PART I: BEFORE // Chapter Four: How He Grew Up: 12

As the days slowly lengthened into spring and by late May stood teetering on the edge of summer, Gil and Natalie began being with each other much more frequently. Natalie had achieved only partial success during the first five months of 1975 in making Gil a well-known Hollywood personality. He was getting some work, mostly in categories such as commercials, short films, and yet more documentaries, but had so far been unable to crack the feature film market.

But he was relatively content to flit from job to job, picking up a few hundred here and a few thousand there, as he felt he really needed the experience more than the money.

Whenever his schedule permitted they would spend long weekends together. Natalie would pick him up, either late Friday afternoon after she got off work or early Saturday morning. Friday and/or Saturday they would go out for a nice dinner, come home to Natalie’s apartment in the evenings, and then sleep together through the night. Gil slowly made his way through all of her existing scripts on Saturdays, and he would give her notes and they would discuss how the scripts could be improved. Sunday morning or afternoon, depending upon how late their lovemaking had been and how early they returned to consciousness, Natalie would drive Gil back to his hovel on Alvarado.

So things stood until late May, when Natalie considered that it was high time they did something about getting Gil his own transportation. “It’s not that I mind driving you around, Gil,” Natalie told him, “it’s just that you’re going to need a car in order to be flexible enough to take any work that comes your way without having to depend on LA’s somewhat whimsical public transportation system.”

As she saw that Gil was about to protest she held up a hand to cut him off. “Don’t say you can’t afford it. We can get you a nice little used car for probably no more than a thousand. And,” she added, once more quelling a potential protest, “I’ll teach you to drive myself. We’ll get you something that’s really easy to steer with an automatic transmission.” Having run out of objections Gil was forced to acquiesce.

So instead of discussing her writing when the next Saturday rolled around, she spent the afternoon scouring the advance edition of the Sunday Los Angeles Times for their large auto ad section. “Aha!” she said to Gil, who was waiting meekly on the couch, hands folded in his lap. “Listen to this: Smilin’ Stan the Used Car Man over in Encino is having what he calls a Rock-Bottom Blow-Out Memorial Day Sale, and since Smilin’ Stan is not the shy and retiring type his Memorial Day sale is going on the last two weeks of this month. Fortunately next weekend is Memorial Day weekend. You don’t have anything going on, do you Gil?”

Gil checked his mental appointment book and informed her that his dance card had not as yet been filled for those particular three days.

“Good,” she said. “I’ll pick you up early Saturday morning and we’ll go to Encino. You will have in your pockets a grand in cash. You can get a much better deal if you pay cash up front.”

So at the appointed time on the appointed day Gil, as it was bright and sunny, stood on the sidewalk outside his apartment building waiting for her arrival. He didn’t have long to wait. As he expected, he very soon saw her little VW coming down the block towards him. What he didn’t expect however was that as her car came closer he saw a figure sitting beside her in the passenger seat, the seat he had come to consider his personal property. What was even more disturbing was that the figure bore a distinctly male-like quality.

As she parked in a space at the curb only about twenty feet from where he was standing, both Natalie and the unknown now verifiably male figure got out of the car and came out to greet Gil on the sidewalk.

“Hi Gil,” said Natalie.

Gil did not immediately answer as he was concentrating his focus on the male figure. He seemed to be about Gil’s age and maybe a few inches shorter with a lean but well-muscled torso and the long slim legs of a dancer. His hair was cut at a fashionable length and was as brown and wavy as a field of grain in a light breeze. He was wearing, Gil could not help but notice, a tight-fitting paisley shirt, blue and red design on a yellow background that was not only open at the collar but open to the third button. Around his neck he wore a gold chain which plunged into his open shirt in the same area where tufts of light brown chest hair were peeking out. He wore a wide black leather belt which held up, though rather unnecessarily, a pair of skin-tight hip-hugging bell-bottomed designer blue jeans, said bell bottoms ending in a pair of shiny black square-toed Beatle boots.

As Gil took all this in Natalie said, “Hope you don’t mind Gil, that I brought him along.”

Gil was still speechless as the apparition held out a hand to him.

Noticing Gil’s immobility Natalie walked a few steps toward him, stood beside him, then politely dug her elbow into his ribs. This seemed to bring Gil back to some semblance of consciousness. “Gil,” said Natalie again, “I’d like to introduce my upstairs neighbor. This is Derek Williford. Derek, this is Gil Hall. He’s a director.”

