Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

by Andrew B. Hurvitz

In a tense time of academic purges and social media bullying, a newly fired, nearly retired professor from Northwestern University is befriended and taken in by a wealthy young benefactor hungry for a father figure and style muse.


Note: This story contains a racial term which is considering insulting but is necessary in the telling of this fictional tale. There are also documented historical events which may be painful for some readers.


Sunday, weekend of Labor Day, Professor Steven Goodman walked at dawn down the driveway alongside his small ranch house in West Evanston, IL. He pushed a metal clothes rack, hung with garments, and a “$10” sign, taped on end.

It was the third day of his four-day estate sale.

Items included a cherry wood glass cabinet and six dining room chairs arranged around a Queen Anne table covered in stacked piles of folded towels and linens.

Down near the curb, on a large Oriental rug, was a seating arrangement from the 1960s, a rust-colored tweed couch, brown vinyl recliner, and three Giotto Stoppino orange stackable plastic tables.

Board games of Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Monopoly, Lost in Space and The Game of Life sat on a scuffed, steel-legged card table.

There were LPs of Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Stan Getz, Henry Mancini, and Bill Evans (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”).

Parked on the back end of the driveway, headlights facing out, was a gold ‘75 Buick LeSabre with a $1,900 or Best Offer sign taped to the windshield. Doris and Gene had driven it for 25 years.

An ebony wood Baldwin Grand Piano sat on the asphalt, its closed keyboard lined with caps from Chicago sports teams: Cubs, Sox, Black Hawks, Bulls.

“A boy who plays the piano also has to play sports,” his German born father had instructed him.

He watched the sky, crowded with fast-moving clouds, traveling with their shadows east to the lake.

His father liked to watch the skies, observing light.

Gene Goodman, born in Nuremberg in 1933, had once dreamed of becoming an artist, but, more practically, sold restaurant supplies for 50 years.

Gene’s surviving paintings were out here, framed in gold, surveys of locations never visited: Yellowstone, Eiffel Tower, Fiji, and Jerusalem.

The oils were copied from torn out National Geographics, subjects chosen for his Oakton Community College night classes, homework painted in the basement under bare bulb, near the washer and dryer.

Painting was a hobby to his late father the way acting had been for Steven.

Professor Goodman took some photos and posted on Instagram with the hashtags: #garagesale, #vintage, #clothes, #estate, #Evanston, #Skokie.

Then he went down to the curb to survey.

The yellow brick house was homely, pitiful and plain: squared hedges, straight walk, and scallop edged shades in the front window. Gene and Doris bought it in 1958 for $14,000. A steel fence in the backyard neatly divided the property from the alley in back where the garbage cans lived.

He was 61, alone, orphaned, nearly as old as his house, wounded and demoralized since his firing last year from Northwestern, his alma mater and lifetime employer.

On Redfin he found his new house, a 950 square foot stucco ranch in Tuscon near the Catalina Foothills. He would join all the other old Chicagoans, retired exiles in the desert, kept cool, fresh and alive on air-conditioning and prescription pharmaceuticals.

Farewell to snow, winter coats, ice, chapped hands, rain, fog, and overcast weather.

Home had always been Lincolnwood Drive. He thought of Doris, dish towel in hand, shouting from the side door to come in for dinner. Meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, lemon bars, ice cream sundaes, Hi-C.

“Lincolnwood Drive is wonderful because it dead ends before Church St. You boys can play ball in the street and no cars will come down here. That’s why we moved here. It’s safe and closed off.”


People trickled in, perused, browsed, left.

In late afternoon, an older Black woman, cardigan and denim, banded gray hair, librarianlike, walked up the driveway.

She stopped at a table to inspect the Kodak projector and boxes of slide carousels. Some were labelled in magic marker: Miami, 1967, Door County, WISC. 1971, Michigan, 1973.

“Don’t sell these. This is your family history,” she said.

That night, he pushed the piano back into the garage and dragged the furniture and dry goods behind the gate.

He went inside, made a bologna sandwich, poured a glass of milk, sat down, and opened his phone.

There was an email from Erica McCarthy, a colleague at Northwestern, an eminent and esteemed professor of English.

Her NY Times bestseller, “Our Eternal Debt”, about white culpability in the failure of Black contentment, was the talk of the nation last year.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it. You didn’t say that disgusting word. A student in your class said it, a word used so often by Twain. The student who said the word was not expelled. And you were. I know it was unjust. You are too honest. This is no time to defend great authors or freedom of speech. You should have gone public to say you would stop teaching that book. That would have calmed it,” she said.

Her words were safe, curated, bullet proof.

She was still employed, she still had her salary and her title, her agent, her royalties, her fellowships. Her husband, Hubbard Woods III, was an investment banker. They had a large house in Lake Forest. She was good until death, and beyond.

One time he Googled her address and saw her 2018 property taxes: $92,000. She was rich and beloved, privileged and adored.

By contrast, he was a pariah; condemned, rejected and reviled. The haters had come after him for many months. Nobody defended him. All the administration joined in the phony piety, alliances of parents, students, faculty and strangers online standing up for social justice.

Exhausting

Thirty years teaching. Once loved and respected, honored, tenured. Now an old, white, male oppressor.

Twain, James, Wharton, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer. Some of the authors he loved and assigned, now enemies of the university, purged from the curriculum.

It seemed the happiest people lived in white rooms without books, sparkling empty ones, ones with the most likes on Instagram.

Labor Day he awoke for work before the sun.

He made coffee at 5am, went out, unlocked the gate, and opened the garage. For two hours he wheeled, carried, and pushed all the merchandise back onto the driveway.

Today was selling.
Tomorrow was the reinvention of life.

No more school, no more semesters, no more students, no more talks with young and open minds, no debates, discussions or stimulating talks.

His commute had been a leisurely, dreamy, leafy way east, biking for fifteen minutes on East Prairie Rd and Emerson, across the Sanitary Canal, under the El, over Green Bay Road, into University Hall.

No more.

One word, spoken by one student, one day in class, ended his life.

Serena Chan, Lululemon influencer, biking instructor, owner of a popular yoga studio, Chanfit on Dempster, jaunted up the driveway with her infant girl and $900 UPPA baby stroller. She lived in the fiberboard house with solar roof, orange door and electric charging station.

He had seen her on morning power walks many times. She wore high waisted seaweed yoga pants and a midriff top.

She took off her sunglasses, exposing a thin, strained face.

He smiled back.

“Good morning, nice day, huh” he said, wincing a look at one-year-old Pela, wrapped in a baby blanket.

Pela Chan, Pela Chan. Like an exercise bike.

“I haven’t seen you in years. Hardly recognize you,” she said.

“I’m old. Now I regret never having a child. Your daughter is gorgeous,” he said, wistfully.

“Maybe you are childless for a good reason,” she said.

“Huh?”

She broke into malice and anger.

“You are a low piece of shit. I came down here to tell you that to your face. I know your story professor! I grieve for your wounded students. You’ll do all right. You inherited this little house. You won’t be out on the streets. I’m happy you’re suffering! Happy you’re leaving this neighborhood. In our community we don’t tolerate intolerance! I say that as an ally of all who are oppressed,” she said.

Then she turned around, mission finished. Her confidently sculpted ass, muscular legs and toned arms strode back onto Lincolnwood Drive pushing the stroller in workout.

She had blackened his day.

After she left, the afternoon lasted a long time.

He distracted himself on Instagram and posted his 1984 acting headshot, longish hair gelled and combed back when he was 21, taking classes at Second City, having fun, meeting people, joking, and creating.

His parents advised against his “hobby” and had refused to come to any of his performances.

“Nobody makes money in that,” his father said.

“You’ll be poor and struggling,” his mother said.

“Working at night in a smoky room and begging for applause in Old Town? Miserable. Where will you be at 35?” his father asked.

“And where will we be when you’re 35?” his mother asked.

He followed their fears and gave up. He went back to Northwestern and earned a master’s degree in English Literature.

Decades flew past. The ones who urged practicality were dead.

Now he was the white-haired man on the driveway selling their old junk.


Near sunset the air was thick with barbecue smells, chicken, ribs, burgers, music, laughter and the thumping of speakers. People walked from cars into houses and yards.

It was time to wrap up.
An Uber arrived.

A white man, model handsome, got out, holding a rattan picnic basket. He had close cropped brown hair, athletic body. He wore purple shorts and a pink t-shirt, striped knee socks, and unlaced high tops.

He stumbled and seemed intoxicated with a goofy, funny, lost expression, headlight wide eyes, angled, thick eyebrows two or three inches long.

He walked up the driveway, bewitched, staring all around, entranced.

He said nothing.

Then he grabbed two blankets off the table, a sheet and a pillow, and he walked over to the grass and made himself a bed on the front lawn, shaking out the sheets, taking a nap.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing?” Steven asked, rushing over to apprehend the miscreant.

“Hey Pro! I’m Wrigley McCormick and I’m fucking exhausted. Let me nap. Please? I’m so tired. I know you were about to close up, just let me rest,” he said.

“I follow your gram. I want to buy everything. Everything. I have cash. I love your style too. Just let me chill out here and sleep. I’ll get to you in like 30,” he said, closing his eyes, curling up under the blanket, on the grass.

A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc rolled out of his rattan basket.

Steven watched, thought to call the police, and decided not to. He moved the sale items off the driveway, back into the garage, working deliberately, continually, as if his last customer asleep on the grass were not there.

Now it was dark. The lawn lights went on. Wrigley dozed. Steven went over, bent down, gently jarred and awakened him.

Groggily, innocently, he sat up like a child, blanket clenched under his chin.

“Are you OK? Should I call your parents?” Steven asked.

He laughed.

“Parents? Father lives overseas with his wife. Mother killed herself,” Wrigley said.

“Can I get you water or coffee?” Steven asked.

“I need to use your bathroom,” he said, standing up, grabbing his wine, insouciant.

Steven guided him into the side door near the kitchen. He slipped into the bathroom like a lumber board, enviably thin, hard, lean.

He came back out, face washed, shaking his wet hands.

“I had to shit. Sorry. I opened the window, though, and sprayed Lysol. Here’s a couple thousand,” Wrigley said, pulling a wad of bills out of his shorts and slapping his rubber-banded money on the counter.

“I’m buying everything Prof. I’m summoning an Uber now. I’ll see you mañana with my crew and our U-Hauls,” he said.

He had come here, slept, woke up in the dark, said he was buying everything. It didn’t make sense.

“Do you want to take a second look?” Steven asked.

“I had my eye on your posts, Professor. Didn’t you see all my likes? I want it all. Aren’t you delighted I showed up here?” Wrigley asked.

“You work? Go to school?” Steven asked.

“I work from home. I’m not going to college. You don’t learn anything there,” he said.

“Perhaps you’re correct,” Steven said.

“All of my friends love you, love your hair, your vintage sweaters. And those light blue poplin pants, green Izod shirt and red whale belt. Stunning. Your 1980s are what we aspire to: your jackets and your smile, your boat shoes,” Wrigley said.

