Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Good Stock

Roy Conli, Don Hall, and Chris Williams

Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Peter Del Vecho

I'm happy to write that four people who I have worked with in the past at the Walt Disney Company have won Academy Awards in the past two years.  This year, it was Chris Williams and Roy Conli for, "Big Hero 6," and last year it was Chris Buck, Peter Del Vecho for, "Frozen." 

These guys are genuinely great, hard working people who would buy you lunch in an instant if you were out of cash, or gas, or whatever, and are great fun to be around.  It's always a good feeling to know that those who are being recognized are really good souls in their day to day lives.  I couldn't be happier for all of them.

Also pictured are Don Hall and Jennifer Lee who I haven't worked with, but are obviously masters at what they do...congratulations to them as well!. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rain Song

"It is the springtime of my loving. The second season I am to know."

It has been raining a bit here this weekend in Los Angeles, and the wet weather sometimes makes me think of a live performance version of a tune by Led Zeppelin, "Rain Song." 

"It isn't hard to feel me glowing.  I watched the fire that grew so low."

When the asphalt gets wet and blacker, and thick water droplets hang from plants that seem to have a deeper green than normal…

"These are the seasons of emotion.  And like the wind, they rise and fall."

And throughout the song, they appeal to our senses to help us understand that life and relationships are not one even ride; that everyone experiences their storms of sorts.

“And this is the mystery of the quotient. Upon us all, just a little rain must fall…just a little rain.  All, I know."

I can hear sway of Jimmy Page’s guitar as the cold, humid breeze moves the shrubs and trees to and fro.  Then, Page's arpeggios resolve into one final blast of sound from the band as Robert Plant lands on his final emphatic note, "Awwwwwwwwwwwww!"

John Paul Jones' Hammond organ settles into home, and John Bonham hits every kettle drum like a timpanic symphony.

Beautiful emotions. Beautiful song.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Eva's Goodbye

Last night, Brenda's Gramma Eva passed away.  She had been fighting pneumonia for the past few months off and on, and this very hardy woman, a product of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, said goodbye on this Thanksgiving night, November 27, 2014. 

The last time I saw her was just a few days ago at the hospital she was in.  Brenda's aunt had driven up to Tulare and picked up another aunt to bring her down to see her.  We all met first at Brenda's mother's house, currently vacant since Brenda's mother, Letha, is still in the hospital.  We then proceeded to take the visiting aunt, along with Brenda's step-father, to the hospital to see Gramma Eva.  When we arrived, there were lots of people in the room.  I stroked Eva's hand and told her that I loved her and that I missed her being at home with her family. 

She then did something that was so, "Eva."  The room somehow got into a discussion about how someone would arrive or get home or the like, and I, still close in proximity to Eva, saw her lift her tired head, crane her neck to each side of the room's visitors, and ask,"What is everyone talking about now?"  Eva always wanted to know what was going on around her and had to know the latest bit of news all the time.  I swear, if it was humanly possible for a person to live forever, Eva would have been the first to do it.  I will miss her greatly.  And so will Brenda and her family.  Brenda had a very special relationship with her Gramma Eva; something I wrote about here a few years ago in, "The Gramma Phenomenon." 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tender Moments

We had literally just stepped into the parking lot from the lovely wedding of my cousin’s daughter we were attending in San Diego, a night of good food, dancing and great cheer, when all hell broke loose.

It was 9:25pm, and I unlocked the doors of my Jeep with my remote and Brenda and I sat down and turned on our phones.  Just then, a call came in from her oldest brother’s girlfriend.  “Letha is being rushed to the hospital.  They think she had a massive heart attack.”  I could tell by the way that Brenda hesitated for a second, and then said, “No,” softly because the breath had been punched right out of her that something was very wrong.  Letha is Brenda's mother.  She is the closest person on this earth to Brenda.  Brenda takes care of her daily through phone calls and monthly in person. Then, after another hesitation of hearing a bit more from the girlfriend on the phone, Brenda repeated to me what she had just been told.  My heart sank.  We just went from one of the most joyous occasions that a person can experience to complete horror. 

At this moment, they were taking her mother out of her home and onto an ambulance with her older brother inside as well.  Letha lives in a rural area about a half hour north of Bakersfield, and getting her to the hospital as soon as possible was vital. The girlfriend would follow them to the hospital.  Brenda finished up the quick conversation with her brother’s girlfriend, which included some additional information about how the girlfriend had found Letha, incoherent and lips blue, half way off of her bed, and had called 911 and administered CPR per the emergency operator.  At that point in reviewing the account Brenda, the girlfriend had to hang up with Brenda since they were involved in the complete chaos of getting the mother on the move.

Brenda looked at me and said, “This can’t be happening.  I can’t lose her like this.  I have to see her again!  I have to get up there!”

We had just checked into our hotel in San Diego prior to the wedding.  I told Brenda, “Of course.  We’re going to the hotel, pulling our stuff out, and driving straight up to Bakersfield now.”  Brenda was doubled over in pain.  I felt helpless.  We were so far away, and naturally, she wanted to be by her mother’s side as soon as Letha arrived in the hospital.  Several things flashed through my mind as I expedited my Jeep the couple of miles from the Japanese Gardens, where the wedding had been, to our hotel.  Could I fly us up there?  No, it would involve a switch of flights, and that would take at least three hours.  So we’d continue the plan to drive up.  Would Letha make it?  I had just heard on NPR the week prior that a person who is found to be experiencing full cardiac arrest has a twenty five percent chance of surviving.  I wish I hadn’t remembered this right then.  And I certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Brenda.  But the twenty-four mile drive to Bakersfield that the ambulance had to make would be longer than the amount of crucial time needed to get her to a hospital, I calculated.  I assumed that about twelve minutes was the life or death window.  This was terrible. All that I could do was drive northward as fast and yet as safely as possible.

We arrived at the hotel, during which I said, “Just stay here…I’ll get everything.”  I ran to the room with my key card, and started packing everything quickly and hauling it out to the SUV.  It would take two trips, I discovered quickly.  So I was back in the room again, pulling the last few things, when I heard Brenda crying in the bathroom.  I hadn’t even noticed that she had gone into the room past me somehow.  She gathered a few things from the bathroom, whose shower was still wet from the frolicking time we had each had earlier, lathering, shampooing and getting ready for the wedding, while I went to the office and told them I had to check out quickly. The front desk clerk, a young man, was nice and got me out fast.

Brenda and I got back into the Jeep and hit parkway 163 north to highway 805, and then joined Interstate 5 around La Jolla.  My navigation told me that we would arrive in Bakersfield at 1:25am.  It’s around two hundred and thirty miles; not a quick jaunt on a Friday evening.  On the 805, Brenda started getting calls from her brothers and sisters, and from the older brother’s girlfriend.  Sometime in there, Letha had made it to the hospital.  This was in some small measure a relief.  She had not died on the way to the hospital.  That’s got to be worth something. 

Brenda was just beside herself, crying and asking God to spare her mother.  She had to be with her again and couldn’t lose her this way without any warning.  The next calls started coming in as we were reaching about Oceanside, CA.  Her sister called and reported that the hospital had pretty much ruled out a heart attack or a stroke.  But they had found that she had carbon dioxide and ammonia build up in her body, and that she was dehydrated.  The hospital had induced a coma, I learned later, to cool down her body. 

A little back story here is that three weeks prior, Brenda’s grandmother (Letha’s mother) had gotten ill again.  She had been stricken with pneumonia about four months ago, went to the hospital, then had come back to her own home and had done well again.  However, the grandmother had come down with something again.  Brenda’s uncles urged Letha to take care of the grandmother for a few days, hoping that she would improve and could go back home.  Brenda was against this because she knew that Letha had C.O.P.D., and used supplemental oxygen just to keep herself going.  Brenda had a sense that if Letha took care of the grandmother, she would get worn out. She said, "It'll be too much for you, ma!"  And Letha shot back, "I'm taking care of my own mother, and that's the way it is!" Make no mistake; I know from where Brenda's stubbornness is born.

About the fourth or fifth day, Brenda and I, who were at our home in Burbank, started sensing that her mother, Letha, was very tired; more so than normal.  Brenda and I talked about it, and then I told her, “Go up to help your mom today, and then just stay there for a few days.”  And that she did.  She stayed with her mother for about five days, helping her grandmother, and relieving Letha of some of the stress she had mistakenly signed on for. 

We had a couple of challenges coming up, however.  I had some family I hadn’t seen for years coming in from Denmark visiting on Wednesday, which Brenda wanted to be a part of.  And we also had a family wedding that Friday night in San Diego.  The powers that be finally decided that the grandmother really needed to go back to the hospital rather than stay at Letha’s home. This was on Saturday.  Brenda stayed with her mother for two more nights, trying to make sure that Letha was getting the rest she needed.  In all of this, Letha had also loaned out her supplemental oxygen to the grandmother while she stayed in the house.  This, rather than the two uncles bringing the grandmother’s own oxygen machine with her.  A mistake to be sure. 

