For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be a writer. Looking back now, it's as if much of my life was mapped out with author in mind, having spent my childhood growing up in places like Mexico City, Beirut, Stockholm and Mallorca. So many collected memories.
My father worked for the State Department, so between countries Washington, DC was always home base. It was there where I got the idea to write my first book. I was sixteen. The book was about Armageddon. I spent most of my summer vacation days locked away in my bedroom pounding away on an old typewriter that belonged to my dad. I didn't have time for showers. I let the peach fuzz on my face grow. And two months later, I finished what in my mind was a masterpiece, the book I was destined to write, even at such a young age. And so, dewy-eyed and green and based on strong family member praise, I sent it to Little Brown. A few months later I got a letter. Little Brown didn't agree with me. Words like, "Highly unbelievable", "Predictable", "Missed the point" and "childish", come to mind. I was devastated. That rejection letter was enough to do me in for the next few years.
It was around 1981. Another Summer vacation, but this time from Cal State University in Long Beach, California. I was on a plane and headed to Washington, DC to spend the summer break with my father. Inside my carry-on shoulder pack was a screenplay I just completed for a class assignment. I was a film major. On my lap was a class textbook (can't remember the title) on film.
Sitting in the window seat beside me was a scruffy, Lee Marvin-like older man. He had two cigars in the breast pocket of his white short-sleeved shirt. He was gaunt, with unkempt white hair and had the appearance of a man whose age could go one way or the other. The weathered look and lines on his face storied the possibility of a rough life. He looked familiar, but I just couldn’t place the face.
You cannot measure the influence someone can have by time spent together. The contact might be seconds, minutes, hours or spans of moments over great lengths of time. There's always something significant that comes with a genuine encounter. Such was the encounter I had with the man sitting next to me. After the plane had leveled out and the stewardess was beginning to make her rounds, he pulled out one of the cigars and lit it. A waft of thick smoke was immediately drawn upward, sucked into the planes filtration system. I was reading my text book. The stewardess appeared.
“You can’t smoke cigars on the plane, sir,” she advised him.
The scruffy man looked up, smoke easing out of his mouth like air. He muttered something like a huff for the word horse and then the following expletive.
“Only cigarettes. We don’t allow cigar or pipe smoking on the plane, sir. I’ll have to insist you put that out.”
“All the cigarettes these people are smoking on this damn plane right now don’t equal the smoke I’ll exhale out of this single cigar,” he said without looking at me. “I hate putting the damn thing out.”
He tilted the cigar in the tiny armchair ashtray, his index finger barely touching it like he was trying to prevent the heavier moist end from teetering down and flipping the cigar to the floor under his seat. He mumbled and huffed for a while and after a moment I believe he felt that it was safe enough to leave the cigar on its’ own.
He faced me, looked briefly at the book I was reading and said, "I'm mentioned in that book. A few times as a matter of fact."
I looked at the book sitting in my lap and then at him. He had a genuine smile.
“You’re in this book,” I said with a suspicious smile.
He asked if he could have the book. I was doubtful, but I played along and handed it over to him. He turned to the index, stopped when he reached the Fs. His index finger followed the names and stopped.
“Samuel Fuller,” is all he said. He handed the book back.
I didn't believe him, of course. Why would writer/director Samuel Fuller, whose many films such as Steel Helmet were essential viewing in film school, and whose last film, The Big Red One starring Lee Marvin, I had seen two times, be sitting beside me on a plane headed to Washington, DC?
The future cop in me became evident as my line of questioning seemed more like an interrogation. I even asked to see some identification. He smiled a crooked smile and pulled out a Passport. It did indicate that he and Samuel Fuller shared the same name. At that time I was only familiar with the name and the movies behind the name so even though he looked like someone I may have seen during the course of my film studies, I still doubted that I was seated next to a legend. That is, until he started talking about his latest film, “White Dog”.
He told me that he had a lay-over in Washington, DC before hopping another plane that would eventually land him in Paris.
“They banned the film in the United States,” he said with contempt. “They think it’s a racist film.” He explained that was the same as calling him a racist, something, he said, he is far from. According to him, the film dealt with a difficult subject and obviously one that the U.S. was not ready for. He admitted with more than a crooked smile this time that Europe loved it. He was a hero in Paris.
Over the next few hours, he shared stories, he even read a little of my screenplay and encouraged me to keep writing. "You've got talent," he told me.
After that flight, I was reenergized. I knew what it was I had to do in life.
Over the years I would have so many more encounters and relationships with legends - John Cale, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson come to mind. I did eventually make a film, but it was only based on a story of mine. Roadside Prophets. I was signed on as a co-producer and it was released in 1991by New Line Cinema. It starred Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, punk legend, John Doe, John Cusack, Arlo Guthrie, David Carradine and my friend, Timothy Leary, whose home the story for the movie was conceived at. It was a film that sadly left a bad taste in my mouth with respect to the industry.
After the end of a disastrous, long term relationship and the even more painful realization that the film business, a career I worked toward for years, was not fulfilling me, I dropped out of the scene. After months of sitting around, contemplating life and feeling sorry for myself I remembered that I was a writer at heart. I thought about Samuel Fuller and all the real life adventures that he must have had. So many of those adventures and tragedies coming across in his work. So after realizing that, what do I do? I spend the next year getting in shape and then I join the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. After long eight months in the police academy, I hit the streets with a badge and a gun. Maybe it was a romantic notion, something I thought about doing in the past, but my mind back then was too focused on another kind of success. The writer in me had this naive idea that it'd be great adventure, something I’d do for a few years then write about it. But the job got into my blood. It became something more than just a career. It was a responsibility, a way of life, or as Simeon, my protagonist in A Detailed Man puts it, “a bond created by fraternity, years and years of sodality engrafted in us through the installation of some magical oath.”
Being a detective on a large Metropolitan Police Department, has allowed me to see humanity at its best and its absolute worst. Something I never would have otherwise realized. Definitely not something you can research. More than anything else in my life, it has made me the writer I am today. A Detailed Man, was a book that took its early form while I was on the department. Whatever off duty time I had, was usually spent writing it. It is a book that could not have been written without the life experience. When I finished I didn't think "masterpiece", or feel that it was the book I was "destined" to write. I just felt satisfied.