I blinked hard at the blinding light, felt the slap of heat hit my face, and noticed everyone in a hurry to go nowhere. It was my first time in Los Angeles. I had barely got out of Customs when a tall African-American spotted my Boy Scout lost look.
“Looking for a cab, sir?”
“I am, thanks. Can’t seem to see a rank.”
“I’m your man. Follow me.”
He picked up my suitcase. A friendly cab driver is a good start. He asked if I’d a good flight, which part of “Scat-Land” I hailed from, small talked proudly of LA’s famous smog banks banished, and asked if I had any relatives in the town. We walked for several minutes this way and that. He stopped at the edge of the ‘sidewalk’. He called it curb. In time I would find out American-English has a different word or phrase for everything.
He nodded across the busy road to a row of cabs. I burst out laughing at his chutzpah. I was an easy mark but not a schmuck.
“Hey, you’re not a cab driver at all?”
The neon white grin on his face got wider. “No, sir. I just helps folks get orientated.”
“Well, that has to be the friendliest con I’ve fallen for. Here’s two dollars for your cheek.”
He took the money and we shook hands, both chuckling at the recognition of two unemployed guys hoping to make a fast buck in LaLa Land.
A brush with fate
LAX airport holds any number of memories for me. It’s both a welcoming destination and an intimidating arena. Rich and poor of all races and religions line up to get their passport and visa and intentions examined, or cross-examined.
Children whine and whimper from travel fatigue, VIPs wearing heavy duty shades to maintain anonymity by drawing attention to themselves are shown through to a waiting chauffeur. From the aircraft walkway tunnel, down corridors, the string of weary humanity spills out into a vast assembly area. In my case I’m filled with hope. There’s work to be had if I can make it across the 100 yards of no-man’s land to the exit.
Twenty cubicles staffed by black suited officers spread across the access point to freedom, all there to cope with three jumbo jets disgorging passengers simultaneously. Airport security guards toting guns watch your every move. “This cubicle, please!”
When I first arrived it was a simple task of answering a few questions, “How long is your visit?”- a smile, and your passport is stamped. “Have a pleasant stay, sir.”
Today you stand in line hoping you get the immigration officer that looks a nice guy. You suffer the intrusion of an eye identity, customs forms checked and registered, passport portrait zapped to see if you’re a wanted hoodlum.
I’m categorised a “Person of Exceptional Artistic Merit”, flattering, but it doesn’t guarantee me a warm welcome, or a quick exit. My grandfather told me it was easier to get into the Soviet Union than it was to get into America. He was right.
Negotiating your way through airports, the gift shop first, security points second, tells you terrorists and surveillance corporations won the war against the west.
One time I got stopped by Immigration. Completely jet-lagged I had filled out the wrong form. My skull was humming with a constant high pitched tone, my eyes unable to focus, my breathing shallow. He turned the green form this way and that, looked up at me, saw the designer stubble and no luggage.
“Where’s the luggage, sir?”
“I only have hand luggage.”
“A long stay and no luggage?”
“My maxim is, take half the clothes you need and twice the money. Clothes you can buy as you need them.”
I always travel light. It helps get out of airports quickly. Instead of being the airlines’ favourite passenger I am treated with suspicion. No luggage? He must be a terrorist.
“Don’t make sense.”
Immigration Control Man glared, and told me to go to Room 101, at least, that was what it sounded like, Orwellian.
I sighed, swung my satchel over my shoulder, and accompanied by a security guard trundled over to a nondescript door in the corner of the Arrival Hall.
I entered and sat down on a bench next to two grey suited Homburg hatted Mexicans. They sat as if in prayer, one turning the brim of his hat in his hands like rosary beads.
At the desk counter a man of Chinese origin was talking in Cantonese to a young female interpreter. The officer behind the desk was not impressed. “He’s told us that already!”
The interpreter asked for more information, got it, and passed it to the officer in ‘Merican-English. The officer’s patience ran out. “No, that’s not good enough. He lied to us so he’s going back”. And with that he stamped his passport ‘Blocked – Entry Refused’. The interpreter told her client the game was up. He pleaded again.
“Nope. Forget the pleas. Get the dumbass outa here, Miss.”
I turned to the Mexicans beside me to offer a sympathetic smile for the Chinese guy’s plight and then caught sight of their feet. They were shackled to each other by the ankles. Jeesus! This place is serious. What have I got myself into?
Investigating officer Gandini, tall, swarthy, pock-marked, straight out of a tough New York cop series, scowled in my direction from his open topped booth. Skin tone and swept back greased hair said he was of Italian extraction, like me.
I looked at the Mexicans. They gave me a wan smile and shook their heads. “You, senor. Eez you ee-iz lookin’ for.”
Okay, it was my turn for the knife. I got up, went over, and sat on the only seat in the booth. I broke the ice immediately.
“I’m sorry, officer. I know I look a beat up terrorist, but the truth is, as soon as I reached home in Edinburgh, Scotland-“
“I know where that is,” he side swiped.
