Friday, April 1, 2011

Weight Watcher Watchers

My dad would bend over backwards to fulfill any order and often we would deliver a rental film in person. Sometimes the films were just presented to a servant but often a projector was included and we’d have to go inside to set it up and show the customer how to operate it. There was a brisk business in supplying actors with their own films and Dad would remind performers about their own titles that they’d long forgotten. We often dropped a big stack of features at a Hollywood bungalow where I was to remain in the car, “because the man is very nice but he dresses like a woman and your mother would be mad.” It was the home of Ed Wood, from whom my dad collected in cash.

I accompanied my dad on other transactions involving the bartering of film prints. These interactions were less representative of gracious living than delivering rentals to old movie stars. Film collectors lived with their mothers and/or had children who were never fully clad and had dirty faces and/or had not a stick of furniture but huge stacks of film and a professional quality projection set up and/or had more than three cats. We visited Tommy frequently. He met us in a garage off an alley on Fountain. There was an aquarium full of tropical fish, stacks of film and a huge collection of board games. We never saw the actual house where Tommy lived with his mother. He had a separate phone number in the garage and she would often call and he would scream at her that he was busy. Tommy always had a neighborhood boy of about nine or ten around who sat sullenly gnawing a Tootsie Roll and reading a comic while business was conducted. I was never offered candy or reading matter. Tommy worked at one of the largest film storage facilities in town where many of the studios maintained huge vaults. My father was vague with regard to the exact nature of his transactions with Tommy but film and money changed hands, and unlike with film rental, there was no paperwork.

My father was never too good or weak for any job at the office. When he was 88 I caught him on a ladder foisting an eighty pound 35mm film from a high shelf. He was a tough negotiator too. He reverted occasionally to a stammer when he felt tense, particularly on the telephone. Film rental was so brisk at the new Budget Films that Dad fazed out storage and shipping as he acquired more and more rental titles to fill the huge warehouse. Stu Larkin worked for a distributor and came by to arrange to transfer their materials to another location and started chatting up my dad. Stu said he was being wasted as an expediter and really wanted something more managerial and challenging. Stu wasn’t a buff and his film handling skills were rudimentary but he was glib and self assured. My dad liked the idea of having someone to do the talking for him when he was vulnerable to the stutter so he took on a manager.

I rarely saw my stepmother but her wish to stop working came true sooner than my dad had hoped when her plastic surgeon employer retired. This displaced the medical office bookkeeper, Erma a Jewish/German refugee like my stepmother and my dad was persuaded to hire the dear friend of his wife. This was particularly convenient for my stepmother as the loyal and grateful Erma oversaw every financial transaction and would report dutifully if any monies were diverted to my mother or sister or on any other topics in which Erma felt Esther may have had interest including half a box of girl scout cookies that had disappeared while I’d been in the office on a Saturday.

There was a film booker named Candy who my square dad said was a hippie. It was, by 1968, extremely uncool to use the word “hippie” but looking back now the word was apt. Candy wore miniskirts and no panties and the film inspectors from the back snuck into the front office to watch her bend over a filing cabinet. Erma chewed Candy out and threatened to have Mr. Drebin terminate her if she didn’t get herself some undergarments.

There was a narrow greasy spoon called Olsen’s next door to Budget. It was run by Ollie Olsen and the ashen Mrs. Olsen who had the crepe-y-est arms that I’ve ever seen. There was an ongoing low stakes poker game in the backroom for which the Olsens got a cut. Cooking odors seeped through to the office but my dad could let down his hair in the crummy joint and often had his lunch there which Ollie would cook on a filthy grill with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Having worked short order Dad even removed his tie, rolled up his sleeves, put on a stained apron and took over the grill a few times when Ollie was sleeping one off.

Sheri was living in Chatsworth on a ranch with an older man both my parents detested. My mom, particularly in view of her boyfriend Sumner’s apparent disinclination to ramp up his relationship with her, had taken badly to my father’s remarriage. Her dissatisfaction at my dad’s financial arrangement with her was an ongoing irritation. Decades later when she was institutionalized with dementia so severe she didn’t know the names of her grandchildren, she never failed to ask if I’d deposited her alimony check. When Sheri wasn’t around to diffuse some of Mom’s ire I bore the brunt of it which was just as hard as when Sheri was there sucking up every atom of energy for miles around. I was a big expense and my mom worked hard while wife number two had a life of ease and prosperity. I ate too much and it was hard to find clothes for me. I was disrespectful and a slob and if it weren’t for me Sumner would marry her and why did I think my dad kept me away from Esther?

