Alan Swyer

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have been about Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing.  His scripted efforts include "The Buddy Holly Story," and HBO's "Rebound" with Don Cheadle, Forrest Whitaker, and James Earl Jones.  In the world of music, in addition to producing an album of Ray Charles love songs, he worked artists including Solomon Burke, Billy Preston, and (gulp!) Ike Turner.  His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, India, and in several American publications.

The Stud (Issue 48.)

Pain & Pleasure (Issue 41.)

The Stud (December, 2014. Issue 48.)

With wounded pride, plus a still somewhat gimpy leg, CJ reported early for work on the first day of what he hoped would be a very brief stint at a fusion restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

Just two months before, he had been the stud – the rising young star in the daredevil world of movie stuntmen. To CJ no gag, in the jargon of that close-knit society, seemed too difficult, dangerous, or daunting. Motorcycles, horses, speeding cars, falls from great heights, leaps from burning buildings – the greater the challenge, the more eager he was to show his prowess.

Until, that is, a stunt gone awry left him with a shattered bone in his leg. Faithful to the code of his craft, CJ took full responsibility for the mishap, though that was hardly the truth. Owning it, as such a stance is called, elevated him even higher in the esteem of those in the know, all of whom recognized that the culpability belonged to his cohort in what was carefully designed as a buddy bit. But Texas-born Butch Perry, unfortunately, was far too coked out to break, as he should have, CJ's twenty foot leap from a rooftop engulfed in flames.

Promised by the old-timers who had mentored him that work would again be abundant just as soon as he was fully healed, CJ fought valiantly to stave off boredom while stuck first in a hospital bed, then at home, in a toes-to-thigh cast. There were old movies and ballgames to watch on TV; the Blues and R&B that he loved thanks to vinyl albums found at swap meets, plus CD reissues; and visits from what his pals called the hopefuls – the wannabe singers, dancers, and actresses, all with less than lustrous day jobs, who were part of his social life. All the while CJ diligently lifted dumbbells as best he could, squeezed handballs, and did an assortment of isometrics in the hope of maintaining some semblance of upper body shape. Then, once the cast gave way to a walking boot, his daily exercise regime tripled, with the addition of crunches, pull-ups, and chin-ups, plus countless hours on a stationary bike.

CJ's goal was to return to the world he loved in better shape than ever, and in record time. But his quest was thwarted by a required insurance physical. Though the doctors acknowledged that he was doing surprisingly well for someone coming back from a serious injury, he was nonetheless, despite a willingness to sign a waiver holding no one else responsible, deemed not yet ready – and therefore uninsurable – even for minor stunts.

To fight his ever-mounting frustration, as well as to bolster his dwindling checking account, CJ set out to find temp work. That, he discovered far too quickly, was anything but easy. Slowed by the recession, the construction jobs that he counted on were hard to come by, as were slots at the equestrian center, where he had toiled part-time when he first arrived in LA. With only limited computer aptitude, and zero experience in sales, prospects went swiftly from dim to dimmer, then onto dimmest.

It was through the roommate of one of his aspiring actress friends that he learned about the opening at the restaurant, which proved to be a quintessential LA hybrid: a storefront run by a Japanese chef who prepared Asian-influenced French cuisine with the aid of a largely Mexican staff.

Though CJ knew as much about food as he did about ballet or brain surgery – his personal tastes running primarily to breakfast burritos, Pink's chili dogs, and take-out rotisserie chicken from Pollo A La Brasa – his entry into Chez Kura was the very definition of being thrown right into the soup. With one staffer out with the flu, and another busted by Immigration, there was no time for introductions or orientation. Instead, he was tossed a white Chez Kura polo shirt, then turned into a whirling dervish.

With nary a chance to catch his breath, CJ was given menus to hand out by the hostess, then a pitcher of water by one of the amigos – guys from Oaxaca who, he soon learned, were the heart and soul of every Los Angeles restaurant. Next came plates of scallops and tournedos, plus linguini with something called uni, from Chef Kura and his Mexican sous-chef, followed by other appetizers, main courses, and desserts, as well as coffee and assorted teas.

It wasn't until the last lunch customer had departed, and the front door firmly locked, that CJ got a chance to learn the names of those who had kept him running with task after task as he joined the over-stressed team for a communal meal.

Tasting food the likes of which he had never before seen, heard of, or imagined, all the while trying to understand the melange of Spanish, Japanese, plus an occasional English word or phrase, CJ grasped quickly that there was more to life in LA – and the world at large – than what he had previously experienced.

Whereas before CJ wouldn't have known the difference between a sauce bearnaise and a Bernese Mountain Dog, or ankimo and an Eskimo, the stuntman-turnedrestaurant-worker proved to be a quick study. As he learned about souffles and sautes, and was taught how to make a mimosa and a kir, instead of being stuck washing dishes or busing tables, he rapidly became a jack-of-all-trades, filling in wherever necessary to make things run smoothly.

