Memoir

219. The Mid-Twenty Joys Around A Heart That’s Black and Blue

boyz_n_the_hoodMy next movie had a lot of buzz around it, which was strange. The unwritten rule of the film business was to downplay the movie one was working on, or downright call it a piece of garbage. “What am I doing? Oh, some stupid movie. I can’t remember the name — Gone With the Wind or something like that.”

But the crew on Boyz N the Hood were genuinely proud to be associated with this picture. They were sure that what they were doing was special and important, all of which struck me as rather strange given that it starred one of the guys from NWA. Don’t get me wrong: NWA was really cool, but movies starring rappers didn’t have a great track record at the time.

John Singleton came in one day. He was sitting in a cutting room when my boss brought me in and introduced me. “James, this is John,” he said, and Singleton didn’t even stand up. If anything he slouched even more deeply into his chair, clinched his jaw, and fired a peace sign at me.

“Hi,” I said, and I went back to work.

When I got back to my editing bench I realized that Singleton was the first black person I’d seen during my two years working in post-production. This was a very curious observation. Everyone I’d met during my time in Los Angeles was exponentially more worldly than the people with whom I was raised in the south, which is to say that there wasn’t a racist to be found in the L.A. basin.

And yet, I’d gone two years without working with a single black person. This was unheard of in the south. As a kid, half my fellow students were black, half my teachers. When I got into the workplace my coworkers and customers were integrated. Sure, people said absolutely horrible shit about the opposite race, but blacks and whites lived and worked side by side.  This was something else. I’d gone from the crazy-racist-but-integrated south to I-don’t-see-color-but-segregated Hollywood. Black people just…vanished.

The thing is, I don’t think any of the people in the film industry were intentionally racist. I don’t think that there was some institutional conspiracy to keep black people out of the cutting rooms. I think it just sort of happened.

L.A. was very geographically divided at the time — it probably still is. The unspoken rule was South Central was where black people belonged, East LA was for Latinos, and Hollywood and the Valley were white people land. Crenshaw, Rampart, Watts — these were words of caution, not locations. Compton was frightening and Hollywood was glamorous, never mind the fact that Jody and I lived in a cruddy apartment with hypodermics in the stairwells. I drove through Compton and envied the fact that people lived in houses.

Anyway, I’ve lost the plot here. I think the point is that I worked with a bunch of white people who talked about how important and special Boyz N the Hood was, but somehow didn’t notice the lack of diversity in their own workplace. That aside, I loved that crew. Our boss, Patrick, was big bear of a guy — bearded and hairy and full of life. Patrick loved to take us out for liquid lunches, and then we’d stagger back to our cutting rooms and fumble with various bladed editing devices while the rooms spun until it was time to go home.

Tucked in a box somewhere in my attic is a set of accupressure balls, those spherical metal chimes that Larry Fishburne fiddles with in the film. Granted, mine are just the ones that Patrick had me buy for the foley guys to record, but they’re still special to me.

Back at our cruddy Hollywood apartment, Jody couldn’t handle not working anymore. Acting classes and auditions only filled a few hours each day, the rest were spent pacing our shitty little pad like some kind of updated Dickens character.

“I need to be around people,” she said. “I feel trapped.”

“So get a job.”

“Like a butterfly pinned to a board.”

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“Anything, I don’t care. I just want to get out of this shithole.”

“Can’t beat the rent,” I said.

“No, all of it. I need change. I’m suffocating. I want to be somebody different,” Jody said.

“Is this the tattoo talk again?”

“I want it to be my body,” she said.

“It is your body.”

“No, mine. You don’t understand.”

“Then explain it to me.”

“I can’t. You’re….like that,” she said, and she waved her hand at me.

“Like what?”

“Logical, emotionless, safe, boring.”

“Well, like I’ve said — you go get a tattoo and I’ll go get my nipple pierced,” I said.

“That’s so stupid,” Jody said.

“Why? I want it to be my nipple.”

“You’re being stupid and gross,” she said.

“It’s the same thing,” I said.

“It’s not even close to the same thing.”

Jody never had trouble finding work. By the end of the week she had a job at the Whisky a Go Go. We fell into a routine: I spent all day at the cutting room, and she spent all night at the Whisky. Saturdays I drove her to acting class then kicked around the record and bookstores. Sundays we might catch a movie or just hang around the apartment. It was a pretty square life for a couple of 24-year-olds living in Hollywood.

One Sunday when Jody was curled up on her side on the couch, I noticed that her t-shirt had slipped into the valley beneath the curve of her hip. Barely peeking over her shorts was the top of a flower-shaped tattoo. It was no bigger than a dime, but it blocked out the future like a total eclipse.

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