Jeff Smith noon, March 8
- Community Blog
- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, Part 20
In a state of beer plus antihistamine, on a stomach empty as a dry tank, I wrote my monologue in a wired and woozy day/night burst. My government arts grant/unemployment would not go entirely to waste. It was the rant of a guy who drives a forklift and writes a monologue in a medicinally encouraged eruption of verbiage, which results in him finding himself, at the end of the night, lying on the bathroom floor, convinced he’s going to die from his beer plus antihistamine.
Paranoid, I had typed fast and hard, looking away from my screen only one time that I remembered: to see that our kitten was hanging from the sleeve of a shirt in my closet. He’d always leapt at them in vain, but he’d finally grown big and strong enough to make a successful leap. I included this moment in the monologue. A monologue about a guy who writes a monologue. My little Spalding Gray spud of a work. But imitation is only flattering if done well. And who was going to perform this well? Me? I supposed I had to try, though I was hesitant and doubtful from the start.
Still, I started rehearsing it, alone in the kitchen, day after day, sneaking in Merits from Saundra’s stash, and taking the occasional toke from a joint Hank had given me when I’d left MG. Then I recruited my friend K.S. to direct me in it, and he found a coffee house in North Park that hosted little shows. We were all set to do it…but then I backed out. I’d lost my acting mojo, what little I’d had left from college, or my days watching my father rehearse and act in dozens of productions. I’d known I would punk out all along, and I felt badly about wasting K.S.’s time. For a few weeks the project was dead.
Then one day, down from L.A. for a couple of performances, my friend Lisa B brought her troupe of actors who worked for Kaiser-Permanente and performed, for elementary schools, shows about eating right, practicing good hygiene, exercising, about good health in general. Dancing teeth, my friend DJ called them. One actor in the group, French, I’d seen in non-grammar school hygiene related plays in L.A. with Lisa B. He was funny as hell, with a natural comic instinct (so natural that he’d go on to star in, among other things, the long-running NBC sitcom “3rd Rock From The Sun”). He and I had always hit it off when the troupe would visit San Diego. On this trip, I met them at their hotel with a videotape in hand – footage of an “acting for the camera” class taught by the Queen’s daughter (another of her mom’s schemes, in which she once again funneled her oblivious if earnest clients across the street, where she’d already fleeced them for headshots from her daughter, and where she now soaked them for several hundred more dollars of worthless instruction in camera acting). On the video, actors fidget nervously and speak too quickly or too slowly, from scripts I sometimes copied from commercials, when the Queen would send me across the street to do some peon work for her daughter. In one memorable bit, a particularly anxious young man read a peanut commercial script, but he spoke so fast that his “peanuts” always sounded like “penis.” The Queen’s daughter, however, never said a word about this, she merely told him that his slate hadn’t been very good. His slate: that brief intro portion of your audition when you say your name and your agent’s name (and, according to the Queen’s daughter, what outfit you were in: business, country club casual, athletic, etc.). That’s what they got for their money – criticism about a portion of their audition no one would EVER care about, unless during your real slate you were screeching like a monkey and lighting your armpit hair on fire. More likely, the casting director or peanut executive would care greatly that you were making genitals of their product. But no, it was all about their slate. It was a cruel joke. And it resulted in “acting” so terrible you could only laugh, and then feel badly about it…sometimes (it was, after all, for all its entertainment value, still just another part of the Queen and Genghis-the-Con’s scam.)
Watching this video (today it’s less funny and more sad than it was then) with a troupe of real LA actors, packed in a hotel room at the Hacienda in Old Town, was theatrical chum in landshark infested carpet. In between the wild laughter at the pitiful performances on screen, they expressed dismay and disgust that these people had paid money for these “classes.” Who are these people? they asked me. Just poor fools who answered ads in the paper, I replied. Now they were on tape in front of astounded and entertained strangers, slating their names like champions. I felt kind of guilty. Kind of.
There was Karl Scroggins, a man in his sixties who looked like Santa Claus, and who stopped abruptly in the middle of his faux candy-bar audition. A frustrated virtuoso, he asked to start again because, he urged us, “I just can’t get any…” and he gestured oomph with arms and chest and facial expression, as if St. Nick were the most serious West End thespian searching for the emotional core of his Claudius. After a moment to collect his lack of composure, Santa Karl launched into another hilariously poor stuttering of a Snickers commercial. Not a line reading or gesture were a whit different from his first aborted attempt.
