Thursday, December 7, 2006

Inhabiting the Spectrum

“Este pinche colina!” shouted a voice over the squealing of tires. Someone was stuck on our hill again. I stretched my neck to peer short-sightedly at the alarm clock: 6:50 AM. The barrio dawn chorus.

I sat up in bed and considered the day ahead: drop off laundry at fluff ‘n' fold; buy gubbings for dinner tonight; write up the interviews I had conducted with workforce development participants; mend my son’s pants; write Christmas cards. The last two I knew to be impossible, but I added them to my list every day in the hope that little elves would come in the night and miraculously next morning there they would be – jeans patched with tiny little elf stitches and Christmas cards correctly addressed and stamped. If you have never received a Christmas card from me, now you know why.

Later that morning, as I was making my way home via the convenience store, my cell phone rang.
“You never call, you never write… ” It was my brother, in town to shoot a commercial but MIA as usual on these fleeting trips to LA. “Lou, how’s your French? How would you say: You can take my life, but you can never take my soul?”
At least this time he wasn’t asking me to explain to the Guatemalan police that he’d been attacked by a gang with machetes.
“Vous pouvez prendre ma vie,” I said, slurping a coffee and reaching into the refrigerated case for shredded cheese, “… mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme. Kahm-sa-hahm-ni-da.”
“Cum sum humnida?” repeated my brother. How do you spell that?”
“No, sorry, that’s Korean. I was just thanking the store clerk,” I said, balancing my coffee on the roof of my car so I could open the door.
“Vous errez…” tried my brother. “How quickly could you get to Paramount studios? I need you to coach the actress.”
I looked at the shredded cheese on the seat beside me and then down at my sweat pants. I remembered my interview write-ups and all the other tasks I had set myself for the day. “How much will you pay me?”
“A hundred bucks.”
“See you in 20 minutes.”

Exactly twenty minutes later, I pulled into the Paramount main gate, giving directions over the phone to my French friend, Anne-Helene. (I am pretty confident about making myself understood in French, but I could unwittingly ruin a whole advertising campaign if I missed certain nuances. Like the Spanish-language campaign for 'got milk?' which was rendered in translation as, 'are you lactating?' Or the Chevy Nova that had disappointing sales in Latin America until someone pointed out that 'no va' means 'won’t go' in Spanish.) The security guard was a cheery chap, smiling and joking as he looked up my name, all the while giving me sidelong glances, as if trying to figure out whether my glasses and pulled-back hair were the grunge disguise of someone famous. Then he took in my dusty Honda with the cookie crumbs and candy wrappers in the back and obviously decided that the grunge was for real. But he did look twice. I entered the parking lot feeling just a little bit glamorous.

Head up, shoulders back, stomach in, I schooled myself, as I strode down the alleys between stages. Whenever I don’t feel confident about how I’m dressed (every day I have to walk past the BCBG mothers at school) or am threatened with the feeling I don’t belong, I stand up straight and smile. It doesn’t fool anyone of course, but at least I do scruffy social misfit with dignity. It had been a while since I’d been on a studio lot. I couldn’t help feeling a little nostalgic as I walked between the sandy buildings with their huge hangar doors. I spotted a cluster of people drinking coffee and helping themselves to snacks from the craft services table. A white-haired security man hovered over the goodies, shooting me furtive glances. Did I look that much like my brother? Or maybe I really did resemble someone famous? More likely I had forgotten I was wearing my 'proud to be queer' T-shirt again. That and my 'Drug and Alcohol Programs' T-shirt has earned me some strange looks from the elderly couple at the fluff ‘n fold. The occupational hazard of being a social program consultant who actually wears the freebies the client gives her. Thank God I turned down that contract for sexually transmitted diseases.

“Epoch films?” I asked a hirsute gentleman, who was standing with a gaggle of grips. I knew they were grips because a roll of duct tape was hanging from every conceivable part of their bodies. He nodded towards a door that said 'Keep Out!' 'Do Not Enter – Filming In Progress' in large red letters. I pushed the door gingerly, expecting to walk into a daze of lights and the whole crew to start shouting at me. Fortunately, the action was elsewhere and the only thing on this part of the set were cables, camera boxes and a knight in armor. “Lost your horse?” I said, taking in his mournful face. He gave me a disdainful look and shuffled off, clanking. There I go with the sarcasm again! At this rate, I’ll never be rescued from my tower.

