29 April 2010

Brankton Walks Austin (p4)

“Soooo, I was on my way over to The Roosevelt,” she said over her shoulder as she was inspecting the mantel’s rather spartan display of nostalgia, none of which featured her.

She tugged at the dress’s hem, pulling it down. This was not to draw attention to her figure; it was her nature to tug and to fix. The Roosevelt is a hotel in Hollywood with a true “old” Hollywood provenance sitting amidst new Hollywood gentrification. Just a decade ago the area was the armpit of Los Angeles with its Pussycat Theatre, tattoo parlors, gangs and stores hawking knickknacks at 99 cents a pop up and down Hollywood Blvd. And now, well, now restaurateurs and The W Hotel and high profile clubs and New York-inspired luxury lofts with lofty price tags were the talk of the town. And, there, still proving to be a player in a town of washed-up, wannabe and new players, was The Roosevelt with its old soul charm and neo soul soundtrack.

Rumored to be haunted by two deceased silver screen icons from the 40’s, whose ghostie penumbra make for inconvenient, though now kitschy, appearances on several floors, the hotel was finding new legs from a decent anchor restaurant (which isn’t saying much in Los Angeles where restaurants are known to flip every six to nine months – very much like a bad play opening on Broadway), and a de rigueur pool on the roof and bar with some house dj spinning records most weekends with an electronica eclecticism steeped in a heavy bass, surrounded by short skirts. Today's Roosevelt is a far cry from its former self where the first Academy Awards dinner was hosted in 1929.

His ex was a trust fund beautiful baby with an expat Italian Baron father and black American mother who looked like Lena Horne. It should go without saying that her family’s team of lawyers saw to it that her small fortune was safely bifurcated away from her husband’s hands and assets vis-à-vis one massive pre-nup. There might have been premarital cohabitation between him and his ex, but nuptial commingling of funds, never. The Baron owned The Roosevelt. He also owned several other hotels across the country through a network of corporations, LLCs and joint-ventures that never ceased to impress and confuse Brankton.

“So, why are you here?” he finally asked.

“Well, you’re like the one person I’ve trusted for the last 10 years to tell me how my outfits look," she brought her hands together and her chin down like a bad girl, twisted one foot in and looked up with big eyes. "Your place ... what does one call this? It's sort of like Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina meets O.J. Simpson's Brentwood guest house, isn't it? Anyway, you were on the way and I needed your expert opinion.”

She moved from the flameless ornamental fireplace, which reminded her of a plastic rose on a restaurant table, towards Brankton and the large writing desk he had facing out the carriage house’s living room window. She was nervous, which knotted him up because he believed her nervousness to be for somebody new -- not to mention that he was pissed for the hubris she displayed in coming here ... dressed like that. He feared this visit might rip his heart out, or at the very least Julienne, dice and cube it with a dull blade.

Brankton noticed her stirring a bit as she does when she’s wrapping up, preparing to make her exit. It was nicely orchestrated after years of practice. There was the quickstep drumming of her fingers, usually accompanied by stacking of papers or finally setting an object in its place, and then the wrapping it up neatly with a phrase that was as practiced as any radio disc jockey cueing up the commercials heading into his break at the top of hour.

He walked over to her where she had put one-half of her ass on his desk, clutching a sandstone bookend which was still in search of becoming the terminus for a dozen or so books stacked on the far corner of his desk. Brankton picked up its mate and caught a glimpse of her out the corner of his eye. She didn’t look up as their legs touched and he pressed his palm on her lower back almost out of habit. Almost.

26 April 2010

Brankton Walks Austin (p3)

Brankton moved across the street seeking the shade of the oaks lining the other side. He liked the houses over there better besides.

“No, I haven’t read it yet. Can you make sure that Pat O’ knows I’m definitely going to see his guy at the comedy club?”

“It’s not a club!” she interrupted him, which he hated. “It’s some music venue, and from what I gather he’s opening for the band.”

“Put Friday on the phone,” he said.

