friends and food during the apocalypse: life in los angeles in the 1990s

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

i lived in los angeles for decades and saw the highs and lows, especially during all the disasters of the 1990s: fires, earthquakes and riots while working in hollywood. from the perspective of years gone by and living far away from california now.

Friends and Food during the Apocalypse:

Life in Los Angeles in the 1990s by Chris Chabot


I stood on the roof of a building looking out over Los Angeles. What was normally a lovely view of the city now looked like a scene from a Martian invasion movie. Smoke billowed up from across the land filling the air and creating a darkening cloud that enveloped the skies. My boss stood next to me trying to count the fires. He lost count at over 100. The news claimed there were over 400. I was on top of this building looking at Los Angeles on fire for the third time.

For three decades I lived in the Land of Oz. During the day, I worked at one of the most prestigious organizations in Hollywood. I had a lot of friends and got to attend parties and events. I could see some of the most famous and beautiful faces right in front of me. I would see a scene on television and realize it was right down the street. Yet three times I stood on that roof watching the city burn: one from an earthquake, one from wildfires and one from riots. By the third time, it had become so blasé we were just pointing out what parts of the city had smoke rising. Oh, look there goes the Wilshire District. There goes West L.A. It was like watching the sequels to Nightmare on Elm Street: there are still scares, but you know when they are coming and when to put down your popcorn. I would arrive at work to find everyone glued to a television watching scenes that looked as if from a movie.

That was because walking through Los Angeles (I did a lot of walking in L.A.) you would stumble upon movies or TV shows being filmed. I would be strolling along and suddenly see some cars swerve and one nearly roll over and then hear a walkie-talkie somewhere blare out “Cut! Set it up again!”  I was once going to a news stand to pick up some magazines when I recognized some actors sitting in a restaurant talking. I realized they were both from the same TV show when a guard stopped me and said to wait until they were done shooting. That happened regularly.

Even when you saw disasters up close with dozens of choppers overhead and flames roaring, your mind said it was just a movie because you had seen it filmed like that before. There was a car lot I passed on the way to work every day that held futuristic cars from various apocalyptic movies. I half expected to see them racing by with soldiers on top shooting at giant insects after each disaster.

One night in 1988, a friend and I were watching TV when breaking news said a 62-story building in downtown Los Angeles was on fire. It was the First Interstate Building. We watched the flames bursting out of the building and choppers flying overhead and my friend said “I know where that is! Let’s go down and see it live!”  He drove and we headed to downtown Los Angeles. We were driving through downtown trying to find the place, when we turned a corner and there was the building. There was a huge empty fenced-in parking lot in front of us so we had a clear view of the entire thing. The upper half was in flames and we could see the helicopters surrounding it just like we had seen an hour earlier on TV. Only one thought occurred to us both: it looked completely faked. It honestly felt like a movie was being filmed.

In the 1990s, I got used to the news taking over regular programming. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Floods, fires, riots and a white Ford Bronco racing down the street became national events that riveted the nation while I stood in the middle of it. Each time I could look at my TV and see it, or look out my window and see it. When actor River Phoenix died I watched people lighting candles on a sidewalk and suddenly realized it was right up my street and ran out to look at it. While sitting in a movie about a volcano threatening Los Angeles, I watched as a giant mall was threatened as a large building next to it collapsed. I suddenly realized I was in that mall and walked out afterwards to look around. Everything became surreal. What was real and what was false seemed interchangeable.

Physically, Los Angeles could be a beautiful city with incredible weather. In February, when the rest of the country was buried under snow, I was walking the beach, enjoying warm balmy temperatures. You could stand on the beach enjoying the warmth while looking up at snow capped mountains in the distance. I imagine skiers up on the mountain could look down at the surfers. A coworker once told me he spent Saturday morning surfing and then went skiing in the afternoon.

Even the skies could surprise you. I was walking one night and heard a strange buzzing sound. I looked up and there was the Goodyear Blimp. Its lights were lit up and moving and I realized it was showing reindeer leading Santa’s sled. Another night I was awakened by a half dozen choppers buzzing my building very loudly. They did it half a dozen times. The next morning the paper said Hollywood had been awakened in the middle of the night by choppers all over because they were filming a movie called “Blue Thunder”. I ended up watching the movie to look for my building. Looking up you might see experimental aircraft flying overhead or a B-1 bomber or hear the sonic boom from the space shuttle as it landed at Edwards Air Force Base nearby.

The stories I tell people are impressive from a thousand miles and decades away, but they were incredibly unimpressive in Los Angeles. They were simply the accumulation of 10,000 days of living and working in Hollywood. At the time, I didn’t feel like I was living a dream. I was too busy trying to pursue it in the entertainment industry. I didn’t realize it was any kind of dream until I left and moved far away and told people I had once lived there. They looked at me like I said I had once played with unicorns on Mars.

I was substitute teaching at a rural school in Pennsylvania. The class was chatting away ignoring the sub like they usually do when one asked what I did before I had subbed. I paused and said I spent a few decades working in Hollywood. All talking stopped. Every head turned to me and finally one said “What?”  I repeated it and another asked for some stories as all desks and heads shifted towards me. After a few stories one said “What are you doing here? And how did you get to Hollywood?”  I said a tornado picked up my house and dropped it there.

I arrived in Hollywood not unlike Dorothy arriving in Oz with wide-eyed amazement and naivety completely believing in all the magic. Like the Oz movie, there is a black and white version of my life and a color version of my life:  one before I landed in Hollywood and one after.

