Make a clean break to bury the past,
Shed these chains and be free at last.
Late July 1980
My first weeks in Seal seemed to go by in a flurry of new experiences; new places, new things, new people. I had little problem in making the transition to a new style, a new rhythm of life. With each passing day, my East Coast life seemed more distant.
I spent a lot of time on the beach. That summer, like every summer, Seal Beach was a virtual paradise for any admirer of female physical aesthetics. The reputation enjoyed by SoCal beaches for beautiful women is well-deserved and provided for days, weeks of the purest of rapture and torture for poor little hormone-driven me. Watching them, I would sometimes think: they can’t be real. They can’t make them this good-looking. It must be illegal. It wasn’t long before the mere smell of cocoa butter started to work on me like an aphrodisiac.
Girlwatching, however, wasn’t the only thing that brought me down to the water’s edge. I had also developed a hearty enthusiasm for body surfing. Catching a good wave–becoming a living surfboard–was a pure and exquisite rush. I wasn’t alone in this sentiment either. This was, after all, the surfing capitol of the world; riding the waves was a way of life here. For each wave that came in there was a whole line of people there to catch it, riding the whitewater side by side. Out of that came one of my first, as well as my most totally inept, tactics to meet girls: all I had to do was single out a target, steer myself just so, and suddenly I was tangled limb with limb and tumbling through the wash with someone and nothing to do but introduce myself. I found it massively diverting, though I suspected that most of the girls I ran into found it massively annoying. I was probably lucky to have not been pummeled by some muscled and jealous boyfriend.
But it was easy to lose myself in the throng. I found that in being down there I could virtually lose myself among the nameless, faceless humanity; and in that anonymity I began to get a taste of the independence, the freedom I knew I needed to find.
I also, in those weeks, spent much time renewing my acquaintance with my brother, Eric. The year we spent apart had produced changes in both of us; it took some getting used to, but the relationship we shared did not seem to have weakened in the intervening months. In some ways it was as if we had not been apart at all.
Since I had only just arrived and had not made any new friends of my own, Eric sort of became the focus of my social life. I started to meet some of Eric’s friends, most of whom he knew from his theater activities at school, and I ended up going out quite often with this unusual band of individuals.
One trait that we all shared was a passion for great movies, and there was a bumper crop that summer of exciting new films: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, and DePalma’s Dressed to Kill were among the films released in those months, and they were ones that quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorites and that I would see many times. I was also introduced to the Midnight Movie phenomenon, and my appetite for cult films was awakened. I fell under the spell of Rocky Horror, A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s nightmarish, futuristic masterpiece, and Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s grisly and gory sequel to Night of the Living Dead.
The first time I saw Dawn of the Dead was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. Some of the most shocking images of mutilation and brutality, filmed in a simplistic, quasi-documentary style, devoid of the trappings of conventional horror, came together as one of the most pure and viscerally frightening films I have ever seen. I found myself amazed at its effectiveness, so much that, despite the gross-out factor, I forced myself to watch it over and over again. The more I saw it, the more I began to see in it; the film’s intelligence and intent. Once I got past the gore, I saw a powerful statement on the condition of modern-day consumer culture. I also began to develop a real admiration and respect for the people who could make cinematic gore look so damned convincing.
I developed a habit of going to the movies myself as well. The Long Beach UA6 was well within walking distance of home. On many a night, I would find myself walking up PCH, in many cases just to get out by myself, not really caring what film I saw. I watched a lot of very bad films, as well as some very good one’s that I might not have ordinarily seen if I had gone with a group. I was still obsessed with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, and this steady diet of movies did nothing if not feed that obsession. At times, I would start looking at the world around me as if I were a walking camera, composing shots and angles wherever I went. It began to occur to me that I could probably do better at filmmaking than a good deal of the professionals out there. It was something I desperately wanted to do. But as time progressed, other, more short-term objectives began to take precedence.
I needed to find a job.
I had been looking, somewhat half-heartedly, for work in the area, putting in applications at local shops and restaurants but I still seemed to be in summer-vacation mode. I was more apt to hit the beach, or just spend the day around the apartment delving into the new realms of popular music that my brother was introducing me to. I sometimes spent hours getting into Eric’s Elvis Costello collection, and acquainting myself with the various New-Wave stuff just coming into popularity, like Freedom of Choice by Devo, Squeezing Out Sparks by Graham Parker, and the B-52’s second album Wild Planet. A new musical soundtrack for a new life in progress.
There were a few aspects of this new life that I had chosen to accept about which I was ambivalent. One was: I was now living in a household situation of which I was unsure whether I wanted to be a member. With Mom and Eric, I had no problem, they were my family–my real family. The odd elements were, obviously, Frank and Paul. I understood my mother’s objectives in entering into that situation. She grew up in an environment where a “normal, happy family,” the house, the husband, the white picket fence, the whole nine yards, were the ingredients for personal fulfillment. Mom was pursuing what she thought she’s always wanted. But, Frank, although I liked him, was the recent victim of a bitter and trying divorce, and Paul was already an irretrievable product of an intensely dysfunctional home. This produced, I felt, if anything, some kind of distorted fun-house mirror image of a normal happy family. Things were not what they were supposed to be.
