Canoga Park is a rarely visited graveyard where celebrity pool cleaners go to die. It’s less a suburban oasis than an apocalyptic dustbowl, an unfathomably ugly San Fernando Valley sprawl of strip malls, factories and cul-de-sacs that can only boast affordable housing and a lower crime rate than Los Angeles. During the summer, the valley is always at least 10 degrees hotter, and exponentially more humid, than anywhere else in Southern California. From the moment you cross the border, it feels like you’ve ventured inside the mouth of a dog.
On the surface, you’d never know that this seemingly working-class neighborhood was actually the self-appointed capital of porn. Over three-fourths of the adult films produced in the free world come from the valley, and more production companies are moving there every day.
Porn probably thrives here because it would be unwelcome anywhere else. The porn industry and the valley have developed an unspoken symbiotic relationship that neither would admit. The valley’s middle-class community, founded with the slogan “The Town That Started Right,” saw itself evolve into “The Valley of Sin” without putting up so much as a snivel in protest. And why would they? For most of its existence, the valley was little more than a working-class refuge and a cheap source of water for Los Angeles. But ever since porn producers began setting up shop, it has turned into the epicenter of a flourishing, billion-dollar industry. While the production of feature films in Los Angeles has decreased almost 13 percent over the past decade, adult movie production is up 25 percent and rising. Americans regularly spend more than $8 billion a year on pornographic videos, an amount easily three times larger than all of Hollywood’s domestic box office receipts.
That translates to rising employment. Porn productions bring as many as 20,000 new jobs to the valley each year. And those numbers don’t just include the men and women having sex in front of the camera. Pornos employ cameramen, gaffers, grips and sound engineers, which leads to more homes being built and more money being spent at local businesses.
Porn producers have tried to be good neighbors by not flaunting their dirty secrets in public. While Hollywood’s studios advertise their presence with glitzy overkill, porn studios are inconspicuous, if not totally invisible. There are almost 300 porn facilities within the valley limits — including sound stages, editing facilities, and printing plants — but they’re hidden with such expertise that even their own neighbors couldn’t identify them with any certainty.
Everybody gets rich. Everybody is happy. And it all happens behind closed doors, keeping the illusion of a moral community fabric alive and well. As much as I appreciated the beauty of this system, I was annoyed by how it inconvenienced me on a hot day in July. Finding a correct address is an almost impossible challenge. Forget a map, I needed a compass. It’s not like I wanted a big flashing neon sign that screamed “PORN STUDIO,” but would it have killed them to put a few numbers on the doors?
When I was first approached to write a porn screenplay, I thought it would be easy. I thought I could probably crank out a finished script in less than an hour, with time to spare for a snack and a short nap. But I wasn’t willing to make it so easy on myself. If I was going to write trash, I wanted it to be intelligent trash.
I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that I could create a porno with any degree of artistic significance. I wasn’t going to buy the cliché that had plagued the porno industry long before I’d entered the game. Films like Behind the Green Door notwithstanding, porn has rarely succeeded in rising above its filthy roots. There are already enough reasons to laugh at porn, but when it aspires to something more than its assigned cultural niche, it only confirms the belief that art should be left to the artists.
But what if I could find a way to bring porno into the mainstream through the back door (no pun intended)? What if I wrote a script that was so funny, so original, so utterly campy that no amount of bad acting or poor production values could ruin it?
I had a vision. At first, a few observant viewers would notice the change. They’d begin paying attention to the plot without a thumb hovering over the fast-forward button. Eventually, they would invite their friends for late-night screenings, and together they’d howl over their favorite lines. Before long, midnight shows of my porno would become the latest rage among young urban hipsters, and fans would show up dressed as their favorite character. It would evolve into an international craze, and soon even the critics would come around, admitting that my porno, though by no means culturally relevant, at least qualified as a fairly decent guilty pleasure.
