From Here to Realityby Steven Schindler
When Johnny Koester is laid off from his TV production job in New York, he moves west, landing in Los Angeles just as the ashes from the riots are settling. The only job he can find is in the burgeoning new field of "reality television," and suddenly Johnny's working like a dog on Shocking Hollywood/b>/i>
Sometimes life is stranger than reality TV.
When Johnny Koester is laid off from his TV production job in New York, he moves west, landing in Los Angeles just as the ashes from the riots are settling. The only job he can find is in the burgeoning new field of "reality television," and suddenly Johnny's working like a dog on Shocking Hollywood Secrets and, better still, Psychic CrimeBusters.
Unfortunately for Johnny, life at his new home in Hollywood Court View is even more bizarre than his work. Plagued from day one by his mysterious neighbor, Benny, Johnny soon finds himself following clues having to do with old baseball scorecards and Tony Bennett songs -- and inadvertently setting into motion a series of events that will reveal Benny's deep, dark East Coast past. The only thing going right in Johnny's life is Joan -- the director of a shelter for runaway teens -- who has a heart of gold and a body that makes him weak. He interviewed her for one of his shows, and sparks definitely flew. But will she still love him when Shocking Hollywood Secrets hits the air?
Putting his own quirky spin on the classic tale of a New York transplant in L.A., Steven Schindler has penned a hilarious tale of underworld intrigue, whirlwind love, and the somewhat difficult birth of a TV phenomenon.
"Schindler's cockeyed insider's take on how bottom-feeder TV gets made is what gives this entertaining novel its oomph."
"What's real? What's fake? Who knows anymore? But I do know FROM HERE TO REALITY made me laugh. Great book!"
Roger L. Simon (Author- The Big Fix, Director's Cut)
- Pocket Books
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- SIMON & SCHUSTER
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Read an Excerpt
As i pass a road sign informing me that I have just entered Los Angeles County, and see just over the horizon what could be best described as a mushroom cloud of rust, I thought about the many times I almost made a U-ey on the highway and headed back home.
The reports that Los Angeles had become the latest manifestation of hell on earth started coming over the radio about half past Montana. Before last Friday, Rodney King was just another name on the radio news, interspersed with conflagrations in the Mideast, unidentified males found in abandoned South Bronx buildings, octogenarians robbed and raped, and the latest Wall Street gazillionaire opening some haute-nouveau-postmodern-foo-foo-eatery for people desperate to be obscenely seen.
But when the video of Rodney King getting his shins bashed in by teams of cops on a suburban street illuminated by million-candlepower searchlights shining down from police and media helicopters is played over and over and over, more times than the Zapruder film, it brings to mind one burning question to all thinking New Yorkers such as myself: How the hell could those cops be so stupid?
That street scene was lit brighter than a night game at Yankee Stadium, and they continued to whale on his ass with multitudes watching? If they were really that pissed at him for punching a cop in the nuts, or biting his ear off, well, come on! Don't do it in the middle of a Los Angeles street that looks to be wider than most New York highways. Show a little discretion! I mean, you're in Hollywood for chrissakes! Don't you know just about every household in America has a home-video camera with a zoom lens?
Don't get me wrong. Rodney King didn't deserve to be beaten like that. But I mean an unarmed guy, drunk off his ass, trying to take on a dozen cops? To a New Yorker, that's a normal Saturday night in the Blarney Stone.
I'm no expert on the textbook regulations of how to apprehend a 275-pound drunk-driving lunatic, but I would guess maybe five cops tackling a guy and a few kicks in the balls would give you enough time to slap on a pair of cuffs, throw him in a black-and-white, and maybe add a few rabbit punches on the way downtown if you absolutely must. But sheesh!
So when they declared those cops not guilty last Friday, L.A. became a burning, rioting, raging Armageddon with palm trees. To think I packed my 1980 Chrysler Town & Country station wagon with simulated wood siding and drove three thousand miles for this.
I was always the smart one.
