Just how exactly did I come to find myself squatting in someone’s disaster counting their rolls of toilet paper? This certainly wasn’t anything I imagined for my future when I lay in bed, staring up at the constellation of glow-in-the dark-stars that spattered my teenaged skies. At the very least, the doors my little golden Phi Beta Kappa key were going to open weren’t supposed to be X’ed with yellow caution tape and kicked in with my own foot.
I used to pinpoint my detour into disaster (inventory) to the fact that I didn’t go to grad school. Continuing on to grad school is what you do when you are good at school. It’s such a safe thing to be good at school. But I decided to postpone higher education until I was sure that I knew what I wanted to do. The problem was, when the carrot was yanked away from my face—which is to say, the moment I was no longer being graded—I became totally lost. My passions seemed directionless without a due date or final exam. So I didn’t really decide anything for myself. Someone said I should take an acting class. I did. I got signed by an agent in L.A. and she said I should move there. And I did.
I knew that everyone’s prettiest daughter drives a U-Haul full of dreams and period-stained mattresses to the Land of Opportunity, but I really believed my journey was unique. Evidence of this youthful innocence can possibly still be found on the wall behind a certain toilet paper roll at the Safari Motel in St. George, Utah where I wrote “I’m here,” as if no one had ever been “here” before. Then I drove through the desert to L.A., and the next decade went by in a blur. In fact, it had a lot in common with being the sole survivor of a shipwreck (even the unshaven legs part).
I blamed the blur on the lack of seasonal change in Southern California. Summer becomes winter in L.A. with little more than an increase in the number of full-bodied lagers at Trader Joe’s. In hindsight, it was my lack of a career path that smudged time; there were no raises and no promotions to demarcate the years, no walking by some earnest kid and slapping him on the back and saying, “Hey, I used to have your job!” I just drifted from one job to the next, hoping my previous academic successes would come to my rescue and deliver me into the bright future all those certificates and teachers promised. I never would have admitted it at the time, but I believed in the soda fountain discovery: If I looked pretty and waited, someone important would come along and discover me because I was innately important. I was discoverable. I was perhaps freer than I would ever be again because I did not yet know that I was solely responsible for my life.
In those years, I paid $15 dollars for berry martinis. I collected business cards and put them in a big yellow mug. I went on a raw food diet. I wondered whether dark hair or blond hair would make my eyes pop. My agent dumped me via form letter, so I stopped getting sent on auditions for birth control and sunscreen and started driving all over the Hollywood hills with my headshots hoping to get cast in student films. I was asked to make my best “blood curdling scream” in some dude’s studio apartment. Another dude/writer/director sat me on his couch, poured me a generous shot of whiskey and asked for my deepest secret so he could “exercise my vulnerability.” I worked for “copy, credit and meals.” I was cast as “a bitch that dies,” “the lesbian,” “the tomboy,” “the zombie lesbian.” Nothing stopped me, not even auditioning at Starbucks.
I spent two years, working on a popular reality show. I made my way up from a lowly Production Assistant to an Associate Producer, but I quit the day Deb from clearance started decorating the office window with Halloween decals a month in advance. It wasn’t the fact she was covering up our only natural light source with pumpkins that felt so suffocating, it was the sudden realization that there was no light at this job for me. I didn’t want to become a producer.
I went to Griffith Park and gave horseback riding tours that offered scenic views of the 5 Freeway. I became a personal assistant to a photographer. I spent four weeks working at a fruit smoothie bar in an upscale gym where I wrote my grievances in a journal I titled, “Behind a Bunch of Bananas.” During the blur, I had misty daydreams of receiving a shiny award in front of a big audience. I’d get teary imagining thanking my mom and dad “for supporting me in everything I ever did,” but I never could imagine what the award was for. Couldn’t even give it a shape. It was just excellence in something.
Three years ago, I took my first fire job. A friend who always had elaborate dinner parties did it for a living while pursuing documentary filmmaking. She drove me to an ash heap in south central LA like she was giving me an opportunity. When she escorted me to a dozen four-foot-high piles of scorched clothing in a driveway and told me I needed to document brand names and fabric material, I thought: You have to be kidding me. I graduated Magna Cum Laude; I was the star of several student films. I bent down and began picking up polyester blends that crumbled in my hands and searched for a fragment of a label. Then everything began to crumble in my hands. It was in the high nineties, and I was wearing a scratchy dust mask and a non-breathable Tyvek one-piece suit. Why was I wearing makeup? Where had I gotten the idea that I was naturally successful? How did the sum total of who I thought I was end up so carelessly in someone’s driveway? On this first job, it never once occurred to me to feel sorry for the individual whose loss I was rummaging through. No, this tragedy was mine. For twenty bucks an hour.
