Read an Excerpt
“Excuse me, but are you a Delta?” a girl asked, talking down to me.
“No, I think I’m a Lutheran.”
“Well, you can’t sit there if you’re not a Delta.”
It was my first day at Hollywood High School. I was sitting on a bench in the quad area. I had never heard of a quad before this school. Who was she … the quad police? And what the hell was a Delta anyway?
Screw her. I didn’t see a sign that said Private Property. I just wanted to eat my damn lunch.
She looked at me like I was a Christmas decoration at an Easter party. I felt the pencil melting off my arched eyebrows and my red lipstick cracking. No one else was wearing a tight pegged calf-length skirt, a black sweater with a false collar tucked in, a stacked pachuca hairdo adorned with spit curls on each side, and dangling Mexican earrings. I walked over to the other side of the bench around the big tree.
“You can’t sit there either,” she barked. “That’s the Lambdas’ bench. And that other tree over there”—she pointed—“that’s the Betas’ bench. And those benches over there”—she pointed to another and another—“is the Thetas’ bench and that one is the Alphas’. So don’t sit there either, unless you’re an Alpha, a Beta, a Lambda, or a Theta.” She looked me up and down. “And I doubt you are.”
The social scene at Hollywood High School was harder than Pacoima. They just gave their gangs different names. I had never heard of the word sorority or known Greek letters had names. This Delta chick looked very different from Pacoima and me. She was polished like an apple, like a picture on a package, like a television commercial. Everything matched, from her white patent leather purse and white patent Mary Jane shoes to her powder blue fuzzy sweater with another tied around her shoulders. Her pleated beige skirt didn’t look like me either and her round bubble hairdo didn’t move. Her lips were glossy white.
What kind of lipstick was white?
I took a deep breath. She’s not going to get me, and neither are all the damn letters of the Greek alphabet. I remembered the administration building nearby had a large bathroom. Certainly that couldn’t be Delta territory. I turned around quickly, and walked without hesitation toward the brick office building, brown paper bag and books in hand. I kept thinking, left or right, which way is the bathroom? Don’t stop to ask anyone.
I was crushed, trying not to show it, trying not to cry. Not from that bratty bitch, but from what the hell was going to become of me here? It didn’t look good. I pulled open the heavy-windowed door, breezed in like I had been there for years, passing students like I was so busy with important things to do. I spotted the sign, Girls’ Room. Hold on just a little bit further. I walked faster, got to the door and exhaled the breath I’d been holding.
Inside, there were a few girls fussing with their hair, chatting. They didn’t notice me. I saw no feet in the third stall, plowed into it, plunked down on the seat, and locked the door. Safe. I hated to cry. It was a sign of weakness, pointless, and never helped. I took a big breath, stacked my books on my lap like a tray, and unfolded my brown paper bag. I could hardly swallow the dry peanut butter sandwich I had made.
For one week, I sat in that locked toilet cubicle having lunch, constantly wondering about those damn Deltas. Finally bored and annoyed, I figured there was more to this school than classes and a toilet. There must be a Delta in one of my classes. I needed to learn more. I became the Delta detective. Then one day in art class, I heard a new friend, Eve Babitz, talking about the Delta Hell Night coming up. I scooted closer, looking at her drawing. “What’s a Hell Night?”
“Well … first you have to be rushed.”
“That’s when you are asked by a club to join, then you begin pledging.”
“That’s when you do anything they ask, and I mean anything! It takes a week, and if you pass, you have the final test, Hell Night.”
Upon further research, I found the Deltas happened to be the coolest and snobbiest girls. They had privileged backgrounds. Their parents were famous or rich or both. I had none of these qualifications. I liked the challenge. I was determined to be a Delta, if only for vengeance.
Using my survival techniques, I saw that if I had a different walk, different talk, and most important, different hair, maybe I could be a girl the Deltas might invite in. As my mother the artist would say after another boyfriend broke up with her, back to the drawing board.
First of all, I hated my name, Carole … so common. When I complained to my mother that seven girls in my class had the name Carol, she said, “But you have an e on the end of your name, you were named after Carole Lombard, your Carole is beautiful.”
“Mom, when the teacher calls Carol, she doesn’t say, the one with the e on the end.”
“Carole” had to go. I remembered back in Pacoima Junior High, a new girl in seventh grade announced her name was Carrie, a name I had never heard before. I loved the uniqueness. I had been name-shopping for ages, and I thought of stealing it then, but I had dropped the idea when the Renegades nicknamed me Suki. Outside of Pacoima and a gang party, Suki sounded like a Japanese dog. Entering this new school was the perfect time for me to take this perfect name.
I started telling everyone: “My real name was Carole, but my mother calls me Carrie for short.” Then I told my mother: “If someone calls and asks for Carrie, that’s me.”
“You? Why would any one call you that?”
“I don’t know, Mom, they just do … it’s a nickname.”
So that was that. I was unofficially, officially Carrie, Carrie Enwright. And that was Enwright with a w.
Next project was my clothes and hair. I dumped my socks, my bunny shoes, false collars, and full Mexican skirts in the wastebasket. I didn’t know where these Hollywood High girls got their looks, but I was sure it wasn’t in a store like Anita’s off San Fernando Road. They talked about Geistex sweaters and Lanz dresses, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Then there was the world of Max Factor, a makeup store across the street from Hollywood High … how convenient.
I listened carefully to the girls in gym chat about Hollywood Boulevard and shopping at The Broadway and Lerner’s Dress Shop. I’d never been inside a large department store. I told my mother that none of my clothes fit. I would get a job or help her ink and paint, but I had to have a new wardrobe or I was not going to school.
“Fine,” she said, and gave me fifty dollars. That was the most money I had ever seen at one time. I shopped wisely so I could get the most for the money. I even found a cardigan that looked like a Geistex. I think one real Geistex sweater cost more than fifty dollars. I bought two knee-length kick-pleat skirts, an angora sweater, and a few blouses. I bought bracelets instead of my usual dangling earrings. Now I had a chance to conquer this new turf. Oh wait, shoes, they tell a lot. I had enough money left over to go to Leeds shoe store, also on Hollywood Boulevard. I bought little flats like that pretty Delta, Rosalind Frank, wore.
