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Sacrament of Fear

Although I love Ohio, when I left it had become a place of dependence for me. I needed to put my roots down here in L.A., a place where I could throw off the last of the control rods of my past.
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The novella 'Coming to Los Angeles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love This City' concludes this week as a serial.

THURSDAY MORNING I AWOKE at 4 A.M. I lay there for a minute in the dark. Something felt off, and I couldn't sleep. Fear had reached into my dreams.

Perhaps my mental calculator had churned through my careless purchases over the last few days. Perhaps my unconscious -- peering ahead to the possibility of change -- had shifted into panic mode.

I lay there -- staring at the red digital readout on the alarm clock - trying to figure out what was wrong.


Sometimes I still wonder why I didn't immediately accept the contract Archer offered me. It was the chance I had been waiting for. After all, it was my dream to come to Los Angeles, to succeed as a writer and director.

Yet dreams are tricky things -- illusory bits of here and there. Fear is powerful.

For example, as I recently watched the film Waitress, I kept getting annoyed at the Keri Russell character. "Leave your husband already," I wanted to shout. "He's emotionally abusive. You can survive on your own. You don't need him."

Fear is powerful.

I LOVE LOS ANGELES. It is my city. I own a piece of its collective dream.

Only now -- six years later -- can I fully understand why I needed to move here, make it my home. Vincent Shaw was right. I needed to be dropped into a city to learn how to survive, independent of my community at home.

I needed to earn my place within a larger community of artists, individuals who have staked a claim on their own terms -- and I could only do that by demonstrating to myself that I am not afraid to risk everything on what I love most.

Although I love Ohio, when I left it had become a place of dependence for me. I needed to put my roots down here in Los Angeles, a place where I could throw off the last of the control rods of my past.

This city has allowed me to befriend some of the most creative minds in the world. I've met them doing jury duty - or walking to and from Starbucks, sometimes late at night. In the most random circumstances, they have given me their insights.

I've taken classes and read books, eking out the universal principles of writing fiction. I've connected with caring mentors who have helped me find my voice, given me tough and critical lessons, honed my skills.

Talent is ultimately useless - when left to itself. Who isn't talented? If you doubt whether you are, ask someone else. Talent is only the concrete floor on which you build skills - whether it is in writing, event-planning, laying brick.

As usual, this lesson is so simple that only those who have given up everything for a dream can understand it.

I needed to move to this city in order to find the space and distance to sort out my emotional landscape. The therapist I found here helped me make sense of my background, find out who I am.

Why wouldn't I love Los Angeles? This city - and I don't mean just the buildings and traffic jams - has transformed the way I look at life.

BUT THAT MORNING, as I lay there in bed, I was a long way from these conclusions. I ran the day's schedule through my mind. I needed to leave the hotel by approximately 11 AM. The taxi would drive me first to Archer, where I would pick up my contract. Then the taxi driver would take me to LAX, where I would catch my flight back to Oakland and from there to Cleveland, where my close friend Ami would pick me up.

I turned over, restlessly. I still couldn't sleep. Then it hit me. I had only $2 in my wallet and some change. I needed to withdraw cash from an ATM. I decided to get up.

When I was ready, I would cross the street, get some cash, and then have breakfast. I would read the paper, relax. I had had enough stress over the last few days - trying to decide whether or not I wanted to accept Archer's offer to move here and teach - and I deserved a break. Maybe I could hang out one more time on the beach.

I hated to leave. If I moved here, I wanted to live in Venice. I could rollerblade in the evenings, or visit the beach on the weekends.

But then I thought about all the reasons why I shouldn't move here. It was too much of a risk, the sensible side of my brain told me. You have a secure job in North Canton, your entire year in directing planned out. You have a house with two mortgages attached to it. It's impossible. Why even dream about moving out here?

But I knew the answer to that.

ABOUT AN HOUR later, I had finished packing, had showered, and was leaving the hotel. I crossed to the ATM across the street. I popped in my debit card. And I stared at the screen. No funds available.

I stood there. How could this have happened? I suddenly remembered that I had charged the hotel bill to my debit card. That charge must have hit this morning. No wonder.

I decided to make a cash advance on my credit card. It declined. So did my second card.

I was floored - how could this have happened? I remembered the meals I had purchased - apparently, while I was sleeping, everything had charged at once. I recalled purchasing a set of rollerblades so I wouldn't have to rent them.

And now it came to this. Flat broke. Okay, I had $2 in my billfold and some change. But that was barely enough to buy a cup of coffee. How could I have been this stupid?

My worst nightmare had stepped out of my dreams into the world of reality. I walked back across the street to the hotel, my mind racing.

