahran walked up to her, smiling broadly.

Carla pursed her lips in a sly way. No emotion but a veneer of civility. She crossed her legs and looked into Shahran’s eyes with a prosecutorial gaze.

“Congrats on your two big sales. I understand the LeBlanc sale is in escrow. That was quite a surprise, I didn’t think that the bank would approve the loan.”

Shahran was confused, but spoke immediately. “I was very happy for the LeBlancs They’re a young couple. Very hard working nice people. She’s expecting a baby in October.”

“So I heard.

The waiter brought Shahran’s water and it was promptly gulped by the still nervous broker. Carla was holding a Cross pen and jotting down some figures on a piece of paper.

“In the appraisal, the house was valued at $1,950,000. That seems a little high for that neighborhood don’t you think?”

“Oh, it’s a little high but nothing outrageous.”

Carla shook her head no. “No way. You are way off. $1,700,000 at the most.”

Shahran knew she was suspicious about something. “Are you saying that the LeBlancs are in over their head?”

Carla leaned over and stared at Shahran. She stuck her lizard’s tongue into the chardonnay and took a sip. “You and I both know that the appraisal was cooked. You can’t fool me with those figures. The LeBlancs were approved for the mortgage because the bank thinks the house is worth a lot more than it is and when they loaned them the money the “extra” cash covers the down payment. Those people couldn’t afford a fuckin’ condo in Alhambra for God’s sake!”

Shahran was stunned. He stammered as he struggled to reply to an obviously false charge. “If the appraisal is phony then the mortgage company and the appraiser are to blame. What difference does it make if we made the sale anyway?”

Carla kept her voice down, but she was furious. She drew her lips together and clenched her fists as her temper exploded.

“I am not running a god damn two penny house of fraud! I expect my brokers to be scrupulously honest and if I have to start fighting lawsuits and damn investigations from the California Department of Commerce or the state attorney general, or the FBI, I won’t stand for it! You and I know that if the LeBlancs find out that they were hustled or didn’t know the true value or terms of the agreement then the whole deal is kaput. Not only that but I could face legal fuckin problems up the wazoo.”

Shahran was grief stricken. He felt naked, ashamed and unsure of how this had escalated into his error and mistake. He struggled to defend himself. “I don’t know how this happened. I used Abby Josephson as my appraiser so many times. She doesn’t seem like a fraud.”

Carla calmed down, but only enough to indict him further. “If Abby can make a little on the side when the mortgage is approved and the seller and the broker are happy, why do you think that she would give a rat’s ass about ethics? I know a lot of appraisers in this city and I wouldn’t trust them any more than I would hire Charles Manson as a babysitter!”

Good Shahran was falling fast, he knew his job was on the line and now his good sales figures were evidence of a crime that he surely did not commit.

Shahran asked for a chance to explain. “I didn’t know what was happening. I think you should let me go over my records and then talk about it with you tomorrow. I had no idea you were going to bring this up.”

Carla was not satiated, yet. ” I have a bigger problem here. Trust. I have let you roam on a very long leash. I heard good things about you and your figures have been impressive all along. But details are the si ne qua non of our profession. You aren’t a success just because you make sales and fuck all the females.”

She had nailed him in the balls.

The inquistion continued, “If you close a bad deal and forget to check the details whether it is an inspection, an appraisal, a percentage on a mortgage, whatever, you are failing to do your job.”

“So are you firing me? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. I want you out of the office today”

#####

With little emotion and mechanical ambition, Carla Shallow had built up her Beverly Hills real estate empire into the largest property management and sales firm in the West. But now with her dearest dead– she was selling her company to a Fortune 500 conglomerate, taking her wealth and moving, in a few weeks, to Maui.

She didn’t look a woman in mourning, this spunky, fit, purple sweatshirted woman. Her hair was tousled and her walk robust and confident. The house with the hollow pillars had been one of the stops for a supersonic woman whose achievements—in business, in marriage and in crushing rivals were breathtaking. There were boxes all around. The butler nervously packed bubble wrapping around glass trinkets.

“Mrs. Iverson?”

