Permanent Midnight: A Memoirby Jerry Stahl
Now a motion picture starring Ben Stiller, this is the autobiography of Jerry Stahl, a former television writer. Stahl was an aspiring fiction writer who arrives in L.A. and lands a job penning what he considers to be crappy but lucrative TV scripts, and descends into quasi-functional heroin addiction. Available now.
- Grand Central Publishing
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- 6.31(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.30(d)
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By Jerry Stahl
Warner BooksJerry Stahl
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Chapter OneI used to think that there was no way out, that I would just have to kill myself. When I was reeling in some locked bathroom, blood on my shoes, and someone banging on the door ... When my wife was pregnant, and I was sure to my sick soul that the baby would be born some eyeless mutant, vegetative at best, because of all the chemicals I had pumped into my veins before I slammed the seed that fertilized her blameless egg ... When I was in the hospital kicking and my eyelids scraped like barbed wire and my skin felt boiled in oil and every breath was a serrated knife drawn slowly up from my intestines through my lungs and out my gagging throat ... There was no other way.
And yet, here I am, north of one year needle free. Living life no longer like a human pincushion, seeing my beautiful little girl every afternoon, hating myself only because it seems to be my nature and not because, say, I've stolen a handful of crumpled fives from the purse of a woman who made the mistake of thinking I was clean and really cared, or because I spent the money meant for milk and diapers on another fix.
The temptation is to be clever. To make it all wildly amusing. I published a story once, at thirty days off the spike, about doing dope in the studio where they shot ALF, banging so much shit in the sound stage toilet I heard the furry little puppet hissing my name and scratching at the door.
I imagined, in my narco-dementia, that this three-foot furry TV Star-no more than a puppet with attitude-could see right through the bathroom walls. Alf was out there, eyeballing all the blood I'd splattered on the mirror, on my fingers, into tiny, scarlet puddles at my feet. And he did not approve.
People thought my story was funny, hysterical. And I was glad. Just because I'd kicked junk, after all, did not mean I'd kicked being a junkie. And junkies lie. It's their primary addiction. Not that I never skirted cerebral hemorrhage imagining a prime-time hairball pawing at the men's room knob while I geezed a speedball and tried to dab the bright red puddles off the floor with paper towels. That happened. But I wasn't laughing about it. I was staring in the mirror and squeezing back the worst tears in the world, tears that came out yellow because, by then, my liver was already telling me what my brain could not accept. I was dying. But not fast enough. I would have to live a little longer, to survive more horror. Which of course meant doing more heroin, the thing that made such horror endurable.
See, it wasn't just the dope. It never is. It was the wrongness of the situation. I wasn't Chet Baker fixing behind the bandstand and blowing his heart out. I wasn't Johnny San Quentin, shooting in his jail tattoos and boosting stereos. I was Jerry Stahl, writing bad TV and hating it. Desperately trying to counter his shame at the loathsome squareness of what he did with the secret hipness of what he thought really was. Only he wasn't particularly hip. And he wasn't, it pains me now to realize, even close to being secret.
You have to understand where drugs can take you. How the once unthinkable becomes routine and the routine, once established, is something you can never, ever think about. You never have to, if you have the drugs.
To some extent, this entire memoir is nothing but a history of WRONG SITUATIONS. Behavior so inappropriate it hardly qualifies as behavior anymore. More like some toxic, nonstop twitch.... At Moonlighting, on the Fox lot, I had a corner office where I routinely arrived every morning an hour early, locked the door, and fixed to make myself chipper before the arrival of my wholesome co-workers. Some people stopped to get croissants and cappuccino on their morning drive. I stopped for dilaudids. But the transaction, however unlikely or illegal, became just as mundane. As did the whole daily ritual of procurement and consumption.
I was married, gainfully employed and a father-to-be. Though I could not say which of the three terrified me most. My marriage was, from the start, a trifle odd. As was my entre into Mondo Television. The two: connubial lack-of-bliss and prime-time arrival, occurred simultaneously.
The dope, I ought to point out, was always there. It's not like they stuffed narcotics in the envelope with my studio contract. Your top-drawer Hollywood agents can worm in a lot of clauses, but even they can't guarantee a daily stash of needles and the gunk to stuff them with. This wasn't the music business. It was television. You had to do that yourself.
No, drugwise, what happened with TV was just a matter of progression. It's not like I ever wanted to wake up and just be a grossly overpaid, self-loathing, can't-look-in-the-mirror-without-gagging TV writer. A junkie, maybe, but not a prisoner in Hawaiian?Shirt-land.
