Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir

I Want to Break Free

I was one of the unfortunates growing up in August of 1980. I was too young, and music was still about four years away from consuming my teenage life, to appreciate the game-changing influence of MTV. To exasperate the situation further, my parents didn’t see cable television as a necessity in our home. Besides, secular music was satanic. That’s not to say music wasn’t appreciated in our household. We attended church three times a week and we started and ended each session with songs written and approved by our religious organization. What’s more, we had our church’s catalog of over one hundred hymns conveniently pressed into a 10-vinyl record collection so that we could practice praising the lord from the comfort of our homes.

My aunt would come over to rehearse weekly songs. She would flip through the record collection, pulling out random records and checking out the back for the track listing. Eventually, she would find the song she was looking for and she would instruct me, my sister and my cousin to sing. The records contained just the music and we would sing the lyrics from our accompanying hymnal book, which was just a book of sheet music for each song.

Being kids and not trained to sing, we always delivered the songs in falsetto even if the song did not call for it. This always infuriated my aunt, who unleashed her rage on me and my cousin. Never at my sister. But, then again, I was male and so was my cousin.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” She would scream. “Sing it like a man,” she barked.

Sing it like a man. At that age of about 8 years old, I had no concept of what a man was. I had an idea, which was drilled into me by leaders of my church, proselytizing from the pulpit, that men did not sleep with men; men did not answer to any woman; that men were masculine and put on this earth to procreate. My aunt was merely repeating the dogma with cultish fervor, never stopping to rationalize how this would affect these young children she was charged to teach praises to the lord.

Even then I already sensed that I was different. Gay is what I was, although the language wasn’t quite there yet. I knew it in the same way that straight little boys also know that when they like little girls, they chase them at recess around the playground and pull their hair as expressions of affection.  

It wasn’t until I was twelve that I was able to consolidate the conflicting feelings inside of me. On the one hand, I knew I was gay. On the other hand, I knew it was wrong because I was told all my life that it was wrong. This realization came in the form of a music video. Not from MTV, but from a public access TV station that aired Video One, an MTV-style one-hour program featuring the latest music videos, as well as videos from the recent past.

This particular day, I was home sick watching TV in my bedroom. Even in mid-1980s, the television set was already old—a Zenith black and white model with a 12-inch screen. I turned the channel to Video One and laid my head on the pillow. I loved the weird storylines that accompanied most of the music of that time. This time around, it was a video I hadn’t seen before: A camera panned in on a bedroom. It, then, cuts to a living room. Into the frame comes a hand pushing a vacuum cleaner. As the person is revealed, we get an image of a woman in a tight blouse and a leather mini skirt. But something was off. This woman had a full mustache. Then, that rich baritone voice proclaims, “I want to break free!” This was no woman. This was Freddy Mercury in full drag, shattering my concept of gender conformity. In that moment, I knew, deep down inside that I could not betray who I was. I would have to keep it to myself, but I would eventually break free.

Music has the power to liberate, but the images that accompanied that music brought the subtext to the fore. Video clips such as Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” and “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped me navigate my role in the context of masculinity and my choice to subvert it.

Memoir

My Mexicanness

I’ve never been “that Mexican”. In both senses of the phrase. I was never that Mexican guy up in your face and confrontational about my heritage and my race. I was also never that Mexican because I saw myself as a darker toned white guy. Being Mexican was secondary to who I was. And if I’m being honest with myself, it was probably further down the list that that.

That is, until it was not.  My Mexicanness came crashing through one evening during an uncomfortable dinner date in West Hollywood.

West Hollywood (or WeHo), to many, in the early 1990s was and probably still is an elitist, predominantly white affluent neighborhood–the gay mecca of the West Coast, second only to San Francisco. It is here where only the physically fit, good-looking, and mostly white gay males enjoy their inherent privilege.

I was dating a gorgeous blond guy with impossibly deep blue eyes. Our relationship was in the beginning stages of a budding romance and we were on our way to a dinner at the French Market Place in WeHo so that we could get to know each other better. I picked him up and drove the fifty-some miles to the restaurant, excited at the prospect of falling in love.