“Yes, Darrin?”

“I have all of Mr. Ivereson’s papers wrapped up neatly.”

“Good. Will you drop off the documents at the lawyer’s office today? They need everything to make sure that the will is in order.”

That evening, Carla left LA and flew to Hawaii just as CNN reported the acquisition of her company.

#####

Months after he was fired, Shahran, unaware of Carla’s departure, was driving past the house of hollow pillars. He thought briefly about getting a baseball bat and walking into no. 2 Timbercrest and smashing that bitch. He pictured the bloody teeth, the broken jaw, the cracked skull and how he might stomp his combat boots into her screaming face as she lay helpless on the floor. His heart raced faster as he imagined carrying her lifeless body up the winding staircase and then dropping her limp corpse from atop the landing and onto a glass table below.

But Carla wasn’t in that house at that moment. She was eating a mango and shrimp salad at the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel and Spa in Maui. Cascading waterfalls, tropical vegetation, formal gardens, and the lush life would relax most mortals.

But Carla had always been different. She would come to Maui, not to retire, but to expand her conquest. She had her eye on several properties, including the Grand Wailea .

She would continue to live and prosper as lesser souls around her dwindled and failed.

Back in Beverly Hills, the house of the hollow pillars would see new tenants, but none as smart , shrewd and savvy as Carla.
THE END

“Carmelita”

Just north of tony Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, within breathing distance of the ocean, an interview with a LA Times reporter was taking place in an elegant old Spanish hacienda home.

The lifestyle reporter, Liza Palazzo, sat in the living room of Margarita Lopez-Camilla, a Santa Monica film producer. They were talking about Margarita’s friend and housekeeper, Carmelita Sanchez. The Columbian born domestic worker was the founder of a successful health care program begun at one of LA’s poorest clinics.

“How does Carmelita feel about being honored tonight at the Biltmore Hotel for her work at the Crenshaw Clinic?”

The aristocratic Margarita put her teacup down on the glass coffee table. 46 years old, also a native of Columbia, she was born in privilege to the head of a coffee plantation. She studied film at UCLA 25 years ago and decided to stay in the City of Angels. She was now head of Caustic Productions, a film making company here in Santa Monica.

“Oh, it’s the highlight of her life. She is absolutely thrilled to be honored. Only 10 years ago in the little mountain village of Ciudad Sana, she started “La Flora” and look at what has been accomplished,” said Margarita.

Carmelita, the nueva Americana, worked for Lopez-Camilla as a maid, nanny, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur. Carmelita, the Columbian had trained as a nurse, and in Ciudad Sana she had started a health clinic financed by the sale of coffee, a tax paid by the growers to finance the hospitalization and medical care of their workers.

“May I ask Carmelita a question?” asked the reporter, a solicitous and still young acting girl of 33. Palazzo, with red hair, faded jeans, 70’s sneakers and fashionably quirky gelled hair tousled in every direction emitted the very essence of hip in contrast to Margarita’s patrician being.

“Of course. Carmelita, can you come in here?” Lopez Camilla yelled .

The French doors, which led out into the lavender bush and lemon tree garden, burst open and five year old Zoe ran in with Abraham, a lethargic Basset hound. “Mommy, mommy Carmelita is going to take me to get ice cream!” Carmelita ran behind the child, breathless. “Sinõra, I told her no. But she wants to go.”

The reporter smiled at the child, a courtesy so often extended without sincerity, to impress a parent. “What’s your favorite flavor Zoe?” the reporter asked as if the question were of supreme philosophical import. “I don’t know” Zoe answered.
“That’s not very nice Zoe.” Lopez Camilla instructed. “You like Rocky road. Tell Ms. Palazzo that’s what you like.”

“I don’t know if this is a good time for your Carmelita,” said Palazzo.

“It’s a fine time for her. She doesn’t start dinner until 5.30,” said Margarita. “Zoe–Go play with your Barbie dolls honey. You cannot have ice cream before dinner. Let the grown ups have some private time.” Zoe nodded in compliance with the request and walked out sucking her index finger and dragging a pink security blanket.

