December 29, 1997
Hollywood, California, USA
Contrary to my previous perception, Hollywood is actually in the City of Los Angeles. I found Tinsel Town not to be the stuff that stars are made of, but just another hunk of steel and glass that forms the concrete jungle that is LA. I think most people have great expectations for Hollywood. And why shouldnt they? They have spent a good portion of their life focused on images and icons which have originated from the area. I would not be far off in saying that Hollywoods fabrications are one of the most, if not the most influential force on earth. Much of North American pop culture - almost everything we consider "cool", came from the mind of a Hollywood costume and props designer.
I found no magic in the streets. Hollywood Boulevard is nothing more than a few cheesy sidewalk attractions and t-shirts shops, with the exception of a strip club or two, and the store with a large neon sign out front stating "We sell guns and knives!".
I felt no pleasure in treading over the stars on the Walk of Fame. Robin Williams is one of my favorite actors, but seeing his name embedded in the sidewalk meant little to me.
I called Riley from a pay phone. "Hey, Its MAX. Im on Hollywood Boulevard. Yeah, a half hour would be fine. Ill meet you in front of the Chinese Theater. Bring your hiking boots. I want to climb the HOLLYWOOD sign."
Riley is a Cardiovascular nurse that I met him in Yosemite National Park. There, he was just another person. One of the thousands I have met throughout my travels. This afternoon in Hollywood, I connected with him and formed a friendship as strong as any Ive ever had.
While driving down Hollywood Boulevard, Riley turned to me. "Have you seen that new Apple commercial; the one with all those well known people, like... Churchill, Gandhi, Earhart, and Hitchcock?"
"Yeah... its great." I replied.
"Well, the first time I saw it... it almost brought tears to my eyes." Riley continued. "It totally reinforced my desire to become a somebody. I want to make a contribution. I want to be a writer. Ive already started a book." I like Riley. We think alike. Hes not a cardiovascular nurse. He just does that to make money.
To reach the famous landmark we twisted our way up through the hills on a narrow roadway lined with million dollar homes. In many places there was barely room for on-coming traffic. Finally, five hundred feet below the sign, we came to a spot where we could drive no further. Riley parked the car in a driveway shared by two houses. He figured either house would think we were a guest of the other.
As we started the approach, we passed a NO TRESPASSING sign, which warned of a $103.00 fine. Riley told me that the police were mainly concerned with people "tagging" the immense monument with spray paint, and committing suicide by jumping off the top. "Lots of people have died up there." he informed me. I figured the $103.00 fine wouldnt be much of a deterrent if a person was heading up there to kill himself.
The following three hundred feet was a struggle, and at times dangerous. We had to claw our way up a steep loose gravelly bluff fortified with thorn bushes. At half way, I noticed a helicopter in the distance moving straight in our direction, and it seemed to slow down as it approached. I got close to the ground and ducked behind a bush. Riley seemed to be less concerned. "Dont worry about it man." he said. "No fat cop is going to chase us up here! Even if they do catch us. Just tell em youre an ignorant Canadian and you didnt see the sign. I use that line all the time." At first, when he told me that I felt a little insulted. I didnt like the idea of someone else using my countrys identity to excuse their criminal behavior. Then I remembered that Riley actually was Canadian, and it was okay.
When we reached the sign, the chopper came back. With adrenaline pumping through me, I ran for cover behind the "W". Behind the sign, surveillance cameras peered down at me from above. Jail was not an adventure I was looking forward to. Riley and I had split-up. I couldnt see him. After the chopper had departed again, I heard what sounded like voices near the "H". I thought Riley might have gotten snagged. Handcuffs or no hand cuffs, I wasnt leaving without pictures.
The light was fading fast. The sun had been down for over fifteen minutes. As I was taking shots of the sunset through the "O", Riley appeared in my view finder. He was half way up the O. "Keep going man!!!" I hollered. "This is going to make a killer photo!"