What could I do?

I DECIDED I would call my friend Genevieve Morgan. She'd help me, I thought. I went back to my room and about 8 AM, I called her. I explained my situation. Would she be able to lend me money?

This was not what Genevieve had expected, I realized in the silence after my request. I was an acquaintance she had recommended for a teaching position. Now I was suddenly asking her for money. I felt the distance across the line.

She couldn't lend me money, Genevieve explained, her voice squeaking. Wasn't there anyone else I could call? Maybe someone from home?

I stood there.

I had screwed up the only friendship I had in Los Angeles the first time I ran into trouble. This did not bode well for my future. Now Genevieve was wondering whether or not she had made a mistake. I could hear the doubt in her voice - if she were to redo the past few days, would she recommend me again? I doubted it. I needed to reassure Genevieve, I thought.

I told her that I would figure something out. And thanks again for ordering up a taxi for me at 11 AM. Not to worry. It would all work out. I hung up.

GENEVIEVE'S NERVOUS RESPONSE brought a line of questions to the door of my mind. They were pounding on it.

Could I survive on my own? Could I cut the umbilical cord to my community? I looked at myself in the mirror hanging above the desk, my eyes peering out at me from the glass. Although I was 37 years old by my Ohio Driver's License, I was still a boy.

I saw now what Vincent Shaw had sensed back in that London talent agency in 1989, something he couldn't give me, something he urgently wanted to teach me. After a 12-year detour in order to avoid confronting what my mentor had recognized, I could no longer hide from it.

I had come face to face with my lack of self-confidence.

SUDDENLY, as I stood there, the answer hit me.

The check. Marlin's check. My friend had made it out to me in the park, sitting on a bench. He had signed it with his own hand.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had noticed a bank across the street. They would cash my check. I pulled it out. I looked at it. I had never heard of Banco Popular. It sounded foreign. The address said Chicago, Illinois.

But my friend Marlin never had any money problems. His check would be good. At 9 AM, the banks would open.

LESS THAN AN HOUR later at the bank across the street, I presented myself to a middle-aged teller with short blonde hair. She looked at my check. Then she sent me to a bank officer sitting at his desk, mid-fifties, plastic smile, perfectly pressed suit and tie. I stood there. He looked at the check. He looked at me. Then he told me he couldn't cash it. I didn't have an account with them.

I looked at him. He must have taken pity on me, because he told me there was a branch of this bank located at 3360 West Olympic Blvd.

Trust my best friend to bank with some cheap-ass institution that no one in America recognized, I thought. So what if it was an international bank.

I must have looked confused - I've never been good with directions.

"Korea Town?" he said, helpfully.

I shrugged. So he carefully wrote the name and the address of the bank on a piece of paper. He smiled as he held it out to me.

I took his offering, turned, walked out of the bank. I felt helpless, angry. Why did I ever offer to lend Marlin the cash? I should have known better.

I looked at the check. Then I opened my wallet one more time, hoping against hope. Perhaps I had put some "go to hell money" in there.

That's what a friend once told me she does, I thought. Allison Orr - I even remember her name. It was a random thought. When she went out on a first date with someone new, Allison told me once, she took enough money to get a cab home just in case the guy was a loser and she had to tell him to go to - enough of that, I thought. Wake up. You're definitely turning into that loser.

I looked at my watch. 9:20 AM. I had to leave the hotel by 11 AM to make the plane. I needed to stop by Archer and pick up my contract. The clock was ticking.

"The problem," I told myself - speaking very clearly above the steady pounding in my head so that I could hear myself talk - "is that I don't even have the cash or credit to pay for a cab to take me to the bank to cash the -"

And with that I stopped. Wait, I thought. That could work. That really could work. I looked over at the Best Western hotel across the street, and broke into a run.

"Why didn't I think of it sooner?" I said aloud to myself.

I slowed down to enter the hotel lobby, thinking it through. The taxi wouldn't charge me until AFTER I went to the bank and then returned to the hotel. Surely, Banco Popular would cash the check, I thought.

I could order up a taxi, have it take me to the bank. I would cash the check and pay for the taxi. And I would still have enough to get me to LAX to catch all my planes.

Relief. Once again, I was saved.

THE TAXI PULLED up to the hotel. The Mexican driver looked happy - way too happy. Happy Driver, I thought. Good name for him. He sang as he drove, harmonizing badly with the radio tunes.

But as the taxi drove into the heart of Korea Town, my driver quit singing. He looked around as he drove. I became concerned. When we pulled up in front of a bank that had bars on the windows, and guards with what looked like Uzi's in their hands (I swear that's what I remember), I grew even more concerned.