My mother clipped for me an article in the Green Sheet about Jean Nidetch, a nice little Jewish girl from New York. Nidetch was trim and sported a blonde coiffure similar to my mom’s but my mother explained she’d been a real porker. Nidetch had begun to host support groups for abdominous housewives and this was the germ of the Weight Watchers empire. My mom dragged me to meetings at the Colonial Inn on Whitsett. I was the only child in attendance. Despite being told that only Weight Watcher’s graduates were employed by the firm, Mom, her tiny waist accentuated by a four inch wide day-glo patent leather belt, suggested weekly to the leader that she’d be a great inspiration for the membership.

The first incarnation of the Weight Watchers diet was pretty draconian. Only non-fat milk reconstituted from dry powder was permitted and on my special youth version of the program, a full quart a day was required. Eight ounces of fish were to be eaten five times a week and I was fed Weight Watcher’s frozen dinners with a huge unseasoned slab of haddock or some concoction with canned green beans from the recipe cards they passed out at meetings. . Dessert was made by combining unflavored gelatin with Shasta diet soda. Breakfast was a Weight Watcher’s danish made by piling a mixture of non-fat cottage cheese with vanilla extract and saccharine, onto a piece of toast and garnishing with cinnamon. My mother took me to a meeting weekly. I was weighed and got a pep talk. There were a number of couples who came to meetings together and my mother flirted aggressively with the husbands and she chuckled to me that all the fat pig wives must be terribly jealous.

Trudy Epstein transferred into class in the middle of the semester. Her dad was an executive for Litton Industries and was relocated from San Jose. Trudy was about twenty pounds fatter than I was and sported Jew hair of the worst frizzy sort. There was a big brother, Claude, a junior higher who kept his Jewfro closely shorn but was freakishly gargantuan in height and girth and had a lazy eye. The Epsteins rented a brand new two story house crammed against an identical model in a lot where a single low slung ranch house had stood. We could only enter the house from the patio and were discouraged from even looking at the carpeting. There was also a fascistic no t.v policy and the fridge contained Fresca and hardboiled eggs with a grey ring around the yoke. Claude resented being in junior high yet still lower on the food chain than his obese kinky haired fourth grade sister Trudy (who out of his mother’s earshot he called “Turdy”) and her, slightly less fat and kinky, friend and he tormented us with nearly psychotic vitriol.

Trudy’s mother told us we should go out and play in the fresh air and try to burn off some calories and towards this end she locked us out while she took Claude to the temple for his bar mitzvah class. Despite her amplitude, Trudy was quite nimble. She grabbed her dad’s ladder from the tool shed and made quick work of getting into her bedroom, the window of which she kept unlocked in anticipation of just this type of situation. She let me in the front door and we ran up to Claude’s room. Stuffed behind the headboard was an old briefcase. Inside there were two Playboys, an Argosy, a spent bullet casing, half a dozen Jolly Roger sticks and about fifty dollars in singles and fives. Trudy helped ourselves to ten dollars and we headed downstairs and stomped vigorously across the living room carpeting.

We made a beeline for the Baskin Robbins and ordered hot fudge sundaes with no peanuts. We ate them behind the store next to the railroad tracks that intersected Burbank Blvd. so no one we knew would see us. The next day after school we had a brainstorm. The liquor store only sold small single serving candies. The Von’s market however had the more economic gigantic Hershey Bars and full pound bags of M&Ms. The plan was to transport the booty to my house and partake in air conditioned comfort while watching Where the Action Is.

We noticed that the candy bar was going soft and engaged in some preemptive eating. There was nothing with which we could wipe the melted chocolate off our faces and given our mothers’ predispositions returning home with chocolate stained clothing would be suicidal. We hurried down Fulton, heads down, eager to wash up and settle in and enjoy the rest of our bounty without scrutiny. As we crossed Addison, a huge figure hulked in front of us. Claude. He was silent but there was a glint of satisfaction in the one eye he could focus. Trudy was grounded for a month and I was stuck back with my skinny friends who always wanted to play four square and jump rope and stuff.