We were seated by our waiter and that’s when the problem began. This waiter, an aging Twink with the receding hairline and clothes that were about 10 years too young and two sizes too small greeted Robert, my would-be new boyfriend, with a friendly smile. He looked at me with that disapproving look that I’m all too familiar with.

What’s worse is that he even outright refused to acknowledge me. All through dinner, he never looked at me and, instead, referred to Robert to answer for me, rather than speak to me directly.

Questions in the third person: “What does he want for dinner?” “Ask him if he’d like more Coke.”

With each humiliating dismissal, I shrank even more until I felt like I had disappeared. I didn’t matter and nobody cared. But I could feel the anger building up. It started in the pit of my stomach and rose up to the tips of my ears. In that moment, all those microaggressions I lived through but didn’t notice finally came rushing at me like fractured shards cutting into me and making me bleed.

“He speaks English so well.”

“Do you have enough money to buy that?”

“He’s not like the other ones.”

And then there are the eyes of the salesclerks—the look of fear and suspicion. They ignore, but they keep watch.

They al could have been that waiter…

I’d like to say that on that night, I suddenly felt empowered to speak up and be seen. That I stood up, spoke my mind and walked out of the restaurant, leaving Robert to find his own ride home.

I’d like to say that it was a proud moment for me as I headed out, head high and determined never to look back.

But that’s not how it played out.

Instead, I swallowed my pride. It went down like half chewed portions of the dinner I didn’t get to enjoy that night. It blocked my esophagus and lodged itself in my throat. The lump remained right there silencing my voice. It felt as if I was drowning in a deep ocean of blue, unable to gasp for air. Robert never looked me in the eye for the rest of the evening. It was a quiet ride back home, filled with unresolved tension.  

They say that to be silent is to be complicit. Perhaps Robert didn’t have the words to speak up for me.  I know I certainly didn’t know how to express the ache that was eating me from the inside out. In any case, Robert never called me again after that night. He never came looking for me, either. And I never felt the need to find him again.

I refocused my priorities. Finding my voice was the important thing now. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a skill that is practiced and learned—much the same way that racism and prejudice is practiced and learned. It may take years, but it eventually gets learned. I’m further along now on my journey to be seen and heard. Now, if anyone ever makes me feel less than what I am, you better watch out, ‘cuz I have no problem being that Mexican up in your face.

Memoir

Handshakes and Hostages

This friendship starts with a firm handshake. I never wanted a new friend. Especially this one who doesn’t speak a word of English and, worse,  a friend forced on to me by insistence of my mother.

“He’s new to our congregation and he’s new in this country and he has nobody.” She has the uncanny ability to make simple statements sound like commands.

Hanging out with him means that I have to speak Spanish, something that I, at the age of 16, am not willing to do. It’s not that I don’t speak it (in fact, Spanish is my first language), but I can’t be bothered. I associate the language with two things I hate the most: the conservative doctrines of our cult-like religion and my mother’s determination to uphold those outdated Old Testament views at home.

But I have no choice and I reluctantly agree to meet him. His name is Alex. Turns out we’re the same age, born a month apart. I ask him what he wants to do.

“You’re the expert, here,” he says. “Show me what the kids in America like to do on a Saturday.” His Spanish is thick with the Chilango accent of the uppity natives of Mexico City. Being the quintessential teenager, the only thing I can think to do is hang out at the mall and listen to music. So that’s what we set out to do.

After wandering around the mall and flipping through albums at Rhino Records, I sense Alex’s boredom. Yet, he hesitates to say anything. I’m sure by now he’s feeling like a hostage to the American youth culture of the late 1980s. Annoyed that he can’t understand that this is what teenagers do, I ask him if there’s anything he’d like to see.

“I would like to see the beach.”

I roll my eyes and off we go. I have a great distaste for the ocean. Ironic, since I live forty-five minutes by freeway from the so-called beautiful Southern California beaches.

I tune into KROQ, the premier new wave/synth pop alternative radio station in the Los Angeles area. I turn up the volume as high as I can and get lost in a pollution of synthesizer rock. It’s always been a great pleasure for me to drive around town listening to music without any real destination. It’s something I still take pleasure in doing now.

