Here’s the Skinny.
I don’t know if this is a correction, a recession, a depression or a meltdown. I know that for me, it’s been bad since the spring of 2007. I was at the end of having taken two years off from nursing. I did not stop working, I entered into a new kind of work, something which came out of me, work which was mine. I wrote for eight to ten hours a day. A literary magazine had published one of my short stories. I was halfway through a film noir screenplay. I had sent out query letters with copies of my short stories to over one hundred literary agents. I was sure to get representation. My writing mentor told me I would be snapped right up. I had done the lead role in a truly awful play, in which I not only remembered, but gave subtle shades of meaning to every one of its tongue twisting lines. I was being asked to give readings of my stories, perform monologues and do stand up a few times a month, in venues where the audience paid admission.
“I felt you up there, man.” John Fante’s son told me. “I felt your insides.”
I had just walked off stage, having told the tale of the short life and pathetic death of one of my patients at San Francisco General Hospital. Fante is one of my writing Gods, meeting his son was like dark chocolate slowly dissolving in my mouth, the way the last breath of my patient had lingered on the skin of the audience in front of me, all of us wanting to hold this lonely man in our arms, stroking his hair and watching him smile with the realization that his loneliness was about to end.
I was who I had imagined myself to be before I fell asleep at night. The palm trees of the City of the Angels watched over me, the shade from their swaying green fronds telling me there was a life beyond lighting Yahrzeit candles for homeless young drug addicts. I knew who I was, my two year sabbatical from the antiseptic sterility of nursing had almost paid off.
Almost, but not quite.
That spring, a producer, the husband of a friend, asked me to write a spec script based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Greek Passion.” His producing career consisted of a 70s exploitation movie, but he was a bit player in “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” staring my teenage crush, Helmut Berger, so I deemed him to be a good guy. This was my break. I could smell what my life was about to become.
Things went the other way.
Dreaming up dialogue to replace Kazantzakis’ stilted lines while ignoring the crawl through traffic on the 101, my bare foot floored the gas when I hit the deserted Vine Street off-ramp at the very moment the muffler fell out from under my car, followed, five minutes later, by the radiator inexplicably cracking down its center as my numb hands glided, as if by rote, my red 69 Chevy Malibu into my apartment building’s parking space.
I practice the one benefit being an adult child of an alcoholic has given me. I deny the fact that a month ago I spent the last three thousand dollars I had rebuilding my car’s engine and transmission. My fingertips pounding with fear, I call the mechanic, who informs me in an ominously deep voice that the muffler and radiator are not part of the warranty. I charge the repairs. Through an agent, I am sure to receive an advance from a publishing house. I truly believed that would happen.
While my car is being brought back to life in the outer reaches of Glendale, I write a beautifully cinematic opening sequence set in a high school swimming pool, from where terrified students watch Communist Partisans round up their teachers. In an homage to my father, I punch Kazantzakis’ anti-Semitism by setting the film in 1950s Poland, using the killing of Polish Jews by their neighbors as a major plot point.
Again employing my adult child skills, I ignore the gut pain I have begun to wake up with every morning. I drink huge cups of coffee to purge what feels like concrete encircling my intestines. I am a nurse, a practitioner of the healing arts who should know better. When the pain arrives at my house, I forget the logic and knowledge I impart to both friends and patients.
I have no money to buy food with. I charge my groceries. I charge gasoline. I charge coffee. I charge Tums. The screenplay will net me a few thousand. I truly believed that this too would happen.
“Keep working on the script, it’s great, you’re an amazing writer,” my straight boyfriend tells me with a voice as deep as my mechanic’s.
It is possible the boyfriend is doing more than humoring me. He used to be an agent with William Morris, dealing twenty-four-seven with not only the never ending meshugas of once committed actresses transformed by the City of the Angels into clavicle baring starlets, but also the demands of monosyllabic actors whose cheekbones even Larry King would swoon over.
At bedtime the boyfriend gives me his Viagra, whispering “Show me who’s boss,” in a voice turned as breathy as Chet Baker’s.
“I’m going to find you a lawyer to negotiate your deal,” the boyfriend says after I have bossed him around for a good hour.
When we wake up, we exchange stomach pills. He may be straight, but we share the same afflictions.
“Do you know what an honor it is to adapt a Kazantzakis novel?” my producer asks.
I am three unpaid months into working on the script and have just told him I need up front money to keep going. I have received eighty responses from the agents. Two want to see additional stories. Several have written notes telling me they enjoyed my work. The rest are form letters thanking me for submitting. No one is biting. I am in debt. Nothing is left in either my checking or savings accounts. I have paid the rent with credit card checks. Every time I start my car, I fear which essential part will fall off next. My gut keeps me awake throughout the night. The boyfriend and I exchange more medications. Nothing works for either of us. I charge a few hundred in co-pays and deductibles to find out I do not have the ulcer causing Helicobacter pylori bacteria brewing in my stomach. The Gastroenterologist is stumped. Do yoga, relax, take a vacation he advises me. Tough it out, I think. I truly believed I would feel better. As soon as I got some money coming in.
“Have you gotten the rights from the Kazantzakis family for this adaptation?” I answer the producer as our cell phones hiss in the quiet heat of a Los Angeles morning.
He stops his incessant yammering about creating a sequence in which Russian Soldiers smash a baby against a stone wall.
“I can go to the Golden Globe’s office right now and find someone who would be happy to write this script. Everyone is out for a buck in this town,” he says after a minute of silence.
I tell him the sound he hears in the background is his script being fed into my shredder.
Here’s the skinny. In 2005, I retired from a seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital and moved back to Los Angeles. I became a lucky man. With a small pension, health insurance and the proceeds from my overpriced condo, I was able to take two years off. I sat myself down to write at a table with no boundaries, clocks or rules. I have worked hard. I have found my voice. My fingers pound my stories into the keyboard, while I fly as if I was barreling at eighty miles per down the 101 at 2 AM. Time means nothing to me anymore. As long as I can write, my life makes sense.
The producer might have screwed me, but at least I didn’t give him the boyfriend’s Viagra to do the deed with. I have owed money before. I understand that now I must sit at a table with nurses, where as always, not one of them wants to be there. A few twelve hour shifts a week and I will be flush.
“Write in the small cracks of time you have,” my writing mentor tells me when I whisper my fear that my flying days are over.
It is hard to hear him. The morning pain has not yet left me. The money I owe and the money I need tighten their fingers around my neck.
I always thought I was a lucky man.