Buy the book on Amazon.com
My endgame was Broadway – or off-Broadway – but I knew I couldn’t go there directly. I needed to go to some third place, so I could reinvent myself, rewire my circuitry. The first item on the scrap heap would be that nasty director’s omniscience; the first purchase would be a brand new suit of flakiness.
Things began with my old college chum, Shelley, who lived in San Francisco, in the Ocean District. Shelley was a singer-songwriter, trying to figure out how to work the music scene. The day I called, she had just discovered that one of her roommates was moving out. This served to further confirm my instincts – the fates were intervening on my behalf. My production company was between projects, so I really didn’t even have to quit – just let them know I wouldn’t be around for the next film. Stacey was pretty sad to see me go (all that competence out the window), but it’s not the general policy of the Dream Machine to step on an aspiration.
I was moved in in a matter of a week. The place was a cool old Arts & Crafts – the living room a dark hardwood plain covered by an enormous Persian rug, several guitars and every percussion instrument known to humankind. I expected Carlos Santana to walk in any second. Maybe Jefferson Airplane. I found an acting conservatory that operated out of Fort Mason, and signed up for a beginner’s class. I wanted to go right back to the roots.
The classroom was a dance studio – miles of floor, lots of mirrors, a barre for stretching. The teacher, Mr. Burman, was a playwright-director with a gruff, blue-collar exterior: rumbling voice, big Polish nose, thinning hair. It became readily apparent, however, that he was also kind, and the owner of a guerrilla sense of humor. (His actual humor was brilliant and twisted, a discovery I made at a performance of his satirical skits. In one of them he took the Catholic molestation scandal to its logical extreme: the priests were now eating the children.)
On the first night, we started with a few standard warmups – acting games I had done in college – then he gathered us for the night’s central activity, something he called “one-minute wanders.”
“This is largely for my own evil purposes,” he said. “I want to know how your little thespian minds work – what level of raw material we’re working with. This here cowboy hat is filled with slips of paper. Each is the beginning of a monologue: ‘The last time I went to London, I…’ ‘I have never been able to tapdance because I…’ Your job is to improvise from there – fact, fiction, doesn’t matter – for whatever seems like a minute. You are to speak as continuously as possible, and to avoid stall words like um, er, yaknow. The main thing is, don’t think too much. Thinking is our enemy. And I’m thinking I should begin with this eager young lady in the front, or else she will burst from her shoes. Um… damn! What was your alias?”
(This from the evening icebreaker, a name game.)
“Red slippers,” I said.
“Dorothy. No – Ruby!”
I extracted a slip and got I hate peanut butter because… And here’s what I said:
“I hate peanut butter because I once read that you could put it on the roof of your dog’s mouth, and it would take him, like, hours to lick it off? Now, I know this sounds really cruel, but what was even more cruel was the way that our dog Sputter, who was a Shih-Tzu (isn’t it fun to say ‘Shih-Tzu’? It’s like you’re swearing but really you’re not). Well anyway, that fucking dog would yip and yap and yop all day long, and one day I just got fed up, so I loaded a spatula with peanut butter and spackled the roof of that furball bitch’s mouth. It worked so well that she spent the next three days licking, and the problem was, her doggie bed was right next to my human bed? And all night long: licklicklicklicklicklicklicklicklick! Finally I put her outside, and she snuck under the gate, wandered into the road and – sniff! – got ran over by a garbage truck. The driver told us he didn’t see her until it was too late, and Sputter didn’t move a muscle, she was too busy licking the roof of her mouth. And that – sniff! – is why – sniff! – I hate peanut butter.”
A director’s note here: for comic effect, I actually spoke the word “sniff!” instead of actually sniffing. I had the class laughing pretty hard, but they stopped when they saw Mr. Burman glaring at me. I knew exactly what he was up to, however, so I glared right back until he broke.
“There is nothing more rude,” he said, “than a student who gets more laughs than her teacher.”
And then I got my applause.
The nice thing about going first was that now I could relax and study my classmates. All in all, they were a remarkably quick-witted bunch, and I was feeling more and more certain that San Francisco was exactly the right place for me.
One student who really caught my eye was Eddy (whose alias was “whirlpool”). His monologue wasn’t actually all that good, but he was such a character to begin with. His face was all sharp angles – sharp chin, generous sharp nose, and small, quick eyes. Very coyote-like. Plus an improbable pile of curly brown hair that reminded me of Lyle Lovett, or a young Bob Dylan. He spoke in a rapid London accent, very clipped and (here we go again) sharp. The rapid speech, in fact, was his prime handicap, forcing his brain to improvise at an untenable pace and dragging “erms” and “ehs” into his monologue (which began, The last time I played golf with John Travolta…).
