For almost a year I had been driving a shuttle for the Lawrence-Berkeley Laboratory high about the University of California campus. The work was repetitious, boring and sedentary but the modest paycheck I earned had allowed me to rent a small, beautiful house in the Claremont section of Oakland. I could never have afforded the house on my pay alone and was forced to line up a couple of roommates.
Like almost everyone, the idea of roommates held no appeal for me and the process of finding them was so uninteresting that I accepted the first two who applied, a guy named Jim and a girl named Jane.
Jim had a steady job in social services but aside from living together we had nothing in common. Jane was quiet and withdrawn to the point of calling attention to herself. As a trio of co-habitors we were a poor blend and, from the beginning, the troika began to fall apart.
My attitude was lousy because I never fully accepted the idea of sharing the house in the first place, and the mere presence of housemates was something I regarded with annoyance. This state was further exacerbated by the habits of my hastily chosen co-dwellers.
Jim's taste in everything from the noxious music that blared from his room to the constant executive pretensions he entertained were like a layer of low-grade white noise that permeated existence twenty-four hours a day.
I lived upstairs in a bathroom-less loft. For some reason the house had but one shower which Jim seemed to hog whenever he was on the premises. It was not uncommon for him to spend an hour or more in the bathroom (most of it under the showerhead). Though Jane seemed to use the bathroom only when absolutely necessary, we both bristled at Jim's seeming indifference to anyone but himself.
He habitually doused himself with cheap, mass-marketed cologne, the sickening odor of which lingered in ever nook and cranny of the house long after he left. The awful fumes hung in the air until the end of the day when Jim would return from work, take another marathon shower and re-anoint himself with the perfume from head to toe before going out for the night.
Though at first Jane and I merely united in our dislike of Jim's style, she steadily became an even larger problem than 'Mr. Showerhead.'
Jane had give me repeated assurance that though unemployed, she would search out the first available job in order to pay her share of the rent. After a couple of weeks of sporadically checking the classifieds and venturing out now and then to 'look around', Jane seemed to drop the idea of employment.
Her room was quickly converted into a redoubt against the outside world. When not asleep, the thrust of her life was centered around the consumption of marijuana which she inhaled like air.
My knocks at her door (especially near the end of the month) were met with less and less enthusiasm. When I pressed her she would invariably become enraged and leave for a couple of hours before returning to the sanctity of her room. As time went on Jane was rarely even seen by either myself or Jim. The only sound that emanated from her lair was a constant scraping noise as she cleaned the stems and seeds our of her stash. It was not long before I dropped the issue of rent money. It was clear that she was in the full grip of dysfunction
Scrambling to cover her share of the rent, I cast about for any way I might supplement my income and, because the backyard was large and terraced, I decided to give marijuana farming a try.
Everyone in the Bay Area seemed to have a backyard farm at the time and, without any experience, or even interest in gardening, I spent a few minutes outside one afternoon pushing seeds into the ground with my forefinger.
To my astonishment sixteen of the seeds germinated, pushed their tiny shoots through the crust of the earth above them and started for the sky. In no time it seemed the plants streaked for the sun, saddling me with the dual emotions of pride and fear. As I nurtured the plants with a father's pride, I became more and more terrified that my progeny, fully exposed to views from a hundred different directions, would be discovered... me along with them.
The plants were growing so fast and my experience so pathetic that I was compelled to bring in an expert who told me that most of my charges were males (a worthless race) and if I left them in the ground much longer they would (naturally!) pollinate the females, rendering their THC (the high) essentially impotent. Once the males were uprooted I could start pinching back the females to make their yield greater.
It all seemed so brutal and heartless. I had grown used to seeing and being with the plants daily. It was hard to envision treating those whom I had helped gain living existence with such impunity.
I left them where they were and might never have pulled them up, but as they grew overhead my dreams of incarceration intensified.
On a rainy fall day I pulled them out of the ground and hung them upside down in the basement. It was difficult to go to the basement. They were all dead or dying and I was their killer. I felt terrible every time I saw my dead children.
If if had been possible I would have replanted them, but because the die was cast I turned my attention to the business of marketing my meager crop.
