Today the temperature is 36 degrees. I have ordered a fresh fruit juice in The Kiss, my local cafe, on Christo Botev Boulevard, Sofia. I reach for my Bulgarian language course but it's too darned hot. My friend Vasil Petrov is meeting me here. He's a famous singer. I like this place. Four or five tables face the street and are ideal for people-watching. A woman in a fluorescent yellow jacket walks up and down the boulevard selling parking tickets for the city. Now you have to pay to park in the center and, more importantly, parking offenses are enforced. About a year ago I did something stupid in my car and was pulled over. A policeman invited me to get out of my car and talk to his colleague who was still sitting in his vehicle. I crossed the road reaching for my wallet. The sergeant in the police vehicle muttered something about "coffee...". I eventually handed over 10 Leva, about 3 pounds and 50 pence and was allowed to leave without a ticket. This, in broad daylight and in front of at least 20 people standing at a bus top. These days the police are more careful. Their open arrogance is being forced underground by EU legislation. I met the mayor of Sofia, Boiko Borissov, in my favourite piano bar one evening and congratulated him on closing Vitosha Boulevard to traffic. Against very stiff commercial objections, Sofia's most exclusive shopping street is now a pedestrian zone. Also, across the city a flurry of parking spaces have been painted in bright blue for the disabled and new traffic lights installed. Mayor Borissov was in the bar to celebrate his party's success in the European elections. I think he will end up as Prime Minister one day.

Vasil is late but in Bulgaria this is normal. Patience is an important quality to develope in this land. Two girls pass. They wear very short skirts and walk in a self-consciously sexy way. Gorgeous. When I first came here, like every new-comer, I was struck by the beauty of the Bulgarian female. I have been here long enough now, however, to be aware of the people walking between each eye-grabbing cluster of Sofian beauty. It is still a tough life for many. The old ladies singing on the streets or selling bread or selling small bunches of violets outside the churches were probably beautiful once. But life was a much more cruel and harsh master for them than for the young women of today. I had a beautiful Bulgarian girlfriend until about two months ago. Her mother is a doctor who cures psoriasis. In the West she would be earning thousands of pounds a year. Here in Sofia she lives in two rooms with her daughter and is lucky to earn enough money to keep ahead of the game. She supports her daughter while she takes her second degree (in film directing; her first was journalism). The old supporting the new until the old must give way to the new.

A gypsy puts only one foot on the steps to The Kiss before a waiter immediately shoos him away. I have heard many Bulgarians say "I am not racist but the Roma...!!!". In 2000 I came here for the first to make a film and saw a dancing bear in the street near the newly constructed Hilton hotel. One of the ways this patent cruelty was countered was a charity with funding from, among others, Bridget Bardot. They set up a bear sanctuary for these sad creatures in a lovely mountain setting near the town of Belitsa where the sickly bears, bought from their task masters, were released into the protected wild. Now a law has been passed banning this medieval practice. No more bears on the street. Fewer gypsies. Opposite my apartment, new plastic recycling bins were recently installed. Yellow, green and blue. EU regulation colours. The trouble was that the narrow opening at the top of these new-style containers was not large enough for gypsy hands, however deft, to do a little re-cycling of their own. The old hoppers had a sliding top which made sifting through the rubbish a relatively easy job. One morning I left my building and opposite were the smoking remains of three recycling bins. Whoever melted them to a flattened mess obviously felt that this kind of "progress" was not to their benefit. It was an item on the evening news. They have now been replaced by metal recycling containers. Fewer gypsies.There was a big protest at a land-fill by the Roma who lived there. They were complaining about their unsanitary living conditions. The general response to this was: "Nobody forced you to live there!". This may be true, but every small social change for the "better" that occurs here is a threat to the Roma community. This is not a problem easily solved but it is a problem that must be solved. What is Bulgaria going to do about it's Roma population? The new is backing the old into a corner in this case.