But the most important detail was her hair, and I knew I needed to change mine. The Hollywood High hairdo had a name: the Flip. I would study the girls’ hair, imagining how they get it to curl up on the bottom. And I needed to cut bangs, smooth bangs that swooped to one side, not like my mother’s 1940s movie star bangs. I learned in Pacoima and it held true in Hollywood: If I could get my hair right, my life would work better.
Rosalind Frank was in my gym class. I spotted her right away, she reminded me so much of Beverly. She was very pretty and always seemed to have the answer when anyone asked her anything. Rosalind was sharp and assertive and didn’t take any crap. She had a Delta friend, Taffy Paul, whom I also admired. I especially liked her name. Taffy would be my new Charlotte. She was smart and sophisticated, rode horses, and studied drama like me. Then there was Louise, Roz’s best friend, soon to be her second-best friend, because I was going to be Rosalind’s best friend.
I made sure Roz heard me in the locker room, when I would talk about my mother being an artist at MGM and that she had been in films herself.
Finally, Roz said one day, “Do you want to come to Coffee Dan’s today?”
I knew this was the after-school spot.
“Sure,” I answered, not wanting to be too anxious.
“We meet at the Delta bench at three-fifteen … do you know where that is?”
“I’ll find it.”
When the final school bell rang, I knew this was it, like a first date: win the Deltas over or end up a dud. Roz was waiting at the Delta bench.
“Hey, everyone,” she said. They looked up. “This is Carrie, she’s new.” They nodded and went back to chatting. Roz said to me, “We’re waiting for one other girl, do you know Suzy Sparks?”
“She’s a Delta, her mother played Blondie on television,” Roz whispered.
“Oh …” I knew the comic strip, but I’d never seen the TV show.
“That’s Barbara Parkins over there,” Rosalind said. “She’s an actress and she’s talking to our Delta president, Kathy; her dad is Dana Andrews, famous movie star, you’ve heard of him, right? You’ll meet everyone at Coffee Dan’s.”
Suzy Sparks came up, talking about getting a new car for her birthday.
Another girl rushed over. “Sorry I’m late.” She was that bratty-bitchy girl that booted me off this bench. Good … she didn’t recognize me, probably because of my new Flip.
We paraded up Highland and turned at the corner of the Max Factor building to the coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard. I followed Rosalind. I sat next to Taffy. She was a barrel of laughs, making fun of everything. The conversation settled on the plans for an Easter vacation in Palm Springs.
Rosalind and I were becoming closer. I was dazzled by her. She always had the perfect hairstyle, perfect makeup—from Max Factor Essence of Pearl lipstick to painted eyeliner that curled up at the corner of her eyes—and it seemed she had a new outfit every day, plus many real Geistex sweaters. One day she wore a black spaghetti-strap sheath to school. It was shocking.
She said, blasé, “It’s Friday.”
All the boys were crazy over Rosalind. She dressed older than her age and walked like she was a pageant queen. She had that edge like Beverly. It was confidence and that was glamorous.
I was struck by glamour since I was four years old, by my one and only grandmother, my mother’s mother. She lived in her own world with her movie scrapbooks and vaudeville clippings of herself. She always wore bright red lipstick and had a big dimple in her cheek that she said was just for me. She would constantly tell me, “You’re the apple of my eye.” As hard as I searched her eyes, I could never quite locate that apple, but I believed her. Sometimes she took me to the fancy Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. We would dress up and she would say, “Order whatever you like.” Once we went there for her birthday. “Your nana is fifty years old, don’t I look good for my age?” I had no idea about age, except that it seemed important to look good.
Nana was a manicurist at this point in her multicolored life; her modest apartment was filled with framed autographed photos as if they were art or trophies. The haunting gaze of the magnificent Hedy Lamarr captivated me, along with another woman who had an even more intriguing face. On my tiptoes, I would hang on to Nana’s lace-clothed dressing table, studying this woman’s huge black eyes and eyebrows. Her name was Joan Crawford. She gave my grandmother her daughter’s old clothes to pass on to me. My favorite was a wallaby coat, a fur from Australia.
Nana had run away from home to be in the circus when she was twelve. Later she performed in vaudeville, dressing like a man because women were not allowed onstage at that time. She met and married my grandfather, a magician and xylophonist, when she was seventeen. Through the vaudeville circuit, they became good friends with comedian Stan Laurel. My grandparents had many theatrical connections and as a result they arranged for my mother to act in many Our Gang comedies. This led to my mother’s aspiring starlet days while attending Beverly Hills High School. My mother and grandmother had parts in the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland. This was their big Hollywood fame. Now Nana was living not too far from my mother and me, in a little apartment, alone, never having remarried after my grandfather left her, before I was born.
Strutting down the hall after first period, Rosalind popped the question: “How would you like to be a Delta?”
“Ummm, I hadn’t given it much thought,” I said, screaming whoopee inside.
“Why not? We do spend so much time together.”
Pledge week: I had to wear a paper toilet seat around my neck during lunch and tell everyone I was an ass. I had to come to school without makeup. That was the worst for me, but not as bad as the other two pledges who had to walk around school with a grape up each nostril during lunchtime.
I was well on my way to owning that Delta bench. Then came Hell Night.
We all met at Kathy the president’s house. Her father, Dana Andrews, came down the sweeping staircase in his smoking jacket, hair slicked back like I remembered my father’s. “Having a little gathering with your friends tonight, darling?” he said to Kathy at the entry, then stepped into his private library and closed the big white door behind him. I was excited to be in this luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills—a movie star home. Kathy hollered through the closed door, “Daddy, you can’t come into the kitchen. We’re having a ceremony, okay?”
We all went into the den. Pledges were told to sit on the floor.
“This is the most important night of your life,” Kathy announced. “Do I hear any objections to any of these nominations?” I hoped that girl from the first day at the Delta bench didn’t make trouble for me. “Pledges, raise your hand if you are ready to proceed.” We slowly raised our hands. Taffy and Roz looked so serious. A few more girls I hadn’t met were there. They were alumnae Deltas.
“Follow me to the sacred kitchen, one lowly pledge at a time.” Kathy directed Ruth to be first.
I heard her scream, “Not me, I’m not going to eat that.” Then I heard nothing. After ten long minutes Ruth came out, watery-eyed, with a faint self-preserving smile, and sat back down like a trained pup. Another girl did the same, only she barfed on herself afterward.
