The Blind Date (Not That Kind)
Opening the door to an exclusive Halloween party in Laurel Canyon on a warm Fall night in 1981 could have been the highlight of Jack’s life - had it gone… differently.
He’d just graduated from Berkeley and the 70s had treated him so very well. His curly Jew-fro had grown into album-cover perfection. His Southern-California-bred easygoingness and genuine smile filled the decade with jam sessions, large groups of friends, art, and long-haired women - none of whom seemed to own a bra. He’d been away from Los Angeles for four years doing his undergrad studies and now that he’d returned, he wasn’t sure what had changed: him or his hometown. But, it was undeniable. His world was different than when he’d left.
The folk music that he’d loved so much in the 70s, that was so conducive to whipping out an acoustic Martin guitar at a party and inviting a pretty girl to sing along to Simon and Garfunkel had been replaced by guys with leather vests and highly-flammable hair. Jack wasn’t sure what to make of the new scene. He’d started working at a local music store on Melrose just to pay the bills while he sorted out his future now that he was a musician… with a degree. It was here, at Aron’s Records, that Jack encountered the who’s-who of the music scene in 1981. And it was at the register, ringing up a large stack of vinyl where he was invited to the coolest party he would ever even know about.
It was October. But, in LA, the only way a person could tell that it wasn’t August was by how early the sun began to set. Jack felt different locking up the store in the dark, pulling the collar of his faded denim jacket up around his ears, jingling his keys in the lock, and keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity. He found himself looking over his shoulder which was something he never did before. Times just felt different. The truth is, he wouldn’t have known what to do if he’d been mugged, Jack was a self-proclaimed and obvious pacifist.
It was at the end of a long Friday shift, while bagging a stack of LPs for what was quite possibly a very young Don Henley, Jack commented on the purchases. He liked the customer’s taste, specifically Joni Mitchell’s new album.
“Ah, so you’re a rocker?” The maybe Don Henley asked, smiling at the Spandex’ed woman on his arm. The woman lit a cigarette and blew it out the corner of her mouth. Jack was a little embarrassed. Was he a rocker? He wasn’t sure. Did he want to be? Um, yeah, no shit.
“I just know good music,” was the best response that Jack could come up with.
“Gimme a pen,” Maybe Don growled. Jack slid a blue Bic across the glass countertop so the real rocker could scribble something on the back of the long receipt. He pushed it back to Jack, “Halloween, bring a friend, it’s gonna be a doozy.”
The Spandex’ed woman giggled, clutching Maybe Don’s arm as they walked out of the store, a bell jingling as the door bounced shut. Jack held of paper in his hands. It was an address. An address in Laurel Canyon.
Laurel Canyon was the Mecca of music makers in the 70s and 80s. It was where Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Doors, the Mamas and The Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young lived and partied and wrote and recorded some of the greatest songs of their generation. Jack had dreamed of an invitation into these rock god’s inner circle and this felt darn close.
He pulled out the mint green rotary phone which he was technically only supposed to use for official record store business or emergencies but he rationalized that this situation stood squarely between the two. The phone rang seven times before she answered, which was not unusual.
“This is Rhonda,” Jack grinned just hearing her answer. He tried to keep his cool, to tell her about Maybe Don and the party as if situations like this happened all the time but he could not keep the excitement out of his voice. Rhonda matched his enthusiasm.
“Halloween? In Laurel Canyon? And Maybe Don Henley?? Oh my goodness, who else do you think will be there? You’ll have to help me pick out an outfit. Yes, yes YES.” And that is how, on October 31, 1981, Jack and Rhonda found themselves outside of a sprawling ranch home deep in the canyon.
They felt the bass before they’d even stepped out of Jack’s 1975 yellow VW Beetle. Jack guided Rhonda up the stairs, and then they just stood there, not sure if they should knock. It didn’t matter. Seconds later, the door swung open, smoke billowed out, and the couple found themselves enveloped in a very cool party. Maybe too cool…
See, Jack was the only one in costume. He wore a wig, wide flared polyester Elvis bellbottoms, and carried his acoustic guitar over his shoulder. He’d come as The King Of Rock And Roll. And now he wanted to disappear into a deep, dark hole and never return. In a room full of real rock stars, his Woolworth’s wig felt like a giant ‘Kick me’ sign on his back in a high school gymnasium.
He stood in the living room, looking out at the fabulously dressed crowd, elegantly draped throughout the very 70s conversation pit, feeling like a giant ass. The girls wore mini skirts and white fringe jackets. Everyone smoked, looking right out of a Virginia Slims advertisement. Jack tried to disappear. He summoned every God that he’d ever heard of but no deity was around or listening. He turned to his date. And at that moment, he could not have been any more grateful for her.
“What’s going on? What’s the scene? Who’s here?” Rhonda whispered. Now, Rhonda was blind. A brilliant woman who frequented Jack’s favorite coffee shop, they’d only been casually dating for a month or so before the epic party. Jack wasn’t sure what Rhonda made of him since she couldn’t see. But she told fabulously dirty jokes, was acing her way through law school, and loved anything involving rock stars, movie stars, any kind of stars. He sometimes got the feeling that she thought he was more successful in the music scene than he actually was. But, as he looked around at the crowd, feeling his face beginning to boil, he decided that could leave out a detail or two of the evening without being totally dishonest. Like his outfit.
