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TODAY

Sunday, February 17

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Airbags

I was standing on the balcony when I got the news from Atom, my friend back in Chicago. It wasn't a particularly loud day in Santa Monica but I was pressing my ear into my cellphone in order to hear every word.

"I dunno, I think I'm done," he said. "It's a lot of time and energy, and I don't really want to do it anymore." I looked across at the street, where an entire family on bike was pedaling through the intersection at a snail's pace.

"Aw, come on. Come on. Let's do one more. Come on." The thing in question was the film festival he and I and some friends had run for the past seven years. Seven years of hard labor, sometimes routine labor without any reward other than the warm glow of a projector and the anticipation of entertaining several hundred people at once.

We've produced three or so events per year and screened between 15 and, at our height of popularity, 30 films at each show. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of four hundred films made for our show. Since I moved here to Los Angeles back in winter of 2004, it's been difficult to continue producing the festival. Atom's a business owner, runs a small coffeeshop in Ukranian Village. He's pretty busy with that. Christian and Andrew, our video and web producers, lead busy lives as well. As for myself, I'm trying to get a writer's assistant job on a television show and write some movies. Most of the time, I try to keep busy, even when that involves nothing more than sitting in a small cafe, pumping some words into my beat-up laptop.

"You're sure about this?" I asked. The sky above me was a smooth blue, ruffled with a few white contrails and a streak that may have at one time been a cloud. "I really don't know what to say. I guess I just thought it would keep going."

"I mean, you guys can keep doing it," he said. "We have enough money for one more festival. I just don't have it in me anymore."

I looked across the balcony and then the door opened behind me. It was Adina, stepping out with a cigarette in hand. She lit her cigarette and wandered over to the potted plants and I stepped back inside the small office.

I wandered though, holding my cellphone at my side. The office was Cutters Los Angeles, where I was working as a freelance assistant. Cutters LA is the West coast wing of the company that I worked for in Chicago, the same company that fired me three years ago. Different people, different me. I nodded at Kasey, the assistant producer. She nodded and smiled back. She was nibbling a piece of bread and typing with her free hand.

Atom and I finished the conversation in the small voiceover booth at the rear of the building. I shut the door and paced in a circle in front of the voiceover microphone. John M, a former employee, had told me a story about that microphone. It was directly connected to the Chicago office. A year or so back, John had been marching around in front of it, complaining about the company. Someone in Chicago had turned on the mic — always meant to be live — and heard John's entire cellphone conversation. He'd gotten into big trouble.

As I told Atom it was alright to stop doing the festival, I reached up and unplugged the jack for the microphone, cutting off communication with the Chicago office. Probably nobody even knew. I watched the plug swing on the end of the microphone stand. A few moments later, the door opened. I looked up at the microphone and swore. Adina poked her head into the sound booth.

She asked if I would be done soon, that she had received some images that needed to be photoshopped as soon as I got off the phone. Atom paused and I explained what my coworker had said.

"Oh, I should probably let you go, then," said Atom.

"No, Adina's crazy and lost. She can barely forward an email. I have no idea why she was hired as an editor."

"You say that about every editor you work for," Atom chided.

"Oh, I know," I said. "This time I really mean it."

~*~

The night before, I had been sitting in the coffeeshop near my apartment, sending an email to an old friend. A couple of chairs over, a woman and a man were having a two person production meeting. Their own computer was open between them, displaying a myspace page.

"She's not right for the part. I mean, this should be a more verisimilitude-based project. Let's consider that, before we go calling her for callbacks." Then the woman's cellphone rang and the man whispered "who is it" for about 15 seconds. I packed up my things. The woman motioned to the man who picked up their laptop and carried it, still open, down the stairs after her.

As my legs dragged me sluggishly through the coffeeshop, I looked at all the laptop screens, blowing their words and photos into people's faces. Everyone was wearing headphones. Several people had screenplays displayed on the screens of their computers. One woman, a short cute girl in a pleated skirt, was leaning across to one of the regulars, a grizzly-haired older man seated in an easy chair.

"I read your script last night. I was drunk, but I remember it being really great," she said. He laughed embarrassed. I made it to the door and pushed it open. Behind me, someone began shouting about the bathroom key. As my legs took me past the people seated at tables in front of the coffee house, heads of kids sitting outside all turned toward the ruckus behind me. They were perched in clumps, like little mushrooms clustered around a tree trunk, smoking and whispering about the commotion inside. Beyond the outdoor tables, the sidewalk streamed with a few stragglers, thumbing cell phones. One man was walking a dog and letting it shit in the little dirt square of a planted tree outside the Indian restaurant.

Further up the block, my legs made me wait at the stoplight. Car after car rolled past, people laughing, radios celebrating. I felt my own cellphone vibrate and I looked at the text message. It was from a drinking buddy, wanting to know if I was up for a late-night conversation at the Drawing Room. The Drawing Room was the first bar I'd visited when I'd come to LA in the spring of 2001. I go there once or twice a week for drinks with friends. Different bartenders, different me.

As the legs followed the imaginary dotted line back to the apartment, I stopped to find my keys. Up the hill, way up above and just west of Griffith Park, stood the Observatory. It was recently reopened for the first time in years and it glowed like a white tooth planted in the Hollywood Hills, like a constant reminder of James Dean and the wages of fame. I stared up at it and felt the keys in my pocket. Their teeth rubbed against my fingertip. A car rolled past. Life as as a movie, a life in the movies. In television, in radio, in coffeeshops and out at bars, discussing writing instead of sitting at home, writing, drawing the curtains and facing the future alone, the blinking cursor, the dark.

"You're an idiot," I said and pulled the keys from my pocket. As I jumped up the steps, I tried a little grapevine dance move from my days in high school swing choir and lost my balance. Almost dropped my computer bag on the sidewalk. I laughed out loud and felt good for the first time all night.

~*~

Back in the office, in the next day, I closed the cellphone and stepped out of the sound room. Adina was waiting for me, standing in her doorway. Her arms were crossed.

"We need to get dis ting done, like, yeshterday. I haff been waiting for you!" she said. She's Iranian-born and German-raised, an angry editor with a speech impediment and a loose hold on the English language.

"Sorry, I was on the phone, it was an important call." I sat down at the assistant's computer.

"You know, it's a hard time, we need to work fashter. No time for being lazy."

"Sorry," I said. "I'll get started on photoshopping."

"Please, that would be gra-te. They are, the stills, they are on the desktop." She turned and left for her room. I looked at Kasey. She was still munching her bread.

"I hate that bread," I said to her. "That's the cinnamon raisin stuff, right?" Kasey beamed.

"I — actually, I thought I didn't like it at first. Then I started eating it because there was nothing else to eat and now I can't get enough of it! It's funny." She popped the last chunk into her mouth and chewed. "And, when I eat it, it makes my hands smell funny. I like that."

"Shahn — are there any photos ready yet?" Adina called from the editing room.

"Just about," I said. "Five minutes." Kasey picked up her plate and walked off to the kitchen. I remembered something and returned to the sound booth, plugged the microphone back in. Then I went back to the computer. Adina came out to stand silently next to me, arms crossed, as I cut and pasted pieces photographs of people frozen in daily activities onto a plain white background.

"I'm going to write for a living," I said to her. She blinked and made a strange half-grimace. "At dis rate, you are going to haff to."

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2004. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

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