He had made a study of the professor.

“That picture of you in August 1986 with your hair blowing in the wind on the dock at Montrose Harbor. And the photos Suzanne took of you at Lighthouse Beach that fall. We all wish we lived back then. I’m buying your whole life and putting you and your looks online, that’s my plan,” Wrigley exclaimed.

Wrigley had learned the historical dates, memorized the places, devoured the throwaway snapshots, curated the images, like an archaeologist discovering and cataloguing the treasures of a long-buried Etruscan tomb.

“My crew is Dylan Wieboldt, Carson Field, and Saira Pirie. And the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon. We talk about you constantly. And we all adore John Hughes movies: Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Pretty in Pink. And Tom Cruise in Risky Business! Chicago in the 1980s is our kingdom. And you are our king!” he said.

The professor was made adjacent to trivia and pop culture, connected to John Hughes and Hollywood films set on the North Shore. He was flattered yet befuddled.

“My windblown hair and 1982 Members Only jacket was not how I expected to earn kudos,” Steven said.

“Members Only” was 1983. July 23rd. You and Suzanne were at Comiskey Park at The Police Synchronicity Tour,” Wrigley said.

“Oh man. Stop,” Steven said, laughing.

“Uber is here. I’m outta here. We’ll get some German pancakes at Walker Brothers. I will give you a tour of my house, of what I plan to do with your furniture, your piano, and, of course, all of your clothes. You are going to die when you see it all in my house! Bye,” Wrigley said, running out.

Left behind: an unopened bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.


Next morning, several young men and women arrived with three U-Haul trucks. Under Wrigley’s direction, they went up and down the driveway and moved everything into the vehicles: piano, furniture, books, clothes, kitchenware, textiles, rugs, linens, glassware, LPs and Steven’s clothes. They were strong and fast and packed up quick.

Wrigley knocked at the side door.

“Morning Professor. Here are another three grand. I want to get the car too. Do you have the papers? I’ll go up to the DMV in Waukegan tomorrow and we can transfer ownership. My friends will die to see me driving a 1975 Buick LeSabre,” he said.

“Do you want to come in and see the house? Maybe there is something else in here to buy? Please call me Steven. I’m no longer a professor” Steven said.

“Sure Steven,” Wrigley said.

They walked through the tiny rooms carpeted in beige, stripped of furniture. The scalloped shade in the living room picture window caught Wrigley’s eye. He went and pulled it up. Light came into the empty space and he saw a still functioning white dial telephone on the floor, 312-DA8-3020.

“Know how to use that?” Steven asked.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” he said.
“You don’t know how to use a rotary telephone?” Steven asked.
“No,” Wrigley said.
Now he felt old.


A week later, Steven sat in the massive dark-paneled library of a mansion off Sheridan Road, a 1911 Tudor pile of stone and brick with seven bedrooms, wine cellar, servants quarters, and a 70-foot-long terrace overlooking Lake Michigan. There was a verdant, green backyard with many native American Basswood trees, a type of Linden with heart shaped leaves, fragrant and shading.

The library with its empty bookshelves was now a studio for Wrigley and his friends, furnished with the Goldman Family couch, dining table, vinyl lounge chair, and racks of 1970s and 80s clothes from Steven’s youth.

This was Juicy Fruit Productions, a filming studio, with muslin backdrop, softbox lights on stands with sandbags, and Fuji GFX camera on tripod wired to a laptop. There was a floor length mirror, a director’s chair for makeup, and grooming products scattered on the floor.

A 10-foot-long, yellow, painted sign of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum endowed the room in corporate identity.

Howard McCormick, Wrigley’s father, lived in Singapore and ran a property development company there with his second wife Julia.

Goodman met the crew: multi-racial, wealthy, liberal youth who were performers, assistants, gaffers, writers, comedians, influencers, stylists, cooks and cleaners. They drank beer, got high, ate sushi and frozen popsicles, and chuckled at their phones.

Whatever they felt like doing, or not doing, was okay at Juicy Fruit Productions.

All around the room were reminders of Lincolnwood Drive scattered like shabbily dressed interlopers at a black-tie affair: the rust-colored sofa, the Oriental rug, the Queen Anne dining table and chairs, the vinyl recliner, Doris’s floral pillows and macrame blanket.

But high respect was accorded Steven’s old clothes, revered and worshipped by Wrigley and friends. The vintage garments were neatly hung on hangers on metal racks. T-shirts and sweaters were folded and stacked on the mahogany bookshelves. Dress shirts had been pressed and starched. Iron and ironing board were on duty.

It was 90 degrees, humid, torrid, summer. The opulent estate had no air-conditioning. Floor fans blew hot air around the house.

Six French doors in the library were wide open to the terrace and the garden, the sight and sound of Lake Michigan; waves, seagulls, foghorns; accompanied by the scissor-grinder mashing of the dog-day cicadas, an unending drone of faint noise.

Wrigley had asked the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie to dress up in Steven’s clothes, and film Steven reacting to their looks.

Wrigley and Steven went out to the terrace under threatening skies. One-by-one, the three kids came out for the video. Sara was in Steven’s sweatpants and madras shirt.

Then the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon, two handsome, preppy Black twins about 20, came out in Harvard and Yale t-shirts, and 1980s jeans.

“Professor was skinny. These are so tight,” Brandon said, tugging at his waistband, choking his own throat.

Steven sat on a stone bench. He remarked how good the burgundy shirt looked on Brandon.

“Good line Steven. Keep going,” said Wrigley filming and directing.

“You can come on to me, anytime,” Saira Pirie said to Tyler.

Brandon threw his arms around her. Tyler did too. They all fell down on the lawn, laughing and acting for the video.

“Cut. Take a break,” Wrigley directed.

They were hot and sweating, drinking cold bottles of water, wiping their foreheads with paper towels.

Out in the distance there was the rumble of thunder. Leaves blew off the trees. The atmosphere was charged. The yard was cast in greenish light before the impending rain.

The thunder got louder and nearer, but only Steven seemed to notice. For the cast and crew were oblivious to the weather, immersed in their activities, prime age beings supreme.

“We should move inside,” Steven advised as he walked into the house.

The merry makers followed him into the house. Wrigley hurried to shut the doors and push their brass steel floor locks into place. Steven sat back down on his parents’ rust sofa.

Wrigley looked at his phone. He was ecstatic.

“I checked your gram days ago and there was nobody. Now it’s exploding! I think they just love looking at me in your clothes. Okay let’s shoot something else. Nelson Brothers change into Steven’s pajamas! And put on his hunting slippers!” Wrigley said.

Brandon and Tyler stripped down to their underwear and changed into two vintage Brooks Brothers pajamas, one blue, one white.

Saira changed into Steven’s 1982 red flannel men’s nightshirt.

Steven spoke about his first sexual experience in the nightshirt as Wrigley recorded.

He recalled its quick sexual convenience, his first time wearing it, losing his virginity to Suzanne at her uncle’s condo in Northbrook, the easy way he could slip into the nightshirt with no underwear and fuck away on the fur bedspread at the brown-bricked Villas Salceda on Willow Road. He remembered the balcony that looked out to the artificial lake with the fountain, the mowed mounds of lawn, the parking lots sprinkled around, the spindly developers’ trees that never grew up, the lifestyle of the 1980s: malls, office parks, tennis, movies, sex anytime.

As he talked, the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie came and sat on the couch, next to him, intimately, suggestively, looking at him as he commented on his 40-year-old carnal milestones.

The young, gathering on the couch, talking sex with the old teacher, it was salacious, exactly what Wrigley wanted.

The rains came, the thunder and lightning exploded, the showers pounded the glass doors. To the English professor pathetic fallacy had joined the party.

Now was that seminal Midwestern moment, that great cleansing glory in the storm’s release, that summer moment when the temperature drops and blood pressure rises through anticipation and fear; fear of hail and lightning; fear of tornadoes knocking over trees, shattering windows, ripping off roofs, hurling cars through the air; storms of decapitation and electrocution, bodily injury and death; storms to hide and cower from, storms like this.

The players watched the weather, went back to their phones. Wrigley shouted to get back to shooting.

He fetched an ancient bottle of English Leather cologne, buried inside its original wooden box. He opened the fragrance and splashed it over the Nelson Brothers to elicit their reaction and revulsion.

“That shit is nasty!” Brandon said.
“Professor, you say you wore this back in the day?” Tyler asked.
“Yep. We thought it was sexy,” Steven said.
“Cheap and trashy, smell like a whore’s bedroom,” Brandon taunted as he stood up and unbuttoned his pajama top and threw it on the floor. Tyler grabbed the English Leather and doused it onto his brother. Wrigley’s phone captured it all.

“No way. Nigger get that off me! You a dumb fucking nigger piece of shit!” Brandon screamed at Tyler.

Saira laughed uproariously.

Steven stood up.

“Don’t you dare put that online with me in it!” he screamed.

He grabbed Brandon by the shoulders and shook him.

“Don’t ever say that word in front of me! Do you hear me? I despise that word, it’s the worst thing you can ever say. It destroys lives. When you speak it you bring calumny onto others!” Steven screamed.

He stormed out of the library.

“What the hell was that?” Brandon asked.
“What you said homie,” Tyler answered.
“The N word,” Saira said.
“What’s calumny? I need to swallow that word,” Brandon said.
“Why does that white ass fool care?” Brandon asked.
“Shut up Brandon,” Wrigley said.


The storm knocked the lights off and on. Wrigley left the room to find Steven.

Steven sat on the carpeted entry hall stairs next to the carved wood banister and newel post lamp.

Face down, hands behind head, all was quiet.

The weakening rains fell against the stained-glass Tiffany window emitting a dreary light onto the staircase.

He was tired and angry, enraged at these ignorant, reckless, careless youth who fired off words like deadly weapons.

This house added to his futility, for he found himself there without direction, recruited by an accident of fate and chance, a participant in juvenile nonsense, performed in his honor, disgracing his honor.

He laughed bitterly. He was played, again.

Wrigley came over and sat on the stairs next to Steven.

“Are you OK?” Wrigley asked, rubbing Steven’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m alright. I guess the Nelson Brothers hate me,” he said.

“No. The Nelson Brothers love me. And they love you too,” he said.

Steven told him about the incident that got him fired. Now Wrigley understood.

“Feel better?” Wrigley asked.

“Take my clothes and everything you bought and do what you want. But please don’t put me on camera. You don’t need to make me an internet star. You bought me out at the estate sale. That should be enough. Perhaps I need to go home now,” Steven said.

He stood up and stretched.

“Looks like the rain stopped. I might even walk home,” Steven said, peering out a front hall window into the clearing light and water dripping from the trees.

“Let’s go outside. This hall is haunted. This is where they carried my dead mother down the stairs for the last time. I never come in here,” Wrigley said.

