“Since you’re moving to Southern California,” Mike Davern’s mother said, “you ought to look up your cousin Leonard.”
Trying to keep from wincing, Mike asked, “Is he in LA?”
“Some place called La Jolla,” Martha Davern responded, pronouncing the J in Jolla in the same way as jelly, jam, or jolly.
“Chances are I’ll never be anywhere near there,” said Mike, choosing to ignore the mistake.
“And why not?”
“How far is Asbury Park from our part of Jersey?”
“Without traffic? Les than an hour.”
“From where I’ll be living,” said Mike, “La Jolla is more than double that.”
It wasn’t anything specific that Leonard ever said or did that made Mike reluctant to reach out to him once he found an apartment not far from Dodger Stadium in an area called Echo Park. Rather it was the cumulative effect of hearing ad infinitum how wonderful his older cousin was. Martha Davern, never given to saying something once when it could be repeated a thousand times, loved to hold up Leonard, a scion of the affluent Long Island branch of her side of the family, as the exemplar, paradigm, and quintessence of everything a fine, upstanding young man should be. In other words, the antithesis of her own son.
With zero interest in competing against his older cousin, who was class president of his prep school, captain of the golf team, head of the debating team, and a mainstay of Junior Achievement, Mike, consciously or otherwise – though most likely both – took what his mother considered to be a far more disreputable route. He boxed at the local Police Athletic League, played basketball and baseball at his inner city high school, ran with a rough crowd, and drove the school administrators batty as they tried to reconcile his obstreperous behavior with his high SAT scores. Then there was the awkward moment when an essay Mike was forced to write as a punishment for unexcused absences took first prize nationally – including a sizable cash reward – in a scholastic competition.
Having spent several weekends during his junior and senior years visiting former teammates at the colleges they were attending, Mike incensed his mother, who had long irritated him with boasts of Leonard having “made Yale,” and others having “made Dartmouth,” “made Amherst,” or “made Cornell” – to which her son’s reply was invariably, “Out of clay”? Play-Doh? Papier-mache?” – by announcing that higher education was of zero interest to him. Only once Labor Day approached following his high school graduation did he finally reach out to a local school that had shown interest in him as a baseball prospect.
Once enrolled, Mike surprised others, and most of all himself, by discovering that learning could be more than dutiful. Realizing that he possessed a near photographic memory, plus a way with words, Mike sailed through his freshman and sophomore years while spending more time exploring the clubs, museums, and mischief of nearby Manhattan than in class.
Once he talked his way into a gig writing the Paris section of a proposed travel guidebook for the youth market, Mike wangled his way into a junior year abroad program. That made him the only impoverished student in the City of Lights with a mandate to do everything imaginable, plus an (albeit limited) expense account. It was thanks to countless hours spent at the Cinematheque, plus scores of Parisian revival houses, that his mother’s dream of her reprobate son finding respectability as a doctor, lawyer, or dentist, was put to rest forever. Bitten by the movie bug, Mike set a goal of becoming the next Welles, Godard, Bertolucci, or Preston Sturges.
It was toward the end of his stint in Paris, where he made a short film with the help of his French girlfriend, whose family made him feel more welcome than did his own ever did, that Mike made the decision to give Hollywood a try.
Knowing not a soul in a place he playfully described as “across the street from Japan,” luck once again shaped his life in unexpected ways. After renting a rundown two-bedroom place he couldn’t afford, Mike found someone to help him split the rent when a high school friend decided that he, too, wanted to escape from Jersey winters. Even more important was an email from his old French girlfriend, Claire. Her stepfather, she informed him in French, had accepted a job in California, “So if ever you come west,” she continued, “I hope you’ll visit.” Where, of all places, were Claire and her family were now living? La Jolla.
In the weeks and months that followed, though Claire periodically drove north, sometimes accompanied by her brother, who would sleep on the living room sofa, generally it was Mike who headed south in his rickety Volvo.
Between working on a script and cobbling together a living – teaching French at a community college, handling a couple of shifts at a neighborhood bar, and doing whatever freelance reading of screenplays he could manage – it was usually only on weekends that Mike took to the road. Though sometimes spur of the moment, mostly the jaunts came when Claire’s parents, Sophie and Claude, were planning on entertaining.
It was a heady crowd that was invariably present: luminaries from the Salk Institute, a few key faculty members from the local University of California campus, a handful of writers and artists who lived in the area, plus two Nobel laureates from France – a biologist and a sociologist – whom Claude lured over as visiting scholars. Yet thanks to Sophie’s skill as a hostess, everyone was always relaxed, open, and best of all, surprisingly down to earth.
Though initially intimidated, Mike, as a member of the Gaillards’ extended family, soon found himself surprisingly comfortable in that high octane company.
A couple of months later, the unexpected brought about a change in both Mike’s morale and his fledgling career. One Saturday morning, after a week in which he received three rejections of scripts from potential agents, plus the absence of a reply from two others, he was trudging toward his car after some pickup basketball when one of the other playground regulars joined him. “So what do you do when you’re not hitting jumpshots?” Harry Grant asked.
“Lately, writing scripts.”
“Can I read something?”
Surprised, Mike eyed the other guy. “Mind if I ask why?”
“I’m an agent.”