I had no need of seeking him out after class, because I looked up and there he was.
“Hey, that peanut butter. That was fucking brilliant.”
He said “fucking” in that particular British way, verging on “fawking,” that made it seem much friendlier.
“And condolences on poor Sputter. Such a loss!”
“Eh!” I said. “She was expendable.”
“Oh!” He feigned shock. “Heartless. Say, would you let me buy you a drink and simultaneously interrogate you? I know a fabulous microbrew on Columbus. They have every ale known to mankind.”
How could I say no? After taking ten minutes to pick a pear cider from Rhode Island, I sat as Eddy regaled me with the story of his brother’s wedding, which ended with the groom swimming across a small pond in nothing but his top hat. The story was terribly long, but never boring – a rare combination.
“No offense, Eddy, but where was all this storytelling talent during your one-minute wander?”
“Oh God yes, I know!” He beat himself on the forehead for full effect. “I was thinking too much – precisely what he told us not to do. Halfway through, I was thinking, ‘Where the hell is this story going, Eddy?’ And that mucked me up even worse. I think that’s why I’m taking this class, actually. I need to rid myself of that internal critic, learn to dive out and stretch my boundaries.”
“So you’re not on the acting track?” I asked.
“Nope. Strictly for funsies. Although I can’t figure out what that Bear, Fish, Mosquito nonsense was all about.”
“Just silliness, I’m sure. I’d guess almost the entirety of most acting classes is just to give you license to do things you wouldn’t dream of doing in everyday life. How long did you last?”
“Three seconds,” he said, laughing. “I went for the bloody obvious Bear, and a cute little Asian Mosquito gave me the malaria.”
(He pronounced it “malari-er,” in that peculiar British fashion.)
“Ha! Good thing I didn’t run into you. I went straight for the fish. But then, I’m a good swimmer.”
“Rrowr!” he said, swatting a hand. “Not good enough to avoid my enormous claws!”
As it turned out, Eddy was an inventor. His latest pursuit was a hydrofoil wakeboard that would lift waterskiers above the water. He spent most of his summer weekends performing test runs on the lakes of the Central Valley (and most of his summer Mondays recovering from the bruises).
The acting class was one of a long series of endeavors that he pursued just for the hell of it. He referred to this as the NUP, or No Ulteriors Program. I found this aspect of his personality most endearing, and vowed that I would pursue a few NUP activities of my own.
He lived in an open space preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, forty miles south of The City, in one of a cluster of cabins at the end of a mile-long dirt road. They were originally constructed as a family hideaway for an early Silicon Valley industrialist, and “grandfathered” in after the open space purchase. The road was hell on my shocks, but I came to regard Eddy’s place as my own private retreat, whenever my packed schedule of classes and clerical day-job allowed a bit of sunlight.
Eddy maintained his tinker’s independence by running a one-man deck-staining business; he billed himself as the Deck Doctor. Once in a while I tagged along, and was always amazed at the places where he did his work: grand rustic palaces that overlooked miles of redwood forest, the Pacific a thin blue promise at the horizon. He invited me to become an employee, but I could see the amazing amount of abuse he piled on that wiry body of his, and I doubted it would gibe with my dance classes.
Once or twice a month, we would shimmy downhill to a bar in Menlo Park, to pursue this new thing called “karaoke.” I suppose I could rationalize it as another chance to work on my singing and stage presence, but for Eddy it was pure NUP – particularly because he had not one iota of talent. In the bizarro world of karaoke, however, he probably had more of a following than I did, because he was absolutely fearless. His one sure bet was “Another Brick in the Wall,” which matched his accent and chutzpah, but anything with much of a melody sent him into the William Shatner zone, where he was content to declare the lyrics with much enthusiasm and little regard for the music.
All this admiration might sound like the prelude to a romantic venture, but who can figure the roadmaps of chemistry, the crapshoot of two human frames of mind? For one thing, I had no capacity for it. I was determined to treat San Francisco as a way station – to tap a little syrup from her trunk and and head to New York in search of pancakes.
