“It’s happening to a lot of people.”
The straight boyfriend closes his business. Having sold his black BMW to an Armenian arriviste from Glendale and auctioning off his Prada and Dolce & Gabbana business threads on eBay, all he has left is a few Benjamins.
“It was all show, guy…all show,” the boyfriend’s tight throat spits out.
The passive innocence of the Hollywood Sign looks down on the boyfriend’s newly acquired clunker pushing its way up Beachwood Drive, his right wrist weightless and free with the sale of his Rolex, my boyfriend’s hand shakes as he parallel parks in front of my building.
It is high noon in Hollywood. We are going to sleep.
I do not tell the boyfriend about the out I have come up with. He knows. When he wakes up in the afternoons and shuffles to the bathroom, never once having entertained the thought of spending his morning running the hills of Bronson Canyon, I know he is thinking the same thing. We talk around the outs. They sleep with us at night. In the few hours we are awake, he asks me to read him my stories.
“Your voice hypnotizes me,” he whispers. “You’re the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”
“Where has it gotten me?”
I have done what is easy. He is the one who has made a business out of nothing, from an idea people thought was frivolous at best. For me, going onstage to fly, to make people laugh or tell them a story is as natural as breathing in the hopeful air of the City of the Angels. He is the brave one, the man who goes out every day into a world which never once frightened him, a world he is comfortable in. He is the one whose baby blues put people at ease, who does not hide behind jokes, who listens more than he talks.
I am the one in tattered nightshirts.
I wake up at 6 AM. The boyfriend and I have been sleeping for days, two, three, four, I do not know. My pillows and sheets smell of our sweat. I am too tired to change them. I walk the dog, put food out for the cat, empty the litter box, my feet shuffling back to the bedroom to watch the boyfriend as he sleeps. He is the one man on whose square jaw stubble does not work, scruffy makes him look like a crystal freak. It was a great joke to say he gave me his Viagra so I could pound him good. People laughed until they gasped for air when I told that tale, it was one of my best.
His name is Matt and the fact is Matt wanted me in him.
That is not funny. What have I put in him? My sadness, self pity, my doubts, the fear I hide behind my stubble and dreamy eyes.
It is time to pull out.
I draw Matt a bath, hot as he can take it, peach scented bubbles and foam courtesy of a sale at Rite Aid. There is enough left in the bottle for one more bath, then no more. I wash Matt’s hair, shave his face, scrub his feet, trim his fingernails.
“We’re not going to sleep all day anymore,” I tell him.
“No? Not anymore?”
“I’m going to work the phone banks for Obama and No on 8. I don’t know what will happen after that. I can’t think that far.”
I brush back his wet hair. He looks good.
“What are you going to do?” I ask.
The water is still. He moves his big toe, a small ripple hits the side of the tub and bounces back.
“I’m going to live with my parents…it’s come apart so fast…I want to go home, guy… I want to go home.”
I wipe away tears with a warm wash cloth. From his eyes or mine? What difference does it make? Tears are tears. I take a sip of cool tap water and put the glass to Matt’s lips. He takes a large gulp, his Adam’s apple moves up and down.
“That’s good…you’re smart, you’ve always been smart,” I tell him. “You’re doing the right thing. After I dry you off, we’re going out for breakfast.”
“You don’t…you can’t…”
“I’ve got a few bucks left on my American Express card. We’re going.”
It has been a while since either of us has eaten something besides rice. My tattered nightshirts thrown into the trash, I listen to Matt for hours after we eat. His voice reaches behind my eyes, we lie in each other’s arms, afraid that if we let go we will no longer feel the air of our City stroking our skin.
Unemployment sets up a phone interview to determine if I qualify for benefits. It seems the pimps on Sunset told them I refused to work with Medicare patients.
“Those are cases with infants on ventilators,” I tell the unemployment worker. “I’m not trained to do that.”
“Why would they even suggest you take that type of work?”
“The scary thing is they’d orient me on a case like that for two or three hours and then assign me to it. If something goes south, they’d say I never told them I had no experience with infants.”
A month after applying, I get unemployment. $177.00 a week. $159.00 after taxes. The total of $636.00 a month covers credit card payments, a few bills, a week’s worth of groceries, but not the rent. My New York work ethic stops me from defaulting on the credit cards. I will pay them down.
Lucky man is more of a dreamer than people think.
I have to make the call.
Jerk off three times, then clean the living room windows with watered-down Windex and unread editions of “The New York Times.” When the daylight comes, I pound the pavement from Franklin Avenue to Western Avenue, walking back very slowly, not wanting to go home, to the emptiness of high noon in Hollywood. I check my car’s oil and transmission fluid, my eyes ignoring the bald tires. I locate my cat Sunset on the shelf in the kitchen, tell her today is not the day. My Ajax used up weeks ago, I scrub out the toilet using bleach and stainless steel pot and pan cleanser.
Every porcelain surface in my apartment gleaming, there is nothing left to say or do.
I call Bank of America. They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed. They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana. They would love to advance me one thousand dollars, love to. They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. The rent for November covered, I fall asleep for five hours during which Sunset vacates the shelf to eat the wet food I left out for her a few hours before.
