For All Those Hustlers Who Write (Talking About You, Donnell Alexander)

December 25, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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Many of my close friends are white and I’ve known them since college, and we’ve shared the trials that one goes through in life. The reason I stayed friends with these folks after all these years is that they’re not dicks; they’re good people who have lived good productive lives. Many of my black friends ­­­— my girlfriend, my homies, my college roommates, my people who meant the world to me — didn’t make the cut they needed to avoid the staggering racist hit that would leave them twitching on the field separated from hope for maybe forever. It’s a sad truth that I’ve never managed to reconcile myself to. It’s as though Ed and Earl and Dennis and Googie faded away into memory even though I refuse to allow that to happen, so I write about them incorporating them into the life l live now.

Not many of my white friends work in entertainment but those that do tell me hair-curling stories. Andrew, who works successfully in comedy and film, pointed out how many writers and actors shoot themselves out in their cars in studio parking lots. James Brown, another writer friend from the UC Irvine program, told me the tale of how he had an appointment with a film executive at Universal and in a crowded office on an upper floor, tense with writers hoping to get a gig, the windows started blowing out. A sniper down below was truly on a rampage. People screamed and ran about, but Jim was chill. After the shooting stopped, he asked the secretary hiding under a desk if his appointment would be running late. She cursed him vigorously before telling him to get out.

I do have writer friends whose work became noteworthy films. The wonderful Janet Fitch is a shining example of how some very talented writers work segues into film. I’m lucky enough to be friends with actors and writers and artists such as the immensely talented Roger Guenveur Smith, Leonard Chang, Judith Ann Elder and her husband John, and the late Stephen Hillenburg, a great guy and wonderfully talented artist who created Sponge Bob

I’m being a dick myself here denouncing the creepiness of some in the arts, but my time as a Disney screenwriting fellow will do that to you. Twenty-five years ago, Disney was publicly torched for having the fewest writers of color and women than any major studio, so Disney threw a broad net to temporarily lasso as many writers of color into their ranks for a short time so as not to sully the mouse’s sterling reputation. I was certainly appreciative of the paycheck and those precious Disneyland tickets that we received. The execs I got to know slightly in the year of my fellowship weren’t all loathsome, but the one who had the reputation of being a letch — the same guy who was talked about in Spy magazine for sexually harassing women and was rumored to have a directive that he couldn’t meet with a female fellow without a female executive present — was as creepy as you could imagine and as loathsome as a film executive could be. He met with me and my female writing partner with the required female executive in the room, and after an incoherent and brief meeting, my writing partner stood to leave. As we slow-walked our way out of the conference room, the creepy executive leaned forward and kissed my writing partner on the back of her neck. She recoiled and lurched away from him, and even though the female film executive and I saw the whole thing, the creepy executive didn’t look busted. He was chill as ice. I guess it feels good to be an unrestrained entitled white film executive kind of pimp.

Some years later a friend of mine wrote and directed a fine comedy that I very much enjoyed, about white women trying to make it in Los Angeles and shit falling apart. Another friend who also got an MFA from UCI realized I knew the woman who directed the comedy and I arranged for them to meet. I had my eight-month-old daughter Giselle with me, and the famous writer had his notorious wife with him when we met somewhere on the westside. In general I don’t care for the west side, Beverly Hills to Santa Monica. I’d rather drive to Santa Barbara in a hot second. I sat down at the table holding Giselle in my arms, and the wife looked incredulously at her.

“Your daughter’s black? She’s whiter than my daughter.”

I didn’t feel insulted, more amused than shocked, and I wasn’t involved in the conversation at all after that comment. I realized then that I’d never be anything more to these people than a proof of their get out of racism card.

It wasn’t just white Hollywood types who test a writer’s soul. Once, a fine actor and director who tore it up in Predator invited me out to discuss my first novel, Understand This. I thought we’d get lunch or have a drink but instead I watched him get his head shaved and later pick apples at Ralphs and I never heard from him again.

Relieved that I would never work in Hollywood, I happily retreated to scribbling novels and writing for magazines and newspapers.

That something like Fruitvale Station ever gets made is a miracle and a proof that Ryan Coogler is a genius and must have the kind of crazy tenacity that one has to have to win a war or give birth to a big-headed baby (talking about my mom and my big ass head).

Writing a novel that will probably never get read widely might seem a ridiculous task, but every good thing in my life comes from trying — my daughters, for instance, and my super macho wife who runs like she doesn’t need a car. Those weird-ass life lessons, even the one where the white woman tells you your baby don’t look black enough for her, are precious memories that will see their way into print and I may just get paid for them.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.