Jimmy Fives said it would be an easy gig. It was down south in the Smog. So sunny and warm. And easy. That’s what he said. Wanted to know if he could count on his friend.
Vance didn’t even bother to look at Jimmy more than out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to leave Pine Sands. He wanted to go up into the Sierras and hunt some big animals. No way in hell did he want to carry Jimmy’s water on some shady job in LA.
Jimmy paused his sales pitch and ordered a drink. He pushed the brim of his cowboy hat back and then continued. “It’ll be simple buddy. Not dangerous. That’s the truth, no lie. All we need you to do is go down there and pretend to be a movie-set cop.”
“Yeah, we’ve got to hide some new action and a set’s perfect. No one blinks twice down there if a movie’s being made.” Jimmy slurped his beer. “And if anyone does, you’ll be there to move ‘em right along. Nice and easy.”
Vance didn’t say anything. Just sipped his drink and thought. Easy did sound nice.
Jimmy set the bottle back on the bar. Worked really hard not to slam it down. What was with Vance and his bullshit questions sometimes? “What the fuck does it matter? Tootsie for all I care. Christ!”
Vance, still only peering at Jimmy sidelong, persisted. “What movie are we pretending to make? In case, you know, someone bothers to ask me.”
Jimmy relaxed the grip on his bottle. Grinned. Vance was already thinking of the angles.
“Five grand a week,” Vance said.
“Make it three and a half,” Jimmy replied.
“Okay, but you need to put me up. I don’t pay my own lodging.”
Fine. A hotel. No condo. They’re so fucking expensive down there.”
“By the beach then.”
“Buddy, this is a serious job. You’re not going to have time to chase tail and suntan.”
“You’re a pig, Fives. The air is better by the beach. Everyone knows that. And find me a gun. ‘Not dangerous’ doesn’t stay that way very long when it’s one of your jobs. Especially when it’s down south.”
Jimmy nodded. He grabbed a napkin, smoothed it out and wrote down an address. He slid it over to Vance and said, “Be there tomorrow night.”
Vance took the napkin and then looked directly at Jimmy, “What movie?”
Jimmy shrugged, “I don’t know. I’ll think of something. You get down there.” He got up to leave and then added, “And shave off that beard. We need you to look like a cop, not some wildass mountain man.”
“Who are you?”
Most definitely interrogative. Overtones of irritation. Undertones of suspicion. Coming in hot to land hard on the you.
The answer was pretty straightforward. He was Ted Burek, and he was someone who was going to be late to teach his evening class. He was someone who needed to get into the otherwise locked department office to make some quick copies, and he had forgotten his keys. He was a Professor of Political Science. A member of the faculty at La Jolla Pacific University. Damn it all!
Okay . . . Not exactly a professor . . . And not exactly a full faculty member either. Not in the sense of being invited to department meetings or having voting rights in the faculty senate. Or being recognized as a peer by the men and women who occupied the other, decidedly more spacious offices on the third floor of the university’s Danforth Hall.
Officially he was an adjunct instructor of political science. If you wanted to put a cynical spin on it, he was a second-class academic citizen. And if you wanted to let the frustration and liquor do the talking, then he was a travelling scholar-helot piecing together one short-term teaching gig after another while searching with increasing desperation for a tenure-track position.
Let’s not get too dark, too quickly. It wasn’t all vinegar and ashes.
He had an office, admittedly small. His office even had a window, although it was so high up the wall he couldn’t look out of it. He did have a standard issue nameplate. He held office hours. Gave out grades. Dispensed wisdom and advice to undergraduates. He was still young enough to credibly grouse with the grad students about how much writing a dissertation sucked ass. If he played his cards right, he could probably prolong this current gig for one more, maybe even two more semesters. And if he didn’t, he’d apply for food stamps. Again.
True, he didn’t have a phone. Adjuncts didn’t get phones. Budget cuts.
