Monday, May 20, 2013

Struggle Is to Story as Wile E. Coyote Is to Roadrunner

The first time you're aware of hearing the word "struggle" was at its use by your mother, who was at the time in a state you later learned was called "exasperation."

Annie was a splendid cook, who came by her talents without any apprenticeship, rather through her own ingenuity and her ardent desire to please her Jake, first and foremost, but then you and your sister got in on the process.

You were all affected by what has been called The Great Depression, the economic one.  Annie's struggle was, as she put it, finding ways to make interesting meals on a whimsical budget.  Those times are long past, but you still flinch at the sight of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and Kraft dinner, which was an atrocity committed on macaroni and cheese.  In later years, perhaps as some sort of revenge, Annie made a creditable macaroni that makes you sigh at its memory.

The next memory of struggle is the one you most associate with the word, although there has been for some time a secondary meaning with growing resonance.  Struggle to you represents the iconic Marxist clash between working class and management, of miners struggles for safer working conditions, of overtime for a more-than-forty-hour work week, of collective bargaining, of the right to form unions, of respect for the working classes, indeed, of respect for the value of work.

Neither of your parents were activists in the formal sense, but your father, having fallen in the Great Depression, from the ranks of the highly affluent and respective of his employees to the hardscrabble of trying to excel at whatever job he could find, was sympathetic in his consideration of the worker's dignity.

You recall being taken to the now defunct and paved over Gilmore Stadium (Just north of the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax on May 19, 1947, to hear the then Vice President of the United States, Henry A. Wallace, speak, to hear him use the word struggle, to get some sense that he and, later, individuals like him stood tall in your estimation.  You also heard the filled Gilmore Stadium roar its approval at a speech about human rights and dignity given by Katherine Hepburn.

In what was to be a turn of irony, your interest in struggles remained political long enough to have you following the civil war in Spain, then turn to reading Steinbeck and his investigations of working classes at so many levels.  With a forged ID and the now creditable stature of six feet, three inches, you were able to find your way into another long gone bit of Los Angeles history, the Garden of Allah, (Sunset Boulevard, between Crescent Heights and Havenhurst) where F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to frequent. (  Here, in the cocktail lounge, you had frequent conversations with a man named Frank Fowler, a writer who later changed his name to Borden Chase.  Still Fowler, he'd been a driver for a gangster named Frankie Yale, then a cab driver, then a sandhog, a worker employed in the building of the Holland Tunnel, connecting New York and New Jersey.

Chase conflated and helped you conflate struggle with story, his novels and screenplays showing workers under pressure from external conditions as well as physical ones.  He was often surrounded by wannabe writers and you had to wait for your chances, but the most memorable chance  of all was the night you realized he, a sturdy and controlled drinker, was growing more conversational.  "Gonna tell you a secret, kid.  Gonna tell you how I got the idea for my biggest success yet."

Sensing pure discovery with no risk on your part, because you had nothing he could possibly have wanted, you waited.

"You know Mutiny on the Bounty, kid?"

A nod from you.

He grinned.  They don't get it.  My Red River?  They don't fucking get it.  John Wayne doesn't fucking get it.  Nobody gets it.  Red River is Mutiny on the Bounty, only mine is on horseback.  The struggle is the same.  The characters and stakes are different."

This series of meetings with Fowler/Chase ended while you were still a student at UCLA.  The Garden of Allah was gone from reality by June of 1959.

Your struggles with story were still in their formative stages.  You arm-wrestled with story as though it were the Roadrunner and you Wile E. Coyote, thus you lived for some time in the buttes and mesas of your own despair and isolation.  One day, on some now forgotten project, you saw Story as Roadrunner, dancing past you again, and you experienced a glimmer of understanding.

The struggle is never over.

When struggle is gone, story is gone.

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