He led Rhonda over to the bar, poured each of them a beer, then explained to her that he needed to slip away to use the restroom. This was his game-time plan on how to ditch the costume and save the evening. Rhonda didn’t mind. She’d been born and raised in LA and hadn’t had her full vision in years. She was very comfortable in her beautiful olive skin. And she had decided to wear regular clothes. Smart.
Jack gave her a peck on the cheek and booked it to a powder room down a long, dark hallway filled with people looking at him up, down, and sideways. He waited his turn. It took forever. People were definitely up to more than just peeing in this small bathroom.
By the time it was free, he was sweating through his plastic wig and couldn’t wait to throw the satin jumpsuit in the trash. He didn’t have much on underneath, but anything was better than marching around like a mime on Hollywood Boulevard in a house that might have had THE Stephen Stills somewhere in it.
Jack, now in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and still carrying his guitar, found his way back down the hallway, into the large living room where he’d left Rhonda. Rhonda stood at the bar, holding her beer, throwing her head back, and laughing with another short(er) Jewish guy who had his hand on her arm. This, in a normal setting, would not have thrown off Jack. However in this setting, at this party, it did. Because, here, the short(er) Jewish guy wasn’t Joe Schmo from accounting, it was Dustin Hoffman.
Fresh off of Kramer Vs Kramer, Dustin was famous-famous. But in a vacuum, side-by-side, he also wasn’t that different-looking than Jack. But how was Jack going to explain this to Rhonda? Still carrying his guitar on his shoulder, “excuse me” -ing his way through the crowded room, Jack had no idea how to remedy this situation. He tried calling to her from a few feet away,
“Hey, Rhonda! Sorry that took so long, crazy line to the bathroom!” But it was loud and she didn’t hear. He tried clearing his throat a few times but Dustin had launched into a story about a movie he’d just wrapped where he played a woman and had to wear a corset.. Jack inched closer, annoyed, a bit intimidated, and immediately thought the premise of the film sounded dumb. Who would want to see Dustin Hoffman in lipstick and boobs? He held his head high and draped his arm around Rhonda,
“Hi, I’m Jack,” he reached out to shake Dustin Hoffman’s hand. Dustin Hoffman gave him that very Dustin-Hoffman head nod, small smile, and went back to being very, very interested in Rhonda. Jack wasn’t sure if the movie star was researching a role or if he was witnessing the very definition of love at first sight, but he was certain that if he were still dressed as Elvis, Dustin Hoffman would have asked Jack to officiate an impromptu wedding right then and there.
“So, how do you guys know each other?” Jack asked, inching his way between his date at the movie star. Rhonda seemed so comfortable, Jack was sure that his date must have gone to school with the actor.
“Oh, I just met Dustin,” Rhonda laughed. It should have been infectious but Jack couldn’t find his smile.
“And I’m just fascinated about Rhona’s journey through this world without the help of her - and may I say it- just breathtaking eyes?” Rhonda laughed again. Jack tried not to roll his. Dustin took her hand in his own, “Do you think you feel things more than other people?” Then he added, “I mean, physically?” Jack took Rhonda’s hand back.
“I think she knows what you mean,” It was at this moment, in this crowded room, when Jack’s large acoustic guitar swung off his arm, both smacking Rhonda in the head and scaring the hell out of her.
“Ow! What was that?”
“I’m so sorry,” Jack tried to put his instrument down but there was nowhere to store it next to the bar. Rhonda rubbed her temple.
“Jack,” she offered sweetly, “why don’t you go put that in the car if you’re not going to play it? It sounds really crowded here.” Jack looked around the smokey room, at Rhonda, and then at Dustin Hoffman. He sighed, slightly defeated, and headed out to his Beetle on the other side of the street.
He was just locking the door when he saw Rhonda and Dustin walking down Laurel Canyon together, Dustin opening up the door to his red DeLorean. Jack felt his heart drop to his knees.
He sat down on the porch of the house, his head in his hands. LA had become a brutal place, a city where you couldn’t go to the bathroom without losing your date to a movie star. He rubbed his eyes, looking at his life from the outside. What was he doing? Where was he going? How would he put his mark on the world when everything was moving so fast, he was just trying to catch up? And that’s when someone sat down next to him on the wicker sofa, pulled out a lighter, took a drag, and passed him a joint.
“Hey buddy, you look like you need this.” Jack looked over at Definitely Don Henley and shrugged,
“I could have been an actor,” he groaned, “but I would up here.”
“Huh,” Don Henley pursed his lips and squinted out into the night, “I could have been an actor, but I wound up here.”
He took back the joint, patted Jack on the back, repeating the line under his breath a few more times, “You’ll be ok kid, just keep going.”
And Jack did keep going. He made art, he became a writer. He found success throughout all the decades. But he never forgot that night.
* * *
Almost exactly a year later, sitting at the Woolworth’s counter with Sally, the woman who would become his wife, Jack heard Dirty Laundry for the first time over the dime store’s sound system. Hearing Don Henley sing, “I could have been an actor but I wound up here,” made him freeze mid-sip of his coffee. He looked over to her, feeling confident enough to share the story of how he might have contributed to these soon-to-be very famous lyrics. But Sally was absorbed in the Arts section of the LA Times. Before he could launch into his memory, she pointed to a half-page ad in the paper.
“We should go see this, it looks funny.” And she pointed to a black and white photo of Dustin Hoffman in drag, the title Tootsie splashed across the page. Jack looked at Sally adoringly and dedicated to save his story for another day.
“How about we go see…” Jack craned his head to look at the paper, “literally anything else.