Tuesday morning rolled around, and Brenda had to get back to Burbank.  She sensed that her mother was still groggy and tired, but this was not completely unusual for Letha, but was somewhat atypical in lasting throughout the daytime.  She tended to get very tired at night.

On Wednesday, we went with my Danish family to Santa Monica, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, and finally to the Americana in Glendale, CA.  During the day, Brenda kept checking in with her mother, realizing that her mother still sounded extraordinarily groggy.  Brenda’s sister had been by during the day to pay her mom’s rent and to try to take her to her general practitioner’s appointment, but she refused to see her doctor that day.  With further phone checks throughout that Wednesday, Brenda got worried at about dinnertime while we were at the Americana.  She called he sister and asked her to go by Letha’s house, which would involve a thirty-minute drive for them.  After some pressuring from Brenda, she did and brought her sister-in-law along.  When they arrived, they called Brenda and said that Letha was doing about the same.  Letha just didn’t sound well to Brenda.  She told her sister that she either had to take Letha to the hospital, or she had to stay with her all night.  With some further pushing from Brenda, they took her to a hospital in Bakersfield.  The hospital did a chest x-ray and found nothing alarming.  They felt that she needed to go home and rest.  She was brought home by the sister and sister in law and slept for the night. I want to point out here for reasons of fairness, that Brenda's sister had driven one hundred-fifty miles in just that one day with the three trips back and forth to Letha's house.

Then, on Thursday, Letha was still sounding about the same. She’d talk to Brenda on the phone, but she had no energy and seemed to just want to sleep.  Brenda got worried that Letha had been either undertaking or overtaking some medications she was on, and so she arranged for her uncle to come get her medications and bring them to a relative who lived a few doors down from Letha, who promised to count and then dispense the meds to Letha in the evenings until Brenda got back, which would be either Saturday or Sunday, after the wedding and stay in San Diego.  All of this was done, and the neighbor reported to us, about the time that we were arriving back home from our outing with our Danish family, that Letha was still groggy and without energy, but was just sleeping a lot.

This brings us to Friday, the day of the wedding and the day that this story started.  Brenda and I had to be at the wedding at 5:30pm, so we drove from about 2:00pm from Burbank to San Diego.  On a weekday, I like to take another route rather than Interstate 5, which has a lot of congestion in Orange County.  I take the 210 to the 57, to the 71, to the 60 to the 15.  It sounds like a lot of freeways, but all except for the first and last freeway are within a few miles of one another.  It makes for an easier drive because we can sneak through Temecula and down into San Diego from the northeast instead of from along the Pacific Ocean. 

We were about in San Dimas when Brenda did another phone check on her mom.  She didn’t sound good.  Her breathing was labored, which I heard when Brenda held the phone to my ear as I was driving, and she didn’t want to talk much.  Yet, towards the end of this phone check, Brenda found her mother talking okay again.  She was kind of dipping up and down a bit in energy level.  So Brenda called her mother’s neighbor, and also her older brother and told them that someone had to dispense Letha’s meds to her that evening, and that someone should go by and check on her now and intermittently.  They first sent the older brother’s girlfriend’s father over, who opened some water bottles for Letha.  She said that she seemed sluggish and just wanting to stay in bed.  Then, in the evening, the brother’s girlfriend went over to give Letha her pills.  This was at about 9:00pm.  As she was leaving, she sensed that Letha didn’t look right at all. She went a few doors down to get Brenda’s older brother, and that’s when they came back in about ten minutes and found Letha having trouble breathing and her lips turning blue.  It’s no doubt that Brenda’s persistence in having people continually check on her mother saved her life, as did the older brother’s girlfriend following through on it and being there to recognize that something had gone completely wrong with Letha. 

So this brings us back to our drive up Interstate 5 around Oceanside.  Some more driving through the night revealed that we were now adjacent to Laguna Niguel.  The rest of the family, that is, all available brothers and sister (singular), sister in law, aunt, uncle, cousin, were all at the hospital already, a mere one hundred and sixty-five miles ahead of us. It’s still a long drive just to get up to Disneyland from there, and we had to get through Los Angeles, over the Grapevine Pass, and up to Bakersfield.  The calls to Brenda were all status quo from this point on.  Her mother was resting in a coma, and everyone was in the lobby awaiting our arrival. 

Something that I realized just at this moment, as we were passing through Laguna Niguel, which is where Interstate 5 pulls inland from the coast, is that during the entire drive from when the 805 joined Interstate 5 to the point we were now at, I had never once been aware that we were driving next to the ocean.  I am a native Californian who is very aware of his surroundings.  Unlike a lot of friends of mine, I have always had a sort of internal map of where I am, and I know the California coast like nobody’s business.  I have surfed and boogie boarded all of my life up and down the coast, and driving up and down Interstate 5 all of my adult life and then some.  But on this night, and for the past sixty miles, I had never been aware that the ocean had been to my left; something that would be so completely unnatural in me.  My and Brenda’s tunnel vision was so extreme, that all I had seen were the white lines on either side of my car in my effort to get Brenda close to her mother. 

I don’t recall even going through Los Angeles at all either.  I know exactly how I did…how I would have, but I have no recollection with the vague exception of passing through the East L.A. Interchange.  I recall only during our time going north, praying to God that Brenda could see her mother alive, and also of how terribly badly I felt for Brenda having to go through almost four hours of driving at the most important time of her life to be by her mom.  It was excruciating for her and for me.  I also felt very guilty for having taken her away from her mother for my family's events at a time she Brenda had sense that something was awry.  And yet, I had told Brenda before she came down to Bubank, “If your mother is so tired or worn out and you have to stay with her, then there is no need for you to come back to Burbank for the visitors and for the wedding. They will understand."  But Brenda had mostly felt that her mother just needed some good rest as well.  And yet, we had heard her labored breathing earlier that day.  All of this kept going through my head, back and forth and we drove the long drive, up and down what I would later realize were the Interstate 5 hills through San Clemente and up the straight Interstate 5 gauntlet through central Orange County, during which I had no orientation.  Would Brenda never see her mother again?  How could she or I ever cope with that knowing now, inversely, that she could have just stayed up there and been with Letha, and perhaps prevented this all from happening? 

The last travel milestone that I recall was that we stopped in Castaic, just before driving up Violin Canyon and into the Grapevine Pass.  I had to stop at a Castaic truck stop because I had needed to pee since we were leaving the wedding venue parking lot in San Diego, and I could hold it no longer.  I told Brenda, “I’m getting out to go to the bathroom and to get a bottle of Coke to stay awake.”  She said, "Okay." Pretty much nothing I said fazed her at this point. 

The next thing that I was aware of, we were sixty more miles north and pulling into the hospital in Bakersfield, right next to the old Crystal Palace, where Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam performed all of their famous concerts.  It was 1:30am; the extra five minutes from the initial navigation calculation had been used at the Pilot Truck Stop in Castaic, CA.  We got out of the Jeep, and I recall kind of stumbling and getting my tie from the wedding off from around my neck and opening up my cream-colored dress shirt a little for comfort as we walked towards the automatic doors of the hospital. 

Everyone was inside the lobby as we had inferred from our phone calls.  Brenda’s older brother, his girlfriend, Brenda’s younger brother, his wife, Brenda’s sister, Brenda’s cousin, and her aunt and uncle.  The word was that Letha was in her induced coma and resting.  Only two people at a time were allowed inside, and the aunt and uncle were presently in there.  Rather quickly, they came out and Brenda and I were allowed to go in as the next pair of visitors.

We walked from the lobby around a corner, through some control doors, and into the emergency unit, where Letha was in her bed, looking pale and lifeless, and hooked up to a respirator.  Her hair was all askew and looked to me as if I could tell that she had been worked on; sort of akin to how a woman’s hair might look after giving birth.  This wasn't how Letha should look.  She should be smiling at us as we walked into her house, television on, and gripping a glass of tea as we say hi and ruffle the fur of her cute Shih Tzu dog, Molly. 

