When I was a little kid, I had a secret that I never told anyone. I was going to become a legend. It was merely a matter of getting in front of the right people, being seen and being heard. When I went to the movies or listened to records by the popular singers of the day, I knew I could do that, given half a chance. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I discovered not everyone wanted to be a movie star, much less of legendary status. What was wrong with them?
I was a plump kid who wore thick glasses when few other kids did. As a young girl growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades in the 1950s, I was way too smart for most of the boys and had little in common with the other girls. The girls around me were still playing with dolls and learning domestic skills from their mothers. Unlike many of my friends, my personality was composed of both male and female characteristics– classic androgyny – when that was not mainstream or even socially acceptable. I was empathic and sentimental but also strong and athletic. Later, as a psychologist, I would learn that androgyny and mental health often went hand in hand. But that was not recognized as optimal when I was growing up. So the thought I might be special or fated for fame somehow made it all understandable. It gave value and meaning to my uniqueness. I wasn’t a nerdy loser; I was anointed. It’s just that nobody knew it yet.
The 1950s era was perhaps the last time in our culture when it was possible to be “discovered.” You’d be sitting in a restaurant or at a bus stop and some talent agent or famous director would see you and just know you should be signed to a contract immediately. You weren’t picked out for stardom because you had talent, mind you. You had a certain look or unique personality or demeanor. Movie magazines were full of such juicy stories. I didn’t know one could go to school to learn to be an actor, that there might be a career path. To me, it was serendipitous, a matter left to the Hollywood fates. It had happened to Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Debbie Reynolds and Janet Leigh, among so many others, after all – all created and groomed by the studio system. In those days a handful of big studios controlled movie making in every way. They would take you under wing, teach you how to do everything, control your life and promote you to stardom.
It was also a time when stars were carefully presented to the public via information written or screened by studio publicists. There were no gossipy newspapers, no National Enquirers, no reality or tabloid TV shows spilling every secret – no computers and no Google. There was only the seedy but irresistible Confidential magazine, eventually sued out of existence for telling sordid tales without studio clearance. The information vacuum made the image on the big screen that much more powerful and the lives of the stars more glamorous and unknowable. There were no tape recorders, no VHS, DVRs or digital replay. The experience of watching a film was a singular one – it happened only in the theater. It was big, intense and powerful. I couldn’t get enough. I was at the movies whenever I could afford to be.
The Bay, my home away from home, was a 1100-seat theater with art deco flourishes throughout the décor. Walking in past the effluvia of buttered popcorn coming from the refreshment stand on the left, the eyes automatically were drawn downward as the extravagantly ornamental carpeting seemed almost alive. On the back wall in the lobby was an equally over-the-top brightly-colored mural that resembled an Audubon painting had the artist been high on dexadrine. The interior was less visually noisy, the winding flowery design forming a narrow ribbon on all the walls surrounding the screen. There was a balcony that ran the width of the theater but I never sat up there, even when I came with a boyfriend. I was far more interested in the action on the screen. And just in case the movie was dull, one could focus on the painted Greek-like statues on either side of the screen area. There was something to see everywhere you looked.
I had seen actual movie stars in that exotic setting, on those rarified nights when a studio would hold a sneak preview there. Klieg lights excited the sky and could be seen for miles. The audience wouldn’t know what they’d see until the credits flashed on the screen. It didn’t matter to me. I just loved the experience of being part of an early and important focus group. Afterwards, there would be cards to fill out. Did you like Elizabeth Taylor in this? Was there anything you didn’t like? What did you think of the ending? Somebody in Hollywood wanted to know what I thought of the movie. The best part, though, was seeing the stars who attended these galas, engulfed in their fame and entitlement.
More to the point, I knew exactly which movie star I wanted to be: Doris Day. Her first movie was mine, too - “Romance on the High Seas,” in 1948. I was five; she was (depending on whom you believe) 26. I’m sure it wasn’t love at first sight, the adoration likely accumulating over the countless hours I spent at the movies watching her in those colorful, magical Warner Bros. musicals. There was no doubt that hers was the world in which I wanted to live. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t real. She was everything I wanted to be. She was perky, clever, talented, attractive and socially adept. She was perpetually smiling and happy. And even when she’d cry, it was for a really good reason and the sadness never lasted very long. And that voice – so warm and personal, the intonation perfect, the diction crystalline. In her early film promotions, the studio publicity department had dubbed her “The Tomboy of Warner Bros.” and boy, could I relate to that. In “By The Light of the Silvery Moon,” she emerged from under a model T, all greasy, having successfully fixed the family flivver. That was a radical scene for the sexist 1950s. Her early screen persona reassured me I didn’t have to be frilly and feminine to make my way in the world and be accepted. There were no role models remotely like me in my real world. I had to find one by buying a movie ticket.
As I looked around me, the worst thing I could imagine was that I would become like many of the neighborhood women. Once the morning chores were completed, they’d meet in each other’s homes, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and kibbitz about their husbands. Even at my young age, it seemed like a vacuous, unfulfilling world. Doris was infinitely more interesting, promising something I could never see on my block. In fact, most everything about Hollywood seemed far better and more important than anything I experienced in my real life.
To discover who Doris Day was when she wasn’t portraying a character, I went to the only available source – movie magazines. I figured out when they’d hit the stands at our local Rexall Drug Store and I was there that day right after school. Rexall was owned by a curmudgeonly 40s-ish man with badly pocked skin who tracked us as we hurried to the magazine racks to the right. Though the shelves throughout the store were filled with easy-to-pocket items like cosmetics and over-the-counter remedies, he was obviously afraid we’d furtively abscond with a movie magazine. I was much more interested in finding Doris in their pages. Stealing never occurred to me. There might be photos of her on the cover or inside features showing her on the set, helping the movers carry boxes into her new Beverly Hills home, or multiple shots with her husband and agent, Marty Melcher. She looked as if she were enjoying her life, half-smiling at someone, not really posing. The candid shots showed her often in pedal pushers, the collar of her blouse turned up. The short blonde hairstyle and casual look gave the impression her perky, energetic self was in perpetual motion. Everything in her world just seemed perfect to me – both on and off screen. My bedroom walls were covered with framed 8X10 glossies of movie stars, many of them personally autographed and several from Doris, herself.
My other habitual pit stop was the local record store where I’d spend my allowance (and later, my babysitting money) for whatever record she issued. It was a small store on Swarthmore Street on the main drag. Walking in, the smell of vinyl was almost overpowering. Though there were instruments on the walls and tiny teaching rooms in the back, the store was mostly filled with records from every era. Rifling through the bins, I looked for 45s and LPs with her name on them. It didn’t matter what the song or album was, so long as I would hear her reassuring voice when I put it on my portable bedroom record player. I’d hurry home with my new treasure and play it repeatedly until I knew every nuance of voice and music and then sing along until I learned the lyrics by heart – and long afterwards.
It wasn’t at all inconsequential that I grew up in a community full of people working in all aspects of show business. Living on our eucalyptus-lined street were silent film star Francis X. Bushman and exotic heartthrob Anthony Quinn. Richard Boone lived around the corner. People would see them around town but they were seldom asked for autographs or really noticed much. I could easily run into James Arness or Vivian Vance in the drug store, or see Jerry Lewis driving through town in his big convertible. I’d wave at him and he’d wave back.
In fact, I had sent Lewis a “condolence letter” when he broke up the successful partnership with Dean Martin in 1956. Lewis was Honorary Mayor in our community of Pacific Palisades. I had enjoyed his wacky films with Martin and was genuinely disappointed that pairing was kaput. The professional divorce was big news, headlines in all the papers. People took it very personally, too, declaring polarized sympathies with one partner or the other. One night on my way out to a dreaded Cotillion at Buddy Ebsen’s School of Dance, the phone rang. I was fooling around in my room, imagining the social rejection ahead. Looking in the mirror, I had seen the femmy, uncomfortably pink dress so appropriate for the occasion but not for me, and had issued the now ritualistic complaints to my mother who had selected it. I answered the phone on the fourth ring, thinking it was a friend, commiserating with my fate that night.
“Hello. Is Pam there?”
“This is Pam.”
“Pam, this is Jerry Lewis.” I thought at first it was a friend putting me on. It took me a second but then I recognized his voice from the movies. It was his serious, adult voice, not the zany kid he often portrayed.
“Oh. Hi.” What should I say to him?
“Pam, I called to thank you for the very nice letter. It was sweet of you to write.”
“You’re welcome, Honorary Mayor Lewis.” Was it really him – calling me?
“I know you probably have lots of important things to do but I wanted to call to tell you I’m very honored that you thought enough to write to me.”
Then I remembered the likely reason for the call. “I am really sorry this happened, Mr. Lewis. I’ll miss seeing your movies with Mr. Martin.”
“There will be others. I’m making one by myself now. It’ll be out in a few months. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will. Can hardly wait to see it.”
“I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for thinking of me.”
