Deciding to leave Los Angeles meant figuring out what to do with myself once my last movie wrapped.
I was on the sound crew of a film named Judgement Night that I only knew through snippets of dialog and the sounds of gunfire and squealing tires. It didn’t sound terribly great, but who knows: Maybe it was a masterpiece. To this day I still haven’t seen the finished movie, which isn’t unusual. Working on movies is a lot like cooking Thanksgiving dinner: By the time the work is done you’re so sick of smelling it that you have no appetite.
My boss was Bob, one of the nicest guys with whom I’ve ever worked. He let his kids pick out his clothes each morning, so Bob might wander into the cutting room wearing Hammer pants and a pair of mismatched Chucks sporting rainbow laces. He also held the distinction of curating the last rat tail in the L.A. basin, a long, blond braid that swayed across whatever day-glow shirt his kids picked out for him that morning. Bob was aces.
Down the hall worked Lisa, another assistant sound editor. She was engaged to her boss but liked to call me in the evenings and tell me what she was doing with the vibrator that she kept in her nightstand. There are only so many things one can do with such a device so the conversation was rather redundant from night to night, but I was there for her anyway. It’s important to be a good listener.
After hanging up with Lisa and enjoying a short refractory nap I’d try to write, and if I couldn’t get anything going I’d research places to move. I talked to SCAD about coming back to Savannah and finishing my illustration degree, to which they enthusiastically replied, “You have the tuition money, right?” I considered moving back to South Carolina, even going so far as nearly buying a ’62 Cadillac that I planned on using as a moving van, keeping journal on its faded body with a silver paint pen as I retraced my path across the country. Inevitably, though, my thoughts always gravitated toward writing.
“What makes you think you can be a writer?” Lisa asked one evening after the power tools were safely restored to their home in the nightstand.
“Because it’s very competitive.”
“So is the film business, but I managed to get in,” I said.
“Oh God, are you kidding? Getting into film is the easiest thing in the world. It’s falling off a log easy.” I’d never fallen off of a log, but I took her word for it. Lisa was much more fun to talk to when she was thanking her heavenly father for the gift of D-cell batteries.
The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that I didn’t want to go back to art school. At least I knew a little about design and composition, but I knew nothing about writing beyond my awkward attempts to mimic Bukowski, Fante, and Miller. If I really wanted to take a crack at laying down some words, I needed schoolin’ and baby I’m not foolin’.
And if I was going to go back to school, didn’t it make sense to take advantage of in-state California tuition? The UC system was well-respected, after all. I pulled out my atlas and circled all of the areas with a UC campus. I immediately ruled out UCLA for two reasons: 1) I’d have to stay in L.A.; 2) In order to afford that, I’d need to keep working full-time in the film business, leaving no time to attend school. Berkeley also was out due to cost of living, as was Santa Cruz.
Davis looked interesting. Located ten miles west of Sacramento, I wondered whether it was remote enough to offer a reasonable cost of living yet close enough to a city that I could find a decent job. I called a research librarian, the pre-internet version of human Google, and got some information on both UC Davis and Sacramento. A few calculations later and I was convinced that I could attend Davis on a 10 dollar per hour wage, which was the median income in Sacramento.
I never bothered with the possibility that Davis might not accept me. Perhaps I would have if I wasn’t so stupid about the world, but I thought one simply decided to go to school somewhere and that was that. Regardless, eventually they accepted me so things worked out fine, but if I pulled that same stunt circa 2016 they probably wouldn’t have. The UC system has given up on serving the people of their own state. Enrollment of non-residents at UC schools has increased by 82 percent in recent years, while resident enrollment has decreased by one percent. Currently at my alma mater, the average out-of-stater is admitted with a 3.99 GPA; the average California resident sports a 4.11 GPA.
Why has the University of California system — a public school system — turned its back on its own citizens? Cash. In 2010, UC Davis brought in $29.3 million dollars in non-resident tuition. In 2014 that figure had grown to $73.8 million. Across the entire UC system, non-resident tuition revenue increased $403 million over the same time period. When state institutions stop serving the residents of their states, one can’t help but wonder what is happening to our world.
Anyway, once the decision was made (but long before I so much as applied to UCD) I began liquidating my junk. Kelly bought my couch. She brought a friend with her to pick it up. He spotted a couple of Paul McCartney bootlegs leaning against the wall. “Hey, are you getting rid of these?” he asked.
“Cool, thanks,” he said, and he tucked them under his arm as they left. Not exactly what I meant.
I put together a yard sale in front of the Su Casa Apartments and sold anything that contained even a whiff of bad juju: every gift, appliance, fork, guitar, poster, anything that might connect me to that place. When it was over I was down to no more than I arrived in L.A. with nearly five years earlier. I was back to a foam mattress on the floor as my only furniture.
