AUTHOR’S NOTE: Three years ago, I received an email from an old college classmate. He wanted me to write a memoir about the time he spent in Hollywood from 1988–1992 trying to become a screenwriter. He felt his experiences might help anyone who migrates to Los Angeles chasing dreams. I was skeptical at first, but as we talked, I became fascinated by his sordid adventures. What you’re reading is a serialization of his story.
Los Angeles. Year three. I signed up with Fishman Personnel, a venerable employment agency that placed workers in temporary jobs so shitty no one could endure them for long.
My first assignment was at William Morris, the oldest talent agency in America. I reported to the WMA building in the heart of Beverly Hills thinking I might fill in at an assistant’s desk or spend the day in the mailroom. If I got lucky, I might even slip an agent Sunny Goldberg or Hot Jazz.
A woman from human resources greeted me in the main lobby. “You’re the temp from Fishman.”
“You’ll be working for Carlos Alvarez here.”
“Is he an agent?” I asked.
“We’re all one team at William Morris.” The human resources administrator led me into an elevator that went down, not up. “Carlos will tell you all about your job today. Good luck.”
The elevator doors opened. I walked out into the fluorescent-lit tomb of the William Morris parking garage. Ten feet away, I spotted a man holding a bucket and a spray bottle of Windex.
“I was told to report to Carlos Alvarez,” I said.
“You’re looking at him.”
“I’m your temp for the day.”
“About time,” Carlos said. “We need to get all these babies vacuumed, washed, and gassed before the one o’clock lunches. One spot on the windows and we’ll get our asses chewed.”
“I’ll be washing cars?” I asked.
“Cars don’t wash them themselves.” He handed me the keys to a Mercedes. “Make sure you leave the glove box alone.”
“I won’t touch it.”
“You better not,” Carlos said. “It’s filled with drugs. Weed, coke, quaaludes, bennies, poppers, ups, downs. Most of these cars have giant stashes. They’re like rolling pharmacies ready to please the big clients. So don’t mess with that. Just spic and span. Now get moving. We only got three hours until game time.”
That winter and spring, I worked over forty different temp jobs, none lasting more than a day or two. This wasn’t why I left Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles: to remove labels from U-matic videocassettes or spend ten hours a day feeding old legal documents into a paper shredder.
It was time to write another screenplay.
I mulled over stupid ideas for weeks, but nothing sparked. Then I saw the trailer to Ghost and bam! Like that, a movie began to take shape in my mind.
One month later, I was hard at work on my new script when Ruth, my agent at Fishman Temps, called.
“Got an easy assignment for you today,” she said.
I shuddered. The last time Ruth said that, I spent the day at Universal Studios cleaning a female executive’s breast pump. Beyond the weird factor, it stank of sour humanity.
“I’m kinda busy right now,” I told Ruth.
“If you don’t want to work, I’ll call somebody else. But I thought of you because you’re a writer.”
“What’s the gig?”
“A manager needs someone to run a package to a client. He’s an Oscar-winning screenwriter.”
I perked up. This was the most promising assignment Ruth had offered me. “Where do I go?”
“Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, near Tower Records.”
“When do I need to be there?” I asked.
“Twenty minutes ago.”
I grabbed a pen and paper. “What’s the address?”
A modern office. Steel walls. Concrete floor. An assistant talent manager handed me a bulging catalog envelope. There were several videotapes inside in addition to some paperwork.
“Take that package. It goes to Eli Hirsch’s house.” The assistant spoke slowly, like she was addressing a retarded third-grader. “The address is on the envelope. Do not leave it at the door. Hand the envelope to him personally. Have him sign the contracts and bring those back to me. Eli will also give you video rentals to return. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I understood. I returned to my car.
After looking up the address in my Thomas Guide map book, I took Sunset Boulevard to the ocean, then drove up Pacific Coast Highway. When I came to Topanga Canyon Boulevard, I turned right and headed north. I crested over the Santa Monica Mountains and eventually descended into the San Fernando Valley.
Eli Hirsch lived in West Hills, one of the more affluent neighborhoods of the Valley. His house was identical to every fourth house on his block. I parked in his driveway, climbed out of my Civic, and rang his bell.
Nothing. I rang it again. Again, nothing.
So I knocked. The door wasn’t fully closed. It eased open. I stepped inside.
Air conditioning hit me. It was welcome relief from the Valley’s heat.
“Hello?” I called out, loudly. “Mr. Hirsch? Is anybody home?”
A weak voice moaned from another room. “Who let you in?”
“The door was open,” I said. “I have a delivery from your manager’s office.”
“Just leave it.”
“I need to hand it to you personally. There are some contracts for you to sign. I also have some videos for you.”
“Goddamn, I’ll be there in a minute.”
I stood in the foyer, looking at his house. A weird medicinal stink hung in the air. The living room was a mess. Dishes and newspapers were scattered everywhere. The walls were bare. The bookshelves were empty, save for a few family photos. So this is how an Oscar-winning screenwriter lives. Like a rat.
A toilet flushed. Eli Hirsch emerged from a bathroom and shuffled down a hallway in measured baby steps, an intravenous drip-bag fed a needle in an emaciated forearm. “I don’t wish this on anybody.”
He was a tiny man, not at all what I expected. Clothes hung on his withered frame.
“Goddamn chemo’s supposed to be killing the cancer. Killing me instead. Which Nazi invented this stuff anyway?”
“I’m just a messenger,” I said.
“Who sent you again?”
“Your manager’s office.”
“Heartless bastards. You know what’s in that envelope?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Contracts that allow my lawyers to make residual income off my creativity long after I’m dead. What do you think of that?”
“Seems unfair,” I answered, uneasily.
“You got that right. So fuck the contracts. What videos did they send?” Mr. Hirsch gestured feebly. “Open it up.”
I unwound the string ties on the envelope and pulled out two videocassettes. “City Lights and Sherlock, Jr.”
“Two silent gems.” Hirsch nodded.
“Can I ask you something?”
“If you’re quick. I’m gonna have to shit again soon.”
“How did you win your Oscar?” I said.
“I know, but I’m a writer, too. Did you know your script was Oscar material when you started working on it? Or did it take you by surprise?”
“You want advice?” Eli Hirsch scowled.
“I’m just curious.”
“Here’s my advice: get a colonoscopy when you’re fifty. It might save your life.”
I visited Eli Hirsch every other day for the next four weeks, making deliveries as his manager locked down the rights to Hirsch’s intellectual property, postmortem. The last time I saw Eli was in the Cancer Center at Northridge Hospital. He was propped up on a bed in the terminal ward. Tubes were stuck in his body. His eyes were sunken, lifeless, and black-rimmed. They flickered in recognition as I walked into the room.
I turned on the television and popped a tape in the VCR. “Got you Chaplin’s Limelight. Only movie he made with Buster Keaton.”
“Sam?” came a faint whisper.
“Yes, Mr. Hirsch?” I moved to his bed and leaned against the cold metal rail.
Eli’s chapped lips quivered. “You still want to know how to win an Oscar?”
He struggled to his elbows. I leaned in closer.
“It’s all lies and bullshit,” he choked. “That’s the secret.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
“Lies and bullshit. Give the people what they crave. Because nobody wants to hear the truth.”
Eli Hirsch died the next morning.
(to be continued…)