She sits in the top of the greenhouse tree,
sending an aroma of undefined love
that drips on down in the mists from above…
August-Early September, 1980
So I was an Ozzie’s Pizza employee. I hadn’t worked at all during high school, so this was my first job. I worked weekdays, ten to five-thirty, with Kathy and occasionally other members of the crew. I learned how to make pizzas of every variety, to make chef salads, barbecue beef sandwiches, spaghetti sauce. I learned the best way to soothe my eyes after cutting onions was to stick my face inside the walk-in freezer. I learned to change the beer and wine kegs, although I wasn’t old enough to drink any of it. I learned how handle the lunch rushes, when most of the workforce from Rockwell International descended upon us, demanding to be fed in less than an hour. I learned to slice cold cuts and take phone orders and refill the lemonade and iced tea dispensers.
I had an income—a hundred or so dollars a week, after taxes. It was a new thing for me: a check every Friday to do whatever I wanted with. My movie consumption increased. Eric and I would head up to Hollywood and buy posters and stills at the movie paraphernalia collectors’ shops along the Boulevard. I bought records like mad–lots of the New Wave material I was coming to like so much. Gary Numan and Robin Lane, The Cars and Blondie. I bought the second Pat Benatar album, Crimes of Passion, which was more mainstream pop-rock than New Wave, which meant that Eric didn’t like it, but it became of of my favorite albums. It never occurred to me to save any of my earnings, although the specter of my promise to make money for my return to New England loomed in the back of my mind.
There were some attractive girls working with me at Ozzie’s: Kelly–dark, willowy, aloof; Lori–blonde, curvy and gregarious. There were others, but none of them paid much attention to me. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was my presentation or my breath; maybe they had boyfriends. Maybe it was the supplication and terror in my eyes whenever I looked at them. It puzzled me, but I didn’t give it much thought beyond agonizing that females were in general simply unattainable.
This was an attitude that my mother’s “rebirther,” Suzette LeBlanc, picked up on very quickly—and set her crosshairs on. Rebirthing was another one of those New Age therapeutic techniques popular in SoCal in the Seventies and Eighties. It involved, essentially, the process of controlled breathing, the idea being that one could release negative emotions and experiences stored in various parts of the body–a kind of respiratory Rolfing and psychoanalysis. In those first months on the west coast, my mother, as well as Eric, went to her regularly, so I tagged along to see if it would do me any good.
Suzette lived in a house in the hills overlooking L.A. There were plants everywhere, the kind of thick leafy bushes and shrubs that did well in SoCal. When we got out of the car and approached, although I couldn’t see her, she must have seen Eric’s Mr. Bill t-shirt.
“Oh, nooooooooo!” I heard issuing from inside.
She greeted us at the door, hugged Eric and my mom, then after I was introduced she hugged me too. She was an attractive woman of around forty, I guessed. She had short brown hair and eyes that sparkled like jewels and a manner that was at once brash and totally disarming. I felt as if I knew her already. She ushered us into a spacious split-level living room. There were almost as many plants inside as out. The living room gave way to a large patio that overlooked a swimming pool. The smog-heavy air beyond didn’t seem to penetrate Suzette’s interior space. In the distant hills I could pick out the “HOLLYWOOD” sign, although in its current state of disrepair, it read: “HULLYW OD.” There were crystals and fantasy paintings all around. A large deck of Tarot cards sat on the coffee table. I felt immediately, uncannily comfortable in her place, as if I had already spent a great deal of time there and was intimately familiar with it.
Suzette ushered Mom into one of the bedrooms down the hall for her session and left Eric and I to amuse ourselves for forty-five minutes. Eric was prepared. He settled into a lounge chair by the pool and popped open his copy of Kubrick Directs, while waiting his turn. I hadn’t thought to bring anything to read, but Suzette’s living room was lined with bookshelves and all kinds of interesting literature and minutia.