I moved here by default. A film brought me to Sofia at the same time that my now-ex-wife told me that she "couldn't do this anymore". I caught a plane to Sofia to fulfill my contract. The job was Hallmark's ICON. One film turned into another and I found myself buying an apartment in the centre. To date I have made 12 films or TV projects here and have worked for many different international movie companies. But also for locally based companies. Nu Image, for example, are based in LA but have offices in Sofia. They have made films here for years and recently bought Boyana Kino Centre, the national film studios. They are embarking on a multi-million dollar refurbishing program and have great plans for the studio's future. Some may regret the passing of this building into "foreign" hands but again, the building was falling down. The old patriotic style of movie-making must give way to a new style; one that has far more money. And a LOT of money is flowing into Bulgaria these days.

Vasil Petrov arrives. Bulgaria's Mr. Sinatra. He has a naturally gifted voice and really does sound like Ole Blue eyes. I have written four songs with him for his up-coming album but we are here to discuss the concept of the next album for which we will write all the songs. The piano bar I mentioned earlier (The Voice) is in part his business. The walls are adorned with photos of the real Mr.Sinatra from various stages of his life and the walls are jazz club red. The piano, a genuine Steinway, has a glass top around which many drunks, including me, have sat and sang and ogled girls and danced and flirted the night away. Thing is, "piano" bar is a bit of a misnomer because not only is the Steinway electrified but there is more often than not an electric guitar and drum machine to boost our enjoyment as well as a female singer. Vasil doesn't sing there very often anymore and when he does he makes sure he brings a pianist. Young people can't play Porter or Gershwin these days.

After Vasil and I parted company I went to an Irish pub just off Vitosha boulevard. I come here not to rub shoulders with the ex-pat community (I have been travelling for so many years now that I do not feel the need to bond with my fellow countrymen abroad) but to have a pint or two and read the Sun. Thank God for that glorious organ. It reminds me why I can never live in England again. My boy, Theo, lives in London and is the only reason I visit the city. An interview in a Bulgarian daily with this country's president was translated and reported in The Sofia Echo, an English language paper here. He said he knew that while Bulgaria was in the process of joining the EU the country would attract a lot of "scum". But wait! Here is the Sun warning us of hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians sweeping across our shores, making our lives a misery, and yet the President of Bulgaria is calling some of us scum! In this particular Irish pub, I watch as the fly-by-nights, those with a past and the opportunists circle each other like a school of nervy barracuda in a pool with no other species of fish. As sad as prisoners on death row handing out business cards to each other. They too will be swept away. The Bulgarians may be many things but fools they are most definitely not.
©  2010 Ben Cross. No material may be reproduced without prior written consent from Ben Cross. All rights reserved.

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©  2010 Ben Cross. No material may be reproduced without prior written consent from Ben Cross. All rights reserved.

Quincy Cavalcanti's Redemption - Chapter One

Jack Steele was a successful man. By which I mean he had obviously found himself. Unlike, say, me. I wasn't even looking. I'd been trying to interview him for days and he'd been doing everything to avoid a meeting. But, hell, I was in California what did I care how long it took. I slept in my motor home outside his house until he took pity on me and invited me in. Now here I was sitting opposite him while he toyed with a glass of mineral water. I commented on his sweater and he said:

"That's the secret of Armani, kid; slip into Armani and you acquire instant style. You only have to be mildly wealthy to afford him but he always looks a million dollars."

The house and its contents, like so many homes in L.A., had a similar quality. There are furniture stores in that city that function in much the same way as any prêt-à-porter designer outlet. They'll send someone out to you and they'll make a plan and a week later you'll be living among chairs, tables, rugs, ashtrays and plants, stumbling around your own house like a guest feeling for the toilet door at night. But nothing makes the Hollywood fraternity as calm and reassured as a room where everyone recognises and approves the clothing and the furniture. Hell, after a few drinks most of them think they're in their own home. And you never re-arrange the furniture once it's been put in place because the interior consultant you paid a fortune for has positioned each piece with a tape measure. Like an Armani suit every vase, lamp and picture-frame was centimetre perfect. But this instant style was not a suit; it was a lifestyle. And it took longer to move easily among the furniture than it did to model Georgio. It was a while before you could open your own drawers without feeling guilty or like a thief let alone fill them.

"So whaddya want, kid?"