To me, the area looked hard-core, dangerous. It did not look like a place that gave out money easily. Thank god Marlin had excellent credit, I thought. I knew his check would go through. I was sure he had never bounced a check in his life. He never overspent his credit. He was responsible with his money.

I GLANCED AT the meter - it was already up to $44. I got out of the taxi, telling Happy Driver to wait while I cashed the check. He didn't seem to understand English, but he looked at me respectfully as I opened the door and climbed out of the taxi. The locks clicked, and I turned back to look at him. He rolled down his window an inch, smiling at me, nodding his head, assuring me that he would wait.

Then I walked towards the bank and through the door between the guards. I looked around. I doubted if anyone spoke English, and I certainly didn't speak Korean.

I walked towards the nearest teller, pretty, dark-haired, who gave me a small smile of welcome. I couldn't tell if she understood my request, but when I handed her the check and my driver's license, she went right to work. She looked at the check and stamped the back of it, her pen poised to fill in the details of my license. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Suddenly, she looked up at me. She turned over the check again. She studied the signature. I went tense. She looked up at me with another small smile, then turned and walked back to her boss - a taller woman standing ramrod straight in the center of the teller area. Tall Teller accepted my check. She studied it as the younger teller chattered to her. Then they both looked over, evaluating me for a long moment.

My heart dropped through my stomach. I flashed back to the moment with Marlin in the park, sitting on a bench, his checkbook on his knee, scribbling his signature.

Tall Teller picked up the phone. I watched her chatter in Korean, and then she put the check into a fax machine, pushed some buttons. They waited. Every so often, Tall Teller spoke into the phone. The time ticked by.

There was nothing I could do. It took almost a half-hour of discussion with Chicago before Tall Teller finally looked over at me for the last time. Then she hung up the phone. She came towards me with the check in her hand.

She informed me - the younger teller standing behind her - that they couldn't cash the check. So sorry - she was sure I would understand. Why? Because they couldn't establish the accuracy of the signature.

I looked at them. They looked at me. What could I do? I thought of those guards outside the door. Then I suddenly remembered the taxi driver. And the running meter.

As I walked towards the door of the bank, I considered my options. I could tell the driver that I didn't have the money now - or I could wait until we got back to the hotel and hope that I'd have figured out a way to pay him by then.

I STUMBLED OUT of the bank into the bright sunshine. I climbed into the taxi. I looked at the meter. We were up to $62. Fortunately, I didn't tell Happy Driver that I lacked the funds to pay him his fare. I just told the driver to return to the hotel.

Come on, I thought as we drove - surely you can think of something. My mind raced over all the options I had already considered.

But now, not only did I not have the money to pay for the taxi to the airport - I also had a taxi fare that kept increasing before my eyes with every click of the meter.

BY NOW I WAS convinced. Any question I had had about whether or not I should move to Los Angeles was settled. I should stay home. No more risks for me. God had told me this loud and clear.

But that didn't help me now. I needed to figure out a way to pay the taxi driver.

I frantically tried to strategize. Over the cacophony in my brain, I heard the driver singing loudly in a language I didn't understand. I tried to shut out his voice - what to do, what to do, what to do?

"God, please help me," I prayed. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole, and now I believe them - my personal foxhole was dark and scary. It didn't matter how much sunlight was streaming through the cab.

THE BEST WESTERN hotel loomed up ahead. Happy Driver pulled the taxi to a stop in front of the door. I got out. I told him to wait while I went in to get the money.

"No problem," he said. He turned up the music. I glanced back at him as I opened the door of the hotel and stepped inside. His head was moving now in time with the music, his eyes closed. People that happy shouldn't be allowed to drive cabs or collect money from me, I thought.

I decided it was time to put my pride aside and call my brother Dave. He always seemed to have money. Clearly, I couldn't handle this by myself.

I sketched out my plan in my head. I would ask my brother to pay the hotel bill - promising to reimburse him as soon as I got home. The hotel could then release the hold on my debit card, and that would give me the needed cash to get out of Los Angeles.

And never return, I thought. Enough of my dreams. I was going home to teach in Ohio. That's where I belonged. The events of the day had made that clear.

NOT EVEN THAT PLAN worked out.

My brother Dave lives out in the country. Of course when I called and explained what was going on - that I needed him to pay the hotel bill because no one would cash Marlin's check - my brother Dave was happy to help, no questions asked.

The problem was - the hotel needed him to fax them a copy of his credit card. And my brother's fax machine didn't have a copier. "I'll see what I can do," he told me. He had a great idea.

