Forgetfulness of things past
One of my pleasures -- if writing can ever be called a pleasure -- is creating fiction for Nikki Finke's celebrated website, Hollywood Dementia. I wrote this story about the cost of lop-sided friendships and, while it isn't directly about Hollywood, it says enough about the business that it it will strike home for a lot of people. Nikki graciously said it was okay to run it here before she posts it on her website,which presents Hollywood Fiction. -- Nat Segaloff
Paul Regnier was living proof that no good deed goes unpunished. You know the type: someone who only calls when he needs a favor. The kind of person who’s fun to be with but after an hour you start looking at your watch. A loser who wakes up every morning and paints a bull’s eye on his own head, then blames others for his failures. Someone who doesn’t have a mean bone in his body or any common sense. A user. That’s Paul Regnier. Trouble is, I owed him a favor and he never let me forget it.
It wasn’t that he shook me down; my own guilt and gratitude did that. When I got tired of lending him a few dollars here and there that I knew I’d never get back, I got him his SAG card so I could put him on the budget whenever I directed a TV show. You’ve probably seen him. Sometimes he was a reporter who shouted a question in a crowd, sometimes he was a desk clerk helping the stars check in. Often he played the next person in line after a featured player in a convenience store scene. His characters were always named “Man.” He wasn’t an actor, God knows, but he was always just good looking enough to fit into any scene but not so good looking that he took away from the star. In the old days he could have worked constantly as an extra, but he never wanted a career. He just wanted to book enough hours to keep up his benefits. Come November, if it looked like he’d fall short, he’d call me out of the blue and ask me to find something in whatever I was shooting, usually a bit, but sometimes he was so far in the hole he asked for an under-five and I always came through. A lot of filmmakers take care of old-timers this way, but Paul wasn’t an old-timer.
We met when we were in our twenties and I was a bad boy. I was music director of a heavily formatted top-50 rock station in the east and the hits just kept on coming, not only on vinyl but in little amber vials with built-in spoons. It wasn’t the record reps that brought the toot, it was Paul. At first I wasn’t sure who this guy was who hung around the deejays. They all seemed to like him and looked forward to his Friday visits. One day Andy, the afternoon drive guy, made the formal introduction. It was an auspicious meeting; the GM, Jack Whalen, always left early on Fridays so we called Fridays a “Jack-off Day.” When Andy got off his air shift, he invited me into Jack’s office where Paul laid out a three-foot line on the glass coffee table, handed me a rolled-up hundred, and said, with a Cheshire smile, “Here, do a couple inches.”
Who could say no to that back then? Then Andy left the room and I realized who and what he was. He asked me if I wanted to become a customer. Naturally, I said yes. But I didn’t expect his next question.
“This is important,” he said, “I’ll only ask this once: Do you want me to be your dealer or your friend?”
It seemed both logical and polite to say, “Friend.” I didn’t realize it was like inviting Dracula into your house.
Paul was no hanger-on, I’ll give him that. He was always pleasant, always courteous, and always managed to show up at station functions. He could talk with anybody about any topic, and only when I thought back over it did I realized that he never revealed anything about himself. Nobody ever noticed this anomaly because people in our business tend not to be interested in anyone but themselves anyway.
He was a great mixer. He used to say that the party didn’t start till he got there. At first I thought it was because of the drugs, but he only dealt to a select group of customers and friends. No, he was the party.
He was also careful to have cover jobs. He would stop by my place in good clothes and driving new cars. Always a different one. He told me that they were drive-aways that he was taking from one city to the next. He also showed up at my apartment one night with two beautiful women. “They’re working girls,” he announced. “We’re on our way to a stag party and thought we’d stop by.”
“We?” I asked.
“I’m their driver,” he said. “I go in with them to make sure there’s no trouble.” He patted a pistol in his pocket. “You wanna see it?” I declined. Two hours later, they were off to the stag party and I put the linens in the washer.
A few days later he called to ask if I could get tickets to the Steely Dan concert for himself and Mona, one of the girls he had brought over to my place. “I’ll pay for them,” he assured, “but they’re sold out.” I squeezed a pair out of the record label and Paul picked them up at the station. I wished him and Mona a good time.
At three in the morning the phone rang. They say never answer the phone after ten p.m. but I did, and Paul was on the other end. His voice was slurred and there was noise in the background.
“I had a little trouble,” he said, “nothing major, but I need to be bailed out. You got any cash around?”
