Los Angeles is a miserable town filled with miserable people who do miserable and degrading things for money. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar, a huckster, or a brainwashed retard with an autographed copy of Dianetics on his bedside table. Dante himself never imagined a hell so loathsome as the 405 Freeway on an afternoon Friday, when the denizens of Hollywood’s ninth circle flee the metropolis to spend two days sucking a wind less foul then what’s blown out of the ass of the studios they work for. I have lived in this stagnant shitpot of a city for nine long years, been employed as an actor, and have found my career to be nothing less than a ruthless sham, a grotesque mockery of the American dream, and a medieval prison from which I will never escape. I waste my oxygen-deprived days here hustling to get hired to television shows I’d never watch, movies that only a flag-waving, inbred moron could enjoy, and commercials that saturate the air with the malignant hiss that converts suburban adolescents and postal employees into thrill-killing psychopaths. Despite my disdain for these jobs, I fight for them, each and every day, clawing for them like the starving rodent I’ve been reduced to.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
So lucky I was recently hired to be a series regular on a new television show on a cable network. My contract guaranteed top billing, a salary in the low six, and a trailer next to the soundstage on a studio lot. The show was shit, but that’s irrelevant. ALL shows are shit. No doubt, there are degrees of shit. There’s the shit you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole; the shit even flies wouldn’t buzz around; the shit so fetid that some Amazonian microbe (AKA Bruckheimer) must have been involved in its production. But this was just your average, run-of-the-mill shit. Harmless shit, though nothing you’d put your nose to. It wasn’t going to make me rich, or famous, and good God it wasn’t going to convince anyone I was an artist, but if it employed me for two seasons before getting canceled, I’d make enough money to have health insurance for the next five years. I’d have something to point to at my ten-year college reunion that wouldn’t make me look like a complete and total failure. I could get some clothes and pay off my debts, a reliable car, perhaps, and a new apartment where I wouldn’t be privy to my neighbors’ farts, snores, and sobs in the night. Perhaps I’d even go on a vacation for the first time since moving here. Perhaps I’d rouse Mother from her depression for a week.
Like I said, the job was shit… but it was shit that paid.
Two weeks ago, with four episodes in the can and the pilot yet to air, I was fired from the very piece of shit that had offered me, so temporarily, the promise of success.
“They tell you why?” I asked my manager.
“They said Eddy wanted to call you, but he’s on The East Coast.”
Eddy is the executive producer of the show. He was a very famous television actor in the eighties. I won’t say his real name or describe him in much detail, but I will mention that he played a character who was really into magic, and every time he was on Johnny Carson or Letterman, he’d do some really lame magic trick that bored the studio audience to tears. Eddy showed me some of his magic on set, where it occurred to me that I was acting for free and getting paid to feign amusement at Eddy’s pathetic attempts at prestidigitation.
“They tell you why?” I asked my manager.
“It was The Network’s decision.”
By placing the blame on The Network (a construct that exists beyond human culpability), the various bottom feeders who worked on the show and made the decision to fire my ass are able to protect themselves from any future retaliations that might follow should I ever find myself in a position of authority.
“They tell you why?” I asked my manager.
“Look,” he sighed. “What’s the difference?”
Thus it occurred that I was released from a series by no known person or persons for no given reason.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”
How ironic that Intimate Relationship #9.5 would be the first to console me in my time of grief. Ironic because I had had every intention of dumping her ass and getting in on some of that famous pussy as soon as the show went to air. Of course, I never told her this, but having lived in this town for most of her adult life, she certainly knew the score. Why else would she have lied about being on the pill for the last three months? Before I booked the pilot, IR#9.5 would scowl at me if I even looked at her without a condom on, but after landing the role, I couldn’t sleep for an hour without finding her on top of me, grunting and grinding at me with her crude babymaking technique. It was a terrifying perversion of the sexual act, and I’m lucky to have survived the experience without having spawned some unfortunate beast to whom I would have denied to its dying day that I ever knew its mother.
“They called my manager to ask what to do with my stuff,” I said as I lay on the couch swigging a beer. I had neither shaved, showered, nor moved from the couch in a week.
“You should have them put everything in a box and ship it over,” she suggested. “You shouldn’t have to go back there.”
I thought of the porno I left in the VCR in my trailer. The one I made on my own, featuring me and a pair of extras from episode two.
“No, I should go back,” I said
IR#9.5 made me promise to control my temper when I returned to my former place of employment.
“Living well is the best revenge,” she reminded me. “You take your lumps and you soldier on.”
