Delusive Hope Is Born
The Dybbuk took hold of me and I hunted and I pecked and I toked all through the night. By the time I finished, I had eleven pages, one more than my quota. I read the pages and then I reread them. I was pleasantly amazed. I felt like god in Genesis surveying his creation and declaring, Behold, it was good.
Near dawn I decided to hit the rem cycle. I should have known better. I had seen Hour of the Wolf,1 and so knew never to close my eyes during that interval between darkness and dawn when most men die and nightmares come to us and we wake up afraid, if we wake up at all.
But I did go to sleep and the nightmares, they just kept coming.
I was looking east out the window of my coffin-sized corner bedroom in the apartment on Thirty-ninth Street when I noticed a commie Mig fighter jet, sporting a big red star, drop its payload on the old Metropolitan Opera House, then supersonic sideways up the block, its machine guns lit up like yahrzeit2 candles as they sprayed bullets straight at me.
I ducked for cover under the bed, only to emerge into a nether region where outsized spiders chased me through a cloacal maze, their mandibles adrip with venom; my wheels were spinning furiously, much like Wile E. Coyote’s after the Road Runner has gulled him into stepping off a cliff, his in the hopes of repealing the universal law of gravitation, mine to keep the mutant arachnid assassin from doing to me what in Them was done to Old Man Johnson: He could’ve died in any one of five ways: His neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, his skull was fractured… and here’s one for Sherlock Holmes—there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men. I was, on principle, opposed to the introduction of any toxin into my private biosphere without my express approval so I kept running and running and running…
Until I turned a corner and suddenly found myself back on earth with a howling mushroom cloud barreling down on me at ramming speed. The tarry street before me began to melt, taking on the texture of warm taffy, viscous and stringy-sticky. My Keds couldn’t fully lift off out of the goo, and each successive step became more tortured than the last. My chances of survival were all gummed up.
I closed my eyes, expecting to be vaporized, but when I opened them I had been transported, yet again, this time into a black-and-white world. I was in a farmhouse, that farmhouse, the one in The Night of the Living Dead, and prominent among the sieging walkers was the father-mother, zombie-famished and focused solely on me, their plump one, looking to make him their happy meal.
In order to survive this final pesadilla, I had to wake up,3 which I did, with a start. My heart revved like a top fuel dragster, I was soaked in sweat, gasping for air like a possessed apneic. When I was finally able to take psychic inventory, I found that during my traumatic sleep, angst had trumped enthusiasm; my glass, instead of being half-full, was now, in the clear light of day, verging on empty, or as the Bard of the Purple Haze sang, Castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually.
I was adrift in the Sea of Dread. The pages I had been so happy with just a few hours before now filled me with nausea. Just looking at them nearly sent me into a swoony syncope. How, I wondered, could I have ever considered letting them out into the world, where I would be subjected to the judgment of others, alleged peers, who would find me woefully wanting, pronounce me guilty, and sentence me, the awful author, to a lifetime of unworthiness with no hope of parole?
My fear of failure and the horror of rejection left me paralyzed. It took me nearly an hour just to get out of bed, and half that time again to drape some clothes on. It was another fifteen minutes before I gathered the strength to open the door, walk down the stairs, and step out into the world. I got to Carroll Street, took the F to Fourth Ave, and then the R to the labyrinthine confluence of the IRT, BMT, and IND at Atlantic-Pacific, where I caught the 2 to the Flatbush Ave–Brooklyn College station (to where, a dozen years before, My Friend the Film Critic and I had ventured in order to catch a rare sighting of Vanishing Point4 at the appropriately named College Theater, now long gone).
I trudged up the stairs and emerged at the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand. I put one foot in front of the other until I had dragged myself through what passed for a campus, crossed Bedford, descended to the lower depths of Roosevelt, and taken my seat. I went into low-profile mode—I looked straight ahead, made no eye contact, engaged in zero banter, sat perfectly still, willing that the three hours, which hadn’t even begun, would pass quickly and quietly, without a soul-destroying incident.