It was the difference between being Ed Wood and John Waters. If porn was destined to be a joke, I wanted to be in on it. I began calling friends I hadn’t spoken to in years to announce my porn ambitions. I expected them to be horrified, but they were surprisingly supportive, even encouraging. More than a few of my writer friends admitted that they had dabbled in porn from time to time, if only to pay the bills while they waited for more substantial work to come along. I suspected I was involved in something far more universal than I’d originally believed. By agreeing to write porn, I had begun a modern rite of passage among aspiring scribes.
I finished my script in less than a week and mailed it to one of the top porn studios in L.A. In a matter of days, I received a phone call from a director/actor named Brandon.
“It was brilliant,” he said. “Funny, funny stuff.”
“Wow,” I said, struggling not to appear unnerved by his kind words. “Thank you. I –”
“Of course, funny doesn’t matter,” he said, a trace of giddy malice in his voice. “This is porn, right? Who watches porn for the dialogue? Am I right or what?”
He broke into crunchy laughter, and I joined him, despite the fact that I was pretty sure he was insulting me personally.
“But seriously, I loved it. I get a lot of crap scripts on my desk, but you managed to write something very special. It moved me, it really did.”
I felt oddly gratified by his flattery. Sincere or not, he was hitting all the right buttons. True, I firmly believed that I’d written something better than average. But moving? I couldn’t tell if he was just yanking my chain, or if I actually had an innate talent for crafting plots that managed to be both erotic and emotionally revealing.
“That was the easy part,” Brandon went on. “Now you have to watch your beloved words get butchered by a bunch of high-school dropouts who wouldn’t know a nice piece of prose if it up and bit them on the ass.”
“Well, I –”
“I just want to prepare you, sport. I know how difficult this process can be. You think the actors are going to bring your vision to life, but then they rip out your heart and spit it back in your face.”
I could only whimper in response.
“I mean, I love them and everything. Don’t get me wrong. They’re my people. Without them I’m nothing. But come on, we all know that they’re just shaved apes. You can’t expect a miracle of evolution to happen overnight. You see what I’m saying?”
I didn’t, but there was no point in telling him that. I had to give this guy credit. His ability to build up a writer’s ego and then bring it crashing down in a matter of seconds was simply awe-inspiring. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was a genius with the potential to revolutionize an unfairly maligned industry, or just another cog in the oily, malfunctioning machine of porn. If my conflicting emotions were at all transparent, Brandon showed no sign of detecting them.
“There’s a lot of excitement around here about your script,” he said. “We’re putting this project on the fast track.”
“I just have to call the actors and crew. I’m guessing we’ll be ready by Tuesday.”
“Tuesday to start production?”
“No,” he said. “Tuesday to shoot it.”
“The whole thing?”
“Well, yeah.” There was a brief moment of tense silence, and then Brandon began to laugh again. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I’m sorry, I forgot you were a newbie. Listen, why don’t you come down to the set next Tuesday?”
“It’ll give us a chance to meet face-to-face. And you can watch all the action up close and personal.”
“Actually, I’m not sure if –”
“Fantastic! I’ll see you then,” he said, before abruptly hanging up the phone.
At least a part of me was elated. It felt like I had been accepted by Hollywood, or at least Hollywood’s retarded half-sister who lived down in the basement. Sure, I was involved in an industry whose films were outlawed in most of Middle America, and even considered a felony in states like Utah and Florida, but this seemed like an irrelevant detail. I had moved to L.A. to become a paid screenwriter, and I could finally count myself among their ranks.
At the same time, I was anxious about what I would soon be witnessing. After all, I wouldn’t just be watching actors speak my words. I would also be watching sex. Actual flesh and blood humans, engaging in carnal hydraulics right in front of me. I could easily justify writing for these smut fiends if I could keep a safe distance from their world. But visiting the set would be crossing a line. I would be right inside the belly of the beast, where the distinction between porn professional and casual participant wasn’t quite so clear anymore.
