Writers and the City: Jerry Stahl & Los Angeles

from Another City edited by David Ulin

“Inside Miss Los Angeles” by Jerry Stahl

I SOMETIMES wonder why every woman I’ve ever loved was completely insane. But then I think, that’s not right… not really. Not all of them. Just, you know, the ones in the last decade and a half. The ones—how else can I say this?—I’ve known since I hit Los Angeles.

Not to say that yours truly is any prize. We’re talking about an ex-junkie, retired crackhead, failed criminal, erstwhile porn scribe, former big money TV-writing fuckup, and offspring of a suicide by way of a professional electroshock victim … but enough bragging. L.A. is the place for guys like me. It’s the American Haven for Damaged Goods, the town you come to so you can make enough money to get the fuck out.

Grim but true. One week after sliming into Hollywood in the late seventies, I met a woman named Tammi who had two faces. Literally. Tammi’d hitchhiked to Glitzville “to get in the business,” and fallen in with a plastic surgeon who said “he knew people” who’d hire her if she looked like Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

“They wanted Farrahs, for the Asian market,” she explained, after two quadruple vodkas in an open-at-six-A.M. Hollywood bar called the Pungee Room. The Pungee was an undusted hideaway decorated with cartoons of has-beens, peripheral talents, and all-around show business mutants of every stripe. Joe Besser, William Bendix, Frank Sinatra Jr., even Rummy Bishop, Joey’s uncelebrated brother … they were all there, up on the wall, and they didn’t seem too happy about it.

In the barroom light, amazingly, Tammi did bear an alarming resemblance to young F. F. It’s just that, at the wrong angle, she didn’t look like Farrah at all. Sure, her mouth was Farrah’s, maybe even her eyes, but everything around and in between was some kind of wasted landscape, a topography of scarred, pitted flesh which, when made up just so, could actually resemble Farrah, but only Farrah after an accident, Farrah after she’d gone through a plate glass window, fallen from a terrace, nose-dived into a kidney-shaped pool from which all water had been drained. Hence, to my jaundiced peepers, she became the GWTF, the Girl With Two Faces, emblem of festive L.A. beauty from that moment on.

“It was Dr. Skippy,” Tammi confided, weeping softly into her Wolfschmidt.

“He had this cocaine thing … I mean, this was in ’74, everybody did. And I guess he had some kind of seizure, a miniconvulsion, right in the middle of my surgery. I remember, cause I was just under a local, and he kept lifting his mask off to get the straw up his nose. But”—and here a tear fell, ever-so-softly, onto the Forrest Tucker coaster—”but he was such a good little soldier, he went ahead and finished my face.”

Now came the brave sigh, that extra clutch on the sleeve of my wide-lapeled puce body shirt. For Tammi was, of course, an actress, too. “And’,’ she finished dramatically, “and he almost got it right …”

Needless to say, I fell in love up to my earlobes. By day, I labored in Larry Flyndand, down Hustler way. My job, for the most part, involved writing sight gags for vagina-shaped squash and rutabagas mailed in from the Dakotas — home, apparently, to a variety of genitally evocative vegetation. While Tammi, God love her, danced topless on tabletops at a strip joint near LAX. Her patrons were middle-management aerospace execs, family men who just wanted a little break from the meat-and-potatoes.

By night, once she’d slapped on her Maybelline, I could forget my troubles and pretend, for one or two gilded hours, that I was the Six Million Dollar Man. Beside my almost-Farrah, I could almost believe that our garage-sized tract in the Hollywood Flats—that region which lies, unglamorously, at the sun-sucked bottom of the chi-chi Hollywood Hills — was really just a mini-San Simeon. In the right light, at just the right angle, I could actually convince myself I’d hit the celeb-sex jackpot and nailed down the American dream. That I had, in other words, rolled into Hollywood and rolled onto a Charlie’s Angel.

The whole Tammi/Farrah deal was fantasy, of course. But then, this was Los Angeles, the town built on the horrifying reality that reality is so horrifying we need an industry to re-create it, in brighter hues, preferably with spin-off action figures to generate that all-important merchandising revenue.

