Iâ€™m running through the streets of industrial Los Angeles cursing to myself. My eyes are searching, desperately scanning the sidewalk and disintegrating asphalt for a coat hanger. The sun beats down on me, Iâ€™m sweating profusely, and behind me my car is parked with the engine running and the keys locked inside it. Welcome to L.A., baby.
If there is a Horatio Alger rite-of-passage story in my life, it takes place during the summer of 1991. For three months I worked as an intern for Alterian Studios, a special effects company in Hollywood. I was a 21-year-old kid — or at least I felt like a kid.
My mother and I spent three and a half days driving across the country in the 1987 Plymouth Horizon given to me that spring. The red four-door hatchback was an automatic with crank windows, no AC, FM/AM stereo and under a thousand miles on it. A great little car, it was the perfect vehicle for navigating the L.A. freeways. Upon arrival, my mom hovered over me protectively as if I wouldnâ€™t survive in the big city. As much as I love her, I was relieved when she boarded the plane back to Ohio. This was my big chance to be on my own — sort of. Iâ€™d be crashing at the apartment my brother, Budd, shared with his fiancÃ©e, Karyn. Still, with the two of them busy with their own lives, I would be free to explore the west coast and figure out who I wanted to be.
Budd didnâ€™t know what to do with me, anyway. Although I was on the verge of being a college senior, he still viewed me as his pesky little brother, the dope who slammed a car door on his ankle, the kid who nicked up his drums and didnâ€™t tell him, the teenager he had to drive around on dates while I was on crutches in 9th grade. If Budd saw me that way, you can imagine what his best friend, Tony Gardner, the genius responsible for the FX in the remake of The Blob and Darkman (and future greats like Army of Darkness, Thereâ€™s Something About Mary, and Hairspray) must have seen me. Alterian is his company. To him I must have looked like just another wide-eyed college dork when I walked through the doors to shop for the first time.
Initially I was a production assistant, a runner. This meant that whatever supplies were needed, I was sent to pick them up in my little car. Simple, right? Not quite. In the age before Google Maps all I had to work with was a massive map book called the Thomas Guide. Still, I had music to discover and keep me company. Before leaving Ohio I had stuck Velcro to the dashboard of the Horizon and on the back of my black boom box. Voila! A dash cassette player. Yeah, it didnâ€™t work too well. But L.A. radio was still free of corporate tools and playing music I never would have heard in the Midwest. In particular KROQ, in its heyday, was spinning songs that formed the soundtrack to my Los Angeles summer. Dream Warriorsâ€™ â€œMy Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style,â€ Crowded Houseâ€™s â€œItâ€™s Only Natural,â€ and R.E.M.â€™s â€œTexarkanaâ€ are forever linked to that period of my life.
No song revved me up more than Big Audio Dynamite IIâ€™s â€œRush,â€ which got cranked each time it came on the radio. Band leader Mick Jonesâ€™s creative brilliance shines on this track as he smashed rock and rollâ€™s past into the future, blending punky guitar slashes with a hip hop beat and a classic sample from the Whoâ€™s â€œBaba Oâ€™Riley.â€ And of course there is the â€œrhythm and melodyâ€ break in the middle of the song. â€œRushâ€ is one of those great anthems that make you bang your head and want to dance at the same time.
I worked as a runner without complaint for a month and would have gone on that way for the remainder of the summer had it not been for the regular phone calls from my folks, checking in and asking what all I was learning on my internship. Here they were paying Bowling Green State University summer tuition so I could be in Los Angeles driving my car and doing grunt work for free. Their question started to fester in my head as the heat began to rise and Iâ€™d get stuck in the stop and go traffic on the freeways. I debated approaching Tony, but fear gripped me whenever I was near him. Outside the shop he may have been a family friend, but within the walls of Alterian he was the boss. Couple that with the fact that I idolized the guy and dreamed of someday working with him as an equal, and whatever confidence I had when I started at Alterian went out the front door.
Everything came to a head the day I locked my keys in the car with the ignition on.
Several times in haste Iâ€™d been boneheaded enough to lock the keys in the Horizon after sorting through the paperwork on my passenger seat. To solve this habit I began leaving the keys in the ignition. On this particular afternoon, hurrying to beat rush hour traffic on the dreaded 210 freeway, I jumped out, locked and shut my door. Two steps later I realized what I had done.
This leads us back to me jogging around a shitty neighborhood, in the heart of Los Angeles, looking for a coat hanger to unlock my door. The only word coming out of my mouth was â€œfuck.â€ Each time it had a different context: F- â€œIâ€™m such an idiot! What if my car gets stolen?â€ U- â€œIâ€™m never going to make it back to the shop and Iâ€™m going to get fired!â€ C- â€œThis isnâ€™t what I signed up for. What exactly am I learning? K- How is it possible that on the streets of L.A. I canâ€™t find a damn wire hanger and I know if I was in downtown Bowling Green I would probably find at least three within the first minute out of my car?!â€ Finally I found a parking attendant with a slim jim who took pity on me.
I completed my errand and stewed in my car the entire ride back to the shop. After unloading the supplies and turning in my receipts, I grew a spine and sat down with Tony to discuss my education. I laid it all out. I needed to learn. I wanted to contribute. I understood that supply runs and prepping the conference room for movie executives was part of the job, but I had more to offer. Since I was using the experience as a college credit, I needed to have something to relay back to my advisor besides “I know how to make it to Burbank and back in under an hour.” To my amazement, Tony agreed. He changed my schedule so that I would work in the shop during the afternoons, and the next day I was assigned to help paint the mechanical clock from The Addams Family movie. Full of pride, I left the shop feeling renewed, happily driving home with the window down and the radio at full blast. On that day my summer kicked into high gear, my education just beginning.
To quote Mick Jones from the opening of â€œRush:â€
If I had my time again
I would do it all the same
And not change a single thing
Even when I was to blame