The Ground Floor

Editor’s note: This article by Daniel Alarcón is reprinted from Granta 17: Horror.

I met Darin Rossi standing in a thick, gooey pool of fake blood, on an early-December night in Los Angeles. He wore a striped umpire’s uniform and had the beefy look of a lapsed athlete entering middle age: thick chest and neck, black hair gelled with heavy brilliantine and combed straight back. We were both waiting in a slow-moving line for the bathroom, between fights at the inaugural event of a crypto-gothic fight club called the Foam Weapon League (FWL). We made small talk, discussed other fight clubs we’d seen. I squished my sneakers against the floor and felt them stick. He did the same, and we laughed. Even the organizers had been unprepared for this detail — there was so much fake blood! After each fight — or were they battles? — the assistants got down on hands and knees to wipe the floor as clean as they could with gobs of thin paper towels. Everything was improvised. How hard would it have been to buy a mop?

Rossi didn’t mind. He’d once been a Major League Baseball umpire, but since the early 2000s had transitioned into a career in film, television and commercials, playing an umpire. He blew his whistle with the confidence of a professional. Did he miss it — the real thing?

Rossi shook his head. ‘Everyone hates the ump.’

Of course — any sports fan knows it.

He went on: ‘Too much travel. Acting is way better.’ He rattled off the names of a dozen productions he’d been a part of — Bad News Bears, Coach Carter, The Longest Yard, Superman Returns. In each case, he’d played a referee. Apparently he wasn’t concerned with being typecast. For this gig with the FWL, his character was named Rossi the Regulator, and he even wore his old Major League pads under his black-and-white shirt, for extra bulk. He was hoping, he said, ‘to get in on the ground floor’.

It’s one of those uniquely American phrases that connotes a certain desperation, at least in my mind; a phrase that one imagines flying from the lips of a salesman looking feverishly for investors. A huckster might say it, or a swindler, but the romance of it is self-evident: the ground floor is where the real money is made. Buying in early, before the rest of the world has realized that what is being pawned is pure gold — that’s what daring, hungry Americans do. The sad reality is that more often than not the ground floor is the only floor and my sense, after watching a hapless hour and a half of the FWL, was that this was the case now. Unexploded blood packs kept falling off contestants’ vests; the fights were short, fitful and not particularly exciting. Two oddly dressed warriors with plastic swords flailing wildly at one another — it was brutish, simple and disappointing. All atmospherics, but no content. This was the ground floor?

Los Angeles — not the real city, but the version of that city that exists in the popular imagination — is a glamorous, glittering place of palm trees and movie stars. The actual city, which I’ve come to know just a bit over the course of many visits, is at once more interesting and superficially much less attractive. I’d go so far as to say there is no glamour at all remaining in the city itself, but only in its reflected image. It is a quality that tourists themselves import, something created spontaneously when out-of-towners photograph the names engraved on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard, or crowd the windows of a boutique on Rodeo Drive, straining to see some second-rate starlet try on a pair of overpriced shoes. These attractions — if they could be called that — are collectively created works of fantasy; delusions beautiful in the way that all brands of faith are, made perhaps more poignant because, in the entire history of film, praying to a movie star has not yet produced a single documented miracle.

The rest of the city — its millions of residents, in thousands of mostly glum residential neighborhoods — is essentially unknowable. Like many cities, Los Angeles has reached a size beyond which there can be any explaining. It is impossibly large, perfectly confounding, and absolutely surreal. No statement about the city can be made whose opposite would not also be true. The beach you see on television is, for most city-dwellers, a rumor. The mountains and canyons, too. Long, straight, featureless avenues like the one where the FWL held its inaugural event — these are legion. They stretch hundreds of blocks long, east to west, crossing elevations, climactic regions, time zones. Downtown looms. You arrive, only to find it empty. At noon, the smog hangs low and fetid, but if you look straight up the sky is still blue: a good, old-fashioned mirage. Quite unexpectedly, you smell the ocean, but it’s still miles away.

It goes without saying that most of the contestants were actors. Or models. Or somehow connected to the behemoth industry that defines Los Angeles to the world and to itself. I knew this without needing to be told: it was apparent in the way these costumed men and women preened for the many cameras, apparent in the overheard chatter, anxious talk of agents and auditions and workshops. On the surface, the evening could have taken place in any American city — a curious group of eccentrics getting together to role-play on a weekend — what could be more wholesome? But in Los Angeles, it was that and something more: a way to build one’s résumé, an experience that, with a little luck, would turn into a job.

