Wednesday, January 7, 2009

8 Million Stories, NY Press Essay

HED: Nearing De Niro

DEK: LISA LEWIS big-screen dreams were just a seat away

That night I sat next to a man who was sitting next to Robert De Niro. I was a reader on the New York studio circuit at $60 a script, with a few hundred reports logged for New Line Cinema and Tribeca Productions, De Niro’s company. After two years covering chick lit and Harry Potter cribs, I was freed from the stacks for a screening of the boss man’s cerebral CIA drama, The Good Shepard. The near final cut was running long and they wanted feedback. I made a rushed introduction to De Niro—after all, my position didn’t warrant time with the stars, my big film contacts were the messenger guys who dropped off scripts at my shoebox apartment in the East Village.

For 12 hours a day I read. Mostly at the coffee shop, Café Pick Me Up, which I liked because emotionally needy and attractive screenwriters, having glimpsed my coverage template, would think I was important and ask for my number. At 24, this felt like the good life, but I was a peripheral part of the action—a bump up from sushi runs at Focus where I interned during school. But being at the screening was surreal. This is what I had come to New York for, what it was all about. Next to me, the man next to De Niro started snoring. He was a big guy in an Adidas tracksuit, wearing sunglasses in the dark theatre. We were two hours into a cut that was at least three and a half. I loved every minute.

When the film ended I wasn’t invited out for drinks. I whispered congrats as I squeezed passed De Niro’s producing partner. The next day an assistant would call for my opinions. Still, it was heady. Graduating high school in the Chicago suburbs with no money for college, I’d telemarketed magazine subscriptions and worked in the pornography section of the Virgin Megastore, carding teenagers and making uninformed suggestions to Japanese tourists (“Yes, Angry Anal has gotten great reviews!”), This was my Mary Tyler Moore Moment. I was going to make it after all.

Tribeca had a silence unlike other neighborhoods. Jazz filled an alley when the door of a club burst open; I caught a staccato laugh and the sound of heels on cobblestone, the squeal of a subway under the grates. The night felt like one frame of a silent film. I was all mood and ego. In the neon of a dim sum dive I plotted the story for my Midwest friends—exaggerating my influence on the editing process, lingering on De Niro’s big hand in mine. The vendors along Mott Street were dumping the spoiled fish that hadn’t sold, but I wasn’t ready to let reality in.

I was halfway home when I checked the messages on my cell. The Weinstein Company had called to say they could use me as a reader. A friend at the ad agency where I was bringing semi-colons back as a freelance proofreader was inviting me to a Broadway show. I pictured my 18-year-old self, bitterly arranging Vivid titles in order of hardcorishness and I wanted her to hear these messages. My New York life may have fit in a shoebox, but the shoes were second-hand Marc Jacobs.
The final message stopped me mid-jaywalk and was nearly drowned out by a policeman screaming at me to get out of the street. But the sound of a cop car, sirens wailing, had nothing on my mother’s voice. Irate and accusatory, it flashed me back to the hallway outside her bedroom; I was 10-years-old again.
“Your father says he’s going to starve himself to death. You need to do something!” she shrieked. “Why aren’t you picking up? Someone just stole $14,000 out of my purse! Call me back!”

I imagined a marquee with my name on it, the lights fizzling out.

Generally, I limited my drama to the silver screen, but crisis was unremarkable for my divorced and single parents. As their only child, I played confidant to my father’s troubled hero, and the audience for my mother’s one-woman show. In my own life story they frequently upstaged me. My dad was beginning a two-year bout of severe depression; soon he’d be living in a delivery van with the 400 classic movies on VHS he’d taped off the television and labeled in alphabetical order by actor. The $14,000 was my mom’s gambling money she’d put in a Ziploc bag with her makeup and left in a locker at the Harrah’s Casino spa. I might have wanted to share my triumphs, but my father had taken to crying through our conversations and my mother’s enthusiasm for her own endeavors, most recently her witty profile, often overshadowed my news.

I felt a wave of self-pity. New York, like my folks, had the ability to make me feel simultaneously very important and totally insignificant. I could believe that just by living in the city I was doing something urgent and meaningful. I saw my reflection in every window, a seductive, solipsistic filmstrip; but to anyone else I was just an extra.

The Statue of Liberty might as well have read: “Give me your actors, your writers, your neurotic children of manic-depressive and borderline parents yearning to breathe free.” In New York I’d hoped to find recognition, but in the shadow of my family, I couldn’t see myself. That night I turned off the phone, but the guilt remained. Someday I longed to sleep as soundly as the man sitting next to Robert De Niro.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Those Trannys

No matter how many times I tell her not to, my mother sends me email forwards. I may be reading too much into them, but I find them passive aggressive. Many threaten death and years of bad luck if you don't forward them on - why would she want to put me in that position? Others open with hearts and flowers and pictures of holding hands. These say things like, forward this on to the ten people you love the most and don't want to forget about in 2008 so they know they are loved. I have never sent one of these back to her. Forwarding a mass email love poem on threat of death is like sending someone a used Hallmark card.