The first night of the riots, I stopped in Vegas -- the only schmuck in the casino hunched over the bar watching the riots unfold on a small black-and-white TV. The bartender, a short black man named Hercules, was probably pushing seventy, but he looked like he could tap-dance on the face of every guy in the place. He told me he grew up in South Central L.A., right near Florence and Normandie, where the riots started, and he never thought he'd be more ashamed to say he grew up in L.A. after they let those Rodney King-beating cops go -- that was until he saw those animals smash Reginald Denny in the face with a brick. "Ain't no good ever come from evil," he would recite whenever there seemed to be a lull in the action on the tube.
As I cruise west on the I-10, entering L.A. AM news-radio range in my K-car wagon, (nicknamed Woody, for the peeling wood-grain Con-Tact paper adorning its side), the news says it appears the riots are finally over in most parts of the city. Although there don't seem to be too many acts of random violence, there is still sporadic looting, having spread as far north as Hollywood, with reports of fires and stores being emptied on Vermont Avenue. Bingo! Guess what exit I have to take to get to my new apartment? Then it hits me: Once I go north on Vermont for about five miles, just past the heart of Hollywood, I have to make a right turn on Rodney Drive, my new street.
The sky is a weird shade of mud brown. The air is thick with soot and smoke, and there are ashes descending on my car like snow. This part of Vermont Avenue looks to be very Asian. In fact, I can tell by the lettering on what's left of the burnt-out storefronts that it's the Korean part of town. Pieces of people's lives are wisping through the air in the form of ashes and embers. Furniture, candy wrappers, sneakers, ladies' housecoats, fruit boxes, all up in smoke only to land in the gutter and eventually be swept away, probably by these same shopkeepers, and placed in a trash can for a city sanitation worker to dispose of properly. Law and order will return. But for now I drive up Vermont past the charred shells of mini-malls. Koreans are starting to walk the streets and begin the cleaning up in this part of town.
As I drive a mile or so north, I begin to see the sporadic looting. In a large shopping center on Vermont Avenue, in broad daylight, people are driving into the lot, parking neatly between the lines of painted parking spots, and walking through the broken plate-glass windows of a supermarket, a shoe store, and a tropical fish store. Some people have baby strollers. With babies in them! It's like they're out doing their weekly shopping. There are even a couple of cops directing traffic at the intersection, in full view of this brazen criminal activity, and not doing a thing. These looters don't fall into stereotypical racial patterns, either. In fact, I'd say it's a pretty good chunk of ethnic urban America partaking in this disgusting display of thievery. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Middle Eastern-looking folks. The only ethnic group missing, as far as I can tell, is Asian. But wait! There's a group of Asian teenagers coming out of the tropical fish store toting plastic bags of live fish.
America's melting pot has become Dante's Inferno. I wish I had a video camera for this. And maybe a gun.
Fortunately, the nonchalant L.A. looters haven't made it to Rodney Drive. The stores are all closed, and many of them have plywood boards over the windows or crews installing riot gates. Just a few hundred feet down the palm-tree-lined block is my new home. Hollywood View Court is a modest apartment complex that looks better to me than most places we went on vacation to when I was a kid, like the sagging fire-trap bungalows we used to rent in Rockaway, Queens. I'd classify Hollywood View Court as a typical L.A. apartment building: U-shaped, two-story, with exterior entrances surrounding a common courtyard. Only instead of a weeping willow tree, such as we used to play Chutes and Ladders under in Rockaway, this common area has a large swimming pool surrounded by nice patio furniture and umbrellas.
But now the pool water is a smoky gray, the beach chairs and patio are covered with a layer of soot and ash, and the whole neighborhood smells like the inside of a wood-burning pizza oven.
I found this place in a day, just over a month ago. I was out here doing a video shoot for my old boss, Karen Marshall, who's now in L.A., having landed a gig as a big kahuna at a major TV network. She promised me if I moved out, she could land me a job. Well, since my flight out from JFK was delayed for three hours due to several deicings, and upon my arrival at LAX it was 78 degrees, I gave it careful consideration. At that time, my writer/producer job at the local TV station in New York was already on thin ice, and I didn't know I was getting ready to fall through into icy-cold, dark waters. The program I worked on wasn't the kind of programming the new owner of the station liked. We were already hearing rumors that syndicated trash TV such as Busted on Tape, In Your Face Hidden Video, and Date Bait were going to replace the weekly show I worked on. That show, Inside the Apple, featured reports on the arts, entertainment, and New York neighborhood stories. Out with the old and in with the dreck. My old boss was the first lucky rat to jump ship. But considering I mouthed off in an obscenity-laced tirade at her replacement barely two hours into her tour of duty, calling into question her professionalism, ethics, and choice of perfume, my fate was pretty much sealed. I was the first unlucky person to be let go. And the second person ever escorted out of the building by security. I heard the first guy ever escorted out stabbed somebody.