Following the golden rules of movie production (don’t walk in front of the camera or trip over the cables) I made my way to an island of 3 tall black canvas chairs clustered around TV monitors. “Vous pouvez prendre ma vie, mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme!” I declaimed to the back of my brother’s head. He turned around. “Aher,” he explained to the startled faces, “this is my sister.” They continued to stare. “Lou, this is The Director, The Creative Director, The Client…” his eyes opened wider at each title, telegraphing the imperative to behave. “Thanks for helping us out,” said the director, and returned to the monitors.

My brother quickly ushered me behind a black curtain where a damsel in a blue torn dress was being dabbed with powder and having her lips painted by two attendants with matching blond spiky hair. The actress turned her eyes towards me, while keeping her face uplifted for the ministrations. The two blonds fell away, and without smiling, the actress recited the French words in a flat accent.
“You should push your lips forward,” I corrected, “and put the emphasis on ‘jamais.’”
“I studied French for seven years,” she said, looking down her nose in a fashion that was indeed very French. Her attendants took on similarly pained expressions. It didn’t help that in the throes of proper French articulation, my chewing gum had popped out of my mouth and onto the floor.
“And you should make the ‘a’ in ‘alme’ wider” I carried on, undeterred. After all, there was a hundred bucks at stake here.
“There’s an ‘l’ in ‘âme?’” the actress asked, looking from one to the other of her make up artists as if for elucidation. Blond hair bristled in suspicion.
Just then, Anne-Helene arrived and quickly confirmed that yes, indeed ‘âme’ had no ‘l.’ I could have told them that the circumflex accent was actually a sign that a letter had been missed out, and as the spelling in Spanish was ‘alma,’ it was reasonable to believe that at one time the French spelling also had an ‘l,’ so technically I was right, in a historical sort of way, but by this time I had grown bored and decided to head over to where three black leather sofas had been grouped into an impromptu sitting room at the other end of the stage.

The lounge arrangement was to house the so-called ‘creatives’ from the advertising agency, who hang around on set listening to iPods, drinking white wine and generally getting in the way. All dressed in black, it was hard to distinguish them from the sofas. The client was typing furiously on a laptop, but paused long enough to register me as I perched on the sofa arm for a chat. I happened to glance up and caught sight of my brother in a booth overlooking the stage. When our eyes met, he stood up with an alarmed expression on his face, all the while continuing to talk into the phone.

After my chat, I picked my way over cables and between lamps and screens to the iron staircase leading up to the booth.
“I’ve got to go, my sister’s been talking to the client,” said Rob as he hung up the phone. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Wrong?” I asked. “Nothing. I was just telling them how I got out of the film industry because it is so meaningless and the people so shallow and egotistical.”
My brother put his head in his hands, but his groans were drowned out by the cries of the extras, who appeared to be doing their best to storm a bright green backdrop, waving sticks and rolling their eyes. The telephone rang. Rob picked it up and clamped his free hand over his ear: “Sorry? I can’t hear you; the peasants are revolting.”

I decided to resume my ‘meet and greet’ tour of the crew. Three gentlemen stood together, observing the peasants. I surmised they must be art department because they weren’t adorned with rolls of duct tape and didn’t have the whippet hound quiver of production assistants, who stand poised like Pharaoh’s slaves to satisfy the slightest whim of the production elite. (Earlier Rob had seen the director eating a pear. “That looks good,” said Rob, and moments later a PA materialized bearing a polished wooden bowl filled with wax-perfect pears. My brother has come a long way from the days when he used to have to rugby tackle me for the last cookie.)

