It is April 1988. About six weeks before my college graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill when it dawns on me. I haven’t got a plan. I’ve made it to just about every football and basketball game in my four years here. I’ve had a beer in every bar and at just about every fraternity house. I’ve been on most floors of the two main libraries, sometimes just to flirt but often to study. And I have snuck into the historic library, still under renovation, and rolled a giant wooden spool out the second floor window in the middle of the night, past the Football field along the steep slope of the brick-covered walkway, dodging security guards to get it up my dorm elevator for use as a bar for my 10th floor room. I have had the time of my life and still managed to land on the Dean’s list most semesters. But I haven’t visited the career counseling center. I’ve not spoken to a professor about my next steps. I’ve sent out no resumes because I haven’t even written one yet.
I get out my IBM Selectric and type my name on the top page and quickly realize my address soon will not be my address. I haven’t got a place to live. I can’t move back home. Well, I could, but I don’t want to. My parents would welcome me back, but my sisters would have to return to sharing a room. I don’t feel like I really have a place there and I don’t want to have to answer questions about the plan for my future that I don’t have.
My answer comes in the mail. “Our records indicate that you are about to graduate from college. We would like to extend this Credit Card offer with an $800 spending limit.” Eight Hundred Dollars! It is the answer to my prayers. My Resident Assistant from my freshman dorm is living in Los Angeles and he has suggested several times that I move out there. He was like a brother to me that first year away from home when we all hung out in the 10th floor lounge eating microwave popcorn and watching movies on the Betamax machine. He works in some sort of production job and something like that sounds like it could be good use for my Communications degree. I’ve never been further west than the mountains of East Tennessee. I book a flight departing one week after graduation with a return ticket just before Christmas. I will find a way to survive for 6 months in an unknown land. I now have $600 available on my credit card and $200 in cash from selling my college textbooks.
When I arrive at LAX, my RA friend - let’s call him Mark - is not waiting at the gate happy to see me as I’d anticipated. After I navigate the terminal and collect my bags, Mark is still nowhere to be seen. I call his home and work numbers from a payphone and am unable to reach him. I am standing at the curb by the line of taxicabs - all willing to make a significant dent in my meager savings. I look like Ellie May Clampet in my floral print dress and Payless cowboy boots with my grandfather’s old gray suitcases by my side. My mind is reeling through my options. Do I take a cab to a motel? But where? Do I go back in the airport and buy a ticket for the next flight home to Raleigh? It registers that I’ve never even looked at a map of Los Angeles. I have no idea where I am or what I am going to do here.
After an agonizing hour watching people who know where they are going getting in their friends’ and relatives’ cars or chauffeured limousines, Mark finally pulls up to the curb. He looks just as I remember him, kind of like a clean-shaven Mickey Rourke, and he seems frazzled. “Traffic,” he explains. It is the first time I’ve ever considered that traffic might be the reason a person could be late.
We drop my bags off at his tiny bachelor pad in a Santa Monica basement and head to Ralphs for groceries. We fill a cart. I don’t recall my mother ever filling a cart. He pays with a credit card. My mother always paid with cash or with a check. I’ve been living on dorm food for four years. “I have arrived in the land of plenty,” I think. My life will never be the same after this.
And it isn’t. That first night, as we are watching “21 Jump Street,” he tries to have sex with me. We never had that kind of relationship in college. I push him off. He gets angry. “Why’d you even come out here?” he yells as I sit on the corner of the couch, stunned.
The next day there is palpable tension in the car as he drops me off at Zuma beach and says he’ll be back after work. My first sight of the Pacific is amazing, but there is no place to go at Zuma. I have some snacks and water, a couple magazines and my Walkman with a mix tape of Genesis and Tom Petty. When I inquire of some fellow beach goers where I might find a town with shops I could roam, they point out the Pacific Coast Highway and share that Malibu is several miles in one direction, Oxnard is quite a bit further in the other. I am afraid to go far, lest I miss Mark when he comes to get me. I see no sign of a payphone nearby and I wait until sunset, burnt and dehydrated. He works on a Lakers pre-game show and they are in the playoffs. The show was shooting that day at a player’s home in the Palisades. And then there was the traffic.
Mark is in the shower and I am looking at his bookshelf when I come upon a thin black book. It is his list of women with whom he has had sex. “Holy crap!” There have to be hundreds of entries in this thing. He has rated them all and written down descriptions of some of the acts and their locations, from awesome blowjobs on rocky cliffs to doggie style in a broom closet at work. Some have names and some are people I knew in college. Others are “blonde girl from the biker bar” or “black chick with the big tits.” My name is the last one in the book with a question mark penciled in next to it. “Oh my God! What am I going to do?” I pretend to be asleep on the couch when he comes out of the bathroom, but my mind is racing all night as I try to figure out my next steps.