Cut to Jan Mavis, in her fifties, dressed in a double-knit polyester outfit that she somehow described as “country club casual.” Maybe in Albania, we thought. Her short and stern hairdo was reminiscent of Miss Hathaway, the bankmarm from the old Beverly Hillbillies TV series. And she spoke slowly, p-a-i-n-f-u-l-l-y slowly, in a sort of dazed southern drawl, as if she’d recently been concussed by a smack in the face with a shovel. It took her a full two and a half minutes to read a spot that was, at most, thirty seconds. We timed her. And we were laughing so hard that our eyes were watering, our abdominal muscles cramping. But the Queen’s nitwit daughter, her camera acting “teacher,” said nothing. What would be the point? The woman was beyond help. Even a rodent would know that. She had Jan Mavis’s money in the bank already, that was all that mattered. Crooks. Everyone in the troupe of dancing teeth felt sorry for Jan Mavis. We almost stopped watching after her, but we couldn’t end on such a sad note. Fortunately, she was not the last “actor” on the tape.
The last was an energetic teenage girl, and she was as singularly unforgettable as anyone. Angela Andrea Amos was so perky she was practically bouncing as she stood on her mark, and she, more than any of the others in her class, had obviously heeded her teacher’s advice about a good slate. Staring crazy-eyed into the camera, she yelled her full and alliterative name (“Triple-A they call me!”), her agent’s name, and, of course, that she was wearing workout attire. Good enough, I thought, but then, strangely, she added that she was a Capricorn with a very interesting quirk. She took a brief beat, smiled in sensing our anticipation, and then exclaimed, “I don’t have a pinky on my left hand!” And she held up the four-fingered paw for all to see. Sigh. These poor, poor people. I’d forgotten how bad it was.
After the screening, and after a break for post-laugh recovery, I talked to French a bit, told him about the monologue and suggested that we do it up in L.A.. He thought it was a great idea, so I gave him a copy of the monologue, which, ahem, I just happened to have with me. He took it, read it that night, then he called the next day to say he’d love to do a reading of it at the theatre. Lisa B called me, too, to say that she’d set it up with the artistic director of The CAST Theatre, where she and French had done many plays. What a friend. So we were good to go in a few weeks. Wow, I thought, that was fast, faster than I could’ve imagined. Faster than I wanted really. I was nervous about it, had thoughts of changing my mind, but then I figured, stop, you don’t have to perform it, you can just hide backstage and maybe uncover your ears every once in a while and listen to a few lines. But then I thought about the venue, The CAST Theatre. It was the same theatre where I’d spent many a long day and/or night when my father had done a few plays there in the 1970s. And now I was going to have a performance/reading there. The circle would return; theatre in the round of another sort. The entire experience would be surreal.
* * * * * * * *
The night before the reading, which was on a Sunday afternoon up in L.A., I asked Karen what time she wanted me to pick her up, or if she wanted to meet at my house and we’d drive up from there. But she never came over to the 32nd Street house, never spent a single night there, and I don’t blame her. My room was like a mental patient’s cell, all white, with no pictures on the walls and the white blinds permanently pulled down.
“I don’t think I’m going to go,” Karen told me.
It was one of the few times when you genuinely need a moment for something to sink in, that’s how surprised I was. It literally had never occurred to me she wouldn’t go and support me. I don’t think we even argued about it, or exchanged much of anything. We were on the outs, she didn’t want to go. End of story. She wished me luck and told me to call her and tell her how it went. Sure, I said, I guess I’ll talk to you later. When we hung up, my stomach started to hurt almost immediately. Maybe she didn’t want to go because of our Spalding Gray experience, and she didn’t want to be somewhere I’d rather be with someone else. But I didn’t want to be. I wanted her to come. This was my writing, my passion. She really must not like my writing, I thought. She’d always said she didn’t get a lot of it, I guess it was worse than I’d thought. I immediately dreaded the drive up to L.A. the next morning, the loneliness I’d feel.
And I felt it for the entire drive. It became especially acute as soon as I hit Camp Pendleton and all that open space. Like I had ten pounds of cold marbles in my stomach. And, on cue, I could feel my back tightening up as I continued to drive, and I hoped that it wasn’t locked up entirely when I got to the theatre. I did not want to attend this performance while hunched over like a geriatric former strawberry picker. Making it to L.A. an hour before showtime, I stopped at a grocery store to get some water and an energy bar. Wary of my back, I got out of the car slowly to test it. Straightening up with caution, I was soon breathing a sigh of relief. Stiff and sore it was, but not so much that I’d be a semi-invalid, as was so often the case. Happy that I wouldn’t be attending the performance with the aid of a walker, I shut the car door…and locked my keys inside.
