Rule #1 on the long list of rules governing when it’s a good time to leave New York, the city you grew up in, and move across the country for the first time: try, if you can, not to complete that move on September 4, 2001. Your first week will be bad. Your second week will be BAD.
I first got it into my head to move to Los Angeles when I visited for the first time in May of 2001. Armed with a $150 Priceline ticket and a suitcase full of promises to my mother that I wasn’t going to move to LA, I arrived on poor Pamie’s doorstep, welcomed myself to five days on her couch, and kissed the sentence, “Pamie and I don’t actually know each other that well, and we’ve only met once” goodbye forever.
Los Angeles presents itself exceedingly well to prospective denizens. Since there’s no top-of-the-tallest building to go to the top of and the Walk of Fame is on the corner of Shitty Area Blvd. and Hey Where’s My Wallet Street, tourism in LA really involves dropping into the lives of the people who already live here and just kind of doing what they do. Going to the Coffee Bean on Sunset for three hours. Staying up late and looking at the lights of what pretends to be a city skyline. Promising each other that you’ll finally get around to driving all the way to the beach “just as soon as summer gets here,” which I love. I used to think only the certifiably insane chose to live in a particular location just because it boasts nice weather. After a week here, I changed my mind completely.
Add to this my predicament at the time regarding my employment situation in New York. God bless the passel of concerned employers who did everything in their power to make sure I kept working, we were no match against the cost of New York real estate while the internet was at the peak of its First Official Going Out Of Relevance Sale. Working at home as I did, my work life and my non-work life had become a single entity, and I was losing work so slowly that I hardly realized when I working and when I wasn’t. One morning, I sat down at my computer in my empty apartment in Brooklyn, stared at the blank computer screen, and spoke the words out loud, “You know? I’m not sure whether or not I actually have a job right now.” I was directionless, freaked out, overweight, and unbelievably, scarily broke. One of the defining moments of my entire life was when I found myself in the kitchen of that apartment, standing over the sink, eating plain refried beans out of a bowl, and sobbing because it was the only thing I had in the house and, thus, the only thing I could afford. Also? It was 10:30 in the morning.
I had bottomed out.
If anyone tells you that you need money to move across the country, they’re lying and they have no imagination. I literally packed my shit into my car and left. I was able to secure a clean, reasonably-priced apartment in a neighborhood no one else I know has ever heard of, and I went. I had no idea what I was doing. It was change for the sake of change. All I knew is that if I had to eat refried beans, they would at least be surrounded by a delicious flour tortilla, made to order at Baja Fresh.Yeah, then the fucking world exploded, and here’s where my story intersects with Pam’s. I was able to score a copy of the UTA job list (how? Pam?), and faxed my resume to twenty-two places. I received a call from a studio that never returned my call when I gave them a ring back to schedule an interview. And I got a call from a British woman who ran a boutique public relations firm that represented writers, directors, and producers of feature films. She needed a new assistant after impetuously firing her previous assistant for talking back to her. She fired him on September 11.The post-world-exploding job market wasn’t exactly booming, so I put on a suit (the last time I’ve done so for a meeting since) and went to meet with the head of the company, the lovely English lady I’d spoken to on the phone. I knew NOTHING about PR, not even what the point of it was (four years on and I’m still not entirely sure), but we chatted merrily about her successes in the industry, her high-profile client list (and seriously, it was), and the “family-like” work environment that her eleven employees were lucky enough to experience every day. Every day for fifteen hours. When we weren’t off in the bathroom sobbing. As soon as a job makes you cry, it’s time to leave that job. I know that now.I still don’t know how I got the job. Actually, I do: I wrote a twenty page paper in a college film class about one of her clients. I still don’t know how I kept the job. Actually, I do: I am a dizzyingly good assistant. Either way, I was horribly unprepared for this position and incredibly emotionally fragile. Here’s how she dealt with that:*On my second day of work, I received a call from Brit’s husband, who was (and probably still is) the owner of a prominent web design company. He never spoke. He only screamed. “WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?” he was screaming this time. The nanny, apparently, was charged with picking up the couple’s six year-old daughter from kindergarten, and when she arrived, the nanny found that the daughter was not at school. “GET MY WIFE ON THE PHONE NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW.” Panic. I tried her on her cell phone, but she was at a lunch and it was off. I freaked out and ran out of the office, determined to find my employer and set her family life right. I drove all the way to the restaurant, only to discover upon my arrival that my boss had already left. I hightailed it at ninety down La Cienega to get back to the office, and walked in to find her in her office, coolly informing me, “You could have just called the bloody restaurant. What my husband doesn’t remember is that the housekeeper picked her up because the bloody nanny was supposed to be with my son. Now get out. You’re making me nervous.” The housekeeper beat the nanny to school! How many times has that happened to you? This is actually one of the many stories relating to my relationship with her family. Other classics include a) writing her son’s personal essay for boarding school and faxing it to my boss in Barbados and b) being told by her daughter, while in the office, “You have to play with me. My mommy is your boss, so I’m like your boss, too.” Six years old. I knew it was time to get out of that job the day I received a piece of mail addressed to my first name and my boss’s last name. Like I’d been adopted by the devil.