“You’re so welcome. Thank you for calling me.”
That night, at the Cotillion, I breathlessly told whoever would listen about the incredible call but all I got were blank stares. Did they not believe me? Did they not know who he was? Getting a call from such a famous person admittedly was an unusual occurrence, out of most people’s realm of experience. How had he gotten my phone number, anyway?
Even before my teens, I was able to recognize the character actors I’d encounter in the market from the books I had read about the biz. But I didn’t have to look too far for real fame. It was just across the street from me. In a white clapboard house still living with his family was Doug McClure, who made his mark first as a model, then as Trampas on “The Virginian.” He and his brother had played catch in the street in front of my house and let me sit on the curb and watch. Many of my classmates were the kids of famous people. A few became famous on their own.
I was surrounded by possibility.
As I read all the movie magazines, I imagined myself in them, their glossy pages promising insider tales of domestic bliss and unparalleled happiness. A star’s toothy, beaming countenance on the cover was sufficient provocation for me to practice that exact grin in the mirror. It was all demeanor, after all, a life of illusion. I was in training.
By the time I was 13 or so, I was ready to explore this intriguing world in person. Boarding a municipal bus with my best friend, Jacquie, we would head off to the Brown Derby in Hollywood to have lunch with the movie stars and the Hollywood elite. It took a while to save up to be able to afford one of the cheapest things on the menu, the Cobb salad, but it was the best place to see movie stars and possibly be discovered. And the Derby was much more urbane than the tacky but equally fecund Schwab’s drugstore some blocks away where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered while sitting at the soda fountain. The Derby’s dining room was long, narrow and sedate, filled with red leather booths with bleached white tablecloths so white it almost hurt your eyes. The booths lined the three walls with another row in the middle of the room. The best tables were against the wall, the better to see what celebrated personage had entered the restaurant. The Derby was famous for Jack Lane’s caricatures of the stars hanging on its walls, famous people who had actually eaten there. When we got seated, I’d ask the waiter with a conspiratorial whisper if there were any movie stars there today and there always were. I tried not to stare, to stay nonchalant and blasé about it all. Once, I asked Jacquie to go outside to a nearby phone booth, call the dining room and ask for me. When the waiter brought the phone to me after announcing my name, I pretended it was a call from my agent. I felt very special, indeed, like a real celebrity. I looked around with exaggerated importance as I made the faux call. Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice.
After lunch, we’d walk by the Capitol Records tower on Vine Street in the heart of Hollywood, just a short block away. I knew that no lowly civilians were ever allowed in there, but it was thrilling just to stand outside, knowing what wonderful sound was produced in that huge cylindrical recording studio. It would have been luscious if a big-name singer would have walked in or out, but it never happened.
Jacquie and I had met as we walked to school on the same path. I was in the fourth grade, she in third. Her parents were Jewish-Romanian immigrants who spoke English with a heavy accent and, even then, I sensed something wasn’t right with the family unit. She seemed to want to spend a lot of time with me and at my house, which fit my needs perfectly. We were both gaga for Hollywood but we were different in many other ways. Jacquie wasn’t especially interested in school or thought about a career. She knew early on her fate would be as a wife and mother. Intriguing to me, however, was the fact that her uncle was Herb Vigran, a highly visible character actor on TV and film. It was disappointing to me I never got to meet him, but he was able to get her autographed photos of some of her favorite stars. I always suspected she (and he) were instrumental in my receiving several autographed photos from Doris, too, but she would never admit the connection for some odd reason.
At that point, I must have thought that talent and fame had the same properties as cooties. If you stood close enough, you’d catch them and you’d be infected with a life of fun and excitement, transformed. Looking back on it now, though, I realized it wasn’t the stars themselves that intrigued me as much as their lives. What was it like to be a working actor, to be rich, to be famous, to be recognized everywhere you went? To see myself up on that big screen? I wanted to live an extraordinary life, full of passion and big moments, in contrast to the choices that had been made by the adults around me.
When the timing was right, we’d sneak into TV tapings at NBC on the corner of Sunset and Vine just down the street from the Derby. You had to be 16 to get in but we’d puff our 13-year-old selves up, act cool and easily passed by the ushers.
“How old are you?” an usher would ask.
Jacquie was shy so I’d pipe up, confidently. “We’re sixteen, sir, just last month.” Again, demeanor won the day. I just knew when the cameras panned the audience someone would see me and single me out for a studio contract or at least an audition. More than watching the show being filmed, I tracked the position of the cameras. I put a slight smile on my face as they panned our section.
On the way home from Hollywood, we’d get off the bus at Canon Drive at Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills and walk the four blocks up to 713 North Crescent Drive where Doris Day lived. Long before, I had somehow acquired a Map of the Stars, so I knew where they all lived. But I was only interested in one of them. Fortunately, Jacquie was also a fan so she didn’t mind repeatedly walking back and forth up and down the block, feigning insouciance. On one daring occasion, we ventured a walk down the alley behind her house, hoping to see something – or even her. The dense shrubs and thick plantings were effective obstacles, preventing even a glimpse, so we never bothered again. Besides, we had seen the Beverly Hills Police Department patrolling the streets around there, probably looking for possible interlopers just like us. It was my dearest fantasy that she would suddenly emerge, spot us and invite us in. I even had dreams about what the inside of the house looked like, fueled by occasional photos in the magazines. Much later, when I was an adult, her house was featured in Architectural Digest and it wasn’t at all what I had imagined it to be, disappointingly “done.” These were the years long before stalking became an issue but, in retrospect, we weren’t too far from that – merely lacking the malevolence.
During my early teen years, Pete Duchow, our very handsome neighbor who lived across the street, went to work for Capitol Records as an A&R man (artists and repertoire). When I heard this, I knew fame was just a matter of time. I had babysat for his little girl; cleaned the house for his wife sometimes to earn extra money. He had the job (without any training, I sniffed) of selecting what songs singers recorded on their latest albums. Immediately prior to this, he had been cleaning swimming pools for a living and I couldn’t figure out how he could land a position of that stature. This only confirmed my belief in the serendipitous magic of success in Hollywood. He thought he was very important and I completely concurred. Sometimes he came over to our house to have me to listen to an unreleased 45 and ask my opinion. While I thought he was gorgeous and worked to stifle my youthful romantic fantasies, what I really wanted was for him to sign me to a Capitol contract. Doris recorded for Columbia but Capitol had Sinatra and Garland. Good enough. It turned out, however, that Pete’s contribution to my life was selling me - at a “special” discount - the LPs that were given to him free by his bosses at Capitol.
Through Pete, my family met Bob Bailey. Bob was a prominent radio actor, having starred in the popular “Let George Do It,” a popular mystery program, for a couple of years. But he was best known for his portrayal of the title character in “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” He had a gloriously resonant, distinctive, immediately recognizable voice just made for radio. Though I thought him charismatic, his slight build (and, I would later discover, his history of alcoholism) meant he was not often hired for film or television roles. But he was a bona fide star on the radio when radio was still big.
Bob spent time at our house now and again but never brought his family, which I thought puzzling. He was married and had three children, the youngest of whom was severely retarded but living at home, unusual in those days. Bob’s presence in our living room was always entertaining. I would rush into the room when I heard he was there, just to hear anything he had to say. He would regale us with stories of his times on various sets or his interaction with other actors. I thought of him as the ultimate insider, the closest I could get to real Hollywood. Bob often brought me his old Johnny Dollar scripts the week after they’d aired. The next day, I called my friends together to meet for our regular re-enactments, all huddling around the script - long before the invention of the Xerox machine. We’d pass it from hand to hand, each reading our lines as if it were being broadcast from my bedroom. Needless to say, I was Johnny Dollar.
“Tonight and every weekday night, Bob Bailey in the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account, America’s fabulous free-lance insurance investigator…”
“Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar!”
When I went to his house to visit his daughter who was about my age, I would walk into his den and see this week’s ‘Johnny Dollar’ script on his desk. The whole room was infused with his Old Spice cologne, which I have loved ever since and instantly associate with him. On the longest living room wall was a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcase filled with plays and books about the theater. When the daughter was in the other room or doing chores for her mother, I would sit down and read anything within my reach. Bob told me about a book club where he was able to acquire many of these books, the Fireside Theatre. I joined immediately and eventually accumulated an impressive number of plays, adding to my paltry but growing knowledge of theatrical literature.
At some point, I summoned the courage to ask Bob if I could go with him some Sunday afternoon to the CBS studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood where he taped his shows. To my delight, he agreed. I held his script on my lap in the car as we made the 45-minute drive down Sunset, all the while regaling him with my well cultivated Johnny Dollar impression. My attempts to replicate the tough, hard insurance investigator “with the action-packed expense account” made him laugh. He thought I had captured his idiosyncratic, tough-guy theatrical demeanor perfectly – for a kid and a girl at that. As he drove, we discussed the various Hollywood landmarks we were passing: offices of famous agents, the former nightclubs that once beckoned glamorous stars into their exclusive banquettes. Once at the famous, historically significant studio, he introduced me to the other actors and showed me how the sound effects worked. Then he asked me to read some lines from the script for them, to show off my impersonation. I was excited and nervous and wondered if this was the moment I would be discovered.
