Moving is Terrible

Part One

I’m sure most of you, oh classy and attractive readers, have had to move at least once in your classy and attractive lives. I know I have! In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve moved 17 times in the last 8 years. But each of those moves was a cake walk compared to the most move-y of all moves, the one move to move them all, the move when I was dispelled from the warm, fuzzy, warmth-fuzz of higher education into the cold, spiky, ice-spikes of real life.

I’ve never really thought about what a cake walk is until now. Maybe it meant something back in ye olden times when you were just a blacksmith’s daughter and the most exciting moment in your life was when the traveling cake salesman came into town. But right now all I’m picturing is trying to hop from one cake to the next in a “the floor is lava” kind of scenario. Seems like an awfully wasteful use of cake, although I guess it’s better to stomp those sugary anti-lava platforms than to ingest their frivolous, delicious calories. Mmm… cake.

The four left arms help with balance.

So there I was, completely done with my schooling. I’d just returned from producing a feature film I co-wrote, and everything I owned was safely resting in the hands of a highly reputable portable storage company, whose representative had assured us that he had most definitely left the murderous gang life behind. (But that he couldn’t quite afford tattoo removal). And that’s when I, my roommate, and my one, precious suitcase which had kept me afloat for the last month checked into an Airbnb.

Get ready for it.

This particular studio apartment claimed to be in Koreatown, but was in fact in Little Salvador, I think. Salvadoria, they call it. And what a lovely town it was. Except for the fact that every night, there were prostitutes ten feet from our front door. And these were not just any prostitutes. Nay! These were the scariest, hairiest, bare-(it-all)-iest prostitutes I’d ever seen, and believe me, when I say a prostitute is frightening, you can trust me, because I know pretty much nothing about prostitution.

Now, even though there were a lot of nice ladies with whom you could go for a ride, there wasn’t any place to park your ride. (Best joke ever!) We had to wake up every morning at 7am to move our car to a pay lot before the meter kicked in, and every night we had to move the car back to the street. And this was not just any pay lot. Nay! It was the jankiest, skankiest, rank-(it-low)-iest parking lot I’d ever seen, and it was run by an old black man named Pops. He had one, single tooth, and as far as I could tell, he was homeless (like me!) and spent every hour of his day on a milk crate doing drugs.

pops_final

I swear to mighty Zeus, I am not making any of this up.

Pops was quite the character. I felt all kinds of confidence turning my keys over to him, especially when he’d add comments such as “You boys look familiar. Were you in the cell over from me?” Or “Thanks for bringin’ my car back. I’m gonna drive it to Beverly Hills and bang dem bitches.” Then he’d laugh his scary, one-toothed laugh, straddling the line between doing some sort of stand-up bit and simply plunging deeper into the abyss of his insanity. Classic Pops.

One day, after making eye contact—a lot of eye contact—with a homeless person whilst he urinated all over a pay phone, my roommate and I were leaving the pay lot to move our car to the street. Pops was sitting on his milk crate, doing some hard drugs with a deranged homeless lady with pigtails, so we rolled down the window and asked, “Hey Pops, do you know what time the lot closes?”

He turned to us, mad look in his eye, and shouted, as if possessed by the milk crate parking demons of old “You gotta go NOW! NOW, I say! Go boys, GO!” He wasn’t joking around, but we hadn’t quite gotten our answer, so we repeated the question. “No no, we’re just wondering when the lot closes.”

“NOW! Quick! You gotta get out while you still can!”

We weren’t making a lot of progress with the whole getting answers thing.

Luckily for us, there was still one key player: deranged homeless lady with the pigtails. She turns to Pops. “I think they just want to know what time the lot closes.”

The fire leaves Pops’ eyes, parking demon exorcised, and he calmly responds, “Oh, it closes it eight.”

For a brief moment, we wondered what had overtaken our dear friend Pops. Drugs? The aforementioned demons? And then we glanced at our clock. It was 7:58. He knew! He was trying to save us.

And that’s why, to this day, Pops is my very best friend.

 

Part Two

We found the place! Sure, it’s a little expensive, but it’s walking distance from awesome, there’s plenty of room, and the toilets work. Definitely the place. Only there’s one caveat: the owner wants to meet us.