“Next …” Kathy called from the kitchen.
“That’s you,” the girls said synchronously. Escorted by Roz, I walked into the kitchen. The lights were off. Little candles were lit on every counter, and on top of the refrigerator with a big one centered on the circular table, like a séance was about to begin. The table had bowls of weird concoctions. One was full of tiny creatures. “Yum, chocolate-covered ants, you’ll love them,” Roz said, in a deep fake voice. “You take Carrie through,” Kathy said to Roz, and walked out.
The next bowl was slimy glass noodles with pickles, sauerkraut, mustard, mayonnaise, and chopped chili peppers. And the last bowl …
“What the hell are those?” I said and looked closer.
“It’s called Hell Night for a reason. Those actually are a delicacy from the Farmer’s Market, now eat till I tell you to stop.”
I chewed the repugnant rubbery rooster comb, gagging and praying, Dear Jesus … if you’re coming back, now’s the time.
It was all worth it, because I passed. I got in with the in crowd.
I was cool now and cool was power.
I was settling in, an untouchable Delta! I felt almost invincible. That was, until February 3, 1959.
I was walking up the steps to my next period, when a student rushed by and almost knocked me over. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m upset about a terrible plane crash that just happened.”
“What plane crash?”
“Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died a few hours ago. Their plane crashed in a field somewhere.”
My legs gave way and I hit my knees on the next step up and folded up. I felt nauseous and started to cry.
“Are you okay?” She leaned down to me.
“No,” I cried. “Ritchie was my friend.”
Just when I’d gotten a handle on making my hair flip, a gorgeous Lambda girl came to school with her hair cut completely straight and smooth as glass. Where had her Flip gone? I was intrigued; the Deltas were too. It was a big day on the quad examining her new do. “Turn around,” Roz said. “Again.”
This do was going to be difficult for me to imitate; it was so exact, so sharp.
“It looks good on you,” I said. “But I’m sticking with my Flip.”
“Me too … for now,” Roz said. “Let me see the back again.”
Whenever we passed her in the halls, we’d yell, “Great hair!”
We found out that Bonnie was going to quit school and marry the guy who’d cut her hair. He was a hairdresser. This was the first time I had ever heard the word hairdresser. Bonnie’s new boyfriend changed her name as well to Cami and she was going to be a model. She left at the end of eleventh grade.
Her hairdresser boyfriend had a hair salon on Fairfax and Melrose Avenue and it was for men only. His name was Jay Sebring.
Most men’s hairstyles were parted, slicked back, or cut with clippers in a flat top or buzzed off in a butch, like a marine. Not with Jay. Cami said. “He cuts hair with scissors to the natural shape of a man’s head and he charges twenty-five dollars.” The going rate was two bucks.
The Sebring Cut made big news. Jay was going to be in Time magazine. Steve McQueen would be on the cover, but the story was going to be more about Jay, for revolutionizing men’s hairstyling. She said Jay’s customers—Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, and James Coburn—wouldn’t go anywhere without their Sebring cut. He was styling Kirk Douglas’s hair for Spartacus.
I had never been inside a beauty salon. My mother did her own hair with an iron she heated up on our stove’s open flame, or she set her hair in pin curls, and Nana set her hair in tiny white rags.
I couldn’t imagine running my hands through Paul Newman’s hair, or Steve McQueen’s or Warren Beatty’s. The idea of being a hairdressersounded exciting, challenging and artistic, like it could turn my world around.
I was always looking for my world to turn around.
One day, out of the blue, Babe’s army pal Billy Grimes called me.
“Billy, what are you doing?”
“As much as they’ll let me, baby doll.” He laughed.
“I miss you, how’s Pacoima?”
I hadn’t seen him since I left Babe and Virginia. I always thought of Billy as I’d first seen him, jumping over Babe’s junkyard fence in the red lederhosen. He was an ageless spirit that blasted through the universe with no rules. He must have been old enough to be my father, but that was immaterial; our friendship was unique and we connected. I didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time—neither did most people—still, he made me feel like I was hip enough to understand every word he said.
I was sure he was the second cousin of the Pied Piper.
“How’s Hollywood treatin’ you?” Billy continued. “That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.”
“Well … I’m a Delta.”
“Can I be one, too?” But before I could tell him about my new quad life, he interrupted. “Hey, I’m in school myself, beauty school, not that I’m not pretty enough already.”
“Yeah, it’s all about hair … in fact I moved to Hollywood too.”
“There’s a school for hair?” The Deltas only talked about the John Robert Powers charm school.
“Sho ’nuff,” Billy said. “I met this Beverly Hills hairdresser and he’s got it all goin’ on.”
I had never known what Billy did for a living; it never occurred to me to ask.
“I have to take a test for my hair school and you’d be perfect for me to practice on.”
“Me? Sure, Billy, anything with you,” I said, not knowing what practice on me entailed.
The next day after school, I practically ran the seven blocks to the Comer and Doran Beauty School on Hollywood Boulevard to meet Billy. Inside, the school was like a long ballroom, with fifty people busy at stations, buzzing around one another, instructors helping kids with mannequin heads screwed on table counters, and another section with real live women getting their hair done by students in white lab coats.
I was immediately enthralled.
“Hey, baby doll, look what they’ve done to me,” Billy said, appearing out of nowhere as he always did, waving his long gangly arms in the air, wearing a white lab coat. Of course he had on all his necklaces with trinkets: bells and medals and beads from an Indian friend in Oklahoma, with an open shirt under his lab coat so they could be noticed. It was funny for me to see Billy in a controlled environment. “I don’t think white is my color,” he said. “Jewelry helps.”
Billy had his own station. He pumped the chair up so I was the right height for him and tied a plastic cape around my neck that covered my whole body.
“This is gonna take a few minutes, maybe hours.” Billy laughed.
I looked around. One woman was being taught how to manicure. Another guy was rolling a permanent. It stank like the time my mother gave herself and me that awful Toni home perm.
Billy came closer with a private scoop. “This hair biz is gonna blow up, you jus’ wait and see.”
He began whipping up bowls of bleach powder and peroxide and applied it to my head with a wide paintbrush. Next he jumped in with his hands, smearing my whole head with this blue paste.
“Is this supposed to burn?”
