Jul/Aug 2021  •   Nonfiction

To Live and Die in LA

by Guinotte Wise

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

That is not too dramatic a title, actually. I did live in LA, and my life truly was in danger there for a period of time. I worked at a very large advertising agency on a very large automotive account. Incidentally, one of the commercials we did was shot at the postmodern house featured in the movie To Live and Die in LA. It was a concrete or stucco structure as I recall, and quite Bauhaus, perhaps straying into the territory of architectural Brutalism. But that's just a memory nudge for the title itself. Good film, by the way. One of the last good noir movies. A William Friedkin-directed film, it had a bitching car chase unlike any I'd previously seen—a wrong way on the freeway. An aerial view of that onrush of cars was breathtaking. They must have choreographed 500 cars and drivers for that white knuckle deal. It was a very good flick in 1985, and it stands up well over time.

Anyway, it started like this, the danger part. I rewrote another guy's copy. The Executive Creative Director requested it. I looked at the previous words, found them poetic but a bit florid, a little too dramatic for the car they described, rewrote same, put it in the system. This was back before the mass shootings became like bugs on a windshield (oh, there's another one): the last one I could recall was that spooky Texas tower shooting in 1966, and that was a hazy memory. At any rate, the guy whose copy I rewrote was heard to say something to the effect of "The list of people who I'm gonna take out is growing." Then he appeared in my office (yes, we had offices then, the cubicle craze had not yet begun) wearing a black t-shirt with white letters proclaiming, KILL 'EM ALL, LET GOD SORT IT OUT. And it wasn't even casual Friday. He also sported cargo fatigues and mil-spec boots. I guess I was open-mouthed. I'd completely forgotten the rewrite, and I didn't remember it then. I knew the guy, vaguely; it was a big agency. Let's call him Dave.

"Hi, Dave. What's up?"

"I brought you something." He reached behind his back and whipped out a knife in a scabbard and handed it to me.

I took it, noting it had a plastic camo handle with a compass embedded in the top.

"Uhh. For me?"

"Yeah, it's a survival knife. I got it in Mexico." The agency was in Los Angeles County, a short drive from Mexico. People went there all the time. I removed the knife from the cheap sheath, saw that it had a serrated edge for... cleaning fish? Opening oysters? It looked like the poorly made stuff one picks up at a sale table in Juarez.

"You shouldn't have. A survival knife?"

"Yeah. Never know when you might need it."

"I shall treasure it."

An awkward silence followed, me grinning maniacally and waving my new crappy knife in the air. Dave stood for a while, arms at his side so I could read his t-shirt, perhaps. Then my phone rang and he was gone. I worked for an Executive Creative Director and a CD. I was a group CD. It was the ECD on the phone.

"Hey, G, could you come to my office?"

The ECD was from the Bronx, pretty straight-talking and somewhat bluff. After announcing we had a "little staff problem," he asked me, "Did you tell Dave the writer to go fuck himself the other day? In the elevator?" After I protested such an unpleasant exchange, he said, "Oh, I don't mind if you did, he probably deserved it, but if you didn't, then he's having hallucinations, or worse, he's compiling scores to settle."

"Why would he do that?"

"It's complicated. In any case, I ask that you avoid him, or treat him with kid gloves for a while."

"Okay." Then I told him about the survival knife and the odd conversation in my office, and we ended the topic, he on a worried note. I won't say I didn't think about the situation, but it took a back seat as other problems pushed it from the forefront.

Perhaps a week later, in the elevator, a scene took place that imprinted on my memory screen firmly enough to pop up vividly even today, years later. It was near lunchtime. The only other occupant in the elevator was a young woman who worked at the agency in a secretarial or production capacity. I'd seen her around. No cellphones back then, or we'd each have been gazing at one, mouthbreathing. I smiled and nodded. She moved next to me, into "my space." The eye contact that had begun with acknowledgment intensified. Then she did something that still elicits goose bumps: I was wearing a polo shirt, and she touched my bare arm with the back of an index finger, grazing it from inner elbow to wrist and back again. While locking eyes and dimpling just a little with a slight smile. Not a word. It was quite overtly sexy. The door opened at the ground floor, and she walked out. I think I was frozen there for an instant and had to stop the door from closing before I could leave. No sign of her in the hall. I proceeded out the front door and into the bright California sunlight. The incident would have registered firmly even if she hadn't been someone whom I knew by happenstance that Dave was pursuing ardently.

Habitually, I arrived at work by 5:00 AM. Few were around at that time, but I saw Dave with a large batch of flowers one of those early mornings, and while I was starting the coffee machines on another floor, I saw him lay the bouquet down on the elevator lady's desk in a secretarial or accounting area where some desks were laid out in a communal arrangement.

So, here I was in some kind of unanticipated, unwanted love triangle. I couldn't laugh it off; the elevator incident had been too pointed, too explicit to be anything but a come-on. Not that she wasn't attractive, but if Dave was dogging her tracks, I wanted well away from the both of them.

