Drowning Saxophone

As an undergraduate student living in New Orleans, I cocktail waitressed at a club called
G---- P----'s in the Hyatt Superdome. Some drunken Yat—as in, "Where y'at, dawlin'?—once put his hotel key and a hundred bucks on my tray and drawled, "There's five hundred more for you if the Saints take it up the ass."

"You need to watch your mouth, son," I replied, accepting the hefty tip but leaving the key behind. "Come near me again and I'll have your ass kicked all the way back to Baton Rouge." I was nineteen years old and evidently pretty full of myself, wrapped into my Danskin mini-skirt with a shiny black leotard and a push-up bra. Since this was the late eighties, I also wore Anne and Nancy Wilson bangs, way too much eyeliner, and lips lubed up like jellyfish. As fleeting as youth itself, this one moment encapsulates my memories of New Orleans—where I was so very young, yet wise enough to know that a place calling itself "The Big Easy" had a whole lot of nasty brewing just beneath the surface.

It eventually dawned on me that there were two kinds of waitresses in this particular establishment, co-eds and, well, hookers. This was never clearly spelled out, at least not to me—but only the most obvious “working girls” were asked to wait on the VIP Room, where a bunch of guys who looked suspiciously like Big Pussy on The Sopranos would sit around playing cards. Who exactly owned this place and what went on behind closed doors weren't the sort of topics a nice college girl wanted to be running around poking her nose into. In retrospect, I'd have been a whole lot smarter getting a night job Uptown, at one of the little bistros on Magazine or Maple, where they served dollar Po Boys and dime crawfish to help sell more Dixie Beer to the overprivileged student crowd. But that wouldn't have felt like much of mystery to me—and like most girls on their own for the first time, that's what I'd run off to New Orleans looking for.

I can't think of any place more suggestive to have begun assembling life's larger paradigms—such as the one where young, pretty girls have all kinds of mystical powers over balding, unhappy businessmen escaping their small lives for a few days on the company nickel. Grabbing my roommate Patti—a slim blonde from New Jersey who ground her teeth all night and hated her hair during the day—I'd check to see what conventions were in town. We liked doctors, mostly, particularly the specialists, who amused us to no end by their fascination with one specific body part. The whole city smelled like fried shrimp and whisky to me, with a hint of mildew around the edges, as we hopped the St. Charles Avenue streetcar down to the Hilton Canal Street.

The Rainforest, a rotating top floor lounge with a panoramic view of the riverfront, was a cool relief, since it intermittently "rained" into beds of lush foliage flanking the dance floor. The whole place would be teeming with members of the American Podiatrist's Association, whom we'd lure with the fetching arch of our college-age feet. We'd toss our hapless targets a dance or two before one of us morphed into Scarlett O'Hara at the Wilkes' barbecue—so very ravished she simply had to eat at once or die alone and empty inside.

Shortly after dinner, one of us would get the vapors and the other would have to take her home at once in a pre-paid taxi. But if not for the sexual and culinary politics of these carefully orchestrated evenings, I'd have never sampled the Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's, the Blackened Swordfish at K Paul's, or the flaming Bananas Foster at Commander's Palace—where the new chef was a young buck named Emeril Lagasse. An exception, of course, was when my mom and dad came to town to treat me to a night out, wondering how I'd gained so much weight and wasn't dating any of the nice fraternity boys.

As it's done for so many others over the centuries—Mark Twain, Anne Rice and John Kennedy Toole come to mind—New Orleans made a writer of me. I was still in college when I published my first travel magazine article, whose subject was, not surprisingly, budget dining all over the Crescent City.

I visited a couple of times after graduation, but it was never the same after the inevitable onset of adulthood, which, more often than not, compels me to pay my own way. Patti went home and married a gum specialist, or so I heard some years later, along with the rumor that G---- P----'s had been closed down after some of the partners were indicted for racketeering. Pimping and pandering, too, I'll bet. More than any other place I've loved and lost along the way, New Orleans no longer belonged to me, so I left it behind like one of its own famous ghosts.

This morning I turned on the TV to discover that the roof of the Superdome had pretty much peeled apart like the top of a tuna can, forcing the ten thousand refugees who'd taken cover inside to seek shelter elsewhere in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. Footage of the adjacent Hyatt looked like Dubrovnik after the war, its wall of front windows imploded into the flimsy wreckage of a punched computer card.

Years ago, my Croatian ex-husband, who'd fled the battlefield on a cruise ship only to sit out Miami's Hurricane Andrew with me, told me you could forgive God for wielding the horror of destruction more easily than you could other men. I'm not so sure it makes a difference. My parents lost their home and boat in Andrew, and although they were insured for the most part, it's hard to explain the small comfort in that—something akin, I would imagine, to being a rape victim with an excellent hospitalization policy.

"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy," F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. I only know this because it was stamped in white letters on a black t-shirt that used to fit before I started hanging around the house in 3XLs with the neck cut out. What they won't tell you in film school is that tragedy doesn't always have to be written. Sometimes it sneaks up on you out of nowhere— like the unyielding passage of time, or a slow-brewing ocean storm—breaking your heart all the same.

A Footnote: This drawing I came across today played me a Bourbon Street song so mournful I could almost hear it aloud. "Drowning Saxophone" was created with eerie prescience long before Katrina by an Oakland, California painter named Eric Drooker. Click on the graphic if you want to see more of his work, or better yet, click here: American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Soul Mates

I keep coming across this unusually well-promoted blog hosted by "Jim" and "Tanya," who, despite repeated rejections, are so determined to appear on a popular reality TV show they're insistently billing themselves as the "Million Dollar Fear Factor Couple." Like many duos sharing their basic physical attributes, she's some kind of Actress Person and he's a Certified Fitness Trainer—and both claim that they just keep getting better looking! Their promotional banner, what with its close-cropped photo of her breasts in a string bikini reflected in his mirrored sunglasses, must be earning some remarkable his'n'her page impressions.

What grabbed me more, though, is their unflinching commitment to this dubious quest—an undying belief that some terrible, cosmic mistake must surely be to blame for their continued exclusion from arguably the most vulgar and puerile program on the airwaves. "We've expressed interest, filled out the application and got called in to meet the casting staff," the New Jersey couple writes on their index page. "We made it past the initial interview and were even asked back to be taped again. There is nothing else we can do." The apparent purpose of this well-orchestrated Web campaign, besides your feeling their pain, is to rally visitors to write the series producers in support of the pair—who, we're reminded, "have been married for ten years, not ten minutes like most Fear Factor couples."

While my knee jerk reaction was to dismiss them both as shallow, over-buffed, sore losers, it occurs to me we have an awful lot in common—except, alas, the part where I end up with a hot body. My point is there's a fine line between determination and obsession, between wanting something so badly it makes your teeth hurt and allowing yourself to be so completely enveloped by said desire it begins to define you completely. We all know that’s how much I want to be a Big Deal Hollywood Screenwriter. So Jim and Tanya want to eat bulls’ balls in a blender. Who am I to judge?

We're all three hellbent on playing in the big leagues, however differently we may define them. I’ll bet they have no intention of winning yet another couples tug-of-war at the company picnic and calling that a victory. Similarly, I can't just settle for running my fingers over some anonymous keyboard all my life—hell, I can get that right here. Close enough to reach out and touch, just over that hill with the sign on it, my polestar is an invitation to write Big Hollywood Movies, treasured by millions, throughout the ages. “Popular and memorable stories,” my Legendary Film School Structure Professor used to call them. If I knew how to settle for less I’d head right home to Umatilla and whip up a season of hilarious and heartwarming one acts for the Bay Street Players.

If you watch a lot of movies, you know how important it is to reach for the top, even if that means betting the farm on your unreasonable conviction that the top is somehow your birthright. With few exceptions—Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus come to mind—the movies also promise that obsession is the one true path to total happiness. Rocky didn’t rise from the streets to become world champ only to find that it sucked. Okay, things might have gotten a little ugly up there to keep the franchise going—but the old prize belt, strategically cinched between the swelling chest and rising crotch—was just as big and shiny as ever. For some heroic underdogs—even the equine ones like Seabiscuit—getting there is not just half the fun, but well worth croaking over in an eternal blaze of glory.

Endearing me to Jim and Tanya most of all, their site features a link to Make Poverty History.org, placed high above the headline. Look to your left on mine and you'll find Another Lame Internet Poll asking folks to weigh in on the moral veracity of my Big Deal Hollywood Dream. My idea was to have some tangible proof of the sheer force of my built-in audience to wave around key Hollywood street corners like a madwoman—you know, should things ever come to that. Unfortunately, there were only sixteen votes, last time I checked, and three of these chide my unwarranted derision of the good people of Umatilla.

