An old house, a Victorian leftover, stood with its sisters on Edgemont Street near Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles. The once grand lady now offered rooms by the month to the elderly, the diverse, and people looking for cheap rent like Stephen Bowles who maneuvered a used ‘55 Ford Fairlane Coupe, his only possession, into a nearby parking place beside a tall Mexican fan palm, one of many lining the street. It was 3:30 Friday afternoon. He had to hurry. He had an acting lesson at five.
Black metal lunchbox in hand, Stephen unlocked the front door of the rooming house and entered a foyer with faded floral wallpaper and a dark oak stairway. He did a quick check of a bulletin board hanging by a wall-mounted payphone between the manager’s apartment entrance and the stairway. There were no messages for him. He started up the stairs. Footsteps from behind the manager’s slightly-open door reminded him Mrs. Kaminsky knew her boarders’ comings and goings.
When he arrived on the third floor, he stopped at an apartment-sized refrigerator jutting from a hallway alcove. In it, he found a bag with his name. He removed a bottle of Bubble Up, happy the soda was there, happy his floor mates stayed out of each other’s food. He went to his room.
The room’s only window, along with a single overhead light illuminating a scuffed linoleum floor, did little to brighten his life or make it more than what it had become. An endless long-playing record, whirring, circling, its needle stuck in monotony. A glance in the dresser mirror revealed not only his sweaty face, but deep-set eyes dulled by assembly line work, day shift one month, night shift the next. He released a belabored sigh as he put his lunch box and soda on a small kitchen table, an unmade bed on one side, make-shift cooking facilities on the other.
He sat on a wooden chair by the table, untied his work boots, pried them off, and shoved them under the bed, slowly aware of the curry smell creeping into the air from whatever Mr. Singh, who roomed two doors down, was cooking. On a small table sat the morning’s unwashed cereal bowl beside a used coffee mug. He rinsed the dishes in a small sink, placed them to drain on a makeshift counter. A coffee maker with leftover coffee in it and an electric hotplate comprised the rest of his kitchen. A small TV sat on the dresser.
Every day, the surroundings reminded him of his dislike of his so-called temporary living arrangements. Temporary, he mused, going on three years. He opened the Bubble Up. After he chugged it down, he tapped his fist below his sternum. Small burps rolled up from his stomach. If the soda worked, his indigestion would be gone before his lesson. He vowed he’d eat no more beef jerky.
His body wanted a quick nap, but he didn’t have time. He pulled jeans, a sport shirt, and brown loafers from a curtained closet. Clothes in hand, he grabbed his towel from a wall hook by the door and hurried to the bathroom at the end of the hall. He laid his clean clothes on the bathroom chair, dropped the dirty ones on the floor. He hated wearing soiled clothes. He wanted clothing crisp, clean, no spots, no stains.
Beneath the shower spray, he felt a moment of peace. Assembly-line noise from the Ford factory in Pico Rivera left his ears as did the grousing of his foreman who called him, “Actor,” who told him he’d better act more like a worker. The water washed over his body, soothing him, but not for long.
More than indigestion bothered him. Dead end auditions and dead end temporary jobs led to his full time employment as a factory grunt. He was thirty years old, time for something to click. He tilted his head up into the shower flow. Water washed over his closed eyes, his closed lips. Two buddies had landed parts in the soaps. Why not him? He went to cattle calls or checked casting agents’ offices daily. So far, he’d perfected the role of an extra, a mob scene regular, and a walk-on with one or two lines. He emerged from the shower to dry.
The moving tail of a Kit-Cat clock on the wall above the towel bar reminded him to hurry. Its rolling eyes annoyed him. Next to the cat hung a wall calendar heralding Benson Insurance Services attesting that someone, the manager or a renter, crossed off the days of April 1959 with regularity. Passing time accompanied by passing years made him irritable, made him dress quickly, slam the bathroom door.
Stephen drove into Hollywood to the Castle Argyle Apartments. Tonight, with his acting coach, Dan Milton, they’d work on a scene from On the Waterfront. He liked Dan and their occasional off-the-record chats. During the last session, Stephen confided about his tendency to bull his way into situations and think later. Dan suggested he reconsider that approach, learn to use restraint, consider the consequences of his actions, in life as well as in his acting unless he wanted to be typecast as a thug. He also had to stretch himself, try different roles.
In the Castle Argyle parking lot, Stephen removed a roll of Tums from the glove compartment, took an antacid, chewed it, waited a moment, took another. As he stepped from the car, he belched. A man approaching the car next to his noticed, “Real smooth, Stevie boy, real smooth.” It was Kevin Willis, also one of Dan’s students. Stephen read the disdain on the man’s face, the smugness. Kevin, a body builder, had landed several small parts in major films. He never tried to be friendly, only condescending. Stephen ignored him. He remembered Dan’s words. As he walked toward the Castle Argyle entrance, the urge to place a fist in Kevin’s self-righteous face passed.