I knew it as soon as I let go of the handle. Letting out a muffled roar of rage, I peered through the driver’s side window at the keys hanging there, still in the ignition. Standing there, I had the urge to find a brick and throw it thorough the glass.
“Sign here,” the heavyset and bearded tow truck driver told me, a Merle Haggard quality about him, as he handed me his clipboard a half-hour later. He’d arrived on the scene quickly, but it had taken him some time to unlock the Sentra’s door, which frustrated him greatly. He wasn’t supposed to be working that day, and I got the feeling I was keeping him from valuable beer guzzling or strip club time. I asked him if he wanted to come to a play reading, that I’d get him in for free. He looked at me curiously.
“What’s a play reading? Like you pretend to read?”
I told him I was sorry for taking up part of his Sunday with my stupidity. “Ain’t the first, and you won’t be the last,” he replied as he climbed in his truck to drive away. His warm and generous spirit filled me long after he departed.
* * * * * * * *
The CAST Theatre was just off Melrose, in the shadow of Paramount Studios, and it had changed little since my time there as a kid fifteen years earlier. I’d spent hours wandering the tiny backstage then, looking through props to pass the time, trying on the occasional costume. Many nights, after rehearsal or a performance, I’d found myself at AstroBurger on the corner of Melrose and El Centro, the closest spot for late night eats and coffee drinking and endless conversations among actors. I endured countless hours there as I had at Norm’s coffee shop on La Cienega, and I fell asleep just as many times in a booth at AstroBurger. And now, here I was, at a lousy little afternoon workshop reading/production of a couple of my plays. I wished my father were there, too. But he was thousands of miles away in Georgia. It aggravated me at that moment. I still wonder what it would’ve been like had he stayed in L.A., an actor with a writer son. But wonder is all most of us can ever do.
I talked to the actors a bit, wished them well, then settled into a seat in the back of the theatre, convinced I wouldn’t make it through more than a few minutes, I was so nervous about it. The theatre gradually filled up, almost two-thirds of capacity at showtime, about thirty people, and twenty-six of them were women. I didn’t know why, but that was the crowd we had.
The first part of the performance was a one-act play I’d written a few years earlier called “Frames,” a series of comic scenes between unnamed characters, and it was really my bad imitation of David Mamet. It was also the play I’d done a reading of the previous year for the artistic director of the The Bowery Theatre in San Diego. He’d liked it and wanted to do a midnight run of it, but I’d backed out, faded out, lost my confidence with it, done my usual disappearing act. But here it was again, and I was determined that this would be different. It would be great again, and this time I wouldn’t turn down any offer to put it up for a regular run. I would not sabotage myself. I made a vow.
“Frames,” as bad Mamet imitations go, is best summarized in theme and content by the following exchange between two characters, A and B, who are discussing a meeting that character A recently had with his employer:
B: This guy’s your boss, what’s he telling you stories for?
A: He says it’ll help illustrate his point.
B: What point?
A: About critical thinking.
B: So he says illustrate? What the hell kind of word is that to use?
A: It’s not like he’s drawing me any pictures.
B: Idiots, all of ‘em. So what’s his story?
A: He starts telling me, in this dream he had, that he was walking through a forest, and then he came to a lake.
B: Well that’s exciting.
A: And then he said he saw something floating above the lake.
B: What was it?
A: Get this.
A: He says he looks at this thing, and he says, and I quote, “It’s a small metal ball, shaped like a BB.”
B: You gotta be kiddin’ me.
A: He says this.
B: (perplexed) A small metal ball…?
A: His exact words: “A small metal ball, shaped like a BB.”
B: Shaped like? What is that?
A: Exactly! So I think to myself: shaped like a BB, shaped like a BB…
B: Makes no sense.
A: And I tell him this.
B: You did? Damn, what’d you say?
A: Small metal ball, I say to him, shaped like a BB, excuse me, no, excuse ME, but that IS a BB!!
B: Yeah! It is?
A: Yes! I ask you. What is small, metal, and shaped like a BB that is NOT a BB?
B: Wait a second, lemme think…
A: I ask you.
A: It IS a BB!!
B: It is!
A: I know!
A: THAT’S critical thinking, I tell him.
B: Damn right it is! And what’d he say?
A: He said I was fired.
