I quit my job at a legal servicing firm when I was twenty-four to pursue a career in film and television. My very first interview in the business was for a three-week temp assignment assisting a talent manager named Celia Burr, who worked out of a large production office in Beverly Hills. I was nauseous in the lobby while I waited to be taken in to meet her. Having worked in the law, I had been accustomed to a clear understanding of procedure that all parties involved had to follow. I had been warned that in entertainment, all bets were off; every company had its own method for getting the job done. And at the sign of your first mistake, word would get out that you were a disaster, and you’d never find work again.
The manager of the office, Deborah, fetched me from my spot on the sofa and took me through a pass-coded door. From there, she led me down an under-lit hallway lined with other twenty-somethings at outer-office desks, all eyeing me suspiciously, bored faces and cheap shoes. Deborah had a tightly woven perm wrapped around her head like a helmet, and a skirt that extended below her knees. I noticed as she put one leg forward, she added a last-second kick before pulling it back to replace it with the other leg. This move caused her skirt to fire out ahead of her, as if she was clearing a path for herself, and anyone who was smart should get the hell out of the way if they knew what was good for them. Before we had reached the end of the hallway, Deborah had already told me plainly that the company had a very complicated copier machine, that they were heavily financed by investors from Saudi Arabia, and that she was a lesbian and people who had problems with it didn’t last long.
She led me into the corner office and introduced me to Celia, who was behind her mahogany desk and offered her hand to me without standing up. She had a short white, frozen hairstyle that was pasted across her forehead and, if given three or four weeks of growth, might look relaxed and fun, but for the moment looked like it was terrified anyone might pay more attention to it than to the authoritative face just below it.
Deborah pointed at me. “Here he is,” she said with a defeated tone one might use after searching thirty minutes for the remote only to find it right on the couch where they’d left it. Celia leaned backwards in her power chair and motioned for me to sit across from her. Deborah closed the door behind us, and the interview began. Two minutes later, I had yet to say a word but I had learned much about the woman who might be my boss for the next three weeks. She told me she had once been a dancer on Solid Gold, but found other young actors and dancers in Hollywood to be “limited and unimaginative, with dead souls.” She told me her husband was a power player in Hollywood, and because of that, she was often mistaken for a “lady of leisure” instead of the savvy businesswoman she actually was. Next, she told me she had five children, and if any of them called during the day I was to tell them she was tied up, and to place their messages on the corner of her desk. The first word I said in the interview was “Sure,” when Celia asked if I could start right away. It was also the last word I said in the interview.
I was assigned a desk in the outer office and the title of “Second Assistant.” The First Assistant was named Sharon. She was older than I was, originally from Savannah, and had worked for a number of years at an interior design house, but had become bored with it. Her cousin was a literary agent who helped her get the job with Celia. “I love working with her,” Sharon said, pointing to Celia’s office. “She represents a lot of wonderfully talented people.”
“Who does she represent?” I asked.
“Poof!” she said.
“I’m sorry?” I asked. “Who?”
Sharon looked cross at me, like I had just peed myself after an exhaustive day of toilet training. She took a dramatic, patient breath. Then she spelled it out for me with deliberate agony. “P…O…O…F,” she said. “Poof is very big in R&B.”
I felt very out of place, and suddenly very Caucasian. “I guess I don’t listen to a lot of R&B.” I said. “Do you have any of Poof’s music I could listen to?”
Sharon rolled her eyes and turned her back on me. I found out later Poof was actually still waiting to record her first album.
I worked at the job for the next week, and every day was only a degree or two different from the one before. Celia would call the office every morning from her car and ask for Sharon, who was always late. So Celia would give me a list of tasks to pass along to Sharon when she arrived, which was usually around 11. I would hand Sharon the list of the day’s objectives and ask if I could help with any of them. She would groan at the list, watch it fall from her hand and drift down to the floor, and then say, “First…” and here, she would clap her palms in a go-get-em manner, “Let’s get organized!” Then Sharon would begin digging through the filing cabinets and asking me to write names and subjects down on file folders. While we did this, Sharon would lecture me about how people who weren’t born in the south lacked sophistication, and that the only respectable show on television was Designing Women. Sometimes, I would notice her taking particular pages out of the files and setting them on her desk. As the day progressed, I would keep one eye on the stack of papers, which little by little, made its way into her purse.
Usually around three in the afternoon, Celia would arrive and complain about how fatigued she was from her many meetings. She’d ask Sharon if any of the morning tasks were still outstanding. “A few,” Sharon would say, mimicking Celia’s exhaustion. “Why don’t we talk in your office?” Then they’d go into her office and Sharon would close the door. When she emerged again, she’d look at me with a scold in her eye and say, “Celia would like to see you now.”
“I’m very unhappy with your work,” Celia would say. “None of the things I asked to get done were accomplished.”
“But I gave Sharon the list of the things you asked her to do,” I said.
“Sharon said you didn’t even tell her I called.”
When I came back out of Celia’s office, Sharon would always be smiling. “You made it through!” she’d say encouragingly, knowing that I’d just taken a bullet for her. “Celia’s tough, but she really likes you. She may not show it, but I keep telling her how talented you are.” I tried not to look Sharon in the eye. “Besides,” she added, “we were getting organized first,” as if she and I were conspirators on a secret that Celia could never understand, but from which she benefitted greatly. “I couldn’t do it without you.”