I looked at the clock. A few minutes clicked by. I needed to leave for the airport in the next 15 minutes if I wanted to stop at Archer and still have time to make my flight. So I called my brother back. He was still trying to run his card through the fax machine he used for his concrete business. It wasn't working. It wouldn't copy his card.

I stood there at the front desk, looking down at the check, wishing one last time I had just told Marlin to go to an ATM and get his own money. I didn't know what to do. I had reached the utter limit of utter desperation.

"Dear God," I thought. "Help me."

SUDDENLY, THE DOOR opened, and an older woman entered. She was wearing a trench coat and carrying a purse. She walked past the men working the counter - they nodded respectfully to her - and into the back room.

She returned without her coat or purse, dressed in a business jacket and skirt. She scanned the room. I saw her turn to the man who was working with me, say a few brief words. They considered me. Finally, the woman left him and came over to me.

"How can I help you?" she said. Her nametag said Rhoda Goldberg. I met her gaze - grey eyes, neutral.

The staff followed her direction, I thought. She was clearly the one in charge. What can I lose?

So I began to talk. Ms. Goldberg listened carefully as I told her my story. Of my stupid plan to pay for the taxi with the money from the check, of the fact that no one would cash it, of my friend's carelessness in signing it in the park, of my drive to Korea Town - and then my voice died away. I just looked at her.

MS. GOLDBERG considered me for a long moment. And then she smiled. It transformed her face, and I was looking at someone real, friendly.

"You know," she said. "I have no idea why I'm doing this, because I've never done this before in my life, but I'm going to cash your check. How much do you need to pay that taxi?"

I told her - it was over $106, and she hit a button and opened the cash register. She took my check. She began counting out the cash.

"Go," she said. I went. I paid the taxi. I returned. She gave me the balance of the check in cash, making sure I signed it on the back.

My mind was spinning. What had happened? A minute ago, I was sure I shouldn't move here - now this.

AFTER I TOOK the rest of the money, putting it in my billfold, I spent several minutes talking to the woman who had saved my life.

I tried to recover my balance. Nothing made sense, suddenly. My rescuer must have sensed this, because she took the time to give me some practical advice.

"Listen," she said. "If you love teaching back home, don't move here. The seasons here are so slight, the years blur by - you're barely aware of their passing."

I looked at her.

I THANKED RHODA again, went upstairs, collected my bags, and came down to find that the black executive cab Genevieve had arranged for me was waiting.

The taxi driver introduced himself as John, a transplant from Wisconsin. Craggy face, late 20s. He suggested I ride shotgun. We took off for Archer.

He drove fast. I looked down at the radar detector under the dash, saw the lights at the ready. This guy would get me where I needed to go on time, I thought. My body sank into the softness of leather.

THE EXECUTIVE TAXI pulled into the circle driveway in front of Archer's main building, graceful Spanish design, all tile and stucco, like a giant house of white and red candy set against the bright green of grass and foliage.

I looked at the rooftops of vermillion tiles. I learned later that the building had been constructed back in the 1930s by Hispanic workers who had used the tops of their thighs as a mold for each tile's narrowing half-shape.

My taxi pulled up to the front door. I got out of the car and walked up the tiled steps. Then I opened one of the heavy doors, black metal lattice over glass. I stepped inside, blinded momentarily. My eyes adjusted.

To my immediate left was the front office. A woman behind the desk smiled and said hello. She handed me a white envelope, labeled with my name. There was a green and black Archer logo on the upper left-hand corner, and inside was a full contract for the academic year September 2001 to August 2002. She wondered if I could wait a moment.

"I've called the academic dean - he wanted to see you before you left," she said.

I stood there waiting for him, looking around me. The dimness of the building made the moment surreal - and relief radiated through my body. I walked further into the darkened entrance and came to a hallway. I looked both ways. Above me the ceiling arched like a museum, darkly painted. Sunshine streamed down through a perfectly round window, lighting the space in front of me.

I turned to the open doorway, looking out past my waiting taxi to Archer's front lawn. My gaze focused on the ancient brass sundial mounted on a rock formation - telling time in the most elemental way.

Suddenly, I heard pounding footsteps, and I turned to see John Wands, the academic dean, coming towards me, breathing heavily. He was carrying a plate with a ham sandwich, a Diet Coke, and a bag of Lay's Potato Chips.

The dean smiled at me. I remembered he had once taught at Harvard, and his wife worked at The Getty Museum, that stunning white building set against a bright blue sky where the 405 met Sunset Boulevard.