During Christmas vacation I always spent a few days down at my dad’s office. I was used to being there on Saturdays when it was just the two of us. Having the whole staff around was a novelty as I knew most of the employees only from having riffled through their desks. Stu wore a short sleeved shirt and a thin black tie and everyone except my dad called him “Mr. Larkin.” Stu was very solicitous to Erma and left flowers on her desk and always went on about how jealous he was of Erma’s husband Harold. Stu would go into the bookkeeping office and close the door for what my father said were heart to hearts. Stu even installed a new sprinkler system in Erma’s front yard, Harold not being up to snuff for such a task. When I said “Stu,” just like my dad did, Erma snapped that I must say, “Mr. Larkin.”

My mother had read my dad the riot act about our Saturday lunches but because his working hours, including food intake, were now being monitored by Erma at his wife Esther’s behest, on Saturdays he said, “fuck it.” The Saturday repast would include beef and deep fried components. Today, in honor of my unusual weekday visit Erma had taken the trouble to prepare lunch for me and dad. Mr. Larkin impressed upon me the importance of expressing my gratitude for this a number of times. Lunch was unsalted rye crisp and grapefruit sections and two scoops of tuna salad made with diet mayonnaise which was purported by Erma to be just as good as the fattening kind was but not. Dessert was sugar free Stella D’Oro cookies which reminded me of the trick gum that contained alum sold at Burt Wheeler’s Magic Store. My father took me aside and said there was a piece of leftover birthday cake in the fridge for me after Erma went home.

The hippie Candy talked with me about music although she didn’t think much about Paul Revere and the Raiders. I asked her if she liked Bob Dylan and she corrected my pronunciation “Die-lon” and said she did and promised to loan me a record. Erma gave Candy a stinkeye so she hurried back to work. I watched a Peter Sellers comedy and my favorite Chaplin The Rink and some Foghorn Leghorns as the inspection machines whirred. Stacks of films were affixed with glue backed labels that were hand-typed and never more than a fourth copy. My father fastidiously cut squares of carbon paper the exact size as the shipping label and it was a trick to roll these onto a typewriter and keep all the labels and carbons aligned. The shipping label had glue on the back that was run over an industrial sponge that kept perpetually moist via a rubber pump attached to big tank. The weight and destination of each film was recorded by hand into the UPS shipping book. The UPS man came in the morning with dollies full of incoming films and picked up the day’s shipments around four p.m. UPS offered a blue label service that guaranteed two day delivery and the direness of the need to resort to this extravagance conferred huge gravitas to an order.

The office closed at 5:30. Florescent tubes between each aisle of film were turned off one by one. My dad walked Erma to her car and when he came back I’d have the cake I’d been eyeing all day. My dad returned and I was about to remind about his promise when Erma burst back in breathless and ran to the fridge to grab the cake. “I swore to Esther I wouldn’t leave it here.”

Esther and Erma would lunch once a week and it was known that Esther would be gone for a couple of hours and the staff would get kind of loose and order burgers or a pizza. Stu put on aftershave so it was assumed he had other luncheon plans. The Olsen’s were closing up when Erma got back from lunch and Mrs. Olsen joked that it was time for Erma to return to the office and restore order. Erma noted that Stu’s car was gone and gossiped to Mrs. Olsen he’d gone for a romantic lunch and she hoped he wasn’t taking advantage but Mrs. Olsen said that was strange because she’d seen Stu load up the car with a stack of dirty film cases around noon.

When Stu came back Erma asked him about the films. He said that the kids’ camp in Griffith Park had a couple sick counselors and they needed some extra films quick to keep the little animals in line. Erna asked for the invoice. Stu said he had another big order he was trying to fill so the films could ship that day and he’d type up the invoice later. Erma asked again for the invoice for the films he’d delivered to the kids’ camp and Stu turned on her and got huffy. Erma stomped into my dad’s office and slammed the door. My dad came out and his stammer was pronounced when he asked for Stu to join him in the office. The door opened again a few minutes later and Stu skulked out never to return even to clean out his desk or pick up a final check.

Stu had been elsewhere in the office when the director of the Griffith Park Camp had called early in the day and told Erma that their projector was broken and they would just keep the films that they had until the next session. Erma made a spitting noise when she heard Larkin’s car tear from the lot. She said that she’d never trusted him and her glance fell on me when she explained that she was clairvoyant as to the nature of people’s true characters.

I was left in the garage with the glowering boy while Tommy and my dad whispered in the alley on a Saturday a few weeks later. My dad left with a couple of films and told me that these were prints that Stu had stolen and sold. Somehow Tommy’s employment with access to one of the largest collection of film prints in the world played a role in the retrieval of these films but Dad was vague on the details, I suspect with good reason.