I found my way to the studio. Hidden behind a fence of shrubberies on a quiet residential street, it barely qualified as a place of business. There were no windows, barbed wire fences surrounded it, and all but one of the doors was secured with a padlock. The elaborate security measures were probably intended to scare away horny teenagers and curious tourists, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was trespassing on a hostile religious compound.
I found an unlocked door, and entered what appeared to be a rather ordinary reception area. It was clean and well lit, and reminded me of a dentist’s office — not the strip club atmosphere I’d been anticipating. But I was reminded who owned these premises when I was greeted by a big-breasted secretary, dressed in a low-cut dress that revealed far more cleavage than I was prepared for so early in the morning.
“Hello,” she said brightly, smiling up at me. “Are you here for the gangbang auditions?”
“Uh, no,” I said. “I’m a writer. I believe they’re shooting my script today.”
Her smile vanished and she gestured toward a flight of stairs. I wondered exactly what was involved in a gangbang audition. Was a headshot and résumé required? Would you be asked to prepare a monologue? Probably best not to give it too much thought. That way madness lies. I climbed the stairs and entered an unlit hallway. I waved my hands, searching for something to guide me. I found a cushioned wall and pressed my body against it. I could hear voices, what sounded like rhythmic moaning. I moved toward the sound, hugging the wall like I might fall to my death if I let go even for a second.
As I crept down the hallway, the voices became louder, but I didn’t see even a glimmer of light in the distance. I began to panic, certain that I would never find my way out of this hellish abyss. And then, quite suddenly, the wall ended. I flailed wildly with my free hand, but all I could feel was air. The moaning seemed to be right next to me, but I was still blinded by darkness. I jumped into the void and landed with a crash. Almost immediately, I felt the warm glow of light on my face.
I looked up and saw that I was lying in the middle of a large room built to resemble a hotel lobby. From every corner, strange men were staring down at me. Some of them held boom mics or lighting equipment, others stood behind cameras. In the middle of the room, a scrawny man was sitting on an old leather couch. He was dressed in a bellhop uniform, complete with cap and tux jacket, except he wasn’t wearing pants. Kneeling before him was a busty woman, her hair so heavily bleached that it had turned white. She was completely naked, and her face was buried in the man’s lap.
“That was one hell of an entrance, sport,” the man said, baring his teeth at me in greeting. The crew sighed in unison, perhaps relieved that I was not an unexpected intruder. The man in the bellboy cap extended a skeletal hand towards me.
“Great to finally meet you,” he said. “I’m Brandon.”
I said nothing. I could barely blink.
“Do me a favor and sit over there,” Brandon said, pointing toward a couple of folding chairs behind the camera. “You’re in our shot.”
Although I couldn’t feel my extremities, I somehow got to my feet and scurried out of the glaring floodlights.
“OK, let’s try it from the top,” Brandon said, adjusting himself while the actress took a much needed breather.
I collapsed into a free chair, relieved that I was no longer the center of attention. Seated next to me was a greasy man wearing an old T-shirt and jeans, his limp brown hair highlighted with streaks of blond. He was studying a monitor, which played back everything the camera was recording, and listened intently to a pair of headphones strapped to his head.
“Exciting work, huh?” I said, trying to be friendly.
He ignored me, so I looked around the room for some other distraction. I pretended to be fascinated by a random crew member who was busy changing a gel on one of the lighting fixtures.
“Roll camera,” Brandon shouted.
“Rolling,” the cameraman shouted back.
“And action,” Brandon barked. His face contorted into an expression of pain or pleasure, I’m not sure which. The actress returned to her task with machine-like precision, making up in technical prowess what she lacked in enthusiasm. Brandon’s grinding hips caused the leather upholstery to squeak under his bare buttocks. The actress, as if waiting for just such an excuse, began to titter like a schoolgirl. Brandon rolled his eyes and shot a sidelong glance at the cameraman.
“We can fix it in editing,” he said, waving at Brandon to continue.
