I guess the processed food that most-resembles my brain right now would be a pink and mangled brick of Velveeta that has been melting in the back window of a Pontiac. In 1985. Doing this trip -- 12 days of a Pink Floyd laser show-like sensory extravaganza in Los Angeles -- any justice would require more words than I know how to spell. And not doing it justice would be a crime against my soul.
This morning I woke up and every thought and feeling was already fading. Like satisfying muscle pain, but two days later. I'm back home, wondering what in the refrigerator is edible, and what is on the fast-track to the science fair. Ticking off a back log on TiVo. Hasta la pasta to the memory of the mortification I experienced when I realized I'd sent Hilton Als, theater critic for the New Yorker, a writing sample from the time Gallagher performed at Grandma's Sports Garden. Embarrassing.
The gist is this: Every day for 11 days, starting at hours I didn't know existed on modern time-keeping devices, our group of about two dozen people went to writing workshops, tutorial sessions, and had one-on-one meet ups with biggies in the biz. We toured LA in a huge, roving pack. Shuttled here and there. Lunches, dinners, more of this and that. Then every night we went to a theater performance. Some gut-wrenching: I'll never look at mustard the same again; Some hokey: I've had the song "From a Distance" stuck in my head for days. Twice we had college-like cram writing assignments that went into the wee hours of the night; More often we had booze fests that went into the wee hours of the night. The two times I strung together six hours of sleep, I felt like She Ra. I slept with the shades open in my hotel room so that my singed eyeballs would wake me if my alarm did not. That did the trick.
I learned some important things about functioning on about two hours a sleep. I have two notebooks full of other stuff I learned -- the stuff I went there to learn and more -- but I can't bring myself to open them yet. Too much wisdom from too many smart people to revisit right now. It's like going back for seconds on dessert at Old Country Buffet.
And the people. Oh, lo, the people. I have a new appreciation for The Real World, and the way you can quietly lose your mind, laugh until inertia makes it impossible for your diaphragm to stop bouncing, and then spend an entire plane-ride across country looking for something -- a song, a word, a phrase, a brand of pretzels -- to explain why you are dripping snot all over a tray table. I'm having a hard time reconciling that I will never have that exact same experience with those exact same people. I guess that happens every time you experience anything. But this time it's especially heavy.
When it came to the final hug session on the final day, I looked at almost everyone in that group and thought: Oh my gosh. I like you all so much.
You have the craziest laugh or
the best stories or
Cigar smoke smells delicious, put it in my hair or
I love that you conduct interviews out of a trailer, or
you are the person who I hope to be in six years or
I wish we'd talked more, or
I wish I had one more day with you or
you are so brave, or
you remind me of my friends back home.
My amigo favorito was a film-freaking, American Spirits-smoking, map-reading, screen-play writing, math-doing, online contributing, beer drinking, whipped cream in his coffee, barefoot running "Buffy" fan from DC. We'll call him Dawson. I lucked into sitting next to him on the bus the day we picked the person we were charged with making sure did not get stabbed, kidnapped, or recruited by the Manson family. We were also next-door neighbors, which was helpful because I could never find my room. He's the kind of friend that I felt comfortable enough to turn to and say: "So-and-so made me cry today." But mostly we just drank just north of moderation and tried to out-funny the other person.
My second favorito amigo was a young lad from Buffalo, No. 9, who would send me text messages that said things like "Watch her hair when she claps." We became friends the day that I watched him Google "donkeys wearing costumes" and then upload the images to Tumblr. He made me laugh so hard every single day that there was the threat of choking on my own bobbing uvula.
So, instead of doing a daily download dump of what happened, I'll list some of my favorite memories from this trip. Grab a quick nap before jumping in. This will take awhile:
We had a body movement session with Kay Cole, an original cast member of "A Chorus Line," in a mirrored studio on the USC campus. A man sat in the corner providing a dance soundtrack on a medium-sized keyboard. (I really wanted him to bust out some Erasure. Perhaps "Chains of Love"). We were all still strangers then, and Cole got us to leave our inhibitions in the shoe pile, and dance.
One woman, a wonderfully animated, hard-working, question-asking and self-controlled (until she smelled wine) Wisconsinite was struggling with dancing in front of the group. We were asked to do a solo: A 10 second improv dance and end it by shouting out our name. Wisconsin did her dance reluctantly, then fled the room. But she came back a few minutes later to give it another shot. And as soon as she did, Cole asked her to do another solo. The entire group groaned in unison. Like, "Oh, Kay. No. Please. Can't you tell she is uncomfortable?"
