The trouble with it being cold in LA is that it’s not really cold. You don’t technically need the heat on. Still, the houses are cold unless they are hot and overheated. I don’t have the heat on, but I’m wearing a down vest and my favorite hat, one I bought a couple of years ago in an expensive shop near Lincoln Center over the Christmas holidays. My dear friend who teaches at Columbia had lent her apartment to my husband and me while she was in China. The hat is cashmere in a grey/blue pretty knit. I bought it in case I got into the winter writing workshop at Sundance with my script for The New Me.
The year before on Thanksgiving weekend, after we dropped our son off at the airport, we went to a screening of a much-anticipated movie, and the place was packed with industry people. On the way out, my husband bumped into a director he knew, and I ended up walking with the director’s wife, who showed an unusual interest in me. No one in my twenty years in this town as the wife of a hard-working picture editor has ever showed me any interest. I say that without a touch of rancor; it’s just the way it is here. No one pays attention to you unless you are famous or rich or very young (under thirty and exceedingly beautiful). And in the case of the later, that doesn’t last long.
She actually asked me what I did. I told her (which was partly true) that I wrote short stories. It was what I was deciding not to do anymore – write short stories – which is what I had decided to do since I wasn’t going to write novels. She said she absolutely adored short stories and wrote her email address out and asked me to send her a few. The New Me was a long short story; technically, I suppose, a novella. I sent her also a few others that had been published in literary journals.
A few weeks later she asked me for lunch. I’d found out by then she had directed some interesting movies and had a career as a screenwriter/producer.
“You’re the real deal,” she said, when we sat down to lunch. “And is Jules your husband?”
“Jules is everybody’s husband, isn’t he?” I answered referring to the charming and narcissistic male in The New Me. I was flattered, but when I feel that way I am also distrustful.
It turned out she was affiliated with the Sundance people. She had gotten her own start writing and directing a film emanating from their famous writer’s lab. She wanted my permission to submit my long short story/novella The New Me. I said “sure.” And then nothing happened.
Every once in a while, she emailed me and asked me if I’d heard anything. I hadn’t. I believe there was another lunch that lasted a couple of hours. Finally, I got a call from someone’s assistant with an extremely snotty voice, telling me I had an appointment with Ms______________.
And once again, it felt unreal. I wrote fiction, I wasn’t a screenwriter. But if this appointment with the head person really meant something, I decided I would write what they asked me to. I wondered how much they would pay.
Nothing, as it turns out. They liked the idea, it was fresh, she said, and she was interested in comic views. She then informed me if they decided to accept me in their program it would do wonders for my career.
The meeting lasted all of ten minutes, but I left with this: You are very lucky to have been asked to write a free script. We guarantee nothing, and please don’t hesitate to call, if you have any questions.
“Where did she take you to lunch?” my sponsor wanted to know.
“We didn’t go to lunch,” I replied. “Apparently I’m going to write a script.”
“That’s wonderful!” You’re so lucky! I knew it!”
“She didn’t promise me that I’d get in the program.”
“Of course not.”
“She said to stay in touch. Does that mean to show her drafts?”
“No!” replied my new friend emphatically, “Don’t do that.”
All my friends were extremely excited.
“This is the break you’ve been waiting for!”
“Aren’t you thrilled?”
The truth was, I didn’t know jack shit about writing a script and still less about adapting a story for a movie. But since I’m trying to tell the truth here, I didn’t have anything else to do since I had decided I was going to give up writing and hadn’t yet gotten a job or gone back to school to study to be something else. I didn’t even have Henry yet.
So, I watched Sunset Boulevard, Amadeus, The Lady Eve, Network – all the movies I thought were great. I’ll never be able to do this, I thought, because by that point, I had figured out that writing movies is all about the omniscient narrator, the “voice of God” I always called it. I’m terrible with the voice of God. First person, which is horrible to write in and allows you no freedom whatsoever, is the point of view that comes easiest to me. Limited point of view in which you go very deeply into the head of one person is also fairly easy for me. But writing a script, where I said to myself the voice of God is the camera, well that’s the hardest of all things and I’ll never be able to pull it off.