We walked up to the side of her metal hospital bed. Brenda tried to contain her tears.  She stroked her mother’s wrist, her hand, and stroked her hair while she told her mother that she was there for her.  Brenda was so gentle and so caring for her mother, that it broke my heart to have to see Brenda and her mother in this position.  Brenda’s voice was tender as could be, and she leaned in and looked into her mother’s face and she spoke to her about how much she loved her, her voice cracking with sadness all the while.  It’s a situation that one never imagines one finding oneself in, and here was Brenda caressing her unconscious mom’s hands.  I’ve always known that Brenda has a great capacity to care for people; more than most people I’ve met in my life.  It's why I chose her.  And yet, here she was with that gift completely unveiled in front of me for her mother.  I felt very lucky to witness her complete love and utter devotion to her mom.  I loved Brenda greatly in that moment and I was so proud of her that she could be so completely there for her mother in that way.

I remember how my mother was with her mother, my grandmother, when she was dying of cancer in New York.  I wasn't there, but I know by nature how caring my mother was and how she stayed by her side until my grandmother died.  I also thought about how I wasn't completely able to be there emotionally for my mother when she was dying this past February.  I would visit her, touch her, and tell her I loved her.  But I had a guard up in some way to protect myself.  Brenda was purely open and vulnerable with her mother, and I loved, respected, and envied her greatly for that natural ability in her.  I then took a turn and spoke to Letha with Brenda next to me that night and I told her that I was there for her and that I loved her very much, and that we would be there to see her every day. 

Before we left her bedside, Brenda took a ring off of her mother’s left hand that her mother was wearing, and she put it onto her own finger.  She did it in a way as not to wake her, I think, even though she was in a coma; part of Brenda's sensitivity.  We left the room and then sat in the lobby with the rest of the family talking for quite a while, until about 3:30am, and then we all left to get some rest.  Brenda and I stayed at her younger brother’s house, which is near the hospital.  The next day, we visited Letha, now in an upstairs ICU room, and then I went back to San Diego to retrieve a couple of items of value that Brenda had left in the hotel room on our way out.

During the next few days, I saw Letha, still unconscious, and those evenings I asked God and also I prayed to my parents, Marcia and Bill, to help Letha find her way back.  I wanted that for Brenda. 

Without ever having been given a solid diagnosis of what occurred that Friday evening, it looks as if it’s about what we all had deduced; that Letha, over the days of caring for her own mother, had gotten very worn out, not taken her supplemental oxygen nearly enough, had gotten dehydrated, and had passed out.  She already had a constricted throat from her years of smoking, and it all led to the perfect storm of carbon dioxide build up in her blood.  She is lucky to have been checked on and to have survived.

There is more, of course, some family fighting and blaming.  Some behavior that has been inappropriate.  These things often happen because highly emotional situations kick up a lot of family stuff, and it's not much fun.   

The grandmother, as of this date, is not doing well. She continues to have pneumonia and I just don’t know how much longer she will be with us.  She is ninety years old, and is a woman of the dust bowl days in Oklahoma, then transplanted into the San Joaquin Valley farming labor camps, a la John Steinbeck.  These are some hardy women in this family.  But sooner or later, everyone’s time comes.

Brenda’s mom remained unconscious for five days, then started to react with movements when Brenda and her siblings spoke to her.  She gained consciousness within another day or two and is now off of the respirator.  Brenda has slept overnight at the hospital and the rehab facility several times. Letha is awake, walking with therapy, starting to swallow food, and is mostly coherent, thought still a little depressed, I sense, from the entire trauma she went through.  But God heard our prayers, and Brenda is now able to talk and be with her mother again.  And, that makes me very happy.  Brenda was right; Letha just couldn’t go that way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Californian Misadventures of Fran and Shaley

I met them many years ago and it’s been a very long time since I have seen them, so please accept my apologies in advance for my memories being somewhat splotchy. It was around 1999 when they moved into my apartment complex.  I saw a slender five-foot, one-inch, red haired woman carrying a box in, then a blonde girl of the same or slimmer proportions hauling some stuff past me.  They were both attractive with high cheekbones and a polite, folksy manner.  Fran, it would turn out, was a year older than me, and Shaley at this time was fifteen, just about to turn sixteen.

When the second one, the blonde one, passed by my door, I said hello.  I was always a bit hesitant with new people in the building, but they both appeared fun and energetic.  There were a couple of steps up from the pool and common walkway area to the hallway in front of my apartment, and their apartment, it would turn out, was inside the building from mine.  So it was impossible for us not to have crossed paths rather quickly after their arrival.  I thought to myself that I hoped they were moving into the vacant unit near me, and then, with their new door wide open I verified that they were indeed.  I wanted good folks on my end of the hallway. Their three-bedroom unit sat on the corner facing the park, while mine faced the pool on the inside of the complex.  I was paying nine-hundred fifty dollars per month at that time for my one-bedroom, and I knew that their unit went for one thousand seven hundred fifty dollars per month.  Did two women need all of that space?  Maybe they had a lot of clothes and shoes.  Maybe they liked to shop a lot and needed the extra storage.

The next time I saw them was when I was walking into the front gate from a jog I had done, and I noticed them with their small red SUV hatchback open and loading groceries into their apartment bucket-brigade style; Fran, pulling the bags from the vehicle, and Shaley, standing on the balcony, reaching down as far as she could to ground level with all of her might to carry the filled barrel sized paper bags up and into their apartment.  They both seemed to be at their extreme capacity in completing this task, rushing as if some timer would go off and their sliding glass doors would shut permanently.

Upon seeing them this second time, I had several thoughts.  They certainly appeared to work together to accomplish things.  They seemed to like to save time and energy with their grocery assembly line.  And they seemed in some way to be winging it in their lives.  I don’t know what exactly gave me this third impression, but I tend to make very quick assessments of people.  I consider it bad and good.  Bad because I often stick steadfastly to my first impressions, and good because, being that I had to be somewhat street smart as a small child, my first assessments are usually quite accurate. 
Maybe a week later, I was reclining in my apartment unit, enjoying a quiet evening of relaxation and contemplation after a hard week in production, when I began hearing a lot of noise in and around the hall outside of my door.  I peeked out to see many youngsters of sixteen and seventeen entering the unit two doors down; Fran and Shaley’s unit.  It seemed that they were having a party for high school aged kids.  I thought to myself that it must have been some of Shaley’s new friends from the local high school here in the east San Fernando Valley.  It was a wonder how quickly she had made all of these friends, like at least fifty of them, and she must have found a couple of days when her mother, Fran, was out of town in order to have this party.

I spent more time that evening in my unit, having made some delectable spaghetti and warmed sourdough bread while watching my pre-taped and weekly heavily anticipated show, “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser,” when suddenly, like the San Fransicquito Dam walls giving way to unforeseen pressure, I heard by then what had become about sixty kids pouring out of Fran and Shaley’s apartment and into the hallway.  I paused my VHS machine and then opened my door more than a crack out of curiosity.  Sure enough, the whole village of high-schoolers was departing, well actually, was being expelled out by none other than Fran.  She said such assertive things such as, “All right, the party’s over!  Everyone out! Out!” in her extremely syrupy Kentuckian accent; an accent which, by the way, she was very proud of, and she would later proclaim to me, “My accent stops traffic!.”

As the apartment emptied of it’s temporary teenaged citizens, I finally got a good look at Fran as she corralled the last of them down the hallway.  She glanced over to me with the weary look of someone who’s just lost control of all the horses in her barn, and said, “I’ve had it with this party for the night. They were smoking and drinking in there!”  I replied, ”Yeah, it’s probably a good idea to end it then,” as more of a response out of a bit of fear I now felt about her, rather than actual agreement.  I was slightly perplexed. Why had Shaley had a large party so quickly after moving in, and what was Fran doing exactly during that whole time.  Was she mingling with the teens, or was she just laying back in her bed in her own room watching television while all of the proceedings were occurring elsewhere.  Ahh, questions which couldn’t be answered that evening.  But, due to a serendipitous passing of Fran and I in the hall the next day, I did find out that she had allowed Shaley to have the party in an effort to get to know the other students better in her school since she had just joined the high school.  Fran said that it was originally supposed to be Shaley’s sweet sixteen party, but that it had quickly gotten out of hand as high school parties are wont to do.  She said that Shaley had gotten upset with her at the end of the evening because Fran had so quickly shut it down.  Shaley apparently didn’t speak to Fran for the rest of the evening.

Because of their proximity to me in our complex, and because Fran had a big personality, which was always friendly, outgoing, and ready with a new story, I felt drawn to them and I got to know them better.  I love stories and I love people like that.  There was also neighbor of mine, a woman named Rita of about my age with two young children, who had lived right next to me for the past two years.  We were friendly and I would often bring her children plush toys from the Walt Disney Company store since I worked there, but Fran and Shaley quickly became my favorite neighbors.  I say this because it is rare in my experience that I take onto people that quickly.  I usually require a slower getting to know period.  But I just downright liked the two of them.  They were a sort of dynamic duo, and being that they lived on their own, I felt a bit, not only like a friend, but also like a protector of them.  I had relocated from the beach areas about two years prior to be closer to the studio, and now I felt like I had some friends I could count on seeing regularly; people I could take care of.  About a year prior to their moving in, I had gotten into country music.  As it turned out, Fran and Shaley were from a heavily countrified area when it came to music, so we had in common our love of country music stars and songs.

