Topanga Seed (Chapter 8)

Only in Los Angeles, Levi thought, could a bottle of water being sold by a cult which was merchandising their god receive the type of hype usually reserved for awards shows and the biggest of movie premieres.  A red carpet arrival (for the famous, only; Levi and the other volunteers had to park a mile away and enter through the back).  A pen for the papparazi, in which the celebrities posed in their evening best in front of a backdrop with The Braunstein Center logo and the logo for the bottled water alternating all over it like a checkerboard.  Klieg lights illuminating the sky.  And everyone who aspired to be seen by somebody.  All  in attendance for the premiere of. . .

Water.

Plain, simple water.

Vav Mem Bet, to be precise.  A bottle of water that the Braunstein Center claimed was blessed by rabbis.  A water so pure, it contained special pieces of the Flame.  The blessings said over it were claimed to grant the water a healing quality that could (they were careful not to say, “guarantee”, just “could”) possibly cure illnesses—from diabetes to heart diseases and cancers—when paired with a faithful adherence to the ancient spiritual teachings of the Braunstein Center.

“Ancient spiritual teachings created a few years ago for the purpose of selling books, clothing, candles, and bottled water,” Levi thought each time he passed one of the banners hanging in the event space of the premiere.

The slogan?  “Drink Braunstein Center Water.”

Levi rolled his eyes every time he saw the slogan.  What idiot thought that winner up?  Upon seeing it, he had barked a cynical laugh and muttered out of anyone’s ear shot, “Rehydrate your soul!  How hard is it to think up a good slogan?  They should have said, ‘Vav Mem Bet—Rehydrate your soul!’”

Or:  “Sip on spirituality!” Really—it wasn’t that hard.  He had just thought up not one but two possible, far catchier slogans.  Who was running the Braunstein Center’s marketing department?  What type of religious cult was this, anyway?  So, so, so sloppy!

Setting up the event earlier that evening had been an exercise in competitive religious fervor.  When the decorating company delivered trams upon which banquet tables and chairs were stored, Levi and another volunteer were assigned to pull the tables off, prop the legs, and position them in place around the room.  While Levi gingerly  lifted a table out of the rack, propping its legs and moving it into the proper place, his co-worker, apparently in the throes of a cocaine fit, was racing around the room like a game show contestant on a variant of Beat The Clock,  charged with setting up more tables, in less time, than his opponent—Levi.  And so Levi watched him as he would roll the tables off the rack, to the taped spot, boom-boom-boom-boom unfold the legs and then—Crash!—flip the table into place before running back for chairs—two chairs on each arm—which he would swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh spin into position,then do it again for four more chairs before starting his frantic table placement all over again.

“I set up twenty-two tables!” his competition announced proudly to the senior Braunstein Center volunteer charged with overseeing the event’s set-up, in a half-scream, through gasps for air.

“I did three,” Levi snapped with a roll of his eyes, before adding, “Beautifully and with precision.”

This was followed by all the volunteers being told to line up in a row as the organizer and several rabbis went up and down the line, inspecting each volunteer, determining who would work in the back—hidden from view–and who would be out front, in view of the celebrities, press agents, magazines, newspapers and tv cameras.

He knew the most attractive were being sent to work in various locations where they would be seen. . .and the more. . .unfortunate looking. . . would be working in the back.

So he didn’t quite know how to take it when he was told he was going to work running stock of bottled water and books and t-shirts and baseball hats—all adorned with Braunstein Center logos—from the “backstage”areas to the “onstage” areas.

He had always been self-conscious about his looks, ever since he had been told years ago that blondes like him, with fair complexions(although he was typically tanned a light brown) should avoid green, for green made blondes like him, with fair complexions (although he risked melanoma to typically be tanned a light brown) look as if they were ill and nauseous.  He had been able to avoid wearing green easily enough but, having irremovable green eyes he always felt that his eyes clashed with his face. 

Now he was being told that he may not be “ugly” in the rabbi’s eyes. . .but he sure wasn’t “handsome” either.  He was half and half.  A five on a scale of ten, either endpoint being“attractive” and “not attractive”.

He did, however, secretly enjoy the knowledge that the spaz he had competed against to set up tables was clearly regulated to be back in the stockroom, emptying boxes of Braunstein Center merchandise, in a work space virtually out the back door and in an alley. 