But Wisconsin did it. And we all cheered. That's when I realized: "Shit, dawg. This group already really cares about each other." And then I thought: "You go, Wisconsin. I'm so proud of you." And then I thought: "Wow. Kay Cole has a pretty amazing way with people."
THE INS AND OUTS
While the majority of the group went to a Lebanese restaurant, four of us -- including a vegetarian -- went rogue and found an In & Out Burger. "You can eat hummus any time, but cheeseburgers are a novelty" No. 9 said. ... "There it is," No. 9 said. "That red and yellow building. The one that looks like ketchup and mustard." After some serious elbow flailing, we found a table and ate this amazing delicacy moaning and groaning and giddy. Special sauce bled from my cheeseburger, down my hands.
HOO-RAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
It took more than a week for me to get into a position where the Hollywood sign would be visible. Then, there it was, but I couldn't see it. "See that tower? Look just down from that," Dawson said pointing out the shuttle window. Nada. "See that tower? Look down!" Nada. "SEE THAT TOWER! LOOK DOWN!" he said. Nope. I thought he was snorting goldfish crackers until I saw it for real two days later. By the tower, but down.
CHIPS THE MUSICAL
The Troubadours are this clever troupe based out of Burbank, and we got to watch them rehearse for an upcoming original production: "CHiPs the Musical." Sexy girls with Farrah hair, and songs about sexual tension. Numbers performed on makeshift motorcycles, and a van wheeling out of control down a California highway. Ponch, of course, and John.
They were a total riot, and during the Q&A session afterward one of the group's founders ticked off a list of other original performances they had done: "Alice in One Hit Wonderland," "The Wizard of Ozzy Osbourne," "As U2 Like It." Known-plays-turned-musicals. For the rest of our time in LA, I vied with Dawson, to come up with the best title for a show using this template. His best: "Jesus Christ and Mary Chain Superstar." And my best (a much longer list): "Whamlet." "The 2 Live Crucible." "The Laramie Alan Parson's Project." There's more where that came from.
No. 9 and I were in the front row for "The Arsonist," at Odyssey Theatre -- this space that resembles a bowling alley. In the play's greatest moments, the character Schmitz drowns his plate with a soup of mustard. He mows down on a sandwich, food falling from his face, squeezes a tomato. He wags a pickle, drenched mustard. It's all over his fingers. He dips into a gooey 3-minute egg the consistency of a loogie. Chicken skin hangs, like a goatee across his chin. I'm surprised I got out of there without getting food-flavored spit in my hair. It was such gooey goodness, so utterly revolting.
As you know, in my happiest moments, I'm gagging on a visual.
Nearly every single night we went to this bar near the hotel, where the patio area was set in a narrow alley. There was always a DJ, usually playing Smiths-caliber songs while something like Animal Planet or a Japanese horror flick played on a large screen. Heat lamps and pints of Sapporo.
Afterward, Dawson and I would sometimes go for a smoke in the hotel's Japanese garden -- which, if I could remember it, was probably a very stunning place. I'd point to an area and say: "Let's stand over there!" and he'd say: "That's where we stood last night."
Of course, I couldn't remember this night to night. Heck, I couldn't find the place in the light of day. And always on our way back upstairs, I'd fill my palm with a wad of hand sanitizer (which was kept near the elevator) and whip it at him, forgetting I did that, too, the night before.
THE PLAYBOY MANSION
Our leader held a dinner party in her beautiful Pasadena home filled with wide open spaces and original art and fascinating people. We drank gin & tonics in the backyard, and she played conversation matchmaker, directing us toward strangers who we should meet. I, of course, was socially awkward and went blank when paired with the books editor from a major newspaper. ("I like books." Crickets.)
After dinner, we converged on her living room and were given an intimate tutorial on musical theater by Jack Viertel. Nice light, wine. There was a private concert with Georgia Stitt on the keys, and solos by the likes of Shoshana Bean. It was stunning. Surreal. When it was over, we were standing around in the backyard near her pool -- more of a landscape piece than place to train for the Olympics. "The only way this could be better," I mused, "would be if there were Playboy bunnies making out in that jacuzzi." A man from Oklahoma took a second to picture it, then drawled "That's kinky." But it was more like "Thahht's kinkaaay."