In the morning I play possum until he leaves for work, then I walk to Santa Monica Blvd to get the LA Times classifieds and start looking for a job and a place to live. I am still in the A’s, passing quickly by accountant and anesthesiologist when I land on Au Pair. A place to live, a car to drive, a hundred dollars a week. I call and do a phone interview. They agree to meet me in person the next day. I take a cab into Hollywood and ask to be dropped off at the first motel I think I can afford. There I am at the Saharan on Sunset Boulevard. It is seedier than I thought. I am not street wise, but I can tell it wouldn’t be smart to walk down Sunset with my two suitcases, looking for a better option. I check in and find myself in a tiny room that reeks of smoke, with a tan shag carpet and a well-worn orange floral bedspread.
I fall asleep fully clothed on top of the questionable sheets, but am woken abruptly by a loud banging on my door. “It’s Ramona! You called for me?!” I look out the peephole to see a woman wearing leopard print and leather and leaning suggestively against the wrought-iron railing. “Shit!” I run to the phone as she starts banging on the door again. “There’s someone outside my door,” I whisper into the receiver when the person at the front desk picks up. She knocks even louder. “Just ignore it,” he says, “She’ll go away.” So I do, but about an hour later, the banging starts up again, this time the voice is angry and male. I look out the peephole and there’s Ramona accompanied by a large black man donning gold chains and a white fedora. “When you make an appointment mother fucker, you keep your appointment!” he yells as he slams his fist into the door. I call back downstairs. There is a commotion and then it is quiet.
I haven’t slept when I meet my potential employers at the Sunset Grill. I get to see first hand the working girls and basket people Don Henley sings about. Maybe the flight attendant and her pilot husband who need an Au Pair are scared for me. I ride home with them to Palos Verdes and begin my job as a nanny to their seven year-old daughter that afternoon.
I am living in a lovely home and driving a convertible to take my charge to play dates at local parks, the Peninsula library and summer day camp. It takes more than a month before I tell my mother about my new job. Back home I have sisters who are seven and ten. My mother wanted me to stay nearby to help take care of them. She isn’t impressed that I traveled all this way to do something I could have done in North Carolina.
Here, though, there are palm trees and a swimming pool in the back yard. I have my own room and bathroom and when the parents aren’t traveling, I have weekends off to explore. But I’m too scared to go far. I went to college forty minutes from home and coming to Los Angeles was a drastically out of character move for me. I don’t know how much more risk I’m willing to take. The map I saw at the library shows Hollywood is just an inch and a half from the Palos Verdes Pennisula, but the California freeways terrify me. However, I discover that it is a short drive down surface streets to Redondo Beach.
Which is where I am one Saturday afternoon, sitting on my borrowed beach towel reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved when it crosses my mind like a cloud. I am lonely. I am 22 years-old and I haven’t talked to a person my age in months. I start to cry. I hear the buzz of a plane overhead and squint open my teary eyes to see it pulling a banner that reads "Gladstones For Fish." I determine that one day I will have a friend and we will go there. To Gladstones. And I will eat fish.
I meet some fellow nannies at a local park. One is from Denmark, another is from New York. The New Yorker has picked up a side job as a Production Assistant on a commercial shoot nearby and tells me I should stop by on Saturday. They may need more help. I get hired for a two-day gig with the cast of Stand and Deliver. It is an AIDS-prevention PSA in Spanish. I don’t speak any Spanish, but I am always ready with the agua and the boligrafo when someone needs to write something down. Edward James Olmos befriends me. He asks what my career goals are. I vaguely tell him I’d like to work in entertainment. He tells me to call a good friend of his who is starting a new project and is in need of an assistant.
My nanny job ended just before Christmas as they planned to bring on a new girl from France. So after the holidays at home, I pursue the assistant lead and drive back across the country with a college boyfriend who is determined to make it in Los Angeles as a screenwriter. We get a one-room apartment on Franklin Avenue, close to the Beachwood Canyon office of my new employer. We drape a sheet over a moving box and call it a table.
We use the kitchen drawers to store our clothes and we buy a futon to serve as our couch and bed. We mostly eat dinners at El Torito’s Happy Hour Buffet or the single serve salad for $1.49 from Carl’s Jr., but we go back for seconds and sometimes thirds. You can see the Hollywood sign from our rooftop patio, and we sit up there drinking cheap beer and smoking clove cigarettes and talking about how we’re going to make it.
