George Clooney and a woman’s midlife crisis at Gelson’s in Encino, CA.
A dark brown BMW sedan sped down Ventura Boulevard past the sprawling mess of commercial Sepulveda Hills. Bronx born Larry Rivers, 40ish, a still aspiring screenwriter, was on his way to an appointment with a free-lance producer, Mark Evans. Passing the All American Car Wash, a booming business near the intersection of Casa Endora and Ventura, Larry turned into the car wash. A large, black Lincoln Navigator parked behind him. Rail thin Nathalie Newman and her four-year-old daughter Zola stepped out of the SUV.
Larry exited his car. The cell phone rang. He answered.
“Rivers here….Hi, Mark….Oh, you can’t make it. Listen no problem. Let’s do it again next week. I think you’re gonna love my idea. Ok. Bye.”
With hands full of orders for specialized car cleaning, Iraqi native Ali Hassan approached Larry. Ali Hassan is a charming man, one who easily persuades his customers to purchase vanilla air fresheners, tire detailing, hot wax protection, and steam spraying under the hood.
“My friend, my friend how have you been? Your BMW is what model? It looks like a custom car no?”
“Give me the $5.99 special Ali.”
“Larry, you say that every week. How am I supposed to make a living on $5.99?”
“Hey, I’m just a struggling writer. Give me a break.”
“Struggle? You are the best man! I saw your episode of Law and Order last week. Very clever!”
“You liked it? I worked my butt off for that.”
“It shows. Hey, how about I throw in the windshield protection? When it rains, the water will just drop off. Much safer driving.”
”OK, Ali. You always get your way!”
Inside the car wash viewing area, the procession entered under each owner’s watchful eyes. Larry watched as spray guns and brushes sprayed chemicals against the gleaming surfaces of chrome and metal. The electric conveyer chain grabbed the tires of the Lincoln Navigator, the car ahead of his. For a moment, Larry looked at the brushes, the soap, the blowing air and thought of Auschwitz. The passive march of the affluent vehicles as they entered a sterilization room………………..
A little girl with a reassuring blond and fresh face ran towards Larry. Her mother was running after her.
“Zola! Come here. You can’t run wild in the car wash!”
Nathalie swooped up the laughing daughter in her arms and looked at Larry with empathetic eyes.
“Larry, hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. As you can see, I have my hands full. Stop that young lady or you won’t go to day care!”
“She’s big enough for day care?”
“Yep. Right next door to the car wash!”
Larry asked, “ Are you and Eddie still living in Tarzana?”
“No. We moved to Sherman Oaks. We bought a house on Valley Vista. I love it there. Eddie is fifteen minutes from Universal.”
“Great. Is he still……”
Nathalie deepened her voice: “ He’s Vice President of Non-Fiction Television Development”
“That’s right. I remember pitching a show to him once. Did he ever do anything with that History of Ice Cream show?”
“No. I think they put it into the maybe category….. Zola! Stop pulling my hair!”
“I’m just getting done with a screenplay I wrote. It’s a suspense thriller about terrorists in LA.”
“Oh, pleasant” , was her disinterested reply.
Larry’s BMW entered the purification ritual, following the usual steps of detox prescribed by the car wash. Larry walked along the glass windows and kept pace as his transport vehicle moved along, dumb, mute and progressively prettier.
Fifteen years earlier, Larry had arrived from the Bronx determined to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry. He had answered an ad for a one bedroom guest house rental in Tarzana, and was awestruck when he arrived at the one acre estate with its orange groves, swimming pool and circular drive-way . The owners: Nathalie and Eddie.
Larry moved in and in that old Hollywood tradition of making friends to make it, began to “hang out” with Eddie. The good times turned bad. Larry struggled to write, becoming poorer as his output of words increased. He couldn’t pay his rent. The deep relationship between tenant and landlord turned hostile. Larry was thrown out and had to leave after six months. He vowed to never forgive the Newman’s cruelty, until the day he found out that Eddie had become a somebody in the senseless entertainment industry.
Now it was the new millennium—times were different—and the American dream still lurked beyond the next corner, even as its pursuer turned 40.
Nathalie stepped up to the cashier and handed her a coupon for the $4.99 special. Dark haired Leila Hassan looked at Nathalie harshly.
