Years ago, I was en route to a Beverly Hills dinner and ended up giving this kid a lift. A student from, of all places, Wuhan, future home of the Flu That Almost Killed America, he was studying at the hoity-toity New York Film Academy.
The gods tease, sending us too-short friendships. It was a daunting drive from Toluca Lake to his Underbelly Of Hollywood dorm, a few miles as crows fly, an hour in rush hour. His name slipped in one ear and out a contact lens. He was maybe 20. I can’t recall meeting anyone from Iowa farmer to Green Beret more in love with this country.
Both writers, we peppered each other with questions, style, genre, favorite movies. He ate up American history like it was his first In-N-Out Burger and I volleyed useless trivia. Inching along in 101 traffic, I explained we were crossing over Cahuenga Pass, where, in 1831, the worthless sons of the wealthy landowners fought over yet another nothingburger. I laughingly explained it was one of history’s rare chances where not only could you could jam a lance into the face of a sitting governor and get away with it, but be rousingly cheered. It was more emotionally satisfying than your regular recall.
“California,” I shrugged. “Gotta like it.”
Poor lad. Hailing from a country with more communists than the local wide-eyed teachers’ union, he didn’t know if there were secret police hiding in the upholstery, ready to pop out and yell “Treason!”
I asked him how one not says, but belts out: “TREASON!!!” in Mandarin.
“PHWNG-GWA-ZAY!!” We both yelled it back and forth, for practice.
One never knows.
Stuck in traffic, we talked of America. I can’t recall meeting anyone who was so passionate about the place, and, for that memory, I am grateful. Sometimes, we can get too close, too familiar with our blessings. With sadness, he confessed he didn’t know if he could go home. In China, you needed government permission to travel. What to say. Think. Be happy about. The dream of America’s Democratic Party. Years ago, his parents wanted to move. Couldn’t. Needed proper forms from Mother Socialist May I.
I saw Hollywood as an armpit. Metaphorical. Literal. He saw it as a vibrant expression of freedom. Both us of asked what’s wrong with people that they’re allergic to brooms, buckets and trash bags and couldn’t clean a damn sidewalk or side of a building.
He loved how fresh the air was. I threatened him. Sternly. As a young man, he HAD to tour our heartland, see that fast-disappearing other America between the coasts, with its mountains, prairies, farmlands, lazy roads, national parks, giant twine balls and more beautiful director’s stills than ever stored in a thousand iMovie apps. I quickly took my hands off the steering wheel to form a director’s rectangle. He was tickled, then astounded, as I dumped a whirlwind of assignments — the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Golden Gate Bridge, ChiChi’s Pizza here in Saugus, “Navel of the Universe…”
“Then there’s all the wonderful people,” I promised.
“Where I live, back in China,” he said, “everyone is your boss.” Middle Kingdom was a ladder with many rungs, endless butts above your head, not so many heads below.
Life expectancy has risen dramatically. Seventy years ago, the average life expectancy was 49. It’s about 68 today. Central Planning up until around 1980 demanded families have no more than one child. That was upped to two kids in 2016. Now? Husbands and wives are encouraged to try for three. Why? All-wise Central Planning goofed on population projections. I was shocked when my new best film student pal shared that in China, if you’re a woman, looking for a job, you better be willing to check the Take One For The Team & Willing To Have A Child? box on your employment application.
This future Wuhan Alfred Hitchcock was amazed that I was a professional political satirist. I earned my moth-gnawed paycheck making fun of rich and powerful people at all levels of government and society.
Not counting traffic school? I’ve never been forced to attend a concentration camp.
Humor. Not only was it allowed, it was guaranteed in our Constitution, by the people, not by humorless, sphincter-tight bureaucrats. We live in a beautiful country where it’s actually encouraged to keep the powers that be — honest. Bullies, dictators, school districts and government-sponsored chamber pot cleaners do not like being the butt of ridicule, ridiculous as they are. Satire is the papier-mâché version of the Second Amendment, except instead of real bullets, we use slimy, sloppy, indelibly dyed paper bullets to keep buffoons on task. How beyond tragic if the noble watchdog of the public, the press, would turn tail and snivel, or, worse, become fawning pets of a Central Committee? It couldn’t happen here. Socialists couldn’t restrict where we travel by something as simple as pricing gasoline or causing shortages?
Or by manufacturing a crisis and making everyone stay home from work and school?
Or by wresting control of our children and handing them over to that wise and all-knowing State? The one he fled?
Of course, our little ride was only five years ago. Our country couldn’t have slipped into oblivion in such a short time? Our leaders couldn’t have rigged the country, our dreams, with explosives? They couldn’t have looted the treasury while pogo-sticking madly about, tongue out, pants down?
“Destroyed from within?” That can’t mean — us — right?
I dropped that idealistic kid at the Hollywood flat he rented with other film students. We wished each other good lives. He asked if I could make a promise I could never keep.
In a halting, strong accent, he asked: Could I make sure America would never throw its freedom away?
I so hope that young filmmaker got to stay, for at least a while, to see that America we loved so.
The SCV’s John Boston is the most prolific satirist in Earth’s history. Visit his bookstore at johnbostonbooks.com.