CHAPTER 10 - A NIGHT ON THE TOWN
Dwight keeps yelling. “I want radio mikes on Trent and Jodi!”
They dash back up the fire escape and back into the building. Paul rifles through his bag as he runs, finds the two radio microphone packages, then trips and falls to his knees. Victor keeps running.
Victor is already rolling tape when Paul gets back to the small storage rooms where they live. Jodi, Duncan and Ilima hand Trent all their coins and crumpled dollar bills for him to count.
“We have nine dollars, along with bus fare.”
“We need more than this if we’re going to get shit-faced,” Jodi complains.
“It’s enough for beer,” Trent counters.
“We’ll spange for change on Hollywood Boulevard,” Trent decides.
Ilima moans. “It’s so far away! And the Hollywood gutter punks have the best corners already picked out. We’re just going to get into a fight.”
“Stay here then,” Trent says. “We’ll bring some back.”
. They all look at her. Ilima coughs and pulls her jacket around her. Victor pushes in tight for a close-up on her face. She looks afraid. “Okay, I’ll come.”
The kids take out pocket lighters and light a path down a staircase strewn with a moonlit carpet of broken glass. The kids have their own entrance through a steel door with a padlock and Trent has the key. They step through, lock up their home again, and start walking, with Victor doing his camera dance alongside. Dwight is in the white van behind the wheel, trailing them. Paul runs alongside, holding his boom aloft while mixing the audio. We must look like a weird circus, Paul thinks.
During the day, this area past downtown Los Angeles hides 11,000 homeless men, women and children. They pass hundreds of cardboard boxes, each one home to another homeless person. Every two hundred yards is a rusted oil drum with a wood fire, and a dozen men and women gather around it.
On every block, a homeless man approaches -- either slow and shy, asking for help, or loud and rude, insisting that they give him a job or some cash. Each time Victor pauses his camera, pulls his gun from pants and points it at the man. “I will kill you!”
“Crazy Russian man, relax,” one man says. “We’re just being friendly.”
The kids reach the subway station and all stop, as if on cue. Victor whispers into the boom microphone so Paul can hear him. “This is where we usually put the microphones on them.”
Paul approaches Trent and Jodi with the radio microphones. Neither made eye contact with him but understood his lowly task -- they just raise their arms so he can attach the microphones to their collars, then snake the line through their shirts and attach transmitters that he either slides into their pockets or attaches to their belts.
“One two three four five,” they mutter. Paul adjusts their volumes and nod, and like bored celebrities they all sigh and walk into the station.
Dwight honks from the van, and drives away.
Victor takes the camera off his shoulder and motions for Paul to follow him down the subway stairs. “Dwight will meet us at the Hollywood station. We’re not cleared to shoot in here,” Victor whispers, “but I can grab stuff from my hip so keep the power up. Just monitor the radio mics.”
The kids blend in with the rest of humanity traveling the downtown trains at night, they just seem a little dirtier. Duncan points to the scar on his face, and then points to Paul’s head and gives him a big thumbs-up sign. Paul smiles and gives him the thumbs-up back. Why not? Dwight is somewhere forty feet above them racing up Western Avenue trying to beat the train.
“What’s your name?” Duncan moves his mouth in a whisper.
Paul writes his name on his palm with a sharpie and holds it up for Duncan to see. Duncan stares at it and shrugs. Either Duncan is blind or the kid can’t read.
An hour later they are on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theater, the spot where Paul sliced his head open just two days earlier, the accident that helped him get the job. It already seems like a year ago. The street is crowded with Hollywood punks, night-clubbers and tourists taking snapshots of the Boulevard. The kids disappear into the crowd. Victor steps to the curb and Paul falls in place behind him.
Paul hears Victor’s headset crackle and sees Dwight in the white van fifty yards away. “Get ready, the kids are about to do something,” Victor says.
Paul turns up their radio mics. They are close by. He then spots Trent and Duncan walking down the sidewalk from opposite ends. They bump shoulders directly in front of a group of tourists.
“Watch where you’re going, you black bastard,” Duncan says.
“Shut your mouth, you white Nazi. Or I’ll shut it for you,” Trent pushes him.
They attack one another, swinging their fists at each other’s faces with full force, each ducking just in time to take the blows in the chest and the back of the head.
A crowd gathers, cameras flashing. Victor circles the duo, pushing close then retreating just before a punch nails him— it’s clear that he has shot this before and knows their precise choreography.