I found myself ultimately drawn to the large set of Tarot cards. I had my own set, and over the previous year I had become fairly adept a giving insightful–albeit clumsy–readings. These cards were not at all like mine though. Although the images on each card were similar, they were not printed in color. Rather, each card was like a page from a coloring book: simple black-and-white outlines. Some had been hand-colored with watercolor paints. Glancing at the pamphlet, I saw the deck was put out by an L.A. outfit called Builders of the Adytum; their logo was a triangular shape suspiciously evocative of the Masonic pyramid that graces the dollar bill. Suzette would tell me later that the act of coloring the cards by hand allows the owner to form a special connection with the deck–to personify it. It also demanded a certain meditation on each image as one colored it. As I flipped through the deck I stopped at the first card of the Major Arcana: The Magician. It was always a card that attracted me: a robed figure behind a short table; before him, lay the symbols that denoted the four suits of the Lower Arcana–a rod, a short sword, a gold cup and a pentacular-embossed coin. The Magician represented power of the intellect and control of creative energies, the ability to transform thoughts into reality. Suzette maintained that each card wielded a powerful symbolic vocabulary in its imagery and the more you meditated on the images themselves the more “in tune” you would be with the deck. I wasn’t so sure about any of that, but I liked the idea–the notion that one could unlock hidden potential, open doorways of possibility and power, within or without oneself, by meditation or even breathing–the thing that brought me there in the first place.
My turn came. Suzette took me by the hand and led me with a smile down the hall. I felt a strange kind of anticipation that I felt down to the base of my spine. It wasn’t at all sexual, despite the fact the she was guiding me gently, almost seductively, onto her bed.
The weirdness of the situation was almost totally offset by the sense of ease and familiarity she continued to instill in me. I laid down on my back and she sat cross-legged by me on the bedspread. As she began to instruct me on how to breath, her voice alone seemed to break up any tension and wash it away. “Close your eyes,” she said and it was as if I heard her voice more with my nerve endings than with my ears. I surrendered.
She took me through a series of visualizations accompanied by controlled breathing and I very quickly tranced out. The experience was nothing like falling asleep, or dreaming; it wasn’t like being under hypnosis either. My body felt very heavy, as if I was trying to move through a thick medium, like molasses. My mind felt similarly slowed, but still lucid. I could think and speak and hear. Suzette coached my breathing, guided my visualizations, repeated affirmations. All the while, my body would involuntarily tense and flex in one place, then another. My arm would curl up, then, as I kept breathing, it would relax and another muscle group would tighten. Body memories, she explained. Emotional and physical memories get stored in our muscles–the breathing releases memories going all the way back to birth, hence the term Rebirthing.
As the session went on, I became aware of a burning sensation in my upper chest cavity. You’re using your whole lung, she said, for the first time in a long time. Many people never use the area of lung above the bronchial tubes unless they’re runners, athletes or live at high altitudes.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Good,” I said. “Hungry.” God, was I suddenly hungry! As I lay there, hyperventilating on Suzette’s bedspread, I was suddenly seized with the urge to gorge myself with every kind of food imaginable. At the moment, however, all the food I could imagine were the various dishes I had been learning to assemble at Ozzie’s. So while I breathed, I resolved that as soon as I was back in OC, I was heading over there for a big plate of pasta and meat sauce and a large Barbecue Beef sandwich.
Suzette encouraged my food fantasies; food is pleasure and pleasure is something you want in abundance. She even crooned a few bars from the Rocky Horror song book:
Give yourself over to absolute pleasure…
When she counted me back up to “normal” consciousness, I felt a bit groggy, but relaxed. And deeply, deeply mellow. As we drove back to OC, I looked out at the hillsides and skyscrapers of Los Angeles and thought: Maybe it’s not really the booze and the drugs that keep the Angelinos so mellow; maybe they’re all doing Rebirthing.
Fall came. Suddenly the summer was over–my first summer as a full-time resident and not just a tourist. Eric was heading back to school for his senior year at Huntington High and it was a year ago at this time that I was heading back to Weston by myself. Now, however, summer had flashed by and I was not going anywhere. In the back of my head, there still lingered the promise I made to Fred, to go back and make a film, but with each day my other life, my former life in Weston, seemed more and more as if it had happened to someone else.
During this time, rebirthing wasn’t the only new-agey self-improvement thing I participated in. For a while I went to “clearing” sessions with this old fellow in Long Beach that Frank knew, with the unfortunate name of Jack Horner. Horner had supposedly worked with L. Ron Hubbard—the founder of Scientology. And, according to Frank (which meant I took it with a major grain of salt), Horner had been the one to develop the little e-meter machines that Scientologists used in their counseling sessions. He had no continuing connection with Hubbard or Scientology, so I was told, and supposedly had a legal falling out with Hubbard over the e-meter technology.
