UNITED STATES—A dispatch from the fifth day of the Gulf War, “I picked up Betty to clean this house (on Manhattan Place). A crew of Mexicans are digging in the basement of Van Buren, raising the supports, and now the old house is maladjusted: you can barely close the doors. During the day, I showed the room to three people, an actor-teacher from Texas, a red-haired blue-eyed woman from Israel (visiting for a month), a man recently arrived from the San Francisco Bay area, wants to study cinema. Good people. I don’t know if a single one will rent the room.”
The shock of American soldiers waging war in the Mideast quickly wore off, and we became mired, perhaps blessedly so, in the same ‘ol, same ‘ol. Which is a luxury when the world is coming apart at the seams.
Of course Ahmet made it to Los Angeles, safe and sound, with just enough props from Turkey, a rich silken robe and an ornate teapot to keep up the connection with his homeland. He quickly got a set of wheels. He got a bicycle and started going to English classes at Evans school in downtown Los Angeles where Sunset Boulevard turned into Brooklyn Avenue. The school was new and gleaming, a showcase of optimistic 80s institutional architecture, crammed round the clock with students eager to gain citizenship under the Reagan amnesty.
There were new spectacles at 1832 Manhattan Place. For instance, Turkish breakfast, bread with blackberry preserves, very Turkish and very sweet. Ahmet sampled everything with great relish, using a knife alone. It was fascinating to watch. At the kitchen table he and Dee told me about his first job interview. Dee said he was looking for something “white collar”—he was trained in hotel management. When she said “white collar” there was the brave cheer of a woman defending her man.
Ahmet was proud as could be when he got his first job, a few weeks later. Turned out to be at a car wash in Culver City, to which he commuted by bicycle and bus. At Evans, he picked up English, and at the car wash, he picked up the Spanish of the homies, Orale vato, and also picked up spent cartridges in the back seats of some cars he vacuumed.
Meanwhile, I stood at a crossroads, more accurately I was at a crossroads. Acting in Spanish-language theater, going to parties, exhibits, happenings with the friends from Nadeau Drive—a vibrant source of experience and contrast to the gnawing frustration of showing good people rooms that they were too good for. And at the end of the day, you’d end up with these broken winged birds as tenants, often as not.
Meanwhile, the quest for screenplay success continued. There were humbling lessons galore from a commercial project meant to be over and done quickly. But I wasn’t let off the hook so easily. My skilled friends in the screenwriting trade instilled the knowledge—knowledge you’ll never find on the street or even among accomplished “serious” writers—that a good screenplay reaches a literary level, that is, the level of art. My first draft had been deliberately devoid of it and read like a telegram. (I truly expected a pat on the back for all the interpretive leeway I had left, so the filmmakers could infuse their own vision.)
At the same time, I fled commercialism the minute I believed I had “brought home” the screenplay. Here’s the proof: January 1990 entries in my diary resume with vigor and engagement with the world again after naively saving all the emotion for the screenplay. Also, I was writing Spanish poems in Bohemia de Los Angeles, which was a place to perform them and gave me a monthly stimulus to produce.
My sentiments were turning slowly back to Mexico. When I went to the corner panaderia I read “La opinion” every day, all my news was filtered through Spanish. And at that point in history, the years under the Salinas presidency, Mexico did something that Los Angeles is really good at doing: stuff was happening there, the kind of stuff to make you think something is happening and you are missing out. The economy hummed, Lupita Jones was Miss Universe, Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The pull was there south of the border and, secretly, I was already planning my getaway, but not before I gained all the loot from my screenplay.
Grady Miller is a humorist. His comedy fiction cavalcade, “Later Bloomer” debuts on Amazon this month. Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.