Always the writer, I captured the snapshots included here on a blank white screen, sketching with black letters the tyranny of insurance companies, the hope offered up by a new candidate, the red, white and blue burqa enshrouding the war in Iraq and the sweet face of a Yes on 8 supporter standing in my doorway.
When I took these photos, I did not know the New Depression had already begun.
It had to have been the threat of rain which frightened the driving population of Los Angeles into their homes yesterday afternoon. Rain? No worries for me, a not at all nice Jewish boy from Long Island, who drove fearlessly through blizzards of blinding white snow to go to the movies. You put the chains on your tires and go. I rolled out on to the pock mocked pavement of Los Angeles, listening to Gore Vidal’s book on tape of “Hollywood.” Gore would be my friend as I pointed my car east for the eight mile trip to Boyle Heights. Understand this, for me, anything which includes the word Hollywood is sacred. To reach my destination, I drove from apartment–situated in the Beachwood Canyon section of the H word place–to the Hollywood freeway, not ever to be referred to as the 101. The meter light granting one entrance to the freeway was off, my first clue that yesterday was going to move differently. Either the fentanyl, given to take me down for last week’s colonoscopy, had escaped from some hidden reservoir in my body or I was in need of new lenses for my Alain Mikli glasses, their boxy black frames streaked with lines of subtle grey. It was right in front of me, it was happening in my lifetime. THE HOLLYWOOD FREEWAY WAS MOVING. And it kept moving, straight through the I-never-understood-why-people-slow-down inducing twists and turns or at the intersections of its lady and the tiger choice between the Hollywood, Santa Monica and Golden State freeways.
Had the cold air, which pushed the yellow haze out of the sky and banished the returning homeless Iraqi War vets from the streets, had this astringent air mass touched an Angelo nerve? I drove freely, as opposed to the usual soul deadening crawl. For the first time ever, I drove at thirty-five miles per, past the Our Lady of the Catholic Church’s wasted money for a place to pray. On a day like this, with no crush of traffic to hide behind, Cardinal Mahony had better lay low. The truth telling clarity of the day could effortlessly explain why a so-called deranged stranger was repeatedly trying to smack the Cardinal down for covering up the decades old priests “praying” with the altar boys affair.
As stated by Goggle Maps, Boyle Heights was reached in a record breaking fifteen minutes, leaving me time to sit in my car and organize my papers. Retired from the horror of nursing at San Francisco General Hospital, I work now as an assessor for insurance companies, checking out applicants for long term care insurance. Should I, the original patient advocate, the one time ACT UP fighter, be sent to nursing hell for working such a job? After thirty years of hands-on nursing, this is about all I can do without crawling into bed in the middle of the day after having heard Sherri Sheperd say the world is flat or Anderson Cooper state the CIA got the intelligence wrong on Iran. And, assessing, so to speak, pays very well. The only downside is the beaucoup bucks lost to sitting in traffic and burning up precious gas from Saudi Arabia, where a man like me would be lashed to death.
The job is easy. The company gave me a script to not only follow when asking indiscreet and tricky questions, but to strictly and religiously adhere to. First, I ask about health history, medications and past hospitalizations. Checking off boxes and discreetly writing out answers between quotation marks, I move on to the questions which are the true driving force of having a nurse interview any particular applicant. The memory questions. Memory tests, woven throughout my script and finally blatantly asked once the applicant feels loosened up by and comfortable with the interviewer. Tests conceived by well paid psychologists to sniff out any whiff of encroaching or already sunken in Alzheimer’s disease.
Thus, the game.
The interviewees are of two types. The first are on their best behavior, polite, well groomed, their homes immaculate. Through narrowed eyes they look at me, their inquisitor, in my pleated 50s gingham pants, loud 60s shirts, Dolce and Gabbana boots, my father’s diamond pinkie ring on my wedding finger, my hair buzzed, sideburns long and accented by five days worth of stubble. They want to ask, but don’t. They want the insurance. The second group are afraid. Their fear, which has led them to change the interview date a few times, causes them to sit stiffly in their chairs, while their feet tap faster than Larry Craig’s on the well carpeted floors beneath the table upon which I write down their answers or check off boxes on my clean white forms. These baby boomers are getting older and swiftly realizing that since their adult children are still living with them there will be no one to pay for whatever illness might come knocking at their door. Or they are alone, the children scattered across the world, leaving them to daily ponder if the big house in Pasadena or Pacific Palisades is worth it anymore. They grew up thinking anything is possible. It is. The numbness in the hand which comes and goes. The day they forgot why they were in the CVS on Sunset. All are held captive by their friend’s fall at dawn, their younger sister’s pain which gnaws at her through the night or the brother’s blood clot which dislodged and swam madly down the freeway of his circulatory system.
Yesterday’s assignment was to interview a woman in a retirement home. Words such as retirement home, assisted living, or senior anything give me pause to question as to why and how an insurance agent thinks he or she can get away with selling this type of policy to the elder seated in front of me. I entered the building, first noting that my nose was not breathing in the smell of urine or the rot of unhealed wounds. My hands winced at the lack of lift rails next to the surprisingly un-elevated toilet seat. Maybe…maybe, this would be a go.
“Please sign and date the forms before I begin the interview,” I told my applicant, after not only reading her the legal verbiage I hoped she understood, but emphasizing key words and phrases with subtle yet dramatic inflection, leading her to hopefully question them.
She smiled, eyes avoiding mine. No questions.
We sat in the facility’s library, across the hall from her room. My company’s rules dictate that I conduct the interview in the applicant’s home, the better to record the signs of approaching memory loss. The piled up newspapers, the television left on as the radio played, an open refrigerator door discharging the stink of months old food. Being that Wattan was in her mid eighties and that she was Japanese, I followed her willingly from her front door to the library. We sat at a polished dark wooden table, surrounded by three walls of neatly arranged Japanese books, magazines and newspapers. The fourth wall was hidden behind floor to ceiling shelves, each holding glass boxes in which dolls wearing intricately stitched kimonos and circles of bright red rouge on their cheeks stared at me as I spread my papers out in front of me.