Geography aside, the heart wants what it wants because the movies keep promising us windmill-jousters we can have it. There’s a great Frank Sinatra quote about how he always felt sorry for people who don’t drink, because they wake up in the morning and that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day. Except for a brief Bridget Jonesian period after my divorce, martinis never worked for me anywhere near as well as a good banana split. But I have always wondered about the interior world of Regular People, loosely defined in the warped recesses of my cinematic mind as those who aren’t chasing a dream they can’t quite seem to capture. What’s it like to go to sleep at night without knowing that kind of absence?

“Let’s just say we’d like to eat cow balls as much as we’d like to be shot at point blank range in the head!” Jim and Tanya’s written petition concludes. “But good or bad, that's part of the show!”

That is show biz, folks—which is just one more thing they won’t tell you in film school. To that end, I’ve decided to write the Big Network Weasels in support of my soul mates—because as much fear as there is in this factor, we may be the only three people in all of Hollywood who truly understand one another.


At certain key points in my life, those when it would be most inopportune of all to do so, I’m barely able to resist the urge to check out of the moment completely and break into song. This isn’t just a little a capella ditty I’d like to hum, but a full-blown production number with costumes, lighting and make-up.

For example, when I was eloping, over my parents’ objections, with a Croatian cruise ship maitre d’ I’d met seventeen days earlier, I imagined myself becoming Nancy from Oliver to belt out “As Long As He Needs Me” right there on the courthouse steps. When I inevitably grew tired of the black sucking hole of need this man grew to become, I tossed him out and packed my bags for Hollywood—all the while performing a show-stopping mental rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

I’m not picky about musical genre, or even my personal role in its dream delivery. One day I’ll be playing the air tambourine in some Punjabi band out of a Mira Nair movie, the next I’m sitting in on drums and vocals for the late great Karen Carpenter. This tends to go on, deep in the recesses of my mind, while I’m in the midst of conversing with Somebody Very Important about Something That Actually Matters. Sometimes I worry that I’ll suddenly become Prince, leaning into the guy and accidentally vocalizing aloud, “Tell me, are we gonna let the elevator bring us down? Oh no, let’s go crazy!”

A couple of days ago, I got up early, tied on my size friendly wrap-around interview dress, and got into the only slightly used cherry red Honda Civic DX Hatchback my parents recently gave me—along with the admonition to use it to go out and get myself a day job. How could I resort to that when I’d just learned that it’s down to me and two other writers on a Big Deal Screenwriting Assignment? Landing this job would be, at long, long last, something very real to sing about.

I arrived at the Beverly Hills Mini-Major Studio—the one that made Hollywood history putting up ten million bucks to distribute a little indie about a Greek girl who wanted to get married—only to see a two hundred and fifty million dollar profit on domestic box office alone. At the unmanned entrance, all I had to do was say my name, and lo and behold the gate raised its own arm, welcoming me into a strange new club to which I may finally belong.

The building is a sleek and modern renovated warehouse loft, painted a blinding white from the hospital clean flooring to the exposed ceiling pipes—treated to grow matching snow white mold. The Security Guard at the front desk smiled at me just a little too knowingly, like Scatman Crothers in The Shining. As he buzzed me in, I briefly considered wagging my index finger and saying “redrum.”

Without my pressing a single button, a similarly prescient elevator opened its doors and whisked me upstairs. There, a receptionist greeted me with an English accent I couldn’t help but wonder if she puts on in the morning with her Jimmy Choos, only to drop the whole act and pop open a Bud once she gets home to Pacoima. The requisite refreshment—Fiji, I noted, the Cadillac of bottled waters—was delivered by yet another plucky Brit who resembled the first so closely the two could play the Pigeon Sisters in a revival of The Odd Couple. I sipped from my distinctive square bottle while considering one of the trade magazines fanned out in ascending date order on a Saarinen coffee table—but quickly thought better of mussing the artful display.

Two strapping junior executives of about Twenty-Three and Twenty-One, respectively, appeared to retrieve Another Struggling Screenwriter—who broke form to ask one of the Pigeon Sisters for a second Fiji, tucking it into a sadly overstuffed briefcase for later. Twenty-Three introduced the other kid as his “colleague,” who in turn tried hard not to smirk, since he usually goes by "dude," as in "where's my car?" The trio couldn’t use the conference room, Twenty-Three said, gesturing toward me of all people—because of a “very big meeting” about to get underway. We all looked toward the geometric box crafted of four milk glass walls anchoring the lobby like a set piece from The Matrix, and I couldn’t help but wonder if, Holy God, I had finally managed to pull rank on someone, anyone, west of the Mississippi River.

I puffed up my chest and tossed back a swig of Fiji as the poor loser disappeared down a hallway flanked with what I judged to be inferior meeting facilities—the size of treatment rooms in a no-name day spa. One of the Pigeon Sisters led me into the glass chamber, which now felt like the sound proof booth from Quiz Show. I was seated at the head of an oval-shaped Philippe Starck table encircled by fifteen-hundred dollar Aero chairs, which tend to give me the unfortunate sensation of tumbling over backwards unless I clench my teeth while simultaneously tightening my upper and lower abdominals.

The Bright and Accomplished Producer on the project arrived, along with the Twenty-Something Daughter of the guy who owns the production company. The younger girl immediately mentioned the fact that she is pregnant so I wouldn’t think she’s just fat. “Me, I’m just fat,” I had the urge to say. Just then, however, in walked the Designer Suit-Wearing Studio Stiff who smiled at me in that impatient way of a guy wishing he was already back in his office winning another screensaver for eating the bigger sharks on Angel Fish. “I see you’re already in the hot seat,” he said without a whole lot of fanfare.

As I began pitching the adapted screenplay I’d pulled from a novel without much of a story to go on, it occurred to me that I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. I don’t remember much from that point forward, only Bright and Accomplished laughing along with me, and Twenty-Something and Pregnant eagerly taking her cues. Designer Suit was a tougher nut to crack—though he, too, couldn't help but enjoy the ride just a little.

I should mention there was also one other person present, if only in spirit—the former Famous Scary Superagent who taught me “the art of the pitch” back in film school. I told him he’d always be in the room with me, and sure enough, there Scary was pacing the back wall, going, “Take it. Just take it.”

Once I’d finished, Designer Suit told me he was somewhat concerned by my story’s tone. He wished I’d followed the logical emotional trajectory among the characters rather than focusing on the “trailer moments.” Bright and Accomplished jumped in to assure him that it would all be there on the page.

As I watched their lips move, that old, familiar urge to create my own private music video suddenly kicked in. The ambient sound in the room was replaced by the picture of Scary and me hopping onto the retro table like a couple of goth rockers to deliver an enormous duet of “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence.

Him: Wake me up!
Me: Wake me up inside
Him: I can't wake up!
Me: Wake me up inside
Him: Save me!
Me: Call my name and save me from the dark
Him: Wake me up!
Me: Bid my blood to run
Him: I can't wake up!
Me: Before I come undone
Him: Save me!
Me: Save me from the nothing I've become.
Of course, a girl only gets saved for real in the movies, when the big boys get so caught up in the sheer force of her talent they make the assignment—along with some unforeseen back end points—right on the spot. In real life, they want you to mutter something trite about being inspired by the characters and the big fun you’d have creating their arcs, then slip quietly out the door.

Later, my Very Supportive Manager called to report it’s now down to me and one other writer—whom the studio may or may not be pushing over the producers’ support of me. I’m supposed to re-work my pitch "to stress the more human moments” and, once I figure out what if anything that means, return to meet the Mini-Major Studio Chief.

While I know this is a tremendous victory, eliminating an unknown opponent to advance to the final round, I’m sure the other guy left standing also feels he’s now a shoe-in for the job we’re likely equally desperate to land. One thing they won’t tell you in film school, though, is how much it helps to have a very rich fantasy life to return to either way—one in which no matter what happens, you have always been, and will always be, a superstar.

Background Check This

Dear Julie,
Thank you for your interest in working with the F------n Personnel Agency. Due to the tremendous volume of inquiries we are answering you with this e-mail.

We have carefully reviewed your qualifications and unfortunately at this time we have no suitable openings. We will retain your resume on file for future reference.

Again, thank you for your interest and the opportunity to review your background. Best wishes to you in your endeavors.

F------n Personnel Agency

Dear Miss F------n,
You are obviously the heavy lidded, Ecstasy-eating, College Age Daughter of some Deep-Pocketed Blowhard I imagine would own this sort of Big Deal Santa Monica Temp Agency. I bet you’re not too happy having been appointed part-time form letter envelope licker and all, since you'd really hoped to spend the summer hanging out with Paris Hilton behind Carl's Jr. soaping up Bentleys in your underpants.

