I started out in Hollywood when I was 45 years old. My face was unlined, I still had most of my hair and a good portion of it had yet to turn gray, my wife was 30 years old, and within a year we would have a beautiful little girl we named Lilly. We lived in a nice little rental house up in Bronson Canyon about a mile above Hollywood Boulevard that was within walking distance of both the Mayfair Market and the 101 Café on Franklin Boulevard. Life was good.
I had been a writer for 25 years, and I had lived a charmed life. I had never written a word that I wasn’t paid for, nor had I written a piece that had been rejected. My luck continued when I looked for an agent, an absolute necessity if you’re going to sell anything in Hollywood. I spent a long day of rather fruitless interviews with one phone headset wearing young go-getter after another before I ended up in a suite of offices on Wilshire Boulevard looking into the tired eyes of a gray-haired man about my age. His name was Joel Gotler, and he had been in the business about as long as I had been a writer. He invited me to sit down, picked up one of the three treatments I had sent him and held it between his thumb and forefinger as if it were a foreign substance. This I can sell by tomorrow afternoon, he announced with a kind of exhausted finality. You’re hired, I replied. We shook hands. He sold the treatment to NBC the following morning.
Joel promised me he would do his best to keep me away from the sharks endlessly patrolling the waters out there, and I promised him I would remain his loyal client and do my best to follow his advice. One of the things he told me to do was to go into every meeting well-prepared. He accompanied me to the first few meetings I took, I guess just to make sure I was following his instructions. I was. Every time he would set me up with a meeting, I would work up a treatment and write down the name of the producer or studio executive, and the address, and a contact number on a slip of 3 by 3 notepaper and put the slip in my pocket as I walked outside and got in my car to drive to the meeting. It wasn’t that I couldn’t remember who I was going to see, or why. It was superstition, pure and simple, because the at the first meeting I ever got that Joel set up in Hollywood, with a young executive at HBO who now runs one of the big studios, I sold the pitch in about 30 minutes and walked out of there with a handshake on a deal for a screenplay that would pay more than $100,000…with that little 3 by 3 meeting-slip in my pocket. I was either blessed or lucky or both, because it’s not often you breeze into town, sell a treatment and a day later and sell your first pitch for a screenplay.
The pitch meetings continued. Today, some 20 years later, I have those little meeting slips stored in a cabinet in my office: 757 of them, stuffed into two narrow wooden drawers that used to fit into slots in a roll-top desk, recording meeting after meeting, about one a week over the years, although it was more than that. There are whole stretches in Hollywood during which nobody takes a pitch – most of August, for example, and two or three weeks around Christmas, and of course any time the Writers Guild is either threatening a strike or actually striking, which during my 15 years probably added up to almost a whole year. I remember weeks when I would pitch every day. There were days when I would start out in the morning and pitch twice before noon and twice in the afternoon, with a lunch meeting in between. I had lots and lots of good ideas for movies and TV shows, and I never pitched without a lot of preparation, which usually meant writing a 10 to 15 page treatment for myself, just to get the idea fine-tuned and ready to go. Upstairs in the attic are boxes filled with those treatments, along with un-sold and un-produced scripts – boxes and boxes of them stacked atop each other.
But not every little meeting slip records a rejection. Every once in awhile, we’d make a deal. The work continued to roll in and the scripts rolled out, even if few of them got made, not an infrequent state of affairs in Hollywood, you understand. I wrote a novel. I sold more scripts. I sold the film rights to the novel. I wrote more scripts, I wrote some TV pilots, I wrote another novel. A couple of the scripts got made into TV movies. I was making serious money as I grew older and my hair turned grayer. I turned 50, then 55. My little 3 by 3 meeting slips piled up, filling one wooden drawer and spilling over into another. The Writers Guild filed a lawsuit against the studios and TV networks alleging age discrimination against writers over the age of 50. Duh. But still I was working, not as much as I was in my 40’s, but working all the same. I didn’t begrudge the thirtyish producers and studio production executives wanting to hire their friends who were in their early 30’s. That’s the way the magazine world worked in New York. The editors were my age, and they were my friends, and they hired the people they hung out with and drank with and shared houses in the Hamptons with. The Old Guys probably felt like they were being left out in the cold in the magazine world in New York back then. We felt like princes of the city, which we were.
All of a sudden I was on Final Approach to 60. The meetings continued apace, but the deals didn’t. After more than ten years of pitching in Hollywood, you get a real strong sense of What’s Going On the minute you walk into a room – whether or not the producer or exec is taking the meeting as a favor to Joel, for example, or whether they are even looking to sign a project in the first place, or simply marking time and filling out their calendar for the day, justifying their rather highly-paid jobs so they can continue making the lease payments on the blacked-out BMWs parked downstairs in the garage, constantly under the attentions of highly paid detailers. More and more, I was getting a thousand mile stare along with the firm handshake and the obligatory, love your work, man.
