He had never been to California in his life. But there he sat in a red Ford Mustang convertible at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood, California, waiting for the light to turn green. It was three in the morning Pacific time. That’s the time to get up and milk the cows back home in Indiana. However, the L.A. nightlife all around him was in mid-stride, and would continue for another two hours in clubs, on sidewalks, and in the houses that dotted the back side of the Santa Monica Mountains. His left leg shook against the floor near the brake pedal. He had to pee. Badly. Fourteen miles in Los Angeles traffic took longer than a trip from Kokomo to Indianapolis. The physical situation he was in just added to the intensity of what had happened in the previous eight hours.
In case you haven’t guessed, it was me in that convertible watching the beautiful people wander through West Hollywood as this fish out of water looked for an open gas station to take a leak in.
I had just come from commiserating with my friend Miles, a film producer headquartered in Los Angeles. He had invited me to the Los Angeles International Film Festival in Culver City. We had been at the festival that evening enjoying the trappings of Hollywood: drinking free liquor and being entranced with very talented and beautiful student directors from UCLA’s film school in the festival’s filmmaker lounge. Unbeknownst to us while we were reveling, someone walked off with Miles’s three-thousand-dollar camera while we stood less than two feet away.
Security was called. Large men with headsets descended. A distraught Miles described his camera to the security team. Rather bleary eyed from looking at handsome youngsters and drinking free Maker’s Mark whiskey, I looked around at the scene of the crime. Something was missing. What was it? Sobering up, I exclaimed: “The old lady is missing!” referring to the mysterious older woman who had struck up a conversation with us earlier in the afternoon. The group turned to look at me in confusion. What old lady was I talking about? Miles looked at me and repeated, “You are right, the old lady is missing, and so is my camera.” 48 hours after I landed in L.A., I was in the middle of real Hollywood drama. The question was: How did I get in this situation to begin with?
Miles is a fellow and a film screener for Film Independent, the nonprofit organization that runs the L.A. Film Festival. He had asked me a month earlier if I wanted to come out and attend the festival as his guest. Miles, a hero of mine, had uprooted himself from New York and moved to L.A. to make his mark in the film industry. His inspiration kept me in the entertainment business. I was about to give up after making some bad deals and having horrible results. Physically sick and chronically depressed, I was a mess. Lounging in my recliner, I was just waiting to die. Miles, however, was always very optimistic in a business that is cynical and sometimes grim to work in. His story gave me courage. So I forced myself out of my chair and started making plans to join him.
I found a place to stay in the Hollywood Hills home of a Dutch film editor who lived just minutes from Sunset Boulevard, plus I found a great deal on a rental car. Things were going too well. This trip started to sound like either serendipity at work or the set-up for a disaster film. Whichever it was, I was on my way to Hollywood.
On the big day, Delta squeezed my big butt into its “Comfort Class” seating at 7am Indy time on Thursday morning for the four hour flight to Los Angeles International Airport. After disembarking, I soon arrived at the car rental place and stood in line with about twenty people in a building with faulty air conditioning. Small box fans were not cutting it as the temperature at 8:30 am had risen to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
A middle-aged African-American gentleman looking like he had just come from teaching a high school civics class checked me in. He was wearing a white shirt, tie, and a long sleeve, summer-weight blue sweater. Not a bead of sweat showed on his forehead. He was calm and gracious, despite dealing with all these sweaty assholes standing in line. I was really amazed that he wasn’t dripping wet in that sweatbox and commented to him on his coolness. “Really?” he replied, pleased that someone had noted his sartorial choices of the day. “Yes, you are the coolest person in here” was my reply. He smiled broadly. Then he said “I see here that you have a Ford Fiesta reserved,” referring to the econobox that I had ordered online. He asked, “How would you like a little upgrade?”
One hour later, I found myself driving down California US 105 in a red Ford Mustang convertible while listening to a Spanglish music station. Welcome to Hollywood.
Doing a reality check at this point I had to ask, was I working, or was I on vacation? There were a laptop, two cameras, a light and a shotgun mic in my suitcase: Enough equipment to shoot a porn movie or my last will and testament. My Air BnB in the Hollywood Hills looked like it had come straight out of the movies. My own entrance, a courtyard to park in and a separate bathroom all on the side of a steep street that overlooked Los Angeles down below. Secluded, yet only five minutes away from the Sunset Strip. This was someone else’s life, not mine.
My host had asked what I did. I told him I produced educational films in the Midwest. He said he also worked in film. “I work in the film industry.” The term had an ethereal quality to it that makes skeptics and hometown neighbors call bullshit. Yet it is a word that signifies something for those of us in the entertainment business. You might be a database creator for Panavision or Paramount and never get close to a camera, yet you can say you work in the film industry. My host said it and I repeated it: I work in film.