“Just write down what happens,” said my practical husband. “If you can write a book, you can write a script.”
And so I bought the software and wrote a first draft, a second draft, a third draft. By about draft seven, I asked friends to look at it. After all, practically everybody we knew was an editor or a producer or a writer or a something or other.
“It doesn’t have the warmth of the story,” said one tactful person.
“It’s brilliant,” said my darling friend Lisa who is invariably supportive.
My husband said, “I don’t know…” which is what he always says when he doesn’t want to tell you what’s on his mind.
“There’s nothing much here,” said one of his editor friends and I could tell he was enjoying himself. “It’s just a lot of filler.”
My sponsor spent an entire morning with me. I brought lunch, and we sat in her beautiful house, and she gave me notes. The maid walked in and out, the clean dogs were off in the distance playing in what looked like a meadow designed just for them. I’d love to have a meadow like that for Henry. She said, “No emotion here” and “What are you doing there?” I took notes, my head was spinning, and I stumbled out of there several hours later.
Then I sat down and wrote a draft that didn’t seem half bad and I hand-delivered it to the Sundance offices a few miles from here in Beverly Hills.
A few weeks later, I awakened to the following email:
Dear Mary we are writing with the disappointing news that your script for The New Me isn’t going to be included in the spring writer’s workshop. Please resubmit in three months.
“Nobody gets in on the first round,” my sponsor emailed me back. “I didn’t and nobody else I know did. You’ll get in the next time.”
“You have to!” everyone I knew said. “Not everybody gets asked to submit again.”
So I sat down again. I got into the characters. I wrote another draft, then another. I changed the character of the new me from one based on my friend Sarah who a lot of people thought we were having a ménage a trois with. The three of us hung out a lot and we always took hikes together, followed by cappuccinos and rolls at a trendy coffee joint where lots of people we knew saw us. I replaced her with someone based on another friend of mine, who we also hung out with. She, I decided, was a more formidable new me. I even named my character after her.
Then I got into Harriet’s sons more. Before, they had been sketches, so I fleshed them out. It was fun listening to them talk. It made missing my own son less heart-wrenching. But it was nerve-racking. I didn’t have much time to hand this new draft in. And there was still something missing. I was having lunch with a screenwriter friend of mine who is very smart, and I told him how nervous I was.
“I’m screaming in the shower,” I told him and it was true. I was screaming in the shower quite a lot. I wouldn’t do anything like that now because it would frighten Henry. But back then, I was screaming in an empty house.
My friend widened his eyes and smiled. “Use the screaming in the shower in your screenplay. It’s great!”
And that’s what turned everything around. That scream of frustration and fear is the emotional center of the screenplay and in the subsequent novel I wrote based on the screenplay.
“I think you have a good chance of getting in,” said another screenplay writer friend of mine, after he read my final draft. What will you do if you get in?”
“I don’t know, “I said.
“I mailed you the final draft of my screenplay,” I emailed my mentor. I think it’s much better than it was. I’m even sort of proud of it.”
But she was too busy to read the screenplay. She wished me luck.
So once again I hand delivered the script to the Sundance offices a few miles away in Beverly Hills. I filled out some forms to enter graduate school to be a shrink, and on the day of the campus open house, I twisted my neck so badly I couldn’t drive there.
My husband’s show had their winter break. We went to New York for several days and on to East Hampton because our house was empty. A couple of weeks later I awakened to the following email.
I write with the disappointing news that you will not be invited to take part in the Spring Writer’s Lab. It may interest you to know that you got to the very last round. We all were struck by your wit, your warmth and your humanity….
FUCK! I screamed and woke my husband up. This was six-thirty in the morning Eastern Standard Time.
I got back in bed and picked up Middlemarch, which I had started rereading for the ninth or tenth time. Mr. Casaubon had just died, and Dorthea was now a widow, walking around dazed in the cold grounds of the Parsonage.
I moped around for a few days. When we got back to LA, I moped around some more.