Meanwhile the tuition was due for Lilly’s private school in the valley and the mortgage had to be paid along with the electric and water bills and you get the picture. By the time I turned 57, what had been a comfortable income stream from a series of regular deals had trickled away. By now we had a second child, Lucian V, and even though his pre-school bills didn’t amount to much, they came due every month along with everything else. They say Hollywood is a cruel place. It’s not any more cruel than the other major industries, and when they cut checks they cut fairly big ones, but that’s the way Hollywood is. You pitch and pitch and pitch and pitch, and you get rejected and rejected and rejected, and then once in awhile you sell something and you get a substantial payday, which includes contributions to the Guild health and pension plans. Yes, life is so fat out in Hollywood, there are health and retirement benefits. It’s almost like having a job.
By the fall of 2003, I had made just one deal for the year, and it wasn’t covering the bills. So I sought an assignment for Harpers Magazine to go to Iraq and write about what the problems of an occupation army. I had some Pentagon contacts, and some Army contacts in Kuwait who could arrange to get me into Baghdad without much trouble, where I would be linked up with a flight up to Mosul to embed with the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) to see what they were doing occupying an area which under ordinary military circumstance would have belonged not to a 30,000 soldier division but to a quarter-million strong Corps or even larger Army. Even though I was 57 years old and had a wife and two small children, it more than made economic sense for me to stuff a backpack full of gear and get on a BA flight bound for Kuwait and whatever awaited me further north. I was going to be surrounded by heavily armed young men and women in one of the best combat units the United States Army…or any other Army for that matter…had ever known, so what was to worry?
Well, there were IED’s, one of which just missed me, and of course there was The Story. I’ll never forget my abject despair when I awoke on the 8th floor of a semi-destroyed Saddam office building at BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, the morning after my midnight flight into Iraq. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and looked out the window and saw a massive base camp stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. I turned to the First Lieutenant sharing the room with me and said, holy shit, that’s Vietnam out there, isn’t it? I could have sat down and filed my story right then, the view out that window so completely summed up what I had flown so many miles to “cover.” In fact, I filed a long story describing the Problems of Repeating Mistakes of Occupations Past, and it never ran because by the time it was scheduled for publication in early 2004, the occupation had morphed within a short few months into full-on guerilla warfare, and even I had to agree the story was no longer relevant to the war we were seeing nightly on our TV screens.
Pitch meetings. More pitch meetings. More and more and more of them. I had a birthday, my 58th. Thousand mile stares in the blank eyes of 30 year old studio execs were turning into patient million watt smiles, never a good sign. What you want is six figure fingers ready to sign contracts and checks, but their hands were damp with faint welcome when I got to shake them at all. It was now early 2004, and I hadn’t made a deal in Hollywood for over a years. I picked up the phone and called a friend in New York at one of the Major Men’s Magazines. We had 140,000 or so soldiers in Iraq. We had about 20,000 in Afghanistan, where the whole thing had begun and where Osama bin Laden and his minions held major sway with the Taliban, which was already driving our occupation forces mad with yet another form of Vietnam style vexation: raiding across the border and then disappearing into safe havens in Pakistan, just as the VC and NVA had launched raids from safe havens in Cambodia and Laos decades before. Were we ever going to stop fighting the last war? It seemed worth going over and having a look, especially as I contemplated our depleted bank account. More frantic calling around to military contacts until finally it seemed that I could be hooked up with the Rangers out on the Pakistan border charged with battling the Taliban and possibly, just possibly, looking for Osama bin Laden, because who in hell knew where he might be found? A few weeks with the Rangers in the border badlands? That covered a Major Men’s Magazine story all the way.
I hadn’t been particularly worried about my own safety when I went over to Iraq the year before. When you’re embedded, you are perforce surrounded by platoons of heavily armed and very well-trained young men and women. On an average day in Iraq with the 101st, I felt safer than I did when I was living in a $40 a month dump of an apartment on Avenue B and East 12th Street in 1970, where squads of junkies menaced you when you entered or left your building, and almost nightly, fires consumed abandoned buildings all around us on the Lower East Side. The way I had it planned, Afghanistan promised to be a similar situation. So once again I loaded up my backpack and put on my hiking boots and jumped a flight for Pakistan.
Almost immediately, things went south. I was booked on Ariana, the local Afghan airline, from Islamabad to Kabul, and owing to my misunderstanding of the local custom of payoffs known as baksheesh and failure to make such payoffs, I was the last person allowed on the flight. Finally I climbed the steps and entered the aging 737 to find nearly the entire cabin filled with heavily bearded and turbaned members of the Taliban. They were part of a group making a pilgrimage to Mecca whose visas had been canceled and who had been turned around in Saudi Arabia and sent back because of terrorism connections. Welcome to Afghanistan, sucker.
