Chapter 1: The Brink
Photographs by Olivia Bee
Story by Susan Winget
Paola and her friend Sergio wanted to do something really "American," and they wanted a car to do it in.
"A convertible, or something that feels TOE-tally LA," Sergio said.
He had a Roman ball bouncing in his voice, and Paola was his Marlboro-smoking, 80's Berlin-living, Ligurian opposite. She wore Gigli, was pale and elfin, a teeny glowering imp whose eyes disappeared when she exploded her crazy smile. Paola had a stab scar on her left ribs from a fight in a punk club during her Berliner days. She wasn't a waster of words. Paola was not just a communist, her boyfriend Danielo had explained to me, she was more of a Stalinist. But Stalinist or not, I adored her and she wanted to drive the California dream too.
We were in LA from Milan, and Paola and I were shooting pictures for work. I think that trip was with Bettina Rheims, and maybe Michel Comte. I recall dealing with a fanny pack-wearing Sharon Stone in a location van by the Santa Monica Pier, and we may have spent a couple of nights in the Madonna Inn as Paola made a Twin Peaks story. We were obsessed with Twin Peaks. It was 1991.
Being the assistant, I was in charge of actualizing the extras; taking notes about credits, unpacking and packing. Odd accessories, flea markets, bits of research from movies, which I did with a Polaroid camera and my TV–this was my area. On location in California meant there were a lot of trips to the supermarkets and the strip mall mega-pharmacies for all things American pop–bottles of shampoo shaped liked Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse–stuff that in its vastness looked like a show at Dia. Mythic cars needed finding, spots to eat clams on a pier at night over the ocean had to be located, and places to sleep in the desert under the stars needing to be dredged up.
Pre-internet road trip planning in LA meant having an intimate relationship with the gigantic Thomas Guide, the 20th century gospel of California travel. Plastic, spiral-ringed and dense, the Thomas Guide was impossible to use while actually driving. A flabby slab filled with an organized jumble of street maps, it menaced with address coordinates, page numbers, and mysterious pagination theory, which rolled out streets into neighborhoods, neighborhoods into counties, and counties into states. Bigger than a school notebook, we religiously hauled the Guide back and forth to LA, along with the big black duffles the Señoras in the prep buildings on the outskirts of Milan had filled with the treasure–the clothes and jewels for the shoots, all meticulously tagged, typed into a customs carnet and locked.
I am not exactly sure why, but there was some impression that I was a "fixer," which, I could only assume, had to do with a potent cocktail of language barrier, bravery born out of naiveté, a childhood diet of required New York Times-reading, and bone structure. Constantly terrified of being exposed as a "non-fixer," I was eternally calling friends and family for the skinny to stay ahead of the curve.
I called my brother Chris about the car, as I lit up a cigarillo. Chris actually was a genius fixer. Chris knew everything.
"Hey, they want a car. Like a cool car, something with character. Where do I get one?" I said, pulling the curly phone wire across my mauve suite at the Sunset Marquis.
"Of course they do. That is classic. So 1960's or even 70's…" Chris mulled. He was an artist, but made his living sometimes as a photo assistant, so he knew this stuff inside and out. "Try Rent-A-Wreck. They will have something. Wait, do they have a credit card? Do not use dad's, ok? That is the classic thing, they always get the assistant to put down the credit card...motherfuckers…tell them you don't have one, whatever you do. But I think they need one, maybe not, ask."
"Ok, what about a place to go in the desert? Something real, not a fashion place. Paola would hate that." Paola had a special nose and eye, and she could love the most awful, commercial place or the shittiest hole, but it had to make sense to her gut. She had the most genuinely cool eye of anyone I have ever met then or since. It was always a nerve-racking gamble getting it right for her.
"Yeah, I know a place. Here, take down this address and call them. Brad and Spike stayed there when I met them last time we were climbing. In the desert, not fancy…" Chris was a climber and he and his boys did summer drives out west, tandem-driving their cars, camping and climbing all summer–a gang of tall, lanky, beer-drinking punk art school graduates. Everything Chris did was impressive and free and smarter than me. I was in awe.
We got the Rent-A-Wreck after a poke around their crap car lot out past the underpass of the 405. When we arrived, it looked pretty unlikely we would find the mythic car. I was thinking American Graffiti, Grease–something shiny and with color–for peanuts. Instead, we were led to the only available convertible; a rusty, low-slung Le Mans, once a sexy sparkly blue, now just tired and dusty, insultingly buried in a corner. In its best day, this car had been an acquired taste of a character, now she was the long-forgotten high school tryst behind the DQ.
The soft-top was bonky and would get stuck when lifted or raised, the sales clerk explained. It had patches of rust that had become holes, and the black vinyl interior was split and musty. It was very far from a Buddy Holly soundtrack.
Paola and Sergio walked slowly around the Le Mans, looking, but saying nothing. It was hot in the LA sun, the noise of the freeway was bearing down on us. “Fuck,” I thought. My policy was to say nothing and hope for the best. The two of them turned to me:
"Cool, let's go," I said. "We will take it then," I told the Rent-A-Wreck guy.
"Leave it up," the guy had told us earnestly as we got his papers signed.
