Monday, October 4, 2010

MY HOLLYWOOD DEBUT

Frank Sinatra's mother, Natalie "Dolly" Sinatra died in a January 1977 plane crash on San Gorgonio Mountain, near Desert Hot Springs California. Six months earlier, during my cross-country escapade in 1976, I was in that tiny suburb of Palm Springs.  More specifically, I didn't set out to go to this insignificant dot in the Mohave Desert, I wound up there.  
SNOWY SAN GORGONIO IS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S HIGHEST PEAK.
This road trip celebrated my last summer of childhood together with our country's bicentennial. The majority of my travel was by bus. At the time, Greyhound offered its Ameri-Pass. This great deal provided sixty days of unlimited travel for $250.00. Even better, greyhound had a reciprocal agreement with Trailways and other smaller lines, so theses passes were honored by the other companies. The catch was, in 1976, there were tons of places that were still inaccessible by public bus. Therefore, my trip included a lot of hitchhiking.



SALTER BUS LINES (NEW ORLEANS TO RUSTON LOUISIANA),  STOOD OUT AS THE WORST OF THE SMALLER BUS COMPANIES.  COMPARED TO THE COMPETITION, THAT DILAPIDATED RATTLETRAP LOOKED LIKE IT WAS FROM A 1940's, THIRD WORLD COUNTRY.  MY BUS WAS FILLED WITH LITTER, THERE WAS NO AIR-CONDITIONING AND NOXIOUS ENGINE FUMES WERE CONTINUOUSLY BOMBARDING THE RIDERS.  IN RETROSPECT, AN EXTRA FEE, TO TAKE YOUR CHANCES SITTING ON THE ROOF WOULD HAVE BEEN WORTH THE RISK.

I only had one problem with Greyhound. Somewhere in the 285 miles between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, they lost my luggage (backpack).
YOU MIGHT NOTICE THAT I'M ON CANADIAN SOIL, (BANFF ALBERTA).  FORGET THAT!  THE SIGNIFICANCE HERE IS, I'M CARRYING ALL MY CROSS-COUNTRY POSSESSIONS...A BACKPACK AND A SHOULDER BAG.

In Los Angeles, a Greyhound public relations representative named Norman Gildersleeve (his real name), told me they "tracked" down my bag in Idaho. He told me that I'd be paged on the PA system when my back pack came in the next day.  Unfortunately, it took a week, (maybe there's a town on Guam called Idaho).

I spent nearly all my time, for the next three days, at or near the bus station.  On a limited budget, this inconvenience forced to wear the same clothes. I felt like a vagrant. At night, I even rode the bus back and forth from San Diego, so I could sleep.
THANK GOODNESS THE WAITING ROOM HAD PINBALL MACHINES AND COIN-OP TV's, (20 MINUTES FOR A QUARTER) CONNECTED TO THE HARD PLASTIC CHAIRS.
I was playing pinball just after dark when I struck up a conversation with a guy my age named Bryan Friend, (his real name). He suggested eating at a taqueria. L.A.'s bus depot was enormous.  Bryan led me past a wall of a twenty opaque exit doors until we got to the rear entrance. This taco stand was in the heart of Skid Row. A who's who of annoying undesirables lined the streets as well as the inside of this greasy spoon. During dinner, Bryan told me he was going back home to Desert Hot Springs. At that point, as I dreaded the walk past the unsafe dregs of society, I asked him if I could hang-out with him for a couple of days until my stuff was returned to me.
AT THE CORNER OF SKIDMARK AND SYRINGE, THE BACK ENTRANCE OF THE LOS ANGELES GREYHOUND STATION.

Bryan lived up to his last name by feeling like a good friend. On the midnight bus to his town, I found out that even your best buddy can leave-out major details. First, he mentioned that he owned a brown, 1969 Pontiac Le Mans. Then he said that he lived nine miles from the bus depot in Palm Springs. It was only when we arrived, after 2:AM, that he said that his car was parked at his house.

Palm Springs is not only a ghost town in the wee hours but the open road on the outskirts of this desert oasis (even in summer) left us exposed to a stinging breeze. I was shivering my ass off as we combined walking and hitchhiking. In thirty minutes, five hundred tumble-weeds bounced past us but only three cars. Luckily the third, a 1960 Ford Meteor stopped for us.
PICTURE THIS CAR AS A CONVERTIBLE...EXCEPT IT'S A RUSTED-OUT HEAP WITH NO ROOF, WINDOWS OR WINDSHIELD...BECAUSE THEY WERE ALL SAWED-OFF.

The fifty-ish driver was wearing a bloody chef's apron and funky World War I aviator goggles. We told him where we were going and he slurred in a heavy German accent, "Get in, schnell." It was desperation time, I would have taken a ride from Charles Manson...and perhaps I did.

Bryan sat up front. I discovered the hard way that the back seat had no upholstery, so I sat on raw, rusty springs. Within a half-mile of swerving, we knew our savior was a sloppy drunk as he accelerated out of town.

At 75MPH without a windshield, this would be the last time I remember my hair getting in my eyes. But far worse, the tiny, omnipresent, airborne, desert dust particles continuously stung my face. Between this sot speeding, me freezing, getting sand blasted and having a rusty spring up my butt...the situation couldn't get worse...WRONGO!