I'm writing to inquire if the old man has recently checked your offices for mold. I heard where it can be a real problem over in your part of town, what with the fishy mist coming off the white water ocean views, and the floor-to-ceiling office windows hermetically sealed to keep the jumpers at bay. These factors may well be conspiring to deplete your oxygen supply, the only reasonably acceptable excuse for your writing me such an ill-informed, disingenuous and thoroughly odious piece of correspondence.

Since you advertise daily in The Hollywood Reporter, this absence of "suitable openings" to which you refer must surely be centered in the entertainment industry. While delving into the deep recesses of my background as you did, you may have skimmed over the part where I have a Bachelor's Degree in English and Theater, a Master's Degree in Film and Television, and fifteen years experience in global travel and lifestyle publishing. Were it not summer break, you're bound to have discovered, I'd be serving as adjunct faculty at the Big Deal Film School from which you and any number of your friends are certain to have been rejected. Had you truly "carefully reviewed my qualifications," you would have also learned that I write, speak and touch type in three foreign languages, though in all humility I can only claim a passing knowledge of Serbo-Croatian and a basic understanding of HTML.

You should also know that I have met The Pope. Not that new guy with the weight problem they've been trotting out lately, I'm talking about the good one, with whom I was able to volley a few words of Polish many years before somebody else had to start holding up his head.

I rode beside the French Minister of Tourism in a private boat through Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Paris. He later took me to dinner in London by way of the newly Christened Chunnel, where he apologized profusely for the lowly quality of British cuisine, promising something much more haute upon our return.

I have viewed the eerily well-preserved body of Eva Peron, lying in state all these years in a remote Buenos Aires cemetery. Yes, she is still wearing Dior.

I once hi-jacked the horse-drawn carriage of Queen Sonja of Norway. There was a light rain falling over the Fjords, if you must know, and Her Royal Highness preferred to take the limo while I chatted up a Strapping Young Horseman who'd slipped me the eye. Along the way to the Bergen summer castle, where we were to dine on salmon, caviar and cloudberry tarts, I waved at throngs of my perplexed but nonetheless enthusiastic subjects lining the streets.

While my resume may have omitted some of these more colorful items for the sake of brevity, I assure you I am highly capable of performing your typical Big Hollywood Temp Assignment. I believe I've proven here, for starters, my ability to write an appropriate letter, one which reflects a certain je ne sais quois you're unlikely to find among the crowd you run with up at the Malibu Colony Macaroni Grill.

You can only imagine my way with fielding high volume phone calls, what with my demonstrated wit, charm and grace under the pressure of being unemployed and unemployable in this ridiculous town over these last months despite my remarkable talent for making and serving coffee. I have done this not only on farms in the Puerto Rican El Yunque rainforest and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica—but also among the migrant camel wranglers of coastal Turkey, who like it boiled into a syrup with an unholy dose of sugar. Boy, those Whirling Dervishes are a loopy bunch. I'd prefer going back to apricot farming on a Galilean kibbutz any day of the week.

Review that background, babe. My guess is your girl Paris will be devoting much more energy to finding a new pal to publicly humiliate on The Simple Life after the fragrance and nightclub businesses hit the skids and her Nazi boyfriend dumps her bony ass for Tara Reid. So please, let me be the one to wish you the best in your future endeavors.

Yours very truly,

Rules of the Game

There’s an old joke in Hollywood about the aspiring starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter. You hear this one over and over in film school, usually delivered by some Big Deal Alumnus visiting class with the Dimwitted “Actress” he’s sleeping with. You sit there entertaining their assorted complaints about how mean and stupid The Producers are, how shallow and predictable the Agents, Managers and Studio Chiefs. When they detail their objection to the latest indignities against writers proposed in the new WGA agreement, you silently hope the whole lot of them go out on strike so you can stick your own foot in the tiny opening that would create in The Big Closed Door. All you want to do is work. Everything that happens afterward, you remain convinced, will be filled with joy and wonder as you skip across the lot punching the air like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch while humming the theme from Rocky.

Yesterday I met with a Bright and Accomplished Producer who’s decided to back me as her top choice on a book adaptation she’s optioned. To say that landing this assignment could make or break my career is an epic understatement, since I don’t technically have a career, unless you count selling off family heirlooms at the Fairfax Flea Market .

It’s important to note how much "Bright and Accomplished" deserves that moniker; she was a long-time literary agent with a Big Five Agency, earned an Ivy League degree in both theater and business, and formerly practiced entertainment law. Obviously very well-versed in the art of the deal, she called me in to get our ducks in a row before our joint meeting with the assigned Mini-Major Studio Exec, who reserves the ultimate right to choose the writer.

The book is about a married woman who re-connects with her college sweetheart at their fifteenth class reunion. She makes a snap decision to marry this long tortured artist, her first and only love, but not before finding her husband a new wife.

“Let’s go ahead and cast this thing for the pitch,” Bright and Accomplished suggests. “Who do you see as the husband?”

Matthew Broderick,” I say. “There’s just no movie without him. And Johnny Depp for the one that got away and probably should have stayed there.”

“Brilliant!” declares my avid fan. “Fabulous!” There may have been another superlative injected here, but I can’t exactly remember which one. Let’s go with “Magnificent!” for now.

“What about the girl?” she wants to know. “She’s the one whose face has to carry the poster.”

Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock," I suggest. "Anyone in our general age range."

Hmm,” muses Bright and Accomplished. It’s the kind of hmm, I can’t help but note, that only pretends to consider these choices while actually being somewhat disturbed by them. The sort of hmm, I know in my heart, which can irreparably break even the strongest Newfound Hollywood Alliance. “We'd like to go a little younger,” she finally says. “What do you think of Rachel McAdams?”

I think she just played an eleventh grader in Mean Girls.

“She's adorable,” I gush as though I’ve just given birth to the kid. “But, um, these people all went to college together. Fifteen years ago.”


Darnitall, there goes another one.

“Well, maybe it's a five-year reunion," she muses. "And Johnny could have been her T.A. instead of a classmate.”

“Love that!” I lie.

“And Matthew Broderick could be this older man she up and married later, you know, for security.”

I counter with something about Gwyneth Paltrow being over thirty now. Drew Barrymore, too. "You could see them at least starting to deal with the aging issues the author explores.”

She throws up both hands like a crossing guard determined to stop a speeding car. “Oh, we don’t want to get into all that.”

But the book is about "all that." Remember the hilarious eye and butt lift consultation? Oh God, please tell me you read the book.

"What do you think of Kate Hudson?”

I think she’s nineteen but she has a strangely unattractive baby and a weird-ass rocker husband she's always dragging around so she comes across as an adult.

“Perfect,” I say, nodding my head like a bobblehead doll. “Hey, why not go younger with the guys, too? Maybe Freddie Prinze as the T.A. and Owen Wilson as the wiser and more secure husband.”

“Beautiful,” concludes Bright and Accomplished, punctuating the end of this particular discussion by fluffing some papers on her desk.

On the drive home I decide that the good news is I have no delusions of ownership on this one. It’s not my book, they’re not my characters and sending another offensive media message to women everywhere is not my problem.

Best case scenario for what happens next is I do a draft, two sets and a polish, all written by committee, at which point I’m fired for being unoriginal. They bring in Carrie Fisher to re-work my dialogue and take sole screen credit—before the WGA arbitration in which we’re ordered to share it with an ampersand. At this point they’re already shooting from a script that’s such an unholy mess we’d both prefer our names be removed altogether. Until, that is, the movie does forty-five million plus on its opening weekend, besting studio predictions in all four quadrants. Carrie and I hit the talk show circuit with little Dakota Fanning, who ultimately lands the re-worked role of our lead in a series of girlhood flashbacks. Under back end incentive to do so, we all three pretend it’s some feminist masterpiece in the grand tradition of Ninotckha, An Unmarried Woman and Thelma and Louise.

That, my friends, is Your Big Hollywood Compromise.

Today I’m wondering how it is I haven’t even landed my first gig and I’m already compromised. One thing they won’t tell you in film school, however, is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—humiliation, degradation and chronic unemployment being most problematic of all. The truth is, I never set out to change the world—only the state of my life.

My meeting is at four o’clock, so I have to go iron my dress now. I have the pull-down kind of ironing board hanging from the back of my closet door. I’ll have to position myself very carefully so as not to catch a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror, wishing I were younger and thinner. Wishing I weren't another dumb bunny dying to be a star but instead woke up in bed this morning between the twisted sheets of another insignificant screenwriter.

