It was a Thursday.
I know ‘cuz it was Payday.
Payday meant using my lunch break to drive my two tone Dodge Dart with the slant six up to the Bank on Melrose and get my check cashed.
I was twenty three.
By day I worked my nine to five to keep gas in the tank and burgers in the belly.
At night I did what I wanted to do. What I had always dreamt of doing.
I was an actor.
By day I fantasized about making a living at it.
At night I was playing Cyrano de Bergerac in a small theatre on La Cienega Boulevard for nothing but the sound of applause.
This was before direct deposit or ATM’s or even cell phones. This was before the internet worked its ubiquitous way into our lives. So every payday I hop in the Dart and drive up Fairfax to the bank and stand in line to cash my check with a teller. A live teller. A real person.
I had very little money. But I never felt poor. Yes, there were some weeks when my cat had to fend for himself when it came to food- while I discovered the joys of peanut butter and saltines and stove top stuffing.
So I’m standing in line. My check’s in my hand. And behind me I notice this girl. Freckles. White skirt. What they used to call a “peasant shirt”. Peasant shirts were held on entirely by a thin piece of elastic sewn into the top. I looked back, smiled. She smiled back. That was all it took. I’m twenty three. My fantasy life is in full effect pretty much all day and all night. Already I’m seeing her sitting on the bench seat of my Dodge Dart as we drive out to the beach for a serious make out session. I’m imagining where her freckles stop just below that elastic band-
And that’s when it happens.
Two guys, with guns, are suddenly on either side of us and in the most amped up voices I have ever heard are yelling “GET ON THE GROUND! NOW! THIS IS A ROBBERY!” One is right next to me. One jumps up on the the counter, waving his gun at all of us. “THAT’S IT MOTHERFUCKERS! GET ON THE FUCKING GROUND!”
And we get on the ground. I can’t help look over at the girl in the peasant shirt. Our eyes meet in a kind of wow, this is really happening expression. I remember thinking: well this is a kind of cool shared experience we are having. Maybe that drive out to the beach isn’t such a fantasy after all. We slowly get on the floor along with all the other customers. The robber is screaming at the teller to fill up some bags with cash. Everyone is on the floor. I look over at the girl, my cheek to the floor. I remember it seemed very cold, the floor, even on this Summer day. Her eyes were green.
I wasn’t really scared. Just incredulous and a little excited. I think she was too. The guy on the counter is still yelling at the teller to speed it up. I look from the girl toward the front of the line. Everyone is down on their fronts, very still, not moving a muscle.
Except this one old lady. For some reason she’s on her back. And I can see she’s breathing hard. And kind of flailing. Like she wants to turn over, but she can’t. Like she’s stuck that way. She’s like this old lady turtle that can’t get herself over. And I look over at the girl. And she sees the old lady too. And she looks back at me. I can still see those green eyes. And what do I do? I start crawling- wriggling really- towards the old lady. Like I’m going to turn her over or something. Like that will somehow save the lady’s life and be this great heroic thing I did that me and the girl in the peasant shirt will talk about as we take long walks on the beach before our serious make out sessions under the lifeguard tower.
So I’m inching towards the old lady and I steal a glance towards the robber on the counter and he sees me moving and our eyes lock and he levels the gun at me and and screams “DON’T YOU FUCKING MOVE! I WILL KILL YOU! And for some reason the way he says “I will kill you” I know in the core of my being that he is fully prepared to do so. He doesn’t use the contraction “I’ll kill you”. He says I WILL KILL YOU. This man is not messing around with contractions. He would, indeed, kill me. I froze. I closed my eyes. I tried to become invisible. All the fantasy of doing something heroic and daring suddenly vaporized in the face of the reality of a cold bullet resting in a chamber. I waited for him to pull the trigger.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the robbers, bank bag overflowing with bills, banging through the front doors of the bank and running away. I watch a single crisp hundred dollar bill flutter in three graceful arcs to the floor.
The instant it touches down l hear sirens. Suddenly there are ten uniformed cops in the room, huddled around a man with a clipboard embossed with the Los Angeles Police Department seal, all nodding their heads as he gives instructions. Half an hour later a silver car arrives and a man in a grey suit with his silver hair cut in a clean flat top with a silver clipboard embossed with the FBI seal gets out. Now it was time for the LAPD guy to nod his head. The FBI guy commandeers the bank managers office and interviews everyone one by one. The girl in the peasant shirt goes first and leaves without a word. Not even a smile. I never saw her again. The old lady gets taken away in an ambulance. She actually does give me a little smile as they wheel her out. I’ll take it.