“Jus’ a little while, dahlin’.”
“Okay. What am I gonna look like?”
“How old are you now?” Billy asked, then before I answered he said, “Time to be a blonde!”
My natural hair color was light brown. I had dyed my hair dark to look more Mexican when I was in Pacoima. This hadn’t all grown out yet. When the bleach hit the old dye, it got bright orange.
“Don’t worry,” Billy said, so professionally. “This is the first process. Now we condition and start over.”
He left me lying back in the shampoo bowl to go smoke. He came back with the teacher, who gave him new directions.
“And Billy,” she said as she walked off, “night class ends at ten PM.”
“Oh, we’ll be wailin’ outta here by then, sugah,” Billy confirmed.
He rinsed me and walked me back to his station. I sat down and opened my math homework, which I hated. He swiveled my chair away from the mirror.
“Don’t look till I tell you, m’ li’l beauty queen.”
He covered my hair with a plastic bag, and six rinses, six applications, six Cokes, a cheeseburger, and six hours later …
“Come on, Billy,” the teacher called out. Billy was in the final styling stages. She stood at the light switches. He picked up the rubber pump of hair lacquer and squeezed big splashes of sticky crispy spray onto my fried hair.
“Voilà,” he said, thrilled with his work, and spun me around to see myself.
“Yeouwzers.” My hair was powder pink. Plus he had backcombed it straight up, whipped it around to a point on top of my head, and then stuck in every bobby pin he had. My hair looked like cotton candy on a paper roll.
“It’s a Beehive,” he announced. “And … it will last for weeks.”
I kept staring at my head.
He packed up.
“We’re off … like a prom dress,” Billy told the teacher. She locked up behind us. “My car’s over there.” He pointed at the parking lot. “Hey, girl, where are you livin’ these days?”
“With my mom, nearby.”
“Sorry, baby girl, kinda late for a school night, will she be worried?”
“Nah, she’s probably not even home. But you better drive me there, I don’t wanna wreck my new do.”
“You can’t wreck it, in fact, you better call me for help when you wanna take it down.”
I kept patting my stiff lacquered cotton candy hair as Billy drove with the radio blasting. I lived five minutes away on Sunset and Mansfield in a small stucco apartment.
Billy dropped me off. I ran upstairs and unlocked the front door. The bathroom door was open with its light illuminating the living room.
No answer. I didn’t look in her room, she might have company. I peeled off my clothes and dropped them in a pile. After I put on my pajamas and brushed my teeth, I carefully laid down, making sure my pink Beehive was safe on the pillow.
I slept like a dead person.
The next morning I woke up and dashed to the mirror. Ah, perfect, not one hair out of place.
No answer. She’d see my hair later … I had to get to school.
I couldn’t wait to show off my new Billy do. My hair color was mild compared to the heads in his beauty school yesterday—purple, blue, fuchsia. I was ready to let Billy practice on me again, but maybe I’d wait till he graduated.
I got to school and sure enough everyone noticed my hairstyle, just like Cami’s new hairstyle. But, unlike her hair, mine never moved.
Some kids and teachers looked at me oddly. But the Deltas thought I was cool and wanted to know where I got it.
“There is a secret universe … on Hollywood Boulevard.”
Under the Influence
I was street smart, but I was not book smart. One class had a reputation for drawing the best minds, Harry Major’s advanced composition class. Kids rushed to sign up with Harry Major. I went an hour before school started and there was already a line. I stood quietly listening for any clues, in case I was going to be interviewed. When I got to the front of his desk he looked at my hair. I had done it myself this time, henna auburn.
“Are you new to this school?”
“Sort of … but I’m a Delta.” I smiled big and proud.
“I am concerned with your brain, not your social life, and if youhave a brain, you should be too.” He leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrow. “Why do you want to be in my class?”
“I want to learn things and I heard you are the best teacher.”
“That’s not what I hear about me,” he said, smirking, signing me in. “You will have to work”—he scanned my list of other classes—“harder than in your modern dance and ceramics classes.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured him. “And thank you, thank you.”
It was the hardest class. The pressure to read book after book, week after week, was too much for me. I struggled, leaping from sentence to paragraph then back up to where I left off when I got lost, and finally completed Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Even though reading was a struggle, I loved writing and reporting my observations.
After the classics, we read radical books, which I loved. Albert Camus’s The Stranger struck me profoundly with the opening sentence, “My mother died today or was it yesterday?” It captured my relationship with my mother, misplaced, vague, unspoken buried love … if any.
I didn’t want anyone to know I was so behind, still reading the second chapter of Walden when the class was ready for the next book, The Scarlet Letter. It was always that way. I was exhausted and frustrated but Harry didn’t give up on me. He passed me with a C+.
He knew I worked so hard for that C+.
“How can you stand Harry Major?” Rosalind asked. Kids either hated him or worshipped him. “I heard he’s cruel and coldhearted.”
“No, he’s just kinda sarcastic. I like him.”
I studied for his class when I ditched school and went across the street to the Pancake House with friends. I was torn between getting smart and being social. In the end it was good enough to know that Harry appreciated my efforts. I liked how Harry got into the minds of the authors and characters. He sure got into my mind. After his class, I saw the world deeper and differently, through literature as opposed to only from my own experience.
It seemed every girl at Hollywood High wanted to be an actress, including me. I had been good in Shakespeare at Pacoima Junior High. I even won an award for my rendition of Puck in the Shakespeare Festival at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
“If you are serious about your art and craft of acting,” John, my acting teacher, told the class, “you should be subscribing to Theatre Arts, a magazine from New York, that contains stories and a new play every month.”
John made New York come alive. He went on about the famous acting teachers, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, method acting, The Actors Studio. He taught us about the musicals Carousel, Gypsy, and Oklahoma!
We all thought, Next stop: Broadway.
John had many students from his class who were professional actors already—Sally Kellerman, Tuesday Weld, Yvette Mimieux, and Ricky Nelson—though they were ahead of me by a few years. And rising in my class, Delta sister Barbara Parkins landed a starring role in the television series Peyton Place before she graduated from high school.