The rest of “Frames” went well, I managed to make it through the whole thing without fleeing, the actors did a great job of keeping up with the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, and the house full of women laughed from the start. I was encouraged. Still, I had already known that “Frames” was funny, but it was the monologue I had no idea about. How would an audience respond to more than an hour of an actor pretending to be me? During the break, I escaped to a dark corner of the tiny backstage area and sat in silence for fifteen minutes. I could hear Lisa B asking if anyone had seen me, but I didn’t respond. I just wanted to get back to my seat right as the second act was beginning. Suddenly, however, light from somewhere brightened backstage just enough for me to see what surrounded me. I was sitting in the very spot, perhaps on the very same tattered chair, that I had been back when I was ten years old and bored out of my mind during rehearsal. Sentiment overcame me, I hated that my father lived all the way across the country now, I resented it, but I cut off the emotions and returned to my seat.
I think French still had long hair back then, way past his shoulders and usually in a pony tail, and when he took the stage he sat, of course, in a plain wooden chair behind a plain wooden table, the script in front of him along with a glass of water (I might as well have had him in Spalding Gray’s khakis and plaid shirt, too). He took a sip of water, coughed, and then began:
MAN: Let me preface all of this by saying that I have two artificial hips. It’s a true story. It is. Okay okay, lemme explain: I was at the boat show, you know the boat show, it’s like the auto show except with rudders and poop decks and other nautical stuff. And my friend John and me are in the cabin of this yacht, and this old man in Sans-a-Belt slacks pulled up to the armpits is telling this young couple about some newfangled thing, something that helps you weigh anchor easier or take a more comfortable dump while at sea, whatever it was, and then he stops and says, “Let me preface all of this by saying that I have two artificial hips.” And it blew me away[…]
For the rest of the damn boat show, that old man’s words rang in my head: let me preface this by saying that I have two artificial hips. Two artificial hips. It made me think about a joke I’d heard, about a man with wooden legs and real feet. Was this that man? Could you actually have fake hips and real legs? And I didn’t like that he used the word preface. It reminded me of other words I didn’t find appealing to the eye or the ear. Words like beverage or lovemaking, or flapjacks.
The laughs were primed and ready to multiply. French was killing it. He aced his way through some made up stories about my grandfather, some stuff about MG electric that you’d find familiar (and some fictional stuff I don’t understand at all today), a few other decent but not great bits, then he came to a section about an absurd trip I’d taken to Disneyland with Karen:
MAN: We drove up to Anaheim the night before and found a cheap hotel, Zaby’s Motor Lodge, on the corner of Katella and Harbor. In the drawer of the desk in our room, I found complimentary stationary, along with postcards for the hotel that read as if they’d been printed in 1958: “Zaby’s. 80 ultra modern units where guests enjoy FREE: Color TV, Sauna Bath, Direct Dialing, and Swedish Massage Beds…” The massage bed, when fed with quarters, provided an experience that felt neither Swedish nor Scandinavian, nor really like a massage at all. It rocked violently in spurts, then would calm down, then it would shake violently again. We became convinced the bed had belonged to Linda Blair’s possessed character in The Exorcist. Thankfully, Zaby’s had direct dialing and color TV, which made dealing with a demonic mattress much easier.
The next day we venture over to the Happiest Place On Earth. All sarcasm intended. It is basically a lot of money to get into a series of very long, very cramped, very LONG lines. They even have these things called “Picture Spots” marked with signs at various points of the park, what Mickey and the rest of the board of directors have chosen as The Right Places To Take Pictures. And these picture spots were popular: grown men in Donald Duck hats focusing in on his wife and two young boys, wife in Minnie ears, the boys armed with matching Davy Jones muskets, one of them pointing his at a the head of a costumed dancehall beauty posing with them, the other with his weapon aimed at the Cigar Store Indian next to him. And we realize this family is American History Incarnate.
Then we decide to go to that old feel-good standby, A Small World, and we’re amazed that there’s no line, but once we get on our little barge we know why. The obnoxious drone of the same chorus over and over, and all the little figures of children clicking and clicking and clicking as their metal and plastic joints move, so loudly that the clicks almost drown out the hideous music. Almost. Then we notice that all the clicking little South American children, and all the clicking little Asian children, and all the clicking little African children, that they all have rosy cheeks. The sickening chorus drones on and on, and then we notice that they must be doing some work on the clicking little Dutch kids, because they don’t have any heads. It’s just a bunch of clicking arms and legs and torsos and wooden shoes. No heads. It’s kind of eerie, but then the barge floats out into the sunlight again, the song is finally fading out, and we’re so relieved. But then all we could hear in our heads for the rest of the day is that same creepy song to the backbeat of a percussion section of nothing but clicks.