I returned to my studio apartment exhausted, thinking whoever really did this for a living was completely out of other options. In the shower, when I blew my nose into a washcloth and black stuff came out, I resolved to find a more dignified way to make a living. Then I toweled off and did this job again and again. For the last three years, I’ve never fully unpacked my suitcase. As soon as I got back from Spokane or Pocatello, I was off to Modesto or Fresno. I’ve spent my days breathing in smoke particles and counting people’s toothbrushes. I fell asleep to TV’s that were bolted to walls and woke up to strange freeways. I probably walked a couple of miles down lonely outdoor-carpeted hallways to ice machines, Dixie cup in hand. You’d think these years would’ve been the blur, but something about them—like the fact that I was so utterly dissatisfied—brought my life into complete focus.
It’s easy to have delusions of grandeur when you live in L.A. or New York or some other city where people go to get discovered. But when you’re all alone in someone’s former pantry in Minden, Nevada, counting their boxes of crackers and you realize you’re standing in a bowl of wet cat food, there’s no pretending you aren’t doing exactly what you’re doing.
There wasn’t a precise moment when it finally occurred to me that no one was coming to discover me, that unfortunately that would be up to me. Like most epiphanies, it probably came as a small succession of insignificant moments.
The first was when I was about to turn thirty and standing in a dark basement somewhere near Seattle, my headlight illuminating boxes of baby clothes while I counted onesies. “Osh Kosh cotton short sleeve onesie, cotton long sleeve onesie, no brand,” I announced. Those words, the moment in general, was fit to float off into space as inconsequential as dust if it weren’t for the fat middle-aged man sitting next to me who said, “Hey, you’re really good at this.” This man’s whole job was to take a seat in horrible conditions and record minutiae rattled off by people who have my job. He took brief breaks to number his pages. I told him thanks, and he slipped me his business card, saying he could get me full-time work if I joined his company. I described five more onesies before it hit me: This was the first “career” opportunity I’d had in four years.
There was also the time when I was inventorying an artist’s workspace in San Francisco. She was only a couple of years older than me, but had made some handles and knobs shaped like people, twigs, and animal heads. It was such a simple, yet genius idea, and now look! She had a business and a small but beautiful home with an herb garden. In an attempt to show her and myself that my purpose wasn’t just to sift through other people’s ashes, I blurted out “I’m also an artist.” Yes, I can draw a horse that can look like a horse, but am I an artist? No. An artist also possesses something called a vision and a portfolio. Still, the damage was done. She turned to me and said, “Oh, really? What’s your medium?” I mumbled something about acrylics, then realized: I have no idea what my medium is.
After this, epiphanies came fairly regularly. Houses burned down, and I waded through the debris noticing how love letters, blenders and tennis balls somehow ended up in the same pile and began to suspect that life was overall meaningless. Then I met some victims of our universe’s ever-increasing entropy and realized this is not always true. There is an older woman in Medford, Oregon who made beautiful arrangements out of mossy sticks and now I collect pretty sticks, thinking one day I will give them to her; there is a man in Redding, California who thinks I have forgotten him, but I never will.
I’d always written, but my writing took on a new urgency when my days were spent in other people’s closets, counting their melted plastic hangers, measuring their awards and noting whether they were plastic or marble-based. I wrote every morning before I stepped over the caution tape and then again in the evenings, my power cord strung over some hotel bar and plugged into an outlet. Never before had what I wanted to do been set in such sharp relief from what I didn’t.
Really, though, what happened was that people’s houses burned so thoroughly to the ground that I found myself on subterranean levels. I walked on dirt that had not been exposed to sunlight for thousands of years but was suddenly covered with ash and random vestiges of life. I could have taken my finger to many sooty surfaces and written,” I-M H-E-R-E” and truly been the only person ever to be “here,” but now that didn’t matter. The “Land of Opportunity” wasn’t a place I was going to, it wasn’t a place at all but a long haul through rubble that I wasn’t sure added up to much, but I added it up anyway.