Not too long after that, I got Henry. My husband was working seven days a week, and we were having a lot of Santa Anas. So I took Henry back to East Hampton with me because the house was still empty. And he kept me company for the time it took me to turn the script into a novel. I never could have done it without him, or of course without the script I had written for Sundance. By then it was spring and a very cold spring it was indeed. I kept the house really cold because I hate working in hot houses. I wore my cashmere hat at my desk while I was working. I followed the screenplay scene by scene. I used a little from the opening of my long short story, but the screenplay had it all.
As soon as I finished the manuscript, I sent it to Lou Aronica at The Story Plant and he accepted it. And it was published last May. All’s well that ends well.
The big news in LA is that it has finally rained. And rained again. And more rain is predicted soon. Everyone except for the dogs and the outdoor cats are finally exhaling in relief. People are thanking God it is finally raining. Though gratitude doesn’t seem to have affected the streets. Motorists all over town are furious. The rage is palpable, the traffic is outrageous and people are honking, slamming on the brakes blocking the intersections. Nobody here puts a head out the window and yells, “fuck you!” like they do in New York or New Jersey. LA, the spiritual capital of road rage is home of the concealed weapon under the seat.
Nevertheless, the rain is fabulous. It’s a religious event. Though the drought is by no means over, things are feeling a lot more optimistic around here. Yay! One can flush the toilet with impunity. Yay! Take a guilt free bath for heaven’s sake! Lately, I’ve been using the water that’s left in back of the fake espresso machine I love so much and watering the cactus outside. Or just dumping it around, everything’s been so parched. We were in this sort of dry hell. And yes, I think hell is a dry fiery place (unless hell is a watery water-boarding somewhere).
Yes, climate torture seems to be over for a while here. Or at least temporarily abated. I’ve been conferring with the honey man at the green market since the drought started, and he told me recently if it didn’t rain this winter it would be over for his bees. I can’t wait for Saturday so we can thank God together. Maybe best of all, we haven’t had a Santa Ana in two whole weeks. The wind is cool. The sky is clean. When you drive East you can see the mountains, now beginning to be snow peaked, instead of a grey mass of smog that just sits there obscuring earth and sky.
Twice this week, I haven’t worn sunscreen. Or sunglasses. And a hat. It’s cool enough for layers. The down comforter is on the bed and the thin summer blankets finally folded and away. The men at the nursery around the corner are wearing bright yellow suits and they smile and wave when we walk past them in the rain, Henry and I.
Since our neighborhood is Little Osaka, a lot of the dogs are wearing fashionable raincoats. In fact, my neighbor Nomi admonished me when she saw that I let Henry go out without a coat and offered to lend me one of her Shih Tzu’s many coats. I can only imagine what Henry would do if I tried to dress him up in a raincoat.
It’s Hanukkah. It’s almost Christmas and yes, this rain is the best present anyone who lives in the desert could want. Thank You God, Thank You Goddess, Thank You Jesus, Thank You Judah Maccabee, Mother Nature, Father Sky and all the powers that be.
Gotterdammerung…..not quite yet.
I went to a an old fashioned bookstore the other day in Santa Barbara. I’d gone there to visit my cousin and taken Henry because unlike here they let dogs on the beach in Santa Barbara. Chaucer’s Books, what a place it is! They have new books and used books side by side. And what a selection. Everything from the complete works of Betty Smith to practically everything William Burrows wrote. They had John O’Hara, Upton Sinclair, Oscar Wilde, obscure English mystery writers, how-to’s written in 1913. I bought a little book on tips for wives first published in the early twentieth century and one for husbands too. I’m writing a book about a woman who writes an advice column and maybe they’ll inspire me.
I also bought a set of haiku dice with complicated directions that I know I’ll never use. But I couldn’t resist it. There were lots of people in the store buying lots of books. And the sales people knew about books too. I felt like I was in the freaking twilight zone.
I have a long standing fantasy which is to be in a room with all the books I’ve ever read, on clean dusted shelves in alphabetical order and in the original edition I read them in. And it seemed in Chaucer’s Bookstore, this might be possible. I saw a shelf with every major literary journal and many I had never heard of. Not that I read literary journals, but I’m glad they were there casually, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, instead of the rarer and rarer sight.
Perhaps I’d stepped into a time warp. Yes, so other worldy was this experience that I thought for a moment, maybe I’d died and gone to heaven. Henry started barking his head off, so I figured I was still alive. God Bless You Chaucer Books. May you live on forever and prosper.