Or, it might have been Eddy. I had such affection for him, but compared to my serious-minded endeavors, his pursuits seemed inambitious, almost childlike. Or maybe he was just too bloody nice. Once, when my day-job fell prey to a round of layoffs, I was having a hard time coming up with the rent. When Eddy heard about this, he insisted on giving me a loan. But as he began to think out loud about all the fiduciary machinations he’d have to go through to come up with the cash, I stopped him and said, “Eddy, I have this thing called a father? I think it’s time to call him.”
Earnest generosity is not necessarily an aphrodisiac. It often makes it seem like the man is trying too hard. I think women prefer a certain level of self-centeredness, because that’s a quality we can trust.
In any case, Eddy never made a move, so it was easy to place him in that innocent big-brother category. We were great friends, and we had great fun – so no loss, right?
I did, however, take him up on a couple of pressure-washing assignments, which were really quite enjoyable. Each pass of the spraying wand took an impressive amount of grime out of the wood, which provided a pleasing sense of productivity. At the same time, the constant halo of mist kept the August heat nicely at bay. Soon after, I got some assignments from a temp clerical service, and my little cash crisis was averted.
Come October, my year – and my classes – had come to an end, and I was ready for the Big Apple. I had also managed, through my dear sweet casting director, Stacey, to find a year-long sublet on the Upper West Side. Nicely timed with my departure was a big blowout at Eddy’s cabin.
Not that the party was for me. Eddy was up to his elbows with Burning Man, a late-summer festival in the Nevada desert. It was simultaneously a brazen sex party, dustblown survival camp, artistic Carnaval and pagan hippie rite – centered on the immolation of a humongous man-like statue. The network of “burners” was broad and vigorous – almost like a new generation of Deadheads – and they conducted regional gatherings throughout the year. Eddy decided that his cluster of cabins was the perfect destination for one of these, and thus was born Burning Jam, an all-night music party.
With the musician network afforded by roommate Shelley, I was instantly a crucial cog, and happy to contribute before I abandoned the Bay Area. Eddy invited fifty people – three hundred showed up. But burners are great at this stuff; they’ve been trained by the Nevada desert to bring their own necessities, and to readily adapt to the unexpected. Almost instantaneously, the retired orchard next to the cabins became a campground.
The center of activity was Eddy’s deck (the rehabilitation of which was the genesis of his staining biz). Shelley kept the lineup of musicians rolling on- and offstage, owing largely to the use of a “community” drumset and PA system. This was also my first chance to see the end product of all those rehearsals in my living room. Shelley’s band, Slippery Sisters, was definitely pursuing a Lisa Loeb/Natalie Merchant vibe, with Shelley on acoustic guitar and spritely vocals. (Half of the Sisters were actually brothers, but no one seemed to care.)
There was no shortage of dancers, in various phases of exotic dress and undress. The invitation had expressly forbidden dour colors, which opened the door for burner standards like the feather boa, candy-colored spandex, dominatrix leather and various illumination devices that kept them from getting run over on dark festival nights. I went for a retro lime-green pantsuit and a pink British garden hat, plus an Irish brooch of amber-colored glass.
As the roster of official bands gave way to an all-out jam, Shelley proclaimed her duties fulfilled and grabbed me by the elbow. We proceeded to Eddy’s art-car, a chopped-off Honda Accord outfitted with a boat-like deck and pirate sails. He used it to conduct revelers around Burning Man at parade-float speed, and had fitted it with twin outboard margarita blenders. He had spent the whole afternoon there, dutifully sousing his patrons. I felt sorry for him, working so hard at his own party -–but then it was probably the most efficient way to get face-time with each and every guest. I had been to the well thrice already, and Shelley seemed eager to catch up.
Like everyone else who ever met Eddy, she was much impressed, and gave me the kind of glance that said, So what’s he, chopped liver? We assisted with his blending for an hour, then excused ourselves to drift across to a small barn outfitted as a disco, complete with spinning lights and a ‘70s-‘80s soundtrack. The old floorboards were not exactly conducive to dancing, but the crush of bodies seemed to prevent any falls. Shelley and I used this to our advantage, faking several stumbles so we could land on various hunky males.
We were pretty crocked, to be sure, but not half so gone as this one blonde girl, who was basically being propped up by the crowd. She looked about twenty, with the baby fat that a twenty-year-old can get away with, plus an impressive display of cleavage, threatening to escape the confines of a blouse that she must have purchased when she was twelve. She took plentiful opportunities to rub against neighboring physiques – be they male or female – and ended each song by lifting a fist to the sky and screaming “Fuck yeah!”