We say very little to each other in the car. But I do notice that there’s a big grin plastered on his face all the way there. We arrive at Newport Beach. I park as close to the water as possible and we get out of the car. I have to catch up with him as he instantly gravitates to the lazy waves that roll up on to the beach.

Five minutes later, I call to him to get back in the car. I’ve got better things to do. On our way back, I decide I want to make a pit stop at Tower Records in Hollywood. It’s out of the way, really, but it’s a great excuse for me to continue listening to my music. And still, we say very little to each other. We do briefly stop off at Tomy’s Burger and continue on our way. I see Alex’s eyes widen with excitement as we turn on to Hollywood Blvd. Looming over to our right is the Hollywood sign. Still, he says nothing but cranes his neck to get a better view. We drive past the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre…

The rest of the day is uneventful. We head home. Before I drop him off at his place, I ask him if he had fun. His face lights up.

“Yes,” he says. “I’ve never seen the ocean before. Thank you. I’ll always remember this day.”

My heart sinks.

“Look,” I tell him in Spanish. “We have nothing in common, but my mom wants us to be friends, so… Let’s give it a try. I can’t promise anything.” I extend my hand out. He takes it firmly like businessmen striking a formal deal. “If it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings, OK?”

“OK,” he says. And we leave it at that.

In the following 10 years, we become closer than brothers. In a way, I become a hostage to his charming personality. We were inseparable. A handshake sealed our association and a decade later, a handshake undoes the bond of friendship we effortlessly worked to build.

Memoir

Legacy

real-estate-signs

I could feel my cheeks getting hotter by the second as blood flowed to my face turning it red. The culprit?

My father.

I was about to start middle school and he was on the school grounds digging through the trashcans looking for cans and plastic bottles. I hoped I didn’t see any of my friends. If that wasn’t enough, I had to accompany him on weekends to his job cleaning offices in the industrial part of our town. Suffice it to say I did not look forward to my teen years.

I never thought of us as poor. After all, I was the first kid in the neighborhood with a brand-new Atari 2600. I can’t recall one single day that we went without food or had to worry about sleeping in a warm bed. And when I turned 16, I had my own car—all thanks to my dad.

A 10-year old can never fathom the extent of sacrifice parents will make for their children until it’s too late. My father was building some sort of legacy for his first-born son. It was measured in things he never had growing up in Mexico. I can’t believe this isn’t something all fathers want for their own children. I know that he started to look towards the future in America just as soon as I was born.

My earliest memories are made up of visits to the Immigration Center. The building was situated in a park with a small lake with geese. I suppose the trauma of being chased by domestic fowl can leave a permanent mark on an impressionable toddler. By the time we were granted permanent residence, my father and mother were leaving their homeland and heading to California with, not one, but two children.

When I was about to start high school, my father had just purchased a house and me and my sister welcomed a new sibling. Our family was complete. My teenage years turned out to be filled with teen angst, dating, partying, and contempt for my parents; in other words, I was a typical American teen.

In 2014, my father called: our usual bi-yearly phone call. I live about 600 miles away now and it’s difficult to visit frequently so we do the usual phone call. This time he called to say he was deeding the house to me and my two sisters.

“I want you to know that this house is yours whenever you need it,” he said. A small lump gets caught in my throat. He knows how much I’ve struggled to make ends meet since I moved away from home so many years ago.

I visit my parents in 2017. We talked about me moving back into the house since everyone else has moved on to form their own families and mom and dad plan to return to Texas.

As we say our goodbyes out on the porch, he grabs my hand.

“I’m sorry I never paid for your education,” he says. It’s the one regret in life he shares with me. “I wanted to make sure I could pay off this mortgage. You’ll always have a home if you fall on hard times.”

I feel a lump rise in my throat. I hug him as I get ready to go. I tell him I’ll be back in a month. That image of him sitting on the porch remains seared in my mind. It is the last time I will ever see him. He died just two weeks after myvisit.

***

My partner and I are about to close escrow on our very first house. This is made possible with my portion of the money from the sale of the house my father left us. It’s a bittersweet transaction. I have not honored my father’s wish of keeping it in the family. He worked so hard in his life to leave some kind of legacy firmly rooted in that house in California.

My sisters and I live in different states now. At last, we all own our own houses. The families we are forming are vastly different. We are well on our way to starting our own legacy first started by our father.