The thing is, all my heroes were junkies. Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, William Burroughs, Mike Davis, Hubert Selby, Jr.... These guys were cool. They were committed. They would not have been caught dead doing an ALF episode.
How I ended up in that high-paid, low-prestige position is, in itself, confirmation of a private theory that my entire adult life is one long lapse. I wouldn't even have had the chance to sell out if I hadn't married it, and I probably would not have gotten married if it weren't, you know, for those darn drugs.
It started-and we have to jump in somewhere-innocently enough, with a kooky little short story in Playboy magazine. All I wanted out of life was to write fiction and bang out strange-o magazine features to keep the larder loaded. Which, with some degree of success, I managed to do. And for all I know might still be doing. Except-and this, you just have to believe me, sounds infinitely creepier in retrospect than it did at the time-I sort of wed into the industry. Slept my way to the middle.
My bride, if I may be so bold, was wired into the biz. Just starting, admittedly, but wired in nonetheless. She had seen my earlier, accidental show biz triumph, an X-rated art-cult nugget called Cafe Flesh. Flesh slimed into the post?Pink Flamingoes Friday Midnight slot at L.A.'s trendy Nuart theater, way back in the S&M Decade.
What happened is when my surprise missus saw the thing, dutiful Development Doll that she was, she concluded I might be exploitable in her own venue. Which turned out to be much more than filling America's need for swinging movies of the week.
Strangely enough, I remember thinking, the first time I saw her: What an odd-looking woman. Kind of like a young, tiny Faye Dunaway with silver hair. Beautiful but strange. Which was right up my alley. If they were just beautiful, I couldn't talk to them. If they were strange, I knew I had a chance.
All my life I'd gone for women who were a little off. I thought of myself as that odd lion who preyed on gazelles who, through some extreme of taste or appealing physical peculiarity, ran somewhere south of the pack. So that, much as I loved the cheekbones, it was the sight of that otherworldly head of silver gray, the harpie's coif on the tiny, elegant doll, that set off the alarms. Under her arm she carried a rolled-up Vogue, except that it had been hollowed out, shellacked, and made into a purse. Uh-Oh City.
Five minutes into our sushi lunch in Studio City, when it was clear that nothing could be farther from TV movie usefulness than my meager talents, the girl of somebody's dreams mentioned she wanted to get married. I was still new to the meeting thing, so this didn't strike me as odd.
At any rate, her personal life was a far sight more engaging than my MOW ideas. (Was America, really, ready for Attack of the Killer Co-Dependents?) Plus I loved her accent. Those British R's, so redolent of Julie Christie movies, made every detail fascinating. Just hearing the phrase Chelsea School for Girls, or green card, I was in heaven. This was, of course, before our entire lives mutated to a TV movie.
Needless to say, her nuptial longing did not spring from laying eyes on me. In fact, it preceded any knowledge of my existence. It was, and this should surprise no one, a career issue. A green card thing. Her dad back in England was ailing. She was here illegally. If she left, she might not be allowed reentry to our sunny shores, might be barred at the gates of cinema heaven. In her desperation, Ms. Britannia was prepared to release an easy three G's to the man who married her.
Even now, the romance makes me go a tad misty-eyed. Before me a homosexual friend-a shaved-skulled wild man who played with the Screamers, a primeval L.A. punk claque-had signed on for hub duty, then begged off when he couldn't tell his mom. Which left Sandra stuck on the continent, no means of fleeing the city without making the return on her belly across the Mexican border. Which just didn't seem that likely clutching that jumbo faux-Vogue purse.
Months after we reached our mercenary agreement-and the honeymoon check cleared-my ersatz intended and I actually started hanging out. Our first evening together, I stole every codeine in her medicine cabinet. I was fairly shameless, I suppose. But remarkably consistent....
We were on our way to a movie. I wore fake leather pants-a real fashion king-which split up the back getting out of the car in front of her house. I entered her West Hollywood pad clutching my exposed buttocks like a fan dancer and explained that I had to use her bathroom.
I don't know what I planned to do in there. It's not like I carried a needle and thread for emergency crack repair. No, I just sort of stood there, staring in the mirror with the usual first-night "What the hell am I doing?", then took action when instinct took over and my fingers found themselves dancing lightly over the jars of Aureomycin, Motrin, Benadryl, and other useless items until they hit paydirt.