“Well, I got a call to come back for a meeting. Twenty-four hour turnaround screws with my head. Know what I mean? Even my hearing’s blanking out. I’m so jet lagged I can hardly form words. (‘Words’ came out as wi…ur…dsss.) I filled out the wrong form. The guy in the hall decided it was a first degree felony.”
“I decide that. What’re you here for?”
“Got that first time. What kinda meeting?”
This is Hollywood. Everybody is a star struck out of work actor. I knew how to inveigle my way into his good side.
“I’m a screenwriter. My legal representative sent it to Tom Berenger for the lead role and he wants to do it. He called me in Edinburgh to ask I come back to talk through the project. He only has a few days window between his movie shoot. Here’s the script.” I pulled my magnum opus out of my satchel, knocking my bag of toiletries over his desk.
The officer with a face like Swiss cheese narrowed his eyes and flicked a few pages, unconvinced. It was time for Escape Plan B.
“I can identify who I am exactly. I have film awards.”
“Give me one, and the movie.”
I did exactly as he asked. He punched the information into his computer. I waited. He waited. I nearly fell asleep. The computer screen lit up. So did his face. Without looking at me he stood up and addressed the other officers in the room loudly.
“Hey! This guy is ligit! He makes films an’ stuff!
His grin told me I was out of trouble. Relaxed, his intimidating stare morphed into a buddy-buddy smile. He got into his stride.
“Why don’t you guys write television series about us, immigration inspectors? This place is full of crooks and villains, and that’s just us. Every day is different – ain’t that right, guys?” His colleagues concurred. One shouted back, “I got the most interesting life. I gotta be the star.” Laughter all round. I sat listening to the anecdotes rolling off their tongues.
“Day is all good for stories, yeah?”
“Good material. Yeah. I’ll include an episode where a Scots guy gets roughed up for filling in a white form that should have been green.” I got the guffaw I was praying for.
“Okay, sir. Next time make sure ya get tha papers in order. Sorry to have held ya back. Good luck with tha film … NEXT! Right!” shouted officer Gandini. “Next stop for you crows is Palookaville. An’ don’t give me any of your stoopid bullshit!”
I nodded to the two Mexicans on the bench as I left. The one with his hat in his hands giggled. “This time eez our neck, senor.” I didn’t waste time saying goodbye.
I looked at my watch. First off the plane, but last out the airport by two hours. Terrific.
A place to lay my head
Los Angeles has arguably the greatest domestic architecture in the world. It’s a free expression city. Houses in a single street can be of any design, any era. Build what you want, almost where you want. For the rest there’s cheap housing in run down areas and condos, short for condominium. Latinos gravitate to the poorest areas. For the homeless there’s the street to sleep. It’s warm enough most days to bunk out in doorways or behind a topiary hedge.
My entertainment lawyer gave me a leg up for my first long-term stay, a basement room in an actor’s pad at the top of a canyon in Malibu, off Pacific Coast Highway, called Decker Canyon. It’s a long way from the movie studios but cheap.
I’ve no idea why the property owner called himself an actor. Twenty-five years earlier he had a minor role in a road movie. His wife brought in the salary and fed and clothed their little kid. He walked around in a pair of Ugg boots and talked gossip, that and keeping his ear to the floorboards to hear what his house guest was doing down below.
My rent was his pay cheque. (They spell it check.) The heat was unbearable. I kept doors and windows open, insect screen shut. There’s no mosquitoes or midges, it’s too dry, but there are snakes, scorpions, and other unfriendly bugs. Few birds inhabit the mountains. There’s no dawn chorus. But there are cougars! Don’t go for a moonlight walk.
The room – impossible to call it an apartment – had a television. I left it on most days. My ear attuned to dialogue, I learned American politics and obsessions, as I clacked, clicked and thumped my keyboard. As a typist I’m a two-finger hunter-pecker, but hair raising fast. I’ve fingers of fire. I got a lot of scripting done. Nights were funereally peaceful, company sparse.
I spent a lot of time listening to dialect and sentence construction. It didn’t stop me making some embarrassing howlers. On one occasion I offered to collect a female producer from her home nearby and drive her to the studio, both aiming for the same meeting, same time. I’ll knock you up at 9am, I said. There was a long silence over the phone. “The hell you will,” she chuckled, realising “knock up” has a different meaning in Edinburgh.
For civilisation I drove to movies a lot, the tiny one in Malibu patronised by movie stars still wearing slippers. Places to meet movies stars were Ralphs supermarket, Coogies lunch diner, and the Catholic Chapel. I had a good chat outside the chapel with Ed Harris and his wife Amy Madigan after both picked up awards for the leading roles in ‘Pollock’.
The other great place to meet successful actors is AA assemblies. “My name is Joe. I am an alcoholic.” Los Angeles has the biggest concentration of alcoholics of any city, over 370,000 registered, thousands more deluding themselves. You won’t believe the famous faces I met. Trouble is, attending a meeting has you marked as an alcoholic. I’m a non-drinker. You meet an actor days later in the street and she asks, “What stage are you on?”