“December 7th. Pearl Harbor day. Sixty-six years ago,” Wattan said as she filled out the date.
“Did you live in Japan then?” I asked.
“No, I am an American, I was born here,” she said, as she printed her name and then signed the agreement to be interviewed in perfectly formed and well thought out letters.
“You are a Japanese-American?” I asked, as the knot which had formed in my stomach punched me.
“I am an American. Just an American,” Wattan said, smiling at me as she pulled out a one inch thick stack of papers from her folder titled “Long term.”
“Look at these. Tell me what you think,” she said.
I covered the mirrored surface of the table with the year long correspondence Wattan had received from both her former employer, the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the insurance company it had contracted with to provide Wattan’s long term coverage. In thousands of words printed on spell checked form letters, the entirety of which must have felled a good sized forest, the same song played over and over. An insignificant detail missed here. A box not checked there. A missed appointment Wattan was informed about after it was scheduled. The litany sung itself out to this conclusion: Wattan was going to be dropped from her long term care insurance if she did not fulfill all the insurance company’s requirements, none of which were clearly stated anywhere in the myriad forms she had maintained in date order for the last year.
“You have beautiful handwriting, Wattan,” I said, in an attempt to buy some time until I could figure out how to help her.
“I graduated High School in Manzanar, then they took us to Colorado.”
“It happened a long time ago. You didn’t do it,” Wattan said, rearranging her papers. “You think they are going to dump me from the plan?”
“It’s like my grandma used to say: ‘Don’t piss on my back and tell me it’s raining,’” I replied, but Wattan did not seem to get my shtetl humor.
“Yes, they are trying to dump you,” I said. “Thing is, you were never informed that this interview is the last step in determining if your plan will be renewed.”
“They want me to give up?” Wattan asked.
“They never thought you’d get this far,” I said, my pen tapping against her neatly stacked papers. “Look at it this way, you walk, you talk, you don’t take any medications, you have no active disease processes going on…all you have to do is answer the questions correctly today and you should qualify for renewal.”
“Even with all these letters?” she asked. “I paid all this money into it…”
Wattan looked at me, then down to her folder, her fingers attempting to repair its frayed edge. My eyes moved to the dolls, locked in their glass prisons, their faces blank and still, their eyes wide open.
Last year, I saw my friend Oliver Mayer’s play, “Conjunto,” in which an American of Japanese descent is sent to a relocation camp. Smiling, laughing, arms outstretched to the world, a seeker of love, this man comes back from his detention stooped over. It is not just his posture, which can be easily corrected through exercise. The world ripped into his guts, his soul and heart stopped dead. A reality much worse than a slow broadband connection, bad jobs or burning up gas in traffic.
It can happen like that. And I forget this when stuck in traffic, trying to block out the fact that I am not moving and will not be for the foreseeable future.
Wattan and I finished the interview and, as required by the insurance company, Wattan again obediently printed and signed her name one last time, on one last form.
Driving to the First Street entrance of the Hollywood Freeway, I saw a dark young man skipping down the sidewalk, holding his silver violin in one hand, its color matching the solid stripe running down each side of his pants. He was most likely one of the mariachi players who worked in the plaza a few blocks away on First Street. Oliver introduced me to Boyle Heights two years ago, when I worked as a stage manager on his play “Young Valiant.” On my breaks, I walked the streets of what was once the Jewish section of Los Angeles, listening to Spanish and imagining one of my grandma’s friends walking these now paved streets to her shul, which years later has been transformed into a purple walled bodega. Where once prayers were offered up to G-d, now fans swirl above customers buying snow cones and pastries so huge, they will inevitably explode at any moment. In the corner behind the counter, the insides of Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Virgen de Guadalupe candles flicker with flames, their secrets and power unknown when used by hipsters in vintage clothes as decorations in what remains of bohemian Hollywood. Maybe the mariachi player lived in the house Grandma’s friend was walking from. Like all of Grandma’s friends, she ran from Europe and the knocks on the door at dawn. The young man smiled as he unlocked the metal gate and then the front door of his house, which sat across the street from Wattan’s building. Does he keep his violin in a case by the door, in anticipation of fists pounding at dawn on the metal gate protecting his house? Like the unknowing fists ordered to beat on doors, the words, all of them–citizen, alien, legal, illegal, undocumented, with or without papers, possessing or not possessing a valid Social Security card–all of them daily beat into my brain from my screaming radio whenever it rewinds that day’s book on tape. Except for yesterday, when for some reason, I forgot to turn on the radio for my drive home.
I am an actor who always questions and examines my script. I can say the lines on the page, but my intention, my backstory might not match the author’s grand plan. I give the performance the way I see it. I have my own personal test to determine if I touched something real, if I have given the audience something to go home with. If I am good, if I have made the connection, an exhaustion more bitter than sitting in traffic hits me after the show ends. It is preceded by a fatigue which makes the instinctual pounding of the keys on my laptop impossible.
Last night, I fell asleep fifteen minutes after I got home from work, my body way too tired to fax Wattan’s paperwork to the office, let alone open up my new short story on my computer.
And today, I can not, for the life of me, tell you what traffic was like driving home yesterday afternoon.
9 December 2007
When I was an eighteen year old high school graduate, my father took me on the Long Island Railroad into New York City to meet with a man I was to stay in touch with when I went to college that fall.
“This guy will keep you out of the draft…no matter what happens,” my father said, as he paid the conductor for our tickets.
“Why do I have to meet him now?” I asked.
Unlike the newly, but marginally, long haired businessmen sitting in front of and behind us, I was having great difficulty refolding my New York Times. I wanted to appear as remote as the men were, buried in thought, my face hidden behind an upright paper. The noncompliant New York Times was the only thing stopping me from being observed as a good Jewish New Yorker. If I could triumph over my inability to force the paper to bend against its impossibly creased morning fold, I would be free to read an article from top to bottom. Once bent to my will, I could allow the paper to lay in my hands as effortlessly as it rested in the hands surrounding mine.
