I almost just wrote that before a couple of days ago the last time I was asked to be in a movie was in 1984 or ’5, when I was cast in a Columbia University student film as some sort of thug. I can’t remember if I was a good thug or bad thug. My friend Will Hart and I got the parts not because we were actors or tough but because we already wore the outfit: wife-beaters and ripped-up jeans. By Ivy League standards, we looked the part. But by the time the film was cut and edited, I’d dropped out of college and had made my way to Ketchikan, Alaska, where, on the evening of the film’s premiere, I was hip deep and nearly frozen in the blood-and-ice sludge of thawing halibut, yanking jaws onto hooks, staring into dead open eyes.
Ketchikan is an island. I’d been advised in a tavern in Seattle, where I’d had no luck getting hired onto a fishing boat, that there was lots of cannery work in Ketchikan. They’ll hire anybody, I was told. And so I went, travelling to the island by boat, arriving with a backpack stuffed with some clothes, a notebook and pens, a copy of Crime and Punishment, and a jar each of peanut butter and jelly, along with a loaf of bread and, tied to the backpack, a tent I’d purchased from a Sears or JC Penney before I left Seattle. By the time I set foot on Alaskan soil I was down to about ten, maybe twelve dollars. The money—the lack of it—was little concern. Though I’d been raised in and had always lived in a big city, though I’d never camped a day in my life, thought, in fact, of rivers and trees and non-pet animals as so much clip art, I arrived with confidence aplenty. I was 19.
I departed the boat under a late afternoon drizzle and hiked down Ketchikan’s main thoroughfare until I came across what I think now must have been the Chamber of Commerce. It was a small, square, one story building. Dropping my pack outside the door, I entered and explained to a woman at a desk—there was no one else around; she didn’t seem surprised by my entrance—that I’d just arrived from New York City and had been told that there was cannery work to be had and could she tell me how I could start working pretty immediately and also where I might set up my tent, as I had no money for rent or a motel.
“Hold on, Honey,” she said. She may not have actually said “Honey,” but I remember it that way. She lifted her phone and dialed and spoke to someone and then listened and then hung up and told me that a man would arrive in a half hour or so. The man would help me.
“New York,” she said. “You got rain gear?”
I shook my head.
She went behind a door and returned with a green plastic poncho. “You’ll need this, at least.” She tossed it to me.
“You smoke?” she asked.
She fished two Benson and Hedges Menthol 100s—my mother’s brand!—from a pack on her desk and handed them to me with a pack of matches. “Go on out under the awning until he gets here,” she said. “He gets here, he’ll be able to help.”
I sat on a bench under the awning, smoking that good woman’s cigarettes and trying to concentrate on the Dostoyevsky. I was a little hungry but didn’t yet want to break into the PB & J. I also, because I’ve always had a nostalgic streak—even as a little kid, I made of the past almost nothing but sweet times—, already missed New York: I missed the city and my friends and especially my girlfriend—really, my wife, but no one knew that; we’d gotten married secretly—whose body would not warm mine for as long as this Alaskan journey lasted. I finally gave up on the grand text entirely and, watching the smoke curl into the rain, waited for the man.
The second time someone asked me to be in a movie—the time I almost forgot—must have been around 1991 or so. I was living in Los Angeles, working—when I worked—in left wing politics. I was drinking heavily. Somehow I got it into my head that because I was in LA I might as well give the old acting career a shot. I say somehow because with the exception of the student film mentioned above, I had zero experience acting. I didn’t know the first thing about acting and would have, in fact, at that time of my life, been cursing Hollywood actors in general for their riches and selfishness in the face of widespread inequality and worldwide poverty. It’s possible, in fact, that more than once I hurled bottles at actors in clubs for the sole reason that they were actors.
I was drunk and lonely and hated myself. And so I thought: if them, why not me?