I grew up in a small town far away from city lights. It had a thousand people in it and one store. We had a small black and white television that managed to pull in two snowy stations from four hours away. The theater was an hour away in a “big city” (population 7,000). I would drive with friends to the movie theater, never really caring what was playing, just excited to be going.

Walking into the darkened theater was like entering some magic castle holding forbidden secrets, especially if the movie was rated PG or R. I remember going to my first PG movie, worrying that it might give me a heart attack. Older kids warned me that had happened to others too young to attend and I believed them. I sat nervously waiting for the curtain to open to show movie trailers that were coming to my area.

“Star Wars” opened in cities in May and got to my theater in September. “Jaws” arrived the same way. By that time a few kids had gone to Milwaukee (eleven hours’ drive) and returned to give a beat by beat narrative of the movie so that I knew most of it by the time I drove to the theater. Because movies stayed for weeks, I would end up seeing the same movie repeatedly:  “Jaws” eight times and “Star Wars” nine. That’s what happens when a movie plays for twelve weeks in a row. When you see a movie eight times you begin to catch on to things like story structure and character development and foreshadowing. I was excited by the thought of Hollywood and wanted to go there. Like Dorothy, I only saw the giant fire claiming to be Oz and not the little man behind the curtain pulling the levers.

There was also the weather. Weather-wise, Upper Michigan had very little in common with Southern California. We had more in common with the North Pole. On New Year’s Day, when we were buried under ten feet of snow with twenty below zero temps, my best friend called me and said “Did you see the weather at the Rose Bowl?  People were wearing short sleeve shirts and sunglasses! We have to go there someday! We have to live there!”  I would have loved to, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. If I did I would have to arrive like Dorothy did.

One day my tornado arrived. I was sitting in my dorm room in college a mere 90 miles from my hometown, when a guy on my floor asked me to accompany him to tryouts for a play. I walked down with him and the director handed me a script and asked me to read for her. I read a page and she asked me to read more. The next day I got a call to come to her office. I walked down and she said she was nervous about the play. I asked why and she said because she was about to take a risk on an unknown as the lead. Incredulous, I asked who. She pointed at me. My stomach was in knots opening night as the curtain opened, but two hours later when the curtain closed and the audience stood to give us all a standing ovation, I was hooked. I loved this feeling. People who had never talked to me were stopping to talk. I was going to go to Hollywood.

Two years later, I was holding a duffle bag and suitcase, waiting for a small plane to land at a rural airport. The door opened, I got in and it flew through clouds until it landed in Minneapolis. I got on another plane and it went into the same clouds and then above until there was only sunlight. When the plane door opened, I was in Los Angeles. Within hours, I was standing in Hollywood looking at what I thought was a yellow brick road.

I could see the Hollywood sign up on the hill. I could see fancy cars. I could see buildings over three stories. And palm trees! I had seen palm trees in National Geographic and now here I was looking at row upon row of them. They were all over the place. The terrain was so different from the Midwest. When I looked under bridges, I saw no rivers, just more roads. And cars! I had never seen that many cars. I had never seen that many people. In my hometown, I knew everyone I would see that day. Everywhere I walked, I saw the same streets, houses and faces I had known since I was a toddler. Now everyplace I went was new and everyone I saw was a stranger. There was not a familiar face or place anywhere.

I got a job in a small store where a lot of celebrities visited. On my first day behind the counter, actors Roddy McDowell, Robert Reed (from the Brady Bunch) and Kathy Garver (Sissy from Family Affair) walked in. Roddy McDowell had been in the first movie I had ever seen:  “That Darn Cat” and was one of the apes in the Planet of the Apes movies. I had grown up on the Brady Bunch and Family Affair TV series. As I was writing up their receipts, my hand was shaking. I had never met anyone famous.

Even going into a place where someone famous had just been, caused a rush. During my first week in Hollywood I was taken to breakfast at a place where there was some kind of excitement. I could feel the buzz as I walked in. It turned out Robert DeNiro had been spotted a half hour earlier eating. Later that morning I walked into a bookstore with a friend and there was that same buzz. The manager said Woody Allen had been shopping in the bookstore and had left 20 minutes earlier. In both cases I had not seen them and yet I was excited and left feeling giddy.

Where I grew up, if someone ran into Bob Newhart’s cousin at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that was big news all summer long even if the cousin had only met him at a family gathering once thirty years earlier. We had a teacher who had seen the Beatles in Berlin when he was in the Army, another who was in a restaurant when he saw an old time actress Virginia Mayo nearby. Yet another was in an elevator in New York when Frank Sinatra got in. These stories echoed through our town. We used to joke in high school about what we would do if we saw someone famous. Now they were in front of me and I was waiting on them.

I moved into an old rundown building near the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine. The building had once been an important part of Hollywood. I was told a lot of famous actors had once lived there. Now it was run down and had winos wandering the lobby. The courtyard had large windows covered up by aluminum foil. It was rumored silent movie stars still lived there, never coming out. The front of the building housed two adult bookstores with big neon signs at night that lit up and said “Adult”.

I lived in a small room that had once been a storage room. It came with a lamp that had a 20 watt yellow bulb so that if you went to the other side of the room you were just a shadow. At night I shared my place with an army of roaches and mice, gleefully munching on anything I had left out. Helicopters would buzz overhead, sometimes shining a bright beam into an alley alongside my building and once, even lit up my room with the light. I could count a dozen choppers on any given night.

