Pillar of TinselBy Nathaniel Missildine
January 18, 2011
You haven’t arrived until you’ve let Andrew McCarthy rack up debt on your Blockbuster card.
So I told myself and people back home at the time, which was long enough ago to relive safely, but not long enough to feel casual about seeing it as a “time.” It was half a year after I’d crossed the country for Los Angeles, the receptacle of my crowded visions of movies as products of an innocent, worldwide imagination.In the case of the employer to whom I’d first hitched my collegiately-decaled wagon I’d settled for tv movies.I’d awarded myself an early E for effort, and for entertainment.
Among household names then were “Blockbuster”, “videocassette” and “the end-of-millennium.”“Andrew McCarthy” was well ahead of them on slowly fading away.He was set to star in a 10 o’ clock network original playing a single father fighting for custody of his adopted child after his wife’s sudden death.I calculated he now owed me thirty dollars.The production company had rented the movies of the woman playing McCarthy’s wife, for his own research purposes.I’d been sent on the task of obtaining the videos and had used petty cash, but my own card still got strapped with the late fees.
I’d mentioned this to my boss, the producer.But he hardly noticed when I spoke, unless it involved his dog I took to the vet in Sherman Oaks or the legal documents I picked up in Century City or his car that I had washed and waxed in West Hollywood.I was only the office runner, the gopher, the schlepper, but I saw myself as helping to work the gears and cogs behind the silver screen.I was grinding out the tinsel, and having a tether to an eighties brat packer was something I could own.
“Did you get the plastic spoons?” my boss asked as I dropped off a medium cup of chocolate vanilla frozen yogurt, beside, but not on, his desk.He had informed me the first day he was classic OCD.He ate only frozen yogurt for lunch every day and only with a plastic spoon.His assistant had warned me never, ever to make the mistake of metal.
“Yes, it’s in the bag.”
“Also, could you fold the corner of this fax over the staple.It scratches the desk.”
“No problem,” I moved toward the offending office supply.
“I mean next time.Not now!”
“It’s not that big of a deal,” he stood up clutching tightly to his spoon.He turned toward the expansive view of a kingdom below, looking onto the bend in Sunset Boulevard where the street changed from billboards and nightclubs of famous celebrity overdoses and widened to the overwatered greenery of homes waiting for the occupants to return.“There’s that guy who dresses up like a heavyweight and does boxing moves on the side of the road!”
“I actually had a quick question.”
“There’s a story there…”
“Mr. McCarthy’s movies are late.Is it okay if I pick them up?I mean, if he’s done with them.”
“Those rentals he requested.”
“Yeah, don’t bother with that now.I need you to drop off the revised script.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you can say ‘Andrew’.We all do.”
“Ok.It’s true that the boxing guy would make a good story in some ways.Probably.”
He smiled a worried smile back at me, the only kind of smile he really knew how to pull. I exited his office saying “Take care” because I had little to no idea how to interact with him and most other people I’d met on this side of the country.
I dashed back out to my car and motored up Coldwater Canyon, to give “Andrew” his script, only to be disappointed when I was greeted at the door by an unfamiliar hanger-on friend, who thanked me sincerely and promised me he’d see that Andrew got this.
I waited for a minute in the driveway under a canopy of broad leaves that I took for banana trees.Under shade from the blinding white sun, I hoped something else might happen.But it was only Autumn.
Because these were moments where things only almost did, moments that I’d later realize were possibly nothing, or else opportunities with the potential to change my future, if only I had the small legend in the corner of my daydreaming to be able to tell the difference.
I drove home in the evening, closing the dog-eared pages of my Thomas Bros map of LA County and tossing it in the backseat beside a copy of my own newly-bradded screenplay that still sought a place to be dropped off.I headed back toward my apartment in the other direction on Sunset willing myself to be bolder.I rifled through personas.