Brankton’s other assistant was a former stripper, general contractor, and current law student. She was 62-years old and could get anything done, not unlike Radar on M*A*S*H, but with varicose veins and an AARP membership. "Friday," as most assistants in large agencies and some studios, was already on the line listening. She unmuted her line.


“Can you please make sure my car is waiting for me at – what’s this place called that I’m staying at?" Brankton could hear Friday’s long nails punching the keyboard in its face with enthusiasm.

“You’re at the Driskill, and yes, your car is confirmed to be waiting for you after sunset,” she said leaning back in her chair, shaking her head looking down the hallway that led to Brankton's office where his other assistant was holed-up. Saturday office hours working for the network that had become a perennial loser. If you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday it was sometimes said during these desperate times.

“Thanks, guys. Let’s keep our fingers crossed,” Brankton was wrapping up when his other assistant interrupted again.

“Please read the script! I put it in your man-purse...”

He hung-up in his usual style that revealed to the triumvirate of Team Brankton that she had been heard. 7 blocks from Brankton’s current GPS location, and within walking distance, was the Austin, Texas, home of his ex. Had it not been Shabbat, he would have punched up on his iPhone her address and turned his convertible in her general direction where he would have watched from the street to see who had inherited his problems and was now taking deep dives into the path of her verbal scythe and psyche.

Divorce finalized for a month or so, Brankton’s ex dropped by unannounced, where she witnessed first-hand the post-apocalyptic proof of her 30 year-old mid-life crisis and his moving in to a new place scattered throughout in the form of boxes, forwarding addresses yet to be affixed to envelopes, crates filled with knickknacks breaking under their own weight, an unplugged fridge and a freshly painted green front door wide open drying in the Culver City sun.

There was also a new mattress standing in the corner of the living room playing hostess to several Rolling Rock empties competing to see who could get closest to the edge without falling, and an ashtray with several half-attempts at his new habit of cigar smoking. The divorce and separation were complete before his new gig was finalized, and it made him feel a little better that she would have been proud of him for landing such a plum on her watch. When she frog marched up the back stairs to the carriage house early that evening -- carried both by a modicum of guilt and a dark secret -- he recognized her familiar gait, with YSL pumps pounding the way bravely.

“Hello?” she said.

Her curled brunette hair and buxom figure found their way over Brankton’s stoop like an octogenarian unsure of the distance of the next step. She wore a leopard print dress with pumps that rhymed with “eff” and “me.” Brankton first knew her as a twenty-year-old, when she was sinewy in the arms and thin faced as all women of her age are who have studied ballet for a dozen years, with a shapely figure that she was able to hide beneath most of her outfits as she was a modest, though sexual person. As a dancer, she was ashamed, for a while at least, of her large breasts, the talented dancer’s curse.

After one miscarriage and two decade’s worth of living in her twenties, only the blind could not see a woman to behold and to be held, with strong arms and legs, a curvaceousness that men admired and women envied, and green eyes that could size-up a person and adjudicate in a glance. Their relationship, though, was never about sex. Brankton felt it was about his disappointing her and him resenting like hell the nagging and judging that followed whenever he would make promises that were often not kept because of, well, for various reasons. They had both searched in earnest, treading water for the entirety of their relationship, taking that “deep dive” in counseling sessions into their psyche, looking for that important lever that could rescue them and haul their heavy burdens out of their troubled waters and onto a passing trash barge heading to New Jersey.

He was told by their marriage counselor, Dr. Sheila Stein, that renowned MFT who liked to say “deep dive” at least once a week to them, that he would have had a lot more sex had he kept a lot more promises whenever he complained about the lack of it.

“Huh? Oh, hey …” he feigned surprise at her arrival.

Half the neighborhood could hear her steps and their echo bouncing off of the walls of the too closely positioned homes with their stucco and brick walls, with her as the fleeing bad guy in a Western riding like hell through some winding canyon in the middle of nowhere with a tracking shot above as she outdistances the feckless posse.