The Famous Scary Superagent

Back in film school, I managed to land a spot in a legendary class called "The Art of the Pitch." It's taught by a one-time Famous Scary Superagent, now a Big Deal Producer, who's known for bringing students up to the front of the classroom and figuring out how to make us cry. Nobody knows the exact purpose of this exercise, but the consensus is that it’s a rite of passage pulled from some Lou Gossett, Jr. in An Officer And A Gentleman school of tough love. Survivors agree they’ve been somehow advanced to a new level of self-awareness afterward that could only enhance their future success “in the room.”

I’d not yet been in the room—which roughly translates as any place where two or more Alleged Hollywood Types gather to drink bottled water and tell each other lies—but boy I sure wanted an invite. I knew even then that script assignments were made behind those doors, and I already understood how little landing one had to do with one’s demonstrated ability to go home and write it. I’d have to navigate some very strange waters if I was ever going to sell an idea, or even join the club and steal somebody else’s—and Scary is one of the guys who wrote the book on all that.

Instead of pitching your original movie in class, which he promises you will do very badly, he asks you to get up and tell a true, three-minute story. Though its actual content is off limits, Scary, with the help of your reluctant classmates, subsequently critiques every facet of your presentation—from what your voice level and body language reveal about the real you, to the hidden truth behind your choice of hairstyle, clothes and shoes. Just to keep you guessing, you never know at what point during the term you’ll be called up to speak.

When my time came with the silent wave of a strangely tan and muscular finger, I sucked in a breath and took center stage to describe a recent Women in Film awards ceremony where I was given a scholarship. This is the first time I’d walked down a red carpet, and even though the paparazzi flashbulbs came to a dead halt when I arrived, I felt as glamorous as an Oscar nominee marching along in my curly up-do and plus-sized cocktail gown hot off the rack from Macy’s Woman.

Afterward, however, when I went to retrieve my car, my credit card was declined. This Anassuming Regular Joe behind me in line, who seemed even more out of place among the glitterati than I, came to my rescue, gallantly ponying up twelve bucks cash for the valet. He wouldn't even give me his address so I could return it. We instantly fell in love, I was convinced, and agreed without another word that we should marry at once. He looked a little scruffy around the edges, with a day-old beard and a soup-stained tie, but I felt sure we could work through all that together. Then he asked me to watch his goodie bag so he could go find his wife. He returned with Brooke Shields, who towered over me like some mythical creature, meeting my gaze right around the level of her spectacular bustline. The fabulous Hollywood Power Couple then jumped into their big black SUV and went home to make a baby. I didn’t even get to keep their goodie bag.

The class was in stitches. We love to laugh and people who make us laugh, we’d all learned in Structure Class. I’d happily acknowledged the height-weight disproportionate elephant in my room and managed to have some fun with it along the way, making me an artful pitcher if ever there was one.

Scary seemed to disagree, shaking his head on the sidelines. “That’s a very sad story,” he finally pronounced.

“Hello, it’s pathetic!” said I. “Welcome to my world!”

Scary silenced yet another big laugh from the class with a death stare intense enough to have earned him his nickname in and of itself. “Well? How did all that make you feel?” he demanded to know.

Wait a minute now, he wasn’t supposed to be talking about content, let alone leading some kind of bonfire meeting at fat camp. Scary was playing dirty with me—and I was nothing short of enthralled by the chance to play back.

“I felt short and wide,” I replied. “There I was bursting my seams with potential.”

That one even got a laugh from Scary—who threw back his head and opened his mouth to show off a pricey set of veneers.

He, conversely, never did manage to elicit any tears from me, on that night or any other. One time he got so mad at my unflappably sparkling demeanor that he ripped down a heavy black drape he’d been twisting throughout my flawless monologue. Wagering that I’d rehearsed myself immune from de-railing rather than being a natural born storyteller, he tried to throw me a loop, ordering me to talk off the cuff about, say, the worst show in the history of television. “E.R.!” I declared. “Why are they all over that lesbian with the crutch all the time instead of giving the hot Croatian guy something naked to do? I once married a guy from that part of the world, and believe me I put him to use. We met on a cruise ship, somewhere in the Caribbean...”

In the end, even the people who broke down and wept—grown men, some of them, with swaggering gaits and Ivy League law degrees—seemed to realize that Scary was nothing of the sort. Just before Christmas break, the class read him a group poem we'd written—and he was the one fighting back tears. I hugged him goodbye, the first and only time I’d ever gotten within five feet of the guy, and whispered in his ear how he’d always be in the room with me. “Let’s go do it,” he said.

This morning I had a very big meeting, a follow-up pitch on an adaptation I was asked to further flesh out. Though the meeting played out really well on its own, as the producer walked me out, a little voice somewhere inside told me to bring up Scary’s name and credit him with my pitching skills. “I love him, too!” she exclaimed. “He pulled me out of the mail room and made my career, way back when.”

Before I’d even exited the lot, my Very Supportive Manager called to say I’m now the front-runner of the three finalists headed back to the studio the day after tomorrow. Another thing they won’t tell you in film school is that as long as you keep dancing with the one that brung you, you’ll never have to face the room all alone.


When I first moved to the heart of Hollywood, I spent my first New Year's Eve with my then brand new Emotionally Available Gay Friends, who lived in the renovated Craftsman next door to mine. The previous fall I’d chucked my Job, Condo and Husband—though not necessarily in that order—and bet everything I had on my growing belief that I really could become the next Big Deal Hollywood Screenwriter.

In short order, I was recognized with a Major Screenwriting Prize for the first script I'd ever written, my Very Moving Yugoslavian Civil War Comedy. When my name appeared among the finalists on the front page of Variety, I began receiving dozens of phone calls from all kinds of Otherwise Unavailable Agents, Studio Suits and Producers with "projects set up all over town." I had no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like big fun!

All the hoopla, however, was abruptly interrupted by a dark, deafening silence. It must be some kind of industry-wide holiday recess, I told myself when the congratulatory cheese baskets stopped arriving and follow-up calls to all my new fans went unreturned.

Although I've had a good healthy fear of the Ouija board since I first sneaked a read through my parents' copy of The Exorcist, when the game appeared at my neighbors' party, I couldn't help posing a single question.

"When will my screenplay sell?" I asked it, careful not to let the thing off with a simple yes or no answer. The Stoned San Francisco Granola Girl who'd brought the game down with her sat on the living room floor opposite me, both of our hands perched over the magnified game piece as it methodically spelled out the phrase, "7 S-U-F-F-E-R."

Convinced I'd been cursed by Linda Blair's Ouija board demons to seven long years of panic and despair, I got up and ran out of that house, never once to return after dark. Granola chased me down to put a positive spin on things just as the New Year rang in with a hail of fireworks and roving spotlights criss-crossing the Hollywood skyline. “It's 1997,” she announced. "I really think that's what the seven was for."

She really thought wrong.

Seven long and immeasurably insufferable years later, I still hadn't sold a thing—but I did graduate from my Big Deal Film School that spring. I'd completed my seventh screenplay, with which I won yet another big writing competition. I landed my Very Supportive Manager, quite possibly the seventh person to contact me after my name once again appeared in Variety, and signed up a Big Important Lawyer who may well wear seven-hundred dollar undershorts.

Then, for seven long months, nothing.

Finally, my Hilarious Funeral Comedy was optioned by a Former Cable Network President who'd left to start a new independent film production company. My Confident Young Producer Friend, a great pal of mine from film school, is now the D-Girl in charge of developing my movie, which seems an awfully long way from yielding the payday I'm counting on. She took me to The Corner Bakery in Westwood the other day to provide me with a ham and egg panino and some moral support. We've been doing this for one another since before either one of us could afford to pick up the tab. Back in grad school, we once had to pool the change in the bottom of our purses to split a styrofoam cup of cream of chicken soup in the campus cafeteria. Eventually, she landed The Big Job and set out, come hell or high water, to bring me along for the ride.

“I don't know how much time I have left,” I now whisper glumly across the breakfast table. “It's been eight years and eleven scripts. My curse was only for seven.”

She looks up from her bowl of green apple oatmeal and informs me plainly that we're going to start shooting in March.

Nearly spit-taking my Ruby Red grapefruit juice, I inquire into the source of her optimism. “It’s like following through on a golf swing," she claims. "You just have to keep watching the ball, and darn if it doesn't go right where you're looking."