Even more surprising, though it was an admission he was loath to make even to himself, was that the work proved to be not merely interesting, but enjoyable as well. Despite his sense that this realm he had entered was decadent – and, in the eyes of the stunt fraternity, maybe a little sissified – CJ couldn't deny an ever-growing pride at being able to differentiate between a Kumamoto oyster and a Bluepoint. Or to suggest that a bottle of young Chirouble would be preferable to a Napa merlot. But even as his self-image was evolving, something every so often gnawed at him. It wasn't simply the adrenaline rush of a daring or perilous stunt that was missing from his life, but also the approbation from his peers. And above all was the inner glow that came from being the man.

It was because of what he longed for and craved that CJ took to spending more and more of his non-working hours at the gym. And it explained why, though cautioned to wait at least a month, he returned after only three weeks for an insurance re-exam. But to his chagrin, not simply because of the slow-to-heal leg injury, but also because the original tests had shown signs of internal bleeding, no go-ahead was forthcoming.

Then came a quiet Monday night, with the restaurant nearly empty and much of the staff already gone, when CJ's hopes of escaping for a late workout were squashed by the appearance of four less than appealing characters. Two were dissipated men unlikely to be featured in promotions from the local Tourist Bureau, while their companions, both considerably younger, looked like models from GQ.

Setting up camp at a corner table, the newcomers were sniping merrily at Chez Kura's thrift shop décor when CJ approached with menus.

“Anything you'd like while you're having a look?” CJ asked.

“You?” replied the oldest member of the group, a rumpled specimen of fifty or so who gave CJ a far too theatrical once-over.

Ignoring the remark, plus the accompanying giggling, CJ placed the menus on the table. “Let me know when you're ready,” he said quietly.

“Can't blame a guy for trying,” the overly ebullient customer added. “What are your favorites?”

“I like the duck in vanilla sauce.”

“And for a starter?”

“The sashimi with ponzu.”

“Then that's what we'll have, together with your best Champagne. And no hard feelings, okay?”

CJ eyed the man momentarily, then gave the faintest of nods.

Still irked that his plans for an early getaway and a stop at the gym had gone up in smoke, CJ was stepping out of the kitchen an hour later, ready to ask about dessert, when he was confronted by the man who had teased him.

“Do you know who I am?” the heavyset customer asked softly.

“Nope.”

“The name Paul Byron mean anything?”

“Should it?”

“Only if you watch Top Chef, read Gourmet Magazine, or follow TMZ.”

“Not guilty,” CJ replied.“What if I say I'd like you to come work at my restaurant?”

“Why should I?”

“Three reasons. First: I'll double your pay.”

“How do you know what I'm making?”

“Because restaurants are my life. Second: you'll learn 100 times more than

you're learning here. Sound good?”

“And reason #3?”

“Sure you're ready?”

“Fire away.”

“More pussy than you ever dreamed possible.”

“C-come again?” CJ responded with a mixture of bewilderment and surprise.

“Starlets, if that tickles your fancy. Plus kept women. And, of course, so many unhappily marrieds you'll have to beat 'em off with sticks.”

“W-why?”

“A good-looking kid like you in a place filled with everybody who wants to be somebody? And where every husband, boyfriend and Sugar Daddy will immediately assume you're mine? That's a spot people would kill for.”

“We're gonna start you as kind of a rover,” Paul Byron said to CJ on his first day at the impossible-to-get-into restaurant called La Toque. “That way you'll get an overview – and hopefully a feel – for the way things work. Sound good?”

“I guess.”

“But first a few rules. Nothing against where I found you, but here's #1: fusion, simply put, means confusion. Clear?”CJ nodded.

“Okay, next. Know the expression, Treat every lady like a whore, and every whore like a lady?”

CJ shook his head.

“While it may not be true in other facets of life, it's 100% true here. If we made the mistake of fawning over everyone who came in, we'd have people vying to be fawned on the most. As in Hooray For Hollywood. So our response? Fawn over no one.

Why?”

CJ shrugged.

“To make them desperate for our approval. Instead of us having to cater to them, they bust their humps trying to please us. Up for #3?”

“I guess.”

“Lots of pretty things – and some not quite so pretty – will try to get their hands on you. So I'm going to prove I went to college by quoting something inappropriately attributed to Shakespeare – and not Irving Shakespeare, the kosher butcher. Ready?”

Another nod from CJ.

“The real line is Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned. Which has become –?”

“I give up.”

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You're gonna be in demand, sonny-boy.

Please don't let the ladies – or me – down.”

CJ grimaced. “But don't forget --”

“I know,” Paul Byron interrupted. “In your heart you're a stuntman. But as long as you're here, the toughest stunt will be scurrying from one bedroom to another. You don't believe me, huh?”

Once more CJ shrugged.

“You'll see,” the chef stated confidently.

