Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Wild Ride Journal of a Hollywood Bookseller: The Burning Passions of Mickey Tsimmis, 4

by Arnold M. Herr
Book scrounging in a Rolls-Royce:

I was scheduled to be interviewed by Weldon Broadstairs Piffle of the BBC, who was certain his listeners in the U. K. would be astonished to learn that there are actually purveyors of old and rare books in Hollywood. 

I phoned Piffle a day or two before his arrival at my bookstore on Fairfax Ave. and suggested that if he wanted to talk to a bookseller who not only dealt in old books, but was very old himself, he might want to talk with Mickey Tsimmis.  I told Piffle that Mickey’s Megalopolis Book Shop was only a short distance from mine and that he might find Mickey to be more of a fountain of early and arcane Hollywood booklore than I. 

Piffle wasn’t aware of Mickey’s reputation or of his existence and asked me how he might prepare for the interview.  I suggested a tetanus shot.  He said he would take the necessary precautions and then offered to pick me up at my place so we could drive over to Mickey’s. 

At 1:00 p.m. on the appointed day, Piffle showed up driving a 1929 Rolls-Royce shooting brake.  That’s what he called it, a shooting brake. 

Me:  It’s a woody, a station wagon. 

Piffle:  No, no.  Shooting brake.  It was designed for the hunt. 

Me:  What are you hunting for today?  A pastrami sandwich at Canter’s?

I had to admit though, it was a beauty.  The sheet metal was deep, deep red –  and then there was the wood, which covered most of the vehicle aft of the windshield, and that was blond and light brown.  With lots of nickel-plated trim, especially the radiator shell and the headlights, which were the size of garbage cans and made by Lucas, the Prince of Darkness.  And it had right-hand drive.  It sat in front of my store, gleaming.  Passersby glanced at it covetously; I wished they looked at my books that way.  I thought to myself, I’m a buck ninety-eight kind of guy.  If I’m gonna ride in that thing, I’m liable to break out in hives.

My sister , who was helping me at the store that day, stood in the doorway, enchanted by Piffle’s ride, his accent, and his Hawaiian shirt. 

Piffle (fumbling some coins out of his pocket):  I never know what to feed these parking meters here.

Me (pointing toward the Rolls):  Try a gold sovereign.

After the introductions, Piffle and I drove off to meet Mickey.

We pulled up in front of Megalopolis Book Shop just as Mickey and two people I’d never seen before came bumbling out the door.  The guy was very small with what appeared to be elm blight on his skin.  The woman towered over him; she also towered over Mickey, Piffle and me, and easily outweighed each of us by 75 pounds easy.  I had just stepped out of Piffle’s car when Mickey caught sight of me.

Mickey:  Just in the nick of time!  My car won’t start.  These folks have a book collection down in Gardena and we have no way of getting there. 

Me:  But this isn’t my car Mick, it belongs to Mr. Piffle here, the BBC guy... 

Piffle (to Mickey):  A pleasure to make your acquaintance Mr. Tsimmis.  I’d be delighted to make my car and my services available to you.

Me (leaning over and whispering in Piffle’s ear):  Big mistake.

Piffle ignored me and smiled happily as he shook everyone’s hands.  The couple were Lance and Penelope Schportzl. (I couldn’t make this stuff up).

Mickey (to Piffle):  Thanks Mr. Chump.

Me:  Piffle.

Mickey:  Mr. Piffle.

With Lance’s help, Mickey and I tossed a mess of cardboard boxes into the back of the Rolls and we all piled in and escaped the pull of Hollywood’s orbit.

As Weldon Broadstairs Piffle tooled down the Harbor Freeway I would turn to look at Lance and Penelope in the back seat to try and learn about the books we were going to see.  I was able to study the large and very deep vertical indentation in Penelope’s forehead.  It was maybe an inch and a half long and about an inch deep.  Mickey was holding a couple of quarters in his hand and I caught him also staring at the dent.  He later told me he had an impulse to insert a coin and pull her arm to see if he could roll cherries.  He wondered what the payoff might be.  I figured about a week in intensive care.

Meanwhile, Piffle was bubbling with enthusiasm about a first-hand look at the used book business.  He spoke into his recorder as he drove and told his listeners he was accompanying a pair of old California book hands on a possible book-buy.  He babbled while steering and shifting gears and would occasionally aim the microphone at  Mickey or me for a response to one of his questions. 