A bunch of us went to see "The Tomorrow Show" a variety show that started at midnight in Hollywood. But first we went to a frou-frou club-club, where I got tripped up by a bartender who wanted to know what kind of whiskey I was angling for. ("The kind old men in Westerns drink?") Our group had been on the go since early in the morning, and didn't blend well with the little black dress sect. We were cas, in jeans and sweatshirts and camping hair. "We're the ugliest people to ever set foot in this bar," I told Ari. (True story. They made us come in the back door). "They're probably thinking: Those are the longest shorts I've ever seen," she said. I made a few jokes about HPV, and we headed to the show.
This group frequently features Brendan Smalls, and when he came out on the stage I gasped like a groupie. Of all the funny in the world, his "Home Movies" is among those I find funniest. I sat there with a goofy grin, detecting vocal nuances from the 9-year-old film geek voice he uses on the cartoon. And then I started wondering what life is like for Brendan Smalls' girlfriend: his "Oh baby" sounding suspiciously like something animated.
The highlight of the night was a sword swallower who ate sharp until the tip touched his stomach lining. You could see the movement of the weapon in his throat. I almost barfed so hard.
PLAY ON, PLAYA
Dawson wrote a short play, a scene from a horror flick, that included a sassy quick-witted Veronica Mars-style female lead. He cast me in the role -- apparently he thought I could handle sarcasm, and wouldn't mangle his zippy dialogue -- oblivious to the fact that I am where acting goes to die. I panicked a bit, worried that I'd stumble on my lines and break his play. And in all of that anxiety, I missed that he was having one of those super stellar life moments, his words acted out for an audience. God, I'm a dick. Afterward, I read on Twitter about how stoked he was. Awesome that I got to have front-row seats for a friend's big phat moment.
ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
We spent part of an afternoon skulking the perimeter of Balboa Island, with its toy houses and chocolate covered frozen whatevers. When I saw the Newport Beach Club, I couldn't help but think of the time Chino got in a fist fight at cotillion, and then of Marisa Cooper's tragic death. There wasn't enough time for me to lay in the sand and see what shade of blue the sun could turn my pasty flesh. Regret, numero uno.
I talked to Jeff Weinstein about food writing, and food making, a conversation with interruptions to give me some Pasadena history; I told Texas about the time I was robbed at gunpoint, which oddly enough ended with her trying to convince me to try stand-up comedy; I had a moment with TT and Liz, where I confessed that I was really uncomfortable during a performance art workshop where we were asked to act like we were walking on glass and having an orgasm at the same time, and it reminded me of what it was like to have a good group of girl friends;
I told three stories about times I've wet the bed after drinking too much, and HipHop convinced me to write a series of essays called "The Urine Trilogy"; A group of us went to the bar, and left with a catch phrase: "Hot dog down a hallway." I knew one guy for almost three days before he finally said to me: "You know, I'm from Minnesota, too"; We made up variations of the joke: "Show me on the doll where (blank) touched you";
No. 9 and I took jokes too far, and invented scenes where we would arrive at a dinner party, realize it was being held in a hut, that Cloris Leachman was taking a bath in the middle of the living room, and the host would sacrifice a goat for dinner and make a cream sauce out of breast milk.
WHAT I THINK OF WHEN I THINK ABOUT THIS TRIP
Sitting at a massive table of at least 30 people at an Italian Restaurant in Pasadena, poking at cheesy pillows of gnocchi and talking food with Dawson (Me: "Mushrooms suck, too bad about this risotto") while my bottomless wine glass magically filled.
I looked across the table to No. 9 who was having this intense conversation, something that bore a resemblance to flirty, and sent him a text: "Baum chicka baum baum." Half an hour later at the theater, Dawson looked at me and said: "You are drunk."
This is what I think about when I think about moments I'll never have again.
So now I'm back. And fragile. And inspired. And weepy. And stirred. And itching to write, learn, read, travel, think, meet people, do more things that make me sad that I'll never get to do them again. I wasn't prepared for the mental exhaustion, or the missing of these people who were in the bubble with me. I'm a little lonely, and finding that "And then No. 9 said ..." stories don't translate to my real life. I'm also super freaked out, and super foggy.
And I don't know if I want to feel normal, because normal means going back to coasting along, never taking any risks. ("Risk" being a big word at this particular summer camp).
I think I lost my mind in LA.