I don’t know if he realized that in all his sacrifice—collecting cans, random cleaning jobs, and hand-me-downs—his legacy has grown from the confines of one location in Southern California to a bigger portion of the United States.

 

Memoir

Faith.

5c06a4db2ba8d8e959d2c5ab54b08afdb90e98b3Faith. George Michael.

Sometimes, you just “gotta have faith,” as the song goes. For an awkward teen trying to find his place in life, these lyrics really helped define the man he would become. For me, faith was tied to harsh fundamentalist ideologies that made no room for a young kid who was already questioning his sexuality.

George Michael’s Faith was released in late 1987. It is one of my favorite albums of all time. I was 15 when I first heard the first 2 singles from this album. “I Want Your Sex” was sexy and controversial and, perhaps, a little bit forbidden… Especially for a teenage boy who was not allowed to listen to mainstream music. My church held sermons on the evils of this song, along with the evils of other music from artists such as Prince, Madonnna and Cyndi Lauper. This faith left me in fear of being caught listening to this music.

It wasn’t until after I turned 16 that I gathered enough courage to buy the album at the remate (Spanish for “swap meet”) on Van Buren in Riverside. This was the place where a Mexican kid could roam the aisles of used furniture, second-hand clothing and knock-off fashions and feel a part of mainstream America at a discounted price. I purchased a bootleg cassette from one of the music peddlers and it cost me about $5–a lot of money back then… For a bootleg. But I ponied up the money and proudly held it in my hands. Little did I know it would go on to change my life… Literally. By then, at least 3 singles had already been released and were quickly climbing the charts.

George Michael hadn’t come out, yet… I hadn’t come out, either. But I knew we shared something in common. I knew (I just knew!) we were both gay and this album was trying to speak to me in some kind of code that I wasn’t ready to decode. If Madonna’s Like A Virgin awakened the gay in me, then it was George Michael’s Faith album that reaffirmed to me that I was, indeed, gay, and that I would be OK.

Music had a big influence on me as a teenage. My religious upbringing was telling me things that didn’t line up with what my heart knew to be true. They taught me that faith had the power to release me from the worldly decadence of the filthy lyrics that these bands espoused. It was faith that would lead me to the truth. However, these truths I would carefully cull from the lyrics found in the music that played on the radio.

“I Want Your Sex.” Boy, that started it all for me. It was late summer of 1987 and the first few chords of the sleazy electro-funk sounds sent electric waves through my body. Like the American Bandstand kids would say, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it.” It ignited in me something that started deep in my groin and emanated outwardly. Maybe it had something to do with the boy that captured my heart that late summer; the boy from the library with the tattered converse, the skinny black jeans and The Ramones t-shirt. I wanted to live the song. I wanted his sex, but all I got was a half-hearted, clumsy kiss in the magazine section of the library and an affirmation from him that he “wasn’t gay.” I wasn’t as persuasive as the song, but, it was the subtext that resonated with me the most, anyway:

“There’s little things you hide/
And little things that you show”

I had cracked the code! He wasn’t singing to a woman or about women! The ambiguity of the lyrics left it open so that I could pursue the sex of my choice, whether successfully or not.

The album produced even more hits: “Father Figure”, “Monkey”, “Kissing a Fool.” Gay anthems… In my mind, anyway. I don’t think he ever convinced me he was writing music about the opposite sex. I don’t think he was trying, either. I took it on faith that what I was doing was the right thing to do. I followed my heart and it felt good. I may not always get the guy, but that was OK.

Now, when I listen to this album, many years later… When I struggle to remember that age of 15 and 16, when time still marched at a slower cadence than it does now… I remember the first time I pop that bootleg cassette into my tape player, place the headphones over my ears and make my way past the swap meet shoppers. My ears fill with the sounds of the pipe organ intro of “Freedom” before the jangled chords of the guitar kick into “Faith.” I clearly remember each note and the weight it carries in my heart, even now. And the load it lifted off of me back in 1988.

Rest in Peace, George Michael.

