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TODAY

Sunday, September 22

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Airbags

In the beginning, there's nothing but the inky space all over the valley, dotted with squares of window light looking like specks of dust on black polyester. Then the sky creeps up from a dark theatre curtain, blue-black to a less somber sea blue. Thin clouds thread the rays of light along the horizon. This continues for an hour or so, until the sun finally slurps up over the rooftops with more of a shrug than a fanfare, as though it had been in an adjoining room at a party and stumbled through a small door. Some birdsong follows the cars that occasionally roll down along the paths and into the city. A slow warmth reheats last night's leftover chill and another winter day in Southern California begins.

The road down the hill is a slope of 40 degrees. If you drive down it without your foot halfway on the break, you'll die. The front of the car would become a battering ram, carom off a house or a garage and head off into the foliage, never to emerge. The English breakfast tea splashes everywhere on these circling descents -- on the back of your hand, onto the small pile of receipts you've been stuffing into the passenger side cupholder, all over your cellphone and anything else near you. Your neck is stiff from sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor, a step up from the air mattress. A stray cat wanders into a back alley as you creep by, halting freefall with your right foot. The stop light at the end of the block lingers on red.

Taillights are lit up in the dusty haze as morning traffic snakes along at top speed in bracingly short intervals. Further down Beverly Avenue, the first bulbs of a road crew's giant flashing arrow are visible. To the left, a woman with sunglasses is verbally suing someone on her phone while she sips like a bird at a white coffee cup. On the right, two men wearing baseball caps are sitting in a rusty red lowrider, listening to thump-thump-thump-a. Ahead is a license plate that reads "MILFY." It drifts away from you before slowing to a stop. The flash of lane closure arrows herd people to the left. A long trough of concrete is filling from a cement truck's chute. Yellow-vested workmen step over the wet curb, scratching their necks and lifting their helmets to smooth down their hair. They ignore the sea of cars shifting around them as one points at another and a number of them laugh out loud, throaty cackles that reach the open window of your car.

When you finally arrive at the interview, your first since you landed in Los Angeles three weeks ago, you walk away from your car and glare at the bleak grey sky. There have been a few more rainy days than you were expecting. Today ought to be sunny and inspiring. Instead, it feels clammy as your wipe your hands before entering the lobby of the XYZ editing company. You remind yourself that, if it were Chicago, you'd be wearing a beaver-pelt coat and snowshoes, carrying a coffee can full of peanuts and raisins in case you got lost in a blizzard.

Once inside, you find the receptionist around a corner from the kitchen. She is seated at a small, makeshift desk. All around, there are chairs, bare plywood walls, doors that slide on shower curtain racks. One guy, an assistant, maybe, is leaning against the receptionist's desk. He smiles at you and says hi before walking away. You pat your hair down and say that you're there to meet so and so. She asks if you want some coffee. A man walks past with a long two by four. He carefully swings it sideways before entering a room with a sliding glass door. The door closes just before the sound of hammering crashes through.

It's a post-production house, one of the most prestigious in the city. You got an interview through a close friend of one of the owners. You couldn't find your favorite long-sleeve pullover before you left the house. Now you're starting to sweat in a dress shirt that looks five hundred percent too formal for the place. The imaginary stamp of middle-America fashion is all over you. You remember your first big interview in Chicago, four years ago. The Nelson lamps, the Herman Miller chairs, the huge windows and the ceremony of three carefully-paced interrogations. You wore a dress shirt and tie. Here at XYZ, there is sawdust on the floor and an intern or somebody with a screw gun, straining against a hunk of particle board. The interviewer, a friendly baseball-capped producer, makes a joke about the noise. You laugh politely, more at the absurdity of it all.