Karen Marshall more than likely used her patented strategy of sweet talk and passive-aggressive sociopathic bullying to land one of the most revered jobs in Hollywood: TV development. Okay, so it was in the newly coined area of reality programming, but nonetheless, it was a real accomplishment for a college dropout from Utica to be in such an influential position. Now, I know the only way to get anywhere in this town is to have somebody already on the inside, so I figured what the hell. I'm single, have almost ten years of experience in TV, have decent personal hygiene habits, and got removed from my New York TV job at the insistence of an armed security guard -- Hollywood seemed like a valid choice. Maybe my only choice.
After an L.A. power lunch with Karen last month, she pretty much assured me she could get me work, and I was sold. She also suggested I head east on Hollywood Boulevard to check out an area for apartments, which she described as the closest thing to New York: an area called Los Feliz. I was amazed at the number of available nice places with swimming pools and palm trees. And, compared to New York, cheap. I found a two-bedroom in three hours for about a third of what a similar-sized apartment would rent for in Manhattan. And the topper is, you get a freaking parking space! Free. The name of the place, painted in script with white lettering on a dark brown piece of wood, was what really sold me: HOLLYWOOD VIEW COURT. I was immediately intrigued, because the prewar building where I grew up in the Bronx had a faded concrete inscription above the entrance: BAILEY VIEW COURT. As a child in that apartment, I would look out my bedroom window and see the world go by as the sun set in the West each evening. Little did I know that one day I'd follow those sunsets, only to discover that the orange glow of the western sky wasn't the sun setting but a city engulfed in flames.
Rodney Drive is eerily quiet. I have to drive through an alley to get to my assigned parking space behind my newly adopted apartment building. Just as I'm ready to make a left turn into the driveway, a van speeding straight toward me in the narrow alley makes a tire-squealing turn directly in front of me, missing me by a foot or so. It careens up the short slope of the driveway, bottoming out in the process, and whips into a parking space in the nearly empty lot. It's a filthy black cargo van with no hubcaps and a huge dent on the front fender, and it's rumbling like it hasn't had a tune-up since it rolled off the assembly line in Flint in the late seventies. It's sitting there with the motor running. I slowly pull into the lot only to realize that he's in space number thirteen, and my preassigned space is number fourteen. I creep into my spot, trying to keep my distance but staying within the painted white line. Just as I kill my engine, the cargo door on the van swings open, just missing my door. From the darkness of the cargo area, I hear an agitated male voice.
"The whole fucking lot is empty, and he's got to park on top of me. Jesus Christ. Dammit!"
Discovering that my neighbor is a raging maniac wasn't exactly the way I hoped to begin my new life in Los Angeles. I can hear more ranting from inside the van, but I can't make out what he's saying. A large box slides into view of the van cargo doorway.
"How the hell am I supposed to get this out? I can't fucking believe this!" a disjointed voice whines from behind the box.
I open my door, careful not to hit his van, and get ready to stand my ground.
"Excuse me," I say in a tone usually reserved for phrases such as fuck off. "Is there some kind of problem here?" Knowing full well what the problem is, and that other problems are more than likely to follow.
"How the fuck am I supposed to get this out of here? Huh? Jesus!" the voice says, still in the darkness of the van behind the Zenith TV box. Finally, popping up behind the box, he appears. I can barely make out his severe face, tense with strain. He has absolutely no color, except maybe gray, with thinning, disheveled salt-and-pepper hair, a few strands across his forehead. His eyes are so deep-set I can see barely anything but two dark holes where his eyes should be. Stooped over as he is, he reminds me of some kind of evil troll who has just been disturbed after a two-year nap under a bridge.