After picking up Miles the next afternoon, we put the top down on the Mustang and headed straight down Wilshire Boulevard. The sun was out. Palm trees rolled past. We were talking about the business and I was living a dream that could only happen in one of the thousands of pieces of celluloid and digital bits that had been produced in this town every day for over a century. Playing the producer man, busy negotiating traffic, and listening to Miles tell me the deals that were going down— what a great feeling.
The first stop was a restaurant called Nick’s on Pico Boulevard for a bite to eat. It was a classic old Hollywood diner with autographed photos of the stars lining the booths inside. We sat outside at a table under a faded red-striped awning talking, eating and taking photos of the people as they ambled by. We watched the crowd, all the while trading pleasantries with the owner, a sun-bleached hippie with long hair and a laid- back, California vibe. Remarkably, many of the homeless of L.A. seemed to look just like the restaurant owner, with the same vibe and the same hair. It answered the question of why everyone in L.A. is so nice to each other: You could be talking to the millionaire owner of a restaurant that has money for your project or a person who just got their meal from a dumpster out back. Why take a chance?
After eating, we headed out to the film festival located this year at historic Culver City Studios where David O. Selznick had filmed Gone with the Wind. A tour guide later told me Selznick had shot the famous “burning of Atlanta” scene on the back lot. The old studio was about to be razed, so Selznick actually lit the buildings on fire and rolled the cameras as Clark Gable, Butterfly McQueen and a stand-in for Vivian Leigh rode a buckboard through the flaming firetraps. Who says this stuff isn’t real?
Miles got his credentials at the festival headquarters and we headed to the filmmakers' lounge to get some drinks. Finding it not open yet, we walked the courtyard across from the studio through a local plaza to find a place to gear up for the serious drinking and networking to come. Befriending a server at the nearby bar, we found out she was the lead in a film directed by a former NFL player that Miles had worked with. Her film was finished but the distribution company had requested reshooting with another actress in the lead. They wanted to reshoot it with a white woman. I saw firsthand that the whitewashing at the Oscars is just the tip of the iceberg.
We spoke for several minutes and Miles was worried that her boss at the bistro would get mad that she spent so much time with us. Murray said her boss was okay with it; that it happened to her all the time.
It was the quintessential Hollywood meeting on the street and I was right there in the middle of it. It made me wet my pants just a bit. These meetings happen everywhere in L.A. If you are talking to a server at a restaurant in L.A., you will most likely discover they are an actor or a writer. If you talk to security personnel, they might have a short film they just made and took to Sundance. There are Uber drivers, clerks at Target, and L.A. city employees who daily take time to check with their agents or wait for calls from central casting while working their “day jobs.” Los Angeles restaurants accept that their employees need time for auditions, classes, and networking. The businesses don’t seem to mind. They hire extra staff to accommodate. It’s the business that makes their business run, why fight it?
On the way back after our drinks and commiseration, we walked past an older white woman who looked a bit disheveled. Her weathered face was framed with white medium-length hair that looked clean but uncombed. She wore an out-of-style gold zip jacket and grey slacks. Old Hollywood maybe? A rich eccentric perhaps? She asked if we were going to the festival because she had an official pass to come into the filmmaker lounge. We said yes and asked her to join us.
Miles engaged her in some conversation as we walked on through the studio gate. She gave no name but had a story. What was the story? Women. Many women who had to face many hardships. Where was she from? Everywhere, raised in many lands. She could have been a trust fund baby who lived a Bohemian existence or the widow of a famous producer. My initial reaction was that she was full of shit, so she fit right in. In retrospect, that was truly an understatement. Then, well, you know what happened.
It’s 11:30 pm on Friday night of my trip. I should still be drinking and making merry, but the student filmmakers in the lounge are terrified and I am talking to a large security guard, who I find out is also a professional cinema audio technician. This was the L.A. Film Festival’s first year in its new location, Culver City, and someone had now committed grand theft on the third night of screenings. Festival organizers had to tweet out to the photographers covering the event to “watch your equipment.” Miles was devastated. Though he is an up-and-coming producer with several credits to his name and some fantastic projects in the works, he is also a husband and father who has to put bread on the table. That camera was what he was using to do that and he does not currently have the means to replace it. Miles just wants to go home.
On the way out, I look at the portable restrooms courtesy of Andy Gump, the “honey wagon” concessioner that controls most all of the portable toilets in many of the productions in Los Angeles. Even though their job is getting rid of shit, they all can say they work in the film industry. “I should stop in there before I go” I hear myself say aloud. But shame and my friend’s grief overwhelm the growing feeling in my bladder. This almost turns out to be a disaster, as you read earlier. I barely made it through fourteen miles of L.A. traffic to my bathroom in the hills.
I never saw a film at the film festival. I had spoken briefly to Miles by text throughout the rest of the weekend after his camera disappeared but he was still crushed by all that had happened. I was just hoping Miles’s wife would not kill him for him getting his camera stolen.