Looking back, I’m ashamed for not speaking up for myself. I had heard so many stories about tyrants and bullies and people in Hollywood who would step on you until you had established yourself and had clout of your own to throw back in their faces. And I truly thought taking the blame was part of my job. I worried that the rest of my career would be this unsatisfying, this degrading. Whenever I saw Dixie Carter on television, I wanted to hang myself.
“Poof is coming for a meeting!” Sharon said one day. “So we need to…” claps her hands together. – “get organized!” And from there, she went back to the filing cabinet, pulling papers, creating piles and then subtly relocating certain items to the end of her desk, where they’d inevitably make their way into her purse and leave with her at the end of the day.
When Poof finally showed up, Celia and Sharon stood side by side with wide arms and beaming smiles, praising the future star’s girlish glow and dynamic persona. Accompanying Poof was her mother and unofficial manager, Sonya, who carried an oversized canvas purse and held it in front her stomach, which to me seemed like an intentional barrier to prevent Celia and Sharon from showering her with the same physical affection they had plastered all over her daughter. I was neither introduced nor inquired about as the four of them passed me by and walked into Celia’s office. After an hour of laughter and chit chat bursting through the walls, Sonya came out and asked me for the restroom key. On her way back, she stopped at my desk and smiled.
“You’re very smart, aren’t you? I can tell!”
“I guess,” I said. “I think I have a lot to learn,”
“You won’t learn it here,” she answered briskly, “Get out while you still have your balls. Those two will spread them across a bagel.” And back into the office she went.
The job continued. Celia called with tasks. Sharon and I would ignore them, instead clapping our hands together and celebrating organization. Sharon continued to sneak papers into her purse, and whenever she suspected I noticed, she would tell me I was handsome and suggest I move to Georgia. “Such manly features,” she’d say. “You’re a true catch! The women of the south would swoon!” In between, Celia’s kids would call and I’d write down their lengthy messages about class projects and ballet lessons and set them on her desk.
At the start of the third week, I arrived to find Deborah sitting at Sharon’s desk, frantically rifling through her drawers. When she saw me, she demanded, “Do you know Sharon’s password?” When I told her I didn’t, she continued, “That woman stole all of Celia’s clients!”
My heart began to pound, “Even Poof?” I asked.
“Poof! Poof!” Deborah snapped back, which didn’t resolve the question one way or the other.
“Who’s left?” I asked.
“The little boy from the encyclopedia commercial, and the twins.”
That was first time I had ever heard we represented a set of twins. But I remembered Sharon and Celia talking about the boy in the commercial. They had agreed that ever since he’d started puberty, his face had developed what Sharon coldly referred to as “restricted appeal.”
I found out later that morning through copy room gossip that Sharon had aligned herself with another manager who had been quietly courting all of Celia’s clients. I assumed that the information Sharon was putting into her purse allowed the other manager to stay one step ahead of whatever Celia was planning, leading most of the clients to believe Celia was useless. The rest of the morning minus Sharon was a pure delight. In a childish act of spite against Sharon, I peeked into all the cabinets she would never let me near. There was so little left in them that rather than lining up vertically, everything was in meager stacks at the bottom of the drawer, next to tattered post-its and deformed paper clips. Among the wreckage were a few headshots from Celia’s acting days, dated nearly twenty years earlier. Her hair was the same creamy blond color, but it hung wildly down to her shoulders. To me, her face looked bright and confident but also completely false, all the vulnerabilities and worries that come with being twenty-something airbrushed away, creating a generic, plastic confidence even the best actress would be hard-pressed to sell.
Despite the disastrous turn of events, Celia still didn’t come in until three in the afternoon. The purse and briefcase were absent, and her phone was pressed against her face, which carried an unfocused, wide-eyed look. She hung up the phone, noticed the near-empty filing cabinets I had forgotten to close, and called me into her office.
“You’re aware of the unpleasantness?”
“Yes,” I said.
“How long have you been with us?” she asked. It was clear she had no idea.
“Two weeks so far,” I said, fearing what was about to come.
“How would you like a permanent job here?”
I almost felt sorry for her when I turned the offer down. It had to hurt. Not even the temp, no doubt judged completely useless numerous times in this very office, had any interest in working for someone who had all of her clients stolen right out from under her, and by her own assistant. For the next three hours, Celia didn’t say a word to me. When six o’clock rolled around, Deborah and her henchman of a skirt appeared out of nowhere. “Celia thinks you have no aptitude for this job. We won’t be needing you back tomorrow.”
I packed up my things, and stole a stapler. That was my revenge on all of them. I would have liked to have been more devious, but I was young, stupid, exhausted, and gleefully relieved all at once. And more than anything, I was totally baffled by my first Hollywood job. How had Celia never noticed all of her client files were slowly being pilfered for all the months Sharon had been working for her? Had she been so busy with all those meetings with agents and producers that she was counting on her assistant to be, if nothing else, fundamentally trustworthy? And then I realized that for all the meetings Celia had bragged about, and all the praise Sharon had heaped upon her skills, the phone in our office had hardly ever rung. And when it did, it was almost always one of Sharon’s five children sourly asking, “My mom’s not there, is she?” knowing my answer before even finishing the question.
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