The leap from a storefront place struggling to survive to a see-and-be-seen destination for celebs, power-brokers, visiting statesmen, and the occasional industrialist, made CJ's head spin. From the Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris pulling up at the curb, to the table-hopping and air-kissing, on through a greater concern for dietary peculiarities – no salt, no sugar, no carbs, sauce on the side – than for the obscene markup on luxury items such as caviar, truffles, and wine, La Toque seemed to him like a restaurant seen through a fun house mirror.

Whereas the goal at Chez Kura had been to make every customer feel welcome, at Paul Byron's place everything was reversed, forcing the diners to show their appreciation for having gained entree into a such a privileged environment.

Still, Paul Byron's promise that CJ's learning would skyrocket became a reality from the first amuse bouche on. Whether it was how to bone a fish, how to prepare a perfect vinaigrette, how to create an appropriate bouquet of flowers, how to seat competing studio heads at corner spots of equal value on opposite sides of the room, or even how to deal with an angry spouse determined to embarrass her husband by sticking her tongue down his partner's trophy wife's throat, the new protege was instructed, coached, then given hands-on experience.

But the prediction that proved to be truest of all was the one involving women.

From the moment that Paul Byron included CJ on his nightly stroll from table to table, with an arm draped around the handsome newcomer's shoulder, there was immediate entry into an alternate universe.

Hailing from a small town in Arizona, where the males of the species were expected to pursue the local females, CJ was accustomed to women who behaved, at least initially, with a measure of reserve. Though his looks and athleticism enabled him to fare better than most, first back home, then once he got to Hollywood, nothing at all could have served as preparation for the role reversal at La Toque. Surreptitious winks became commonplace, as did phone numbers snuck into his hands and pockets – sometimes accompanied by a ten, twenty, or fifty dollar bill. Plus there were instances when CJ found himself intercepted while stepping out from the kitchen, or while in transit from one room to another.

Generally it was a future assignation that was suggested. But occasionally the proposition was far more immediate: that he and a bejeweled wife, girlfriend, or angry ex-, duck into one the bathrooms – or, weather permitting, the alley behind the restaurant.

Initially the invitations seemed bizarre, yet oddly flattering. But over time they came to be more of an occupational hazard – commonplace, yet not always amusing, in the same way as the salsa music blasting 24/7 around CJ's apartment complex, or the non-stop blaring of car alarms near the gym he frequented.

Encouraged by Paul Byron, CJ allowed himself to be snared into intrigues, escapades, and moments of what he learned were known as flagrante delecto – few of which, he realized, owed entirely to his charm, his personality, or his intellect. He was first and foremost, it dawned on him, an object – one used by women who were angry, frustrated, taken for granted, or some combination thereof. Their hope was that above and beyond physical satisfaction, sex would provide either a secret they could withhold from their boyfriends, husbands, or sugar daddies, or alternatively a payback forfrequent betrayals or inattention.

But as time went on, other needs were also revealed. For some women, such as Olga, the Russian beauty married to a blustery agent, or Stella, the ex-model kept by a music impresario, CJ became a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. For others, including Lydia, the heiress to a Kosher salami fortune who had been abandoned emotionally by her entrepreneur hubby, and Lori, whose spiked-haired spouse had gotten rich thanks to a series of unfunny comedies movies, he provided an opportunity for them to pour out their hearts. And to others, like Ula, the aging German beauty who had been dumped by a hiphop mogul, or Justine, who lived with a fast-talking movie biz attorney, he was simply a kind soul who provided a glass of wine, a joint to smoke, plus much-needed companionship. But beyond these other roles, for an ever-increasing number of women, there was also, invariably, the involvement of something far more direct: a young and willing body part able to function without artificial stimulation from Viagra, Cialis, or porn.

In no time CJ, who had been known as the young stud among stuntmen, came to acquire the same moniker, but for an entirely different reason, in and around La Toque. Consequently, the entire staff – from valet parkers, waiters, busboys, and amigos in the kitchen, on through the upper echelons – treated him with ever greater deference and respect. And with each passing day, more and more women wondered how to arrange a taste for themselves of what their friends – or enemies – were getting. Instead of his free hours being spent at the gym, CJ's time away from the restaurant evolved into a non-stop series of dashes from rendezvous to rendezvous, tryst to tryst, hook-up to hook-up.

At times it felt almost like a return to the stunt world, thanks to breakneck sprints on his motorcycle, plus the occasional jump from a window, not to mention scrambles down hotel fire escapes to avoid returning husbands, jealous boyfriends, or the unannounced arrival of a Sugar Daddy.

But what made CJ uncomfortable wasn't the close calls, or the potential for danger, or even having women show up at his front door at the strangest of hours. It was the tokens, as they were termed, that disturbed him the most. Some were simply expensive but foolish gestures: bracelets, rings, and even cufflinks that CJ would never in a million years be caught wearing. More awkward still were envelopes filled with cash that he discovered stuffed into his pockets. Then there were the few considerations that actually showed an awareness of who he was, and what he liked: rare vinyl albums by the likes of Lowell Fulson, Howlin' Wolf, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe; or front row tickets to the Clippers or to a Manny Pacquiao fight in Vegas.

