Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.
I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.
The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone — poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.
Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.
I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”
“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”
In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.
Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings — happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed — a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.
Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.
And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”
“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”
Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”
“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”
“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”
Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”
“But…so…you lied to me.”
“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”
A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.
Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.
I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him — everything that has ever happened to him — is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com