About a month ago I come home one night and see the message light blinking on my answering machine. I hit the play button. It is a message from an assistant at a television production company in Southern California, telling me that the Executive Producer of a new TV series about paramedics has read my books and is interested in talking to me.
Many years ago when I was on an author tour following the publication of my first book I appeared on a show called “Home Team with Terry Bradshaw” a very short-lived talk show (much like Oprah, except with Terry Bradshaw and some lady, whose name I don’t remember, as hosts). It was filmed on a studio lot in Hollywood. In my segment I was already sitting in a chair next to Terry Bradshaw when the cameras came on. How I had wanted to be introduced and with music playing, walk out on stage doing a little funky semi-pimp walk, pointing fingers at my boys in the crowd. I guess since I was taller than Bradshaw they didn’t want me to stand next to him. Anyway, it was a fun experience. I had a dressing room with a paper sign with my name on it posted on the door. I swiped it when I left. I remember Bradshaw being very nice, but constantly having to wipe the sweat off his brow. He flubbed his lines and they had to reshoot my segment. They were holding big cue cards while he interviewed me. Anyway, the producer who had pre-interviewed me in preparation for the segment told me she liked my book and asked if any Hollywood producers had called yet. No, I said. She assured me they would.
Eight years later, the call has finally come.
I stand there in the silence after hearing the message, and am both thrilled that my long awaited moment had arrived, but also a little disturbed that my life that I have so carefully put together (a house, a job I love (great work assignment, seniority, 401K), exciting writing projects, a regular poker game that I am beating, a girlfriend with two children I am quite fond of and who are fond of me) is now at threat. I will admit that a part of me wishes the message isn’t there. But Hollywood…Hollywood is the American dream. How do you say no to Hollywood?
When I was in college I took a year off. I hitchhiked out to California where I was going write the Great American novel. I ended up in Hollywood, living a few blocks off Hollywood Boulevard in a seedy apartment building at Wilcox and Yucca where my neighbors where drug dealers, transvestites, and illegal immigrants. A few weeks before I moved in, there was a fatal shooting in the lobby. The manager, who I ended up drinking beer and smoking pot with when I showed up to see the room advertised in the paper, told me he hadn’t cleaned up all the blood yet as a warning to people to keep it clean in his building. “You can do anything you want in the street,” he said, sucking on a giant reefer, “but don’t fuck with me in my building. You fuck with me you better kill me dead, because otherwise I’m putting my combat boots on and I’m going to hunt your sorry ass down.” Just then a girl, probably a runaway, who was dancing by herself to Edgar Winter’s Free Ride, danced over to him, and he started making out with her in a very physical way. His assistant, a fourteen year old Mexican kid, who never smiled, glared at me and said, “He’s serious dude. Don’t fuck with him.” His glare seemed to add the words, “or me.”
Wanting to be as far away from them as possible, I took a job out in Santa Monica as a telephone solicitor. I’d take a two hour bus ride out there early every morning, work the morning shift, spend the afternoon on the beach by the pier, work the night shift, then come back to Hollywood and sneak into the building. At night, the police helicopter would shine its spotlight into my room as it searched for wanted men. I could hear the cops on the loud speaker telling the desperados to give up and come out. It seemed to happen every night. I lasted in that building a month. The runaway smiled at me on the stairs one day when she was walking by with the Mexican kid, and I caught the glare in his eye, and after that I was convinced the Mexican kid was going to get high one night, and carve me up with his knife just for fun.
As soon as my first month rent was used up, I left town and went to San Francisco, which was another story altogether.
I get on the internet and research the producer and find a news clip about the show. The production company is located in Santa Monica. I believe in the circular nature of life. I never got into Harvard, and then years later I returned in my own triumphant way. The Governor of Connecticut was the featured speaker at the Harvard JFK School for government. As his speechwriter, I sat in the back row and listened to the power of his voice as he gave song to my words. The standing ovation…I was redeemed. (Now how pathetic am I? Harvard does not want speech writers; Harvard wants the person who gives the speech. Still, I felt a measure of I told you so.) Now it is time to return to Hollywood/Santa Monica. It seems predestined.
I talk to the producer the next day and he says he read my books to prepare the pilot episode and now that it has been green lighted by the network (TNT) for thirteen episodes he would love to have me come out and serve as a technical consultant and story developer, and maybe eventually working with another writer, try my hand a doing a script for the series. He needs someone who can combine story-telling with the technical know how to make certain they get it right. And they need me right away. I tell him I am interested, but am not certain I can get off work to come out. We leave it that I will look into getting a leave of absence, and he will look into finding a way to work me into the budget. In the meantime he will send me a copy of the pilot and the first script.
The operations head is excited for me and agrees to let me take a leave of absence. The head of the suburban volunteer service where I am based as a contract medic agrees to let me return to my post provided the company can find a regular replacement for me while I am gone. I like my suburban post so much that if I were to lose the post, I would not go.