I’m the last one interviewed. I think I’ve got a real scoop. I’m back to fantasy land. I’ll be called as a star witness. “Please tell the court what you noticed that day, young man. That despite you personally being in grave danger, you had the presence of mind to note a detail that may indeed break this case wide open and insure that justice will prevail.” The FBI agent is wrapping it up but I am certain my twenty three year old actors superior powers of observation may be of service. For a moment I go full Sherlock Holmes. “You may find this interesting, officer. I couldn’t help notice the robber who pointed the gun at me held it in- “his left hand. Yeah, we know” said the FBI agent. “Several people already mentioned it.” I was crestfallen.
They finally released me. I checked in at work where they listened to my story with skepticism, probably thinking I made it up to get the afternoon off for an audition. I later found out one of the robbers had killed two people that day before the robbery. I know exactly which one. I punched out and headed over to La Cienega. I had an hour to sculpt and attach my nose for that night’s performance as Cyrano.
So I’m spirit gumming my nose on as one by one the rest of the cast slowly filters in. I’m giddy ‘cuz I’ve got a tale to tell but I want to save it until everyone is assembled.
Just before the half hour call the cast assembles in the alley behind the theatre, to eat a burger or a burrito or have a last cigarette before showtime.
I’m telling my story. I’m a twenty three year old actor. With an audience of other actors. And I had almost been killed in a bank robbery that day. So I’m really performing it. I don’t notice a man unloading orchids out of a van into the back entrance of a florist a couple of doors down the alley. I’m busy telling my story. As vividly as a young actor can- which is pretty vivid. The sun is setting. It’s magic hour. My friends are in a rapt semi circle around me. I’m acting out the whole thing. I get to the part where the guy levels the gun at me. “DON’T YOU FUCKING MOVE! I WILL KILL YOU!“ I say. It echoes down the alley. “It was crazy. ‘I WILL KILL YOU!’ Can you believe it?”
And at that moment the sun is blotted out from the sky. A huge man has the front of my frilly shirt in both his fists- I’m in full costume for Cyrano remember- and his real nose is almost touching my fake one. The veins on his neck and arms are standing out. For the second time that day I look into eyes filled with absolute rage. “YOU NEED TO CUT THAT SHIT OUT!” He’s seething. “I DID TWO TOURS, MAN! AND THAT SHIT AIN’T OUT MY SYSTEM YET, MAN! NOT AT ALL, MAN, NOT AT ALL!”
For a suspended moment I see him hanging on some kind of personal precipice, clearly intent (and capable) of pulverizing me into the brick wall behind me. “YOU GOT IT?” He hisses. “YOU GOT IT?” I gurgle something that I hope sounds like a yes. And somehow he finds a way back to the place that controls all that rage and clamps it down and he releases me. He strides down the alley back to his van and resumes unloading the delicate orchids into the shop.
We all stand in shock. Did that just happen?
And the stage manager pops her head out of the theatre- “half hour, people! Check your props.”
And we go do a show.
I do that show. And another and another. Later that year I quit my day job and become a professional actor. I do hundreds of productions. Receive literally thousands of standing ovations. Besides Cyrano, I add roles like Richard the Third, Don Quixote. Even Sherlock Holmes to my list. I tour the country doing one man shows. Eventually I transition into other forms of performance. I become a song and dance man. I’m the ringleader of a circus. The emcee of cabarets. Eventually I tour the world as the lead clown with Cirque du Soleil. It is while I’m on tour in Japan that I meet the love of my life, my wife Momoko. I settle down, transition into character roles. I start teaching others what I’ve learned in a 40 year career doing my thing in front of live audiences. That’s a lot of applause.
And then the pandemic hits. And the tours and the standing ovations stop. The applause stops.
What can I do? I pivot. My wife is a master at flower arrangement. We open a flower shop. She puts the flowers together in exquisite pieces of art. I drive the van and make the deliveries.
Now I’m the guy unloading orchids from a van in an alley. And my dream of playing for a packed audience again is really just that. A dream. A fantasy.
But occasionally, when it seems appropriate, I’ll sing Happy Birthday when I deliver a birthday bouquet. I’ll even come up with a funny rhyme of the recipient’s name to get a laugh. February rolls around and deliveries are sometimes accompanied by a little softshoe to go with a rendition of My Funny Valentine. Little performances. For an audience of one. My stage a front porch.
But my job is just to deliver the flowers. To load and unload the van.
I should just place the flowers down, ring the bell and go. That’s what I’m paid for. That’s the job. That’s my new reality.
But I think of the guy in the alley. And Just like him, I’ve done a few tours. And THAT SHIT AIN’T OUT MY SYSTEM YET, MAN. NOT AT ALL, MAN, NOT AT ALL.