By John Yager
This is the forty-eighth chapter of an ongoing series. This chapter continues the narrative of Rob Ballinger's life after his graduation from the University of Mississippi in 1972.
Thanks again for all your comments on this series. I always appreciate hearing from you and try to answer all messages promptly. If I am slow at times it is only because of the pressure of work or my somewhat demanding travel schedule.
Andrew has continued to give much needed proofing and editorial help, for which I am sincerely grateful. I could not post chapters as quickly as I've been doing without his invaluable assistance.
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"Rob, babe," Dexter Cohen boomed as I entered into his office. I'd been shown in by his personal assistant who`d first called in on the intercom to let him know I`d arrived. She was a lady in her fifties who looked like she was all business.
It was ten o'clock on Friday morning, my third day in LA, and I was still adjusting to the time change and the cultural shift from Spring River, Mississippi to Hollywood.
Cohen came out from behind his huge desk and put his arm around me, moving me rather forcefully towards one of the big chairs which faced his desk. He was a big man, deeply tanned and clearly in good shape for a guy in his late forties or early fifties. He was impeccably groomed and wore casual but very elegant clothes. His slacks were an unusual shade, almost the color of caramel and looked like they'd been custom made. His shirt had a subtle white pattern, abstract or floral, on a slightly darker cream background and, like his slacks, looked very expensive. The top two or three buttons of Cohen's shirt were open revealing a profusion of dark hair which seemed to cover his chest in a dense mat. All the time we talked, he was occupied with a long, fragrant cigar.
"Rog said you were a looker but he goddam lied. You're a fucking hunk," he smiled as he took the chair facing me and fiddled with his cigar, shaking the ash off the end into a heavy crystal ashtray and then relighting it with a gold lighter.
"We'd better put you in front of the cameras instead of off in the back office with Paddy-fucking-Langston's boys and girls."
He turned to take a folder off his desk and, turning back, said, almost barked, "what'cha drinking?"
As he spoke he jerked his head toward the door and I realized his assistant was still standing there silently awaiting orders.
"Coffee?" I said, not knowing what was expected.
"Coffee for the kid, May, and bring me one of those goddam French water things, the bubbly ones."
May left and Mr. Cohen flipped through what was obviously my shiny new personal folder.
"So, Robby, we're going to plug you in to that degree thing Paddy's running with USC."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Cohen," I said.
"Dex, Roberto, just Dex. Nobody fucking calls me Mr. Cohen."
"Yes, sir, Dex."
"And you can drop the sir shit, kid, we ain't in Mississippi no more," the last few words were said in a very bad imitation of a southern accent.
May came back with a tray and placed it on the low table between us. It held a single cup and saucer, white, delicate porcelain, a small matching coffee pot, a cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. There was a white linen napkin and what looked to be sterling silver spoons.
She placed a small separate tray by Dex. On it was a crystal goblet full of ice with a big wedge of lime resting neatly over the rim. Beside it was a small open bottle of Perrier. Like the man said, we weren't in Mississippi, or at least not my part of Mississippi, any longer.
I poured coffee into the cup and fixed it to my liking as Dex continued to flip through the folder.
"We're putting you on a project with Martin Basingstoke. Heard of him?"
"Yes . . ." I almost said sir but stopped myself in time to change it to "Dex."
"Good, butter the bastard up. He loves stroking."
"It will be a real honor to work under him."
Dex laughed uproariously and I felt myself blushing.
"You tell him that, Robby, and he'll be taking you home by this afternoon."
"You understand what I meant, Dex."
"Yeah, I understood and what you fucking do after hours is your own goddam business. Just be careful who you say that to around here, babe, `cause somebody'll sure as hell take you up on it."
"What is the Basingstoke project, Dex?" I asked, hoping to change the direction of our conversation.
"Call the Dark Waters," Dex said as he slowly poured the bubbly water into his glass. "We paid two million for the goddam rights and from what I've seen it was a complete fucking waste of time and money."
Dark Waters, as it was commonly called, had been a Chessman Prize winner three years earlier and on the best seller lists for about six months. I'd read it and, for the life of me, couldn't figure how it could ever be made into a film.
The book had practically no real plot. It consisted almost entirely of the narrator's first person subjective speculations about her own life and the drowning death of her lover. While it wasn't overtly stated in the novel, it was fairly clear that the dead lover was also a woman. It wasn't exactly the kind of movie that made it past the censors or, for that matter, even appealed to the usual American audiences in 1972.
