Last Saturday marked my fortieth anniversary living in this country. I celebrate this momentous and meaningful milestone with a “three-M” alliteration and this story of courage and determination in which the protagonist is shockingly and surprisingly me.
The following is a recreated version of a story I have written before. I am not simply republishing that story, because, as is my way, I have assigned it an indecipherable title and as a result I am unable to find it.
Don’t worry. I’ll make it better.
“I came to this country in 1974.” (A personalization of the opening line from the magnificent Barry Levinson movie Avalon.)
The Time: Friday, April the twelfth, 1974.
The Place: Toronto International Airport, Toronto Canada, Terminal (I think) 1.
A friend had driven me to the airport. I was flying to Los Angeles to take on, starting the following Monday, my first network television assignment, serving as the “bottom rung” of a team of writers working on a Lily Tomlin special. (A “special”, in contrast to a series, being a one-time stand-alone presentation.)
I am leaving three days early, so I can utilize the weekend to rewrite a Sanford & Son script that I co-wrote on spec (unassigned) a year earlier in Canada, during which collaborator had bailed in the middle of writing the Second Act. As it turns out, my co-writer had subsequently completed the script on his own (putting both of our names on it) and had submitted it to the show. The Sanford & Son show runners had agreed to produce the script if we would rewrite the only part of it they didn’t like, which was the second half of the Second Act. (I shall permit the reader to connect the dots.) So I was going out early to do that.
Also, a few weeks after the completion of the Lily Tomlin special, I was contracted to write and – Oh my God! – perform on The Bobbie Gentry Show, a four-episode summer replacement series on CBS.
What I am telling you is I am heading for Hollywood with three guaranteed jobs. (It is easier “making the jump” when there are three legitimate entities guaranteeing a “soft landing.”)
I have been promised an “H-1” Temporary Work Permit, to legitimize my employment on the “Tomlin” special. (I would receive further temporary permits for subsequent work.) My instructions were to give my name to the Immigration Official at the airport and he would find it on a list. (I could have lied and said that the reason for my visit was “vacation”, but when you lie, you can get caught in that lie, and when you get caught in a lie entering the country, you can end up in Guantanamo, finding yourself being tortured for information concerning a terrorist attack that would not take place for another thirty-seven years. Then and now, Immigration Officials cannot be too careful.)
I step up to the Immigration Desk and I confidently tell the Official my name, not because I am confident about knowing my name, but because I feel assured that the “papers” I have been informed about are entirely in order.
The Immigration Official checks a list appended to a clipboard and officially reports that my name is not on it.
Shit! (I do not swear much but in this situation it seemed appropriate.)
I immediately revert into “Crisis Mode” which for me involves sweating and blubbering. I can recall the words “Are you sure?” uttered in an extremely whiney voice.
It was absolutely mandatory that I get on that plane. There was only one problem:
Normally, in such situations, I would simply return home. That has always been my M.O. – I am a congenital “giver-upper.” But I really wanted to get there. So I uncharacteristically fought back.
“What do I do?” I inquired, sensing a surprising steeliness in my voice.
I was informed that I had to call “Immigration” in Los Angeles, to confirm that my “H-1” permit had been authorized but had somehow inadvertently fallen through the administrative cracks.
“Do you have their number?” (Do you see how I wasn’t giving up? Normally, I’d have said, “I don’t know how to do that” and, not to be repetitive on the matter, returned home.
The Immigration Official sighed and reluctantly (as reflected by the sigh) looked up the phone number for the Los Angeles Immigration Bureau, and he wrote it down. Taking the number, I raced to the nearest payphone (the plane was leaving in a precariously short time; this was “pre-terrorism” times, when you could arrive closer to “takeoff.”)
I got Los Angeles Immigration on the phone. (Fortunately, I had enough change for the call, and also fortunately, though it was evening in Toronto, it was still “Civil Service Working Hours” in L.A.) (Let me just add that I am generally terrified of calling strangers on the phone, and even more terrified when it’s “Long Distance”, and even more terrified on top of that when I am calling government officials with badges. And this was all of those things. But I did it.)
L.A. Immigration confirmed that “H-1” authorization had been approved; they had just forgotten to inform Toronto. Thinking uncharacteristically clearly, I asked them if they could confirm that “officially” over the phone. They said yes, at which point I recall saying, “Don’t go away.”
Leaving the pay phone receiver dangling, I raced back to the Immigration Desk, and shouted,
“You have to come with me!”
To a man I believe was carrying a gun!
And the miraculous part was…
He did it.
Standing by the payphone, I saw the Immigration Official take out a pack of Sweet Caporal cigarettes, which at the time came in a semi-sturdy cardboard package (rather than in the Lucky Strike “crush” kind) and write down a long series of “H-1”-confirming authorization numbers.
Allowing me to get on the plane.
By now, as I discovered at the airline’s “Departures Desk”,
They did not have any more seats.
Even though I had a pre-paid ticket!
Sensing the desperation in my face – along with my screaming, “I have got to get on that plane!” – they finally found me a position, seating me up front, before even the First Class compartment, at a circular table that served as a “Drinking Area” available to the First Class patrons during the flight.
I was not traveling “First Class.”
I was not traveling “Coach.”
I was in fact traveling,
The plane finally took off, and in time I was joined in that flying saloon by an actor whom I recognized as John Saxon. I remember, after my telling him the purpose of my going to L.A. and some further conversation, John Saxon, a man I did not know but who had show biz credentials and credibility assuring me that, in his professional and therefore accurate opinion, I was going to do all right in California.
The semi-star stranger’s words resonated deeply in my heart. People have always told me that I was not tough enough to be in show business. Well I was plenty tough that day. So who knows, I thought.
Maybe John Saxon would be right.
I came to America in 1974.
And I am eternally thankful I did.