“Where you going?” he asked in a tone intimating that one of these things just didn’t belong there.

Please find Part 4 here to continue reading

24 April 2010

Brankton Walks Austin (p2)

Too late. Brankton had already packed-up noise-reducing headphones, a next gen iPhone, a tin of Macanudos for smoking after the show, a Montblanc fountain pen, the Wall St. Journal and a GQ with Eva Mendes on the cover (whom he went to undergrad with) into his leather satchel in record -- and it must be said, Dear Reader -- stealthy time. His back was already to Jackie as he headed out toward the doorway that led to the main dining room. Behind him lay two ten-dollar bills occupying their own little competing pile, face-up with two dead, white male Sec. Treasury Hamiltons (illegitimate bastard child that he was) enjoying the view.

“Pussy,” she said as quietly yet forcefully as she could muster, seeing now for the first time the family that had front row seats to her “blue” performance. She also saw clearly Brankton swing a hand behind his head with a middle-finger salute to show his appreciation for their conversation that never really started.

Out on 6th St. Brankton stripped off his sweater, tied it around his waist, and hoped his sense of direction was true. The right arm of his aviator sunglasses in his mouth showed a decade’s worth of teeth marks, while the left was as new as the day his ex-wife had bought them for him.

He hated confrontations and heated conversations, which is most likely why he was still single. His older brother, the one who was a borderline sociopath (somehow, Brankton drove his older brother to this border often in their childhood), had once beaten him to within an inch of his life when he was ten year’s old because Brankton had discovered and eaten his brother’s entire Almond Roca stash. His brother simply followed the gold foil wrapper trail back to its source and found a contented if not bloated Brankton sitting on the couch watching a rerun of Highway Patrol starring Broderick Crawford, that porcine-looking actor with a waddle that wobbled every time he barked his lines. That was the last time Brankton ever talked to his brother-the-rabbi of his own accord, who now has a congregation in upstate New York, and by all accounts weighs over 300 pounds and closely resembles Broderick Crawford with his broad brimmed hats and sizeable waddle of his own that sways whenever he speaks his mellifluous Hebrew sermons.

The theme song for an NBC hit show began to play from the bottom of his leather messenger bag. Brankton continued walking and dug around inside his bag until his fingers felt the familiar plastic of an Apple-made Steve Jobs-designed product. Each time he swung his arm around inside his bag, he was reminded of the thousands of times his mother and wife had whisked hands around their own purses, with that rustling sound of hard and soft objects rolling over each other like so many socks and thongs and jeans in a dryer.

“Yeah,” Brankton said to his assistant. “Are you at work?”

“Yes,” she said. “Remember you were supposed to call me when you landed?”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked.”

“Are you still going to see that guy tonight?” she asked. “The one that Pat O’ from UTA asked you to see?” Brankton pulled out the coverage of the script his assistant prepped for him earlier in the week. “Is it really this good?” he wondered.

“It’s the best thing UTA has sent us this year. Best script I’ve ever read. So, yeah, it’s pretty good.” His assistant was an MBA grad from Wharton who was probably one year from landing an incredibly high-paying job herself if Brankton didn’t get fired before she could transition out and up. "So, did you actually read the script, and not just the coverage?" she asked.

Brankton, as an exec at NBC overseeing “current comedy" didn't actually read spec scripts for development. However, as certain gigs go, this position at NBC was tenuous at best because of several seasons reflecting NBC’s ratings nadir, and Brankton was ready to develop some hits if he could. The low ratings weren't Brankton’s fault; he transitioned into this job after a merger of several companies that landed him atop the pile of mid-level execs as VP Current Comedy. Salary above $300k, and a staff of two talented and incredibly loyal assistants, it was hard not to like his “new” role. 18 months later, and Brankton knew his head was on the chopping block if things didn't change. When times are tough, it's better to ask forgiveness rather than permission which is why he and Team Brankton were now looking to land new writers and producers for development deals for the Peacock Network which was outside of his normal purview. It was a desperate move that reflected Brankton's and NBC's contretemps.

