I was 25 and working at Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, I had recently moved out of Lancaster and gotten my own apartment in the San Fernando Valley, a bungalow from the 1930s, built for agricultural workers when the valley was all orchards and fields.
I was an actor, working in a store for actors and I was on my way to making a life for myself.
Samuel French was ripe for a workplace sitcom—like Cheers or Taxi. But maybe too niche?
The employees were aspiring screenwriters and stand up comics, fresh faced actors and old timers who once dreamed of making their mark but now worked in a bookstore and cracked jokes about the kids who’d come in, stars in their eyes, saying, “I’m looking for a monolog,” which sent the entire back office into gales of laughter.
“I’m looking for a monolog.” It was a constant refrain—for auditions and acting class, they all needed someone to be. Some of us handled it than others, “What kind of monolog?” “Oh, you know, something interesting?”
The walls of the store were lined with plays: Albee to Wasserstein, and shelves of screenplays: All Bout Eve to Xanadu. Sections of monolog collections—Monologs for Men, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or Make ‘Em Laugh, monologs for funny ladies. And so on.
So to ask a staff member, “I need a monolog,” was akin to someone standing in the middle of Times Square and asking for directions to New York City.
The thing is, no one wanted to be pointed the way to the monologs, they wanted insider knowledge—what I really want is for you to to show me the way, for you tell me what monolog I should do.
I was at the grocery store recently--all masked up, wearing blue latex free gloves--checking out, the plexiglass between the cashier and me. While waiting for my debit card to clear I asked her, “How has it been, being here?” “Oh, fine,” she seemed bored, not concerned at all.
“How’s it been for you?” she asked me.
“I’m lucky in that I live here and work at home.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
It’s still sometimes a feat to say succinctly what I do—what I do? I make magic! I provide transformative performance experiences to my community. I build art rituals that unite people. My friend Celeste, whenever she was out at a bar or a party, used to just tell people she was a nurse. I didn’t feel like I could get away with that, conditions being what they are right now.
“I run a non profit arts organization and I write.” I said.
“Oh, you’re a writer.”
“Yes,” I said, sort of reluctantly. I don’t consider myself a writer, which is strange because it’s what I do.
And then she said the sentence that no artist ever wants to be asked—“What have you written?”
I may have looked at her witheringly. She then made it worse by saying, “Anything I might have read?”
The obvious and bitchy response is, “I don’t know, what have you read?” I resisted saying this and moved on.
Dan Peace was one of the people who worked at Sam French, a really sweet gay guy from small town Kansas. Dan was a sort of stock gay character, popping in with a funny quip, a touch of the downhome, “Mm Hm, that’s right,” or, “You betcha, mister.” I feel Dad would have been really close to his grandmother.
And, Dan was a Cher fanatic. Every album, every tour, every outfit, every film, every episode of her TV shows, every bit of trivia. Now, I loved Cher when I was a kid, watched her TV show, even owned the 45 of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. But, by my 20s, I was beyond Cher. “Really,” I’d think, whenever Dan would start talking about Cher, “isn’t she kind of a joke?”
One day I had to go over to Dan’s place to pick up something for the store, he lived in a classic Hollywood apartment complex, two rows of apartments facing in on a central grass courtyard. Dan met me on the small stoop out front of his place, the door was open and Cher’s voice wafted out from inside. Behind him I saw Cher posters on the wall. He handed me the stuff I needed and we chatted for a second. Dan was so sunny, with a bucktooth smile. As I turned to leave, he put his hand on my arm, like a friend. “You take care,” he said. I liked Dan but maybe I thought he was lacking in substance. Maybe he was kind of a joke, too.
Sometime after, I quit Samuel French and went to Europe in search of a life I never found. I heard that Dan had died from AIDS, a much different virus than the one we have now, it still has no cure and still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. Cher lives on, of course, she’s appeared on Broadway, films, won an academy award, a Kennedy Center Honor. Her work for HIV/AIDS has helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Turns out she’s not a joke at all.
I lost my interest in the movies. But the creative spark prodded me on and I dove into the wilderness with curiosity to guide me. Whenever I got lost, which was a lot, I just kept going.
My work now is to find meaning in the artist’s life. I do this by writing about it, in words, like these here. If anything I’ve ever made endures, it will be my writing.