I turned to the scene I had memorized, took a studied masculine stance and launched into my Johnny Dollar impersonation. The other actors and director laughed, thinking it was cute, a novelty, a young girl sounding like Johnny. After the reading, he led me upstairs in the booth to sit with the engineer while the show was being recorded. It was never mentioned again. My moment had apparently passed. Wasn’t I good enough? What would it take to pass an audition? I was disappointed but, ever the student, knew I needed more information to succeed at this. The visits became a frequent event over the next few years and, of course, greased the fantasies that I, too, could become a famous radio actor someday, somehow.
All this preoccupation with what I hoped would be my future profession was revealed only to Jacquie, who enthusiastically encouraged me. She enjoyed taking interviews from movie magazines and then asking me the same questions, as if I were a movie star.
“What is your favorite color?”
“Who would you most like to portray on the screen?”
“Who is your favorite director?”
I loved the mock interviews. They were like dry runs, rehearsals for the real thing. I knew would happen down the line. It was all kept quiet as I suspected the adults in my world would think it all frivolous. Girls were supposed to grow up to be wives and mothers, a hammered insidious social message. No woman in my parent’s social circle had a career or worked outside the home. None of them had any direct experience with The Biz, either.
There were more adventures around the corner. When I was about 14, my A&R neighbor, Pete, was taking care of a house for a few weeks in Brentwood. He asked if my family wanted to come and visit, since there was a swimming pool, a real treat. When I found out the house belonged to Academy Award winning actor Edmond O’Brien, I could hardly stand the wait. I had never been in a real movie star’s house before. Bob Bailey was a radio celebrity, sure, but somehow that wasn’t the same. Movie stars were real stars, permanently etched in the pantheon of fame. And Eddie had won an Oscar!
Everyone walked into the woodsy, darkened house to get changed for swimming. The house was homey and comfortable, obviously expensively furnished. Too young to recognize the names of designers, I only knew I hadn’t seen patterns and textures quite like this before. I furtively walked around, quietly checking out all the rooms, trying to sop up how a movie star lives. When I happened into his den, I suddenly found myself in the startling presence of The Oscar. It was encased in a glass globe, sitting on a little wooden stage. My breath caught as I absorbed the history that sat on that mantel. I slowly read the inscription: “Edmond O’Brien. Best Supporting Actor. ‘The Barefoot Contessa.’ 1954.” Just then, Pete stuck his head in the door and informed me, “Eddie made the stage himself, just for the statue.” It was beautiful. As I stood there staring, I felt as if I were worshipping at a shrine.
Pete left the room and I looked over at the desk, as I always did at Bob Bailey’s house. There were scripts piled up, handwritten notes on top. Suddenly I spotted the Rolodex. I felt my heartbeat quicken as I looked through it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here were the names and phone numbers of seemingly every big name in Hollywood, from Darryl F. Zanuck to Louella Parsons. I looked under D for Day but she wasn’t there. When I came to Ida Lupino’s name, I stopped cold. Her TV show with husband Howard Duff was one of my very favorites. “Mr. Adams and Eve” was about a show biz couple with the insider theme I found so seductive. I quickly found a piece of paper and a pen and copied down the phone number. I just wanted to have it, like an autograph. I would never do anything with it. I was hyperventilating with excitement (not to mention fear of discovery) as I quickly put on my swimming suit and joined the others in the pool.
It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks later that my parents went out with friends on a Friday night, leaving me at home to babysit for my brother. At nine o’clock, my brother safely in bed, I tuned into “Mr. Adams and Eve.” The episode that night involved a young girl who Ida’s character was grooming for stardom. That was all the encouragement my fantasies needed. After shockingly little thought, I went to my desk and pulled out Lupino’s phone number, made a path directly to the phone in the living room and dialed. I assumed a maid would answer. I’d leave a message of congratulations on the terrific show that night and hang up. No harm, no foul.
(phone rings, an answer)
I figured if I sounded like I knew her, the maid would be more likely to take the message down. Remembering the lessons of demeanor, my voice reeked with all the pneumatic confidence only a 14-year-old can muster.
“Hello! Is Ida there?”
“This is Ida.”
Of course it is. Who else could speak with that familiar engine-purring throatiness? Uh oh. Now what? Think fast, Pam. Keep it cool.
“You don’t know me. I got your number from a mutual friend.” I knew she had done several films with Edmond O’Brien and that they really were good friends.
“Oh, who’s that?”
I clearly was not going to implicate anyone else in this impulsive, crazy, probably illegal caper. I could get in a lot of trouble.
“Well, Miss Lupino, I just called to tell you how much I enjoyed tonight’s show. It was very inspiring.”I wondered if she noted how I had changed the form of address.
“I’m glad. So nice of you to say that.”
“I….uh…am an actress, too.” Oh, my God. How far can I carry this deception? Can she call a cop? What if my parents find out? Is there such a thing as being grounded for life?
“Are you, darling? Well, maybe we can use you on the show.”
I thought the top of my head would blow off. Is this how it happens? Pure chutzpah?
“I would love that.”
“Do you have pictures and an agent?”
Oh, now she’ll know I’m an amateur.
“No, not yet.”
“You have to get one. Call the Dorothy Otis Agency. Maybe she can help. But you need pictures first.”
“Oh. OK. That’s so nice of you, Miss Lupino. Thanks for the career advice.”
“You’re welcome, Darling. Good night.”
I hung up the phone and stood motionless, staring at the wall. What just happened? I had cold-called a big movie and TV star who gave me a road map to get on her highly-rated TV show, that’s what. But what do I do now? I was 14 years old. I didn’t know how to navigate these waters. I had only lived in the world of fantasy. Execution was something beyond my capabilities. I knew I’d have to get help for this next step. I’d have to blow my cover, admit what I’d done. Talk about a double bind.
When my parents got home, I reluctantly told them the story and what I had been advised to do – by Ida Lupino! They took the news surprisingly well, though I’m sure they wondered what kind of alien they had spawned. My father quickly decided he would take the photos. Looking back on it now, I’m sure neither of them thought anything would come of it and didn’t want to invest any time or money in such a remote possibility. They didn’t have any of the necessary expertise, either, but did what they could to help. My father did take the pictures – at night, after coming home from work. When they came back from the photo store, my heart dropped. There was no hiding it. As I looked at the pictures I saw the overweight, apple-cheeked girl I was, posed poorly and with bad amateur lighting to boot. Overcome with disappointment and embarrassment, I wondered how I could possible transcend this obstacle. I was afraid Ida would laugh at me if she saw the photos and immediately knew this wasn’t going any further. There was no Plan B and my parents didn’t offer any more encouragement. I was left to my own devices, both to cope with this and to think about what next.
Over the next year, there were several other seminal events in the care and feeding of my show biz obsession and the infatuation with Doris Day. About the same time, I began a subscription to Daily Variety, the Bible of show business, a commitment that lasted over 50 years. It would teach me about the business side of show.
Getting off the bus after school one afternoon, Jacquie suggested we stroll over to the drug store to pick up the latest issue of Screen Stories. That was one of my favorite movie magazines, always filled with photos and summarized plots for five of the latest releases. The trip to the drug store wasn’t a hard sell. So in we walked and when I started thumbing through the magazine, I was rocked to see a short article near the front. It was a feature called “Lookalikes” and there was a picture of me - right next to Doris Day. It took me a minute to take this in. I hadn’t known Jacquie had taken the shot so it wasn’t all that good a picture, which is probably why the editor at Screen Stories thought we looked alike. We did have the same haircut and were both blonde. I was very excited about being in a movie magazine, though, even under these odd circumstances. Mostly, it went unnoticed by those around me. Didn’t matter. It was a brief, if insignificant brush with fame, another rung on the ladder. Like a fireman shoveling coal in a speeding train, it was fuel.
One evening, I walked across the street to babysit for Pete and his wife, he of avaricious Capitol Records fame. As she put her daughter to bed, she casually told me Pete had a new job. He was now working for Marty Melcher, Doris Day’s husband. What? In fact, they had socialized with the Melchers on several occasions at their Malibu beach house. She described Doris playing volleyball on the sand and their having barbecues together. What? What?
“She kept saying when she liked something, ‘Crazy’ and laughing real loud. She loves the music of Paul Anka, played it in the background most of the day. We had a great time.”
She might as well have spread a line of cocaine in front of an addict. My neighbors were hanging out with Doris Day, my neighbors - people who knew of my strange affinity for all things Doris. And yet they did nothing – I repeat, nothing – to facilitate a meeting of any kind. So close and yet so far. What kind of people are these? They obviously didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure I did, either.