20 April 2010

Brankton Walks Austin

Brankton started out the day as usual with a nasty little headache. Not enough oxygen to the brain. The majority of his family, dominated by males, suffered from the same malady, that is to say, snoring, but with Grizzly bear ferocity, capital ‘S’ snoring.

Years ago on a ski holiday to some swanky resort in Utah hanging out with all of the swells with their whiz-bang skiing accoutrement and private chalets adjoining the main run, the unfortunate souls in the townhouse next to his family actually complained to the leasing company that their trip was ruined because of the ungodly racket that he and a half-dozen of his brothers harmonized for four nights of sonorous hell. Not even the most desperate succubus would sit on the chest of any of his brothers, attempting to snatch a soul during the night. Upon hearing the horrific sound emanating from their large, undulating thorax, the noise most assuredly would drive even the stoutest of succubi away. Having been married to and driven one off, Brankton felt he should know.

He walked the Austin neighborhood by himself, with its old twisted oaks and the occasional stray cat and ubiquitous Obama/Biden yard signs. Austin might be in Texas, but it's the liberal hub of the south with plenty of state employees working at and owing their allegiance to the "sunset red" hued granite Capitol building right off of Congress Ave. Brankton was finally getting used to making his daily constitutional alone, although this trip to the big hat capitol caused him to feel a bit more out of sorts than usual. His momentary boredom had its typical result -- Brankton was feeling hungry.

Sitting alone in the multi-level mid-century house turned into a restaurant on 6th St., Brankton ordered the “big ole pancakes” for brunch. He was beginning to regret the blue wool sweater that he put on in much cooler Los Angeles just a few short hours earlier. The typical Austin weather of 95% humidity and low 90’s temp did not agree with his sartorial norm; especially in a restaurant with two dozen obviously gay men surrounding him, dressed much more weather appropriate with assorted chambray shirts and long board shorts and snug-fitting t-shirts, now frowning upon his choice of garb, he felt, save for one very attractive co-ed “friend of the gays” who, with her masculine, deep voice, oozed a sexual confidence that mocked Brankton’s recent string of asexual years. Brankton spied her looking his way several times in a few short minutes, which of course meant she saw him seeing her.

Ten long minutes later, his heavily tatted and overly tanned waitress informed him that she forgot brunch was over and that he would have to forgo the pancakes he had been thinking about and craving for a month now. Brankton had visions of a rotund Orson Welles with white chef hat in the back somewhere saying that he'd "flip no flapjack before it's time." He also had a vision of smacking the sass off that fat man's face. His pancake cravings started right after his wife left him and took their dog along with her “big ole” pancake recipe, the one hanging on the fridge, and not much else -- though he wished she had taken the cuckold knife out of his back at least for sense of symmetry.

The twenty-something Janeane Garofalo-type with the gay men had a mouth on her that, for lack of a better emotion or description, disappointed Brankton. Her descriptions of “her gay” -- as she proudly called her homosexual best friend -- and his proclivities for certain gay sex put Brankton’s gag reflex on overdrive at the sight of the gravy-covered chicken-fried-chicken that he reluctantly ordered due to the no pancake past brunch rule. He wasn’t the only one to cringe either. There was a family of four “to his 9” – this was his grandfather’s phrase when he wanted to say “to the left” in a cool sort of grandpa way -- who looked as out of place as an Amish family with big tall black hats and long ZZ-Top beards shopping in a Fred Segal store.

She continued unabated regaling the men in her gay coffee clutch. Some occasionally tried to compete with her, but she had the floor and wasn't about to let the spotlight slip from her grasp for a moment. None really could compete; her stories had just the right combination of raunch, real life patois, and an unexpected ending. And of course, she knew her audience, and they laughed, which inspired even filthier anecdotes. She had an expert comedienne’s deft touch, though the venue and time-slot were no doubt inappropriate.

