This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
Last week I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a guy who has spent a Hollywood lifetime (that-s roughly 15 years) working in the television business. He hasn-t had an easy time of it recently. He-s been fired about three times in the past four years, which in Hollywood isn-t all that bad, but in his unfortunate case, he was fired twice from the same job at the same studio. They hired him, then fired him, then he went to a different studio, then that studio fired him, then he went back to the first studio, and a few months later, they fired him again. So last week, when he called me for lunch, I knew who was buying.
Of course, no one has really had an easy time of it, lately. With advertising revenues down, and with furious cost-cutting by all of the major media companies, everyone-s salaries are facing what the financial press euphemizes as -downward pressure.- Meaning less money for you, and you over there, you-re fired.
The big media companies, they-re corporate bulimics. They all spent the past five years expanding and gobbling up other companies - swallowing cable properties and chewing up foreign production companies and feasting on high fat internet portals - because, I guess, there was a hole inside of them that needed to be filled. Or maybe it was low self-esteem. In any case, now, bloated, full, and feeling fat, they-re all trying to do the same thing at the same time: purge, and purge fast, in a desperate attempt to run with the popular crowd.
My friend, who was doing okay a few years ago, no longer has a studio deal. He is one of the Purged.
At the restaurant, we pulled up in our respective cars at the same time, and as he was getting out of his, he smiled weakly.
-What do you think?- he asked, jerking his thumb at the car.
-Nice,- I said. It was a Chevrolet station wagon. The guy has kids. What was I supposed to say?
-It-s a rotten car,- he said bitterly. -Do you think they saw me drive up? If they did, sorry, man. We-ll get a rotten table. But they saw you drive up too. And your car is nice.-
The truth is, I have two cars - a silly Los Angeles extravagance, I know, but in my defense, one of them is an old wreck. It runs intermittently, makes peculiar noises, and at speeds under 50 miles-per-hour emits an odor that smells like neither gasoline nor oil, but, instead, like burning human flesh. But I love that car, and can-t get rid of it for some strange sentimental reason, so when I bought my German sleek-mobile, I kept the wreck in the garage alongside it. I like to think that the two cars, after some initial sniping, have reached an understanding, sitting there quietly, side-by-side in the dark. Perhaps the wreck keeps the German sleek-mobile honest and humble, in an all-flesh-is-grass sort of way. And the German car, in return, reminds the wreck that he is, in fact, a wreck, and too many won-t-starts and sickly-smells and it-s out the door. In other words, they both remind the other that everything and everyone can, if necessary, be Purged.
Yesterday, I had lunch at a place that I go to at least once a week.
The valet looks at my car.
-Everything okay, chief?- he asks, in a tone of voice that, even through his thick Guatemalan accent was clearly pitying.
-Yeah, fine,- I say, not quite getting it.
-Where-s the other car?- he asks. -The nice one?-
-Home,- I say, my voice strangely high-pitched. I mean, it is home. In the garage. But for some reason I decided to drive the other one to work.
-So everything-s goin- okay then, chief?- he asks again, with a face out of a Latin romantic tragedy.
-Yes,- I say, too indignant to be convincing. I pull out of the restaurant. And driving back to the studio, I realize that I-ve been experiencing that scene, in varying tempos, all day. The pretty girl at Peet-s Coffee this morning saw me drive up for the first time, and for the first time she was, like, diffident.
People on the freeway wouldn-t let me pass. And the security guard at the studio gate - a gate I-ve been driving through with a cheery wave for twelve years - yesterday he gives me the fish-eye, the not-so-fast-fella, the you-re-bringing-that-bag-of-bones-in-here? look. Because even he knows that you can purge most of the writers and all of the producers and cut the free lunches and reduce the office support staff, but no company in its right mind - no matter how bloated, no matter how fat - would ever cut the security staff. He-s unpurgeable. And I am very much not.
This morning, dashing off to work, I reach for my car keys. My hand stops, suspended over the two different sets. Am I going to surrender to a tawdry set of values, to a sick craving for status and misbegotten respect? Or am I going to forge my own set of standards? Am I, finally, a man or a mouse? I-m not going to tell you which set of keys I took. I don-t want you to think less of me. Or more of me. Depending, I guess, on you.
That-s it for this week. Next week, we-ll call each other.
For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.