On my second day as a resident of Los Angeles I was told that I would never make it as a writer in Hollywood. His reasoning: “You’re too nice. People like you, writers like you, never last in a place like this.”
He nearly choked on the word “nice,” his gravely voice unaccustomed to positive words. According this guy, “nice” was a negative, a weakness, something that should be surgically removed like a gall bladder, not necessary and sometimes fatal. In his thinking, “nice” negated talent and drive and made any sort of contractual negotiations impossible, which is a death sentence for writers who wanted to avoid becoming homeless. His speech was heavily peppered with expletives, euphemisms, football metaphors and huge vocabulary words that proved his Ph.D. in Linguistics. I had always wondered what an advanced degree in linguistics would get you. There he was, burnt out Hollywood screenwriter, teaching undergrad English for the health insurance and the promise of a steady paycheck, after years of living hard in the fast lane.
He never missed an opportunity to rant about his disdain for Los Angeles, the traffic and air quality, the Hollywood system itself, his tasteless agent, ungrateful sons and an alarmingly long list of ex-wives. He took pleasure in reminding the class that Los Angeles is not only the movie capital of the world, it’s also the porn capital of the world. For this reason alone, we should all go back to where ever it is we came from before Los Angeles can do anymore damage than it already had. Within the first fifteen minutes of meeting him, he asked us to leave, run for our lives while we are all still relatively “normal.” This was my welcome to Los Angeles. I was told it would be best if I left.
After turning in my first assignment, he collected our homework and shuffled through the pile, digging out mine. He read it out loud to the whole class and proceeded to ridicule every single line. Those sitting closest to me started shrinking away from me, thankful it was happening to someone else and fearful because I had looked promisingly competent when I walked in and sat down among them. What would he do to theirs when the time came? By the time he had finished ripping me a new one, I had realized two things. First, I would not be making any lifelong friends in this class. He had single handedly taken care of that for me. Secondly, in his own way, he was criticizing a piece of writing that he felt was worth spending time on. It was just hard to hear over all the cursing and insults. The assignment had been to write a page, introducing ourselves to him. How could there possibly be a wrong answer? In that moment, I decided that I would not, could not, take this lying down. He scribbled something on my paper and handed it back. I took it like I was being dealt a serious hand of poker. He was waiting to see if I would react, to see if I would give up and go home. I glanced quickly at the “A” at the top of my homework and back at him. He cackled and moved to the paper at the top of the pile continuing his bitter diatribe but the class was over and everyone was racing for the door.
The next class, I came in and sat down in the middle of the room. Not one person sat next to me. I’m not kidding. Everyone sat hugging the walls and avoiding eye contact with me. I had become the outcast, the leper.
As I left that night, I turned to him and said, “See you next week.” And then added quickly, “I’m not afraid of you.” I moved quickly toward the door because we both knew that I was, in fact, terrified. I’m really not much of an actor. His laugh followed me out into the dark parking lot.
Two weeks later, he still thought I was far too nice for Hollywood, he started calling me “Pollyana,” and I was enduring his speeches because I needed the grade in order to graduate. It was a Tuesday afternoon, leaving work to sit in traffic to make it to class on time. He called me on my cell phone. He was in the hospital and wanted me to collect the homework and cancel class that week. His voice was different, slightly less gravely, slightly weaker, slightly stoned. I agreed. He thanked me. Maybe that was the difference in his voice, he sounded grateful … and stoned. I remember thinking, as I hung up, “Please God, don’t let him die before he can give me a final grade. I really need to be done with school.” Not my proudest moment. Especially when I found out that congestive heart failure is what put him in the hospital.
He returned to class a week later, same old grouch. This time he fished my paper out of the stack and read it quickly to himself before saying, “Don’t waste my time with your first paragraph or the last for that matter. I may not have that much time left. Just get to the (Insert expletive here) point already. Do us all a favor and spit it out so we can get on with our lives.”
I chose to take this as his way of saying, “Pretty good, Pollyana.” As I left that night, still friendless, he asked if I had ever read “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. I hadn’t. He said that my writing was sort of reminiscent of Bradbury’s memoir before launching into the story of how he and Bradbury had become friends long ago. He described Bradbury as a saint that he prayed to, hoping for some sort of redemption. He described himself as a loathsome sinner in comparison that only his Grandmother, “God rest her soul,” could love.
“Does this explain the trail of ex-wives?”
He laughed and praised his Grandmother for her faith in God and unfailing love for him. He may have been waiting for me to tell him things would be all right and ward off death for another night. I really wanted to hear more about Ray Bradbury.
“Really? You and Bradbury?”
“Oh yeah, our boys used to play together in the yard while he and I sat in his studio reading each other’s work. He still lives in the same house off Pico Avenue …”
“No one is out of God’s reach, even you. It’s one of God’s main characteristics.” is all I could think to say.
Now he was ending his classes with a remark about how he might be dead before our next class meeting. God does answer prayer, even my selfish ones from time to time. After every class we would end up talking about his life. I began asking him questions. I’d moved on from Bradbury. He had been on the set of Goonies, wrote The Mask, the one with Cher not Jim Carrey. He and Nick Nolte used to be drinking buddies and he met with Frank Capra just before he died. Frank Capra. This was far more exciting. He described himself as someone who lived hard, had too much fun and was currently paying the price. He described himself as someone who was used up and had very little to show for it, a couple ungrateful sons, a money grubbing tasteless agent, a trail of ex-wives whose houses he was still paying for and a body that was falling apart.
“You still have enough to rip apart my work.”
He laughed, “Your work is sharp.”
On the night of the final exam, still friendless except for the professor with congestive heart failure, I turned in my essay and collected my things to leave and he followed me outside. He shook my hand.
“It’s been a pleasure.” He said as he lit a cigarette, “You are one of a kind. It’s just so rare to meet women like you in this hell-hole. And I wanted to thank you for being in this class and for helping when I was on my deathbed …” Just as I was starting to get embarrassed and trying not to breathe his smoke, he continued, “I still think you should leave. Los Angeles is no place for you. Los Angeles eats people like you, artists like you, for breakfast.”
“Godspeed to you, too.”
I walked to my car and sat in traffic all the way home, clutching an “A” in my hot little hands and I realized something bizarre. English teachers usually took one look at me and told me I could write. They very rarely even corrected anything I turned in. A “nice job” does not make you better. Feedback does. This Professor forced me to be less precious and far more precise with words. He questioned every word I wrote and I fought hard for every sentence.
“Are you really going to sit there and tell me the world would be a better place if we all would just take the time to think good thoughts?”
“No. I said, if we would just recognize that it’s very rarely about us as individuals…”
“Why didn’t you write that?” He would interrupt.
This fight was fun. Suddenly, writing was more fun. I never expected it from a guy who started the first night of class with, “Get the hell out of Los Angeles while we still had a shred of talent and or decency.”
Sometimes, nice girls do finish first.