Then, out of nowhere, my parents called me into the living room and told me as a present for my upcoming 15th birthday, they had managed to get me two tickets to the world premiere of Doris Day’s latest film, “Teacher’s Pet” at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood. I couldn’t drive yet, and I most certainly didn’t want to go with either parent, so they recruited the older son of a family friend to go with me. In 1958, premieres were a very big deal - Klieg lights, cameras everywhere, live television coverage with interviews by Army Archerd, fans screaming in the stands. And I’d be strolling into the theater on the very same red carpet Doris would be walking on minutes after me. Wow. Talk about ratcheting up the fantasy.
Robin was a gangly 18-year-old boy with a dusty old beater that seemed to match his personality. To preserve the illusion, I cajoled him into parking it a block away, rather than join the limo line in front of the theater. When we stepped on to the red carpet, though, everyone screamed, thinking it was somebody important. Of course, I waved and smiled, reveling in my momentary brush with fame, finally able to use “the look” I had practiced in front of my mirror at home. Robin, probably completely mortified, wanted to go inside and sit down but I was holding out for Doris to arrive. And arrive she did, dressed in a long, sparkly white gown with a matching fur, flashing her megawatt smile. She was no more than 20 feet away from me. There she was. I nearly stepped on Clark Gable to get a better look over his shoulder. Once she entered the theater, Robin and I went in and sat down. I squirmed around, trying to see where she was sitting. The woman next to me shot me an indignant look. She was likely unhappy that I had accidentally leaned on her expensive sable coat. “Sorry,” I said quite insincerely, looking into her eyes. When I realized it was Rhonda Fleming, I knew we were sitting with Hollywood royalty. Then I took a longer look, since I was right there. It was then I could see why she was called by some “The Queen of Technicolor.” Her bright red hair was almost startling, as was the heaviness of her perfume, the epitome of Hollywood glamour. The brief glimpse in the forecourt would be the last I saw of Doris that night. But I kept thinking about being in the middle of all that excitement, almost as if I belonged. What would it take, I wondered?
I loved the movie and ended up seeing it more than a dozen times, not unusual for me with my Doris enchantment. It was hard being a wannabe. I was getting tired of hearing my callous neighbors talk about the wonderful times they were having with her. I unilaterally decided to take matters into my own hands.
Her birthday and anniversary with Melcher were just a month away and happened to be on the same day, April 3. I conscripted an on-and-off boyfriend for company and planned an incursion into North Crescent Drive. I had read in a movie magazine that she loved Tootsie Rolls, so I bought a big box of them and wrapped it up. Nick and I boarded the two buses it took to get into Beverly Hills and made the long, anxiety-filled walk up Crescent. I glanced sideways at the overweight teenage boy overdressed in his ROTC uniform and selfishly hoped he’d stay in the background.
I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. There was a long pause and I nearly turned to leave, with mixed feelings of disappointment and relief. Then the door opened and I immediately recognized her son, Terry, who was just a few years old than I was. I told him – announced it, really - we were there to give his mother a present for her birthday and anniversary.
“Wait a minute,” he said, abruptly closing the door. I figured he wouldn’t come back. This was a pretty ballsy thing to do, after all. She probably turned away a lot of unwanted visitors and…then the door opened and…gasp….she stood there, not more than three feet from me.
“Hello. Terry said you were here. I’m having a dress fitting.”
She was taller and thinner than I thought she’d be. She didn’t seem to be wearing makeup so I was able to see all those freckles she complained about in interviews.
“Oh. Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Melcher. I read in a movie magazine that you liked these.” I thrust the box out in front of me and she took it. I was hoping I wouldn’t faint, throw up or turn into a pillar of salt.
“That’s very nice. Thank you.”
I realized my face had likely frozen into a startled mask and forced it into a big smile.
“Happy birthday and happy anniversary!”
“Well, thanks. I have to get back to my fitting now. Thanks again.” She closed the door very softly. I think she might have smiled back, but by that time I was nearly catatonic.
I don’t remember the walk back down Crescent Drive. I felt as if I had been administered curare. This had been a major goal of my childhood, really, and I had made it happen. We actually met, had a conversation. Unbelievable. Nick and I boarded another bus into Hollywood so I could see “Teacher’s Pet” again, this time with a whole different context. I found myself silently mouthing her part of the dialogue. Years later, when I was taking acting classes, I played a scene where she tells off Clark Gable as a monologue. I could still remember it, word for word.
After the fiasco with the Lupino photos, I realized it was unlikely I would be ever be summoned into the world of performing. Perhaps in part due to the theme of “Teacher’s Pet” (she played a journalism instructor) I joined the high school newspaper staff and began writing movie reviews. I couldn’t really let the infatuation go, though. My byline read, “By Pam ‘Doris’ Osborne.” After I graduated, someone remaining on the newspaper staff continued to write film reviews using the byline, “By Pam ‘Doris.’” It was flattering, if a little freaky.
With a wonderful touch of irony, as the paper’s film critic, I spent many hours on movie lots after school, at screenings set up for reviewers. I’d always arrive very early, get past the gate guard, park my car and surreptitiously wander the lot until it was time for the screening to begin. By that time, I had accepted the reality that I was “just” a writer and it would be another decade or so before I’d revisit the show biz fantasies and allow myself to be seduced once again by performance possibilities.
I lived largely in a world of show biz reverie but somehow, I kept a grip on the real world around me enough so that I was able to do well in both junior high and high school, graduating in the top 10% of my class. And still, no one cared when I had declared myself to be a music major in high school, announcing to no one in particular that I did not intend to go to college. Neither of my parents or any of their many siblings went beyond high school. Like all other girls of the era, I was expected to marry and raise children. I wasn’t especially eager for any of that, so I planned to go to work – in the movies, one way or another.
As I write this, I am still stunned at how accessible many of these stars were – from getting a call from a famous comedian to being free to walk up and ring Doris’ doorbell. No one lived behind locked gates back then. Hollywood was still a mystery to me in many ways, but it also seemed out there just for the tasting.
Of course, we all grow up and move on from our childhood dreams. In time, I realized what I wanted was not fame but the opportunity to make a life as a creative person. And, I later realized, I wanted to be respected for being myself, not for playing parts written by other people.
At some point, my worship of Doris morphed into an appreciation of her personal and professional obstacles and her impressive achievements over many decades and media. While her persona was pivotal in helping me shape my identity, I realize now it was always more about the music. Even now, when I hear her sing a song recorded during those years, my head and heart immediately surge back to my 14-year-old self, revisiting my early hopes and dreams. Those were the rare moments everything that was wrong was right. I would have been an unlikely avatar for Doris, anyway. My personality leaned well away from uncomplicated and sunny. But she did usher me into a world of musical passion and vocal performance. The pursuit of the deeply ingrained passion for all things show biz fueled my life for many years. It was like a perpetually flowing river - sometimes briefly dammed but its eventual re-emergence inevitable.
Almost against my will I would be intermittently re-infected by the show business virus as an adult but could only stay in that world for a few years at a time. I found the heightened reality and intermittence of the intense performance demands difficult to integrate into my otherwise stable lifestyle. I sometimes felt at the mercy of my own passion and the lack of control over it would become intolerable.
There was a significant moment of karma before it was over, though. I had been traveling around the country, giving theme-based jazz/cabaret performances with a jazz trio. One of the last shows was a tribute I had written to Doris Day, spinning my more mature, adult interpretation of her life and career. In the performance at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, a large contingent from the International Doris Day Fan Club came to see me. Out of that show came a CD, quite amazingly recorded at Capitol Records, a place I had stood before with Jacquie as a young teenager. The resulting CD was called “Sentimental Journey: Celebrating Doris Day.” In the album notes, I thanked her for helping me get through childhood and adolescence. All the tunes on the tribute CD were those she had recorded, some of them obscure. After much goading by my record producer, I sent a CD to Doris, to a post office address never thinking it would get to her. Imagine my shock when she wrote to me on her personal letterhead a few weeks later in what had every appearance of being a fan letter. She was “so very grateful” for the tribute, she said, “loved the arrangements” and complimented the musicians and backup singers, some with whom she had recorded. “And you,” she added, “are very, very good.” It still brings tears to my eyes. After all those hours listening to Doris Day in my bedroom, now she was in her house listening to me. Even in my most outrageous fantasies I never could have conjured this outcome. It was miraculous.
Well, I never did become a legend, as you probably know by now. Instead, I became what I would hope is a relatively fully functioning, sensitive and creative person with an interesting life. Perhaps that option is mutually exclusive with being a legend, anyway.