“I’m sorry. This coupon has expired.”
“What! I just got it in the mail last week.”
“Are you sure Miss? It says it’s good until July. This is November.”
“I want the $4.99 special. That’s what I told Ali outside!”
“I can’t help you. We don’t take expired coupons!”
“OK. How much is it then?”
“$8.99! I only have five bucks in my wallet!”
“Do you have a credit card? We take Visa, American Express….”
“No! I don’t use credit cards! I have a debit card!”
“No debit cards. Do you have a check book?”
Larry stepped into the conversation. He handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill.
“No. Larry you can’t pay for my car wash. This is ridiculous”
“No problem. You are my friend Nathalie. I don’t mind paying at all. And look I have a coupon here that hasn’t expired yet.”
“Thank you Larry,” Said she with due politeness.
Fifteen years after they had thrown Larry out for late-payment of rent, he paid for Nathalie’s car wash. Maybe she would go and tell Eddie about the newly Christened good Samaritan.
On this sunny and hot December morning, Larry was on his way to Starbucks to once again meet the free-lance producer Mark Evans. It was 9.30 am and Evans said he would be at Starbucks “around 9.30”. Larry ordered a decaf coffee and sat down. He had brought along his script: “Poison 818”.
818 is the area code for the San Fernando Valley. Larry had convinced himself that this special numeral would become the theme for a script based on Arab-American espionage and terror directed against the Jews in the San Fernando Valley.
“Poison 818” was the code used by the main protagonist, Ibrahim Abdulla, a Muslim fundamentalist who hides behind a seemingly placid façade though he is the head of an international terror cell.
“A timely and frightening story!”
“A bite-your- nails to the end saga”
“Do you know who your neighbor is?”
Larry ran the imaginary film slogans in his head. He pictured himself on stage at the Oscars thanking his widowed mother on Pelham Parkway for her patience and understanding.
In the real world, at Starbucks, the intended meeting looked again as if it were cancelled. Mark didn’t ring, but in the time-honored etiquette of Hollywood, he simply did not show. Larry was left drinking his coffee alone. All around him were customers; many of them black haired men with black mustaches living on their own diet of coffee, conversation, cigarettes and cell phones.
The All American Car Wash, with its thirteen American flags planted on thirteen pillars, might have earned praise for its vernacular style. In the land of the hot dog shaped hot dog stand, and the donut shop shaped liked a donut—the All American was simply another wonderful example of the triumph of commercialism over symmetry.
It was impossible to pass by the wash and miss its patriotic theme. Here, a family named Hassan had fled Baghdad and by way of Damascus had emigrated to Los Angeles. Six brothers: Ali, Hisham, Jordan, Saddam, Esu, and Abdullah had settled with their wives and children into a section of the US that had once been Mexican territory. The newly arrived men, looking for a sure way to ingratiate themselves with other transplanted customers, chose the red, white and blue for their business.
They had struggled to find the capital, the $150,000 it took to open the car wash. They had to deal with enormous bills—the water alone amounted to $4,500 dollars a month. Working 12-14 hour days, these brothers had unique personalities, interests and ambitions that ran beyond the car wash.
Ali, the oldest, wanted a stable business for his brothers. Hisham was the good-looking one, who hoped that his exposure in the car wash, might lead to an acting career. Jordan was the intellectual, he had once hoped to study physics, but his sudden flight from Baghdad had dashed his hopes of scientific higher education. Saddam was a liberally political man, who read every book he could on the American Revolution. He hoped that rational and enlightened thought might help him understand his new and weird surroundings. Esu was a lost child, he smoked pot and came to work without ambition to progress to either affluence or self-worth. Abdullah was the angry one. He had a quick temper and resented the power his older brothers had over him. He longed to make a name for himself outside of the car wash. He hated American life, with its promise of material wealth. He imagined himself as a spokesman for the powerless, the downtrodden, the ones without education, money or political freedom.
