Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Christmas Story, Hollywood Style

As always: I do not make this up.

So it's Christmastime.

Even at my age, I still love the season; I love the feeling when the days get short and everything in New York City, it seems, winds down. Classes are done for the year, holiday events are past; all I could ask for to make my Christmas season complete is a little snow. This year I've got no plans for the holiday, so I can relax and enjoy the season. A quiet week awaits.

This is what I'm thinking, anyway, on the morning of the eighteenth.

The call comes in at around around 2PM. Client #1, wondering if it'd be possible for me to attend the major management meeting that's scheduled in Beverly Hills the next day. I'm sensing this is something I should attend, but, really... tomorrow? A week before Christmas? C'mon. Then, later, as I'm in the midst of my last email-check of the night, an incoming message: Client #2, and do I happen to be in LA and could I coach for a few hours on a film tomorrow? His director meeting's at 3:30, so could I work at, maybe, 2?

I dutifully call American Airlines, wondering, just for fun, what the fare might be for a no-advance-purchase, cross-country round trip the week before Christmas.

"Oooh, yeah, that's.... ouch. But let's take a look." I love these reservation ladies at American Airlines, with their flat Midwestern accents and their "roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work" attitude. I hear rapid keyboard taps from some grim workstation in some call center I can only imagine, when... "Well, now, hold on... huh. Here's what I got..."

She quotes a fare that is in fact remarkably low, considering that the flight's departing, you know, tomorrow. I grab it and head to bed, amazed at my luck. I'm gonna make the 12:30 meeting, and Big Client #2 has secured the EXACT SAME conference room (he's with the same Management company!), so we can work there from 1:30 to 3, at which time I'll rejoin Client #1 and attend the remainder of the day's Publicist meetings.

I'm up at 5:30 the next morning, and traffic to JFK is remarkably light. I'm there by 6:20-- a quick breeze through security, over to the Starbucks (no line!) where I decide to splurge on a festive holiday Pepperment Latte, and just as I'm back at the gate they've begun to board. We push back just a hair after 7:30.

Perfect. This has all gone just perfectly. And during the dreaded Peak Holiday Travel Season, no less. After two decades of this, I may finally be bi-coastal. I'm Cruising like Tom. I'm so golden I glow. Just then, from The Flight Deck:

"Hi, folks, your captain here... I'm getting kind of a funny read on one of the fuel pump gauges... ahhhww, it's probably nothing but, ahhhww, I'm gonna just pull us back into the nearest gate and have a mechanic take a look at it. Shouldn't be more than a few minutes and we'll have you all back on your way."

I'm not concerned. Really, I'm not. I'm crusing like Tom, remember? Even so, I've got a window seat where it's possible to see the door, so I watch.

It's fifteen minutes before a beat-up pickup truck pulls up alongside the plane and an aging, ponytailed roadie from the last Greatful Dead tour climbs out. No, wait: that's our mechanic. He climbs the stairs and boards. Five minutes later, he climbs down.

"Ahhw, this is your captain again... we got maintenance here, and they're just going to talke a look at those pumps, get us on our way. Shouldn't be more than...... fifteen, twenty minutes."

I'm certinaly no longer golden. Silver, maybe. But no lower, no bronze for me, no way. At least that's what I say to the ominous quease in my gut. Then this: "In case you're wondering, folks, nothing to be concerned about - we've actually got six fuel pumps on this plane, and even though it's safe to fly with five, I, ahhhww, just wanted to get that sixth one checked out."

Wait. Waitwaitwait. Let me see if I've got this straight: FIVE working fuel pumps (and probably all six) were not good enough for goodie-two-shoes in the pilot's seat?

Twenty-five minutes later the Roadie lumbers back up the stairs. Lumbers down a few minutes later and drives off. Silence.

Finally: "Hi folks-- well, good news is the pumps were all fine (!), and we're set to go. Bad news is... we burned off a lot of fuel sittin' here, so, ahhhww.... we're gonna wait and get ourselves topped off. Just as soon as we get a fuel truck out here it shouldn't be more than... another ten mintues. Thank you for your patience." And I'm thinking: no need to thank, Asshole, for I am not patient. I am seething. I am doing the awful time-crunch math and realize that what little cushion I had for the day is gone. If we leave now, and I mean RIGHT NOW, I can still make my day as planned in LA.

