Los Angeles: City of Angels and Bats

(Originally published August 18, 2010)

AT AGE 10 I was sent to a summer camp on Lake Champlain in New York, “Camp Dudley.” There’s plenty I want to say about it – and will at some point – but right now I’m just going to talk about bats.

Throughout my time there, camp counselors drummed into our heads the possibility that, on any given night, a bat might fly in through our cabin’s chimney and we’d all need to get rabies shots. Further, they told us the treatment would involve needles as thick as No. 2 pencils that get inserted directly into the abdomen. I seemed like an exaggeration, or they’d mixed up the treatment for rabies with the treatment for alien embryo, but it was still scary, especially because every aspect of the situation was completely out of our control.

The funny part – looking back, not at the time – was that my bunk’s window faced directly out at a tree branch where a bat slept every night, upside-down, staring at me. I became paranoid that if I looked away for even a second he’d come down our chimney like a rabid Santa Claus. Many sleepless nights later, nothing happened. And many years later, I would find myself lying next to a girl I’d just started dating, talking and gazing into her eyes until we both dozed off. I was good at this because I’d practiced, extensively, with a bat.

And what do I see yesterday on the way to the Laundromat? My old friend, the bat, crawling spastically on the sidewalk to get under a hedge, like a fuzzy black frog.

Now, according to this children’s website about bats, the bats on the ground are the most dangerous bats because they’re probably sick with – you guessed it – rabies. But when I saw it, I did not bat an eye. (“Bat an eye” is a good figure of speech here because its context is confusing.)

Why did I not bat an eye? I’d had a strange weekend, and lost count of all the weird animals I saw. And when I say “weird animals,” I mean “celebrities.” Of course.

* * *

PEOPLE ASSUME LOS Angeles is teeming with celebrities but I’ve been here six years and only seen a handful:

–Travis Barker, Blink 182’s drummer, at an outdoor café.
–Mischa Barton, actress, at a holiday party for another celebrity (family member of a friend) who I’ll be discrete and not name.
–Kevin Kline, actor, at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons restaurant.
–Ron Jeremy, porn legend, with an entourage, at a restaurant near my apartment the night of the AVN awards.

Six years, five celebrities. Yet, this weekend, I saw not one, not two, but three.

* * *

SUNDAY NIGHT, NICK (Los Angeles Nick, not New York Nick) and his girlfriend Taylor took me to see Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. It’s a good title because Michael Cera plays Scott Pilgrim, and the movie will tank at the box office because The World is sick of his lame, mumbly shtick. (Regardless, the movie’s pretty good.)

Before the movie, we went to the Umami Burger across from the theater. There was a ten minute wait, so Taylor and I sat outside on a very uncomfortable bench while Nick noticed a “SEEDBOMBS” dispenser, which looked like a bubblegum machine, outside the door.

SEEDBOMBS are a new trend. For fifty cents you can buy a compact ball of seeds and soil you can throw down anywhere and a plant will grow. Nick examined the SEEDBOMBS, then sat down with me and Taylor.

Suddenly ?uestlove from The Roots walked out of Umami Burger.

Questlove

“I think that’s ?uestlove,” Nick whispered. Probably. There are only so many pear-shaped black guys with ‘fro picks who can score the kind of smoking-hot lady he had on his arm. Probably.

He and his date bent down to check out the SEEDBOMBS dispenser:

“What is this? Some kinda snack?”
“Those are seeds,” Nick said. “Like, balls of seeds you throw on the ground to grow plants.”
“Oh!” ?uestlove laughed. (The name “?uestlove” is annoying to type. It takes longer than normal to locate the question mark on the keyboard because my brain knows it doesn’t belong within a person’s name.)
“You shouldn’t have told us,” said ?uestlove’s lady to Nick. She mimed taking a SEEDBOMB from the machine and stuffing it into ?uest’s mouth. “Here you go. It’s fiber. It’s good for you. Nom nom nom.”

We all laughed, ?uestlove most of all. Because he knew he’d be going home that evening with a beautiful lady, and someone’s mouth would be getting stuffed with seeds, and it wouldn’t be his, and they wouldn’t be plant seeds, if you know what I mean.

Probably.