I rarely smoked pot at the time, and the few friends who did were perpetually broke. The only business lead I had was a naive college student who lived across the street with his parents. In the course of establishing a passing acquaintance with him I confided my sideline and his eyes widened considerably. Would it be possible to reserve some of the crop, he asked eagerly.
It was a marvelous start to my commercial endeavor. The crop had yet to be processed and I already had a customer. The young man across the street become something of a nuisance, however, constantly dropping by or leaving notes in the mailbox, inquiring when the weed would be ready for purchase. The insistent fluttering of my neighbor coupled with the knowledge that I was harboring a jail sentence in the basement goaded me to action and, after only hanging for a few days, I began to strip the plants of their foliage.
I regarded the sale of my product as pure profit and, possessing no business acumen, I priced my bags of buds ridiculously low.
The eager neighbor immediately doubled his order from two to four units and I had my first sale.
The neighbor came back in a week or two and bought more but, so far as commercial enterprise was concerned, the college student's purchases were the first and last.
I didn't have it in me to be a drug dealer if, for no other reason, that I was out of my depth. The idea of approaching anyone with the intent of selling them any kind of drugs was at once baffling, discomforting and repugnant. Deep down I believed that my greatest unease came from the idea of getting something for nothing. For me that just does not happen.
Besides, I was tying to become a movie writer. I couldn't do anything else and feel right.
All through my incompetent gyrations as a landlord and the abortive stab at marijuana productions I had been toiling on a screenplay I was sure Hollywood would fawn over.
As often happens I had looked to literature for inspiration. The cynical and talented short story writer Ambrose Bierce had a tale of supreme irony called The Coup de Gras and I was adapting it for the screen.
Set during the Civil War, the story concerns a male triangle that goes completely awry following a horrible battle. As always, I was living the character while writing and felt certain that my own enthusiasm would ooze from every page (still do).
When the screenplay was finally finished I asked my old friend John Coinman (who was living nearby) to read it and give a response.
John came by one morning and told me he didn't think it was very good. We sat talking on the stairs for a couple of hours and, though I listened to his comments and suggestions, I had a difficult time sloughing off the idea that the story was no good.
For a couple of weeks I didn't go near the object of such prolonged labor and disappointment. At last, I sat down and tried to address what, on reflection, I found to be weaknesses.
After several more weeks, I showed it again to John Coinman and this time he was encouraging. So were several others whose opinions I esteemed. The consensus was that I should try to get Hollywood to take a look at it.
No one was more eager to do this than myself but I faced a daunting problem. I didn't live there and I didn't know a single movie soul who did. Actually, there was a person I 'knew', a producer named Mitchell Brower. Years before I had written a review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. He had called me on the telephone to thank me. We had spoken for perhaps three of four minutes. I had no idea what Mitchell Brower even looked like. That's who I knew in Hollywood.
I felt confident I could find him (if he was still there) and, after half a dozen phone calls, I did. He was working at the Columbia Picture lot with his partner David Brown.
I was tempted to call on the spot but decide instead to send him the Coup de Gras with an explanatory letter reminding him who I was.
The package went to the post office and, after indulging the fantasy that Mitchell Brower would read my work instantly, be bowled over and call immediately, I waited. Days went by. Then a week. Then two.
Then, when I least expected it, I picked up the phone and heard an unknown female voice.
"I have Mitchell Brower calling, can you hold a moment?"
"What,' I thought, 'this can't be happening. I'm getting the call... THE CALL.'
"Michael, how're you doing?"
"Oh, I'm doing fine. How are you doing?"
We chatted for a few minutes, catching up on nothing but shortly Mitchell got down to business.
"Now listen, I'm calling because you've written a very good script."
"Oh... well thank you."
"I mean, it's quite good," he went on. "I don't know if it's something that could be produced but it's a great writing sample."
My head swam with confusion.
"What does that mean?"
"What? A writing sample?"
Mitchell wasn't going to buy Coup de Gras and he wasn't going to make a movie out of it. I didn't give a shit about a writing sample.
"Yeah," I continued lamely, "what does a writing sample mean exactly?"
"It just means that you know how to write... if it's a good one. Yours is a good one."
The conversation went silent. I was disappointed and didn't know what to say.
"Now tell me, what are you doing up there?"
I was starting to get irritated. Wasn't it obvious, what I was doing?