Still he was a member of the community if only in a marginal way. Right? Yes. Yes, he was. He was inside the ivory tower’s gates. That counted for something, even if, at this moment, it couldn’t get him through the goddamn department office door.
Jesus Christ. Who was he? He had introduced himself to Professor Bailey, his doorway inquisitor, only a few months ago at the beginning of the term. They had exchanged pleasantries and pretended to be really interested in each other’s research.
Now this same Bailey was standing there playing security guard. No badge. No uniform. No gun (Thank God). Merely water sandals, wrinkled beige chinos and a button-down, short sleeve shirt in a prominent floral pattern. The outfit that many of the school’s tenured gentry liked to sport.
Bailey was too young to be senile. Maybe this was simply a joke. Maybe he was doing his version of the absent-minded professor shtick, offering a little collegial levity at the end of a long day.
So approach one: roll with the joke.
Ted gave a quick laugh—a short explosive ha—shot Bailey a knowing look and made a move to get past him and into the office. Bailey didn’t return the laugh. He tightened his grip on the door, squared his shoulders and raised his eyebrows in expectation of an answer.
Okay, approach two: explain.
Ted put his hand on the doorknob. “I’m Ted Burek.” He smiled broadly, even crinkled up his eyes like his old girlfriend used to tell him to do. “I’m teaching Intro to American Politics this spring. We met at the beginning of the semester. My office is a couple of doors down from yours. I’ve got class in a few and wanted to make some copies. I’m in a bit of a rush and . . .”
Bailey didn’t let him finish the thought. “Sorry, I don’t remember you. Do you have a faculty ID?”
The suspicion wasn’t an undertone anymore. It was right there. Right on the surface.
Have a faculty ID? Sure, Ted had a faculty ID. Unfortunately, it was back in his office with his keys. If he had his ID, he’d most likely also have his keys and none of this would be a problem. But he didn’t and this was. The clock was ticking. Ted hated lateness. He would call out the students who rolled in late to his classes. If this didn’t get resolved very soon, Ted would be doing his own walk of shame to the front of the classroom.
This was going too far. Who did Bailey think Ted was? Some petty thief after binder clips and printer paper? He taught here. He belonged here. And who did Bailey think he was anyway? The sheriff of Political Science Town?
Now the third and final approach: apply some pressure. More or less gently.
After a moment of hesitation, Ted smoothed his tie and then pushed on the door, saying, “Listen, I really need to get in . . .”
Bailey, pushing back, tried to close the door completely and pushed Ted right over the edge.
Ted stared down at the floor, squeezing his hands into tight fists. This is what it had come to? All the years? Yes, all the years. All the years chasing the idea that he had something to say. Something original to say in fact. Believing, yes, actually believing, that he could make a contribution and show people a different, a better way to look at the world. Holding fast to that belief even as the evidence gradually accreted to the contrary. And here he was. At the end of the line. At a mediocre college teaching classes no one else wanted to teach and stopped by an entitled jackass from getting into an office he had every right to be in. So much for the life of the mind. There was an initial sting of salt in Ted’s eyes. But the tears didn’t come; they steamed off in Ted’s bright white anger at the unfairness of it all. He raised his head to glare at Bailey.
Shouting very loudly now: “Let me in! I told you I’m teaching tonight. One of those classes you privileged douchebags think is beneath you. I’m going to be late for class! I need to make some copies. I need to help these kids understand why in the hell we have an electoral college in this god-fucking-forsaken country!”
And then Ted pushed harder. He put his shoulder, all his weight and all of his frustration into it. And he did as Bailey, obviously stunned by the outburst, loosened his grip.
The door slammed into Bailey.
“You broke the poor guy’s collar bone?”
“Yeah, clean through. It was a heavy door. And I was really angry.”