“What?!” the twenty-something "Janeane Garofalo" finally asked Brankton as she caught him glancing her direction one-dozen times too many. Her friends were caught up in conversations about Barton Springs and some festival that was about to take place. None of her friends would hear his response so he was confident, at least more confident than he would have otherwise been.

“You’re crude. Crude, but funny.” Brankton turned in his seat to deliver what he thought would be his final line more forcefully. “In fact, I’d say your crudeness is bordering on rudeness. You’re a crudeness/rudeness straddler.”

“Is that so?” She turned in her seat to catch his opinion head-on. “Well who exactly cares what you think?”

“NBC does.” Brankton regretted saying it the instant the two-word reply left his half-filled chicken-fried-chicken mouth.

“NBC? What, is that supposed to impress me?” The coffee clutch was breaking up and her friends were throwing 20’s into a pile to pay for their meal. They were waiting for her to pony up as well. “Jackie, $20.00 please,” said a friend from somewhere in the scrum.

Jackie turned her head only slightly from Brankton for a moment, “Nels, can you cover me please?” “Oh, shit, girl,” was the response from Nelson who had obviously “covered” one too many times for Jackie. Her “Oh, please!” retort belied a belief that she had indeed earned her keep with her mid-morning improv routine.

“So, Mr. NBC, you were saying.”

15 April 2010

Death Takes a Holiday ... Not (Redux)

Death is all around us. And, unlike Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black, with his one-off holiday vis-a-vis Anthony Hopkins's swanky world, death seems to be working overtime in our senior living centers, foreign war zones, and unfortunately, certain neighborhoods here in Los Angeles. I live in one such area in L.A. with nightly gunshots and the ubiquitous crime scene taped off around the liquor stores aplenty on every block. The police helicopter becomes this mechanical vulture illuminating the presence of a fresh kill or that police units are in hot pursuit. You never quite get used to the constant reminders of your mortality, the way one takes it for granted living in the suburbs from whence I hail. Maybe that's why there are five-times the number of churches in L.A. proper.

A few months ago, a young man three doors down from my house was shot and killed. He was standing with a group of young men and women early in the evening when the unnoticed coward walked up and fired at point-blank range. While everyone scattered for their lives jumping behind walls and cars, the killer jogged to the awaiting van and was driven away leaving an all-too-common scene for a heart-broken father away on a business trip to come home to. The police said it was an initiation killing and that our neighbor was in the wrong place, etc. There are just too many etc.'s in our inner cities today. Perhaps President Obama should propose a war on domestic terror and pull a few billion out of the "stimulus bill" where it might actually do some good by hiring extra police and specially trained gang units. Now there's some hope and change I'd like to see become a reality.

I have witnessed or come across three such murders while here in the 'hood, and my brothers and friends are constantly telling me to move away. But, I remind them that when I lived in the safe suburbs, my little brother and I watched early one morning as the coroner's office took away our neighbor, Mr. 'D', who had kissed his daughter (with her friend over for a sleepover) and son goodnight, sat himself down late-night in his car parked with the engine running in their closed garage, and drove himself into the afterlife. We sat there in our side yard not 10 feet away from the coroner as he wheeled Mr. 'D', who was covered in a blanket or bag, into the back of the station wagon with its windows blackened. We knew that he was dead, like kids just know or divine the truth out of a situation without really knowing. You know?

Just a few short years after Mr. 'D's departure, I went to see Rollerball, starring Jimmy Caan -- my older brother James took my little brother and me. Driving back home up the hill that leads to our parent's house, we were stunned to see bodies covered with blood stained sheets in the driveway across the street from our house. This was the aftermath of a murder, attempted-suicide (the murderer later died in a coma). Thankfully, our neighbor Mr. 'C' and other members of the family (our young friends) survived. He later remarried and has been blissfully happy for the past 25 years. But, that night, in the safe suburbs, my brother Gil became a hero. When bullets were flying, and an off-duty cop's revolver was jamming, my next door neighbor Mrs. Glenn tried to stop the onslaught; it was my 14 year-old brother who tackled her, knocking her into the bushes, and dragged her back to safety. Death doesn't take a holiday, and when it's our time, we should all be ready to give an account for the life we're living, whether we're in Happy Dale sanitarium, Afghanistan, or Beverly Hills.