A life that was already exhausting but exhilarating, draining yet dazzling, and progressively more complicated as the days at La Toque turned to weeks, took an expected turn when CJ drove one afternoon toward his favorite Hollywood landmark: Amoeba Records. Hoping for some respite from the madness, he parked his aging BMW motorcycle at a meter, then heard a shriek. The source, to his dismay, was a young woman with a guitar who was trying to stop a biker-gone-to-seed from stealing tips given to her by passers-by who had paused to hear her play.

Seeing the biker escape by flinging the singer against a wall, CJ immediately gave chase – rounding the corner, then nailing the perp with a flying tackle. As dollars and coins flew in every possible direction, the biker managed to smack CJ with a huge right hand, then scrambled to his feet and fled.Instead of pursuing, CJ was busy gathering the money that had scattered hither and yon when the pretty musician approached with a red bandanna in hand. “You have blood,” she said in accented English, motioning toward CJ's mouth.

“Probably not fatal,” CJ quipped as he touched his newly split lip before accepting the bandanna. “You okay?”

“I am – what is the word – peachy,” she said with a shrug that CJ found surprisingly enchanting.

It was over a cup of coffee at a little spot not far from Amoeba that CJ realized how refreshing it was to be with a woman who wasn't needy – one who didn't seem the least bit desperate and, despite what had happened, had no tale of woe. Veronique, he came to learn, had been a law student in Paris when she mustered the courage to follow her heart. Instantly, her study of rules, regulations, and legal precedents gave way to hours spent singing first in subways, then in little boites where someone passed a hat, and finally at festivals in towns like Arles, Bresse, and Saint-Tropez.

Thanks to parents who favored Slim Harpo, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke over Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, and Georges Brassens, Veronique was the first woman CJ had ever encountered who was steeped in the music he loved. When coupled with her natural effervescence, plus her incredible blue eyes, she seemed almost too good to be true.

Smitten, CJ wanted immediately to ask her to join him for excursions to the beach, trips to the mountains, and quiet dinners on his nights off. But in contrast to – or perhaps because of – his experiences with the Olgas, and Stellas, and Lydias, and others in his life, where he was the pursued rather than the pursuer, he found himself nearly overcome with shyness. “W-when can I come hear you play someplace other than on the street,” he finally mustered the courage to ask, far from certain that he'd even be able to get a night off from La Toque.

The following Monday evening, having fed Paul Byron a story about needing to spend time with an aunt who was visiting, CJ found himself seated uncomfortably amidst a bunch of self-styled hipsters in a coffee house in Echo Park. After white-knuckling through two songs by someone he silently dubbed “Beck-lite,” then two by a young woman whose lamentations were nearly cause for justifiable homicide, plus an achingly bad ten minutes by a self-styled comic whose jokes landed with a thud, CJ was relieved when Veronique finally stepped in front of the microphone.

Quickly, his relief turned into something far stronger when her first tune proved to be one of CJ's favorites, a soulful cover of Irma Thomas' “I Wish Someone Would Care,” which she made her own in part because of her French accent. Then came an original with lyrics half in English and half in French, accompanied by guitar work in which Veronique seemed to be channeling Django Reinhardt. But to CJ's dismay, the spell she was casting was broken when a couple of guys seated behind him started a far too loud conversation.

CJ waited a moment in the hope they would stop, then turned and glared – eliciting a frown from the larger of the two, a brawny specimen with heavily inked arms, a felt hat, and a soul patch. “What's your problem?” the guy asked too aggressively.

“You,” CJ replied defiantly.

“In case you missed it, there's two of us,” the guy replied.

“Nope,” his companion interjected. “You're on your own, Freddie.”Watching the tattooed guy lose much of his bluster, CJ turned so as to focus on Veronique.

Over pizza later, CJ found himself responding to Veronique's curiosity about his life with an abridged version, as though he'd somehow gone through One-Hour Martinizing. He had no hesitation about discussing either his stunt work or his duties at the restaurant. But when it came to his social life – and especially certain extracurricular activities – he became uncharacteristically, and uncomfortably, evasive.

Though that made the conversation somewhat awkward, CJ took some solace in being able to convince Veronique to let him introduce her to parts of LA that she hadn't yet seen. And, since La Toque served dinner only, that, he proposed, could include both the beach and the mountains, plus a lunchtime excursion to the Chinese community he'd been hearing about in the San Gabriel Valley.

A stroll through Venice allowed for people-watching on Ocean Front Walk, plus a look, greatly appreciated by Veronique, at the immense mural called “A Touch Of Venice” on Windward, then the giant portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger around the corner. A jaunt up to Malibu enabled them not merely to stroll along the water, but also to spend time at the tide pools. And a drive to San Gabriel led them to a place CJ had heard about called Chengdu Taste, where they had a Chinese meal the likes of which neither of them had ever experienced.