They opened the front door to the freshness and stood out on the brick stoop between the two pots of drenched geraniums.

“My father and I chatted last night. He is worried about me. He and Julia want me to move to Singapore, to their mansion in Bukit Timah, and work in their property development company,” he said.

“Abandon Juicy Fruit?” Steven asked.

“Yeah. Give up production and become a responsible son. Wear a necktie and marry a rich girl and work for my father. I hate the weather over there. Julia is bossy. They both expect too much. I asked if I could stay here. He said he would consider it if I presented a plan. Father said education is vital. I suggested you as my live-in tutor,” Wrigley said.

“I would work for you? Become your personal tutor? How could I live on that hourly wage?” Steven asked.

“You’d be exceptionally well-paid. We are tragically rich. You could teach literature and writing. Maybe we could have classes outdoors, under the Basswoods, a few days a week. With my crew. I found a photograph. New Trier High School in 1950. Students and teachers studied on the lawn,” Wrigley said. He opened his phone to show it.

“I was planning to move to Tucson,” Steven said.

“Tucson is even hotter than Singapore. And the food isn’t even as good. Let me set up a Facetime with you and father,” Wrigley said.

With a potential job and his home empty, the plan to sell went on hold.

Steven found himself, like a royal, set up in a wing of the McCormick Mansion, in Howard’s bedroom suite with its own adjoining private library and gentleman’s bathroom of monogrammed towels, tartan covered toilet seat, and etchings of Scottish barons and noblemen.

He slept in the master’s bedroom for a night. He woke up and borrowed the master’s robe as he awaited a call from Singapore to discuss matters impending.

Wrigley knocked at 7am. He came in and put a cup of tea on the desk, opened the drapes, turned on the desktop computer in the adjoining library to connect his father and Steven, and left the room.

In the early morning light, the beaming, bald, smiling man in a dark plaid sports jacket and light blue shirt came up in living color.

“Good morning Steve! How are things in Evanston?” Howard asked.

His accent was familiar, like an old friend, flat, nasal, familial, true to Chicago.

“Oh, fine. Very kind of you to be so hospitable,” Steven said.

“My pleasure. My son is ebullient about you. And I am tickled pink. I’m a Northwestern man myself, on the board. I heard about your troubles. And my hearty condolences on your job loss. But I hope you will consider our offer,” he said.

“Go on. I’m open to ideas,” Steven said.

“Wrigley does not want to live in Singapore. I understand. My wife Julia is Straits Chinese, her extended family is here, our development company is here. It’s an adjustment. I can’t even legally chew gum here. Imagine a Wrigley under that law! Our projects take us all over Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Hainan Island, Bali and Vietnam. I haven’t been to Chicago in five years. And the goddamned property taxes ensure I’ll never move back. I need a pedagogical and parental rector for my son. I wish to assign his care to you,” he said.

“I am pleased Howard. But for how long? Under what conditions? Who will decide the curriculum? I only teach literature. That’s not a fully rounded college education for your son,” Steven said.

“I don’t want him in college. Ever. He’s not going to invent the grain reaper or start a theological seminary like his great-great grandad. But if he can write well and think logically by studying classic American writing, and he’s not exposed to all these leftist, multicultural, gender ideologies, he will have a free mind and a mind freed,” Howard said.

The proposal was for a year contract, $200,000 to teach Wrigley and his four friends American Classics. And to live, rent free, at the house. And to work three days a week, four days off.

The offer was irresistible, tailored to make it impossible to say no.

“Do you think, without having met me, without references, I have all the necessary qualifications?” Steven asked.

“Come now old sport. You are thoroughly vetted. Last year I told Wrigley about you and the cancel culture that came after your hide. Multiculturalism, leftism, racism, gender, capitalism, colonialism, diversity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, LGBTQ. These crazies only teach victimhood. I’m fine with my son un-polluted by modern radicals who run these schools,” he said.

“I thought your boy followed me on Instagram because he liked my 1980s pictures,” Steven said.

Howard laughed.

“If that’s what he told you, go with it. I’m the one who first heard about you last year. He probably looked you up and got hooked on your fashion. He’s got that influencer business and I think he’s determined to be the next Ralph La Wren or Paris Paltrow.”

“Can I think it over and give you an answer in a few days?” Steven said.

“Of course. My chief concern and my constant worry is my son. I fret that he will turn on, tune in, drop out in that Timothy Leary way. Drugs, moping around, self-destruction. I won’t have it!” Howard railed.

“I can assure you he is not on that path. He’s very industrious and self-directed,” Steven said.

“I will give him freedom only if he obeys my rules. That’s what they do here in Singapore. I’m trying to be a responsible long-distance parent. Please help me, Steve,” he said.

The screen went dark. Only the halo of his words remained.

Howard had supported the Professor because he saw a fellow dissenter, an antagonist fighting political correctness, an insurrectionist whose teaching of old, white, male writers was anathema to the progressive sanctimony of liberals.

Steven never aspired to ideology, he really did not have a side, yet, once again, a faction had chosen him as their representation of their ally or their enemy.

Through Wrigley’s embrace, Steven had gone on a brief hiatus, escaping the debacle and the shame, reappearing as an old version of his young self, a 20-year-old preppy with great hair, in Brooks Brothers clothes, all hope and potential vested in him.

He was a student again, in changed and charged times, embraced by the young for a strange reason: his sartorial style. But his ascension to deity was accidental and artificial, so he pondered leaving, rejecting Howard’s generous offer.

But tethering him to stay, to accept Howard’s proposal, was young Wrigley, another victim of circumstance, manipulated by parent.

Steven recalled how the approval of a parent was the foremost pillar of self-esteem or the foundation for futility, resentment and bitterness.

Here was an opportunity to correct Steven’s mistakes by freeing Wrigley from parental entanglements to pursue his own path.

Wrigley made Steven feel better, wanted, redeemed, that too was inarguable. Not a son, not a friend, not a lover, not anything one could name, yet from the time he walked up the driveway he brought hope and transformation.

Steven was made a hero through an accident of Instagram, put on a pedestal by McCormick, father and son, who built him back up into paternal, pedagogical, and ministering roles.

“Well?” Wrigley asked, biting his lower lip, fists clenched.

He stood in the bedroom doorway, in Steven’s light blue cable knit sweater and gray New Trier sweats.

That was the sweater Steven wore on that day in 1988 when he told his mother he loved acting, wanted to make a career of it and she told him it was killing his father, he had to quit, get a master’s degree or a real job, so he weakly capitulated.

That sweater had shame and surrender in its fibers yet worn by Wrigley it was cleansed in forgiveness.

“I like your dad. I think he’s concerned. But I think you and I should do what we want. And I want to teach, and you want me to teach, and this could be fun,” Steven said.

“Hooray! I’m so happy!” Wrigley shouted and ran into the room and threw his arms around Steven. And then broke into sobs.

The professor found his face buried in the wool sweater, a pounding heart, warmth and gratitude, held in the arms of one who needed love and guidance.

“Oh, thank you. You are saving me. I don’t want to leave Evanston! I have been praying for this. You won’t leave me alone in this house. I need you. And this is the greatest gift. You will stay here, in father’s room, won’t you?” he said.

“Yes. I have to. No furniture at my old house. No clothes either. I have one favor to ask of you,” Steven said.

Wrigley waited.

“Take me off social media. I want to live for myself, without sharing it with the world. I want to walk in the rain, eat warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and never post about it on Instagram. I don’t want strangers to comment, condemn or control. Nothing is more precious than privacy and freedom and they go together. When you give up privacy, you give up freedom. In time you will understand,” Steven said.

“Yes, yes. Delete! Delete!” Wrigley said.
“My only hope of escaping death is to get offline,” Steven said.

“Let’s go out and get breakfast. Walker Brothers on Green Bay Road. I’m starved for pancakes. I’ve been so worried. And now it’s just utter relief. Have you had their German Pancakes?” Wrigley asked.


One by one Steven wiped away all presence of his online life. He took down Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. It was liberating, walking into enlightenment, freed of ignorance and prejudice and all the harm and stupidity of virtuality.

The morons, who counted their wisdom by counting followers, were all banished to hell.

He paid a service, ClearName, to clean up his reputation, and all the hateful online commentary about Professor Steven Goodman went missing.

He put his house on the market and sold it in a few days to a young Korean American family.

Freed at last, he walked out of the ranch house for the last time and rode his bicycle down Lincolnwood Drive, and pedaled out of the neighborhood forever.

There was now a healthy amount of money in his account from his $476,000 house sale, a $3,800 a week teaching salary, rent-free accommodations, and his retirement investments.

No longer constrained by the rules of school administrators and post-modern censorship he could teach as he wanted.

He chose Elizabeth Spencer’s short story, “The Business Venture”, a tale set in a 1970s small Southern town riveted by racial fears and sexual promiscuity.

In the tale, Eileen, the protagonist and narrator, is a young white woman, recently married, who describes the promiscuity and casual sex of her husband Charlie who sleeps with Nellie Townshend, an unmarried white woman who owns a dry-cleaning business with Robin, a Black man.

But the town scandal is not her promiscuity, or Charlie’s, but the fact that Nellie has a close professional and business relationship with a Black man.

Steven and his students discussed Spencer’s story, as they sat on the grass, under the trees, just like Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs of New Trier High School in 1950.

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine, 1950.

To Wrigley the South was like his father, cordial and polite but full of hate. The Nelson Brothers wondered how Black people like them put up with treatment from white folk, how they kept their rage under control while enduring dehumanization and cruelty. Saira Pirie thought modern day America had progressed even as racism persisted. Others disagreed with her, but everyone spoke their mind respectfully without fear of offending.

They read and quoted that noxious word which described Black human beings, but they did not recoil from that word but understood it as a gruesome part of language that had to be spoken in an honest confrontation with the American experience.

Before enrollment, all had signed a contract with Steven in which they agreed that what they said would stay within their “classroom”. They would not post about Steven’s class, or him, or discuss any of it online.

Their protected, private discourse would open their minds to explore the world in a way that the internet had denied, that social media-controlled schools would never sanction.

Thanksgiving was nearing, they had just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” a play about a Black family in segregated Chicago who buys a house in a white neighborhood, igniting family conflict.

Steven Wrigley, Saira, Dylan, Tyler and Brandon went for a drive in the Buick LeSabre on a field trip to the city.

They stopped first at the University of Chicago, near 55th and Drexel, to hear the story of the Manhattan Project, where on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, Harold C. Urey and Leo Szilard built a radioactive pile that yielded the first nuclear chain reaction.

“Do you know what month and year the United States dropped two atom bombs, one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki, effectively ending WWII through the surrender of Japan?” Steven asked.

There was dead silence. Nobody knew.

They went for a walk along historic Greenwood Avenue, past the Obama Family Home, which the future president and his family purchased in 2005.

They walked to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, a premier example of prairie architecture, and they strolled into the University of Chicago down to the Midway Plaisance, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1871, the year of the great Chicago Fire.