It is another half-hour before the truck arrives, fuels, and leaves. We do not move.

"Hi folks... your captain again... so we're fueled up and ready to go... but all our ground crews are a little tied up right now getting other planes out to the runway, so, ahhhww.... soon as we get a crew to push us back we'll be on our way."

Yeah, well, now it's FUCKING JFK RUSH HOUR, pal. As you know. A fact which you do not want to share with your passengers because of your now-justified fear that we might mutiny.

Finally, at 9:10, we push back-- and head to a more distant runway, for by now the wind has shifted. But but but but the time we get there (You-know-who is the most conservative pilot out here, and we lose position in line to not only those maniacs from Jet Blue --two of 'em!-- but, worse, to a fucking UPS cargo plane), and we're FINALLY Number One For Departure...

...the wind shifts. And we are routed clear back across JFK, one of the largest airports in the WORLD, to our original runway.

Remember: I do not make this up.

Our Leader, of course, does not have the courage to tell the other passengers this, to do the right thing and get on that PA and say: "ahhw, well, folks, if I'd been just a LITTLE LESS OF A PUSSY it would've been us taking off right now instead of those UPS boys, but since I'm -- well, ME-- I'm going to have to drive you all back across JFK where maybe, just maybe, I'll have to DO MY JOB AND ACTUALLY TAKE THIS PLANE OFF."

My 7:30 flight leaves the ground at 9:49. I have been on this plane for almost three hours, and there's a-six-hour flight ahead of us.


IT'S RAINING when we touch down at LAX and we have made up no time whatsoever, but at least we're here. Unfortunately, by this point my inner "Golden Tom" has been replaced by New England Irish Catholic, "It's-always-something" Pete, and Irish Catholic Pete will not be happy until he's actually off this God-forsaken plane and sprinting through LAX Terminal 4.

And with good reason, for as soon as the plane swings off the runway... we stop.

I laugh. The hard, bitter laugh of the psychotic and the damned. The lady next to me is certain I am crazy, and she may at this moment be correct-- save for the fact that, unlike her, I Know. I have earned my Executive Platinum status, forged it through years of enduring every airline screw-up possible, and one thing I've learned is this: when it comes to Hell Trips, when it rains, it pours. At that very moment, as if reading my mind...

"Well folks... ahhhww..."

The swagger is gone from Our Leader's voice, replaced, in an amazing display of horrific people skills, by his "joking" voice as he attempts to make light of the LIVING HELL HE HAS CREATED: "you're not going to believe this (oh yes we are), but... looks like the jetway at our gate isn't functioning, heh-heh-heh... Don't really have a free gate right now (since we're TWO AND A HALF HOURS LATE FOR NO GOOD REASON) so we're just gonna taxi out past the gate area to keep things clear and just as soon as they find a gate for us we'll get you right back in there."

We taxi through a steady rain to the farthest corner of the airport. I think we may pass a shanty-town in some remote backwater of LAX before coming to a stop in a place best used for drug deals or gangland executions.

I stare out miserably at the pools of rain. Asshole has won. He knew he had the advantage on me, buckled into seat 24A; he understood my impotence against the sheer force of his incompetance. Over the past nine hours he has beaten the rage right out of me.


And I think he senses this, for without fanfare we are moving again, and a little after 1PM I'm back on land. I want nothing more than to collapse onto some barstool and forget this TEN HOURS OF HELL, but I must dig deep and draw upon my inner reserves and remind myself that I'm HERE now. My time in LA just beginning.

I text everyone, lying that I'm in a cab and on my way... then sprint down the concourse in a fulll-out, broken-field run (I'm Tom Cruise again! Running through an airport!)... dodging Holiday Walruses lugging their rollaway "carry-ons" the size of steamer trunks... I'm FINALLY out the door...

