Chapter One: It's Now or Neiman's
Desi fumbled with the keys at the front door of her house in Culver City, barely able to balance the bags of groceries she held in her arms. The wind was coming at a slant, right in her direction (of course), causing her to be pelted relentlessly by hot drops of smog-infested water that seemed to fly at her with a sense of purpose.
They said it never rained in southern California.
Well, whoever they were, they lied.
Today the rain was coming down with a vengeance, spewing upon her out of the heavens with a fierceness that seemed deliberate in its intent. It was September 20. Officially the last day of summer.
How appropriate, she thought. Everything today was apparently the last. The last of the summer. The last of her luxuries.
The last damn straw.
That is, if things didn't change. And soon.
She normally kept her thick hair blow-dried straight, but the rain caused it to revert back into its natural, loose-bodied curl. Now her dark brown shoulder-length hair was sticking to her face and neck, a clammy mess that didn't help the muggy feeling she'd been awash in all afternoon as she drove around in the post-lunchtime traffic and sun. She'd avoided the freeways, but La Cienega had been jammed, and so was Sepulveda. Even as she made her way on Slauson, cars were backed up. People were moving at an absolute crawl.
Despite the rain, she'd been driving with the windows down, and her body was hot to the core. There was nothing she could do about it. She couldn't turn on the air conditioner in the car. No way could she afford to burn up her gas like that. These days, she had to make the dollars stretch as far as she possibly could.
As she stood at her front door, her bulky brown purse slipped off her left shoulder, which, in turn, caused her to lose her balance with the grocery bags, which were already weak because they were made out of paper and soaked all the way through. Desi always chose paper over plastic. At least it was biodegradable, recyclable, something. She'd been in California a long time now, and subscribed fully to the idea of living a clean life and leaving behind a clean world.
She stumbled, trying to recover her balance, but the bags gave way altogether. The lush, tender, rose and yellow late-summer peaches rolled loosely onto the porch, the fuzz picking up dirt like fresh Velcro. Already fragile, only hours away from being classified as overripe, they bruised instantly.
The peaches were followed by the big green bell pepper she'd spent far too many minutes picking out. The jicama, cucumber, plum tomatoes, and fresh cilantro all hit the porch with a smack, and the fresh-baked loaf of sourdough bread, a treat for herself, fell top down in the muddy puddle that had gathered beneath her feet. The bread had been wrapped in paper. As the driving rain pelted it further, it became a nasty mess.
A box of Gardenburgers bounced on its corner, rolled down the front steps, and landed flat on the sidewalk, the rain smattering an angry tune against it. At that exact moment, a frog decided to leap over and claim the box as its home. It perched itself square in the center.
Desi just stared at it, the crowning insult on a miserable day.
She pulled her purse back up on her shoulder, slipped the key in the door, kicked it open, and then began the harried task of gathering up the scattered food. Two of the peaches were damaged beyond consumption. She collected everything else in her arms as best she could and tossed them inside the front door.
Desi gave a quick glance over her shoulder. She decided to let the Gardenburgers be.
She closed the front door, kicked off her shoes, and walked into her living room.
Desi collapsed in her burnished leather armchair, the one facing the front door, and surveyed the wet groceries on the floor in the foyer.
Well, there was nothing that could be done about it. She'd have to make do with the food. She wasn't about to go out and waste more money, especially when she didn't have much to use, let alone waste. There wasn't much left, other than her savings, and that wasn't a whole lot. Just a couple thousand dollars. She hadn't yet begun to dip into it. She swore to herself she never would.
Desi hadn't started on her credit cards yet either. That was definitely the no-no zone. She'd had an ugly episode with her credit cards when she first arrived in LA. She had stupidly lived off of them for the first few months, confident that she'd immediately get well-paying work in the industry. Everybody back home was always telling her how beautiful she was, how she looked like a movie star, so it was no worry for her at all.
She used her credit cards for the cheap motel she stayed in when she first arrived, she used them for groceries, gas, car repairs, headshots, clothes, acting classes, everything, with a fervor and mindlessness that she hoped to never see again.
The cheap motel turned out to be not so cheap after all. While the weekly rate wasn't bad, there was a charge every time she picked up the phone to make a call, local or long distance. The charges for the calls quickly mounted, until the phone expense was greater than the actual motel rate.
Desi also quickly learned that LA was full of women, black women, who looked like movie stars. Women out of work. It was a well-known fact that Hollywood had little place for actors of color. Not in general. Desi figured she'd be an exception, blow up overnight and make megabucks, and then be able to effect change and open doors for other people of color. That was her first Hollywood lesson: She was no exception. And these days, other than a Denzel here, a Will Smith there, and an Eriq LaSalle on television, there were very few exceptions. There certainly weren't any black women out there commanding eight-figure salaries, and those making seven could be counted on one hand. Whoopi. Angela. Whitney. That was about it.