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Memoir

The Kiss That Almost Was

doisneau_kissShe leaned into me, tilted her head to the side and closed her eyes. I did the same as I waited for the inevitable kiss. Under different circumstances, this might have played out like a Robert Doisneau photograph. But reality never plays out that way… Especially when you’re a teenager. In that mid-price range hotel room, I smelled the cheap perfume and felt her body heat wash over me. It was a strange feeling—an act of defiance against everything I was taught. To frustrate matters, there were about thirty college kids in the room with me, already pairing up into couples, each seeking out some sort of privacy that doesn’t exist in rented spaces. I saw them in my peripheral and heard the moaning in the next room. She trembled in my arms, this foreign body that triggered a cold sweat throughout my body. I felt her breath on my face. I braced for the impact… And then she burst into tears.

I’d like to say it was my manly bravado that reduced her to a blubbering mess, but the truth is I would have been the one bursting into tears if she hadn’t beaten me to it. What had taken over an hour to build up to this moment was quickly undone by an honest emotion. I spent the rest of the evening comforting her, all the while privately reconciling the moral dilemma.

It happened two months after my eighteenth birthday. We were in a city fifty miles from home. We walked out through the double doors like Jehovah’s Witnesses on a mission. In fact, we were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we weren’t spreading the Good News at the Holiday Inn this late at night. Our mission? To get laid. Or, at least to get, Sergio, my best friend laid. The JW convention meant staying in discounted hotels. Sergio ran into a college group from Berkeley staying at the Ramada Inn. We were invited to our first beer party and there would be plenty of girls to choose from.

“I met this girl,” he said. “If I play it cool, she’ll be mine by the end of the night… Oh, she has a friend, so you need to come.” He assured me that if I didn’t go, I would be denying him a basic need. Besides, it was during these conventions, away from home, that we weren’t closely watched by the ever-seeing eyes of the congregation elders. So we lined our briefcases, not with Watchtower literature, but with 12-ounce cans of Miller Genuine Draft.

She explained the reason for her breakdown. She, too, had been brought along by her friend. She didn’t want to be here. To make matters worse, she only agreed to come along on this trip because she had a crush on a boy… A boy who was inflicting pangs of illicit pleasure to a nameless girl in the next room. Suddenly, she didn’t seem as foreign as I thought her to be. Still, I didn’t feel inclined to kiss a woman passionately on the lips for another fifteen years. And even then, I braced myself for the impact.

I was proud of the fact that I didn’t compromise the truth about myself. I was proud that I was honest with myself. But I worried that I could never live up to the moral standards I was brought up with. They teach us fundamental truths while they instill in us a list of what is right and what is wrong. Their list may not always be right, but I think I conquered the fundamentals.

 

Memoir

A Closed Circle

father-and-son-lionsSpring, 1995. The spiral tubes and breathing machines. The ICU and the specialists. The spinal taps and blood tests. They will become a litany of memories… But not for me. For my mother and my sisters, yes. And especially my father—although I will never ask. But it will end there. My mother will speak of it only once, just a couple of months after I awake from a coma. In an indirect, roundabout way, in an inopportune time when I’m driving us home, waiting at the intersection for the light to turn green, she will tell me what he told her to tell me. I will already know. And she will quantify his words with her own.

“Whatever you’ve done,” she’ll say, “It’s in the past. Isn’t it?”

“Yea.” It’s the only lie I’ll utter that day.

That last part will read more like a command, than a question. A statement that doesn’t want to know the truth. It will be guided and sealed by her faith. We’ll speak around in circles about fathers loving sons… No matter what (italics her own.)

June 24, 1994. The lights fade out in the movie theatre and with it the chatter from the children scattered through the auditorium who are here to watch a new Disney film. I’m probably the only adult unaccompanied by a child. That doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t even cross my mind. All I know is that as I watch the opening montage, I begin to cry. By the end of the sequence, when the title card announces The Lion King, I’m a blubbering mess and I don’t understand why.

April, 1972. His genes have been passed on to me through the process of biology. I pictured him holding his firstborn son in his hands for the first time; a proud father at twenty-two years old. I’d like to think that at that moment, he transferred all his hopes as naturally as he passed on the color of his eyes, the stubborn trait, and the way my hair parts naturally to the left. These hopes are traditions passed on from father to son and on and on going back generations. An open loop, it unfurled like a newly sprout branch of a family tree added to the many branches that came before. I’d like to think that he cried tears of joy, because I’ve only seen him cry once.