Meanwhile, Anne-Helene had been taking her duties very seriously. The actress was now bound to a stake on top of a bonfire (no wonder she had been a bit tense earlier – the unruly extras were wielding real fire brands) and Anne-Helene had positioned herself in the actress’ sightline, right next to an impromptu hand-written autocue. I watched several takes, but all this standing around was making my back hurt. Time to reclaim my quotidian life, now that my brother’s crisis had been averted. I said my goodbyes and slipped away, back out into the sunshine, back down the wide walkways, past an awed group of tourists on a studio tour, past office workers with ID badges swinging from their neck, and into the parking lot where two men in suits were having an argument as they climbed into a BMW convertible.

“Bueno,” I was at home and conducting a telephone interview in Spanish with a 56-year old Mexican lady, “and did you want more than four-day week cleaning at the hospital?”
“Pues, no,” she replied, “I’ve had seven children, I’m tired. Four days is enough.” We laughed companionably as I wrapped up the interview. After writing up the interview notes, I picked up the sewing, just so I could do it badly enough that my mother would be obliged to finish the job properly once we got home for Christmas.

All in all, a very good day, I reflected. It was fun to revisit the movie world, but more satisfying to finish the day relating to someone whose daily dramas were about feeding her children. But then everywhere on set I saw baby pictures – inside camera cases, as screen savers – reminding me of my early days in program evaluation when my own screen saver read 'Josh needs to eat.' People really are all the same, it’s just that in the rarified stratosphere of fame and fortune and the razzle-dazzle of movie production it is easy to forget. How could that actress, who received $100,000 for one day’s work relate to the señora on minimum wage? I consider it my very good fortune that I inhabit neither extreme, yet get to rub shoulders with both. Now if I could only harness those little elves, my life would be perfect.

Copyright © 2007 Louise Godbold

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

We, the Deserving Poor

Even though at the elite private school I was visiting, today was 'casual Friday,' I knew better. Think Françoise, I told myself, as I clicked through the mothers at Josh’s school and landed on ‘understated professional.’ To create the look, pants, not low slung, denim or any other dubious material, and fastening around the waist without the aid of a safety pin and a gaping view of underwear. Okay, jacket then. Long, copious, double-breasted and therefore unlikely to reveal the substandard trouser fastening. Boots. Winkle pickers, but they lent me a somewhat dangerous air; just how dangerous a certain scone on a low coffee table knew only too well. (My sister arranged an afternoon tea at a posh hotel when I was last in London and was mortified when I managed to spear one of the raisin scones and jiggled it about unwittingly as I kept time to the string quartet.)

Although I have elected by certain life choices to distain the privileges afforded to me by birth (i.e., being white), and although material possessions are a low priority when compared to love, laughter and paying my son’s text messaging bill, I always believed, that should push come to shove, I could muster a suitably bourgeois wardrobe. After all, I did have my mother’s example on how to put myself together, whether it be for an audience with the Queen or a trip to the supermarket (my mother makes no distinction, both require lipstick and pantyhose). What I hadn’t realized, was that 15 years of living in the US and going to the supermarket in sweats had left me woefully deficient in understated professional wear and I couldn’t even produce ‘casual separates’ without bleach stains or B.U.M. (the British equivalent of B.U.T.T.) emblazoned on the front.

An hour later, I had perfected my interview outfit. We are applying to 5 schools, which means 5 open houses and 5 interviews. I wondered how I could accessorize a bright red jacket and black pants to look different 10 times. Perhaps they would think I worked as a parking valet and that this was my uniform? Good excuse, but hardly likely to impress any Admissions Director.

Such was my desire to appear the perfect parent, I arrived at the school half an hour early. After driving up and down the street for a while in a kind of lazy reconnaissance of the neighborhood, I turned into an up-market grocery store. The cashier rang up my bag of oranges: $8.25 – more than she was earning per hour. Poverty is relative, I realized, smiling at the baggers, who were yawning and chatting to each other in Spanish, but they didn’t smile back. I had dressed the part too well; I was just another gabacha.

At the school, it was another story. An elderly security guard ushered me to my parking space, walking backwards and bowing. Did they practice court etiquette here? Would he also spread his jacket on the ground before me? Perhaps the school had received word that the Notre Dame scout would be arriving in a black 1995 Honda civic? If this kind of attention was the result of my carefully chosen wardrobe, Francoise must live a charmed life.