The Disneyland stuff worked well, the audience was laughing and engaged. A few pages later, however, after we’d left the Magic Kingdom, French came to a section I’d forgotten and only remembered after re-reading the script. In this section, my mind is pulling me to write, I’ve already had the beer and the antihistamine, I’m starting to feel the effects, and I’m talking about sitting at a taco shop during the first Gulf War and overhearing a conversation between two guys at the next table:
MAN: One guy says to the other, “You hear about the weather in Baghdad today? It’s twenty-five hundred degrees and hazy…we nuked ‘em!!” And they both laugh and laugh, and you feel your heart sink. It’s at that moment when you begin to understand, it dawns on you with crystal clarity, that whenever they poll the public on things like war or crime or drugs or whatever, that you will always be in that dissenting 1% on the pie chart. You’ll always be in that piece of the pie that’s so small it’s just a straight black line. And it’s disturbing to feel like you’re going to live your entire life on that little black line.
[…] So I start running to my room to get at my word processor, at least I thought I was running, I mean it felt like my legs were pumping very hard. But the captain, it seemed, had fallen overboard, overbody, and the alcohol and pill were second in command and they were running a very loose ship in all my limbs. It takes me several minutes to get to my room.
[…] At my desk, I simply hit the first letter on my keyboard, without really thinking about it, my thoughts held back as if a parade route had been marked off for something else to pass through my brain and body. And on the screen I see I’ve hit a capital C, then the next letter follows, then the next, and the next, until I’ve typed the word “Coursing.” I look at the word. I have no idea what comes next. So I just put my hands on the keys and wait, and suddenly all the sand that’s risen from my feet and fills my hourglass brain, that sand forms words and words and more words, and I feel something like a push, that’s come from the sky, through the ceiling, into my brain and keeps going, grabs those words as it does, and now the words fall with it toward earth, through the narrow glass neck, and out my fingers and onto the keys, and they’re lit up on screen in green, and then they’ll get beaten in ink onto paper. My fingers are moving furiously, trying to keep up with my proxy mind, it feels like my fingertips are sweating, because I’m hitting the keys so hard that my wobbly desk is wobbling harder than ever and knocking cassette tapes off its edge. Word word word, word word, word…
At this point in the piece, after writing madly, the buzz becomes too much, twists my stomach and my head, gives me the paranoid fears, and I find myself helpless on the bathroom floor, sweating and heartracing and desperate.
MAN: And you lie there, on your back, almost naked on that bathroom tile for what seems like hours, unable to move, ready for death to take you, police helicopter taunting you in the night sky above, and all you can think is THIS IS NOT WHAT A GOOD BUZZ IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT !
And you feel like the gods have abandoned you […] and maybe you need to find a connection somewhere, in your mind, in your life, or just in the other room, your bedroom, on your desk, because you realize you never read whatever it was you wrote before, and “before” already feels like a week ago. So you try to get up to get the sheet of paper from your printer, but every time you try to move it’s like the wires aren’t connected and the muscles and brain can’t get through to each other. But finally you make it, you crawl, you squirm on your stomach, you get there, pull the paper from the printer. You want to hear the words you’ve written, how they sound flying through the air. As the police helicopter thunders and thunders above the house in the night sky, as your heart pounds to the rhythm of those electron rotor blades, the words trip off your tongue:
"Coursing steel in a twisting bending living breathing bridge, the bones of concrete, like those of the infant baby; soft enough to bear the burdens of you and I or the sky and to rock-a-by and stay strong enough still to stand the hands and feet and trucks and trains and the damned wind and whether the earth’s quaking nerves decide to calm or not too calm at all…"
That was it. An hour for six lines. But I liked them. I actually liked them.
French had killed it, I could ask for little more from the guy. The audience of ladies gave him a standing ovation, though most were friends of his, or friends of friends. Still, a standing O is a standing O. They complimented me as they exited, a few saying it was “brilliant” and “genius.” Without Karen there, I could at least chit chat and flirt a little, but the theatre quickly emptied. Everyone had loved it, now it was over. For a second I was crestfallen, but then I thought, no, maybe it wasn’t over. If the right person liked it, it could get a nice little run there on the CAST stage. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the only person who was less than impressed with the performance was that one person who could’ve given the show a run. The assistant artistic director, a Baby Huey-like stoner, simply didn’t dig any of it. And that was it. One reading and out. Lisa B and French tried to cheer me up, but I was beyond it at that moment. I was genuinely stunned that my work had failed to interest Baby Huey. I was frustrated beyond its definition and suddenly angry at Karen for not being there to console me. And I was depressed about another lonely drive south. Pretty soon I’d drive north for good.