The No on 8 people are flat out dumb, not because they are young, their passion and outrage are in the right place. More totalitarian than “Morning Joe’s” Mika, their playbook of encouraging the No on 8 voters to get out and vote is flawed. A few calls in, it is obvious the voters do not need me or anyone else to tell them how to do anything. The phone bankers and I prefer trying to persuade the yes voters to change their minds.
“Don’t waste your time trying to change anyone’s mind. It’s too late for that.”
No, it was not.
A week in, I quit my brothers and sisters and start working the Obama phone bank on the sound stage of “From Here to Eternity” at the former Columbia Studios in Hollywood. These people have it down. Skipping the coasts, we call undecided, independent and Republican voters, concentrating on states where Barack might not make it, Wyoming, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky. We spend as much time as we need chatting voters up, telling them Barack is not a Muslim, he is a citizen, Michelle is not a racist.
We call him Barack, never Obama.
Plates of food wait for us on our breaks: pasta, pizza, veggies, bread, salad, chicken, sushi, pastries, candy bars, potato chips, fruit, juice, sandwiches of all varieties. My shrunken stomach expands in delight. I make a plate to take home for dinner, covering it with Saran wrap and slipping it into a paper bag. Matt and I can eat a real meal tonight.
One of the phone bank staffers shoots me a look.
“I shouldn’t have,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’ll put it…”
“It’s happening to a lot of people,” the staffer says, handing me a six-pack of apple juice. “Take what you need. We want you here.”
On election day the phone bank is packed, a line of volunteers five people deep threads a half block down Gower Street. We call all day, until the polls close on the West Coast. Over and over, we make the connection.
Enough. Enough. Enough.
Barack is going to win, he has to.
My grateful belly stuffed with pizza, I call a man in Florida.
“I’m not voting for him. No way. No how.”
“Do you know where your polling place is sir?”
“Yes…I’m not really sure.”
I tell him.
“Why you telling me that if I’m not voting for your guy?”
“Everyone needs to get out and vote today. If you’re not voting for Barack, please vote for whoever your choice is.”
My throat tightens whenever I say Barack, growing hoarse by mid-afternoon, having chanted it all morning.
“Thank you,” the voter says.
His throat tightens as hangs up to go vote for his guy.
After watching Barack claim our victory, I wake up to my lucky life.
In the mornings, I apply online.
In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals.
“Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
I cold call agencies.
“We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
An actor friend calls, crying, screaming he has no money for food, his cell phone has been cut off, gas next, then his lights. Unable to pay his car insurance, he no longer drives. Funny, he has never been able to cry onstage, now he has something to draw on. I mail him a fin and give him the address for the SOVA food pantry. I have not been there yet. I wake up early on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the pantry is open. I am the nurse, the one who helps people, I do not need anyone’s help. Rice, pasta, peanut butter and jelly. I will be OK.
Thinking about my out, I go back to sleep.
I get an insurance assessment, my first in a month, fifty bucks, food for two or three weeks. Before he gets a chance to change his mind, I set the appointment up with the applicant, a nice gentleman in Century City. I park next to his Mercedes, my eyes staring at mauve cinderblocks, my skin yearning to feel the air again. I spot a first edition of “The Day of the Locust” on the bookshelf as I walk into his living room, where we are swallowed up by the silence of glass tables, leather couches, Persian rugs and the intricate patterns of family silver billeted in dark antique cabinets. He is impressed that I know Nathanael West lived on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. We talk about West and John Fante before the assessment begins. If I met guys like this in my other work worlds, I might get someplace.
“Are you having more difficulty balancing your check book or managing your finances?” I ask.
This is a sneaky assessment question to see if early onset Alzheimer’s has kicked in. My neck hurts, fingers throb, jaw aches.
“I let my accountant do that.”
“Could you do it on your own if you had to?”
“Sure, couldn’t anybody?”
I stare at the wall facing me in parking garage, then look at the assessment’s signature page to make sure the gentleman signed in the right place. I turn on the ignition, the mauve concrete shouting at me that I have not reconciled my checkbook against my monthly bank statements in over six months, not since the morning my hands went numb and sweat seeped through my wife beater with the realization my check register was ten dollars off. I go over the numbers, go over the numbers again, do it until two hours have vanished and I can not find the ten bucks. I can pull it from the week’s gas money, buy five dollars worth instead of fifteen. I drive with the gas gauge on empty for two days, my gut screaming that calling AAA to fill my empty gas tank would eat into my GoPhone minutes. The signature’s good, my foot presses down heavy on the gas peddle.
The engine will not start. I am a dead man.
I want to get home, sleep on my featherbed, eat toast and jam. My ice cold fingers slowly turning the pages, I go over the gentleman’s paperwork for twenty minutes. Which card can I use to fix the car? I could sell it, the money for its intact body and interior would net me beaucoup bucks. Taking the bus is not too bad, the Metro Rail is a bit lame for this New Yorker. With a world-weariness I can only associate with Marlene Dietrich, the engine turns over, my bald tires crawl down Olympic Boulevard in the mind numbingly slow traffic of a Friday afternoon as bone white smoke billows out of my muffler. I light Shabbat candles, my stomach punching at me as I wait for what my balls and jaw have in store for me over the weekend. I will figure out the repair money Monday morning. I lose the next two days to a sleep so deep my gut does not demand food, my soul refuses to dream.