Apparently I'm supposed to look somewhere other than the place where we don't have a director, an easily bankable cast or any firm offer of financing. I should also ignore the fact that she's suddenly peppering her speech with golf tips. She was always a big rock climber, taking off on break for Yosemite or Joshua Tree. She's also into synchronized swimming, which she gets a kick out of my calling "water ballet." She looks like a cross between Heidi Klum and Chloë Sevigny, only with way more upper body strength and a disproportionate sense of humility. She's my friend, and those are harder to come by in this town than a decent bagel.

Late for another meeting, she gets up from our table swearing up and down I only have to hang on a little longer while giving me a good hard hug. "All we need to do now is keep our eye on that ball," she reminds me, her blue eyes sparkling like those glittery rubber marbles prized in gumball machines everywhere. "You trust me, don't you?"

While they won't tell you much about trust in film school, I suppose you can always try to become a believer, to learn to embrace the good signs if you're going to keep attaching so much import to the bad.

Driving home along Sunset Boulevard, I recognized one that had been there in my backyard all along, spelling out the word "Hollywood" like some big Ouija board in the sky. I suddenly felt like Dorothy discovering the awesome power strapped to her own feet. I've since learned that the Hollywood sign has its own live Webcam anyone can visit, convinced they’ll discover something moving up there, intercepting some living, breathing message meant exclusively for them. Though I can't quite see the familiar landmark from my house, you could probably get a glimpse of it from the roof if you took the trouble to climb up. Some days, I'll find myself stepping back a few blocks and there it is, as reliable as an old school chum. And I'm left wondering why it is that after all these years I'm still startled by that nearness.

Lady in Waiting

Last night I realized that I've been waiting nine long years for the call.

That's not just any call, mind you, I get all kinds of those—mostly from telemarketers I'm in no shape to buy things from and creditors with whom it's not the best time to reconcile, despite my every best intention to do so on some unknown future date. No, I'm talking about the call, the one that says, baby, you're in! You've sold your Big Script! Landed the Big Assignment! Closed that Big Deal to re-write the new Spielberg project in some lofty corner office serviced by three private elevators overlooking the entire breadth of the Dreamworks lot!

Anyone can see I've more than done my part in preparation for untold wealth, infamy and stardom. I went to a very Big Deal Film School, after all, where I wrote all kinds of hilarious and heartfelt scripts and met any number of encouraging and powerful people. On top of that, I've set my cell phone ring tone to play the Hallelujah Chorus on any and all incoming calls from My Very Supportive Manager.

Unfortunately, most of the time Supportive is only "checking in," which means trying to gauge my general mood while not asking any direct questions about how far along I am or am not on that dazzling new spec script of mine.

In the meantime I got nothing.

Which is why I was so chagrined watching my Very Serious Actor Friend starring in The Two Gentlemen of Verona last night at the New Village Arts Theater in Carlsbad, about ninety miles south of L.A. Not only did Serious headline the thing, he also directed it, designed the set, co-founded the company with his wife and ultimately produced a Very Small Child who appeared beside him in a speaking role. As if that weren't enough of a contribution to the great tradition of the theater, he's been running this Free Shakespeare in the Park Series for the last five years in an effort to remove "social, economic and educational barriers that prevent many in the community from attending cultural events." That sounds like the mission statement of the Old Globe Theater, by God, with an actor of all people taking it upon himself to change the world one stage play at a time.

I was not struck simply by my friend's originality in getting up there to perform on the sprawling lawn of a hilltop high school at nobody's invitation but his own. In fact, there's a bitingly funny Kenneth Branagh movie covering just this territory. It's called A Midwinter's Tale, about a modern day Shakespeare troupe that forces itself upon some distant shire with a Christmas Hamlet revival performed in the failing local church. This is the actor's burden, part of a great tradition of hunting and trapping his own audience—even if that means traveling the countryside and serving up religion and jug wine along with the theatrics.

What struck me last night even more than that kind of moxie was the boundless talent up on the stage. Re-set in the 1950s, the long outdated farce was peppered with clever cultural references to La Dolce Vita, The Godfather and The Lone Ranger, to name a few. When Valentine set off to Milan from Verona, he drove a vintage roadster right off the stage and through the high school parking lot. The famously loutish Proteus performed a soliloquy to the tune of Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender, matching its tempo in previously unharnessed iambic pentameter.

This guy and his pals not only understand Shakespeare, but they also figured out how to make him relatable to a modern audience jaded by movies, TV, advertising and rock'n'roll. To deliver all the musical fun, every last chorus member had to be at the very least a triple threat; my friend and his co-founder, it's worth noting, earned their M.F.A.s at the Actor's Theater in New York.

All this, and you will probably never know any of their names—which is just Jim dandy with them. These folks are like Lone Rangers themselves, compelled by the opportunity to serve in relative anonymity rather than chase the dubious reward of fame and fortune. Well above waiting for any Big Hollywood Call, nobody's even home to hear the phone ring, since they also have to break down their stage long into the night and pitch in to clean up the littered grass.

My longheld belief about how success should come and get me seems pretty dumb this morning. I'm like a thumbsucker headed off to kindergarten with a childish habit I can't seem to shake.

I know in my heart today more than most I might have to do just that, because there's a whole lot more talent out there than there is a market for it—even for those who do figure out how to cultivate their own.

Though we weren't exactly sure how to find this remote suburban location last night—nor could we manage to round up any friends to come along—My Always In Charge Older Sister and I somehow made it time for the curtain. Of course we did bicker quite a bit during the hike from the car—about how it is we are always late, who had the wrong directions and why one of us broke the other's borrowed shoes. Each concluding the other was solely responsible for these transgressions, we uncorked a very welcome bottle of Temecula wine—along with a picnic of pate, bread and cheese, and some caramel cookies and chocolate covered almonds from Trader Joe's.

I guess in some small way we did make our own party, found our way up there and laid out our blanket under the stars. We ate, drank and laughed, swayed by the sheer force of will humans can call upon when they're convinced they have something important to say—even if it's only that families are difficult, love is hard to find and life is a big silly farce. We wrote another chapter in our own little story, and for the moment, that will just have to do.

Only a Paper Moon

The waitresses at Canter’s make me nervous. They’re all like a hundred years old and substantially overweight with swollen ankles. They tire as easily as your grandma going up and down the steps from the main restaurant to the groovy Kibbitz Room, where punk rock bands have been playing round the clock since the late sixties, judging from the décor. The original establishment dates back to 1924, and I'd wager so do many of these gals. I’ll look up from my Corned Beef Brooklyn Avenue going, hey, lady, take a breather—you know, after you run get me another half-sour and a re-fill on the cherry Coke. Watching the poor woman hobble off, short of breath and perspiring around the upper lip, I suddenly see my own future.

Everybody thinks they’ll be young forever, and everybody is wrong. In Hollywood, we’re also convinced we’ve got something very special or we wouldn’t have killed ourselves saving up for the bus fare to get here. I bet some of these waitress broads are former Rockettes, forced to sling the slaw on Fairfax and Beverly since the day some smooth-talking hustler who looked like Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon promised to make them Big Hollywood Starlets. The dumb lug gets himself shot standing watch for Bugsy Siegel, and she ends up broke and alone, adding old to the mix somewhere along the way. Nowadays she’s one lousy tip away from pulling an extra overnight shift just trying to finance her cholesterol medication for another month.

I was relieved when My Very Supportive Manager set up a meeting for me this morning not at the dispiriting Canter’s—perfumed by that air of hopelessness along with the baking Challah and today’s chicken soup—but instead at Jerry’s Famous Deli. They can’t make a decent cheesecake to save their lives—but at least the young, clumsy waitresses serve up a few illusions along with the day old bagel chips.

I hate this type of meeting, which feels like a blind date rather than a golden ticket onto a studio lot, where I can spend an afternoon truly believing my career is going somewhere. Every once in awhile, Supportive feels compelled to throw me like a bone to Some Struggling Producer Buddy she’s convinced might land himself a Big Studio Deal some time soon. He loved my script, he says—just not enough to put his own ass on the line and deliver it around town like some terrific used car he’s discovered with new tires and very low mileage. No, what he’s after in exchange for the Swiss cheese omelet and side of buttered rye toast he insists on paying for is my Next Big Idea.

The irony is that Supportive trained me very early on never, ever to share these with anyone. Say something vague, she instructs me, like you’re working on a "character piece," or a "buddy comedy" or a "popcorn thriller." Never use more than two words. While you must work very hard constructing a tight, visceral, market savvy, poster-friendly log line, don’t even let the Middle Eastern busboy overhear you repeating it. I always find this concept amusing, that it’s all about the idea rather than its execution. Like writers are just monkeys filling prescriptions in some Big Studio Laboratory churning out on-screen pharmaceuticals.