I think perhaps all the members of my new “family” were at least vaguely aware of this, but it seemed that I, being the newcomer, sensed it more acutely. Mom seemed to be having difficulty reconciling her illusions with reality and it seemed to be taking a toll on her. She was putting on weight. She was always tired, and looked drawn, and was prone to attacks of sensitive nerves as if the world were throwing too much input her way. She also suffered from chronic migraines.
I was at a loss for a way to deal with any of this, short of spending a lot of time out of the house. It was one of the reasons I spent so much time at the movies. I didn’t really want to think too much about it, so I occupied myself in looking for work, looking for new things to do, and building this new life of mine.
Hand in hand with our enthusiasm for cult films, Eric, myself and some of Eric’s friends shared a love of the classic bad movies: films so awful that they’re priceless. The infamous “Golden Turkeys.” One night we found out that one of the ultimate examples of the genre was to be shown on TV: Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan 9 From Outer Space! So a viewing party was scheduled. Two of Eric’s friends showed up: Richard Jackson; an outgoing young sophomore with apparently no embarrassment threshold whatsoever, whom I had met some weeks back; and a seemingly earnest, friendly and more subdued guy named Jim Holtz. Jim was my age; he had just graduated from HB High where he had been in theater with Eric during his senior year. He seemed like a cool guy and we connected fairly quickly. He shared my penchant for science fiction, and I found out he was a hard-boiled Trekkie and a comic book aficionado. From what I understood, he was also going through a difficult break-up with a girl named Debbie, who I had yet to meet, but was known to everyone else.
The movie started around midnight and we had set up the audiocassette recorder by the TV, caught the sounds of the film as well as our reactions to it. As the credits rolled, we provided appropriately camped up voice-over, all of us chorusing out the title and stars, including Bela Lugosi, in his last screen role (he, in fact, died halfway through filming and the rest of his scenes had to be done with a cape-shrouded stand-in who looked nothing like him.), Vampira–a 50’s camp horror film waste product, and Tor Johnson, whom we dubbed “The Fat Guy.”
How bad is Plan 9 from Outer Space? How blue is the sky? How deep is the ocean? It is impossible to convey properly just how godawful this film is. It opens with a monolog by a guy named Criswell, who was apparently some psychic or medium with a TV show around the time that the film was made. This guy was so loopy, he spoke in such riddles and circles that I found it hard to believe that even he knew what he was talking about. We were rolling on the floor. And it just got worse. And worse and worse. Poor production, lame sets, no acting, awful dialogue (“You’re all stupid! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!”). It was awesome. Each time Tor Johnson showed up on screen we all boomed out “It’s THE FAT GUY!!” We were cackling so hard and so loud throughout that when the tape was played back later, we could barely hear the movie.
After the hilarious event, we sat up through the small hours, talking and clowning around. I sat on the couch, producing one strange drawing after another, for the amusement or disgust of the others. After a while we went out and wandered the fog-shrouded streets of Seal, ending up at the pier. As we strutted down its length, we snapped our fingers in unison, like the Jets in West Side Story, except we were singing “Girl U Want” by Devo. About halfway down to the end, the fog obscured both ends of the pier, so that all we could see was a walkway without end, suspended over nothing, the orange sodium lamps vanishing into the mist. Coming off the pier, it was decided that munchies were in order, so we headed off to the most local 24-hour donut shop, which I learned was a place called Fosters, a few blocks away in a tiny little shopping center off PCH. We fairly invaded the place. But the girl behind the counter was obviously a graveyard shift veteran and was undisturbed by our rambunctious manner. She was tall, slender, long brown hair, wide green eyes and sold us a dozen chocolate glazed, cinnamon rolls, apple fritters (what Rich referred to as “cow turds.”) and four large cokes with a pleasant smile. We thanked her and left.
Back at the apartment, we consumed our haul, and then, believe it or not, caught a few hours sleep. Jim went home–he only lived a block away, over on Eighth. Jackson slept over.
Sometime around eight, we got up and went to get breakfast down at John’s Food King: Van deKamp’s raspberry danish twist and a gallon of milk. Freedom of Choice provided the mood music for our mega-caloric meal as Mom and Frank were just getting up, preparing to spend their day doing we-didn’t-know-what. It was great. We were carefree, responsible to no one. Life was good.
Around the end of July, Eric and I went to see The Blues Brothers in concert at the Universal Amphitheater in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. We had obtained the tickets to see John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd—a.k.a. Jake and Elwood, months in advance, before I had moved out. Eric and I were fans of Saturday Night Live, and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, since its first groundbreaking season. And we had also gotten enthusiastically on board when The Blues Brothers debuted on SNL and released their LP, Briefcase Full Of Blues. The Blues Brothers movie had just been released and the band was touring in support of the film. Word was also that they were taping the night’s show for a live album.
