It was around this time that I lost my job.
I was writing for a show called My Ex-Wife’s Fat Neighbors, a middle-of-the-pack clunker that Eichelbaum used as filler for their EB Network stations. Our ratings were nothing special, but that’s the case for most shows on EB; the thing we had going for us was that we scored unusually high in the teen female demographic. This had little or nothing to do with the writing, by the way. Girls tuned in because of Bradley Steddit, the handsome himbo who played a neighborhood tough; his recalcitrant sneer and vein-laden arms sold millions of dollars worth of tampons, feminine hygiene spray, and IUDs. The show itself, ostensibly a dramatic comedy, was both bereft of laughs and dripping with maudlin melodrama. It was awful.
Anyway, I went into work every day feeling like I’d gotten away with something. Those were truly my salad days, days when I’d hang with the other writers and drink coffee and chat about how much the show sucked and how very beneath us it was, none of us admitting, at least to each other, that when it came to writing talent we were a pool of water that had sought its own level—a low level indeed. I was just happy I’d gotten out of the mail room, to be honest.
Meanwhile, the studio was onto us. They knew the writing was garbage, that we were easily replaceable, and shortly after signing Bradley Steddit to a multi-year deal they did to us what they’d already done to the IT and accounts payable departments:
They replaced us with cheap labor.
It started during the “Great Recession.” The company decided it was necessary to cut costs so they started with administrative positions. The head management at Eichelbaums hired a slave-trader company that shipped in Indians by the hundreds and housed them at the Elmwood, an apartment complex in Encino. There are prisons in California less crowded. Each one bedroom apartment housed ten people, and if the Indians didn’t like it, too bad. Anyone who complained would be shipped back to India faster than you could say “Ravi Shankar.”
The economy recovered, but the Studio’s rapacious need to cut costs was never sated. When I was fired, Eichelbaum Bros. was having the most profitable year in its history. Hell, the fifth movie in the Billy Dungee, Boy Wizard series made 3 billion domestic. DOMESTIC. I don’t even want to tell you how much they made in China. It didn’t matter. The layoffs and outsourcing continued apace, and slowly but surely the Eichelbaum lot began to resemble Mumbai.
You’d see them walking around the lot, hunched over, brown eyes full of fear, treated like dirt by both management and the employees they were replacing. I wasn’t worried about losing my job; we of EB’s creative class were far removed from the concerns of the everyday workers, and considered ourselves untouchable.
Imagine my surprise that fateful Thursday when I showed up to the writer’s meeting, and saw the Indians sitting there.
The executive producer (or showrunner, if you will) sat there running his hand over his jowls and talking pidgin English to the new hires.
“You makee show funny? Makee sell commercial?”
The Indians looked at him: four men with Saddam Hussein mustaches and tucked-in pastel dress shirts. They nodded slowly, grinning. I could tell they hadn’t understood a word. There was a girl, too, and she was sort of stunning, with long black hair and cute little buck teeth. I pictured myself in an apartment in New Delhi, padding around in a bathrobe and slippers, drinking coffee and waiting for her to come home and service her American master. I compartmentalized my liberal guilt and played around with this fantasy for awhile.
“You makee joke, make American teenager laugh,” the showrunner went on. “You likee rap music?”
The men glanced at each other uncomfortably and then nodded and smiled again. The girl just stared and smiled with those perfectly white buck teeth, her face vibrating with naive innocence. I squirmed in my seat and thought to myself: if this tight-jean trend goes on much longer I’m gonna blow out a testicle.
“Makee joke that rap music fan enjoy. Street, savvy street?”
The showrunner’s name was Herb MacGilvray—maybe you’ve heard of him. The hair on his head was brown but all the little hairs in his nostrils were gray. I looked away, then back at the nostrils. Those nostrils always mesmerized me.