The first time I went, it was a sunny Saturday morning. Frank drove. Horner’s office was on the second floor of an old, white office building, and you had to take an aged, wooden stairway in the back to get in. Inside, the space smelled of must and years of old magazines stacked up and cigarette ashes worked into the flattened-to-a-shine office carpeting. Everything was brown—whether it started that way or not. Peeling posters and old mags on the coffee table suggested that Horner was big into UFOs—Roswell, alien abductions, “real” pictures of flying saucers, all that.
This was not Suzette’s. She had some odd notions, but at least I felt at home in her space. This place I wanted to run from, but that was not an option. Frank had dropped me there and took off to run errands. I was considering sneaking out and finding the nearest OCTD bus stop when the door to Horner’s office opened and he gruffly waved me inside.
Jack Horner looked like he had spent his whole life in an ashtray—the same way all craggy-looking old guys on ’70s TV looked like they had spent their lives in ashtrays. His inner sanctum was even messier than his waiting room. Venetian blinds, yellowed with age, covered the window at a slight slant. More piles of paper covered the battered desk that also held—you guessed it—an ashtray. A table scattered with metal and wire huddled against the opposite wall below a cheap seascape print in a broken frame. In the far corners, fly strips hung in sick, amber coils from the ceiling, crowded with the glued and desiccated remains of dozens of unfortunate houseflies. I felt like I was in an old Bogart movie.
“Sit,” he ordered, and I sat in the uncomfortable metal frame chair he pointed to. Then he dropped into the gunmetal gray office chair by his desk, lit a cigarette, and pushed the chair on its casters to a spot directly before me. He exhaled and the light caught the smoke, carving it into layers like a cake.
“So,” he said, “Barger says you need clearing.”
This was definitely not Suzette’s.
“Frank says a lot of things,” I replied.
He seemed oblivious—or indifferent—to my reservations. He wheeled over to the table with all the electronics, picked up an armful of objects and wheeled back. A kinked power cord trailed behind him like the tail of a rat.
“Take these,” he instructed, holding out what looked like a couple of soup cans, minus their paper labels. Thin wires threaded out from each. “Hold one in either hand.”
I took them, tentatively, wary of a shock. There was none, but a quick inspection confirmed what I thought: soup cans—their tops and bottoms removed and thin wires soldered to the inner surface of each. The wires trailed across to a box in Horner’s hands. The box was encrusted with switches and dials like something out of Plan 9.
“Here’s how it works,” Horner explained. “You hold the cans, and we talk. Just conversation. Wherever you want to take it. If we get to a subject or thought that you have a charge on, it shows up here.”
“Charge,” I asked.
“A strong emotional or mental reaction,” he said. He held up the box with the dials. “If this needle twitches into the red, that’s something that needs clearing. We dig into that topic. We keep digging until the needle stops twitching. When the needle stops—you’re clear.”
So there I was. Sitting across from a tobacco-stained curmudgeon who believed in UFOs and wanted to grill me with a homemade lie detector.
What the hell. Weirder things had happened.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We talked for about forty minutes, on topics mostly surrounding my recent relocation. But the conversation also meandered into my thoughts about my new family, and my shyness around girls. The e-meter seemed effective in that it zeroed in on this topic in pretty short order. What Horner did with that information was a different story. My make-out session with Susie from Los Gatos last summer came up, and Horner ended up ranting and gesticulating and barking on about what I should have done that night, leaving me feeling like even more of a social screw-up than I did when I walked in.
If this was clearing, I did not want to know what muddying was like.
I saw him again two or three times over the next month or so. But eventually Frank stopped offering to take me—and I didn’t ask about it.
My “period of adjustment” was doing its work. I settled into a comfortable routine: Ozzie’s by day, movies by night, late evening walks and stops at Foster’s Donuts in the wee hours. I had a routine and it was hard to imagine that just a few short months ago it wasn’t even an idea–let alone a possibility. I was accustomed to my new life; but that didn’t necessarily mean that I was yet comfortable in my new home–or the skin that inhabited it. With Eric in school and busier than ever with his drama activities, I was left much of the time to find my own distractions from the anxieties of life with Mom and Frank.
The job helped, as did the movies, to keep me out of the house. But even after my nightly feature at the UA6, I generally had no interest in going straight home. I got into the habit of protracting my walks home from the theater. At night along that part of the California coast, when the fog rolled in, or the clouds came in really low–which they almost always did (the local weathermen used the acronym LNEMLC’s: Late Night Early Morning Low Clouds)–it could turn the air into a strange and remarkable medium. On the quiet streets of Old Town Seal, after midnight, the fog dampened sound, making it even quieter. Some nights all you could hear was the distant crashing of the surf down on the beach, and the occasional zap of the static discharge doo-hickies on the power lines. Along with the quiet hush, the damp air accentuated the smells as well: the smell of the ocean, the smell of the oleanders in the park on Electric Avenue.
