The airport cab that came for me was a blue Prius which confused me because the name of the taxi company was Little Green Taxi. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. I jumped in the back. The cabby’s name was Justin. He was just a kid. He had been to school for business and he’d gotten a job in sales and then he’d quit the job and joined the Peace Corps and now he was living in LA and writing screenplays. “Which hotel are you going to?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “They didn’t tell you?”
I had been wondering how one might dress if one were traveling to LA and planning to meet with big time Hollywood movie producers. But these musings were moot because I didn’t have much choice. I could either dress in my one and only suit, or I could have the jeans and sports coat look. Or I could go khaki and oxford. Or I could dress in my work uniform. I went with the khaki and oxford look. And then brought my one and only sports coat. And then some jeans just for the hell of it. When you’re a happily married air conditioning repair man living in Iowa, you don’t much care how you look because it doesn’t matter. You’re not trying to impress anyone. If you’re lucky, you work for an outfit that buys your uniforms, and that’s what you wear for five of the seven days in a week. Then there’s Sunday, and you wear your suit or sports coat. That leaves Saturday. Which doesn’t really matter. If you start losing your hair, you need to wear a hat so the top of your head doesn’t get sun burned in the summer or cold in the winter. If you gain a few pounds, you buy bigger pants. If your teeth start to go crooked, you try not to show them when you smile. If you forget to shave, it’s okay. The equipment doesn’t care. But LA, I thought, might be different. Yes. I was quite sure that LA would be different.
A few years ago, our family went through a big change. Until that point in my life, I had gone along with the idea that more money is better than less money. And that a bigger house is better than a smaller house. And that more things are better than fewer things. But then I changed my mind. Following the philosophy of American Dream was not making me happy. In fact, it was making me miserable because I was spending a vast majority of my time either working to make more money or worrying that I wasn’t making enough money to pay for the things I had already bought. I decided there were two ways to go: either I needed to make so much money, that I wouldn’t need to worry about money anymore, or I could change my philosophy.
Because changing my philosophy was easier than earning a vast fortune, I went that route. We got rid of our house. We quit our jobs. We gave away most of our stuff. And we decided to “live simply.” We went to Massachusetts and rented an apartment in one of the more tony suburbs (we needed to live there because they had good schools), didn’t find work, ran out of money. Then I took a job back in Iowa. We moved back, and now live in a very modest house on 10th Street in Coralville.
Last week, Deb told me we owed fourteen hundred dollars to the Federal Government for income tax. I wondered aloud how we were going to get that money. It doesn’t feel like we’re living all that simply. We still worry about money. And I still work a lot. It’s a drag making less money and working for someone else rather than for myself. The experiment isn’t over yet, but the preliminary results are in and they're far from conclusive. I’m thinking of changing my philosophy again. Especially after my trip to Santa Monica.
The cabby drops me off at The Shore Hotel, which is very nice and looks like it was built out of gigantic glass Legos. The furniture is retro mid-century. Sparse like a modern art gallery. The woman behind the desk says she needs an ID and a credit card. Last year, Deb and I charged both our cards up to ten thousand. And that’s where the credit stopped. So now, we don’t have any credit. I do, however, have a debit card that is attached to a checking account that my wife transferred one hundred and seventy dollars into before I left for LA. I hand the woman my ID and my debit card. She runs the card and frowns. She is dressed in a brown top with a plunging neckline. She is very pretty and well put together and young. “It didn’t go through,” she says. “Do you have another card?”
“Wait a minute,” I say, trying to turn the tables, “why do you need a card?”
“One thousand four hundred dollars for three nights?”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “That should have already been paid for. Don’t you show that it was already paid for?”
She says that no, she doesn’t. I’m feeling a bit like a fool. I tell the woman with the plunging neckline that I’ll call my contact and straighten it out. That’s what I say: “my contact.”
Then I pick up my green, Nike gym bag and my huge, 1990s laptop computer case and walk purposefully outside.
Ocean Ave runs along Palisades Park, a strip of communal green space with benches and palm trees and hard gravel Petanque pits and a wooden fence that runs along the forty foot drop to Route 1 and then the beach. The beach is more than a quarter mile wide, so that by the time you get to the water, you’re more than ready for it. I sit by the ocean and call Jen. Jen is the assistant to the big time Hollywood producers. “I already took care of that!” she says.
“That’s not what they tell me,” I say.
“Really?” she says. “Oh, I’m sorry. That room should already be taken care of. I’ll straighten it out.”
When I lie down, my gym bag and old time computer case at my side, I can feel how strong the California sun is. Even in February. I can feel myself getting happier. My body gathering in that good vitamin D. The waves coming and coming. Those little birds that look like ducks, bouncing around on the surf. Diving down all together at the approach of each wave. What a life! Just sitting there in the water. Diving down. And then doing it again. And doing it again. I wonder if the duck-looking birds worry about things. Not about money. They don’t know what that is. But food maybe. Or maybe their kids. Or maybe an especially big waving coming up and breaking their little necks. Looking back at the high bluff upon which Santa Monica is built, I have to wonder what kind of storm beat back the shore in such a violent fashion. And I have to wonder when such a storm will happen again. I imagine the waves rising up and pounding against that mighty natural sea wall, a quarter mile across the beach, and then across Route 1. Such will be the storms, I imagine, of the end of our days.