“You got it all wrong…all wrong,” Father said as he grabbed the paper and, in one snap, had it folded in half lengthwise, ready to be devoured.
There is a distinct heaviness in your palms and fingers when you hold The Times. The ink weights down the paper until no matter how little or how many pages a certain edition holds, your entire body feels the urge to probe and question as it lies in the deceptive quiet of your hands. It is as if the thought and work that went into writing the articles lends a physical weight to the dull white pages. There is a heft that you understand is yours to own, a gift that is your destiny to read as you unselfconsciously turn the pages in swift concise moves.
“Do you want to read this section, Daddy?” I asked after another failed attempt to maneuver like a native New Yorker.
“There’s not much to read that I don’t know,” he said, smiling as he creased yet another section into perfect reading order for me.
In the years before that train ride, I watched my father work The New York Times crossword puzzle every night after dinner. Wearing a torn wife beater in the summer or buried in winter under a decades old plaid shirt, which would have made Kurt Cobain weep, my father took his ritual of filling in the tiny white boxes with blue ink as seriously as he took on any task in front of him, be it washing his Chevy Super Sports Impala on Saturday afternoons or burning the fall leaves in the concrete pit he constructed in our backyard. Father began his true craft early, organizing textile workers to unionize and, later in his life, setting up dental and health clinics for the members and their families. My father was one serious guy, a man who used equally serious tools, down to the Bic pen my mother set aside for his use only.
As I watched him effortlessly form the perfect letters his mother taught him to write at her kitchen table, I waited for the sounds his water glass made each night, occurring at different stages in his solving of the maze of letters and words laid out before him. My father did not drink water because he believed in hydrating often. He drank it because his mother could not afford to buy him milk. Water was the only thing he was familiar with in our house in the suburbs, where, before our development was built, Irish immigrants had made the land their home by planting fields of potatoes, the only thing they could count on during hard times. Like many of them, my father never made it past the sixth grade, dropping out to support his widowed mother by boxing or peddling the shirts Grandma made on her sewing machine after working her shifts as a seamstress on the Lower East Side. At every meal, Father sat with two tall glasses of water at his right side, each holding ice cubes so large that the amber glasses which held them sweated beneath my fathers thick hands as tiny bubbles of water ran down on to the table. Whether hissing in defiance after having been filled to its brim or making a low fizzling sound of submission when a diminished but still viable cube rested alone at its bottom, the glass was never silent.
I am not certain if my sister or mother heard the sound, but I know my father did, in spite of his faulty hearing, courtesy of the hits he took in the ring. With his eyes seeing his next dictionary free move, he would pick up his noisy glass and gently swirl it, the movement drowning the offending ice cube in the glass’s cold water.
Despite glasses who protested their lot in life, the one thing we all heard was the radio, tuned always to a news station broadcasting into our kitchen the deep steady voices of the men who read stories which they themselves had written. The voices hovered over our heads, along with the smell of steaks covered in onions and garlic, which my father cooked on the grill outside our kitchen window. Sound sank into our ears, smells into our noses, until our bellies were full and our minds raced against the incoming knowledge of a world outside the perimeter of long-ago potato fields.
When the radio played Martin Luther King speaking of his dream, my mother looked at my father, her eyes seeing the man she had fallen in love with, a skinny Jewish mensch who thought he was lucky to share a two-room apartment with his mother and sisters. These wild haired women grew my father into the man who gave loud abrasive speeches in textile plants in the deep American South of the 1950s. Years before the movie was made and Oscars were won, Father shook his head and leaned back in his chair, telling us about how he recruited the real Norma Rae to be one of his organizers. She was a woman Sally Field would not dare play, a hardened and bitter worker whose hands unwillingly knew the mill machines too well, having first met them on her grade school graduation day, hands so broken by their labor that they continued to work the machines as she slept at night.
Eugene McCarthy’s voice spoke to my mother’s Hunter College days of learning Latin, reading the Romantic poets and studying the Italian Renaissance painters.
After McCarthy had turned me into a rabid “Clean for Gene kid,” which involved cutting my hair and wearing a tie to collect signatures for his nomination, my father said: “He has his hauteur…he’s pedantic as hell, but we need guys like him to tell the truth.”
Father knew what all the words in any puzzle meant.
Mother said Bobby Kennedy was a carpetbagger from Massachusetts and not in any way her legitimate senator from New York. Mother’s eyes, along with my father’s, moistened when Bobby met with César Chavez in the fields of grapes and lettuce under the relentless baking sun of Southern California. Mother cried when Bobby’s eyes dampened during his visits to farmers and coal miners in Appalachia, where he broke bread with them at tables forever barren of enough food to feed their families.
“Bobby’s who we have to get to speak out,” Father said. “This is how the other half lives…and they are gonna’ burn this country down if no one hears them.”
I first noticed my father slumping down in his seat across from mine at our dinner table during the summer when the draft was a year away from my soon to graduate high school flesh. I was sure the murders of Dr. King and Bobby were what made Father work his puzzle so slowly, at times not finishing them at all.
That was the summer we stopped eating steak, its succulent aroma powerless over me to this day. As the familiar smell of onions and garlic dissolving into thin brown strips of meat hit our noses, our ears heard the short hard gasping shrieks of Fanny, our neighbor across the street.
Fanny was a woman so fragile she could only carry one bag of groceries into her house at a time.
On this late afternoon, she pushed the Army Sergeant down the grey slate path to her front door, hitting him as she cried out “Not my son, not my son,” in a voice I had never heard on my street before.
“No matter how you might think you’re going to do to get out of the Army…” my father began to say as he pushed the charred steaks off their platters into the small copper garbage can he had hung inside the cabinet door under our kitchen’s sink.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I know people…I won’t lose you to this,” Father said, touching his water glass, which he had not taken long sips out of for months.
“You’re never going overseas,” Mother said.
“Not for this…not for this,” one of them said.
I am not sure which one.