I met another struggling actor who had been a child actor in the 1950s. He had worked with Joan Crawford and a number of old time movie stars. He was now substitute teaching and wanted to get into personal management so we made an agreement. He would set aside substitute teaching and I would pay him $100 a month to manage me. He talked two other actors to do the same and so he lived on $300 a month while borrowing my bus pass. Within a week he had gotten a photographer to take headshots of me and landed me commercial, theatrical and literary agents.

I was going out on auditions two to three times a week for commercials and small TV parts. I went the route of starving actor for two years until I decided to concentrate on writing. I needed to find a job that allowed me to eat three meals a day instead of running out of food by Wednesday. Thursday and Friday, I would live on coffee and sugar cubes until payday. One night my personal manager came over to my tiny apartment saying he was starving because his other two clients were too broke to pay him. I opened my fridge and said “All I have is a bottle of salad dressing.” 

“You have salad dressing?” he asked excitedly. I grabbed two spoons and our dinner that night was spoonfuls of thick red salad dressing. Five years later I got to tell that story to one of the biggest actors in Hollywood. I was invited by a friend to a Trivial Pursuit party and at first I begged off, but he kept asking so I agreed to go. He gave me an address so I drove there. I knocked on the door and it opened with no one around so I yelled that I was here for the party and had brought soft drinks. I heard a voice yell to find the fridge and put the drinks there. I made my way through the halls to the kitchen. I opened the fridge, put the drinks in and closed the door to find the star of a current movie standing before me. He had just starred in a love story about a mermaid. This was years before his numerous Oscars for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia. I was too shocked to say anything. When someone that famous is standing before you and you don’t expect it, it is like a physical slap in the face. You are temporarily speechless.

“There’s someone in my house I don’t know,” he said. I told him I was here for the Trivial Pursuit party. He said his wife had a picked a friend as a partner for the game so he and I would be Trivial Pursuit partners. I said okay. We played and then afterwards he turned to me and said “let’s go get dessert for everyone.”  So he and my friend who had invited me and I went to the supermarket at night to get dessert. He was talking all about his next movie and I didn’t hear a word he said. Part of it was watching people freak out in the supermarket over seeing a star and part of it was a loop in your brain that just plays over and over saying “I am shopping with a star. A star and I are shopping. The star just grabbed some pastries. The star is next to me pushing a shopping cart looking for dessert.”  The loop in your brain drowns out anything else being said. I did get to tell him my salad dressing dinner story and he laughed so hard he was holding his stomach. I thought, he may never remember me, but he’ll remember that story.

I finally landed a job in the belly of Hollywood working in the computer room, which in the 1980s meant running large reel to reel tapes late into the night to back up each day’s work. It also meant having more money and living near all the famous restaurants that celebrities ate at and going to award shows once a year. When the Writers Guild went on strike, I went to work walking through news crews, sat near celebrities who had come in to help and then went home and saw myself on the news walking into the building. I was basically an extra in scenes on TV, but I got a real kick out of it.

One morning I woke up and picked up the Los Angeles Times and found our executive director (my boss) had been fired. It was there in a big headline. It had happened at a late night meeting. I arrived at work to find the area near her office filed with large plastic bags. She came out and yelled at everyone to come into her office. We did and she opened a giant liquor cabinet of expensive booze and said she wanted the cabinet completely emptied by the end of work and started handing out bottles to everyone. We spent the day sitting on the floor against the wall drinking bottles of liquor. Quite a strange way to spend the day – officially sanctioned drinking at work.

At the time I had a naïve belief that my time was coming. That helped a lot during the early starving struggling days. No matter how broke or hungry, I was always sure I was just a year away from success. Just looking at the Hollywood sign each day helped. I was constantly writing scripts while practicing Oscar speeches. I was sure I would get there soon enough and wouldn’t be on the peripheral much longer. That optimism is enough to ward off bouts of hunger or fears of living under a freeway. Attending big parties or movie premieres kept that going.

It is a surreal experience to attend a movie premiere. You pull up and there is a massive crowd roped off that is watching. You show your ticket to security and they lift the rope to let you through. You walk up the red carpet past actors being interviewed and into the lobby where you are handed free popcorn, soda, candy and perhaps a gift bag filled with a t-shirt and hat promoting the movie, and maybe a gift certificate. At one I was even handed a flute of champagne. As I downed it, I remember thinking I didn’t care whether the movie was good or bad, this was a blast. Before the movie they would introduce cast members and some would be right near you as they stood up to receive applause. After the movie there was a post-party for some. Sometimes it was just wine and cheese and you would look around at all the celebrities.

For one invitation for a screening, there was a small envelope attached that said “private cast party tickets; show to security”. A security guard opened a side door. I went down some stairs, walked through a tunnel, walked back up some stairs and entered a room that looked like the starship Enterprise complete with waiters dressed as Vulcans, standing at attention with their hands behind their backs. I looked around the room and was amazed at the eclectic group of people:  big movie stars combined with TV stars from the 70s and a few character actors from various films. It was like a bizarre dream you have after eating way too much food before bedtime.

Attending an awards show was even more surreal because you saw celebrities by the boat load. The entire day of the awards show was exciting because starting in the afternoon you would see limousines driving by. Staff members who were going to the awards got off early to get dressed. The first time I tried on a tuxedo, it took three other staff members to show me how to put it on from the tie to the cuff links and vest. If it was the Oscars at least two people were attending from our office and we would wait in the lobby for the limousine to take them and then look for them on TV that evening. This was in the day when award shows were held on Monday evenings. I went to the Writers Guild Award shows and I brazenly assumed I would someday attend the Academy Awards.