There is a line of scraggly looking cottages on the beach side of Route 1 that go for many millions of dollars each. One of the cast members from Friends bought one of them. Maybe it’s Jennifer Anniston. I don’t know. Maybe Jennifer Anniston wakes up and goes for a jog along the jogging path. She takes the quarter mile walk across the white sand to the ocean. She watches the sun set every night. The houses are colorful and hip looking. They’re nice.
On my way back to the hotel, I cross paths with a number of homeless men. One of them gives me a nod. I nod back. Then another homeless guy nods at me. I nod back. Up in Palisades Park, I notice that the pedestrians look away when I approach. One group of Asians actually crosses the path to get out of my way. And it strikes me all of a sudden that I look like a homeless guy.
When Jen straightens out the billing snafu, I check in. The shower is made of glass. You push a button and a privacy shade automatically drops. Jen tells me to help myself to anything I want in the fridge. Wine. Nips. Coke. We share a complimentary glass of champagne on our private balcony overlooking the Pacific. Jen tells me I’ll be meeting the producers for lunch tomorrow at one. She tells me to help myself to anything in the fridge. And then she leaves. I take a long walk in Santa Monica. Along Ocean Ave. Then up Santa Monica Boulevard. Just like the Sheryl Crow song. Deep into Santa Monica, past all the low slung buildings all of muted color and past all the homeless, wandering here and there, sleeping here and there, wheeling their wheelchairs, smoking their cigarettes. Then back again to the ocean. The sun going down now, bright orange against the ocean. The lights on the Ferris Wheel making like a pinwheel now growing brighter. The waves coming in. That sound of the ocean. I wonder what my meeting will be like. It’s the kind of thing some people dream about. A meeting with movie makers. From what I understand, we will spend two days working on my script. I imagine an office with large picture windows facing the surf and a long table with leather chairs and maybe my manuscript broken up into scenes and pasted to one wall. I wonder if I’ll need to shake everyone’s hand. I wonder if my hands will be cold and clammy. This thought makes me nervous and my hands begin to sweat. I try to relax. Thinking that if I can relax now, I’ll be able to relax tomorrow for the big meeting. I wonder if the producers will have straight teeth and full heads of hair. A woman told me I looked like Kenny G. Then she asked me what it felt like to lose my hair. Whether it bothered me or not. She was from California. Do people from California lose their hair? Bruce Willis did.
The hotel has a full gym. I work out. I go to bed early, being on Iowa time. And, being on Iowa time, I wake up early. I take another walk around Santa Monica in the early morning darkness. Watch the darkness melt away to morning. Watch the homeless people wake up. They ask me for money. They ask me for cigarettes. And I give them both. I think about that Whitman quote about giving money to those who ask for it and my body becoming a shining poem. I buy a New York Times and read it. I buy breakfast at a small, dirty place. I order quiche. Which is good.
Jen meets me at the entrance to the office and takes me up. You can’t just walk in off the street. You need a security card. Of course. The office is on the third floor. White walls. Large windows. Ocean views. Sparsely decorated in mid-century furniture. I meet Jeff. We do the handshake / hug thing. I meet Evan. We shake hands. My hands are relatively dry. Evan shows me to the meeting room. There is a long, wooden table and leather chairs and large windows overlooking the ocean and a large balcony and my screenplay, broken up into scenes, pasted to one wall.
When Deb and I are out in public, we’re always looking for movie stars. Not real movie stars. But people who remind us of movie stars. We’ll say, “Hey! Look! There’s Robert De Niro!” And there’ll be an UPS driver delivering a package. We eat lunch at a seafood place on Ocean Boulevard. Evan says, “Hey. Greg Kinnear.” I don’t turn to look. Because if it is Greg Kinnear, I don’t want to bother him. And if it isn’t, I don’t care. I order the chowder. As do the two big time movie producers. We talk about me. And my screenplay. And then me again. I’m enjoying myself. I think it's going quite well. I turn and glance at the bar where Greg Kinnear is eating his lunch. And then back to the big time movie producers. And then to my left, out to the place where the Pacific meets the sky. Where that cool breeze that blows through the open door of the restaurant originates. And all my philosophies about love and simplicity and generosity and charity flicker and waver like a candle flame. Because this is nice. The food is good. And Santa Monica is warm. And the ocean is nice. It’s nice. I look at the way the producers are dressed. Nice. I look at the way Greg Kinnear is dressed. Nice. It’s all nice. And I want this. This is what I want. And in a far distant corner of my mind, a decision is made: We will live here. Someday, we will live here. And I know that in order to make this happen, we’ll either need to have a whole shit ton of cash, or we’ll need to have nothing at all.