"Really, Dex," I said, "that would be a difficult novel to adapt as a film script."
"From the drafts I've seen so far it isn't a goddam script at all. I think Marty has a couple of hundred pages of camera directions and maybe sixty words of dialog."
>From my memory of the book that sounded about right.
"What will I be doing?"
"Any fucking thing Basingstoke and Langston tell you to do."
"I understand I'll be working here full time until fall, when my classes start."
"Yeah, I guess that's how it works. You put your time in here on the lot and it counts for some extra graduate credit. You behave yourself and make your ass useful around here and we cover your tuition and expenses, pay you a small salary and offer you an honest t'god contract when you finish your degree."
It was an unbeatable combination, a chance to study film making from a practical and an academic perspective at the same time, and be paid to do it. I owed Roger Bardwell a huge debt of thanks for getting me into the program. It was officially called a Nathan Fellowship, named in honor of one of the founders of Nathan, Silvers, Beck, the second largest film studio in Hollywood.
The phone rang about then and Dex was back behind the enormous desk to take the call. I figured it was the signal that my time with him was over and prepared to go. After all, I reasoned, the head of a huge studio probably didn't even take time to meet most of the recipients of the Nathan Fellowships. I was sure he only called me because I'd been a student of Roger Bardwell at Ole Miss. I knew from what Roger had told me that he and Cohen were close friends. I didn't realize for a while just how close their friendship was.
Dex put his hand over the phone for a moment to tell me goodbye. "Good meeting you, kid," he said. "Go straighten out Basingstoke." He laughed and then added, `well, hell, nobody can do that."
I shook his hand and made my way to the door as he returned to his telephone conversation. "Well, offer the fucker three and tell him that's it," I heard him say as I left, quietly closing the huge door behind me.
"Well, Mr. Ballinger," May said as I came out into the vast waiting room, "is there anything we can do for you?"
"I don't think so, but I do appreciate Mr. Cohen taking time to meet me."
"Well, call me if you need anything. I've been told to look out for you, you know."
"Thank you," I said, not knowing how to address her.
In fact, I had been taken very good care of.
I am getting ahead of myself and had better back up a couple of days.
I'd flown from Memphis to LAX on Wednesday, arriving in the early evening, local time. It seemed to take forever for my luggage to come down the chute but while I was waiting I was approached by a guy about my own age with a serious acne problem. He was holding a photo of me in one hand and, in the other, a little cardboard placard with my name printed below the studio logo. He said, "hey, Robert, I'm Billy," and identified himself as a studio driver.
I'd been given the name of the hotel were I'd be staying for a few of nights but had assumed I'd have to find my own way there in a cab. With Billy carrying a couple of my bags and me carrying the others, we worked our way out of the terminal and along the circle drive to a limo parking area. He was driving a Plymouth van with the NSB insignia on the side. The insignia, almost an heraldic coat of arms, looked rather pretentious on such a utilitarian vehicle.
Billy seemed pleased when I got in front with him. When I saw how far we were going, or at least how long the trip from the airport to the hotel took, I was very glad I`d been met. I wondered what taxis cost in LA and began to suspect I wouldn`t have had enough cash to cover it.
I straightened out the name thing, letting him know I went by Rob, not Robert, to which he grinned and said, "got'cha." After a pause while he maneuvered the van out into traffic, he said, "so are you in for a screen test?"
"No," I laughed at the idea of being in front of a camera. "I'm one of the new Nathan Fellows." Billy glanced over at me and back at his driving as he negotiated the heavy traffic around the huge LAX circular road.
"No kidding," he said when there was a break in the traffic, "Paddy Langston's Brain Trust."
"Yeah, I guess," I replied. "I didn't know anybody called it that."
"Everybody around the studio does."
We turned onto a six lane street and then onto the freeway. Suddenly the traffic was amazing. Billy drove like a maniac, changing lanes to take advantage of any short break, speeding up and slowing suddenly with the facility of a race car driver. I saw occasional signs and knew we were on the 405. I thought we were heading north and when we left the freeway I saw signs for Olympic Boulevard.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Santa Monica," Billy said, making a sharp turn onto a less traveled street and then stopping abruptly in front of an older looking hotel. The guy insisted on hanging around while I checked in and I figured he was waiting for a tip. When I turned back toward him after I'd finished at the desk, he was clearly looking me over. I was a good six inches taller than him but he looked like he might have a nicely toned body under rather baggy clothes. His face, however, was mess. Pimples spread across his forehead and down along the line of his jaw. I could see that his neck was also badly scarred from old acne outbreaks as well as dotted with a few current sores.