It didn’t escape the brother’s notice that Abdullah was sullen and withdrawn. Many times Ali had tried to talk to him, only to have Abdullah lash out at Ali with charges that his brother had hijacked the family to pursue a worthless American life. Why did they have to leave Iraq, Abdullah demanded? They had been there for hundreds of years, and now they lived in America and worked washing cars. What humiliation! Ali did not have an answer for his youngest sibling. It was simply inconceivable to Ali that Abdullah would fight against betterment and riches. What was so bad in America? All six brothers and their wives had s, they drove nice cars . Only last year the entire Hassan clan took a vacation in Arizona, where the desert environment recalled the Mesopotamian plain in Iraq.
Larry read the trade magazines with envy. There was a recent item concerning a story that had been optioned for “the low six figures”. It described a plot about “a college guy who hides out in the broom closet of a sorority for the weekend.” The idea was written by a 24 year old recent college grad named Dylan Weed. Larry felt himself in the grip of the old low self-esteem.
On lonely Friday evenings, the 40-year old man would walk around the plastic and insipid confines of Sherman Oaks, dodging skateboarders and stroller-pushing couples. Hamburger eating punks –who wore oversize pants exposing their ass crack– sat on the sidewalk in front of McDonalds.
It had been a decade and half of wandering around in an arid wilderness and still there was no deliverance. Los Angeles was Egypt without God, crowds of faithful without a Moses. The miracle of fame and fortune, was a special effect, like that cheap trick of parting the Red Sea they performed for the tourists at Universal City.
He couldn’t hide his anger anymore when he met “successful” people. Almost everyone seemed more fulfilled than he. If they were younger, they might be unemployed, but they had six pack abs and 30 inch waists. If they were older, they had children , a wife or a career. He had none of the above. He could go on pretending to take calls from important people who might be interested, but eventually he was just fooling himself.
He thought once of just leaving Los Angeles and returning back to New York. But the metropolis on the East Coast was a dangerous place. It had old memories and people who knew who you really were. He couldn’t hide out and affect achievement. The jaded facades which run so deep on the West Coast, seem like stage make-up to the battle hardened veterans of the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey.
“Poison 818—-how far will they go to destroy America?”
“Poison 818—one psychopath who could murder children unless he is stopped.”
“Ok, enough already. I get your point!”
Sally Sheinman sat behind the glass-tabled desk with the white orchids. A polished and no-nonsense William Morris agent, she had been pushed by her mother Ida to meet with cousin Larry.
“What else do you have Larry?”
“What do you mean, what else?”
“What ELSE do you want to pitch?” she screeched.
“That’s it. I wrote a 110 page screenplay and I want you to take it and sell it!”
“Larry, darling…..I only work with clients who can bring me a lot of great material! I can’t just go out and sell one thing. You haven’t even sold one thing!”
“You know what Sally? I thought you would have a little heart. I come here and pitch my heart out and you slam the door in my face.”
“I’m not slamming the door! I’m trying to OPEN it!’
“Just because your Uncle Dan’s daughter, you grew up in Scarsdale and you came out here with a silver spoon in your mouth…..”
“Good bye! I said get out of here. I don’t need to have me or my father insulted!”
“Fine! I knew you would never help me. You’re too self-centered. It runs in all the Sheinmans!”
He walked out of her office and to the elevator where he punched the button so hard that his thumb almost broke off from the hand. Inside the mirrored elevator on the descent to the parking garage he muttered to himself: “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
At the car wash, Abdullah was the vacuum man. He had first entry into his customer’s cars. In the affluent world of Sepulveda Hills, he could temporarily sit inside a procession of recent model Jaguars, BMW’s, Infinitis , Lexuses, Lincolns and Mercedes. These cars came with a variety of gadgets: GPS navigation system, DVD / CD players, and speaker phones. The smell of leather often mixed with French perfume. On the seats of these cars, errant and forgetful men and women might leave behind Armani glasses, Dior scarves and even $100 dollar bills.
He was a good Muslim. He did not steal. He left everything where he saw it. He knew that God was watching.
Next to the Car Wash, was a day care center operated by the Jewish reformed Sepulveda Hills Congregation. In the rounds of chores performed by mothers in their 30’s and 40’s, was the depositing of children at the center, kids who ranged in age from 3 to 6 years old. A steel fence, about 10 feet high, separated the day care center from the end point of the car wash. As the dried autos exited, the children often stood on the other side of the fence, their hands grasping the metal, as Mommy’s car emerged with a temporary hydro facelift.
