…the two and half Jews.
My colleagues and good friends Scott Simon and Ira Glass appeared with me at last Wednesday’s “Audible Feast” benefit for Chicago Public Radio. After dinner and cocktails, the audience was invited into the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago to hear first Ira, then Scott, then me relate a story… the theme was “Driveway Moments,” a public radio term of art/marketing, referring to those bits of radio that are so compelling you end up sitting in your driveway (or garage, or parking lot) after you’ve arrived at your destination so you can hear the end…
Ira did a wonderful live, recreation of highlights from the superb “Giant Pool Of Money” episode of This American Life; Scott told a warm, sometimes chilling story about two young women he got to know in Sarajevo (and who inspired his excellent novel, Pretty Birds) and I… I did something else. After the gap, my contribution to the evening. Keep in mind it’s uncut and unedited and uncorrected, essentially a rough draft I improvised from on stage. Enjoy.
I want to start by telling you about a dream I’ve long had, and a nightmare that’s haunted me, and both have come true.
the dream was that someday, I’d get to be friends with two men I deeply admire, Ira Glass and Scott Simon.
the nightmare was that I’d have to follow their acts.
It’s strange, because my two friends here tonight are among the great sources of radio alive today — Scott primarily, not always, as a reporter, Ira primarily, not always, as a producer. And I can’t make a claim to be either. What I can talk about is being one of the great if unheralded listeners to radio. Public radio, anyway. I know that just about everybody who listens to public radio, alone in the house, thinks to themselves, I am particularly good at this… I am an excellent public radio listener. It is the hallmark of our tribe that we shall always find something on which to prop up our sense of superiority.
Since the theme for the evening is Driveway Moments, and because I am contrarian, I wanted to tell you about the time when I had no driveway. It was 1990, and I was making about 20,000 dollars a year as a literary manager for a theater in Downtown Los Angeles, and I was frustrated in that job for reasons too complicated to into now — the short version is that working for a theater is like being paid to be part of a large dysfunctional family — and I was wondering what to do next, and how to go about achieving my dream, which was to be a writer.
And then it hit me, like the proverbial thunderbolt. I would just quit my job. Quit it. And go be a writer.
So I announced that I was quitting, and people said, Oh, wow, where are you going, and I said, “I’m going to my apartment,” and people would nod, or some people would frown, and that was because those people had seen my apartment.
At that time, I was living in a 550 dollar a month one bedroom apartment built over a garage in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, which for you here in Chicago, looks like, say Berwyn with palms. I had it decorated in standard young bachelor style, to quote a comedian I saw once on the Tonight Show: There’s the Couch! There’s the TV in front of the Couch! Bam! Decorated!
There was a bed, in the bedroom, of course, and that bed was the only piece of furniture in the whole apartment I had purchased new. I had bought it because I had started my post-college life sleeping on a second hand futon, and after a while, I learned that if I was going to be a grown up, the first step would be to stop starting my day by levering myself off the floor.
And in that bedroom was a big institutional metal desk, bought at an estate sale, and on that desk was my computer, and in front of that desk was that chair, and I remember, after I quit my job, and went home, and went to bed, and woke up, and made some coffee and ate some breakfast, and took my coffee and went over the computer to sit down in front of my computer to start my life as a full time writer, and felt the most intense terror and despair I have ever felt.
Many writers talk about the terror of the blank page. I felt on that day that I was staring at a blank life. I knew, to a certainty, that my entire past, my upbringing, my education, my experiences, my friendships, had succeeded ONLY in delivering me to that point, to that desk, in that apartment.
And everything, or anything, that happened from that point onwards, on that December day in 1990, would be entirely up to me. Nobody was going to come find me. Nobody was going to appear out of the blue and offer me any more opportunities. I had arranged my life just to arrive at the very bottom of a very high ladder, except that I had to build the ladder.
So of course I did what I always did, and continue to do, when I am terrified and lonely. I turned on public radio.
I first heard the sounds of public radio when i visited my college roommate, and still my closest friend, Jess Bravin, in his family’s home in Los Angeles in the summer of 1985. His father always left a radio in the kitchen on, tuned to KCRW, in order to make the house sound like it was occupied. So my first exposure to NPR was as a theft deterrent. I imagined the thieves outside, dressed in the standard stocking caps and striped shirts, saying to each other, Cheeze it, that’s Nina Totenberg inside there!
But like everybody else, at least in this room, I became addicted to listening to public radio, and the dial on my radio, and the other buttons on my car radio, became dusty from disuse. It is not an exaggeration to say that there were many days, during that period, when the only voices I heard, other than the voices I was trying to coax out of my own head, were those of public radio.
I remember one Saturday morning, for example, Scott Simon — right there, Scott Simon was interviewing one David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who was as the Republican candidate for Governor of Louisiana. Scott asked him about his membership in the Klan, and Duke started blustering on about how his opponent was a member of the NAACP which was also an overtly racist organization, and Scott said — and I remember this precisely, he said, quote, “Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Duke, but the NAACP never killed anybody.”