Last night a tranny girl sitting next to me on the subway pulled a knife! She called some girl who didn't speak english a fat pig bitch. Then she sat down beside me and pulled out this knife and started waving it. Her tranny friend tried to calm her down. She was screaming that the knife was totally legal to have on her because it was only four inches long and I was trying to stay out of it and not look and I thought she was talking about the length of her penis. She was encouraged to exit the train at the next stop by a man with tattoos and an infant. No one was hurt.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sex Ed

Because she was a virgin two years into her first marriage, my mother chose to start my sex education when I was eight. Over dinner at the Olive Garden, on Shelbyville Road in Louisville, Kentucky, with my stepfather across the table, my mother handed me the book, Sex Before Marriage: Guidance for Young Adults, ages 16 to 20 by Eleanor Hamilton, printed by Merideth Press in 1969. Her mother had given her the book when she was eighteen, as a wedding present.

“Your grandmother thought you could get pregnant from French kissing,” she said. “Triple bag it if you have to. If you’re like me, you’re very fertile.”

I was skinny, stringy-haired. I collected stamps. At summer camp that year, the sixteen-year-old counselor in training had the girls’ bunks together to play truth or dare. I was dared to give a blowjob to a baseball bat (rather then tell the truth about whether I’d ever shoplifted). I examined the bat, considering the best approach, then blew on it as one might blow out birthday candles. An older girl demonstrated a different technique – with what I know now, that baseball bat was an optimistic substitute.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Truth About James Dean

My father is a person you indulge. He is the type of man who is easy to love because he loves without conditions, but he is also a man who can drive everyone away, because he does not love himself. People want to be around him, his enthusiasm is infectious. He is the father you’ve always wanted. But he is a man who can look at his hands as if they aren’t his, who will scrutinize himself in the mirror and only see what he isn’t.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Hoenig was no sucker. And as you might have guessed from his herbal medicines, a regular con in his own right, and at it longer. If there were used car salesmen in 1890, Hoenig would have been one. He smelled like oil, and something else, the spicy paprika he mixed into his pomade. It made his clients’ eyes water if they stood too close.

The women complained at his prices, and they were high. But they always bought. Handles of salvaged cooking pots, atomizers and combs, jars of oils and soaps, yamakas, candlesticks, and of course Hoenig’s special collection of healing salves. He knew they would buy, not because they needed a second hand hairbrush or a rusted horn, they just wanted him back. He understood that he was more than a salesman. He was an event. The villagers needed him to break up the monotony of their months and everything about him was orchestrated for that purpose.

Hoenig hauled his trinkets on a cart pulled by the two healthiest horses anyone in the villages he visited were ever likely to see, twelve hands tall and full of mucus and fire (he claimed he scrubbed their skin twice weekly with his energy inducing mud) (but really it was with a spice from Mongolia that burned their skin and made them choleric and ornery).

And though he claimed his voice was hoarse after a long day of auctions and bargaining, he could be persuaded by an offer of brandy, to recall the news and gossip he collected along his route. Hoenig made the rounds to the synagogue library, to the public house, and to the chess club. He never had to push his way through a crowded bar, any room very quickly rearranged to accommodate him. In the early evenings, Hoenig could always be found surrounded by wise looking men, their beards twisted round their forefingers, while his own greased braid soaked in a pint of lager.

Tall and hunched as he was, Hoenig was capable of dramatic entrances, a chill might sweep across a room when the door opened, his appearance in the entry way cast a shadow in the shape of a question mark across chess games in play, then his top hat could be seen, as if floating, above the shortish Jews, nudged askew to reveal a wisp of exotic orange hair. Even after he made his exit, his presence remained; in the hushed absence of his voice, and in the lingering reek of his pomade, a smell that hung in the air and seemed to maintain Hoenig’s very shape.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Trouble with Stealing Cows

When Harry Houdini was still Erik Weisz, stealing milk cows out of fields in northern Hungary, his cousin Emmanuel was already scheming escapes. Nineteen year old Manny Weisz’s considerable debt was unlikely to be aided by the great cow heist of 1890 – limited in its scope to three skin thin heifers observed wandering from a neighbor’s herd while out to pasture.