Touring Paramount Studios at night, I got to walk on the set of my favorite Netflix show, Grace and Frankie, and on Sunday I drove to Santa Monica to a farmer’s market to have some oysters. Earlier I had eaten at a restaurant in Studio City right across from CBS Studios. I saw not one celebrity while I was there. Other than the drama of Friday night, I was just an old tourist passing through.
However, Saturday night I stopped in at the Steve Allen Theater, located in the Hollywood Center for Inquiry, an official group of skeptics and atheists. My guess is that was their “church” so to speak. I was there to see the two most famous people I know that will talk to me, political satirists Travis and Jonathan from YouTube’s “Red State Update”. The theater is separate from the Center for Inquiry, so I am sure that not all the folks in the audience were godless, but the comedy stylings, including the interview of Red State Update characters Jackie Broyles and Dunlap were still entertaining. If you go to Travis and Jonathan’s YouTube channel and watch the show that night you can hear my cackling in the background. We sat and chatted afterward and I gave them a sorely needed microphone stand as a gift. Red State Update runs a pretty bare bones operation despite being followed by many American politicos, along with an actor by the name of Mark Hamill. You might have heard of him. It was a great bookend to my trip up until then. But things were going to get a bit more dramatic before I left.
Monday morning I stopped at McDonalds in Culver City.
Sitting in the parking lot eating my McGriddle with sausage and cheese, a familiar figure, still in her gold zipper jacket, walked by pushing a baby stroller full of her life’s possessions. It was the older white lady who went missing at the same time Miles’s camera did. I called Miles as the old lady we had been looking for settled into McDonald's dining room, ordering two big breakfasts. Obviously she had come into some money. The lady was homeless and I figured she got the money by selling Miles’s camera.
After I called him, Miles arrived by Uber in about 20 minutes. He got in the Mustang with me and we watched the old lady for a bit. He made the decision to confront the person who we believed had stolen his camera. Starting the video on my phone for documentation, we went inside. The woman looked up from her two big breakfast meals and it suddenly dawned on her who was striding toward her. Miles pulled out his iPad and calmly photographed her, then proceeded to ask her just what the fuck had happened to his camera.
Miles himself was homeless when he first came to L.A., so this was, in a way, ironic. He was not violent, nor was he reticent. He was emphatic. That camera was his livelihood against the same forces that had put her on the street.
She admitted taking the camera but the camera was gone, she said, frantically thinking of something to say. “A black guy took it,” she said to the black guy whose photos of his wife, son, even of the lady herself at the filmmaker’s lounge were inside when she walked off with it. The truth was that camera was long gone by the time we confronted the lady at the McDonalds in Culver City.
There are 47,000 homeless in L.A., and they have their own underground economy that turns goods like this into quick cash. We left to turn the photos of her over to security at the festival. The lady bolted out the door with her baby carriage and what was left of her food. Where was she really from? How did she get where she was? How can you humanize someone and yet condemn their activities? Lots of questions that weren’t answered. All we knew is that her day of relaxation had ended and she left to disappear among the other homeless in a vast sea of humanity. Miles’s camera was gone and so was the person who took it. A sad story became sadder.
We went back to Culver Studios to give the lady’s photos to the security folks there, and check to see if they could help in replacing Miles’s camera. After all, how did a homeless woman get a pass to the film maker lounge in the prestigious Los Angeles Film Festival? The festival organizers could not answer. Did they have insurance for such events? They would check. Plot holes are plentiful in this story, but that’s how it gets toward the end. You just want to know how everything turns out. Details have a tendency to get lost.
While waiting for the festival director on the Culver Studio’s lot, comedian, actor, and producer Mel Brooks walked by waving at us, and we waved back. He walks really fast for a 90-year-old man. He disappeared into an office building on the lot. It kind of cheered us up seeing him, knowing all the things he has produced throughout the years, and he is still working on his own movie sequels, plus turning more into musicals.
Brooks walks with a purpose. He has things to do. This 90-year-old man will not stop. Brooks loves what he does and intends on continuing until he drops over. We were all very impressed. Mel Brooks was the only celebrity sighting I had in six days. Totally worth the entire trip.
So here we are where this story began, at a stoplight at the corner of Fairfax and Hollywood Boulevard. The night before I left, I sat in the red Mustang at that same light pondering my future with new enthusiasm.
Then a thought came out of nowhere: “What if someone came up and killed you right here in your fancy rental car?”
It was possible. Things like that happened all the time in the “big city.” I looked in my rear-view mirror. The Hollywood sign was just barely visible a few blocks away. Downtown L.A. was glistening in the distance.
Then I thought of Mel Brooks, walking like a madman to his office on Culver City’s lot. Frantically on the way to age 100 still making magic in a magical place. What would he say?
The light changed. The sadness and fear were replaced by a strange euphoria. “That would be fucking awesome,” I replied aloud to myself. I would die in the shadow of the Chateau Marmont, not in a recliner in Kokomo, Indiana. “You’re gonna die and this is the place to do it.”
The light turned green. Gunning the Mustang into action, I fearlessly took off up the mountain road into the California night. Fucking awesome.