After six, the air hung hazed a reddish orange by the actual sunset in my rearview mirror. By then, the streets had cooled.I passed the man in the hooded boxing robe still practicing his uppercut on the sidewalk, the marquee clicking on to illuminate desperate band names at the Viper Room and, farther down, a billboard of a woman named Angelyne in a pink Corvette, blonde hair and monumental boobs, who seemed to be some kind of street marketing genius having already captured so many hearts and minds with nothing for sale but herself.
I heard bass rumbling the frames of adjacent cars as a chorus “Biggie, Biggie, Biggie can’t you see, sometimes your words just hypnotize me” played over it.I wondered if booming the music of a man shot dead in his car not far from this intersection that previous Spring amounted to a kind of public brag.Meanwhile, my own rap battles would go unheralded.Inside my ride, the radio broadcasted an interview with Stephen King commenting on the popularity of horror stories, saying that Americans crave scary because of the general sense that things can’t stay this good for this long.
I realized I should have dropped off my own script that afternoon.Or maybe Andrew McCarthy was not right for the role of the lead.Either way, the myriad formatting errors and core structural flaws would be cleaned up during the notes meeting I was bound to have once the thing was bought on spec.Andrew would understand.The idea of just handing it over to him without a word could work. I could come up with a reason to go back to his house tomorrow. I knew my delusions and assumed that they boded well for future success in the industry.
I continued on as the traffic got lighter.I decided to dip three blocks south of my apartment to the Formosa Café.At a lonely corner, its eerie green lights glowed over striped black and white awnings that could never have come from this half of the century.It looked like Lana Turner could be in there, or the actress who played Lana Turner in L.A. Confidential whom Guy Pearce mistakes for “a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner.”I’d seen the movie the weekend before and it had reaffirmed my belief that, in the west, the hard-boiled days still existed. In California, they didn’t build over sagging remnants of the past, they just left them abandoned to drop into the very present desert and noir.Between the cover charges and the tropical rain-scented perfume back toward La Cienega and the creaky tourism up at Hollywood and Vine, here stood something still breathing quietly.
But, I didn’t stop in.If I had someone to meet it would be a different story.
I drove until I got back home where the real hookers looked like they were trying to keep from trembling in the cold now that the sun had gone. I stepped inside to my first floor apartment.
I peered out the window facing east where, miles over the grayed and purple hills, I reminded myself I’d been born in a hospital in Pasadena.I’d spent the first year of my life there, during a time when my parents lived above a garage.I liked to think I remembered the place in my bones, and not just in photos.It meant this southland was home.
I sat down on a single folding chair arranged before the single couch in the middle of my echoing apartment.I held a glass of tapwater in one hand.I leaned forward and broke into heaving tears.Why was clear at the time.
“My nephew wants his job back,” my boss told me the next day.
“We thought about trying to find another role for you, but it’s just not possible.You know, it’s family.”
“You mean, he wants to come back?Why?”
“This is the best solution for all parties.He’ll start on the first week of next month.But we’ve enjoyed having you and we’ll be happy to put in a good word for you wherever you land.”He extended an overwashed hand to me.
I shook the hand and we worked out the next three weeks of work and pay.As one of the first orders of business, I placed a random Blockbuster receipt in the petty cash drawer and helped myself to triple the amount listed.Andrew McCarthy for all I know never returned the rentals and enjoys them to this day.
Afterward, I temped and took strange jobs for a year.I met more people and happened upon more flashed moments of beauty that I’d never find anywhere else.I let the city seep back into me, until eventually moving to San Francisco to follow a larger, erupting hysteria in the world of videogames.
But the day I left that office I’d begun to box up the trappings of a business and the parts that didn’t accommodate an overthinker like me and all the things that never came to fruition and I kept those that looked like a story.I blamed the movies for ingraining in me this need for closure.Though it may have been an unsatisfying one, it was an end for all parties just the same.Besides, I could always come back home.
Until then I had people to entertain elsewhere. And I stayed dazzled. My delusions remained intact.My Blockbuster card still reflects the back charges.
I teach English to a French-Lebanese girl with braces a million light years from Sunset Boulevard and several permutations of a story later.