The sofa he sat in was definitely chic but at the same time shabby and he had a half smile.

"I notice you drink Volvic", I said.

"So?” he answered.

"Most people in this town drink Evian."

He must have known that, but he just shrugged and I looked stupid. I had come to interview him for a magazine I sometimes worked for: a surfer rag out of Oklahoma. I was the business correspondent, at least that’s what the rich kid who employed me said. The magazine was a twenty-first birthday present from his dad just to keep his son out of his hair and away from his young mistress. Spindrift, the Surf-zine for Dry Dudes had the biggest circulation in Middle America, catering to young minds living as far away from the sea as a fantasy surfer could. I didn’t do any real writing of course, just reporting: facts. The man I was here to interview was the Mister Big of surfing apparel in Southern California and I didn't care what he told me as long as I got the piece and had some fun. Hell, I couldn't surf, I hated water. But I love the beach. I once considered doing a thesis on Engineering and the Problems of Bikini Design but there weren't many beach babes in Idaho willing to further my education so I did creative writing instead. I took out my tape-recorder, turned it on and pointed it at him.

"So how did you get started?" I began.

He snorted with laughter and looked out the window that took up a whole wall:

"Great question, kid."

A solitary cloud cut across the sun shadowing his face. I noticed he had to look under the shade for the switch on the Chinese lamp. Outside, the pool, which until a moment ago looked like it might have been designed by Georgio himself, began to shiver; tiny wind-driven wavelets ruffling its surface like goose bumps.

"I always had the idea", he said, "what I didn't have was...the means".

I studied his profile. I suppose I had expected the usual brash, shiny-faced entrepreneur, flushed and full of himself but he was quieter.

I once interviewed a woman who lived in a twelve million dollar home in Utah. Throughout the entire two hours her phone never stopped. She had people either side of her who constantly took notes whenever she spoke. I was embarrassed I came with a tape-recorder: I would have hated anyone to come in and think I was part of her package. That evening, in my motel room in Venice, I played the tape back and was struck by how her self-image was entirely at odds with reality. It sounded like the Oval office during a missile crisis and she was President. All she was doing was shipping her product, haranguing the manufacturer, a fellow American, and threatening to take her ass to Asia. And telling me how much money she'd made that day. She was what you'd call very enthusiastic but I've known people who've died of other people's enthusiasm in this town, so I kept my distance. Her Thing was she had designed and patented a plastic case for videotapes. Seven years of business school education had helped her root out this hitherto unseen opportunity, exploit it and retire at thirty-seven. She had five cars in the garage, a quiet husband who was fucking one of the maids, and two teenage children who were as red-faced because of their mother as they were by their acne. Profoundly rich and just as deeply unhappy, she'd lately taken to renting her palace to moviemakers in a bid to kill the loneliness.

"So where did the means come from?" I asked, trying not to sound too interested.

The cloud passed and the lit lamp beside him was lost in the sudden brightness of the room. He turned to me and his eyes met mine in a way that suggested he was sizing me up: was I ready for whatever it was he had to say?

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-three" I told him.

"I gotta son coupla years older than you, in New York. Don't see him often."

I never know what to say when people tell me things they're obviously sad about.

"Really?" I enthused.

He got off the sofa and came to stand in front of me.

"You ever been in trouble, kid?"

"Trouble? What kinda trouble? No, not really. Nothing serious, why?"

He bent and took my tape recorder from my hand and switched it off. He then took a deep breath and during the slow exhale I heard the word:


"I'm sorry?" I said.

"You asked me where the means came from. How I became the Surfer Clothing King of Southern California. The answer's drugs".

I must have looked surprised because he frowned and said:

"Close your mouth, kid".

This was getting interesting.

"You were a dealer?"

I was excited into thinking I might be on to something.

"No," he said. "Matter of fact I was a user".

He stood up and moved toward me.

"Twenty years ago, at my lowest point, I was a total fucking junk head. Sleeping in the park with dried old shit lining the crotch of my pants, stealing bread from the birds. Huh? Whaddya think about that?"

He threw his arms wide to encompass the room as if his current situation was so far from what he was describing that his story would beggar belief.