"Well, I'm writing."
"No I mean what are you doing?"
"Well, I'm driving a bus and I'm writing."
"Ahhhh... you're living in splendid isolation."
Now I was getting steamed.
"I'm isolated. Don't know how splendid it is."
"I'll tell you what," Mitchell started, bringing the conversation to its climax. "If you want to write for the movies, you have to come to L.A."
"You have to be here. Think about it. If you decide to come down I'll do what I can to help you."
I remember thanking him for the call and saying I would give the thought of moving to L.A. serious consideration and we hung up.
The emotional gauntlet I had run in the space of a single telephone call left me empty and conflicted. How could it be that euphoria could give way so quickly to ashen feelings of despair? Of course I didn't know it then but that single phone call from Mitchell Brower in 1979 would be typical of the yo-yo dynamics of Hollywood that has incessantly colored my career in the movies. Thirty years later that dynamic is still in place, perhaps even stronger now. But the dynamic has been instructive. I have learned not to entertain expectations when it comes to Hollywood (or just about anything else). Today, I regard expectations as trivial distractions to the real work of storytelling and have large succeeded in ignoring them.
By the end of the day on which I received Mitchell Brower's call I was beginning to see the wisdom of his simple advice. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no matter how good the writing might be, I was pretending to be a screenwriter. Medals are not bestowed on those who are not in war and, if I didn't place myself at the front, I would have no chance for success.
I decided to make the move and, as it has often happened, my network of friends was instrumental in assisting me. I have traveled in several different gangs over my life an none was more fascinating than the one I ran with in Oakland. The Oakland gang (like the others) was heavily weighted with struggling musicians and writers. As if our intensely similar goals were not enough, we became fully embroiled in the lives of each other's extended families, a vast collection of mental cases, screwballs and altogether mystifying people, whose antics made our own, often disparaged bohemian lifestyle seem like a mode of peaceful civilization.
Most of us stayed, often for extended periods (due to impoverishment of one sort or another) at the home of an eccentric couple named Jim and Ann Lee.
Shortly after 'the phone call,' (likely the same day), I was sharing my good news (Hollywood was calling) and bad news (I would be going to L.A.) with Jim and Ann. True to their selfless fashion, they offered (with no prompting) a vehicle they no longer used regularly which was know to all as the Silver Dragon.
They also offered to care for my dog Kelly to whom I was mightily attached. Kelly was a true member of the family and I knew she would be safe with the Lee's.
A few days later I was piloting the Silver Dragon (an aging Plymouth four-door, its headlights secured with bailing wire) down the long, boring interstate to L.A.
The whole trip was fraught with anxiety. Leaving Kelly behind ripped at my heart. She was my best friend, my daughter, my wife, my everything. Every shudder and rattle of the Silver Dragon raised the specter of a disastrous breakdown. I was going to crash at the house of Joe (Jo Jo) Graydon, a musician whom I had know as a mutual exploiter of the Lee Family's open door policy.
My destination troubled me most. I had not lived in Los Angeles since 1972 and had matured (use a grain of salt here) enough to be more sharply aware of the odds against success.
I also knew the environment and was not looking forward to immersing myself in a sprawling, tangled glob of millions, competing like fish in an overcrowded tank, all thrashing for the essentials to sustain life.
From my point of view a city with the magnitude of Los Angeles is barely tolerable for 'somebody', incessantly unbearable for a 'nobody.' For all of my life and many years to come, I had been classified with the latter, gigantic mass. Worst of all, I carried the pretense of aspiring to be a 'somebody.' An artist inherently aspires and, until success comes, the indelible and very public stamps of ceaseless rejection and failure is something that has to be battled and overcome each day. It's an exhausting and loathsome process that flies too close to instability, insanity and, sometimes, death.
Metropolitan life (more today than ever before) is a profound reinforcing echo of William Butler Yeats' pronouncement that "the center cannot hold." I have never set foot in a vast megapolis without hearing that line... over and over and over again. I was re-entering L.A. with the awful feeling that, with a cabin full of strangers, I was about to go down in a plane.
The only advantage I had against fear, anxiety and depression was Mitchell Brower's phone number on a scrap of paper, seven digits that I naively assigned responsibility for my long overdue salvation as a writer.