The students were impressed with the Gothic buildings on the campus.

“It feels like England,” Dylan Wieboldt remarked.
“Harry Potter!” Saira said.
“Yes exactly!” Dylan said.

Steven educated them on some ugly history.

In the 1920s and 30s, the school had barred Black students from living on campus, Black fraternities were illegal, even the barbers in Reynolds Hall refused to cut Black hair, and as the Black area expanded, the school furiously bought up private properties around the campus to preserve it as a white enclave.

They finished their walking tour at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.

Here, in 1938, Carl Augustus Hansberry, father of 8-year-old Lorraine, purchased a house in the white section of town, an act which brought out violent mobs. He fought for his family’s right to live here, to own property in spite of racial covenants, a case which he eventually won in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The fiction class took their history class on location. And, abiding by their agreement with Steven, nobody took photos, nobody posted on Instagram, they just listened and learned.

“This is torturous, having my phone shut down all afternoon,” said Brandon.

“Nice photos all around. But we have to go cold turkey,” Tyler said.

“No exceptions?” Brandon asked.
“Nope. Honor your agreement. Keep your word,” Steven said.
“Harsh!” Brandon said laughing.

They ended their adventure with a walk across the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River. The festive season was here. Up and down the boulevard thousands of white lights bedecked the trees in a magnificent display of civic grandeur.

In the cold dark night the electric lights shone all around.

The white terra cotta of the Wrigley Building was illuminated in its ornate, classical glory, shimmering in the sky, across from the Tribune Tower, another lit up landmark erected in the early 1920s by publisher Robert McCormick, Wrigley’s relative, a conservative isolationist who was also a free speech champion and founder of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

The students and the professor huddled on the sidewalk bridge over the Chicago River. Steven told them how engineers had reversed the flow of water so sewage from Lake Michigan would go into the river and keep the drinking water of the lake clean and pure.

Two cops on their beat walked past and the Nelson Brothers moved aside to the railing to let them through, in tandem with fear.

“What are those two awesome buildings?” Wrigley asked, pointing to the two which gave him their names.

“Name them,” Steven said.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” Wrigley said.

“These are yours! These two crowning structures, erected by your ancestors! The Wrigley Building and McCormick’s Chicago Tribune! Didn’t your father ever bring you here?” Steven asked.

“He was afraid to walk downtown,” Wrigley said.

Emma

“Emma from the Shorefront Legacy Center called me,” Wrigley said.

“Who?” Steven asked.

“They record, document, and archive Black history in the North Shore. She wanted to meet me, and invited me to her home. Weird. She said my family and hers are connected. Can you go with me? Impart your academic credentials?” he asked.

“Do you think it’s about me? My classroom scandal?” Steven asked.

“The n-word meltdown? I don’t know. She sounds old, like she wouldn’t know how to use the internet. She lives in West Evanston near Church St. practically in your old hood but on the Black side of town,” Wrigley said.

Steven seemed worried.

Wrigley looked online.

“It looks like they are involved in that reparations movement. Probably angry about my family. My mom’s grandfather was a bank president. He kicked Blacks off this very street in the 1920s. He built houses for rich whites on land they confiscated from Blacks. Pushed them all over to that area near the sewage canal,” Wrigley said.

“And you inherited a mansion. Funny how events from 100 years ago benefit you today,” Steven remarked.

“I know. I’m kept alive by enterprising, devious, exploitative, bigoted robber barons and their spoils,” Wrigley said.

Steven was lost in thought.

“We once knew an artist, Emma Floyd, who lived nearby. She was a friend of my father’s. Beautiful Black woman, stylish, artsy, painted. She had a little boy I played with a few times. Then we stopped visiting, I don’t know why. I don’t think she could still be alive,” Steven said.

“Let’s set something up. You can borrow one of your tweed jackets to make you look more professorial,” Wrigley said.

They sat in the blue walled living room of the little ranch home on Leland Avenue, like the one Steven grew up in, a yellow brick number with a postage stamp sized lawn.

On every wall hung framed art, Modigliani like portraits of Black men and women, painted 60 or 70 years ago.

Sprightly, trim, 88-years-old, Emma Floyd carried herself like a ballet dancer, serving beers on a silver tray, set out on a spider legged brass coffee table.

On either side of the plastic covered tan sofa were two dark green table lamps on blond wood tables stacked with books.

Wrigley and Steven waited politely as she flurried about. Then she carefully sat down in an armchair.

“For a long time, I wanted to tell someone who made movies about my life. And then I found you, Dear Wrigley,” she said.

“Crazy. How did that happen?” Wrigley asked.

“I was looking online for the mailing address of my friend Millie who lives in an assisted living facility on McCormick. That’s McCormick, the boulevard, not you,” she said.

“I understand,” he said, suppressing laughter.
“I do know how to use a computer,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Wrigley said.

“When I moved back to my hometown with my boy Andy, it was right after King died ‘68 or ‘69. We were down in Hyde Park and I loved it, with the art community, music, university and the creative fervor of that time. But then things got chaotic, burning down, riots, so I moved back here. And I became a quiet, studious mom and librarian in Evanston. Yet I never quite stopped hating this hypocritical town,” she said.

“You grew up here?” Steven asked.

“Yes. My parents came up from Clarksville, Tennessee during the First World War. Papa had a successful plastering business here. You know they built a lot of houses in the 1920s. He built us a house a few blocks from the lake. We were doing well, this was before I was born, so I heard. Then Evanston came and rezoned our land for commercial buildings. Black families were only allowed to live in the 5th Ward. My father paid $130 and they moved our house over here where there were unpaved streets, far from everything, near the sanitary canal. No water, no electricity, that came later. But my father never recovered. The Depression came. No business. He drank. We had no money. We had to take in colored soldiers and students for rent. Excuse my outdated words, I’m just going back in time,” she said.

“This happened to your family, here, in Evanston?” Wrigley asked.

She nodded yes. She put on her glasses and read from a printed document.

“According to my research, Wrigley’s great-grandfather on his mom’s side, John F. Hahn, was Evanston City Clerk from 1899-1925. He was president of Commercial Trust and Savings Bank of Evanston. Not only did he facilitate discriminatory zoning laws but his bank financed many Black homeowners and charged us higher interest rates for inferior housing. He was a man responsible for herding us into a zone. And ripping us off when we could least afford it,” she said.

“What can I do?” Wrigley asked.

“Just listen and learn,” she said.

“I went to Foster, a segregated school. In the 1940s, they wouldn’t let Blacks into theaters, stores, restaurants, even Marshall Fields was off limits. We had our own YMCA. We had our own hospital, our own doctors! Apartheid, here! Can you imagine an intelligent, exploring, curious, questioning child like me coming up against a system of hate like that? After we just won the war against Nazism? Why even Black soldiers and their families were kept out of houses built for all GIs in Evanston,” she said.

“I never knew this,” Steven said.

“I loved painting. Moved to Hyde Park. I exhibited at 57th Street Art Show for 20 years. I was very pretty. I was independent. I did what I wanted. Then I met a man at the art show. He was a German Jew, blue eyed, sensitive. He painted, he was well-read, a pianist. We fell in love. But it had to be secret. He was married. Then I had a child named Andy with him. And I moved back here to be closer to him. Isn’t that a story?” she said.

“Was the man you loved Gene Goodman?” Steven asked.

“Yes. And so here we are. I am Gene’s mistress. Or maybe I’m just forgotten, or perhaps I will die and nobody will care about anything I have accomplished or endured. That’s why I need a movie” she said.

Wrigley clenched tightly Steven’s hand.

“Did you know Gene was my father? Or that I would be coming here today?” Steven asked.

“How would I know that? I saw your car outside and it was just like one Gene drove. I thought it was my old mind playing tricks, because sometimes he would come here on the pretext of fixing my plumbing and we’d be together, Sundays usually. You must have come here too, a couple of times,” she said.

She opened a photo album and showed the men a photograph of teenage Andy, about 16, an athletic boy with blue eyes, curly light brown hair, milk coffee complexion.

“Handsome boy. Where does he live now?” Wrigley asked.

“Live? He was killed. Shot dead after he raked the leaves in the front yard. I had been on him for weeks to tidy up the garden. Halloween 1990. All the fallen leaves were tied up in plastic bags, and he put them up along the curb for trash collection. A car drove by for no reason shot him in cold blood,” she said.

“Did they catch the killers?” Steven asked.

“Yes. It was bad people who hated him for looking white. Andy wasn’t white. Not really. The ache of it. My child was taken. I don’t know how to talk about it. I should have taken my last breath a long time ago. Just to get some peace and rest. Can I get you two more beers?” she asked.

The second round of beers were not refreshment but sedation.

After meeting Emma, Wrigley found another vocation.

Juicy Fruit Productions went into documentary film production.

The subject was the life of Emma Floyd.

Emma came to the mansion with mountains of scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, family movies. These were added to the already existent Goodman Collection. Connections were established with the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Evanston History Center.

The Nelson Brothers, Dylan Wieboldt, and Saira Pirie were now $1200 a week segment producers.

They amassed oral transcripts of Black residents, many now deceased, who spoke about their lives in 20th Century Evanston. B-roll was shot, all around Evanston, and once the police were called when the Nelson Brothers walked Sheridan Road shooting video. But they had business cards from Juicy Fruit to show cops so they were left to wander like free people.

The life of Emma coincided with the 1950s jazz scene, she had worked at the Blue Note, knew and befriended Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing. She dated singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine.

There was music to license, for surely it also had to be in her film.

Wrigley hired a production accountant and editor.

He set up $500 a month donations to Shorefront to cement goodwill and cooperation.

With money all things are possible.

For Steven, the revelations about his father and Emma were startling, yet strangely comforting.

His father was more human than he knew, less severe and dogmatic, open to vice, pleasure, sensuality, danger. The autocratic and prescriptive Germanness defanged; replaced with tenderness, adventurism, romanticism, repainting Gene into a man of love and nonconformity.

But Steven mourned for Andy, a brother he never knew, a younger sibling who lived only blocks away, who might have lived on the other side of the world, who died before Steven could know or love him.


He and Howard Face Timed, their first meeting in many months.

Howard’s face was even redder, his mood even brighter, his talk more emphatic, garrulous, sparkling, enthusiastic.

“Hello from Taman Plastik! Yes, we are here on an island, on the east coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea, with beautiful coral reefs, beaches and tropical sunshine. Don’t mean to torture you enduring late winter in Chicago!” Howard said.

“Are you there on holiday?” Steven asked.

“Oh no. Our company is building a resort property here. It’s going to be gorgeous: five-stars, gourmet food, three swimming pools, shopping mall, championship golf course, brand new highway from the airport, all on an ecological preserve with indigenous plants and native creatures. As I finish my almond croissant, I’m watching FedEx deliver two handcuffed orangutans,” he said.