A few days later I was pacing the Creative Floor hallway, my wont when thinking, and I saw a new guy in an office near the ECD's office. I was usually apprised of new arrivals, so this was unusual. I asked the CD who the new guy was. The CD, also from New York like the ECD, and very forthcoming in a humorous way, was oddly evasive. "He's a special projects guy. He's just here to work with the ECD. Secret stuff."

Secret stuff. Very unlike the creative department. We were an open bunch and practiced complementarity, having discovered creativity flourished in such an atmosphere. I stopped by the new man's office and introduced myself. He seemed flustered when I told him what I worked on and offered assistance in finding needed materials, or introductions, whatever he might find helpful in negotiating the system in his first few days. Usually there was an orientation period during which the FNG got paraded around, met the folks, traded lies about awards and accounts, and settled in to whatever group he or she was hired to work with, or for, or over.

This new guy was young, had a very heavy German accent, and acted like he was totally unsuited for the louche behavior on the creative floor.

"What's with the new guy? Really?" I asked my immediate boss.

Rich was a very humorous and outspoken Italian from New York. His answer was hesitant and without his usual disarming wit. "You can't repeat this," he said. "The new guy is a bodyguard."

"No shit? For who?" I knew in a flash it was true. The German guy was in good shape, moved like a cat, nervous as he was. It turned out he was there to provide protection for the executive creative director and was positioned down the hall and at an angle to the ECD's corner office that would allow for easy viewing and quick access. Rich's office was at the opposite corner, and mine was somewhere in between.

Rich and the ECD were on Dave's shit list, as was I. An informant had given them the list of about 20 names that Dave had said he was "taking with him when he went out." All the names had been guilty of a real or imagined slight. Dave's therapist had finally called, or had someone call, the agency about Dave's attempt to buy a gun. The gun dealer had balked because he felt Dave was either drunk or on drugs, and had informed the police. Somehow the therapist had been questioned and public safety won out over patient/doctor confidentiality.

Rich got up and shut his office door, then he reached into a balled up suede jacket lying on his desk and pulled out a shiny, nickel-plated .45 semi-automatic. He made several quick moves like the TV detectives do, whirling about, gun held in both hands.

"Shit!" I ducked reflexively.

"In case the German guy isn't fast enough." Rich grinned evilly.

"Is that thing loaded?"

"All guns are loaded." He handed it to me, grip first. after sliding the action back, ejecting a shell. It was a heavy piece, Desert Eagle.

"Paisano with a big Hebrew cannon, don't fuck with me," he said, pulling a face that was usually followed by his explosive, contagious laugh.

When we went to lunch, he took the thing with him, pulled it in the parking lot and we dodged between cars in a parody of Miami Vice. I'll always remember that scene, giddy and laughing, ducking and whirling behind cars; unfortunately, Rich, still a young man, died of a heart attack within two years of that strange time.

Sadly, the ECD also passed away, but at a more advanced age and at his retirement choice of Shelter Island, New York. But while he was hale, hearty, alive, and attempting to stay that way, he added me to the list of the in-house protectorate. So I was on two lists now. The German guy was friendlier, and he patrolled, watched, and noted times of exit and entrance. I supposed he was armed.

As mentioned, my habit was to arrive at work about 5:00 AM, the same time as the brokers on the first floor. They had to respond to New York time, which was three hours later. I would take the elevator to the seventh floor, make coffee, and settle in for my day. I preferred the silence for my first few hours of work. The thing was, Dave began lurking about early as well. He had every right to be there, ostensibly, but seeing flashes of a person who had vowed to take me with him on his possible day of exit spooked the hell out of me.

"I wanted to show you something I wrote, see if it measures up to your high standards."

The voice was behind me. I hadn't heard Dave enter my office. I think I uttered something like "Aiiiiieeeeyahh!" loudly, as I tried to keep from falling out of my chair. The clock said six in the morning. Daylight was rising pinkish through the mist outside my windows. And there stood Dave, too close, holding a sheet of typewritten copy. It was a love letter to the elevator lady.

"Uhh, Dave, maybe it's not, ahh, appropriate for me to read this. I mean, you know, it's... personal..." I trailed off.

"It would mean a lot, your opinion." He stood, weight on one foot as though ready to spring.

Keeping him in my peripheral vision, I read it. Schmaltzy, heart-to-heart, let's get it on stuff. "Well, it should get her attention, Dave. I can only assume you know her pretty well?"

"Well enough." He smiled, conspiratorially.

"Then let 'er fly, I'd say. Faint heart ne'er won fair lady."

"Give you a tip. Next time you're going under for plunder, use a Wint-o-Green lifesaver. Better yet a menthol cough drop. Drives 'em nuts."

"Thanks Dave. Well, back to work..." I waggled my fingers at the keyboard like an eager pianist. When I looked back around, he was gone. I tried to dim the image in my mind of Dave and the elevator lady, as he popped a mint in his mouth and hit the deck. But then if they got together, that would seem to sap energy from other endeavors such as blowing my head off in the early hours and laying in wait for others on his list. The German guy arrived at nine with the majority of the creatives. Maybe I would change my hours as well.

