Monday, April 3, 2017

Groove (Part 1)

     I had given up on trying to train Stefano.
     It was October, year of our Lord 1992.  The previous August, Inana Productions had expanded in a big way.  Angel Morelli, the owner and my boss, bought a giant warehouse in the city of Oceanside that spring.  It now held four sound stages, offices, editing suites, and all the other facilities for conducting video production.  Less than half the warehouse space was taken up by the operation, even after our set decorators emptied out the self-storage spaces we'd kept our props and furniture.  Angel wanted to be able to expand further without having a third location, and he got it.

     With the new studio came new performers and production crews.  The roster of people working for Inana doubled overnight, a serious logistics challenge.  Inana would have four productions running at once.  All the people, all that scheduling, all those paychecks....  And Angel wanted me being creative, coming up with ideas, writing scripts, and functioning as a producer.  No way could I handle everything myself, like I had been  Angel didn't want me having to handle the nuts and bolts of running a studio, he wanted me concentrating on keeping Inana the most successful, respected, and talked-about pornographic video studio in the world.  I'd turned Inana from just a small studio in North County San Diego into a creative powerhouse, the studio who had turned hardcore porn into valid entertainment.
     Inana Productions had created a whole new genre of film known as "Smart Porn."  Essentially, Smart Porn came about because I thought almost all porn features sucked.  Why were hardcore features such garbage?  Terrible writing and stories, lousy acting, shoddy production work, features only existed as an excuse for the sex.  I considered that bullshit.  Out of this contempt and general creative restlessness, I learned the basics of screenwriting and began knocking out scripts.  Inana's first real feature, "Lust Instructor," cost $280,000 to produce, it got good reviews and sold well enough that Angel (and his cousin Vinny) gave the approval to continue making full features  My fourth feature was a film named "Bewitched," a story about an insane witch who releases a "love spell" into the world, which causes genuine chaos.  I beat my brains out over the script, then me and my director worked closely with the performers to get their roles tight.  This was the first porn film with professional special effects in it.
     The general public went nuts.
     Word of mouth spread the news of this hardcore porn video that, yeah, had the usual sucking and fucking....  But was also intellectually satisfying, a truly good movie.  I'd written the script in such a way that there were some serious brain-teasers, small mental puzzles to keep viewers interested.  I'd also written it so the sex and the plot were intertwined, they flowed naturally together.  The upshot: a hardcore porn film which attracted and fascinated viewers who had never bought porn in their lives.  Old, young, men, women, everyone became fascinated with "Bewitched."  In the adult video industry, sales of 500,000 copies on one year was considered a blockbuster.  "Bewitched" sold five million copies in six months....  And the rate of sales kept increasing.
     Meanwhile, I kept writing and producing.  The mainstream media picked up on the success of "Bewitched" and began reporting on Inana Productions, as well as its star, Becky Page, a.k.a. my wife Bekka.  By the following spring, we had another three releases out (our total production time was blazing fast, compared to Hollywood) and all three were selling even better than the previous ones.  Becky Page became a mainstream celebrity, albeit one who carried a feeling of danger.  Teenage and college age girls were copying her goth-inspired fashion sense and haircut.  She showed up in People, Us, Time, Newsweek, plus on the TV networks.  After the release of our ode to "Road Warrior," a feature called "Succubus," People magazine took the plunge and actually began reviewing our releases (and favorably).  Other magazines followed suit.  In the summer of 1991 Newsweek did a cover article on the studio, and also coined the term Smart Porn.  The meaning was that while the visceral, gut-level pleasure people take from watching hardcore was there, the film also had the intellectual satisfaction of a good movie.  Smart Porn engaged the brain and the libido at the same time.
     Angel felt it was my vision and creativity that got Inana where it was, and with the massive expansion, he didn't want me stuck at my desk wrangling the thousand daily details which kept the studio operating.  My job would now be to stay creative, period.  To accomplish this, he hired his nephew, Stefano Leone, to take over my spot as the COO of Inana.  Stefano was twenty-three, a recent college graduate with a major in business, and the child of fellow mafioso.
     Stefano was also a stereotype nerd: thick glasses, rumpled shirt, crooked tie, pocket protector, nasal voice, and a huge fan of tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.  He was about as mafia as Mr. Rogers.  Stefano was highly rattled when he first started at Inana: our performers tended to not bother with clothes until they were leaving for the day, which meant he was constantly being confronted with incredibly beautiful naked women, no matter where he was at the studio.  For the first two weeks, he stuttered like Mel Tillis and poured sweat like a marathon runner.