Even so, when the instructor walked into class that afternoon and asked Who’s first? I waved my arm dyskinetically, like a desperate third grader who, if he doesn’t get to the pissoir in the next few nanoseconds, will wet his pants and thereby cement his place in the ninth circle of recess hell.
I know, I know. Makes no sense. Really, it doesn’t. In fact it might well be an indicator of a deep-seated nutsoboffoness. But as Lord Buckley said, If you get to it and you can’t do it, there you jolly well are, aren’t you.
And there was no denying that there I jolly well were.
At first I spat out the words the way Popeye spat seeds, nails, bullets after he’s dosed himself with spinach. I figured the faster I read, the sooner this ordeal I had irrationally subjected myself to would be over.
But when the first chuckles were chucked, I started to slow. Soon I was taking my time, savoring the moment, reveling in the response. The laughs kept coming.
It was funny. I had known that, before I didn’t know it.
I first heard the word autodidact from My Friend the Film Critic. His enthusiasm was contagious as he animatedly described the unique grandeur of being self-taught and going on to accomplish something of world-historical importance, like the Russian Revolution, or perhaps it was the discovery of the principles of quantum mechanics, I cannot recollect which.
I loved the word and felt it described me; I had been raised by shtetl voles who had had no understanding for, or appreciation of, the culture of goyville that they had dropped me into. Left to my own devices I had had no choice but to go autodidactic. And so as a little boychik I taught myself how to understand life and the nature of existence. I started with sports, focusing my gaze on hockey, basketball, football, breaking down their codes and picking up on the finer points of play, the unintended side benefit of which was the beginnings of an elementary grasp of dramatic structure—the unity of time and place, overarching themes, plots and subplots, conflicts between characters brimming with backstory that informed the game and often determined its outcome and, in the best of those games, provided an enthralling climax that had the power to move me, sometimes even alter the way I viewed the world; I went on to teach myself how to not believe in god, how to roll a smooth-drawing joint, how to survive nearly OD-ing on meth or freaking out on acid; I taught myself how to catch myself before having a complete psychotic break with reality; my autodidacticism helped me discover that intelligence and wit could aid my viability, and how to identify that kind of intelligence and wit in others; I taught myself how to survive on financial fumes, triumph over severe social retardation, and successfully (more or less) mate, spawn, and raise a pair of kids who did not turn out to be social misfits like their pops, but rather human beings in possession of reliable, real-world instincts.
And by the end of that first class, with the knowledge that some dudes can self-teach themselves to be world-historical, and that I had already taught myself a barrelful of stuff about the ways of the world, the first seeds of something awful my way came and began to sprout, as it popped into my luftmenschisch kopf that I just might, potentially, perhaps (how many qualifiers could I come up with?) be able to teach myself how to write a decent, perhaps even a good, screenplay.
Which is exactly what I had been worried about in the first place. I knew from the gitgo that screenwriting would involve work, but instead of heeding that gut feeling as Keyes most certainly would’ve, I signed up anyway. To make matters worse, not only had I committed to the temporally limited amount of work a semester of screenwriting would involve (already enough to have me drummed out of the Maynard G. Krebs Slothing Society), I had allowed the product of that work to fundamentally fuck with my weltanschauung; I had in the space of three short hours traded in my clear-eyed, twenty-twenty vision of a hopeless life lived circling the drain of the behavioral sink for a rose-tinged view of an alternate future va-va world, verily dripping with optimism, something I had, up until that moment, believed to be a contemptible, distorted take on el mundo, one which I believed to be the sole purview of low lumenaires and formerly right-thinking individuals who had lost their way.
To make matters worse, an unwitting consequence of this sneak attack of optimism was to crack a chink in the psychic armor meant to shield me from the real reasons I had cleaved so mightily to that daily double of dysfunction—sloth and self-loathing, a synergic tandem of neuron-hood which until that sort of decisive moment had served as the solution, but had, in the wake of one careless thought bubble, been transformed into a paramount problem.