It’s Friday night and there is unusual activity at the British Museum. The art students manning the events at the Egyptian antiquities are dressed in black, their eyes heavily lined in long geometrical shapes of grey and black kohl. A girl tosses a golden coin as big as her palm and it falls revealing the ominous drawing of a spiral. She gives me a black card that reads: Admit One – Room Four, Living And Dying. Roll up, Roll up! Welcome to the Afterlife! and shows me to a table behind her, squeezed between the stark, gigantic statue of an animal and a stone sarcophagus as tall as myself. The boy sitting at the table informs me that the lot I drew leads to the Bad Underworld. Makes sense, I say before I can stop myself, and he laughs. He gives me a paper where I am asked to draw my offerings for the journey, and shows the way. A silent girl indicates that I should take off my shoes and backpack. She helps me into a loose sand-colored robe and ties a powder-blue ribbon around my waist. She leads me up the steps and to a small sheltered area behind the large stone sarcophagus, where there is another sarcophagus waiting for me, smaller, coffin-shaped, made out of light wood and white fabric. Beside it stand upright two thin young men, their eyes painted into a thick strip of black cutting across their faces. They don’t speak. They help me into the makeshift box, which is lined with a purple velvety mattress. I lie down and they cover the box with black cloth. It’s comfortable, and not wholly dark. Bits of soft light steal through the white cotton covering the sides and I can barely discern through the black cloth, very far up on the improbably high museum ceiling, some small spotlights gleaming shyly like stars. I feel at ease. I knit my fingers across my chest and half close my eyelids. It’s not too bad, I consider. The black cover is relaxing. The din which surrounded me before is now stifled to a remote whisper. How much different could actual death be? Only more darkness, more quiet. I wonder how long I’m going to lie here. Time passes. My thought begins to unfurl, widening and diluting. Closing my eyes I sense the void surrounding me, infinite. Opening them I am back on my gentle boat towards the Underworld. And the Unknown passes me by, unseen.
When you share a dorm with twenty-seven strangers of any age or sex and your personal space is marked by a narrow bunk bed with a pair of flimsy curtains, everything depends on trust and respect. You leave some of your things in places where it’s impossible to constantly keep an eye on them. You frantically take off your jeans with the curtains drawn shut as you listen to others doing the same, identical sounds of hissing fabric and zippers. You wake up in the middle of the night because somebody close to you is trying to undress or pack their luggage blindly, you’re dying with curiosity to open the curtains and watch them, you don’t have the immediate sense of restraint and calm yourself down with your imagination, deciphering every sound. Darkness, echoing snoring, and someone across the corridor has turned on their little lamp like a spotlight, perhaps they don’t realize it but now their every movement is perfectly visible on the thin curtain like shadow puppetry: they bend, they undress, they lift their arms, they undress, they pant, they’re cold, they lift their arms, they lift their legs, they dress, they bend, they sigh, they dress. You realize that this is how you would probably look and always take your clothes off in the darkness with your lamp carefully switched off, anonymously, and once perhaps out of pure vanity and thrill you turn the lamp back on and perform your own little number. You lie down, everyone is in bed, many are awake and stare at the ceiling, those who sleep are breathing in unison like a herd of animals. The strange creature occupying the upper bunk is wriggling, you count down the seconds and hit exactly the moment when they turn off their light. Inevitably you consider sex in this abstractly cubicled world, and you can almost hear the rest of them thinking about the same thing. Everyone is very polite: they don’t touch themselves, and if they do they go about it noiselessly and never to completion. The mixture of smells grows thick and heavy but you’re used to it by now. You’re not certain if you like this place and it’s a strange feeling. There isn’t any of the familiar soothing of good company. After all, you can only ever know about these things when you’re alone.
and instantly kills,
You see, that's a little over the top. Lady Gaga attends funerals in glass platforms as tall as your favorite brother, and we may not get what we want next year due to popular vote and persistent whining from the Electoral College. But there lives a spider behind the collapse of your deflated dreamboat we remember as "my fiancée." And to this day, I still keep a tally of all the Kleenexes you've owed me as you lambasted someone you'll never know, for professional services you'll never seek.
While there are days to remind us that dreams are just as they sound - wads of confetti asphyxiating pigeons drawn to neon in this garish dusk - the teacher who assured you "things will come back to them" after cheerleaders stole your pants will stand in her correctness, at least once. But you can't get too mad when what assures is set to transpire two decades in time. Does shaking your first at Internal Revenue expedite a pedicure? Not necessarily.
But you were never the type to throw $1,223 down the toilet when it ambled home two months late. You never did it with this guy. Not in front of us, I truthfully attest. However, claiming you were unbothered by his yeasted disassembly of porcelain babies we never really wanted would be like my saying "it's okay" when asked why I didn't say anything when cheerleaders stole my sandwich.
Karmic fields stretch, millimeters wide.
I know this must be strange for you but don't be afraid. I assure you this is all perfectly logical. “Well then”, I imagine you’re asking, “Where are the walls? Why is there nothing but empty whiteness and this collection of filing cabinets that stretches as far as the eye can see? Huh?!” And I can see your breathing becoming heavier, friend. I can tell you are afraid. Just be calm. You are in my Catalogue of Stupidity. Bup Bup Bup! Don't say a word. Shhh shhh. Let me explain.
When someone is disabled or strange looking (and I’ve been born both) people think you are stupid. People think you are beneath them. Even the people showering you in what sounds like empathy do so while crushing you under their feet. They patronize you. They think you're weak.
Every instance in my life where I was talked down to this way is alphabetically recorded in these filing cabinets. Isn’t that neat? See how far this place stretches. Squint your eyes. You can’t see the end of it can ya? “Is it wise to hold onto all this like this?” I hear you asking. “It seems unhealthy to cling to all this stuff.” You might say. “It could breed ulcers. Hatred”. Well, fine sir slash madam, I'm glad you asked. I catalogue all this so that I can know when I am being talked down to. Sometimes it's hard to tell. People will sound like they are complimenting me but if I cross reference their words with the words of this database I’ll discover that wait hey, they are patronizing me! Their honeyed words espousing my heroism and bravery are no less pitying than being talked to like a child. I won’t let anybody's pity slip into my subconscious. “Oh.” I see you saying. Oh indeed. Here. You need an example. I’ll let you sample a bit of the catalogue. It will be fun! Here, here is the S section. I'll close my eyes and pluck a file out at random and….
Santana Muzak 2003/November/ID No. 56824-387
My tiny arms bulged against heaps of heavy dishes as I pushed the busboy cart into the washing room. I grabbed the spray wash hose off the hook and while I rinsed the dishes I made a mental list of all the songs I wanted my friend Andrew to burn for me. There was this new thing called Limewire where you could pull any song out of the clouds and put it on a CD. It seemed magical to me and I couldn't stop dreaming up mixtapes. Maybe a bit of Linkin Park. A dash of DJ Sammy’s Heaven cover. Oh and Michelle Branch. I started humming if I want to I can save you I can take you away from here as I pushed the dishes into the dishwasher and leaned against the hot aluminum.
A muzak rendition of ACDC’s Highway to Hell crooned through the restaurants loudspeakers and the cooks shouted and swore in the kitchen. I didn't understand why the cooks were so angry all the time. You'd think the smooth sounds of Kenny G-ified rock hits that constantly wafted from the restaurant's speakers would mellow them out a bit but nay, they yelled foul language and banged plates and threatened to disembowel one another.
Ian, the other dishwasher, who looked like a youngish, more trailer trashy version of Henry Rollins, barreled into the washroom covered in brown oil.
“Fucking grease!!!” he said. I knew he wasn't talking to me because he tries not to swear around me. I ignored him and scrubbed a scrambled egg infected plate.
He threw his apron into the laundry basket and grabbed a new one off the rack. Steam billowed from the dishwasher as I opened the door and set the plates on the drying rack.
The muzak shifted to smooth jazz Whitesnake and I heard Ian regaling the cooks with a profanity laced Tale of How Ian the Brave Dumped Out the Leftover Grease. I drifted off into my own world again. This time my mind spun through pixelated hills gobbling up all the rings in sight. I started to get dizzy from all the loop-de-loops in Green Hill Zone as -
“Could you handle it ok while I was gone?” Ian said, rounding the corner. He made sure to talk slowly. So I could understand.
“Yeah.” I said. Perturbed that he had scrubbed away my daydream and eager to go back into my own head. But if I’ve learned anything from being alive it’s that most people don't like it when other people daydream. They want to talk. Incessantly talk.
“It's not too busy in here for you is it?” it was a Wednesday. It's never busy on a Wednesday.
“Good! Good job!”
He put on gloves and began scrubbing the plates in the sink that were too dirty to put through the dishwasher. He bobbed his head to the musak.
“You know who this is?” he asked.
“Santana. And Rob Thomas.”
“Wow!! That’s really amazing! Who taught you that?”
Snow Guy, The 1997/December/ID No. 63564-096
I found a porno VHS tape in my attic. It was buried in the box of my stepdad’s crap that he forgot to take when he left. I had to show my friend Razor. He was an authority on these things. So as I was getting ready for church I stuffed the tape into a pillowcase and then shoved the pillowcase down my pant leg and tied it to my belt buckle with string. I made sure to wear my most baggy slacks. My mom said I looked ridiculous but I told her baggy pants were The Cool Style. She was too tired to argue with me and we were running late for the service anyway so she let it slide. All through the service I felt it bouncing against my leg, its triple xxx branding my outer thigh with I don't even know what. I wasn't sure what exactly happened in a porno. After the service I hustled to the vestibule caught Razor by the arm and said I just had to show him something hurry hurry. We huddled beside a dumpster behind the church, cradling the VHS tape in our hands. Pretty ladies made funny faces on the cover that I had never seen anyone make in real life.
