I learned how to drive a manual transmission in high school. First my friend Dave taught me in his Volkswagon Fox, until I burned a hole through his clutch. Then my father took over the responsibility, letting me drive his Honda Prelude in the parking lot of Aquinis Junior College on weekends, while he sat in the passenger seat, shaking his head and moaning Jeez-us Christ every time I stalled out. Eventually I found that perfect synergy of clutch and gas and was able to move the car forward in first gear without bucking it. It was a rite of passage, a sign of maturity, emblematic of the delicate and unspoken balance of right and wrong, that those who drove a stick shift somehow understood life’s blind stitch and could intuitively weave through it for the rest of their lives.
Of course, none of that mattered six years later, when I found myself at the top of La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, at the intersection of Sunset, waiting for the light to turn green. La Cienega is a hill so steep it looks like trigonometry homework, the kind of street you drive past and think “Wow, that’s kind of a cruel joke.” Watching traffic line up at the La Cienega-Sunset stoplight is like watching roller coaster cars stuck halfway up the tracks. The drivers usually have the same queasy, ominous look on their faces, too.
I waited at the light, one foot jammed on the brake and the other on the clutch, the car at a forty-five degree angle, my heart pounding and my bowels warm and mushy. Sweat trickled down my face and greased up my palms. There was no margin for error: in front of me was a Porsche 911 Turbo; directly behind me was a Mercedes S-Class Coupe. In between them was my ’92 Acura Integra, still flaunting its native Massachusetts license plates. I was a slice of Oscar Meyer bologna, sandwiched between half a million dollars’ worth of bread.
I was so nervous I forgot to lower my radio, which blasted Van Halen from my open windows and throughout all of West Hollywood. My focus was on the clutch and nothing else. I’d ease it out, slowly, until the car started to rattle, then I’d pump it back in, all while pressing the foot brake so hard into the floorboard that my leg was numb. I’m dead, I thought. We don’t have hills like this in Massachusetts, not unless you’re sledding down them. I checked the Mercedes in my rearview. Its grill and headlights sloped downward, like a wildcat’s face at the sight of a field mouse. On the front bumper was a vanity plate that read WARBUX.
Then I remembered the emergency brake. Yes! Training wheels for stick shifts. I pulled up the e-brake and gently released the foot brake. The car rocked back but held firm, and just as Eddie Van Halen belted out the opening chords of Panama the traffic light turned green and I floored the gas, still tepidly pushing in the clutch. Once the Porsche drove off I released the e-brake and popped the clutch and the Acura squealed and lurched out into the intersection. I did it! I thought as I cut the steering wheel, making a hard right turn onto Sunset, leaning my body in the opposite direction so I wouldn’t roll the car. Then I slammed on the brakes because the Porsche was stopped ahead of me in traffic. I screeched to a halt, my torso jerking forward, the seatbelt cinching around my chest. Smoke rose from my tires. I smelled burnt rubber. David Lee Roth wailed from my car radio: Jump back…what’s that sound…here she comes, full blast and top down. I peered over the steering wheel and looked to my right. Two middle-aged men in tracksuits stood at the crosswalk, staring at me. One of them shook his head and said:
* * * *
In Hollywood, there is no middle class. There is the Celebrity Class and the Loser Class. In spite of being the youngest producer’s assistant on the Disney lot, in spite of my apartment in Beechwood Canyon, my sleek ’92 Acura Integra and my astronomical $31,000/year salary, I undoubtedly qualified as a Loser.
My furniture was picked from the trash. I ate Jack In The Box, In and Out Burger and Wendy’s for dinner, every night. I came home from work at 8:00, smoked weed, watched The Simpsons, smoked weed, watched Cheers, and went to bed. There were four of us—sometimes five—living in a two-bedroom apartment: two sharing one bedroom, an air mattress in the corner of the living room, a big black guy sleeping in the closet and me in my own bedroom—the king’s quarters—for which I paid a staggering $350 a month. You’d think with such reasonable living expenses I’d have had a little extra cash at my disposal. I didn’t. My money went to weed, cigarettes, the occasional trip to Vegas or the even more occasional date, and parking tickets.
I had one nice outfit that my sister gave me as a graduation present: a pair of tweed slacks and a button-down shirt, both from Banana Republic. I wore the pants every day to work and alternated the shirt with a flannel I had since sophomore year of college, during my Kurt Cobain phase. It was threadbare with a worn-in ring around the collar and a hole in the shoulder. It smelled like patchouli, no matter how much I washed it. I didn’t own a pair of shoes so I wore shell top Adidas. People in other offices often mistook me for a bike messenger. It wasn’t long before they realized that I in fact worked among them, at which time they shifted their perception from bike messenger to plain old asshole.