Ojitos (Little Eyes), the ill-fated protag of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados5 (sometimes referred to by its soap opera title The Young and the Damned), works, along with a crew of fellow urchins, in the world’s saddest amusement park. They push and trudge, trudge and push, making the merry-go-round turn, turn, turn. Ojitos is thirsty, worn out. He asks his Jefe for a break, and Jefe snaps back, You’ll rest when you’re dead.
Though this aphorism is delivered by a scumbag barrio entrepreneur specializing in the exploitation of child labor in a neo(sur)realist Mexican masterpiece, it’s pure, apple-pie Amurrican Zen, the cri de Coeur of feral capitalism.
You’ll rest when you’re dead: it’s a Mad Men distillation of the Hobbesian summation of the life of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
You’ll rest when you’re dead: it’s the somber decree of Yahweh, the angry, jealous volcano god, who, after the seduction of the serpent, and the bite of the apple, exiles Adam and Eve from the garden and lets them know what life will be like in their non-Edenic future—it’ll suck, then they’ll die, and it’s all their fault.
But unlike for poor, ill-fated Ojitos, it was later for living by brow sweat for this cat; I had long ago jumped off the karmic merry-go-round of existential indentured servitude and assumed the entitlement of Aesop’s grasshopper (another lifetime member of Krebs Slothing), presented with platonic perfection in Disney’s Silly Symphony The Grasshopper and the Ants, in which the eponymous polyphagic orthoptera is a fiddling dandy in top hat and tails singing The world owes us a living as the ants work their little ant asses off gathering provisions to keep the colony going through the winter.
He buttonholes a worker ant tasked with the daunting job of pulling through the mud a wagon weighted down with ripe, red cherries and makes his pitch: The Good Book says the Lord provides. There’s food on every tree. I see no reason to worry and work, No sir, not me… You shouldn’t soil those Sunday pants, like those other foolish ants. Come on, let’s play and sing and dance. Oh, the world owes us a living…
Now that was a bug I could identify with.
The Grasshopper’s summer idyll sets up the fabulist’s moral lesson—when winter comes the grasshopper (who had clearly neither read nor watched Game of Thrones), dressed only in his summer-weight exoskeleton, nearly dead after being buffeted by frigid winds and stinging snow, finds himself on the outside looking into the bright, insulated tree stump where the ants sing and dance, celebrating the bounty of their hard work. As Connie Francis once warbled, Who’s sorry now?6 The grasshopper faints from hunger and envy. The ants haul him in and revive him with a hot water bucket and steamy soup. Once he’s gotten his color back, the Ant Queen, severe and scoldy, approaches; he begs for mercy; the Queen pontificates, With ants only those who work may stay, so take your fiddle (she pauses, for a long, painful beat)… and play! which he does, massaging the words: I owe the world a living, I’ve been a fool the whole year long, you were right and I was wrong.
My shiftlessness, on another hand, was the algorithmic result of cold calculation—I would have nothing to show for work I didn’t do, and in accord with the principle ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes) no work product meant no judgment; no judgment eliminated the need for self-loathing, since the second part of the duplat would only be activated by the inevitable negative critique rendered if work existed and were released into the wild. But because I had allowed myself to be momentarily dazzled by the shiny bauble of the (unlikely) prospect of a life worth living, I had, by my own hand, invited into my own private drama that potential unhappy ending—the estimation of others engendering loathing of the self—that threatened to cut short my crash-helmeted, straightjacketed, mobius-tripping, la-dee-dah cruise through the serene cerebral Caribbean I had created like the God of Dysfunction that I was, and self-deport my spirit to a supermax fortress of solitude nestled on a polar ice cap, where I would spend a lifelong winter of discontent.
I pondered the problem on all three trains and on the longish walk home from Carroll Street, and by the time I crossed the threshold of the safe zone, I had decided on a way going forward—I would hedge my bet. I would try to write and finish the damn script while always holding steady in the back of my mind the belief that success and happiness were for others, not me, a belief which I counted on to soften the blow when the ineluctable rejection finally came down.
