Jeff Smith noon, March 8
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 18
After laying me off, Frank Moe made sure to remind me to apply for unemployment ASAP. I appreciated his concern, almost as much as I appreciated losing my job. I did, of course, apply and I began collecting those jobless checks for the first time in my young life, taking home about two-thirds of the pennies I had been at M.G. I only received that much because of my courier gig the previous year, when I’d made much better money but had temporarily destroyed the Sentra in the process.
“Treat it like a government art’s grant,” my father said of unemployment, one night over the phone from Georgia.
I liked the sound of that. And my father would’ve known. He’d balanced teaching and acting for years in L.A., and I’d spent almost every of those alternating (or less often) weekends we’d been together running lines with him in the car, or going crazy by myself watching rehearsals into the wee hours at some tiny Equity waiver theatre in Hollywood, or sitting with actors after shows at the Norm’s on La Cienega into the even wee’er hours, asking if we could finally go home, and always receiving the same answer in reply: “Just one more cup of coffee, son.” That last cup would seem to hold gallons, and the actors would again start talking about that night’s show, or their latest audition, or how lousy their agent was, and often I’d just fall asleep right there at the table. As a teacher, my father had always been at odds with school administrators, sometimes about his teaching methods and poor opinion of administrators in general, but mostly because of his frequent absences to attend auditions. One audition he’d aced was for a part on an episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE in the late 1970s. In the episode, the oldest daughter on the show, who had gone blind, began to see flashes of light and shapes, and she believed that she was regaining her sight. So Michael Landon (Mr. Ingalls) hitched the horses to the wagon and hauled his daughter across the prairie, all the way to the big city to see an eye specialist, Dr. Fromm, who was played by my father. Dad examined the excited and hopeful girl’s eyes, shining a light into her pupils, asking her to describe what she was seeing or not seeing. After a long and torturous pause to ponder and choose the right words, my father then furrowed his brow and said, in effect, “Nope, sorry, you’re still blind.” A few times later in my adolescence, I had tried to use my dad’s role on the show to get in with a girl, since every girl I knew seemed to have loved the show, and the books, when they were younger. Unfortunately when I’d tell them who my father had played on the show, I’d get a sour look in return. “Oh, I hated that doctor,” they’d say. “I was so sad and so mad when he told her she was still blind.” And with that, my hoped-for in…was out.
For me, however, my father’s most memorable film/TV acting role was his portrayal of an evil scientist on a mid-1980s episode of the kid’s show THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY. It was memorable because it would be the last time I saw my mother and father in the same room together until I’d get married more than a decade later. I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and I’d come home from college for a weekend. Early Saturday morning, I made my way into the kitchen to get some breakfast. My little sister, Jen, who was about nine years old at the time, was at the table eating, my mother in her nightgown brewing Sanka at the counter. The small television next to the kitchen table was on, my sister having been watching Saturday kid’s shows. As I put a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster, my mother pouring her faux coffee, I noticed that, lo and behold, an episode of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY had just begun on TV, and I recalled my father having told me about his part on the show. And then, in an instant, the entire screen was taken up by the bearded face of my father portraying the evil scientist. Of all the episodes I could catch by accident, this was his, I could not believe the odds of it. I stared at the screen in surprised curiosity. And so did my mother. My sister then noticed the odd expressions on both of our faces.
“Who’s that guy?” little Jen asked, indicating the evil scientist onscreen.
My mother cleared her throat and looked at me, emotionless. “That’s his father.”
This, for me, was the equivalent of a family reunion.
And my father’s words about unemployment stuck with me. Treat it like an art’s grant. I needed to. I was sitting home all day in the 32nd Street house, Sandra at school teaching, Ulf out doing who knows what, but the B.O. scent of him lingered at the end of the hall near his bedroom. I needed to find a job, my traditional pride was biting, but my creative pride was biting back. In truth, I didn’t want to go out and find another crappy job again, I felt like it wouldn’t matter anyway, I was going to be disposable and it would lead nowhere. This layoff had chewed at my psyche more than I could have imagined. And then there was Karen. She hated that I seemed to be on unemployment happily. I was directionless, more than ever, and she could not stand it. Then we got in a fight, most likely started by me making fun of her kitty-talk with Kiko, her blasé Himalayan, its long-haired face pressed flat into its skull. But the kitty talk really wasn’t what it was about, obviously, we both knew it, we both knew our time was rapidly ticking away, and it was putting us on edge. Heidi and Sandra’s brother, a big republican pollster offered me a job doing phone research for politicians, and I thought hard about it, wanted to make Karen happy and get my consistent love, but I couldn’t sign on, my bleeding heart would soak through with those GOP voters. I was even, after responding to an anonymous “writer wanted” ad, offered a writing job in L.A., but when I found out it was for HUSTLER Magazine, and that the writing I would be doing would be for the “Beaver Shot” column, I guess I was too much the boy raised by mommy (Freudian fantasies aside), and I was just too nice a lad to say yes. I didn’t even tell Karen about that one, she was enough of a feminist to have dumped me on the spot without ever speaking to me again had I taken a job working for Larry Flynt. I was still surprised, however, as ardent a wanker as any man, that I so easily and quickly turned down the porn job. I was a far more disturbed and aberrant guy than I had previously suspected.