     Another big problem was he had a sense of hierarchy.  Inana didn't really have one.  I may have been The Boss, but I expected no deference from anyone.  When Angel informed me of Stefano's arrival, he made it clear that while Stefano would how hold my job title of COO, I was still higher up the food chain than him.  Also, Stefano may have the acumen to run a business smoothly, he would still be The New Guy at the studio, and would have to earn respect from everyone else.  He didn't know dick about the culture of Inana, or how video production worked, or how porn was made.  It didn't matter he had the job title and the private office, he would be Stefano, not Mr. Leone.
     "Stefano may have your old job title, but you're still in charge at Inana," Angel told me.  "Make sure everyone understands that.  You are the final arbiter."
     "So uh, what is my new job title?" I asked.  "I mean, you're the owner, Vinny is CEO...."
     "Aw Jesus," grunted Angel.  "Shit, I don't know.  Think one up."
     After a bit of thought, I said, "So, is 'The Big Cheese' a job title?"
     "No reason why it can't be.  Yeah, you're The Big Cheese at Inana from now on."
     Three days later I went to my new office in Oceanside to find my door now had a name plaque mounted on it reading, "L. SCHNEIDER - THE BIG CHEESE."  On my desk was a box of new business cards and a ten pound wheel of Gouda.

     So Stefano was adjusting (slowly) to the culture at Inana.  Not too big a deal, as we had a ton of new performers and crew doing the same thing.  The lack of a social pecking order threw new arrivals off, they expected the same stratified scene as in LA.  Nope.  For performers, the attitude was that if you'd passed all three of our interviews, you'd already proved yourself.  You were an Inana Girl, and welcome aboard.   The newbies were expecting a lot of aloof attitudes, not warm smiles, handshakes, and introductions.
     Also, Inana's stars didn't act like stars.  They didn't have their own private showers and dressing rooms.  (The exception --- sort of --= was Bekka, who had her own office.  But the reason for this was her increased time spent working as a producer, plus vetting scripts.)   Inana's stars --- Becky Page, Ella Belle, Skye Tyler, Feather, Susan Black --- were supposed to breeze into the sound stage moments before shooting commenced, only acknowledging the existence of the director and producer.  Becky Page should not be showing up on a day off bearing homemade pesto and crackers to share with everyone.  Skye Tyler shouldn't be on her knees in the performer's lounge, throwing dice and doing a hilariously vicious impression of Ronald Reagan getting a blowjob.  Susan Black shouldn't be wandering around, still in her wet-suit top from her mid-day surf, trying to scare up people for a pub crawl of the local Marine bars.
     Our egalitarian attitude was obvious, and Stefano behaved accordingly.....  Except around me.  Then, he went into Toady Mode.  If we were walking somewhere, he would remain a half-step behind me, making conversation difficult.  At one point we were sitting in my office talking, and I stuck a cigarette in my mouth.  He almost instantly held a lighter up for me, to fire up my Marlboro.  I thanked him, then it struck me:  Stefano didn't smoke.
     I'd also catch him being a yes-man, eagerly agreeing with anything that came out of my mouth.  I purposely called him on it one day by setting him up.  I suggested that Inana would start releasing its tapes in the Betamax format, the video equal of the eight-track tape.  Inana had never released on Betamax, only on the VHS format.  I babbled some lame garbage about how we were ignoring a share of the consumer market.  Stefano readily agreed, saying, "Yes, Betamax has higher picture quality."
     "Barely," I replied.  "Betamax has 250 lines of resolution, compared to 240 lines on VHS.  Tell me, how many people do you know who still use a Betamax machine?"
     "Oh!  Uh...."
     "And answer honestly."
     Dead silence.
     "Exactly.  Betamax is dead, dead, dead.  What I just suggested is incredibly stupid.  You're a smart guy, you must have seen the inherent flaws in what I said."
     "Uh, it did seem a bit far-fetched...." said Stefano.
     "So why didn't you say something?" I asked.
     "Well.... You're the boss...."
     "Uh huh.  So what?  Dude, if I say something stupid, you're supposed to say back, 'Lenny, that's stupid, what's wrong with you?'  Sometimes your uncle will have an idiotic idea, and I"ll call him out on it.  He'll try to defend it briefly, but will realize I'm being contrary because I have the interest of Inana Productions in mind, I'm not being a dick to my boss.  Dammit, we run a porn studio.  If I want my ass kissed, I'll write it into a script and put myself on the board as a performer in that scene.  Okay?"
     "Yes sir."
     "(*sigh*)  Lenny.  Not 'sir,' Lenny.  Cops are the only people who call me 'sir,' usually while leaning on the door of my car asking if I know how fast I was going."
