Provo to Hollywood

It’s 9 am and I’m sitting in a crowded plane on the tarmac at the Provo, Utah airport, and everyone is white. Literally, everyone on the entire plane is white. I’m not sure why things like this startle me any longer. It’s Utah, I know, but there are billions on the planet.

I’m in the middle seat toward the back of the plane, squished in between two blonde girls. The one on my right is a little bit daft. She keeps looking at me and smiling and not looking away when I do. She’s wearing shorts that literally start just above her butt crack and end where her hips meet her legs. The one on my left is a brooding soul. She has a notebook open in her lap and she’s drawing pictures in her notebook of skeletal girls with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths, saying things like “what’s the point?” and “maybe tomorrow.”

I try propping up my laptop on my lap during the flight, and I can barely open it. The seats don’t recline and my knees hit the seat in front of me. I try typing, but I have to bring my elbows up to my shoulders and bent my wrists weird. I take out a paper and pen instead. I’m sleepy, but adventure beckons.

It’s 11 am and I’m in a new time zone, now in California, and I’m in the back of an Uber car. My driver is Azer and he’s from Armenia, and I realize to myself that I know literally nothing about that country. I couldn’t even pin it on a map. We make small talk, and he tells me of his wife and two adult daughters. He tells me how he used to own a kebab restaurant in Little Armenia, a section of town near Hollywood Boulevard, for 15 years until it got too expensive to maintain, but oh how he misses it.

I got off the plane with all the other white people just a bit ago, and got lost in a sea of bustling humanity in the airport. Every shade of skin, people of every shape and size. And I have a big smile on my face because this is exactly why I needed to be here, or at least somewhere. I needed to be anonymous, to go missing in a new place, to think and to read and to write and to experience.

I close my eyes briefly as Azer talks, feeling a mix of proud of myself for taking another adventure, and a little bit lame for doing it by myself. But I’m okay with being a little bit lame when it means I get to adventure on my terms.

It’s 1 pm and I’m sitting on the couch where I’ll be sleeping for the next four nights, talking to Mazie, my Airbnb host. She’s already among my very favorite people. 5’5, beautiful black skin, hair in multiple braids. She is dressed in a gorgeous yellow summer dress adorned with flowers, and she looks incredible. She has a cute brimmed hat on her head. She is bustling about the apartment setting things up for her week. She made me a welcome basket with towels, a throw blanket, and a fresh toothbrush. She tells me she is a scientist, and when I ask what kind, she tells me how she analyzes fluid samples in the hospital and gives the doctors the results, so that the doctors can pretend they knew what was going on all along. She says this with a laugh, and I’m laughing too. I don’t know her story, but this woman is a powerhouse.

It’s 3 pm and I’m sitting in a Starbucks on the quiet end of Hollywood Boulevard, if there is such a thing. I walked over the golden-edged stars adorned with the shining names of celebrities. There are many I know. I’ve been drowning myself in LGBT history research lately, and here mixed in with the other names are Ellen DeGeneres and Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift and dozens of others, and I’m thinking about how each of them had to pretend to be straight, publicly least, in order to get their careers going. Many of the stars are empty, waiting to have a name immortalized.

Outside the window, I see a Hispanic man holding a microphone and praying loudly, publicly calling those around him to repentance. “Dear Lord Jesus, though I be unworthy, I ask you to help me, Lord, help those around me to realize, Lord, that we, all of us, are sinners, that our time here is fleeting, Lord. Help me inspire them ot change their lives, Lord, and to find peace, Lord.” I look down and realize he is standing on the Hollywood star of Adam Sandler, and I literally laugh out loud at the deliciousness of that fact.

I make small talk with the man sharing the table with me. He’s jotting down complex notes, some sort of music set he has for an upcoming show, but I don’t ask questions. I think he’s flirting with me a bit. He asks me what my plans are while I’m in town, and I get a huge grin on my face as I reply.

“Nothing and everything. I have no concrete plans. I will see where my feet take me, and I will experience life.”