The hero of us all was my Delta pal Taffy Paul, who was discovered in our school musical Annie Get Your Gun by actress Ann Sothern. The biggest thing to hit Hollywood at this time was the casting cattle call for the film West Side Story. I tried out and got nothing. Taffy did score a part, but when production realized she was under eighteen they didn’t want to pay for her on-set tutor. Right away, though, Taffy got herself another part in a big film, Experiment in Terror, starring Lee Remick and Glenn Ford. Taffy also got a new name: Stefanie Powers.
One day in the girls’ bathroom, I saw Roz opening a little gold pillbox. She took one pill out and popped it in her mouth. “Hey, watch my purse,” she said, talking like she had a sponge for a tongue. “I’m going to the water fountain.”
She came back smiling and put on some lip gloss.
“What was that?”
I didn’t ask her what is it for, will I like it, how often do you take them, where did you get them, can I get some more if I like them, are they legal, does your mother know about them, will they make me happy, strong, can I walk, talk, or drive with them, will they make me smarter, prettier, a better dancer, taller, will my hair catch on fire and my eyes light up, how many can I take on the weekend, does everyone in the Deltas know about them, how come you never gave me one before, didn’t you like me enough, why are you offering me now, what do we do after the pill, how long do they last, can I have one tomorrow too, are you sick, is it a vitamin, could I die?
“Yeah sure,” I said. “I’ll try one.”
She went back to her little pillbox and handed me a green-and-white capsule. I put it in my mouth.
“We gotta go,” Roz said. “Fifth period.”
I followed her out the door and went to the water fountain. Roz stayed to make sure I got it down.
“Okay, see ya at the bench,” Roz said. “Coffee Dan’s today?”
I walked across the quad to Harry Major’s class and waited to see what this little pill was about, if anything. It didn’t take long. After ten minutes I felt my eyes open wider, like someone had turned the room lights up. My heart pumped up a notch and all of a sudden everything got very interesting. I wanted to get busy, maybe organize Harry’s messy papers and the books on his desk, the books on the wall bookshelf, all the wall bookshelves, actually. The whole room seemed to need my attention. I argued with myself, You can’t get up; think of something else. I quietly took out a Kleenex and began polishing my makeup containers, my tube of lipstick, my eyeliner case; my mascara needed black spots wiped off, and the crumbs in the bottom of my purse from a chocolate chip cookie needed to depart.
Then it hit me. I was full of energy. That’s what the pill was about. I’d needed this all my life. I felt connected. This pill was like magic. Maybe I could read faster. Nope, in fact my eyes jumped around on the page more than usual; my new energy was too distracting.
“Excuse me, Carrie,” Mr. Major obviously had been calling on me. I was so into my head I didn’t hear him. I forgot I was in class. “Can you please tell us what is the significant difference between E. E. Cummings as opposed to Thoreau, who both wrote on the human condition?” Was this a trick question? I repeated Harry’s words to myself. “We are waiting,” he said.
“Uhhh, E. E. Cummings only used lowercase.”
“Is that your best answer?”
My mind flew to other things, back to cleaning my purse, and I’d better clean my closet when I get home. I nodded my head, Yep, that’s my answer, and smiled. I noticed when I smiled my lips were very dry, about to crack off my face. No wonder Roz went for her lip gloss right away. And my throat was as parched as corrugated cardboard. I needed water.
Mr. Major turned to another classmate. “Ethan, would that be your answer?”
The class genius Ethan, wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, spouted, “Besides lower case, they were both at different times. Edward Estlin Cummings liked to distort the syntax and punctuation. Thoreau was very succinct; E. E. Cummings was an artist, Thoreau was not. E. E. Cummings was sarcastic, Thoreau was romantic, a transcendentalist, an abolitionist …”
Oh, shut up, Ethan, you big show-off.
Hearing my deficiencies confronted, I slouched in my desk. Aw, geez, what’s this … ink from some geek last period left all over my desk? I sat up, spit on the Kleenex with what little saliva I could muster, and started wiping the ink off. This little pill was incredible. I felt like I had had fifty-seven cups of coffee. I felt like I could climb a mountain. When’s class over already? I might paint my bedroom chartreuse today. I wonder where a paint store is.
I raised my hand, “May I be excused? I need some water.”
At Coffee Dan’s that day, I didn’t want to seem as enthusiastic as I felt about this pill, but I was very interested in having another one tomorrow. Roz didn’t ask me if I liked the pill. I was sure it showed on me, my vibrating cheeks or something. Trying to counteract my boisterous insides, I whispered, “Roz, I feel really alert.”
“It wears off … I’ve been taking them for years.”
“Years? Can I get one for tomorrow? I have lots of homework and …”
“You got the idea, maybe just take half, though, if it feels like too much.”
“Half? That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“Fine, take the whole pill, but watch it if you drink a beer or anything.”
“You could get too drunk before you know it.”
Roz couldn’t understand how I could drink so much, and I didn’t understand how she could drink so little. She didn’t care if we drank or not. I wasn’t happy unless we did.
I didn’t tell Roz or the Deltas about my love affair with my mother’s bourbon that started in Pacoima or about getting busted for being drunk at age twelve. I never forgot my first sip of my mother’s bourbon when I was five; the glow after it hit my body, like a warm blanket. Drinking felt good. And if one was good, wouldn’t three be better? Besides, drinking made me feel prettier and smarter.
Roz was more interested in guys than in drinking. I got more interested in guys when I drank. I was convinced that if the world drank more, it would be a better place to live in. And I really wanted to try alcohol with this pill.
“So, Roz, where do you get the pills?”
“I got a guy who gets me as many as I want.”
They were called Dexedrine. They were diet pills and who wanted to eat when there was so much to do after taking one?
I raced in my mind. I raced in my body. I raced to think of more things to race to. I loved the feeling. I was able to clean my room, do my homework quickly, and expand my thoughts. I picked lint off my sweaters and shined my shoes, hung all my hangers in the same direction; color-coordinated my clothes from white to black, and the same with my shoes. I had my work cut out for me, next maybe I ought to paint my drawers …
“What the hell is going on?” my mother said, popping her head in my bedroom around midnight.
“I need to get organized.”
“You need to go to bed.” She closed the door.
She needed to go to bed, not me.
“I’m not tired,” I said through the closed door.
“Carole, you have school tomorrow,” she hollered back.
“Okay … but my name is Carrie.”
I brushed my teeth and got into bed. My body was tired, but not my mind. Tomorrow, I will move my mirror to the other side of my room, and my bed should go under the window, more breeze there, and … zzzzzzzzz.