"Yeah stealing bread from the birds. They're smart. They don't wanna get hurt so they fly off and leave the bread. Not like humans. Humans are confrontational."

He walked back to the picture window and his movements were slow and stiff, too weary for a man his age. He gazed out toward the Hollywood dam that looked like if it broke it could flood all of downtown LA. Above the dam was Madonna's old house; now occupied by some idiot who paid way too much for it because it was Madonna's house. And, of course, The Sign. He slipped the tape recorder into his pocket and began to speak. I shivered because there is nothing as exciting to a wannabe like me as an off-record interview. And it was quite a story.

Jack knew he was dirty. He knew he stank. He just didn't know how much. He hardly noticed as people scribed wide half-circles round him on the sidewalk as they passed him on the sidewalk. His unshaven face bore the scars of frequent falls and he was muttering to himself as he headed for the park. Griffith Park is a surprisingly large and pretty park where stands the Observatory. A park where a man used to be able to hide himself, where a man could sleep. Not anymore, of course. He carried an old paperback to legitimise his presence among the real people. He was a man who was going to read in the park, okay? What's your fucking problem? This book gives me the right to be here. He had snatched the book from one of the many second-hand stores on Main Street that he stole from on a regular basis. Tomorrow he would erase the pencilled price from inside the cover and sell it to the one store from which he never stole. The old lady who owned it always gave him five bucks no matter what book he brought her and it would end up in a box marked ONE DOLLAR EACH. Jack thought she was stupid but he was careful never to bite the hand that fed his habit. Up ahead, as he walked across the park, was the Observatory where, years ago, James Dean had been photographed mumbling some pain or other in a film forgotten by everybody except the gay community and those for whom his enduring memory is an enduring income. It was later than he thought. People were starting to go home. He reached the terrace beneath the dome which stared skyward and waited to pan-handle any departing visitors as they descended the steps from the main building. He looked left and right for the Park Police - Rangers they were called - who would, at best, throw him out of the park for being a bum or, if they caught him pan-handling, would arrest him. They weren’t around so he pulled the stained square of cardboard from inside his thin jacket and put it on the ground next to where he sat. On it, in letters scrawled over and over in ballpoint ink, were the words: HUNGRY. WILL WORK FOR FOOD. Jack hadn't even made the sign himself. He'd stolen it from a drooling bum who was asleep at the bottom of an off-ramp from the Santa Monica freeway. It was a good spot. The traffic lights would trap the Lexuses, the Mercedes and the BMWs before they could join the street below and every now and again an electric window would hiss down and a tanned arm would emerge holding a fresh dollar bill in unnaturally long and painted finger-nails. But this time the bum was asleep so Jack stole his business card and it was now a part of his armoury.

Once, some middle-class punk had seen the card and responded by giving Jack his hamburger, still warm in its Styrofoam box. The guy had said:

"If you're hungry have this. You don't have to work for it. I can buy another one."

Jack had wanted to punch the guy. He’d gotten so used to the gnawing pain in his stomach he hardly noticed it. What he wanted was money. The asshole had smiled in a self-congratulatory way as if he’d given Jack a thousand bucks or something and walked off with his arm around the girl he was trying to impress into fucking him that night. As if girls would give it up to a guy who thinks giving a burger to a bum is a big deal. Jack had immediately tried to sell it while it was still warm but sensible people don’t buy food items from junkies. He’d forced himself to take one bite to remind himself how much he hated food and immediately he’d thrown up in the act of swallowing it. He moved away to avoid having to stare at the burst of vomit that spackled the grey flagstone, and cursed the guy.

There were few people in the park this evening and soon it would be closing time. He began to think about moving to his usual hiding place where, if luck was on his side, he’d be able to pass the night without being caught, until sunrise when it officially opened. But then he saw a couple walking down the stone steps towards him. He was tall. Jeans, T-shirt, cowboy boots and shoulder-length hair swept back in a ponytail. She was all mini-skirt and tits and seemed to like him a lot. Jack was glad they weren’t carrying any food and, holding the card in front of him, put on his I’m-friendly-but-suffering look. They were around his age, early thirties although Jack knew he looked ten years older than them. She saw the sign first and nudged her companion. Jack heard:

“Why not?”