“Sounds marvelous. I wanted to ask you about my contract. What is my role now that your son is producing a film? Should I stay on? Do you want to pay me as an advisor or in some capacity?” Steven asked.

“Absolutely! You are the force behind this project. I’ll keep paying you for at least 12 more months. Wrigley must finish what he’s started, and you need to manage or cajole him! It’s going to be quite a story” he said.

“This dynamo was a gorgeous artist, jazz aficionado, painter, sexpot from the 1950s. And your father and Emma, well, that’s quite a story,” he said.

It was jarring to hear a family secret, punctuated by tragedy and loss, aired so glibly.

But that was Howard, a promoter.

Steven was pleasantly surprised at Howard’s reaction to a documentary exploring a Black woman and her life within the prickly confines of race, segregation and Evanston history.

“I think you have to stress the positive changes for the Black people in Evanston. They got a raw deal, that’s for sure. But we live in different times. This movie is going to create a new image for West Evanston, always a shitty part of town. I think you have to get Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and the big money in Chicago involved. Promote the film online,” he said.

“Do you know Michael Sacks, CEO Grosvenor Capital Management? Graduated Niles West, lives in Glencoe, worth billions. I’ve met him socially. He is a kind of force to get developers interested in that area, tear down the shabby houses, put up lofts, live/work spaces, glass towers, Starbucks, yoga and even a film studio. Evanston can work with private developers. Show it off as an example of how enterprise and innovation can transcend racism,” he said.

Steven listened in silence, aghast, then spoke.

“That’s where you’re wrong! It’s a marvelous story of endurance, determination and grit. You can either make it sad and nobody will watch it. Or you can jazz it up, pun intended, and make it a journey of hope and redemption with a happy ending. Because happy endings are the only endings that sell in America,” he said.

END

They Didn’t Believe Me


a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

30 minute read

Spotify soundtrack

A young political assistant is unwittingly drawn into a plot to poison her boss with a toxic perfume.


For two years I had a dream job: Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Hilary Flores, 6th District.

She had recruited me, fresh out of college, and entrusted me with a high, prestigious position.

I ran her re-election campaign, scheduled her talks in community centers, crafted her online posts. I strategized, negotiated and persuaded.

By Halloween, Hilary Flores was comfortably ahead. Her every word was well-considered and pleasing to the ears of her constituents. Equality, honesty, tolerance, accountability, and transparency were sprinkled inside every speech and post.

Walkville, our $800 million dollar redevelopment project, was praised for its sensitive, inclusive, thoughtful green design. Thousands of jobs, affordable housing, small businesses, organic markets; fresh foods, grown on-site. An urban farm town, walkable, humane, visionary.

Then, a few days before the election, a strange and unbelievable set of events happened.

Looking back, I was naïve.

I was selected as the perfect, unwitting agent to carry out a malign and vicious act against an elected official, my boss, the incumbent.

The weapons were a niche perfume and three Hermès scarves.

Innocent and eager, driven by ambition, I sprayed lies, invisible aerosol lies, smelling like roses and oud, lies infused into the fibers of silk scarves tied to her neck, perfumed with brain altering toxins.

These malign aromas, chemically altered with neurologically persuasive notes, floated through her skin, mouth and nostrils into her brain.

They numbed her self-control, unleashed her id, took command of her words, released her inhibitions.

Bedecked in poisoned silk, she said what she thought.

A death sentence for any politician.

Her loose utterances, obscene and bizarre, alienated and offended.

Her outbursts proved, beyond a doubt, her complete mental breakdown.

A politician can say crazy things. But only if her supporters think the same. When a leader goes against party orthodoxy they are doomed.

She was the Democratic incumbent, the most powerful Latina on the City Council, the leader of the largest affordable housing development project in city history.

She was one of seven children, a daughter of immigrants from El Salvador; a fighter. Her whole career was defending the exploited, the trafficked, the abused, and the undocumented.

For over two decades, in her impressive climb to the pinnacle of local politics, she fought to gain influence to help those who were most vulnerable. Nobody was more respected or popular than Hilary.

In Magnolia Park, that last night before the election, she stood on the pitcher’s mound with a wireless mike.

From the dugout I watched her, pathetic and pleading, alone, under a spotlight, performing to nearly empty bleachers, shamed and castigated.

“The bad words that came out of me were not my words. I had a reaction to prescription drugs. I still stand for all I have fought for! What I tell you is the truth. I ask you to believe me,” she said.

Crying and pleading, begging for forgiveness.
Nobody cared.

“Aw, go home Hilary!”

“Estúpido coño mentiroso!”

“How dare you lie to us!” a woman shouted.

“Everything you said is on YouTube. Nobody made
you say it!”

“You’re a sexual predator!”

I turned the spotlight off.

The evening wind blew across the park, kicking up dust. Hilary wiped her face with a tissue, walked back, head down, wounded. She sat down on the ballplayer’s bench, at the end, furthest from me. We both looked out in silence to the field.

I had watched it all unfold, helpless to stop it.
It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault.

We were victims of Damon Samson.

It was early September, Tuesday after Labor Day. We were set up in a community conference room, inside city hall.

“Damon’s standing in the back. I’ll speak to him before I leave,” she said.

The subject was Walkville.

We had presented architectural renderings showing a 10-acre site of grass, trees, gardens and courtyard apartments where the California sun shone on solar paneled rooftops.

The pre-assembled housing would be constructed in an old Navy shipyard, converted into peacetime production for thousands of engineered apartment containers, economical, mass-produced.

Ours was the exemplar of urban renewal, right in the center of the 6th District, alongside the old train tracks, a crowded and poor area of violence and low opportunity, exploited by slumlords, teeming with undocumented immigrants, splattered with shady operators in small shops who laundered bad money.

There was a shoe repair shop where it took a week to shine a pair of shoes, a “psychic” Indian barber working behind bricked up windows, a cannabis testing laboratory, several bail bond offices, a Pentecostal church, and dozens of Armenian owned auto and towing shops where battered, unclaimed junks were parked on the street for years at a time.

Walkville was my idea, born in a college thesis paper. For Councilwoman Hilary Flores, it was a way to inspire voters with a dream of what their surroundings could be under her continuing leadership.

Vote for Hilary! Build Walkville!

Only a few had shown up in person for our public presentation. I was disappointed.

Our architect was Alfredo Perez, mid 30s, long haired, Salvadoran born, a former Wilhelmina model and once shirtless actor in a 2014 Lana Del Ray video. He was Hilary’s choice. I presumed they shared intimacy but I kept silent.

Alfredo and his handsome designs impregnated everything with sex appeal, vigor and multi-culturalism. His long black hair shone, his teeth sparkled, his jaw was a sharp slice of perfection.

Like Hilary he was Salvadoran-American, and he dutifully recited his humble-to-greatness story at every appearance, reminding all his enraptured listeners that anything was possible in America.

If you looked as good as him opportunity beckoned.

Hilary and Alfredo enjoyed the glory of one another. He stood near the podium, towering over her, his tan, cable knit sweater seemingly painted onto his sculpted body as she introduced him to our appreciative audience of six.

When you said the name “Alfredo” it was like “Kobe” or “Madonna”, everyone knew whom you meant. His starring role as our architect helped push the project forward.

Reclusive Damon Samson owned the land near the abandoned freight tracks. It had been in his family since before WWII.

It was once an orange grove, then a building supply company, Samson Lumber, where everyone bought their tools, barbecues, propane tanks and vinyl windows. There was asphalt parking for 3,000 cars, a lumber yard, a garden center, even a sandlot playground where the kids played while the parents shopped.

The store lasted 40 years.

Home Depot and Lowe’s killed it off.

Samson Lumber, the yard, the lot, and the building, was vacant for 25 years. The area around it got rattier, seedier and poorer. The old white families packed up and moved farther west.

At UCLA, I wrote my graduation thesis on the rise and fall of Samson Lumber. I envisioned an idea to transform it into something architecturally and socially exceptional. I thought it could revive the 6th District. I got interviewed on KPCC public radio. Hilary Flores heard me and hired me.

Only the young are ever struck with luck.

“If you can get the community behind this, the owners, the planners, and the financiers, you will launch your career. It will catapult you into the stratosphere,” she said, at the close of my third interview.

My concept, of course, would benefit her.

Damon Samson saw my thesis, posted online at KPCC. He loved the 1950s archival photographs of his father, his childhood, the customers, the store. He interpreted my project as more than a vision for the future.

He felt it was nostalgic, an unspoken yearning for the way it had been. And as he detected that longing in my heart, so he too fell in love with my proposal.

I was only 22. I knew nothing except how to use the internet. Which made me an expert.

After the on-screen projections, the CGI video, the speeches by my boss and the architect, there was a quick emptying out of the room. It was after 9 pm. The half dozen tired, hard-working people who cared enough to show up went home.

They were exhausted. I was exhausted. I smiled and swallowed a breath mint.

Damon stood near the exit door: quiet, tall, cropped white hair, hands in jean pockets. He had sun baked skin, squinty blue eyes, a movie westerner.

He nodded as I approached.

“Thank you for coming. Hilary will be right over. I think we did good tonight,” I said, smiling.

He leaned over. And rather, unexpectedly, smelled my hair.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, perturbed, in cheery self-possession of my faux diplomacy.

“Neroli, marigold, mandarin orange,” he said.

“Yes! Itasca by Lubin,” I said, relieved he was only appreciating my perfume.

Hilary came over.

“Hello there,” she said, grazing his cheek with hers.

“I just complimented Elizabeth. But I may have stepped over the line. Like old Joe Biden,” he said.

“Oh?” she laughed.

“I stuck my nose in her hair to admire her perfume,” he said.

“That sounds innocent enough,” she said.

Hilary wore a Hermès scarf: orange cashmere and silk, artfully tied around her neck.

“Your scarf is divine,” Damon said.

“May I?” he asked as he sampled her aroma.

“Your scent is Chris Rusak’s Beast Mode,” he said.

“Yes! I do love Chris. He’s a local, up in Newhall. But imported Hermès scarves are my thing, my trademark,” she said.

“You seem to like black pepper, licorice, and tuberose as well. My husband has connections inside Hermès,” Damon said.

“Your husband?” I asked.
“Peter,” he said.

“Damon is a man of many talents. Secretive and inventive. He has an atelier, an artist’s lab, right over on Aetna, and he is creating a custom scent, just for me,” Hilary said.

“Peter is the perfumer. I just smell it. He approved it for you. It’s nearly complete. And very shortly, the scent that Hilary has inspired will be unveiled. But only for a select, few noses,” he said.

“Gosh, exciting! Hilary must be honored. Damon you astonish me,” I said, perhaps too effusively.

“Let’s keep Peter’s perfume and my $600 scarves between us. It wouldn’t be a good thing if this leaked out to my constituents struggling to pay rent and buy food,” she said.

“Alfredo’s good looks seem to be pushing things along,” Damon remarked.

“Guapo knows his shit,” she said.