MacGilvray crossed his hands on his gut and looked over at his assistant, Annette. She was thin, anemic, with bad skin and thick glasses; she adored the man, saw to his every need. They had some kind of uncle/niece dynamic going on. MacGilvray, like most big-time producers, had no shortage of hot, impressionable young golddiggers on speed dial for a Friday night get-down, but his relationship with Annette provided psycho-sexual satisfaction the bimbos couldn’t give him. It was all about control, I suppose, and who had it, and how it could be manipulated.
“Take this down, Annette. I want our new friends to watch every episode of Mad About You we can get our hands on. When they’re done with that, I wold like them to immerse themselves in urban culture. You know, black stuff. I want them to understand American teens, the way they think, the way they talk.”
“Got it, Mr. MacGilvray.”
MacGilvray leaned back in his chair. It creaked. The room was silent but for the ineffectual air conditoner humming in one window. We were all waiting to see what would happen next. I fixated on a bead of sweat that had pooled on Annette’s philtrum. She let it pool, unperturbed. The heat seemed to be making the Indians drowsy, which is funny because I always assumed they were most at home in a sweltering climate.
MacGilvray slapped his hand down hard on the top of his desk. The Indians snapped to attention, servile grins dissolving into expressions of terror. MacGilvray winked at the woman and I felt a twinge of absurd jealousy and resentment—he was a plantation master, and I was some corn-pone asshole strolling up a dirt road with a stem of grass in his mouth.
“Now all the rest of you guys,” he said. “It’s nut-cuttin’ time.”
He looked around the room at us: me, Jeanette Blumkwitz, Bill Sunderson, Nick Rothko, Switch-hitter Sam, Todd Dean. None of us could believe what was happening. Sure they could do that to jerks in the accounts payable department but hey, we were CREATIVES. We played by different rules, enjoyed exalted status. We were the lifeblood of the company.
Denial is a powerful thing.
“I don’t have to tell you folks that this is the nature of the business we work in,” said MacGilvray. “It’s not about art. It’s not even necessarily about business, because what’s good for business doesn’t always matter. What matters is perception.”
MacGilvray pulled a tube of Certs out of his pocket and started crunching away, the slight grin still stuck to a gray face portending heart failure, stroke, a face revealing a soul scooped out and replaced with the cottonpuffs of privilege. His life was television and would be television until that day when he went to go see the big studio head in the sky.
“It comes down to the recession, folks. Eichelbaum studios CEO Harry Schmelielberg sent out a memo to all production staff a few months ago, telling us to cut costs. Telling us to bring shows in at 30 percent lower than what they’d already budgeted. They want us to bring in good comedy at next to nothing. You think you got stress, sitting around here on your fat asses typing out shitty dialogue? Try walking a mile in my mocassins, you pricks.”
He was careful to look at us, one by one. When he looked into my eyes I realized he did not see me. I knew that his eyes were looking past me and seeing something else entirely: the boat he’d be on later in the marina, the blue-grey water, the blonde head bobbing up and down between his legs. Still, I nodded. When there’s an authority figure around my head bobs up and down like that blonde’s—even though I wanted to point out to him that the recession was nine years ago, I found myself nodding, slobbing the knob. Taking it.
“They came up with the idea to outsource anything on the show that doesn’t have to be here on the lot. If they could move our whole operation to India they would, but that’s not quite feasible. Still, they can do other things. Like, say, replace writers.”
“What about the WGA?” Nick Rothko blurted out, his little hamster’s eyes peering out from behind Jeffrey Dahmer glasses.
“What about the Guild, Nick? You wanna go on strike, go for it. The last strike went on for a year and all you guys got at the end was a shittier deal.”
Nick didn’t have anything to say to that.
The boss regarded the tube of Certs with a look of disgust. He threw the Certs into the wastebasket underneath his desk.
“You Indians always smoke. You over there.” MacGilvray looked at a piece of paper in front of him. “Says here your name is Raji…Pathmarajah?”
The man smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
“You gottee cigarette? Savvy?”
