Steven Axelrod reflects on human connection, as it exists from Nantucket to Los Angeles.
A few years ago, late on a Thursday night, I was pulled over by the police on Old South Road. They said I was driving erratically and asked if I’d been drinking.
No, I said, and went on to explain how I had come to be driving in such a way as to attract police attention. That afternoon I had come home late from painting a ceiling on India Street to find out that my Hollywood agent had called. He had scrounged a writing job for me, if I could get to Los Angeles by Friday afternoon. They were paying my expenses and I was booked on a flight that left before the banks opened. I had misplaced my ATM card and so I wound up driving in from ‘Sconset to borrow some traveling money from a friend. I explained this all to the police. They were glad to listen. They had nothing else to do. If I was intoxicated, I said, it was by the sudden prospect of success (an illusory one, it turned out). They laughed; we chatted for a while and then they sent me on my way. It was a typical small-town experience: policemen I can gossip with are part of the reason I moved to Nantucket in the first place.
But I’ve been spending more time in Los Angeles lately, and people there fear the police. It affects their driving adversely in a syndrome author Joseph Wambaugh referred to as ‘black and white fever’. Perhaps the police need that Gestapo image to keep the peace among so many races and nationalities, so much wealth and poverty side by side.
Two days ago I was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. It was two-thirty in the morning on the Ventura Freeway. The amplified voice boomed out over the empty road, telling me to pull into the slow lane and get off at the nearest exit.
I was scared.
I had dined that night with a young writer and his fiancée. They’re trying to break into television, part of a whole set of men and women in their early twenties who share the same goals. They call each other up when they finish a spec Office script, help each other with the hook or the tag for Family Guy or Two and a Half Men. There’s a lovely sense of community about it. They’re all so eager and industrious as they set about learning the complex craft of the half hour situation comedy with its act breaks and b-stories. But after a few hours of listening to them, they began to depress me. Their ambitions seemed so paltry.
If you’re twenty, you aim to write the Great American Novel and alter forever the thinking of your generation. Probably you’ll fail, but by thirty-five you’ll know where your ambitions and your talents intersect. You’ll settle in to do the best work you can with whatever you’ve got. But to see these kids just out of college already embracing all the middle-aged compromises, busily pruning themselves of excess and wildness and originality, is weird and sad. These kids haven’t sold out. They don’t have anything to sell. They never stocked the store.
Toward the end of that evening, conversation turned to Sumner Redstone, Owner of Viacom which owns Paramount, CBS, MTV, Showtime and Simon & Shuster, among other companies. Redstone has apparently made peace with Tom Cruise after a public spat and my hosts couldn’t stop talking about him. They were infatuated with his power (he routinely named the Most Powerful Man in Hollywood by magazines and website that keep track of such things). I felt obliged to play Devil’s Advocate. Yes, Redstone could get a film made, make someone’s career or damage it by his preferences and even his whims. But in the end he’s just a businessman and his real bosses are the audiences he courts. None of this impressed the two writers. They long to be part of the Hollywood structure, even if they have to be its victims.
I was thinking of this little debate as I turned off the freeway onto a deserted access road.I stopped the car and was instantly flooded with light as one of the officers, an impassive and powerfully built Filipino, took my license and registration. As I got out of the car and went through the roadside intoxication tests, I wised my dinner companions could have been there. It would have been refreshing reality check after all our talk of Sumner Redstone and Viacom because this policeman really did have power over me. It hummed in the air between us like the power lines overhead. We were alone somewhere in the silent outskirts of the city. He could have killed me if he wanted to; his partner could have backed him up. They could have arrested me, knocked me around, abused their position in any of a dozen ways. They had guns on their hips and the whole superstructure of civilized society – two thousand years of the rule of law – behind them.
In fact they were impeccably polite and soft-spoken. They showed interest in my circumstances – a visitor to the city, working for a Hollywood producer. And when it became clear that I was tired, they offered to buy me cup of coffee. I assured them that being stopped by the Highway Patrol had pumped more than enough adrenaline into my system. Caffeine would be redundant; what I needed was a sedative. They laughed and told me to take care of myself, and drove off into the night.
I called the station the next day to comment on this incident and the desk sergeant was glad to hear from me. “We don’t get too many of these calls,” he said.Which is really too bad, because I’m sure that same policeman handles hundreds of such situations every week … never knowing if the driver he pulls over is armed and dangerous. But a good cop doesn’t make very interesting copy. You rarely see a headline like this one:
COP POLITE TO MOTORIST
Late night traffic stop uneventful
I almost took the officer up on his offer of coffee, though we didn’t have much to talk about – Kwame Brown and Bill Bratton; and Arnold, of course. But that would have been enough. The human connection is what matters.
The difference between a small town and a big city may finally just be the people – how many there are, how they treat each other, the level of trust between them, In this case two strangers treated each other with decency and consideration, authentic power was exercised with grace and restraint. That sort of thing happens all the time in a town like Nantucket; it’s a little more rare in Los Angeles, but it makes even a town as big as this one seem a little smaller, a little more like home.
And when you’ve been away from home as much as I have lately, that’s a very good feeling, indeed.
Originally appeared at OpenSalon.