*      *      *

A closed circle: an ideology that regards one as being “in denial” of their sexual orientation.

A closed circle argument is one that is unfalsifiable.” These claims are usually faith-based.

Memories from the outside, looking in. I don’t remember the spinal taps or the specialists that saved my life from spinal meningitis. I remember the crying at the Circle of Life, sitting alone in that movie theater. Time marches across life, leaving in its wake a trench of memories that we can mine some time in the future. I think of the closed circle and the command in the form of a rhetorical question. She tells me of how my father cried in the hospital room and how it scares her to see him cry like this. I remember back to my childhood seeing my father at the wheel crying in the parking lot of the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. The circle of life closes and reopens. And I realize that I, too, will close the circle when I remember that I am the last of the family name. Yet, even that is an argument that is unfalsifiable.

*      *      *

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Memoir

When in (Left of) Rome

loud neighborsHe read the email from our landlady. It was a threat of eviction. “Oh hell no,” he yelled. “Who does that bitch think she is?” He referred to the next-door neighbor who just moved in two weeks ago and whom we had yet to meet. Apparently, we were being too loud—definite grounds for eviction.

We looked at each other disbelieving what we just read. For noise? This would not do. In all the years living in Los Angeles (Hollywood) noise complaint never even crossed our minds. Tenants grew concerned if they did not hear noise coming from next door. This was an insult. We were threatened with eviction on a monthly basis for important things, like rent. Noise pollution was beneath us. Except, we didn’t live in Los Angeles anymore.

But, this is a story of how we met a next-door neighbor for the first time ever. Noise did bring us together, but we didn’t meet her until four months after her initial complaint, when we, again, received another eviction threat from our landlady for the same complaint. The Neighbor, as we have christened her, is an older woman with medium length gray hair. We hardly cross paths, but when we do, we both divert our eyes as if the air in front of us was so engaging that we noticed nothing else. I wondered if she, too, came from a big city, but then again, someone like that wouldn’t bother with petty complaints.

Now, it must be understood that we weren’t worried about actually being evicted. We were well within our rights. In fact, we adjusted our already normal volume levels so that we had to squint to hear anything. Still, the complaint was logged and it was about to escalate.

I suppose the underlying issue wasn’t that we were unreasonably loud, but in reality, we were inconvenienced: we were forced to meet our neighbor. That’s something you just… Don’t do. In a city of over 3.8 million (the 3.51-square-mile Hollywood neighborhood, alone, boasts about 80,000 people), you have to be extremely careful whom you let into your guarded life—and that includes neighbors. You never know what kind of wackos are out there.

So, I wrote a friendly letter on the insistence of the landlady who changed her eviction tune once we talked to her and she was aware that we were schooled on noise ordinance. It took our neighbor four days to respond.

The meeting went well. In fact, it was quite painless. She was a good hostess with a pleasant demeanor, but she didn’t offer us a drink. But considering the nature of this meet and greet, I let it slide.

Then, it occurred to me: We were the wackos to this guarded neighbor. We became that which we feared the most. But we’re working on it… Together. We’re not bad neighbors at all and while we can be malicious within our almost-private four walls and can call her everything under the sun, her name is Anne.

Memoir

Not Quite Ready For That Close-Up

alto-nido-hollywood-sunset-blvdFrom the Sunset Blvd screenplay

Slow dissolve to:

Hollywood, seen from the Hilltop at Ivar & Franklin Streets.

Joe Gillis (VO)
I was living in an apartment
   house above Franklin and Ivar.

Camera pans toward the Alto Nido, an ugly Moorish structure of stucco about four stories high.

Actually, it is six stories high. I know because I lived there for two years. Just as the screenplay describes it, the Chateau Alto Nido sits at the top of the hill. The basement and the first and second floors are below street level, which places the lobby on the third floor. We lived on the second floor and, for the most part, it confused first-time visitor when they headed up, instead of down to get to our floor from the lobby.