For CJ the result was a bizarre combination of joy and bewilderment. The joy owed to the feeling he got from being with Veronique, whose joie de vivre – an expression that was new to him – was almost intoxicating. It was a new and wonderful experience for him to be with someone who was so upbeat and so much fun. The bewilderment, in contrast, came from the predicament in which CJ found himelf. Whereas time with Veronique was imbued with a special kind of innocence, time with the other women felt more and more like the opposite. Life, he realized, was weighing heavily on him.

Nor were matters made easier when, while he was driving with Veronique, there would be a series of honks, plus a woman in a Jaguar, Mercedes, or Porsche convertible – be it Olga, Stella, Lydia, or someone else – yelling his name while headed in the opposite direction. Or when, during a quick stop they made at CJ's apartment, Lori suddenly knocked on the door, which CJ did his best to downplay with an explanation that the visit owed to something related to La Toque.

It was a double life that he was leading, one that was progressively more onerous with each and every passing day.

Unhappy with the situation, CJ requested another insurance physical, and was pleased when informed that at last he had passed.

But any hope for a fresh start was quickly squelched by a visit to a studio lot, where friends were doing a stunt. Instead of the cocaine use that led to his injury being diminished, CJ was stunned to find it everywhere, to the point where it could easily be life-threatening.

Feeling like the world was closing in on him, CJ showed up at La Toque late that afternoon with a strange sense that the woes he was facing had only just begun. As though sleepwalking, he went through his tasks – both official and otherwise – in what was at best a perfunctory manner, as though he were there in body but not in spirit. And just his luck, it was that very evening that Veronique chose to make a surprise appearance. Entering the restaurant, she explained her reason for visiting to the hostess who greeted her, then was given a choice of having someone look for CJ or alternatively of circulating on her own in the hope of surprising him.

Choosing the latter, Veronique made her way here and there through the restaurant with no success – until, that is, the door to one of the bathrooms opened. Seeing a bejeweled woman in her early forties emerge, all the while straightening her designer dress, then watching CJ step forth a moment later, also fixing his clothes, Veronique let out a gasp.

Off she went through the restaurant, barely avoiding a busboy carrying a tray of dirty dishes. CJ, however, was nowhere near as lucky, crashing into the amigo and sending plates, glasses, and silverware this way and that.

By the time CJ caught up to Veronique, she was well out of the restaurant, nearly halfway down the street.

“I can explain everything,” CJ insisted.

But Veronique had no interest in explanations.

Though his apartment was in Hollywood, CJ's story failed to have the kind of Hollywood ending in which boy and girl wind up reunited.

When, with flowers in hand, he stopped by the apartment where Veronique was crashing with a friend, CJ learned, to his dismay, that she had left town. Nor did she ever respond to his emails, texts, or messages on Facebook. Soured on stunt work, and no longer eager to remain at La Toque, CJ took his friends by surprise by applying to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York.

After finishing his course work there, then doing an internship at a restaurant in Lyon with three stars in the Guide Michelin, CJ worked his way up the food chain first in Boston, then in Manhattan. He is now the chef at a small place in San Francisco known for serving what's known there as “Country French.”

Table of Contents

Pain & Pleasure (July, 2014. Issue 44.)

“I need you!” Palmer bellowed the moment Norris answered his call, eliciting an instant cringe.

First as an agent, then as a producer, and finally as a studio head, Will Palmer was a Hollywood legend – one with behavior considered off-the-wall, and thinking deemed out-of-the-box, long before those terms became fashionable. Though it was Palmer who showed the movie biz that hits should be separated into two totally distinct categories – those that boys, girls, or sometimes both, saw three, ten, or even twenty times; and those that attracted people who didn't, as a rule, bother going to the movies – and Palmer who predicted first the rise, then the rapid fall, of the new 3-D technology; what he was best known for, other than scores of adventures and misadventures with various starlets, divas, and wannabes, was the creation of a new position within the close-knit and often incestuous film world.

Pestered about a promotion by a young exec whose greatest successes were in the bedroom, Palmer responded by inventing the title V.P. Of Creative Affairs – a position that, despite its ironic beginnings, was rapidly replicated in studio after studio, then network after network.

For Steve Norris, who was far from earning V.P. stripes of his own, the chance to work with such an icon seemed like a dream. After hitting a wall as an aspiring screenwriter, then toiling in obscurity as a free-lance script reader, the opportunity to learn from a honcho – while finally earning enough to move out of the rat trap where he heard gunshots and sirens virtually every night – was not just what his friends termed a new lease on life. It also gave Norris the wherewithal to marry his college girlfriend, with whom he quickly produced two adorable daughters, plus a chance to see the way Hollywood really worked.

Serving as Palmer's factotum had decided “ups,” in that Norris got to be present – and, once given the go-ahead, even voice an opinion – at upper level staff meetings, story conferences, and pitch sessions, as well as in what the town called confabs with directors, producers, and stars. The downside was often being the recipient of the wrath of power players after voicing negatives that Palmer wanted expressed by someone other than himself. Plus, on far too many occasions, having to beard while the studio head was off cheating on his wife and/or mistress either with a new conquest, or what he referred to as the next in line.