     Now, on this day, Stefano had driven from our La Costa mansion to Oceanside for a couple reasons.  First was to give me a general briefing on how the week had gone.  The second was to deliver a check to one of our newer performers, Jenna Ng.  Jenna had a fairly unusual hobby: she repaired old clocks.  Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, anything with a pendulum, really.  She'd tried to pick up some money by offering an out-call repair service, but hadn't had much luck.  "Everybody wants an old geezer with a beard working on their heirlooms, not some twenty-one year old slant bitch from Garbage Grove."
     Angel had one hell of a grandfather clock in his home in Encino.  The damn thing was nearly eight feet tall and had been built in Roxbury, MA by Simon Willard in 1798.  It was a gorgeous hand-built tower of mahogany and brass, and had been as dead as a turd for over twenty years.  By sheer chance, Angel heard Jenna talking about her hobby and mentioned his dead antique, and would she mind coming up to Encino to take a gander?
     Jenna flipped her wig.  "Oh my God, a 1798 Willard longcase?  Holy shit, damn right I wanna see it....  Sir.  Does it have the original mechanics?  A lot of clocks would break, and the owners would just replace all the mechanisms with newer and cheaper stuff.  How much did you pay for it?"
     "My father paid thirty grand about twenty-eight years ago," Angel answered.  At that price, the damn thing better be legitimate."
     "That would be the right price for an original thirty years ago," Jenna breathed.   "Helluv rad.  Mr. Morelli, I would be so totally stoked if you let me do a bit of exploratory work on that sucker.  If I can get it working without having to fabricate any parts, your Willard will be worth about $100,000 today."
     The upshot was that on Wednesday, Jenna had shown up at Angel's house around noon, carrying a couple cases of esoteric tools.  Angel showed her the clock.  She stood and stared briefly with a smile on her lips. Then she said, "Khốn, bạn là của tôi!" ("Bastard, you are mine!" in Vietnamese) and swung the front open like it was the portal to Narnia. Angel left her to it. For six hours, Angel and his wife Angela heard tapping, soft squeaks, metal pings, and the occasional "Dơ bẩn" (shit) or "Rác rưởi" (junk) muttered from the interior of the clock. Briefly there was the odor of a soldering iron. They were just about to ask Jenna to join them for dinner when she called, "Mr. Morelli, can you come here a minute?"
Angel walked into the hallway. Jenna stood next to the clock with the same confident, low-wattage smile a successful obstetrician uses after a ten hour delivery. The front of the clock was open, and the pendulum was swinging, making a steady tick.... tick.... tick.... tick. On the clock face, the small second hand slowly went in a circle. Angel checked his watch, the time was correct. He said softly, "My Christ.... How did.... what was wrong?"
With a wider grin, Jenna stuck a hand in her pocket and said, "The big problem was this bad boy." She flipped a small flat round object at Angel. It was a button reading "McGovern - Eagleton 1972." She continued, "That somehow worked its way down to a secondary drive spring, then ambulated the friznist onto the southern hoo-hah and cloistered the Gatling shaft." (That's not what Jenna said, but it's what Angel heard.) "It was also really filthy. But be happy in knowing this is an all-original Willard, and a beautiful example. For God's sake, insure it! It's worth more than my parent's house!"
Angel and Angela thanked Jenna profusely over dinner. Angel asked what he owed for the work. Jenna demurred and said, "I'd kinda feel bad charging you. For me, it was an honor just to work with a vintage piece like that. Um, twenty bucks for gas?"
"Uh huh," grinned Angel. "You're working on Friday in Oceanside, right? Morning or afternoon?"
"Both. We're knocking out a lot of the newest episode of 'Co-Ed Housing.' I have my dialogue plus a quick oral scene, clothed."
"Watch for a delivery around lunchtime. It'll, ah, it'll be your gas money."
So now Stefano and I are stepping into the performer's lounge a little past noon, him holding an envelope with "J. Ng" written across it. He looks nervous. He always looks nervous when he has to venture into the lounges, at either facility. They are chaotic, crude, noisy, anarchistic, and somewhat messy. The rest of the building will be as orderly as a Marine barracks, but the lounge is like something from a scene in "Animal House."