"I knew you probably hadn't stopped for lunch," Wands said to me. "And I know you're in a hurry to get to the airport, so here you are."

He held out the plate to me. For a moment, I just looked at him.

LATER, AS I buckled myself into my seat on the Boeing 727 just before takeoff from LAX, I thought about that moment. As I hustled through the airport at Oakland in order to catch the Boeing 747 back to Cleveland where Ami would pick me up, I reflected on the rollercoaster of emotions I had just ridden.

I still didn't know how I'd sell my house, pay off two mortgages, and resign from a secure teaching position at Hoover in order to take on a new job in a private school with absolutely no safety net whatsoever - and for what? A dream?

Yet after the events of the day, I knew I would.

That feeling of being taken care of would never leave me. Even while watching North Canton finish hiring the last of the three people needed to replace me - making my decision irrevocable - one teacher to advise the yearbook, one to direct drama, and one to teach six classes of English per day.

Even while I was packing up everything I owned, transporting it across the continent in a U-Haul Van, arriving the night before my duties began at Archer.

Not even when I faced foreclosure, when the house wouldn't move due to the market freeze immediately after 9/11. Throughout all of that, I never regretted the decision I had made.

A SALESMAN ONCE TOLD me that few people employ logic when they make a decision to purchase something - whether it be insurance, a new car, or table china. Our most important decisions are guided by emotion.

Now as I stood there looking at what Wands offered, I tried to understand the way my feelings were changing. I realized that the luncheon plate in his hands had become a sacrament. Not of fear, but of trust.

I thought of the carry-in meals my community had often shared - other churches called them potluck dinners - after Sunday church services. Those meals bound our souls together, held on rectangular tables and folding chairs, set up in the side wing of our church.

The sharp smell of black coffee in stainless steel urns, steaming mashed potatoes in white dishes with boats of salty gravy smooth and clear to pour over it, crusty and tart apple pie. Baby blue and plain pink dresses reaching past the knees, white bonnets over blonde hair. Scrubbed faces, smiles, laughter, conversation from a shared history. Dark, plain suits closed up below shaved faces raw from the sun, white beards, eyes blue and merry. The murmur of restrained voices broken by male laughter, and the squeal of children chasing each other down the aisles of the sanctuary.

And then it all went to silence, nudged aside by the blend and strain of 150 voices - men and women, boys and girls - singing "Jesus has the table spread" with a cappella harmony and ancient grace. All of us waiting calmly but impatiently as our pastor, grey-bearded, sober, sent heaven a prayer, and all of us bound together on this train ride to Glory.

I LOOKED AT the sandwich Wands offered me, fresh bread and lettuce and meat and cheese. I recognized the offer for what it was. As a stranger in this world of bright color and desert air, I would have a new family to help me adjust to this fragmented city of disparate people.

I was under no illusions. The contract he offered gave me no guarantee - but the job at least offered me a runway on which to land. I would have no regrets, I decided, even if they fired me within the first year.

And over the six years that I taught at Archer, I found my original intuition to be true - during the days when students had off and teachers went to school alone, the school grounds morphed into a world fraught with subtle, warring alliances. Over the years I battled challenges within the walls of Archer - and eventually, the oldest one culminated in my uneasy exit.

During my years at Archer, I often thought back to my original choice. Yet no matter how disconcerting the battles, I never regretted coming to Los Angeles.

ALL THE RESPONSIBLE MEMBERS of my family were distressed by my choice to leave Ohio. Just as they were disturbed by my risky decision to leave teaching in June 2007 - a career they had finally concluded was noble and safe. To them, a steady paycheck is a barrier to risk.

But I know better. The biggest risk I ever took in my life occurred when I returned home from London. The resulting barrier between desire and dreams almost killed me, as certainly as physical starvation would have. By choosing safety over authenticity, I risked my soul.

How does it go? What doth it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

They say water can go through solid rock. If I had stayed in my community back home, if I hadn't gotten to a place where I could begin to fulfill my need to write, I would have drowned. My need to leave kept pushing up. No matter how many times I pushed it down, it kept resurfacing.

Taking a small measure of risk - and I know now that the level of risk is commensurate to the level of reward - allowed me to take an even greater one when it next presented itself.

For example, I wouldn't have had the courage to leave teaching had I not taken the risk of coming to Los Angeles. I wouldn't have had the courage to write vulnerable - had I not already left the teaching profession.

I LOOKED AGAIN out the front door. The executive taxi idled, waiting for me. I realized with a sense of profound relief that I had already made my decision.

I turned back to John Wands, still panting from his run. I accepted the lunch he offered. I shook his hand. And then I turned and got into the waiting taxi.