Shut Up, Little Man!

Stories and anecdotes : Shut Up, Little Man!

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From “South of Market” to Hollywood —

celebrating a breton's birthday
Eddie Lee adrift on Andre
Breton's birthday. Seattle, 1994

In the Fall of 1994 I lost my mind. I was living in Hong Kong, writing for hours every day, drifting the streets, and dreaming up a glorious future for myself and my beloved friends. But, somehow, the molecularity of my being shifted. The thought-patterns went skewed and my entire nervous system jammed in a clenched energetic blitz. My normal powers of concentration were lost amidst a barrage of scattered bits of images and staccato thoughts. I didn’t sleep more than 4 hours for forty straight days. The Hong Kong Streets - overloaded with automobiles and buses, flooded with clambering humans, endlessly dense with loud sharp sounds - began to puncture and shred me as if I was composed of tissue paper. It was a decidedly dangerous place to melt down. All of my usual coping mechanisms -- my surefire methods of recalibrating and reconfiguring myself -- failed. So, knowing that inner space is often a manifestation of outer space, I felt I had no option than to shift locales to affect a possible shift of my internal landscape. I had two loving beautiful friends in New York, so I set my sights on moving there. I bought an airline ticket and caught a plane. My ticket allowed me to stop in Seattle - a city I knew well and loved - and so I stopped off to see some friends and to break up the interminable long flight from Hong Kong to New York. I would never make it to New York.

My life didn’t get any less weird in Seattle, but it was certainly less abrasive, less shocking, more soothing to the nerves than Hong Kong had been. The rain fell endlessly. I fell in with an old comrade, Isaac Sanchez. Soon after my arrival he and I set about creating a social firestorm. I changed my name to Arturo Swan. I grew my hair as long as I could. We set out to create a counter-life, a life of joy, pleasure, play, and provocation. We generated our own micro-language, a heavily coded discourse rich in metaphor and symbolism. We deliberately slept through the daylight hours and embraced the long dense rainy nights of the northwestern winter; on a typical day we arose at 3 PM and we went to sleep between 5AM and 6AM. The days were filled with drifting the streets, interacting with strangers, the archetype game, and re-working billboards. We moved into a flophouse in the Ravenna district and shared a tiny room for $120/month. Our housemates were three: The first was a veritable middle-aged misfit named Robbie who slept in his clothes on the floor of his bedroom. He didn’t have a bed and besides it would never have fit. Instead, the small floorspace was crowded with antiquated but working computers upon which he engaged in simulated Chess games, three games at a time. The second roommate lived on the other side of the wall. His name was Curtis. He was an African-American in his early forties with a long process hairdo. He worked as a janitor at the neighborhood high school. As we would soon find out, Curtis liked to party. His paychecks magically transformed into weekends jacked to the gills on crack cocaine and prostitutes. The first few hours of a Friday night were sound mosaics of grunts and wild giggles. Then, when the nasty crack comedown set in, the evening was splintered by screaming and hateful harangues - not unlike sped-up versions of the old Peter and Raymond days. The third roommate was a gentle giant named Tom. Tom lived in the only room upstairs in the attic. Tom was a sweet, soft-spoken 350-pound rounded doughboy with longish dark curly brown hair. Tom repeatedly got shit-faced drunk and lost his keys. I think drunken key loss was his official hobby.

I don’t know how many sets of keys Tom lost or how many sets of drunks the guy managed to put on, but usually one followed the other and the total amount of each was truly memorable. Several times I was awakened to the sound of whimpering outside my window. (The first time I thought it must have been one of Curtis’s prostitutes after a crack come-down.) When this happened, I would look out to see Tom softly crying, his teary face glistening in the moonlight, staring forlornly upwards at his room as if by drunkenly dreaming he could will his way upward like some tubby Peter Pan into his dark little attic room. All in all the boarding house was nothing less than outrageously disgusting. Dirty, shabby, stench-laden, sub-human. What would pass as a living room had a ragged weathered plaid couch that was pocked with cigarette burns where it wasn’t threadbare or hacked open. There was a television set that received but one and a half channels and had a picture tube that yellowed every image as if it was dunked in piss. I say one-and-a-half channels because one channel came in relatively clearly, but the only other was a half-blur of fuzziness like a permanent impressionist snow-scape. [Once, my dear friend Andalucia Weiss visited me from Manhattan. I dared to let her stay at my digs at the boarding house. She was a little shocked, anthropologically curious, and as usual able to roll with the weirdness of it all. As we went out one evening, she robustly asked the damaged Chess player Robbie what he had planned to do for the evening. He answered in a muted spectral voice: “I think. . . I think I’m. . . I think I’m going to try. . . to try to . . .finish watching TV.” We ran that phrase over in our heads all evening, not sure exactly what he meant, but then again certain that what he had said was an accurate reflection of his shattered psyche and a fair appraisal of what he intended to do with his evening.] One morning I was in the bathroom. Of all the rooms in the flophouse the prize for most disturbing space was granted to the bathroom. It was unspeakably hideous. I was certain that it was an experiment. It was so overrun with fungi that I considered inviting the Mycology Department from the University of Washington. It was nothing less than fascinating. Any given day sudden zones of fungi bloomed on the walls, counters, ceiling. The sink was scattered with little black curls from Curtis's over-processed balding head, and the faucet handles were so laden with Geri-curl that they were functionally inoperative. One day I was in the bathroom wrangling away at those same faucet-handles when I smelled something good wafting in from the kitchen. It smelled like sausage. Rarely did anyone use the kitchen for actual cooking, because it hadn’t been cleaned since the Nixon era. I came around the corner and saw Robbie standing there before the stove. I could hear something sizzling. Happy that something resembling functional human behavior was happening in the house, I called out in a cheery voice: “Hey, man. Good morning!” Robbie only half-cocked his head over his shoulder to acknowledge me: “Uh”. I moved forward toward him: “Whatcha cookin?” He looked away in a sort of confused distracted way: “Uhah.” I peered over his shoulder and then saw that ol’ Robbie wasn’t cooking sausage at all. He had a burner blazing red-orange on the stove and he was standing there with his hand sizzling directly on the burner. I quickly came to recognize that perhaps this boarding house was not a good place to recover from a nervous breakdown.