Fran told me that she worked for her sister’s contracting company.  This was not her full sister, but a half sister who was the product of an affair that their father had had at one time.  Fran didn’t enjoy working for the sister, but she made the best of it because the work was her way out here to California and could sustain her in their oversized apartment and L.A. lifestyle.  Her work here involved resurfacing flooring in industrial buildings and markets, often in the middle of the night when the businesses were closed.  I would often see Fran return from one of her work projects very late at night, or early in the morning, looking rough, frazzled and slightly unapproachable with dirty Levi’s and huge steel-toed work boots, shoes that were slightly out of proportion compared to her small stature. In all the time that I knew them, I never got the skinny on why they left Kentucky; I think it was just to have an adventure in California.  But Fran did tell me that Shaley’s father had not been in the picture since she was two years old, and had even gone to start another family, so they were definitely on their own.  I had to guess that their move out here was a way to start anew and have some different experiences, leaving all of the old behind.

When Shaley graduated high school, they asked me to attend the proceedings, which were on the football field.  Fran, her half sister, a few of her sister’s office workers, and a young man that Fran and Shaley knew from back home in Kentucky, named Paul, who had flown out here to watch her graduate.  Shaley was impressed that he had come all of that way to watch her graduate. Paul was sandy blonde, and in good physical shape.  He had just enlisted with the U.S. Military and was about to go to Iraq, and so this was one of his last outings as a civilian.

Fran had purchased two similar styled, yet different colored dresses for each of them to wear on the day of the graduation ceremonies.  They were made of thin, silky material with light flowery patterns; akin to half-length sundresses.  The lengths were midway between their knees and a short skirt line.  Fran said several times jokingly that she thought they both looked like two-dollar hookers.  I took this to mean that Fran felt she hadn’t been able to spend enough money for more elegant dresses.  I told her the truth, “I think your dresses are pretty. You two are gorgeous!”  I had compassion for how Fran must have felt inside to say something like that, and yet, I knew she was free to make jokes even at her own expense.  I liked that about her.  I would soon buy Shaley her prom dress in an effort for Fran not to have to feel that way again.

We all sat in the bleachers and watched under the warm June sunshine as Shaley walked through the graduation line to receive her diploma.  She wore a white tassel and white shoes to distinguish her from the rest of the graduates, where were dressed in the required darker colors.  Afterwards, we were all walking to our cars to then meet up the local El Torito Mexican Restaurant when a young, thin, curly brown-haired boy named Andrew, came up to Shaley to give her congratulations on her matriculation.  He handed her a greeting card, which Shaley tucked away in her tiny purse and gave him a hug.  It was a little awkward because I sensed right away that both Shaley and Fran knew that this boy had a crush on Shaley, and yet, there standing beside her was Paul as part of our party, who also seemed to have eyes for Shaley from back in their history together.  I quickly took a couple of photos of Fran and Shaley in their dresses standing together for posterity, and with that, we went off to get an early dinner.

While at the Mexican restaurant, which was busy with other graduates that evening, the four of us, Fran, Shaley, Paul, and I were huddled at a makeshift arrangement constituted of two small single dining type tables pushed together.  We were also seated smack in the middle of one of the server walkways.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of settings, and yet, we were all present in good cheer.  Paul quickly spilled a carafe of ice water, which mostly missed me, but directed itself immediately onto Shaley’s dress, with a bit of it getting onto Fran’s dress as wall.  Shaley was soaked, and Paul, embarrassed, played it off like it was all part of a good time.  Fran and Shaley took it in stride and just kept smiling and enjoying her evening.  I think that moment is what made me like them so very much.  Neither of them let little things throw them off.  It was probably the way they were both raised in Kentucky, the southern style of rolling with life.  I, on the other hand, am an anxious ball of frenetic neurons.  So I deeply appreciated her good humor in that moment of the dinner, and, as you can imagine, I even more deeply appreciated that it wasn’t me who spilled the water on Shaley and Fran.  During that dinner, Shaley’s cell phone rang.  It was Andrew.  “How did you like my card, Shaley?” he asked.  She said, “Oh, I liked it a lot.”  He probed further, “Did you like what I put inside it?”  At that moment, Shaley, who had been hurriedly digging in her little purse to find pull out the card that she had not actually read yet, discovered that it was not there, and that she had lost it, probably on the walk to the car.  She told him about this new development.  He reacted, “Oh my God, Shaley, I put a crisp new hundred dollar bill in there for you.”  When Shaley relayed this information to the rest of the table, we all thought that he and she were kidding.  But we realized that in his unending infatuation with Shaley, he in fact really had done so as a gift to her, and now, I was sure that there was some very happy graduate or family member who had left the high school ceremony earlier and found Benjamin Franklin’s crisp face staring up at them from a greeting card left on the sidewalk.

One time, in Fran’s understandable ignorance of the fact that even within moderately safe areas of Los Angeles, there are still pockets of dredge and unsafe zones, Fran made an almost fatal error.  After having received a frantic call from Fran’s half-sister at night that the family dog had gotten loose, she and Shaley drove to the southern most end of Glendale and began searching the residential streets of her sister’s home.  They crept along, combing the dark residential roadways in their SUV with windows open surveying left and right every dark corner and bush that they passed.  They came upon a dead end and Fran stopped the SUV to turn it around when three Hispanic gang members charged up to the car, two of them with handguns drawn, asking them who they were and what they were doing in the neighborhood.  Fran and Shaley shrieked with fear and started crying, which fortunately, was enough for the gangsters to know that they were harmless.  Fran never called the police on them.  When Fran told me the story the next day, I quickly taught her that one has to always know where one is in the Los Angeles area.  The change from good neighborhood to bad or violent neighborhood can occur within a block or two.  Her half-sister should have known that and not allowed them to go out searching like they did.  And apparently, the sister had stayed at home, “in case anyone called on the dog tag.”  Boy, thoughtful sister!

Sometime in about the year 2002, I had scheduled a two-week vacation during which I would visit several cities, beginning with Seattle, then Minneapolis, Chicago, Memphis, Nashville, St Louis, as well as a few others.  Just before the trip, I thought it would be fun to go see Fran and Shaley’s town of Shepardsville, Kentucky, and I grabbed a few photos of them in case I saw their relatives; I could prove that I actually knew them.  I knew that Fran had a brother and family in Shepardsville.  We had a common interest in things historical, and he managed some sort of historical society in the area. He and I had once spoken about the subject on the phone will I was at Fran’s apartment.  So, on my travels, I made a quick excursion into Kentucky and drove to Shepardsville, where I found via the local phone book her brother’s house.  I thought I would just ring the doorbell and say hi telling him who I was.  But amiably, he and his wife invited me in and we talked a while. I presented some photos I had of Fran and Shaley, two of which had been the graduation photos I had taken.  This family was very welcoming to me.

After leaving their home, which had been in the local suburbs, maybe ten minutes outside of downtown Shepardsville, I drove back into town and found an Applebee’s Restaurant.  I thought it would be funny to tell Fran where I was.  I found a payphone since my cell didn’t have service there, and Fran picked up.  “Hi Fran, it’s me, Fred.”  She was surprised. “How’s your trip going, Fred?” she asked.  I said, “It’s been great.  There’s so much to see out here.”  She replied, “Oh, wonderful, Fred.  Well, we miss you.”  That’s nice of her to day, I thought to myself.  “I miss you too!  It’s cold here,” I bated her.  She asked, “Where’s here?”  I said, “Shepardsville, Kentucky.”  Silence.  “You’re where??”  I repeated my location, “Shepardsville, Kentucky.”   “Well, what are you doing there?”  I said, “I just wanted to see your home town.”  She said something about how tiny and underdeveloped it probably looked to me. I said, “It looks like a nice town.  I just met Johnny and Kimberlina" (her brother and sister in law).  Again, “What??  Are you kidding me?” she still couldn’t believe it.  I said, “No, I just looked them up and went over.  They were really nice to me.  I showed them some photos I had of you.”  Silence again. “Which one’s?”  I said, “The one of us by the pool railing, and the two pics of you at the graduation.”  She exclaimed, “What???  The pictures of us in our two-dollar hooker dresses?”  “Fran,” I reminded her, “You two looked very pretty that afternoon in your dresses.”  I had also brought them because they were very recent photos of both of them.  She never forgave me for bringing those specific photos.  I’m sure it was a bit odd for them all, but I thought it would be a different way of bringing them to each other.  I had just been with Fran and Shaley two days before, and now I was with her brother and sister in law.  It was kind of a cool thing, for me at least.