Like a superstitious baller who won’t change his routine while he’s on a hot streak, I waited each week until Sunday after supper to warm up the Selectric, slip a blank page into the platen, and torture-type my way to ten pages.
By the end of the semester I had produced an actual screenplay with a beginning, middle, and end. I felt like I had come to the end of a marathon, that I should be wrapped in a space blanket; all I wanted was to be allowed to rest for the next several months, whereas for the instructor, who seemed way more impressed with the quality of the work than I was, there was more to be done, so she sent it westward to try and get me an agent.
She received this reply: Although Schneider is facile and glib, I don’t think I can do anything with this script in the present marketplace. I’d be happy to read anything else he does in the future.
Any normal person would have said, Great, what am I going to write next that he will be happy to read in that future moment? And how can I ensure he will be able to do something with it in that (future) marketplace once he’s read it?
But I, a looney tune on the long, windy dirt road to recovery, had arrived at a switchback marked with universal symbols warning of land mines, hazardous materials, and dangerously high levels of radiation, framed by skulls and crossbones:
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
It was clear to me that before I ended up doing something really stupid, something I would surely regret, like work my ass off on a hope and a prayer, I needed to get a better handle on what I was really dealing with. I attacked the problem by going textual on the note looking to expose the global rejection that had to be in there, lurking just under the surface like a Loch Ness monster in a black lagoon.
I performed a thorough, Kremlinological hermeneutics—I read between the lines, parsed every word, searched every article and comma for subtext and meaning; in essence I had begun my first anthropological investigation into Hollywood praxis; it would not be my last.
The obvious point of entry was the use of the words facile and glib. In my experience to call someone facile or glib (let alone both) was to say that the dude/dudette so labeled had no substance, no depth, was morally bankrupt. Finally, I was getting someplace.
But, upon further review… If he had intended to use facile and glib that way, why would he have said he couldn’t do anything with the script in the present marketplace? Which clearly left the door open to shopping it in an alternate universe with, I supposed, a more drug-friendly agora (keeping in mind this was the ’80s and Nancy Ray-Gun, when she wasn’t busy banging the Chairman of the Board in the Queen’s Bedroom or having her personal astrologer decipher the cosmic tea leaves, had committed her first ladyhood to keeping the kids off the drugs, urging them to Just say no).
If this were true, then in Industry-speak facile and glib were compliments! As when confronted with an intellectual carrot, the mind boggled.
I continued with my léxi-grammatikí investigation, moving on to happy to read anything else. If facile and glib were compliments, then happy to read clearly invited more facile, glib product.
Finally, in desperation, I questioned his motive. He read the script as a favor for the wife of a top-shelf director’s ichiban editor. Perhaps this future positivity was simply politic. But the talmudist in me quickly dispensed with that fahrcocktah reasoning—he had to have at least assumed she would show me the note, and since I had written the script in thrall to the Dybbuk, he couldn’t possibly have drawn from it that I was an agoraphobic, borderline, paranoid palooka who would spend the better part of a day trying to decode his simple sentences in order to uncover their true diabolical meaning. So why would he have gone to great lengths to camo the message or baffle with bullshit? And since he was reading the script as a favor, I had no choice but to come to the conclusion, against my better, albeit twisted judgment and my ontologically fucked-up nature, that I should shave this sucker with Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the correct one—and that what I read was what I got. He liked the writing, but felt this particular script was not commercially viable. Simple as that.
What the fuck had I gotten myself into?
And that was how delusive hope was born.
1 The tagline for Hour of the Wolf, Bergman’s scando-depresso film is The Hour of the Wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.
2 Yahrzeit candles, made to last for at least twenty-four hours, are lit on the anniversary eve of the loved one’s demise. When I was a yoot these candles came in heavy glasses, which, once the candle’s race had been run, were repurposed as juice glasses; they were the yid household analog to the heartland’s jelly jar juice glasses, and French collectible moutarde glasses.