Monday morning, my car starts up without a hitch.
The receptionist from the hospice agency on Olympic and Fairfax calls. I always liked her. She asks how I am doing. I tell her.
“I’ll pray on that. You should pray on it too, like when you’re in temple.”
I look at Sunset, wide awake on the closet floor, never taking her frightened eyes off me. I want to tell the receptionist to go fuck herself. Sunset closes her eyes for a few moments.
I say a polite and final good-bye to the receptionist.
Enzina, a college friend who now lives in Kentucky, calls. She asks how I am doing. I tell her. Why not? After graduating for college, we lived for two months on a hippie farm in Arkansas, swam naked with the locals, got the shits the same week after eating veggies for a month, stumbling over each other at 2 AM running to the outhouse. I could not keep my eyes off the boys swimming. Enzina was the first girl I loved, but once the naked boys kicked in, it was time to sing her a sad good-bye song. We are still in each other’s hearts.
Enzina is not big on prayer. Her photography business is starting to get shaky around the edges. She is holding on for now. Turning it over to Jesus would only help if Jesus and his buds wanted to pay cash to have their pictures taken. When she says she will send me five hundred dollars, I tell her I do not need it, I was not asking for it, I will make out OK. She knows I won’t. I know I won’t. I hang up and cry for an hour, smash my blue plastic wastebasket against the shining salmon and pink tiles of the bathroom wall. I never take anything from anybody. Except their crap and their bullshit.
Is it possible the receptionist’s prayers worked?
I need stamps to mail bills and birthday cards, but at $8.40 for twenty, they have become a problem. Eight bucks is gas on a slow week. My literally starving actor friend tells me about paying bills online and how to insert quirky pictures into e-mails for birthday, thank-you and holiday cards.
The lucky man will use his stamp money to buy two cans of oil to lubricate his Chevy’s dried out bowels.
Thanks to Enzina, I only need to credit card part of December’s rent. This time, I do not get too weird before the call. I take a short walk, do a bit of vacuuming, save my sperm for Matt. I call Bank of America. They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed. They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana. They would love to advance me seven hundred and fifty dollars, love to. They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. With the rent for December covered, I fall asleep for a mere hour after the call.
Getting the 411 off of Craigslist, I interview with a paraplegic in his high-rise condo on Wilshire in Westwood. He is a quiet guy in his early thirties, our tortured stubble and dreamy eyes like each other right away. After being hit by a car while riding his bicycle, he moved from Connecticut to Hollywood to study cinematography. Wanting to hang out in coffee shops and art galleries, he smiles when I Google map the ones I go to for him. He is a sweet kid, brave to take all of this on. The nursing tasks are minimal, basically he needs someone to watch his broken back, someone to tell him when to slow down, to conserve his energy for the real battles.
His mother asks me what kind of music I like and before I answer, she tells me the money for her son’s care comes from a trust. She informs me I can work off the books, actually, she prefers it that way. I quote her my rate, smiling as I explain to her that working as an independent contractor involves paying more taxes than what an agency would pull out of my pay.
Mother pulls up her pink tube socks, tightens the laces on her green Nikes and proceeds to escort me to the door as I tell her I was listening to Billie Holiday that morning.
I e-mail the son a few times, telling him I would love to do the job.
I never hear from him.
I stay up nightly until four or five in the morning. Jaw aches, balls throb, gut lurches. No bills are due in the middle of the night, no resumes to send into the black hole of the internet.
Who needs sleep? Not the lucky man.
There are more garage sales on Beachwood than ever, folks selling everything before moving back home. Should I start peddling my stuff? The 30s Sears rug in my living room was my friend Don’s. Back in my San Francisco days, Don’s life got too hard, at forty-five he thought himself too old, his hair too grey, his belly too fat, his out was to kill himself. My living room couch and chairs were my friend Mark’s. His sister Diane and I sat at his bedside at 3 AM as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home, our hands on him like the caressing air of the City of the Angels, his once strong voice pleading with us not to pray for him. Don, Mark and my dad touch my skin every day. I should be able to let go of the things they willed me. Everything else I have is junk, “Northern Exposure-esque” Boho chic, none of it could net me much. Sleep takes me down at eight-thirty at night, knocking me out way past noon the next day.
I can not sell their stuff. Not yet.
One hundred dollars arrives from my nursing school friend, Kathi.
The memo line on check reads: “Hope this makes it easier.”
Despite what Obama preaches, hope can not do a thing, only cash does. I wait a few days to deposit her check, signing it says I need it, that I can not make it on my own, can not take care of myself.
“It means you have friends who love you,” Matt says as we eat our rice. “You have to let people touch you…get inside you.”
I might never feel the air on my skin again, but I can feel the beating of my friends’ hearts.
I am a lucky man.