Sunset Strip

"All you'll have to do is be your pretty self," the fiftyish fat man assured her with a big smile. The hint of a fatherly wink.

"Go places with me. Premieres and parties; entertain people you need to meet anyway." His tone conspiratorial.

"I'll be back on this stretch in twenty minutes. You can give me your answer then."

He gave the caramel-skinned girl on the curb a nod and leaned back into his plush leather driving seat.

The rising tinted window cut off the young woman's view of his tanned and balding head as he surveyed the traffic behind him on the boulevard.

Then the Rolls pulled away, joining the other cars heading toward Beverly Hills that scorching Friday afternoon.

Hair halfway down her back, her dancer's body clad in black lycra, she took a stumbling step backward.

Her eyes followed the sedan until it rounded the bend at the Chateau Marmont.

She suddenly became aware of her parched mouth, and swallowed hard.

Digging a bottle of water out of her bag, sweat began to trickle down her neck underneath the mound of steamy hair.

Somehow the stranger had keyed into her wrecked state of affairs.

The 24 year old Midwestern girl dropped onto the bus bench.

A good head on her shoulders, university degree in French literature, a loving family and largely untapped performing talent.

Hers was not a sad story.

He appeared clean, well-spoken and sympathetic.  He seemed successful.  He was even handsome in that older man kind of way.

She glanced at her watch.

Jamie’d been in Hollywood seven weeks. Seven short, eventful weeks.

She’d arrived pretty high on herself. Triumph with a dance troupe in Amsterdam made her feel she could do just about anything.

She understood Hollywood ran on connections and thought she had a pretty substantial connection herself.

One of her high school friends, a music video director, had promised to facilitate introductions to talent agents, producers and directors. Terrence invited her to stay at his beach house while she hunted for an apartment.

Jamie didn't have much money, but after improvising before -- in Europe, no less -- she figured Los Angeles couldn't be all that much tougher. She had a cushion of a couple months.

Terrence had picked Jamie up at the airport in his convertible Miata. The night air was glorious and she imagined she could smell eucalyptus. Even the head and tail lights of cars on the freeway looked like art.

She was jetlagged, and loving being in Southern California.

Terrence gave her a few tips about neighborhoods as he parked the car, made some casual references to the people he'd introduce her to while carrying her bags, and then showed her to the guestroom.

Great, great. She sank into the soft bed, delirious for the next chapter of her beautiful life.

Bright sun flooding the room woke her, and as she lay there trying to get her bearings, she could make out the sound of the surf punctuated with barking of dogs and chipper voices.

She looked out onto Santa Monica Bay with its strip of boardwalk filled with neon garbed joggers and rollerbladers. The palm-lined bay arched towards the craggy cliffs of Malibu, a deep brown against the clear blue sky.

Paradise.

She hugged herself. It was really happening.

On the kitchen table in Terrence's antiseptic bachelor pad, she found a note and the house keys.

He was already gone. Headed to Rio de Janeiro for a rap shoot, back in a week.

“Look for a used car while you do your apartment search,” he scrawled.  “You can’t survive here without a car.”

Then he closed by breezily wishing her good luck, as if nothing else should be coming her way.

She opened the fridge hoping for breakfast and saw that he only used it to store batteries and beer.

The second week, Jamie went out with Terrence and his friends.

"I hear you're a dancer," said one, a short studio exec who she thought was obnoxious. He put his arm around Jamie's waist.

"Why don't you show me some moves?"

He sure had a lot of confidence around women he just met. Jamie wondered where it came from.

Terrence was in town only sporadically and busy with marathon editing sessions. Jamie was embarrassed to keep pressing him for anything. He had already done so much for her.

In the third week she took a studio apartment with pink wall to wall carpeting a couple blocks into gang territory. All the windows had bars on them and it was more expensive than she was planning, but still the cheapest she could manage to see. Getting around town on buses was taking forever.

She found a second-hand car that made noises she didn’t understand. When she climbed in and started the engine, it felt like a life raft.

She spent $250 on a portfolio case, and $500 on headshots.

She also didn't reveal to Terrence how low on money she was. LA people seemed allergic to losers.

All she needed to do was hold on. Help was coming. She'd do some work, then she’d get a nicer apartment in a safer area, and a more reliable car.

Even Terrence said so. "When I first got here, I lived in a different part of Venice," he explained. "That was the 'hood."

Jamie went to a party at Terrence's house. He mentioned that she was going to love this crowd.

“These are the people you need to know.”

Some she knew from high school. They were wearing suits now. Even the women. Did management training programs and worked for studio bosses crunching box office numbers. Flawless skin and a toughness she didn’t recall.

She smiled and made animated small talk. The just-arrived-from-Europe mystique seemed to earn respect, but they didn’t ask anything further.

She avoided Terrence’s stupid track lights because they lit up her clingy dress and showed how threadbare it was becoming. In Amsterdam, no one cared about that kind of thing.

When she tried to find out how they had gotten started, they all assured her it was just a matter of time before she secured an agent, and then the rest would be in the bag.

They were treating her as if she were one of them. She was Terrence’s friend. That’s all they needed to know.

These successful young talents wouldn’t understand what happened on her last interview.

In a ramshackle downtown office, an old geezer of an agent had tried to feel her up.

She could still smell his dentures as he leaned close, criticizing the quality of her head shots and insisting she needed to lose 15 pounds. She’d never weighed that. Not since she was 11.

He had bits of dried food on his tie and nose hair she could see.

Then suddenly his hands were on her body.

She left his office in such a rush she forgot her portfolio on the couch. She couldn’t go back there. Now she had nothing to show people.

She had sobbed in the shower until the apartment grew dark. Climbed into bed still wrapped in her damp towel. Awoke to the guy down the hall beating his girlfriend. Police helicopters overhead, lighting up the neighborhood.

