Last week, I built a portable picnic table to be auctioned off at Independent Shakespeare Co’s “Vaudeville in the Park”, the company’s annual fundraiser for their summer productions in Griffith Park.
I built the table out of scrap wood from previous ISC productions. A few cuts with a saw, some screws, some glue, some sanding and shellac-ing and VOILA!…a little table that folds up to the size of a briefcase. Unfold it and you and a few friends can sit around it, partaking of wine, cheese, little sausages, vegetables or tofu or whatever you desire, whilst taking in the love, laughter, pain and tears of a Shakespeare play. You can enjoy simple Existence in a park on a planet rocketing through a rapidly expanding Universe as the sunset, coyotes calling from the hills and the cool evening breeze rattling the leaves of the trees will make you believe that IT’s all moving much more slowly.
Last Friday, I checked out ISC’s production of Romeo and Juliet in the company’s studio space in Atwater Village. Only 8 actors were tasked with bringing to life the soaring melodrama of Romeo and Juliet, which they do so to great effect, effortlessly changing into other characters – donning a mustache here, a hat there – in between dancing, masquerading, falling in love, joking around, duelling, getting stabbed, getting married, getting stabbed some more and getting poisoned on a set constructed from the remnants of the set I built for last summer’s Shakespeare festival. Over the last year, the set has served as Scotland for Macbeth, the English countryside for She Stoops To Conquer, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, Paris for Cyrano de Bergerac, and now Verona for Shakespeare’s timeless tail of underage love.
A utility ladder served as the balcony where Juliet famously asks the stars, wherefore art my Romeo? For that moment, I believed the ladder was a balcony. Romeo answered her from across the studio on little wooden bench which serves as a convincing tree. Little cut-out starts hung between the two teenagers to serve as the cosmos. Eternity spanned between the ladder and the bench, and the two lovers had so much hope in their eyes I almost believed they’d really be able to reach across Space and hold each other forever. But the gravity of the hatred between their families proved too strong, and the star-crossed lovers ultimately fell to an Earth. Romeo ends up poisoning himself, Juliet stabbing herself over her dead starlover’s body on the bench that used to be a tree, now serving as a crypt. A few scenes before it served as the honeymoon bed, on which the two stars collided, pawed at each other with so much sweet lust. But that happy scene felt like it never happened by the time the two dead children were carried offstage and their parents were left to live with the consequences of their rivalry…or former rivalry, for the two fathers looked to be void of hatred at the end, in fact, void of anything. They walked offstage together, two black holes caught in each other’s gravity for eternity.
My friend, Erica, wonderfully portrayed Juliet. After the show the following Sunday afternoon, I went over to her studio apartment in Burbank to build a divider wall.
“I have family coming to visit” she said. “I wanna break the space up just enough to be able to say, here is where we eat and where I sleep and here is the living room. It’s a teeny tiny place, but it’d be nice to feel that my home isn’t just one room, you know?”
Erica’s boyfriend Kevin – also performing in Romeo and Juliet – and I built the wall in Erica’s parking spot. Troy, the apartment superintendent, was repairing the railing on the second floor balcony of complex.
“Did Erica tell you, bro,” he said, after he finished working, “Erica locked herself out the other day, so I crawled up into her window to let her in…and some f#$king tenant, I don’t know who…yet…filed a complaint.” He was rolling up an extension cord, jerking the cord down the stairs. He had black paint all over his face and hands, clothes. “F#$king making this place nicer for people to live in, bro, and somebody does that? Shit…I don’t even wanna be here. I’m really an underwater welder. $80 and hour. But I got in a car wreck and ended up with this…” he lifted up a pant leg to reveal an artificial leg. “That’s the only reason I’m here.” He finished rolling up the extension cord and walked off, but seconds later he came back. “I mean that’s bullshit, right? Treating me like I’m some f#$king creep? F#$king right it’s bullshit, bro. You know, I can dive no problem with one leg, but shit…they won’t even let me drive.” Erica came down to see how we were doing. “He Erica?” Troy asked. “Can you give me a ride to the Red Line?”
Erica took Troy to the subway. By the time she was back, Kevin and I finished the wall. We carried it up the stairs, twisted and turned it until we got it in the tiny apartment. After a few adjustments, I mounted it to the ceiling and…BAM!…Erica had a wall in her home. The three of us squeezed into corner by the front door to get the best view of the place.
“Now it looks like I really have a bedroom! Kinda…” She said as she hopped over by the love seat that serves as a couch. “See,” she pointed throughout the room, “Eat there, sleep there, live here!”
A few days later, I hung out with my friend, Sean – also a friend of Erica’s and Kevin’s and member of ISC. A few months ago, he and his girlfriend found out they were going to have a baby.