"We leave it down," we all agreed, and struggled it into place.
The ride back to the hotel was something. Sergio, in Ray-Bans at the wheel, emancipated in the sunlight, drove down Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood, palming the wheel with a flat hand, and singing along to Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" in his loud, bouncing, heavily accented voice. Paola, silent and smoking, reigned in the back seat, her no-eyed cat smile stretching wide across her face. She was thrilled.
The drive to the desert was hot as hell. With no roof, no AC, and no working seat belts, the black interior of the Le Mans was a cast iron skillet and we three the frying eggs, waiting to be hurled out into a desert grave. Paola smoked constantly. "I Wanna Sex you up" was on constant rotation and me, with the Thomas Guide on my lap, co-piloting towards what I now know to be the area near Joshua Tree.
It is hard to remember when a personal verbal recommendation was an accepted impetuous to leap into the unknown, but that is what this was. With no visual references about where we were headed, and in a crappy car with no cell phones, we were on our way. That this was all built on the suggestion of my 24-year-old, photo-assisting, rock-climbing little brother's second-hand recommendation from his 24-year-old, rock-climbing, Connecticut childhood friend–it was beginning to feel ill-conceived.
It was much longer to get there then we expected, or maybe we got lost a few times. When we finally did arrive at the address, we pulled off the two-lane highway and onto a dirt driveway with little marking other than the street address. Ahead of us was a hodgepodge of tiny buildings. No landscaping other than that which the desert naturally provided defended the plot, and no human seemed to have conceived of this eventual compound. No signs indicated where one would find a place to get a room key. It seemed deadly quiet. After the long, baking ride and the Color Me Badd, Paola and I didn't care, we both wanted out of the Le Mans.
We climbed out and headed to the nearest building–a wood A-Frame–out of place in the ramble of adobe. The desert stretched out far behind us, and nearer ahead, the bowl of mountains was just close enough to see their blue veins in the late afternoon sun. There was an air of another world, nothing belonged to any visual language of our time, or LA, or any place we knew. We were in its odd spell for sure. Neither of us spoke.
We pulled open the glass door of the A-Frame and stepped in. A phone rested on an empty unattended counter, and holding the receiver to her ear was the most extraordinarily beautiful child. She was too tall to be an actual child, but her face was the face of a baby girl angel. Pale with huge eyes, long brown hair brushing the very small of her back, she wore odd, faded denim bell bottoms, and a shirt jacket that flared out long over her curved hip. She may have had a guitar case too, but I mostly remember the shape of her beautiful mouth as she spoke in the phone. Where had we come that people looked like this, so lost in time? What odd magic carried us?
Her lips were perfect.
"FUCK YOU MOM! You are such a fucking Bitch! NOOOO! No! No way! YOU ARE SUCH A FUCKING BITCH! No. No I told her. I don't want to. I am…no, you always say that…no! I AM NOT! FUCK it!" She slammed the phone down, grabbed her bag and her guitar case and stormed past us.
Shocked, we stood like stones.
"Fantastico." Paola, caught my eye breathlessly. "Fucking Amazing."
We walked back to the Le Mans where Sergio was waiting. We climbed in, and in as close to a buzz as two nihilists could be, told him we had just seen the most beautiful girl in the world, ever, period, end of subject. He inched the Le Mans forward as he listened, towards a makeshift lot beyond a tall cement wall, and we told him about the magic. As we did we had him rapt, and we turned the corner and there was the most beautiful girl in the world, sitting on the back of a car being photographed by Peggy Sirota. It was Milla. Milla Jovovich. Then a 16-year-old model. We had arrived at 29 Palms, and while there was definitely magic, there were people in our world too, partaking of that magic. It was not what I had hoped.
As we signed in at the bar, the lady bartender said, "Milano, huh? Do you know Fabrizio Ferri?"
I walked back out to the car wondering how this had actually happened. How did the climbers know this place that had Bruce Weber pictures on the wall, taken of the wall? It was before there was internet making every place familiar. To happen onto a place far from home, and to find one’s community in full force, felt both endorsing and disappointing.
The light was not yet dropping, but the exhausted end of the day had arrived. I thought it all odd, and was tired about shoots and pretending. The part that was real was interesting, the conspiracy less so. Sometimes make-believing is like that, it can make you weary. In the lot there was another shoot going on already. I stood looking at the back of a photographer as he focused on his subjects, obscured from me. I stepped to the side to watch and saw this was not a shoot like the other. The subjects standing there were two very real people–a pimply young soldier, maybe 19 or 20 in dress uniform, and holding his arm hard was a very young bride. She was maybe 17, still a little teenager-y, all of her soft. Not plump, but her cheeks were apples and her breasts puffy. It was their real wedding and the shooter was another soldier.
In her whitest of white choice of satin gown was all the promise and optimism of a life joyfully anticipated. The desert so still around them, I could hear them laughing and joking and so happy that it still hurts to think of them, all these years later. I leaned against the Le Mans, smoked a cigarillo and watched them, wondering if he was shipping off, did she have family close by, was she pregnant, did she dream beyond him, who did she want to be, was this her biggest dream? That bride, in the too-white dress, standing there in that Chapter 1 moment of her life, on the brink of it.