Derek somehow managed to find Gil’s hand and shake it softly but firmly. “Ooh,” he intoned, “it’s wonderful to meet you, Mr. Hall. But with those yummy drop-dead good looks I thought you’d be on the other side of the camera.” Gil mumbled something about glad to meet you while Derek went on. “Natalie has told me so much about you.”

Gil was unable to manage even the usual retort, Nothing good I hope, as he was still standing there with his mouth more or less open for business but not doing any.

Natalie saw it was time to explain. “Derek is a costume designer at Pinnacle Pictures,” she said. She gave Derek a reproving look. “Don’t mind him, Gil, he’s between lovers, so he’s understandably a bit horny.”

“Oooh,” squealed Derek again, “is it that obvious, honey?”

“Nearly as obvious as that bulge in your crotch,” she responded tartly. Then she turned back to Gil. “I brought Derek along because if we get you a car we have to get somebody to drive the second car. So, Derek will drive mine back while we check out the new one and see that it runs well.”

Gil was now sighing with relief. He had never really personally encountered what he now realized was a gay man, but he knew enough to know that it probably meant that there was no competition for Natalie coming from that direction.

As he considered this Derek leaned over to Natalie and in a loud stage whisper said, “Flip you to see who he rides back with.”

Natalie turned to him with disapproval. “No way Jose,” she said firmly. “I’m not letting him out of my sight with guys like you around.” Derek gave a mock pout and crossed his arms over his chest. “If that’s the way you feel,” he said in a sulky tone, “I’ll just go sit in the car.” Without waiting for a reply he turned on his heel, strode back to the car and very ostentatiously opened the door and took his place in the back seat this time.

Before they had even reached the freeway however, Gil’s curiosity had overcome his initial discomfort and he had turned around in his seat, asking Derek all kinds of questions about what it was like to work at Pinnacle.

Derek, delighted to have an audience, was soon dishing all the gossip about anyone from property masters up to studio executives, delighting an openmouthed Gil who was new to, and therefore quite bemused by, studio politics.

Natalie for her part concentrated on driving, leaving them to talk between themselves, occasionally smiling a little secret smile. Her boys were playing nice and that was all that mattered.

Smilin’ Stan the Used Car Man was in reality a fiftyish bear of a man whose birth name was Stanislaus Grabowski. He had come into sole ownership of his present business in 1962 when the former owner and Stan’s employer had decided to retire. The used car lot at that time had been known as Happy Harry’s AutoWorld. Its owner Harold Kaplan, a mean conniving little Jew, was at that time at the tender age of fifty-eight already working on his third heart attack. He was in the habit of smoking about a half a dozen cigars a day, each one fully as big as a Polish dog. His main regret in life (besides his two divorces and subsequent hefty alimonies), he told Stan in his infrequent tender moments, was his inability for the last few years to obtain the real thing from Havana. He was quitting the business and retiring to a mountain cabin he owned near Crestline on advice from his doctor, who had told him flatly that the pollution in the LA basin was killing him. Stan knew that Happy Harry was in the habit of not only producing his own pollution, but carrying it with him at all times as well. He didn’t bother to mention this however as he knew a good deal when he saw one.

  Now Smilin’ Stan was emerging from the door of the little shack he called his office which sat in the middle of his immense auto acreage. He wore a blue leisure suit, the jacket of which he was barely able to button over the expanse of his barrel chest. A pink shirt could be seen underneath his jacket, its wide collar draped across his shoulders. As he hurried out the door to greet his new potential customers who were just then pulling onto the lot through the massive entrance gates, he wore his patented mirthless smile.

As a tall man and a small woman emerged from their old VW Stan began to go into his usual patter. “Welcome folks, welcome to Smilin’ Stan’s, the only honest used car lot in the Southland. Where economy is—”

And that was as far as he got before Natalie’s voice cut him off with, “Can it, Grabowski. You don’t need to waste your best sales pitch on us. We’re here to buy.” She elbowed Gil in the ribs tenderly. “Isn’t that right, Gil?
Gil mumbled something about Yes, he was looking for a new set of wheels.

“Besides,” she continued, “I’ve been here before.” She waved an arm at her car. “You might remember this heap you sold me several years ago.”

