Driving from Santa Monica into the San Fernando Valley I’ve received two warnings from my would-be-actor guide on what I should expect at the pool party we’re going to. Like everyone else in Los Angeles I already have my own expectations—tanned, glamorous people from ‘the Industry’ congo-lining around a gleaming blue pool straight out of Melrose Place.
Warning Number One: When we drive into the Valley (the place in Clueless no one is willing to go) that it’s going to feel ‘like someone has turned a hairdryer directly onto your skin.’ Warning Number Two: I may have to play Singstar before I can enjoy the aforementioned barbeque because our host, Karen, is obsessed with karaoke.
Sloping down one of the winding roads chaperoned by dead, dry grass and mountain ranges I figure we’ve officially made it to the Valley. It actually is ten degrees hotter, as if the mountains are keeping the heat out of the rest of the city. I thought LA was flat. I thought everywhere was green. I thought, since I paid for the meat and drinks at the discount Mexican grocer, that I would be able to enjoy them sans–Singstar performance.
My two guides, Jeremy, a NIDA drop-out from Australia who looks like Jude Law and his girlfriend, Meagan, an Oregonian who looks like she took the wrong turn on the way to Bible camp, are both actors. He is driving with one hand on the wheel, lazily cool while he strokes Meagan’s skinny white thigh. He’s always been slick; he even dated a Cougar who was in a Special K ad and the host of an extremely popular music quiz-show.
Jeremy’s tuned to the country-music station, singing to Toby Keith between pointing out what appears on every street corner in the Valley.
‘Fried chicken restaurant,’ he drawls. He gestures over the steering wheel with as much nonchalance as Jack Sparrow navigating the Black Pearl. ‘Bails Bonds, liquor store, and a shoe store. On every street corner in the Valley you’ll find those.’
The bitumen is hazy like in Mad Max, how could so many people want fried chicken in this heat?
‘Oh I forgot to tell you, when we were driving through Malibu…’
‘You know Nicholas Brandon? Xander from Buffy? One day I was going for a surf, and he totally just bam! Pops out of the water in front of me and I’m like ‘dude, you look familiar’ and he’s like ‘yeah, dude… I’ve been on a TV show.’ And then it hit me, fucking Xander from fucking Buffy. Really nice guy, we chatted for a while, said he was working on some projects.’
Meagan’s line: ‘Everyone in this town says that.’
‘But you can’t trust anyone who says that, the real people with ideas don’t go around telling people, they keep them to themselves less some asshole steals it…’ Jeremy grizzles. He recounts a story where this happened to a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend of his.
We pull up into the apartment building, a huge, snaking complex of white-walls that becomes increasingly nondescript the further we go in. It’s like a miniature version of the Universal Studios lot, but without anything interesting.
Eventually we park alongside the pool. It’s desolate, like a movie set that’s wrapped for lunch leaving nothing but the breeze to tickle the surface of the water, chaise lounges forgotten in the sun. It still looks enticing though and I want to get out of the grey t-shirt I’m wearing. The hairdryer effect has me sweating. If there’re babes around I don’t want to look like I’m going for an audition as the ‘before’ guy in a deodorant commercial.
Up plastered stairs that collapse when I step on them and into the apartment. It’s not the same as the ones in Melrose Place but not too far off, a dwelling filled with thirty-something years of feminine knick-knacks. No Oscar on the mantle piece. No Grammy in the bathroom. No Emmy atop the TV. But the Singstar microphone snakes out from the Playstation.
Karen, our host is as loud and overbearing as Pamela Anderson is buxom. Yet she’s kind and welcoming, hospitable to a tee. In the cramped kitchen, a big black guy is frying hand-made potato chips and churning guacamole, the greasy goodness wafting into the atmosphere.
‘Smells good huh? I’m LeRoy,’ he coos, slapping my hand. ‘You’re from Australia? No shit man, welcome, welcome.’
After Jeremy politely introduces me to Bill, the out-of-work musician living there, the drinks are finally on. Out on the balcony, Karen, who sounds like a smoky Lauren Bacall, lights a thin Vogue cigarette and introduces me to Callum, some kid she works with.
‘At the jazz club?’ I ask.
‘At Barnacle’s,’ Callum tells me. ‘The restaurant.’
