Wednesday, January 7, 2009

8 Million Stories, NY Press Essay

Nearing De Niro

LISA LEWIS big-screen dreams were just a seat away

That night I sat next to a man who was sitting next to Robert De Niro. I was a reader on the New York studio circuit at $60 a script, with a few hundred reports logged for New Line Cinema and Tribeca Productions, De Niro’s company. After two years covering chick lit and Harry Potter cribs, I was freed from the stacks for a screening of the boss man’s cerebral CIA drama, The Good Shepard. The near final cut was running long and they wanted feedback. I made a rushed introduction to De Niro—after all, my position didn’t warrant time with the stars, my big film contacts were the messenger guys who dropped off scripts at my shoebox apartment in the East Village.

For 12 hours a day I read. Mostly at the coffee shop, CafĂ© Pick Me Up, which I liked because emotionally needy and attractive screenwriters, having glimpsed my coverage template, would think I was important and ask for my number. At 24, this felt like the good life, but I was a peripheral part of the action—a bump up from sushi runs at Focus where I interned during school. But being at the screening was surreal. This is what I had come to New York for, what it was all about. Next to me, the man next to De Niro started snoring. He was a big guy in an Adidas tracksuit, wearing sunglasses in the dark theatre. We were two hours into a cut that was at least three and a half. I loved every minute.

When the film ended I wasn’t invited out for drinks. I whispered congrats as I squeezed passed De Niro’s producing partner. The next day an assistant would call for my opinions. Still, it was heady. Graduating high school in the Chicago suburbs with no money for college, I’d telemarketed magazine subscriptions and worked in the pornography section of the Virgin Megastore, carding teenagers and making uninformed suggestions to Japanese tourists (“Yes, Angry Anal has gotten great reviews!”), This was my Mary Tyler Moore Moment. I was going to make it after all.

Tribeca had a silence unlike other neighborhoods. Jazz filled an alley when the door of a club burst open; I caught a staccato laugh and the sound of heels on cobblestone, the squeal of a subway under the grates. The night felt like one frame of a silent film. I was all mood and ego. In the neon of a dim sum dive I plotted the story for my Midwest friends—exaggerating my influence on the editing process, lingering on De Niro’s big hand in mine. The vendors along Mott Street were dumping the spoiled fish that hadn’t sold, but I wasn’t ready to let reality in.

I was halfway home when I checked the messages on my cell. The Weinstein Company had called to say they could use me as a reader. A friend at the ad agency where I was bringing semi-colons back as a freelance proofreader was inviting me to a Broadway show. I pictured my 18-year-old self, bitterly arranging Vivid titles in order of hardcorishness and I wanted her to hear these messages. My New York life may have fit in a shoebox, but the shoes were second-hand Marc Jacobs.
The final message stopped me mid-jaywalk and was nearly drowned out by a policeman screaming at me to get out of the street. But the sound of a cop car, sirens wailing, had nothing on my mother’s voice. Irate and accusatory, it flashed me back to the hallway outside her bedroom; I was 10-years-old again.
“Your father says he’s going to starve himself to death. You need to do something!” she shrieked. “Why aren’t you picking up? Someone just stole $14,000 out of my purse! Call me back!”

I imagined a marquee with my name on it, the lights fizzling out.

Generally, I limited my drama to the silver screen, but crisis was unremarkable for my divorced and single parents. As their only child, I played confidant to my father’s troubled hero, and the audience for my mother’s one-woman show. In my own life story they frequently upstaged me. My dad was beginning a two-year bout of severe depression; soon he’d be living in a delivery van with the 400 classic movies on VHS he’d taped off the television and labeled in alphabetical order by actor. The $14,000 was my mom’s gambling money she’d put in a Ziploc bag with her makeup and left in a locker at the Harrah’s Casino spa. I might have wanted to share my triumphs, but my father had taken to crying through our conversations and my mother’s enthusiasm for her own endeavors, most recently her witty profile, often overshadowed my news.

I felt a wave of self-pity. New York, like my folks, had the ability to make me feel simultaneously very important and totally insignificant. I could believe that just by living in the city I was doing something urgent and meaningful. I saw my reflection in every window, a seductive, solipsistic filmstrip; but to anyone else I was just an extra.