"We can afford to be choosy later," Supportive will reassure me. She did once put forth that she’d be willing to work with me even if I decided to limit myself only to the tiny sliver of the marketplace devoted to cinematic excellence. “It is your career,” she’ll say in this way she has of feigning neutrality when she actually has an agenda just like everyone else.

I know very well I can’t afford to be picky when I had to park in a twenty-minute meter in front of Jerry’s, since it’s only a quarter instead of the two dollars they have the nerve to charge in the lot. Still, I do have to wonder if it bothers the guy writing the Poseiden Adventure re-make that he didn’t even have an idea to call his own, not even a germ of one to withhold from the eavesdropping foreign waitstaff at Jerry’s. Probably not. That guy probably just took the omelet and ran. Hell, he probably got a glamorous meal at The Ivy in exchange for his complacency—roast duck drizzled with sour cherry pesto. He got his parking validated and went home high on false compliments and Pinot Grigio.

Producer Boy was actually very nice. He drank bottled Dasani while I ate food of all things. I offered to re-acquaint him with my Million Dollar Screenwriter friend and former Big Deal Film School professor who lives just around the corner from Jerry's. He's the one who wrote a big box office smash—whose concept was pretty original, come to think of it—about two guys who changed faces. Afterward, he was one of like twelve writers on the Tomb Raider sequel, and though he has to spend a lot of time apologizing for that whorish indiscretion, he did get to build himself a sandy-bottomed wave pool off the big payday.

He once told me he never bothers to walk the short distance to Jerry's. He likes the way Canter’s smells, half bakery, half deli, one side for each nostril. Even Michael Mann goes to Canter’s, I heard the Big Deal Director say in a master class. He’ll sit there writing all day long, basking in all that authenticity. I really hope I won't have to wait on any of these guys some day at Canter's. But another thing they won't tell you in film school is that you will get old, at which point all bets are off.

CUE MUSIC: The scratched static sound of a needle on an old forty-five dropped into a Depression-era jukebox.
"It's only a paper moon, rising over a cardboard sun. But it wouldn't be make believe, if you believed in me."

Hollywood Justice

My obsession with Judge Judy annoys my sister to no end. She thinks Judy is rude, loud and totally inappropriate, and that her oh so colorful antics—like clapping her hands to shut people up, or shouting them down to ask if they’re on medication—would never fly in a real courtroom. It is a real courtroom, I insist. The cases are real, the rulings are real, the judgments are final—the guy says so right in the opening titles. Being a Big Deal Lawyer, my sister always has to have the last word. “Not really,” she tells me. “That’s why they call it television.”

Reality television, I want to remind her but don’t, since that would be me having the last word and all. The fact is, however, that my sister has an actual job to get up and go to and thus hasn’t spent my kind of quality time in Judge Judy’s courtroom. Nor has she devoted my brand of personal energy to analyzing this particular show in relation to the other judge and lawyer shows, like my second favorite, Nancy Grace. My sister also hates the feisty former prosecutor, and is equally miffed by my devotion to her. Not only does she have big hair and crazy eyes, I'm told, but she also was chased away from the Atlanta D.A.’s office and right onto national television due to some horrible act of prosecutor misconduct.

Well, I say right on to that. Nancy is only five feet tall, weighing in at ninety pounds, according to an interview I saw between her and Jimminy Glick on Larry King—once again demonstrating the boundless time I have on my hands. I first discovered little Nancy right after the O.J. Simpson trial, when she was Johnny Cochran’s partner on a Court TV show called Cochran and Grace. She’d never once let that big blowhard, God rest his soul, have the last word—reason enough to tune in right there. During the Michael Jackson trial, she’d open her show paging through The Boy, the erotic coffee table book filled with all kinds of little boy nudie shots that prosecutors nabbed from Michael’s Neverland bedroom—and recently had to return to him.

Nancy was outraged. Judge Judy doesn’t comment on this sort of thing, but I’m convinced she was, too. My personal theory is the reason they pay Judy the big bucks—twenty million a year, from what I read—is because we’re all looking for a big bully with absolute power to take our side unequivocally. We want the bad guy punished, fined and publicly humiliated by someone with the stones to make him bend over and take it like a man.

Judy is also tiny, and she wears pearl earrings and a sweet little lace collar peaking above her robes. When Some Brutish Litigant gets even the least bit out of control, she waves over her bailiff, Byrd—who’ll just kind of stand next to the weasel and demonstrate his superior girth. Once in awhile he’ll whisper something inaudible in the offender’s ear, I’m guessing some Mr. T. catch phrase like, “I pity the fool.”

Most of the time, though, Byrd just stands by chuckling to himself about what a tub of butter he fell into when Judy whisked him away from the daily grind of the New York City family court system and off to Hollywood. I like to picture the two of them driving out here together in some old jalopy, like Grannie and Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies. I bet they live in side-by-side mini-mansions and bank with Miss Jane and Mr. Drysdale.

Judge Judy has all kinds of catch phrases of her own, like my personal favorite, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” I myself would like to say this to Some Studio Suit next time one tells me how charming he found my Heartwarming Funeral Comedy that he has no intention of making. Judy wrote a book called Beauty Fades, But Dumb Is Forever, a piece of advice she gives the countless women who’ve lent their addict boyfriends bail money, only to be dumped for a pregnant second cousin hidden in the wings. Sometimes there’s a third and more recent girlfriend, who shows up to support his version of events. Judy will look at the guy, then at the women, then back the guy and say, “I just don’t see it.”

Maybe the reason I’m so fascinated with television justice is because of how systematically unfair Hollywood is, how very partial and subjective. My film school professor who was also formerly a Famous Scary Superagent used to say he could look in your eyes and tell you if you were going to make it or not. It was a big lecture hall, and I only got close to him once, when I hugged him goodbye at the end of the term. He looked into my eyes, and I knew he saw my destiny but wasn’t going to reveal it—not even if I begged him to.

Judge Judy would have cut to that particular chase in a heartbeat. “Pack your bags and catch the first bus out,” she’d bark. Or, in the alternative, “You’re a born star, now quit your whining and get back to work.” She doesn’t own the liar chip all your other Big Hollywood Types have installed in their brains somewhere along their way to the top. The one compelling them to tell you one thing and tell the rest of the town the other, where they yes you to death when what they really mean is not only no, but hell no—and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

I recently had a job interview to do morning crafts services behind the scenes on Judge Judy, though I was the one asking most of the questions. "How does Judy take her coffee?" I inquired, completely riveted. She likes fruit tea, and low-fat cream cheese with her daily bagel. "How much physical time would I get to spend with her?" I demanded to know. "What kind of car does she drive?" "Does the husband judge ever show up to visit?" Needless to say, I didn't get the job, since they likely suspected I was some kind of crazed stalker of celebrity legal figures, and they were probably right.

I guess one more thing they don’t tell you in film school, and in all fairness, they really shouldn’t have to, is there is no justice in Hollywood, except in the movies themselves. If that’s what you came here looking for, you best hightail it home to Umatilla, where everything makes sense—virtue is rewarded, evil is punished and mediocrity politely ignored. For now, I’ll have to get that in my TV courtrooms, where the people are real, the cases are real and the rulings are final. Yup, I guess I do get the last word every once in awhile. How's that for Hollywood justice?

The Power of No

Maybe the biggest thing they won't tell you in film school is that nobody wants to get out. Everyone knows this, of course, but it is never discussed, due to superstition, perhaps, or maybe just simple decorum. We all ignored the Bad-Ass Directors who’d lurk around silently in the background for five, six years, furtively enjoying student discounts, awards and accolades while putting those insignificant final touches on their forty-five thousand dollar thesis films few would ever see. Deluded Screenwriters like me could remain in the program for up to ten quarters—entering a fourth year of study, longer than law school—before being forced to the gallows of the graduation stage. The Producer's Program is only two years long, but I saw some of those Fast-Talking Slicksters linger on for a full extra year on the flimsiest of excuses—illness, injury, death in the immediate family.

The point is to stay on the inside, whatever it takes, because once you cut bait and run, your fortunes are bound to take an extreme nosedive. The scholarships, fellowships and compliments dry up at once, while your star—the one you earned just by getting into that Big Deal Film School, beating odds longer than gaining admittance to Harvard Med—inevitably fades as well. You've got nothing admirable to talk about at Suburban Parties In The Valley, where you were once inarguably superior for having up and ditched your whole life, come what may, and gone back to school. Everyone secretly wants to do either this or run off to Micronesia and open a surf shop. You, however, actually chased your dream—only to have it slip through your fingers. Suddenly, you're just a Regular Hollywood Wannabe, Another Guy With Another Screenplay, no better than your Average Hollywood Gardener, who in all likelihood has a few of his own stacked up out in the pick-up.