The job with Edward James Olmos’ friend isn’t the big break I’d hoped it would be. Turns out the office is in the pool house behind the producer’s modest house. His newly purchased Macintosh computer is still in a box on the desk and my first job is to get it to work. I have used a computer twice in my life in the tiny basement lab in college. More of a “show me” person than a “here, read this manual”-type, I spend hours struggling through Steve Jobs’ description of how to get it set up and plugged in before I finally get the green cursor to respond and several more hours before I can get it all connected to the dot matrix printer. Meanwhile, my new boss and his friends sit on the pool deck smoking pot and playing guitars and rain sticks.
Their idea is to create a Latin Jazz Festival and invite all the famous Latin Jazz musicians to play at a big event in Southern California. Tito Puente. Ray Baretto. Carlos Santana. They’d all come for sure! Only problem is the producers don’t know any of these musicians or their managers and they don’t have a site for their big event. The internet is still a few years from common use and, though I try following up on their marijuana-inspired ideas with phone calls, about a month into my new job, it becomes clear that the plan isn’t going anywhere and I am making $7 an hour to get high on second hand smoke and to thumb through the pages of the wife’s old copies of Spanish Vogue.
But my boss has this friend who works at a television station and needs someone to fill in while her assistant is on maternity leave. That six-week job in the personnel department turns into another temporary position in the production department. One day during my second week there, my boss walks by my desk and says, “I’m heading down to the morning show. Want to come see the set?”
I’m standing behind a cameraman when the host, Stephanie Edwards, welcomes my temporary boss on to “Mid-Morning Los Angeles”. They chat about an upcoming telethon that the station will be hosting under the wing of the Spruce Goose in Long Beach to benefit the Sheriff’s Department’s S.A.N.E. anti-drug program for elementary school children. “If you have a talent and want to appear on our show, contact my assistant Suzanne and she’ll set up your audition.”
Seriously? If you have a talent and want to be on TV in Los Angeles? I walk by the reception desk en route to my office and the phones are ringing off the hook. The frazzled receptionist signals to me, “RUN! Don’t WALK!” I get to my desk and all lines are flashing. I haven’t been given a date, times or locations for these auditions. I take names and numbers and promise to call back. My boss casually walks in with a bagel forty-five minutes later but we don’t have time to come up with a schedule until the phones stop ringing around 5pm. The next day I confirm nearly 200 auditions in a three-day period. It is like “America’s Got Talent” before there was such a show, and the talent is pretty much as varied in material and skill. Hair bands playing covers of songs by L.A. Guns and Faster Pussycat, comedians who’d not yet found success at the Comedy Store and several obvious Venice Beach sideshow acts vie for spots in the telethon on the morning show set.
Up to this point, beyond the cast of Stand and Deliver, my only brush with fame was at Gelsen’s when I stood in line behind Booger from Revenge of the Nerds. At the telethon I meet Danny Glover, Red Buttons and Buddy Hackett. I am taking notes on my clipboard when I overhear Martin Sheen telling the producer that he’d really like his son Charlie to come down and say a few words about his challenges with substance abuse and what it means to him to be clean. Charlie shows up several hours later slurring his words and swerving as he moves toward his seat next to Sheriff Sherman Block. Martin is fuming but expresses hope that this incident will be the final straw that helps his son turn his life around.
The station is abuzz because the Lakers are back in the Championship playoffs against the Pistons. As I walk down the hall I run head-on into my former RA, Mark. I hadn’t realized that this is the station that carries the pregame show he works on. “Well hello beautiful!” he exclaims. My heart pounds and my stomach turns as he introduces me to several colleagues as a “good friend from college.” As they walk away, he whispers something to one of the men and they laugh loudly. He turns back to me and winks. Los Angeles is an overwhelmingly large city and yet the small world cliché proves true. I pass the broom closet where I know some hasty sex acts have occurred and meet a couple of the women who likely have no idea they’ve been rated in a black book on the shelf of a dingy Santa Monica apartment.
I manage to dodge this guy and am secretly grateful that the Pistons win in a four-game sweep and there is no need for the pre-game show to continue until the fall. I’ve long-since ditched the dysfunctional relationship with the college boyfriend and I’m living in a two-bedroom apartment at Wilton and Hollywood Boulevard with a friend from work. There are mattresses on the curb and drug deals on the corner. The hot water pipe is exposed in my bedroom and makes a ghastly moaning sound every time my upstairs neighbors take showers. But I’m slowly acquiring real furniture, my refrigerator is usually full and I’m learning to cook.
I go to parties in the Hollywood Hills and dancing at bars along the Sunset Strip. One afternoon a group of friends suggests we go to Malibu to watch the sunset and there I am, at Gladstone’s eating fish when I realize that I have made it.