‘Jeremy told me you were a jazz-singer.’
‘Oh I am,’ Karen murmurs with smoky jaws. ‘Just between gigs.’
‘Probably why you kick-ass on Singstar then.’
Things become instantly tense. Jeremy tries to alleviate the cold frown forming on Karen’s bushy eyebrows by letting out a white-toothed chuckle. ‘We were joking with Matt on the way here about how you liked karaoke.’
‘Yeah,’ I say, chiming in with a smile. ‘I thought I’d have to sing for my supper.’
With practiced contempt Karen flicks the ash from her cigarette. ‘Oh no, I’m not into that anymore.’ She squeezes back inside past LeRoy to pull the second bottle of vodka from the freezer before disappearing in the direction of the bathroom.
Being pretty certain Karen is drowning her sorrows over the toilet bowl, Meagan suggests going for a swim before lunch. I ask LeRoy if he wants to join us.
‘Chocolate melts in the sun, brother!’ he cackles after me.
Mental note: Don’t stereotype, but LeRoy may have drugs on him.
When we go back upstairs for lunch we find Karen, waitress/sometimes jazz singer, has indeed been crying in the bathroom for the past hour and won’t sit down with us. She also won’t tell us whatever is bothering her. In not wanting to stereotype anyone, that’s all that I’m presented with, not even the glamorous cocaine ridden stereotypes, but less noteworthy, not even given the chance at starlight self-destruction. The out-of-work musician is tuning his guitar forlornly, Callum is telling me about a reality TV show he was on, Jeremy is trying to keep the peace inside a tumbler of rum and Meagan is spouting off about the importance of family and friends. Remembering what’s real, is what counts, not acting success. Not a star on Hollywood Boulevard, no, no one wants that. Her last acting job was a promotional video for Scientology.
‘It was so freaky when they started talking about aliens coming down and living inside us, that’s when we got the hell outta there,’ Jeremy tells me, still patting Meagan’s thigh, as if his touch could shoo away the crinkles in her eyes, the thinning hair and skin that can’t capture a tan.
‘Aren’t you in Landmark? Isn’t that like Scientology?’
‘I’m a recruiter for Landmark,’ Meagan pipes up. ‘It’s nothing like a cult, it’s about personal awareness.’
Speaking of personal awareness, after I’ve cleared the plates and it’s Karen’s turn to eat her separate lunch, LeRoy and I sneak onto the balcony to smoke a joint.
Finally, something I was expecting.
‘Producing is all about the line man,’ he tells me, waving the joint around like a baton but conducting nothing but his own laughter. He hands it to me and lays his hand flat in the space between us, his other poking above or below this line while speaking. ‘See, up here, you got your directors, your studio bosses, your actors, and below, you got everyone else, your grips, lighting guys, camera guys, and then there I am, you see?’ He wriggles the hand that is meant to be the ‘line’. ‘There, that’s me, the line between all these guys, making sure everything runs smoothly.’
He leans forwards, spying Jeremy pack our towels into a backpack as Karen
lounges drunkenly over the piano, preparing her voice for the ensuing sing-along, and asks: ‘Yo, can you give me a lift to the bus stop? I’ve got to get back to the motel on skidrow.’
No gleaming condo for this producer. No stage for the jazz singer and her musician friend. No spotlights for the actors. No glamorous pool party for the tourist. No glimpse below the LA skyline, no indication that anything I’ve been taught by American TV shows and movies actually exists here, just the heat and battered egos without anyone to stroke them.
We wrap up the evening in the air-conditioned cool of a movie theatre. As the advertisements roll on screen I glance down to fish some popcorn from my lap.
‘Ah man, you just missed it,’ Jeremy says.
I look up at an ad for a soft drink I’ve never heard of, a bus stop of people waiting to get their hands on it, but only for a split second before the image is replaced with a beautiful blonde downing a can.
‘That was me, Guy in Suit at Bus Stop, on the end there,’ he explains.
‘There you are on the big screen, baby. You made it,’ Meagan grins.
In the end, all we ever had were expectations, dangerous, deceitful dreams that dissolve as quickly as ads roll across a movie screen. The only thing left to do is get lost inside the movie, reinforcing the fantasy to stave off our drowsy reality.