Shelley bopped over to me during “Rock the Casbah.” “Damn, woman! Have I ever behaved like that in my life?”
I laughed very loudly (because, why the hell not?). “You’ve come pretty close, Mother Teresa.”
She punched my shoulder, very boy-like. “No! I have not!”
“Okay!” I complained. “You have never screamed ‘Fuck yeah!’ in quite that fashion.”
“Nor have your tits ever been close to that size. Ow! Quit it!”
A few songs later, we wandered outside to find a man and woman dressed like gypsies, spinning illuminated crystals at the ends of strings. Then we noticed a crowd gathering at the music-deck. I tapped on a broad, black-clothed shoulder and got a pirate: fake parrot, hoop earring, eyepatch – a pretty thorough job.
“Ahrr!” he inquired.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My girlfriend… I mean, me wench, she’s got this fantasy about doing a public striptease – so hey, we’re here to push the envelope, right?”
“Groovy!” I said, feeling instantly that I had lost my moral compass and was quite happy to be rid of it. Shelley and I sat on a rug over the dirt as a thin Asian girl pranced about between two redwoods. The jammers served up a slow, chewy blues entirely appropriate to the occasion. The pirate, meanwhile, began giving me a neckrub, which might have been his way of releasing sexual tension – but I didn’t care, because he was good.
His girlfriend, however, was a dud. She took forever to take off her top and skirt, revealing a set of very unimaginative underthings. Then she sashayed around in her panties and bra for frickin’ ever, leaving all the guys waiting for more and not getting it. In both the British and American senses of the word, I was pissed.
“Come on!” I shouted. “I can see this much at the beach! Give us a freakin’ nipple!” I gave Shelley a hearty nudge, but she was involved in a liplock with her drummer. (Uh-oh, I thought. There goes that band.) Then the pirate abandoned his duties as my personal masseuse to wrap his girlfriend with a blanket. It seemed like a good time for a pee-break.
I climbed the steps to Eddy’s cabin and found a long line of women at the bathroom door (I assumed the guys were lined up at redwood trees). Every last one of them was snickering uncontrollably, and I soon understood why. Behind Eddy’s bedroom door, two or more someones were going at it like dogs in heat. The moaning and slapping built to a pitch until a successful O was punctuated with a cry of “Fuck yeah!” So the blonde from the barn had finally found her release. The girls in line were performing a kind of knock-kneed Rockettes routine, trying to keep from laughing lest they literally pee their pants. As the line inched forward, I came even with the bedroom door, and I could hear the clipped tenor of her partner: “Fawkin’ great, baby.”
I can’t quite recall my movements after that, but I do remember coming out on the orchard as the moon climbed over the trees, turning the brown California grass to silver pasta. I managed to find Shelley’s tent and crawl through the flaps, the air crackling with chips of laughter and conversation. I was deathly intent on sleep, but I heard another pair of lovers – this from the tent next door – and suddenly I couldn’t remember how to breathe. I imagined dying alone, surrounded by all this humanity, simply because I had forgotten how to let my body pursue its mindless occupations. But my body raised a coup d’etat. My lungs let go like an untied balloon, and the breath came out, turning to tears, turning to sobs.
I awoke to a street gang of Stellar’s jays and a far-off call that I couldn’t quite place. It gradually took on human syllables.
The tent flaps made a papery ruckus, and in popped Eddy’s face, bearing a goofed-up smile and bloodshot eyes.
“Hello! I’m the morning cock! Time to wake the fuck up! I’ve got a shitload of blueberry pancakes for you morning lovelies.”
Shelley kept right on snoring, I shook out my hair, which felt like it had been stored for months in a musty attic, and managed to produce a bleary smile.
“You look awfully happy,” I said. “Or happily awful. Any blonde, big-titted reason for that?”
“Ah yes, the lovely De-bor-ah. Anything but De-boh-ring. Recently thrown to the dustbin by her brutish boyfriend, eager to seek vengeance by grabbing the first penis she could find and having her way with it. And imagine my surprise when it turned out to be mine!”
I laughed, and reached up to pat his whiskered cheek.
“Good for you, Eddy. I’ll be right out.”
“Lovely!” He vanished into the outside world, continuing his duties as town crier. “Fuck-a-doodle-doo! Fuck-a-doodle-fucking-doo!”
I was ready for New York, because I had become an excellent actress.
Photo by MJV