I began filling my father’s water glasses when I was twenty and number sixteen in the draft lottery, which that year conscripted boys up to number ninety-five. They were boys, not men, never men at that age, in 1972. They never will be. I poured cool water from the faucet over ice cubes marinated in the freezer of our refrigerator, which “had fallen off of a truck” into our kitchen a few months after I was born. Cancer and Morphine caused my father to push his puzzle off to the side, saying he would get to it “…when these damn cramps let up.” What I had thought was draining my father’s energy, what we it called at the time, “The bad news from the big muddy” was instead an asymptomatic tumor eating up from his gut into his lungs.
Still, we listened to the radio. As I filled up the second hopefully to be consumed glass, a female reporter spoke about an enemies list President Nixon had drawn up, apparently when he was not busy secretly bombing Cambodia or authorizing illegal wiretaps.
My father stared at the glasses I had placed next to him and laughed, asking “Are Sonny and Cher on tonight?”
Although he no longer ate or drank much of anything, my father insisted there be water at his side. And, as always, his glasses continued to make their sounds, which apparently only he and I could hear. Quite unwillingly, I had offended this glass, which my mother had bought at Woolworth’s. As the radio mentioned who might be included on Nixon’s list, the glass made a sound I had never heard it make before, a loud almost piercing snap which tore apart its amber curved structure, covering the kitchen table with ice cold water and shards of broken glass.
“I’m on it! My union’s on it! I’m on that crook’s list,” my father said, quickly lifting his puzzle up from the incoming cold flood and moving away from the table to look for the special pen we still held out to him every night.
My father had taught me well that morning on the train. In any situation, I can snap The Times open, whether stuck in Los Angles traffic or in between lifting weights at the gym. Those days are over now. In August 2007, The New York Times changed its physical size, its new thinner width, achieved without lipo, knocking a column or two off the page. Despite every permutation of my father’s lessons, I can no longer whittle the pages into reading shape. It’s not just me. In the cafes I write in, I have witnessed the valiant struggles of want-to-be screenwriters who, during their agonizing breaks between creating naturalistic dialogue, try desperately to control the pared down paper. All of our hands crave the weight we once thought would be ours forever. I am on longer like the real Norma Rae, long gone is my ability to manipulate The Times in my sleep, even the over stimulated Sunday sections. My spirit aches, along with the other writers, for what we once held so close to our bodies every day.
The night Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary, I sat sweating like one of my father’s glasses on the Lifecycle at the gym. My failure to fold the wispy pages into reading shape and a pair of intellectual dark glasses to hide behind had for months hampered my public survival skills. To avert my eyes from the parade of massive deltoids and over juiced thighs, I looked up to a Rhianna video playing on one of the Flat Screens hanging from the ceiling. The woman can move. Maybe she could work The Times into shape. Or maybe one of the steroid enhanced Gold’s Gym’s patrons could employ their over abundance of testosterone to aid me in my quest to control The Times.
Holding my beloved Times with one hand, I read a quote Obama made on the night of his Iowa victory, as he looked ahead to the New Hampshire heat: “All odds-all odds-said I shouldn’t be standing here. But I am because of love and education and lots of hope. That’s what we can stand for in four days. That’s what you can stand for.”
Muscles pumped and grew all around me, as situps in the hundreds were sat up. Rhianna gyrated, which was beginning to effect me the same way Angelina Jolie’s lips make me think I am not gay.
“If you work with me, like you’ve never worked before, then we will win. And we will win America. And then we will change the world.”
Caught elegantly in the middle of a sharp turn on her razor thin spike heels, Rhianna gave up the screen to Obama, who was in the midst of his concession speech: “For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we have been told we are not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people, yes we can.”
“Did you hear that?” the man on the next Lifecycle asked me.
“He speaks the truth,” I said.
Obama continued: “Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world.”
“Dude,” the draft age man said. “The ice in your water bottle is cracking like crazy. Can’t you hear it?”
I looked up to the screen as Obama said: “We will remember that there is something happening in America. That we are not as divided as our politics suggest. That we are one people. We are one nation. And together we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words…”
“Give your bottle some air before it explodes,” my neighboring Lifecyclist said.
“…yes we can. Yes we can,” Obama said, as his supporters shouted the words back to his serenely determined face.
It was not that the man to my right was using the word dude which suddenly distracted me. Or that this was the first time in months that someone had spoken to me in this haven of muscle and hairless bodies.
The solidity of The Times had returned to hands. The words I had read a few moments before bore down on the new thinner, meaner and leaner paper. There was weight in my hands, even in this place so afraid of weight of any type. The density I was suddenly holding in my hands and hearing in my ears did not tire me, it made me want to turn the page to read about what can go down next. There was possibility. A seed of what could happen in November growing straight up through the newsprint and screaming unstopped out of the television.
“Dude, the ice is cracking all over the place,” I told the dude.
And everyone can hear it.
19 January 2008
“The Postman has not Rung Once, let Alone Twice.”
It is the night before the Oscars and, for several weeks, something has been very wrong. I first smelled it a week before this past Valentine’s Day, when I was driving east on Hollywood Boulevard. It was not the knowledge that no heart shaped cards would be arriving any time soon. They haven’t for years. I am a fifty-six year old man and, while yes I know I do not look it, I am no longer young. I go to Gold’s Gym. Not during the peak hours. Like a leper on the banks of the Ganges, I sneak in two hours before closing time a few nights a week. I understand how it works here in the Los Angles basin, especially in Hollywood. After all, I live on the street which leads dreamers from all over the world up the hills to the Hollywood sign. I am settled to my core with living the life of a reclusive writer slash actor slash monologist, who, while semi-retired, still works as a nurse. Gold’s and Yoga classes aren’t cheap. After silently eliminating the meaningless of the fourteenth of February as the root of my sense of foreboding, my gut twisted with a new malignant anger which I could not get close to shaking my New York bred razor fanged wit at. It was not that I could no longer recall the exact location of the cheap Thai restaurant a writer friend had feted me in a few months ago. I approached Vine Street knowing my meal of noodles smothered in peanuts and garlic and covered with fried shrimp would, against all medical odds, quiet the acid and churn of my over active stomach. I felt quite thrifty, knowing the pink and white boxed feast, which was soon to be mine, would provide sustenance for an entire weekend. An island of time during which I could watch “Children of Paradise” and any number of Cassavetes movies.
