The occasion of Diana Ross' birthday last Saturday (March 26) triggered this memory:
"My family called me a wiggle tail because I was a skinny little wiry kid full of energy." - Diana Ross.
"Is it real, is it fake, is this game of life a mistake..." Diana Ross singing "The Happening."
The rich kid said, "Man, if those assholes back in high school could see me now, they'd be grinding their fucking teeth."
We were sitting on the roof top patio garden of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, frosty beer mugs before us, a colorful umbrella overhead. On the deck below sexy girls gamboled in a pool of sparkling blue in a scene right out of a Hugh Hefner Playboy party. Beyond you could see the actual hills of Beverly, looking like the first wife of a Studio Boss - everything alimony trim and manicured, but with a strung out, diet pills and plastic surgery look.
The rich kid's Sycophant, nodded vigorous agreement. "Fuckin' A, Barry. Fuckin' see youse now!"
The "Barry" he was addressing, was one Barry Leis, who'd recently come into a small fortune, thanks to the timely death of his father, a New York garment industry maven. He was tallish, skinny, with a pinched, acne-pocked face. He did no justice whatsoever to the designer swimming trunks he was wearing, and his starched Hawaiian shirt hung open to reveal a sunburn-mottled concave chest. His only attractive feature was his hair, thick and black and tied back in a pony tail. He had a single earring, with a big fat Sparkly I took to be a diamond.
His Sycophant was similar, except he was skinnier, uglier, and he was decked out in Penny's beachwear pulled over sunburn-going-to-peel. He, too, wore a single earring. But, it was much smaller and with a giveaway-yellow garnet look.
Barry said, "You'd never guess it now, but I wasn't exactly on the school's "Most Likely To Succeed list."
"Me neither," the Sycophant chimed in. "Probably why me and Barry got to be such buds, youse know?"
Barry shot him an annoyed look, not liking being paired that way. The Sycophant caught it, and flushed.
He said, "Youse know" again. Shrugged. And let it go at that.
Barry returned to his theme with relish. "Those losers are all back in New York now, packed into sweaty trains with more muggers than fucking passengers. While me..." He tapped his concave chest... "I'm living the good life... Summer house in the Hamptons. Great looking girlfriend." He gestured at one of the shapely blondes frolicking in the pool. "Vacation suites at places like the Four Seasons..." He paused to indicate the luncheon platter before him. "And eating twenty dollar club sandwiches, with fresh-made chips washed down with fucking Coors Light beer."
Chris, who thought anything with "light" added to its name was exactly that, said, "If I had a choice between Coors Light and water, only reason I wouldn't take the water is because fish shit in it."
Barry made a manly laugh, ho-ho. But he either didn't get Chris' criticism, or chose to ignore it.
He said, "And let's not forget the best part - here I am in Beverly Hills talking about a fucking movie deal with a couple of fucking Hollywood writers."
"Yeah, fucking writers," The Sycophant came in. "Fucking Hollywood.
At that point in our career, this was an overblown description of the pair of us. Sure, we were writers. That's how we made our living. However, we didn't put beans on the table writing for Hollywood. I was a newspaperman and Chris was a freelance magazine writer. In our spare time we slaved together over spec scripts and novels and we had even made some option money - as well as a deal for an actual movie (unproduced) that qualified us to join the Screenwriter's Guild.
But, we didn't correct old Barry in his exaggeration. He was a producer wannabe intent on spending his inheritance on booze, broads and bullshit. He'd read an article Chris had written for one of the motorcycle magazines - Big Bike, I think. It was titled "Running On Empty," and it was a stunning piece of writing you wouldn't expect to stumble across in a bike magazine.
"Running On Empty," was a wild - almost stream-of-conscious - essay about a two week LA to Astoria, Oregon motorcycle trip he and I had taken. Chris was snared in the throes of divorce (I was several months out of a marriage as well) and the story was about as close to the bone as a writer can get.
Back in New York, the newly-flush Barry Leis read the article and called the magazine to track Chris down. He made a pitch about wanting to do "a different kind of motorcycle movie," and said he'd be out our way soon. He'd booked a trip to Samoa with his girlfriend and his buddy, and would stop off in LA to work out some kind of a deal.