On these nightly walks I would frequently brainstorm with myself for movie ideas–or rework existing ones. Since leaving Weston, I had come to seriously reconsider Satan’s Shadow, the horror flick that Fred and I had scripted. As we had it, it was merely a derivative piece of Alien-esque, Friday-the-Thirteenth-esque trash with a cool monster make-up job for Fred (who was to play the killer from another world) and a schizophrenic soundtrack of music ranging from new wave to heavy metal. But after seeing Apocalypse Now about twenty times in the past year, I was now more interested in making Satan’s Shadow more derivative of that film instead. I wanted to make the alien/killer some kind of representation of madness and turn the other characters into case studies in insanity. Of course, I had no clue how to write that, but it sounded great on paper.
I was becoming one of the UA6’s best customers. It rarely mattered what I went to see, as long as I went. Sometimes I would roll a dice and buy a ticket to whatever was playing in that numbered auditorium. I saw a lot of tripe using this method. The Octagon, a rotten Chuck Norris vehicle; Terror Train, another Jamie Lee Curtis slasher pic; The Omen III: Final Conflict, another vomitable installment of the Omen series featuring a then unknown Sam Neill as the son of Satan; Without Warning, an alien invasion movie that was so bad I had to see it twice, and in which Martin Landau delivers one of my all-time favorite throwaway lines:
“‘Cuz they don’t do nuthin–about nuthin…”
Conversely, I also saw some very good films I otherwise might have passed on. Without this method of enforced randomness in viewing choices, I would have missed Continental Divide with John Belushi and Blair Brown (with whom, upon seeing Altered States, I would soon fall in love); I would have missed The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with the then up-and-coming Meryl Streep, and the then also unknown Jeremy Irons. I would have missed The Stunt Man, and a number of others that have since landed on my favorites list.
But the thing that really kept me coming back to the UA6, Rocky Horror aside, was the extended run of The Empire Strikes Back. I couldn’t get enough of this colorful, moody, rough-and-tumble second installment of the Star Wars series. My erstwhile directorial eye was enamored with the look of the film–Irvin Kirshner’s visual sense awakened my initial liking for the pairing of the colors blue and orange. My metaphysically-oriented side responded to the mythic aspects of Luke’s experiences learning the ways of The Force; there were Jungian archetypal aspects to both Luke and Han that I wanted to incorporate into myself. But mostly, I wanted to eat this film–I wanted to digest it; to squeeze as much enjoyment out of every single frame as I could.
For this reason I would view Empire at least once a week, usually on a weekend afternoon. There were a few Saturdays when I would sit through consecutive screenings–not an entirely unknown thing for me to do if I liked a film–and on one Saturday in particular I sat through Empire three times.
As I sat watching the second showing, I mouthed along to the dialogue–which I knew more or less cold by this point. Luke had landed at Cloud City and the tension mounted as his search for Han, Leia and the gang led him into the trap set by Vader.
As Luke found himself in the carbon-freezing chamber, and the rise and fall of Vader’s trademark deep-breathing rose on the soundtrack, I heard two voices behind me, speaking in unison with James Earl Jones:
“You have grown powerful, young Skywalker…”
A few rows back sat two girls who appeared to be about my age, or a little younger. They were both visibly as enraptured by the film as was I. The vivid blues and oranges of the confrontation scene flashed from the screen off the glasses of one of them.
“But you are not a Jedi yet.”
It took a moment to register. Girls. Two of them. And apparently, like me, very into the Star Wars thing. I was vaguely aware of a social opportunity here. But one of the things that my new life out here hadn’t yet shaken me out of was my old familiar inability to approach females. Besides, we were in the middle of the final reel of Empire. I wanted to respond, to let them know I was there, I understood, I was one of them. I was too well trained to talk to them during the movie, so–although turning Empire into some Rocky Horror-style audience participation thing felt like some kind of sacrilege–I had to do something to announce my presence.
So when they echoed Vader again:
“You have learned much, young one.”
I responded, mirroring Luke: “You’ll find I’m full of surprises!”