In spite of my stomach being empty since the night before and my recessionary frugality, I was unable to stop contemplating about how I would never be able to pay off my credit card debt. For months, I have ignored looking at the people standing at bus stops, straining their necks in search of the next crammed to the gills vessel to creep along Sunset Boulevard. These smoke belching ships of exhausted souls halt their Downtown trek at every single block’s bus stop, all overpopulated with Nathanael West characters adrift in the nightmare their dreams have soured into. One more transmission problem and I am on the bus and underground with them for the foreseeable future. Or at least until my Bush rebate- stimulate-the-economy tax check arrives. Right. I do not obsess about money. I do yoga on a thin green mat. Nor do I wake up in a sweat which clings to me like the tyranny of decades long minimum payments mailed two days before their due dates. I could blame it on Muslim Jihadists. I choose instead to thank G-d for allowing me to finish high school and college before guns and Prozac became the young adult version of Monopoly.
Still, something was wrong.
My hands on my steering wheel, I was hit by the vicious strobe light fury of cameras embedded into utility poles, watching over me as the palm trees no longer can. The blinking light of the quietly snapping lenses in the middle of the afternoon was faster and brighter than anything I had danced under at Studio 54 in my hometown of New York City. Knowing this was the worst light ever for my face, I snapped out of asking myself who, outside of CharlizeTheron and her guy Stuart Townsend, could afford to live in the remodeled into an all glass façade condo complex two blocks ahead of me. I never could remember that the intersection of Hollywood and Cahuenga is guarded on all four of its corners by shoe box shaped citizen sanctioned cameras, all holding the power to apprehend any one of us who dare to trespass under their accusing spurts of silver light. A light which lures the unsuspecting into a juxtaposition of the soft fading of the yellow of the traffic signal with the red filing the signal’s thick glass with danger. Being a writer who can avoid honing his skills by reading Perez Hilton, X17 Online, Page Six and Dlisted, I assumed a pink haired Britney Spears must have crossed the street to the Arclight theater while being chased by paparazzi. Who else could these lights be hunting? Could a mechanical terrorist be photographing our license plates in order to hit us up with a going through a yellow slash red light? A ticket which, even after having been tortured in traffic school, would eat up all of my not yet even printed stimulus parting gift from President Bush?
Money worries work in strange ways. My gut continued to hit me with its displeasure at being in my stressed body until its punches beat away all my hunger for the Thai food I was searching for. To keep me on that lonely edge, my palms took over, dampening instantly with the fear of again having to shell out even more money that I do not have. I moved quickly up the ladder of anxiety, past the terminally broke headset, the one which says you can get ahead financially if you keep denying yourself basics, like a seven dollar takeout meal stretched to last an entire weekend. The clear bright afternoon sun shone everywhere except on the road ahead of me as I surrendered to my familiar self destruct tape, whose particular tune craves the humiliation of not simply being ignored by the men who go to Gold’s in the early afternoon or before closing time, porn stars and hookers, but being looked straight through by them as well. Even they knew I could not buy a smoothie at the snack bar, let alone a full body massage with release. Heading down Gower to the gym, I saw the red and black signs of the striking Writers Guild members glowing in the sun as the scribes broke for coffee at the Starbucks across from the “Dr. Phil” soundstage.
Maneuvering around pot holes deep enough to crack my car’s chassis, which would be yet another money draining scenario, I understand. It is clear. The something I have smelled, tasted and touched, but not recognized in my dreams, has shown itself to me at last, drying my palms and returning hunger to my stomach. The strike will most likely end and the Oscars will go on as planned and I do not care. I really do not care. I am a gay man of a certain over the hill age and I could care less about the ritual whose alter I have bowed down in front of for over forty years, either alone or drunk and stoned with my long dead friends in apartments scattered throughout Hollywood.
I was not fazed in the least by the cancellation of January’s Golden Globes, with its promise of seeing Miss Golden Globes Rumer Willis trying to move gracefully while wistfully smiling. No red carpet? No nostalgia here for the memory of the pre-show in which Isaac Mizrahi teased Ryan Seacrest about his imagined masculinity before the now designing for Target gent squeezed Scarlett Johanseen’s boob. None of that could make me hungry for more styled into ridiculousness nominees and their hangers-on trotting into the Kodak Theatre.
I really did not care. I was hungry for Thai food.
18 April 1966. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Julie Christie in gold lame pajamas, thick tousled blonde hair, triple tiered hoop earrings and 60s appropriate, heavier on the upper lids, jet black mascara. When her name is announced as best actress for “Darling,” she claps her right hand to her mouth in unrehearsed shock as her date Don Bessant beams at her. This was the first Oscar ceremony I remember. And, at thirteen years old, the first time I understood that I did not just want to be friends with pretty men like Bessant. I wanted them to look at me the way he looked at Christie. Bessant was not only proud, but happy for his woman, utterly relaxed and comfortable in her presence. This racy for its day, out in the open, unmarried couple was in the winner’s seat at the first Academy Awards to be telecast in color, she in the shining outfit he had sewn for her, he in a mod cut tuxedo. Christie was, for a second, bathed in an intense glare, the strobe’s flash pushing her career through the yellow of hold, bypassing the red of loss and moving straight through to the green of a life of honest and excellent work, lived out for forty years after the light shined on her in that one moment. Inside that single piece of time, holding all the two young artists understood it to mean, Bessant smiled with joy at Christie. Their intimacy was not blanched into the emptiness of people who waited on West’s bus stops, their faces illuminated by the heat of the ever present Los Angeles light which, on that late afternoon in 1966, bore down on the winner and her consort as it bounced off both the white beaches of Santa Monica and the crashing blue waves of the Pacific ocean.
On the Saturday before last year’s Oscars, I held an Oscar in my hands at an exhibition outside the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. A few miles from the apartment on Ivar Avenue where West wrote “The Day of the Locust,” I waited on an hour long line with overweight young women from Ohio and pimple faced teenage boys from Oxnard, all of us readying the speeches swirling in our dream driven heads as we stepped up to accept our Oscar.