Fran met my parents twice.  Once when they were dropping me off at my complex, and the other time, I invited Fran to a family dinner in Studio City at Teru Sushi Restaurant.  She and I first went to my parents’ house, and then we all regrouped at the restaurant.  Both of my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousin and his new girlfriend and his daughter were all there.  It was a fun evening helped along by the fact that Fran was her talkative self, and so was my family.  My parents loved her.  My parents loved people who were from smaller towns and were not a part of the city chaos.  They loved stories about families, people, and different ways of life.  We all had a nice time with this mixture of people from Studio City, Beverly Hills, Kentucky, Northern California and Denmark. 
Fran and I often had long conversations in the hallways and inside my unit.  One night, we were talking at my door when a blonde woman, Michelle, who lived in the apartment just around the corner and adjacent to Fran and Shaley, came around the corner with her dog, Mayer, a mixed little black thing that looked like it had at least some terrier in it.  Upon seeing Michelle, Fran hissed at her, putting her hands up like claws.  Michelle abruptly stopped, and without saying anything, turned around with her dog and went the other way.  I asked Fran, “What the hell was that?”  She said, “I hate that woman.  She always gives me dirty looks whenever I’m going through the hall.”  I thought to myself, I don’t know what that’s all about, but whatever. I won’t ask any more about it.  And then we continued talking about other things.  But it was one of the funnier things I ever witnessed in my life.

Another time, our complex had a fire alarm go off at about 3:30am.  The alarms in that building were both outside of the units as well as inside.  This meant that with their excruciating decibel levels, there was no way one could stay inside and endure it, always resulting in clusters of people congregated near the bottom of the stairs.  This occurrence was no exception.  And next to me happened to be Rita from next door with her two children, Fran and Shaley, and Michelle.  Michelle, knowing better of it, kept some distance between herself and Fran.  But in the early morning hours, as dulled as my perception would be at that time, I sensed that no one was talking to each other.  It was an inconvenience to be out there in pajamas and the woman having no make up at that hour, I get it.  But it seemed that a minimum of neighborly acknowledgement was appropriate, and yet, it was a cold feeling among us.  We were eventually cleared to go back into our homes by the fire department.

The next day, Fran happened to stop by my unit, and in catching up on the day’s events, she recalled the evening before, asking me if I had sensed some frigidity in the air.  I said, yes indeed that I had.  She said she could explain it.  Rita, who had known me before Fran moved in, really liked me a lot.  She had told Fran this upon first meeting her, before Rita knew that Fran would become good friends with me.  The passing of that information, apparently, had been Rita’s indirect attempt at letting Fran know, hands off me.  Fran also sensed that Michelle felt the same way about me as well.  Fran said that since she and I had hit it off so well, that she had gotten the cold shoulder from both of those neighbors, Rita and Michelle.  “Oh, so that explains it!”  I realized.  Strange, because Rita had never given me the direct feeling that she was interest in me, but that may have been the way of her personality.  She probably appreciated that I had always been nice to her kids, giving them plush toys during Christmases and on their birthdays.  Inversely, I did have the sense that Michelle had intermittent feelings for me.  We had hung out a lot before Fran and Shaley had moved into the complex.  Michelle and I used to sit in my apartment, drink beer and binge-watch episodes of, “Sex in the City” together from DVD boxes I had collected from the library.  When Fran moved in and we got to know each other, all of the other stuff stopped with Rita and Michelle, other than friendly hellos.  So I might have also been part of the tension as a result of my change of behavior.  But there was no comparison for me.  Fran was just so fun and full of life.  I wanted to spend time with her over any of my other neighbors and friends.  And as we got to know each other, Fran had gotten a bit territorial about me in all of this, but I honestly didn’t mind, because as I said, I enjoyed Fran’s company and felt closest to her.  I remember feeling the same way when I went to the laundry room one time to find a well built, athletic guy from one of the other apartment units flirting with my Fran.  It pissed me off.  “Stay the hell away from her!” I felt like saying.  So there was definitely a mutual feeling that had grown between us with some sort of belonging to one-another.

I deliberately made myself available for Fran and Shaley.  One evening I had just gotten off of work, and I had turned my cell phone off.  When I turned it back on, I discovered a recent a message left maybe forty-five minutes before from Fran who was sobbing.  She said that their little white Chihuahua, Widget, had gotten very ill and she needed to take him to the emergency hospital.  She had mentioned one in Glendale near Interstate 5, which I had never heard of and didn’t know of its location.  I felt that whatever was going on, the call was really about Fran not wanting to be alone and that she was scared to lose her dog.  I wouldn’t let her be alone.  After some quick searching the phone book, I located the animal hospital, and with Fran’s cell going directly to voice mail, I ripped my sapphire blue Mustang across the 134 freeway and down Interstate 5 directly to the clinic.  When I arrived, Nan was nowhere to be found.  Just as I was about to leave, my phone rang and it was Fran.  She said that she had made it there to the hospital about a half hour before and that Widget was now okay.  I was relieved for her, and in my heart, the real lesson from all of the rushing and speeding and wanting get to Fran, was that I loved both her and Shaley.  I cared for them like family.  I really would do anything for them.  Fran confided in me one time that she and Shaley had a joking rivalry about me.  When Shaley took note that Fran and I had become good friends, Shaley said to her pointedly, “I saw him first!”  She was just a girl then, but still, that was a sweet thing to say.  There was a time when Fran was over at my house and while we were talking, she started to feel very badly.  She made a run for my bathroom, where she threw up.  I held her hair and got water for her.  There was also a time when Shaley first found out that her boyfriend had started cheating on her.  She came to my apartment, sobbing inconsolably on my couch.  I had pulled the coffee table so that I could sit directly across from her and could be as present as I could for her.  Her eyes were red with tears and when I gave her a nose tissue, I saw that she had been crying and blowing so hard that her nose was bleeding a little.  I felt so badly for her, and I felt lucky to be the person to be sitting with her as she went through this.  She wasn’t alone.

I had the lapse of good sense once while they were living in my complex to consider moving somewhere in another part of our same city.  I looked at an apartment that was about two hundred dollars per month less and was considering taking it.  Then I thought to myself, is it worth two hundred dollars to be away from the two people I so much enjoy being around?  No.  I told the owner when he called me at Disney during lunch one day to collect his deposit and first month’s rent, “No, not interested anymore!”  It was a stupid thought to try to save money and give up neighbors who felt like family.  I’m glad to this day that I made that decision.  Because things don’t always last forever, and I wanted as much of them for as long as was possible.

As a sort of humorous and inexplicable example of how we were on the same wavelength, I was driving back from Disney one evening, and as a form of self-entertainment I suppose, I was saying the Sylvester the Cat dialogue out loud, “I taught I taw a puttie tat!  “I taught I taw a puttie tat!”  I must have said this five or six times while driving up a street towards my complex, trying to perfect my Mel Blanc impression.  I parked my car, walked up the stairs from the garage, and sitting against my door is a little gift bag from Shaley, who had gone to an amusement park that day.  I opened up the bag and there inside it was a plastic Tweedy Bird cup.  The hair stood up on my head.  How could that have happened?  It’s more than a coincidence!  I had somehow known with my spirit that something of Looney Tunes essence was in my immediate future.  And the three of us were somehow of the same mind.

Like Fran, Shaley could make me laugh with her basic instinct about things.  I had a friend at that time, a sort of scientist type, who though he was a genius, had a very flat affect in his speech.  He didn’t really have an exciting personality to girls at face value. I was talking to this friend in my apartment, when Shaley knocked on my door for something.  I let her in, and as a kind of prank, I just handed her the phone and said, “Say hi to my friend,” thinking to myself, this will be interesting because the friend on the phone is not the most improvising of souls.  Shaley got on and said, “Hi, this is Shaley.”  I was standing there, and there was absolute silence.  I assumed that he was saying something to her.  Just then, she handed me the phone and said, “Well, no conversation here!” and continued on into my living room to get whatever she had come for.  I took the phone back, trying to hold the laughter inside of how she has just assessed both my friend’s affect and success with girls with such preciseness.