It was Nick Marquez on the phone. Ted had met him back in college during a protest against the economic tyranny of the World Trade Organization or the cultural hegemony of dead white men. Or something like that. There had been marching. Bottles might have been thrown. Probably by Ted. He had always had the quicker fuse. He didn’t think there had been tear gas that time. There had been tear gas at some point at one or the other rally. There had been a lot of rallies in those first couple of years in school. And between protests, there were lots of conversations, many of them lopsided, where Ted railed against injustice and the powers that were. Yet now more than ten years later, those details had blended and blurred. Or, more honestly, Ted had blended and blurred them. He knew he had had a reason for all that passion, but he still blushed at his younger self’s righteousness. The world had moved on. Those battles had been won or lost, the issues had faded or been transformed or been overwhelmed by other, more horrible things. It was difficult to sort that time out and bring it into sharper focus.
Nick was different. He stuck with it. He drifted in from the fringe, saying at the time that he couldn’t take another meeting where participants outdid each other in portentous uses of the word critique. So he gave up protesting and shouting a lot. He didn’t give up on politics, though, and went to work on a bunch of state and federal campaigns, first doing the shit work of knocking on doors and making phone calls to convince fellow citizens that the guy he was working for was their guy too and they should vote for him. He was diligent and committed without giving off the crazy hum of partisan passion that emanated from many grassroots types, and he moved up the ranks. Having proven himself reliable and competent and, most importantly, easy to get along with, he made the jump to DC and work on the Hill where he toiled for a handful of years before heading west to work as Chief of Staff for the recently elected Mayor of Los Angeles, the very same politician Nick was now trying to convince Ted to come work for.
“Look. Come up and join the administration. You’re done in La Jolla and once the story of your opening a door with malicious intent gets out, you’re pretty much done in the academy. Who wants to hire a clavicle-breaking adjunct? Wasn’t a stunt like that against the adjunct oath you took? You know: ‘I promise with every fiber of my totally overeducated being to teach my classes and then go home without straining the department’s budget or breaking anybody’s bones.’ That one?”
“Yes, exactly. That’s exactly the oath I took.”
“Sorry buddy, it’s time to get over yourself. When you take a moment to think about it, you’ll realize the truth. You hated being an adjunct. Stop pretending there was any kind of future there beyond keeping time. Here’s your chance and I owe you. Get out of Dodge. I need someone to do community politics for West LA. You’d be great. When you’re not talking about the Frankfurt School and all those other Critical Theory nuts, you’re actually good at explaining things in front of an audience. That and smiling a lot are actually the job’s only real requirements.”
“I don’t know. I liked studying politics, not doing it. Not any more. I’m not a big dirty hands guy.”
“Of course. I understand completely,” Nick added soothingly. Then, with sudden bite, “Unfortunately for you, your days comfortably ensconced in the morally pure realm of the university thinking your big thoughts ended when you got your hands dirty by breaking a senior faculty member’s collarbone over a handful of copies.” That bite left a mark.
“Listen, the Mayor’s a great guy . . . good politics and an even better story. Hardscrabble background. Parents owned a laundromat. He worked there as a kid, helping customers with their drop-offs and pick-ups. Dad died, family lost the store. The Mayor took any job he could find to help his mom and his younger sister. Great ethnic mix too. Salvadoran on his pop’s side, Copt on his mom’s. There’s even some Irish in there somewhere and maybe a little Native American. Which means his cross-ethnic appeal is super strong. You should see the cross-tabs on his likability polling. Off-the-charts. He’s articulate and passionate and he looks absolutely dynamite on TV. And it doesn’t hurt that he has an actual vision for this city and balls brassy enough to realize it.”
“Yeah, they’re ancient Christians from Egypt.”
“I know what Copts are. I just had no idea there were any in LA.”
“Of course, we’ve got Copts in LA. We’ve even got a full on Copt Town here. Well, town might be a little much. It’s really only about two blocks squeezed between Little Transylvania and Bhutan Village. Let’s face it, Los Angeles hasn’t always done the best by its minority communities. When we have the chance, we’ll take what we can get and promote the multicultural crap out of it.”
“That’s very enlightened of you . . .”