At a Writers Guild awards show, I once walked into the bathroom and on one side of me was Alan Alda and as I looked away in shock, Warren Beatty was on the other side. Later someone asked me to help shoo a horde of photographers away from Harrison Ford so he could eat. At no time did I ever engage in conversation with any of these people. You just didn’t do that. You walked on by as if it was everyday business. Many of them came to the guild office and as you returned from lunch or walked to another department you might see one sitting there waiting for a meeting as I did many times. I would walk by and notice and calmly walk back to my office and let others know who was in the lobby in case they wanted to see. One day I walked into a darkened guild board room and flicked on a light. Sitting there in a chair all by herself was Mary Tyler Moore. I apologized, shut off the light and walked back out in shock. I told my boss and he said, “Oh, yeah. She’s here for a meeting.” 

On Oscar night we would leave work and go up into the Hollywood Hills where a staff member threw a big party with large screen TVs in several rooms, a large buffet dinner and ballots to fill out in which the top five winners would win a movie poster of one of the movies nominated. After the awards, we would walk out into his yard and look down at all the lights of Los Angeles. It looked like a birthday cake with a million candles. Our host would point out various houses belonging to famous people (“over there is Jackson Browne’s house and down there is Warren Beatty’s house near Jack Nicholson’s house.”). He may have been making it all up, but they were large mansions.

As we watched the search lights swing back and forth down in Hollywood he pointed out Spago’s and other famous restaurants where the post-Oscar parties were going on. We talked about what it would be like to walk the red carpet when it was our turn, wholly confident that it was only a few years away. That made going back to a tiny apartment and brushing my teeth in front of a small mirror with one naked light bulb hanging down bearable. I would look at ghastly wallpaper that was in style 40 years earlier when a young Marilyn Monroe was said to be living in the building.

There were always stories of the legends from long ago. My first week in Hollywood, I sat at a deli eating lunch when a very old lady started talking to me. She told me she had come to Hollywood in the 1920s to get into movies and quickly landed a role as an extra in Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush”. She told stories of the silent days and said some of the actresses still lived in Hollywood up in the top stories of old buildings.

Vine Street, where I lived, turned into a street called Rossmore and there were a few lovely old buildings where it was said golden era stars lived. Legend had it Joan Crawford had a place there once as did Bette Davis and that even Greta Garbo kept a place, though she stayed in New York and never visited, so it was told to me by old timers. One day I went to a party with a bunch of other struggling actors and one excited actress told me she lived in one of those buildings and it was always rumored Bette Davis was living there. That week the main elevator had broken and a doorman told her she could take another elevator she didn’t even know existed. The elevator stopped at another floor and an old lady got on wearing black sunglasses and a large yellow hat. As the elevator continued, the old lady looked the young actress up and down and finally bellowed “there’s someone in my elevator I don’t know!” in a very loud voice like Bette Davis. The young actress was speechless and just gasped, forgetting to get off her floor and stayed on the elevator as it continued on until the old lady got off on the top floor, saying nothing more after her outburst.

The Eighties had been heady and full of promise even though the decade passed without me landing a single acting part or selling a single script. I figured the Nineties would be the decade where all that learning and work paid off. Every day I did three things no matter how small to further my career, whether it was taking notes for a screenplay idea, writing down names from the trade papers of anyone that had been promoted at a studio, or getting someone to read a script of mine. I figured the Nineties would be more of what the Eighties had held. I was wrong. The 1990s was the craziest decade I ever lived in with incredible highs and horrendous lows.

On the high notes, I was going with a woman in the industry who worked for an independent film company that had won back to back Oscars for Best Picture and was now working for a huge entertainment law firm as a legal secretary. I was attempting to sell a script about a ship that had disappeared on Lake Superior. I was living up there when it went missing. I had researched it, written it and that had gotten me invited to the expedition of the ship and made national news. The hometown I was living in back then had made the front page of the Wall Street Journal for a buyout on the town’s copper mine that left a lot of people wealthy. I was soon pitching that around town as well. I also had two writing partners that were getting scripts of ours to various agents and companies.

I decided to take the project to the American Film Project. At work, a coworker in the PR department pulled me aside and asked if I had the right outfit to wear to the film market and to the photo shoot a friend was doing for a press kit. I said no. She said she would take me to the mall to pick something out and stressed that I should not shave for two days before the photo shoot. “Otherwise, you’ll look like Opie from the old Andy Griffith Show and an Opie wouldn’t write a shipwreck script.”  I agreed to meet her at the mall where she picked out a four hundred dollar black sports jacket and a nice pair of jeans. She picked out some colorful t-shirts and said wearing a nice colorful t-shirt under the sports jacket was professional, yet still creative enough to be a writer.

Opening day of the American Film Market and I was there, nervous as could be. The market took place in the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica. The hotel is eight indoor floors and you can stand in the middle of it and look up at most of the floors. The suites are converted to film offices during the week and movie posters hang on the walls of projects being financed or sold. Large banners promoting films are everywhere.

I walked every flight a dozen times saying hello and handing out my press kits. I stopped at the office of a woman from Canada who had recommended that I go. She gave me pointers and got me tickets to some of the parties held at night.