When you dive deep into the mires of craigslist, you’re bound to run into some unsavory characters… If they’re unsavory, does that mean they’re sweet? The palate of personalities is a confusing place. Our particular dish was an Asian guy named Alex, young dude, slick suit, slick hair, no grasp of the English language. As the guy who listed the house, he joined us on our meet-the-owner adventure.

And meet her we did! This little old lady is like a Chihuahua in human form, what with the constant shaking, the fear of anything and everything, the fraying coat. You know how people start to resemble their pets? Me neither, but in this case, the made-up concept clearly applies, for the most frightening part of the extensive interview process was this lady’s derpy dog. It’s 17 years old, blind, deaf, and barely has any hair left. Basically, it’s this wrinkly, furless skin scrap that has no means of sensing the outside world, so it periodically makes these strange sounds that remind me of a dying bird trapped inside a whirling vacuum cleaner.rental

I imagine the sounds translated roughly to “Someone, please kill me.” But maybe the other dogs couldn’t quite understand it because its teeth had rotted away, so its tongue was always lolling out of its mouth, and the tongue was bent so it was lolling at a 90 degree angle, which looked about as comfortable as being in a conversation with a scared old lady who thinks you’re some kind of serial killer.

So this lady interviews us,to the background tune of scary dog sounds… For. An. Hour. More than an hour! And the whole thing is some gargantuan sob story/guilt trip.

gilt_trip

No, Sam. That’s a gilt trip.

guilt_trip

Now that’s a guilt trip.

She says she lives in an apartment with no furniture and no TV, so she needs the money incredibly badly. We won’t screw her over, will we? We’ll make all our payments? And we’ll make them on time? In fact, her payments are due on the first of the month, so ours will have to come before then. In fact, who knows if checks might get lost in the mail, so we can’t mail our checks to her. We have to go to her bank each week and deposit money directly. We’ll do that, won’t we? And her daughter has made horrible life choices, so she needs money for her daughter, so we won’t screw her over, right? Please god, promise we won’t screw her over. And this house is all she has left, so we’ll take the best care of it ever, right? We won’t ever wear our shoes inside the house? Even though we’re leasing it, we’ll follow all these specific rules for its upkeep? And since she’s so worried, we’ll pay a seven thousand dollar deposit? She’s taking such a huge risk renting to us, she’s just not sure if it’s worth it.

Please don't punish me for my wasted life

And throughout this speech, she’ll keep wandering into random rooms for who knows what reason, and Alex will turn to us and say “You sign lease, you party! No follow rules, eh? Wear shoes, fuck bitches. You like fuck bitches? I know some bitches, you want fuck them?” And we’re like, “Yeah, sure, Alex. Whatever!” Doing our best to appease the strange personalities around us. Though there was no pleasing that dog.

Sad Chihuahua.

Then the woman’s leasing agent arrives. Apparently she’d been trying to sell the house and had never rented anything to anyone (obviously), but the market was bad, so she was forced to consider drastic options, like trusting me, the worst person in the world.

Her agent steps in and does the worst job of being reassuring I’ve encountered since my Uncle told me that it’d be fine; everyone accidentally kills a hooker sometime. Just kidding. I don’t know anything about prostitution, remember?

So this agent comes in and explains that our credit is fine, but there’s not much of it because we’re young, but he says we seem incredibly trustworthy so she should definitely lease the apartment to us. Then again, she’s taking a HUGE RISK, but who cares about that? Just go for it. Then again, there’s NO GUARANTEE. But who needs guarantees? We seem nice. Then again, it would be an INCREDIBLE LEAP OF FAITH. He goes on like this, telling her she should do it, then undercutting his own point with this slowly-delivered, over-the-top sense of worry.

The two of them go off to confer, and Alex turns to us again. “You guys do molly? You such cool guys. We go to Vegas, yeah? We party. I have room. We drop molly together. I bring beautiful bitches. They down to fuck. Fuck anybody. When they rolling they just want the sex. They totally fuck you. Gotta wear a condom though. Definitely condom. You down?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever!” we say, wondering how all this madness will play out.

 

Part Three

We didn’t get the apartment.

 

 

 

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Oops, I Got a Screenwriting Degree!

