Thank You Debra Messing

Here in Atlanta now, my beautiful wife likes to remind me that we don’t get to the beach enough. Atlanta does not have a real beach, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Back in the 80’s there was a bar called Buckhead Beach with a sandy outdoor area replete with palm trees and hammocks and volleyball nets. Bikini-clad waitresses walked through the crowds holding trays of colorful drinks.

I was too young to go to Buckhead Beach, but my older brother and his friends would talk about it, and in my imagination I saw a real beach, real palm trees, an ocean even. So my geography was a little lacking back then, but not my imagination.

Back in LA, we were probably 10 miles from the beach, and yet we were not there every day either, or even every weekend for that matter. In fact, one of our favorite escapes was like the opposite of the beach: It was a Mexican restaurant in the Valley called Casa Vega.

You’d walk in on a bright hot Valley day with your sunglasses still on and be blinded by the darkness: dark wood paneling, dark booths, dark carpet, and really low light. Eventually your eyes adjusted, but never completely. Especially after a margarita or two.

It’s a bit pricey these days, but back then you could get a couple margaritas, a burrito, and a celebrity sighting pretty cheap. It was dark enough in there that celebrities seemed to blend in. We’d see Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, when they were still together, dressed way down so you’d barely recognize them in the dimly lit place. Rockers in black leather and spiked hair would wander around like extras from Spinal Tap. Big name directors getting booth readings. Hollywood agents in suits. Hollywood wives discussing the latest treatments. And wannabes counting change for a beer at the bar next to neighborhood regulars who’d been coming there for years. It was a real motley crew.

My wife used to get (and still does) that she looks “just like that woman from Will and Grace… What’s her name… You know?” And we’d smile and nod when they’d say “I bet you get that all the time?” If we had a dollar for every time that happened in LA, we’d be rich. But the only thing we ever got out of it was a good seat at Casa Vega one night.

The place was packed. Probably an hour and a half wait for a table. I guess word had gotten out that the food and drink was affordable and the customers interesting, to put it mildly. We had a group of 6 people from out of town. No reservation. Alex and I approached the hostess and were about to put our name in for a table, when one of the waiters pops out of nowhere, all smiles and compliments. “Good to see you again!” He says to Alex. “How have you been?” “Good,” Alex answers. The waiter shakes my hand and says hello like he knows me too. “We have a table for you and your guests right back here, if you’ll just follow me,” the man says to Alex. On our way through the crowded restaurant Alex looks at me with her red hair and high-cheekbones and shrugs. We got the best table and the best service that night. Our out of town guests thought we were celebrities. And so did the waiter apparently. Thank you Debra Messing.

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Hollywood Purgatory

Waiting for a Hollywood callback is a kind of purgatory. It’s like that trip you’ve saved so long and worked so hard for, but you’ve got that stopover in Atlanta, and a thunderstorm rolls through just as you’re walking down the interminably long terminal to your departure gate, and a God-like voice comes over the speakers and announces that your flight has been canceled.

Well at least in that scenario you get the courtesy of a cancellation call. With Hollywood callbacks, you will not even get that courtesy.

Our house was being considered for a movie. It started with a vague message from someone at the Georgia Film Bureau who asked if we would consider letting a director and a few others into our home to have a look. He said it was for a Robert Redford movie called Come Sunday.

A few days later we greeted four people at our door. They came in and said hello, but you could tell they were only half-listening after the initial niceties. They were eyeing our house like they were already shooting there. Taking pictures, discussing scenes from the script, trying to imagine the world on the page taking life in our home.

The problem was that the story took place in 1990’s Oklahoma and we live in today’s Atlanta. This caused much discussion on how to make this visual trick work. They talked about covering our granite counters with tile, covering the stainless appliances, hiding the 30-foot Tennessee stacked stone fireplace behind a façade of drywall… We weren’t quite sure why they would go to all this trouble, but hey, we’d lived in LA and worked in Hollywood before, and if someone had the funds- and Robert Redford attached- any harebrained idea was feasible.

We had three more visits, and each one got more serious. People from New York, people from LA, a European-accented director of photography, the production designer from the Twilight movies who asked if he could move all of our furniture into our garage for the shoot. We knew they were looking at another home, one that probably fit the time and place better, but we still thought we had it. Then the set designer asked if we had blueprints to our house and we figured it was a done deal, champagne time!