The Statue of Liberty might as well have read: “Give me your actors, your writers, your neurotic children of manic-depressive and borderline parents yearning to breathe free.” In New York I’d hoped to find recognition, but in the shadow of my family, I couldn’t see myself. That night I turned off the phone, but the guilt remained. Someday I longed to sleep as soundly as the man sitting next to Robert De Niro.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's Not Over Yet...

No matter how many times I tell her not to, my mother sends me email forwards. I may be reading too much into them, but I find them passive aggressive. Many threaten death and years of bad luck if you don't forward them on - why would she want to put me in that position? Others open with hearts and flowers and pictures of holding hands. These say things like, forward this on to the ten people you love the most and don't want to forget about in 2008 so they know they are loved. I have never sent one of these back to her. Forwarding a mass email love poem on threat of death is like sending someone a used Hallmark card.

Last night a tranny girl sitting next to me on the subway pulled a knife! She called some girl who didn't speak english a fat pig bitch. Then she sat down beside me and pulled out this knife and started waving it. Her tranny friend tried to calm her down. She was screaming that the knife was totally legal to have on her because it was only four inches long and I was trying to stay out of it and not look and I thought she was talking about the length of her penis. She was encouraged to exit the train at the next stop by a man with tattoos and an infant. No one was hurt.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The picture in the picture

Below is a link to a NY Times photo slideshow of the campaign - what I found interesting is that most of these pics show the candidates being photographed. There's few pictures that don't have people in the photos taking pictures of the candidates, or booms from video cameras hanging in view, etc. It's an interesting if unintended comment on the continually blurring line between politics and performance - the meta or self-referential nature of campaigning - that the voters in the pictures seem to take themselves out of the moment of meeting with or talking to the candidate in order to hold their camera up in front of their face - creating a barrier. The Times photographer, unable to capture the candidates alone, winds up photographing photo ops- photos of people taking photos.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Box of Me's

I haven’t totally unpacked so sitting with me at this kitchen table are the ghosts of Lisas past. Boxes of unread anthologies (Artaud, Marx, several Durants out of chronological order – these from high school, when I thought I was the kind of girl who could go to Standford, but turned out to be the girl who would work in the pornography section of a bookstore while she went to night school) high school journals with hostile poetry, and so many mocking, unfinished plays.

There’s an entire collection of love poetry given to me by old boyfriends and friendship poetry given to me by boys hoping to someday be old boyfriends. Each earnestly inscribed, some with an additional P.S. I keep them around because I like the reminder, that I am a girl who was once worth 4, yes 4! Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, volumes: Love Poems, Love Songs and Sonnets, Erotic Poems, Friendship Poems, and the Poems of John Donne with this stanza of “The Flea” circled in three empathic loops of red gel pen (remember gel pens?):

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

A literature lothario? Maybe he was a keeper.

I’d like to chart the incarnations of the past and future me. The Darwinian survival shifts, the chromatic adjustments, a change in the way the light reflected off my image in the mirror of my mind’s eye. When I hid my Judy Garland albums and started listening to Indy punk, when I stopped walking with my head down, the time when I didn’t think before I spoke, and the time when I thought too much and was resentful and shy, when I stopped laughing too hard and too loud and stopped chewing gum when I was uncomfortable, when I thought all I had to be was closed off and sexy and then realized there was more to it than that, when I was the girl who decided to pay her own way, when I was the girl who wanted desperately to be taken care of. When I started being comfortable being me, and then decided I would be the kind of girl who drinks tequila and listens to Johnny Winters. Those were the outward personas, tripping over themselves to prove their authenticity, too determined to admit that personality is a performance and life one long rehearsal.

Then there are the fantasy Lisas. Let’s take that last one – Johnny Winters and Tequila, it’s hard to say if I am that girl or not – there’s a part of me that’s wants to be her. She’s more brazen then I am, a risk taker, she would jump on the back of a motorcycle, she would dance on the ledge of a penthouse terrace at an Upper West Side party where she doesn’t belong, gazing wet-eyed down at the fast city below. And the guests would whisper – and when she got down, she would be asked to leave. She’s a girl who lets herself get hurt, because if she can milk feeling good out of anything she’s willing to try. She has let the past lead her. She lives the gnarled version of Lisa, the beautiful mess that everyone said she would be. She likes that about herself. She’s happy to be sad sometimes.