I offered him a couple of dollars, which would have been a generous tip in those days in Memphis or even in New Orleans, but he just smiled and said, "studio employees are not allowed to accept gratuities from other studio personnel while in the process of performing assigned duties." It sounded like a line he'd memorized from an employees manual. "Hey," he added, with a lopsided grin, "we work for the same bunch, right?"
"Yeah, I guess we do," I said, and thanked him but he still stood there in the lobby looking at me. I felt awkward and held out my hand to shake his.
"I'd be glad to help you get your bags up to your room," he said, but I insisted I'd be fine. "Look, let me give you my number," he said when I rejected his offer of help with my bags. He tore a sheet from a little pocket notebook he'd taken from his shirt pocket and wrote down a number. Handing it to me, he said, "if you need anything, anything at all, just give me a ring."
"Okay, great, Billy," I smiled, looking again at his nametag; William T. Bowen, Studio Driver. "Will you be picking me up in the morning?"
"Probably not," he said, looking down at his high-topped tennis shoes. "We don't get our assignments until we check in."
"Well," I said, "I'm sure we'll cross paths."
"Yeah, I hope so," he grinned and finally turned to go. "Call me," he said, turning back when he reached the street doors. "Anything you need, call me."
My room was spacious but Spartan, reflecting the character of the entire hotel.
I learned later that the studio had a contract for a dozen rooms there which were used for lower and middle level personnel in LA for short stays. Over the next few days I met two camera men and an assistant to an assistant producer. I never did figure out what she did.
I decided not to really unpack until I found out how long I'd be staying there. I was also unclear how I'd be expected to dress for work. I removed a suit from my garment bag and hung it the bathroom, hoping the wrinkles would fall out when I fogged the place up later taking a shower.
While I was getting myself organized the phone rang. It was Nita Ball, the woman I'd been told would be picking me up on Thursday.
"I should be there about nine, Robert," she said. "I get over to NSB by eight and get a car and driver from the studio motor pool."
"Thanks, Miss Ball, but please just call me Rob, okay."
"Fine, Rob," she went on. "I'll be taking you over to Alvarado Court, so have breakfast on your own before I pick you up."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, which made her laugh.
"Look, honey," she said, "I won't call you Robert if you don't call me ma'am."
"All right, Miss Ball," I said.
"No Miss Ball either. Nita will be just fine." She paused and then asked, "You going to be okay tonight?"
I assured her that I'd be fine.
"Anything else you need?"
"Well, I was wondering how I should dress tomorrow."
She was silent for a moment. "This is LA, Rob," she finally said. "Appropriately known as Lalaland."
"Yes . . . Nita?" I responded, not getting the point.
"Well, this isn't exactly what you'd call a formal city, Rob. Unless you plan on going to a funeral or maybe to the Academy Awards, you could have left your ties on the other side of the Mississippi."
"So," I said, "I don't need to wear a suit and tie."
She laughed again and I sort of liked the sound of it. "No ties, sweetie. No suit and no sports jacket unless it gets too cool in the evening for you."
"Okay, Nita, thanks," I said, figuring I could put my suit back in my garment bag.
"You just get yourself some supper there at the hotel and sign for your meals. The studio will pay for everything. The same goes for breakfast, too." She paused again and then added, "I`ll see you in the morning."
When I looked at my watch it read nine o'clock. I realized I'd not reset it for California time and moved the hands back two hours. Before it got too much later I called my folks to let them know I'd arrived safely and then went down to the hotel coffee shop for a sandwich. I had no appetite for anything more. The excitement of the trip was still causing butterflies in my stomach.
After I'd eaten I wandered around the hotel lobby a little and found, in addition to the coffee shop, there was a rather depressing looking bar and a news stand. I ventured out onto the street and circled the block.
I don't know what I'd expected but this wasn't it. I guess I'd assumed places like Santa Monica would be jumping twenty-four hours a day. In fact, there were a few stores, all closed for the night, and a couple of additional bars which looked as dismal as the one off the hotel lobby. I only saw a couple of old men on the street and they certainly didn't look like the pinnacle of Hollywood glitz and glamour.
I went back up to my room slept like the proverbial baby.
To be continued.