I asked Lance about the books; were they modern first editions, antiquarian books, fine bindings, illustrated books, early science, art, law, children's books?  But Lance wasn’t very forthcoming; I had the impression that he wasn’t really sure himself about what to expect.  Which led me to wonder:  are these his books?  Did he have authorization to consummate a deal?  This didn’t feel right and I sincerely hoped we weren’t going to get pinched for a B&E.  It wouldn’t be the first time for Mickey and me, but it might look bad with the BBC along for the ride. 

There wasn’t much conversation coming from Penelope; she was content with looking out the window and sniffing the emissions on the 110 Freeway.  I’d be willing to bet she really wouldn’t have objected to Mickey’s trying to stuff quarters into the slot in her forehead.  And I’d also wager that Lance would have been pleased to have had the extra dough.

Forty-five minutes later we pulled up to what looked like an abandoned house on a dismal, parched street.  Everything around the place was neglected and down-at-the-heels.  I told Piffle that this could work to a bookseller’s advantage; unprepossessing surroundings often held genuine treasures. 

Mickey (from the back seat):  That’s right, outward appearances are often misleading.  Look at me.

Piffle turned in his seat and looked long and hard over his shoulder at Mickey.  He withheld comment.

Lance told us to wait in the car while he scurried to the front door.  He pulled a key ring from his pocket but he made sure we couldn’t see him fumbling with the locks on the door.  Strange that he should be so furtive about this I thought, as the rest of us climbed out of the car.

Piffle (into the tape recorder):  We’re now standing outside a typical substandard tract home in one of many deep, dark subdivisions surrounding Los Angeles, California. The view from the sidewalk reveals a lawn that looks as if hasn’t been weeded since Harry Truman was president.  I see a faded bedsheet covering the large window at the front of the home.  And yet, if I am to believe what I have been told, as unpromising and unappetizing as this appears to be untold treasures may be lurking within. 

Mickey (shouting to Lance):  What’s taking so long?

Just then, Lance threw his weight against the door and it popped open.  We all then marched across the lawn, up the two steps and into the house.  The place had been closed up for too long and the funk came rushing out to meet us.

That’s not all that came rushing out to meet us.  Hard on the heels of the funk came the men in blue.  The Gardena police.  Half a dozen officers came tumbling out of the house as four police cruisers came screaming around the corners and up the street, screeching to halt behind us, blocking in the Rolls in case we were thinking of making a getaway. 

Unruffled, Piffle continued to burp up the narration for the BBC audience.

Piffle (into the microphone):  And here come the local gendarmarie.  I think the locals refer to their city police as the “fuzz.”  Which would lead me to think that small-town coppers would be called “lint.”  That rustling sound you hear is me reaching for my press credentials to show to the officers, and prove that I am only a reporter covering this event and that I have no criminal intent. 

Loud voice:  Drop that weapon!  Down on your knees and lace your fingers behind your head!

Piffle:  But officer, it’s only a tape recorder.  I’m a reporter from the BBC.  Look, here’re my…

Loud voice:  You wanna get tased? 

Piffle:  No, no, PLEASE.   YAAAAAHHHHHH!

[Clatter on soundtrack.   ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZTTT!!  Flopping sounds.]

Piffle:  Sniffle.  Oooh.

Loud voice:  You calmed down now?  Good.  I’ll pull out the darts.

Piffle sat up and turned off his tape recorder.  No point in having BBC listeners hear Piffle screaming and falling to the ground, so we’ll switch back to my voice.

Turns out that Schportzl had been looting what appeared to be abandoned homes in and around Gardena.  The local police had picked up scent and had been keeping tabs on him.  Penelope had more or less been going along for the ride, neither aiding nor abetting.  She was mentally too far out of it to be criminally involved.  Mickey, Piffle and I were soon released.  Since none of us had actually entered the property, we couldn’t be held for breaking and entering, although one of the coppers was convinced we had foreknowledge and were therefore culpable.  But the investigating detectives convinced him the city had no case against us.  Lance was handcuffed and deposited in the back of one of the police cars.  They didn’t know what to do with Penelope though.  They were hesitant about releasing her into her own custody.  It seemed she had nowhere to go.

Detective (to Mickey, Piffle and me):  Any of you guys want her?

We all declined. 

Detective (shrugging):  All right.  I’ll turn her over to social services.

Mickey (walking over to the detective and Penelope):  Excuse me officer. I have to do this…

Mickey began inserting quarters into the slot in Penelope’s forehead.  He managed to stuff in five of them and then pulled her arm.  No cherries.  No ringing bells.  
He was, instead, rewarded with two months in traction.

Next: Mickey Tsimmis has a doctor's appointment and borrows underwear for this special occasion.

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