Actors are expected to have an unwavering confidence. We’re expected to be gracious to the people who shit on us, the thinking being that one never knows how they’ll make it up to us down the road. I’ve been in this business for eighteen years, so I speak from experience when I say that after they shit on you, they seldom send flowers, and they never do you any favors down the road.
But the past is no determination of the future and the future no reflection of the past (according to IR# 9.5’s self-help encyclopedia), so I grudgingly accepted my woman’s advice and decided not to burn any bridges. I’d go down to the set, pack my stuff, and return home like a brow beaten dog recently graduated from obedience school. And if I ran into one of the kind people who was just doing his job when he cut me out of mine (returning me to a life of penury without so much as a courtesy call), I’d wish him all the luck in the world, smile, and say, “Let’s work together again some time.” It was the smart move. It was the classy move. It was the right move. And even if it stung my pride to do so, I was going to behave myself in a dignified and professional manner. I was going to be a mensch. A good egg. A loyal company man.
But you can bet your ass I was going to have a drink first.
I pulled into the bar a block from the studio around four in the afternoon.
“Heard you got shit-canned,” cackled some grip who’d already heard about my misfortune. He slapped me on the shoulder and bought me a round.
I asked him what people were saying on the set, thinking maybe he had an inside scoop on why I’d been sacked.
“From what I hear,” the grip confided, “The Network thought you were upstaging the rest of the cast.”
Good answer, I thought. Almost one I could believe.
“Cheers to that,” I said and bought him a shot.
Arty from Philly sputtered in an hour later straight from a pitch meeting. His tie was loose and his suit torn at the pocket.
“I got reamed in there,” he cried, cocking his thumb in the direction of the studio gate. He called to Nessie, the barkeep, ordered a round and a couple of shots and put it all on my tab.
“I asked for ten million for my film and they threw me down a flight of stairs.”
Indeed there were bruises about his face and neck.
“Where the hell are my drinks,” he shouted, slapping the bar in frustration.
I asked Arty what he’d heard about my situation.
“The Network thought there were too many Jews on the show.”
“But Arty,” I said, “I was the only Jew on the show.”
“Too many!” he shouted. “One is too many!”
It was an unwieldy explanation, altogether possible, but unconvincing when I considered the source. Arty sees anti-Semitism wherever he looks and views all gentiles as enemies or marks. “How smart can the goyim be,” he once asked about the non-Jewish majority in our country, “if they vote Republican and pay ten bucks to see the shit we put on a screen?”
Arty broke out a couple of Xanax to dampen the sound of the Phil Collins tune on the jukebox. I took one as well, not because I needed it (in fact I confess to an embarrassing weakness for some of Phil’s prime eighties’ cuts) but because I seldom say no to any pill that’s set before me after a few drinks.
“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation,” Nessie leaned in to say. “A couple of suits were in here talking, and they said you got fired because of some stories you wrote on a blog.”
“Really?” I asked, feeling heroic at the prospect of being punished for exercising my first amendment right.
“They think you’re too controversial for an eight o’clock show.”
I found her theory attractive but unlikely. For one thing, I never heard of a network executive who’d be caught dead in Nessie’s establishment. For another, I never heard of one who could read.
“What you oughta do,” slurred Arty, five drinks later and winking at Ness, “is go over there and tell them sonsabitches what you really think.” Weasel that he was, Arty would always have me do what he was incapable of. “Piss on them and their … television shows. And their… films.” He said “films” like it was a swear word, then stood up to make an audience of the bar. “No more good soldier,” he shouted, as the working stiffs in the room egged him on. “I want you to go over there and be a bad soldier. One of those soldiers who shoots up the mosque, burns down the village, and stacks naked bodies on top of each other!” It was his stump speech to a partisan crowd. “Like that Lynddie England chick!” He was on a roll. “Who’s her agent?” The bar howled. “Can you believe they threw her ass in jail?” There was no stopping Arty when he was on a roll. “I woulda signed her to a three picture deal!” They were falling off their stools, they were laughing so hard. “Nessie, you ignorant meeskheit shiksa, how much would you pay to see Lynddie England in a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant?”
Fifteen minutes later, Arty was finger banging the barkeep in the kitchen, and I made my escape from the pub. I needed to get the unpleasant task over with before my friend’s advice took hold. His prescription narcotics were stronger than expected, and I struggled to coordinate my limbs into a motion that resembled walking.