While I wait for news I take my girl friend’s kids swimming. The five-year old jumps into the water and swims to me. We gradually go deeper and deeper until she is jumping in over her head. She jumps in and pops up and dog paddles to me with a big smile of success. She wraps her arms around my neck. When we leave the pool, her ten-year old sister says, “This was the best day ever!” I feel pangs about leaving them.
I hear nothing for two days, and then get an email from the producer telling me they have not forgotten me, but are working through the bureaucracy. I check the mail — no script or pilot. I get another email from another producer saying they are hoping to work something out and I should call if I have any questions. I talk to him, and he apologizes for the delay in making an offer. I ask again for the pilot. Nothing comes.
I am beginning to think they are blowing me off. I think I should have just said no, up front. My life here is more important than any stupid Hollywood red carpet dream.
I am out in the street playing football with the girls and their two cousins. We huddle up. I tell the five-year old boy to do a buttonhook and then go deep. I tell the ten-year old girl to go straight, and then cut sharply to the mailbox.
“Car! Car!” the defenders shout.
I look down the street and see a big yellow DHX truck. This is it, I think. This is my future coming to snatch me away from my life. The pilot. They haven’t forgotten about me. I feel a bittersweet pain. The truck slows, but slows a little late. It passes us, and stops at the next house down. I know it
ll back up, but it doesn’t. The driver gets out and delivers a big thin envelope to my neighbor. We go back to our game. I hit the ten-year with a perfect spiral, which she catches with outstretched arms right by the mail box. As the defenders converge on her, she tosses the ball back to me, and then I lob it to the five-year old who catches it, does a Neon Sanders end zone dance and spikes the ball. We slap high fives all around. The five-year old girl asks if we can go in and have brownies now. F- Hollywood, I think.
“They blew me off,” I tell people.
Then on Saturday, I hear a knock on the door.
Federal Express: The pilot and the script.
The show is called SAVED. I read the script first. I admit it is riveting. Some of it strikes a sense of deja veu in me. I can see they did read my books. More than that, the paramedic is a poker player, who dropped out of medical school to the disappointment of his father for not pursing the more traditional work. In the opening scene, he is dealt a pair of 3s, and goes all-in on a bluff. He wins the pot. I have a long-standing poker blog. It’s called A Pair of 3s: That’s All I Got.” Except in the title story, I go all-in on a bluff and lose all my chips. I guess that’s the difference between real life and Hollywood.
I watch the pilot. It’s hard not to like a show where paramedics race across town to a soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix “Crosstown Traffic.” I watch with great interest. There is some good writing, snappy dialogue, and some very familiar scenes: The street person who thinks he is a Biblical figure, the heroin OD waking up with narcan to yank his IV and blame the caller for seeking help, the pit bull, the worry about the big national company buying up the small company they work for, some lines of dialogue…
The show seems to me a cross between MASH and ER, but not as good as either(although not a bad show). It is not Emergency. There are some medical errors that make me cringe. At least one paramedic should have her license yanked if her medical director is watching, in addition to being fired for treating her fellow employees like crap (maybe not unrealistic). There are the requisite wrinkled uninflated nonrebreathers every time you look, plenty of negative comments about doctors, and one very major medical error in the big scene at the end. (In a life and death situation, the hero debates what to do between a neccessary action and a ridiculous action, while getting some very earnest, but ignorant advice from his fellow medics.) If I am hired as a technical consultant and they do not reshoot the scene, I work on my explanation to my fellow medics. “That was before they hired me, honest, I swear.”
Still, I like the show. I am willing to suspend my disbelief at certain things. It is after all, just TV. And as I said, Great soundtrack!
My mind is racing with ideas on what to do with the characters. I already have the episode I will write sketched out (What the heck — Field Caesarian!) I am psyched!
The next week they make an offer to my agent. She calls me and tells me not to take it. They want me for two months (the length of time it will take them to do the scripts for the 13 episodes) and are offering me $2 less a week than I make as a paramedic working 40 hours a week, plus I have to pay my way out there. I need to work overtime just to make ends meet now, plus I’d have all the expenses of finding a place to live and a way to get around, while still having to maintain my home here. We make a counter offer. They come back with their original offer.
That won’t work for me.
As much as I would love to go to Hollywood, and as much as I recognize there is a certain non-monetary value in the experience, I don’t like being taken advantage of. I will not pay to go to the prom with a pretty girl.
My agent sends them an email telling them they do not have permission to use any material from my books or journals.
And so the dream is dead.
I drive to work in the morning through the darkness, thinking I should be in Hollywood, cruising the Boulevard in one of those bouncy Cadillacs with “Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” blaring from the radio, a backseat full of MTV dancers.
The show should be on the air in May.
I don’t know when the Emmys are on, but I imagine watching seeing myself not on there, Cameron Diaz not on my arm, as others wave their Emmys and thank America. I’ll be at home, my girlfriend and two girls nestled up with me on the couch, eating buttered popcorn, my work clothes laid out on the table for me to slip into early the next morning when I rise in the darkness for another working day.