A while ago, I was thinking about giving up writing. I imagined how great it would be not to have to sit alone most of the day, not worry so much about getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, not drinking, exercising all so I’d be clear headed enough to write every morning.
I didn’t want to go back to advertising; even if I could get a job. I thought about going back to school and becoming either a teacher or a shrink. But the idea of going back to school did not appeal to me.
I was visiting my friend Lisa in New York during this time and she said, “why don’t you look in the paper?”
One ad caught my attention right away: EXECUTIVE HOUSEKEEPER, MUST LIVE IN FIVE DAYS A WEEK. Starting pay 75 thousand plus benefits.
WOW, I thought, not a bad gig. I could certainly be an executive housekeeper.
It was a 212 number. Which meant it was probably some huge apartment on the east side with a servant’s wing. I remembered when I was just out of school writing fashion promotion how the dragon lady Eleanor Lambert, the woman responsible for the BDL, had hired me to be one of her “live in” assistants. She gave one a back room in the giant apartment on Fifth, a couple of hundred cash for spending money and a limo at one’s service when it wasn’t serving her. She was compiling some encyclopedia on fashion and I was one in a long line of ingénues who did the actual writing of the book. I don’t think it was ever published.
I don’t remember much about that time, chez Lambert, except for reading The Portrait of a Lady for the first time, in the green chintz canopied bed in my room and dinner on a tray when I wanted it. There were some consultations with Lambert while she was in the tub and a few desultory rides in her limo. I also remember getting sick and her kicking me out of the back room with a curt note.
I assumed this executive housekeeper gig would be more rigorous but I was strong. I wanted to run away from LA, and live in NY. I could order groceries, cook dinner for the family if I had to, but they probably had a chef, and I could help him/her and generally run things. I had grown up in the kitchen hanging out with Aline my mother’s housekeeper during all of my formative years. And of course, I’d run my own house.
I guess I should mention, my son had just gone off to college, I was probably in a state of empty nest psychosis. I never once thought in the elaborate fantasy I concocted about this job, how I would tell him since he left home, I’d become a housekeeper, albeit an executive one with a good salary. But I do remember thinking that he could stay with my mother-in-law when he was in town, and not have to stay with his mother in the servant’s wing. And of course I never told my husband about any of this—part of the executive housekeeper appeal was disappearing one day–—no strings attached.
So I went into Lisa’s beautiful little office (she was still asleep) and dialed the number from the ad. I was imagining an aristocratic voice, Locust Valley Lockjaw or something like that. The voice that answered the phone had a nasty nasal twang and sounded more Queens than Brooklyn, certainly not to the isle of Manhattan born. Not like my husband’s parents, or my husband come to that.
“I’m calling about the ad in the Times,” I said.
She gave a little laugh, and told me she was glad I spoke English.
“Oui, oui,” I said, but she didn’t laugh back.
“So tell me a little about the job. You’re offering a lot of money for
“I know,” she said, defensively. “The applicant must be very qualified.”
“I couldn’t be more qualified to be an executive housekeeper.”
“Do you have references?”
I didn’t have a smart phone then. So I mentally sifted through the rolodex of my mind. I knew lots of writers. Any one of whom could pretend to be Mrs. Joe Schmo Rich Person and give me a glowing reference.
Mary has worked for me for five years, her cooking is great, her kitchen cabinets are well organized and if she only ironed, she’d be the best household slave you’ve ever had. Never have to worry leaving money out and she won’t break the crystal. Good with kids and animals too.
“I can give you several references,” I assured her.
“Okay,” she said. “Maybe we should meet.”
“And I do great flowers! I’m assuming you entertain a lot.”
Indeed, I was deep into the fantasy. I would wear a long black dress like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Or maybe all white like a California waiter. I’d been on many job interviews, but never a job interview to be a servant. Would I be obliged to enter by the back entrance?
“We go out a lot,” said Mrs. Whoever She Was.
That’s cool, I thought. Less work for me. I don’t know what made me say what I said next.
“You know, of course, I don’t do floors and toilets.”