This morning, I woke up to a horrifying realization.

Oh my god! I forgot to blog for two years straight!

Wait, wait. Let me try that again:

FADE IN:

INT. APARTMENT THAT’S NOT RUSS’S BECAUSE HE’S HOMELESS – DAY

RUSS NICKEL (20s) tosses and turns on a fold-out IKEA futon. Wearing only boxers, his shaved head does little to hide his bald spot, and he grinds away at his adult retainer like a madman.

Suddenly, he sits up and his eyes fly open. He SCREAMS. Then looks to the ceiling.

RUSS

What have I done?!

FADE OUT

Okay, I admit it. That’s not much of a scene (but those cops will be happy; they’re always telling me not to make a scene). And it’s not even that accurate. I mean, c’mon. I obviously don’t wear boxers when I sleep. I just wanted to protect myself in case Sam thought about drawing me naked. Again.

But the rest is true. I’ve made a huge mistake. I got a masters in screenwriting.

When I got my English degree and found myself unemployed, what did I do? Did I grit my teeth, buckle down my bootstraps, hike up my pants, put my nose to the grindstone and otherwise idiomatically prepare myself to start from the bottom and work my way up? Of course not! I took another loop on the roundabout and went to graduate school like any self-aggrandizing young adult with a crippling fear of actual work and the real world.

Graduate school offers post-adolescents like me the opportunity to postpone troubling questions like “how do I pay for food?” “what are taxes?” and “oh my god what if lemurs become sentient through a medical mishap, master the art of horseback riding, and go on a rampage to overthrow their human masters?!”

I figured that I’d poured about twenty years into my schooling so… two more years should be just the amount of time I needed to get it all figured out. At the time, my final, ultimate, daunting graduation seemed endlessly far away. But real life comes for all of us sooner than you think, and mine came in the form of a furry panther creature handing me a diploma.

"This document is a symbol not of your achievements, but of the fact that you can no longer keep hiding in the womb of education.  Err, I mean, Meow."

At first I was frightened that I might be having acid flashbacks to that time I had that weird dream that I’d accidentally tried acid, but then I remembered it was our school mascot. I didn’t see it around too often since I was a graduate student, meaning my only interaction with main campus was awkwardly hitting on sorority girls. Anyways, with a growl of ‘good luck’, ol’ panther sent me on my way, and I found myself unequivocally unemployed, and even less quivocally homeless.

But what’s a little case of homelessness when you’re writing the next great American screenplay? That just enhances its authenticity! All I have to do is find a 24 hour café and wash my armpits in their bathroom.

In my experience that’s the only part of the human body that builds up any level of grossness, but I could be wrong about that. Keep in mind that I have English and Screenwriting degrees, so science mostly evades me.

Now, when I say homeless, I don’t mean, oh, I just haven’t figured out where I’m moving. I mean my lease ran out in July, I have basically no money because grad school is ridiculously expensive, and all my stuff is in storage. For the last quarter of a year I’ve been living out of a suitcase, sleeping on the proverbial street-side that is a string of friends’ couches, err, IKEA futons.

"Would you please wash your armipits?" -Raccoon

I’d thought Screenwriting was a good idea. English was too vague, but Screenwriting, that was a vocation. It’s more focused. There’s a real practical application, an industry built around it. Someone in said industry would surely employ me, right? And once again, my friends and family foolishly supported me in my endeavor. Live your dream! Make movies! Move to Hollywood, woo Yvonne Strahovski, and have beautiful, beautiful Strahovskian children. It all sounded so simple.

Ah, every man's dream... to own a pitchfork.

But it’s not all guns n’ roses. In school, writing had been relatively easy. After all, there were domineering authority figures with impressive scarves and even more impressive imdb pages giving me deadlines, hope, and a fair bit of good ol’, swear-word-filled tough love. Writing isn’t so easy out here in RL. Suddenly I realize that, rather than coming naturally, it’s a muscle to be stretched, berated, pulled, and then overcome. Without the structure of education, without a home base, I’m trapped in an echo chamber of reality, sputtering down the river of my rapidly depleting budget toward the waterfall of regular job-iness, trying desperately to build a raft out of my own creativity, and even if I do construct said raft, the odds that it’ll float are like one in a thousand. It’s not a perfect metaphor.

