He fingered the edges of a candid depicting Ben Affleck walking
out the door of the Brentwood Starbucks, fingers wrapped around
his morning latte. The image was set to run with a story about
celebrity caffeine addicts. It had been a slow news week, Hollywood
scandal-wise. ""Affleck's easy," he said. "Can't
pay more than two hundred for him, plus a hundred bonus points
for the coffee. You got anybody else?"
I showed him Owen Wilson in a geeky bucket hat and dark sunglasses,
shot through the window of Kings Road Café as he inhaled
the fumes wafting from a large porcelain cup. The disguise was
effective enough that we argued back and forth about whether Owen
Wilson sat beneath the hat or some look-alike, until I settled
the argument by tracing the baby-arm-on-steroids contours of his
nose, which even the modern miracle of plastic surgery can't duplicate,
should it want to try. I walked the CD to the boom box on the
shelf behind Frank's desk and pressed play. Nothing happened.
Frank pulled open his petty cash drawer. I forgot about the CD,
thinking someone had sent me a blank disk by mistake. He paid
five large in advance for the Wilson, plus three for Affleck.
It had been a tough couple of months, financially. I needed the
cash to bail my car out of the garage and to finance the black
cocktail sheath of a dress I planned to wear to the gallery that
night, when friends, models and art collectors would gather to
drink wine and gossip while pretending to look at the so-called
art. High art is a low pay occupation, and I'd pretty much invested
-- or sunk without trace - the last of my money into producing
and then printing the photographs to be exhibited. Two weeks before
the show was to open, an idiot in a BMW rear-ended me in traffic,
sending my beloved 1976 Cadillac Eldorado into the shop for bodywork
and a 200,000 mile makeover. His insurance was covering the body
work but not the makeover. The mechanic offered me a loaner while
my car was in the shop. I couldn't afford to say no.
This explains why I pulled into the gallery's parking lot on
the biggest night of my life in a six-year-old Chevy Metro with
a four cylinder, 1.3 liter hamster cage for an engine, my toothless
Rottweiler riding shotgun, resplendent in a red bow tie and his
usual goofy grin. Unlike me, he didn't feel humiliated to be seen
in such a car. My Goth-girl niece waited out front, leaning with
calculated teenage sullenness against the passenger-side suicide
door of a 1967 Lincoln Continental. She'd flown in the night before
from Phoenix, where she lived with her foster parents, and spent
the day shopping for vintage clothing on Melrose Avenue, accompanied
by the owner of the Continental, a woman who looked like a punk
Barbara Stanwyk. My niece had met Nephthys and Christine six months
before, when they modeled together for several photographs in
the show, and since then she clung to them as her new role models,
particularly Christine, the closest to her age. Her lips scrunched
as though she bit into something sour when I stepped from the
car and she said, "Since when do you wear miniskirts?"
It was the first time she'd seen me in a dress, even if I'd accessorized
it with a pair of Doc Martens and a black-leather motorcycle jacket.
Cassie had just turned fifteen. I was twice her age. To her eye,
I was a dinosaur. I gave her a friendly shove and asked where
Nephthys was. She shrugged and pointed her chin toward the gallery,
it's brightly lit picture window framing an exhibition hall more
packed than I had a right to expect. When I asked her why she
remained outside she sidled up and bumped against my arm, her
wary interpretation of a hug. "You're late," she said.
"I was afraid you weren't going to show."
I kissed the side of her head. Cassie didn't show sentiment often.
I wanted to reward it. Something shoved me from behind - the Rott,
eager to bull his way into the party. She broke away from me to
kneel and give the dog a bigger hug than I'd ever seen her give
a human being. I tossed her the leash and a moment later we swung
open the gallery door to a D-list Hollywood arts crowd, not a
single true celebrity among the young and trendy who dressed,
talked and gestured like movie-stars in training, as though fame
awaited them as certainly as age. A half-dozen in the crowd had
modeled for the faux-tabloid photographs that lined the walls
and each had invited their equally young and beautiful friends.
Leonora Price - the sixty-something doyenne of L.A. arts photography
- called my name when I pressed through the door and glared at
me from behind rhinestone-flecked cats-eye glasses. She cut through
the crowd, big red-bead necklace swaying above the bodice of her
lime green dress, to wrap a withered arm over my shoulder, scold
me for being late, and swing me face to face with two of the few
people in the crowd not wearing black, a doctor and her doctor
husband, who announced that they'd just purchased two of my photographs.
"Hold on to them," Leonora advised. "My girl is
queen of the tabloids, the first serious photographer to cross
over since Weegee." I shook their hands solemnly, embarrassed
by such high praise. Leonora promptly slung me toward two men
in gray Italian suits, maneuvering me with a hand on the nape
of my neck as deftly as a puppeteer. The two men wore black shoes
that gleamed with the high shine only the professional classes
can achieve, their smiles polished to match. Personal injury lawyers,
Leonora whispered, who just purchased three images for their Century
City offices. The lawyer on the left said how much they loved
the photos, their jaundiced take on celebrity, and we talked a
minute about what it's like to work as a tabloid photographer.
"If Leonardo DiCaprio ever breaks your nose while you're
snapping his candid," they said, "give us a call, we'd
love to represent you." They cawed with laughter and I barked
back, two personal injury lawyers and a tabloid photographer,
fellow scavengers recognizing each other across the species barrier.
Leonora steered me close to the wall, the long, boney forefinger
of her right hand curling toward a red dot beneath the nearest
photograph, signifying the work had been sold. She painted her
fingernails red to match the sales dots; red and green were her
good-luck colors. "The photographs, they look wonderful up,
don't you think?" She flicked the nail toward the next photo,
and the one framed beyond that, all three marked with red dots.
Still gripping the nape of my neck, she turned my head to plant
a loud kiss on my brow, her milky blue eyes fierce and gleeful.
"Be proud," she said.
The emotion vented through me like scalding water seeking a fissure
and I turned away because I didn't want to burden her with a sudden
burst of tears. Two weeks earlier I'd gone alone to see the comic
book flick, Spiderman, where the sight of Kirsten Dunst lifting
enough of Spidey's mask to plant a wet one on Tobey Maguire's
lips provoked such a surge of Eros and sorrow that I'd bolted
for the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and sobbed through
a half-pack of tissues. Since the deaths of my sister and mother
I'd been increasingly unable to control my emotions, prone to
jagged crying fits at moments that once would have provoked no
more than a smirk of irritation. I'm not a photogenic crier, not
at all, and the only thing that prevented tears from sizzling
down my cheeks and snot dripping from my nose was the sight of
the Rottweiler towing Cassie through the crowd, Nephthys one step