There is another girl, buttoned up in tight black suits and knee-high boots. She is cool and charming and frequently slips in curse words when she’s in work meetings with men. She sits, leaning forward, with her legs spread wide, elbows on her thighs. She never knocks things over when she gestures. She always gets to her point. She’s confident thinking aloud because she knows what’s she talking about. She’s an intellectual, and she has a tattoo that only a few people know about. She doesn’t have time for sad. She has no one to take care of but herself. At night, she drinks a vodka tonic and listens to Bossa Nova and uses her vibrator till the batteries die.

There’s a comedian, there’s a spotlight seeker, there’s a showgirl, caustic, brilliantly funny, searing and cruel. With a slight upturn of the lips, a forcefulness of presence, the way she smiles all the time, the way she looks so wry and knowing. She loves to make people laugh, she never hesitates and nobody scares her. She’s misleadingly cute.

There’s a tan, rough skinned freedom seeker, who runs a scuba post on the border of Egypt and Israel on the Red Sea. She keeps a dog named Rusty or maybe named Durant, from those days when she studied history at Stanford or wore tight skirts in New York City. She said goodbye to the self she was there when she fell in lust with the waters and the desert craters she climbs, muscled calves, bruised and lovely. She is healthy. In the late afternoons, she naps in a hammock rocking to the rustle of the palm leaves that make the roof of the scuba hut, and the crash of the waves growing louder under the sunset. She runs a book exchange, and reads whatever she can from the travelers passing through. This girl loves a long-haired soldier poet. He has held her hand on Mauchu Pichu and pushed her to push herself one foot in front of the other, up a mountain, through a jungle, across a desert, under the sea. She loves how she has changed, how she has somehow grown taller towards the sun, how she has left them all behind. And when she’s sad, if she’s sad, she throws on her wet suit and listens to the silence in the ocean, becomes one in the school of tiny fish flashing past.

There’s a girl who trips over her feet going down the stairs because her mind is somewhere else. She likes the Beatles, the early stuff, and fancy dress parties, and corny moments between friends. She laughs easily and is almost always saying something weirdly intelligent and out of place. She goes to theatre by herself, but prefers to experience movies with a lover. She is a little self-conscious, but she tries her hardest not to be. Her friends are her family, warm nights spent on several glasses of wine, settled around the room on soft couches, a guitar and a song and shelves full of books, and talk and teasing. And those times she’s angry or sad and doesn’t understand why she’s stuck with what she’s got, she doesn’t drink tequila, she doesn’t find a handsome fuck, sometimes she dances, watching herself in the shadows of her apartment, but more often she curls up and cries.

There is a woman, a girl who has become a mother and a wife, who has somehow managed to do things differently. She has not let her fears control her. But I don’t know this woman yet. I can’t picture her at all.

Someday, I'll look through the boxes of me. I'll hold my selves up like a prism in the sun to see all at once the multifarious refractions, all the Lisas traveling at different speeds at different points along the wave. All the me’s I could have been, all the me’s I’m glad I’m not, or the me’s I still pine for. I am the prism. And everything else is the sun, and where the light hits is a mystery to me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Prettiest Stapler Ever

I got a stapler for Christmas. I really did.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Multi Level Marketing and The Juicemaster 3000

My Dad was an optimist. In the mid-nineties, he bought a Juicemaster. The Juicemaster 3000, an improvement on its predecessor, had seven special features including a pulping mechanism. On the limited counter space in our apartment kitchen, it took up a position of influence – the can opener was relocated above the refrigerator so that the Juicemaster could have full time access to the electrical socket.

To compliment the juicer, my Dad hung a three-tired copper fruit basket and filled it with produce – celery and carrots, pound bags of apples and oranges, and the occasional kiwi or pear depending on what was on sale at the Osco. He also tried growing wheatgrass on the kitchen sill, but it never looked better than a lawn in midwinter.

The Juicemaster was part of a Lazarus like effort to shed the skein of a series of entry-level sales positions that my Dad, at 48, felt were beneath him. He had over the years sold advertising for a local newspaper, sold carpets, sold cars, sold computers, sold medical supplies hospital to hospital, delivered daily papers and telephone books and represented oil paintings at art fairs in hotel convention rooms where tracksuited Midwestern couples went in search of pastoral scenes for the downstairs bath.

He couldn't afford the long dreamed of Jaguar in British racing green, the sailboat, or the American promise of owning his own home. Car insurance for the recently repossessed Ford Taurus was a stretch. He was a single father. He had few friends. The plan: to juice our way to a better life.

