I was interested in something. The question of “What drew you to show business?”, a precarious profession that had nonetheless attracted me, and virtually all the people I know. Why would anyone, I retrospectively wondered, take such a dangerous risk with their future?
Anyway, while swapping stories with a couple of writers at lunch – of which more in a subsequent occasion – I was reminded of a rare flash of ferocity on my part, proving how a congenitally passive person can rise to the occasion when “exigent circumstance” requires it.
We are talking a veritable “Clark-Kent-Becomes Superman” transformation.
I have told this story before. But I am telling it again, though I am sure the telling itselfwill be different.
April the 12th, 1974. – Evening
I was at the Toronto airport. It was a Friday, and I was about to fly to Los Angeles where, not only was a job on a Lily Tomlin special waiting for me starting the following Monday, but on the weekend before that – starting the very next day – I would be revising a Sanford & Sonscript I had co-written with an émigré Torontonian, which – rewrite accepted – would be paid for and produced.
I was flying to L.A. with two jobs safely in my pocket. Actually, it was three jobs, as I had also been contracted to write and perform on the summer replacement The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, set to go into production just a couple of weeks later.
I was standing at the precipice of my proverbial “Big Break.” Against incalculable odds, “Little Earl” (as my mother would call me) was “shipping out” to American show business.
Earlier in the week, I had beseeched the president of Canadian radio (whom I had previously worked with) to give me one reason not to go (by offering me a job.) His paraphrased reaction was,
“You haveto go. There is nothing here left to do.”
And that was that.
I was terrified.
But I was going.
There I am, in the teeming Toronto airport, ready for my scheduled 6 P.M. flight to “The Coast.” I had already checked my suitcase and had proceeded through “Customs.” I was now standing before a burly U.S. Immigration Official.
I had been instructed to explain that I had a job waiting in California, my employers had obtained a temporary work permit for me and that the acknowledging paperwork had been forwarded… ostensibly to him.
The Immigration Official flipped through a stack of accumulated government forms. He then flatly replied,
“I don’t see it.”
Let me explain something (while you imagine the consequent screaming in my head.) The Lily Tomlin job would last five weeks. I believe you can legally stay in the States on vacation for six months. I could therefore have easily answered, “Vacation” to “What is the purpose of your visit?” and proceeded unhindered onto the plane.
The thing is, assured that everything had been taken care of, I had acted as previously instructed.
(Alternative Explanation: Though I could easily have come in as a tourist, I wanted to come in as a Hollywood writer. It was possible I was bragging. And now I was rightfully paying the price.)
Once again I insisted that my work permit had been previously arranged. To which the Immigration Official replied again,
“I don’t see it.”
“But I have to be in Hollywood tomorrow!” I plaintively bleated. “What do I do?”
While a voice in my head told me, “Go home”, an alienpart of me stubbornly resisted.
I was informed that I would need to call INS (The Immigration and Naturalization Service) in L.A. for authorized proof of my legitimate work permit status.
Here’s the thing.
I’m not good at talking to strangers on the phone. I once refused to call a local cousin on my visit to Florida because the name she answered to was “Boo-Boo” and I was too embarrassed to say, “Can I speak to ‘Boo-boo’?”
But I wanted to get on that plane. So I barked, to a man who outweighed me by seventy-five pounds, all of it muscle,
“Gimme the number.”
The – was that a glimmer of sympathy? – Immigration Official jotted a phone number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. I then (uncharacteristically again) raced to a nearby phone booth – remember, this was 1974 – and dialed the supplied number, hoping I had enough change to complete the “Long Distance” call. (And it was reallya long distance.)
Fortunately, with the three-hour time difference, the L.A. INS offices were still open. Still, I had to talk of an uncaring government official of a frequently belligerent neighboring country. Me, the guy who, if I forgot the phone number the “Operator” gave me would call back using a camouflaged voice.
Speaking uncharacteristically like a grown-up, I got the person I needed and the information I was looking for. I then realized I had nothing to write the confirming message down on, to then show the guy who keeping me off of the plane.
I told the INS person to hold on, I left the receiver dangling over the airport floor and I raced back to the Immigration Official, yelling,
“You have to come to the phone!”
I yelled that. To a big man, wearing a gun.
A surprised Immigration Official got up from his desk and went over to the pay phone, a heart-pounding Earlo, standing doggedly by his side.
The two talked for a moment (that felt more like a lifetime.) Finally, the Immigration Official produced a pencil and a package of Sweet Caporalcigarettes, on which he jotted some numbers I was afraid he’d be unable to read because the Sweet Caporal package is green.
And I went.
After relating this improbable anecdote, a listener opined that, despite typical unforceful demeanors, allof us have “one of those” inus.
I guess that was mine.
Though I’dlike to believe there are more.