Here in Oceanside, the lounge is a separate room, and a fairly large one. There are sofas and chairs, a pool table, two soda vending machines set to give free product, a stereo, big screen TV, and coffee tables with black glass tops. These tables will always have clean areas on them, only covered with traces of powder. On one wall are two custom-made dart boards. One has televangelist Jerry Fallwood's face on it, the other is of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. The fridge holds leftovers, lunch sacks, and loads of beer. A large stack of empty pizza boxes sits in a corner, four feet high. There is graffiti on the walls, comments like "I sold my soul to Becky Page, and her check bounced" and "Stallion's SAG reg. name is 'Allan Smithee Jr.'" About thirty pairs of women's panties are stapled to the ceiling. A Teddy Ruxpin doll dangles from a noose, wearing a gimp mask. The Red Hot Chili Peppers play from the stereo; the TV is displaying a hardcore loop from the Seventies, muted. And in a glass care, undisturbed on the wall, is a bong and a bag of weed. The glass says, "In Case Of Reality, Break Glass." Drug paraphernalia is scattered casually around.
Another thing about the performers' lounges (a misnomer, anyone can use them) is that so long as I am inside a lounge, I'm just a dude named Lenny, who works at Inana like everybody else. I have no authority, and I will not discuss work with anyone while inside (although I've been known to wait in ambush just outside). I'd advised Stefano about the small lawless zones, but he ignored me, it would seem. He went into the lounge at the mansion looking to talk to Ellen (Skye Tyler) about something.
Stefano walked up to where Ellen was sitting on a sofa and said, "Excuse me, Ms. MacPherson?"
"What's up, sweet-cheeks?" Ellen responded, brightly, sniffing back the cocaine she'd just snorted.
"My records show you haven't made your quarterly payment for your health insurance." (Inana didn't have employees except for a few, everyone was a contractor. However, we'd enrolled in Kaiser, with the agreement everyone would pay what would be deducted by a "normal" job offering health insurance.) "Is this an oversight on your part, or...""
Wide-eyed, Jolene said, "You're Lenny's replacement, right?"
"Um, yes...."
"Oh, thank God! Lemme cadge a line of meth from you, 'kay? My ass is dragging." Seeing Stefano's mystified look, Jolene continued, "Wait a minute. If you're Lenny's replacement, you must have some high-powered dope on you, and plenty of it. You don't have any fucking crank? What sort of replacement are you, then? You're not wearing a gun, either! I'll bet you don't even fuck your wife on your desk with the door open, so everyone can rate your performance! You're not Lenny's replacement, you're just.... some guy!"
Stefano decided to ignore this and said to Ellen, "Ms. MacPherson, did you want to remain enrolled with Kaiser?"
Trish gasped and said, "Oh my God! He's talking about business! Work! Toil!"
After a few seconds silence, Tawny screamed "Heretic!"
And Stefano was tackled by five Inana Girls, two Inana Boys, and a gaffer. He was scooped up onto their shoulders and carried back to his office, the mob chanting, "Burn the witch! Burn the witch!" Once in the office, Stefano found himself handcuffed to his desk chair, gagged with duct tape, and his feet tied to the legs of the chair with his shoelaces. Ellen wrote a check for her insurance and taped it to his forehead. He remained that way for ninety minutes, until Small Steve came down from the shoot. Steve looked at Stefano and said, "You wanted to talk shop in the lounge, huh?"
And the next week, the damn fool did the same thing again, trying to quiz Gayla about her request to only be scheduled for mornings. This time they also covered his eyes and turned the radio to a Mexican station, so that he had to listen to banda and Tejano tunes until rescued.
Now, in the Oceanside lounge, Stefano glanced nervously around him as we entered. I spotted Jenna across the room and pointed, then we headed towards her. She was angrily glaring down at her hand. As we got closer, I realized she was staring at a glass dope pipe and muttering, "Trộm kẻ trộm vô ích" (Worthless thieving scum) over and over. When we got to her, Stefano said, "Excuse me, Ms.... Neeg?"
Jenna's head whipped towards him. I quietly blasphemed. In the San Diego area, with its high Vietnamese population, the surname "Ng" is like "Smith" or "Jones." And it's pronounced, "Eng." Jenna tersely corrected Stefano, then seemed to realize I was there. She said, "Oh, Lenny, thank God! Look, shit, I need a favor. Um, I got ganked last night. I tried to score a gram of shit, and it's cut all to hell with fucking Anacin! Look at my pipe!" The pipe's bowl was full of charcoal-like chunks. "Um, I know you said you don't deal, but do you know where I could score in the next forty minutes? Something real? You know I don't tweak at work, I just wanted a bit of an energizer for the scenes we're gonna do, you know? You have any clue?"
I frowned at the carpet briefly, then said, "Lemme see what you have."
She handed me a plastic seal with about a gram of chunky white powder in it. I unceremoniously dumped it onto the floor, then pulled out my vial and filled the seal from it. Jenna brightened greatly at this, saying, "Oh, you sweetheart! Are you serious? You lifesaver, you totally rock!" Then, in a softer voice, "After we wrap this afternoon, I'll blow your brains out in your office, I'll make you come so hard you'll travel through time...."