"Well, maybe if you'd ask me nicely, I could move my car and help with your box," I say without a hint of friendliness.
"Just move your car. I don't need any help."
"That's nice? Nope. Not nice. Not nice at all, asshole," I say, slamming my car door shut, which I don't like to do, since every time it's slammed, the simulated wood siding peels off a little bit more. Asshole isn't a word I use lightly. I use it only when I'm absolutely positive that the person being addressed as an asshole is one whose ass I can kick. I'm no Hulk, but at five foot nine and 150 pounds, often growing up in the streets, I've learned to swing a tire iron like nobody's business. By the looks of this guy, unless he's hiding a revolver, I've got nothing to be worried about. I've turned and begun to walk away when he jumps out of the van.
"Look. Could you do me a favor and move your car? Please?" he asks, his demeanor switching from ranting shithead to pleading child.
The overcast day adds to his pallor. He stands there, looking down at the ground. He's wearing a black windbreaker that drapes over his sharp, pointy shoulders. He looks to be in his fifties, but if he told me he was seventy, I would believe him. I can't tell if he hasn't shaved or if his face is dirty with ash and soot.
"Will do, pal. All you have to do is ask. Nicely." I say the word pal as though I'm saying asshole.
As soon as I pull out of the space, my nutty neighbor is grappling with the large, cumbersome box. I walk over to the rear of his van, and after witnessing him awkwardly struggle with his cargo, I figure I'll try dropping my harsh attitude to offer help. "Need a hand?"
"No!" he shoots back in a tone that screams to me, And don't ask me again.
So much for that. As he's struggling with the box, finally getting it out of the van and onto the ground, I can see that his right hand is missing two fingers, the pinky and the ring finger. Maybe asking if he needed a hand wasn't exactly the right way to kiss and make up.
He grips the box, holding it so high he can barely see over it, and swiftly heads for the gate that leads to the apartments. I catch up to him to open the gate, but he doesn't even look at me. He just grunts in my direction, which I believe is the best he can do for a thank-you. When I took the apartment last month, there was an old lady living with her mother in the apartment right next to mine. Lo and behold, he's now fumbling for keys at his front door, standing on a stoop littered with pre-riot trash, balancing the box on his knee, then entering his apartment, which is right next to the old ladies' place. Just two doors over from me.
I walk back to my car, park it in my assigned spot, and remove a small bag with my personal items. I figure I should check in with Harriet, the building manager. I ring her doorbell, and after a little bit too long of a wait, I see a lacy white curtain being moved ever so slightly and a single eyeball peering at me. The curtain is dropped, and I hear light footsteps. Then a mousy voice says, barely above a whisper, "Who's there?"
"It's Johnny Koester. The new tenant in apartment 1A. I just got here."
So I add, "From New York. We met last month. You rented me the apartment."
I hear some furniture moving, a large clanging sound as though a small pot fell into a large pot, something large being dragged, several locks being undone, and the door opens about two inches, with the chain still engaged. Now I can see a nose, an eye, and half a mouth.
"Can I see some identification, please?"
"Uh, sure," I say as I reach into my small black bag for my wallet. The door closes an inch. "Here. It's my driver's license. From New York," I reassure her as I hand her the license.
"I'm terrible with faces. This doesn't look like you," the half a mouth asks with one eyebrow raised.
"Uh, how's this?" I say, contorting my face to match the awful photo.
"Okay, I'm opening the door," she says as she closes it and undoes the chain. The door quickly swings open, and she shoos me inside.
Harriet is a stoutish middle-aged woman. Her dainty apartment is filled with frilly doily easy-chair armrest protectors and hand-crocheted pink-and-white tissue-box covers. You might expect she'd be more comfortable somewhere like Williamsburg, Virginia, or on the outskirts of Amish country in Pennsylvania, not a few blocks from the bull's-eye of hedonism in Hollywood, U.S.A.
"You picked a peach of a time to move to Los Angeles," she says.
"I noticed. It's pretty quiet now, though," I say, noticing the potpourri of items she has piled in front of the door: a large stuffed chair, a small but solid-looking wooden table, a galvanized steel washtub filled with books, and a shovel.
"Almost everyone headed for the hills. I would have left town, but my friend in Lake Arrowhead is attending a wedding in Las Vegas."