The place was filled with people from all over the world and I heard dozens of different languages. One night I went to a party and met an executive who had seen the press kit and was very excited about the script. We spent a good three hours talking about the script and the story. The next day I met him for lunch and we talked for several more hours. He read the script and wanted to produce it. I left with visions of the red carpet again, dining at a nice restaurant with the money people and jetting to Cannes to screen the movie. That vision carried me through sixteen more years at the film market.

One night I stood out on a balcony at the Beverly Hilton overlooking a part of Los Angeles at all the lights. I felt this was why I had come to Hollywood. I was finally living the dream. The powerful scent from Jasmine trees blooming also added to the intoxicating feeling. That smell had hit me my first month in Hollywood, when my then-personal manager and I went to a double feature at a revival theater and walked back amidst the fragrance from the trees as we talked about how we would deal with the inevitable fame and fortune headed our way. Success was like a golden ring I was about to grab and it was headed directly for me. That was the high note. That was as close as I got.

On the low note there were the disasters and oh were they disasters. In early March of 1992, a strange grainy videotape aired on the news showing four Los Angeles policemen standing over an African-American male beating him repeatedly with batons and kicking him. I remember seeing the footage and being shocked by it, but I had heard horror stories of run-ins with the LAPD for years from people of all color. There was a great fear of the Los Angeles police. The department had been forced to pay out large settlements to a number of people who had bad encounters with the LAPD.

Story after story started to air about these incidents and I figured, like everyone, the policemen would be convicted. By the time the verdict was coming in, all of LA came to a standstill. I was with a group of workers in the lunch room watching the verdicts. When the verdicts came down as not guilty we were in shock. The mayor of Los Angeles went on TV and said he was too stunned to say anything and the President himself was surprised.

Within minutes things started going bad. Small riots began breaking out and fires were spotted. As the riots and fires began to build and get closer to our office, people began to get nervous. I called my wife to ask her to get home and for the first time she had gone to lunch. Suddenly an executive came running into our office yelling “they’re smashing windows out front! Get everyone out of here!”  Then he turned to me and said “People are still at lunch. Stay here and guard the computers and wait for people to come back and tell them to go home.” 

A few of us stayed behind and waited. As people returned from lunch, we explained what had happened. An hour had passed and I still couldn’t get a hold of my wife. Finally she called and said the owners were from London and said they could care less about the riots and refused to let anyone go home. My boss and I climbed up on the roof and watched the mayhem unfold.

As I drove home, I noticed people yelling at each other, mouthing the words “Get out of the way! Go! Go!” over and over at each light or stop sign. My wife finally got home later and we watched the news. In the middle of the night I woke her up to tell her that her building was on fire and she shrugged and went back to sleep.

I had not realized until the riots how much the news stations had taken over our lives. During the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, I went out to a restaurant and everyone ate in silence as we watched scenes from the quake. Everywhere I went televisions were turned to the news. When I went into a store, it was playing scenes from the quake and when I went into work, almost every office had a small TV airing scenes from the quake and people wandered in and out of offices to see the scenes. I hadn’t yet heard the words “going viral” but these scenes were everywhere and playing over and over.

During the riots, we hunkered down in our apartment building and waited for the National Guard to arrive and so looting continued. Our building was an open court yard and it was filled with people as many had fled to our area for safety. At night, I heard people playing guitar to entertain others who were sick of watching the news which had gotten crazier.

By this time reporters were actually interviewing the looters! The looters were chatting away as if they were excited to be on TV and then would continue carrying their bag of goods to their car. Some of them called the reporters by the first name, having watched them for so long on television.

I went into work and stood on the roof again surveying the city. Guardsmen were standing with rifles at various intersections and it felt like I was in some Central American country.

Driving back, I noticed a “riot special” sign advertising breakfast for $2.99. I raced back and grabbed my roommate and cousin (who was living next door) and took them to breakfast. My cousin had come to Hollywood to be a writer as well and was excitedly talking about driving around looking at the riots and walking into a backyard only to find over a hundred people laying on the ground with their arms behind their backs with white plastic binding tied around their arms. I pointed out that he easily could have been mistaken for a looter and ended up lying on the ground as well and he said it was too exciting to pass up. My cousin would later backpack Europe with a college friend and end up writing a script with him about dragons that became the movie “Reign of Fire”.

Even though my scripts weren’t selling, there was too much going on and too many hopeful things all around to get too down about it. It was like being in a Vegas Casino with all sorts of bells going off signaling people were hitting jackpots. We had dinner with one friend who had sold his script in a bidding war. It was pitched as “Die Hard in a Hurricane”. He had an agent that was always sending him flowers or cases of wine or batches of cigars. We would stop by and there was something new on a coffee table and he would say “My agent sent that”. I kept wondering how to find an agent like that.

I had written another script inspired by when I was a tour guide for an abandoned two mile deep copper mine. I was trying to get it to two big actresses:  Jodie Foster or Holly Hunter as a small town sheriff. I was always writing scripts with strong female leads. This was something Hollywood was not looking for. I spent months trying to find a connection to either one without success.

Finally one day, I stopped at a pet store to get some kitty litter for my cat. I was in line and a woman ahead of me had purchased a large dog cage and from the sounds of it she had just gotten a large dog. I saw people gaping at her so I waited until she turned around to get a look. It was only after she purchased the cage and was walking out the door that I realized who it was:  Jodie Foster. The bag boy was carrying her cage and dog food to her car and telling her how much he enjoyed her movies.