***

            “Oh, this is fantastic!  The water is just. . .delicious!”, the anorexic female celebrity said, almost shouting over the sounds of a deejay playing electroswing as lights of all colors swirled and splashed throughout the space.  The reporter asked her as the cameraman moved in, “So, do you practice the Braunstein Center’s Braunstein Way?”  The female celebrity and sometime-Home Shopping Network salesperson thanks to her line of fashionable attire for women of  more. . .realsitic. . .and healthy. ..proportions than she, smiled uneasily.  “Um.. .no.  Not really.  I have some friends who are looking into it, though.  But if it’s as good as this water. . .”

            That was the type of response most celebrities in attendance were giving, Levi noticed.  They were uneasily being cornered about their religious beliefs and, though they sure were fine to say a few kind words about the water. . .but what could really be said about pure spring water?. .they were, by and large not saying anything about practicing the Braunstein Way.  Again, Levi wondered, who was running that marketing department?  They weren’t very bright.  The press should only have been allowed to speak directly with the celebrities in attendance who were Brauinstein Center students. . .like the big movie star they were likely here to get on good terms with.  Because in Hollywood, it wasn’t who you knew, it was who you blew.  Or took a shower with.  Not that retail was all that different.  Just not as glamorous. . .

            Not one to get starstruck, he was able to swiftly and easily navigate the room without the stop-and-gawk moments the other stockers—those who ran merchandise from the backroom to the booths set up throughout the huge room—were prone to. They would leave the stockroom, carrying armloads of free gift bags or tee shirts or books and stop in their tracks with open mouths of shock upon seeing someone who played a recurring, supporting role on some little-seen Hulu drama.  Levi, in comparison, would sail right by them.  Not that he knew who some of these people were.  He knew they thought they were important—you could tell by how they avoided making eye contact with anyone not dressed to the nines, tens, and elevens.  Or how they turned just slightly as you approached, to let you know you should not ask for an autograph or a photo. 

            As if he wanted a photo or autograph with a nobody from a Bravo reality show.  “Bitch, please,” he wanted to say, “Unless your name is Lauren Bacall or Ronald Coleman, keep it moving.”  His celebrities were those who had made Hollywood, “HOLLYWOOD”. . . not the leeches who now filled it. Valentino, Shearer, Pickford, Chaplin. Davis, Flynn, Gable, Lombard. Those who gave rise to the American Royalty of Celebrity.  Not these fools who whored themselves out on reality shows. 

            Still, every now and then he would have one of those “Hollywood Palpitations” as he called them—those odd moments when, going about the course of his day, he would see someone—just as had happened last week with Damien Lanchester—and have that momentary confusion: An instinct of recognition, sometimes reflexively causing a hand to suddenly wave as the brain tried to process, “Familiar face!  Wave ‘hello’.  Now. . . how do we know them?”  One would assume they were a colleague fromwork.  A family member.  A neighbor. An old school chum.  Only to then realize that no. . .that person was a movie star.

            He had a few of those Hollywood Palpitations that night:  an actress he loved in some modern rom-coms he secretly laughed and cried through was in  attendance and he had almost made eye contact with her.  A singer whose every album he owned—going all the way back to those nearly-primitive days when music was still on compact discs—had smiled back at him when he gently tried to pass her en route to drop off a heavy box of books filled with the Braunstein Way’s lightweight spirituality.  And, of course, he had spotted the High Celebrity of the Braunstein Center, the biggest celebrity in their fold at the moment: the big movie star Levi had met a month or so ago at the Braunstein Center mixer for new students.

Apparently, celebrities, too, have Hollywood Palpitations.   Only their “A-ha!” moments are reserved for people who work in stores.  “Aren’t you—don’t you work at–don’t tell me. . .Crate & Barrel?  No—I know, I know!  You’re the shoe department manager at Saks!  And you!  You really moved me with your service at ZGallerie, when I was buying gifts for my assistant?  Oh, my God!  I absolutely adored you in the American Girl Store!!!!”

For, no sooner had Levi been told to cover a cigarette break for one of the beautiful volunteers—one who got to sit at a booth and, in this case, spiel about the Braunstein Center and give celebrities as many Braunstein Center-branded briefs as they wanted—than he had a Hollywood Palpitation, only in reverse.  This time, he was the object of recognition.  He had been rearranging the display to make a better presentation than the beautiful-but brain-dead man who had just left for a smoke, when he heard a familiar voice.

“Excuse me—But didn’t you stuff my son’s teddy bear the other day?”

Looking up, he saw Damien Lanchester who, seeing his suspicions confirmed, slapped the table with a happy laugh and immediately thrust his hand toward him for a handshake.

“Helga,” Levi corrected him.  “Her name is Helga.”

He noticed the handshake went on longer than usual, as Damien stared at him, in the same way a movie fan from Kansas City might stare at Barbara Stanwyck. 

Or, these days, some idiot from Bravo.

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