I envisioned Dave asking Elevator Lady, "Going down?" That made me laugh out loud as I typed. I was becoming giddy and weird with the strange atmospherics swirling about. I had questions: Why didn't they just lay him off? Or maybe have him committed?

The constant state of menace was tiring, and I was becoming paranoid. At home I was hearing noises that were new to me. The outside stairs leading up to my door sounded off when someone hurried up or down them; the previous night someone had bounded up them and down again. It had been the pizza guy discovering he was at the wrong door. The town house was two separate residences and had a front and back entrance, A and B. I was B and more secluded.

Another sound I noticed more and more was that of the free range peacocks of Palos Verdes. A thing there for some reason, they wandered everywhere. They screeched and sometimes made noises like a cat yowling, or a child hollering, No! That was eroding what peace of mind I had left.

The next day I was at work, and about 7:30 AM. I was standing out by the coffee machines getting a refill when something shiny and hard bounced off my shoulder. I whirled around, spilling hot coffee on my arm. "Damnit!" I dropped the styrofoam cup, bent to pick up the shiny object, and I felt my whole center of balance go. Earthquake, I realized.

More shiny objects fell from the ceiling; they were chrome sprinkler casings. Drawers slid open beneath the coffee machines. Drawers of filing cabinets in the hallway screeched open. The building yawed. I went to look out the windows upon what appeared to be a normal sunny day, blue sky, birds flying, traffic moving. I decided to get the hell out before an aftershock hit. This was the seventh floor, and I did what I normally do, hit the button on the elevator. Wrong. You are warned not to take elevators during an earthquake.

I remembered this while descending and duly noted the swing of the elevator as it bumped things on the way down. I got to the ground floor and saw Dave flitting around a column, or was I imagining that. No matter. If I lived long enough, I was making some calls today and getting out. Yes, it was Dave. He flitted behind another column. Where was that German guy when you needed him anyway? Outside, the brokers' vehicles and my own howled like an air raid in WWII England, all the car alarms in arrhythmic discord. The light poles swayed as an aftershock rolled through. The brokers' cars, a Maserati among them, wailed anew. Mine, too, a GMC truck that would become more and more appropriate as the miles spooled out behind me on the way back to Kansas. If I lived long enough. To live and die in LA was a movie title. You can't go home, of course. The concept home wasn't there anymore, and I was cagey enough to know it. Home was Christmases, high school, first marriages, dogs and horses and yearnings. Home was "Moon River," vanished people, a Schwinn bike and the first pay envelope. Home was people who loved you or didn't, and all of them were gone.

Dave appeared in front of me in his "Let God sort it out" t-shirt. "You looked like you were surfing in the parking lot. Funny." Then he popped a mint into his mouth, winked, and headed back into the building. The parking lot rippled a bit, and sure enough, I spread my arms for balance.

In a day, I had another job, gave two weeks notice, directed a moving company to load up some furniture and the Harley, invoked my last month's rent on the town house, laid low by changing my hours around, and never saw Dave or LA again. There was no mass shooting. Dave had been a mechanism, like an earthquake, or a sudden realization, that it was time to go. Simply that. California Dreaming was no longer viable.

Joan Didion said in "Notes from a Native Daughter," "California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."

Things had worked here. I'd just taken it as far as I could. The next thing was Australia or back where I came from. Back I went. Sometimes that, Messrs. Wolfe and Alger, is where you go, and it takes every bit as much moxie, if not more, than forging ever west or seeking something where home used to be.

I wish I could give the reader closure on the Dave thing. As for myself, I guess I don't need it. Curiosity has compelled me to ask a couple of LA people who were somewhat familiar with that time, but they knew nothing. The ones closest to it have passed away, perhaps Dave, too. I looked online for his obituary but found nothing, not even his name in any search; it's as though he disappeared or never existed. Usually, writers will eventually come up with a book or a screenplay, but not Dave, apparently. Nothing on Amazon or IMDb, not even a Facebook page. He'd mentioned a title of a movie he was thinking about, a macabre film about a poetic serial killer, "No Rhyme, No Reason."

I think of that time as the mass shooting that never occurred. There were 20 on his list, and it was growing daily. His therapist was alarmed enough to alert the office and a gun store in Torrance, which then refused his purchase of a semiautomatic weapon by saying it was probably just a glitch and to try back later. But the agency had been told of the list previously, by a co-worker whom he'd confided in early on in this drama. While Dave never got his plan off the ground, the decade exploded into mass shootings. While the '70s listed 15 such events (among those was Kent State) and 76 dead, the '80s list was close to 200. And, sadly, we're aware of the decades' tolls since. The elimination of bumpstocks and extra capacity magazines seems like a bad joke in The Onion. I have no stance, no soapbox, but I might feel very different had I gone to work one day and caught a .223 in the shoulder and lived through the terror. To Live and Die in LA. Good movie. Shitty Life Plan.