Though my desire was low, I continued to look in the want-ads every day. I remember two ads specifically: the first was for a “Technology Locator,” a position I imagined as entailing my sitting at a desk all day answering employee questions like, “Dave, where are the staples?” or “Dave, do you know what drawer the new toner cartridges are in?” The second ad was for a “Tortilla Quality Control Expert,” a position for which they required “srong writing skills.” I assumed the typo was the fault of the Union-Tribune, and that it wasn’t actually a misspelled “sarong,” but it still got me thinking, and I wondered what writing about the quality of tortillas would require: “Today I examined the tortillas and found them to be slightly oval shaped. Adjustments were made to doughball size and shape, which resulted in the production of a consistently round tortilla. Specs and temps have been noted in the machine log.” Neither of these two opportunities, I regret to say, panned out for me. So I kept turning those newspaper pages. I read more want-ads than I ever had in my life. And it was a complete waste of time. During this period, my fingers were stained a much darker shade of gray, and my eyes would often sting when I rubbed them without first washing away the ink.
Karen became more distant at this point, and she would tell me every once in awhile that I needed to get up to L.A. and write, that the sitcom thing required it. I knew she was right, but I was so torn, the cold and rational part of me ready to go, the heated and emotional part of me anguished. And my subconscious, one can only imagine the fires down there. An id that craved creative success and Karen’s love, two incompatible things. And for all of those repressed reasons, all of those past traumas and beatings and insults and little boy rages, it was no wonder my brain hurled such pains and maladies at me. The emotions and feelings they kept at bay must have been, had to be, so threatening to that part of my brain that it viewed them as potentially fatal if they surfaced. There were nights back then that I would lay in bed with a wrenched back, a sick stomach, sneezing from “allergies,” and I remember distinctly wanting all the symptoms to go away so that I could simply be emotionally miserable in physical peace. But I had no idea what was going on in the deepest recesses of my brain, of my primordial self, and today I realize my brain was only trying to protect me. To that tormented part of my brain, giving me those physical symptoms was saving me from a real emotional eruption or meltdown, from subconscious landmines it considered far too dangerous for me to feel or experience consciously. It was saving me from emotional symptoms, from a nervous breakdown that society viewed as completely unacceptable, while giving me physical symptoms that are almost always viewed with sympathy (unless, say, one incurs their symptoms while stomping on kittens or hamsters; society always prefers bulging discs to bulging emotions). It was, as if in the mind’s own mind, doing what it thought was best for me, even if I’d have much rather been pain and malady-free and simply had to deal with the repressed stuff. But the subconscious doesn’t consult the rational part of the brain first, doesn’t ask its advice about the necessity of initiating a physical symptom, otherwise the rational mind would likely say “forget the pain, let’s deal with the other stuff.” The subconscious, as it does every second it keeps us alive, keeps our blood pumping and our nerves buzzing, simply acts on the danger it perceives. And when Karen would talk about how I needed to move to L.A., the dangerous inner-conflict that created these symptoms was magnified beyond anything else. Even though she said we’d survive as a couple if I moved, that we would make it work, that it was only two hours away, I knew we never would, I sensed she didn't really believe it herself. I had to go, but I couldn’t go. I had to go, but I couldn’t. I had to. I couldn’t. I could feel the conflict tearing at my insides, literally.
