THE LOST ONES I SAW IN HOLLYWOOD

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
My first years in Hollywood, I noticed all the interesting characters that populated the town. I saw them daily as I rode the local buses to work. I wondered about them, where they came from and what happened to them.

Submitted: April 28, 2017

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Submitted: April 28, 2017

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THE LOST ONES I SAW IN HOLLYWOOD

It was during my first month in Hollywood that I noticed her. It was 1980. I had come from a small Midwestern town and knew very few people in this city. At night, with no television, I spent my spare time looking out the window of my tiny apartment at the skyline of Los Angeles. My view had gone from rural woods and a starry sky to an endless row of old, tall buildings and helicopters patrolling them like fireflies. One building across the way caught my eye. In a window, I could see a figure pacing back and forth. It was an older woman wearing a dress that looked more from the 1950s. Complete with a pearl necklace, it was something a housewife would wear waiting for her husband to come home from work. She was quickly walking from her door to a dining room table that had on it two clean white plates, some silverware and fancy napkins set up. There were two candles lit in the middle of the table and it appeared as if dinner was about to be served any minute. The woman paced from table to door until about 11 pm when she turned out the light and went to bed. She did this night after night with no sign of a visitor.

I wondered what had happened. Had she been doing this since the 1950s? I imagined her long ago as a young, shy secretary in a large office. A handsome fedora-wearing executive had walked over to her desk and invited himself to dinner. She probably looked up in shock and said yes, not knowing it was just a bet with coworkers that he never planned to follow through with. That night she set dinner and waited. He never showed. He apologized the next day and said how about that evening and she did it again, pacing from the door to her table, waiting for him to arrive. She probably rehearsed in her head all the conversations they would have and all the things she would tell him about herself.

At some point she must have snapped and spent the next 20 years preparing dinner and waiting. One night the curtains were closed. They were closed for two weeks and when they opened some new people were in there; a young couple, having dinner together. I wondered if she passed away waiting for that visitor that never arrived. Paramedics probably found her on the dining room floor and took the body away. The apartment was cleaned out and rented to someone else; the stain of unfulfilled dreams eviscerated by bleach and ammonia. I gave up looking out at the Los Angeles skyline. It was too haunting.

In another apartment, lived a guy named Mike. I got to know him from morning walks. He didn’t seem to be too bright, but he was always happy. You could hear him yelling whenever he accidentally left his fridge open and his food had spoiled. Evidently he did that a lot. He made jokes about being too nervous to talk to girls and said he had never dated. He had a shelf of very old R-rated girlie magazines with Marilyn Monroe look-alikes that he had retrieved from dumpsters. He said he once saw a girl in an elevator that was so pretty he started laughing and couldn’t stop. He came home still smiling about the memory. He was in the city of angels with millions of women and he could never talk to one, not even the one forever waiting for someone to arrive for dinner.

This was my introduction to Los Angeles. I spent my first two years in the heart of Hollywood just off Vine Street. I lived in an old apartment building that had once been an elegant home for numerous stars. Now it housed strange people of all types. The bottom floor held large studio apartments with windows covered by aluminum foil. People said old silent movie stars still lived there. One day a door was left open and workers were carrying furniture out. They told me an old woman from the 1920s had died. I could see stairs lined with Christmas lights still blinking. It was summer.

At the time I worked in a store earning subsistence wages. I travelled by bus or walked everywhere. During this time, I saw a large collection of lost people throughout the city. Some were homeless while others were one paycheck away from the streets. Many had dreams of fame and fortune in movies and TV, but they were as close to fruition as a runaway dreaming of being a heart surgeon. They might as well have fantasized about living on Mars.

One woman used to sit at a bus stop with her makeup kit as if preparing for an audition. Periodically she would run after a bus, whispering cuss words at it, like a lover that had jilted her and then go back to her bench and put on more make up. She would continue late at night, administering lipstick and eye liner by the light from ads for makeup and perfume. She was trying to look beautiful in front of the face of a famous actress or model promoting those same products; the model worth millions next to the homeless woman with just her belongings in her purse.

Some of the street people were familiar faces that I spotted in local weekly papers sometimes. One wore a military uniform with toy missiles and jet planes on his shoulders and called himself General Hershey Bar. I would see him on the bus. There was the strange homeless woman who wore big wigs while talking to herself and arguing with tourists. There was a white-haired man in a red business suit who stood at a bus stop telling me about “Old 91 – it always arrives in time.” He had been taking that bus since the 1940s. Another man on the corner of Sunset and Vine played trumpet with a little white cup next to him for change. It was always empty.  Another woman would scrub the streets and steps in front of an old mission. She would be there daily on her knees scrubbing like she had to undergo some kind of penance to stay out of hell.

I saw a lot of them in Hollywood: on the buses, in alleys, walking the streets at odd hours. I watched a young teen running behind her mother in a supermarket. She was excited to be out, yet terrified of everything. She kept running to stay exactly behind her mother while looking at everything. It was like she had never been out of the house before. I felt terribly sad as I watched them scurry through the aisles. Was this some modern Emily Dickinson, quietly writing poetry about what she saw out her window? Was she meant to die silently unknown until someone discovered her writing a century later? I felt better assuming that.