07 April 2010

Helms Man, Watermelon Man ... Redux

Good people work hard. They work hard and rear their families as best they can, whether making $125,000 or $25,000. I've known one family making a million dollars per annum, with salt-of-the-earth parents and great kids (Hollywood types), and another family with a dad who quite literally collects recycled materials and hauls trash to make ends meet (Hauling types). Both of these families have a few things in common: they own their homes, with children who attend private/religious schools, and both are credits to their neighborhoods.

Good people work hard, and to work is a blessing from a good God, so says the Puritan work ethic and King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (before everything became vanity). Occasionally my sons will ask me about the men we see waiting by Home Depot for work. "Dad, why are some of the workers dirty? Are they from countries that are dirty?" I tell them that these men put many of the men in suits on the same LA streets to shame with their amazing work ethic and indefatigable spirit to make a living. And, yes, they may be dirty, but their day-laborer métier is a badge of honor. That's what I tell my sons. If I had their work ethic, thick skin and stamina, then I'd be Richard Branson successful (see Ex Libris ... 2009, right) of Virgin Group fame.

When I was a kid -- 4 and 5 years old -- the Helms Man used to come through our neighborhood regularly. I can still hear the distinct "wooot, wooot" whistle of the Helms truck telling all who had ears to hear that calorie-loaded goodness was drawing nigh. And, like any good childhood memory, there was food involved.

Many times as I was walking to kindergarten (when children still walked to school), I would wave down the Helms Man and he'd stop and give me a chocolate chip cookie and a bag of M&Ms. I'd put it on our tab and then he'd charge my mom (since she always slept-in, she could not stop such mid-morning gastronomical tomfoolery). The yellow truck was modified with all sorts of doors that opened, revealing still more drawers, some which were very narrow and long, or very flat and wide. In these drawers and behind those doors were the time-tested still-warm goodies of a bygone era: pastries, doughnuts, cookies, and some store-bought candy all within steps of your home or on your way to kindergarten.

Lots of memories from that time have stayed with me: the feel-good aroma that poured out of the Helms truck every time those doors opened (like the perfume scented memory of loving grandma's bakery hug). Or, the sonic memory of clanking bottles (both full and empty) when the milkman would drop off the milk on his morning round -- which occasionally included a bottle of thick-n-rich chocolate milk after my little brother and I would mark up the order card with an extra 'X' in the box. Which I suppose was appropriate as we were the beginning of the generation tagged with moniker 'X'.

Helms Bakery at its height of popularity was a 24-hour-a-day factory that cranked out fresh baked goods, and then loaded up hundreds of trucks around SoCal for daily delivery. Helms established the brand after landing the contract to supply the 1932 Olympics. Drivers like the Helms guys, and individuals like them, made a living by working the oil rigs, doing time on the assembly line, or walking a beat in Southern California. These guys are called the "greatest generation" because of their ability to see something that had to be done, and then going about their doing it without any fanfare whatsoever (like stopping some of the grossest evils mankind has ever seen in Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan or despotic fascist Italy). They believed in duties, not rights.

Just this last week, I heard the call of the Watermelon Man. I hear it occasionally, maybe four times in the last five years. "Watermelon Man. Fresh, cold melons. Get your melons. Watermelon man. " I can hear the octogenarian driver as he barely above a whisper calls to his former clients over his loud speaker, many who are either no longer alive, no longer hear, or have moved out of the ole neighborhood. I'm not sure what's the bigger surprise, that his truck still operates, or that he's still working at 82? What doesn't surprise me, is that good people from all walks of life work hard, and find tremendous satisfaction in a job well done. Especially if that job helps men and women with calloused hands meet the needs of their families in a very expensive City of Angels.