To those who think they know what Jews look like, the Southern Californian experiment in assimilation and inter-marriage has produced some surprisingly varied offspring. Many of the wives are Non-Jewish, as a result some of the kids look Scandinavian. For many months, Abdullah had smiled at the children, just thinking they were sweet young innocents. He stopped grinning when he found out that the day care center was operated by a Zionist entity.
It bothered him that these Jews had money. Here they had everything—beautiful wives, fancy cars, and they seemed to live in a world where politics was somebody else’s problem. For the Hollywood elite, the only things that mattered were self-empowerment. He felt pity for himself, his Iraqi people, and for the persecution of the Palestinians. How could the world ignore the suffering that existed in the Middle East? Surely it was not the fault of the good works of Islam that kept people impoverished. A malevolent force had to be working to keep the Arabs down.
He also “knew” that the Jews conspired, especially in the entertainment industry, to help one another. He “knew” that the Jews looked out, for family members, and helped to promote “their own kind” to influence in the media. Their goal was eventually world domination.
As Abdullah ruminated on those thoughts of the evil Jews, up drove Larry Rivers, one of the great beneficiaries of Hollywood family benevolence.
“Hi,” Larry said. He handed a coupon to Abdullah.
“This has expired sir.”
“Oh. Is your manager around?”
Abdullah motioned to Ali, who came over with his widest smile.
“Hello, Larry! My friend, what can I do for you?”
“I think my coupon has expired.”
“How about a special? I have the $11.99 herbal car wash. We put retinol on your leather seats to preserve the youthful appearance. We also have aloe vera for the dashboard. You should see how beautiful and sexy a moisture rich car can look!”
“No thanks. I’m not feeling too rich today!”
“Oh, c’mon, you’re a successful screenwriter!”
On the seat of Larry’s car was a copy of “Poison 818”. Ali smiled as he looked at the script.
“I bet you gonna sell the script my friend. Come, let’s get a real car wash for you!”
Before Larry could answer, the hulking mass of the Newman family’s SUV pulled alongside the gentlemen. Eddie Newman, not seen since 1986, flew out of the car and shook Larry’s hand.
“How are you doing! Nathalie told me that she ran into you here! My gosh, it’s been what– ten years?”
“Well, I’ll be damned. What are you doing these days? Still working free lance?”
“Yes. But I’ve got a couple of deals that may come through…..”
Eddie was tanned, trim and dressed in ninety eight dollar Lucky Brand jeans. Nathalie sat in the passenger seat and waved daintily to Larry. Ali looked to lock this newest deal.
Eddie pulled out his calfskin wallet. “Let me pay for Mr. Larry’s car wash. What kind of specials do you have Ali?”
Ali beamed, “I have a two for one! I’ll do both your cars, detail work with the herbal wash and the aloe vera. The works! Normally, this would be forty dollars—you two together, I give you for twenty five!”
As Ali wrote up the receipt, Larry briefly protested.
“This isn’t necessary Eddie. Really.”
“No. I think it’s the least I could do for you. You took care of my wife and little girl. And now I’m repaying you. Besides you’re poor!”
Larry immediately felt reduced and gratified. As Eddie sauntered happily into the car wash viewing area, with wife and tyke in tow, Larry slouched outside with hands in his pockets.
Meanwhile, Abdullah watched everything from his seat against the wall. The mind hummed. Those people stick together, they even pay for each other’s car wash.
Abdullah grabbed the long plastic vacuum tube and started to clean Larry’s car. “Poison 818” sat on the front seat. Abdullah felt annoyed and insulted that Larry had gone over his head and asked for Ali. In revenge, just slight revenge, Abdullah took the script and put it into his pocket.
Fifteen minutes later, the cars emerged freshly washed and ready for a mating dance on the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Eddie hugged Larry, a physical bond ten times more real than the emotional connection.
Eddie bit his lower lip Clintonly, “In all sincerity. I really missed hanging out with you. I’m going to have you over to our new . You should see what we’ve done with the kitchen, Lar—“
Larry waved good-bye to his old friends. He got into his car and looked for his script. It was gone. Oh well, the hard copy was on his PC at . No biggie.