I found some comfort in focusing on the monitor, as it gave me the illusion that the horrifying sexual act being performed just a few feet away was actually taking place somewhere else. The camera’s lens zoomed in and out, searching for the perfect gynecological detail. Every shot seemed like a blur of random fleshy bits, bent in improbable angles that made it impossible to know what you were looking at. A disembodied hand came into view, and just as quickly disappeared. I saw something that could have passed for either a nose or a testicle. I supposed this too would be “fixed in editing.”
The muffled moans reached a fever pitch, and I decided that I had seen enough. I tried to force myself into a trance; it seemed the only alternative to watching this gruesome union reach its inevitable conclusion. I let my mind wander, hoping that I’d eventually be able to tune out all the sights and sounds that threatened to drive me mad. But as my eyes drifted around the room, a haunting thought occurred to me. I had not written a scene that in any way involved either a hotel lobby or a bellboy.
I turned to the monitor guy, who was adjusting a soundboard with delicate precision. “Excuse me, ” I whispered. “You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of the script on you, would you?”
Once again, he ignored me. But I saw a white folder tucked under his seat, with the name of my script scribbled on the front. Careful not to disturb him, I reached under the chair and grabbed the folder. I flipped through my script, scanning the pages for any mention of a hotel. There was none. “Can I ask you a question?” I said, tugging at the monitor guy’s sleeve.
Begrudgingly, the man turned to me and glared. “What?” He hissed.
“I’m a little confused. Are you shooting just one movie today?”
“And what’s the name of it again?”
He told me. It was the same title I’d given my script. Something was very wrong here.
“You’re sure?” I asked. “The reason I’m asking is, I wrote it, and I don’t remember writing this particular scene.”
His eyes widened in mock horror. “Dear God no,” he said. “Well, we better stop production right away. We can’t finish this thing if the story isn’t right.”
He sniffed at me, and turned his gaze back towards the monitor.
“Alright, people, let’s break for lunch,” Brandon announced. The actress had already left the set, and Brandon was wrapping himself in a towel.
“Thanks a lot, pal,” the monitor guy snarled at me. “We missed all the good stuff.”
I didn’t even hear him. I was too busy rereading my script, wondering what else had been changed without my approval.
Say what you will about the low production values in porn, they don’t skimp when it comes to catering. An elaborate spread of fruits, pastries and cold cuts were laid out for the cast and crew, and they took to it like vultures on a dead horse.
I sat at an empty booth and picked at my food, making notes in my script. Not that I expected to be welcomed with open arms, but a nod in my direction would have been nice. But their complete disregard made it painfully clear that they wanted nothing to do with me.
As much as I pretended not to care, it really bothered me. It was one thing to stand at a safe distance and feel superior to the poor, pitiful losers who make their living in porn. It’s another to be openly shunned by them. And their rejection only made them that much more appealing to me. I wanted to be a part of their inner circle, to be included in their inside jokes, to share in their familiar camaraderie, if only for a few hours.
“Anybody sitting here?” I heard a voice ask. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that it took me a moment to realize this question was directed at me. I looked up and saw a completely naked woman standing in front of me. She was a pretty brunette, skinny and athletic, with a tan like shellacked wood. But her most predominant feature was her enormous chest, which seemed to inhabit its own area code.
“No, not at all,” I said, with just a bit too much enthusiasm. “Go right ahead.”
She sat down next to me and began picking at her food, nibbling on a piece of cauliflower like she intended to make it last for hours. “My name’s Ginger,” she said. “Aren’t we working together today?”
I was going to tell her no, she must have mistaken me for somebody else. But at the last minute, I thought better of it. Each time I’d admitted to being a writer, I was greeted with cold stares and outright animosity. Just once I wanted to be perceived as something other than an outsider.
“I think so,” I said.
“You’re the new kid, right? Felipe or something?”
“Felipe, that’s right,” I said, wondering if it was too late to start using an accent.
“It’s great to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot of great things.”
She winked at me, smiling with such reassuring tenderness that it almost made me weep.