Stephen smoothed his sandy blond hair in a mirror beside the elevator before he pushed the Up button. Someone once told him he resembled the actor Neville Brand, whose career was launched in the film Stalag 17. But he didn’t see it. He wasn’t as stocky. His nose wasn’t broad like Brand’s, nor was his voice gravelly. Brand stood five foot ten. Stephen hedged to six feet.
The elevator doors rumbled open at the fifth floor. Stephen did a last minute, refined burp before he knocked at the coach’s door, “Come in, Stephen,” Dan said. “Did you happen to see Kevin Willis? He just left. He’s been cast in Ben Hur.”
“Yes, but he didn’t mention it,” Stephen replied, his insides withering; “Big part?”
“It’s a small scene, but it’s another foot in the door of a big Hollywood production.” And so the session began. Kevin’s unseen presence hung in the room, a malevolent ghost.
Dan moved two chairs together to simulate the car scene from On the Waterfront. Stephen felt uneasy about his role as Terry, a waterfront tough. He wanted to bring his own interpretation, not imitate Marlon Brando. Dan read the part of Terry’s brother Charlie. Stephen ended with the lines, “I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” They ran the piece several times. Dan prodded him to be in touch with his inner self, feel Terry’s pain, and not mumble. The lesson ended on encouraging words. Stephen left with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in his pocket for next time.
On the way to the car, he ruminated on his acting, along with cursing Kevin Willis. If he hadn’t seen him and heard of his good luck, the night would have gone better. Kevin had taken over his head. And he wasn’t happy being assigned a Shakespearean monologue. He wanted action. But Dan insisted an actor be educated in the classics, know about art, music, plays, playwrights, books, authors, songs, musicals. Actors had to understand allusions.
Before starting the car, he rolled down the window. Maybe the character’s lines were truer than Stephen wanted to believe. Had he become a coulda been? He knew one thing. He wouldn’t go back to his room. He also wouldn’t stop at a bar for a drink. A night of freedom was what he needed. He took Hollywood Blvd. to Sunset, followed the winding drive down to Pacific Coast Highway. Once on PCH, he stopped to top off the gas tank at a Shell station near Will Rogers State Beach.
He waited for service, the only car at the pumps. The attendant in the station office looked through the plate glass window, waved, pointed to the telephone receiver held next to his ear. Stephen assumed the signal meant he’d be there in a moment. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, minutes feeling like hours. On his way toward the office, he felt fresh air ride in on an ocean breeze, push away the sour smell of city smog. A stroll on the beach, not a sit at a gas pump, was what he needed.
At the office door, he said in his best waterfront, street tough voice, “You gonna talk all night or you gonna pump my gas?”
The attendant, in his late teens, said into the receiver, “Gotta go.” He followed Stephen toward his car, “What’s the problem? You know I saw you.”
Stephen turned, “My problem is, I don’t want to spend the night here.”
The attendant stopped in front of him, “Well, I got a life, too, you know.”
The fellow’s countenance suddenly bore an unfortunate resemblance to that of Kevin Willis. Stephen’s right hand came up in a fist and landed on the look-a-like’s face. The kid staggered back, fell, hauled himself to his feet. He cupped his hand over his nose and mouth, blood running between his fingers, his eyes flashing surprise, then fear. He stumbled back to the office. The door slammed. The lock clicked.
His hand throbbing, Stephen ran to the car, fumbled the keys into the ignition. A glance over his shoulder revealed the kid on the telephone. Stephen’s foot plied the gas as he drove from the beach back toward Sunset. He checked his rear view mirror. The adrenalin rush, the action he craved, faded into stupidity for what he had just done. The kid, he hoped, only had a split lip, nothing worse. He wove the Ford Fairlane back into Friday night traffic.
In his room, he fell on the bed. Did the attendant call the police? Could the kid see his license number? He turned on the TV, mindlessly watching an old western while a headache vied with a bellyache for attention. Sleep finally came, but he awakened in a sweat, his heart beating rapidly. He got out of bed, ran cold water into the lone glass and drank. He fell back onto the sheets. Several minutes of deep breathing calmed him and he was able to doze, only to awake with the urge to pee. He made his way down the hall to the bathroom and back. In bed once again, his mind paraded a list of disappointments. No messages, no control, no parts, no sleep. Too soon, sunlight poked through his window, announcing Saturday morning. He had to be at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Blvd. for a matinee of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
On the edge of the bed, hair unruly, eyes puffy, he willed himself to get up, to start moving. With his towel, jeans, and a clean tee shirt in hand, he pounded on the door of the bathroom. The old guy who lived in the room next door told him to hold his horses. He’d be right out.
Stephen paced the hall. The job at the movie house with its flexible hours helped him pay for his lessons. At the very least, it kept him in the physical world of acting, kept his head in the game. He had to report at noon. Finally, the bathroom door opened. He rushed through his shower, threw on his clothes.