My technique was to flush the toilet on opening the mirrored cabinet, clear my throat a lot as I'm rifling, then flush again to hide the sound of the thing slamming shut. Nothing's louder, in my experience, than a sticky medicine cabinet. Especially when the owner's out there, waiting, and you're already late for something. Inevitably you step out to sideways stares and a studied attempt by your companion of the evening to look like she's been fussing with the plants. My MO, and a prime example of deluded track-covering if there ever was one, was to always leave a few of the stolen items in the bottom of the prescription bottle. Or, failing that, if I'd gone completely mad, to transfer aspirin, Anacin or some similar, useless palliative into the prescription bottle. (Brown ones are best, since the fact that Percodans are yellow, Dristan white, goes undiscovered until yours truly is long gone and out of the suspect pool.)
By the time we left, I'd crunched a handful and rinsed the sludge off with tap water. It didn't take long for the buzz. And I was already wearing Norton, her cat, on my head when she strolled out of her bedroom in fishnets, leather skirt, and magazine purse. (Pet games, in my experience, are always a great way to disguise sudden loss of equilibrium.)
Sandra was a reader for what she called a "millionaire sleaze" from the Valley. Or maybe I called him that. His name was Jack Marty, Marty Jackson, Jack Martini. Something like that.... He suffered perpetual auto angst. For weeks his Jaguar had been sputtering to an inappropriate halt at stoplights all over the Valley. No one could figure it. Jag experts, dealer reps, the whole big-buck prestige car support network scratched their collective head. Until one balmy morning, strolling up the well-tended walk from driveway to door, Sandra heard these ... squeaks and skittering.
These little squeaks, this skittering.... Mister Marty, it seemed, had rats in his Jag. That's all! In an act of unwitting charity, the producer'd been playing host to a family of rodents. While on board, the slime-tails had snacked on ten grand worth of British auto wiring. Which really is kind of nice. This being Hollywood and all, there's room for everybody.
Thank goodness my future ex's employer could afford the rat's nest. His one Movie of the Week, however obscure, had made him busloads. It revolved, if I'm not mistaken, around a group of cheerleaders crashed and stranded on a desert island. Something like that. They had to eat each other to survive. Lots of angst and pom-poms. The man had no office per se, and Sandra worked in a North Hollywood ranch house famed for once being the late John Candy residence.
Which bears mention for the sole, sorry fact that, at this stage of the game, I was really impressed. "Hey," I remember thinking, the couple of times I visited, potted up and killing a minute until Sandra was ready to split, "John Candy sat on this couch ...! John Candy walked through this door ...! John Candy touched this toilet seat ...!"
Greatness really was everywhere, if you could just get invited in.
What I really loved about Sandra-however ironic, in retrospect, considering her Yuppie tomorrow-was that she came from good Bohemian stock. Her mother and father were every bit as arty as my own were the human equivalent of Formica. Her parents, she told me, threw wild parties. Dad was a London book illustrator. An artist. Mom had been married before, to a guy in Stalin's Russia who got disappeared. Her father, Sandra's grandfather, founded the U.K. Communist Party. She'd barely escaped back to England with a two-year-old son, Sandra's half brother, now a world-famous neurologist, and never found out, officially, what happened to the love of her life. It was Twiggy by way of Dr. Zhivago.... And I was completely intrigued.
Unable to do much but get high, write, or worry about not writing, get a little higher, and sleep with women who admired how much I got high and wrote, I wasn't exactly gripped by what you'd call joie de vivre. Sandra knew how to live. A skill as arcane to me as glassblowing or conversational Erdu. I'd listen, enthralled, to tales of how she and her parents took trips to Portugal every summer, shacking up with other painters and writers and international happy-artist types.
I'd lie there, in vicarious heaven, as she told lovely stories of dancing on the tables, the only little girl in a summer full of beauty-loving artists, spinning under the colored lanterns while Daddy laughed and Spaniards painted her portrait and everybody drank and sang themselves into some unimaginable Bohemian nirvana. (My own family, every summer, packed off on miserable all-day drives to army bases, where my father spent two weeks in the Army reserves.)
We were, by and large, still more or less in this casual acquaintance category when we tied the knot. So casual was the whole arrangement, the night of the big event I forgot there was a big event.
Excerpted from Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jerry Stahl was born in Pittsburgh. He is author of the novels, I, Fatty, Perv: A Love Story, and Plainclothes, Naked. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
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Jerry Stahl is amazing...Simply fantabulous,seriously. (inappropriate language - NOT allowed *smiles*) He was so under-rated for song long and now he's finally making it. His books have sent me cackling out lout in the bookstores and in classrooms to where I've been sent out. I'm a young writer myself. Even though, I was barely 'sperm' when he was going through his 'traumas', I've followed him as my intellect grew. Jerry, I LOVE YOU!