And like everyone who receives an Oscar says, it is heavy. Which was about all I got out of holding one in my hands. I still have to do three hundred sit ups a day. Still have to use double coupons at Ralph’s. I ride the bus when I run out of the weekly money I allocate for gas. I buy refreshments at a corner store so I can have a snack during a bargain matinee movie. My novel is taking much longer than I expected it would. Years ago, I found my zone and can do stand up on a stage without experiencing gut wrenching cramps before I go on. I have a job visiting dying patients. People still die alone in a room in the middle of the afternoon on a warm, still and sunny day. Or, despite being surrounded by people who say they love them, people still die alone. Families smile and cry at the deathbed, then outfox each other for the tiniest amounts of money. An assumed to have vanished lover arrives and holds a dying man’s hand, giving him the freedom to leave his body. I will work hard and pay off the money I owe the banks and my gut will contract into the stillness it knew when I watched Christie run up to the stage to grab her Oscar.
Still, something is wrong. For weeks, I could have cared less about whether the Oscars were to be broadcast or not.
Thanking the soldiers serving in Europe “..fighting for liberty and human dignity,” Katina Paxinou accepted her plaster Oscar in 1944 for her supporting role in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
Holding her lighter up in the darkness of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Paxinou went on to say: “I will share this Award in spirit with my friends at the Royal Theatre of Athens. I hope they are still alive, but I doubt it.”
At tomorrow night’s ceremony, I am sure no one will pay tribute to any of our dead and wounded soldiers and certainly none of the killed and maimed Iraqis. In all probability, Heath Ledger will be remembered, most likely by Cate Blanchett when she wins for “I’m Not There.” I have no problem with that. I liked Ledger and not just in “Brokeback Mountain.” He possessed and readily showed all the colors. The man could do pretty much anything. Our soldiers had and do have the colors, theirs the hue of courage, sacrifice and bravery. It is one thing to go on stage and push through your fears when opening the lockbox of your soul, where your ugliness and vulnerabilities live. Braver still to readily pull them out in front of a camera, where they are archived on film until the next terrorist attack destroys the theaters. Quite another thing to willing enter into the fear of walking or driving down a street in Baghdad or Barquba. Day after day, year after year. I am sorry Ledger died and yes, yes, yes he should be remembered. Maybe he was as fed up with the way things are as all of us have been during these past few years. Is it possible that instead of vegging out with a drink of “Idol,” “Dancing,” “Runway” and “Top Model” backed by a chaser of Lindsay, Paris, Britney and all the others whom he most likely knew to some degree, Ledger took his heavy duty pills to stay numb and free when he wasn’t working? After a two hour slog through Hollywood traffic, in which I log in a grand total of four miles, I find myself wanting an Extra Strength Vicodin to numb the ache grown into my bones from my right leg relentlessly tapping the brake pedal. I have enjoyed being clean and sober for almost two decades. But still…something is wrong. The other night in the Austin Texas debate with Obama, Hillary Clinton almost, but not quite, got me crying. The quiver in my throat came when she described her visits with hospitalized Iraq Veterans, saying that inspite of all she has been through, she is much luckier and more blessed than our soldiers are.
Every American citizen who does not have a family member in the service is.
That is a lot of Americans. And when stuck in the vortex of traffic or when our iPod tanks, forcing us to hear the breathing and panting on the neighboring treadmills, we know it. No matter how hard we run, lift weights or work the pilates torture boards, we breathe it in, our blood and muscles attacked by the truth which festers in hidden places in our bodies, itching under our skin at the exact moment we believe we have forgotten. You know it. I know it.
Beginning in 1942, and until World War Two ended, the Oscar statues were made of plaster, as metals were essential war materials and used only in the effort to battle the Nazis. Actors and actress sold war bonds without the luxury of 50 K gift bags, personal trainers, stints in rehab or botox. Hell, when Marlene Dietrich toured the battlefields of Europe entertaining the Allied soldiers, she was so close to the front lines, she could have been taken prisoner by the Nazis. Her co-star John Wayne, the man who talked the talk, but did not walk the walk, stayed stateside making war movies which never for a moment considered portraying the stench of war or the taste of a prolonged death in the muck of severed limbs and burnt flesh on a cold and wet battlefield. Still, other actors joined the service for the duration. The neighbors and families of these soldiers breathed in a different air than we do. It fed and nurtured their bodies in a way few Americans know, because most of our sons and daughters are not serving in Iraq. Sixty years ago, our countrymen breathed at a slower rate, prayed every prayer, fed unproven superstitions and, without much thought, refrained from marking off the days on the calendar until their boy returned. No matter how the narrative of their world was told, in spite of what was to be read between the lines, whether nervously viewing newsreels, listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, everyone understood this story and knew without speaking what had to be done. This must have been a serious war, they even allowed blacks in the service.
After Julie Christie won her first Oscar–I am hoping that she wins her second on Sunday–I read an interview, most likely in “Life” magazine, in which she described meeting Bessant: “…he was a postman delivering a letter to my flat. I invited him in for tea and he never left.”
I have been waiting for that postman.
He has not rung once, let alone twice.
That’s fine. There are things I must talk and write about. I must always write, but not about potholes or Thai restaurants or credit card debt. There are no red carpets for me to parade on in my Prada ensemble. I have other, different obligations to carry out. And maybe after that, when years from now our lives are turning back to being right again, a postman will find his way up the path to my reclusive writer’s door.
23 February 2008
“Will Todd Palin’s Hands Pray for Me?”