Things didn’t go much better in Kabul. The Public Affairs Office at Army HQ announced that they wouldn’t be able to get me down to Kandahar for at least a week and recommended that I shack up in the meantime at the Hotel Mustafa downtown, which turned out to be a former Taliban prison complete with bars on the windows and bathrooms down the hall full of heroin needles. Wonderful place. My cell set me back $15 a day, but the magazine, expecting me to already be embedded with the Army, wasn’t covering hotels, food and drivers, so I was on my own walking about Kabul and eating the local grub, which turned out to be one hell of a lot better than the KBR gruel they were feeding the Army.
Things went even further south a few days later when news hit that former NFL football star Pat Tillman had been killed in a clash between his Ranger platoon and the Taliban along the Pakistan border. Details were sketchy in every sense of the word, and it would take weeks for it to be revealed that he was killed by friendly fire and that a full-on cover-up was under way, but already I smelled a rat when embeds were cancelled and military travel to the region where Tillman had been killed was shut down. So I sat back in my cell at the Mustafa and waited the better part of another week before my trip to Kandahar was approved and I was put on a C-130 headed south.
It went further south when upon arriving at the base in Kandahar I refused to hand over a list of “questions, talking points and areas of interest” before I could interview anyone and learned that I would be accompanied at all times – with the sole exception of going to the latrine – by a female Air Force Major who would serve as my public relations minder for the entire time I would be embedded with whatever unit I was destined for. With the Rangers under lock and key because of the Tillman killing, my hopes that I would be able to provide the Major Men’s Magazine with an adventurous story of searching out the Taliban in the border badlands dwindled precipitously from few to zero. The very next morning I was unceremoniously put on a C-130 back to Kabul, stripped of my Army press credentials, and left to my own devices.
I was trying my best to rescue my story when I arrived at dusk a few days later at the top of the gorge in the Mahi Par Pass and was quickly blocked in by a massive traffic jam that stretched the full length of the pass, twisting turn after twisting turn of it, and beyond. Looking around me, all I saw were the baleful glares of Afghan men who were as trapped in the pass as I was, and not happy about it. I was the only American for many many miles. Soon some of the men approached. One of them spoke excellent English, having learned the language attending some sort of British prep school in Pakistan. They were not happy with their circumstance and they were especially not happy to find a person they identified as a follower of “Booosh” among them. They gathered around me, maybe a dozen or more of them, the English speaking guy shaking his finger at me angrily: Booosh, Booosh, Booosh, he kept saying. What could I say? I didn’t vote for Booosh, I hated the guy, I thought he was the worst fucking President we’d ever had? Every idea that popped into my head sounded more self-serving than the last one. The crowd grew larger. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other, but it didn’t sound good. They pressed forward until I was trapped against a huge boulder at the edge of the gorge.
This was not a good state of affairs. The crowd was angry and getting angrier. I figured I was a dead man by dawn if I didn’t get myself out of there. Suddenly my mind was flooded with images of my family back home, my wonderful kids waiting for me, wondering what was happening to me, worried about their daddy. I had been on the phone with them the day before, reassuring them that everything was okay, that I was on top of the story, that I would be home as scheduled in a couple of weeks. And here I was standing there looking up at the high peaks of the gorge and the angry faces around me and I had no one to blame but myself. Ten, twelve years in Hollywood and I’ve ended up here? What the fuck was I thinking taking this assignment at my age? There were no platoons of heavily armed soldiers around to protect me. In fact, no friendly soul on the face of the earth knew where I was and what I was facing. Indeed, were there any friendly souls left? Did anyone back in Hollywood give a shit? Hell no they didn’t. They’re busy back there getting their BMWs detailed and sipping icy Chablis at the latest boite on Franklin Avenue reading the trades and clutching their cell phones like pacifiers. Well, fuck them, I’m thinking. Fuck every single one of them. I’m getting my terrified ass out of here.
I looked around me at the Afghans’ angry faces, and as much as I wanted to substitute theirs for the faces of the assholes back in Hollywood, I couldn’t. We were in that fucking traffic jam together. They were in exactly the same shape I was, angry at forces they couldn’t see and couldn’t control, forces that had taken their lives from them, forces that had put them on the same road I was on, probably in service of the same dead end dream I was after. Most of them were younger than me, but a few were my age, so I sought out their eyes as I took out my wallet and began waving it around like a madman. Look at me, I cried. I’m 58 years old and I have a hundred dollars to my name! I’m not a follower of Booosh! I’m a fucking failed screenwriter trying to make enough money to support my family, and look where I’ve ended up! Surrounded by you guys screaming at me, when the fact is, I’m just like you! All I want to do is do my job! I don’t want to be caught in this traffic jam anymore than you do! We’re in this together!
The English speaking guy was translating as I railed on. When I finished, he backed off a couple of feet and studied me. A smile slowly formed on his face. He shook my hand. I believe you, he said. He signaled to the others and the crowd broke up, leaving me alone at the edge of the gorge contemplating the miles and miles of traffic jam blocking us in, thinking of my kids back home in their beds, counting on their daddy to keep himself alive and get home safely, counting on him to pay for their schools and their home and their food, counting on his love and devotion. I would get my ass out of there if it was the last thing I ever did. And thus came to life General Bongo.