Raji smiled and nodded and looked at him with his mouth hanging open.
The boss made puffing motions with his hand.
“You know…cigarette? Beedees? You brown bastard…”
Suddenly Raji got it. He nodded and jumped up and reached into his back pocket for a pack of Merit 100s.
“Put it in my mouth,” said the boss, pointing.
Raji walked over and put it in his mouth.
“Now light it.”
Raji lit it.
MacGilvray blew a plume of smoke in his face.
“Good boy,” he said.
Raji stood there, grin frozen to his face underneath the Saddam Hussein mustache. MacGilvray motioned with his hand.
“Uh, you can sit back down…” he said.
Raji sat back down.
MacGilvray coughed and leaned back in his chair and savored the coffin nail. Then he pointed at Nick Rothko and said:
“Your union doesn’t mean shit anymore. You know why? Internet piracy.”
We all looked at each other.
“Internet piracy?” said Nick.
“Yeah. It’s cut into business so much that we can’t make a red cent, least not like we used to. Used to be you could make a CD for ten cents and sell it for fifteen bucks. Now, nothing. You know, Eichelbaum Records is barely holding on. You think it’s bad here, over there it’s a goddamned bloodbath.”
He snorted and ran his index finger along the rim of one nostril.
“DVDs, too…no one buys them anymore. They want everything on the goddamned internet for free. So what’s the end result? We gotta hire guys from India to write our shows. End of story. Keep that in mind when you’re sitting at home ripping stuff off the torrents.”
“But what about the quality of the shows?” said Jeannette. Jeanette: she of the red hair and tremendous thighs. I’d given her oral pleasure at the Christmas party back in ’07. We hadn’t talked much since that night.
“The quality of the shows, my dear, isn’t important anymore. Not in the post-internet age. Stuff needs to be made for almost nothing to turn a profit. The standards have lowered.”
He stood up, hands on the table, and looked around at each of us in turn.
“NO ONE GIVES A SHIT, DO YOU HEAR ME? Everything on television SUCKS and it just DOESN’T MATTER ANYMORE.”
Silence in the room. Jeanette was crying, dabbing at her eyes with the back of her hand. Nick Rothko looked like he was going to cry, too. I guess we all felt pretty bad.
“So, without further ado,” said MacGilvray, “you’re all fired. You’ll receive severance packages in accordance with your union contract and all that happy horseshit, okay? Just…get out.”
I was at a table in front of Prissy’s Place, a little sidewalk cafe right down the street from the studio. From where I sat I could see the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Eichelbaum Studio. You’d see a movie from 80 years ago and there would be those mountains—eternal, unchanged,the people caught on celluloid in front of its verdant expanse long dead. The mountains went on and the actors were gone. I was gone, too.
I was on my way to getting mind-blasted on Gin and Tonics. Tiny Tony was my dining companion, as usual.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with my life,” I said. “I’ve been working at the Studio since I was 23 years old. Now what? It’s tough all over for writers, not just here.”
Tiny Tony was eating a Cobb salad from a bowl so large he couldn’t see over the top of it. His pudgy hand appeared holding a fork, speared a tomato and a hard-boiled egg, and disappeared again.
“You’re looking at this all wrong,” he said from behind the bowl. “You wanna know the truth, Jack? ‘Cause I’ll lay it on you if you want it.”
“Lay it on me,” I said.
“Hold on. This salad is bugging me.”
He grabbed the bowl and hefted it into his lap and picked out little pieces of hard-boiled egg with his pudgy, dirty little fingers. There was soot all over his hands and his shirt and his face. He was co-host on a variety show at Eichelbaums and at the beginning of every episode they shot him out of a cannon into a giant pile of charcoal.
“The truth is, you gotta stop crying like a little bitch. You ain’t gotta work for a little while,right? So consider this a break from the grind. Take it easy for a bit. Get laid, get high. Stop your moaning.”