I kissed her forehead, then smirked, "A simple thank you will do. I told you, I don't run around behind Bekka's back. And even if I did, you'd still have 136 pounds or enraged Sicilian aiming at you. Look, um, if you need to score, talk to Roach. He doesn't deal, but he's willing to help out his friends and coworkers, you know?" Looking at Stefano, I asked, "Hey, do me a favor and grab that propane torch sitting on the table over there." He scurried off.
Jenna looked exasperated and said, "Roach? Aw, come on. He's a jerk! He made fun of my car!"
Her car was a 1989 Honda Accord, which had been lowered and given giant wheels with low-profile tires. It was Tide orange, sounded like a beer fart under acceleration, and had a giant wing on the rear. I didn't quite keep the sarcasm out of my voice when I replied, "What about your car did he make fun of?"
"He said the wing is stupid!"
I gave myself a couple seconds, then answered, "That's an Accord, right? Front wheel drive? The point and purpose of a wing like that is to create down-force. Um, don't take this personally, but uh.... Creating down-force on the rear of a car with front wheel drive is.... stupid. And dangerous. I'm sure he wasn't trying to be mean, he was just pointing out some basic physics to you."
With an eye-roll, Jenna said, "The wing only works at high speed, like over 125. I almost never go over 85, I'm not about to lift the front end at speed."
"Okay.... Then in that case, all you're doing is adding an extra sixty pounds of fiberglass to your curb weight, for no reason. That seems silly, too." I sighed. "Look, Roach is a wrench-head, and I'm a hot rodder. We both value function above all else. That damn wing is antithetical to function. Your car seems to be ostensibly set up for autocross. You ever watch autocross competitions?" She said yes, every now and then. "You ever see a competitor with a wing like that? No, you haven't. They've got air scoops in the nose to generate down-force up there. That is function." I paused, then said, "Roach is a really, really good guy. I promise you, he only commented on that wing because he was concerned. It really could make the car incredibly dangerous if it was put into full effect. I'm gonna tell you straight up, get rid of the damn thing, it's pointless. But anyway, start a conversation with Roach, on any subject but your car. You'll see within three minutes he's an incredibly awesome dude. Trust me."
"Is he really in the Hell's Angels?"
I snickered and replied, "To wear the colors and not be H.A. is akin to walking through Compton with a sign saying, 'Send The Coloreds Back To Africa.'" Relieving Stefano of the torch, I lit it and began super-heating the bowl of the pipe, burning off the crap on the inside. Stefano watched this with curiosity. When the bowl was clear again, I shut off the torch and began waving the pipe around to cool it.
"Thanks, Lenny," said Jenna. "So Roach is a mellow dude. Okay, that jibes with what other girls have said about him."
"What are they saying?" I queried.
"That he's totally awesome to work with, just like.... Okay, he's one hung bastard, right? Other girls have said that he'll introduce himself, a total gentleman, then suggest they do sort of a test run before the cameras roll. He knows he's hung and that he could cause some pain, so him and the girl will try a few basic positions so he knows where her limits are, you know? So no matter what angle he's going in at, he won't be bashing into their cervix or whatever. And he stays with those limits when they're filming! And at wrap, he'll hug the girl, give her a pat on the back, and thank her for working with him. Again, a gentleman."
"He is," I assured Jenna. "Roach really, truly loves women. He ---"
Jenna cut me off. "Oh, he's a player. Great."
"Nope. Not at all. You know our fluffer Dawn, the tiny blonde? That's Roach's girlfriend. They've been together about a year and a half now. Roach is totally loyal to Dawn, he loves her to pieces, you know? It's like, Roach appreciates the contribution femininity makes to the human condition a hell of a lot more than other guys do. I know for a fact he prefers the company of women over men." I chuckled. "Girls who meet him say the same thing a lot of the time: 'He actually pays attention to what I'm saying!'"
"Actually, that would be nice," said Jenna, taking the now-cool pipe from me and starting to load it. She sighed. "Just having a man would be nice, period. I don't want to date a Vietnamese dude. All the ones my age are either aiming at being the next Bill Gates, or being as big of gang-bangers as the Crips or Bloods. Black and white dudes all want me to be this cute little dainty submissive object, the whole 'ornamental Oriental' thing. Fuck that shit. I grew up in goddamn Garden Grove --- Garbage Grove --- in a four bedroom ranch house with seventeen relatives packed in. Like all our neighbors, we'd destroyed the front lawn to put in a vegetable garden. You'll hear how the Boat People are having a harder time integrating into American society than other immigrant groups have. Well, shit! The other immigrants put the effort into integration, adopting American culture and social behavior!
