Such a strong compulsion to write hasn’t happened before or since. It was the summer of 1982 and everything had gone wrong. I’d somehow managed to graduate high school, but not much more than a month later was locked up at the Beverly Hills jail, arrested for assault with a deadly weapon.
In the incident’s simplest terms, I’d brandished a rifle and pointed it at the driver of another vehicle. I apologize for the battery of questions such limited information may produce, but I’m going to save the details of that dreadful series of events for another day and another post and just skip to the end, wherein all charges were ultimately dismissed once all the facts were reviewed by a judge at a preliminary hearing.
But the damage was done. I’d been a candidate for a program with the U.S. Navy called BOOST â€” Broadened Opportunities for Officer Selection and Training â€” in which after a successful completion of what amounted to a year-long bootcamp with an academic focus, I’d be eligible to be attached to the NROTC unit at the college of my choice. There was even a shot at attending the Naval Academy. But even with all the charges dropped, the Navy dropped me like a hot potato.
My good friend Mark Burton’s father, David Burton, who not only put up the money to bail me out of jail that night but also sprung for a lawyer for me, also gave me a mini-wage job working in the warehouse of the garment and textiles thread supply company he owned in a nether region not far away from the landmark Coca-Cola building south and east of downtown. I think the name of the place was Georgia Thread Company.
My first day there the warehouse manager, a portly bearded man named Mike who could only move around with the use of two braces, the kind with the metal pieces that wrap around your forearms, handed me a buck knife with a five-inch blade and a leather case and told me to wear it on my belt. Tool of the trade? No, he said it was for protection whenever I left the relative safety of the warehouse for breaks or lunch, or even just to go to my car.
So I spent my days there for several months bored out of my gourd listening to Spanish-language radio, eating garbage from the roach coaches that came by, and avoiding confrontations with the locals who always lurked around. My main job was peeling the company’s labels off spools of thread then replacing them with a different company’s. Little did I realize these endless cartons of endless spools of thread were inventory that Mr. Burton and his partner â€” Dan Silva, I think â€” had declared stolen in a rudimentary scheme to collect on the insurance.
Gotta digress here for a paragraph or so: A few months after I quit my job there (to go work fulltime as a Century City messenger for the long-gone ABC Messenger Service) Silva was found dead at his desk with his throat cut. Later, Burton was arrested and charged with buying his partner’s murder, which was allegedly brokered by the warehouse boss Mike who contracted the job out to some creep nicknamed Bear who he knew from some Santa Fe Springs bar they both frequented. Both Mike and Bear cut deals and Burton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Personally, I’ll never believe Burton wanted to kill Silva, only scare him. But the confrontation with Bear and went bad and Silva ended up spraying his life all over his office. I’m certainly not condoning his murder, but Silva â€” who at my best impression from the several times I met him was a slickbacked slimedog â€” brought it on himself by by threatening Burton that he would break his silence to investigators if he wasn’t given a bigger cut of the insurance potato.
Anyway, although it’ll certainly be tough to top that true-crime tangent, allow me try to track things back to my original reason for this post, which was… ah yes: my first and last true and effortless compulsion to create.
It was born from a tire that flatted on my way home from work at the Georgia Thread Company one hot August afternoon. I was westbound in the No. 1 lane of the jammed Santa Monica Freeway approaching the Crenshaw Boulevard overpass when the car started to shimmy and fishtail. Unable to get passage to negotiate the tired old 1965 Mustang over to the shoulder, I was forced to bear right to a stop in the emergency access lane next to the center divider where I then discovered the right rear tire had died. While I had a spare in the trunk, I had no jack. So I was forced to wait for assistance. And wait. And wait, until help finally arrived some two hours later in the form of a CHP patrol car and its rather apprehensive officer who only after it was clear that there wasn’t either an APB or an assortment of warrants out for my arrest, still somewhat reluctantly offered his lugnut wrench and jack so that I could swap wheels â€” which I did and was on my way home.
But at a point during that eternity of waiting, I looked across the four lanes of slow-flowing traffic at the callbox that was near yet so far away and a story idea just â€” wham! â€” blew up inside my head. One moment I was on the verge of going crazy with boredom and the next I was scrambling for scraps of paper and a writing implement and jotting down character and plot points for a tale I couldn’t wait to get home to tell.
When I walked in the door and told my mom what happened and the story idea I’d come up with from it, she shut me up and told me to just go write it. And I did. I sat down at the IBM Selectric II at my desk, inserted a blank sheet of paper and didn’t quit typing until hours later and I had the tale roughly told. I spent several more days doing nothing else with my free time but honing it into a final draft of some 20-plus pages that I titled Breakdown.
In the story’s simplest terms, it’s about a kid who gets stuck on a freeway and help never arrives with apocapyptic results. Obviously it doesn’t take much analysis to find it’s a very personal tale about an angry and confused young man who feels invisible and victimized by a world that’s rejected him as worthless.
Whether it’s good storytelling is open to discussion. The only publication I submitted it to was the long-defunct Twilight Zone magazine, and they rejected it. But what’s pretty cut and dried is that it was important storytelling, not only as a raw and heartfelt way to capture and release all the pent up angst and frustration I was feeling at that time, but also in my evolution â€” however glacially paced â€” as a writer. It showed me that I have an inate talent to tell a tale.
The drawback is, that in the 23 years since I have rarely felt that rush â€” that urgency â€” to craft. Perhaps I’ve even quelled that talent. Certainly I’ve written a heckuva lot in my years as a journalist. And hell on an annual basis, this blog averages some 200,000 words. But the issue isn’t about my ability to spew keystrokes across a screen. I’m very, very rarely at a loss to do that. What I’m talking about is those few golden moments back in the dog days of 1982’s summer when I reveled in designing and building a piece of fiction â€” when I was incapable of stopping the process. Where did I put that? Where did it go? Can I get it back? I’m four months from steady employment and I have a strong desire never to return to that grind, but do I have the strength and courage to tap into my creative potential. Can I dive deep through my doubts and fears and come back up holding that power and desire that showed me my worth when I felt so worthless?
Boy I’d better. But first I’m going to dig Breakdown out of its unknown place in my scattered archives. Put my hands and eyes all over its pages. Reacquaint myself with it. See if it holds any keys to open doors locked too long. Maybe even â€” finally! â€” digitize it.