*I received almost daily emails (I finally created a folder in my Outlook inbox called “Hall of Fame” as a repository for such missives) detailing my many job failings, usually written in screaming capital letters. They would often begin, “DARLING, I KNOW YOU ARE TRYING VERY HARD, BUT…” and then go on to chronicle my recent mistakes, including, “YOU ARE NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, TO TELL ANYONE WHERE I AM. NOT EVEN MY MOTHER. YOU MAY OFFER TO REACH ME ON MY CELL PHONE, BUT THESE ARE POWERFUL PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT TO KNOW WHEN I AM AT A SCREENING, AT THE THERAPIST, OR AT A RIDING LESSON.” Every single time, the closing line would somehow include the ominously-worded sentence, “You are hired to protect me, and I need to feel protected.”*Once, I used the words “hold on” while transferring a friend of hers I’d spoken to dozens of times. She picked up the phone, put her friend on hold, ran down the hall in her eleven-inch spiked heels, and began screaming, “Is this a bloody fraternity house? You don’t tell people to [imitating my voice] hold on. This is a place of business. One moment, please. Repeat after me. One moment, please. That is what you say. DO IT.” I still don’t tell people to hold on.*She would swing wildly between my most evil boss and my most toxic friend. She would often come into my office, throw herself down on a chair I had across from my desk, kick her shoes off, and offer her juiciest tidbit of the day, from, “You know, I haven’t done any work in, like, weeks” to “You will not BELIEVE who was doing, like, so much coke with Ted Demme the night before he died! He feels like he might have killed him, poor man.” The only thing worse than her in a bad mood was her in a good mood, because the ricochet into psycho territory was so much faster. The other assistants and I bought packs of red, yellow, and green Post-It Notes, and I would put them up in a designated place in the office to alert the rest of the staff as to her mood from hour to hour. It was like the Department of Homeland Security warning system, only much, much more effective.*After the second time I quit (I ended up working for her three times), I was living in New York and back in the office on a visit to LA, where I was meeting a friend for lunch. From inside her office (which I was strenuously trying to avoid), I heard a shrill call of, “Is that Daaaaaaaaaan?” She ran out, threw her arms around me, dragged me into her office, and sat me down. “How are you?” I asked, trying to be professional. She held up a ringless ring finger and merrily chirped, “Still separated!” Great! “But darling, you haven’t seen me since I’ve been normal!” With which she pulled out a vial of pills from her top desk drawer, shaking them at me and barking, “Prozac, darling! They’re, like, totally my happy pills! I’m, like, totally not crazy anymore or anything!” She then offered me a job running her New York office which I insanely accepted, and during the intervening fifteen months, we tested the claim of her recently-achieved sanity on a daily basis. I knew we were back in old school, balls-out crazy territory the day she accused my assistant — who she’d never met because she worked THREE THOUSAND MILES AWAY FROM ME and who she’d spoken to on the phone — of not existing. She didn’t feel his output was satisfactory and she hadn’t seen enough in the way of “results,” so she decided I had invented my assistant. I assure you I had not. Thanks a lot, Prozac.Add all this to the fact that the reasons I moved to LA had gone straight out the window the minute I started this job. I had a friend who was an out of work actress who spent most of the day tending her garden and participating in market research studies as her income. I was a stressed out assistant working sixteen hour days and often all weekend and not writing at all. We called ourselves The Two Biggest Cliches In Hollywood History Productions. When I got to LA, I referred to it as my “year in entertainment industry graduate school.” I kept getting boomeranged from coast to coast. It lasted almost three years. I couldn’t get out.Oh, there are so many more stories, and they’re so much worse than all of those. I’ve blocked it all out. I’ve already amnesia-ed myself out of writing my own Devil Wears Prada semi-fictionalized tell-all. It was so much easier to just forget.Someday, when we’re in a very dark room with black construction paper over the windows, I’ll tell you some stories about the clients. Those stories will blow your effing mind.So, like Pam said, “I just want you to know that when you’re thinking about moving out to Los Angeles, your first job will be one that makes absolutely no sense, and you’re the only one who knows what the hell is going on, and nobody will listen to you and it will make you make a lot of declarations about the type of person you’re going to be when you finally make a real paycheck around here.” A few weeks ago, I forgot how to do something on the copy machine and had to ask our department assistant for help. Using the COPY MACHINE. I spent the rest of the day feeling so, so dirty.