My tramp chic wardrobe didn’t bother me too much until one day when Henry Winkler showed up unannounced in my boss’s office, just to say hi. (He played the school principal in Scream, which my boss produced). He appeared in the doorway looking genteel and…small, actually, wearing a gray blazer and penny loafers. My boss was out of the office, per usual, and I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to say hello to the Fonz himself, so I got up from behind my desk and went to the door to shake his hand. “I graduated from Emerson, too,” I said, standing there as though waiting for a gratuity.
“Is that right?” he said, pleasantly, and then looked me up and down. His smile faded into something sympathetic, as though he were visiting a sick fan in the hospital. “Well, good luck with…everything, and please give Cathy my best.”
My four co-workers were all L.A. natives: young, Jewish, well dressed, connected. They wore tailored suits to work, carried leather bags and drove SUVs. They had cell phones. They met other young executives for lunch at places like Ivy while I got tuna melts from the commissary and ate them at my desk, wearing my phone headset.
“Ho, Vinnie Boombats!” This is how David, the director of development, addressed me. I’m pretty sure I was the first Italian he’d ever met in person; up until then he thought we all lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and competed in disco contests.
“Did you get into a lot of fights, growing up in Boston?” asked Darren, our intern from USC film school, who spent most of his three days a week quoting Good Will Hunting to me.
I grew up in Newton, but didn’t have the heart to ruin his fantasy. “Five, maybe ten,” I said, even though I’d never thrown a punch in my entire life. He went on to ask how I liked them apples, to which I smiled and nodded, just like every other day.
“Ho! Boombats!” David again. “Time to restock the Oreos, capisce!”
“You guys went through all three bags already?” I said.
“Fuggedaboutit!” he said, waving his hand in the air.
Yes. One of my duties—in addition to running the producer’s phone calls, maintaining her schedule, and pretending to be in the mafia—was keeping the snack drawer fully stocked at all times. With total shit food. That meant every Monday I had to stop at the Vons on Alameda before work, push a carriage around and load it up with cookies, potato chips, fruit roll-ups, cereal, pop tarts, and any other high-fructose crap I could find. I’m talking $150 worth, every week. It helped that I was usually stoned. One time I bought “reduced fat” Chips Ahoy. When Jim Mangold, the film director who shared both an office and a bed with Cathy, realized he was eating a low-fat cookie, he spit it into a paper towel and, with a mouth full of pasty chocolate, said to me: “Danny, you know, your job’s really not that fucking hard.” He walked out of the office, leaving the balled-up paper towel on my desk.
Cathy was worse. The euphemism: fair and consistent. The truth: certifiable bitch. Her normal tone was anger. Her angry tone was abusive. Once she was on the phone with Whoopi Goldberg, discussing a potential role, while I listened in on mute. At one point the conversation got casual and Whoopi asked Cathy if she’d received the National Geographic subscription she sent her as a Christmas gift.
“I’m on a location scout in Harrisburg fucking Pennsylvania, Whoop. Where did you send it?”
Whoopi told her she sent it to her L.A. address.
“Danny?” Cathy said. “Danny? Are you there?”
I clicked off mute. “I’m here, Cathy.”
“Have you seen any National Geographics at my house lately?”
“Yes, Cathy. There were a couple inside the front hall the last time I was there.”
“And why didn’t you forward them to me?”
“I…I’m not sure, Cathy.”
“Danny…do you have a fucking brain inside your head?”
I fell silent. Cathy broke it with: “WELL, DO YOU?”
“Then fucking use it! Jesus Christ…I’m so sorry you had to hear that, Whoopi…”
I placed my headset on my desk, dropped my head in my folded arms and wept. I thought about quitting and driving back east. Then I got angry and decided I’d quit but stay in Los Angeles and become an actor, a huge star, and Cathy would want me for a movie and I’d tell her to fuck off. Reality quickly set in and I lowered my sights to male modeling, and then to porn. The phone rang. I filled with dread, figuring it was Cathy calling me back to unleash more wrath.
“Is this Danny?” said a deep, sensuous voice on the other line.
“It’s Whoopi. You keep your chin up, y’hear? You gonna be just fine, sugar.”
“Thanks, Whoopi,” I said, wiping away a snot bubble.