He nods respectfully, and soon packs up his things and leaves. And I open up my computer and write about my day as I sip my coffee and water, and watch the people passing by, the thousands of them, walking on the names of the famous. empty-hollywood-star-01.jpg

Daddy Issues: Rebels Without Cause

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In 1955, James Dean became a household name for his portrayal of Jim Stark in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Dean, who had recently been critically acclaimed in East of Eden, made Rebel, then went on to film the movie Giant. Shortly after, he was violently killed in a car accident in Hollywood at the age of 24, just before Rebel was publicly released. The world was devastated, and never quite got over it. James grew up very close to his parents, but his mother died suddenly when he was 9, and James’ father shipped him off to live with a family member. A young bisexual man with a penchant for fast driving, he had no idea he would become one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons.

Meanwhile, 16 year old Natalie Wood played the character Judy. Natalie slept with the much older director, Nick Ray, to get the part. Wood had an entire childhood in movies and a difficult home life and she was trying to establish herself as an adult actress before she was even an adult. Natalie grew up with a mother who acted as Natalie’s stage manager, pushing her to abusive levels to succeed in Hollywood. Her father was a drunk, and she never knew she had a different birth father. Natalie tragically drowned at the age of 43, a young mother of 2.

Lastly, barely 15 himself, Sal Mineo played John Crawford, called Plato by his friends. Sal grew up Italian in New York to parents who were coffin makers. A bisexual teen with a preference for men, he got his big breakthrough in Rebel and acted in many films over the following years before being murdered by being stabbed in an alley during a mugging, at the age of 38.

I watched Rebel recently for the first time. Hollywood movies at the time seemed to focus on happy little Caucasian families, Dad works, Mom cleans, brother plays baseball, and sister wants a new dress. Rebel was different. It took three rather privileged spoiled and emotionally volatile teenagers, thrusting them into the spotlight, and giving teens all over America an understanding on the big screen that they hadn’t experienced before. No wonder the movie became iconic.

Jim’s dad just wouldn’t stand up for himself. Jim’s mother was emotionally abusive, constantly manipulating, complaining, and shaming, but his father would duck his head, avoid, and sacrifice his own interests to keep the peace in the home. Even when Jim begged his father to stand up for himself, he wouldn’t do it.

Judy’s dad was tough on her. He seemed to prefer her little brother, and he spent a lot of time ignoring Judy. When she kissed him to get his attention, he grew angry; when she kissed him again, he slapped her face with an open palm, driving her from the room in tears, as Judy’s mother watched in shock. He refused to talk to her about it later.

And Plato is the saddest of all. Emotionally disturbed and terribly lonely, Plato was being raised by his housekeeper; his father had left when Plato was a toddler, and Plato’s mother was frequently gone. His father payed child support, but Plato didn’t want it, he just wanted his dad.

The movie opens in the police department, where all three teens have been arrested: Jim was drunk and loitering, Judy was walking the streets at night, and Plato had killed some puppies out of curiosity.

Things go crazy from there, well, in a 1950s way. We are much more densensitized to stories like this in 2016. But for the 1950s, this movie was insane. Teenage violence and angst, family drama, internal pain, bullying, gun violence, and tragic deaths. And the theme of it all, coming out of this movie, was the idea that while these fathers and mothers created these children, they were stepping out of where they came from, and living life on their terms.

Finishing this film, I thought about fatherhood, about my father and my stepfather and the impact that each has had on me over the years, and I thought about being a father. I thought of these three actors, who each met their tragic end, and I thought about these three characters, and about their fathers, their origins, where they ended up. And then I looked at where I am, where I have ended up, and wondered what is in store for me and what is in store for my sons, and for theirs.

In some strange sense, we are all of us Rebels Without Cause. Although every human story is unique and different, each human has an origin, a set of parents that they derive from, a father and mother that they appreciate and resent and resemble and rebel against. And we, each of us, take our individual stories and we rebel. We create our own. And none of us plan to have a tragic end.