That’s when the call came: “Hey, Eddie, this is Melissa Wegman of Wegman Films. We want to fly you and Mitch down to L.A. And have a little pow-wow with the writer, Larry Gross. Larry is the guy who wrote ’48 Hours,’ you know, with Eddie Murphy? Great guy. Anyway, we have hired him as the new writer on Shut Up Little Man. We want to get you down here, have you boys share some stories with Larry, throw around some ideas, and get our movie moving forward. Does that sound like fun?” “Ergh?” I gurgled forth. “What’s that?” Melissa queried. Trying to collect myself, I uttered: “Um, when is this going to happen?” “We were thinking at the end of this week. Can you get free?” I chuckled to myself - can I get free? The only other ’plans’ I had that week was a follow-up appointment at the Welfare Office to get my food stamps. So I told her: “Sure, I can get free.” Melissa ended by saying: “Okay, darling. I’m going to book the tickets pronto and call you back with the flight info.” Melissa called back an hour later and said that the reservations were for the day after tomorrow - a Thursday - and that we would be flown back on the following Monday. That would give us time to have at least two long meetings with Larry.

The following morning I bussed my way 45 long minutes to 2nd and Lenora, the site of the Welfare Department. I had already filled out the Food Stamp application the previous week, and now I was returning to get the approved food stamp voucher. Which, in turn, I would have to walk a mile or so to the Food Stamp disbursement center housed inside a Check-cashing center. More hoop-jumping and degradation. Getting the actual food stamps in one’s hand was more work than work itself. I was down to my last thirty-four dollars in the world. I dragged my feet into the Welfare Office and took a seat among the down and out folks. There were only two open seats and one of them had had the cushion torn away and as if some aggrieved and aggravated nutter had slashed and gutted the chair in frustration. I took the other seat. I hadn’t eaten in almost 20 hours and was slipping into a glassy hypoglycemic haze. My mind drifted for I don’t know how long. On the periphery of my consciousness I heard a gruff growling voice somewhere in my field. “Grrrrrrrrr. Whatchyou lookin at?” I awakened from my glazed hunger to realize that the enormous man across from me was talking to me. Now that my eyes were coming into focus on him, he repeated his question: “I said what the fuck you lookin’ at?” I snapped to: “Oh, no, man, I wasn’t looking. I, uh, was just spaced out.” He leaned forward and snapped at me a little louder: “Bullshit.” Instantly, there was an armed guard standing between us, pulling me up by the shoulder. The guard spoke: “Look here. There’s no fighting in here and no cursing. You guys are going to have to take this outside.” The large angry man spat out in a shock: “Man, this punk is looking at me like a bitch!” The guard started to guide us toward the door and somehow I formulated a sentence: “Look, man, I am here to get my stamps. I am spaced out and hungry and I just happened to be spaced out in his direction.” The guard wasn’t listening and was quickly jettisoning us toward the door. I had visions of this other dude -- poor, frustrated, hungry like me -- pummeling me into a bloody stump just outside the door. I was terrified. I stopped on my heels and poke emphatically to the guard: “Hey. Listen! I just quietly want to get my stamps and get out of here. Really, man. I don’t want any trouble.” The guard stopped and looked at us: “If I hear even one more word out of either of you - you are out of here. I mean it.” Ten minutes later a dead voice flatly called my name over the intercom, and five minutes later I had my stamp voucher in hand. I made the long walk down toward the stamp disperser on First Avenue next to the pawn shop.