Sometime later, Shaley got a new boyfriend who I really didn’t like very much.  Was it the surrogate father in me? He lived in the area, and they had met by accident in our complex.  I sensed that he just wanted to use her, and also that his family was manipulative towards her.  The boyfriend wanted to see her when he wanted to see her, and then made her wait until he wanted to spend time with her again.  He also cheated on Shaley, which he admitted to her; I refer you to the sobbing episode on my couch noted earlier.  Sometime in there, Shaley, who had experienced no religious inclinations at all up to this point, decided to convert her religion from the Southern Christian faith of her family’s heritage, to Mormonism.  Now, I have nothing against Mormonism.  I was raised Jewish by my adoptive parents, and before my adoption I had been lightly brought up Roman Catholic, but was never baptized.  But in all of this, I was never raised with a lot of religion in my life and have never been die-hard about any one faith, other than that one should treat people well and equally.  I would have had the same concern if she had said that she was converting to Judaism or to Catholicism so seemingly quickly, and so I had no dogs in this fight.  But it felt like the boyfriend and his parents pressured her to change her religion, partly to be more similar to them, and partly on some idea that Shaley's mother, Fran, somehow hadn’t brought her up right or done a good enough job, which was not at all true.  To me, something about the decision to convert felt undermining.  And I also didn’t feel comfortable that Shaley was considering doing this with what seemed like nil forethought at age twenty.  When I asked her why she was considering it, she said that she liked the religion, but she didn’t give me any specifics as to why she was drawn to it.  For that reason, I felt that it was something rash and impulsive motivated by the appeasement of her boyfriend’s family.  The bottom line was that it didn’t sit well with me.  And yet, Fran didn't seem to have any problem with it Shaley's choice to do this.  This stumped me, and yet, looking back, I should have not given any of it another thought since, ultimately, it was none of my business.

But, in fact, this opened up a short-lived rift between Fran and I.  Fran called me one Wednesday evening and asked me if I would go to Shaley’s Mormon confirmation the coming Saturday.  I said, “This Saturday?”  She said yes.  The problem was that my girlfriend, who I was getting closer to as time had gone on, had her birthday the same Saturday.  I told her that it was not possible since I had made plans for my girlfriend’s birthday during the daytime followed by a dinner.  I told her that if I had known about it sooner, I am sure my girlfriend would have understood and we could have had her birthday another day, but that it was just too short notice now.  Fran seemed to understand.  But then two days later, I received a note on my door, just kind of taped together in a wad without an envelope.  The note was handwritten by Fran and said something on the order of how I had disappointed Shaley, that I was like a father figure to her, and that the lesson from my being unable to attend the confirmation, still a day away, was that Shaley couldn’t count on any man in her life.  It was really kind of a load of heavy emotional accusations, which I felt to be untrue.  Both Fran and Shaley could always count on me.

I called Shaley up and asked her if she was upset, and she said she wasn’t at all.  That her mom had decided to invite me.  I told Shaley that I was sure that if it had been really important for me be there, that I thought she would have invited me herself, and sooner, to make sure that there were no plans on that day for me. She said she totally understood and that it was my girlfriend’s birthday and that she didn’t feel hurt at all.  I then called Fran and asked her why she had written the note instead of talking to me about it all.  She said that she had done it impulsively.  I got angry with her and yelled at her on the phone, telling her that a friend shouldn’t put another friend in a corner like that.  And if they had wanted me to come, they should have invited me sooner.  Fran cried on the phone.  Afterwards and ever since, I have felt bad about that conversation because I feel that I shouldn’t have responded to her letter with anger, but rather, with understanding.  And I should have calmly explained to her why I didn’t think that the content was fitting to write to me in the way that she did.  But I felt hurt because I had indeed happily done so much for them and to read what she had written made me feel like I hadn’t been appreciated at all.  At the same time, another reason I wished that I hadn’t gotten angry is that, I believe that for Fran, the note was really about my choosing to spend time with my girlfriend over them, and that as my relationship with my girlfriend was strengthening, it meant to her that there would be less room for them in my life.  That perception and resulting disappointment must have been very painful for her, and I was insensitive in those moments.  The truth is, that would always be a place for Fran and Shaley in my life, no matter what, and my girlfriend has always known and been okay with this.

Though Fran and I had discussions about it later, and Fran passed off the whole argument that we had as being in the past and not of importance anymore, she became more distant and reclusive in her apartment.  She didn’t want to go out as much anymore.  Shaley and I continued to interact and I would help her when she needed something.  I once left the Disney Studios at lunch, drove Shaley, who didn’t have a car at that time, down to her boyfriend’s university in Orange County, and then made it back to Disney only a half hour late, which I had already arranged with my production manager, so there was no problem.  Another time, my girlfriend and I were just leaving Manhattan Beach on a late Saturday afternoon, when Shaley called me and said that she and her boyfriend had just had a terrible argument.  She was again way down at his university and asked if I could pick her up.  I checked with my girlfriend, and we agreed to go down and get her.  We arrived some forty minutes later and parked outside the student housing of her boyfriend.  I called Shaley’s cell phone.  She picked up and said that they were just finishing their discussion and that she would be out in just a minute.  Tens of minutes went by, and I called again. Same thing.  A third time. Same thing.  It was now an hour later, and my girlfriend was beginning to get upset for agreeing to come down to Irvine when Shaley didn’t seem serious about leaving.  I finally called one last time and told Shaley that my girlfriend and I needed to leave.  Shaley said she was really sorry, and to let my girlfriend know that she was sorry that she had wasted our time.  Shaley stayed there and we left, and that sort of changed things with Shaley and I.  She seemed a little irreverent and maybe confused at that point in her life. 
But as a little more time went on, a few more things happened.  Fran and Shaley stopped getting along with each other in their California adventure.  Fran didn’t like her half-sister, or the work that she was doing and just stayed at home.  I could sense that Fran really didn’t like being out here in her California anymore, and that staying in her apartment and watching television in her pajamas was more to her taste than going out into the city and getting together with people.  She missed her home and her family in Kentucky.  Shaley, after graduating, never got a job while with her mother, and instead, stayed at home all day, rarely doing chores either, waiting for the opportunities to see her boyfriend at his university an hour away.  This lasted for a good year.  Fran got fed up with everything.  And I also felt that she saw me as someone who had failed her in some way.  She wanted something more with me rather than being only friends, though we never went beyond the friends boundary other than friendly kisses goodbye.  During this time, I was driving out of the subterranean garage with my girlfriend, passing the elevator, and we saw Fran coming back from throwing her trash out.  She had pajamas on and a short t-shirt.  She looked defeated, tired, and ready to give up.  She was cordial to us, but I could tell that her California adventure looked about done.  Such a shame because this was a very special woman.

To my complete surprise, one day Shaley called me and said that her mother had left.  “What do you mean, she left, Shaley?” I asked in almost utter confusion.  She said, “I mean, she just left me. She’s gone back to Kentucky.”  I asked her, “So what does that mean for you? Did you guys pay like six months’ rent for you to stay here or something?”  She said, “I’ve got one month left here since this month is ending, because there’s the deposit.”  “Oh crap,” I said to myself, realizing that she was not understanding her situation. “No you don’t,” I told her,  “The deposit has nothing to do with rent.  It’s just held for damages.  It can't be used for last month's rent.”   Fran, in being ready to leave her California adventure, had given Shaley the choice to either come home to Kentucky with her, or to stay and start her own life independently.  Shaley chose to stay…alone in their apartment with her mom gone, without really understanding how rent and lease terms work.  And sure enough, Shaley received on her door on the fifth day a pay or quit notice, then on the seventh day she received an unlawful detainer notice, followed by the Sheriff’s department asking her to leave on the fifteenth day.  They gave her four hours to get out.

The complex manager agreed to hold a few things for her until she could get them out including a huge, wood framed mirror, I recall.  But there was no way, other than a bed and a few other things, that Shaley would be able to move all of the contents of the apartment.  My girlfriend and I went with Shaley and her boyfriend, caravanning in tow, and we drove around looking for storage facilities for her to put whatever furniture she could in from the apartment.  I co-signed for the storage facility, and Shaley was able to get someone to move a few of her things to the storage unit.  She then moved in with the boyfriend’s family for a few months, then in with a family from her church.  After that, we lost touch.