We didn’t want to jinx it at first so we didn’t tell anyone about it, but this was hard to hold in, especially when one of our friends was the biggest Redford fan out there. We told her not to get too excited since we were still waiting, but all she heard was “Robert Redford.” She couldn’t believe it. She even had an old copy of Playgirl magazine- of all things- that he was in: “I’m getting him to sign my magazine!” she proclaimed. A few days later, Redford, announced he would be retiring from acting after one last project: “He could be filming his last role in your house!” she squealed, “I’m going to need those blueprints too, so I can find a hidden spot to live in while they shoot!”

As you can imagine, these things pay bigtime, especially when they take over your whole house for weeks. We started to get ahead of ourselves a bit. We had our bills paid off in our heads and an exotic vacation already planned.

Then we waited, and waited, and waited some more… but alas, the final phone call never came. They were supposed to start shooting in early January. We held out hope until mid-month, but didn’t even get a “thanks, no thanks.”

Welcome to Hollywood purgatory.

And the irony of it all, the main character in the movie was a preacher who was controversial because he didn’t believe in hell. He felt that everyone had the ability to leave purgatory… Like when the storm clears the Atlanta airport and all flights are back on schedule.

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Lawnmower Man

On our flight home to LA, we compared notes. We definitely knew where we didn’t want to live: no golfing for dollars, no stepford mistresses and no quarry kaboom. And the houses close to the city were not only expensive, but closer together with a lot more street noise. If we wanted that, we could stay in LA.

There was one neighborhood we drove into that we both got a good feeling from the minute we ascended the first curvy hill with rows of mature trees on either side. The houses were set well apart, and on different levels of grade– more set back and not all facing one-another. Close enough to Atlanta proper that you felt part of it, but far enough that you weren’t. We decided this was the perfect place for us. A few months later we were moving in.

About two hours into unpacking, a guy approached me in my driveway. He looked like he could be a neighbor so I greeted him kindly despite the fact that I was tired from cowlick to toenail from the move. This guy was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt with a nondescript baseball cap on his head—and he was very tan. The tan should have been my first clue.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said, “I’m the landscape manager next door.” I still thought he was my neighbor just telling me what he did for a living. “I’m Kirk, I’m in sales,” I said as I shook his hand. He then pulled out a business card and tried to hit me up for work. I finally got it—this was my neighbor’s lawn guy with a fancy title. I was too tired to negotiate with him, so I just told him to feel free to look around and send me a quote.

That first week as we drove through the neighborhood, we noticed what looked like a film crew in front of a house. We’d seen this plenty of times in LA where you could tell by the amount and size of the trucks and trailers how big a shoot it was. This one looked to be a low to moderate budget production (which in Hollywood can still run in the millions) but as we got closer we saw a giant riding lawnmower rolling down and out the back of one of the trucks. This was no film crew, but a massive gardening crew whose trucks were as big and nice as some Hollywood Star Wagons.

“Guess we’ll be mowing our own grass,” my wife quipped as we drove by. That was reiterated when we got our quote from the eager landscape manager from next door—about the same price as a nice new push mower…. monthly.

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Shock and Awe and Awh

We had a party to tell our friends the news. Now in LA parties are tricky because you can plan for 20 and get 10, or not plan and get everyone and their brother and tag-alongs from the set your friends were on that day– like the time we had Jean Claude Van Damme’s stunt-double in our living room doing karate chops amongst the wine glasses, decanters and bottles.

A pretty solid theory as to why people don’t RSVP in LA is that everyone is looking for someone to give them their big break, and they don’t want to commit to your party in case one with more influential people comes up in the meantime. It must have been a slow week, as the turnout for our party was pretty good.

The announcement of our move was taken with a sense of shock and awe, and awh: Some were shocked that we would even consider leaving the promised land of sun, sand, palm trees and Pilates. Others were in awe that we would make such a big geographical, career, and lifestyle shift, and others were like “awh… I wish I could leave this smog-choked, cement-filled, overpriced desert too!”

Our LA bucket-list was pretty complete after living there for fifteen years but there were still quite a few to check off. We had never had sushi on top of the city at Yamashiro with 360 degree views and Japanese gardens inside and out— this is where Tarantino filmed one of his famous fight scenes. Alex had never been on the Beachwood Canyon horse ride to Burbank. Starting in the hills below the Hollywood sign, you wind your way up and over the mountain surrounded by nothing but trees and wildlife and then pop out above the 101 freeway to thousands of cars and humanity below. You then ride down the mountain and through a tunnel under the freeway to a Mexican joint. There’s a hitching post out front, just like in the westerns of old, where you park your horse and go in for margaritas and a meal. There was still Frank Gehry’s sweeping metal ship to visit. Anchored prominently downtown with the unfortunate Disney moniker…. And there were plenty more. But we’d be back…. right!?Shock and Awe and Awh

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