Good living through homemade juice was to be symbolic of a greater shift in our condition. Healthy people juiced. Happy people juiced. Successful entrepreneurs juiced. And juicing along side my Dad (someday) would be an appreciative and supportive wife (blonde and over 5’6”) and a daughter who would stay eleven forever.

His optimism hit its zenith in the summer of 1996, my freshman year in high school, when my Dad discovered the concept of No Money Down, which arrived in the midst of his revelation on multi-level marketing (also known as the pyramid scheme). Catalyzed by the elevated levels of Vitamin C coursing through his veins, my Dad sent away for a brochure promising that he could make hundreds of thousands just by sitting in front of his computer (which was ideal at this point because we didn’t have a car).

People think get rich quick schemes are for folks that want the easy way out. People who refuse to do the work the rest of us are resigned to. And if this is the case, I have never seen my Dad work so hard at not working. My Dad took the longest, slowest road to getting rich quick.

His favorite phrase around this time was, ‘you’ve got to spend money to make money.’ Five hundred dollars off a credit card for the brochure and first round of supplies to start a home business selling Excel phone service (a deal at 7 cents a minute). Another few hundred dollars for a fax machine and an extra telephone line.

Excel was the second choice for a home business. The first, selling Pollen Burst, a powdered health drink endorsed by Lorenzo Lamas to GNC types stores and gyms, was abandoned when my Dad discovered that after the initial sample, he had to purchase supplies in expensive bulk orders. On the upside, my Dad had a brief but ego building email exchange with Lamas himself in which they discussed old movies and Shotokan Karate. The hundreds of unsold powder packets went into the closet with the undelivered phonebooks, pipet machines from the hospital sales job, and carpet samples (great for the dollhouse we were building together).

The Excel plan seemed god-sent. Every man could be, myopically, at the top of his own pyramid. It was the American Dream writ accessible. With low start up costs and a one time only fee, a man could be the owner of his own business, the arbiter of his hours, the master of his soul.

The idea behind Excel was to recruit a sales force to work under you. From every man he recruited who sold an Excel plan (either to an actual phone customer or to another hopeful salesperson), my Dad would get a percentage. And as his sales reps recruited their own sales reps, he would get a cut of those sales too, and so on down the pyramid. My Dad could continue to sell Excel plans himself, or he could simply sit back and count the commissions coming in from his army.

My Dad worked very hard at this. He spent night and day on the phone. I was the first of his sales reps. When not hostessing at Lone Star I spent two hours after school cold calling. It’s a good thing we had Excel phone service at 7 cents a minute or our phone bill would have excelled our earnings. We photocopied, stapled, enveloped, stamped, bought phone number lists, called, cajoled, encouraged our nebulous pyramid sales force, all the time slurping carrot-apple juice and checking the mail box for the dollars that were supposed to be pouring in. Instead of girlscout cookies I hawked Excel service to the secretaries in the principal’s office.

The kitchen table was covered with the white plastic sales binders we had to assemble with the information for the troops. It was okay, because most of the time we ate in front of the television supplementing my formal education with a course in the history of my dad’s favorite cinema. He had over five hundred movies he recorded off cable, from Citizen Kane to Citizen Ruth. He cooked barbeque chicken for dinner and we juiced and for desert there were Klondike bars or Little Debbies. We bought a few new things in anticipation of the avalanche-like payload he expected.

I accepted the new clothes he wanted to buy me, and I watched him sign the credit card slip with a smile and his not so palliative 'I wouldn't spend it if we didn't have it,' or ‘it’s only money.’ I knew there was no such thing as a get rich quick scheme. No easy way out of this mess. No easy. Didn't he know this too? I could never understand. Did desperation make one desperately optimistic?

Very few Excel plans were sold to individuals wanting to change their phone service, and the bulk to men like my father who saw this as their chance to sprint to top of the pyramid. For my Dad, the smokescreen of having his own business fed a powerful need.

I don’t think it’s outdated to say that a man’s self-esteem is related in some part to his autonomy. America was borne on the spirit of self-determination and my Dad was weaned on a regular diet of Hollywood fantasy. A baby boomer, a Haight-Ashbury hippie, a Peace Core volunteer, Vietnam avoider, a college educated son of a self-made man, he has one of the toughest STDs to cure. It was going around heavy in the boys of his generation. It’s the Supposed To Disease, the Disease of the American Dream.