You’d think people who get accepted to an institute of higher education would be educated enough to know that an MFA in Screenwriting doesn’t put you on the fast track to success. I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me, and I don’t know if there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So what went wrong? Looking back on it, I think I must have seen one too many movies. Movies where the message is that anybody can make it if they believe hard enough. Said believing will trigger a montage that gets you to the exciting part of your life in the time it takes to play Eye of the Tiger. I thought, if I just go to school, if I work my ass off, if I pour my soul into script after script after script, I could become the person who… writes one of those ridiculously misleading movies that tricks a whole generation of young adults into throwing their lives away in order to make movies. It’s an endless feedback loop of that most despicable of all feelings: hope.

All he hoped for... was to escape the loop.

But there are still ways for me to feel good about myself. I just have to think of screenplays as my home, my ethereal, 1s and 0s, totally un-move-into-able home. And you know what, I’m okay with that. So if you ever see me begging for spare change on the side of the road, don’t pity me. By all means, still give me a dollar, but as you do, think of how incredibly fulfilled I am. Because I’m living the dream.

And for a few hours each night, life is perfect.

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The Dangers of Student Filmmaking

I made it everyone! I survived my first semester of film school!

But it was a close shave, let me tell ya. Also, I didn’t end up shaving that often. That turned out to be ok, though, because I didn’t have to impress too many people with my face, except with the mouth part of my face, and even then, it was more about what I was saying and less about the relative attractiveness of my succulent lips. What I mean to say is, my groomédness rarely came into play because film school is about 90% male, and as far as those Y chromosome folks are concerned, the mangier the better (after all, you can’t spell mangy without man! and guy is almost in there too). Which brings me to the first danger of student filmmaking: incidental abstinence.

It would be nice if we were like those frogs those scientists used to fill in the missing strands of DNA in Jurassic Park and we could just change our gender at will. But alas, despite Jeff Goldblum’s insistence, in my personal experience, Life does not find a way. It just ends up sitting in its room a lot, debating whether it has too much pride to head over to the casual encounters section of craigslist.

Luckily, abstinence is one of those non-life-threatening dangers. It’s when you go around town shooting without proper permits or crew that things get really interesting (not that I would ever do that, readers who are also Chapman faculty). Yes, I’ve come close to death on pretty much every set, but one of those experiences stands above the rest, the veritable giraffe of danger.

giraffe-o-danger

You see, I was to play the lead in a simple, one-minute story about a man whose car runs out of gas. We thought it would be a breeze, but as the things on our todo list spiraled out of control, it ended up less breeze and more tornado. A spiraly tornado.

First off, it’s raining, and since I’m part witch (of a Cardinal direction, no less), that’s never a good thing. I know then in my boots, or rather, non-rain-proof flip-flops, that it is an omen of fortune most ill.

Still, not wanting to have a meltdown in front of everyone (see what I did there?), especially that cute editor I was trying to impress (because film school did have at least one girl in it), I soldier on and hop in the car with the affable director, who proceeds to drive us way, way up into the clearly deserted hills, a place where no one would hear us scream. He pulls the car off to the side of the road on some dilapidated gravelly overlook near a bridge and tells me to get out. It’s time.

But before we can get the camera rolling, or sliding, or any form of lateral motion, another car pulls off onto the gravel right behind us. Keep in mind, there is nobody around as far as the eye can see. There are turnouts every few hundred feet, but no, this car chooses to stop directly behind us. Don’t they know this is a film set?

Oh, and then a bunch of gang members pile out.

It was a lot like a clown car, except instead of pouring out seemingly forever, there were only three of them, and instead of being clowns, they were all natural born killers! Or killers created by experience and circumstance or whatever; I’m no Calvinist. Experience that left them covered in tattoos. And muscles. Muscles everywhere.

clownposse

“Let’s just keep filming,” says the director bravely, right before he crosses the street and walks far far away from the danger, leaving me all alone.

I act like my car has run out of gas for a little while (a stirring performance, I assure you), while shaking in my proverbial “boots,” feet soaked with the liquid fear that I hope is merely the rain and not something more. And then another car pulls up behind us. Just as my dark imagination predicted, more gang members get out. Now it’s a gang soiree?!