Even tougher to deal with were what Norris dubbed Palmer's notions. “I've got this crazy notion,” Norris would hear from time to time when summoned. Invariably that meant that Norris would soon be experiencing total immersion in something that could prove to be brilliant, a stretch, or completely cockamamie. When Palmer was on – as in What do you think about a power failure in a hospital, where a guy in the looney bin dons a white jacket and stethoscope then saves the day? – the result was surprisingly good, even though the prep work involved Norris spending weeks talking to psychiatrists and psychologists, then observing patients in various mental wards. When Palmer was at the top of his game – as in What do you think of a rock star becoming so huge that he starts to sway elections? – the result was close to astounding, especially for the guy doing the field work. On that one, Norris got to spend weeks tailing, hanging with, and watching at close range, first Mick Jagger, then Bruce Springsteen, and finally, for reasons that owed more to his personal taste than to the project itself, someone that Palmer had never heard of, the late, great Solomon Burke. But when Palmer was off – as in What are your thoughts about a necrophilia project? Or What do you think about a“Lysistrata” hold-out on a college campus? – Norris knew he was in for days, weeks, and arguably even months of what could be drudgery, or worse, a total nightmare.

So it was with serious misgivings that Norris headed down the hall toward Will Palmer's office, hoping against hope that the conversation might prove to be about budgets, or casting, or even... yikes... bearding rather than another lengthy, misguided quest.

“I've got this crazy notion,” Norris heard to his chagrin as he stepped into a cavernous space decorated in a style more suited to a gentleman in Edwardian England than to someone who had gone through high school in Brooklyn as Billy Peltzman. “Ready?”

With a gulp that he tried his best to hide, Norris nodded.

“What do you think about a guy who becomes obsessed with a dominatrix?” Palmer asked. Then, getting nothing but a shrug from Norris, he continued. “Kind of a Blue Angel thing, only kinkier. Sexier. Think Von Stroheim or Bunuel meets Adrien Lyne or the guy who made Blue Is The Warmest Color. Read me?”

“N-not exactly.”

“Let's say the guy's a young reporter. Or a young cop on a murder case. A vanilla kind of guy who finds the S&M stuff weird, maybe even repulsive, but somehow gets drawn in. Getting there?”

“Not really.”

“You will,” said Palmer, whose voice carried more than a measure of certitude.

Afraid that his mentor may have finally made the leap from colorful to cuckoo, Norris stepped out into the hallway, then took a deep breath.

Though speaking up might jeopardize his ascent within the studio hierarchy, maybe it was time, he thought, to express his real feelings, meaning This one is nuts. Or else, while he had some currency in the business, plus some bucks in the bank, perhaps the moment had come to make good on his ever-increasing desire to break away from the system and direct a low-budget indie.

In contrast to previous Palmer notions, this was one he wouldn't even be able to laugh about with his wife. The idea is sick, and so is he, Norris could imagine Lauren saying. With two young kids, should you be working for a guy – and a studio – that would even consider such crap?

Since Palmer's notions were considered Top-Secret Classified, never to be discussed with anyone else in the business, Norris would be stuck flying solo. That meant no one to whom he could gripe, no one who would commiserate, no one with whom he could share stories or a laugh.

Coming from rural Maine where, despite rumors involving barnyard animals, there was no network for bondage, fetishes, or S&M, Norris was at a loss as to where even to begin. Searches on Craigslist led to scams, come-ons, and dead ends. So, too, did other websites, plus the freebie papers promising sex, bondage, humiliation, and so forth.

All the while Norris immersed himself in reading that made him feel blissfully prudish and vanilla. Stocks and gallows? Doctor's chairs for what he learned was known as medical play? Scrotal piercings? Riding crops and rectal scissors, whatever they might be?

Not for him to contemplate having a thin glass rod inserted into his urethra. Or to be cross-dressed, then chained to a wooden crucifix.

Surprisingly, visits to commercial dungeons, posing sometimes as a journalist, other times as a sociologist, engendered not the revulsion he expected, but a kind of bewilderment. Despite the aura of high seriosity, what Norris saw, when given a peek at what seemed to be a kind of S&M Disneyland, induced a childish urge to giggle.

Getting nowhere, he tried his best to stay out of Will Palmer's sight. But that effort was thwarted when, after several days in which he did his best to be invisible, Palmer called him in.

“Bring me up to date,” the studio head demanded.

“Not much to say.”

“Which means, I take it, not much has been done.”

“Not for lack of effort.”

“Effort my ass! I want details. Unless, that is, you're doing it like a tourist.”

“As opposed to?”

“Diving in feet first! Or not exactly feet. Hope you haven't just been letting your fingers do the walking.”

“It's not like I've got somebody to open doors for me,” Norris protested.

“Says who? I'm going to email you names and numbers. Your job isn't just to play peek-a-boo. It's to start getting some goddamn experiences.”

