Riding the A List

Barton Fink

In 1997 the organizers of a conference called Selling To Hollywood invited me to be on that year’s writing panel, The Road To Success. To pick up the honorarium, it was expected that I actually appear at hotel in the Valley where conferees from all over the country had paid for a weekend of hearing from A List producers, directors, agents, lawyers and the likes of me. The occasion called for clean underwear.

Then I fired up my burnt orange, two-door Cadillac with the brushed steel and padded vinyl roof. The Caddy was a classic, made when wetlands were still called swamps. It had an audio system just waiting for an eight-track tape of the Bee Gees, and you could almost land an airplane on the hood, under which came the careless hiss of the fuel injected, four-barrel carb sucking in natural resources like a vampire with hemophilia.

I lived in an oceanfront apartment building, on the wetlands side, and as the Caddy angled up out of the underground garage, blocking my view of everything save hood and sky, a blue heron screeched. The undercarriage must have appeared like a mechanical behemoth rising from the depths. When the center of gravity shifted, joggers and cyclists were scattering. Small children who had never been driven to a play date in anything bigger than a Saab stood agog.

I thought, Boy, do the organizers of this shindig need to update their Rolodexes.

Nine months earlier when I still had some dregs left in my career, I had been invited to the conference. At that time my agent Lawson “I thought he was dead” Beavers called every six months or so to let me know that he was alive but still too busy to talk about any work for me. With a call now three months overdue, I was sure that one of us was terminally ill.

Driving up the 405 North, I wasn’t sure what the future would bring, whether I’d be able to pay overdue rent, but I certainly wasn’t going to chance having to pay for parking. That was one reason I nosed the Caddy into the service parking lot of the hotel and left it for the help to stare at. I slipped through a hedge, put the smell of Dumpsters to my back and sashayed up to the main entrance like I was a citizen of he greatest country on earth and everyone else was an illegal alien. Which was pretty much true up to that point.

Then I found the foyer to the main ballroom where other citizens were milling. The Road To Success session had 45 minutes before start time I could feel butterflies gathering in my belly, and before 45 minutes were up, they all would be skittering off the flight path. What in God’s name was I doing here?!

The bright lights of the panel were a writing team fresh from a hit feature and a three-picture development deal at hundred grand a pop, more if their scripts made it to the screen. They owned a house. The other two panelists were producer/writers, one of whom had a couple of hit series listed in the program notes.

A rule of thumb about entertainment incomes is that producers, directors and series writers own real estate. Writers-slash-nothing and most actors rent. The latter wait tables between pictures while the stars with mansions holiday at Betty Ford. The former—

“Jeff?”

Say my name with some progesterone behind it, and you’ve got my full attention. I turned to a woman. Suddenly the Caddy outside was brand new, and Saturday Night Fever was blasting from the speakers. We talked as if 23 years ago were just last week.

Christine Foster headed the Research and Development Department at Wolper Productions where I cut my teeth in show business. Before I met her, she had been a noviciate in a nunnery in Florida, jumped the wall for Hollywood but remained a devout Catholic. An atheist, I used to tease her mercilessly about religion. Now I was telling her about my conversion and giving her the straight dope about my circumstances.

She told me about her husband, another unemployed writer. She told me about becoming a literary agent and how hard it was to get work for any writer. She said some nice things about Lawson “I thought he was dead” Beavers. She asked me if I knew that she was moderating the upcoming panel.

Frankly, my dear, I was there only for the honorarium. I hadn’t finished reading the program notes posted in the foyer outside the ballroom.

If they’re not broadcasting your license number and asking you to move your car, or requesting that you step out of the aircraft for a full body search, hearing your name on a public address system can be rather pleasant. Once, twice, three times. Christine’s opening remarks were nearly all about me. I was talented, I was a gentleman, I was watching an audience of 300-plus begin to believe that I was the star of the panel.

Christine tossed me the first question. It was like playing slow pitch softball, and I was Hank Aaron. I hit a grand slam laugh line. She asked other panelists questions, but a lot of them were tagged with, “And, Jeff, what do you think?”

Afterwards I could offer only a brief thank-you. Christine had work to go to, and panelists were ushered to separate tables where conferees could line up for face time.

There was a black man who kept waiting off to the side until the very end of the time allotted for one-on-one. He was a reporter for a major daily, meaning that it wasn’t in California. He told me matter-of-factly that he could put a call into The White House and expect President Clinton to either pick up or get back to him within an hour or so.

The thing was, he kept wondering whether he would rather be a screenwriter. I had said some things that, when he read between the lines, made him uneasy about switching careers. What did I really think about writing for television and movies?

Flashback: Vietnam.

Besides girls, that was all we seemed to talk about in college, and at times recreation could be deadly serious too. One night in the common room of my freshman dorm I was playing poker. Across from me was a black man named Bill. We were the only ones left in the hand. It was my turn to fold, call his bet or up the ante. As I fingered what was left of my chips, he said very kindly, “Don’t play any more. Just get up and walk away.”

To Bill I owe the fact that had some money left for other aspects of my misspent youth. There was no way I could pay Bill back for seeing that I was a horrible gambler and relaying the truth as best he could. Perhaps, though, I could return the favor with the reporter.

I told him that nine months ago my Honda had been repossessed. I picked up a $1,200 mechanic’s lien on a Cadillac. It sputtered into the service lot of the hotel like a consumptive checking into a sanatorium. It was now bleeding oil on the pavement. I was praying that it wouldn’t seize up on the Sepulveda Pass when I went home.

I added that I was at least as talented as any other writer on the panel. I had a good agent who worked his tail off for me, but because he hadn’t been able to scare up any business lately, he was too embarrassed to call.

The reporter nodded. That was that.

I had planned to go home but I stuck around for the dinner that the sponsors were giving for the weekend’s panelists. I drank too much wine, my least favorite of adult beverages, but I wasn’t going to pay for drinks at the bar. I danced too long with a woman whose name and story I have both forgotten. I did get home in one piece, however.

Not long afterwards my wife said, “We’ve had our ups and down, but all this time you have provided for me and the children. Maybe now it’s my turn.”

I still work occasionally for relatively low pay but can thankfully report that my wife drives off every morning in a Lexus SUV. Left alone, I sometimes recall when I was an A List writer and a so-so human being. Whenever the conference comes to mind, my being any kind of writer doesn’t matter. I remember some very good people. Even I might have been one of them.