So, here we were at the Four Seasons, eating an expensive lunch, drinking overpriced bad beer, and listening patiently to the guy carp about his "high school experience," with his dim-witted for-hire buddy chiming in like a one-man Greek chorus, but with a "youse guys" kind of accent.
Our producer/mentor pal Al Godfrey warned us many times to never deal with amateurs. But we hadn't met Godfrey yet, so we were boys for the burning together, listening to bullshit while waiting for the check to be written.
But instead of talking turkey, Barry was still obsessing over high school. He said, "Just before I flew out here, I got a fucking invitation to my Tenth Reunion."
"Fucking invitation," said the Sycophant.
"Sons of bitches," Barry hissed. "Only reason I'd ever go is to spit in their fucking faces."
The Sycophant nodded vigorously. "Fucking faces!"
"Who wants to relive that shit again?" Barry went on. "Worse time of my fucking life."
"Worse time," said his Official Echo.
I said, "I hear you, Brother. I got a ten year invite. Tore that up. Then a fifteen year. Tore that one up too. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of losers?"
"Bunch of losers," the Sycophant said, then froze. Glanced at Barry, who gave him a dirty look. I could see what he was thinking: "You're MY Echo, asshole! Got it?"
Chris laughed. He said, "I skipped my tenth reunion like you and Cole. But five years later I got the kind of revenge you remember for the rest of your fucking life."
Leis looked interested. "Really?" he said. "What happened?"
This was a Chris Bunch story I hadn't heard before, although we'd known each other since our senior year at Mira Costa High School (Go Mustangs!) in Manhattan Beach, California. (See Episode #1 - Fade In Bunch & Cole.)
Fascinated like the others, I toyed with my Coors Light and settled back to listen.
Chris said, "When the invitation came I was working at a Bob Silberstein's public relations company at 9000 Sunset Boulevard. They repped the biggest names in the music business in those days. Hell, they still do. I was the company freak - and I'll tell you right now I'm proud to say that I was the World's Worst Rock N' Roll PR Man."
This part I knew, so I prodded: "How'd you get the job, Chris?"
Chris grimaced. "It was like this. Suddenly there was this fucking huge explosion of money pouring in from new groups and stars. All young, edgy, full of attitude. But all the PR reps in town were fucking Suits with no fucking soul whatsoever. But the stars had no use for the Suits, and were refusing to sign.
"It was the same with the Movie Studios in those days. The whole Baby Boom thing hadn't really sunk into the teeny things the Suits use for brains. So when shit like Easy Rider hit the Big Screen and kids lined up for blocks and blocks with cash in their fists, it was Panic City time. Hopper and Fonda made the movie for Zip money, but it coined a bundle and half. So, the Suits started grabbing any kid with long hair they found wandering by the studio gates, dragging them inside and putting them to work.
"Same with Rock And Roll. More so, even. So, anyway, I was running an Underground newspaper - Open City - and Bob Silberstein personally called to blow in my ear."
"Open City," Leis breathed. "Shit, I even heard of that all the way out in New York."
Chris said, "They made me the Company Freak. New client would come in and they'd trot them by to show how With It they were. You know - I was hip before it was hep to be hip. Long hair, 'stache, biker colors... pretty much how I look now.
"An added bonus was that working in the Underground Press and covering all the acts I already knew a lot of the people. Had interviewed them, shot pictures and wrote reviews of their albums."
Barry broke in. "And concerts? You mentioned Altamont in your Running On Empty story. Were you really there?" (He was referring to infamous 1969 Altamont Speedway concert where the Stones hired the Hell's Angels for security and four people ended up dead.)
Chris said, "Yeah, I was there. And the trouble really wasn't the Angels fault. The promoters built the stage too low." He waved it away. "But, that's another story."
The waiter was going by, so Chris pulled him over and traded in his Coors Light and mine for a couple of Dos Equis Much better fuel for story-telling.
He said, "Like I said, I was the company freak at Silberstein's. Did whatever I wanted. Didn't take shit from anybody. Hell, one time one of bosses pissed me off and just for GP I threw my typewriter through a window."
This really impressed Mr. Echo. "And they didn't fire youse?"
"Fuck no," Chris said.