Paul extends his boom and catches whispers from the crowd: “Is this real? I think it is….no, look at the camera, it’s a TV show. . . but they’re really hitting each other…”
Dwight rushes around the corner with his headset on, looking at a small TV monitor in his hand, already barking instructions to Victor. A subset of tourists breaks off from the crowd to surround Dwight and watch him bark into his headset. He is now “the show.”
“White Punk Ass Mother Fucker!” Trent screams and tackles Duncan to the sidewalk. Trent rubs Duncan’s face into the pavement and then bites him hard on the shoulder. Duncan screams. If this is a put-on, Paul is impressed.
Trent and Duncan jump to their feet, their arms and faces red with scrapes.
“Black bastard! You fucked my sister!”
Duncan takes a step back and swings his foot at Trent’s groin with full force. Trent puts out his hands to block the kick, and at the last moment Duncan flattens the arch of his foot so his boot connects only with Trent’s cupped hands, right at crotch level. But the smack is loud and lifts Trent off the ground. He collapses to the sidewalk groaning. The crowd gasps. Jodi rushes forward, tears in her eyes, and gets on her knees and hugs Trent.
The crowd moves closer. Jodi cradles Trent’s head, pauses for a beat, sniffs, waits for Victor to fall into place with his camera, then stares at Duncan with tears running down her face. “Stop fighting! I love him, Carl! I’m going to have his baby! And you’re going to have a nephew!” Jodi screams at Duncan.
Victor swings his camera around, and gets Duncan in frame for his answer. Duncan falls to his knees, weeping. Huge sobs wrack his body as snot runs in a stream from his nose. “Please, Diane...Carl...you’re my only family! Forgive me! I won’t stand in the way of your love!”
Duncan words are cheesy, but the moment feels real. Paul is shocked by what a good actor he is. The crowd falls silent, until you can only hear the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard and the helicopters overhead. Paul spots a few tourist women in velour jumpsuits and even one man in the crowd wiping away a tear.
Trent jumps up, throws out his arms and bows. Ilima rushes in and helps Jodi and Duncan to their feet, so all four can bow together. The crowd groans and laughs and then applauds, especially for Duncan. Trent takes off his cap and walks into the crowd.
“Donations? Just some street kids trying to make it in Hollywood...Donations?”
Coins and dollar bills go into his hat, as tourists slap them on the back. “You guys are great…you should be on TV…that was amazing.”
The crowd moves on. Paul holds the boom high as Victor pushes in for a shot of Trent counting out the money: twenty-five dollars.
“Liquor Store!” Jodi yells, and off they go, running down Hollywood Boulevard with Victor and Paul dashing alongside, while Dwight sprints on the other side of the street, his face stuck in his TV monitor while muttering commands into his walkie-talkie.
They find a liquor store and ten minutes later the kids are in an alley ripping cans out of a twelve-pack and chugging beer as fast as they can swallow. After two cans, Ilima starts coughing. She pulls her jacket tight around her while everyone watches and waits for the spell to pass. Her face turns grey for a minute before turning pink again. “I’m hungry,” she says.
They end up at the International House of Pancakes on Sunset Boulevard. No one awake at 2 a.m. cares about smoking laws, so Trent and Jodi light up cigarette after cigarette, crushing the butts into the remnants of their strawberry pancakes. Duncan empties sugar packets into his mouth while Ilima counts their remaining money on the table. “We got nineteen dollars.”
“We need ten for the pancakes and need five to get back to the vats. That leaves us four dollars to waste,” Trent says.
Jodi snaps her fingers over her head. “More beer then!”
“We’re already tanked, I need a bag of speed to back this up. I don’t want to ride the fucking bus back downtown unless I’m high,” Trent complains.
“We don’t have the money for speed,” Jodi says.
They pick at their pancakes and argue for ten minutes over whether to get beer or speed, then hit a lull, then argue again for another ten minutes.
Dwight sits five booths down watching on his monitor, giving Victor instructions. Paul is so hungry even the smashed-up pancakes and cigarette butts look good, but he doesn’t dare eat anything. Food at this point would just make him sleepier than he already is. The kids’ argument enters its fifth cycle about beer versus speed, while Victor shoots close-ups, pans, and over-the-shoulder shots. Why were they even shooting this? This is nowhere as interesting as their fight on Hollywood Boulevard, Paul thinks. The fight on the street and Duncan parading with his hand on fire were the best moments of the night.
“Let’s get some vodka and chocolate milk,” Trent says.
“I want some weed,” Ilima says. Her cough returns and she hacks up crud.
“Let’s just choke each other until we pass out. That gets us high and it’s free,” Duncan says. Jodi shakes her head and punches him.