“Are you still looking for an apartment?” she asked.
“Oh yeah. No luck yet.” So far this was easy enough, just so long as she kept asking questions that required a simple yes or no response.
“If you need a place to stay, you can crash on my couch,” she offered.
I thanked her, and she returned to her meal. I tried to avert my eyes from her nudity, but it was a losing battle. I wasn’t accustomed to prolonged exposure to female breasts, much less when they were so casually displayed. I began reading my script again, if only so I had something distracting to do with my hands.
“What do you think of the script?” I asked her. She just shrugged. “It is what it is.”
This was not the reaction I’d been hoping for. “It’s pretty good though, don’t you think? I mean, you don’t usually find such high-quality scripts in our line of work.”
“I didn’t read it,” she admitted. “I never do. They’re all the same.”
“I really think you should,” I said, growing more insistent. “This one is different. The characters are complex and three dimensional, the plot has so many layers …”
She smirked at me. “You’re kidding, right?”
I pushed my copy of the script across the table. She took it and began to read. She couldn’t have finished more than half a page before she crinkled her nose in protest.
“Aw hell, I told him I wasn’t doing anal.”
I was about to tell her that she was missing the point of that particular scene, but before I could open my mouth, Brandon wandered over and pushed his way into our booth. He was wearing only a towel, and his chest was still wet from a post-sex shower.
“Well looky here,” he said. “The lion and the sheep have become friends. Will wonders never cease?”
“What are you talking about?” Ginger asked. “I owe you a check,” he said to me, and pulled out a checkbook from God knows where. “Who should I make it out to?”
Brandon and Ginger looked at me, both waiting for me to say a different name. I could feel my tongue getting dry, and I swallowed hard. Brandon wasn’t just aware of the tension, he seemed to be enjoying it.
“Have you two formally met?” he said finally.
“Ginger, this is Eric, one of our writers.”
She recoiled in disgust. “A writer?” Her face developed a defiant hardness, and her eyes seemed to be burning through me. “Excuse me,” she said curtly, and picked up her plate, retreating towards her friends at the other end of the room.
Brandon watched her go, then turned back to me. “Don’t worry about her, sport. She’s been in a bitchy mood all morning.”
With that unpleasantness out of the way, Brandon returned to his checkbook. “Seriously, I want to pay you,” he said. “You got a pen on you?” I nodded, relieved that he didn’t have a pen stashed somewhere in that towel.
When he handed me the check, it was a thrilling sensation. All this time, I hadn’t really believed that I would actually be compensated. It was too easy, there had to be a catch. But there I was, holding legal proof that I had contributed some valuable service.
“Are you going to stick around and watch some more?” Brandon said, returning his checkbook to parts unknown. “We’re shooting the prison scene next.”
This remark gave me pause. “What prison scene?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s going to be hot,” he went on. “Two girls and a guy. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen Ginger in a skimpy prison guard outfit.”
“I don’t mean to meddle, but I don’t think there’s a prison scene in my script.”
“No, there’s not. But we already built the set and it’d be a shame to waste it.”
“How are you going to make that work? I mean, it’s completely out of context with the rest of the story.”
“You think? I hadn’t noticed.”
“I’m sure you’re a fine director, but –”
“Just wait till you see the set,” he insisted. “It looks totally real. It’s got bars on the windows and everything.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“I know what you’re worried about,” he said, furrowing his brow. “And I wish I could help you. But we’re on a tight budget here, and I can’t tear down a perfectly good prison set just because there doesn’t happen to be a prison in the movie.”
I could see his point, but the protective writer in me couldn’t allow this to happen without trying to salvage what remained of my creative dignity.
“If you want,” I said, “I could do a quick rewrite so that the scene makes more sense.”
Brandon laughed, slapping the table to emphasize his enjoyment. “That is funny,” he said. “You see, that’s why you’re a great writer.”