Our driver said he was a cook at one of the hotels in Palm Springs. He starting complaining about Ed Goldfarb, his manager. Then between hiccups, he turned his eyes off the road and asked me, "Neither of you boys are Jews...are you?" I found lying to be prudent. Seconds after he turned back around, he slammed on the brakes, skidded to a stop and said, "Let's get something to eat." He was making a derogatory comment about his Asian ex as we bounced over the curb and into a SAMBO'S restaurant parking lot.
SAMBO'S WAS FOUNDED IN 1957.  BY 1979, THEY HAD 1,200 OUTLETS IN 47 STATES.  AROUND THAT TIME, CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS PROTESTED THAT THE NAME AND INTERIOR DECORATIONS WERE OFFENSIVE TO BLACK PEOPLE. LAWSUITS WERE FILED.  DESPITE CHANGING THE NAME AND OTHER CONCESSIONS, THE COMPANY CRUMBLED.  TODAY, ONLY THE ORIGINAL RESTAURANT IN SANTA BARBARA CALIFORNIA REMAINS.

In the empty restaurant, the drunk told us to get anything we wanted.  A chubby waitress took our order.  Bryan and I just got coffee. Our host pinched the girl's derriere as she turned away. She responded with a harsh glare.

During our awkward wait, an Hispanic motorcycle cop came in and sat at the counter. The waitress hustled over, whispered to him and pointed in our direction. The officer approached and said, "Werner, you okay to get home?" I was shocked that the policeman knew this nimrod's name. Rather than nod our chauffeur blasted, "Ya, ya leave me and mein friends alone." The cop asked Bryan and I to identify ourselves. When he was satisfied that we weren't run-aways, he gestured towards the waitress and said, "Werner, just keep your mitts to your self."

Werner MF'ed the police, Latinos, blacks, Jews and Asians as we sped away. To avoid being bludgeoned to death in his sleep by a potential psychotic, Bryan had us dropped off three blocks from his place.

On the frosty, three-block walk home, we passed dozens of identical, tiny, shack-like houses. In the distance, I sighed in relief when I spotted a brown Le Mans. Up close, beyond the weed-infested, white pebble garden, Bryan's flimsy house looked like four pieces of galvanized sheet metal stapled together.

Inside, up against the bare cinder block wall, Bryan pointed to a beat up sofa and said, "I'll get you a pillow and blanket." I emptied my pockets onto a coffee table that was a sliver of wall paneling set atop three stacks of, "POPULAR MECHANICS," magazines. I asked, "Where's the bathroom?" Bryan pointed to a finger-shaped sign above the kitchenette's door that read: REST ROOMS OUT BACK. To this day, other than port-a-potties that would be my only exposure to a genuine outhouse, (yes it did have a crescent moon cut out of its door). In the morning, I found out that the shower was also out back.

Bryan lent me some clothes and took me to a laundromat. He was out of work so we spent most of the next two days watching TV, (yawn), seeing both local points of interest (YAWN!) or visiting with his CB friends, (DOUBLE YAWN !!). We ate all our meals in burger joints but on the last day to show my appreciation, after he turned down my offer of gas money, I treated him to a regular restaurant. He chose Sambo's.
BRYAN DROVE AN HOUR IN EACH DIRECTION TO THESE SAHARA-LIKE SAND DUNES.  ALL FIFTEEN MINUTES THERE WERE MEMORABLE.

After two days, Bryan dropped me off in the Palm Springs bus station. I slept the whole ride into LA. I hoped that my odyssey would end when I retrieved my back pack. Instead I wound up arguing with Norman Gildersleeve until he gave me a small stipend for my four nights in motels, (I did good considering I didn't have receipts). I also got him to extend my bus pass, eight days.

I decided to get away from Southern California and chose San Francisco. I had two hours to kill before departure. I wanted to go to the taqueria again. I was passing the long wall of doors when I realized that it would be a shortcut to leave through the side rather than the back. But all the exit doors had yellow, emergency tape on them. I didn't care, I ducked underneath the tape and pushed through an opaque door. Simultaneously, someone outside yelled, "CUT !" Then another voice profaned me. I had walked into the middle of the set during a filming of TV's, "BARETTA." I wasn't embarrassed that I ruined the scene.  I even thought it was cool until some assistant to the assistant director gave me the bum's rush past Robert Blake and Antonio Vargas. He escorted me beyond the rope that cordoned off the public...and was told to stay there.

I watched the actors complete their scene. After, I went for more tacos.
IRONICALLY, I'VE BEEN TO LOS ANGELES SIX TIMES AND I'VE NEVER LAID EYES ON THE ICONIC HOLLYWOOD SIGN.

At Christmastime, I sent Bryan a holiday card and thanked him again for his hospitality. In my note, I included my Baretta experience in LA-LA-Land. Jokingly, I finished with, "I wonder if my debut in Hollywood was lost on the cutting room floor. " My friend never responded.



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EDITOR'S NOTE - A FRIEND OF MGTP, RGERM7, WAS LIVING IN LAS VEGAS IN JANUARY 1977 WHEN FRANK SINATRA'S MOTHER DIED IN THE PLANE CRASH MENTIONED ABOVE.  RGERM7 WAS, (STILL IS), SUCH A SINATRA FAN THAT HE AND HIS PARENTS RENTED A LIMO TO PALM SPRINGS AND SUCCESSFULLY CRASHED THE FUNERAL.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I did the Greyhound and hitching cross-country trip the year before you.

We had run-ins with the law, lost back-packs in Estes Park CO, anti-semites in Calgary, rides from single women, a one-armed 9-year old pimp in Tijuana, hockey in Chicage, getting drunk in the F Troop Tower, and hiking the Grand Canyon.


Towards the end, we lived off Mickey D's fries and water. We made it home with less than $5.00 between us.

Great story, thanks for the memories. --- SLW

Anonymous said...

I forgot about Frank Sinatra's mom dying like that. But I was hysterical when you said, "That was the last time you remember your hair getting in your eyes."

Loved this blog, thanks. --- M of M&T