“When he talks, people just look at him. They don’t hear a word he is saying,” Damon said.

We all laughed.

Hilary stressed Alfredo’s astuteness and professionalism.

“Alfredo is a fastidious and detail-oriented architect,” she said in job review English.

“He’s hot, yes. But can he design a house?” Damon joked.

“He’s passionate about his passions. Seriously, I’m thrilled that we have the commitment from the state to dedicate a third of it to low-income units, and to reduce the parking area so people can use bicycles and public transit to get around,” Hilary said.

“Walking and biking are good. You see so many obese people now, especially in this area,” Damon said.

She thought that unkind.

“We all live in a food desert. Fast food all around. People don’t have a choice. If you are on limited income and they sell two burgers, fries and coke for $3, you eat it, especially families,” she said.

“The fatties do have a choice. You don’t walk in the middle of the street just because there are cars all around you,” he said.

“Fatties is judgmental and shaming. Fresh food challenged is better,” she advised.

I mediated with an agreeable interjection.

“That’s why we have organic fruits and vegetables at Walkville. A large area will also have chili peppers which Hilary insisted upon,” I said.

“In Salvadoran cuisine it’s a necessity,” she said.

“Why did they get rid of the police station?” he asked.

“Too controversial. With the nice amenities we are proposing, I foresee very little crime,” she said.

“Remarkable. You envision a community of 5,000 residents without law enforcement?” he asked.

“I know my own community. These are good people. When people are given hope they flourish,” she said.

“That won’t do when you are held up by banditos,” he said.

“With this project we’re going to turn around things in our area. I’ve been waiting for my Facebook commenters to call me an innovator– instead of that bitch,” she exclaimed.

“You are a bitch. Peter tells me that all the time,” he said.

“That bitch should shut his mouth. I kept him afloat paying off his student loans. Now he’s your responsibility,” she said.

“Peter calls Walkville Disneyland,” he said.

“Peter always had a sarcastic comment about everything. His cynicism made him unemployable. This isn’t Disneyland. Real people will live here. This isn’t a production with Snow White and her dancing dwarfs,” Hilary said.

    Damon smiled but said nothing.

“Elizabeth can stop over at your studio before she comes into the office. We have our meeting with the planning board at 10am. Do you want to join? Alfredo will be there,” she said.

“No. I prefer to stay clear of politics and planning boards. Environmental impacts, irritating public comments, people showing up to gripe about things they know nothing about. That crazy, fat, old lady who comes to all the meetings in her nightgown and slippers and gulps all the Subway sandwiches. She is reason enough not to show up,” he said.

Hilary laughed loudly.

“If only I could insult like you do! Of course, I’d be out of a job. Finished! Destroyed! That’s the occupational hazard of politics. You have to be totally committed to follow through on all the lies you said the day before. But I guess I have to keep going,” she said.

“Maybe, one day, you won’t have to lie any longer. You’ll stand at the podium in your elegantly strangling scarf, smelling exquisitely, and the truth will spin out of you, uncontrollably, like a roulette wheel. Who knows where your number will end up?” he asked.

“That sounds frightening. Are you planning my demise?” she asked.

“I don’t use deadly weapons. I manipulate and control through scents. Good night ladies. I will see Liz tomorrow morning, say 8am,” he said.

He saluted as he walked out into the night.

Hilary had a look of horror.

“Why are the people with money always so fucking bizarre? Sometimes I wonder about his politics, whether there is a bit of a reactionary in him,” she said.

“He always says something shocking. I just learned tonight that he’s gay. How did I miss that?” I asked.

“Gay is good. Gay is on our team. Gay is my ex-husband! By the way, have you set up next week’s meeting with that non-profit group fighting human trafficking? I need that on Facebook. Also how are we doing against Julie Abraham?” she asked her opponent.

“Latest poll: less than three percent knew her name. You have high name recognition in our district. 38% of eligible voters know you,” I said.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Buy another 3,000 followers on Instagram. Go to that company with the Latinx surnames. I think Alfredo has a brother who became his sister or a sister who became his brother. Find a photo of them together, post-op, and post it on Facebook,” she said as she walked out of the meeting hall.

The Atelier Samson was a handsome, pitched roof, gray and blue steel building with industrial windows and a metal gated entrance near the old train tracks. Like its neighbors, it was utilitarian, but sleeker, polished. Money had laid its hands here.

I had passed it before, many times, hardly noticing it. But now it loomed, in the early morning fog, enigmatic and secure. There was no sign, just a steel gate, discreet cameras and a video bell.

I buzzed and the gate unlocked. I walked down a long, concrete sidewalk and gravel border that ran alongside galvanized steel walls. Automatic security lights lit up, silent night sentries, still on duty in the dim of dawn.

Damon, sock footed, black turtleneck, black joggers, welcomed me into his atelier.

Inside it was bright: skylights and steel windows, exposed roof trusses and rafters that ran diagonally along the ceiling, HVAC ducts and vents bolted to beams. There were polished concrete floors, bouncing illumination; and two, long, gray metal tables that had nothing on them, like art pieces.

The air had no smell, only the purity of subtraction.

A tall steel shelf next to one of the tables held various glass laboratory beakers, flasks, measurement labeled cylinders, and plastic bottles. All the glasses were clean. I saw no dust.

I had a sense that all had been cleared of evidence before I arrived, and all that remained was staged.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Please, sit down,” he said.

I sat on a wood bench. He brought out a Japanese coffee maker. It was stainless steel, u-footed with two u-arms holding two glass bulbs, one high, one low, the lower one heated by a flaming alcohol burner. He placed the contraption atop our long table.

He ground beans, put them into the top glass. The boiled water underneath shot up into the ground coffee and dripped back down. It was a theatrical display, mesmerizing and ridiculous, executed for a teachable reason.

“You probably wonder why I don’t pour hot water from the top. This mechanism functions completely opposite from how you suppose things work. The bottom is the water, the top is the beans, yet together it all works. Here is the coffee,” he said.

He removed the top glass and poured coffee from the bulb into two tiny, white porcelain cups.

He spoke next of my academic achievements.

He praised my summa cum laude at UCLA, my ambitious majors: political science, urban planning, business administration. And my MBA, $200,000 scholarship, and my thesis paper and original concept: Walkville.

He also criticized me.

He knew my salary, $44,560, which was public record. But he compared it, unfavorably, to others in my same position, who made $99,000 and $125,000.

“You’re grossly underpaid. Forty-Four Grand Loser,” he said.

“I disagree. My true compensation is more than money” I answered.

“Arguably, your boss is the most powerful councilwoman in the city. You have been key in promoting her agenda. With this enormous project you are embossing her reputation with an idea that you dreamed up in college. Aren’t you worth more?” he asked.

“No, you don’t understand. I’m only 25. I have only worked for her for two years. I’m a baby. She is working for all women, to promote equality,” I said.

“Bullshit. Charity begins at home. I know Hilary. She dropped out of high school. Her resume says she graduated from Stanford University. She says ain’t for isn’t. She’s basically a working-class Latina who wears expensive scarves and presents herself as a champion of the people. But aren’t you instrumental in marketing her? Don’t you agree?” he said.

“I thought you were our biggest supporter,” I said.

“Miss Renata, I am your biggest supporter. You saw the potential in my property as Sepulveda saw California. You’re another explorer. You are smart, able, resourceful and brilliant. Your mother drank, your father left you impoverished, yet you overcame. You are a little prodigy with a big idea called Walkville,” he said.

“Those aren’t your parents. That’s my private life,” I said.

“I’m sorry dear. I needed to look into your background. But what we discuss today will stay here within these steel walls, a vault of secrecy,” he said.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” I said.

“I have a god-damned cash offer for you. A lucrative sum you will accept,” he said.

“A job? I have a job,” I said.

He was relentless, aggressive, and rude.

“Nothing says you can’t work for me as a side gig. I will pay you well,” he said.

“This is not sex. I know you are not soliciting sex,” I said, fishing, for reassurance.

“You think I’m a piggy boomer. But you are all wrong. I’m your guardian angel. I’m here to push you even higher,” he said.

He put a leather bag on the table, opened it, and pulled out three silk scarves, one blue, one orange, one multi-colored. Each wrapped in clear plastic boxes, each one tied with a silk ribbon, which he carefully laid out, in a line, along the table.

“Take $20,000 from me, today, in cash, and deliver these scarves and the perfume to your boss which my husband Peter has created,” he said.

“That’s all? I don’t need to be paid. I will do it for free,” I said.

Was this a joke, a trick, another bizarre Damon performance?

“I’ll open one box of an infused scarf for you to examine. Just look at it. Don’t touch. And don’t inhale or exhale. It must be clean,” he said.

He gave me plastic gloves and an N95 mask to wear over my mouth and nose. I put on protective gear.

He opened the box with the blue scarf, took it out of its container and handed it to me for inspection.

It was emblazoned with the El Salvador coat of arms: a triangle with the sea, five volcanoes and the words, “Dios, Union, Libertad.” There was the white Flor de Izote and the red-eyed, blue and green feathered Motmot bird from the rainforest, all knitted in a fine piece of silk artistry.

“When Hilary sees this, she will cry,” I said.

“I hope so. These are made in Lyon, France. And each one cost four times what Hilary paid for her $600 scarf,” he said.

“Splendid. Are you sure you aren’t in love with my boss?” I asked.

“Not at all. I’m quite sure I hate her,” he said.

I let out a wildly ridiculous laugh.

Yet his face and his expression were unyielding, dead serious. And penetrating, with policing eyes, reading, evaluating and monitoring.

“This silk is infused with our menticidal fragrance. It is a chemically powerful garment that interacts with the brain chemistry of its wearer. That is the secret of these scarves’ power,” he said.

I laughed, a laugh triggered by anxiety, fear and terror.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

He stood over the table, pressing his weight into it, looming over, dominating.

“The DNA of your boss is in these scarves. The fragrant notes in these will interact with her pheromones to induce a chemically powerful narcotic effect on her brain!” he said.

I laughed hard. His deadpan wit was so serious it was hilarious.

“You don’t have to embellish an outlandish tale to ask a favor from me. I happily will give your gift to her. And I’m sure she will be flattered and delighted,” I said.

“This is a patented invention. Impregnating fabric with scent. Your boss is everything that matters now. She is an outspoken Latina, a leader, a woman who will probably be President of the United States. If she is seen in my scarves it will mean millions in sales. And you will be well-compensated,” he said.

“Here is one more thing. A small tester. Do not ever spray this on yourself or smell it. It is highly sensitive and uniquely blended to conform with Hilary’s body chemistry. Her DNA is in here. Never spray it on her directly, only on these scarves. That’s all,” he said.

He put the scarves and the little tester into the leather bag. And zipped it up and ushered me out the door.

“If you accept my payment it means you accept my terms. If you don’t you can kiss Walkville good-bye. I will end it,” he said.

“You can trust me. I want Walkville to succeed,” I said.