The beer came and he took a grateful slug of the good stuff.
Chris said, "Time goes by. I got really tight with the clients. But, my absolute favorite was Diana Ross - who was married to Silberstein at the time. She was just a dynamite lady. Really down to earth and made you comfortable right from the start. But, you'd better not cross her, or do her wrong. She was a damn panther when she was mad. And curse. Man, she could make a drill sergeant blush. But, two minutes later, it was over. And she was back to being sweet Diana."
"Fucking amazing," Barry said, shaking his head.
After taking on a little more beer, Chris continued. "I was also friends with Diana's future husband Berry Gordy - Mr. Mowtown himself." Chris remembered something and laughed. He said, "Show you how smart I was, I once told him - 'Berry, you're a good guy and all, but those four little black kids from Gary, Indiana just don't have it.'"
We all laughed. "The Jackson Five," Leis chortled. "Good thing he ignored you," he added.
Chris nodded - damn right - then went on: "I hung out a lot at Diana's house.... And you know.. I had a helluva education in music from my folks - and, shit, my little brother is a genius rock and roll drummer. So, we had a lot to talk about when we got - you know - relaxed.
"Then, one day the reunion invitation comes in the mail. Don't ask me why, but it pissed me off. Depressed me. Totally out of whack considering the situation, but there you are."
"Felt the same fucking way," Leiss said.
The Sycophant started to make with the echo, then shut up. He was too interested.
Chris said, "I was supposed to see Diana and Bob that night. Forget why. But, when I get there I still feel like shit. Go inside, get situated with them... a drink... Etc... And while all that's going on, Diana notices how down I am."
"She says, 'What's up, Chris, honey? You feelin' blue about something? Girl problems, maybe?' She smiled at me - and damn, you know that smile. Hits you like a punch between the eyes. Except, I was too down to really appreciate it, you know?
"But I told her. I said, 'Diana, when I was a kid I was total nerd. Too smart for my own good. No social skills. Didn't have a car. Couldn't get a date. Took a load of crap from the teachers, because, like a dope, I'd correct them in class. Shit like that.
"'And then today, this stupid High School Reunion invitation comes. And I'm suddenly back there at Mira Costa with all those assholes. I mean, I know it's stupid to let it get to me that way. The guys are all probably swinging wrenches, and the girls all have five kids - three still in diapers.'"
"Diana got all sympathetic. She told me, 'I know just how you feel, honey. You might not believe it, but I was downright ugly when I was a kid. So skinny and full of energy my family called me Little Wiggle Tail.'"
Leis broke in: "Diana Ross ugly? And skinny? Man, she's gotta be one of the most beautiful chicks in the fucking world. And she sure isn't skinny." He drew a curvaceous form in the air with both hands.
"You got that right," Chris said. "Just looking at her that night I couldn't believe that she'd been the proverbial ugly duckling back in school. But she assured me it was true. Told some sad stories about those times. A fuck of a lot sadder than any I had.
"So, anyway, the evening progressed. More music. More inducements. And we're all pretty high when Diana and I start joking about how great it would be to get even with those assholes back at Mira Costa.
"Then she really cracked up about something. And when I asked she hit me with it right out of the Blue. She said she was thinking how much it'd knock them all for a loop if she showed up as my date.
"Well, I laughed my ass off about that. I told her that it would be a fucking double-knock out loop, since the town I grew up in had only one single black family. The dad was an aerospace engineer, or something. And everybody used to point to them and their kids as proof that they weren't prejudiced. 'See,' they'd say. 'And people claim our real estate agents and the banks are conspiring to keep black people out of Manhattan Beach.'"
"What total bullshit," Leiss exclaimed.
"Yeah, bullshit," said his Echo.
I said, "Twisted logic. Curse of the human race."
Chris said, "Amen, Brother."
He got us another beer on Leis' tab - the good kind - then went on. "Well, Diana and I were laughing so hard that Bob asked what the joke was. We told him. And he started laughing too. Then he said, 'Shit, you should do it. Really, fucking do it.'"
Chris paused to take a drink. Leis and his Sycophant were dying for him to go on. "Well, did you?" Leiss pressed. "Did you do it?'
"Fuck yes," Chris said. And then he went on to describe the scene.
