The failure of the human body to overcome its environment has something of the “small death experience.” The French word for orgasm is “small death” suggesting something quite benign and pleasant, if overwhelming the condition of self. There is that strange moment of peace people recount when faced with the unknown country.
I once had to reconcile hearing the words above San Francisco; “We’re having problems with the landing gear.” Strangely I was not upset. I wanted the plane to land safely of course, but in the face of having nothing to fight or to flee, there’s a peculiar, settled feeling: “Well, this is it, huh…” The ellipsis may have no better use in all of language.
Then there was the time I fell down exactly one stair. Mind you, this was no ordinary stair. It was wet concrete without a safety strip. It led down to pavement from my apartment building laundry room. I had fallen on stairs before, but not like this one. I was wearing old flip flops replete with the Stars and Stripes from Target. Trying to get all my housework done before starting at graduate school, I put one too many throw rugs in the washing machine. It had been fine before, so I thought, okay, just one more can’t hurt. The washing machine gave up its mechanical ghost as the weight of the rugs broke the belt. I realized I had broken the poor washing machine and didn’t want my landlord or neighbors to know. I couldn’t afford a new washing machine although the vending company does replace them. It still was embarrassing. I took the soaked rugs, having lost the spin cycle to squish the extra water out of them to the broken belt and put them in a plastic laundry basket. Water seeped everywhere, including the back concrete step. More concerned with escaping with the incriminating evidence than caution, I hurried with the exceedingly heavy load, no wonder the belt had broken, and went flying of the slick step into space. Gravitational pull had given up for a moment; then decided to take its toll for breaking the laws of physics.
There is the blur and the slow motion aspect. I may have been saved a broken arm by actually landing on the basket of wet rugs, but my anklet cut on the sharp edge of the concrete step. I knew there had been a high level of force with the fall. My ankle was slammed and twisted. The air was knocked out of me. I didn’t know if I could get up. My relief at not being caught breaking the washing machine was suddenly marked by the frightening awareness: I was all alone. I could barely speak, let alone yell, and there was no one to hear me if I could. I didn’t have my cell phone with me. I lay in a pile of old wet throw rugs wondering the extent of injury, how long I might wait. I didn’t have health insurance. Could I even get around USC on crutches? Wasn’t going back to school hard enough with the trauma caused by a basic of wet throw rugs?
And then it melted away. Everything. I looked up at the sun through the misty sky. The world was encased in a rapturous yellow. I was part of the pavement, the sun, the fence next to me, and all the tacky patio furniture my neighbors so loved and I rather appreciated them putting there. The 101 was in the distance with its thousands of people going from here to there and back again making that ocean like rhythmic sound. There was the L.A. River with hardy wildlife making its home there and the chirps and songs in spite of industrialism. Sometime I would even her loons reminding me of northeastern marshes.
A grapefruit size hematoma would develop on my ankle. I looked at it detached, like, “Whose ankle is that?” That every white blood cell in my body along with a fair amount of fluid could condense so quickly without my will rather impressed me. I understood better how these things killed people when they were within the skull. Nature makes its own decisions despite our egos.
The transcendent feeling may have been helped along by the blood rushing out of my brain, the adrenal system flooding my body; I could taste bitter almonds. Obviously I wasn’t a creature smart enough to avoid hurting myself on one little step. I was concerned with rugs and neighbors and going back to school and all things of my personal world. Life has its own agenda. I had to let go.
Later I would learn I tore two ligaments and actually moved the bone in the ankle. The opposite side of impact was bruised from within. All colors of the rainbow rose out. My menstrual cycle was brought on early and messed with my hormones. I still feel the pain from in the ankle and leg today. They say arthritis settles into the damage. I know when it is going to rain. It reminds me, we aren’t quite the awesome creatures we think. Only in our brains are we masters of the universe.
Still, it was peaceful and wonderful to look up at the sun for a moment. I couldn’t fight and I couldn’t flee. My consciousness was giving way to the physical matter it is made up of, and still I knew, there’s something else different from what I understand going on.
5555 Melrose Avenue
Paramount is a beautiful movie studio. Part of the reason tours might go there is that Paramount is the only studio still in Hollywood proper. All the rest had packed up their back lots and moved to the Valley or West Los Angeles. Those studios had clean new buildings, corporate lobbies, and probably better run tours than the ones I worked. Most of the pages I worked with had been rejected by those clean, corporate places at some point, including me. Paramount was all old buildings with window unit air-conditioners and the disproportion of add-on space. Paramount really was just the first studio to give in to my repeated attempts to “get in.” But I fell in love with its permeating sense of history, or the idea of its history. As if I had dreamt it all before…
When I was first hired as a page, it seemed the sky was bluer, the grass greener, and the klieg lights throughout the city were just for me. I would spend two weeks in an old, musty screening room learning stories of the lot for walking tours. The scent of mold that probably had and has damaging effects on my respiratory system still provokes a feeling of beginning and expectation, like the smell of buttery flavored oil used in movie theaters. Years ago, poets would write of the sweet smell of lilies and the feeling of ocean air. In my time, mold and petroleum products produced for human consumption take their place. We were given lockers and called a page class. It was high school all over and we were the freshman. Instead of watching football games from bleachers, we guided people “on the list” and the rest on vacation, to the bleachers to watch the tapping of sit-coms. Fortunately, I had liked high school and felt warmed by the reminder of a hopeful and easy time. The shared experience of innocence and expectation, struggle and failure, bond people in ways few things do. The sharing of experience may be far more important than the achievement of any particular dream or goal, but you don’t know that at the beginning.