There are, of course, exceptions to the doldrums of post-graduation obscurity. An animator I studied with is already the stuff of legend, having won the Student Academy Award for his short, which was then sold to Tim Burton for feature expansion. I hear the studio campaign for a grown-up Animated Short Oscar is already underway. You like to think you had some small hand in your classmate’s success for which you're above accepting the screen credit rightfully due you. In truth, the sum total of my relationship with Animator Boy occurred during the single Crit Studies class we shared, where I told him I liked his glasses and he said thanks.

I do know the one writer who's landed a Big Deal Staff Job on a Lame and Popular TV sitcom for the fall season, though I don't recall punching up any of her jokes. I could have, but I didn’t. Okay, that’s a lie. I never even laid eyes on the thing. Anyway, beyond that, one or two writers in my class, including me, have had scripts optioned, at least according to the trades and tracking boards, which are also given to bald-faced lying.

It is heartening to know, however, that even the Bright Shining Stars are not immune from suffering. The brightest star of all who ever attended my Big Deal Film School now sometimes returns to teach master classes. He told us he lived in his seven hundred dollar a month apartment until the age of thirty-seven. He had already written and directed both Citizen Ruth and Election by that time, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. Still, so uncertain was he about his future prospects that he continued to spurn any major adult commitment—premium cable subscription, car insurance or even a good woman to smoothe the sheets and call him Pookie. After Sideways, he immediately got a divorce from his Brand New Actress Wife who starred in it, though I’d somehow bet that she got the long-delayed house.

I’m not at all sure what that’s about. Maybe success is just as emotionally risky as failure, although I’ve always had a hard time swallowing that notion. Another one of my Big Deal Teachers was a Famous Scary Superagent, who I always thought was kind of a softie—though I once read somewhere that he'd light New Age candles in his office before calmly breaking your thumbs. Either way, he eventually gave all that up to teach us and be producing partners with Bruce Willis. He had a whole line about keeping it simple so you don’t have to hire people to manage the people who manage you. I’ll always remember his theory that once you’ve installed velvet drapes you lie awake nights dreaming of double velvet. To which I responded, silently of course, yeah, bite me. Me, I like my thumbs and use them to ply my Imaginary Trade.

Scary also talked a lot about sticking to your guns, using the famous story about Sylvester Stallone, who refused to sell his script for Rocky unless the studio let him star in it. “The Power of No,” he’d say, flipping the piece of chalk in his hand as though it were cloistered there as part of some magic act. “That's big stuff.” What the hell he was talking about I still don’t know, but I was relieved to learn that some day I’d apparently have some power. Or something.

The immutable truth is most of us aren’t going to have to worry much about velvet, double or otherwise. Or whether to say yes or no to a deal, because there won’t be any such thing on any table we aren’t waiting on for tips. Best case scenario for your average Film School Survivor is teaching Therapeutic Videography to at-risk youth at the East L.A. Police Activities League. Worst case is temping, which I haven’t been reduced to yet but I do feel it coming, like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. There’s just something ugly in the air, something wicked and inevitable set to hurl me off to a strange foreign land peopled by witches and flying monkeys wearing sensible heels.

Fortunately, temping jobs are perplexingly hard to come by in this town. I registered at a major agency months ago and haven’t heard a peep from them since. Actually, that isn’t so. The truth is I got The Big Call the other morning. They were looking for someone to wave a foam finger in front of Quiznos. Twelve bucks an hour, which means the agency is getting twenty-five and pocketing more than half. I didn’t know what to say, except no. Hell no. Thank God I was taught that there’s power in that.

Lucky Number Three

I’m intrigued by the word “decimation,” which I understand dates back to the Holy Roman Empire, when conquering armies lined up the losers and picked off every tenth soldier. While your chances of being decimated weren’t all that good, it can’t have been much fun standing there furtively counting off the pals on either side of you. Either your number is up and the lights go out, or you’re left to bury a clan member and face a future of enslavement and degradation at the hands of the enemy.

What an apropos paradigm for Hollywood. My Very Supportive Manager just called to tell me my chances of getting an adaptation I pitched are down to one in three. I’m one of only a handful to survive The Big Cheese Producer’s scrutiny and am to report to the Mini-Major Studio Suit to deliver my take anew. Better yet, he “loved, loved, loved” my Hilarious Funeral Comedy, offered as a writing sample, and can’t wait to meet me so we can chat about why they’d never make such a charming project while drinking bottled water and complaining about the heat.

I no longer get too excited by this kind of news; I’ve been this close before, only to be edged out by The Girlfriend, The Daughter or Nora and Delia Ephron. At this point I’m always left wondering why Supportive set me up for all this, let me work so hard on developing my pitch only to sweat it out over a foregone conclusion.

Getting out there is good, she’ll tell me, no matter what the outcome. I’m Honing My Stuff, and People Are Saying Very Good Things About Me. Onward and upward. Next. Sometimes she talks like she’s ticking off chapter names in a self-help book for dispirited writers, recovering alcoholics on a bender and other habitual losers who are only a life tip away from seizing control of our destinies.

This time it’s different, even I can see that. All three writers who made the final cut are unknown and uncredited, just like me. We are all recent graduates of Big Deal Film Schools, some bigger deals than others, in my humble opinion. I’m supposed to walk in like the assignment is already mine and just take it, according to Supportive. The trouble is, I know with absolute certainty I would have been that tenth soldier—would have happened every time, no matter how many do-overs you gave me to reconfigure the whole motley line up. But when it’s a good thing, a lifelong dream teetering on a razor’s edge of actually coming true, one in three odds don’t seem all that friendly. Not even as reliable as flipping a coin, after all.

Does everyone feel this way? That they're far more likely to drop from the sky in a fiery plane crash than win the multi-state lottery—even though the real odds there are probably even. Maybe you have to have put it all on the line and watched it come tumbling down to conclude you are somehow cursed by the numbers gods, doomed never to pierce that ever thinning tissue separating ordinary despair from everything you ever wanted.

Which is why I’ve decided to turn to religion, for a limited time only. Yup, a week or so of good old fashioned faith ought to do me some good. I was baptized a Roman Catholic, after all, and I have a good bet that the guy who first came up with all that hocus pocus was a Grateful Number Nine.

Alright already, you saints and angels, let’s hear it for Lucky Number Three, so I can start blogging about all the good things they do tell you in film school—where I came to believe that all things are possible with a little luck and timing. You don’t even need talent, end of the day, nor an aunt and uncle named Candy and Aaron Spelling—nor even a honey of an ass, a great rack and a killer smile. Some days what you do is put aside your desperation so you're absolutely sure it won't show. Then take a roll of the dice, say a little prayer...and breathe.

Good Things for Poor Folks

I once heard Madonna say she used to survive eating only popcorn back when she was A Penniless Dancer in New York. Funny how she neglected to account for the S&M Modeling income, since that’s not something Mrs. Ritchie chooses to dwell upon these days during her lazy visits with The Queen calling on her newfound Etonian accent.

Me, I like eggs. You can get a dozen Grade A Large on sale at Ralph’s La Brea for a dollar—or eight cents apiece. During the school year, when I have some money trickling in from my Big Deal Part-Time College Professor Gig, I’ll buy two or three dozen at a time and make a light dinner omelet using three whites to one yolk, discarding the extras. In the summertime, I can’t afford such wastefulness and take my cholesterol like a man, dressing my whole egg omelets with a parmesan cheese packet from Domino's; and a tub of salsa snatched from Poquito Mas, where my Emotionally Available Gay Friends usually treat. I’ll also grab the Equal, jelly tubs and butter pats from restaurants, and I once made off with a whole bottle of A-1 after requesting a fresh one of the waitress delivering my leftover box of steak. Condiments are complimentary, am I wrong? So is coffee at my sister's Snooty Law Offices, where I’ve been known to reserve a bag or two for home brewing.

Rounding out my grocery list, Reese’s Peanuts Butter Cups are another economical source of protein, also on sale this week in a package of eight for a buck, or twelve and a half cents each. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has virtually no nutritional value whatsoever, but it’s very filling for your buck. The house label tastes like feet so it’s best to stock up on the name brand, truly “The Cheesiest!”—a word I’m vaguely perturbed my spellchecker is accepting—when it’s on sale for ninety-nine cents a box.

