She had a face like a Cherub, or more accurately, a degenerate Cupid, but I don’t think she ever gave it much thought until recently. The lecture on “Spirituality Within” was in an old stucco church in Hollywood off Yucca. From the garden you could see a piece of the Hollywood sign looming high above — L.A.’s answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s glasses.
I had found my way into this slice of serenity while waiting for a bus on La Brea when a brief rain shower hit. I stepped back from the curb and read a poster tacked to a Bodega storefront: “Is something deep within missing in your life? Are you tired of the same old, same old? Come discover the Spirit Within this Sunday.”
I was still reading as the bus roared by. Losing all composure and just short of breaking my foot on a filifera palm, I thought this spirit meeting was my guiding light, a message just for me, sent directly from the angels above.
It was a late Sunday afternoon when I found the stucco church hidden in a courtyard that once might have held a tryst, an outdoor party; a murder? The Santa Ana winds blew late night blooming jasmine; birds of paradise were out front, and, if they could talk, were probably giggling to themselves, whispering what fools these mortals are. I went inside and took a seat at a table and looked around the room. Everyone was intently listening to the speaker who I recognized as someone famous in the film industry. Next to me sat Holly, the Cherub. In her get-up of not quite velvet, not yet junk, she seemed quite happy weighing in at almost double my weight. She had a mess of thick, curly, and knotted black hair; not from a hairdresser’s art, rather from neglect. Then the speaker announced, “If you want something in your life, go home and ask God to put it there.” Holly smiled and put her face in her hands and trilled as she almost screamed, “Yes!”
As if on cue, (this being Hollywood), a tall, dark, handsome man (had to be an actor) blew in, inside of a safari outfit and under an Australian Outback hat. He found a chair and made a big deal of excavating his cellphone from one of his many pockets. He looked at the caller, then turned off his Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” ringtone. Holly nudged my arm and informed me in a low whisper, “That’s Lee Bryan. I’ve seen everything he’s done. I’m going home and ask God to put Lee in my life.”
No doubt I had stumbled into a funny-farm annex, but I wouldn’t rob Holly of her dreams. “Great idea,” I told her, and she leaned back, a little swooning and a lot obsessed.
I tried to understand what the speaker was getting at, but it was all new to me, this spiritual stew she was mixing. She went on to say something about claiming one’s birthright and the great Universe never betrays you, but I was lost, not on the Walk of Fame, but in the Divine Platitude of Spiritual Fricassee.
After the lecture, the speaker was met with a diva’s reception. I grabbed a bottled water while Holly watched sadly as Lee left with a tall, thin, blonde whose heel spikes were longer than his résumé. “It won’t last,” Holly informed me, as she slid into a black hole, deeper than anything she could ever crawl out of, then dived even deeper into a wheatgrass-based hors d’oeuvre with shredded carrot topping.
I met some enlightened ones, all happy and tan and friendly and inviting me back tomorrow for spirituality part deux: “The Great Surrender.” One woman told me she had driven all the way from Palos Verdes Estates to ingest this great illumination; another told me how her life had changed and now she owned her own business: something about a Lightened Heart Card Company, but was sorry she had forgotten to bring some, but I could find her at her Web site, could I remember the name of her company? A thin, semianorectic man in a too-tight T-shirt reading “The Universe Loves You” came up to me and told me how he had beaten a death sentence after attending last year’s seminar. All he did was to turn his life over to the Universe, and have daily coffee-grounds colonics. The Queen Bee speaker was swarmed by her followers, each trying to touch an inch of her and feel some divine power that they could take home.
My inner instincts wanted to inform Holly that she would have a better chance of finding the Holy Grail in downtown Cleveland than trying to date Lee Bryan. But this seminar must have already paid dividends, since I suppressed my negative desire in favor of silence and a bite of raisin, orange, and date-filled tart. Holly was ecstatic she was going to be the greeter for part deux, and since service is at the core of spirituality, could I be here tomorrow at 7 and help her out? I agreed only because I hadn’t heard from my agent in two years and something had to change, and quick.
I took a bus to Venice Beach, where the debris meets the sea. I spent the rest of the day parked on the sand, watching a line of enthusiasts fish off the rocks, casting their lures into the great unknown. Was today their lucky day, or tomorrow, or never? I was fishing for something too, and maybe the sea I needed to throw my line into was not another audition, but another meeting with the cosmic sense of humor.