“There’s cash inside. Don’t leave it in your car. Especially in this neighborhood,” he said as he watched me down the walk and out the gate.

I left bewildered, pulled into something nebulous, overwhelming and confoundingly obtuse.

Those last, lachrymose days before Election Day were a whirl of events that began happily when Hilary opened the boxes of scarves.

She was riveted by the design of the El Salvador one. Touched, she held it up to her mouth and nose, her eyes in tears, beholding the symbols.

“This is incredible. Dios, Unión, Libertad,” she said.

“The way he spoke of you was adoring. He envisions you as the future leader of the free world. And he wasn’t joking,” I said.

“He’s got money. He’s got the best interests of our city in mind. He wants to improve the area and make a giant investment to spur other wealthy elites to do the same. As do I,” she said.

“I think this is his silent male way of saying he is on your side 100%,” I said.

“I completely agree!” she said as she looked closely at the El Salvador scarf.

“The motto of my homeland is also what I dream of for this area. One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. This scarf is something I will always treasure. I feel so guilty now,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I was wrong about him. I thought he was a right-wing crank. And he married my despicable Peter. But this shows Damon is a deep, thoughtful, considerate philanthropist who profoundly understands me! This is a scarf of love, brotherhood, and friendship. I’m deeply moved by his gesture. It truly comes from his heart. You must write a sincere note of thanks from me to him,” she said.

She walked over to a mirror and admired herself in the El Salvador scarf, now tied around her neck. She patted it, fussed it into a bow.

“It even smells lovely, like roses and oud, peanuts, green tea, mimosa,” she said, taking in a deep breath.

“Ah! Yes there’s also notes of tuberose, black pepper, lilacs. I’ve never smelled anything so beautiful. It reminds me…. of me,” she said.

Then she grimaced. Her mouth curled into a sour bitterness, and she made a sick face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Headache. Something tastes awful. Gosh, my head suddenly exploded. I guess I didn’t eat, running around, no sleep. Such a weird sensation, ditzy, loopy, out-of-body. I better eat something. Do we still have donuts?” she asked.

“No. You said to keep junk food out of the office. There are some raisins and oranges,” I said.

Acidly, she turned to me from the mirror, furious.

“Who the hell are you to take that junk food line to heart! I said I don’t eat donuts so my staff would hear me say it. I was setting an example for them. Get me a dozen donuts and get the hell out of here, now! Your obsequiousness is disgusting!” she screamed.

A first encounter with her new madness.

In the late afternoon, under golden light and flattering tones, we had a groundbreaking event at Samson Lumber with Hilary, Damon and Alfredo.

A crew from KCAL’s local news was on hand to record the beginning of Walkville.

I brought a gold-plated ceremonial shovel for Hilary to hold and to pose with Damon and Alfredo: the politician, the landowner and the architect.

Intern Ava DeSilva, lovely, lanky and violet eyed, was a UCLA student with the incensed, impatient political passion of the young. Quietly assertive, she would often whisper to me correcting or suggesting.

Now she saw Hilary, hair blowing in the wind, out-of-control, bad for TV.

“Maybe she should wear another scarf to hold her hair down,” Ava said.

“Yes, perfect. Get the orange one around her for the TV crew,” I said.

We two rushed over to Hilary and tied a second scarf around her head, which calmed her hair. Now she was enveloped in Damon’s scarves and Damon’s perfume. The interview with the reporter began.

“It will be a transformative project. In three years, this area will be unrecognizable. Residents will bike, stroll, pick fresh vegetables, in a moderately priced, safe, vibrant, creative community,” she said.

Alfredo nodded in agreement. And then he spoke.

“And we are particularly proud that our diverse and multicultural residents will comprise all kinds of people, all ages and ethnicities living together in green harmony. Vivir en armonía y felicidad,” Alfredo said.

“Our housing is pre-assembled, computer designed, carbon neutral, employing hundreds of workers in well-paying jobs with comprehensive health benefits,” she added.

Damon observed from a distance.

“Can you hold the gold shovel Hilary?” a photographer asked.

The sun was setting. A beam of light from the sun’s last, glorious rays bounced off the glistening golden shovel.

Then Hilary snapped.

“This fucking thing is too heavy. Everything I do is for the cameras. What are those fucking homeless doing over there?” she said.

“Are you OK?” Alfredo asked, as they were recorded by the news crew and many mobile phones.

“I’m a shoo-in. All this bullshit! All of the people here know I’m going to be the next councilwoman. Get rid of the derelicts! Get rid of the taggers and the gangs! That’s my plan! Go home everyone! Shows over! Good night! Get the hell out of my face!” she barked.

KCAL kept their cameras rolling and recording this bonus wacko performance.

Her convulsive change of mood alarmed the crowd. People sensed danger and moved away. She looked crazy.

She threw the shovel down, turned her back to the shooters, and walked away, swearing, arms flailing, spitting and gesticulating.

Alfredo rushed over to me. He asked if I knew what just happened. I had no answer.

“Should I bring her some bottled water?” Ava asked.

“Here she comes,” I said.

Hilary, orange scarf on head, blue scarf on neck, sprinted over like a horse bolting out of a burning barn.

“Ava get away from him! He’s mine!” she yelled as she pushed the startled intern out of our group and jammed herself into Alfredo.

“Take me home! Let’s get drunk and make love and turn off our phones and tell the whole world to go to hell!” she said.

She hugged Alfredo passionately, kissed his neck, ran her fingers through his hair, pressed her body against his, rubbing hard, mad with desire. He tried pushing her away, shaking her up to shame her public lasciviousness, but it only emboldened her. She dug her nails hard and sharp into his back and bit his neck like a vampire.

“Stop it! Stop it! Get off! And you’re stabbing my lats! Get a hold of yourself!” he said.

I watched helplessly as she attacked Alfredo, smothering him with violent sexual force. Then he lost it.

Furiously, he ripped off her two scarves, threw them down, grabbed her hair and restrained her head, pulling it hard, like reins. She cried out in pain.

“Get back and get off!” he commanded.

She continued to pound on his chest.

“Take me home! Take me home! I love the pain! Fuck me, fuck me!” she screamed.

In disbelief, we watched her demonic tantrum, frozen in fear, afraid of our boss, terrified of letting her go on.

Then she collapsed onto the dirt near the sidewalk. The insanity stopped. We all crouched over her, as Alfredo stepped in, picked her up in his powerful arms, and carried her back to his car.

Ava grabbed the two scarves from the ground and handed them to me.

“Oh, my God. What just happened?” Ava asked.

I answered with parental calm.

“She is unwell. Could be a reaction to medication. Wrap up things and make it a day. She needs rest,” I said.

Ava went home. The TV crew left.

I stood there with my clipboard and my laptop, dazed and confused and looked back at the empty site.

Damon stood at the far edge of his property beside a 10’ high dumpster. He smoked a cigar. His face floated behind a glow of orange and a miasma of smoke.

Now it was dark.

I got into my car, started the engine, turned on the headlights, and drove off.

The morning after, she lay in her bed, under the blankets. And we stood there, Ava and I, holding a deli bag with a pint of chicken soup and expressions of comfort.

“How do I look?” Hilary asked.
“Wiped out,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Are you cold? Do you want me to open a window? Turn on the fire? Soup will make you feel better,” I said.
“No. Just fine,” she said.

At her townhouse on Tujunga, in Studio City, the master bedroom, en suite, was on the top floor. It was a 90s design with diagonal walls everywhere, a marker of modernity back then. There was a gas fireplace jammed into one corner, pastel flowered sofa and loveseat, the kind they advertise on the 10 PM news, piles of clothes on hangers scattered over the seating, and plug-in nightlight air fresheners.

A blond, ornate, wood, Indonesian coffee table held many silver framed family photos, pictures of deceased relatives and her ex-husband, and large candles on iron stands, fancy touches from the last decade of the last century.

On the pink carpet, Ava kneeled reverently at the foot of the bed.

I was up and around, feigning professionalism, wondering what I could do in the aftermath of last night’s debacle.

“I haven’t looked online. I suppose videos of me went viral,” she said.

“No, not at all. It wasn’t as bad as you think,” I said.

“It was catastrophic. I have to apologize to Damon and Alfredo. They were blindsided,” she said.

I threw up my hands in a what-can-I-say gesture.

“Before I lost control, everything was so perfect. Girls, when you are flying high that’s the most dangerous time. Like those glorious days in Southern California when the blue skies are clear, everything sparkles, the jasmine blooms, a breeze blows. And then a deadly fire erupts,” she said.

Ava listened, sweetly, without comment.
Hilary spoke to her.

“I suppose you are now seeing the ugly side of politics. They won’t teach you this at UCLA. Irrationality. You’ve figured out how to grease the wheel, turn the levers of power, push to get great things done. And in the end your biggest enemy is always crazy you,” she said.

“Like my nonna says, you’ll fight again. You’ll rest and get stronger. And tomorrow you’ll wake up and do your job and move ahead. Because you have no other choice,” Ava said.

“Wise and inspirational words. This 20-year-old is smarter than the 48-year-old. I wish I had your smarts when I was young. I wouldn’t have married. If you don’t want to divorce, don’t marry! Peter haunts me,” she said.

“Peter?” Ava asked.

“My ex-husband. Now someone else’s husband,” she said.

“Is there anything else you need?” I asked.

“No. I suppose I should get up and shower, brush my teeth, comb my hair. They say when you start to groom yourself you are regaining mental health. I wish I had some of that perfume. That would lift my mood,” she said.

“Sorry. It’s in the office. We sent your two scarves to the dry cleaners. You have one unworn one left in a box on your desk,” I said.

“Let’s plan my resurrection. I can wear my big gold cross! And a cheerful, bright green St. John suit and the blue Hermès scarf. I will get back up there on the podium, the night before the election, rally my supporters, and let them know that nothing will defeat Hilary. She is in control of her words and thoughts. And she is determined to fight on!” she said.

Ava went over to Hilary and kissed her on the forehead. Hilary took Ava’s hand.

“Sweet, beautiful child. We women have to stand up for each other. Men will always betray us. But women must stay united. We are sisters and we are strong. Remember that,” Hilary said, caressing Ava’s face.

“I will. Don’t worry,” Ava reassured.

We left her in bed, with her tablet, her down comforter, and chicken soup. We walked down three flights of stairs, through the quiet, empty townhouse of diagonal walls and shuttered windows, out into the daylight and the trees and the traffic of Tujunga Avenue.

Sunday morning, I met Damon at a scenic overlook on Muholland. We parked our cars. We both got out and I handed him his leather bag with $20,000 inside.

“I can’t take this,” I said.

“Ok. Not a problem. Let’s move forward and move on and see to it that Hilary wins on Tuesday,” he said.

Bubbly, upbeat, rested.

Monday Morning Hilary was raring to go. She wore that bright green linen suit, some clangy bracelets and high heels. And her gold cross necklace.