24 hours later I was in Los Angeles in the back of a BMW. Melissa, the film developer, was giving us a run-through of the day’s roster: Check-in at the hotel, meeting at the office with Larry, a break, dinner with Larry and the Producers, and then drinks at a club in Hollywood. Mitchell, my old roommate from Steiner Street, had also been flown in by Wegman. We hadn't seen each other for a couple of years. It was really good to see him - he had always been like a brother to me. Mitchell and I checked into our hotel suites. They were on the top floor of the hotel and were only accessible via a special key that one inserted inside the elevator. We received drink coupons for the in-house club. The producers also gave us a wad of cash for our ’per diem’ expenses while we were in Los Angeles and the keys to a rental sedan. Mitch and I joked repeatedly in a Cheech and Chong voice: “Hey, esse, I need some more per diems, man” or “Hey, Melissa, where can I get some more per diems?”

We drove to the studio offices to meet with the screenwriter, Larry Gross. We convened in a conference room with Larry and three people associated with the production company - two producers and a business manager. Essentially, we were asked to re-hash our experiences living next to Pete and Ray for Larry and the tape recording device in the middle of the room. We told stories about how we first encountered Ray, the Christmas Peter through Raymond over the railing, the kind of folks that lived in the other apartments. Larry listened carefully, taking notes, laughing at some of the stories. Larry was attempting to find narrative threads to weave into a compelling story, little comic details that would push the story along. He asked a few questions: What was your life like when you lived there? How did you guys get along? Did you have girlfriends? I began to relay to him how I had spent much of my time in San Francisco - doing what I called ’the drift.’ The drift was a deliberately aimless passage through urban spaces - open, receptive, engaged, interactive; to drift was to walk the city streets relentlessly searching for signs, openings, engagement with the elements that one encountered there. This mode of passage steered me far from any conventional and/or functional engagement with people and places. I would be guided to take a bus, and then find myself spending two days with a couple from Norway. I would be directed to go into a coffee house in a neighborhood I had never been before and approach a person and come out with a best friend for life. It's a great mode of being and inspires a lot of enchantment. Larry lit up as I described my movements through the streets. He got really focused and asked me to continue, for he was seeing possibilities. He noted: “This drift has enormous visual potential for the film. Keep talking.” I continued sharing with him how I had begun to base my whole life on this mode of being - opening myself up to chance-based engagements and encounters. Larry smiled widely and began to tell me of the great film director Michelangelo Antonioni. He relayed that the drift was allied with how Antonioni unfolded his films. Larry recommended that I view Antonioni’s masterwork: L’Aventura. Later, of course, I did watch L’Aventura and also Blow-up, and The Passenger. I then comprehended how thoroughly Larry Gross had actually understood what The Drift was all about. I think the other people in the room grew a little restless as Larry and I sunk into a really engaged, playful dialogue about the drift.

After the meeting we piled into two cars and drove to Spago, the legendary eatery on Sunset Strip. We took our seats at a table large enough to accommodate all eight of us. Larry sat just to my left, so we could continue our conversation. About 20 minutes into our dinner a group of film people arrived and were seated at the table adjacent to our table. There was some muttering amongst the producers at our table. I tried to discern what the low-level commotion. I turned around and saw that Johnny Depp was seated with a group of about six others. Depp’s star was still in slow ascendancy; he was just coming off his role in “My Own Private Idaho.” I know that Depp was a fan of Shut Up Little Man. He had come out to the Shut Up Little Man play in LA and loaded up on some of the merchandise we had on sale, including a t-shirt. One of the producers whispered to me in a clipped manner that barely concealed his brewing hostility: “That’s the Jerky Boy people. They’re just about finished with their film.” One of the Jerky Boy producers came over to our table, shook hands with the Shut Up Little Man producers. The Jerky Boy guy said that the film was actually in post-production; he announced this to us all with a brazen sort of pride and cockiness. I looked over the menu. There had been some sort of strange irrational competitiveness between the Jerky people and the Shut Up Little Man people. I never really understood it and certainly didn’t participate in it. The two projects were totally different - one was the real life fights and verbal harangues between two poor alcoholics and the other was playful sophomoric telephone high-jinx of two guys calling and harassing people. Articles in the media had always linked the Shut Up Little Man recordings with the Tube Bar Tapes and the Jerky Boys. An edginess seeped around the table in relation to the Jerky Boy table. I looked over the menu. The waitress came to our table and began to flirt openly with Larry. The waitress was about 30 years younger than Larry and very attractive. Larry liked this. I couldn’t blame him. I ordered a $69 entree of fish and vegetables. After I ordered my absurdly over-priced meal and navigated my mind around the waitress flirting with Larry, I had a moment of reflection. In that meditative landscape I traversed the fact that only one day previously I was seated in the Welfare Office awaiting my Food Stamp voucher and I had narrowly avoided a beating. I watched one of my housemates grilling his hand for breakfast. And, now, here I was seated with a well-known successful Hollywood screenwriter, three wealthy film producers, at a famous restaurant. Instead of grappling with how much of my food stamp voucher I should budget out for the day, I was having a cocktail and awaiting a ridiculously over-priced piece of fish at a table next to one of the great actors of my generation. All because I taped two alcoholics who threatened to kill me. Life was weird. It was consistently weird. I liked it.