...and there's a cab line. And, ya know, that's cool, I'm a new Yorker so no big deal-- except that there are no cabs. And, as I quickly realize, folks here in LA are a little fuzzy on the concept of the "cab line".

There are about half a dozen travelers forming a sort-of-line by a small, neglected Taxi sign. It's a far cry from the rough efficiency of the cab lines back at JFK, but I am nothing if not fair about these things, so I get in line. Problem: I don't see any cabs, and Cab Drought tends to threaten the order of the cab line. Fearing a Donner-Party Tragedy, the group in front of me leaves. I am now Officaly And According to Me #1 in the cab line.

But not for long, for now, from my left, comes a scrum of tourists. Midwesterners, my guess. They make furtive eye contact with me... they see the taxi sign... then their gaze shifts and I watch as they scan the clusterfuck of holiday traffic and spot the lone cab veering our way. The Chubby Dad sneaks a glance back my way (yes I fucking SEE you) before faux-innocently walking out, raising his hand, "oblivious" to me--

"--yeah hey THERE'S A LINE. " That was me. They notice me now.

The Midwesterners are startled at the hostility in my outburst. 'Another New Yorker,' that's what they're thinking as they glance my way and play-act "noticing" the taxi sign. God-dammed right, I want to tell them, but no time: I'm on a mission.


One thing I've come to realize in my history of cab-riding in Los Angeles is, how do I put this... the remarkable flexibility of the lisencing process here. Provided it has four tires, as far as I can tell any shitbox that can get up to freeway speed can be a cab in LA. No time to ponder, though, since it's 1:20 when I climb into the minivan that's pulled up (why do I ALWAYS get the minivan?) and scrape the door closed.

"How long to Century City?" I demand. It comes out as something of a bark.

"Oh, forty-five minutes."

"WHAT?! How is that possible??"

"Well you know the rain. Everyone drive crazy."

And I finally, finally snap. Snap like a twig.

"How do you people DO it how DO you do it how does ANYONE live here? I HATE it here I HATE it here I fucking HATE it here."

My driver just chuckles. I ask him his name.

"Erhhrv-fha". He seems Hatian to me, so I decide it's Herve.

I choke back stinging tears of frustration as I settle in for more travel torture. But I am wrong, for Herve is posessed. He pilots his jalopy, this exhaust-belching rattlerap, at seventy miles per hour down the god-help-me BREAKDOWN LANE on the 405; he changes lanes with the blind confidence of shitbox drivers the world over (their motto: 'what are ya gonna do - hit me?!'); best of all, he waits waaaay too long to cut into the backed-up line of cars at the Santa Monica Boulevard offramp. This being LA, very few people honk, and though I can sense their seething looks, I don't really care.

It's a heroic effort, and he makes better time than expected (*under-promise, over-deliver," someone told me once, and I think it's true), and I'm in front of 1600 Century Park East at 1:40. Out of the cab and into the lobby and up the elevator and I sprint into the lobby of Untitled Entertainment at 1:45.

I assess the damage as I try to unwind. As a result of the frantic calling and texting session in the cab, I know that I have missed the Big Meeting with Client #1. However, they've pushed two of the publicist meetings back and will return here before taking those last two meetings. Nothing to be done about that. Good news: Client #2 has pushed his director meeting back, and I'm just in time to get to work.

I'm shown into the conference room. It's the first time I've worked with Client #2 in a while, and our session is productive. It's great, actually. My pent-up agression is perfect to pour into the material. I read like a man possessed... and, ya know, I relax, a little... and just as me and Client #2 are ending our session, Jason, the crazy young savant who runs the place, bursts in and greets me like an old friend: "You made it! Good to see you, man! You sure you don't want an office here?"

He's joking, but still.

I did it. I'm here. The work session and that thirty-second chat with Jason was all I needed, really. I am at this moment a yacht out to sea, blown almost underwater by gale-force winds... when, without warning, the winds calm and my whole life rights itself. Just like that.