Carmelita was sweating and felt embarrassed. She entered the high sanctuary of the living room with its tea service, high-beamed ceiling, floral sofas, and symmetry in a filthy t-shirt and dusty jeans. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her face and poured herself a glass of water. There were parcels stacked atop a rigid high back chair against the wall. Margarita removed them and sat down. “Yes ma’am. What would you like to know?” Carmelita asked.

“How long have you worked with the clinic?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, let’s see. I think five years,” she answered.

“No dear,” Lopez-Camilla interrupted. “You came to the US in 1993 and you worked there only six months when I met you.”

“Oh, you’re right Madam. It’s over eight years.”

Palazzo wrote down Carmelita’s answer. “How did you approach Councilwoman Herrera and convince her to enact “La Flora” in that community?”

“I introduced her to Councilwoman Herrera.” Lopez-Camilla answered.

“So next Friday you and the Councilwoman and the entire clinic are going to be honored at the Biltmore and you will receive an award for outstanding community service. How does that feel?”

“An honor. I feel not so big for so great a recommendation,” Carmelita said.

A child’s piercing scream filled the room. Carmelita bolted from the room and ran to find Zoe while the mother sat calmly. She came back holding Zoe who was crying and holding her nanny tightly. “I’m sorry. She fell down and hurt her knee. I have to go put band-aid on it. Don’t cry honey. Don’t cry my little Zoe!” Nanny and child left the room while Lopez-Camilla poured honey into a fresh cup of Earl Gray. “More tea Liza?”

“Oh, no thank you. I feel like I’m here on the worst day of your life!” the reporter said.

“You’re almost right! First my husband smashed his new Audi as he was pulling out of the driveway. He was on his way to a meeting with Arturo Herrera to discuss a new Angelina Jolie project. Of course, he missed the meeting. He was so upset. Now I have an injured daughter. Can you forgive me?”

Ms. Palazzo stood up. “No. I’ve been here too long. I think I’ve gotten enough. Thank you so much for your time. I know the Chandlers appreciate this. They really think the world of you.”

“I hope,” added Margarita, “that we’ll see you at the Hollywood Film Awards on Sunday. My husband is getting an award as well for ‘The New Hee Haw Show.’ Lopez Herrera could not resist the plug.

Ms. Palazzo slipped into her cardigan sweater. “That’s the funniest show on TV. I watch it all the time. What channel is on it again?

Mornings

Carmelita always woke up first in the household. She could barely sleep past 5.30am, her dreams tortured with kidnappings, killings and other unspeakable horrors of her Colombian past. She had come to Los Angeles to escape that. Though her bedroom was above the garage, to Carmelita it was a palace. It was in the back of the property, and between her and the main house stood a yard with a pool, surrounded by lemons, oranges, olive trees, lavender, jasmine, palms, a brilliant red Bougainvillea and an always gurgling fountain. It was a Garden of Eden. A devout Catholic, she prayed just as the sun was rising and the first droplets of orange light freckled the lawn.

After she put the good book down, it was the beginning of a long day full of chores and busy work. She had to take Abraham for a walk. Then she fed the dog.

Carmelita fixed breakfast for the little girl, and attended to Zoe’s needs—like changing her from pajamas into clothes, cleaning her up in the bathroom. Lopez Camilla did not allow Zoe to wear clothing that had been in the dryer. She claimed that allergies from fabric softeners might harm the child. These were one of the many prohibitions the mistress of the home legislated.

Carmelita dodged a minefield of laws that made her role onerous at times. She cooked breakfast, for example, but could not microwave because that was “dangerous” to Lopez Camilla. Jorge, the husband, only drank filtered water, and Carmelita had to lug the enormous 5-gallon Sparkletts container from the curb to the dispenser. When the owners awoke, Carmelita had to again watch over Zoe as both Mr. and Mrs. exercised on step masters and watched Matt Laurer (an old friend from NBC) on the “Today” show. As Jorge showered, Carmelita had to lay out his freshly ironed suit, tie and dress shirt on the bed and slip quickly out of his room before the half-naked master emerged from the toilet.