The dramatic notion in Erick’s design was to steal the cows at mid-day – an audacious attempt he hoped would be widely gossiped. This precocity for risk and want of celebrity would mark Weisz’s later endeavors (and tickle the genes of certain descendants down the line and once removed). But a few curdling cows promised no relief to cousin Manny, up shit creek with the slick tradesman Hoenig.

Hoenig was in and out of the village monthly hawking medicinal herbs he pledged were seeded in the same clay as the Vilna Golem in Lietuva, grown under strict kashrut law, and sung to maturation with mystic Hebrew hymns. Every fortnight, Hoenig spent the night at his cousin-in-law’s, playing cards with her son Uvi and his credulous friends. He fattened them on fantasies of the exotic women from his travels, and they did not notice their pockets empty. At the card table is where Manny and Hoenig found they shared a disposition for speculation and investment – entrepreneurial passions so different from the local malaise of breeding, hand-me-down farms and trades, and the very occasional university bound.

Manny had been to Budapest. Had lingered long enough outside the expensive cafés to have his throat parched by his craving for richly seasoned goulash. Had splurged on a trip to the bathhouse where the mushroomy air soured any lingering appetite for prude village women. Manny had a citified soul, some congenital bent towards tight urban alleys and loose urban women, to noise and the indifference of passersby, to good suits, to hot wine, to never waning waltzes in the red-fringed backrooms of gentleman’s joints. Manny knew in his heart he was a gentleman. He had been to Budapest only once, on an errand to pick up a package sent to his family from a relation in America, but it took only that one trip to assure him. Every angle he worked pointed east to the city.

Manny Weisz was born a malcontent. Once weaned, he refused to eat. What his mother could get him to swallow he didn’t like. Incessant crying was punctuated by bouts of listlessness. Manny cried to be held then cried when he was touched. The midwife suggested curdling milk with a drop of vinegar to induce the child to vomit up his unrest. The pharmacist prescribed small doses of laudanum, a rather progressive recommendation for the time. It had to be ordered from another town. It was the laudanum that helped. Baby Manny accepted his meals with little resistance. The household was finally quiet. An opium addict at 19 months.

But the frequent tantrums didn’t end. By his fourth birthday, it was a common village irritation to see Little Manny, flat on his stomach, egg-sized hands balled tight, cheeks bulging at the injustice of being denied a sweet sesame bun. And when it became too much and his father demanded his mother put a stop to the child’s ranting, Hilda, remembered the sweet passivity of Manny’s narcotized baby years, and added a few drops of laudanum to the boy’s milk and even to his bloody purple borscht.

Nine years of a cottage filled with tension and sleeplessness, petulance and tantrums, of trouble at school, and the bullying of friends. “Little Manny has bitten my Moshe on the foot!” And then a surprising thing. One inauspicious night at the dinner table, the dark eyed, fat-faced, pout-lipped ten-year-old, interjected in an argument his parents were having about the price of cloth, parroting verbatim an observation he’d heard on that same topic at the family shop.

His parents didn’t hear him immediately, accustomed as they were to tuning out his tantrums. Only his brother paused in setting the table, and turned his head sharply and suspiciously towards Manny. Manny continued on, regurgitating, nearly word for word, opinions he’d heard in the day about local politics and the news trickling in of pogroms to the east. Finally, his mother slowed in her stirring of the stew and his father put down his torah and there was Manny chatting away at all of them and to no one in particular, happy enough (at the moment) with the sound of his own voice.

At first Manny’s interlocutions were just diverting, a reprieve from his sullenness and fits. But his talking grew in scope, drawing from conversations Manny was in proximity to hear as he wandered the village, freed from his chores by mother Hilda, who preferred to have him out and bothering others then irritable at her feet.

Manny’s gift was unexpected. Up to this point he'd spoken only to refuse or demand. Now at night, curled against his big, beloved Hilda, Manny’s father could dream his dreams for his sons, for Manny especially, of great rabbinical posts, of celebrated teaching, of wealth and wisdom. Of himself as the father of a genius.

When Manny started belching out words in addition to bile, his rages were accepted as a mark of his prodigy. A late explanation providentially granted. Hilda, always afraid she’d carried him wrongly or cried too much at his birth, now exonerated herself. His father, who had spoke little of his youngest son to his shul mates now paraded him happily out at dinners and sat him down at the front counter of his little tailor shop to greet costumers.

Manny’s older brother Herman was less enthusiastic. Manny, with his capricious moods, and his newfound words suddenly had the monopoly on his parents’ attention. Had amended Herman’s long-standing position as the favored son, sympathizer to his family’s burden, to something more auxiliary. The backup, should Manny fail in his promise, as Herman knew he would.