“And so am I. Finish your lunch and then come join us downstairs. You won’t be disappointed.” He slid out of the booth, but I didn’t move. I just clutched my check, staring down at a script that was beginning to look more irrelevant to this process with each passing second.
The filming continued into the early evening, and I still didn’t recognize anything from my script. I watched feats of sexuality that could only be described as psychopathic proctology, and not once did I hear them utter even a single line of my carefully crafted dialogue. I was beginning to suspect that this had been the plan all along. Hiring a writer was just a formality, but in the end, all they really wanted was a string of unrelated sex scenes.
Eventually I asked Brandon if he had any intention of shooting my script. “We have to shoot all the sex first,” he said. “Once that’s out of the way, we’ll get to your stuff.” I tried to be patient, but I was becoming bored with the proceedings. I wandered in and out of the set, pointing angrily at my watch or clearing my throat at inopportune times. I came dangerously close to being banned from the premises when, after witnessing a lesbian tryst drag on for almost two hours, I pointed out to Brandon that the scene was rapidly becoming redundant.
As midnight approached, Brandon finally called a wrap. But before the crew could pack up their cameras and run for the doors, Brandon reminded them that their day was not over. “OK, people,” he shouted. “Let’s do the fast forward.”
His announcement was greeted with groans of protest and gnashing of teeth. A gloomy fatigue fell over the room, and the crew went about their tasks with exaggerated fatigue. One of the actresses walked onto the set, her hair in curlers, and asked me why everybody looked so upset.
“Something about a fast forward,” I said.
“Oh no, really?” The actress said, frowning deeply. “Shit, I hate this part.”
“What’s a fast forward?” I asked.
A grip walked over, dragging his feet like a teenager on his way to detention. “Fucking hell,” he said.
“I know,” the actress agreed.
“It never gets any easier,” the grip said.
Another actor joined the group. “Fast forward?” he said, noting their sour expressions.
“It’s just not fair,” the actress scowled.
“What’s a fast forward?” I asked again.
“The script,” the actor said, almost whispering the words.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why’s it called fast forward?”
They looked at me like I had missed something obvious. And then they each held up a hand, mimicking the use of a remote control. “Fucking fast forward,” the grip moaned. “Like it matters.”
As I watched the actors perform my lines, there were moments when I felt genuinely proud of what I’d accomplished. I had a produced screenplay, which was more than half the writers in Hollywood could say. It wasn’t art, sure, but it was permanent, or at least as permanent as celluloid could be.
My occasional surges of pride were quickly snuffed out by the haunting realization that I had contributed to something so rotten that it was almost unwatchable. It was drivel. Worse than drivel. It was crap, pure and simple. The performances were awful. The actors garbled their lines so badly, it almost seemed that the entire cast was suffering from the same disabling speech impediment.
But I knew that I had to share at least some of the blame. My dialogue was stilted and forced, and none of it was as funny as I’d once envisioned. I tried to tell myself that I’d intended it this way. It was all part of my plan to create the perfect porn parody. But deep down, I knew that I hadn’t been quite so cunning. Every painful line, every inane plot point, every porn cliché, it was all bleached of irony. However good my intentions might have been in the beginning, somewhere along the way, whether out of impatience or just plain laziness, I had inadvertently written a fairly typical, unremarkable porn film.
After suffering through almost an hour and a half of unimaginable shame, I ran for the exit. Not that I was in any immediate danger. I just needed to get out of there, if only to assure myself that escape was still possible. Out in the parking lot, the Santa Ana winds were gusting hard. The desert breeze had rolled in, bringing with it a small dust storm. The air had the brownish color of exhaust, and it was difficult to breathe without wheezing. I found my car and fumbled for the keys. I had almost managed to open the front door when I saw somebody out of the corner of my eye, exiting the studio and walking quickly toward me.
“Leaving so soon, sport?”
It was Brandon. I thought I’d been able to slip away unnoticed, but apparently my presence was more vital to this production than I had originally believed. I turned and smiled at him, trying to appear casual.