The real juxtaposition of this was watching a person completely out of touch with society, wandering past a group of young people happily bouncing into a restaurant for dinner. I used to wonder if those street people had been like that when they were in their teens. Could I have spotted them in middle school or grade school? Had they stood out or just battled inner demons quietly while going with the crowd until they were out on their own? Somehow they ended up in Hollywood where the warm weather and exotic streets kept them going.

I used to sit with them on the bench while I waited for the bus to arrive.  One night I went to an old revival theater and caught a showing of an old movie called “The Snake Pit” about a woman put in a sanitarium against her will as she observes all the craziness around her. I sat there in shock thinking, that’s me! Did I belong there? Would I end up like them?  No, I thought. I read and write and have a job so it can’t be me. Then I ran into a street guy who saw me reading and said he once had a huge library of books in his old apartment and used to read all the time and rattled off some classic literature and philosophy books that I should read. Then the store he worked at closed and he never found work and ended up on the street. Oh my God, I thought, I could be him.

I always wondered how their lives ended. I saw one man, who dressed like an Eskimo in a West Hollywood grocery store parking lot, unshaven and homeless. He was smiling and kept closing his eyes as he waved his hands in giant circles like he could see something large going past him that no one else could see. He looked a little like a conductor leading a symphony.  One morning the coroner car was driving away with him. Years later, I saw a documentary on Caribou running wild in Alaska, and an Eskimo was standing in the middle of them waving his arms in the same way. It hit me:  he was directing a caribou run. Did he finally get the mother-load of all caribou runs racing past him by the thousands as he directed them past like he was conducting Beethoven’s Ninth with the final movement being his pièce de résistance and his coup de grace at the same time?  Did one final caribou walk up to him and bump him as he collapsed in that empty parking lot in the middle of the night? Was he now in some giant field of flowers directing endless herds of migrating caribou.

These people show up in classic literature as warnings. Think the mad man telling Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March. In ancient times there was always someone in the group considered the fortune teller or interpreter of dreams warning people about a coming war or famine. In essence that was Joseph from the book of Genesis. Thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his brothers for his strange dreams and eventually becoming the second most powerful man in all of Egypt as advisor to the Pharaoh. Tribes all over the world had these visionaries and prophets. They railed against society and became books in the Old Testament. Today our Amos, Isaiah and Ezekial would be living in sanitariums with regular doses of Prozac, Thorazine, and Penathol to quiet their dreams. Potential prophets snuffed out like a bonfire doused by a fire hose. Those escaping confinement eke out a living in small run down tenements or sleep on the sidewalk yelling at people.

A friend of mine was walking the streets of Hollywood one day wondering whether he should continue writing when a homeless man walked past him and mumbled, “Don’t give up the writing.” It floored him. He had said nothing aloud and yet here was this guy passing him giving him a message. Wisdom dispensed like a stray streak of lightning from a person on the street wandering past.

And what about those who do succeed?  There is a long list of creative people who battled madness while maintaining their ability to produce work before succumbing to their own alternative universe and imploding. Peter Green helped found Fleetwood Mac, ushered in the blues to Great Britain and was praised by the legendary B.B. King. He was ranked as one of the greatest guitarists of all time until schizophrenia interrupted his career. He survived, but one of the creators of Pink Floyd did not. Roger Barrett experimental work on guitar influenced many musicians but mental illness forced him from the group. He ended his days riding a bicycle around his old hometown.

Poets Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton wrote and published numerous poems, but both ended in suicide. Edgar Allen Poe battled mental illness for years as did Van Gogh and Hemingway. Was their mental illness the fuel for their creativity or just a major side effect from it? Was their illness the light or the light bulb? In a sense, the things their mental illness may have caused could be the same things that caused their creativity.

That feeling of forever feeling like an outsider and being alone even in a crowd of people. The desire to take risks even when others point out that the risk is far worse than the rewards. They go through with it anyway and suffer the consequences. Their willingness to question everything they come across on a daily basis. Those risks even if they succeed can make them at first look very foolish. Johnny Depp decided to interpret being a pirate onscreen very differently than other actors had portrayed pirates. The first screenings of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie had audiences including myself scratching their head wondering if he had lost his sanity. By the end of the movie he had redefined what a pirate was and turned a simple Disneyland ride into a huge movie franchise.

He hit the jackpot with his willingness to buck the trend and it paid off tremendously. Perhaps any mental illness no matter how imperceptible plays a part in creativity. What about those on the street I saw? Did they have that creativity within them as well? Did they do routines and write or act in their own little dramas, but instead of box office hits and numerous awards, they were hounded into a corner. Jokes that caused waves of laughter by others resulted only in ostracizing and shame for them. They never got to be the soothsayer in the tribe warning of danger, instead being the court jester fleeing fruit being thrown at him. They warn about the ides of March and no one listens. The rest of us are miners who do not notice the canaries dropping in cages.

Like W.B. Yeats classic poem from almost one hundred years ago, we do not hear as the center falls apart. The falcon cannot hear the falconer while the rest of us slouch on towards Bethlehem, oblivious to the offshore tempest moving inland. Perhaps they are the ones who first sense the air leaving the mine and the smoke rising in the distance. May we live in interesting times.


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