On the Latina front, Jennifer Lopez was able to command big bucks. These days, however, as her hair got blonder and blonder, she looked not so much Hispanic as she did a white girl with a tan. Which made it easier for Hollywood to accept her and place her in roles. Pretty soon they'd be pretending she was white. Something that was much harder for them to do with a black woman.
Desi canvassed everything to find acting work. She read Backstage West, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and any other trade magazine or rag she could get her hands on. At one point she had three agents that she operated between, none of whom helped her book anything. She mailed out unsolicited headshots to casting agents, but received no responses. At night, she hung out at restaurants and clubs known for their celebrity clientele, in the hopes of being discovered. She found out about auditions on her own and showed up, stunned at the staggering number of beautiful black women who were all trying out for the same roles. Not one callback ever came. Her desperate pursuits always turned out the same.
Nothing. Not one single gig.
In the process, Desi the ingenue, newly disillusioned, spirits sagging, and without any offers for industry work, accrued, in her first two months in LA, over fifteen-thousand-dollars' worth of debt, with no income to offset it. Long before she got any real work, the creditors were hovering and harassing her around the clock. It had been a horrible experience. She swore to herself that it would never happen again.
Things were tight now, but it wasn't as bad as that situation had been. There were no creditors hovering. She didn't panic every time the phone rang. At least, not because she was afraid there'd be a creditor on the other end.
She'd been anticipating the phone ringing, and, even though it might bring good news, she also knew the good news wasn't necessarily good news for her future.
It had been a while since she'd done any industry work that paid her well. She did a film the year before, but the budget was small and she was only paid twenty thousand dollars. She was very aggressive about working, but the roles were scarce. The last part she had auditioned for went to Nia Long. Since then, there hadn't even been any auditions worthwhile enough for her to go to.
The last good-paying work she'd done was a commercial. She had taken it against her better judgment, but it had turned out to be a major blessing for her. She made over sixty thousand dollars from that commercial. It was a national spot for Burger Boss that paid her ten thousand dollars up front and delivered amazing residuals. Those residuals kept her going for a full year.
It was the first and only commercial she'd ever done, and it had been a major letdown for her to do it. She considered herself too big for commercials. At least, the kind of commercial that one had been, where she was one of three attractive black women who grinned and giggled in the background, not the featured actor in the spot. Her face, she believed, was far too recognizable and popular for her to even consider doing the commercial. But she needed the money, so she took the gig.
All her industry friends and acquaintances had been shocked. But work was work. It paid the bills. What made it such a good deal was that the Burger Boss people had done a major blitz in an attempt to seriously compete with McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, so the ad received extensive play on all the networks, not just UPN, WB, and BET and during so-called "urban programming."
Her agent told her to expect the residual checks every thirteen weeks or so, but, to her pleasant surprise, they arrived every month. During one unusual streak, checks arrived every week for five weeks straight. The monthly residual checks averaged forty-one hundred dollars a month for about thirty runs per month of the ad spot. That was more than enough for her to pay her bills, keep herself in the gym, stay out on the circuit doing the parties and premieres, and send money back home. That monthly check was sweet. It gave her a chance to get comfortable. And a little complacent. She didn't even think about auditions, foolishly believing that, with all the films she'd done in the past, work would come to her. To her alarm and disappointment, it never did.
The ad had stopped running more than six months ago. Burger Boss's campaign to compete with the Big Three didn't exactly pan out, so they cut back on their national ads. Her ad was completely taken out of rotation. And the checks dried up, seemingly overnight.
She considered another commercial, but she knew that was like the kiss of death. If she did another spot that was not a national campaign for a major product, like shampoo or makeup, or for a major car company, then she'd be pigeonholed for sure. Her agent advised against it. Besides, her agent told her, the Burger Boss thing had been the exception. Most commercials didn't pay that well, and didn't deliver anywhere near the residuals she'd grown accustomed to receiving. At best, she could expect a check for five hundred dollars a month. That is, if the commercial got a decent rotation.
Desi turned up her nose at the thought of five hundred dollars a month. That would do nothing for her. But, as a result of refusing commercials, she was now faced with the prospect of having to get a real job in the real world. Something that would bring in enough dough to allow her to keep her face in the industry, and, at the same time, take care of the responsibilities she had at hand.
But getting a nonindustry job posed a major catch-22: it was cool to be a waiter, waitress, or service person when you weren't a recognizable face. People expected that of actors-in-waiting. But if you were famous or semi-famous and then took a job outside of the industry? Forget it. You could kiss your career in the entertainment business goodbye.
She'd been rejected from ten nonindustry jobs already. Every interview she had, while complimentary, turned out to be a no. Most of the people were pleasant, some even fawning, but they said no nonetheless. Every one had instantly recognized her. Some even quoted her films to her, as if she wasn't aware of her own body of work. All of them mentioned the Burger Boss gig.