Leila Hassan was worried. For six months, her brother-in-law Abdullah had been back in Iraq. He also sent post cards from Hamburg, Germany; Turkey and one from Damascus. She didn’t understand how her husband Ali could allow his brother to take so much time off from work.
“He should be here in the US! He is supposed to be an American citizen. Why is he all over the Middle East! Why don’t his own brothers know where he is?”
Ali was staring blankly at the large screen TV. In a living room with thirty-foot high ceilings, the black box and the man watching it looked miniature.
“I don’t have the answers my wife. He said he needed a break. Too much stress.”
“What about his older brother? What about your worries?”
Handsome Hisham walked into the room wearing a muscle t-shirt and basketball shoes.
“I just got an email from Abdullah. He is flying back to New York this Sunday and will be in LA on Monday afternoon!”
“You see Leila. You worry about nothing!”
Spring came to Los Angeles, but nobody was sure when it had actually arrived. The roses had bloomed in December. By January the trees were sprouting buds, and in February the nurseries displayed racks of geraniums, marigolds, and vegetables for planting.
Another season had passed, and emerging from winter, Larry felt as if he were on the verge of some new possibility. He had been tough on himself, lonely and despondent—but now he knew that if he were to succeed he’d have to marshal his strengths once again.
Before his latest rerun episode of self -confidence wore off, he made a phone call to free lance producer Mark Evans. To Larry’s surprise, Evans agreed to meet him at Starbucks because “it’s on the way to my dentist’s office”.
Almost nobody in Hollywood had really read Larry’s work. If they did, it was in a cursory, dismissive way. But one reader took every last word of Larry’s and absorbed it totally: Abdullah Hassan.
“Poison 818” was to him the ultimate story of terrorist glory. He imagined himself as the lead character who poisons and kills hundreds of innocents and is remembered in America as the man “who let the Jews have it”. While Larry wrote with the intent of illuminating evil, Abdullah fashioned the screenplay as his own life story. With Larry’s blueprint, Abdullah could fashion one of the most heinous crimes in American terror—and earn the respect of people the world over.
A short, slight and meek looking man, Mark Evans seemed the polar opposite of what Larry had imagined him to be. He seemed to be the quintessential nebbish. He actually had washed his hand with sanitizer before he picked up his mug of latte. He looked to be anywhere from 25-40, and might be gay—but again might not be. The important thing is that he showed up and kept the appointment.
“Larry I’m so sorry about last fall. I was busy with a million things—and you unfortunately came off my to do list!”
“That’s cool. I understand.”
”I read your script, Poison 911….”
“I mean 818.”
“It’s just too…..I don’t know….weird. I mean you’ve got a lot of good points: the terrorism, the domestic underground. It just doesn’t fit any type of genre. You look at the best movies, like Armageddon or The Rock—they fit into a pattern. Yours is just almost like a science fiction comedy drama suspense mystery. Life isn’t like that. Neither are movies.”
“I’m sorry that you didn’t like it. I kind of hoped that our meeting would be more productive.”
“No. I liked it. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”
As they talked, loud police sirens and fire engines raced west down Ventura Boulevard. Mark tried to speak, but the emergency vehicles seemed to be endless. Helicopters flew above.
“What the hell is going on out there?”
People inside Starbucks looked nervously at one another. The sick feeling of impending doom entered the cozy confines of the café. Mark’s phone rang.
Just as Mark was speaking, a screaming middle-aged woman spilled her hot coffee as she ran through the door.
“They’ve bombed the day school! The children! Oh, my god! The children!”
“Hello. Jennifer, what’s the matter? Oh, my God! Oh, my God. This isn’t true! Oh, my God!”
Mark stood up. His face was a ghastly alabaster.
“You said it in your script! What you said came true!”
“Where? What happened?”
“A car wash attendant detonated himself in the temple children’s playground! There must have been a hundred children there. It was suicide. Just like you said………”
Days later, the normally placid sunshine ennui of Los Angeles was covered in a blanket of mourning. The nation looked to the Golden State and wept. One actor in a script of destruction had died, hundreds of innocents had been murdered. The obscure writer who couldn’t sell a screenplay became infamous, not for his movie, but for the collateral damage it caused.