If you can morph into something unrecognizable overnight, then Holly just won the Academy Award for special effects. I was there at 7 expecting to see the same sweet, foolish, hopeful Holly. Instead she twirled nervously around, as anxious as anyone on a first audition. She was wearing a flowery dress, and her hair had been pulled and straightened from the roots by a swarm of gypsy moths; her face was under a layer of makeup, with a little instant bronze thrown in. Her lips were painted a bright red to match the roses on her dress, and she had painted her toes the same siren red.
She was new: happy, excited, almost thrilled, and rushed up to me. “Oh, my God! I’m so happy you’re here. I couldn’t face this alone. Oh, my God, oh, my God! How do I look? You look great. I’m glad you came. I’m a wreck, can you tell, you can tell.”
She dug into her thrift store bag and popped a couple of Altoids and told me, “I went right home last night and you know what I did?”
“No idea, what did you do?”
“I got right down on my knees and asked God to put Lee in my life, that’s what I did as soon as I got home. I hope he comes. He’d better come.”
We were the only ones there for an 8 o’clock meeting. Holly sneaked out a pocket mirror that would have made a magician proud and gave herself the once-over, then pursed her lips into the image and snapped the thing shut.
The rickety-rack of commotion returned her to reality. We both turned toward the noise and saw a bag lady pushing a shopping cart toward us. She might have been Annie from “A Pocketful of Miracles,” or any number of character actors who had seen their stars dim into obscurity. L.A. is littered with anonymous apartment buildings filled with pill-popping, gin-swigging-from-the-bottle, once upon a time golden girls who attached their hopes and dreams to a descending comet.
“So, what’s going on here?” asked Broadway Annie.
“It’s a spiritual meeting,” answered Holly quickly. Park your cart and come on in.”
“Well, I ain’t sure what you’re selling. Got coffee in there?”
“We do,” said Holly. “Come on, I’ll get you a cup.”
“You watch my cart, Sonny, and don’t you steal nothin’.” “Nothin” was a wobbly cart filled with newspapers, plastic bottles, and a broken radio.
Before opening the door, Holly whispered to me, “If you see Lee, come and get me. God, I can’t handle this.” Then she took the L.A. statistic inside.
I looked up at T.J. Hollywood and thought this might be a good time to leave L.A. once and for all. A few minutes later, Holly came out with her guest and looked past me at the street. The bag lady had a coffee in one hand, and in the other as many wheatgrass cakes as she could handle.
If the only difference between a rich person and a poor person is the ability to capitalize on the moment, then Annie was wealthy beyond dreams.
“Nice operation you got here,” she told us as she lowered her suspicious eyes to her cart.
“You’re going to stay for the seminar, aren’t you?” asked Holly.
“I’ve had my fill of seminar vernacular. You want to be big in this life, then do small things.”
“Oh, you’ve got to come in. You’ll love it.”
“If fishes were dreams, then there wouldn’t be enough in that whole wide Pacific Ocean for the folks around here. No thank you. Gotta go. Gotta go home and feed Arabelle. She gets lonely when I’m gone too long. Anyway, good luck to you. What’s your name, anyway?”
Holly introduced us. The Queen of Trash kind of grunted, put the wheatgrass cakes in her cart, and downed the coffee. She licked the rim of the cup and threw it in, next to the radio.
“Well, nice meeting you two.” And she headed off, mumbling something about replicants in the House of Love.
“Wait!” yelled Holly, “we didn’t get your name.”
Annie, her cart filled with spiritual booty, was now Queen of Rodeo Drive. She slowed, held her cart with one hand as she turned around.
“Oh, sorry, sweetie, my name is Lee.”
It took about as long as a bus ride from Beverly Hills to Venice Beach for this to register with Holly. First, in her obsession, she missed Lee’s name, then quizzed herself, could she have heard right, then as Lee turned the corner out of sight, Holly melted back into reality. Then all the bronze tanner and lip gloss in the world, every spiritual axiom known to man, couldn’t cover the paleness that came over Holly’s face.
The first arrival showed up with a bag of oranges, but Holly was too numb to greet her. I opened the door and looked around the soon to be filled Spiritual Hall. The room could have been for anything: a salsa dance, a Christian revival, a 12-step meeting. It might have once even housed a minister speaking to a group of Mexicans who had come to L.A. pursuing the great American dream. Or maybe it existed, in its benevolent generosity, for the sole purpose of returning Holly to Holly.
Richard Lawless is a freelance writer and painter who lives in East Hampton.