In a town like LA, where everyone was focused on who was who and who did what, she learned that it was hard for her to not be recognized. None of the people who interviewed her believed that she was giving up the limelight. They were all afraid that her presence would be just a temporary thing. While her presence might mean a momentary increase in revenue, they knew that pretty soon they'd be faced with the hiring process again. None of them wanted that.
Some wondered why she was leaving the industry. Was she on drugs? Did she have some kind of habit that had ruined her career? She answered so many personal and humiliating questions that she almost quit the job search thing altogether. That, however, was not an option, so she gritted her teeth and forged on from one interview to the next.
Desi had applied for a job as a personal shopper for Neiman Marcus. It was her last chance. If she didn't get it, she'd have to make a drastic life change.
The job paid very well. If she got it, it would mean that she would be able to stay in Los Angeles. But what was the point of being in LA if she was no longer able to pursue her dream? That was her whole reason for being there in the first place. Taking a nonindustry job would kill her chances at that. No doubt about it. Just ask Gary Coleman. He hadn't had too many offers since he'd started working as a security guard at the Fox Hills Mall. Star or not, once you took a job outside the industry to pay the bills, and the industry found out about it, the powers that be just didn't take you seriously anymore.
She sighed, thoroughly frustrated.
If she didn't find work soon, she had made up her mind to go back home, back to Jensen, Alabama. There was no way she could stay in LA, be as well-known as she was, and be broke. She couldn't take a job that was too common and ordinary, because then she'd risk ridicule, and she was too proud for that. At the same time, even though the last thing she wanted to do was go back home after all these years, she was afraid of what it would mean if she got the job at Neiman's.
Some of the very women she competed with for roles shopped there. Not only might she run into them, she might, ironically, end up being the one they arrogantly requested to help them select their attire. Once word got around that she was working outside the industry as a personal shopper, even though on its own it was considered a prestigious job, her career would be over. No one would ever hire her as an actress again.
She'd had three interviews already. The store manager, the manager of the designer clothing department, and the district manager were all impressed by her sense of style, and they reveled in the fact that she had a recognizable face. Desi figured they would offer her the position. It was just a matter of waiting for the phone to ring.
She prayed that it wouldn't. At least, not right away. She needed more time to think about what all this meant, to examine the repercussions again. She wasn't ready for a ringing phone.
If it rang, answering it would mean more than just the chance to earn a decent living.
A ringing phone with a job offer from Neiman's, right now, would be a death knell.
The beginning of the end.
Desi sat in the leather armchair, limp, staring at the food scattered all around the foyer. She was hot, she was sticky, and she was so, so tired. Tired of the day. Tired of the situation. Tired of her crazy never-could-catch-a-break life.
Money, it seemed, was always an issue. When was her life ever going to change? She'd seen her peers, women like Lela Rochon, Vivica Fox, and Vanessa Williams, all claim their place. They were constantly getting work.
What was the difference between her and them? She was just as pretty, just as smart, and thought she had a pretty good agent. And, like Vanessa, Desi could sing. No...she could sang, as they said in church. She had legions of people back in Alabama to prove it. There'd been many an eye that had welled up just hearing her notes ricochet off the walls of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church. Every now and then she sang at West Angeles, the church she attended in town, just to keep her lungs on point. West Angeles was very popular, and she'd caused more than a handful of well-known celebrities to catch the spirit there as well. She was once offered a recording contract with a major label by a record exec who happened to be in church during one of her solos. The man had tears in his eyes when he approached her. She flatly turned him down.
Desi didn't want a record deal.
She wanted to be a movie star.
And no amount of fame as a singer was going to take her off that course. She wanted to be known as an actor first, and she was unwilling to compromise that in any way.
Even if it meant an uphill struggle, which it had, all the way.
Desi sighed heavily and rubbed her temples. She didn't feel like gathering up the food in the foyer, but she figured she'd better get about the task of doing it. It wasn't like she had the luxury of just letting it sit there to go to waste.
Just as she pressed her hands against the arms of the chair to raise herself up, the phone rang.
Desi's breath stopped cold. She stared at the phone as it jingled on the table beside her. She hadn't even checked yet to see if she had any messages. Perhaps Neiman's had already called. There was a caller ID box next to the phone, but she refused to let her eyes affix themselves to it. She didn't want to see the inevitable, even though she knew she would have to contend with it soon enough.
The phone kept ringing. Desi sat frozen in the chair, afraid to remove the cordless receiver from its cradle. If it was Neiman's, then that would change everything. Whether they said yes or no, that call would affect the rest of her life.
Her heart beat heavily against her skin. The blood in her temples rushed and pounded with a thunderous fury. Beside her, the phone rang again and again.
"Please, Lord Jesus, let me be doing the right thing," she whispered as she reached for the phone.
As Desi brought the phone up to her ear, her eyes filled with tears.
Copyright © 2000 by Lolita Files