For an alternative I tried the Britannia British Pub in Santa Monica – a tautology – there for agreeable company but soon left. Too many cockney geezers shouting “Landlord, anovver fuckin’ pint for me mate!”
With a spread of 36 miles in all directions you need a car to exist in LA. I had an old Land Rover Discovery. That Disco was the worst car I every drove since the last worst car I every had, all British built. Bits fells of it, the dash warped in the sun, the engine leaked like an official in Trump’s cabinet. The electrics were iffy. My savings soon took a hit.
The girl in the dealer’s service department kept my repair bills low, goodwill I took advantage of. She loved the Scots accent, so I thickened it shamelessly. “I’m gay, living with my partner,” she said. “But I could fall in love with that accent any day.” “It’s mah pleasure, lassie,” I roared back.
One day, driving into the dealer’s forecourt for the umpteenth fix, I passed a Discovery owner sitting on the top of the exact same model in black I had. He held aloft a large sign on which was written: “Do not buy this car!” Land Rover’s finest was decorated with large yellow lemons.
My heart sank. Of all the cars, in all the world, I bought that one.
A mystery solved
Late night shows were my staple diet. I typed at night, sometimes on a little rickety table outside on the porch. The television stayed on for company.
In my Decker Canyon oven I caught a documentary about the mysterious disappearance of bass guitarist from the rock group Iron Butterfly, Philip Taylor Cramer. It was one of LA’s enduring enigmas motivating a ton of newspaper articles and theories, including murder. What caught my attention was the last journey he took four years earlier. He’d been depressed some months, drank too much – the two tend to go together – had driven over the mountains by Decker Canyon, but never reached the airport to collect a friend and his wife. It seemed an odd time to commit suicide, on your way to meet friends.
Like other canyons that cut deep into Santa Monica mountains the road up is narrow, steep, and in a lot of places without crash barriers. Meet a two ton pick-up coming at you at speed, its rear wheels sticking out a few miles more than the front wheels, and you’ve nowhere to go but over the cliff edge. Ravines run as deep to the creek as three hundred feet. Headlights blind you coming around a bend. Americans drive on the opposite side of the highway to us. Going downhill you’re on the scary side – the cliff edge.
I did come upon one driver who went over the edge. The skid marks identified the spot and the vehicles trajectory. I parked, ran to where the tyres met air, and looked over the edge. As I did the young driver appeared, a teenager, hauling himself up the slope grabbing bush roots with one hand, and eating a hamburger with the other.
It was a surreal moment. He was eating his lunch hundreds of feet from certain death.
By chance and the Gods, his car had stopped from free-fall caught on bushes growing out from the side of the cliff, feet below the road edge. It lay upside down over horizontal branches. I pulled him up the last few feet.
He plonked himself down on the ground, feet dangling over the edge while he got over his shock. My daughter, visiting me at the time, dialled 911, the US version of 999, and asked for an ambulance and tow truck.
“Man, that was something. Shit. I need to go back to get the radio,” he said, phlegmatically chewing his Big Mac. I told him he wasn’t going anywhere except hospital for a check up.
“No, I gotta get the radio. It’s new. That’s my dad’s car. He’ll kill me if I lose the radio.”
“Go ahead,” I said, “Your weight will take you and it to the bottom. In fact, that half-hamburger might do it.”
After checking no bones were broken, and making him promise he’d leave the radio to the Triple A driver to fetch, I drove off to my appointment slower than I’d ever driven down Decker Canyon. And I drove home again that evening just as slowly. I remember saying to myself and then my daughter, anybody driving over the edge any time day or night would never be found. The bushes can hide a truck for yonks. And so it proved.
A veteran hiker was taking his weekly trek from the gash at the base to the boulder at the top of the canyon via the snaking ravine, a steady, winding climb, carefully between sharp rock and thorn bush. The walks are an Angelino’s equivalent of Munro bagging. He’d barely gone a few hundred yards along the base when he discovered a car crushed like a Coca-Cola can among the scrub shrubs sitting squat and half its original length, some bushes growing through its broken windows. The round white object inside was unmistakeably a human skull. He called the cops.
Later that day I heard on the television news the body had been identified as Philip Taylor Cramer the Iron Butterfly bassist. His bones were strewn around. Coyotes take what they can find. Reports from his family say that Kramer had been working around the clock, and hadn’t slept for close to two weeks leading up to his disappearance.
At midday on the day of his disappearance he made a strange 911 call. “This is Philip Taylor Kramer. I am going to kill myself,” he reportedly told the operator. It was the last anybody had ever heard from him.
His father remained unconvinced his death was suicide. “Taylor had told me a long time before, there was people giving him problems. “Several of them had threatened him. He told me ‘If I ever say I’m gonna kill myself, don’t you believe it.”
Hell, suicide or murder, what a way to go.
Hardly in LaLa Land and already my life was beset by high drama. I was there to get projects produced, determined to succeed. But that as they say, is another story for another day.
If you enjoyed this you might like ‘Lost In LaLa Land 1’ and ‘Lost in LaLa Land’ 3.