The interviewer gestures toward a large table out in the middle of everything. A conference room full of people is right next door. On the other side is a kitchenette where a couple of people stand talking about driving delays. The carpenter guy from earlier is on the floor with a new board and a thick pencil. He smiles and moves back so you can pull your chair out. The very first thing you think is, "What the fuck? This is an interview! I need some privacy here! I need to build the story of myself into an epic saga and I don't want any of you interlopers making me feel inadequate!" There is no closed confessional here. It is a trough urinal at a baseball game and it is tacitly implied that if you're pee-shy, the 40 guys behind you aren't.

The hammering begins again as you dig in, reviewing your work experience in an off-handed manner. In your mind there is a flurry of thoughts, randomness generated by your insomnia: come one and all, the insane inner-life of the interviewee is about to begin. Whether or not you get this job, there will be no more lucid or fragile time while you're here. Your mind makes the most of it, remembering your favorite Bob Hope movie or the taste of clove cigarettes after sex or the tree in the backyard you used to throw your 9-year-old self out of, in order to toughen up for your future as a stuntman. You are, for a brief period, mostly insane.

"So, you seem to know what you're doing. You've got your head on alright," says the man with the cap. A long pause. "We get a lot of guys in here for interviews, only to find out that they really don't know much about assistant work."

"No, my last job gave me some good experience. It was like four years of paid education," you say. Someone comes out of the sliding door and nods at the two of you before heading to the kitchen area. The interviewer sits up. "Hey, let's have you meet Stan for a second, I have something I have to call about." You don't even have time to say goodbye and thanks before you are shaking hands with a new person, another producer, then seated uncomfortably again in the chair.

The lateral pass and run routine continues until you are sitting with the end of the food chain, another editorial assistant from the company. The life in your mind has quieted down somewhat -- you are mostly able to focus on the world around you, without a barrage of mental interruptions. The two of you chat about what it's like to work in commercial post-production. You ask him what he wants to do, for real, no disrespect to the job and all that.

"I really want to direct. I want to direct and this job is a great way to meet directors, really get to work with them on a close level. You're right there and you learn so much, just from watching them work." He looks away toward a sharp voice from the next room.

"That's awesome," you say. "It's a great idea to do that after you have some editorial experience. Learn what to cover while you're shooting and everything." He looks back and taps the table with his palm.

"What about you?"

I sometimes remember a toy I made when I was young. The Sunday comics section always had a science and crafts for kids section inside -- you could glue milk cartons together and make a submarine. Take some toilet paper tubes, some candle wax and a bread bag and you could make a hot air balloon. That sort of thing.

One of the weirdest toys -- more of a game, really was a group of several sealed shoe boxes glued together, side by side. A hole that led all the way through the line of boxes was cut into each, and a marble was put into one end of the contraption. The game was to move the marble as quickly as possible from the first box to the last box. You couldn't see the holes inside or the marble. You just had to shake the pile of stuck-together boxes and try to roll the ball around until it fell through the hole at the far end. I think the point was to make it a timed competition, with a lot of kids (see fig. 4 on the comic page) standing around clapping and cheering. When I built it there was just me, fascinated by the thing I had made, tilting the boxes around, listening.

You briefly think back to an odd homemade toy from your childhood before you answer, "I guess I want to write." He nods.

"Editorial is good for that, I bet. You make something, write something and then you have to edit it." He slaps the table again, with finality. "I... have to get ready for my client. Got the creatives in today, you know, kind of a pain in the ass." You smile.

"Nice meeting you. Hope we're working together soon." He nods curtly.

"Oh, don't worry about it. Big town. This doesn't pan out there'll be a million other places you can check out."

You look out the window as a light rain begins. You are alone in the room for the first time. From another adjacent room, a burst of static rattles around and is quickly turned down. Your resume is on the desk in front of you. For no particular reason, you absently pick up the sheet. With a few folds, you could have a well-crafted paper airplane. Minus the stripes on the sides and lightning bolts along the wings.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren recently left Chicago for Los Angeles to try his hand at the movie business. In this occassional series, he updates us on his progress.

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