Fast-forward a few years—we’re spleen-deep in the eighties now—and Sweet Tammi’s retired to Maui with cash from a settlement on yet another cosmetic casualty: faulty implants that left her right breast the size of a kumquat, the left one a sort of gelid duck pin. While yours truly, ever the rebel, found himself locked down on the famed Cedars Sinai dope ward. In detox I hooked up with a quivering young crystal meth aficionado named Tanya, daughter of a sixties sitcom baron and his Chilean au pair. The combo left her a green-eyed mocha showstopper with a burned-up trust fund and a Medusa’s head of auburn dreads. Her own touch were those B & O tracks running north from her dainty wrists to the crook of her banana-black arms.

Naturally, Tanya and I bonded hard during my twenty minutes of posthospital clean time. After which, for better or worse, my entree into the Real L.A., the Inner L.A.—or one particularly cheesy version of it— kicked in like a bang of adrenaline. A So-Cal archetype in her own right, little Tanya left her home in the Hills at sixteen to make her way in the world. Which, this being Hollywood and all, meant she ended up doing freelance dominatrix gigs at a studio called Madame D’s, a discreet and well-appointed hideaway catering to high-profile pain devotees.
Beyond the usual spankings and verbal abuse gigs—not to mention the odd electric cattle prod to the testicles, a house specialty—my gal’s forte was “The Roman Candle,” an arcane practice which involved slipping a match in some whoopee boy’s penis and lighting it. Thanks to the monstro powers of concentration unleashed by that IV crank, my sweetheart could slide a fire in a peehole faster than you could say “Hide the Hibachi!” This made her a real dream date for clients who wanted the worldly thrill of having their dicks spit flame as they were led around on a leash and bade to light up the mock-Liberace candelabras that lent the dungeon that obligatory Gothic ambiance. Until, that is, they shot their wad, put the match out, then toweled off and hopped in the Jag back to Brentwood to kiss the missus and tuck in the kids.

Here, oddly enough, is where yours truly got to breathe deep of the eau-de-power that keeps America’s Entertainment Center on track. By way of extra drug money, I’d help my lovemuffin with a little extracurricular work. And one other regulars, a hairy-backed producer of afterschool specials, paid five C-notes an hour for the heady thrill of being trussed up in a prom dress and hauled around Orange County in our toast-colored Nissan. Having me hunkered in the backseat made it, for Miss Irv, even more shameful.

Uh huh! No doubt looking to counter the pressure of shaping young minds as they munched their cookies and milk, our man longed to be driven around in drag, sweating till his bouffant slipped sideways, then shoved out at the nearest pod-mall while my vinyl-clad sweetheart called him names in front of horrified shoppers. “Why you little slut!” she’d scream at the plump and sweating show business professional. “You stupid cow! You filthy little pussy-girl!”

Somehow, between hanging out at Madame D’s and riding smacked-out shotgun in my baby’s dominatrix-mobile, I came to a strange conclusion regarding the burg I inhabited. It hit me, cruising with Miss Irv, that there exists some slick, subterranean pool of self-loathing and toxic desire from which springs L.A.’s true inspiration. The truth: Everything in this city exists as the opposite of its faux self. So that, despite the hype and blather, it’s not about the money, it’s not about fame, it’s not even about entertainment. Not even close. In this miniature constructed domain of reality called Hollywood, it’s about the twisted redemption of hollow visionaries looking to inform their lives with the substance that their very creations, the simulations of life called TV and movies, lack entirely. Hence the bevy of faux-Farrahs (or these days, faux-Julias), the mountains of action scripts written by Ivy Leaguers who’ve never even been bitch-slapped, the booming traffic in torture subsidized by buns-up Show Biz heavies for whom rank pain is the one real thing they can feel. It all makes sense.

Or maybe not. At least half a decade’s passed since most of the unwholesome madness described above. And I think, I suspect, that maybe it’s not the city. Maybe it’s not the women or the drugs. Maybe, call me a freak-magnet, it’s just me. I mean, I live here.

And I can’t seem to leave. . . .

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Another City was voted a Los Angeles Times Book of the year

Stories, chronicles, and poems by both well-established and up-and-coming young writers about how it was to come to LA or what it was like to grow up there, about the ocean and the desert, the entertainment industry and earthquakes, riots and racism, fires and freaks.

Contributors include: Jervey Tervalon, Aimee Bender, Benjamin Weissman, Sesshu Foster, Richard Rayner, Jeffrey McDaniel, Amy Uyematsu, Russell Leong, Aleida Rodriguez, Luis Alfaro, Bia Lowe, Amy Gerstler, and others.

David Ulin has lived in Los Angeles since 1991. From 1993-6 he was the book editor of the LA Weekly. He is currently on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and writes regularly for the LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times.

 

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