The Pathos of Failing

photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

A friend and I once played a game around the pool at her apartment in Los Feliz, a game that we called How the Celebrity Died Badly. It involved inventing gruesome deaths for the famous. I can’t recall even one scenario, only that we laughed over a game that was cruel and made us feel clever.

It was also cynical, putting as it did a door between the cynic and what’s going on. Sure you can see through a keyhole, but how much?

This seemed a lesson I needed to continually relearn.

A month before leaving Los Angeles, I went with my daughter to a community playhouse in Pacific Palisades, to see her best friend perform the lead in Little Shop of Horrors. Before this production started, there was a revue by a group of kids under age ten, singing songs from Grease. The five minutes I heard were nonstop nasal sentimental warbling, so grating I left the theater. I was in the lobby when the kids filed out. As they accepted cuddles and congratulatory bouquets, I ran a silent commentary: God, this little one’s a loudmouth; all these parents are old enough to be these kids’ grandparents; these mothers look like hell, they all dye their hair; do I look like this? How can these men respect themselves if they have nose jobs? Every one of these people is rich and I’m not.

We went back inside. The stage looked as though it would come down with two good kicks. Before the show started, the director gave a big thank you to the piano player-slash-actress/singer, who’d agreed, last minute, to play the music.

Seated at a piano bench perhaps six feet from me was a big-boned woman with pretty auburn hair; her name was, I think, Kathy, and before the production started, she said she’d like to play us a song.

Kathy played and sang “Eternal Flame,” made famous by Susannah Hoffs, as if the ship were going down, this was it, and this song was her gift to us. She sat in the single spotlight and sang until the hair on my arms stood up and my throat swelled, and I knew, this woman had come to Los Angeles to make her name. To explore and offer the talents she’d nurtured for years, and here she was, in a rickety community theater playing for kids on a Sunday night. There was no question of fairness, there was only a question of desire, of walking up to the world with open hands and saying, here, this is what I have; let it be of service. And the world that is deemed relevant, the world of money and fame and acceptance, is not interested.

I watched the production for what it was; parts were silly, others were stirring; my daughter’s friend has what is called star quality; she also rehearses five days a week. She was thirteen, and mathematically, should have a startlingly successful future. Maybe this is what Kathy’s parents’ friends thought, too.

I saw that night as clearly as I ever had that it was desire than ran in the veins of Los Angeles. And I wanted to keep looking at it, to keep writing about it. To watch it fall apart and rearrange. To chronicle the pathos of failing, whether it was Kathy and the compromises she made, or the man who tells me a Disney animator is going to help him get his cartoon series on the air, followed by the information that the animator was fired from Disney a decade earlier, and currently has inoperable brain cancer. And see? See the sketches? He spreads them out, and they are sweet, and I think, will not go anywhere. This man has had some good times; he has been on Broadway, but mostly he has had hard times; has lived on a friend’s conked out boat in Marina del Rey, has lived in his car, but now, he says, that could all change.

I did not know how I could leave Los Angeles. How I could bear to be away from people whose hope burned this way; who carried the eternal flame. If I left, would I again get to interview the carny who explains he is really a painter; how his Floral Still Life is part of a world-famous collection; how the curator in New York tracks him down every few years, offering thousands of dollars.

“I don’t want to die here with this piece of equipment,” he says, of the Ferris wheel he’s been sleeping under for a dozen years. “I want to die with a paintbrush in my hand. That’s who I am.”

And when I fact check, when I track down the collection the carny says he is part of, there is no Floral Still Life, no record of the man.

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