"My parents think I hate my family, which is bullshit. I don't hate my family, I hate that my family insists on living like they're rice-farming Vietnamese villagers. In Vietnam, it's perfectly normal to have three generations all crammed under one roof. In the United States, it's weird, people want their room and their privacy. So why does my family still resist that little tenet of American life? My grand-dad was one of the Boat People who really did kill neighborhood cats and dogs, thinking they were there to be eaten. Shit, he want to jail for it. My dad was four years old when he arrived in the United States, an age where you're gonna absorb a lot about the world around you, and grow up in tune with that world." Her voice went higher. "So why the fuck did my dad serve nine months in jail, at the age of twenty-seven, for doing the same pet-killing bullshit grand-dad did? He knew it was illegal, and he even knew it was a major social offense, like jacking off on the bus. He offended his new neighbors. And he did it anyway.
"And to cut off any devil's advocacy, the family wasn't starving. Dad had a good job working for the Parks and Rec department in Yorba Linda. But just like far too many other of us goddamn Boat People, he knew the rules of his adopted home and ignored them anyway, acting like he was back living in the paddies.
"My parents want to know why I'm not acting like a good Vietnamese girl. Guess what, Mom? I'm not fuckin' Vietnamese! That may be my ethnic background, but I'm an American, so fuck you! I'm doing what my parents should have, which is becoming part of the society I live in, not mentally walling myself off and pretending we're all still in the jungles, having to defuse left-over land mines to clear a field for planting, and killing anything not on two legs for food. 'Oh Jenna, you have rebelled.' No Mom, I've adapted. I'm part of the world I live in." She finally flicked her Bic and began heating the bowl of the pipe.
I nodded and replied, "An interesting contrast to how Bekka was raised. Her parents are both Sicilian war babies, they emigrated to the U.S. in their early twenties. Her mom and dad would talk to each other in Italian, but would only speak to Bekka and her brother in English. They worked, on purpose, at correcting accent and pronunciation differences, so their kids wouldn't have even a trace of Sicilian accent picked up from Mom and Dad. They wanted their children to be totally American, so they worked at it, and succeeded."
"I was kinda lucky," Jenna pondered. "I had friends whose families didn't just land in Little Saigon and stay there. Their parents worked at malls and banks and public schools, all over Orange County. Just due to immersion, they adapted. I remember the first time I saw MTV. Oh my God. Even the fucking commercials were fascinating to me.... Mostly because I was seeing them on a damn color TV set, not the twelve inch black-and-white piece of shit my family would all huddle around.
"I'll admit, by the time I was fifteen, I was being a total cunt to my parents. 'You have to sit with grandmother!' No Mom, grandma's fine, I'm heading to the mall. 'You have to help tend the garden!' Hey Mom, how about you get a real job, and just fucking buy some food, like everyone else in this country? 'You confuse your grandparents when you talk to them, you speak Vietnamese with an American accent.' Yeah, big surprise there, Dad. I'm an American. Go figure. Your Mom and Dad have been in the U.S. since 1975, why haven't they learned any fucking English? Why do you have a Vietnamese accent, Dad? You've been in this country since you were four. Maybe if you want to be so isolated from the country you fucking immigrated to, you all never should have left to begin with."
I shrugged. "Well, it's not like Vietnam was the happiest place to be in 1975. The whole political structure...."
Jenna started laughing. "Shit. My family comes from a long line of subsistence farmers. You know, hicks. Vietnam is one of the most invaded pieces of land in the world. If it wasn't the Chinese, it was the Thais, or the Koreans. No one would have given a fuck if the people who ran things in the cities called themselves Communists, or Democrats, or whatever. For 1800 years, strangers would show up in the Vietnamese villages and announce that this was now a territory of such-and-such country. Everyone would say, 'Oh. That's nice.' Then they'd get back to work in the paddies, because it really didn't matter, it didn't affect how they lived. To your average Vietnamese villager, the concept of 'politics' was so abstract it was silly to them. The Viet Cong were weirdos with guns and slogans, and who didn't have the good manners to pick up a damn hoe and get into the fields to work, like everyone else. Sooner or later, they'd go away again, so they really didn't matter in the long run. Not to a paddy-dwelling rice farmer."
After taking a fourth hit off the pipe, Jenna announced, "There, I"m good. You want another couple puffs?" I shook my head. She looked at Stefano and said, "Hey Shylock, I just realized we left you out of circulation. You want a few hits? Knock yourself out." She held the pipe towards him.