I walked to the admissions office, passing teenagers in jeans and tennis shoes; nothing baggy, frayed or vaguely gang banging – my son would also have to go through a wardrobe upgrade. Waiting alone in the reception area, I leafed through the hefty yearbook: lots of theatre, lots of sports, lots of graduates in jacket and ties – this wardrobe thing was worse than I thought. I peered at all the pictures obsessively, no longer interested in academic standards or extra-curricula activity, but focused purely on apparel. Is this what private school would do to us? At least at the French school I am not expected to have any sense of style, because, after all, I am British. Our French cousins have long given up expecting elegance or good food from their neighbors and are satisfied with being able to rely on us for pop music and waxed coats.

A couple walked nervously to the nest of chairs I was occupying. Parents from the diversity program, I surmised. After my struggles this morning, I recognized the look that strives for Jackie Onassis but stalls at Madeleine Albright. Just then, a slim, blonde arrived, flashing a perfect smile and greeting everyone with confidence. Our wardrobe insecurities did a quick inventory of her green leggings and riding boots, topped with a long green sweater. She looked like the mounted section of Santa’s elves. As I embarked in casual conversation, it did not surprise me to learn that she lived in Beverly Hills. Good skin and expensive highlights didn’t need dress-up clothes. The security guard was probably still prostrate in front of her car.

The Admissions Director was suddenly before us. She escorted our little group around the building, which housed the library and various classrooms. I hung out with the couple and chatted in Spanish. She was from Mexico, he was American. I liked them; they laughed at my jokes. The Admissions Director, on the other hand, did not appear to share my sense of humor. “I’ll have to move to a bigger place,” I said, as we viewed the art projects, which included a 6-foot papier-mâché carrot. “Well, you could put it outside,” said the Admissions Director, with a thin smile. Had I somehow insinuated that the school was not being sensitive to families living in cramped housing? She obviously had me ear-marked as a financial aid candidate. Next time I would wear leggings.

The tour included a well-equipped theatre, which prompted the question: “Do you have many parents in the film industry?” She again gave me a guarded look. “Well, this is Los Angeles, but I always say you won’t see our entertainment industry parents in the National Enquirer.” She swung round with a beaming smile to the Beverly Hills elf:
“They’re all family people.” I had forgotten this was The Valley. Perhaps she now thought I was suggesting the parents were porn stars.

We returned via the elementary school. I hurried to catch up with the Admissions Director and the Beverly Hills matron, desperate to redeem myself.
“I think it’s great when the big kids and the little kids are all on one campus,” I enthused from behind.
“Yes,” agreed the Admissions Director, keeping step with the Beverly Hills woman. “I remember seeing our football coach out on the field with his baby in a harness. It was such a good role model for the boys,” she smiled over at her companion.
“I see that a lot in my neighborhood,” I said, trotting to keep up, happy to have at last found common ground: “All the gang members look so tough and there they are with their little babies, taking such good care of them.” There was a silence. “Of course, I guess you don’t see much of that in Beverly Hills, ha, ha, ha!”
“We have other problems,” said the Beverly Hills blonde, fixing me with a hard stare.
I fell back to ponder this. Could she have possibly known about the time my car caught on fire on Rodeo Drive?

Our walk-through ended back in the admissions office. The Latina and I stood awkwardly as the Admissions Director addressed the Beverly Hills mother standing behind us. “So sorry you couldn’t make an orientation, then you would have had a chance to meet the parents,” who are nothing like this motley crew, was the unspoken end to the sentence. The Lady In Green departed. No regret was expressed about us not being able to make it to the orientation.

I went back to my car wondering if my son stood a chance in hell of getting into this place. I had a feeling we might be tolerated for our ethnic, economic and sartorial diversity, but clearly we would not be donating a new wing to the library. “What can your culture bring to our school?” was one of the questions on the minority program application. What did they expect? That because his father was born in Mexico, my son could teach them ballet folklorico?

I drove away already writing an ironic account of the visit in my head, but the truth of the matter is that it did not sit well, this role of the deserving poor. My own fault. I have never much cared for wealth and privilege, so I should not now be surprised if wealth and privilege do not seem to much care for me.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold