It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.
So telefundraising it was, and for eight hours a day, five days a week, I phoned people all over the U.S.—one person after another after another, dialed by a computer with barely a break between calls—to solicit donations for such disparate organizations as PETA, the Nature Conservancy, B’nai B’rith, Priests of the Sacred Heart, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and, more recently, Obama for America. “Hi,” I said robotically, again and again and again and again, “I’m calling on behalf of—” only to hear a second later: Click. Or: “I already gave!” Or: “We’re on the do-not-call list!”
Of course I couldn’t blame them, and though I sometimes spoke to friendly people eager to donate, I was invariably exhausted at the end of the day. It was all I could do to drag myself to the bus stop—I can’t afford to replace my car, which died three years ago—and, once home, pour myself a glass or five of red wine and veg in front of the computer, meanwhile seething that life had come to this.
My bus, which runs along Sunset Boulevard, is reliably unreliable, and tonight, as usual, it was late, and when it finally arrived, it was, likewise as usual, crowded. I stood for the first few stops, stealing glances—inconspicuously, I was sure—at a nearby couple, the guy standing, the girl sitting. She reminded me of a low-rent version of Debbie Harry once upon a time, but even a low-rent version of Debbie Harry looks good to me, and I moved a little closer, trying to eavesdrop on her conversation with her boyfriend. A seat became available, and after I took it, no one sat next to me—a small mercy, since I’m tall with long legs, so that I have to sit at an angle, otherwise the seat in front of me cuts into my knees. The bus continued, just as I continued to eavesdrop on the couple, who, it turned out, were speaking Russian. Then the bus stopped and a black guy—thirtyish; slightly overweight; shabbily, but not too shabbily, dressed—stepped aboard, and I saw him glance at the empty seat beside me. Don’t, I thought, hoping he could read my mind. Don’t make me rearrange myself. I’ve been on the phone all goddamn day, and I’d like to be able to get home without the goddamn seat doing a number on my knees.
But he took the seat and turned to me and said, “Thank you for letting me sit here,” as if he’d read my mind very well. Fine, I thought, just don’t goddamn talk to me. I’m in no mood to talk to you or anyone else.
“I’m from Pittsburgh,” he said, now incapable of reading my mind. “I just moved here about a year ago.”
“Yeah, I moved here on August twenty-second. I’m getting my own apartment soon.”
“Congratulations,” I said, speaking back only because he seemed, quite possibly, insane, and ignoring him might lead to an altercation. He told me he was a musician, and I said, “Oh? Do you have a band?”
“No. I used to but now it’s just me.”
“So how do you make a living?”
And, suddenly and loudly, he burst into song. He had a good voice, though that he’d burst into sudden, loud song was a confirmation of insanity. Then he broke off and said, “Do you sing?”
In fact, I do sing, a little, but, trying to discourage the exchange, I shook my head and looked away.
“You like her, don’t you?” he said.
“Her,” he motioned with his head toward the Russian girl. “She’s your style. She’s the girl for you.”
“She has a boyfriend,” I said, irked that he’d noticed my notice of her, which might mean that she, too, had noticed.
“But you’ve got personality. You’ve got a real look about you. You look like Bruce Willis. No, you look like Al Capone. Are you Irish?”
Since when is Al Capone Irish? I thought, though I allowed that, yes, I have Irish blood.
“You may find this hard to believe,” he said, “but my great-grandfather was Irish. You know, if I had a baby with that girl, it would come out looking like me. And if you had a baby with a black girl, it would come out looking like her, not you.”
I nodded, despite my uncertainty as to what point he was trying to make. He told me again that I had personality, a personality he liked, which also baffled me, since I was hardly a model of warmth. He asked what I did, and I decided against any mention of acting or writing, which might prolong the discussion. Instead, I said that, at the moment, I was raising money for the election.
“How’s it going?”
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t know. People hang up on me a lot.”
“Yeah, they want to get rid of Obama’s health-care plan, but it’s not going to happen. Obama is a great man. Do you know why?”
“Well, he was able to pass a health-care plan, and even the Clintons couldn’t pull that off.”
“That’s not why. It’s because he loves all the people. He wants us all to have health care, not just rich people. And do you know why they want to get rid of it? Do you know why they hate him?”
“No, they’re demons,” he hissed. “It’s a fight between good and evil. But you—you’ve got God in you. Oh, wait”—and now he stood—“this is my stop.”
The bus was pulling up to a hospital, and I wondered if he lived in the hospital mental ward, which had granted him a kind of day pass. He moved to the back door of the bus and, just before he vanished, he turned to me and said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I heard myself say, words I hadn’t spoken in weeks, and before long, I was sleeping in my cell so that I had energy enough to work in another cell, somehow a little more optimistic that, eventually, I would wake to a different day.