As for the tours, one did need some imagination and performance skill to make the blank sides of old, beige soundstages interesting. Outside of Paramount’s iconic rod iron gates, which in fact are replicas of the originals, too many pages, including myself, crashed a golf cart or tram into them at some point, there wasn’t much to look at. The golf cart tour was of great social status on the lot, like a Mercedes or Lamborghini, yet I could never really master the nuances of driving without a rearview mirror. I much preferred the walking tours, even if they were rather lowly on the Hollywood food chain with just tourists instead of the friends and family of executives. I have yet to hear of anyone selling a script on a VIP tour anyway (mostly because we were clearly and forcefully forbidden to pitch on the job).
Still, walking backwards did have its challenges. I did fall into a flower pot every so often, but that entertained the tour. With the lack of any real visuals to show, as a docent at a museum obviously has, I would bring the tours to the lot’s prop house. It was still quite romantic back then. Most studios have sold off their props now with the growing use of computer generated graphics. Rooms of chandeliers, props from recognizable movies, goofy things made by the carpenters for specific fantasy movies or shows, a room full of nothing but vases and bottles, and a giant bear, all helped to spin stories that were almost true.
Then I would bring the tour to where the fiberglass work was done. Probably more respiratory damage for all of us, but we were in Los Angeles; it’s part of the experience. I would tell them this is where they made the fake boulders that Captain Kirk from Star Trek had thrown at him by the evil alien chasing him across the Mohave. I have no idea where the fiberglass props where produced on the lot during the nineteen sixties, nobody did, but that wasn’t the point.
The Trekkies did present special issues though. We were told we were responsible if one got loose from our group and bothered a production. At some point, this happened to every single page and no one got fired, but they did try to tamp down Trekkie fever running rampant on the lot. On a hot summer day, far across the four acre lot from the commissary and gift store where we could get some comfort and shade, I did sneak a tour into a nice, cool Star Trek set replete with dangerous looking fiberglass things. Unlike some tours that left with the blank look of, “I spent fifteen dollars on that?” they seemed to really enjoy themselves. I made sure they knew we weren’t supposed to be there and a security guard did shoo us off. Nothing was ever said by management. This was all before 9/11 and security was about crazy fans and people trying to pass along head shots and screenplays. After 9/11, the studios became fortified encampments. Security was about bomb sniffing dogs and weapons pat downs for a while. Actual barbed wire like in a prison or concentration camp was used in come sections. Talking oneself onto a lot became a lost art; instead it became a federal offense. A romantic fantasy aspect of all these semi-magic places was forever lost to a killing reality.
Reading the people on the tours was very important. On occasion we would get groups that had no translator and little interest in television and movies that they didn’t see in their country of origin. This was the near impossible tour and we couldn’t help but wonder why they even came. If they never even heard of Laverne and Shirley they surely wouldn’t care where Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams supposedly were singing the first part of the show’s theme song on a rebuilt back lot at three quarter scale.
On slow, clear days – in summer, there often could be more smog than production – I would point out the Hollywood Sign in the distance. Since the tour had already seen it if they drove to the lot, I would tell the story of Peg Entwhistle jumping off the sign to her death back in the nineteen thirties. She had been repeatedly disappointed audition after audition. Her love life was falling apart. The Great Depression did little to promote a sense of hope and optimism in the country, and when Hollywood, that great pumper of hope and optimism turned sour for her, there was nothing left. Just an old wood sign left by a real estate agency and half broken from a mudslide, it originally said Hollywood Land. I sometimes noted that other cities had symbols of great beauty and architectural import: the Eifel Tower, Big Ben, the Capitol Dome, the spires of the Kremlin, the Taj Mahal. We had a wood, now sheet metal, sign stating the name of the place. Not exactly something to study in art or architecture 101. One had to see the particular letters through the lens of imagination and projection. Purportedly, a letter from the Beverly Hills Playhouse lay unopened for Peg Entwhistle at her home offering her the lead in a play when she jumped. For some reason I wanted to give Peg Entwhistle the fame she had so craved. I understood the burning desire: to leave something behind of yourself in the world. I don’t know if that letter is an urban myth. We all want to believe that good letter is real; if we just hang on long enough…
All the pages loved being on the lot. Fifteen hour days were fine and no one was in any hurry to go home. I didn’t have a computer at the time so would go to work on the weekends to use the computer in the office to work on my screenplays and query letters. I couldn’t have been any happier.
Then I got a formal job in an executive’s office and everything changed. Suddenly, it wasn’t sweet, hopeful high school anymore. I lost a belief that life can work out and all can be redeemed. Life is much more poetry than the Hollywood ending, even in Hollywood, if not much more so.
Now, driving past Paramount now I try to force back the melancholy, a sad song I can’t get out of my head. So many ghost stories I told about the lot, Hollywood Forever Cemetery being next door, it lent itself. Now my younger self is one of those ghosts roaming, hiding in the prop house at night, telling stories about light fiberglass boulders. Other pages, starlets from the thirties, tourists from a foreign land, all haunt 5555 Melrose Avenue. I had become woven into the collective mythology of the place. I had wanted that.
It is a trick of life not to be haunted by the words: “might have been…” And something of me lingers in a place called Paramount.
And fade to black.