I ran an ad in the “pets” section of the L.A. Weekly written from my cats’ point of view. Chances are it was terrible, but I thought its “save us from the gallows” tone was clever. Regardless, it worked: Some dude call and asked if he could come meet them.
He arrived on the day that I cleaned the carpet in hopes of recovering my security deposit. We sat on newspapers spread upon the damp floor and played with the cats.
“So why do you want to get rid of them?”
“I’m moving to Sacramento.”
“Why would you move to Sacramento?”
“Writer,” I said, as if that somehow explained things. “What do you do?”
“I’m a musician,” he said.
“Cool. What do you play?”
“Right on. You in a band?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Cool. You having any luck?”
“Um, Nine Inch Nails?” he said, but what he really meant was, “Are you an idiot?” The last time I saw my cats they were stuffed into the back of a Volkswagen Cabriolet, headed for a life of rock and roll excess.
It was all gone now: my cats, my stuff, my film industry career. I walked to the Beverly Exchange shopping center for no other reason than to be somewhere. Robert Downey, Jr. sat drinking coffee with a friend at an outdoor table. Should I say hello? No, I shouldn’t. I kept walking. Maybe I should say hello. We got along well, after all. I turned and walked the 20 feet back to his table, arriving just as he stood to leave. “Robert?” I said.
He turned and fixed me with an icy stare. “Yes?” he said.
“You probably don’t remember me but –”
“Oh, okay. Savannah, Georgia, 1987. You were there shooting 1969. I was — ”
Robert’s face softened. “Down on the beach. Yeah, man, I remember. Wow, how have you been? You moved out here?”
“Yeah, about five years ago.”
“That’s great. You were really good, really natural. I’m glad you decided to give it a chance. Are you having any luck?”
“Post-production,” I said. “Assistant film and sound editor.”
“Well, we all do what we have to do to be close to what we love,” he said. “Good to see you, take care.”
“You, too,” I said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I never wanted to be an actor, and he wouldn’t have cared anyway. Or maybe he would have, I don’t know. Robert struck me as one of the most decent and sincere people I met during my short tenure in the film business.
He may have been one of the nicest, but he wasn’t the only great person I met during that time. Once a little time passed and the fog of depression lifted I realized that I made some really good friends during those years. Often I wonder what might have happened if I managed to pull out of that depressive episode without leaving Los Angeles. Would I be an editor now? Would I have screenplays to my credit? Perhaps I would have latched onto Robert’s words of encouragement, words he probably offered all the little somebodies on movie sets, and tried to act.
Probably not. Occasionally I recognize a name from those days as the end titles scroll, but not very often. For the most part we’ve all moved on, and not always by choice. Eventually the work would have dried up for me, too. That’s the nature of that business.
That’s the nature of life, really. Things run their course and we move on. Childhood friends who have appeared in my little Why It Matters story are firefighters, carpenters, tree farmers, federal agents, journalists, and nurses. Some of the most hell raising Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam are now beloved members of church congregations. Most of the Why It Matters characters are parents now; some are even grandparents.
A few times over the last few years I’ve been contacted by people who disagree with my version of a given event, or who feel hurt or betrayed by my dumb little stories. Those exchanges upset me, but I don’t know what to do about them. The Jimmy/Jim/James character in this story is me, and there’s no way to tell his story without mentioning the people around me. People don’t exist in a vacuum and neither do characters. This is probably the greatest challenge of writing creative non-fiction.
My goal when I started this project was to tell a particular story, namely one that took me from my first favorite record all the way to my last day in Los Angeles — a span of time that covers essentially my entire childhood and young adulthood. During those two decades and the two decades that followed, every single person in this story grew up. They changed. No matter how nasty or awkward my interactions were with these individuals in the past, that’s not who they are now. I like to believe that even Chuck the Magnificent is no longer the asshole that he was back in the seventh grade.
The two people who I most worried about upsetting were my parents; in fact, my concern for them was so great that it contributed significantly to a decades-long writer block that was much more complicated than simply “don’t upset Mom and Dad.” My mother is gone now, but my father is still ticking. I’d hate for anyone to think that he remains the man I perceived through a sad boy’s eyes. He’s one of the smartest, most gifted individuals I’ve ever met, and he remains hard working into his seventies. The care that he provided to my mother during her last few years ranks among the most moving demonstrations of unconditional love that I’ll ever witness. My father is a good man.
As for my first favorite record, that was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. I treated that record like a manifesto. “Think For Yourself.” “Run For Your Life.” “I’m Looking Through You.” “In My Life.” There was a world out there. That’s why those four guys were looming over me on the album cover. I was asleep, and they wanted me to wake up.
But that was 21 years in the past. Today, Los Angeles grew smaller in the rear view mirror. Everything I’d ever known was in the past now. My childhood fell away as I climbed the Grapevine on I-5, running northbound toward a new life in Sacramento, toward one last chance to wake up and become whatever I was meant to be.