Though apprehensive about the leap from research to actual involvement, what troubled Norris even more was what his texting friends would consider TMI. For despite the British adage that No man is a hero to his wife or his valet, Will Palmer, even with all his foibles and flaws, remained special in Norris' esteem.

That made the realization that a larger-than-life figure known for his firm control of Hollywood, and especially of women, liked to be bossed, or ordered around, or perhaps even degraded by dominatrixes... or dominatrices... or whatever the plural might be... profoundly unsettling.

It was like discovering that the local priest, who seemed light years away from the clergy scandal, was but one more pedophile. Or that the prissy middle school librarian had a secret life as a nymphomaniac.

And it made Norris even more uncomfortable to realize just how sheltered and naïve his own life – and outlook – had been.

Feeling more ill-at-ease than when he tried unsuccessfully to invite the prettiest cheerleader in high school to the senior prom, Norris picked up, then put down, his office phone several times before finally dialing one of the numbers sent to him by Palmer.

“This is Violet,” said a husky recorded voice at the other end. “Yes, Violent Violet. So if you're under twenty-one, please do us both a favor and hang up now. But if you're of age, and I don't know you, kindly leave a number, plus a good time to call, at the sound of the beep. And by all means have references ready when I get back to you. If, however, we're already acquainted, go ahead and press 1 now.”

Hearing the beep, Norris forced himself to speak. “My name's Steve,” he blurted, “and our mutual friend Will Palmer suggested I call.”

To Norris' surprise, a non-recorded voice suddenly spoke. “How is the old devil?” Violet asked.

“Ornery as ever.”

“Then it's time for him to be put in his place. But first, what can I do for you?”

“H-he seems to think it'd be i-interesting for me to see you.”

“Nervous, huh?”

“H-how can you tell?” Norris found himself saying.

“You're hardly the first. So tell me, what do you have in mind?”

“Same as him?” Norris asked.

“Ever heard of a singer named Mose Allison?”

“Why?”

“He's got a song called If You've Got The Money, Honey, I've Got The Time. Meanwhile tell our naughty friend Will that I'm ready for him, too.”

It was in front of a nondescript tract home in a sweltering part of the San Fernando Valley best known for Little League champions and porn production that Norris parked on a Thursday afternoon.

Taking a couple of deep breaths to gird himself, Norris got out of the BMW that Palmer insisted an up-and-coming studio exec should lease, then tried his best to stride confidently toward the front door. There, he hesitated before finally ringing the bell.

After seeing an eye appear at the peephole, Norris watched the door open just enough for him to step in. But at the sight of a woman dressed in a skimpy, cleavage-emphasizing leather dominatrix outfit, plus calf-high boots, he lost it, bursting into uncontrollable laughter.

Holding a riding crop in her right hand, Violet glared until Norris regained some semblance of control.

“Not the most auspicious start,” she acknowledged.

“I-I'm sorry.”

Taking his hand, Violet led her new guest through a living room in which he noted a Warhol poster of Native American activist Russell Means, then into a room with the toys and contraptions of her trade, where again laughter overtook him.

“This is not doing wonders for my ego,” Violet said, shaking her head. “Maybe you should tell me why you're here.”

Catching his breath, Norris came clean, offering to pay Violet's fee and leave.

“I won't say no to the money,” she responded. “But how about we sit and talk, since I'm sure you've got questions?”

To Norris' surprise, the session that ensued proved not merely to be informative, but also thoroughly enjoyable. Violet, he learned, had a Master's Degree in French literature, and a special interest in what she called the Bad Boy Poets – Francois Villon, Rimbaud, and Verlaine – as well as being a published author with a detective novel and several short stories under her real name. As for what she referred to as her nom de travail, that and what she termed her day job, came into existence when she found herself short of funds after an acrimonious split from a guy she called Claude, the French Rat.

More importantly, she proceeded to explain to Norris, in a manner that was infinitely more enlightening than anything he found on Wikipedia, the why's and wherefore's of her second profession.

Sex, she informed him, was far from the most important component, to the point where if often figured only marginally, and sometimes not at all. The key, as she saw it, was that many men in power felt unworthy of – or even guilty about – the formidable control they wielded in their professional lives. That led them to a secret realm where instead of having reduced control, or even none at all, they could go so far as to allow themselves be vulnerable. And humiliated. And punished, whether emotionally, physically, or both.

It was a catharsis that many found far more satisfying than going to Confession or seeing a shrink.

Plus it gave Violet, whose real named turned out to be Fern, a chance not only to earn a decent living, but also to feel some degree of strength, which was in marked contrast to the powerlessness she often felt when dealing with book agents, publishers, and the editors of the literary magazines, whose emails of rejection were a constant source of anguish.

The following day, thanks to a call from Violet, Norris trekked over to Glendale for another session, this one with a diminutive leather-clad woman who went by Mistress Miyako.

Having gotten over both the jitters and the giggles, Norris experienced what was considered to be an introductory treatment. There was light bondage, tickling and teasing of his genitals with feathers, plus, after a point, clips place on his nipples – but no whipping or torture, no dog collar, and nothing hard-core.