Stefano said with a tremor, "Um, no, although I am curious.... Neither of you seem to be out of it now, after smoking that stuff...."
Feeling a bit mystified, I said, "Dude, it's meth. It's speed. We're amped up, not nodding off. You know what meth is, right? You went to college, I'm surprised you never ran across it before. Christ knows amphetamine is a student's best friend, especially right before finals."
"Well..... University of San Diego is a Catholic college. The penalties for using drugs were really stiff, so I don't think many people used them. Um anyway, Ms., uh.... Nee...?"
"'Eng,'" Jenna corrected loudly.
"Just say 'Jenna,' dude," I chuckled.
"Yes, okay...." Stefano held out the envelope he'd been toying with all that time. "Mr. Morelli sent this down for you, and asked me to deliver it directly to you."
"Drinks are on you tonight, girl," I said with a quiet smile.
"I told him I just wanted gas money," Jenna protested. "How much is in here?"
"I have no idea. However, I will say Angel Morelli is a generous man. The drinks may be on you all damn week."
Jenna opened the envelope, pulled out the cashier's check inside, and gasped. I looked over the top of the check and read the amount: $5,000, payable to Jenna Ng. She stared at me, eyes and mouth both wide open.
Using a wider smile, I commented, "Yeah, like a lot of other bosses, Angel will ignore you sometimes. But when he does, it usually works in your favor. When Angel is happy with your work, he lets you know, and in a very pragmatic way."
"I can't keep this," protested Jenna. "I didn't earn this."
"According to Angel, you did. To you, it was just an antique clock that needed fixing. To Angel, you solved a problem in his life.... And I know the clock you worked on. I've never seen it run in the entire time I've known Angel. If you're not gonna keep it, may I suggest some charities which would love it? There's a no-kill animal shelter locally that Bekka and I support. There's the San Diego Rescue Mission, the Larkin Street Youth Center in San Francisco, the Southern California AIDS Coalition, a whole shit-load of women's shelters...."
"I'll keep half. The other half I will donate. The AIDS Coalition, you said? Yeah, them. I'll send them half this money and a request they start printing pamphlets in Vietnamese and Cambodian. Fuckiin' Southeast Asian dudes will drop a twenty on an AIDS-infected crack whore and contract HIV. They go to the doctor, then deny the truth. 'No, only homosexuals get that, I'm not a homosexual, whatever is wrong with me will go away.' Then they go home and continue to fuck their wives bareback. HIV/AIDS is a problem with us refugees, and mostly due to ignorance."
I nodded slowly. "Heavy. Yeah, do it. Heh, Roy Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, and who would ever have guessed he was gay?"
"Okay, you know who Joseph McCarthy was, right? The guy that started the Communist witch hunt in the early 1950s? If you look at McCarthy in photographs from the hearings, there's this weaselly-looking asshole who always seems to be leaning over and whispering in McCarthy's ear. That was Roy Cohn. He was probably one of the most miserable bastards to ever live. In the 1970s he was one of the most vitriolic campaigners against gay rights, but his private life was like hidden camera footage shot at a glory hole in a bus station. He liked his guys young, buff, and more than one at a time. Roy Cohn was a complete and total asshole."
Stefano suddenly made a squeaking noise and froze in place. I looked in the direction he was looking and saw his reasons for distress: Sue and Toxica were approaching, big smiles on their faces. Both girls seemed to simultaneously enchant and terrify Stefano. They were both taller than him, even without their boots. Sue had her slutty goth-girl look going, complete with skirt slit to the hip and plenty of "I'm Dead" makeup, like a zombie hooker. Toxica was, ostensibly, a punk rocker. She was more like a punk rocker as constructed by a team of marketers and public relations goons. Her appearance was very studied, the unkempt look actually thought out ahead of time. If Christian Dior and Macy's teamed up to design and create "punk rock," Toxica is what the finished product would look like: outlandish, racy, a bit of attitude, but no real threat or challenge to anyone (least of all authority).
Pill and Feather were a bit peeved at me for bringing Toxica on as a performer. When I'd brought Pill and Feather on, I'd told them to grow out their hair and dye it to a relatively natural color. Feather also had a safety pin through her cheek, which I insisted must go. They were both punks, and I kept railing about how we couldn't sell hardcore punk sex bombs to Middle America. And now I have a girl with Day-Glo-hued hair and lots of red patent leather miniskirts. Double standard much, Lenny? I pointed out that Toxica was to hardcore punk what Domino's Pizza was to Italian food: a vague relation in a couple spots, but beyond that.... Toxica had no facial piercings, and a total of five earrings. She had (ugh) a rose tattoo on her upper right arm, and that was it for ink. And when I'd tried to talk music with her, I was drawing blanks on all but the biggest bands. She had no idea who Operation Ivy was, or the Bad Brains, or MDC, or.... She'd probably bought two Dead Kennedys albums in high school and left it at that. Oh well, at least she did have a rather brash, outgoing personality and sense of fun.