In addition to the domestic routine, Carmelita worked three days a week at the Crenshaw clinic. Latina-American Congresswoman Hilde Herrera took a special interest in Crenshaw. Carmelita’s work with involved her in the politician’s rising career. The clinic had become a symbol of liberal complaints against so called Republican cuts in health care.

The Los Angeles Times had editorialized that the Crenshaw Health Clinic’s “La Flora” program was “perhaps the most promising vision of health care financing for poorer people enacted in the last decade.” The name was intoxicating, too, with its promise of fertility, hope and holistic lyricism. What Carmelita had given birth to in Columbia, had come to maturity in the Golden State. The powerful had quickly adopted this child whose true parentage was fast becoming vague.

A fight

“I don’t give a shit about her!” Margarita was screaming at Jorge just outside Whole Foods on Montana.

“Keep your voice down Margarita!” Jorge begged with clenched teeth. A red Lincoln Navigator swerved to avoid the feud in the back parking lot of the gourmet food store.

“I don’t have $45 to spend on a cake for her. How come she has a birthday and you remember and you forgot my birthday?” she asked.

That red SUV pulled up and a 35 ish blonde woman leaned out the window. “Hello Margarita!” she said with a perfectly capped smile.

Margarita broadcast an ear- to ear grin. “Hi Joanie! How ya doin’ kiddo?” Joanie waved a fingery good-bye and sped off. The argument continued.

“I just think we should treat her to a cake! What’s wrong with that?” Jorge asked.

“Isn’t it enough that she’s having a party at the Biltmore? My god. She’s lucky to live in our home. That’s how I look at it. I’m too god-damned busy to make nicey nice with her.”

The Park along the Palisades

Blocks from the Lopez-Camilla home, along the Palisades of Santa Monica, runs a sweeping park promenade that overlooks the Pacific. Carmelita would often take Zoe for walks along the palm lined, tree-shaded expanse with its sunset views, mountain vistas, joggers, strollers, and bicyclists. Despite the beauty, the carefully groomed vegetation, and the aura of groomed greenery, a sinister social illness plagued the paradise.

Scores of homeless slept on the grass, wandered the park. They pushed carts, muttering, lost, alcoholic, or in drug induced confusion. Who were these people she wondered? Where were they from? Had they once been young and loved and taken care of? How did they lose grip and fall out of society and how could they be saved? She thought of Jesus and his ministration. With mercy in her heart, Carmelita walked amongst the poor along these verdant paths at the edge of the American continent.

Walking in anger

Margarita walked home in anger. She would not ride back in the car with Jorge. He had made her very angry and to top it off, had taken his bruised Audi into the repair shop and had rented a white Toyota Celica. It was a cheap piece of crap, and she wondered if he had deliberately taken a poor man’s car to embarrass her.

Party in Hancock Park

A few nights after the fight in the parking lot, the Herreras held an invitation only party at their home in Hancock Park. It was an affair with black tie and valet parking, caterers, cocktails and scented candles. A backyard pool glowed with blue underwater lights and a pianist on the veranda played Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.”

Margarita was bi-polar about parties. On the one hand, she could get drunk, dress up and forget her regular cares as she slipped in and out of banalities and polite talk with the hoi polloi of Los Angeles. On the other hand, it was deadly serious work, making friends and alliances with producers who could finance her films, and make things happen. Then there was the necessary work of pretending to care about causes, about the less fortunate, which earned her added respect in the community and increased her stature.

Margarita stood in the middle of a speeding intersection of political power desperate to catch a ride to the top. Scanning the room, she could see Nicole Kidman and Cardinal Mahoney, Mayor Hahn and Jennifer Lopez. Dolly Parton was flirtatiously conversing with UCLA’s Dr. Harvey Fishbein, who perfected cosmetic surgery for transsexuals in the late 1960’s.
Jorge walked up to his legal wife. “I just spoke to Hilde. She’s said KCAL wants to do a story with Carmelita.”

“Carmelita? Why would they want to talk to her?” she asked with one eye on the chopped liver and Michael Eisner spreading it on a cracker.