“Granted…” Sean raised his eyebrows, cocked his head to the side, “…I’m not giving birth, but I’ve only felt a great sense of calm and love, since we found out. Where we’re gonna have the baby…they’re big believers on skin on skin as quick as possible. Like the baby comes out, and I open my shirt, and they put it him or her right on me, blood and all. They said bring an extra shirt. I can’t wait.” He raised his eyebrows, cocked his head again. “But four people were let go at work a while back, without notice. There’s not a great feeling of security right now. There never has been, really. I’ve always felt like any moment I’ll be let go, but now,” eyebrows, head shake, “you know, I…”
“I was let go by the restaurant,” my friend, Jason, told me, the next day as we drove around Hollywood. His four-month old daughter, Vivienne, sat in a car seat in the back – crying when we stopped, quiet when we moved. “I mean, I only took it because I had to travel so much with my other job. I thought I’d be nice to be home as much as possible, at least the first year of her life. It’s the first time I’d ever been fired from a job.” He pulled out his phone and began dialing a number on his phone. “I’m just gonna have to look in other directions to make money.” He looked in the rearview mirror. “She’s asleep.” He pulled over, slowly. “I gotta call my bank before it closes. My credit card was compromised and somebody in Connecticut’s been using it.”
Jason waited on hold for several minutes. By the time the customer service agent got back on the line, Vivienne had awoken, was crying. Jason told the agent what happened and the agent placed him on hold again. He resumed driving, Vivienne fell asleep.
“Oh,” he said, “did I tell you we almost moved?”
“Yeah, to Echo Park. It was a real nice 2-bedroom. The owners liked us and everything. I was just about to call you to come help move. But they wanted way too much up front. For a week, though, we thought it was ours.” The customer came back on the line, and he pulled over. Vivienne cried. “Uh-huh…uh-huh…so, the bank is closed for the weekend, so…whoever’s got my card number can use it? Uh-huh…uh-huh…call another number?” Vivienne cried louder, Jason began to drive. “…alright, yeah, I guess. Give it to me and I’ll call them.” He quickly reached for a pen in the console, wrote the number on an envelope. “Thanks.” He hung up the phone. “Actually, it was a lot of stress and anxiety, hoping we’d get the place. I guess it worked out for the best. I don’t think we could’ve afforded it if we got it, anyway.”
I’d been looking for a new place to live, too (see the Jamberoo: Still Standing After The Great Shake) scouring the internet, walking around the neighborhood, calling any available apartment I saw. The rent in East Hollywood is skyrocketting, in perfect sync to the speed with which the Target Superstore on Sunset Boulevard is being constructed, which is in sync with the growing number of hipster bars, boutiques and cross-fit training gyms appearing on Hollywood Boulevard. A few months ago, I could afford quite a few places in the neighborhood. Now, most places were too expensive.
“The place was built in 1930,” said Patrick, the short, chubby superintendent of a bachelor-apartment building I inquired about. He sweated, panted as we rode up the tiny elevator together. “How many buildings you looked at with a elevator? But you’ll be using the stairs a good part of the time. Hey, it’s a elevator from 1930, it’s old, it breaks down.” We got out on the top floor and he led me into a tiny apartment. “One room, no kitchen except for the stove and fridge over there. Stand up shower, but hey, you get a great closet.”
The apartment was smaller than Erica’s. This is too small for me, I thought. And too damn small for the price they want! However, all I owned could fit in one corner of the closet. But what does it matter, if I can afford it? And I have all the room I need? And if I like the place, then…
“Listen, it’s Hollywoooooood,” Patrick said from across the tiny space. “This is a steal. You want it you can start now. But listen, I don’t want any bullshit, you know. You’re clean, you’re quiet, then we’ll get along. But you gimme bullshit…hey…I been a actor for 19 years, I’ll give you bullshit right back. So…it’s $125 to apply which, you know, I already like ya…and $900 a month plus all utilities, $500 deposit…”
…I could walk across the entire space in three good steps, my own little room in the world…
“For that you get a quaint, classy, classic place to live. This is Old Hollywood, you know. And look, the carpet’s brand new.”
…my own little place to call home, with new carpet…
“Oh, and no co-signers. I don’t deal with that bullshit.”
I decided I would not get an apartment until the end of the summer, when I’ll have more money. Where’s your proof, Todd? What have you gathered from your life that convinces you there’ll be more money at the end of the summer? Till then, I’ll live in my car, since I’ll be traveling so much over the summer. Uh, what car, Todd?
For hours, I descended into internetland, hoping to find a low-cost vehicle that would get from place to place, in which I could store my belongings and on which I could load materials for jobs. Everything was A STEAL! that the owner was selling ONLY BECAUSE I NEED THE MONEY! that they HATE TO LET GO! that RUNS GOOD! but NEEDS JUST A LITTLE TLC! My eyes hurt as I hung suspended in the Paradox of Choice.
You are fooling yourself, Todd. You can’t afford a car either. No car?! No apartment?! Whadd’ya gonna do, Todd?! I looked away from the screen, cracked my fingers, then did what I usually do when I threaten myself with that question, I googled…
…jobs fishing boats Alaska…
But as much as I think I want to drift into obscurity in Arctic waters, I can’t do it right now. I have to be in New York in May to act in a film. I have to be back here in LA in June to build ISC’s set in Griffith Park. Then I’m in North Dakota for the month of July for an artist residency through the North Dakota Museum of Art. From there, I go to Chicago to act in a play. Then I’m back in LA at the end of August to strike the set for ISC. There’s simply no time for fishing.
My life has gotten real big and vibrant, with all kinds of cool shit to do. Friends keep popping out of thin air. Time flies these days and every now and when I grasp how fast IT’s all going, I quit being an individual and once again transform to stardust…my natural state. And stardust is eternal. I’m eternal. So are you. The settings change over and over and over, but IT goes on forever. And there’s always a ride, always a couch, out here in Eternity.