I watched and said nothing. I had followed the decorum I had been taught in Hollywood:  if you see a celebrity while out and about, say nothing and do not react. I drove back to work and told some people and they shook their heads and said if you see someone like that you leap in and make your pitch. I assumed she was probably tired of people doing that. They said who cares, this was your chance and you blew it. That night, I got home and a friend in the building who was a caterer said “I was working for a party this evening and all evening I was talking to this actress and I kept thinking was how perfect she would be as the sheriff for your movie.”  I asked who and he said “Holly Hunter. What a nice person. We talked for quite a while. I didn’t know if you thought of her for the part.”  I smiled and sighed. The two actresses I had hoped to land in one night become close calls. Darn.

I had a lot of sightings like that. Walking out of a restaurant and I turned to watch Kirk Douglass getting out of a car. I saw two cars pulled over that had bumped each other and were exchanging information and one of the drivers was Charlton Heston who gave a big thumbs up to people who honked at him. Kareem Abdul Jabbar pulled up in a car and his seat was so far back that he was driving from the back seat. Waiting for my wife at a restroom and realizing I was standing next to astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Waiting on Playmate of the year Dorothy Stratton at a store and then having her remember me at a bank and ask if she could borrow a quarter to make a call while a nervous man with a mustache kept telling her they had to go. A few weeks later she was on the front of the Los Angeles Times having been killed by her husband whom I recognized as the person who had been telling her it was time to go.

During the 90s, we were well-paid and enjoyed some great restaurants. There was every kind of restaurant around so we would eat at an Indian restaurant one night and then Japanese the next. One night we were driving down Melrose Blvd which was lined with restaurants wondering which one to eat at. Suddenly the street was filled with people eating food off of plates and holding glasses of wine. They were blocking traffic and walking around and stranger still, waiters were following them and filling their glasses of wine and taking their plates. It was like something out of a zombie movie if it was produced by the Food Network. Then the cause was spotted. An art gallery next to a restaurant was on fire with flames leaping ten feet into the air and it was threatening the restaurant so patrons had fled into the streets with waiters following.

I went for a walk on my lunch only to find hundreds upon hundreds of paparazzi lining the streets with cameras and super long lenses. They were all looking at a very upscale restaurant across the street. I asked who was there and one said in a foreign accent, “Lady Di”. She must have given them the slip because suddenly the entire group ran for their cars and motorbikes on cue and took off. I never saw her leave the place.

We went out with so many friends from various parts of the world. We ate with friends from London, Yugoslavia, Australia and India and they regularly traveled the world. The producer trying to make my shipwreck script would call me from each film market. He would call from Milan, Berlin, London, Toronto, Singapore and tell me I should be there. When in town, they would all show up with a bottle of wine and we would solve the problems of the world. One worked for the Rand Corporation, while another was a reporter for a London newspaper and yet another had a PhD in International Relations. It felt like some kind of Knights of the Round Table for an evening (until the wine wore off).

I would regularly get a stack of London newspapers and when they arrived, I would call a couple of London friends and we would have what we called Brit Night. The wine, newspapers and British accents flying all around gave it this heady, intellectual feel as we read interesting articles from the paper aloud and discussed them.

Even smaller places to eat near my office were fun. There was a little hotdog stand down the block called "Tail of the Pup". The stand was shaped like a hotdog and had been featured in dozens of movies. The owner of the hotdog stand remembered his customers and made a point of yelling out orders so each customer knew it was his. For mine he would yell the name of a player on my favorite football team.

At night a group of us would head to a dessert shop that had only six small tables with a large glass display where you would point at what dessert you wanted. You never knew who you would see coming in to grab something while you were sitting there eating.

A year later, I was back on the roof of the Writers Guild building as the Malibu fires raged and the fires seemed everywhere. Every television channel stopped regular coverage and followed the fires which seem to leap from area to area. From the rooftop it looked again like it had during the riots, with smoke everywhere.

One night the news was covering the fires which were spreading everywhere to the point they had to split the television screen into four squares. It began getting dark and flames started roaring down the hill toward a major highway with an endless line of cars trapped there. Drivers started to panic and ran over fire hoses in an attempt to turn around causing the hoses to break and spray water everywhere. The announcer stated that this was a situation that was quickly getting worse. People started to get out of their cars and run around figuring out what to do as the flames got closer. They cut to a Coast Guard vessel coming towards the beach trying to rescue anyone.

We were watching in our office at work and people at work started getting nervous even though we were all safe inside a building in West Hollywood, far away from the actual fires. My sister called nervously asking how vulnerable Brentwood was - I told her it wasn't like Malibu where you are dealing with houses in woods surrounded by extremely dry kindling. My roommate, my wife and I spent the evening watching each news show since each channel had choppers in different places.

You would cut to channel two and see a house on fire near the beach. Channel four would show a car on fire on Pacific Coast Highway. Channel five would be showing an aerial shot over a new fire that had just popped up. Channel seven would show a fire moving into the valley. Channel nine would show a group of firemen trapped up in the hills and running for their truck. Channels eleven and thirteen would show Pepperdine University preparing to fight the flames coming toward them. CNN would show some of each. At one point, they showed a huge house in the hills surrounded by 80 foot flames and trees going up like flash paper and the camera from a chopper zoomed in and you could see people in the yard running around figuring out what to do and the nearest fire trucks were three streets down the hill.