When he had reached the top and his hands were on the last rung of the ladder, I told him, "Okay... Now take one more step up, and hang off the ladder using just one hand and one foot. YES!!! I love it! Okay... hold it like that. Let me get a couple." "MAX..." Riley hollered back. "Looking over the edge on Half Dome wasnt nearly as scary as this! I think this is the scariest thing I have ever done!"
All was dark except for the billion specks of light fanning out over the city and the radiant pink and orange band of blazing fire across the horizon. I began to think we would not have enough light to get back down safely. My survival instinct told me to leave immediately.
In that moment, an image filled my mind. I imagined myself on stage in front of two thousand people saying, "Now take a look at this...! This is my friend Riley hanging off the side of the O on the HOLLYWOOD sign. Is this guy crazy or what!?! It must have felt amazing up there! But... I decided not to try it. It was getting dark. And it definitely wasnt a safe thing to do. And... And... And..."
"Riley... I left my camera back there." I called out, scrambling along the steep rocky slope. "Be sure to get both verticals and horizontals."
Sometimes Im a big brother, but more often Im a little brother. While writing emails home to Dad, Im a son. When I knock on a door Im a nobody. Hopefully when I leave I will be a friend. I am in love almost always. Im a lover almost never. But that night on top of the O, I was an action hero in Hollywood. I felt unstoppable. I could do or say anything. I was the producer, the director, and the props man. I had total creative control. I wrote the script. What happened next was up to me.
An hour later I was sitting in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard watching TITANIC. It was the most captivating movie I have ever seen. And so it should have been; it was the most expensive movie ever made - costing two hundred and twenty million dollars. The theater was sold out. I felt honored to be in attendance. It was only a week earlier that the movie premiered in that theater, on the very same screen.
There was never a dull moment. The sound was phenomenal. The whole theater quaked with each thunderous explosion and horrifying shriek as the mighty ship sank. I was near the front row. The screen filled my field of vision. I was totally into it.
During one scene in particular, it felt as though I were personally being portrayed on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio played the role of Jack Dawson, a care-free adventurer in his early twenties, riding 3rd class aboard the Titanic. The story begins with Jack saving the life of an attractive young woman -- a first class passenger. To thank him, the young womans fiancee invited Jack to join him and his family for dinner. During the dinner Jack made a toast, and It felt as though he took the words right out my mouth. He spoke about the importance of having adventures and being spontaneous; and then ended the toast by stating, "A few nights ago, I was sleeping under a bridge... and now here I am in first class with you fine folks!" I could think of many occasions on this journey where such as toast would be appropriate. Jack was me --I was Jack. That night, sitting in the Chinese theater, I found the magic I was in searching for. It had little to do with the fact that I could have been sitting in the seat Leonardo DiCaprio had sat in a week earlier, or that I was actually in Hollywood.
On the way to Rileys apartment from the movie theater, Riley and I stopped to check out the Church of Scientology. It was a massive building that was once a hospital and later renovated. A lot of celebrities go there; John Travolta for one.
I got out of the car to take a photo of the enormous eight foot high and thirty foot long SCIENTOLOGY sign that loomed above the building -- illuminated Hollywood style. As I put the camera up to my eye, a teenager wearing a security guard uniform sped over to me on a mountain bike and asked me not to take any photographs if I was a newspaper or magazine reporter. I assured him that I was not, and he like let me continue.
Strangely there was a cross on top of the building. I asked the young man if the church belonged to the Christian faith. He told me that it did not. I found it curious that someone would have enough imagination to invent a new religion, but not enough to make up an original religious symbol.
Later that night I found myself lounging on a couch in Rileys apartment, sucking back an egg-nog while watching the uncensored version of Natural Born Killers. As I laid my head down on the pillow, I recounted the events encompassing the preceding 40 hours - 39 and a half hours of which I was conscious and active. It was undoubtedly the most diverse 40 hours of my life.