The next night, after more organizing, I calculated my needs—better clothes, better acrylics, new shoes, mascara, lipsticks, eye shadows. Which brought me to the main point; I had no money like the other girls I knew.
“I need a job, Roz. I need money. I’ve worked at a bakery and a pizza parlor. I can paint signs, too. What work do you do?”
“Work?” Roz giggled. “I don’t know anything about that.” She told me her grandmother and her mom gave her money, each one thinking the other didn’t. “And Joe and Mickey and Gary give me money to buy myself presents.”
Roz modeled her new black Geistex pullover. How does she get guys that aren’t even her boyfriends to give her money?
“Hey, you know what?” Roz burst out. “Linda Evans works at the Hollywood Paramount and Ingrid works across the street at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Maybe you could be an usherette.”
The theaters she spoke of were around the corner from school. I wasn’t sure what an usherette was, though, I never heard of an usherette at the Van Nuys Drive-In or the Panorama Theatre.
Thanks to Roz’s magic pills, I was ready to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and working after school sounded great. I went to the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Outside, Betty Grable had imprinted her legs in the cement, Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante their noses, Groucho Marx and George Burns their hands and cigars. I walked slowly, past the two stone lions guarding the entrance, into the huge pagoda.
It was not busy at 4:00 PM, so I could really see its beauty. The high ceilings towered over me like a cathedral and the gold-trimmed ropes and paintings on the Chinese-printed walls made me feel like I was in China. Even the carpet was a Chinese design.
Asking for a paint job in Pacoima was easy. This was scary. I went to the popcorn girl. “Who do I speak to about a job?”
The man counting the money behind her turned and said, “Try across the street. We don’t need anyone here.”
Not much I could say after that. “Thank you …” I left.
I ran across the street to the Paramount. It wasn’t special like the Chinese, no theme, no gold. I asked the girl in the ticket box if the manager was in, because I was looking for a job.
“Come back later, Mr. Katsky will be in around nine.”
“Okay, I’ll see ya then. What’s your name?”
“Stella and I’m quitting, so I know there will be a space.”
“Okay, sorry you’re leaving, but whoopee for me.”
I went home and told my mother, “I think I got a job.”
“That’s nice,” she said, painting at her desk. “How will you get there?”
“I can walk, I’m fine.”
My mother liked to ask, but she needed me to be fine.
She had no time for me not to be fine.
Mr. Katsky greeted me at the snack bar. He was an attractive elderly man in his forties. I got the idea he had only a few minutes for me. It was hardly an interview. “Stella told me about you. I’ll need you in two weeks if you want the job. Lots of kids from your school have worked here.”
I loved my theater job. I stood at the back and watched Gone With the Wind over and over. I decided I wanted I’ll think about that tomorrow on my gravestone. Next BUtterfield 8 opened. I had never seen the likes of Elizabeth Taylor’s full-screen astonishing beauty, her piercing violet eyes. I had also never seen anything as cool as when her character brushed her teeth first thing in the morning from a leftover glass of scotch sitting on the bathroom sink.
Palm Springs Easter Vacation
“Hey, are you coming?” Roz asked me during lunch at the Delta bench.
Roz picked through the lunch her mom made her. “Palm Springs for spring break, for the best time and tan in the whole world, that’s where.”
I packed my nightgown, my Zizanie cologne in the silver metal spray can, shampoo, Life cream rinse, and Coppertone. I put in my best dress, my black spaghetti-strap sheath, just like Roz’s, my black heels, my black fox-collared sweater with the rhinestone clasp at the waist, and my new two-piece Cole bathing suit. I slipped on my sundress and Bernardo sandals and fluffed my Flip. I was ready. Walking out to the living room to wait for Roz, I realized I had forgotten to tell my mother I was off to a desert somewhere …
My mother and I lived in the hush of our past and had maintained our distance since we’d moved back to Hollywood. She had her world and I had mine. We had a common courtesy: Don’t get in my way and I won’t get in yours. I loved my mother, but more as a memory, an idea.
She was sitting on the couch in her white cuffed shorts, her skinny little legs too tanned from sunning on the one metal lounge out front on the cement lanai, her skinny little midriff uncovered in a blouse tied under her barely there breasts, with her little too tanned arms sticking out. She was watching television, smoking a Pall Mall, and drinking a beer. It was Saturday, 10:00 AM.
“No work?” I asked.
“No, Bill’s coming over, we’re going to Marian’s, maybe play poker.”
Bill, my mom’s surveyor boyfriend, and Marian, her best and only friend, loved to play poker. It was their favorite thing to do next to drinking.
“Bill and I are getting married,” she told me.
I set my suitcase down.
“Mom, I’m going to Palm Springs with Roz and the Deltas for Easter week. Her grandmother is chaperoning.”
“Just like that? ‘I’m going’? Don’t you think you should ask me if it’s okay? I don’t know these girls.” She was having her Good Housekeeping parenting attack.
“Mom, get real.”
She slammed her beer can on the coffee table, that same coffee table that never held coffee.
“Get real?” she mimicked. “Don’t you talk to me like I’m one of your kid friends. I’m your mother, that’s insulting, I ought to—”
“Mom,” I interrupted. “The Deltas do this every year. Besides, don’t you have to plan your wedding?”
She lit a cigarette and brushed off old fallen ashes from the last one.
“Okay, but you be careful. And no biggy, we’ll probably go to the courthouse. Do you want to come?”
“No thanks, oh, that honking must be Rosalind, ’bye, Mom.”
Without looking back, I picked up my little suitcase and pranced out.
“We’ve been driving over an hour. Where is this Palm Springs desert?”
Rosalind’s hair was blowing behind her. The front was held back with a red-and-white polka-dot bandanna that matched her Lanz designer sundress. Her lips were glossed white and she had on big white plastic sunglasses. Gramma Rose was in the backseat like a stuffed cushy Gramma doll. She was silent, staring out the window. Her eyes didn’t seem alert to the passing sights. It was more like she was looking inside at days gone by.
“Gramma, you okay?” She didn’t respond to Roz and continued to stare out the window. “Gramma, how’re you doing?” Roz asked louder. Gramma Rose nodded and smiled. She was bundled up in a Mode O’Day housedress and a loose knitted shawl. I smiled back to her.