Not long ago, we went over a conversational lesson that included a hypothetical trip to the place in the world she would most like to visit.I carefully articulated the conditional.
“Where would you like to go?”
“Hollywood,” she responded without pause. I asked her why, exactly.
“I will see the white capital letters on the hill.I think it is very beautiful.”
“Yes,” I paused trying to focus on the grammar while considering whether or not I had something else to interject.“So tell me more about it.”
good morning, sir. hey, i liked this. real good story-telling. you nailed the details of L.A. i come from generations of los angelenos and am perfectly aware of assholes like your boss that roam that town. funny thing is most of these pricks don’t even come from L.A but rather some dusty town somewhere in the midwest. or from florida. you’d be hard pressed to find a true L.A dude/chick. but i’m sure you already know this now.
your boss reminded me of that movie “swimming with sharks.” i believe that is the title. that kevin spacey guy is in it. you did good by not not telling that sap to blow you after him requesting to fold the corners of his fax. i applaud you. the nerve of some folk.
anyhow, mr. missildine, good write. take care out there. maybe we’ll catch up if you ever choose to come back to So. Cal.
Thanks, man. It was only toward the end of my days in LA that I started to get to know more people actually from the city, so I do need to come back for a visit.
And it’s funny you mention Swimming with Sharks, I saw that movie before moving out, so I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I knew someone who worked as an assistant for a high-powered agent, and apparently the experience was even worse than the movie made it out to be.
This was so much fun to read! I’m sure you’re MUCH happier in France than in Hollywood!
Yes, without question, I’m happier now than I was then, though that doesn’t stop me from revisiting in words and random thought-dreams and even half miss it.
The Formosa Cafe sounds like the loneliest place on earth.
Really enjoyed this…I love a good LA story.
As for “Andrew,” he probably was Method acting Less Than Zero when he blew off your returns…
I think the Formosa Café isn’t actually that lonely, it only looked that way from the outside. Or else lonely is part of the design theme. But I never did go in and never knew anyone who did.
I bet Andrew McCarthy hangs out there all the time, waiting for Jami Gertz to show up.
I love the Formosa. I’ve been away from TNB for five days and I don’t even know what the context is, but I saw this response in the sidebar and had to jump in. I’ll read soonish. Yay Formosa! Yay Nathaniel’s new post!
Oh, Andrew McCarthy – the thinking teenager’s tottie.
When I was about thirteen, I thought he was just lovely. I thought I would grow up and marry someone just like him. His preppy, vaguely startled look stirred something in my bony little pre-pubescent chest.
Now I see pictures of him and all I can think is: “What a drip!”
I agree with Reno, you capture LA so perfectly. Not that I have ever been anything but a visitor to that city – but there is something universal in the air out there that almost collects ghosts of the past so that every breath is filled with a collective kind of consciousness. I can imagine it must be one of the toughest places to live.
This is a lovely piece of storytelling. I always enjoy your work and this was no exception. Lovely.
“…preppy, vaguely startled” that’s funny. I did eventually meet him (and while he still had those videos) and I can confirm that he exudes that look in person, too. Also, his hair is perfect.
Thank you, Zara, and I always enjoy your comments, this being no exception either.
there is a channel on my godforsaken digital cable service that seems to always be playing the andrew mccarthy “classic”: mannequin, no doubt to give him some paltry residuals. nathaniel… consider yourself lucky that the nephew needed a job and your screenplay never got into ac’s hands…. you and your work are in a far,far better place.
Thanks, Robin. Indeed, in the end, getting nudged out of the job was a larger lucky break.
And Mannequin gets a heavy rotation, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s also to remind people that Kim Cattrall has been having sex in the city for decades now.
Such a good read!
Wow. Andrew McCarthy, huh? So, does he have a dead-fish handshake? This is what I imagine. And also that he’s allergic to everything.
Thank you, Cynthia. I should have tried showing up at his house with a sackful of ragweed just to test this out. Though, I think the only thing the residents of Coldwater Canyon are allergic to is writers with conflicted feelings about their surroundings.