On the down side, cheap food is kid’s food, high in fat and calories, which is okay when you spend a lot of time on your bike, swinging from jungle gyms and building strong bones and muscles. Me, I sit around typing, blogging and e-mailing Unmarketable Ideas to my Very Supportive Manager, alternately getting up to make peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese sandwiches. I also poach, fry or scramble my eggs on toast; then snack on apples or have one for dessert with a nice glass of milk. Adult dining means microwaving a Lean Cuisine I buy on sale at four for ten bucks, less my wad of two dollar coupons doubled, totalling about forty cents each. Believe me when I say keeping my weight up is an absolute breeze and only sets me back about twelve bucks a week. (Note to self: Propose Martha Stewart type lifestyle book, "Good Things! For Poor Folk.")

My Deeply Concerned Mother tells me over the phone she hates that I’m so good at being impoverished. She's undoubtedly gazing at my second grade school picture, for which I happily wore a stiff lace collar and faux pearl buttons on my little cardigan sweater. “I never thought you’d be the type to go in for This Bohemian Lifestyle,” she sighs.

Please let me say that I never wanted to join the cast of Rent, singing my own praises over scoring a can of Bustelo and a carton cigarettes. All that stops being adorable when you turn thirty, or grow a Big White Middle-Aged Ass, whichever comes first. Me, I’d already accomplished both before chucking my Successful Journalism Career and going to my Big Deal Film School—by which time I had no lingering interest in squatting with a gaggle of Trannies in an abandoned Needle Exchange Change Clinic near the Gay & Lesbian Arts Centre on McCadden and Santa Monica. Not that I've given it much thought or anything.

Okay, so maybe being filthy rich was never a personal goal either, but it usually comes with the Big Deal Screenwriter Package, from what I’ve observed. My friend Mr. Sci-Fi Action Writer, who must have gotten tired of driving all the way to the beach, built some kind of Space Age sandy-bottom wave pool in his yard after hitting it big. My Big Fancy Show Runner Girlfriend just endowed a Film School Scholarship Fund for women of color. She now wants to cash everything in to fund a More Meaningful Project of her own, one with something important to say, like Monster Ball.

I’d also do Something Socially Relevant with My Newfound Fortune, like go adopt a Big-Boned Ukrainian Orphan and raise her as my own. Some day Another Shallow Fashion Writer would inquire how it was the single mother of the World’s Top Swimsuit Model could be so very short, round and droopy. The apple of my eye would look down from her stilettos and reply, “Mamalka is Big Deal Screenwriter. Step out of her vay or I kill you.”

If most men live lives of quiet desperation, I guess I like my despair served up loud. In exchange, I want some small measure of success doing something I love, as opposed to something I don't—and most days I still believe it could happen. Although the nights, well they're a little tougher to get through. No, they won’t be going over the nights much in film school. But they should all be offering my popular class in Low Budget Pantry Management.

Casting Call

After you graduate your Big Deal Film School to begin a daily ritual of Humiliation And Obscurity, it's very important to have a friend who's a Former Child Star. Not only do you get special treatment at restaurants from waiters who grew up dreaming she'd some day be theirs, but also she might agree to play you in the movie. She and I became friends in screenwriting class, where she fell in love with the role of a Neurotic Wounded Poet named "Donna," the heroine of my Hilarious Funeral Comedy. "That's me," I confessed. "It's the story of my life."

Oh, come on, she said, unable to picture me reuniting with my Estranged Siblings and a Small Amish Community to pull off a heist during my Dead Grandmother's funeral mass. I never said it was the true story of my life, I told her. I believe the Hollywood term is "inspired by true events." What I didn't share, though, was how alike she and I looked as teenagers, in part because one of us got fat when she grew up and it wasn't her. I'm also older than she, who only played the Girl Next Door Coming Of Age In The Seventies, while the tail end of them were my real-life wonder years. But who among us hasn't sat around and wondered who'd portray them on-screen in the unlikely event all their Big Hollywood Dreams came true?

Just in case, though, I should probably prepare to make other casting suggestions as well. Not everyone I've ever known shows up in this particular script, of course, but I'd like to be helpful when A&E comes a'calling regarding the staged re-enactments needed to flesh out my Biography.

Certainly it will be necessary to feature the tenants here in my little bungalow complex, seven pastel-colored houses dating back to the 30s, which one of my Failed Actor Friends Who Can't Admit It used to call "The Technicolor Village."

Lately I've been fascinated by my New Next Door Neighbor, the self-described "actress, trainer, golf instructor," who sort of reminds me of Sharon Stone, but a little younger and not so crazy around the eyes. She's only just moved in, so it wouldn't be much of a role—unless of course she attempts to seduce my Imaginary Boyfriend. Though I've never met "Dirty Harry," whom I love from afar though he lives just across the drive, I have to admit they'd make a darling couple. She lounges around her front porch in an aqua blue kimono, petting the two Snow White Sheepdogs she swears are rescue mutts she adopted years apart after spotting them on the news. When she gets dressed to go out, she upgrades to mint green sweat pants with matching sports bra, bearing a midriff so ridiculously tight Kerri Strug could bounce off it to corkscrew over the balance beam. Oh, let him have her, if that's what he wants, a woman who's had her lower ribs removed, and is tan and adorable and gets up early to run.

On the other side of her house lives a dead ringer for Steven Wright; he, too, had once wanted to be a Vaguely Psychopathic Stand-Up Comic, but ended up posing as an Old College Pal in order to track down Credit Card Deadbeats. His willowy wife, a florist who makes painted wooden windowboxes on the side, could be played by Alanis Morrissette, if she's looking to cross over. Alanis wouldn't have to sing, or even speak, because I've never in six years living spitting distance apart from this girl heard her do either. Though she once lost her cat and I saw her frantically pacing the driveway, screaming "Dave! Dave! Dave!" Maybe he never came back and she went mute with grief.

Ebony And Ivory, the guys on the corner, used to make out and feel each other up in the driveway a lot, just in case you were wondering how they stood on the whole Same Sex Public Intercourse Issue. Now that they've made their position clear—several of them, actually, we've only spoken a few times. Mostly it's about why I won't share my parking lot storage bin, with which they are oddly obsessed despite there being a nearly empty one adjacent to it. I've caught them lurking behind me when I happen to go out and grab a suitcase or a box of sweaters. "Any room in there yet?" they'll casually ask, peering around me as I somehow manage to push a towering avalanche back inside and get the door shut behind it. "I often see you licking each other on the lawn," I want to reply. "What's that about?"

It wouldn't be L.A. without a "Former" Exotic Dancer Who's Now A "Hairdresser." She's legally changed her name at least three times since we met and frequently gets a new phone number. I've discovered a number of Suspicious Characters standing at the foot of her porch asking about "Violet" or "April," neither of which is any of her names. She has a Pit Bull named Dante and a Bona Fide Sugar Daddy, who has variously claimed to be a Physician, a Musician, and the Deposed Dictator of a Sizeable African City-State. All I know is he drives a Jag and wears plenty of man jewelry. I'm thinking Chris Rock, if he's willing to pull a DeNiro in Raging Bull and put on a few pounds. Or Cedric The Entertainer if he'd go Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and shave a few off.

I'm leaving somebody out. Fading Hipster, early-30s, could generally use a shower and shave. The High School Prom King, no doubt, he made tracks for L.A. only to discover A Town Full Of Prom Kings. Though disappointed, he quickly rose above all that and got himself a Big Job In Computer Graphics. He has a Designer Dog bred to lead sleds in Norway, which needs to be shaved to the bone March through September or be kept in a refrigerated industrial chamber designed to store fine wines and cheeses.

It wasn't always this cold and anonymous among us folks here in the village. When I first dumped my Husband, Career And Condo and drove into town, so excited was I about My Big Hollywood Life that I continued on to the beach to see the Pacific before doubling back along the winding, neon river of Sunset Boulevard. My first neighbors here became my first friends, each one of us bursting with youthful optimism about the riches our futures were certain to hold. One by one I saw them succeed and move up or fail and go home. Even the family of Ten Mexican Day Laborers and their Mentally Challenged Son-In-Law qualified for HUD housing and got their own very nice spread in the Valley.

Me and the semi-retired stripper are the lone hold-outs from those early days, still waiting for our lives to begin, biding our time, keeping our distance, and hoping against hope we won't end up another Live! Nude! Girl! working for tips on The Strip. No way would Little Winnie Cooper play me in that movie. I'd have to find someone like Courtney Love, God forbid, or maybe Kelly Osbourne—Sharon for the later years, when my desperation turns into excess waterweight and I have to run off with a Carnie Barker who appreciates the world's largest pole dancer. So when are all these folks due out of re-hab?