Relationships are an interesting creature.  They can fit two people’s lives well at one point, and then they can be outgrown later.  It just depends on the people and the circumstances.  I think Fran and Shaley worked well together when Shaley was younger and needed a parent close to her.  And Fran wanted to have a fun adventure with her out west.  But because Fran’s dreams of being in California, whatever they were, resulted in a lack of fulfillment for her, and also because Shaley grew up and I suppose wanted something different from her mother, they no longer needed the same things from each other or for their lives.  Fran wanted Kentucky again, and Shaley had become used to Southern California and wanted to stay. And for better or for worse, that’s just the way it happened.  Life is messy, isn't it.  But when I think of the times we had together as close neighbors and friends, well, that was definitely a sweet spot, and I enjoyed it thoroughly!  Just as a sort of emotional tribute, I went back and walked by their old apartment just the other day while writing this piece to see how being near their door would make me feel.  It made me feel sad…happy…thankful.  Mostly happy and thankful for having known them. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Casey's Tavern

It’s been a long time since I came to see him play.  He gets together with a bunch of guys every Thursday evening at the same place, still, after all of these years.  The last time I saw him, he was playing piano at the Bel Air Hotel, where my parents, Brenda and I had a nice dinner and watched him run through all of the standards with his Louisiana style of playing.  Lloyd Hebert is from Baton Rouge, and he has a slightly hard-hitting, sometimes brash attack in the keys.  His voice is precisely the same; a hard Louisiana accent with a kind of aggressive cadence.  I am always expecting him to talk about catching shrimp or motoring through the bayou.  Yet, in his melodic piano playing, he has all color hues and subtlety of a watercolor painting.  He passes through and even makes an issue at times of major 7th notes in his playing, which gives his improvisations a layer of melancholy.  I’ve always loved that.  It speaks to me. 

I first met Lloyd at U.S.C.  I had studied piano with different teachers outside of the school intermittently, and now back in the U.S.C. dorms, one of my dorm mates, who seemed to always be attached to a small Casio type keyboard he was carrying with him, did a little jazz-blues run in front of me.  I asked him to do it again. When he did, I told him to please reveal to me where he had learned this. 

“I’m taking a Jazz Performance Piano course here for a couple of extra credits.”  I asked, “You’re not in the School of Music here, so anyone can take this?”  “Yeah, I believe so,” he answered.

The very next day I went down to the music school asking how I could add on this music performance course.  It ended up being an easy addition and I arrived at my first music lesson with the then head of the jazz piano division of the music school.  Lloyd introduced himself to me and immediately asked me to sit down at his piano and play a little for me.

Right away, I sense that he was a gentle, encouraging man.  He liked what I played for him (“Misty,” or one of the standards I had learned).  I had endured one terrible piano teacher when I was in grade school, and then, through an older neighboring kid on my block I stumbled upon a much nicer piano teacher in middle school.  They were both classically trained, but since by the time I worked with the second instructor, I was more desirous of learning popular tunes, such as “Grease,” and “The Star Wars Theme,” on the piano, that’s where my focus landed.  I should add that those were very simplified versions of the songs, so I never really did Frankie Valli or John Williams any justice. 

But this new instructor for me at U.S.C, Lloyd, was dynamic right away.  An accomplished jazz musician, he taught both theory and jazz voicing’s in a way that I had never experienced.  I continued my lessons with him throughout my time at U.S.C, and then once I graduated, I took lessons from him at his house.  He lived in a modest house in Burbank with his wife.  In front were a living room with a television, a kitchen, and then two bedrooms.  Beyond that in the back of his home was a recessed area where he had his music studio.  A medium sized grand piano, his horns (he was also a trombone player), and lots of sheet music everywhere like a mad scientist in a music lab.

Sometime near the beginning of my career at the Walt Disney Company during, “Boy Meets World,” I stopped taking lessons simply due to the time that had narrowed in my life with a busy production schedule.  And yet, I would go see him play with his quartet at, Jax, in Glendale, and at various other locations around town.  But once my parents began to get ill around 2006, even my visits to his shows curtailed.

So tonight, after so many months and years of thinking to myself, “I need to go see Lloyd play,” I go to the spot where he has had a standing gig for all of the time that I’ve known him.  His group at this venue is usually more of a Dixieland band. Or at least it was the last time I visited this weight station out in the west San Fernando Valley. 

I find the last parking spot along the busy street where the meters don’t need to be fed after 6:00pm.  I make sure there is nothing sitting in the seats in my SUV that might look like something worth stealing.  Casey’s Tavern is on a busy, somewhat grimy part of Sherman Way in Canoga Park, CA. This section of the boulevard is made up of small, old business buildings; stores that might have once been nail salons and the like, but many of which are not visible from the outside, or are closed and locked, and not identifiable in the evening. 

I ask myself a question I remember asking myself the other time that I saw him here.  “Does he really like playing here?  I just can’t imagine him driving from Burbank all the way across the valley floor to this area where I wouldn’t be surprised to see a street-walker or a biker fight.”  Then my alter ego, the more level headed, less fearful, non-snooty one, the ego that appreciates people and art and the fabric of the city retorts, “How is it that I can be so superficial about these things sometimes?  What does it matter where the club is located?  All that matters is that people are getting together and making something great happen. Music. And it happens to be here.  Big deal where it is!” 

I walk down the sidewalk westward towards Casey’s, and on the way I pass an all night make shift billiard hall, again probably created from two smaller former stores with a wall removed.  I get to Casey’s, the front of which is just a tan and brown themed wood and stucco wall from the front with an old “Casey’s Tavern,” sign steadfastly protruding from the roof’s eve.  No windows facing the street.  But I can hear the thudded bass of amplified sound from inside.  “That’s the band, Lloyd is in there playing!” I tell myself. I’m excited. I’ll bet he’ll be surprised to see me. 

I enter into the club.  It’s set up differently than last time.  The club is shaped like a shoebox with an “L” near the doorway.  Eight years ago when I visited, the seating was such that people sat in the “L,” and the band was in the center of the place.  This made it difficult to see the players for some of us who were seated at the very outreaches of the “L,” because there was a wall between ourselves and the band.  But now, it is the opposite.  As I let the wooden door close behind me, the musicians are immediately to my right, and I cross along their side to get to the seating area, which is towards the back of the club adjacent to the bar.  

Right away a bar tender comes to my tall table and asks me what I’ll have.  “A Coke.”  I don’t drink and drive, so it’s always a Coke unless I can walk or take a cab. It’s a much easier rule to follow than trying to gage how much alcohol could be in my system, given the time I’ve been somewhere, eating, etc.  And tonight, I’m about fourteen miles from my doorstep.  So I’m drinking a lot of Coke tonight.

I’m seated in a good spot only about mid way back in the place, but in front of me are low tables, so mine is the first tall table in line of sight to the band.  I finally focus on the musicians.  Lloyd is sitting on a stool holding a trombone near the piano with tan Khakis, a short sleeved print shirt with soft purple colors, and he’s wearing silver rimmed glasses.  A young man with a Hawaiian shirt, probably his son who I recall played piano as well, is vamping on the piano.  There is the bass player who I recognize as being a part of their band for a long time, a drummer, a jazz blues guitarist, and then an old, short, plump man also sitting on a stool in front of the band.  This man has a trumpet in his hand and seems to have taken the position that Jack Sheldon used to at his own shows; that is, trumpeter and emcee with a few jokes thrown in here and there.  This man’s solos are not as virtuosic as Sheldon’s, and his puns not as edgy, but he fills the role well enough.

I will insert here that I was once at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, and I hit a great night when Jack Sheldon and his band had Ross Tompkins sitting in with them.  They were musically effusive that evening.  They ended the show with Jack singing, “What a Wonderful World,” with only Ross Tompkins accompanying him.  The rest of the band stayed silent. I left there that night with my hair standing on top of my head in disbelief of what I had just witnessed. 

Tonight at Casey’s, the band is playing, “Summertime,” and the players have a jazz sound to them.  As they finish this tune and another song begins, I realize that they have generally dropped their “Dixieland only” status, that was so much a part of their identity at this venue, and they do more of a mix of jazz with a little Dixieland thrown in.  I prefer this because I am less partial to Dixieland and more to jazz.  In fact, it was exactly the last time those eight years ago that I was at this club with my girlfriend Brenda during which Lloyd, as he was heading the band that night, said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard him say.  They were playing all Dixieland that night, and Lloyd and another player were throwing in some thirteenth notes and such, and one of the band members complained that they were getting away from Dixieland by doing that, to which Lloyd replied, “Oh Hank, you can never take a little discord, can you?”

I laughed inside hard that time, because it’s so true; true for me.  Dixieland is a much more, how would you say it, “fixed” way of playing than jazz.  There is not only less improvisation if any in Dixieland, but also, the notes are more “on the nose” if you will.  I liken Dixieland to Ragtime.  The notes are there and you play them.  They are often intricate and weave in and out of each other, but they are played straight on and pretty much straight as written. 

Jazz music allows for a lot more variation in melody, chords, and timing.  If you take a jazz standard like, “Meditation,” or, “I Love You,” the performers will play the melody over the basic chords for the piece, but then the players will add in more complex voicing’s to the chords, eliminate some of the roots (because, for instance, the bass will have the root and other basic notes in the chord covered), and even fifths or thirds will be eliminated to allow drop in’s of seconds, sevenths, ninths, eleventh’s and thirteenths.  All of this, plus the player who is carrying the melody will improvise and contort the tune’s melody.  Well, all of it makes for a wonderful soup of emotion that is created the instant that you are experiencing it; something that is really glorious when you realize what is happening. 