"I was just in Vegas. Why didn't you meet her there?"
She lowers her head and looks up at me as she pulls her glasses low on her nose, saying, "I hate Las Vegas."
"Oh. Well, I'm going to be moving some things into the apartment now. The rest of my stuff will arrive in a week or so. I was just wondering if I needed to sign anything else or...anything," I say, stumbling on my words as I notice a large butcher knife on a table behind her.
"Oh, no. I'm just glad that there's a strong young man nearby. I'll feel much safer, being single and all."
"What about the guy a couple of apartments over from mine?" I say, figuring maybe I can get a little bit of background on the jerk.
"You've met Benny?" Harriet asks nervously, as though I've discovered an awful secret. "When did you meet him?"
"He and I had a little orientation in the parking lot a few minutes ago."
"Oh, no," Harriet says, placing her hand over her lips. "Was he coming or going?"
"He was coming. Right at me, in fact. He nearly plowed into me in the alley. Then we got into it when -- "
"Well, I'm sure you won't have any problems with him. He's hardly ever around."
"And when he is?"
"And when he is, what?" Harriet asks, tugging on her left earlobe.
"And when he's around, what's he like? Do I need to watch out for this guy? I mean, the last thing I need is some psycho -- "
"Oh no, no, no. Benny's fine. He's just, just, a little...he keeps to himself. That's all. I've really got to get back to some things. Bye," she says, waving me toward the door.
"Ah, yeah. Thanks."
The door slams shut behind me, and I can hear the furniture being put back into a secured position in front of the door.
My living room looks like a seventies basement rec room. Last month, after I paid my security deposit, I went to a thrift shop and bought three round-back plastic chairs: one lime green, one black, and one red; a dark brown simulated-wood dining room table with imitation mother-of-pearl borders; and a tattered padded chair with leopard-skin-patterned fabric, which will all do fine until my stuff arrives on the moving van. I have a small cassette player/radio I can use for my sounds, and it will do me good not to watch TV for a week or so. Turning on the radio, I scan the dial and find a classical station. I sit my tired butt down in my leopard-skin chair, close my eyes, and after days of driving solo, bad truck stop food, and smelly public toilets, I can finally relax in my own place. The riots and looting seem a million miles away, and a symphony has begun to soothe my monkey mind, when I hear a loud knock at the door.
That must be Harriet. Maybe she wants to be friends and is bringing a tray of home-baked cookies.
I open the door, and there he is. Right on my doorstep. My fucked-up neighbor. He's not smiling. In fact, he looks like trouble. I've seen too many faces like that while spending many days of my adolescence in dark corners of parks, hanging under railroad bridges in the rain, and in apartment building cellars. Now that I can get a good look at him, standing next to the harsh light of an exterior lightbulb by my front door, I can make out what this Benny guy actually is: a junkie. He's standing sheepishly in front of me, holding a much smaller box than he was holding before, but this one is labeled as a Panasonic TV.
"Uh, hi. How ya doin'?" he mumbles.
"What can I do for you?" I ask, trying to sound as pissed off as possible.
"Yeah, listen, want to buy a portable TV? Brand-new. Never been used. Still in the box."
"Actually, no! The last thing I would do is buy a fucking hot TV that some asshole has -- "
Before I can complete my sentence, he spins around and feverishly heads straight for the parking-lot gate. He kicks it open and disappears. I hear his car door open and slam shut, the engine start, and tires squeal as he exits onto the street.
I've been in my new abode all of fifteen minutes, only to realize I've got a crazy junkie next-door neighbor who thinks I'm some hick, stupid enough to buy something he just robbed out of a burnt-out storefront. What an asshole!
Hopefully he got the message and he'll never knock on my door again.
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Schindler
Meet the Author
Steven Schindler has worked for more than twenty years as a writer, producer, editor, and director of news, entertainment, magazine, and reality television programs. He is also the author of Sewer Balls -- "probably the best novel produced by the small presses in 1999" (Small Press Review) -- and From the Block. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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An enjoyable and honest portrait of not only finding a new home in LA but how TV works. Schindler has a good ear for dialogue and creates vivid characters. Worth the read