“Stop looking at him,” Jorge said. “Listen to me. Carmelita is the reason La Flora is working. Do you want to deny her that?”

“I’m not listening to you. You want to start up trouble here? You’re not gonna get me into a fucking argument.” She walked away and went over to shake the hand of Michael Eisner. She then segued into a conversation between Councilwoman Herrera and the head of the Crenshaw Clinic, Glen Kirsch.

“Hi there Margarita,” Glen said. “ How is Caustic? I read in Variety that you may get Salma Hayek for a project next year?”
She stuffed an olive tapenade topped wheat cracker into her mouth. “You read Variety? The head of a health clinic reads Variety? Ridiculous. Only in LA!”

He didn’t seem offended. “Of course I read it. Do you know before I ran the clinic I was a screenwriter? I think I have about six screenplays in my closet in West Hollywood. I would love to show you one sometime. I mean maybe when we all meet next week at the Biltmore.”

“I was just kidding,” Margarita answered. “ I’d love to read them. Why don’t you send them over to my assistant Jenny? We’re right on the Sony lot.”

“Did you hear that KCAL wants to do a story on Carmelita?” he asked. “Isn’t that fantastic! The clinic needs the publicity.”

“Why don’t you write a screenplay about a big phony social climber who uses your health clinic to seize political power and make a name for herself!” she said with drunken abandon.

“I don’t understand what you mean.” He said.

“I don’t either!” she said laughing and walked away.

Biltmore

On the day of the party at the Biltmore, Margarita Lopez Camilla had a million things to do. She could only think of her hair, her shoes, her nails and her aching shoulders. She needed to get a massage, but then she had to be at Caustic because the editor was working on a 7-minute short film about Carmelita and “La Flora” and Councilwoman Herrera was the narrator. Editorial changes were made at the last minute. Margarita told the Councilwoman that the politician who was the adopted mother of “La Flora” should be the star of the film. The poor housekeeper would now be demoted on-screen to supporting player.

That day Carmelita was her usual happy and calm self. She barely thought about her impending moment of fame on the stage that night.

Other domestic crises occupied her. The dog had shit on the leather sofa in the library. Carmelita was rushed to clean it up and spray disinfectant on the stain.

At 4 pm, Lopez-Camilla called from the 405 freeway and asked Carmelita to run out to the drugstore to buy a Lancome powder. At 5.30pm they all were supposed to leave to go downtown to the ceremony, and time was running out. Carmelita carried the cell phone with her and got into the car to drive over to buy the missing make up. As she pulled into the parking lot, the phone rang again and Lopez-Camilla said Carmelita would have to stop off at a shoe repair shop to retrieve Madam’s shoes and then to the dry cleaners to pick up the freshly cleaned gown. All of these orders came in the final hours. and Carmelita would have almost no time and preparation for her own night of honor.


A Little Bowl of Soup

As Margarita Lopez-Camilla dressed, Carmelita heated up some vegetable soup in the kitchen. Little Zoe was with Daddy in the den. The aroma of food soon filled the house. Carmelita eagerly poured herself a bowl and sat down to hurriedly ingest a few spoonfuls. It was the first time she had eaten all day.

Lopez-Camilla emerged in an exquisite black sequined gown, her red glossy lips contrasting with slicked back hair and a powdery face. She sniffed the air. “What are you doing Carmelita?”

“Huh?” asked Carmelita.

“I asked WHAT- ARE- YOU- DOING!” she yelled. “It smells awful!”

Jorge came into the kitchen. “What’s wrong? Why are you yelling at her Margarita?” he asked.

“She is cooking! My clothes, your clothes, are all going to smell like soup! How can you be so STUPID to cook food when we are all dressed and ready to go to an event at the Biltmore! My god, when people kiss me they will smell god-damned food!”

“I’m sorry ma’am. I haven’t eaten a thing. I run around all day, and I’m hungry.” She said.

Margarita grabbed a dish-towel off the counter and shoved it into Carmelita’s nose. “That’s what you smell like. A cook in a kitchen! That’s what we all smell like.”