I remember dancing around in my tightie whities, pumping my fist, yelling Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m sorry, Scott, is that too much information? In fact, it was shortly after that I wrote what I believe to be one of the first fan letters I ever wrote, to Scott, and then, the next two or three… or four or five weeks… I would listen expectantly hoping he’d read my letter on the air. Once we met, years later, I asked him about that, and he explained that he likes to feature the letters that criticize him, and I have to say, still, that seems weirdly self-hating. Our policy at Wait Wait is only to read letters on the air that praise us, and we’ll do that as soon as get one.
So: for me, anyway, in a kind of self-created monastery, in Los Feliz, public radio became the chink in the wall… the long window in the stone wall through which I could see daylight. And not just daylight: in the evenings, back during those years, I became addicted to an evening talk show called Heat, hosted by John Hockenberry, which — if I’m not mistaken — was produced by a young guy at NPR named Ira Glass. Though, he assures me, he had nothing to do with the title. They would interview people from the arts and culture, and I realized, just as novelists dream of winning the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prize, and baseball players dream of the World Series, my fantasies of success were all being tied up in public radio. Some people rehearse their Oscar acceptance speeches, I practiced my responses to Terry Gross. I dreamed of being interviewed by Scott Simon, or chatting with Hockenberry on Heat.
And, amazingly, perhaps propelled by those dreams, or at least encouraged by them, I actually managed to start writing. Writing plays. And that got me involved with a new theater company, called the Wilton Project, which convened in a home renovated into a photography studio in the darkest heart of Hollywood… SOver the course of about 18 months, from late 1990 to mid 1992, I was able to discover and rely on two communities, in the middle of this most isolating of cities: that theater company, who nurtured and produced and responded to my work, and who saw in my a potential that sometimes escaped even my view, and public radio, who didn’t know I existed, but seemed to talk to me anyway. This may have been delusional, but it worked for me.
LA at that time was, and perhaps still is, a very strange place, in that it was a city that seemed devoted, as a civic project to denying it was a city… LA seemed designed, to me, to make sure that at no point would any of its residents — its more affluent residents, anyway — have to see anything, or do anything, or go anywhere, or meet anyone, that they did not explicitly choose to do or see or meet. It was is the city was designed for the express purpose of fighting serendipity. In Los Angeles, you could get up in your secluded home, behind its gate, get into your car with its tinted windows, roll up the garage door, and drive out in your capsule to the enclosed underground garage under your place of work or gym or mall, which in many cases was exclusive, and from there you’d drive your capsule to your friends home or your chosen restaurant, at which there would be only people exactly like you, and the only time you’d ever see or meet anyone you didn’t plan on was actually hitting them with your car, which, by the by is an idea I had about ten years before the makers of the movie crash, but what the hell did I do with it.
There was nothing like — to take but one example — Millenium Park, just a few hundred yards from here. No place that everybody from all over came down to see their own reflection.
Andduring this period, the most controversial person in LA was Police Cheif Daryl Gates. He was the father of the police SWAT team, a hard nosed, para-military law and order absolutist. Black people in LA hated him because he treated the poor sections of the city, the vast swathes of flatland south of the Santa Monica freeway, as a foreign land under occupation. White people loved him for exactly the same reason. The police are the Thin Blue Line separating us law abiding folks from the criminals and chaos; in LA, in that period, they were the line separating us from the rest of the people sharing our city. Fury at Gates and his policing methods exploded, of course, when a guy in his apartment building decided to test out his new video camera, and pointed it outside at Foothill Boulevard, just as four LAPD officers were in the process of arresting one Rodney King.
Everybody was shocked by that video, everybody except African Americans in LA, who felt that the only thing different this time was that somebody had caught it on videotape. About one year after that incident, on April 29th, 1992, a jury in the LA exurb of Simi County acquitted the officers who had beat Mr. King. That night, I was at a reading of one of my plays that was staged in a theater in Santa Monica, on the far west side of the Los Angeles basin. People showed up for the reading saying, Wow, I heard people are very upset, they’re burning cars in South Central. I remember driving home that night, along that dividing line the Santa Monica freeway, and seeing the fires, stretched out in a warm line across the basin.
By the next morning, the fires had not gone out. They continued to move north. I sat frozen on my couch, and watched, on my TV, the Los Angeles Riots begin. I called my friends; my friends called me. I listened to public radio. Finally, I saw live video of looters ransacking and burning a Circuit City store, that was three blocks from my house. I fled on over to the photo studio, where my friends from the theater company were huddling together.
Night fell. We continued to watch television. We heard firetrucks and ambulances screaming by. We heard gunfire. Somebody had found a baseball bat, and we kept it by the door, except when one of us, usually me, picked it up, nervously. We were thankful that the house had so few windows, so nobody could get in. we were unhappy the house had so few windows, because we couldn’t see out.
