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.
Herb Kane’s class met twice a week. One month into the semester, he pounded his fist on the table as I read aloud from my latest effort.
“I’ve had enough of this fiddle-fucking around!” Herb snarled. “Don’t waste my time coming to class if gorilla dung is all you can deliver.”
“Is it that bad?” I asked.
“Too many clichés.” Then Herb softened. “Robert Zemeckis had the same lazy tendencies when I taught him. But then I kicked his ass, and Bob wrote Back to the Future.”
“Could you tell it would become a blockbuster?” Matt asked.
“His first draft was a mess.” Herb looked out the window wistfully, lost in possibility. “But good writing is like fine Champagne. One hint of the real thing and you know it.”
“Does anything taste like Champagne in our class?”
Herb snapped back to the present. “Nope, more like cheap beer.”
In the hallway after class, Matt Steele asked me, “You ever notice how much Herb talks about alcohol?”
“Maybe he’s an alcoholic,” I said.
“You’re missing his point. If we want to be real writers, we need to start hitting the booze.”
“Sounds like a bad idea.”
“The giants of literature all drank heavily. Faulkner was a whiskey lover, Fitzgerald a gin man, and Hemingway a big fan of absinthe. Booze was the secret to their success.”
“But I don’t drink,” I said.
Matt looked at me like I just shit my pants. “How is that even possible?”
“It’s how I was raised. I come from a very strict family.”
“You’ve got a lot to learn, Sam.” Matt shook his head sadly. Then his eyes crinkled into a smile. “Fortunately, I know a great bar.”
That night, Matt Steele parked his Honda Civic at Bamboo Kitchen, a Thai restaurant with a trendy bar area. He grabbed my arm before we entered.
“You’re gonna need this. Memorize it.” Matt handed me a driver’s license belonging to a man named Juan Rodriguez.
“Who’s Juan?” I asked.
“You are. It’s so you can be twenty-one and get served.”
I stared at the license. The picture barely resembled me. “But this is obviously fake.”
“Nobody cares, Sam. Everything’s fake in L.A. and everyone loves it. The city is built on fake.”
Matt Steele flashed me his deal-closing grin, and we walked inside.
Bamboo Kitchen was furnished in postmodern décor with orange and green neon lights snaking along the walls. A stereo played techno. Most of the gorgeous waitresses were Thai or Vietnamese. They scurried around dinner tables in skimpy dresses while older white guys eyeballed them from the bar.
A beautiful Thai hostess took us to a table where napkins were folded like Asian fans. We sat and studied the drink menu. A waitress in a skimpy black dress came over to take our cocktail order. She was the only Caucasian woman working in Bamboo — a snow-blonde bombshell with Nordic features, long legs, and an impish grin.
Matt ordered a whiskey, and I asked for a glass of wine.
“Red or white?” our waitress said in a Slavic accent.
I shrugged. “Either is fine.”
“Give him a merlot,” Matt cut in.
“Sure, a merlot.” I closed my drink menu and set it on the table.
“I need to see your ID.” The snow-queen waitress held out an open palm.
I handed over my fake driver’s license. She pretended to study it for a moment, then returned it to me. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
The waitress drifted away. Matt and I couldn’t take our eyes off her as she crossed the dining area.
“Her breasts are perfect,” Matt babbled. “Double black diamond slopes. Your life goal should be to put your penis in that girl.”
“She knows my ID is fake.”
“Big fucking deal. So are her tits. When she comes back, get her number.”
“I can’t,” I repeated without looking up from my menu.
“James Dickey would. Hunter Thompson would. Sam Reuben will.”
I waved Matt off. “Forget it.”
“What’re you afraid of? Banging your cock on the pearly gates as you enter that little piece of heaven?”
I looked at our waitress. She was chatting with the bearded bartender, the only other non-Asian working in the place. She was spookily beautiful, and she knew it.
“She can go home with any guy in here,” I told Matt. “She’d laugh at me.”
“I don’t see anyone else asking her out.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’ve got five girls on tap right now,” Matt informed me. “Get her number. Just ask her.”
I lowered my voice and admitted to Matt, “I literally don’t know how.”
“You’ve never picked up a girl before?”
I knew sooner or later, I’d have to tell Matt the truth about my past. Now was as good a time as any. “I’m from Brooklyn.”
“All Jews from Brooklyn are supposed to be lady killers, like the Beastie Boys. What’s the problem? ”
“Not the Jews in the Borough Park neighborhood.”
“And?” Matt said, drawing me out.
“I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. We weren’t totally isolated from the world, like the Amish, but it was damn close.”
Matt’s eyes widened with disbelief. “You’re Hasidic?”
“Not anymore, but it’s how I was raised.”
“You’re shitting me. You wore the funny hats, the crazy sidelocks, the whole deal?”
I was surprised. “You know about Hasidism?”
“Every Jew knows a bit. Most of us can’t afford to be so old-fashioned. It’s a dead end.”
I studied Matt’s chiseled features. “You don’t even look Jewish.”
“You thought Matt Steele is for real? My last name is actually Mendelovitch.”
“You’re kidding me. Why’d you change it?”
Matt gave me an exasperated expression. “You have to ask? Matthew Mendelovitch is a bookkeeper. But Matt Steele is a man of action, and Hollywood loves men of action. I can teach you to be a man of action, if you want.”
“Okay, I came to L.A. to learn.”
“How long have you been ex-Hasidic?” Matt asked.
“A few months officially, but it was years in coming. It’s not a decision you make overnight. Frankly, I had no choice.”
“Must be hard on you, leaving the tribe.” Matt drummed his chopsticks.
“Going away to college has helped. Everybody starts fresh at USC.”
Matt Steele shifted the chopsticks to his left hand and grasped my forearm with his right. “I see great things for you, Sam Reuben. Shedding your past and embracing the call to adventure are the most important steps in a hero’s journey. But next you must seduce beautiful women. You probably didn’t get much practice in Borough Park.”
“The only pussy back there is arranged-marriage pussy.”
“Good thing I met you before more damage was done. See our gorgeous waitress?” Matt tilted his head in her direction. She was at the bar, flirting with a customer now. “When she comes back, say you’re a director and you want her to star in your next movie.”
“She might not be an actress,” I said.
“A woman that looks like that in L.A. is either an actress or a hooker, maybe both. Either way, your dick wins.”
(to be continued…)