* * *

FRIDAY NIGHT, CLEM and J_____ and I had dinner at Buddha’s Belly, an Asian restaurant chain that specializes in needlessly expensive food. The night was planned as a going-away celebration, as I’ll be leaving soon to go work on a film, but my travel plans got pushed back two weeks. Still, Clem and J_____ insisted it would be the last night we’d see each other for a while. Then, “ever.” Then, “this will be your last night alive.” Then, “we are going to murder you and bury you in the ground.”

We then went to meet Clem’s lady friends for karaoke at a bar in Koreatown called Caffe Brass Monkey. I was wearing my Hawaiian shirt from New Orleans, with a pattern consisting of things like “Hot and Spicy Gumbo” and “Jumpin’ Jambalaya.” Opinions on the shirt differed: Clem and J_____ called it my “sexy shirt,” Clem’s girlfriend said it looked like I was “trying way too hard,” and one of the Brass Monkey servers said my shirt looked “yummy” but was obviously being sarcastic.

One of the lady friends brought two of her gay friends and I figured they’d have something to say about the shirt, but real gay people don’t wear Hawaiian shirts, and they were mostly concerned with picking the right songs for karaoke. My suggestions fell on deaf ears: “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, and “Billie Jean” as covered by Chris Cornell from Soundgarden (a slow, miserable dirge sure to disappoint everyone).

But none of us got to perform because people kept getting bumped by Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy. He and another dude were singing pre-1950s show tunes, some song about “coffee beans in South America” with an endless number of verses.

What was weird was not that Seth MacFarlane showed up but how few people cared. The random girl who sang “Don’t Stop Believing” got a much bigger applause, as did the guy who sang “Karma Police” by Radiohead (“Play more downbeat shit!” I screamed at the DJ.) Also, I may have even had a fourth “celebrity” sighting that weekend, because someone who looked just like Gavin DeGraw went up to sing a Gavin DeGraw song. I only vaguely know what Gavin DeGraw looks like, and I realize that any stoned guy with shaggy hair between 25-35 could be mistaken for Gavin DeGraw, but come on, who else would do karaoke to a Gavin DeGraw song?

* * *

FRIDAY NIGHT I got quite drunk. I spilled Newcastle on my “yummy” Hawaiian shirt and only slept two hours. It was very unusual – I’m a good sleeper unless staring at bats – but it worked in my favor because I function better on less sleep sometimes, and I would need all my wits about me for what lay ahead.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramos discusses, among other things, how there are two types of thinkers: Foxes and Hedgehogs. Hedgehogs hunker down on one big idea for life (Plato, Nietsche, Dostoevsky) while Foxes are curious about a bunch of smaller ideas (Aristotle, Goethe, DaVinci). I’m a Fox with regards to all things but one – which I’ll get to – and my old college friend M_____ is too.

I met M_____ my first day of Freshman year at USC. I had three roommates in our apartment and he wasn’t one of them, but he spent most of the year on our couch. We ended up bullshitting a great deal, so much so that we wrote a semi-autobiographical screenplay that consisted of two guys telling story after story trying to crack each other up. A friend of a friend liked it and got it into the hands of a film executive, who killed our dreams with his response:

“What the fuck is this?”

M_____ and I lost touch after Freshman year but reconnected ten months ago, right after he moved to Irvine for grad school, right after I’d moved back to LA.

M_____ drove up to LA Saturday night to go to Jumbo’s Clown Room, our second visit in two weeks. On our first, some guy who looked like a former child star – boyish face, chin stubble, greasy hair, tattoos – set aside twenty or more $1 bills for every girl who went up and pushed them all onto the stage as soon as they started, violently, like he was afraid of money. An hour later, the dancers brought him up onstage, sat him down in a chair, and showed their gratitude by rubbing themselves all over him. It was, to quote Shakespeare, the stuff “dreams are made on.”

M_____ had just started a summer job as a hotel valet in Newport Beach. Most valets trade in their tips at the end of the night for $10 or $20 bills, but with Jumbo’s in the equation, M_____ did not. The size of the stack he showed up with was obscene.

“How much money do you think somebody can throw out at a strip club before it becomes a problem?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Before the IRS gets involved.”
“Oh, I’d say $10,000 would probably do it.”
“I want to bring enough money someday that they ask me to leave because the strippers are being forced to redo their W-4s.”

After dancing girls and cash money, our conversation shifted to fine literature.