I never found out whether or not they heard, or even noticed. They seemed to quiet down soon after that, and I was afraid to turn and look until after the credits started to roll. When I did they were already gone. My eyes lingered for a few seconds on their empty seats. I knew that my hibernating in here all day was robbing me of certain social possibilities. But I was too shy, too unsure of myself to do anything like go out after them, find them, seek out our common ground–it surely wouldn’t have been difficult to do. But instead I turned back, settled into my seat as the end credits continued to roll and the John Williams score continued to blast and waited for the third screening.
Near the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Marina Drive, about half a block north of where Main Street crosses PCH, at the outer point of a small pie-shaped building semi-populated with shops and small businesses, there was a little independent 24-hour donut shop called Fosters. Being to the north side of Seal, it became a convenient stop for me, on those late night wanderings back from the UA6, which was just over the San Gabriel river on the south edge of Long Beach. It was a good place to stop for a Coke and a Bavarian Creme or a cinnamon roll or Rich Jackson’s favorite–the cow turd.
But there was one more important reason for my preference for late-night donuts at Fosters.
I had a semi-regular habit of stopping there after midnight Rocky Horror showings. And even when I wasn’t seeing Rocky, I often wore Rocky t-shirts. I was wearing such a t-shirt one Thursday, after a screening of Stardust Memories, when I came out from the black and orange-lit streets into the fluorescent fish-bowl of Foster’s. The door made an electronic bing as it opened, announcing my entrance.
Behind the counter, the same slender, long haired girl who helped us the very first time I went in, the night of the Plan 9 viewing party, turned, saw me, and smiled. She was on the phone.
“Gotta go,” she said. “My Rocky Horror friend is here.”
Her name was Kim Sinclair and she worked the graveyard shift at Foster’s practically every night. She was 19, with big green eyes that reminded me of Pat Benatar. She graduated from Huntington High in ’79, had lived in Seal Beach her whole life, and was very much a denizen of its youth culture. She usually wore jeans and a t-shirt with some hard rock or punk band’s name on it, or the name of some surfing related product (Dr. Zog’s Sex Wax was a big favorite). She wasn’t a surf-chick, but she was a stoner outside of work. I was strongly drawn to her although, at first, I wasn’t sure why. It may have been the fact that she was plugged into the local culture in a way that I had yet to. It may have been the fact that she was the closest I had come to making a friend in California who I had not met through Eric. It may have been that she was a novelty—different in many ways from most of the people in my world. It may simply have been that she was a girl–and one that actually enjoyed talking with me. Whatever the reason, I was enrolled, and I was on my way to becoming a serious night-owl.
In those weeks, before my semi-regularity became a full-blown habit, we wouldn’t do much more than exchange pleasantries, talking about movies or music or other mostly harmless subject areas. She would stand behind the counter, which was made up of two large deli-cases, fluorescent-lit from within, showing off glistening examples of the high-calorie fare, with a short counter between for the cash register. I’d lean on the deli case, glancing back and forth between those big green eyes and the maple crullers lined up under the glass.
On this night, the night I came in with the Rocky t-shirt, I asked her for a Bavarian Creme, which she bagged up for me as we talked. As I slid my finger up and down the metal upper edge of the deli-case, I felt a small shock–almost unnoticeable. Strange. I wondered if there was a short in the light fixtures inside the thing. I touched it again and felt nothing. But it was there again when I moved my finger along its edge. Not painful, not unpleasant either. Just weird.
She handed me my bag. “See you tomorrow night?” she asked.
I reached in my pocket and pulled out a wrinkled dollar and held it out to her. She waved it off.
“You probably will,” I said, as I continued to slide my fingertip up and down the electric edge of the counter. “But, if you keep this job much longer, I’m going to rot my guts out.”
Now, that didn’t come out nearly the way I wanted it to. I wanted to say something suave and upbeat and flirtatious. But I was feckless and uneducated in the arts of such things, and stumbled frequently on the shoe leather of my tongue. But she got the point. Her shoulders bunched up almost shyly, and a quiet grin widened the sharp line of her mouth.
Between and around me and that smile, and the electricity under my forefinger and the smell of deep-fryers and sugar and coffee, I felt something solidify. Something special. Something good. I smiled back and opened the binging door, stepping out into the smell of ocean and oleanders, the sounds of the zapping power lines and the surf down on the beach. I walked home, eating Kim’s gooey, sugary present with a certain heady satisfaction.