Don’t worry, Nathaniel,
Blockbusters is going under anyhow.
I love how you write, the line about shaking “his overwashed hand” made me laugh out loud and has given Victor more reason to think I’m crazy.
Usually he wouldn’t be right next to me as I read, but we’re on the road and the motel is really small.
Thanks, Irene. Glad I could provide a laugh. I think Blockbuster’s fortunes began their downward spiral when Andrew McCarthy failed to return those rentals. The company should have heeded it as a bad omen.
And by the way, thank you for the lovely card that recently showed up in our mailbox. If you email me your mailing address, I’d like to send you one from our end.
This is the kind of L.A. story I like, since it’s about the kind of people all the glossy mags usually ignore: those hundreds of individuals you’ve never heard of who are listed after the director and stars as the movie credits role. This story has a very Coen Brothers/Barton Fink feel to it; I can easily see Michael Lerner as your OCD boss.
Love the Formosa Cafe/L.A. Confidential references, too. Everything goes better with a touch of noir.
The only Andrew McCarthy movie I’ve ever seen is Pretty in Pink. I figured that was enough McCarthy to last me for the rest of my life.
Thanks, Matt. Barton Fink was another movie that I watched before making the move out to LA. So that once I got there, I half expected to meet a devil archetype living down the hall and a William Faulknerish character puking in a restaurant bathroom. Either way, that noir feel about the city was still very present at the time, there despite, or maybe because of, the pervasive gloss.
It’s the ending of this piece that gets me. All these memories and experiences in your head that you hint at and the reader wants to know, and we know you’re thinking about them, and yet this girl, she knows nothing. That’s great writing, Nathaniel. Great great writing.
Thanks, Nick. There were a lot of memories and experiences only hinted at here, this was an especially tough piece to compress in fact, but the naive, faraway visions of Hollywood in the end encapsulate the place better than I can. Glad the ending got you.
Ouch! Nat, even years and miles down the road, that still stung. Reminded me of Swimming With Sharks, the criminally-under-appreciated film about people like you, trying to get a foot in the door, while the seeming weight of an entire industry is pushing against the other side.
Love the ending. Love, love, love it. Of course, she couldn’t understand the trapdoors in her dream anymore than you could. But that’s why they’re dreams, no?
Thanks, Joe. Yep, it’s a dream that manages to keep renewing itself, even for those who’ve been shown the trapdoors. I’ll still take an episode of Entourage for instance, over the painful realities of Swimming with Sharks any day.
Great story, Nat. Love this line: “We thought about trying to find another role for you, but it’s just not possible.”
Yessir. That about sums it. That and the overwashed hand.
And Andrew Mac held a place there for a while for me as well. The flowing hair. The off-center grin. The inevitable turtleneck. And him in love with Demi Moore while trying to act the struggling writer in St. Elmo’s Fire made me want to wear a tan trench-coat too. Him leaning disgustedly against Molly Ringwald’s locker made me want to bite her lips, and then go buy an ounce from James Spader. Definitely emblematic of an age.
Glad that the line grabbed you. My role tended to feel a bit shoehorned in to begin with, and I never could remember my cues.
And buying from James Spader was always a Tinseltown dream of mine, though I had to settle for the agent’s assistant who worked in the adjacent office. Possibly another post altogether, and under another name.
Thanks for the comment, Sean, as always.
I’ve only spent a very small amount of time in the place, but I think you captured the “veneer” that is LA very well.
…and you have to admire the sweetness of those french-lebanese parisians, who utter such endearing phrases…”capitol letters…”
but don’t let my pedanticism get in the way of a compliment…great bit of work here, sir!
(then again, if you take the sense that the spelling is intentional…that Hollywood is the defacto center of her universe…it doesn’t require revision!)
Yes, channeling the grammatically-challenged is perhaps not a…capital idea. I blame the record company up on Hollywood and Vine.
But I appreciate hearing that I captured the veneer for you, whether or not the veneer is distinguishable from that which it covers.