It was a stifling day. The Santa Anas had blown fire into the valley and an orange cloud hung over the sky as the ashen remnants of several gated communities drifted to the ground. Between the blazes, the booze, the drugs and the evening rush, it took me twenty minutes to drive the one block from the bar to the entrance of the studio. Twenty minutes in which my fellow Los Angelinos called me various and sundry names from their cars, flipped me off twice, and threatened me with sodomy.
At the entrance of the lot, my card no longer worked to open the gate.
“Can you give me your name?” asked the guard.
“Julius Fucking Fischman,” I replied.
“Can you spell that?”
While he typed it into the computer, another guard searched the trunk of my Volkswagen looking for explosives. The studios increased their security after the 9/11 attacks. God forbid someone brought a bomb into one of the lots and America would have to miss an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. There’d be an ire across the land, weeks of finger pointing, a call for an independent investigation, outpourings of support, a benefit concert featuring U2, the President demanding tax cuts, a finding that initial damage reports had been exaggerated, an accusation that the bomb was really Raymond’s fault in the first place and the bastard got what was coming to him, billions given to Haliburton to produce a new Raymond, war declared on Drew Carrey, a published report about the findings of The Raymond Commission, hearings on how to prevent another Raymond from occurring followed by a general malaise as the populace awaits another story to distract it from the drudgery of its wretched existence.
“Turn your vehicle around,” said the guard, “park on the street, and I’ll give you a visitor pass.”
It was the ultimate insult. My drive-on revoked and my parking spot re-assigned. I reminded myself that there was no need to take my anger out on the guard. He was just doing his job. Following orders like they do at Fox.
I parked at a nearby Ralph’s Supermarket and stole a shopping cart so I’d have some way of getting my stuff from my trailer to my car. Once inside the studio lot, I pushed my cart past the soundstage where they shoot that cop show, and the one where they shoot that lawyer show, and the one where they shoot that medical drama, and the one where they shoot that sitcom about the white family living in the suburbs, and the one where they shoot that sitcom about the black family living in the suburbs. I had been working this lot, on and off, since I was twelve years old, when I first came here from New York to screen test for a feature film. I didn’t get the part, but having borne witness to the lot, this Eden thrust into the Los Angeles wilderness, I was hopelessly seduced and destined for a career in showbiz. The lot is a magic place, and those allowed entrance are the chosen ones, the working, the blessed few who’ve been touched by The Studio, The Network, The Company. They are the protected envy of California, but I was no longer of their brethren. As I pushed the cart toward my trailer, I could sense my former co-workers’ fear of catching the disease of unemployment that emanated from my sweat. I was a leper to them now. A pariah. A cautionary tale of what can happen if you don’t… if you don’t… what? What had I done? I still had no idea why I had been fired. I could see the punishment but not the crime. But there had to be a reason. And didn’t I have the right to know what that reason was? Were there not laws in our country against firing someone and not telling him why? If not laws, at least rules of behavior? Ethics? Manners?
My name and the name of the character I played had already been scraped off the trailer door. Inside, I grabbed the porno out of the VCR and threw it in the cart. Then I took the VCR, too. Technically, it belonged to the studio, but what were they going to do? Fire me? I took the TV and put it in the cart. There were clothes in the closet, some of which were mine and some of which may have belonged to the wardrobe department. I put most of them in the cart but decided to wear a few layers out in case security confiscated my cart. I put on a couple of T-shirts, a flannel, a hooded sweatshirt, pulled a pair of sweatpants over my jeans, and wrapped a sweater around my waist. I put on a wool hat and a baseball cap. I took the microwave, my toothbrush, my dental floss, hair products, a box of tissues, a stash of Humboldt kind, rolling papers, my bong, my Zippo lighter, my allergy medications, a bottle of cabernet, a fifth of scotch, a couple of loose vicodin, my condoms, my headshots, some candles, a jar of cold cream, a tub of Preparation H, a notebook, a couple of scripts I never got around to reading, a couple of paperbacks I kept around, five rolls of toilet paper, and all the other accoutrements I need to carry me from one acting gig to the next. And after loading everything into the cart, I took one last dump in the bathroom and left it there for whoever moved in next.
Night had fallen by the time I emerged from my trailer, and I saw the area around me being built to look like some one horse town in a classic western. Extras milled about with their spurs clicking against the pavement as a wrangler led some horses to the trough. Two set dressers hammered the hinges on a tavern door, and a prop man carried a bushel of tumbleweeds over to a giant fan. Knowing the main gate would be closed, I pushed the cart in the direction of the back exit and saw Eddy, my former executive producer, walking out of a Portosan on his way back to the soundstage. As soon as we made eye contact, I knew an ugly confrontation would occur. Eddy mouthed an “oh shit” as I pushed the cart in his direction. Piano music seeped from the soundstage. An actress dressed as an Old West prostitute closed the door to her dressing room then peaked out from behind a curtain. Everyone else pretended not to watch.