Victor motions “cut” to Paul and they step away for their break. They take off their gear and slide down in the booth next to Dwight.
“This is the same thing they did last Saturday night,” Victor moans.
“Exactly,” Dwight explains. “This is their routine. That’s the point. Don’t worry, it’ll all become clear in the edit bay,” Dwight says. He turns to Paul. “I was out of audio range when I was driving the van and catching up. What did they talk about?”
“Ilima wants to go home and go to sleep, but Trent wants to do something crazy for the cameras.”
Victor spits on the floor. “That’s because Trent wants his own TV series.”
Dwight points his finger in Victor’s face. “No judgment, stay neutral.”
Victor growls, but drops his eyes. He’s insane, but he follows the chain of command, which is why Dwight likes him. That, and the fact that he can work nonstop for eight days straight.
Paul neglects to tell Dwight that while Dwight was out of range they also talked about him, the new guy. They all agreed they liked Paul better than the last audio guy. At least they knew his name. Paul curls his hand to hide his name inked onto his palm.
Paul glances back and sees bills flashing at the kids table and hears a slight change in the tone of Trent’s voice. He slides the headphones back on.
“You had this all along? Why didn’t you say anything?” Trent asks.
“I dunno,” Duncan says. “I was saving it for something for myself.”
“All money is tribal money,” Trent says, and takes Duncan’s cash.
Paul turns to Dwight. “Duncan just gave Trent some money, at least twenty dollars.”
The kids rise out of their chairs. Victor slams in a new beta tape, runs out the front door and spins around to get a shot of the exterior as the kids leave the restaurant. Paul makes it out the door ten steps ahead of the kids and clears Victor’s frame just in time.
The kids stagger down the street, wasted as much from exhaustion as liquor. Paul gets the feeling that if the camera crew broke for the night the kids would have gone home, but Trent pulls them along. The streets are empty at this hour, so Dwight can trail the whole group in the white van, driving with one hand while directing via walkie-talkie with the other.
They buy four big bottles of beer and then find a dealer outside an after-hours punk club in an alley off Virgil Street, who sells them a white powder he assures them is straight crystal meth. Ilima, Duncan and Jodi snort their share but Trent wants to smoke his. Victor gets a tight shot as Trent cuts open a cigarette with his pocketknife, dribbles in the powder, then rolls it up like a joint and lights up. Soon everyone’s pupils shrink to pinpoints as they get giggly and happy, wide-awake and drunk. They drink the rest of their beers like water.
“Come on,” Trent says. “Let’s go on a hike.”
It’s 4 a.m. as Trent leads the group above Sunset Boulevard and into the Hollywood Hills. Victor and Paul run ahead, their gear bouncing off their shoulders and hips, trying to get far enough ahead of them to get a decent shot while Dwight heads far up the street past everyone, parks the van and hops out to meet them.
Paul has moved through four stages of exhaustion. First his muscles cramped up and he got the sweats, then he got sleepy and could barely keep his eyes open, then he got so hungry that he got the dry-heaves, and now he is floating. The feeling is pleasant; Paul figures it’s like what wounded men go through just before dying.
Paul sees no change in Victor, however. He is just as manic as when they met at sunset, and they’d been going almost ten hours without a break. Dwight’s focus doesn’t waver either, no matter how meaningless and mundane the conversation is. Paul can’t see doing this night after night and being able to stay alive.
Jodi drains her beer bottle and tosses it down the hill, watching it smash into the empty street. The others do the same, making it rain glass. Dogs start barking. As they climb higher so did the prices of the homes and the parked cars they pass. Bougainvillea bushes and palm and eucalyptus trees make a thick fragrant canopy on the narrow streets. They are in near darkness, the only light coming from hazy porch lights in the early morning fog. There is no extraneous city noise -- even the distant highway hiss is absent at this early hour. Ilima starts singing a Hawaiian song, slow and lilting, like a hymn. The others listen to its mournfulness, letting it sink in, and use its rhythm to beat out the steps of their slow climb. They seem like tired, lonely, exhausted kids.
Dwight appears with his monitor. Paul can’t hear his voice because he’s wearing headphones, but he can see him mouth the word “light.” Victor snaps on the lamp attached to the top of his camera and it sends out a harsh beam that makes the four kids look like criminals in a spotlight.
Their behavior changes with the flick of that switch. Ilima stops singing and lights up a cigarette instead, and so does Jodi. Trent pulls on car door handles, seeing if any cars will open. With the camera light on, they are hip homeless youth again. Trent grabs at a Mercedes and the car alarm goes off, and they all run off, laughing. Ilima’s illness makes her laughter sound deep like a man’s, which made everyone laugh even louder.