My Dad rebelled against and then coveted what his father had, what he saw in James Dean movies, what he thought others had that he didn’t. With his artistic personality and congenital lack of contentment, the STD rippled and metastasized.

Symptomatic of the Supposed To Disease is an incessant interior voice that feds the sufferer a stream of competing half-truths. For my Dad, I’m guessing it sounds something like this: Real men answer only to themselves, real men have careers, real men make the decisions, real men are materialistically successful, success is supposed to look like this, real men have families, real men own houses, real men have stock portfolios, real men wear suits, at fifty years old you’re supposed have this, a father is supposed to do that, a husband is supposed to be this. 

In the absence of the unqualified achievement of these things, this voice eats away at the self-esteem and can, in the worst cases, lead to depression and complete paralysis.

I met a lot of men like my Dad during those years, his sales reps, whom he would charm on the phone and bring to our home to hard sell and discuss strategy. They huddled together in deep concentration on the pink Rent-A-Center couches my Dad let me pick out; fired or frequently out of work, beleaguered by debt and family responsibilities, too old to be hired by companies looking for cheap fresh starters they could train, men who felt entitled to, and went through their lives always looking for something better.

These sessions were part business, part therapy, but no one stayed on as friends. The three tiered copper fruit basket become a home for unopened bills in descending order of final notice.

I have nostalgia for the mid-nineties and the desperate optimism my Dad must have had, his misdirected energy. I miss the man who thought he could juice his way to a better life. There is something sweetly heartbreaking and endearing in that.

My feeling is that the culture has not significantly changed, not for men, or for women who experience their version of the Supposed To Disease. A friend recently told me he thought he was supposed to move to New York, because that’s where you’re supposed to be if you’re artistic, ambitious, if you want to have a career, if you want to succeed. Once he got there, he was wise enough to realize that Supposed Tos are powerful myths, and success is idiosyncratic. For those who can’t see it, this is a sad defeat, returning home, changing courses. For the ones who figure it out, silencing the Supposed Tos helps a person listen more closely to what they really need.

I’d like to lift my glass in a toast. To carrot juice and a clean slate. I want a round to the end of Supposed Tos. And a cheer for the soldiers of the pyramid scheme.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Conversations from the Holy Land: Jesus was a Hunk

Break for a conversation:

At an art gallery in Jerusalem, I am captivated by a statue of Jesus wrought in jagged, black metal. It’s an angry Jesus, frustrated, his eyes, lids heavy with disappointment. And resignation, he will always know too much, be haunted by his prescience, misunderstood by those who claim to be his friends.

Next to me, gazing at the sculpture, is a pretty girl, a bit younger than I am – maybe 18. She looks as if she's in a quandary. Biting her lip, deep in thought. She turns to me, and asks tentatively if I am Jewish.

We chat. She is here with a youth group, I tell her a little about my trip. And when I confirm that I am Jewish, she asks,

“What does the Jewish god look like?”

I take this to be a serious theological question.
“Well, Genesis says that God made humankind in his image. So that could be mean that there’s a god that looks very much like you or I somewhere, or you could take that to mean something more symbolic – in his image, like with his complexity, or with his ability to create,” – I’m riffing with my limited knowledge.

“Jesus was a hunk,” she says.

In her hand is a post-card of a blonde, beatific Jesus that she seems to be comparing to the more slender, Sephardic-faced interpretation in the gallery. In her post-card, Jesus is rather athletic looking beneath his loose white robe. Very quarterback-esque. I have not seen anyone who looks quite like that Jesus around here.

“Jesus was probably not a hunk, I say with holy condescension. Jesus was probably starving and really skinny.”
“He wasn’t starving, he had a big meal at the last supper. And people gave him food all the time when he was walking around preaching and suntanned. He had to have been good looking to get such a following. At first, you know before they realized he had something important to say. At first he was just good looking. Like Ronald Reagan.”
“I don’t know,” I counter, “The Jewish people are into this guy the Messiach now, and he is definitely not a stud."
“But the Jewish people didn’t follow Jesus. Maybe they only follow ugly people.”
“Yes, I say, maybe they killed Jesus because they were jealous of his good looks.”
“The Jews are a jealous people,” she says, “always wanting what others have – just look at Israel.”

Repelled and delighted, I want to take this girl with me on my travels, in order to have the constant benefit of her insight.