“No, no, ‘course not,” I said in a lazy drawl.
He peered at me closely, and something in my expression seemed to concern him. “What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“You look upset.”
I slouched against the car, resting an arm on the roof, like I had every intention of staying there indefinitely. “I’m fine.”
Brandon nodded, like he understood something that I had yet to grasp. “Were you aware that the majority of porn actors don’t die from sexually transmitted diseases?” He said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It was apropos of nothing. I started to speak, but could manage only a few facial tics.
“Is that a fact?” I finally said.
“Most people think it’s AIDS, but that’s a fallacy. The No. 1 cause of death among porn stars is self-inflicted gunshot wounds.”
“I had no idea.”
“It’s true. Just look at the body count. Wendy Williams, Cal Jammer, Megan Leigh, Shauna Grant, Savannah. They all offed themselves with shotguns. You know what the second most common cause of death is?”
“Asphyxiation. Followed closely by overdose-related suicides. And then AIDS. It’s weird, huh? Everybody thinks that this industry needs condoms, but what it really needs is more therapy.”
We both shook our heads, marveling at the strangeness of it all. I knew that he was trying to make me feel better, but all this talk of dead porn stars was just making me more depressed.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 10 years,” he continued. “I’ve seen a lot of friends die, watched a lot of my peers take the easy way out. But I’ve never worried that it could happen to me. I’m just not the depressive sort. I’ve never been sad for no reason, never been plagued with self-doubt, never once had suicidal thoughts. And you know why that is?”
“No, not really.”
“I want to show you something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wallet. He flipped it open to the inner sleeve, the part usually intended for family photos. He pointed to a picture, and I had to look more closely to see what it was. It seemed to be an angel covered in gold body paint. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a small statue.
“That’s an Adult Video News Award,” he told me. “This may not mean much to you, but believe me, it’s the highest honor we can get in this industry. They don’t just give these to anybody. You have to prove yourself. You have to demonstrate that you’re at the top of your field.”
“That’s great, Brandon. Good for you.”
He had that look in his eyes, that expectant gaze you usually see in parents when they’re showing you baby photos. I could have mocked him, could have come right out and said, “How adorable, it looks just like you.” But I couldn’t bring myself to be that cruel. Apparently he saw nothing unusual about carrying around a photo of an award statue in his wallet. And that was probably for the best. If he suspected even for a moment just how pathetic it was, that depression he’d been avoiding for so many years might finally catch up with him.
“When I get up in the morning, I can look in the mirror with a sense of pride. I’m not ashamed of what I do. Sure, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s really bad. But of all the people who do it, I do it the best. You see what I’m saying? I’m the best.”
“That’s a nice way to look at it.”
“It’s the only way, sport. If you compare yourself with the greats of cinema, sure, you’re going to feel inadequate. But you have to examine your life in the right context. We may be at the bottom, but we’re at the top of the bottom.”
In a twisted sort of way, it made perfect sense. And he really believed it; that’s what made it so beautiful. I wanted more than anything to be like him, to be so blissfully unaware, to see the world through his blinders. All around him was evidence that he was wrong, tangible proof that his life was a joke, but he wouldn’t look at it, wouldn’t acknowledge its presence.
“You know what might help?” he said. “If you ever find yourself feeling low, and you think that everything you’ve written is terrible and it’s all been a big waste of time, I want you to remember one simple thing.”
He spoke softly, enunciating each word. “It’s not my fault, it’s theirs.”
“Everybody. The actors, the producers, the audience and their filthy, stupid desires. There’s always somebody out there to muck it up for you. But there’s nothing you can do about that. Say it with me. It’s not my fault, it’s theirs.”
“I’d really rather –”
“Just say it.” He lifted his chin, cueing us to begin. “It’s not my fault,” we said in unison. “It’s theirs.”
“There now,” he said, beaming at me. “Don’t you feel better?”
I did, actually. And for one brief, fleeting moment, all was right in the world.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Salon.com.)