There were some perks. Once Cathy gave me her invitation to the premiere of 54 at Mann’s Chinese Theater. Even with the invite, I still couldn’t get in. I stood out by the red carpet, bewildered and frightened, getting pushed around by photographers like an Amish teenager in a high school locker room. Finally I gave up and went back to my car, where I found an $80 parking ticket on the windshield.
I also housesat for Cathy and Jim occasionally, when they went on location scouts or took an extended trip to New York to suck up to the Miramax brass. They lived in a secluded Spanish-style house on Oak Pass Rd. in Benedict Canyon. It had a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and tennis court, and was completely enclosed by sycamores and eucalyptus. My sole reason for staying there was to feed Cathy’s two cats, Chuck and Ella, who were more important to her than box office returns. “The sliding door to the pool must remain closed at all time. Do you understand?” she said. “The cats are not allowed outside. Do you hear me, or am I talking to myself?”
“Yes, yes, absolutely,” I said, diarrhea siphoning throughout my intestines.
My second night at Cathy’s house I had a little party. Eight people—three of whom were my roommates—came over to swim, soak in the hot tub, play night tennis, smoke weed, and listen to Jim’s vinyl collection, which consisted of R&B artists none of us had ever heard of. Frankie Sambatino, my friend from back home who moved to L.A. with me, finished off a half-full bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that he found in the liquor cabinet.
“You know that was a $300-dollar bottle of scotch, right?” I said to Frankie, who was in the kitchen, holding the refrigerator door open, scanning the contents. On the countertop were several empty containers from Cathy and Jim’s “zone” diet—pre-packaged, carb-less mini meals that were delivered every day. “And now you’re eating all their food. Thank you, that’s wonderful. Where did you get that robe?”
“Jim’s closet,” Frankie said, and then lifted his leg and let out a long, greasy fart. “Meeting adjourned.”
I shook my head and walked back to the pool, and that’s when my heart stopped beating.
The sliding glass door was wide open.
I didn’t have time to find out who was responsible, nor did I care. I shut the door and immediately searched the house for both cats. I found the older one, Chuck, sitting on the downstairs sofa’s armrest. After a thorough, hour-long search, Ella, the baby kitten, was declared missing.
I went out to the Jacuzzi and announced that a small white cat was gone, and that I was dead if we didn’t find it. The five people in the hot tub opened their eyes and looked around for a moment.
“It’s not here, dude.”
“Thanks for your help,” I said.
I grabbed a flashlight and scoured the grounds, the tennis court, front yard, driveway. Who the hell was I kidding? That kitten could have scurried off through the dark woods an hour ago, in any direction, and been eaten by a coyote. Or she could be on Mulholland, eating Fancy Feast with Warren Beatty’s cat. Either way I was finished. I failed at the only job I was given: keeping a sliding door closed. I could kiss any future associate producer credits goodbye.
“Danny!” someone called from the pool area. I ran back to find Chris, our upstairs neighbor in Hollywood, holding a waterlogged slab of white fur by his fingertips.
“What is that?” I said, unable to imagine the possible answer.
“I don’t know,” Chris said. “I lifted the lid to one of the pool filters, and I found it stuck in there.”
Chris dropped the ball of fur on the pool’s deck. It smacked against the slate like a wet wad of toilet paper. All seven guests—including Frankie, still wearing Jim’s robe—slowly formed a circle around it.
“Are you sure that’s the cat?” someone said.
“I don’t know,” I said, breathing rapidly, my chest heaving up and down.
“How do we make sure?”
“That’s not funny, asshole.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “The cat…the cat…” I had cottonmouth and could barely speak. I pointed a finger repeatedly at my eye. “The cat had a…a brown spot, or patch, or whatever, over one eye. That’s right! It wasn’t all white. It had at least one big brown spot on its face. I know that for sure.”
Chris retreated into the pool house and came back with a tiki torch. He kneeled before the animal carcass and, with the torch’s staff, prodded into its fur to examine it. He spread it out at its joints, making it look like rolled-out pizza dough with vertebrae. Then he wedged the tiki torch underneath and flipped it over like a pancake. He stared at it and rubbed his chin.
“I don’t know, Danny. I don’t see any brown on this sucker. Have a look.”
I knelt beside him. He continued: “I’m thinkin it’s a mole, or maybe a mouse, one that got bloated from being in the water so long.”
I grabbed his shoulder and shook it back and forth. “Oh thank Christ. You’re a fucking genius, you know that?”
The party fizzled out after that. I searched the premises for another hour, even crawling through some of the shrubbery that ran along Cathy and Jim’s property, but to no avail. My hope was intact, though fleeting.