As Herman suspected, Manny left the rabbinical aspirations to his brother, technicalities didn’t interest him. He didn’t have the attention span to sit down to study with the elders as most of the boys his age were forced to do. Neither could he stare at a piece of thread and sewing needle for twelve hours a day, then retreat to the study with his books as his father did.

Frustrated to have a genius son, who was not acting geniusly, Manny’s father gave him time and space to think (and told his friends that his brilliant son was in deep contemplation). This immunity to his father’s constant pressure to perform was another thorn in Herman’s heavily prickled side.

While Herman labored over book and bodice (sewing them up without the catharsis of ripping them off) Manny used his time to walk. Manny loved walking, loved how his brain emptied of thoughts as he weaved through the alleys of the small village, climbing out to the pastures and up the hills, as he wallowed in the cemetery, sometimes stooping his considerable weight (inherited from his mother’s side) to study a grave or pick a flower.

Though Manny’s head at these times where meditatively vacant, the myth of his brooding journeys did a right job on his reputation. As his father hoped, Manny had the mien of a deep and learned man. His complicity in maintaining the pretense of his son’s wisdom bothered him. But with so much early, and boasted of promise, Manny’s father could not now reveal his disappointment. Not even to Herman, who longed for reassurance that his father was wrong in loving Manny more.

Walking gave Manny time to consider his future. He knew he was not a tailor, and would never be satisfied glued to a book. But despite not having the aptitude for serious study, Manny was sure he was smarter than his pinch-faced brother, who fogged his glasses with sneezing, whispered his opinions and then second guessed them.

At first, Manny’s eloquence surprised him. It was a shock that people turned to the sound of his voice. He practiced speaking slow and methodically, with inflections mimicked from his father and brother’s midrashic debates. The baritone coupled with his youthful self-assurance and his considerable, if superficial comprehension of most topics of village interest made him an easy companion. Manny found he was welcome on the outskirts of conversations.

Manny could listen to an exchange between two butchers and come out with enough authentic jargon to convince the butcher’s brother, that he was a butcher too. If he listened long enough at the lender’s, he could quote prices and who had borrowed on what speculation, he could sit at the back of the local magistrate’s office and recall the next day why the judge had ruled against a father on a dowry negotiation, peppering his report with words like precedent, illegality, and breech, though without fully knowing their meaning.

Much more than his facility with words, Manny’s gift was confidence. Because he was smarter than others he had special dispensation to deserve what he wanted and to do whatever to get it. Manny guiltlessly set the butcher against the dairyman with a rumor that that dairyman had promised his older breeding bulls to a man three villages south instead of to his good neighbor who had always given him the most lusciously marbled cuts. Without a hint of guile or self-reproach, Manny could chat either up with sympathy, as the dairyman churned his complaints into butter and the butcher took his fury out on the slab and Manny went home with an extra cup of cream and a slice of shoulder.

Still, Manny couldn’t figure out what to do with himself. But during a particularly impoverished time for his family, when bad local crops pinched extra spending on the luxury of new suits and dresses, Manny found his calling in sales.

His father had received an over-shipment of ugly green cotton that the distributor refused to rescind. Manny for the first time perceived a demand for his abilities. Out most of his money from a bet he’d lost to Erick concerning Erick’s ability to free himself from a locked storage shed, Manny convinced his father to give him twenty percent profit if he could get rid of the cotton.

In the matter of a week, Manny had convinced the ladies that moldy green was a godly hue, and also sought-after by the finest ladies of Budapest. His confidence in describing the popular women’s fashion in a city he had visited only once over a year ago had an emollient affect on the town girls, softening their hearts both to the ugly fabric and to the hereto unappreciated Manny. Green frocks sprouted up across the village like shoots of early summer corn. And Manny took his commission under many a verdant hem.

Manny could sling a load of bull and make it stick. Only the experts on any particular subject knew, after a time (of perhaps ten to fifteen minutes, if a conversation lasted that long), that he was faking. Noticing this was a weakness, Manny made a study of the elders. Rebe Hirt never interrupted, but waited until everyone else had spent their two cents before he spoke – and people listened. Old lady Torok withheld her opinion until the ladies begged and begged.

This was the trick, Manny decided. Thoughts offered too eagerly are rejected. Wise men parcel out their knowledge like sweets, made sweeter by the hording. Manny used the family dinners to practice his look of casual impartiality, pinching himself when he had the impulse to jump in, holler and persuade. In conversations at the tavern, if he kept his opinion out of it until he could have the last word, and then interjected with feigned disinterest, he could noodle almost anyone into assuming he knew what he was talking about. Even himself.

And this is how he got into trouble with Hoenig.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Warning

Philip Larkin - This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.