It was at this point, for reasons I don’t specifically recall, perhaps my late stepfather had a connection, that I got the idea to apply for a barely paid internship with the United Farm Workers union. They needed help, I needed to work on something bigger than my sorry self. So I interviewed in L.A., in an old ragtag house near MacArthur Park. They liked me, they were excited that I wanted to help, and an hour later it was all set up. I would start my internship in the Central Valley in a month. For the first few weeks after that, Karen and I had a lovely period of time together, took many walks, birdwatched, loved each other without conflict almost as we had in those first two innocent and oblivious weeks of our relationship. And my maladies lifted for awhile. But then…the thought of leaving hit me, of being alone again, in another new “family,” without the love only Karen had ever graciously given me. I was getting cold feet. Then Karen crumpled, broke down and said she really didn’t want me to leave. And I crumpled, too. We were both in tears. Calling the UFW rep, I felt like a sack of turd telling him I was not going to be able to do it. I cursed myself: you spoiled, scared, narcissistic, excuse-laden, middle class baby. And those were the compliments.
Predictably, my aches and symptoms returned, this time fueled, it seems obvious today, by the opposite rage: not the rage about leaving, but rage about staying. I was in an emotional (and physical, it seemed) no-win situation. So I wrote, to keep at all the garbage at bay. And I wrote sitcoms, using garbage to hold back other garbage. A month before I was laid of from MG, I’d decided that I couldn’t keep doing manual labor, and that I would try to write for TV. I’d need a sample script to get an agent, so I wrote a spec episode of Craig T. Nelson’s COACH. It was called “Three Men and Some Gravy,” and I can still hear Hank laughing his ass off about the stupidity of the title. Then I banged out a MURPHY BROWN, and when I found out my old roomie J played rotisserie baseball with a former staff writer for the show, I was excited as hell, but the guy didn’t like the script as much as I’d hoped and wouldn’t pass it on. Still, I kept grinding, and I wrote an episode of the then new sitcom SEINFELD. This script got me an L.A. agent, Sherry, a big and tall woman in her fifties, who’d been married to a semi-famous and now dead director, and who would turn out to be crazy and useless, almost as bad as the Queen and Ghengis-the-Con, who never got ANY of their clients work, but who still lived the good life thanks to their photo scam.. At the time, Sherry’s assistant, Tina, who was the girlfriend of D.J.’s friend, Justin, and who was my connection to the agent in the first place, secretly begged me not to sign with her boss, that she, the assistant, would be my agent and a much better one. I should have listened to Tina, I should’ve said yes to her, but her boss had a contract ready for me to sign, and that seemed more legit, and I was younger and greener and made the requisite bad choice. Crazy Sherry did get my script to the SEINFELD people, however, and they really loved it. But, of course, she’d gotten it to them too late and the show exploded onto the ratings scene that season and I was all but forgotten when bigger writers and comics got their shots. (A year later I’d try another script for SEINFELD, when my dad’s old childhood friend from the Lower East Side, Jerry Stiller, began playing Mr. Costanza on the show. This time, however, the day after Mr. Stiller had handed my scripts to Larry David, the Northridge earthquake struck and severely damaged the Studio City set where they filmed. I believe, to this day, that the earthquake opened a large crevice in Larry David’s office, into which my scripts fell and disappeared forever. Either that or they were just bad cheese, and Larry David couldn’t stand the smell in his office.)
After a few months of obsessively writing these sample scripts (on a retina-ripping green screen word processor), I needed a break. I was nauseated by sitcom gags, by the double spaced dialogue that looked like teleprompter script, and by the certain knowledge that a loser like me would continue to get nowhere (three scoops of inferiority anyone?). At least as long as I lived in San Diego. And the conflict endured, intensified. Heart and head, two minds in muted mortal combat. The backaches and maladies were unrivaled, reached new heights of intensity. I needed to write something different, something for the stage. I needed to get back to my roots. A one-man show, I thought. I’d written one in college, performed it even, a complete freakshow of a student project in which I portrayed an alienated young Dodger fan who lived as a recluse with a mannequin in a second-story flat, and who was fed by unseen guardians via dumb waiter. (Enough said, and please don’t ask. I could offer no satisfactory answer.) But my mind was stuck, and I didn’t know how to start this new piece. I needed a spark. Or a drink. Or the entire bottle.
It was at this time that the late, great Spalding Gray came to town, to perform his monologue MONSTER IN A BOX at UCSD’S concrete grey Mandeville Auditorium. I bought tickets immediately, having been a huge fan since SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. Attending the performance would be an inspiration for me, and it would infuriate Karen. It would push us further apart, and push me closer to L.A..