At 1:00 a.m. I called Brad, Cathy’s traveling assistant and, technically, my direct supervisor. I told him the whole story. He was calm and understanding, yet in no way cushioned the severity of his message.
“Danny, first of all…relax. It’s going to be okay. Secondly, do not return to work until you find that cat. I’ll cover you at the office. Right now that cat is your sole reason for existence. So go to sleep, get a good night’s rest, and at the crack of dawn resume your search. Okay bro?”
I slept in Jim and Cathy’s king-sized bed that night, wearing Jim’s Brooks Brothers pajamas. Surprisingly I slept well, in spite of having vivid dreams, including one where my two front teeth kept falling out. I woke up at seven-thirty, amber sunlight filling the master bedroom. I leaned up on my elbows and took in the panoramic view of the canyon and smelled the scent of fresh eucalyptus wafting in through the open window. How could someone who wakes up to this every morning be so goddamn angry? I thought. And then I heard a squeak, and I turned to my left.
Curled up on the pillow next to me was Ella, staring at me, her ears perked up, an inquisitive look on her face. Almost a smile.
Only in Hollywood.
* * * *
I returned to the apartment in Beechwood Canyon the following week to discover we had just been burglarized. Frankie was sitting on the couch. “The cops just left,” he said, despondently.
“What was stolen?” I said.
He took in a deep breath and sighed it out. “The change jar on the windowsill and the weed that was on the coffee table.”
“They left the TV over by the door, like they were gonna take it but changed their minds.”
I was too shocked to laugh. Frankie, on the other hand, seemed traumatized. “You okay, man?” I said. “Were you here when it happened?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that we got robbed; it’s that we didn’t get robbed. Two people broke into this apartment last night and the only thing we had worth stealing was a jar of pennies.” He dropped his head in his hands. “They didn’t even want our TV.”
He turned to me. “Dude, we’re fucking losers. I used to be the executive chef at a five-star restaurant in the North End before I moved here. Now I drive a catering truck for ten bucks an hour. My boss doesn’t even speak English. I have no money. I have no car. I have no friends. I’m just not like the other people out here.”
I sat down next to him on the couch and nodded my head. After a moment I said, “Did the burglars leave any weed?”
“There’s some stashed in the kitchen. Why?”
“Roll up a joint. I know exactly what you need.”
We walked outside our apartment, up Cheremoya Ave., across Chula Vista, up the winding side streets all the way to Bronson Canyon. “Light that thing,” I said, nodding to the fat joint tucked behind Frankie’s ear. We waited for two power-walkers to pass by and then he sparked it up. We took mammoth hits and held them in as long we could, coughing out spittle, getting light-headed, swaying as we passed the joint back and forth.
“Where we going?” Frankie asked.
I pointed up ahead to that white, block-lettered sign that presided over the canyon. “We’re going to Hollywood, kid. Just keep walking.”
And we did. We walked and we climbed. Our shadows grew longer and then dissolved completely. We barely spoke a word. Every so often one of us would point to something. “Look! That’s where they filmed the opening of the Batman TV show! When the Batmobile comes driving out of the Batcave! That has to be it!” We’d break into a sprint, kicking gravel, singing the Batman theme, out of breath, no water, no turning back. We walked against the tide of all the hikers and joggers and dog-walkers that ebbed back to their homes for the night. We walked until the cicadas sang loud. We walked until we reached the dusk.
The mountain got steeper and we hoisted ourselves up onto a ledge and sat, dry-mouthed and winded, looking down at the Hollywood Hills. The clandestine homes were small and camouflaged by treetops; lights flickered on inside them.
“Feel better?” I asked.
Frankie nodded and lit a cigarette. “I do.”
“Good. When you’re done with that smoke we should head back. It’s gonna take a while, and I’m cold and thirsty.”
Frankie stubbed out his cigarette and peered over the ledge. “This is pretty steep. It’s like a twenty foot drop.”
I looked down from the ledge. It was more like fifteen feet, but the crag was steep and the ledge directly below us was narrow—maybe three feet wide, tops. Climbing up was easy, but finding the same footholds on the way down would be a challenge. And if we slipped and fell and missed the ledge below, we’d likely tumble down a good distance. I hadn’t realized how steep it was on the way up. My neck broke out in a cold sweat.
“Shit,” I said. I tried lowering myself down but couldn’t get any purchase; I panicked and pedaled my feet and pulled myself back up again. “Oh, shit-shit.” I looked up. The ledge above was even higher—maybe thirty feet—and the slope even steeper. “Fuck, dude,” I said, wiping my sweaty palms on my pants. I looked around in every direction. It was almost dark out. We were stuck.