“Well!” she fired right back. “If you work for me, you’re doing floors and toilets.”
I was totally indignant.
“You said it was an executive housekeeper. Executive housekeepers don’t do floors and toilets.”
“They do in my house.”
“I don’t want the job,” I said.
“I knew when I heard your voice you weren’t the right person.”
“Screw you, I’m a great housekeeper, you’d be lucky to get me.”
“Your not worth all the money I’m paying—“
“I’m worth far more than that!”
Believe it or not, it went a little further from there until we finally banged down our respective phones.
I guess I sort of knew I wasn’t going to give up writing…
The other day I found a hundred dollar bill plus a five and a few ones balled up on the grass in the Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. I’d gone down there because it’s Henry’s favorite place to walk, and mine too. Palm trees, the ocean, lots of other dogs, and now I was a hundred dollars richer.
I’ve found money before.
A fifty once, in front of my apartment; a twenty in front of the Condé Nast building when it was next door to Brooks Brothers on Madison. But never a windfall that size. I looked around and no one appeared distressed. I told myself that if someone were frantically searching for this wad I would return it. I suspect it was a minor dope deal and the dealer dropped the cash.
When we got home, I put the bills in a little bowl I keep for loose change in the top drawer of my desk wondering what to do with it. Alas, a hundred dollars wasn’t as exciting as it used to be.
When I was 18, my rich Uncle Herman threw a hundred dollar bill at me and when I bent to pick it up he laughed and told me he wanted to see me grovel. Not exactly an elegant avuncular gesture but pretty much in character for him to want to mess with my head like that. Still, the hundred-dollar bill was way too powerful for me to resist. I could wait tables all night and only come home with twenty-five bucks. I was a practical person even back then in my idealistic days, and I have never wished I hadn’t picked up the bill.
This is beginning to sound like a Frank Sinatra song. When I was twenty I had a job working in the summer for a friend of the family as his secretary. I’d known the guy my whole life. He ran a publicity firm and I was his only employee. There weren’t very many clients. And though I could type really fast, I couldn’t do anything useful like take dictation. One afternoon he called me into his office and offered me a hundred bucks to take off my shirt and bra. He said he wouldn’t touch me, he was just going to take a picture of me. And I complied. It’s one of the filthiest memories I have, though he kept his word and didn’t attempt any sort of contact, just a steely-eyed gaze. He photographed me and once again I was a hundred dollars richer. He told me I had nice shoulders. I realize now he didn’t say I had nice tits. Was he too trying to mess with my head?
Flash forward a few years later. I’m working for Condé Nast. My present husband, who was my boyfriend, had dumped me and gone back to his old girlfriend. I was heartbroken, but very young, and not exactly waiting by the telephone for him to call. I met a very sexy much older man at work. He was one of our clients. Right away I found out he’d been in a concentration camp though he wasn’t a Jew. The concentration camp part intrigued me I have to say.
He said things in his thick accented sexy voice like, “Sometimes ze smell of shit is good. At least you know you are alive.” He was married, of course. And after he left the first night, I found a hundred dollar bill in my sugar bowl. Is that why they call older men sugar daddies? Was the old guy paying for sex? Obviously, he had a lot of experience in this area. Did he think I turned tricks on the side when I wasn’t writing for Vogue? Not a bad idea considering how little they paid us. But the hundred was a bit of a mind f— also. I saw him again several times after that, and he never repeated the gesture. I bought a pair of shoes with the money. A few weeks later, my husband broke up with his old girlfriend and we’ve been together ever since.
I don’t know how to get off this train of thought. I’m thinking of more and more things involving hundred dollar bills. Like the boyfriend who once gave me his poker win, or the time my husband offered our little boy a hundred dollars to cut off the sweet curly tail he had carefully grown down the back of his head for two years and he took the bait. I don’t know where the tail is; I lost it during one of our moves.
I opened up the drawer again and looked at the hundred. I’m sure it was a dope deal. It seems a long time ago that someone with a foreign accent slipped me a hundred for a wild night. Or being that young and vulnerable that some “deeve” friend of the family could pull strange head-trips when my mother wasn’t looking, though honestly when was she ever looking at anyone but herself? But that’s another story….