So, without any intent to make Dixieland extinct at all, I am glad that they are more jazz oriented nowadays at Casey’s.

As I look closer at Lloyd, I can see that he is much more frail than he used to be.  He is thin, appears more brittle, and he’s not quite in charge of the band like he used to be.  The trumpeter in front calls out song ideas to Lloyd, who then chooses from amongst them.  Lloyd moves from trombone to piano. His playing is still there, perfectly timed, but it’s slightly more faint.  Is it because they don’t have him mic’d as well tonight?  No, I think it’s because he’s slowed down a bit.  In fact, I can see that all of the guys in the band are older now, and that the ensemble as a whole is fainter in their playing; less energetic, less attack in their solos.  But all the same, I love being here because I love the sound of live jazz.

The intermission comes at about 9:00pm, and the musicians take a break.  I look around the mostly wood walls that have mirrors and old advertisements on them.  The room is pretty full, and people are now milling about. At the tables in front of me, there are people of mature age, some of whom I have to assume know some of the band members.  They sip glasses of wine and dress in a lot of white clothing; a definite indication of their retired, relaxed years I suppose. 

The bar is filled with a mixture of people, several of whom are turned around in their stools who came to see the show, and probably several locals who just like to come in, have a drink on a Thursday night, and hear some music.  The music may be more of a background accessory for them.

I turn to my right, which is towards the back of the room, and there is a tall table like mine with a young couple; a white young man with a Latina woman.  They look like it might be one of their first dates together because they are keeping pretty tightly to themselves as if to keep reminding themselves, “We’re on a date, and we’re drinking drinks, and we’re watching music.”  Something lacking in their fluidity, but they seem like they’re enjoying being with each other.

At table back from them is a quartet of three guys, also in their twenties, and a gorgeous, lively, young brunette with a casual black top and white shorts.  My peripheral vision picks up that this girl has stellar legs.  I need not look any further to verify this.  No wonder all three guys seem to be happy to be sitting at that table!

Now Lloyd happens to walk towards me.  Oh good.  He probably just noticed that I am here tonight and wants to say hi.  But as he walks, his directionless eyes reveal to me that he is just moving through the room, and I happen to be in his path.  He gets near my table.

“Hi Lloyd,” I say.
“Oh, hello.”
“How are you doing?”  I figure that in a few words, he’ll realize who I am.
“Good.  Say, what’s your name?”
“I’m Fred.  Fred Herrman.”  He seems stumped. “We recorded one of the songs on my album at Curt’s house in Burbank.  You were my music instructor at U.S.C.”
“Oh, I don’t seem remember Curt.”  He gives a kind of shug of his shoulders, an indication of, “How can everybody remember every name that they come across in life?” 

Lloyd knew Curt for a lot of years in the professional musician’s circle.  And then with a moment or two of additional thought, I realize that he really doesn’t remember who I am. 
“Well, I’m really enjoying your set tonight,” I tell him.
“Oh that’s great.”  And then he stiffly leans into me, as if confidentially, “Listen, I have to get over to that bathroom before I run out of time.”
“Haha, of course! Okay Lloyd.  It was great to see you.” And he walks to the back where the bathrooms are located.

I feel sad now.  How did eight years make him forget who I am?  He was so patient with me all of the years that he sat with me explaining why you would overlay a flat five with a diminished arpeggio, or a flat nine with an augmented arpeggio.  Lloyd showed me that implication is important in music.  That when stand close to a painting, you can see that there are swaths of colors that the painter has put down; shapes, lights and darks.  Then, when you stand back from the painting, you see that these lights, colors and shapes show you leaves and mountains and reflections in water.  He said it's the same with music.  You don’t have to put down every little note that you want to convey, but rather, you can imply ideas through your choices for the listener.   

He also told me how you have to play from the feelings that you experience throughout your life.  That when you hear a really good player, it’s because you are hearing their life reflected in their playing.  You hear the joys of their love, and their heartbreaks that tore at their souls.  And likewise, when Lloyd would play for me, “Green Dolphin Street,” or “I’ll Remember April,” I swear that I could hear his own childhood, maybe the longing for the simple days in Baton Rouge, in his improvised melodies.  I could hear the girl that he likely experienced a summer with, but who got away, and of whom he always wondered, within the key voicing’s he chose in his playing.  And I could hear his the love and security of the life he made with his wife in how he gently raised his ending of a song a half tone up, then to the four, then resolved into the original key. All of those kinds of nuances that told deep stories and were just further proof of his philosophy that dictated, “Go and live some life first and get your heart broken; and then you can come back and give people something to hear about in your playing.

I love this man, and I love what he gave to me.  His time, his passion, and his caring.  And it makes me sad to see that he is fading. 

But I will look at it like this.  I have an appreciation of music from the people who have taught me to listen, such as Lloyd Hebert.  Understanding both the feeling and the mechanics of music enhances my enjoyment greatly of it.  And Lloyd is responsible for a lot of that.  He’s gotten older, and that’s just part of life, and in that way, a part of what he's been playing about.  The old Lloyd too will assuredly work into someone’s music somewhere; maybe his son’s, maybe mine someday. The music that he plays with his band seems to keep him going and active, so God bless him for keeping on.  He doesn’t have to remember me.  I’ll keep visiting him at Casey’s and will be a part of his music.  I’ll remember April, and Lloyd.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Minding the Gap

I’m always perplexed at how some people get to know movie stars and other forms of celebrities with ease.  I’ve never had the schmoozing gene in my body, so that kind of thing doesn’t easily fall into my lap, though I can flash a great smile.  I see my share of well-knows around town since I live in the Los Angeles area.  But now and again, I’ll hear from someone that they met and spoke at length with a star at a party or event, and somehow it comes so easy to them.  I think that as much as I hate to admit it, even though I grew up in Studio City (or maybe because of it), I am a star struck guy, and I still get a little nervous around well known people.  That frame of mind puts a distance, a sort of emotional gap, between myself and someone who has been on television, or in a movie, or in the media for some reason.  They’re not just a normal person to me. 

And I think I have a point there.  They are really not normal.  They are outstanding in some way, or I wouldn’t be familiar with them.  They got to their position or status through a lot of hard work, self-determination, confidence and some luck, and I’m always impressed with people who get themselves through years of fire like that.

I was recently talking with a woman who had stayed with a man who was the head of a huge industrial company.  I won’t name his name, but the person is very well known in our society.  It knocked my socks off when she told me this.  And this woman became friends with him, traveled with him, even lived with him, and to her, it’s just like another person who had a lot of responsibility in his life at one time and was noteworthy for sure, but it wasn’t such a big deal to her.  And yet it amazed me that she even knew him at all. 

Back when one of my favorite musicians was still alive, an acquaintance of mine happened to be at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and met him.  Now, I had met my bass playing idol, John Entwistle several times through my life I’m happy to report.  But this guy I knew ended up sitting at one of those tall two-seater lounge tables, drinking and smoking with Entwistle and talking for forty five minutes.  What the hell?  How did that happen? 

There is still something about a person, a celebrity, who seems normal enough and who I might see at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s in the evening.  And yet there's a good chance that they probably just walked off of a sound stage a few hours earlier, or that they were running a giant financial corporation or media company during the day.  This juxtaposition still puts me off balance. 

Two weeks ago on a Saturday, my girlfriend and I were walking on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when none other than freaking Hilary Swank walks next to us coming out of The Gap.  My girlfriend said hello and told her how much she liked, “Million Dollar Baby.”  It was humbling for me to see her in her black cut off shorts and a casual teal colored top kicking in on a weekend, and yet, knowing that she was in those two stellar movies, “Boys Don’t Cry,” and that mentioned above.  Whew!  It just blew me away!  

My favorite celebrity story happened right here in Burbank. I had a friend in from out of town (from Spain...so way out of town), and after seeing the sights around L.A. that night, we ended up at Bob's Big Boy for a late night malt.  We had just sat down in our assigned table, which had a low divider separating the small gap between the neighboring booth and ours, when my friend said that she would love to see a celebrity while she was in town.  Literally just as she was saying these words, from around her back came someone with a light tan safari jacket and a baseball hat.  He came around and sat down across the divider next to us.  It was Rob Lowe.  He had probably just finished shooting, "The West Wing," at Warners for the night and was meeting a buddy.  My friend didn't notice him as she was finishing her thoughts in her broken English.  I pointed with my finger under the level of the divider and she looked over at the man next to us, then looked back at me as if needing verification from me that it could actually be him.  My smile back gave her the answer and her olive skinned face turned a deep crimson.  "Haha!" I thought.  "Do I deliver or what?"