Eddy came closer, closing the gap, as I pushed my cart. A cruel smile crossed his lips and his overcoat flapped in the wind. I pushed the cart and stopped five paces in front of him, waiting for him to speak.
“You know I wanted to call you,” he said, “but I was on The East Coast.”
“You’re worth 30 big, you can’t make a long distance call?”
“You coulda called me,” he replied.
“And you woulda taken it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he spat on the ground, “you think I’m afraid of you?”
Eddy isn’t a big man, but that didn’t mean I wanted to see him dance. A man doesn’t get as far in the business as he got without holding a fair sharp dangler between his legs.
“So why’d I get fired?” I asked.
“It was The Network’s decision.”
“Cut the mishegoss, Eddy.”
“What do you want to hear?” he asked. “You want to hear that your work was shit? That you pissed off everybody on set? That we weren’t interested in watching you play out your issues with authority on our dime?” It was a lecture on professionalism from a man who once promised a friend of mine a speaking role if she could deepthroat his cock and lick his balls at the same time.
“I want to know who made the call,” I said. Studio security was looking on. For whose safety, I do not know.
“Call came from The Network,” he said.
“On whose recommendation?” I asked. I was losing patience
“I don’t know,” Eddy shrugged. There was a cold indifference to his face. I didn’t know it until then, but he had never liked me. Not even for a moment.
“If you went through the trouble of hiring me,” I asked, “if you chose me out of everyone that auditioned, why didn’t you fight to keep me?”
“Let me ask you something,” he smirked again. “Does Julius Fischman put bread on my table?” Bread. The only items I ever saw on Eddy’s table were an 8-ball and a Chinese hooker.
“With all you got and all I don’t, are you really gonna talk to me about bread?” I took a shot. “We’re supposed to be artists. We’re supposed to be supporting something. Saying something. Making some kind of a statement with our work. With our lives. We’re supposed to believe in what we’re doing. Or at least we’re supposed to pretend.”
Eddy thought about that for a moment. He looked down at the ground and kicked at it like a child angry at a tin can.
“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I always wanted to be a magician.”
Night had fallen and most of the studio’s employees had gone home. The air had cooled and flakes of ash blew through the spaces between the stages. Knowing the front gate would be closed, I pushed my cart through the back lot, toward the back exit, down a street built to look like a street in New York. But it wasn’t any New York I grew up in — no series of hulking, beige brick developments, warehouses of middle-class tenuity. This was Hollywood, New York. The New York you wanted New York to be. The New York you imagined and longed for even when you were in New York. It was brownstones and storefronts made to look like the old neighborhood at the beginning of some Horatio Alger story. It was supposed to be the Lower East Side, the same Lower East Side where my ancestors threw their shit out the windows after being tagged and inoculated on Ellis Island. I pushed my cart through this imitation Lower East Side, just as my grandfather no doubt pushed his cart through the real thing.
Down the street, they were setting up a shot with spotlights, high atop the rooftops, bathing a street covered with a white foam that looked exactly like snow. I pushed my cart toward these barrels of light, and from the cranes dropped a white powder that merged with the ashes from the fires and drifted to the ground, blanketing all below it in immaculate white. Giant fans blew the powder and the ashes and the smoke though the air while the cameraman looked through his eyepiece at this one illuminated spot amidst the darkness of the lot. I pushed my cart toward the exit down this street that did not exist but in this place and time, and soon, on a strip of celluloid.
I pushed my cart down the street and saw a young boy standing in the crosshairs of the lens, atop the stoop of a wood-and-plaster brownstone. He wore a winter coat, with his wool cap, and a scarf around his neck. He was a perfect cherub, glowing in a white light, on an immaculate street, lit up amidst a sea of black. From the darkness, I pushed my cart toward the shot as a make-up artist touched rouge across the boy’s cheeks. The director stared at his monitor as a crane raised the camera man toward the sky. I pushed my cart in front of me, packing fake snow beneath my boots with every step I took, muttering to myself and cursing between my mutters. I pushed my cart as the director called “action,” and the boy gamboled down the stoop, and the crane lowered the cameraman to the ground. With the snow falling and the exit straight before me, the camera to my right and the child to my left, I pushed my cart down the street, dead in the middle of the shot, muttering and cursing between my mutters and never hearing the director call “cut.”