But instead of an emotional involvement on Norris' part, or any kind of active engagement, there was only what he, upon reflection, considered to be a dissociative reaction. He'd been present in body, he realized, but not in spirit.

It was as though a part of him – one beyond his comprehension or control – had been unwilling, or unable, to let go. That made the experience clinical, but nothing more.

For what he assumed would be his final foray, his last exploration of the bizarre realm he'd been exploring, Norris trekked to Burbank two days later for a session with someone who billed herself with a name he found preposterous: Goddess Gina.

No longer apprehensive or skittish, Norris was on the verge of fancying himself an experienced man of the world – cool, calm, and aloof, almost to the point of being cynical.

Yet the moment he set eyes on the statuesque redhead who greeted him, something inexplicable happened. It wasn't a matter of being awestruck or smitten. Rather, he recognized as he reflected upon the situation later, he seemed, more than ever before, to feel somehow at home.

This, he sensed from his first moment with Gina, felt like where he belonged – where he was meant to be.

Without any hesitation or urging, Norris found himself not merely acquiescing to the Goddess' instructions and commands, but actively surrendering all his qualms, reservations, and inhibitions.

For the first time in his life, he found himself giving up all sense of will and reluctance, plus any semblance of ego, I, or me.

In a way he never would have dared dreamed possible, as Goddess Gina debased him, degraded him, and denied him anything resembling volition – all the while making him lick her boots, wear a dog collar, crawl on all fours, then inflicting ever-mounting pain by spanking him, slapping his genitals, and even whipping him – Steve Norris felt unencumbered, unburdened, and strangely, blissfully, free.

Though there was no doubting his affection for his wife and his daughters, from the moment he got home that evening he enjoyed his time with them far more than usual. It was as though being more comfortable with himself made him far more comfortable with them.

At work, too, Norris had a fresh perspective. Ordinary nuisances – calls not promptly returned, another person's car in his parking space, a lunch date showing up late – began to seem trivial, unworthy of his attention.

Noting the changes, Will Palmer gave his protege a more active role in the development process. Instead of simply serving as researcher and liaison, Norris was named the production exec in charge of the new project. He, for the first time, would not suggest, but rather would select, a screenwriter. And, as the project advanced, bring on a producer and a director.

Yet despite what was perceived as a wonderful promotion, Norris couldn't help but feel, as days turned to weeks, that something in his life that was missing.

That something, undeniably, was the liberation he'd felt during his session with Goddess Gina.

What he was able to term curiosity the first time he went back to see her became, after a third visit, then a fourth, a habit, then ultimately an addiction – to the point where soon Norris was living a double life.

Unbeknownst to Will Palmer, or his friends, or even his wife and kids, he was scheduling sessions with the dominatrix with greater and greater frequency – the pain and debasement each time ascending so as to become commensurate with his increased power at the studio, then greater still.

All the while, the project itself, which had acquired a title – Pain & Pleasure – and had become hot in the eyes of Hollywood thanks to the addition of a so-called hip producer, plus a British director with shaggy hair and a permanent two-day growth on his face, went through screenwriter after screenwriter, and re-write after re-write.

Until, that is, the British director jumped ship to take on a film that had bounded, due to a commitment from an action star, from Development Hell into active pre-production. And then the producer, out of the blue, got a green light on a movie to be shot in Malta.

Suddenly “Pain & Pleasure” went from Oh, boy! to Oh, that?

The next step, Norris knew from his studio experience, was likely to be Turnaround – meaning that it would be orphaned by its studio.

With a boldness that would have seemed unthinkable not too long before, Norris strode into his mentor's office and asked for a favor: that the rights be transferred to him free of the charges that had accrued.

“What in hell for?” asked Will Palmer.

“Because I want to make it myself.”

“Make it how?”

“If necessary, with my own bucks.

“Wait a second,” grumbled Palmer. “What's the first rule of Hollywood?”

“Never spend your own money.”

“And yet –?”

“It's something I've got to do.”

Palmer stood and paced for a moment. “Maybe you ought to take a few days and think about it,” he then stated in a surprisingly fatherly way.

“I have,” Norris countered firmly. “It's what I want, and what I need.”

In a Hollywood adaptation of such a tale, Norris would have gotten someone like Cameron Diaz, Reece Witherspoon, or Julia Roberts to star in the film for a reduced fee, then together they would have basked in the kudos that came their way thanks to an award-winning effort.

Instead, he cast Goddess Gina as the leading lady, then depleted his bank account while making a film that, after being spurned by exhibitors, went straight to video with no fanfare whatsoever.

Not surprisingly, Norris' marriage fared no better than the movie, with Lauren and the girls heading back to the Northeast a short time later.

No longer able to afford Goddess Gina, Norris wrote a memoir that was published by a small independent press, then talked his way into a teaching job at a fledgling film school in Florida.

Thanks to Facebook and Linkedin, he continues to network in the hope of staging a Hollywood comeback that seems unlikely to materialize.

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The Legendary