Fearing that a turn-down might make returning to the playground comfortable, Mike begrudgingly emailed one of his screenplays. Bright and early on Monday morning came a call that took him by surprise.
“The script you sent,” Harry Grant began. “Who’s repping it?”
“Nobody,” Mike replied.
“Then how about coming by my office tomorrow?”
“Sure, I always start my week by joking,” said Harry. “I think it’s really good. Even better, I think I know where to sell it.”
Buoyed by the fact that he’d found representation – or that representation had found him – Mike was uncharacteristically careless the next time his mother phoned. Asked if he had plans for the weekend, out came the truth. “I’m heading to La Jolla,” he blurted.
“Great!” exclaimed Martha. “I’ll tell your Aunt Miriam.”
“So that she can let Leonard know you’ll call.”
Fighting Friday afternoon traffic en route to La Jolla, Mike kicked himself repeatedly. His choice was either to reach out to his cousin, or to hear forever from his mother how he had embarrassed her. Neither outcome seemed more appealing then elective root canal work.
As a result, once Mike reached his destination he procrastinated, dawdled, and deferred until lunch was ending on Sunday. Only then did he explained to Claire that there was something he needed to do.
Hoping that he would reach voicemail rather than his cousin, he placed a call, then waited as the phone rang and rang. Any hope of leaving word was dashed when at last Leonard answered.
“It’s your cousin Mike from Jersey,” said the unhappy caller.
“I heard you’d be down here,” replied Leonard. “Want to come by?”
“Okay if a friend is with me?”
“No problem,” stated Leonard.
Hanging up, Mike faced Claire. “T’es pas obligee,” he said, assuring her that she didn’t have to feel obligated.
“You look like you could use some support,” was Claire’s reply.
Whereas a four year difference while growing up can create the sense of two totally different generations, such a gap often seemed much less of a divide in the years after college.
That was not the case when Leonard answered the door at his cottage.
Gone was any sign of the vitality or moral certitude Mike remembered vividly. Dressed in a corduroy sport jacket with leather patches and holding a pipe, with his hair prematurely thinning, Leonard seemed to have gone directly from Big Man On Campus to middle age.
After a brief introduction to Leonard’s wife, a thin blonde named Melinda, who promptly excused herself, the two arrivals were led into Leonard’s book-lined study.
Paying little attention Claire, whom he seemed to dismiss as nothing but a French floozy, Leonard studied his cousin for a moment. “So,” he then said, “your mother’s fears were not fully realized.”
“I beg your pardon?” responded Mike.
“You’re not dead or in jail. Though some might say the film business is close enough.”
“As opposed to?” wondered Mike, not the least bit pleased.
“Academia. Science. Working for an N.G.O.”
“Whereas the arts are frivolous?”
“Well,” said Leonard, glancing momentarily at Claire, “the French revere Jerry Lewis.”
“So,” replied Mike, “I guess that means that Citizen Kane, Gravity’s Rainbow, Ray Charles, and, Hamlet don’t mean much to you.”
Leonard frowned. “Someone’s getting defensive.”
“No,” Mike responded. “Someone’s stating that to many people, me included, Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, and Lou Reed are more important than, say, the Albigensian Crusade.”
Leonard took a deep breath, then again spoke. “You’re aware, I presume, that that’s my field of interest.”
“No, I plucked it at random. Why do you assume that something from the dusty past – something many have never heard of – is more important than Money Heist on Netflix, or an Italian miniseries you probably never heard of called The Best Of Youth? But then, you probably would probably rank a dozen operas or so over Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.”
“And here I thought you were the king of popular culture.”
Leonard shrugged. “I suppose it has its place.”
“Along with what? Disneyland? Miniature golf? Chuck E. Cheese?”
Leonard shook his head. “You’re getting carried away.”
“Am I? I bet you’re real big on street art, right?”
“From a sociological point of view –”
“Sociological, my ass,” interrupted Mike. “It’s probably the most vibrant form of artistic expression today. But for you, unless it’s in the Louvre or the Smithsonian –”
“I’m a historian,” said Leonard almost apologetically.
“And Doris Kearns Goodwin isn’t? Or David McCullough? And what about guys like Hofstadter and Howard Zinn?”
Leonard gazed around the room momentarily before again facing Mike. “Let’s move on, shall we?”
“Move on, we shall,” replied Mike with a smile, who was surprised to see his cousin turn to face Claire after ignoring her for so long. “So,” Leonard said to her, “what brings you to this part of the world?”
“My father took a took a job here,” she answered.
“Where, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“At the Salk Institute.”
Suddenly, Leonard’s face lit up. “Is your father by any chance Claude Gaillard?”
“And your mom’s name is –?”
Clearly impressed, Leonard decided to put on the charm. “I understand,” he said, “that they have the most wonderful gatherings.”
“I won’t disagree,” said Claire.
“That’s why I come down so often,” Mike added.
“At risk of being forward,” said Leonard hopefully, “is there any chance I might be able to attend one or two?”
In the most ladylike way imaginable, Claire shook her head.
“W-why not?” stuttered a disheartened Leonard.
“I don’t think you would fit in,” said Claire softly.
Though he returned to La Jolla often over the next year-and-a-half before Claire and her family returned to Paris, never again did Mike Davern pay a visit to his cousin Leonard.
Miraculously, nor did his mother bug him about it. either.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. @AlSwyer