M_____ is currently in the process of getting his PhD in English and had been trying to get me to read William Faulkner for years. “Aside from the complexity of his characters and settings, Faulkner himself was a raging alcoholic.” Apparently there exist a string of letters from Faulkner to his publishers – even publishers who were close friends of his – that go something like this:

“YOU DO NOT FUCKING CHANGE ONE MOTHERFUCKING WORD IN MY MANUSCRIPTS! IF YOU SO MUCH AS REMOVE A COMMA, I WILL FUCK YOUR WIFE AND SAVAGELY BEAT HER WHILE YOU WATCH.”

Followed a month later by something like this:

“Dear Friend, I would like express my deepest apologies for the previous correspondence…”

M_____ lent me a copy of Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem in exchange for Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. He recommended Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges and Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. I countered with Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory” and Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries. We both expressed appreciation for Kafka and Henry Miller. Then, after discussing the finer points of modernism, post-modernism, and neo-classical realism, we decided to head to a bar in Hollywood called Dillon’s to grab dinner, watch preseason football, and ogle the waitresses. On the way, I described my plan to combine football and ladies (a scenario realized only in rare cases: cheerleaders and The Lingerie Football League) with my “Drunk Joe Namath” pickup routine:

So you put your arm around her, like so, and say, “You know, being with you as gotten me thinking…” “About what?” she’ll ask. “Joe Namath.” She’ll look at you kinda funny, but then you say, “You know Joe Namath, don’t you? Jets quarterback from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s? I watched a Jets game a few years ago where Joe Namath was being interviewed by ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber during Monday Night Football. He was very, very drunk. For example, she asked him about Chad Pennington, and he said, ‘I believe everything that anyone else has watched, uh, Chad play… impresses me the same thing impresses them.’ Then, Suzy asks what it means to him that the Jets are currently struggling, and Joe looks at her and goes, ‘I don’t care that the team is strug-ga-ling. I want to kiss you.’ That’s how you make me feel right now. Like a drunk Joe Namath.” That’s when you go in for the kiss.

Bulletproof.

We got to Dillon’s and caught most of the Seahawks/Titans preseason game, Pete Carroll’s first time on NFL sidelines in 10 years. It was bittersweet, because M_____ and I attended USC during Pete’s glory days, with many fond memories:

–Matt Leinart had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and not in the best way, but never got anything pinned on him because a rape case involving a guy that handsome wouldn’t hold up in court. (“Look at him, your Honor; what woman wouldn’t consent to that?”) Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, did get accused of rape, but seemed like too nice a guy, and we figured the charges were orchestrated by Sanchez himself to win some street cred. Matt Barkley, USC’s latest QB and ultra-Christian golden boy, could take a few cues from those two because he’s just not interesting enough.

–Supposedly, one of our running backs had an “arrangement” with a student at USC who was a small-time drug dealer: this RB (not Reggie Bush) would go over to his place once a month and beat the shit out of him until he got paid money. It happened time and again with no repercussions (“It must be motivating as a student-athlete to know that you’re above the law,” I observed). Hearing this made me appreciate this particular RB all the more; he was like a modern-day Robin Hood. Or The Mafia.

–One of my Freshman year roommates wanted to try out for the football team as a Wide Receiver, yet lacked the musculature to even make it as a walk-on swimmer. Had he caught a pass and collided with Scott Ware – the Safety who lived downstairs and tried to run through walls when he drank Jack Daniels – he would have been literally torn in half. M_____ and I talked my roommate out of tryouts along with several other bad ideas, like an electric car that runs on static cling. Last I heard, he was claiming to own an Internet marketing company based on Phoenix, while in actuality working part time at a Puma store.

M_____ and I left Dillon’s and arrived at Jumbo’s around 10 PM. I started a tab with the bartender and we sat up by the stage.

Our plan was not to blow all our money too fast. We wanted to get sort of a “Joe DiMaggio Iron Horse” streak going.1} In other words, we’d give exactly one dollar to each girl, rather than go crazy and blow it all in ten minutes.

One dollar each. No more.

The first dancer was a slightly older blonde with a good body and charming personality. She wore a leather pageboy cap, one of many she’d come out wearing that night. (I referred to her as “the Imelda Marcos of Stripper Hats.”) No one was throwing any money so I tossed my dollar out early. She saw me, came over, and bent down to put her cap on my head. That deserves another dollar, I thought, but that’ll be it. I threw another. Then she pressed herself against the mirror/wall at the back of the stage and slowly slid down to the floor.