I thought about that. I was always pretty careful with my money, and had a decent amount saved up. But then there was the lease on the BMW…I couldn’t give that up, could I? And what about my condo in North Hollywood with a bar and a 58-inch HDTV and a waterbed and a spectacular view of Lankershim Boulevard? What about the money I spent on hookers every month? What about Amber? For a girl who grew up African-American on the mean streets of Carson, she sure had an insatiable yen for fine dining and fancy shoes.
The truth was, I’d grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, a certain level of comfort.
“I have to work,” I said. “There’s really no way around it. I’ve got bills to pay.”
“Oh please. You guys are all the same—you make a few bucks in this business and you forget what it’s like to be a human being. You forget your roots.”
“My roots are two miles from here. In Reseda. Don’t tell me about my goddamned roots.”
“No need to get agressive, drunky.…say, here comes Fooz Pinkley.”
Fooz strolled up the sidewalk, face scrunched up with disgust (no doubt at the trendiness of the cafe and all the people eating there), wearing his work shirt and ID badge that said Smith & Felcher LLP – F. PINKLEY. He’d smeared on some crushed rose lipstick and wore pink Chuck Taylors to match his pink tie. That’s his “proletariat” look. I don’t know many proles who make upwards of 130K a year, but there you go.
He walked over and sat down next to Tiny Tony. They nodded acknowledgement to each other and then Fooz sat back in his chair and looked at me with his usual unfathomable anger.
“I got your text. Fuck you mean, you got fired?”
“I mean I got fired. They outsourced my job to some company.”
“Well that’s bullshit man. They can’t do that. You’re a writer, not a fucking janitor.”
“They can. They just did.”
“You don’t know how cheap Eichelbaums is,” said Tiny Tony.
“How the hell,” said Fooz, “can a bunch of foreigners show up one day and start writing an American mothafucking sitcom?”
“You saw my show, right?”
Fooz chuckled condescendingly.
“I don’t watch TV, man. That’s the opiate of the masses.”
“You’re on “YouTube” 10 hours a day, how is that any better?”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Jack. Apples and oranges.”
“Never mind. The show was terrible. The writing was terrible. I’m terrible. Forget about the Indians; I don’t know how I lasted as long as I did, Fooz. I started in the mail room, and that’s where I should have stayed.”
I admit it, I was getting a bit maudlin. The booze had me seeing myself as a character in some Greek tragedy. I motioned to the waiter for another G&T.
“You were the smartest guy I knew in college,” said Fooz. “The mail room was always beneath you.”
“You went to college?” said Tiny Tony. He laughed.
“What the fuck is so funny?”
“Sorry, but…” Tony sat back and covered his mouth with one fist and coughed. “It’s just that I have seen that show, and it don’t strike me as the product of superior minds. What’d you major in, anyway?”
I looked at him, then looked at Fooz. Fooz looked away and out at the traffic on Ventura Boulevard.
“I majored in German history,” I said.
Tiny Tony howled with laughter.
“Fuck YOU,” I said.
Another G&T arrived. I guzzled half of it down straightaway.
“We’re gonna get your job back,” said Fooz.
“We are? Howwegunna do that?”
“I got an idea. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.”
We parted ways with Tiny Tony and headed over to Fooz’s place in Calabasas. We played Xbox, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and smoked weed all night. Every once in awhile I’d look out the living room window at my BMW out there on the street and think about all I’d lost—but the pain was gone, replaced by anger and indignation.
Around 5 AM Fooz and I got in his VW bus and drove back to Encino, to the Elmwood Apartments. Fooz found an open spot in the carport facing the buildings and we sat there in the dark and had a couple bong rips and Fooz played some shitty bootleg recordings of an obscure 1980s hardcore band from Des Moines, Iowa.
“It’s funny. You’re the only guy I know who still has a tape deck.”