She couldn’t share this story with any of these partygoers. She was on the wrong track. They were talking box office and beach houses. They weren’t getting attacked or losing their portfolio or being told they were unemployable.

The fourth week, Jamie jumped at the chance to choreograph and appear in a dance sequence for a low budget film.

The production manager asked her to go ahead and purchase the costumes for her ten dancers. She expected to be reimbursed.

It was exposure, she was working. It would lead to something.

She rehearsed with her dancers every day for two weeks. She wasn’t looking for other work, and missed an opportunity to have lunch with Terrence and an agent.

After her sequence was in the can, Jamie tried to collect, but the wolfish production manager always suggested she come by the office late at night. She wasn’t going to put herself in that position again.

Jamie was down to one meal a day. At least she was losing weight.

This self-consciousness was a new thing. Jamie was the valedictorian in sixth grade. Sailed through puberty, and high school. Had lots of friends in college. Everyone always said she had a natural confidence.

The gross agent had mentioned the hair under her chin. Under her chin.

She had never been scrutinized so closely, not even by a lover. Maybe she had gotten too comfortable with the Dutch anything-goes.

She wondered when she could afford to get waxed at one of those Korean places. How much did waxing cost?

The next week her car died on the way to an audition. It would cost five hundred dollars to get it running again. She left it at the shop and went back to riding buses with people who smelled like nicotine was oozing out of their pores.

As she watched the bare blocks of Pico go by, she imagined initiating a romance with the Chicano auto mechanic she had met in her apartment lobby. He seemed to be interested. Maybe then she could get her car fixed for less, or free.

Who was she kidding. She was too squeamish to pull off a relationship for car repair. The tear drop tattoos under his left eye: did they mean he had been in prison?

The Hollywood Reporter advertised an open call for the dance segment of a world-famous awards ceremony.

Jamie didn't need an agent for an open call. If only she could manage to get noticed by the choreographer, she could get representation.

Four miles from her door to the West Hollywood studio. She miscalculated how long it would take by bus and was an hour late. The woman with a headset and a clipboard wouldn’t even let her enter the building.

"You snooze, you lose," the clipboard said.

Furious. Ashamed. Jamie headed for the office of the lecherous production manager, just around the corner on Sunset.

She was going to demand her money -- and she was prepared to go ballistic.

The hallway to the production office was dark and quiet.

And then there it was, like a cartoon, a huge padlock crudely attached to the door and a sign plastered over the jamb. Something about the County Sheriff's office, for nonpayment of rent.

Jamie sank to the ground and cried. Hot tears.

She would never get her costume money back.

She would never get paid for her appearance in the film.

She wouldn't be able to pay the rent this month.

She wouldn't be able to get her car fixed.

She wouldn’t be able to replace her portfolio.

She certainly wouldn’t be able to get *anything* waxed.

She'd have to call her parents and ask for money she knew they couldn’t afford to give her. And for what, exactly? Until when. Why.

Until she figured out why she thought she could do this?

Back out in the hot sun. Pounding headache and queasy empty stomach. Jamie hoisted her bag of dancing clothes onto her shoulder and walked slowly toward the bus stop.

How could she have hit bottom so quickly? Seven weeks. It must be a Hollywood record.

The purring presence of a vehicle in the bus lane. It was gaining on her. She glanced over her shoulder.

A big maroon Rolls Royce pulled up and the well-groomed driver leaned toward her.

"Excuse me, miss?  Are you an actress by any chance?"

She gave him a cold stare. Suspicious.

"You just happen to look the part of a role in my latest film....that's all. It hasn't been cast yet."

He paused to check her reaction.

She looked unsure.

"I'm the producer. Sid Teller. You've probably heard of me."

She indicated with a frown that she hadn't.

"Are you new in town?"

"I've been here a while." She rehoisted her shabby dancer's bag and looked up the street, wondering if she should just walk away.

The Rolls driver took this all in. A glimmer lit his eyes.

"The more I look at you, the more I think you're perfect for the part.”

His mobile phone began to ring. He pressed something and it stopped.

“So here's what I can do for you. This is  a tough business to get started in -- everyone can use some help,"  he said. "I've been around a long time, I know."

Jamie felt drawn to the surety in his voice and twisted her body nearer the car.

She caught the scent of his cologne, an expensive European one, notes of juniper and lemon. She liked it. Her headache was receding.

His mobile phone went off again.

He abruptly told the person on the line that he was on the way.

Refocusing on Jamie wavering by his window, he started.

“Darling.”

His voice was like honey.

“I'm in a position to offer you a complete package. The start of a lifetime, really."

Jamie squinted and tried to focus on the words. Complete package. In a position to offer.

"I'll set you up in your very own condo, ten times better than where you're staying now.  A whole new wardrobe. It looks like you could use some transportation too. Then we'll be heading to Florida to shoot my latest show, and you've got the part."

He named a series popular with adolescent males.

"It'll require a little nudity," he added.

She started to shake her head.

"The best of them got started this way, don't worry yourself."

The man turned tender, like fathers in movies.

"Sweetheart. You’re talented, there's no need to work so hard."

He could see that her expression had gone soft.

Nineteen minutes later as Sid idled at a nearby traffic light, smugly tapping the mahogany steering wheel with the tips of his fingers, it dawned on him that he had forgotten to ask the girl’s name.

The corners of his mouth went slack.

When the light turned green, he let out a long sigh and his heavy car surged through the intersection.

As he approached the Chateau Marmont bend, he straightened in his seat.

It’s fine.

If she isn't there, another one will be.

 

++++

This fictionalized account of true happenings first appeared in Livewire, a Malaysian web magazine, in 1997 when the editor asked me to write something about my time in Hollywood. Revived it at Wattpad in 2013.