I threw another dollar.

I think you see where this is going.

You’re not supposed to sit by the stage if you’re out of money and soon we were. At around midnight I went back to the bar to close the tab. There was a short, wiry blonde with braided hair sitting on a bar stool with one leg resting over another bar stool. I tried to lean over her leg to get the bartender’s attention, but the Jumbo’s bartender is notoriously difficult2 and I had no luck.

Finally, the blonde moved her leg, put her hand on my back, and pulled me into the bar. “See if you can get her attention,” she said. “I’ve been trying all night, but I don’t think she likes pretty people.”
“This is Los Angeles,” I told her. “We’re all pretty people. Don’t make excuses.”

She laughed and told me her name, which started with an “R.” I’ll call her “R1.” R1 was wearing a tank top with spaghetti straps, and I saw when she turned around she actually had a tattoo of the letter “R” over most of her back. She said she was saving a seat for a friend, whose name started with “R.” I’ll call her friend “R2.” R2 wasn’t there because R1 had just paid for her to get a lap dance.

“Where are you guys from?” R1 asked.
“Los Angeles. Both been here about six years.”
“Where before that?”
“Plano, Texas,” M_____ said.
“Really? I’m from Plano too!” R1 said.
“You can get in some trouble there,” M_____ said.
“Seriously.” R1 slapped her forearm with two fingers, like a junkie. “Remember that? ‘The Plano Clap’?”
“That’s not a very loud clap,” I said.
“It is when everybody’s doing it at once,” she said.

She told us she was half Italian and half German. I told her I was too (mostly true; a half and a quarter). Then I drifted away from the conversation to watch the girls and she started talking to M_____. He told me later he had asked where she went to school in Plano, to see if they knew the same people, and R1 said she dropped out at 16 to go to “jail school.” M_____ tried to give her a chance to have misspoken:

“Did you say ‘gel’ school?”
“No. ‘Jail school.’”
“It sounded like ‘gel school.’ Like hair gel, or the colored gels you use for film set lighting.”
“Oh no, no. ‘Jail school.’ ‘Jail school.’ With a ‘J.’ ‘Jail.’”

Next, R1 handed M_____ her iPhone to show him a photo: her, topless, leaning back on a white Corvette.
“This is you,” M_____ said.
“Yeah!” R1 said. “My boyfriend’s a photographer.”

It got a little weird, and M_____ changed the picture on the screen to something else in her gallery – a non-topless photo of a dog – but R1 got mad at him for “going through [her] photos” and switched it back to her topless. She turned to me:

“How about you?”
“Connecticut.”
“No way. I have a cousin in Old Saybrook.”
“He’s a screenwriter,” M_____ said. “He’s going to New Orleans in a few weeks to shoot a movie.”
“No way! I lived in New Orleans until I was 8.”3

“If you’re going to New Orleans,” she said, “you have to check out the following places…” she rattled off a list of names. I typed them into my phone but they sounded like whorehouses. “Just mention my dad’s name, R_____” (yes, his name also started with an “R”). “Actually…” she paused, “don’t. I think he owes people some money and you could get seriously hurt.”
“Oh.”
“Funny thing about my dad is, when I was 8 years old, he’d get calls from these prostitutes and they’d say, ‘It’s your baby, R_____! It’s your baby!’ And he’d say, ‘Bitch, I fucked you once! I fucked you one time! That’s it!’” R1, in recounting this story, was literally yelling.
“Oh,” I replied.
R1 continued: “And I’d be patting him on the back. ‘The baby’s not yours, Daddy. Don’t worry.’ Me, 8 years old.”
“Your Dad was the Italian side of the family, correct?”
“Yeah, why?”
“I just figured if it was the German side he would’ve handled his problems a little more differently. More efficiently. No survivors.”

R2 returned from her lap dance. R1 said, “Hey, did I ever tell you I might have four or five brothers and sisters?”
R2 shook her head, “No. Never.”

I chose the nicknames “R1” and “R2” not just because they’re the names of Playstation controller buttons but because they describe the girls:
R1 was small, wiry, and independent.
R2 was curvy on top and very, very attractive (like the number “2”).