That night at least, the possibilities felt real. The room was pregnant with dreams of stardom. There were signs along the walls, at the doors, that said filming in progress. Rossi told me a few cable channels had shown interest, and talks about a pilot were in the works. The prospect was exciting, of course: his friend and fellow FWL referee had once been a regular on the show Gladiators, and it had paid well enough. I nodded. I liked Darin Rossi very much; there was an earnestness to him I found charming, all the more because it seemed so at odds with his career choice. He’d rather pretend to be something than actually be it. It was less risky, less arduous and probably paid better: I’m not an umpire, but I play one on TV.

Possibly less honest was Rossi’s statement about his next project, which was, according to him, ‘a film with Reese Witherspoon’.

About the FWL: how to describe the sensation of standing in the smallish front room of what was, by all appearances, an abandoned warehouse, drinking beer from a can and surrounded by men and women of all races, sizes, shapes and ages who’d come out this Saturday evening dressed as demons and cavemen, ninjas and wizards, escaped inmates, cartoon characters and the like? How to describe the disconcerting pleasure of it, the discovery, the sound of blood packs bursting, spilling their contents, the sight of the sticky red liquid spreading across the rutted cement and pooling in the fine cracks? How to describe the silliness of it? The farce? The man whose entire face and shaved dome were tattooed solid black, as if it were the helmet of a Roman soldier, and him screaming into a camera, the veins in his neck stretched taut and popping like tensely coiled rope?

I stood surrounded by monsters — whether their intention was to frighten or amuse wasn’t clear.

The fights Rossi and his partner officiated were stylized battles between real-life avatars, characters created especially for the occasion. Their names were evocative, as were the costumes: Hardcore (tight black shorts, bare chest, the aforementioned tattooed face); Cavewoman (just like she sounds, adorned with a missing front tooth, for authenticity’s sake); Arkon (think dark wizard). And there were others: The Squid; The Butch-Dyke; The Hammer; Big Bertha; and Three-Pac, who looked not like the rapper his name referenced, but like a deranged version of Bamm Bamm from The Flintstones. These were men who’d read comic books, perhaps studied them; women who’d spent hours staring at computers back when the one-color screens showed only text and featured a cursor flashing like a hospital monitor showing a beating heart. It was all very playful, but also deadly serious and, except for a young Asian-American man decked out in all white playing a character he called ‘Arctic’ (whom the crowd adopted and re-baptized ‘Kung-fu Panda’), there was no irony. Two of his drunker fans snuggled up to him and pronounced themselves proud members of ‘Team Asia’. They posed with him, flashing peace signs; Arctic winced, but let himself be photographed anyway. Then he went out and slashed up Cavewoman. He was merciless. She never stood a chance.

I spent a few minutes talking with a narrow-faced man who introduced himself as Phil and asked for help pinning back the sleeves of his oversized black robe. He had a shaggy look to him, with stringy, light brown hair and a goatee that had not quite filled out. He had an advantage over the other competitors, he said: he was a martial arts instructor and worked with weapons all day. He spoke these last words boldly, stretching out the phrase ‘all day’ for emphasis. When I asked him about his character, Phil said, ‘I’m the Angry Monk.’

He didn’t seem particularly angry, I thought, but before I could point this out, Phil corrected himself. It was sudden, as if he’d just recalled the story he’d invented for the evening: ‘Angry Ex-Monk, I should say, since I murdered my whole family.’

He didn’t smile, so I didn’t either, but instead tried to imagine what this timid, thoughtful man’s family might have looked like, and how exactly he might have killed them. He probably hadn’t made up that part of the story yet.

‘How about that?’ I said.

Across the room, Hardcore shouted into a digital video camera, fierce, violent, terrifying, his mouth open wide like the jaws of a raging beast. It was a guttural, nonsensical roar, one I imagine he’d practiced in front of a mirror.

Even Angry Ex-Monk seemed shaken by the sight. He became Phil again, and nodded at the spectacle across the room. ‘That’d be really scary if he wasn’t acting.’

Or was it more scary because he was?