Stephen parked behind the Pantages Theater, relied on another Tums, and sprinted around the building into the lobby. Mr. Victor, his boss, wasn’t in yet to know he arrived late. He hurried to his locker. Not having eaten much since Friday’s ill-fated beef jerky, he rummaged for an Almond Joy he’d stashed on the locker’s top shelf. He unwrapped the bar, picked up one of the pieces in his fingers, and took a bite. The milk chocolate-coated coconut blended in his mouth, wafted to his nose, the single almond crunched. Pieces settled between his teeth. He licked his fingers, knowing he’d finish the rest once he changed his clothes.
He slipped out of his jeans into trousers with firm creases, with gold stripes down the outside of each leg. Next came a white shirt, then a gold necktie. He frowned at the slightly soiled collar. He donned a double-breasted jacket with brass buttons, gold piping just above the sleeve cuffs, gold epaulets on each shoulder. Then came white leather shoes with scuffs on the toes. No time to polish them. Lastly, he put on a policeman style hat, the color of the uniform, with gold braid above the black visor, and checked himself in the small mirror hanging on the inside of the locker door.
Magic happened every time he put on the uniform. He stood straighter. His face reflected confidence back to him. He tilted the hat ever so slightly. He felt handsome. His mood lifted for the first time since leaving work on Friday. He finished the Almond Joy, straightened his jacket.
In the lobby, as he reached for a stack of playbills sitting on the candy counter, the girl working at the concession asked about the stains on the front of his jacket. What stains, he wondered. A glimpse in one of the lobby mirrors revealed two chocolate smudges. He tried to remove them with candy counter napkins moistened at the lobby drinking fountain. After hard rubbing, they lessened a bit but were still visible. With his jaunty good mood fading, he had an idea. If he held the playbills in front of him with his left hand, close to his chest, he could hide the damage. He walked out onto the sidewalk, into the spring sun to work, to dry.
For the next five hours he strolled, part of the Hollywood scene, passing out playbills to tourists and moviegoers who were anxious to see Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. It felt good to be somebody people noticed, at least for a Saturday afternoon. Children liked his uniform. Young girls gave him a lingering look, giggled when he handed them a flier. Women flirted. Old ladies smiled. He hugged the playbills close. A familiar voice rang in his right ear, “Hey, Stevie.” Kevin Willis walked up to him. “Auditioning for a part? The leader of a brass band perhaps? You know, like Robert Preston.” Stephen looked at him, questions in his eyes, “Do you know what I mean? The Music Man? “Seventy-Six Trombones?” It’s kind of difficult, though, for you to be in a band with your arm stuck to your chest. Right now, you look a little like Napoleon.”
Stephen ground his teeth. At the same time, he felt a tug on his jacket sleeve. A young boy peered up at him, “Can me and my sister have one, Mister?” It was then he realized his hand had curled into a fist. He uncoiled it quickly to respond to the boy’s request. He handed him a flier.
Kevin Willis moved on with a smirk toward the ticket office, calling a last minute over the shoulder barb, “Then again, every theater needs an usher.”
He wanted to clock Kevin Willis. But what would that get him? Not much satisfaction. He found that out last night at the gas station. One punch could hurt someone. One punch could foul up his life. Restraint. Think first, not fist. He should thank the boy for saving him from himself.
At six o’clock he changed out of his uniform. He’d probably have to pay for the jacket’s dry cleaning. He drove back to his room and parked down the block in the only space he could find, which made for a longer walk to the boarding house. When he entered the foyer, Mrs. Kaminsky’s door opened, “Oh, Mr. Bowles. A woman, last name Myers, called Friday around five. I posted it on the board, but you must have missed it.” She handed him the folded message.
Yes, he’d missed it. He had too much on his mind.
“Will you please instruct your callers to leave their name and number only, that you will return their call? You know the rules. I am not a personal secretary.”
Stephen thanked her. She retired back into her room, door ajar. He knew the rules. Whoever answered the phone, and someone usually did either out of curiosity or because they were expecting or hoping for a call, was to take down the name and number only, no lengthy messages. No, Mrs. Kaminsky, he thought, you are not a personal secretary, but you do like to know everyone’s business.
Joan Myers worked at one of the agencies. She never contacted him for ordinary open cattle calls. He unfolded the note. “Report to the United Artists’ casting office Monday afternoon at 3:45. Auditions for The Alamo, John Wayne’s next film.” An uncontrolled whoop came out of his mouth.
Mrs. Kaminsky’s door swung open again, “Mr. Bowles,” she called. He stopped in the middle of taking two stairs at a time. He turned, “Mr. Bowles, please be considerate of the day sleepers.” He nodded, but read the note aloud more than once on the climb up to his room. The LP record just may have found a new groove.