“Yep. You bet. You coming? The Westside’s a breeze. The constituents are super easy. Totally agreeable. Plus, they love the Mayor.”
“I don’t know. LA? All that sprawl, smog, celebrities, shallowness.”
“Fuck you. LA’s great. And you don’t have many other options. I hear the royalty payments on the latest academic treatises aren’t exactly breaking records. And you can’t try and surf away your sorrows forever.”
Both observations were true.
After he hung up, Nick didn’t put his Blackberry down right away. Instead he held it in his hand and felt the warmth of its battery through the plastic back. That’s all he did these days. Talk and talk on the phone, heating it up hotter and hotter with his trying to convince people to do things they didn’t want to do . . . vote our way . . . don’t get angry . . . give us money . . . hear No, but think it might still mean Yes . . . keep it quiet. He was surprised that his phone didn’t suddenly burst into flames and burn half his face off. It would serve him right, considering some of the shit he had to do with that device. Ted would take the offer. Nick still knew him well enough to know that. Would he do a decent job? Nick didn’t know that.
Nick crossed his office and went out into the high-ceilinged hall to tell the Mayor he had found him a guy for the Westside. It was still early and the marble floors gleamed. That wouldn’t last. As the day got busy, the hall would fill with aides, bureaucrats and politicians. They would come with agendas big and small. Scurrying back and forth with their policies and pitches, they would dull the gleam under a smear of scuffs and smudges. A day’s ambition’s dirty veneer. The shine would only return late at night when Joseph, the office’s janitor, made his rounds. In his methodical and practiced way, he would wax away the traces, buffing the gleam back up in anticipation of the next day.
Nick smiled at the thought of being in the middle of it, of having a surer grip on the levers of power than most. He was still smiling when he asked the Mayor’s assistant if the boss was in.
“He is,” she responded.
“How’s his mood?” Nick asked.
It was the assistant’s turn to smile, “Do you have good news or bad news for him?”
“Then you’re in luck, he’s in a good mood.”
Nick laughed, knocked briefly, and went in to see the Mayor.
Manny Saravia, the Mayor of Los Angeles, sat at his desk. His campaign literature had declared him a man who believed in the angel inside of every Angeleno. Manny Saravia was also a man who believed that the devil was nearly always there too. Actually, he didn’t believe it, he knew it. He had played the game long enough to be sure of it. The literature didn’t mention that.
As Nick came in, he lightly tossed aside the glossy real estate brochure he had been reading. He flicked a finger at it and asked, “Do you know about this project? This Golden Palms?”
“Vaguely,” Nick answered. “Some new development out by the beach.”
The nonchalance evaporated and the Mayor’s voice sharpened, “Nothing with vaguely, son.” He looked at Nick until Nick looked away. Then he sighed. He seemed more tired than he should be for the beginning of the day. “Golden Palms. This is a story that could write itself, especially in this town.” He leaned with his elbows on the desk, hands folded together. “You’ve got a juiced developer with an oh-so-fancy Brentwood address. He’s rich, but you know these fuckers, right?”
He peered at Nick over his knuckles, and Nick knew enough to nod that he was following along.
“Rich,” the Mayor continued, “but never rich enough. That’s why he wants to tear down some apartments in Venice and build condos to sell to other rich people. These apartments—let’s be honest for a moment—they aren’t anything special. They’ve seen better times. Still they’re home to a bunch of people. Good, hard-working people. The kind of people who don’t ask much, but who give a lot. If this deal goes through, they’ll be out on the curb. And what happens then?”
Nick took a step forward, jumping in quickly to take up the thread, “People are going to look around and want to know if anything can be done. And they’re going to look downtown, to you.”
Manny Saravia leaned back into his chair, “There’s the smart boy I hired.”
“Come on, sir, LA’s a big city. Stuff like this happens all the time. People find new homes.”
Manny Saravia looked at Nick again, and when Nick held his stare, he smiled a little. “Someone woke up a bit hard-hearted this morning. How’s that ‘LA’s a big city’ line going to play with folks, especially those folks sitting on the curb surrounded by a life’s worth of possessions?”