Jodi dashes over to a row of garbage bins. It’s a garbage day and each house has a big blue bin for recycling alongside the black garbage bin. Jodi walks into Victor’s pool of light and leads him over to a blue bin and flips the top -- inside is glass, paper, and aluminum. “Time to get to work. We need empty garbage bags.”
Trent tosses open a garbage bin, yanks out some full trash bags and empties their contents on the ground. Duncan does the same at the next house down. Now each of them has an empty garbage bag. They dig through the blue recycling bins next, and fill their empty garbage bags with glass bottles and aluminum cans.
“I hate doing this,” Ilima says. “This is what real homeless people do.”
Duncan is the most aggressive, tipping over entire bins with a clatter and then scouring through the mess for cans and glass. Dwight darts up and down the street, whispering into his walkie-talkie. Victor pushes close, lighting the ground so Duncan can grab the cans and bottles before they roll away. Sweat stains cover Duncan’s back and the tangy stench of his body odor is overwhelming. All four of them have it -- they were in the middle of their meth speed high and the chemicals are oozing out of every pore.
“Get the fuck out of those bins!”
Victor hangs back, getting only the man’s silhouette against his garage light. He is in pajamas and a robe.
“A camera? What the fuck is a camera doing out here? Who are you?”
Jodi and Ilima and Trent laugh and runs off, but Duncan keeps digging through the man’s recycling bin.
“I’m calling the police.” The man disappears back inside his home.
At the top of the next block Victor sets up a shot next to a blue bin, anticipating Duncan’s approach. Duncan sprints, and karate kicks the bin right at the top, knocking it over and sending the contents flying. Lights go on in houses on both sides of the street.
“Whoa, Duncan. Cool it,” Trent warns.
The next neighbor to come out is an aging jock with a beer belly hanging over his boxer shorts. He is also swinging a baseball bat, which Paul dodges as he feels the rush of air as the bat passes close to his belly. He swings at Victor next but the Russian war veteran dodges him like an expert, the camera rolling the entire time.
Gasping for air, the jock misses with every swing, which makes him more enraged. Then he spots Duncan, a much easier target as he kneels on the ground sifting through trash. The jock lifts the bat high and runs at him screaming. Duncan is pulling a Heineken bottle from under the BMW in the driveway when he glances up to see the bat swinging right at his head.
What happens next seems to be a trick of the eye. Duncan shifts his weight, ducks his head, and as the bat swings past his skull he plucks it out of the jock’s hand as easily as if he’d handed it to him. Duncan stands up, shoulders the bat and stares into the man’s eyes.
“Please, I won’t do anything. Just don’t hurt the car,” he begs.
Duncan grins, as if the idea just came to him. He swings the bat hard and smashes the back window of the Mercedes, then lifts the garbage bag of recycling onto his shoulder and walks away, leaving the man staring at his damaged automobile.
Trent and Jodi give Duncan high-fives, but Ilima is still scared.
“We always get hassled when we do this.”
“Fuck them, this is just trash to them. We need the money,” Trent says.
Ilima goes into another coughing fit, as much from fear as sickness. Her face turns ashen and then she vomits up all her beer and pancakes. The others skip away from the mess, laughing and holding their noses. The color returns to Ilima’s face and she smiles.
Trent leads them downhill. He glances around, sniffing the air and listening.
“Hide if you hear a car coming. They called the cops for sure.”
Duncan nods. The girls come close, aware the boys are nervous. At the first sound of a car engine they all dart down different driveways and crouch behind cars. Victor and Paul join them. A police cruiser drives past, passing Dwight parked in the white van.
They get to the recycling center in the supermarket parking lot at 8 a.m. and sell their cans and bottles for nine dollars, then go dumpster diving and find a box of oranges and a red chair missing a cushion. They head back to the subway.
Victor and Paul ride the train with them while Dwight drives the van on the surface streets above. The train is crowded with commuters but everyone gives the kids room because of their stench, so Victor has plenty of space to sneak his shots.
They get back to the vats by 9:30 a.m. Victor shoots them trudging back upstairs with their new red chair and their oranges, and follows them into their grey rooms. Ilima and Duncan go straight to their wooden pallets and Trent and Jodi fall face first onto the dirty mattress they share. They are all unconscious immediately.
A short buzz comes over Victor’s ear piece. The Russian takes off his headset and powers down his camera. “That’s it for today. They’ll be out for at least ten hours.”
Paul glances at his watch. He’d worked fifteen hours straight without a break.