The cumulative effect of this hour after hour was physical as well as mental. By day, every office I walked past had a TV on. Every apartment I walked by, had one on and when you looked up in the sky, huge black clouds billowed above you. The dark kind, like the ones the wicked witch of the West made, when she was warning people to turn in Dorothy. No one was talking, just watching. At one point I looked and saw our building on television. I ran outside, looked up and there was a chopper directly overhead. My eyes burned and for a minute, I thought it was snowing. It was ash falling around me.

If there was something bigger, it was an earthquake. I had felt some fairly good-sized ones there. When I first arrived in Los Angeles someone told me how to tell one is coming. First one small item in your place starts making noise and then you hear a rumble and you think there is a train coming and then you realize it is a quake.

Sure enough, in 1981 I was in my old tenement on Vine Street. A small can opener on my fridge started to rattle. I watched it for a few seconds and then heard an approaching rumble. I thought, “There are no trains near here.”  The floor and walls began to shake as I looked up at the ceiling. It shook for a good ten seconds before settling down. I turned on the radio to hear the news about it and then called my parents to tell them about my first earthquake. It was like a first kiss. It was a rite of passage in Los Angeles.

In 1986, there was the Whittier quake which shook my apartment left and right for quite some time. I quickly ran and turned on the television to watch the damage reports. Every few years there was another shaker which turned out to be some after-shock or pre-shock to something. Afterwards, I would turn on the radio and hear people calling in to describe what they felt and where they were. That way you could figure out the epicenter and how far it spread. I wasn’t to feel a real monster quake until 1994.

It hit at 4:30 in the morning. This one started with a jolt and the room started shaking immediately. It was a violent up and down motion, not sideways like I was used to. At first I thought it was going to be a normal shaker and slow down after a few seconds. When books from my wall on the other side started hitting me, I knew this was bad. My cat, which had been sleeping at the foot of the bed, looked up at the ceiling and then at me and then disappeared in a flash, fleeing for the safety of my roommates room, where his two cats were. I grabbed my wife and raced us both to a doorway. She was still asleep and she awoke standing in the doorway wondering how she got there.

I held onto the doorway as it kept getting louder and louder. Soon the noise took over my entire body. I heard cracking noises and thought it was the building falling apart. We were in a two-story open courtyard with no underground parking beneath me. I had researched quakes for the Writers Guild and found out that was the safest kind of building to be in, but I was sure a few walls had fallen in somewhere.

It probably lasted only 20 seconds, but it seemed like five minutes. In the darkness, I heard my roommate from his room, “I think we just had an earthquake.”  We rummaged for flashlights as our apartment manager and two assistant managers raced around the building checking on everyone. I looked around our place and saw books everywhere, but amazingly, everything we had that was breakable had not fallen. We found vases and glasses on the edge of cupboards and dressers. A neighbor said he awoke, seeing the transformers explode and thought Los Angeles was being bombed.

I was going to call my sister, who had survived the Malibu fires, but the phone went out just as I touched it. I walked outside and looked around. The cement floor all around me was completely wet. The quake had knocked a lot of water from the pool out onto the walkways. The next thing I noticed was that the sky was filled with stars. In Southern California, you were lucky if you spotted a dozen stars because of the city lights. That night, there were as many visible as in a rural town. Los Angeles had its first blackout since World War II.

I turned on my battery radio and listened to KNX, the news station. A very nervous voice said he was awaiting word from Cal. Tech to see how big it was. Because of the enormity of the quake, I figured it was the big one. I assumed that the San Andreas Fault had finally blown out. I couldn't believe it when Cal. Tech weighed in, saying it was only a 6.7. One reporter summed it up by saying he had never prayed for a sunrise before.

About 20 minutes after the quake, the phones were on and I got hold of my sister. She was quite frightened and said she couldn't find her cat and had no flashlight. I calmed her down and assured her that her cat was under her bed like mine. She asked if there were going to be anymore earthquakes and I said probably, but she would survive them like she had the others and that we were both on pretty solid ground and lived in good two story buildings. She then asked if she could come over and I said no, it was not a good idea to try and drive anywhere after a quake with power out everywhere. We had a good friend that lived in the next building to her and we told her to go over there. She would feel better. Later, my roommate decided to try and get over there as well.

Our three cats finally came out into the hallway, but it was like a planned escape. All three zipped into my room. They pawed frantically at my closet until it opened a few inches and they raced in and burrowed themselves in folded sweaters for safety. I could see their tails sticking out of each layer.

Meanwhile, my cousin called. He described the scenes to us he was watching on the news and said he felt like he was missing the ultimate disaster. He had lived here for the fires and riots and now he wasn’t there for the ultimate catastrophe test. He was bummed. By evening they had started a dusk to dawn curfew so we raced up our street to an old friend for a hot shower and to help put her fish tank (which had survived) on the floor.

We had hundreds of aftershocks and by evening it had gotten so blasé that when two major aftershocks nearing 5.5 hit we didn't even stop talking and even the cats just kind of looked up at the ceiling.

The next day I walked into work and found large filing cabinets crushed against desks all over the building. It looked like the cabinets had come alive, attacked the center of the room and died there. Our computer room had a large crack in the middle of the floor. As we checked out the building and made sure all the computers were okay, we kept all the TV's on to watch the latest.

The following week we had aftershocks every day. At times we were shaking almost hourly. All the TV stations stayed with the story and every time we had an aftershock, the screen would cut to a seismograph at Cal Tech and you would watch the needle jerk back and forth. Quite a few times the screen would cut to it and we wouldn't feel it for another 5 seconds. Each time the needle started moving, I would yell to others that another aftershock was coming and the word would be quickly passed along.