The Moment

A hundred people were gathered in a mini-ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel. Some came from the clinic, working class Latinos, wearing glitzy dresses with big shoulder pads and enormous sparkling jewelry. There were also political people: Councilwoman Herrera and her husband, the Mayor and a couple of news people from TV and the print world. The esteemed publicist Gretchen Ungar was there. She had been hired by Margarita to promote “La Flora” and orchestrate a campaign to promote the Caustic Films and it’s pet cause—health care for the poor.

Later on, Councilwoman Herrera spoke of La Flora and the exciting new concept of financing health care clinics in Los Angeles and eventually in every state. “We are simply too poor in funding to continue our wasteful ways of the past and La Flora returns to the working people the care they so rightly deserve.” This line drew great applause from the crowd.

Margarita Lopez-Camilla addressed the audience. “My dear little friend Carmelita whose idea has now founded a movement to be led by the great Councilwoman Hilde Herrera.” She then introduced the short film with its quick cuts of Ciudad Sana. The audience viewed images of poor men and women of Columbia entering a health clinic, getting inoculated, filling prescriptions and smiling. A few remarked uncharitably that it looked like a propaganda piece.

At the end of the evening, Carmelita went to the rest room and emerged in a back hall behind the ballroom. Glen Kirsch ran up to her and kissed her. “You look beautiful tonight. You really deserve this honor. Thank you for what you’ve done.”

“Oh, Glen. My pleasure. I cannot take all the credit. You, the clinic and Ms. Herrera and Margarita; you all share in this honor,” she said.

“Did you like the film?” he asked.

“Oh, very much,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”

“I just thought they would talk more about you. I think most of it was about the Councilwoman,” he said. Glen patted Carmelita on the shoulder and walked back into the ballroom.

He went straight over to Margarita, sitting on the edge of the stage and smiling wearily into space.

“I just spoke to Carmelita”, he said. “I hope I’m not going to upset you. But I think she thought she should have been the star and that you didn’t feature enough of her in the movie. That’s what she thinks.”

Lopez-Camilla froze up. Her smile and tightly pressed lips went into defense mode. “Oh, I think she’s tired. She’s done so much for us. I wouldn’t worry about it. Where is she by the way?”

“I saw her back near the janitor’s area or the rest room,” he said.

Lopez-Camilla, poisoned with Glen’s indictment, went looking for Carmelita. The guests were now leaving, and Councilwoman Herrera stopped by to say good night. “I’m leaving Glen. Thank you for everything. Where’s my little Carmelita? I want to see her before I leave?” she said.

Glen answered, “She’s with Margarita back there.” Lopez-Camilla was indeed sighted talking to Carmelita. As Ms. Herrera drew closer she could sense unpleasantness.

Lopez Camilla yelled at Carmelita. “We’ll discuss it later! You’re not going to ruin my evening. I know what Glen told me so don’t lie to me!” Margarita grabbed Carmelita’s ear and pulled her against the cinder block wall.

“You’re hurting me! I don’t know what you’re talking about! Stop it!” Margarita maintained her sharp nailed hold on Carmelita’s lobe. In desperation to free herself, Carmelita took her rigid and powerful right hand and slapped Margarita across the face.

Margarita looked stunned and dropped her hand.

“May the Lord forgive me and have mercy on you. You are a fucking bitch. You will not treat me this way again,” said Carmelita. The shaken socialite almost lost her balance in the assault. Carmelita hit and ran out of the ballroom. The Councilwoman arrived just as the incident ended.

“What’s going on? Are you all right Margarita?” asked the Councilwoman.

“Yes, yes. It’s OK.” Margarita said. “I guess if you don’t make a film they like then you get a slap in the face. That’s how friends in Hollywood repay you. Well, we know what we’ve done for her and this is her moment of fame so I guess she feels entitled.”

Ms. Herrera took Margarita’s hand. “Oh, I’m sorry Margarita. Let’s talk in the morning. I spoke to David Geffen last night and he is very interested in La Flora. Let’s talk tomorrow.”