We gathered our staff. She spoke about her bad reaction to hormonal progesterone cream. Her doctor allegedly said her wild mood swings were due to an absorption of the drug from her skin into her bloodstream causing confusion, temporary depression and mood swings.

She spoke of her legislative battles to make drug companies liable for side effects of medications, and how fatal drug overdoses were affecting our community.

She tailored her dark and unfortunate episode to suit her sunny political agenda.

After the speech, she ushered me into her office to speak, privately.

Trouble was evident, immediately, as she stood, arms folded, behind her bunker-like desk.

“Bettina, Alfredo’s sister, sent me a text and said you misgendered her on a Facebook post when you wrote: “Bettina is Alfredo’s only sibling, and he has always adored his baby brother.”

“Oh, my goodness. Well, that was dumb. I must have rush jobbed that. Brother, sister, easily confused the two. Truthfully, until last year Bettina was still his brother Bruno. Let me correct it,” I said.

“Too late. You burned us badly. She is furious. And so is Alfredo. I don’t even think he wants to work on Walkville now. You did something so careless and insensitive that I might have to fire you. I will wait until the end of the week to make my decision. But misgendering, a lethal misuse of pronoun, is a shockingly cruel and bigoted thing, whether intentional or accidental,” she said.

“Hilary, I’m sorry. What can I say? This is not something I did to hurt anyone,” I said.

“We’ve said enough. I have to make my decision and weigh not only the truth and ethics, but public opinion. This could die down or explode. But your hasty and careless post might come up again in a few years and then I will have no defense for it,” she said.

I felt the earth shake under me, betrayed by everything and everyone.

She had turned on me. I thought she needed me, but now the office doors shut, people walked past me with their heads down. I felt like a fly trapped inside a window screen.

Later, I went out alone and disturbed into the doggy run park behind our municipal building, walking and perplexing, through the littered desiccation.

A text from Damon.

Alfredo’s sister and the whole PC gang are upset, huh? Do you think this will affect the election?

I didn’t reply. We had one last event to attend at Magnolia Park. If he didn’t come, I didn’t care.

I had moved into his court of ill feeling against Hilary. But I hoped for her understanding. She had been through some rough days.

    Another Damon text came in.

Peter said she will turn on you. She only looks out for herself. She spouts pieties but believes in nothing but her own ambition. For Hilary there is no truth, only strategy to hang onto power yet another day.

Why did he write this? What was his agenda? He had money and security, he had Peter. What on Earth did he lack?

I went back into the building lobby. Ava came out of the elevator.

“You don’t want to go up there,” Ava said.

“What?” I asked.

“She’s screaming about God and the Devil and how some fucking Mexican dumped a sofa in front of her house. She is out-of-control again, so we are all running out of the office. Something is very sick with her. I don’t know if it’s the medication, but she is attacking and yelling and swearing like a madwoman. I’m terrified. I need to go home!” Ava said.

We descended the steps into the street.

“When did it start?” I asked as we hurried to her car.

“She was perfectly calm. I was in her office. She was putting on make-up, combing her hair. And I was straightening up her desk. I opened a drawer to get out a hairbrush for her and found some perfume and gave it to her. She sprayed it and I swear the next minute she went ballistic,” Ava said.

“You better go home. Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m fine. I think someone called security and they are dealing with her. They have body cams so I’m sure they will handle her with care. She needs help. She is not normal. She will hurt someone, if not herself,” Ava said.

Ava and I walked towards her car. We stopped and I asked her one last thing.

“You say she sprayed the perfume on and then she lost control?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ava said.

After a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up adrift. It was Election Day morning. Unneeded in the office, unwanted by my boss, theoretically unemployed, I went for a bike ride.

I rode around the old streets with the bungalow houses, dilapidated apartments, taco trucks, and homeless camps, and crossed into the industrial district.

I biked through a broken and wounded world. I passed the stretching emptiness of Samson Lumber, a retail wasteland I had sought to transform through prodigal feats of persuasion and alliances with the powerful and the political.

I rode past the spy-like Atelier Samson, the steel building and its master inside, undoubtedly surveilling and recording me on bike, to what end I wondered; me futilely riding, me like a rebel, me riding against the wind and fate.

On that bike, I only cared to clear my head. I thought of nothing, forgetting that until yesterday, the most important thing in my life was the re-election of Hilary Flores.

On Friday, after Hilary won her re-election, she fired me for the Facebook post erroneously misgendering Bettina Perez.

“By a miracle of God hardly anyone showed up to vote. For that we can be thankful. My enemies did not bother. You’ve done a lot of remarkable things. And I will surely give you a high recommendation. But I cannot, in good conscience, keep you on with your offensive post on record,” she said.

I wept at the unfairness of it. Hard work, good intentions, prodigious ideas, cleverness and loyalty, none of it mattered.

But I talked back.

“You said some heinous things only a few days ago, and people were angry at you, yet you stood in front of your staff and made excuses and blamed it on drugs. You apologized with half-truths. I stood by you, even though I didn’t quite believe you, and I worked hard to make you win again, which you did, and now you’ve repaid my hard work by firing me. Aren’t you just a hypocrite?” I asked.

“In politics there is no such thing as hypocrisy,” she said.

“Don’t I deserve a second chance like you do? I’m just expendable? I had true gratitude for you, my first employer after college. I truly believed in our mission, together, building a better 6th District, and only now do I learn that I am disposable, like a used condom thrown onto the curb,” I said.

“You’re young and resilient. You weren’t thrown into the gutter,” she said.

“You’ve discarded an ally and a loyal friend. And worse, you’ve made an enemy. I won’t forget your vileness,” I said.

There is no empty satisfaction quite as satisfactory as telling off a boss who is firing you. To you will come nothing but the memory of rebellion.

I collected unemployment and grievances.

I had a lot of free time after my dismissal. I worked on myself as the cliché goes.

One morning I rode an exercise bike at the gym.
A well-built, good-looking guy waved to me.

It was Alfredo Perez. I meekly waved back. He walked over, grinning, licking his lips, and grabbed my handlebars, rubbing them.

“Good to see you! I had no idea if you were still around. Walkville is coming along. Units are going up fast. I miss your input and ideas. I know you had a falling out with Hilary, and I don’t know all the details, but you were the heart and soul of this project. What are you doing now? Conquering the world?” he asked.

“You don’t know? You don’t know what happened? I offended you and your sister. I was fired for misgendering her. Aren’t you furious with me? Doesn’t your sister hate me? I lost my job for posting brother for sister on Facebook,” I said.

“Huh? I don’t understand anything you just said. You were fired for calling my sister my brother? We would never be angry about that. Bettina is a tolerant, funny, cool person. She is a stand-up comedian. She doesn’t hold grudges. She wouldn’t ask for you to lose your job for using the wrong pronoun. That is bullshit,” he said.

“Are you still friends with Hilary?” I asked.

“I see her occasionally, professionally. I wasn’t dating her. We had a mutual interest to work together. And we don’t have much in common other than Walkville. I’m just flabbergasted, really hurt that my sister and I would be used as the reason for your firing. There is no truth to it whatsoever. Well good luck and see you later,” he said.

I got off the bike. And walked into the bathroom and threw cold water on my face.

I went back up to Mulholland, along the ridge of the mountains, and met with Damon, in a park near his house. We sat on a bench with a panoramic view that stretched to Walkville and beyond.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

“The view is beautiful. My life is miserable,” I said.

“What can Los Angeles offer the young anymore? It’s finished, rotten, a hindrance. Would you consider moving somewhere else?” he asked.

“I guess. I have friends who moved to Phoenix, Austin, Denver, all the usual places,” I said.

“Cleveland?” he asked.
“Cleveland? Hell no!” I said.

“If you had the opportunity to do another Walkville, but six times the size, with 30,000 residents in a green community would you consider it?” he asked.

“Of course, that’s what I want,” I said.

“I own some half million square feet in East Cleveland, the poorest and most neglected part of that city. But I have been in negotiations with city, state and federal agencies to build another Walkville in Ohio. This one is $1.5 billion dollars, nearly all government funded. It will tie into a new, regional industrial and transportation plan, and take 10 to 20 years to complete,” he said.

“Cleveland? Cleveland, Ohio?” I asked.

“They have no hurricanes, hardly any tornadoes, the climate is moderate, and it will never be as hot as the South or as cold as Canada. It is close to so much, the furthest east in the Midwest, the furthest west in the East. They have wineries in Western New York, historic towns, and you’re a couple hours drive to Kentucky’s bourbon and whiskey distilleries,” he said.

“You are offering me a job to head up the Ohio project?” I asked.

“I will have a 7-bedroom mansion, built in 1925, fully furnished, set up for you to live in, rent free, private chef on premises, right in a gorgeous, historic section of Cleveland Heights. You will live five minutes from the job site. And I will pay you, out of pocket, $400,000 a year with a ten-year contract,” he said.

“But I have to move to Cleveland?” I asked.

“Wait until you tell your friends where you are moving. Wait until you tell them how much you are going to earn,” he said.

“I lost faith after I was fired. You are hiring a wounded person,” I said.

“With faith all things are possible,” he said.

“$400,000 a year. In Cleveland. No rent. That is a lot of money. They didn’t believe me when I got my job with Hilary. They won’t believe this. What about your scarves and your perfumes, your other business?” I asked.

“Peter is working on new perfumed scarves for Hilary. He is determined to come up with an even stronger scent for her. He considers it his life’s mission to do this. She told him she plans to run for Governor in three years. Peter is planning furiously to design new scarves for her to wear when she reaches that office,” he said.

Damon and I hung out at the park for a bit longer, and then we went for a Japanese lunch in Studio City. We drank hot sake and ate a $150 lunch of omakase sushi: Mackerel, Scallop, Barracuda, Uni, Trout, Snapper, Halibut, Toro, Tamago egg, raw pieces of delectably fresh and expensive fish, dipped in ginger and soy sauce.

I think I was overcome with the sake when I told him that I didn’t want to move to Ohio.

“You do what you want. Lightning only strikes once. If you don’t take it when it hits it will never hit again,” he said.

“But giving up California. Is that a wise move?” I asked.
“You aren’t giving up on California,” he said.
“No?” I asked.
“California gave up on you. Find your dream elsewhere,” he said.
I sipped more sake.
“I know what you did,” I said.
“I told you what I did,” he corrected.
“How can that be right? Subliminal manipulation
of Hilary?” I asked.
“How is it wrong? She only spoke her mind,” he asked.
“What if you do the same to me?” I asked.
“What if you tell the truth? Is that something
to fear?” he asked.
“This is a big thing you are offering me. Can I
go home and consider it?” I asked.
“You are free. The only one who controls you is you,” he said.

He paid the bill and we went outside to give the parking attendant our tickets. We stood inebriated and satiated and waited for our cars to come to our feet. And we drove off, each in our own cars, back to our own houses, back to ponder and plan for tomorrow.

END

Project Tokyo.

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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