My phone rings. Client number one, and can I run down so they can pick me up out front and we can head off to the publicity meetings? I'm down, and we're off. Ends up our first stop is at the building that housed not only my first agent ever, but also the restaurant Maple Drive. Both are no more. My agency I knew about; Maple Drive was a surprise. Oh, what a scene it had been, in its day.

I have a moment, just a moment, of loving all of this. I guess I have a life, a history, stories to tell, after all. The meeting goes well, and before long we're off to meeting #2, this one at the Four Seasons...

...and all of a sudden it's six-thirty and we're done. The manager's got a dinner with another client, and my client (#1) is due on the set tomorrow and has a long drive home. Their days are done.

Me? I am in Beverly Hills with no car and no plans and no place to stay for the night. Barely twenty-four hours have elapsed since the idea of this trip was first mentioned. I head to The Mondrian, the hotel on the Sunset Strip which has been my crash pad over the years. The flirty guest services manager is the daughter of an acting coach. We chat a bit and she assures me she'll "take care of the rate. And the room."

That she does. I am given a one-bedroom suite almost as large as my apartment in New York, domintated by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a breathtaking panorama of Los Angeles at night. All of Hollywood falls away at my feet.

Confession: in my love for New York I forget, sometimes, that LA has its own beauty, a beauty rooted in a kind of crazy hope. There are moments when I, even old cynical I, allow myself this silly thought: anything can happen here. Hollywood is so.... possible from the tenth floor.

How did I get here? Truly, how?


This trip has been so rushed I have neglected to call any of my LA acquaintances; strangely, I feel no urge to now. Mostly, I want to walk.

I go outside and turn right, heading east on Sunset Bouelvard. The rain has stopped, and a serious cold front has slid in behind it. This is about as cold as Southern California gets-- which, for me, is perfect.

Loud and touristy as it is, one thing I've always loved about The Strip is that it is one of the few places in Los Angeles with pedestrian traffic. But tonight, I walk alone. There are some places in the world that need humanity, places that lose some of their essence when the world is elsewhere. Tonight, The Strip is one of them, and the street feels almost sad: no yellow Ferraris driven by exotic men and their hooker-hot, sort-of-model girlfriends, not even the occaisional Mustang bearing out-of-state plates, crowded with thrilled teenagers. Just me and the occasional car gliding by. I walk past The Standard (too hipster)... past the Chateau Marmont (should I...?)... but no. I know where I'm going.

The California Pizza Kitchen at Sunset and Crescent Heights is surprsingly full, so much so that I simply head to the counter and grab a seat.

I hear a whisper and a giggle from the teenagers at the far end of the counter and realize that it's about me. Who is he, they wonder, that loser guy sitting at the counter of the CPK, reading Variety, alone during the height of the holiday season?

"Kids," I want to say, "you have no idea."

I know this because I really don't have much of an idea myself. But at least for tonight, here at the counter of the CPK in West Hollywood, I'm OK with that.


Oh, and P.S.:

My return flight, two days later, is in the afternoon; with nothing to do that morning, I decide to walk from the Mondrian down to the West Hollywood post office to mail some Christmas cards.

There's a kind of morning quiet in LA that I miss. You can miss it even if you live here, actually, if you're not a morning person. There's a whole world that exists here before the city fills with traffic: the clean, wide streets belong to the healthy retirees, with their tanned faces and white Reeboks, and those in recovery who've learned to find a similar high in coffee and sunshine that they once found in tequila and the night. This morning it's even more peaceful, for Los Angeles is not a place one comes to for the holidays; on the contrary, Los Angeles is a place one leaves. No one, it seems, is here. There's even a lonliness to the boutiques that line Sunset Plaza, empty save for the salesgirls who keep watch over racks of neglected clothes. Which is kind of romantic, in its own way.

It's a bright, crisp, chilly morning, an East-Coast morning here in LA, a rare clear day on which it's true: you really can see forever. As I'm walking back to the hotel I can see, in the distance, mountains: the San Gabriels, a good twenty miles away.

All that rain that I'd cursed when I arrived? It fell in the mountains as snow. They're covered in it.

Here in Hollywood, at ten AM on the Sunset Strip, I get my White Christmas after all. Merry Christmas.

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