“The ladies are really pretty.” I said.
“You sound like a homo.” he rejoined.
“Little girls are pretty. These are Hot Bitches.” he said with authority.
“Ah!” that didn't sound quite right to me, but I deferred to his judgement.
“This is a good one too. Wet N Wild 14. My Dad has this one.”
“So like...how does it work?!”
“Well, you take out your weenie and start rubbing it while you watch.”
“That sounds dumb.”
“Just do it.”
Ladies in fancy dresses strolled by and gave us funky looks. We beamed our most God fearing smiles. They beamed back and smoothed their dresses. The church was starting to empty at a rapid clip. I had to hide the tape again and fast.
“Just make sure no one is home when you do it.” he said. “They get mad.”
“I dunno. They just do. That's what they are for.”
I stuffed the porno back in my pants via the (devilishly ingenious) pillowcase.
A man had stopped in front of us and watched us intently.
“Oh shit.” Razor said as he bolted away.
“Hey you-” I groaned. I was in deep trouble now.
The man strolled up to me. A light snow fell.
“Little Gregory!” he said.
“How are you?” he raised his voice an octave like he was talking to a baby.
“Um fine. Just fine.”
“Oh that's so wonderful!” he said.
I didn't know what to say. I was eager to go home and try the weird things Razor explained...wait what did he say to do...rub...rub your weenie while you watched...I still didn't get the allure. It seemed stupid. I was eager to try anyway.
The old man opened his palm and let a few flakes land on his hands.
“Do you know what this is called?” he said.
I didn't have a clue what he was talking about.
“This is called snow!” he said “Isn't it pretty?”
“So Special!” 1994/July/ID No. 24509-889
I was seven or eight or something, strutting through one of the many street fairs Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania is so obsessed with. I plodded through the packed street with a large, purple teddy bear slung over my shoulder. I was on top of the world. No one could hurl darts at multi-colored balloons like me, boy. I reached up and clicked my hearing aid off, and the screaming kids and drunk adults and high pitched whines and bleeps and bloops were muffled into something more akin to gentle ocean waves. Now I could focus on my own inimitable awesomeness. My sneakers pounded against the pavement and I was lulled into a trance by the muffled noises and the night sky decked out with lights. God could I chuck darts, son.
The world was peaceful.
Sparkly and shit.
I saw someone hidden by shadow, leaning against a tree. Its gaze didn’t leave me. When it stepped out of the darkness I saw it was a woman dressed in baggy, polka dot pantaloons, a red afro and peeling face paint.
I blinked and she darted closer. She moved farther than a human being should be able to move in the span of a blink. As she crept closer I could see the pity and ignorance glistening between her gobs of black eye makeup. Heeere we go again...I thought. Before I could figure out a last second avenue of escape she was next to me. She flung her arm around me in a death grip so there was nowhere for me to go. Her breath was stale, fetid with bleached holiness as she looked down on me. Her eyes were shrouded by the ferris wheel shadow and her face throbbed with the light of the tilt-a-whirl. Her lips trembled with pity. I felt the jubilation seep out of me. Yep, there it is, all my old happiness and contentment there on the ground in a shimmery puddle. Sir! Don't step in my joy! I’ll need it when this clown releases me. I hope it releases me.
“You're so brave.” she said, without preamble, clutching me closer. The over sized polka dot pantaloons billowed around me, wrapped around my nose and mouth like plastic bags. I struggled for breath. I tried to shrug her off but she was too strong.
“I just want you to know that you are special, ok? You are so so brave, young man, and Jesus loves you. Jesus don’t create no mistakes.” I wonder if she knows that by implying that Jesus didn’t create any mistakes when referencing me she is clearly hinting that I couldn't be faulted for thinking that I was a mistake.
By then I learned to just humor people when they think they’re showering you with empathy so I tried to be polite. To smile and nod. The trick is make them think they are having a deep, lasting impact on you. Then they will release you and you can resume your regularly scheduled life. So I said “wow thanks.” But this didn’t mollify her.
She grabbed me by both shoulders and whipped me towards her so I was forced to look into her eyes. I guess I wasn't compliant enough for her, not rapt enough in my worship of her kindness. Her fingernails bit into my shoulders and the flickering lights threw the long shadows of her fingers across my back and they danced like aggravated rattlesnakes, so so ready to pounce on my throat. She hissssssssed poisonous platitudes into my ears and forced love to spurt from her eyes.
“You are so special!” she said through gritted teeth-or was that a smile? She clutched me to her chest, choking the breath from my lungs. She hugged me in silence before finally opening her death grip and releasing me. I gulped down the air and ran into the crowd clutching my hard won teddy bear to my chest. I was terrified that she'd followed me so I peered under everybody’s legs and saw her waving into the darkness. She was confident that she'd touched my heart enough, that even though she couldn’t see me, I was waving back.
Wait-hey, where are you going? You can't possibly want to leave already! Stop running around like that and beating on the cabinets! What do you mean “I get it, I get it ok?” We've barely even scratched the surface! Hey hey! I promise I will take you home eventually, so calm down! No, there is no exit. Only I can get you out of here. Do you see doors, friend, or walls or anything but crisp whiteness and endless rows of filing cabinets? So why don't you just sit there while I regale you with more stupidity from my life. No I won't go through every single one of the cabinets with you. There's too many for that! Haha. If we went through them all that would take… well I guess it would take as many years as I'm alive wouldn't it? Woah woah don't lay down all dejected, you can't be bored! That's not nice! You can't possibly be sick of this place already. There is so much more to come! You've only experienced the tiniest sliver of my life!
Alex boards a plane for Reagan National. From Reagan National it’s the yellow line and transfer to the green. An old dude sits in the corner of the car with his big duffel bag, drumming on the duffel, singing nonsense words through his no-teeth mouth. She glances up when the tunnel turns to light, makes eye contact with the old man and he smiles his no-teeth smile, points to himself, his eyes, then at Alex and hugs himself.
Her mom drives them from Greenbelt to the church in Baltimore. Uncle Ernest gives a eulogy except here they call it a verbal witness, just like they’ll call the slideshow a visual witness, because everything that happens here has to be some form of watchfulness. He says that he knew the end was coming because he had a dream his mom was dancing in heaven, awaiting the arrival of her husband. At the end, the congregation prays for the souls of those who doubt.
Back at the row house, everyone eats deviled eggs and those mini-hot-dog-biscuit things, while the young cousins play video games. Aunt Jessie finds Alex hiding on the stairs and tells her not to sit there, everyone can see up her dress. She come downs and watches the kids playing their racing game.
Jason says, “This man is dumb, he keeps getting up again and I run him over all over.” And then shrieks with that unique laughter of a 7-year-old killing something.
Alex says, “Maybe you should just play the game and stop running him over. That kind of makes you the dumb one.”
Jason says, “He never runs out of blood. Blood, blood, blood.”
And Eunice laughs from the word’s repetition or Jason’s infectious delight but Trout (née Troy) is too focused, he is driving very carefully in the lines and never hitting anything, except once he gets too close to a hydrant and it starts spraying water and he bites his lip a little upset.
Alex is standing on the airport shuttle waiting to get shuttled over to the other terminal when this lady walks over, looks her straight in the eye and says, “I’m so glad I found you!” Alex stays quiet, realizing this lady has seriously mistaken her for someone she knows even while staring straight into her face. A guy and his wife argue about whether they have to go through security again at the new terminal and whether they have time for it if they do. At security, Alex had done everything right, stepped inside the scanner, hands above head, nothing in her pockets. She stepped out, and the TSA person said wait, I hit the wrong gender, go back in. And Alex stepped inside the scanner, hands above her head, nothing in her pockets.
Alex calls Honey as soon as she lands. The delay means Honey will have to go right back to work after she picks Alex up. Alex sits at a booth in the bar, and takes her book out of her luggage. She is studying to become an EMT, and has this huge textbook filled with pictures of all the things that could be wrong with the person’s body.
Girls in sheer tank tops and pink lip gloss and gold eyeshadow come in and sit at the bar. They drink sangria and eat Oreos out of a purse. And tequila. They take selfies and laugh loudly. Every once and a while the one with the bangs swings her hair over her shoulder and scans the bar, like she’s waiting for someone to notice her. She announces she has to pee and her friends announce that they all have to pee too.
Alex goes outside to smoke, and on the curb there is a magician praising Jesus with a bird in his hair. He says, these miracles I perform are small compared to the miracles God performs every day. He snaps his fingers and there is a flame and he says but God makes the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening and he snaps his fingers again and the flame goes out. People walking by steer around him and his talk of miracles.