Mom drove and dropped us off. The lengthening shadows of late afternoon followed us as we found our way to our seats. The amphitheater was big, and our seats were situated about halfway between the stage and the back sections. We were close enough to feel like we didn’t need binoculars, but way too far away to see the sweat dripping from Jake and Elwood’s porkpie hatbands. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the show, though. And as I watched Belushi do cartwheels across the stage during “Gimme Some Lovin’,” I felt lucky to be there—on a variety of levels.
I glanced out at the great sprawl of the Valley, just beyond the trees left of the stage. The sun had dropped well below the ridge of the hills behind us, and the vast grid of streetlights in the distance glittered like a vast constellation. The ozone-tinged night air was fading into a deep cobalt overhead. The sense of wonder and possibility I felt on the night of my arrival surged up in me once more. And as we all got to our feet for the last encore, their big hit, “Soul Man,” I cheered as much for myself as I did for the music.
My job search continued. As the weeks wore on the need to find something grew. There was this nagging knowledge that I was supposed to be working the summer to earn money so that I could go back east to work on that film with Fred. It was already August.
I was pounding the pavement one afternoon, at a big shopping center by the intersection of PCH and Main, across from the Taco Hell where Eric worked, when I noticed a “Help Wanted” sign. It was in the window of a place called Ozzie’s, a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria that I hadn’t yet gone into. I went in.
It was a somewhat dark, somewhat dingy, divey kind of place. To my right, a deli case stretched back to meet with a high counter that bordered the service area, with its bulky and apparently ancient pizza oven. To my left a was a couple of booths, followed by a row of tables and chairs by the wall that led to a larger, darker dining area in the rear. Overhead, plastic grape leaves shared the latticework with suspended, expended chianti bottles. The walls were crowded with signs and posters listing or suggesting different items on the menu. One sign for frozen, heat-and-serve pizzas to go announced: “Ozzie calls us half-baked!”
The warm, familiar smell of pizza was in the air. The voice of Jackson Browne meandered from a couple of stereo speakers perched atop the walk-in refrigerator. Behind the register stood a woman who looked to be in her late twenties. She was tall, with a long, sandy-blonde ponytail, and wore a bright red Ozzie’s T-shirt. She was making a list on a piece of scratch paper when I approached the counter.
“Who do I talk to about your Help Wanted sign,” I asked as she looked up.
“You talk to me,” she said as she put her pen down, pulled an application pad from under the countertop and pulled off a sheet. “Fill this out first, then we’ll sit down and talk.”
I took a seat in one of the booths and filled out the blanks on the form, which was a relatively simple task as I had no previous employment history. So, there wasn’t much for me to put down except for my name and address. After the woman took care of the few customers who wandered in, she sat down across from me, my mostly blank application before her.
Her name was Kathy, and she reminded me, visually, of the comic strip character of the same name. She was the manager. She explained that one of her crew was leaving and she would be needing a replacement soon.
“How do you feel about working nights?” she asked.
Eek. I hadn’t considered that possibility. Of course, this being an eatery, they needed to be staffed on evenings and weekends too. I needed a job, but I also had a definite idea of what kind of hours I wanted to work.
“Uh, I’d really rather work days,” was my reply.
“Well,” she went on, “I have an immediate opening for the night shift. But there’s a chance I might need someone for days pretty soon.”
I expressed interest in that, and she said she would know more in a week or so. We left it at that, shook hands and I left. Thus went my first ever job interview.
A week later I went back there to see if Kathy knew any more about the upcoming opening. She didn’t, but assured me that I was in the running for the position once it was available.
Life went on. A week or so went by, and I didn’t hear back from Kathy, so I figured I didn’t get the job. I continued to spend my days at the beach, or at the movies. Just about every Friday and Saturday night, I would be part of the freakish throng dancing in the aisles of the UA6, at the midnight showing of Rocky Horror.
I had gotten into the habit of sleeping late. By the time I got up, on most mornings, Mom and Frank were already long gone, and Eric would already be up the street, at work at Taco Hell.
One morning I was laying in bed, just slightly dozing and half listening to Fraser Smith’s morning show on KLOS, When the phone rang. I picked it up.
“Hello,” I croaked.
“Is Chris there?”
“Speaking.” Who the hell would be calling me?
“Chris, this is Kathy, up at Ozzie’s. I was wondering if you were still looking for a job.”
I perked up. “Well, yeah,” I answered.
“How’d you like to work with me weekdays ten to five?”
“Okay. When do I start?”
“How soon can you get here?”
Less than an hour later, I was behind the counter at Ozzie’s receiving my first day’s training, and becoming duly baptized into the world of working stiffs.