3 According to the interwebs a supernormal nocturnal experience that is part of Hmong traditional beliefs can trigger a fatal syndrome known as SUNDS—Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, the adult equivalent of SIDS. In the 70s a hundred-plus Southeast Asian men, mostly Hmong tribesmen who had emigrated to Amurrica after the collapse of South Vietnam, died from SUNDS. The Hmong believed the deaths were due to the nocturnal visit of an evil being that pressed the very life out of its terrified victims. This phenomenon titillated the pop cult and generated reams of reportage ranging from a skeptical, science- centered investigation in the paper of record, to a photo essay in the Weekly World News purporting to document the alien evil creatures responsible for the deaths. It also inspired Fox’s 1984 guilty pleasure Dreamscape, which featured Dennis Quaid, in his launch pad to stardom period, Kate (Soon-to-be Mrs. Spielberg) Capshaw, and Bergman’s Angel of Death, Max Von Sydow. Quaid is Alex Gardner, a ne’er-do-well psychic. At 19 he split a study of psychics to bet on the nags; cut to the present as he escapes the minions of a mob boss he’s angered; he volunteers to be a test subject for an experiment of tech-facilitated psychic entry into the dream life of others, run by the kindly (and therefore doomed) Von Sydow; the study has been co-opted by a nefarious Factotum (Christopher Plummer) intent on enabling his Igor-like psychic sociopath to hop into the dreamscape of Prez Eddie Albert (as Jimmy Carter) in order to assassinate him, because Factotum is certain that Albert’s a craven sluck who will cave to Russkie demands at an upcoming disarmament summit; Igor needs the machine to enter a subject’s dreamland, but Alex can do it unaided, a power he discovers when lust drives him to dive into Capshaw’s head and ride her, as she dream-rides the rails. In the end Alex foils the assassination plot, kills Igor, jumps into Factotum’s dream and offs him, after which he and Curvaceous Kate consensually consummate in the real world, on a train manned by the same conductor from their sleepy-time boot knocking.
4 Vanishing Point is Orphee had it been adapted by Kafka on a Benzedrine bender. The hero, Kowalski, a medal of honoree and former cop, a man mourning his drowned surfer sweetheart, delivers cars. On a bet he speeds from Denver to San Fran; he guarantees he’ll get there the next day. As cops give chase, Kowalski is dubbed the last great American hero by Super Soul, a blind, black DJ equipped with second sight, who narrates K’s odyssey over the airwaves until angry, racist townies storm the station, and beat the shit out of the bard. After brief respites with a desert based, snake-charming, Pentecostal congregation, and a biker and his naked old lady, Kowalski makes it to the California border where his way is blocked by a pair of bulldozers. He stops his muscle car for a moment, then guns the engine, and rams into them, his melancholy smile the last thing we see before he goes up in a blaze of glory.
5 Luis Bunuel left Spain when the fascists took over. After an unremarkable stint in Hollywood he went to Mexico where he made a string of terrific films including, but not limited to, Mexican Bus Ride, El, This Strange Passion, and the wonderfully titled The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. His greatest Mexican movie was Los Olvidados, a flick so bleak that when I first saw it at the Bleecker Street Cinema with My Friend the Film Critic, he told me, as the lights were lowering, that it was known to bring tears to the hardest of hard-boiled Stalinists. He wuz right. Bunuel won the Best Director award at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival but during its Mexico City premiere, the social sur-realism of The Young and the Damned drove the crowd bonkers. Afterward Frida Kahlo refused to speak to him, and the wife of the Poet León Felipe tried to throttle him.
6 Connie Francis was born Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero; she spent her earliest years in a Jewish-Italian nabe in Brooklyn, before moving to the ironbound in Newark. Just as she was about to enter NYU on a full scholarship she recorded Who’s Sorry Now, written in 1923 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, who also wrote Hail Fredonia for Groucho Marx. It became a huge hit. A failed romance with Bobby Darin folllowed—her father chased Darin away from her at gunpoint, perhaps a foreshadowing of her brother’s death—he was gunned down by Mafia hit men in 1981.