I had lost so many days staring out the window of my patient’s room in the Intensive Care Unit of Century City Hospital I knew I had to make a decision immediately upon seeing the young, young, young man walking up Beachwood Drive on a Saturday morning so hot the faint dampness newly born to my body had already bound my tee shirt and jeans to my armpits and groin. Nothing changes on Beachwood. Zoning laws deny any temptation of McMansions. My apartment building is repainted the same color every five years, as are all the others which bow before the Italianate and Moorish mansions of the Vedanta Society or Marlene Dietrich’s astrologer in the hills looking down on Beachwood. Although the sidewalk’s trees reach higher to the sky every year and their branches lean down heavier over the street, in the twelve years I’ve lived here, their roots have dislodged but not cracked open the concrete I walk on in Prada boots or flip flops. Beachwood’s sidewalks know me well, whether I’m malingering or pacing, day and night, fast or slow, walking out the kinks of a story which I refuse to bend to, be it on the third or tenth rewrite. When the heat comes upon Beachwood during the still months of spring and summer, my back dampens as I walk, be it at the street’s first incline or three blocks away from the rooms I have fled, where I have left the computer on, hoping that, like in a Gabriel García Márquez story, spell check will perform a miracle, making the dialogue I have fretted over speak the way I hear people talk when they are pushed up against life’s walls and into its corners.
The man would be at my apartment soon. Would I do the Blanche Dubois seduction of the newspaper boy or throw him the Mimi Rogers hostility in “The Rapture?” I had spent that morning in front of an oscillating fan, flipping through the Marilyn Monroe issue of “Vanity Fair,” allowing my always below the surface anger to violently rip out and fling the endless renewal cards across my living room, just as Mimi did before the two harbingers of the Rapture knocked on her door to plant the seed of her soon to be changed life. Men I have never met have changed many things for me. I know that if I encountered these men my anger would be of a force much greater than that of tearing out perforated postcards. After the initial howl and shriek over what they have stolen and usurped, I would do great damage. Without a second thought.
The man I spotted walking up Beachwood was so possessed by his mission he did not notice the bounty offered by the garage sales which habitually occupy the area between Beachwood’s sidewalks and the street. As he passed me, I could smell the talcum powder on his back, which through force of his youthful will, refused to sweat under his crisp blue shirt, black tie and black cotton sports coat. The October sun had quickly dried the green lawns’ morning dew and wetness, residue of the quiet 6 AM sprinklers. We crossed each other a block from my building, his hairless bone white hands bound tight around the rectangular pamphlets he was dropping off at each house on his journey up to the Hollywood sign. I looked right at him, past his pink cheekbones, down from the bangs of his hair untouched by the wilting humidity and into his evasive grey eyes. I had to decide quickly which role I would greet him with at my door.
To let him know I was not interested and certainly not an old man on the prowl, I stopped to buy books, which I never seem to find the time to read, but which are good friends, nonetheless. For fifty cents apiece, I purchased Ethel Waters’ “To Me it’s Wonderful,” Ray Milland’s “Wide-eyed in Babylon” and Mary Astor’s “A Life on Film,” all being a great afternoon read when taking a Vicodin and lying in the elusive sun of my building’s courtyard. I will save Richard Buckle’s biography of Nijinsky for late night reading, when the remembrance of what has been taken from me and is now and forever missing keeps me from sleep.
In order to facilitate our meeting, I doubled back to my apartment via Gower Avenue, entering my building from the rear. I turned the air conditioning on and, thinking it a viable bookmark, placed next to the books the blue and white pamphlet I had found stuck under my door when I left in my rush to the garage sales. I sat down at my dining room table, covered with a red, orange and yellow striped tablecloth from last week’s sales, and sipped ice cooled water from my favorite glass, tall thin and imprinted with slightly elongated yellow and white circles. My last of a set of six, bought at a sale soon after Kerry lost the 2004 election. My damp tee shirt drying on the back of the chair next to me, I looked at my new bookmark, whose bold letters shouted: “We believe there is a spiritual battle in an unseen realm, and that’s why I’ve called for united prayer for divine intervention. It’s a defining moment for the definition of marriage in American history.” The sweat was at my temples now and as I entered the kitchen, the light coming through the half closed Venetian blinds was no longer giving off its usual noir friendliness, but instead a deep orange hue, like on the afternoon of the fires last fall, when the smoke approached the Hollywood sign, darkening Beachwood Canyon before the whirling flames burnt the noir, which had always protected me, to an orange tinged with dirt and grit.
The changing color of my kitchen and the sweat on my body, which would not absorb into the thick kitchen towels I wiped myself down with, tricked me into doing something I never do, answer the door shirtless.
“Are the hills burning again?” I asked, looking into the grey eyes I had not quite yet figured out how to play with.
“No fires bro,” the young, young, young man said.
“Everything is orange in my kitchen,” I said, with the frown inducing resignation which comes when I must surrender a story to its unplanned and unintended ending.
“I can come in and take a look if you want,” he said, looking at my father’s Star of David, stuck to my chest by a dampness which had made itself familiar with my body.
“You can not come in,” I said, watching as his long fingers idly stroked my door frame’s inward leaning mezuzah.
“Don’t touch that,” I said.
His fingers froze and he said: “I need to talk to you about an important measure on the November ballot.”
“You put this crap under my door about banning gay marriage?”
“I think this is the most important vote of my lifetime,” he said. “I came back here because I need to talk to you about it.”
He was in my home, this lean smooth skinned boy with his gleaming white teeth and sun bleached hair, which had never known a colorist. He was sitting on my couch, legs extended in front of him, his feet on my 1930s Sears carpet as he looked at my black framed paintings of palm trees, vases of flowers and villages in the country, all purchased at sales within six blocks of my home. As he placed a small leopard skinned pillow under his neck and let the air conditioner wash over him, I found myself cutting thin slices of lemon to put in his ice water.
I looked in my cupboard for an appropriate glass for him, thinking that tomorrow I will go to work, where I sit for hours on a high backed lounge chair at the foot of my patient’s bed, leaning my head back as he sleeps while the cool air from the ceiling moves gently over both of us. My patient’s uncarpeted room is on the seventh floor of the hospital, where he is attended to by respiratory therapists, doctors of every discipline, X-ray techs, nutritionists, physical therapists and me. I will bath him, regulate his tube feedings, suction mucous out of his lungs and smile when he wakes from his self imposed dream state. Placed years ago to keep his airway open, the trach in his throat stops any words from leaving his mouth. It is attached to a silent computerized ventilator which will keep his inert lungs breathing for as long as he wants. During his bath every morning, I gently wash the five numbers tattooed into his arm when he was fifteen and think that maybe this old man will triumph over his tangled gut, various benign tumors and patched aneurysms. He dozes, with eyes moving slowly under closed lids, as I sit in his gleaming white room, its walls barren of pictures, its closets empty, as are the drawers of his end table and bedside table, which has nothing on it but its shine, a result of my daily cleanings with alcohol to kill…what? Germs, bacteria, memory? As he sleeps, I look out the window to the cranes hoisting steel girders twenty stories in the air to build a luxury condominium building across the street.