Stefano had assumed the same defensive position as a deer or a rabbit, which is to stay dead still, in hopes an attacker won't notice you. No such luck here, Toxica stepped up next to him and exclaimed, "Little Stevie! Ready to clear your brain this weekend?"
Sue announced, "We're trying to recruit as many people as we can to go creepy-crawling with us tonight. We haven't figures out where we should go, but Bekka's coming and said she'll hand out free hits of Smiley to everybody once we decide. As always, pack a spare liver."
"You're going to do what tonight?" Stefano questioned, curiosity overwhelming him.
"We call it creepy-crawling. We'll go to a party zone, like the Marine-dominated strip of bars in Oceanside, or the tourist dives in Old Town, or down Midway Drive to hang with the sailors, or up to Del Mar and mix with the landed gentry. Really, it's a pack of porn sluts...."
"And studs," said Demetrius, passing by with a smile. "I'm in tonight too."
".,.. behaving in unsettling and lewd ways, to the dismay of the locals. Nothing too crude, but we dance on the edge of legality. Loud conversations about various sex acts, groping each other, girls making out on the pool table.... And anyone looking askance will be greeted with a 'What? What?' sort of attitude back. What's wrong with how we're behaving? We're like this all the time at our day jobs. What do we do, they ask? And we tell them, in great detail. Really, we live up to the stereotype of adult performers being tactless and sexually compulsive. And we will defend ourselves to the last breath with anyone who complains."
Toxica added, "On Halloween, the goal is to scare people. The goal tonight is to creep people out, you know? We pick someplace with a good concentration of bars and a homogeneous clientele, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Get it?"
"I'm in," said Jenna. "How about you, Lenny?"
"Nope," I replied. "The English Dogs are playing at the Diver's Club. I've been looking forward to this show for a couple months. Bekka doesn't like the band that much, which is why she'll be with you."
With a shaking voice, Stefano asked, "Um, is it okay, uh, if I go too?"
Slightly confused, Sue said, "Well, yeah. Of course. We're all meeting at the mansion at 7:30. We'll hash out where to go, pile as many people into as few cars as possible, take our doses of Smiley, and head out. It's a bit of cathartic fun Bekka, Jackie, and I originally started. Yeah, come along. It's not a Ladies Night thing, there'll be a few other dudes around."
"And we'll be taking.... 'Ecstasy?' What does it do?"
Everyone glanced around at each other. This was a rather naive question from anyone employed in the adult entertainment industry. Jenna finally said, "It makes you very, very happy. You have energy, and something of a gung-ho attitude. You sort of feel like you're up to any challenge or adventure. Um.... Dude, it's fun, don't worry. And no, you won't feel spaced out or disoriented. You'll be fine."
"And Bekka gets the best!" gushed Toxica. "She gets a kind called Smiley, it's incredible. For a while, you have this happy, peaceful feeling that the world totally makes sense, you can sense there's an order to everything, and if you just study hard enough and fast enough, you'll know how everything works. You'll be able to comprehend the functioning of the entire universe."
Everyone fell briefly silent. Sally, the recently-promoted director for Production Unit Three, drifted up and said, "Or, you're just horny as shit and in a really terrific mood for ten hours. One or the other." Everyone broke up laughing. Sally continued, "Just the three I need to see. Jenna, Sue, Toxie, Alice wants to do a bit of touch-up on your makeup and hair before you start your scenes. Roll on down, ladies, time's a wasting."
"Got it, Sally," Jenna and Toxica replied, Sue nodding. They began drifting towards the door. Sue turned around and said, "So, 7:30 at the mansion, Little Stevie. See you there?"
Stefano gathered his voice and rattled, "Yeah, um, I'll be there. I'll dress.... different.... too, okay?"
"Come as you are, sweetie, however you feel. Later." Sue went out the door.
Stefano stood there audibly breathing through his mouth for a few moments, then asked me, "Am I gonna die tonight?"
"Odds are against it," I assured him. "Don't french kiss any wall sockets or Marines, and you'll be fine. Have fun, I'm headed to my office. Later." I headed towards the door. Stefano seemed rooted in one place, his mouth still open. He finally said, "Later," and walked out of the lounge.

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