“That’s because the sound quality of magnetic cassette tape is amazing, Jack. These days, with the advent of mp3 technology, otherwise known as a “lossy” format, much of the warmth of the sound is lost to BLAH BLAH BLAH…”
I was zoning out. The sun was a smudge of blue over the San Gabriels. Fooz continued on with his long rambling tirade about audio formats, and I started to nod off. I awoke to Fooz punching me excitedly in the arm.
“There they go, Jack!”
He turned down the music. It was still dark and we were fairly well hidden in the shadows of the carport. I could see the dim glow of their pastel-colored shirts in the dark, their mustaches, as they walked to work. The studio getting them an automobile was out of the question. Even if they were somehow able to get driver’s licenses, it would have cost the company a few extra dollars to rent them a car. Not going to happen. They walked out of the entrance to the Elmwood and turned right, towards Eichelbaum Studios. It was a good two-mile walk each way.
“Let’s go,” whispered Fooz.
He grabbed a backpack from behind the driver’s seat and we walked up to the apartment the Indians had come out of. It was still dark, but the sky was turning from black to blue and I knew soon there would people everywhere leaving for work at the studio.
“C’mon c’mon c’mon,” I said.
Fooz unzipped the backpack and pulled out a lockpicking kit he’d ordered from the back pages of Maximum Rock’nRoll in the late 90s.
“I always knew this would come in handy,” he said.
He jammed two metal rods into the lock and twisted them back and forth with much grunting and cursing under his breath. Finally the door opened and we were inside. I shut the door quietly behind us and we stood there for a moment while our eyes adjusted to the dark .
It was pre-furnished, and there was no indication that anyone lived there, no indication of personalities inhabiting the apartment at all. Except…
“Cumin. You smell that? It’s pretty strong,” said Fooz.
“They’re Indian, Fooz. Indians eat a lot of cumin.”
“Whatever,” said Fooz. “Let’s get rolling.” He pulled a can of black spraypaint from the backpack and went to work on the living room wall. When he was finished he stepped back to admire his handiwork and grinned.
DEATH TO ALL HOLLYWOOD JEWS!
DEATH TO ALL INFIDELS!
“Needs a little something more,” he said.
He gave the can a few shakes and then added some swastikas to the ceiling, just for good measure. Nodding with satisfaction, he said:
“Perfect. Now give me those maps.”
We’d brought along photocopies of the Eichelbaum Studios lot map on which Fooz had drawn red dots on various executive’s offices and then scrawled crudely across the bottom: “BOMB GO HERE.”
We scattered the maps all over the apartment.
“Now, the final touch,” said Fooz. He pulled the last item from the backpack: a large framed photo of Osama Bin Laden with a bronze plaque at the bottom that read: “R.I.P. 5.02.11 NEVER FORGET.”
“You don’t think anyone will find it odd that a bunch of Hindus use terms like “jihad” and follow Osama Bin Laden?” I asked.
Fooz gave me a puzzled look.
“What are you talking about? These guys are Indian, man. Jihad. ISIS. Al Qaeda. And like that.”
“Aren’t those groups made up of primarily Muslims? Not Hindus?”
“Aw, who knows the difference? I didn’t, anyway, ‘til you just said that. The important thing is that one call to the FBI and these guys will never set foot on that lot again. Those suits will come crawling back to hire you, Jack.”
“It seems like a crazy plan,” I said. “But maybe it’ll work.”
“Of course it’ll work. Now hold on, I’m going to hang this plaque in the bedroom.”
He walked over to the bedroom door and opened it.
“What the hell,” said Fooz.
The room was dimly lit by a television, an episode of Mad About You playing with the sound turned down. I saw what I at first surmised to be brown buttocks thrusting into a mound of blankets. Then, in the millisecond that the synapses in my weed-addled brain connected, I saw the pile of blankets was the girl, the beautiful buck-toothed Indian girl getting plowed by the guy who’d given MacGilvray a cigarette. Raji Pathmarajah.
The girl saw us and screamed. Raji rolled off and started to get up.