“Hi, Gramma Rose, you want some root beer?” She tightened her lips and shook her head no. I turned back to my side of the world, the front seat.
The car radio was blasting “Jailhouse Rock.” All the windows were down. The air conditioner didn’t work on Gramma Rose’s old Packard.
“Did you see those guys in that big Lincoln? They were looking at us,” Roz said. “I bet they’re going to Palm Springs.”
“Hey, look at that Woody,” I said. “Those guys are waving at us.”
“Play hard to get, don’t smile,” Roz said. “What an old clunker, anyway.”
We laughed and started singing “Sweet Little Sixteen” with the radio.
Another car passed with girls waving at us. I smiled. When a family drove by and waved, I thought, that was odd, we couldn’t be that cute.
“Do you smell something funny?” Roz asked.
I was too busy smoking to be sensitive to any smell. “No.”
“Vhat’s that smell?” Gramma Rose spurted out in her thick Yiddish accent.
Roz slowed down to 60 mph. Now every car that passed us was frantically waving and pointing at us. Roz and I looked at each other.
Someone pulled close to us and yelled, “Your car is on fire.”
We looked at each other and screamed, “Fire?”
“Vhat’d he say?”
Roz pulled to the side of the road, we jumped out, and she tried to pull Gramma Rose out of the backseat. “The car’s on fire, Gramma, come out.”
“Fire, Gramma Rose, hurry.”
“Fire? Oh my Gawt,” Gramma Rose screamed. “This vaz Poppa’s favorite car, oy vayzmere, Hoiman, I’m sorry,” she ranted, struggling to get out quickly.
“Take Gramma!” Roz practically threw her at me. “I’m getting our suitcases.”
“Roz, you’re crazy! We need to run from the car.”
“I’m not losing my best clothes and my new bikinis. Want yours?”
As smoke billowed and red fire shot from the front end, Roz ran to the trunk. People were driving by, looking horrified, but no one stopped.
“Okay, get mine too, but hurry!”
I looked at the huge sprawling sky, blue and beautiful except for our growing black cloud. Gramma Rose and I plunked down on the embankment. Roz ran back with our suitcases. “It’ll be okay, Gramma, we’ll get it fixed.”
“Vhat you mean?” Gramma Rose cried. “Nutting to fix, look, it’s gone.”
We looked and the car was completely engulfed in flames. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. This seemed impossible. But lo and behold, to our rescue, two cute guys pulled up followed by fire trucks.
“You obviously need a lift,” said the cute driver. “Where to?”
Roz twinkled through her devastation. “Palm Springs.”
“We’ll take you.”
We piled in the backseat, squeezing Gramma Rose in between us.
I let Roz do her flirting. I stared out the window and began to grasp the desert that I had never seen before, calming with its vastness, the random cactus scattered about, hiding all the animals that must be living out there, snakes, rabbits, and lizards.
Then, like an oasis, I saw where we were headed. The glimmer of lights at the threshold meshed with the remains of the day’s sunlight. We drove the highway like a river winding through the pass, palm trees bordering both sides of the road, blowing my mind wide open.
I finally relaxed, decompressed. The warmest wind breezed by my face from the open windows. It was a big moment, a moment of recognizing creation and my planet, Earth. I suddenly felt a closeness to a God I wanted to believe in, the kind my grandmother had talked about, the God that knew what was in everybody’s heart, even the tiniest sparrow, a God without judgment, punishment, shame, just beauty, welcoming, loving, and all-surrounding. I looked at Roz still flirting; Gramma Rose asleep, the two cute boys still cute. I felt completely at peace in my own body.
The other Deltas were out when we arrived. We plunked onto our king-size bed, our faces frosted like cookies with a fancy cream Roz brought for facials, watching television. Gramma Rose was comfortable in her single bed.
A new day: we popped our Dexedrine with our morning orange juice. “We aren’t stopping until next Sunday morning,” Roz said.
Suzy banged on our door.
“Time to get out to the pool—cool drinks and hot guys.”
“Rosalind, you tell your mother vhat happen t’us? Oy, your Grampa Hoiman, he’s rollink ovah in his grave, he loved dat cah. And vhere is da’ cah?”
“Don’t worry, Gramma, it’s being fixed,” Roz said, tucking her in her chair in front of the television. “We’re going outside.” She turned to me. “Put some oil on my back, will ya?”
“Wow, this smells good,” I said, slathering her back with her expensive Bain de Soleil tanning lotion. “Can I borrow some?” Roz squeezed out more orange goo in her hand and handed the tube to me.
“Sure, I have three more in my suitcase. It’s the best.”
She started to walk out.
“Hey, what about my back?”
“Ask a cute guy to rub it on when you get to the pool.” Roz laughed. “Come on, let’s go before Gramma Rose asks about her damn car again.”
We were lying out in the boiling 102 degrees for about an hour. I saw Roz frying in front of my eyes, waves of heat rising off her tummy. It reminded me of summer days in Pacoima, but I was far from Virginia’s pool. I wanted to be blasé like Roz, like the other Deltas who were chatting it up with boys, but I felt awkward, half naked, and too shy with them. And I knew I laughed too loudly when Roz told a joke, so I slunk down into a tanning pose, where I could view everyone through my big turquoise framed sunglasses without being noticed.
“Look who’s coming in the gate,” Roz said. “Joe Montgomery and his friends.”
The Seven Samurai posse, the best-looking guys from Hollywood High, the Athenians club invaded our pool area. Roger Montgomery, Joe’s older brother, was the only one I actually knew. They all strolled in like they owned the place. There was one guy in particular who got my attention. Who was he? I felt flush behind my ears. He made my heart jump out of my bathing suit like I was a cartoon character.
For starters, he towered over the other guys, his longish straight brown hair falling over on his forehead like Tarzan, big relaxed lips that showed no emotion, chiseled cheeks, a strong jaw, and big brown eyes that locked onto mine. He was walking over to us with Roger, walking closer and closer.
Oh … talk to me, talk to me, not Roz, pick me. Roz had a million guys and she could get a million more. I hoped Roz wouldn’t go for him or I wouldn’t have a chance. Roz sat up and peeked over her sunglasses at Roger.