Some of the larger aftershocks were quite a ride in itself - the roof moved back and forth and you would feel a whole bunch of heavy thuds like a crane had dropped a huge semi in the parking lot. Even the cats kept track of all movements.

Slowly, the aftershocks faded and seemed to be leaving for good until Friday hit. I was writing a letter to my parents when I heard a number of car alarms go off followed by our building shaking. I quickly turned on the TV and they showed the seismograph needle jumping like crazy. I thought it was a rerun of the aftershock that had just hit until our building shook again, more violently than the previous quake. My boss and co-worker stopped working and ran outside to see what was happening outside. Car alarms began going off all over the neighborhood. The news showed the San Gabriel Mountains with dust rising from them. It looked like a bomb had gone off in the mountains.

Over the next 15 minutes there were five major aftershocks, each one bigger than the last. My wife was on the 32nd floor of what was called the “Die Hard building” in Century City and she said the building was shaking back and forth so violently that it made her ill. To make things worse a coworker was screaming nonstop each time it shook and others were trying to calm her down. My sister, who hated working in a high-rise, was calling from her downtown building, telling me, “I don’t like this. I really don’t like this.” 

Even the news casters were getting more concerned. I was going next door to get my haircut and imagined all these large nicks in my head as quake after quake went off while my hair stylist worked on my hair. I’d be showing them off, saying, "This one is a 4.6, this one is a 4.2, and this big one over here is a 5.1."

An earthquake is one of the few disasters where everyone in the area feels it, full force. Everyone has a story and tells everyone else. For weeks afterwards, when I was in a restaurant or out in a public place, all I heard were people saying, “So then my room began to shake…” and continue their story. A coworker was camping in Arizona and missed the entire quake. At first she was relieved, but as the weeks passed, she said she felt like a giant party had occurred while she was gone and she began to regret that she didn’t have an earthquake story to share. Disasters in Southern California are a participatory experience.

Six months later came the strangest incident involving a nationally televised car chase. My sister was the first to call me early in the morning. She was out jogging in her Brentwood neighborhood, when she spotted police cars and police tape all around a building. As she jogged closer, she saw two bodies covered with tarp and realized two murders had occurred. She said it would probably make the news and was quite nervous that the killer could be nearby. As the days went on and OJ Simpson became a suspect, more and more people began to follow the story. Suddenly, OJ was fleeing in a white Ford Bronco and all TV stations cut to the chase. People began calling me to ask if what they were seeing was real.

As OJ’s truck turned up a road and headed towards Brentwood, I realized, he was going to go near my sister’s place and I called her. We were both laughing and gasping in shock as they named street after street he was taking and getting closer. Our Dad called to tell my sister to get under the bed. I laughed and said OJ wasn’t firing shots left and right out of a car, he had a gun pointed at himself.

It was truly a surreal moment as all stations cut away from various shows and sporting events to follow OJ’s car over several hours, complete with cheering crowds, hundreds of cop cars and skies filled with choppers. The day summed up life in Los Angeles during the 1990s, horrible events morphed into a giant circus complete with clowns, ladies on trapezes and side show freaks.

During the disasters, when my sister was scared I would call her and tell her we were as alive as one could ever be. We were on full alert and completely aware of our existence. Our everyday problems had completely disappeared and been replaced by a large problem everyone was dealing with so we were all in the same boat. I told her everyone she ever grew up with knew she was living in Los Angeles and was thinking about her that day as they watched their television.

It was a rather heady feeling to know that things in your area were so exciting, that the rest of the world was talking about it. A co-worker from the Guild was in France at the time of the riots and saw people holding newspapers that showed pictures of Los Angeles burning. When they found out he was from Los Angeles, they gathered around him and peppered him with questions in English. He said that was all people were talking about in Paris during the week he was there.

To cheer a friend up, my old roommate once told someone, “Of all the places in the world to live, you live in America. Of all the places to live in America, you live in California. Of all the places to live in California, you live in Los Angeles. In the 90s, it was the Mecca of all that was surreal, bizarre, exciting, scary and invigorating. One minute you could be talking to a very famous actor you had just seen in the theater that day and the next running from a building with him as the place shook and windows shattered. You could be standing in front of a famous painting in one of the area’s museums about Rome burning and later sitting on a hillside watching Los Angeles burn.

A friend’s wife once asked me what living in Hollywood was like. I said “Take a giant bowl, toss in the Eagles album “Hotel California”, David Hockney’s paintings, Joan Didion’s books and Andy Warhol’s pop art and stir while under heat.”  She laughed and said “Okay, so it’s exotic, bizarre, exciting, wonderful and freakishly expensive.” 

I lived there thirty years. I went from the peace and quiet of a small town to this massive crazy, wonderful, exciting, exhilarating, depressing city only to return to the small town again. Like Dorothy who awakens from the dream saying there is no place like home, I am betting for the rest of her life she was delighted she had left Oz, but still having dreams of Oz. It was a place where life was certainly in color and wizards, witches and flying monkeys could be seen everywhere. I have no desire to live there again, but I often recall the excitement and adventure it brought. It left me with an endless list of stories to tell. Slowly the color of my life turned back to black and white. I look at the remains of the magic shoes and wonder if it was all a dream. The good, the bad and the ugly: all a terrible, wonderful dream.


Submitted: December 06, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Chabot1977. All rights reserved.

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