The building’s street level sign chants: “Live in an oasis of civility and comfort one half-hour from the ocean or downtown. Concierge service, in-house gym, valet parking, heated pool, indoor tennis court and wine cellar are yours for your journey into the new century.”
There is no way anyone could get from there to the beach or Pershing Square in a half-hour, even my patient knows that. He sleeps throughout my shift, opening his eyes and smiling when I change his position every two hours. My first day with him, after I forcefully pulled his draw sheet and hastily removed the pillows placed to keep him floating on his hard hospital bed, he stared at me so intensely I thought the air conditioning had somehow turned to heat in the midst of our hot Los Angeles summer. He whispered to me, but I could not make it out because his trach made his speech inaudible. I stroked his head, placed a cold compress on his forehead and held his hand, saying I was sorry, but it was just so hard to move him. As his eyes closed, his jaw loosened, his sweating stopped and the various computerized machines attached to him ceased flashing their silent red and yellow warning lights. I learned to turn him so that he did not feel the push and pull of my muscles. I bathed him without him realizing that I was moving him as I soothed his skin with warm water to which I had added drops of lavender. I massaged his back and arms and legs, limp from several strokes, with warmed oil mixed with citrus and peppermint. He had lost his hearing years before, but I had never put on his RadioShack headphones, whose batteries had faded greatly in their power. Whenever anyone attempts to get my patient to wear the headphones, he squints and grimaces, even when we watch Rita Hayworth or Greta Garbo movies. He does like to watch the ladies as I bathe, shave and groom him for another day spent floating in bed.
When I tire of looking at a building I will never live in, I turn on CNN to feed my election-that-will-change-our-lifetime addiction. Sarah Palin first appeared to my patient as I was shaving his soon to be smiling face, his skin as smooth a baby’s bottom, showing no anger at what life had shown him.
“Her church in Wasilla is having a weekend dedicated to the journey out of same-sex attraction,” I said, as I swirled the razor in a dull yellow basin holding the sweet smelling warm water.
In his silence, my patient’s eyes moved first to Sarah’s well rounded bottom as she glided to the podium, moving on to focus on her bare white forearms before settling on her flowing hair, under which her boxy earrings dangled. Behind her stood her husband Todd, clapping after each dig, smiling as the crowd shouted out “Kill him” and “Terrorist.” Todd nodded as his wife spoke, placing his hands in front of him, his left hand holding his right in check at the wrist until his smile broadened and he clapped. Todd lifted his left hand to chest level, splaying out his fingers as his right hand gently pounded into his left palm.
“Todd’s fingers are club shaped…he might have cardiac disease,” I told my patient, as his eyelids fluttered, wanting to take him back to sleep.
Our eyes watched Todd’s gentle clapping as I said: “You think those hands can pray the gay away?”
My patient stared at Todd’s hands until the alarms behind the bed silently flashed and his sweat broke through the scented water and astringent aftershave lotion. His eyes opened wide, like when I first started taking care of him, before I learned how to touch his skin without hurting him.
“It’s OK,” I said, gently pushing a milligram of Ativan into his stomach trough the G tube sliced into his abdomen.
I looked into my patient’s eyes, as both the desire for more sleep and the downward pull of the drug took hold. On his irises, clear, open and blue, I saw the reflection of Todd clapping, as both he and his wife smiled as another threat is screeched out against her opponent. His eyes closed and the clapping hands disappeared, the alarms stopped their scream and I looked out the window as another girder was placed closer to the sky on the frame of the building across the street.
“You like that couch you are sitting on?” I asked the young, young, young man as I handed him lemonade in a glass so cold my fingers stung for a few seconds after it had left them.
“Yeah…very cool. This drink is most appreciated,” he said.
“Just so you know, you are sitting on the couch of my best friend, Marc. He died alone. The hospital he was in wouldn’t let his lover in to be with him because they weren’t married. They said he wasn’t family.”
“Bro…this law is not about that…it’s about…”
“Shut the fuck up,” I said.
And he clapped. The young, young, young man looked at me and clapped. The fingers of his left hand splayed out, his right hand rhythmically pumped into his left palm.
“You guys in this neighborhood are so dramatic,” he said.
“Why don’t your hands make a sound when you do that?” I asked.
We both stood up and moved toward each other, stopping carefully a few inches before our bodies could touch.
“You have to stop that,” I said. “Stop making that sound.”
“Didn’t you say you can’t hear me?” he asked.
I pushed his hands together and held them inside mine.
“Stop,” I said.
I looked into his eyes and he immediately looked down again at my Star of David, wet with my sweat, then up into my eyes. His hands relaxed in mine. They did not try to push their way out of my grasp. I could feel the pulses in each of his radial arteries. They were strong, regular in their rhythm, dancing in my hands, which no longer stung from the iced filled glass I had given him to drink from. He began to open his hands into mine, with a willingness that said they wanted to spread out fully. I could have done anything with him.
He finished his lemonade, gathered up his pamphlets from Marc’s couch and walked to the door, his body finally weighed down by the day’s heat.
I gave him the Mary Astor book and told him: “She lived in the big house behind my building on Temple Hill Drive.”
I put the lemonade glasses in the sink and, after watching from my kitchen window as the young, young, young man walked up Gower to Temple Hill Drive, I opened my freezer and took out a set of batteries. I placed them on a small green plate, where they would defrost quickly in the afternoon’s heat. Tomorrow, I will install them in my patient’s headphones.
3 November 2008