He used to keep an envelope with ten thousand dollars in it as bail in case he got busted, but I didn’t want to ask about it on the police station’s phone. Instead, I said, “Which precinct?”
His bail was only a couple hundred dollars. “What happened?” I asked as casually as I could manage.
“Oh, I got into a fight outside of the Haymarket.” The Haymarket was one of the town’s noisier gay bars.
“Were you driving somebody to another stag party?” I said.
“Nah,” he said as if it was routine. “I was talking to a friend and some townies started giving us shit, so I clocked them.”
“I didn’t know you hung around gay bars,” I said.
“Best dance music in town,” he smiled. “I had Mona with me.”
“Are the two of you an item?”
He winked at me. “We are until her husband finds out.” Remember that bull’s-eye Paul painted on his head? Mona’s husband broke a chair over it a week later.
Because I could handle difficult musicians, I got a call from the manager of a group called Fiveplay to come out with them to Los Angeles where they had been signed to a movie. I took a leave of absence from my radio station and babysat them through what turned out to be a disastrous shoot. The kid director – fresh from Cinema School – knew everything about movies and nothing about handling people. The only thing that kept the band from stalking off the picture was me. When the front office realized that I had saved the production, they made me assistant producer. I looked it up and saw that Billy Wilder said an assistant producer is like a mouse studying to be a rat. I didn’t stay for the premiere and, when I returned to New York, Paul called.
“’Sup?” he said. “I read about you in the trades.”
“I didn’t know you followed the trades.”
“I do now,” he said buoyantly. “I’m proud of you. I bet you’re gonna blow this town and head west.”
“You’d lose,” I said. “What I’ve got here is a career. Out there it would just be a job. As crazy as the music business is, it’s the rock of Gibraltar compared to the movies.”
Maybe I was feeling full of myself, or maybe I was trying to justify myself to Paul, but that weekend I scored an eightball from another dealer and decided to celebrate. I hadn’t done any in a while and I’d forgotten what it does to you. I was into my thirtieth hour and the paranoia had set in. I had locked and bolted the door to my apartment, closed the windows, pulled down the shades, and turned off the radio and TV. I didn’t want any contact with the outside world. Meanwhile it was a ninety degree August day and I’d turned off the air conditioner because every time the compressor went on, it made me jump. I was sweating, drinking beer, and doing lines, and it all seemed perfectly natural. But I had forgotten to unplug the phone, and it rang. In a panic, I picked up the receiver, dropped it on the floor, scooped it up and said, “Hello?”
“’Sup?” It was Paul. “Wanna go for a sandwich?”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, so wired I must have sounded like those chattering teeth from the joke shop.
“What are you on?” Paul interrupted.
` “Nothing,” I lied.
“Bullshit,” he said. “I know it isn’t mine. Where did you get it?”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m gonna hang up now.”
“No you’re not,” he said. “I’ll be over in twenty minutes.”
“I won’t be here.”
“Yes you will. You’re paranoid but you’ll let me in.”
He hung up and I started getting dressed. Oh, yeah, I was in my underwear. Fifteen minutes later Paul knocked at my door. He was never on time in his life, and here he was early.
“Some people can handle it,” he said, collecting my paraphernalia. “You can’t. Let’s open the windows, turn on the A/C, and get you back to earth.”
He stayed with me until I came down. He let me ramble, watched me make lists of the albums I owned, and kept silent while I looked in the fridge every ten minutes as if the contents had somehow changed since the last time. He didn’t chastise me or lecture me – he didn’t have to – and when he finally put me to bed ten hours later, he hugged me without comment and left. Monday I went to work, threw away the emergency gram I’d hidden in my desk, and have been clean for the last thirty years.
Coincidence of karma, a week later I got offered a six-month job as music liaison for a big studio picture back in LA. It’s now or never, I thought, so I quit the radio station and went Hollywood for keeps. One film job led to another and soon I was working at a production company putting pictures together. Mid-level stuff. So what if I never got offered bigger jobs? I was having so much fun, I didn’t mind. I married my first wife, Meghan, a terrific person. We’d met over the negotiating table when she held out for a huge payday for her client’s spec script, “Duty Calls.” We dated and I was taken with her sense of humor, so I proposed. I miscalculated. I thought she would find it funny when I went down on one knee and asked her to be my first wife. In those words. I got my laugh, but she got the last one at our divorce a year later. She showed the same negotiating skills across the alimony table that she’d shown selling up “Duty Calls.”