Finally, a friend of mine had had it. He was — if I can borrow a phrase — an Argentinean firecracker, an expat scenic designer named Tomas, about 30 years old. He couldn’t stand being cooped up in the house. He said, I’m going outside, going to find out what the hell is going on. I said, without thinking about it overmuch, “I’ll go too…”
We opened the door and went out. Somebody grabbed it, pulled it shut, and locked it behind us. We walked down to the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilton, just east of the Hollywood Freeway.
There was nothing. There was silence. The stores and homes around us were dark. There were no cars. In the distance, to the east, we could see the bicolor light show created by spinning emergency lights. We looked at each other. We felt a certain disappointment.
Then, two cars roared up out of the east. They were late model American sedans, dark blue in color. They screeched to a halt, in the best Starsky and Hutch manner, right in front of us, and all eight doors flew open, and out came uniformed police officers, each of them with a hand to their weapons. The nearest officer, on the passenger side of the lead car, was right in my face. He looked familiar. I checked his nametag, in the same reflexive move you use at high school reunions. It said Gates.
“What are you guys doing out here?” asked Captain Daryl Gates.
I mentioned my friend Tomas was Argentinian, about thirty. This meant that he grown up, in part, under a police state. So he knew what to do. His hands went up to his ears, and he said, “Oh, officer, we were just out here, to see if there’s anything we could do — we just wanted to help — ” and in a moment, the cops relaxed, letting go of their batons and guns. It might have been his words. It might have been his semiotics of pure submission. It might have been that we were two bald, pasty white guys standing on a streetcorner. But that might have been the reason they pulled over. “Oh, over there… let’s get them.”
For a moment, we all stood there, and I realized, that it was my moment… to confront the man who had done more than any individual in this city to, in my view, anyway, to make it the UnCity… the place where we hid from our community, and closed our eyes to the people who both built the walls and manned them. He had been dousing the place with kerosene for years and now it was burning. And here was my chance.
I said, “So… how’s it going?”
And Daryl Gates said to me… “Down south… not so bad. Up here, not so good.”
I nodded, in deep understanding. And then I said, “Well… be careful out there.”
And he nodded, and smiled in thanks, and got in his car, with his other officers who also smiled, and they drove off to the conflagration. And Tomas and I, we walked as nonchalantly as we could, back the fifty feet or so to the house. “Did you know who that was?” I asked Tomas. “Keep walking,” he said.
We arrived back at the photo studio, and we banged on the door, and our friends peered out the peephole, and saw us, desperate and scared, with what hair we had left standing straight up, and they let us in, and we practically collapsed on the floor, shrieking and weeping. We had not been gone for longer than three minutes. We choked out our story between gasps.
And my friend Leslie said to me, “That’s it? Is that what you said to him, Be careful out there?”
And I said, yeah.
And she said, “Good thing we didn’t send you back in time to kill Hitler.”
That night, Thursday night, April 30th, was the worst night of the riots. It was the night when everything we carried around as unspoken, unthought assumptions – that there would be order, that the houses would not be burned down, that the police would come, and if they came, they wouldn’t shoot us – it was the night all those assumptions were revealed to be, shall we say, contingent.
By the next night, the fires had been put out, and the waves of anger that had lapped up and over the Santa Monica Freeway and up to the foothills has receded, leaving, like a receding flood tide, brown wreckage in its wake. And for an amazing moment, maybe two or three days, everybody in LA was agreed, this could never happen again, and the reason it would never happen again, was that because of this, we would understand that we were all literally in this, the Southern California Air Quality Management Basin, together. People volunteered, people came out of their homes and looked around, and got a broom, and started cleaning up.
And then it was all over. The next Sunday, after that terrible Thursday, I was outside the Beverly Center, this huge faceless mall rising in the center of White LA, which a friend called the Ministry of Shopping. And I watched hundreds of people, thousand of people, pour into it and and out of it, and into the cafes and restaurants around it, carrying packages and boxes and bags, and I realized it was all over… not the riots, but the moment after the riots. Everything was going to be forgotten, for the same reason it was never known in the first place. Everybody knows what the air is like in LA. You can’t see but a half mile before everything fades into nothingness.
So: I applied for and got a writing fellowship and I said my farewells to my friends – they threw an amazing party for me at that photo studio – and I packed everything I owned into the little car I had bought with some money from, yes, my parents, and I drove east. I remember getting over the San Gabriels, and I descended into the desert heading east to Vegas and points beyond, and I looked back, and what I expected to see what a mushroom cloud rising above the horizon.
I didn’t know how it could last, that place. I still don’t. If you don’t look at each other, don’t you all disappear?
I got back into the car, and I turned the radio back on, and got static. I was too far from LA. I had to find my friends, my other community, on some new station. I used the radio knob for the first time in forever, and I headed east, looking for my friends.