At the end of Honey’s shift, they get into the car. “What did you read about today?” Honey asks.
“Airways and orotracheal intubation.”
“Like putting a pen in someone’s neck?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“How was the funeral?”
“You know. Sad.”
They drive back to the apartment they share. Well, Honey has the bedroom, and Alex, the couch. Except on nights Alex joins Honey in bed.
“You sleeping out here tonight?”
Around 1am her mom drunk dials. “Freddie?” she says. “Freddie, I don’t know where you are. I just went outside to… Freddie?” Alex hangs up on her.
Around 2am, Alex knocks on Honey’s door.
“Yeah, come in.”
Honey in bed with her glasses on, her blond tracks thrown up into a messy bun, in a big white t-shirt inside-out. Alex lays on the foot of the bed, feeling worshipful of this Honey and inescapably drawn to her, the Honey lit by the glow of the lamp on the nightstand, all the weight in her torso and thighs settling into the squish of the mattress and the pillows, all the features in her face blending together un-contoured and un-lined, smelling clean and of the lotion she’s rubbed on her cellulite thighs and ass, her stretch-marked breasts and arms.
“I was just reading about the decline of bee populations. Have you heard about this? It’s so interesting, even the scientists don’t know why it’s happening.”
Alex crawls up towards the head of the bed, and Honey lifts her arm to let Alex slip beneath it and lay with her head on Honey’s chest.
“I’m pretty convinced it has to do with the decline of the feminine. We’re out of balance, you know, like that book I was reading, about the energies and how capitalism has warped the value of feminine energy.”
Alex is just tired and mad at her mom, but stays where she is.
“I mean, it just makes sense because bees are matriarchal of course they’re hurt by fluctuations in the worldwide feminine energies. Did you know female bees are more closely related to their sisters than to their children? Yeah, pretty cool.”
In the bathroom Alex places her hands on her breast tissue and pushes in. Like this it’s kind of like they’re just impressively bulked-up pecs. It makes her shoulders look broader and her hips less curvy. Like this she’s a slim but fit guy, maybe the kind that runs cross-country. She bites her lip and tilts her head down to one side. She hears Honey open the balcony door probably to water the plants and she feels a little guilty for wishing gone what makes her beautiful to Honey.
Alex has a text from her aunt and from her ex. Her ex has the body of a human god and the personality of Chicken Soup for the Soul. He thinks they have connected on a spiritual level because they have loved each other, and that alone makes it worthwhile to keep in touch. Alex still has a picture of his abs set as his picture in his contact info. She’s honestly not sure if it’s more to lust over or be jealous of, or maybe she just left it there out of laziness. Honey’s seen it, but she says it doesn’t bother her, because Alex and Honey are supposed to be together, to be each other’s primary soulmates, and so Honey doesn’t have any reason to worry about Alex’s relationships with other people. Sometimes Alex wonders about why she ends up like this, with people who are convinced of things, fateful people embedded in destinies with a design. For everyone’s sake, she stays pretty quiet. Most nights she sleeps on the sofa.
Her Aunt Jessie wants her help to convince her mom to come back to the church and stop “making a fool of herself over every man who’s got shined shoes and waves.” Alex chooses to ignore the request. Her ex talks about his job and the date he went on and a trip to Boston he wants to take and wants to know how she’s doing too, and if she gets a chance, they should meet up and talk, just to catch up, it’s been so long.
Alex puts on a sports bra and shorts and wanders into the kitchen to microwave a cup of water. She pours a little lemon juice in it and opens up her EMT book. To the section with the horror pictures of what lungs look like coated with tar. She imagines Aunt Jessie texting her mom, wanting help in convincing her to stop “destroying her god-given body with that foul-smelling poison.”
Walking to the bus stop, she lights up while still half a block away. It’s a chilly morning and she can see her breath and now the smoke curl. While she waits, an ambulance passes, sirens on, and she follows it with her eyes, envisioning all the juicy injuries and accidents it could be heading towards.
In Los Angeles, it is earthquake weather. It is earthquake weather, and I am falling out of love with you and breaking my own heart trying to pretend I’m not. It is earthquake weather, hazy and congested, thick clots of heat, and I stand in the middle of my backyard watching the tree branches dance in the hot breeze and try to let go. I remember your hot breath on the back of my neck in the middle of the night, remember slow dancing with you below a shamelessly full moon, remember wanting to get closer and closer, close enough to fall forward into the rippling lake of you. I remember your long jawline carving a half circle into my gut, the soft dip of your upper lip precious as a newborn every morning. There is nothing we can do but wait. Dogs bark. My roommate says she can lend me some of her anti-anxiety meds. People say it’s earthquake weather when the air feels velvety and the sun pours down like black coffee, but the truth is, there is no weather below the earth’s surface. We have no way of knowing. We don’t know whose fault it is. We didn’t listen. I sleep with tennis shoes on. I go to a friend’s art opening downtown and look up the entire time, an emergency kit in my purse. The hairs on the back of my arm stand at attention. My roommate and I crunch anti-acids like candy. You wake me at five in the morning with your hardness, fuck me facing the bare white wall. I remember looking at you, talking fast about something in a dark bar in San Francisco, and thinking, this man knows everything, and this man loves me. In my dreams, I am swallowed up by the earth and all you can hear is glass shattering. I get very drunk and call you eight times. You do not pick up. LA is a dry rattling cough. LA is that cottony taste in your mouth when you wake up hungover with your phone in your hand. We sit in silence on the 210, the lights downtown winking at us, and my stomach slices itself into shoelaces of bitterness, tying itself into knots. Your mouth is a long line. I loved you. I loved you so much I took a pregnancy test in the bathroom of a Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley and thought, if I’m pregnant, maybe we’ll keep it. I forget the rest. The earthquake will unzip California down its center, tectonic plates rubbing together like rolling your shoulders back after a long day, like saying out loud what you are scared to admit to yourself, like I don’t love you anymore, like a long black canyon of silence, like finally: relief.
A BODY (A)MAZE
The walls are tense periwinkle tendon like someone's been smoking on the job and all the floorplans got lost in the confusion. Like we decided arteries make for great architecture so they made these four dovetails rest on a sigh; I think there’s a fault line beneath my bed. I think memory is like packing a list and watching as unfurling it shows how blank it can become. I think i can't remember my dreams. I think im still having them. I’ve been spilling seeds before sleep and all these knotted cherry stems are growing around like they own the place. this is another space ive regretfully made for fallopian metaphors. One day i woke up and ive felt tired ever since; one night i went to sleep with all my teeth a-sweating and awoke to all this hair. When i part it to the left i can breathe without calves tingling of suspicion; When I part it to the right i can laugh in that pitch that makes you think of hairless youth. Most of the time I’ll just lie there between tickling&itching about dreams i cant remember. What lives in between locks of hair? Cause there's a whole lot of space between mine and its keeping me awake at night wondering if i should be saying hello. What's it like to be a home? Im living a new life with every closed door, im birthing selves that tumble out of four walls, a rushed job that sits helter-skelter on the sidewalk right along the way to work and i don't know any routes to avoid seeing it. I think this, like all of this, might be one big question about the different ways things might taste in the outside of the inside. What does it mean that i've never received a text in my dreams? I think it might say alot about what it means to have expectations. Sometimes i forget where i am but that's okay since you gave me these months to remember i'm doing a really good job knowing what time we’re both living in. I want to show you all the things i’ve collected, i want to lay them out in front of rocks by the sea, i want to find the right placement of them next to each other as if to say ‘here’s everything i know about being alive its not alot but i think you’ll appreciate the attention to detail.’ Maybe we could spend nights next to the sea and harvest all the tree bones that wash ashore. Maybe we could build a house ourselves. I could shave off all this hair and everyone could find a space between the locks to live in. I could say hello how are you doing out there. And they would say oh we’re well, things are feeling good again.
I HAVE THIS PICTURE OF ME
UNDEFINED RELATIONSHIP #12
You said we shouldn’t make out anymore.
Two days later I got a yeast infection.
My GYN is texting: ¿Todavía te arde?
My plan is to impose loneliness on you,
in a headstand, breast to clavicle.
When you get a really nice rejection letter,
it’s like a guy thought you were awesome
but fell in love with someone else.
You’d made a list, it went: supportive, hot,
intelligent, knows what he wants to do
and does it.
The no pile clings to that warmth
in the other room.
¿Ya se te quitó el ardor o continúa?
Like a feather not quite grazing.
Do you miss me yet?
I’m doce horas por tres días
swigging a can of Best Sweet Tea.
How much it had mattered
to catch a cool
worth pausing for.
THE TIME I REALIZED I WASN'T WHITE
I was nine and Grandma Miller introduced me
at the San Diego Pentecostal church.
I politely kissed her white friend
on the cheek, to everyone’s shock,
and burned a red backdrop
to my freckles.