“These guys are the best,” R1 said. “They’ve got such good energy.” She put her arm around me but pointed at M_____. “If I didn’t have a boyfriend, I’d get with you first. Because you’re from Plano, so of course it would be you first.” Then, to me, “And you’d be second.”
“Sure,” we both said.

R1 and R2 were an odd pair. R1 was – as you can tell – crazy. R2 was very shy and reserved. She ordered a plain Coke and sipped it quietly with her legs crossed. I teased her for being so prim and proper. She explained that she’d grown up on an actual farm (soybeans and corn), in Illinois, but came to LA two years ago and just got her SAG card.

“I just had a session with Terry Richardson.”
“Oh, Terry Richardson. So are you, like, a model or something?”
“Um… yes.”
I think a lot of guys act indifferent as a tactic, but this was actual indifference. Of course you’re a model. This is LA, and you’re beautiful. Why wouldn’t you be? I said, “How’s modeling going?”
“Good. Nobody’s handcuffed me to a radiator yet or anything.” I took this to mean that some photographers actually do this. I made a mental note to buy a camera. She continued, “Terry Richardson was cool. He’s like… asexual. He doesn’t seem attracted to whoever he’s shooting. I guess you have to be like that to get the shots.”
“I would not be able to get the shots,” I said.

R2 and I hit it off. Next, we picked our favorite strippers. Hers was the one she got a lap dance from, a blonde with a face that looked like Blake Lively if Black Lively’d been punched in the nose (but in a good way). Her second favorite was a girl she’d also gotten a dance from, short hair and amazing on the pole. “She didn’t give the best lap dance though.”
“You’re not a pole,” I said.

But as good as the dancers were, the people by the stage weren’t throwing money. Sometimes the girls got nothing, and spent the bulk of their stage time flipping off the audience. The Imelda Marcos of Stripper Hats sat next to us at the bar, frustrated. “I’ve never seen it like this!” she said.
“Me neither!” I said.
“Do you come here often?” she asked me.
“No,” I lied.
“Yeah, but you get the drill. If you aren’t going to tip, leave. So other people who will tip can sit down. Drives me crazy. It’s so rude.”

The I.M.S.H told us how difficult the audition process was to make the Saturday night show, how Jumbo’s really needs to switch up the music – “I’m a DJ! I have some really great music I can bring! How cool would it be to have a hot girl DJ working here?” – and how creating outfits and stage routines was her favorite part of performing. She was great to talk to. I hadn’t planned to spend anymore that night, but finally she got me to cave.

“I’ve got a ten dollar bill. Do you have change?”
“I keep my ones in sets of twenty, but I can do ten for you.” She counted out ten singles and we swapped bills. I gave her two back.
“Aw, you’re sweet.”

R2 cheered me on as I saved the night by throwing the rest of my bills onstage.

You might be wondering who the celebrity in this story is. None other than David Faustino – Bud Bundy from Married… With Children – suddenly walked in. M_____ is a huge Married… With Children fan, so I told him to find a Sharpie so David could sign his chest. M_____ shook his head “no.”

It wouldn’t be our only missed opportunity.

“Waiting for My Ruca,” by Sublime came on. “Last song,” I said to M_____.
“How do you know?” asked R2.
“This is how they close every Saturday night,” M_____ said. It was at this point we realized we needed to stop going for awhile.

Afterward, the lights came up. I looked at R2 and there was a pregnant pause. She was waiting for something. (“Drunk Joe Namath,” perhaps?) I looked deep into her eyes, licked my lips, and said, “Welp, nice to meetcha!”

M_____ and I left.

On the way to the car he was pestering me: “That girl was really into you! You could’ve taken her home tonight! You could’ve at least got her number!”
“I think she said she was a nude model or something.”
“Oh my God! Fuck! What the fuck?!”

So I leveled with him. I told him about the Fox and the Hedgehog.

“I’m a Fox when it comes to everything but girls. I can only be interested in one girl at a time. And it wasn’t either of these two.”
“That’s terrible,” M_____ said.
“I know. But if I’d brought someone home, what would you have done? You need to crash at my place, don’t you?”
“No, I actually need to drive back tonight. It’s my mom’s birthday tomorrow.”

We left Jumbo’s and returned to LA proper. Los Angeles: City of Angels, Foxes, Hedgehogs, Celebrities, and also, apparently, Bats.

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