Oh, and then there’s another car. Suddenly ten of the most hardcore dudes I’ve ever seen are convening right behind me, plotting how to murder the witnesses who were stupid enough to be FILMING their drug deal.

I look at our possé. There’s me, a buffoon practiced at avoiding conflict; the affable director whose main form of attack is a barrage of smiles; the tall, handsome cinematographer who likes to sing silly songs and whose loyalties probably lie with the camera rather than with me; and this cute girl in front of whom I can show no fear lest I lose face (unshaven as it might be).

The three of them cower on the other side of the road, so far away that they have to call my cell phone to give me acting directions. They promise we’re almost done, but then I see it: the flash of something metal in one of the killer’s hands.

He’s walking toward me now; what little light filters through the ominous rain glints off the object he carries, and I say a quick prayer to Odon, but I know it’s too late. This is it for me.

I spin, confronting the bearer of my demise and see him squat down and pretend to take a dump? He hands his reflective phone to one of his buddies, and the whole gang starts cracking up. They’re posing in front of a “No Dumping” sign, and loving the shit out of it. They each take turns flouting authority by disobeying the government warning…via word play. Apparently three cars worth of these guys met up in the hills not for a drug deal, but for a photo op.

This shatters my perception of gangs.

shattered

Location Two: The Gas Station

We arrive at a seedy gas station, thankful to be alive, and more than ready to put this damn shoot behind us. Unfortunately, the location is overrun with homeless people. Now, I’m a big fan of bums, but maybe that’s because all the one’s I’ve interacted with are beach bums who like to talk about the waves, play you guitar on the sand, and compliment you on your fine burrito-purchasing skills. In fact, my most recent interaction lasted about half an hour, and the guy told me he’d written a story about how Obama and Santa Claus team up to prevent the Mayan apocalypse (which comes in the form of aliens).

apocalypse

I sort of assumed that all homeless people were friendly, but as we set up for our final shot, this one guy starts yelling at us about how we’re on his turf, and if we don’t get the hell out of there, he’s going to kill us. Now, I’m not a big fan of my own death, so this worries me, nerves fraying like that now-disintegrated blanket my grandmother promised would always keep me safe. After delivering his message, he simply retreats to a sort of homeless haven in the bushes, where he meets up with what are presumably members of his crew.

And that’s when we see that one of his compatriots has his pants around his ankles and is, um, defecating, right in the open onto some unsuspecting grass.

It’s some sort of conspiracy! The “No Dumping” sign, and now this! The hobos and gangs must have made a pact, working together to…I don’t know! Something!

I try to explain my theory to the director, but he laughs it off as one of those all-too-common crazy Russ ideas. Doesn’t he understand?! If there’s one thing my time as a detective has taught me, it’s that there’s no such thing as coincidence!

He instructs me to keep acting, dammit, but before he can call action, another homeless guy comes at us, screaming. “You didn’t listen to my king? He gave you a direct order, and what the king says, goes. Ya hear me? You take that camera outta here! You take it down now. NOW!”

He’s heading straight toward me. We lock eyes, and I sense his brutal purpose.

“I carry the word of the king!” he shouts, and he’s almost on us.

Finally the director’s resolve breaks, and we run for our car.

But it’s not enough. The homeless guy follows us, and we have one of those movie moments, the driver struggling to hit the unlock button, the monster only moments away.

And then, to our rescue, a shining knight. The lone gas station employee, not your usual knight figure, bursts out of the quik-e-purchase, sprints over, and antagonizes the homeless guy.

“Why you messin’ with their movie, man? Huh? Why you gotta bother these poor people?”

Before I realize what’s happening, the two of them are circling each other, shouting taunts just out of fist-smashing range. The gas station guy keeps telling us to go ahead and finish our movie, but we know when we’ve been beaten, and the driver floors it.

As I look back on it now, I find it rather odd that shooting a movie about running out of gas on the side of the road ended up being much more dangerous than any of the times I’ve actually run out of gas, almost as if, in making the movie, we were forced to live through the movie ourselves…

It’s like some sort of conspiracy.

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