Stan managed a wide and even more insincere smile. “Ah,” he intoned, “repeat business. The cornerstone of the used car industry. Want to trade in on that lovely classic vehicle for, ah, something a little more up-to-date?”

“It’s not for me,” she snapped, “I can’t exactly afford to upgrade on the pittance they pay me.” She pointed a finger at Gil. “It’s for him.”

Smilin’ Stan had hardly noticed Gil at all, but now with the practiced ease of a veteran salesman he completely refocused. “Ah,” he said, “of course.” Now speaking directly to Gil he continued, “I’m sure that a fine young man such as yourself with movie-star good looks would want something impressive. A nice big Buick, possibly an Oldsmobile. Who knows? Maybe your tastes run to Continentals or Cadillacs.” He patted the fender of the nearest auto which fortunately didn’t fall off. “Here at Smilin’ Stan’s we’ve got ’em all!”

Gil looked dubious so Stan charged once more into the breach. “Or,” he said, “maybe your tastes run more toward the sporty models. We’ve got Chevy Camaros, Ford Mustangs, Pontiac Firebirds…” He moved closer and said to Gil in a loud whisper, “We’ve even got a few classic Corvettes, late fifties, won’t set you back more than three or four grand, total.”

Natalie regained his attention once more as she saw that Gil was having trouble responding. “Save it for the tourists, Grabowski,” she informed him, “we’re looking for good basic transportation, and it better not cost more than one grand.” Then she continued in a softer tone, “If we see what we like, we’re willing to pay cash.”

While this was going on Gil was looking around in amazement. He had never really seen a California used car ranch before. On the few occasions that his father had taken him on various car-buying expeditions, the lots had been mostly small and drab and he had been forced to wait in the car, therefore not being able to see much. But here was a lot that looked to Gil as big as Yankee Stadium. There were acres and acres of used cars, surrounded on three sides by what appeared to be large wooden billboards that were interlocked to form a giant wall or fence that completely enclosed the area. On these various billboards were advertisements for Smilin’ Stan, little slogans like “For A C-Note Today You Can Drive It Away” or “Ask About Our Unconditional 90-Day Warranty” or “Bad Credit? No Credit? No Problem—We Finance!”

As Gil’s attention returned to the present situation Stan’s eyes lit up. “Well,” he said, shifting gears with an obvious effort, “why didn’t you say so? Of course these days, the price of gas being what it is, the obviously sensible driver such as yourself wants something that is safe, reliable, and economical. Follow me.” He turned on his heel and led them on a 200-yard trek toward the rear of the lot where he kept his less impressive models. For the next thirty minutes he showed them several autos of varying ages and states of repair. Many had signs in the window such as “$500 As Is” or “Low Mileage—A Real Steal.” Finally Natalie’s eye fixed on a baby-blue Honda Civic. The sign in the window said “Like New. Low Mileage.”

Natalie quickly conferred with Gil. After assuring herself that it was only a few years old, had an automatic transmission, and came with a warranty, she proceeded to talk tough turkey with Smilin’ Stan. Through her own brand of femininity mixed with fearsome intimidation, she was able to talk Smilin’ Stan down to $750 all in. As Gil followed Stan into the office to do the paperwork, Natalie made the long trek back to her car to inform Derek that he was now in the driver’s seat.

As she rejoined Gil she noticed he was smiling broadly and dangling a set of car keys. “My first car,” he said in a tender voice.

On the trek back from Encino, Natalie informed Gil that for the time being she would park the Honda in a public parking lot only a few blocks from her apartment building. Gil had no problem with paying the thirty dollars a month, nor did he have a problem with having the car stay in her neighborhood for the time being since on Alvarado he would have to park it in the street, and at this point he felt insecure about having the car broken into or even having to move it for street cleaning once or twice a week.

So when they neared Natalie’s apartment she drove straight to the parking lot, registered it with the management, and Gil forked over the required thirty bucks. Then they walked back to her apartment just in time to see Derek pulling up to the curb in her VW. Natalie thanked him while Gil and Derek did the obligatory “Nice to meet you” before Derek then preceded them into the building.

Natalie and Gil followed, and as it was early Saturday afternoon and Gil was wont to spend weekends with Natalie when he wasn’t working anyway, he agreed to his first driving lesson.

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