On the night of the Reunion, Chris got all duded up and met Diana at her house. She was dressed to kill. A long, form-fitting white dress, practically slit to the hip. Glittering jewelry, Long, perfumed hair. A fabulous package of femininity all wrapped up in a by-God full length white mink coat.
Chris got behind the wheel of one of her cars - a white Cadillac convertible - and they took off for Manhattan Beach. Top down, natch.
They swept up to the school auditorium - pulling right in front, where people were lined up to get in. Chris hopped out and opened the door for Diana and when she slid out, she made sure to give the stunned crowd a nice flash of leg.
Diana smiled that smile and everyone knew - Damn! That's Really Diana Ross!
People were calling out to each other, rushing into the auditorium to fetch friends. Diana took Chris' arm and they moved through adoring crowds. And then they all did massive double-takes when they realized that the dude by her side was none other than Chris Bunch, The guy they'd all once declared was The Most Likely To Be A Nerd.
Chris introduced Diana to the Class of 61' Student Body Leaders, Prom Queen and King, the faculty, the principal (the former Boy's Vice Principal/history teacher who hated Chris almost as much as Chris hated him.) Even the Superintendent Of Schools got the Diana Ross treatment.
Diana hugged Chris a lot... accompanied by little kisses... showed a lot of leg and cleavage, rattled her jewelry... giggled charmingly at his jokes.. bragged on him to one and all.
Then they got back in the car and swept away, a cloud of Diana's ten zillion dollar an ounce perfume trailing behind. Laughing their heads off all the while.
When Chris was done, Leiss and his hired pal were stunned into silence. Then they both started talking excitedly. Laughing and asking questions about this and that and the other thing. And, damn, who knew Diana Ross was such a great sport?
Finally, things calmed down. Chris took a bite of his club sandwich, made a face and tossed it back onto his plate. Hit the Dos Equis to wash down the cardboard taste. He looked at my plate and noticed there was only one bite out of mine as well. Later, we agreed the twenty dollar club sandwiches had to have set a record on Bad.
Leiss cleared his throat, then said, "You know, when I got here, I have to admit I was having some doubts. You know, whether you guys were really the ones I wanted to make my movie. But after that story-"
He broke off, shaking his head. Then said, "Wow! Just fucking wow!"
"Yeah, fucking wow," said his Sycophant.
Then Leis said, "Well now I'm ready, man! All my doubts are gone. We've really got to make this movie. Running On Empty, man. The magic of fucking motorcycles! You're the perfect fucking guys to get across what it's really like."
Chris grimaced. "Magic of fucking motorcycling?" he said.
Before he said more and spoiled the spell he'd cast over Leiss and his Sycophant, I jumped in.
I said, "Did you bring the contracts, Barry?"
Chris' face cleared. Back to business. He said, "And the check? The start-up money? We're going to take care of that too, right?"
"You got it, man," Leis said.
His Sycophant handed him his briefcase and Leis got out the paperwork, which we read and signed - Little Sir Echo serving as the witness. And Leiss handed over a big fat check for ten thousand dollars. Chris folded it and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
There was a little more chit-chat and then we got our helmets and our jackets and made our way through Four Season's security into the parking lot where our bikes waited.
We pulled on jackets and helmets and kicked the bikes into life.
But, before we drove away, I couldn't help but ask: "Tell me, Chris. Did all that really happen? I mean, I'm sure you and Diana got all stoned and were joking about it. But is it true? Did you really go to the Reunion together?"
Chris just ginned."Cole," he said, "would I lie to you?"
Then he pulled out the check, kissed it, waved at the sky and said, "Thank you, Diana!"
I said, "Partner, mine - let's cash that check just as fast as we can."
So, we roared out of the parking lot onto Wilshire Boulevard, and powered away - laughing all the way to the bank.
Ps1: The check cleared.
Ps2: The movie was never made.
Ps3: Barry Leiss tore through his inheritance in less than a year and declared bankruptcy.
Ps4: I used my share of the money to take Kathryn to England, where she agreed to be my wife.
So, Happy Birthday Diana Ross!
And Many, Many More....
NEXT: CHUCK NORRIS NEVER BLINKS. NEVER!