We ran out of the room and out the front door. Outside the sun was coming up. We made it to the VW and peeled out in a screech of tires.
“One thing’s for sure,” said Fooz. “That wasn’t cumin you smelled.”
We drove west on the 134 freeway, back to Calabasas. The adrenaline had worn off, and we were both exhausted. There were thousands of cars on the other side of the freeway, heading to work. I looked out the window and thought about what had transpired. Finally I said,
“Do you think they saw us?”
“Naw. The room was too dark, and they were mid-fuck.”
“I dunno, man. We could get in a lot of trouble for this.”
“Don’t sweat it, Jack.”
Fooz was unusually pensive; he seemed to be thinking about something. Finally he said:
“You know, Jack, I gotta tell you something that’s been weighing on me, bro. I had my own part in this whole thing. That’s why I tried so hard to make it right.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I mean Smith & Felcher LLP negotiated the outsourcing on behalf of Eichelbaum Bros. We ate the Writer’s Guild for lunch.”
“I don’t believe this. You helped me get fired?”
“What do you want me to do? That’s my JOB, Jack.”
“Yeah, Jack. My fucking job.”
We drove along. I didn’t know what to say. Fooz had done a lot of things that had affected me in a negative way, but it was usually just the byproduct of his naturally irresponsible personality, the result of his well-meaning schemes. This was the first time he’d done something that actually felt like a betrayal of our friendship.
A week passed, then two. I was nervous maybe we’d be in trouble with the law but as the weeks went by I relaxed. In our inebriated state we’d forgotten to phone in an anonymous tip to the FBI as was planned, which ended up being a real stroke of luck. If the FBI had gotten involved and talked to the humping Indians there would have been an investigation and we would have been tracked down, no doubt about it.
I called around, looking for work. It was the same thing at every studio. Writers were dropping like flies and being replaced by low-priced lackeys. My buddy Gary Twitchell at Warner Bros. told me half of the staff on the “reality” show he wrote for (Transexual Bachelorette) had been replaced by custodial staff, and that after each writer’s meeting they were still expected to pour bleach in the toilets and vacuum the offices.
A friend at Paramount, Sam Pritchard, said the brass there had eschewed writing altogether. They’d invested in a new computer program that could take a bare-bones plot from an old show and add in dialogue and plot elements from an extensive database. Sam reluctantly admitted that the computer-generated scripts were indistinguishable from the ones written by humans—maybe even better.
The situation looked hopeless, but I couldn’t bring myself to look for work anywhere else in the private sector. How could I write ad copy for some insurance company when I’d once been a part of show business?
It didn’t look like I was going to find work anytime soon. I filed for unemployment assistance, and I started to drink.
In the morning I would stagger out to the liquor store up on Lankershim and get a case of cheap headache beer and by noon I’d be pretty well buzzed. The drinking would continue through the day. Sometimes I’d go to the Chongo Hut, a neighborhood dive bar, but mostly I’d pull down the shades and watch TV and get blasted.
It was awhile before I could bring myself to watch my old show, My Ex-Wife’s Fat Neighbors. I just couldn’t do it. One night, though, about four months after I’d been fired, I was more blitzed than usual and decided to check it out. The familiar music came on, the smarmy lyrics:
When you’re feeling all alone
Lost your wife, your kids, your home
Don’t eat that shotgun sandwich
Have a hoagie…with meeeee….
I’m your neighbor
I’m your neighbor
I watched the show feeling numb. Bradley Steddit was on with his leather jacket and veiny neck, cracking jokes at the expense of Noel Benning, the aforementioned “fat neighbor.” It was the same old shit. The same stale jokes. It didn’t matter that we’d been fired. Not one whit.
The show was over. I watched the credits with fascination: every one on the staff had an Indian name. The unit production manager, the assistant directors, everyone but the cast.
Everyone except, I assumed, Herb MacGilvray. The big boss man.
And then I saw it:
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/HEAD WRITER