A friend of mine loves to reminisce about what she calls "the old days,” when she first moved to Hollywood to make her way in the entertainment business.
She arrived almost totally penniless, which sounds like the beginning of a really lurid cautionary tale, the kind grown-ups used to tell young people to keep them safely at home, on the farm, instead of hopping Greyhound buses to Hollywood looking for stardom.
My friend wasn’t looking for stardom. And she didn’t grow up on a farm, either. But in many ways she was the modern equivalent: She was a film major at a small liberal arts college, and what she dreamed about was working in the film business. So a few days after graduation, she packed her belongings into the only car she could afford, a very used Korean sedan, and she headed to Los Angeles to begin her career in show business.
It's amazing how glowing her memories are of those days when she first got to town. Her first job was pretty awful. I think she was some kind of videocassette messenger — this was a decade before the digital revolution — and she drove around town in her lousy used car to the various post-production houses in the San Fernando Valley delivering stacks of duplicate videotapes in the broiling summer.
One August day, as the temperature reached 100 degrees, the radiator in her car stopped working. There was a leak somewhere, and the car left a trail of iridescent green droplets. Her then-boyfriend told her to turn up the heat in the car to keep the car from overheating, which she did. But her boyfriend forgot that the power windows in her busted-up car didn’t work, so there she was, driving around the San Fernando Valley on the hottest day in August, windows sealed tight, heat blasting, in a stifling, suffocating, blistering Daihatsu.
She fainted, she thinks, around 2 o'clock in the afternoon at a red light on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Whitsett Avenue, but the cars behind her started honking, so she regained consciousness and drove on. By 4 o’clock, the little plastic nose pads on her eyeglasses had fused to her skin. By 6 o'clock, she pulled up in front of her apartment, opened the door, and collapsed on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the curb.
And yet, she looks back on those days fondly. Why? Because back then, before her career started in earnest and marriage and children, before she started producing independent films and taking meetings and making deals at Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance, back when she collapsed on a strip of grass with her glasses stuck to her nose, she felt, oddly, more in charge of her life. More powerful somehow.
The only real power a person has in Hollywood — and let's face it, the only real power anyone has in any business, anywhere — is the power of the alternative. The power to pack up the Daihatsu and do something else, go somewhere else.
That’s hard to do with a mortgage and school tuition and the American Express company's famously inflexible system of billing and payment. That’s hard to do when you think you have a public reputation to keep up. So when you're broke, of course you feel freer.
I've been thinking about this lately — and I've been asking my friends the same thing — because, for one thing, I have a birthday coming up and it's just good mental hygiene once in a while to ask yourself: “What else could I be doing if I didn't have to do this? And do I have to do this? Do I have the power of the alternative?”
I think about it and think about it, and then I shut up and get back to work because there are lots of things I have to do that I’d rather not and many things I need to do to keep my friends at the bank happy. It still beats the alternative. No one wants to drive around the San Fernando Valley in a Daihatsu.
Rob Long is a television writer and producer and the co-founder of Ricochet.com.