“You want to go out with me tonight, don’t you?” Roger said to Roz, lifting her up off her lounge. She screamed and giggled.
My handsome Adonis stood like a statue taking it all in. Maybe it was his first time here too. He didn’t seem as rowdy as the rest. I felt his presence like nothing I had known before. I was paralyzed, hypnotized, mesmerized as I studied him in open view. This must be what “love at first sight” means. I had to do something besides stare at him. I reached for the suntan lotion and unscrewed the top. His big hand swooped down on mine.
“Let me do that for you,” he said, with a deep foreign accent.
I couldn’t look at him now; he was too close.
He took the tube from me. I thought I was going to faint. Before my next breath, he was on my leg with the Bain de Soleil. We didn’t talk. He went up and down my legs with the fancy cream. “How about your back?”
I smiled, hiding my nerves, not wanting to speak, and I rolled over.
The pool area faded, it was just his big hand on my back. Then he undid the hook on my bathing suit top to place the lotion evenly. I was glad I was facedown. He rehooked my top when he finished and said, “Happy tanning session.”
“Let’s split,” Roger said. They walked out as determined as they walked in.
“Who was that?” I asked Roz.
“The giant? I don’t know. I never saw him before. Why?”
We went out every night that week and all I did was silently search for my tanning-lotion Adonis, but in the whole seven days, I never saw him again.
Roz was driving her mom’s T-bird. “Mack the Knife” was blaring and we sang every word. We had no particular place in mind but this street, the fabulous Sunset Strip. We thought we owned it.
Roz looked glamorous as usual. She had her super Palm Springs tan and was showing it off in her new white halter cotton dress. Her hair was parted to one side, her vibrant blue cat eyes peeking out, the heavy black eyeliner accentuating their almond shape. Her beauty still captivated me. I loved being with her. She was always self-assured, more girlie than me, more particular than me, more everything than me.
I looked out at the nightclubs, one on every corner, Ciro’s, La Rue Nightclub, the Trocadero, the Mocambo, and the ultimate tourist trap, Dino’s Lodge, Dean Martin’s restaurant, where they filmed the television show 77 Sunset Strip. Roz told me the whole Strip used to be owned by gangsters. “That’s where Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen’s flunky, gambled,” Roz said, and pointed to the Melody Room.
“Quick, pull into the Interlude parking lot,” I shouted. “I see Roger Montgomery.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Roz screeched over.
Cute parking attendants swarmed us. One guy started to pull his pants down to moon us. “Hey, Goldie, we’re not at the beach,” Roger said, and turned his butt to us. “Let me do it!”
Roz laughed. “Stop it, you guys.”
“What’re you girls doin’?” Roger said. “Wanna go in and see the show?”
I wanted to ask about the handsome giant he’d brought to Palm Springs, but Lenny Bruce was performing.
“You can get us in?” Roz asked.
“Don’t you know us parking guys got the real power on this street?”
“Speaking of power,” I said, innocently, “how’s your friend?”
“The guy at the pool with you, the one with all the muscles. He looked like Hercules,” I said. “He had an accent.”
“Ohhhhhhhh.” Goldie flipped his lips like The Three Stooges’ Curly. “You mean Big Dan. Why, ya like him, huh? Do ya, do ya?”
I blushed. “I thought he was very nice.”
“She likes him!” Roger said. “As a matter a fact, he works here sometimes.”
I felt all tingly like when he rubbed the lotion on my legs.
Meeting Richard Alcala
Billy Grimes called just as I was about to leave for school.
“Where you been, Billy?” I had called his beauty school for months looking for him. “I had to have two friends help me take down that hairdo you made.”
“Wanna meet the guy that turned me on to hairdressing and see his Beverly Hills salon?”
I loved hanging out with Billy, especially if he was going to show me something that excited him. Plus this would be my first step inside a beauty salon.
“Today, baby doll, when else is there?’”
That was Billy … no tomorrows … only right now.
I had never been to Beverly Hills.
I was born on Burton Way, a short street referred to as the Gateway to Beverly Hills, but I never got past the gate. I knew my mother went to Beverly Hills High and she had a fiancé when she was seventeen, the track star, but he was killed in a car accident before they graduated. She never talked about it or her childhood.
Burton Way had a plush green bridal path that extended about three miles long, and later was replaced by cable tracks. I remembered the train that brought the Ringling Brothers Circus to town. It would park in front of our Burton Way courtyard home. I heard lions roar in their train cages.
When we moved back from Pacoima, we moved to Hollywood. Beverly Hills and Hollywood were two different worlds.
I ran across the street after school. There was Billy listening to “Great Balls of Fire” and smoking his Nat Sherman. Billy was the first guy, except for a pirate, that I ever saw wearing a pierced earring, one little gold hoop. I jumped into his root beer brown Chevy.
“Babe’s gonna get me a car, did I tell you?”
“Groovy, we can race,” Billy said. “Wait till you meet this cat Richard Alcala. He’s cool like an ocean breeze and got them chicks goin’ crazy for him.”
I realized, as Billy went on talking, that his hairdressing was a little bit about hair and a lot about getting women.
“Billy, are you going to do hair or chicks?”
“Both, baby doll. You make ’em pretty, then you take ’em out.”
Billy could talk the spots off a leopard, sell water to a drowning man and the Bible to the devil, so he was sure to do well in his new venture.
“There it is!” he said. I didn’t see any fancy Beverly Hills salon. “And that’s Richard Alcala standing out front talking to a woman in a smock.”
From across the street I could see a man wearing a black suit and tie—and he was handsome.
“You’re gonna love this guy.” Billy said.
“Maybeeee,” I said. We parked and headed across the street. I felt I was about to meet a celebrity.
“Hey, man,” Richard greeted us. The lady walked away.
“Wasn’t that Natalie Wood?” Billy said.
“Yeah,” Richard said, and watched her go back inside the salon, then turned back to us. “So, how are you, Billy? What’s up, man?”
“I brought my li’l friend by”—Billy leaned in—“you changed your name fo’ sure, right?”
I couldn’t take my teenage eyes off Richard. I was smiling at him way too much. It was easy to see why being near him was captivating. He had an effortless cool and he smelled good. He was Latin, with well-cut jet-black hair, caramel tan skin, and black eyes. I didn’t want my fluster to show, and Billy’s not remembering my name made me feel more awkwar