My record company was on the corner of Heart Attack and Vine.
Great piece — I love the way the last section with your student casts such a melancholy light over everything that came before. On a personal note, I’m a sucker for writing that brushes up against “real” Hollywood, whatever that means. It’s so cool to imagine you in this world we all dream of, only with the glitter sandblasted off.
Thanks, Elizabeth, for these kind words. I’m still a sucker for the Hollywood stuff too and if you ever figure out the real part, let me know.
I’ve been meaning to read this piece ever since I first saw the picture of the Formosa on Inside TNB. I was too busy at the time to get to it, but I’m glad I did. Becky mentioned landscape description in a comment on your most recent piece, and you definitely have a facility for it. L.A. is a very hard place to capture, I think, because so many have made an effort, supplying us with a catalog of threadbare cliches, but I absolutely recognize L.A. here. I made two stabs at describing L.A.: one in my novel and the other in a piece in Subversia (“Sunset on Sunset”), though the latter didn’t touch much, if at all, on the topography.
I was intrigued by the Hollywood sign when I saw pictures of it as a kid, and the first time I visited L.A., it was one of the first things I wanted to see. Of course I pay little or no attention to it now; it’s just kind of there, and so it’s hard for me to now appreciate how it might interest anyone else. Originally, as you probably already know, it read HOLLYWOODLAND, which was the name of some kind of real-estate development, or the company behind it, or something. Eventually, of course the LAND was removed, and the sign was left to rot, a real eyesore until the seventies or eighties, when money was raised through investors to restore it. One of the investors, I know, was Hugh Hefner, which says — well, nothing, really, except that it seems somehow apropos.
Thanks, Duke. Very cool that you came back to this one.
Yeah, I wrote recently about San Francisco feeling like home, but it’s L.A. that really haunts in many ways, like it does for a lot of people. This is of course part of the reason (not the only one) that I’m drawn to your writing. Your Sunset on Sunset essay has that vision of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison walking down the strip, then followed by the description of lines of traffic jamming the street. When I was there, I lived not far from that Guitar Center and used to entertain these kind of visions a lot. It gets me hopelessly excited just thinking about it.
I always loved how dilapidated the Hollywood sign looks seen with the naked eye, under a haze that you try to pretend is not smog, usually while waiting at a red light. It feels more like a relic, like the Formosa, outdated in a place of newness but a stamp of a long-held attempt at something. I hope Hefner doesn’t go shining and airbrushing it up too much.
And speaking of the Formosa, have you ever been in there? Or know anyone who has lately? Maybe it’s better if no one ever has.
I have in fact been to the Formosa. I was taken there during my first extended stay in L.A. because, I was told, it was a must-see, which was true. You can almost smell the ghosts of all those old Hollywood types who used to get drunk there, as per your remark in the piece about Lana Turner (or the hooker she was taken to be by the Guy Pearce character in L.A. Confidential). This was before it was threatened with demolition, saved by citizen intervention, and remodeled to make it more profitable, as I think was the case. I was last there about three years ago, with very drunk friends, one of whom bit me savagely on the neck — can you believe that? I couldn’t. Fucker, for no reason at all, suddenly lunged at me and sank his teeth into my neck.
I’m flattered that you remembered that bit in “Sunset on Sunset” about Kilmer/Morrison. That shot in The Doors really captured something about L.A. for me: why I like it, why I’ve remained. In fact, that was the subject of “Sunset” — what I like about L.A. — but I wanted to write about in an indirect way, using this banal memory that would hopefully encapsulate something about it. I think “Pillar” may be a cousin of “Sunset” — with a certain actor and Blockbuster supplying the “banal” part. (I hope I’m making sense here!)
Yes, it’s revealing the banality while at the same time still buying its cliché. I like L.A. for its tendency to supply moments where you can do both.
If I ever get back there, a drink at the Formosa is on me. I’ll try to keep any biters at bay and, maybe Andrew McCarthy trying to walk the Sunset at dawn.