Nick crossed his arms, “Like the truth. We can’t save everyone. We’ve never said we could. People know that.”
“Maybe. You’ve got some faith in people and what they hear and what they remember.” The Mayor sat up and drummed his fingers on his desk. “Watch this one. It’s a familiar story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt us in novel ways.”
The Mayor paused, waiting for Nick. Then, when Nick missed the beat, “Well, what else?”
“I’ve got you someone for the Westside.”
The Mayor exhaled and looked out the window on the rapidly brightening morning. “Jesus, those Westsiders.” The Mayor set his face with an earnest, nearly solemn look. “They have very important needs and complaints, you know.” His voice shifted register, losing the light rasp that was the legacy of many teenage cigarettes and taking on the smoothly insistent tone of people entitled to be listened to: “Mr. Mayor, we contribute mightily to our city through the taxes we pay and they are, need we remind you, very high,”—the Mayor sped up, his voice rising, his eyes widening—“Something needs to be done! The quality of life of our community is deteriorating rapidly and then the traffic, Oh My God, it’s-getting-so-bad-and-we’re-suffering-so-much-it’s-like-the-Third-World-help-us-Jesus!” He paused. “God! Enough is enough. I need a human shield, Nicky, I need someone out in the community to take the flak.”
“You’ve got him sir.”
“What did you tell him about this job?”
“I told him the truth.”
The Mayor laughed. “Okay sure, but will he be able to do it?”
“Yeah, he’ll be able to do it. He’s a smart guy.”
“Good. As for you, be smart and do your homework the next time.” The Mayor turned to some other papers on his desk and Nick was dismissed.
Out in the hall, he tossed his phone into the air and caught it with a snap of his wrist. The back felt cool now. He hoped Ted would be smart. If he was, he could take this chance somewhere. Nick knew that. “You be smart Burek,” Nick muttered to himself. “Don’t screw this one up. Don’t you dare.”
Darlene brushed her long hair out of her eyes as she hunched down to dig through the Super 8s. The cardboard box, old with years of dutiful storage, swayed under her persistent search.
She was looking for a Saturday reel. Saturdays always had the most shots of moms pushing strollers. That’s what she needed right now. She wanted to see those everyday moments of maternal care and human connection, especially after that shift.
What a grind. The place had been slammed from the start, and the kitchen got into the weeds lightning fast. The food came out late or wrong, and people started getting pissy. Despite all her years waiting tables, it never ceased to surprise Darlene how quickly a plate of cold brunch eggs could drive people to drop all pretense of politeness. The usual “Miss, may Is” and “Excuse me, could yous” disappeared and were replaced by, “Hey yous” and “This is unexceptables” and “Well, I nevers.” One guy even called her a bitch because he got rye instead of raisin toast. Not getting raisins means that much to you? Said it in front of his kids. It was under his breath, but still. She heard it, and she was pretty sure the kids did too.
Darlene thought it would be nice to see people obeying the basic laws of civility or even being kind to each other. She rummaged through the reels until she spotted a label marked with her angular script: Pico Blvd., Saturday, 10:00 a.m. She threaded the dark ribbon of film through the spools and aimed the projector at the wall. She got up and closed the blinds to blot out the incessant Venice sun. Back to the projector, she flipped it on and watched the wall bloom with a sidewalk busy with shoppers and vendors and people going places.
Darlene sank to the floor with her back against the bed and searched for the moms that smiled and fussed over their kids. If she didn’t see them in this reel, she’d watch another. Sundays were good days too.
Her phone buzzed; she reached up behind her and swept it from the duvet.
hey d up for some something? -p
Darlene thumbed her response: will it hasten the revolution?
She grinned with the reply: as always.
Darlene texted her answer. She watched to the end, letting the film flap-flap as the take-up reel spun. After a while, she turned the projector off, and then she went out into the kitchen to make herself some coffee, feeling better.