The handsome bastard walked up to him - he looked like a Rock Star on holiday - reaching back for his wallet. Jack’s heart was pumping and his eyes never left the guy’s hand which extracted a hundred dollar bill and held it out. His brain was already swimming with all the possibilities a hundred bucks signified. He’d heard about this phenomenon of course; limos cruising Skid Row tossing money onto the street for the drunks to go mad for; the waitress who ends up enrolling in acting school because some dumb-ass gave her an extraordinary tip. Jesus, he could get high for a week on a hundred bucks! Then:

“Jesus! Whoa! Jack? Jack Steele?”

It had been so long since Jack had heard his own name that at first he didn’t recognise it. The bill was still frozen in a hand that was adorned with skulls and silver dollars. Jack looked into the stranger’s face thinking that maybe he knew the guy. The Rock Star’s eyes were so black, so enlarged that all colour was gone. They sparkled with a crystalline light, a flash of anthracite that Jack knew only too well. This guy, whoever he was, and his gorgeous girlfriend were high on something so pure, of such unadulterated goodness that they couldn’t see the depressing truth of the stinking bum in front of them. Jack looked cool to them.

“Jack Steele! Son of a bitch! Don’t you recognise me? Mel Slaughter, man! Mel! What the fuck’s happening?”. He turned to his glossy-lipped girl whose hair flowed onto his shoulder:

“This guy was my room-mate at USC until they kicked my ass outta there!” he said..

“Cool”, she answered.

Mel Slaughter? Mel...? Suddenly Jack remembered light shows, frat parties, shared women and the beginning of his love-affair with any substance that could depress the constant pain of growing up but...? Was this guy a guitarist or something? Jack’s mind was struggling to process the images forcing their way into his head as Mel put his arm around him.

“Shit man! What are you doing here?”

“I... er... reading, you know? Reading this book”.

“Wow, man! You read German?”

Jack looked at the book he had stolen and realised it wasn’t in English.

“Yeah well...” Jack began.

“You were always the good student man. Ich liebe dich! Me? It was always music and chicks for me in my short college career. Say you wanna come hang with us?”

Mel Slaughter, rock star, one arm around a blonde, blue-eyed babe and the other around a sad smelly fuck who had no idea what was happening, started walking to fuck knows where.

It was a big black new BMW with all the trimmings. Carol, Mel’s girl, pouted in the back because Mel had insisted his old buddy ride up front with him. Jack didn’t have to talk much because his two friends were motor mouthing. His mouth watered, like he was watching someone suck a lemon, at the thought of the drugs these two might have; might give to him. The hundred bucks had disappeared from whence they originated but maybe that wouldn’t matter. As they drove, Mel excitedly commented on the various sites of interest but Jack didn’t know what he found so interesting. For him LA drifted by, one street pretty much the same as another. Into Beverly Glen up to Mulholland Drive and behold: The Valley. From up here, Jack thought, it looks great. Down there it’s shit! The leather seat under his butt squeaked as Jack turned to wherever his school buddy pointed. He did his best to look and sound enthusiastic, hey, he’d look up a rat’s ass if there was the possibility of drugs at the end of the tunnel! Truth was he had absolutely no real recollection of this guy who was convinced they used to be best buddies, but he wasn’t about to admit that. See, the great thing about getting high is that someone you don’t know or remember can totally love you. And he did know Jack’s name which meant he couldn’t be a serious crazy. Suddenly Jack felt alive. He felt himself relaxing into what he knew was a certainty: he was the Chosen One. This one night was all about him. He looked out the window and into the side mirror and was touched by the sight of his eyes glistening with tears of joy. Tonight he knew he was going to get shit-faced. And that warm certainty overrode any ordinary craving within him, arming him with the hitherto unknown sensation of supreme patience. He remembered reading about delayed gratification and now, for the first time, he truly understood the concept. So what if he couldn't stop his mouth watering?
©  2010 Ben Cross. No material may be reproduced without prior written consent from Ben Cross. All rights reserved.