A few years after my quinceañera
my Spanish boyfriend
algo en las estructuras que no va
flattened my accent in a cove of love
a woman’s grievances
folded in papers he’d lock away
Feminism’s just a petty excuse
for my voice silenced
from radical to analyst
from beacon to branded
from brilliant to affirmative action
from man to woman.
I hide my phony diploma
behind my leg
check from the side of my eye
if anyone’s looking.
The white boy couldn’t get in anywhere
because he was a white boy.
The time I was most white was when at twenty-five
I capitalized on your adolescence in Virginia
knew your South Asian wouldn’t let you
say no to me.
That’s the time I saw myself in you.
The time I was least white was when in Mexico
a white man took my work
and didn’t invite me to the party.
In Spain at twenty-two
my teacher called Latin America
an insult to language
in front of ten women and an institution
that said the sun would do enough
to dry me.
One time I wasn’t white and
was at nineteen in New York
when Becca Stein said the Spanish street names
in my poem were disorienting
like is this Arizona or Mexico
because the way you’ve situated the text
—to a white woman.
The time I felt most white was when
at eighteen I read David Foster Wallace on SWE
The time I felt least white was when
The time I felt least white was when
people only care
if your camera won’t show your color negative
if you can afford a camera, SWE, BMW, 401K.
The time I was least white was when
insurance is only for residents
and they pick up the phone and say who’s speaking
And I say María Fernández.
The time I felt least white was when
I had a skinny iced latte in Polanco
and my girlfriends said Chicanos
weren’t really Mexican.
The time I felt most white
was when I laughed along.
BOYS ARE LIKE HOUSES IN A BIRACIAL, TRANSCONTINENTAL STATE
Two stuffed bags. A closet arranged from purple to black, customary in Columbia dorms. Chucked an exam hangover into six human-sized boxes, followed by five-dollar margaritas spewing me blue on a viscid wood floor: six legs, three tongues, multiple smartphones testifying. Then an apartment furnished to eat at the liver, pinching it tight like money. Street finds to compensate: scrubbed record shelves, an impressionist yard framed in gold. My roommate’s thick glasses, eraser dust, notes almost rebooking the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Seven choking perfume spritzes, for luck.
Two hovering years. Adrià mutated from vellum to liberty, swan song eight times through the Caribbean. Multiplied his specter into nine human-shaped deposits, followed by muscles ticking me blue on my phone: indigent, deaf-eared, pinched in a heartbeat of lubricated ego. Then hypochondria spews herpes from whitescreen to skin, harking me back to his question. Street finds to compensate: a Texan jock, a cult child, Adonis stealing his pinesmell. Erased to a new stability, a gust of wait, the future scudding out on overstretched tentacles. Left a sludge slipway, for luck.
Two potioned poems. Concocted relationships cursing my drive from genesis to mud, buried nine ribs down from atonement. My brain vacuumed into human-sizing mirrors, followed by tweezers clipping me red on a cortisone lake: YouTube yoga, insomniac, a sallow bed of cesspooled escapism. Then twenty-seven strands of rejection letters, pinning a desiccated moth to a millennial sense of purpose. Metaphysical steals to compensate: a poem Mónica de la Torre wrote in my dream, God’s voice channeled through a grimy garrafón, a therapist. Churned by a threat cue choked in shoelace, a propulsion cradled in tissue flesh, clouds spelling tedium to amaranth. Oiled ten hands in violet, for luck.
there is a thought of you
showing up in mexico
clutch two fingers on yours
in a cab
but the current seeps
echoes of footsteps
i put the kettle on
and purple afterlights
exist in spite of us
the way you hug me
a smoked chicken
at the center of a birthday cake
our walls frame the one space
so we cross our
to a five-month atlantic
where we send each other poems
just to say you’re beautiful
Old fashion is the malong Yasmin’s mother keeps tucked away in her closet. It smells like the soil after rain visits--petrichor, her mother tells her, the land blessed after a dry spell—and there are little spiders making homes in the edges, little bridges connecting the fabric to the wood. She tells Yasmin she will wear it on her wedding day. Yasmin thinks I do not want to be buried alive.
Old fashion is Yasmin’s father telling her what to wear and what not to wear. No crop tops, men turn away from the eyes of God to flashes of flesh; no shorts, the flesh is the Devil’s work; no mini skirts, the Devil and his army have led men to their damnation through the flesh for centuries. Yasmin takes to hiding the shorts and the skirts (she didn’t think she could pull off crop tops, they didn’t jive with her) amidst her dresses and pants and jeans and hijabs.
Old fashion is one of Yasmin’s babus—aunts—repeating what the Christians say about men loving men and women loving women: Our Lord the Most Merciful did not create man and man to grow the land, nor did He made woman and woman to name the beasts in the Garden. Family dinners get awkward every night the conversation circles around it. Yasmin can feel herself shrinking to the size of a pea. She always finishes first, excuses herself, locks herself in her room and asks the Most Merciful if He really hated people like her.
New fashion is the new girl in her class. Her name is Tala--my parents thought I was born from a star, you know—and Yasmin can feel herself falling into somewhere with a light that warms the cages of her heart. Tala and Yasmin become friends as soon as they meet. Tala is a sun on a cloudy day, her laugh echoing with the air all around them.
Tala meets Yasmin’s parents. They like her. Neither Yasmin nor Tala speak of the flowers blooming on Yasmin’s chest, or the nearly-there clutches of touch shared under the dining table. Yasmin stares too long at Tala as the darkness of the night surrounds her; her parents think she’s worried about the bad men roaming around, Yasmin thinks what if they steal her shine? and that question haunts her sleep and her dreams—coming face-to-face with a Tala desaturated and dim.
New fashion is Tala knocking on Yasmin’s window around the hour where everyone’s asleep. This Tala is not the Tala of her nightmares nor the Tala of her everyday life. The Tala before her is all moonlight and stardust. She touches Yasmin’s face, I didn’t think I’d fall for someone like you slithers inside her head and the smile on Tala’s face is sad, as if this confession is also a finality.
I love you, Yasmin whispers to the pale hand on her cheek. I always will. Tala shakes her head, removes her hand from the other girl’s face. The smile never leaves her face, but Yasmin sees an eternity of melancholy etched skin deep: from the lines on her face, to the shapes framing her hands, to what passes as a heartbeat echoing in a ribcage that’s not there. Always, Tala says, but even forever doesn’t last. Yasmin wonders if there are choirs in the heavens; Tala sounds like she’d be a part of them.
New fashion is an old god forgotten, supposedly sinking into the waters of memory, but sun-warm and a blinding beacon—alive in a way that her heartbeat joins in the chorus of other, pulsing songs.
New fashion is… an old god finding brighter than herself and a young girl learning to take love’s hand in flight.
We talk, just so we don't have to deal with our surroundings.
We talk, because that's how we deal.
She tells me, “We've been through hell and back, but we had some good times, didn't we? Good memories.”
I tell her, “Yes, plenty.”
She asks, “What's your favorite one?”
And I think, and think, and think. And I say, “New Year's Eve, 1999.”
She smiles. She knows.
The looming threat of 2K. Computers were going to collapse. The end of times. The world was going to end.
She remembers that we drove around all evening, exploring the streets in central Mexico, trying to find a restaurant or fast food place that was open. She was trying to handle me, an irritated eleven-year-old, and my sister, a quiet-but-annoyed two-year-old. She was always handling things, and she was a pro at it.
We kept looking. Looking, driving, searching, and I could tell She was trying not to fall apart.
“I've failed as a parent,” She joked back then.
“What if the world does end tonight?”
“We can do this. We'll find something.”
We ended up buying ham sandwiches and cheese croissants from a gas station in the middle of nowhere. We found a bakery on our way home, and bought hours-old pan dulce; conchas, puerquitos, donas. We got five different kinds of soda, and enough dulces to rot our teeth.
“What if the world does end tonight?”
We sat on a blanket in the middle of the living room, and She was trying not to cry. Reminders of a messy divorce were everywhere, and She was trying not to cry. She was doing her best to provide everything for us, and She was trying not to cry.
We watched rom-coms until midnight, the world didn't end, and we laughed and ate and laughed again. I focused on Her face as she blinked back tears, and She ran her fingers through my sister's hair.
I said, “I love you, mom.”
She said, “I love you more. To infinity and beyond.”
Fast-forward, fifteen years later, and we're in a hospital room. Fast-forward, and they're pumping chemicals into Her veins. Fast-forward, and we're talking about our favorite memories as if they're going to disappear if we don't talk about them.
She is starting to forget things, so I remind her of them. My throat is dry from all the talking, and Her throat is dry due to the medication. I sneak in some pan dulce that night, and we eat it under artificial lights, giggling like mischievous little girls.
We had some good times, didn't we?
I say, “I love you, mom.”
She says, “I love you. To infinity and beyond.”
The world doesn't end when she dies, but it sure feels like it.