For fans of the movie, a trip to Hollywood requires a visit to Joe Gillis’ apartment, just a block from Hollywood & Vine and the Capitol Records building. Just turn north on Ivar Avenue and follow the Walk of Fame. The Alto Nido was populated by struggling writers then, and still is now, although famous stars of long ago lived here, too. Claudette Colbert called this place home in the 1920s. Lila Leeds almost died here. It is rumored that Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, stayed here.

Despite that, the irony of the reality wasn’t lost on the screenwriters (including director, Billy Wilder.) The script describes it as an ugly structure and if they meant that as metaphor, then it was an indictment of the city of Hollywood as an opportunistic industry.

We ended up moving in, after a series of fortunate coincidences. It was a concrete affirmation that we were well on our way towards attaining the goals we set when we first moved to Los Angeles more than ten years ago. We knew what moving in would represent as struggling artists.

When I finally gave up our apartment at the Alto Nido, my partner was three months into his eight-month contract at one of the nation’s oldest and most successful Shakespeare theatre companies in Oregon. I stayed behind to wait for him, but the luxury of a struggling writer was getting too expensive. He didn’t take the news very well. “I didn’t get to say good-bye,” he said. He meant the Alto Nido. He meant Hollywood. He meant our goals.

Last week, we re-evaluated our goals over Chinese food. At the end of our meal, we cracked open our fortune cookies and mine read, “With integrity and consistency, your credits are piling up.”

Standing atop of that hill on Ivar and Franklin, one can be seduced by the promise of a Hollywood ending. It can dilute integrity as the struggle stretches on for year. Joe Gillis certainly had none and look where it got him.

———–

Essay prompted by this photo prompt from Write On Edge
Essay inspired by this photo prompt from Write On Edge

Memoir

A Gem Among Minerals

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Image Source
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He didn’t exactly hand it back to me. He threw it at my face with a flick of his wrist. At least, that’s how I remember it. In reality, it was a combination of the two actions. He went up and down each aisle, returning each assignment to its respective student. The class was alive with anticipation. It was the final assignment of the year. When he got to me, he paused briefly, dangling the stapled sheets of paper over my head. He started to place it on the desk, but at the last minute, he decided to just let it go. The sheets swooped in an arc and settled on the veneer surface of my desk. On the upper right hand corner, in blue pen: C-. I could have lived with that grade, if not for the words scribbled beneath it, in a spidery, almost illegible writing: Uninspiring story. Writing is not for everyone. You should reconsider your choice of becoming a writer.

That declaration was the final assessment of my work in the Advanced English class. Each assignment I turned in to Mr. Linares was met with a curt response. With each backhanded feedback, I did my best to please him so that he might at least see a glimpse of talent, but that never happened. Perhaps he was right because that final assignment, a short story based on fantasy, had been a failure in his eyes. Who was I to argue with an expert? I looked up to him like a hero who had succeeded in the field I wanted to pursue. He was supposed to encourage the fledgling writers under his care.

This was my senior year in high school and I was in the prestigious pilot program of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. I was proud when I was accepted, but now I wondered if they had made a mistake. I changed to an undeclared major the following Fall and then proceeded to fail miserably.

 *        *        *

Mr. McGinny handed back my final in Physical Geology. I could tell he was disappointed in my grade: F. I can’t say I didn’t earn it. I couldn’t care less for striated minerals, igneous rocks, or diorites and I put little to no effort into it despite the fact that I needed this class to complete my required courses. I was surprised when he said that he would give me a chance to retake the final considering how openly uninterested I was in his class. H knew it, but he said that he enjoyed my mid-term research paper on the trickle down effect of sediments. “Your paper was the most entertaining research paper I’ve read,” he said. “Have you considered taking an elective course in Creative Writing?”

Suddenly, this teacher whom I dismissed as irrelevant brought back my long-dead interest in pursuing writing as a viable career option. He was the flint that re-ignited the dream that Mr. Linares, who was supposed to nurture it, had stamped out seven years ago.

They say you should never meet your heroes. Sometimes they disappoint. I add this: Don’t limit your pool of potential heroes. Sometimes they come out of unexpected places… Like a gem among minerals in a sedimentary rock.

If only I had retained information from Mr. McGinny’s lesson on how to distinguish a gem from a mineral. I must have. I got a B+ on my final the second time around.