Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Wild Ride Journal of a Hollywood Bookseller: The Burning Passions of Mickey Tsimmis

By Arnold M. Herr

Mickey Glows:

Mickey often found himself in the dark.  And so would his customers and assorted schnorrers who might be loitering around in the shop.  They’d find themselves suddenly plunged into stygian gloom. 

That was because Mickey often neglected to pay his electric bill and the service would be cut off.  He usually tended to not pay much attention to the mail as it arrived each day.  He would wrap all the envelopes in a magazine and put a rubber band around it when the mail carrier dropped it on the counter.  These “postal burritos” were then set aside for perusal at a later date, perhaps in a distant, unimagined future, far, far away, and most likely by some yet-unborn archaeologist.

And so the lights went out one December evening just after Christmas.  It was past closing time and Mickey scrambled around for a while hunting for the delinquent DWP notice, but without any luck.  It was too late in the day to call the Department of Water & Power and plead with them, so he resigned himself to spending the night in the dark.  He located 14 flashlights, all but one of them with dead batteries.  There wasn’t much life left in that one either, although if used sparingly, it might see him through the evening and into the following morning. 

He then crawled through the tunnel he called a passageway (although it only allowed passage grudgingly) to his nest at the back of the store.  This is the area in which he slept, ate, cleaned himself and washed his dainty underthings.  He knew that with no electrical power a lot of the food he kept in the three barely functioning refrigerators (down from seven) would probably spoil, and if he was going to eat it before it went bad, now was the time to do it.  The freezer compartment on the largest refrigerator was the only thing that worked with any reliability, so any foodstuffs that needed chilling was kept in there.  The negatory was that everything in there froze into icicles and chewing on these morsels was wearing down Mickey’s teeth.

It was while gnawing on some frozen broccoli and an icy garlic bulb that he spotted a menorah entombed in ice at the back of the freezer.  Using a screwdriver and a hammer, he freed it from the glacier and was delighted to see that it also held candles in all of its nine cups.  He remembered he had a book of matches in a drawer behind the front counter.  He kept them because the matchbook cover offered a refresher course in toilet training for $11.95, and Mickey found that very interesting and possibly useful.

He clawed his way to the front of the store, found the matches and closed the cover of the matchbook before striking one.  He knew how to be careful when playing with fire.  He pushed aside the newspapers, the open can of kerosene, the oil-soaked rags, the handfuls of straw, the two 400 foot reels of ancient, decomposing nitrate movie film.  He pushed all this stuff about a foot and half away from where he intended to light the menorah.  He could be careful, but not careful enough. 

He was lighting candle number seven.  Mickey is right-handed.  For absolutely no good reason that I could figure out, he was lighting the candles from right to left.  As the wick on number seven ignited, so did the polyester sleeve of his outer shirt, which had been hovering over candle number four.  It was December, it was chilly and Mickey was wearing three shirts, one on top of the other.  He wasn’t aware for the first few moments that he was aflame – he smelled something burning, and when the fire had burned its way through the first shirt, sleeve number two and then number three quickly caught fire.  When Mickey had the presence of mind to note that something was indeed on fire, he briefly thought to himself “Something smells delicious.”  And he then looked down and screamed “It’s ME!  I’M ON FIRE!!  And I can read by my own light!”  He waved his arm around and set fire to the straw and scraps of paper.  Panicking, he sought to douse the flames with the kerosene. That was a really crummy idea.  The flaming liquid fell on the two reels of nitrate film and that’s when all hell broke loose.


The resultant explosion propelled Mickey and the attendant fireball through the front window and onto the rain-soaked sidewalk in front of his bookstore.  He never let go of the menorah and not because of the holiness of the object.  Rather, it was because he was too stupified to release his grip.  The storm was still in mid-deluge and the Mickster was doused pronto.  He lay steaming and smoking on Melrose Avenue.  Quite a few of the burning books that flew out with Mickey were also drenched, thereby minimizing the fire damage to them.  All one had to worry about now was the damage the water was doing to them.

But Mickey was astonishingly lucky:  the crew on a fire engine was returning to its nearby fire station, saw the ball of flame spewing from Mickey’s store and was able to minimize the damage.  Yes, Mickey lost about 1500 books, his cash register was ruined, as were his two computers and his collection of 200 dried up ballpoint pens.  The vaporized 35mm nitrate film contained rare candid footage of Jean Harlow licking Burton Holmes’s ear.  Yes, that Burton Holmes.  Yes, that Jean Harlow.  From the footage, it appeared they may have been neighbors and possibly friends.  But now I fear, we’ll never know.  Before it was destroyed, I had had the opportunity to look at several frames (with the aid of a loupe) at the head end of one of the rolls.

Mickey raised his head and watched the firemen put out the flames as he rolled around in a puddle.  The guys on the hose sprayed the remaining smoldering debris and two members of the fire crew lifted Mickey from the sidewalk and sat him the fire truck’s rear bumper.  One of them looked curiously at Mickey, still clutching the menorah.  “The joke’s on you fella, Chanukah was two weeks ago,” he said. __________

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