“What are we gonna do?” Frankie said.
“I don’t know.” We knelt and looked over the edge. “Maybe we can make it…but I don’t know. Maybe we should wait for help.”
“It’s almost nighttime, kid. We’ll get eaten by wolves. Fuck this. I can make it.”
I looked at Frankie, who outweighed me by at least fifty pounds, most of which was stored in his midsection. He turned himself around, gripped the ledge and, after a few deep breaths, lowered himself down. His left foot found a hold; a few feet below that was a crevice for his right foot. He’d have to slide down a bit to gain purchase. “I think I can make it, Danny,” he said, and then there was a slipping sound and then “Danny! I’m losing it!”
And then he lost it. He slid down the crag and onto the ledge below but his momentum kept him going downward, running fast, as though he had jumped off of a moving vehicle. For a moment I thought he would keep running upright until the mountain leveled off, but I was quickly proven wrong. Frankie tumbled forward headfirst and somersaulted for about a hundred feet until finally coming to a stop.
I thought he was dead, until he screamed my name.
“Are you all right?” I yelled.
“Yeah,” he said, laying flat on the mountainside. A cloud of dirt hung suspended around his body. At least he made it to the bottom.
I cupped my hands over my mouth.
Miraculously, two straggling hikers heard me, and one of them had a cell phone. Within twenty minutes a fire engine, ambulance, two police cars and three news vans had arrived at the bottom of the mountain. A fireman in a harness lowered himself down from above and attached himself to me; I held onto his waist and the two of us roped down to the plateau. Once I was down reporters rushed to me, shoving their mikes in my face, asking for my story. “These are the real heroes,” I said, gesturing to the fireman. The comment was unprompted and implied that I somehow considered myself a hero for getting stuck on a mountain. I turned around and saw two medics lifting Frankie onto a stretcher. Blood ran down his leg and arm. I turned back to the camera and smiled. “This is Hollywood. This is what it’s all about. Getting rescued by heroes. It’s the movies.”
Frankie messed up his knee and elbow pretty bad, and since he had no insurance the E.R. doctor gave him minimal care, cleaning the gravel out, sterilizing the wounds and wrapping them with gauze, and sending him home. He couldn’t walk for six weeks and was laid off from his catering job. He spent the rest of the summer sitting on the couch with his leg up on the coffee table. Someone had to help him off the toilet every time he took a shit. Sometimes late at night, as I lay awake in bed with a book, I heard him sobbing.
By mid-September he was limping and reasonably mobile. He got a job as a line cook at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, and his demeanor gradually brightened. He’d tell me about the special egg white omelet he made for Courtney Cox, or how he delivered a corned beef sandwich to Gene Simmons’ bungalow. “Guess who I saw driving his Ferrari down Sunset today? Tim Allen. This place is fuckin awesome, kid. I don’t think I’m ever going home,” he said one day, slurping the broth from a bowl of Ramen noodles.
The least I could do was give him rides to work whenever I could. In Los Angeles nothing says Loser Class quite like riding the public transit down Sunset Blvd. On the drives there he’d tell me about the waitresses at the Whiskey (the Sunset Marquis’s restaurant), how they’d flirt with him and tease him and tell him dirty secrets or give him detailed accounts of their sexual exploits. One night he made out with one of them after they smoked a joint in the back alley. Another one, Brooke, took him to a Public Enemy concert; afterward they fooled around in her car and she dropped him off at seven the next morning. I couldn’t figure out the appeal. Maybe these girls looked at him and saw a part of themselves, the part they left back home in some small town.
We arrived at the Sunset Marquis’s back entrance. Frankie slowly got out of the car, holding onto the roof for support while he delicately moved his right knee out. “Thanks for the ride, kid,” he said. “I might be going out after work, so I’ll find my own way home.” He limped up the stucco drive toward the hotel. I shook my head and smiled. Pain, humility, poverty and utter degradation. Sometimes that’s the best place to start.
I pulled away from the hotel and headed up La Cienega, my least favorite street in this godforsaken city. As always, the light at the top of the hill was red. There was a Maserati convertible stopped in front of me. An older gentleman with a baseball cap was behind the wheel; in the passenger seat was a young blonde woman. My guess was they weren’t blood relatives.
I cranked up the Van Halen, pulled the e-brake and revved the engine.
Watch the actual news footage here.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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