“’Sup?” the guy said when I picked up the phone. It was Paul.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Your old radio station,” he said. “I still have a few friends there. By the way, they changed their format after you left. Now they play shit.”
“You still go there?”
”Not on business. I quit. It’s all crack now anyway. Hey, how come you never call?”
“Lemme guess,” I said. “What do you need?”
“Is that any way to treat me?” he said. “I don’t call just when I want something, do I?”
“You really want me to answer that?” I said. “Besides, I’ve learned something out here. You can be bosom buddies with someone for years but the first time you ask for a favor, you never hear from them again.”
“I’ll take that as a no,” Paul laughed. “I just wondered if you needed an assistant.”
“I can’t afford an assistant,” I lied. “Have you gone through all the jobs in the east?”
“This place is tired. Thought I’d change the scenery like you did.”
“It was somebody else who changed my scenery, Paul. With a job.”
“Yah,” he said, his voice getting sharper. “Just like it was somebody else who got you clean.”
“You made your point,” I admitted after the moment it took the truth to sink in. “Okay, why don’t you come out for a while, stay in my spare room, and see if you can find work. I can’t support you, but I can give you a cot and three hots.”
“That’s prison talk,” he said. “What do you know that I don’t?”
“All I know is whatever you taught me.”
I had my assistant (yes) make the plane reservations and picked Paul up at LAX. He arrived without luggage, so we stopped by Ross on the way to my place to buy him something to change into. Next day I started calling around to see who could give him work. A PA job here, a runner there. He was a little old to do those jobs, but at my level I could pull certain favors and not others. I wondered how long it would take to pay back that August afternoon.
Thinking it over now, I didn’t really have to do anything for him. But I had been raised with a sense of obligation. It gave me a good reputation but it stopped my rise; nobody hands over a company to someone who wants to be liked.
Paul got his SAG card on one of my pictures. I told him not to acknowledge me on the set lest it show the kind of favoritism that upsets a film crew. (“You mean we have to treat each other like tricks?” he said.) He played well with others and Assistant Directors always bumped him up whenever they could. He also learned the day player’s trick of blowing his lines after 5 PM so they had to call him back the next day.
One morning he didn’t show up to finish a bit for which he had been held over. When frantic phone calls came to naught, they hastily recast the part and had to reshoot his scenes. The producer held it against me. I suppose someone should have called the police but, you know something, you don’t go chasing trouble. Besides, I knew he had to be okay. Guys like him are survivors. And I was right; two weeks later I got a postcard from him from Fort Lauderdale – no phone number or return address – that said he was staying with friends who ran a B&B. That night I took his belongings, including the ones I’d bought, and put them in the garage. I should have thrown them out, but something stopped me.
Six months later I was in bed with my future second ex-wife. It was after ten o’clock and the phone rang. Sheila picked it up before I could tell her not to and handed it to me.
“’Sup.” Paul’s voice was slurred. “Who was that?”
“My fiancé,” I said sternly. “Where are you?” I was afraid he might be down the block.
“Florida,” he said. “I gotta talk to you.”
“You still got my clothes and stuff?”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Damn right,” he said, and belched for effect.
“Call me back when you’re sober,” I said.
“Wait, don’t hang up,” he returned. There was panic in his tone, but he recovered. “This place is tired. Can you bring me back out there?”
“Like I said, Paul,” I spoke clearly, “call me in the morning when you’re sober. I’m not going to talk to you when you’re drunk.”
“I gotta get out of here,” he said. “You owe me that much.”
“I paid you back ages ago,” I said, “many times over. I’m sorry, but this is the way it’s gotta be.” He was silent. Noises in the background said he was calling from a pay phone on the street.
“I thought we were friends,” he said, by now pleading. “Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember. “When we met, you asked me if I wanted to be a friend or a customer and I said a friend. I treated you like a friend. The trouble is,” I said, feeling my heart beating, “you’ve always treated me like a customer. Now call me back tomorrow sober or don’t call me back at all.” I hung up the phone and unplugged all the extensions. I even turned off the answering machine.
“Who was that?” Sheila asked as I got back into bed.
It was getting late and I didn’t have time for a long story, so I just said, “Someone I used to know.”
Paul never called back. I didn’t care.
A year later I was running the company.
You can read my fiction and that of many other writers at www.HollywoodDementia.com.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2019 Nat Segaloff