by Alan Swyer
now what’s amazing?” Ross said as he and Gelber wolfed down an early morning feast of dumplings and porridge at a dim sum joint in New York’s Chinatown. “It’s like we went to different high schools together.”
Having met at an all-night poker game, the two of them promptly embarked upon a marathon gab session which produced a stunning number of convergences. Both, it turned out, were sports junkies, with Ross crazy about baseball and basketball, while Gelber favored those two plus boxing. Both were obsessed with exotic food: especially Ethiopian, Thai, regional Chinese, Indian, and Mexican. Each was a movie nut, with Ross keying on old Hollywood (“The Big Sleep,” “In A Lonely Place,” “Out Of The Past,” and everything by Preston Sturges), while Gelber leaned toward the French New Wave (“Pierrot Le Fou,” “Shoot The Piano Player,” “La Guerre Est Finie,” “The Fire Within”) plus Orson Welles’ “Falstaff.” Both were fanatical about retro music, with Ross partial to groups from the 60s (the Byrds, the Velvet Underground, the Chambers Brothers, and Love), while Gelber preferred R&B and Doo-Wop (Solomon Burke, the Harptones, Irma Thomas, James Carr).
It did not hurt their budding friendship that each was trying to get a foothold in the arts: Ross as a freelance journalist while moonlighting on a biography about a well-known comic; Gelber writing spec scripts while using editing jobs plus occasional gigs directing music videos to pay the bills.
Swiftly the two became virtually inseparable, using their free time to hit ballgames, jazz clubs, and offbeat restaurants in Harlem, Queens, and the Lower East Side. Everywhere they went they had lengthy debates. Over a dinner at a Cote d’Ivoire restaurant in Harlem, they wrestled over whose version of Piece Of My Heart was greater, Erma Franklin’s or Janis Joplin’s. While chomping on spinach dumplings and lamb burgers at Xi’an Famous Foods, they argued about which team was better, the Michael Jordan Bulls or Steph Curry’s Warriors, which led to a discussion about the relative strengths of Kobe, LeBron, and Larry Bird. Even more fun was the question of why the stars of the films each adored (Bogart, Bacall, Robert Mitchum, Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau, Yves Montand) were grownups, whereas with the notable exception of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, the current Hollywood crop (DiCaprio, Damon, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone) all seemed like boys and girls.
When, with both of them having grown weary of serial dating, Gelber began keeping the company of an illustrator named Jenny, while Ross hit it off with a flight attendant named Teresa who preferred to be known as T, it was increasingly as a foursome that they spent their non-working hours.
“Brothers from different parents” was the way Ross took to describing the friendship, which was reinforced, rather than weakened, when Gelber got a chance to move to LA and direct a documentary about Eastern spirituality in the Western world. Instead of simply catching up when time permitted, his relocation afforded the friends a new opportunity for closeness, with each getting a key to the other’s place. That meant that Ross – and sometimes T as well – often crashed at Gelber’s Hollywood apartment on trips to the Coast, while Gelber – and later Jenny, once she moved to LA to be with him – slept at Ross’ place on visits to New York.
They were the self-styled “fearless foursome,” seemingly inseparable. Yet when Gelber and Jenny got married at her parents’ home near Camden, Maine, Ross, who was to be Best Man, surprised everyone by showing up alone.
Quizzed about T’s absence, Ross’ explanation that she was called at the last minute for a flight to Rome seemed less than satisfying. But in proposing a toast at the dinner following the wedding ceremony, the best man rose to the occasion.
“Let me tell you about Kenny Gelber and me,” Ross began. “I call him my chum from another mum. My sib from another crib. My twin from another kin. My dude from another brood. And as part of the team of Kenny and Jenny, he’s got the perfect soul mate for a journey that I, too, hope to be a part of for a long, long time.”
Yet in the aftermath of the wedding, Gelber found that texts and emails he sent to Ross were answered, if at all, far later than usual. Their phone conversations, which began taking place with considerably less frequency, were briefer than ever before.
Even more disturbing for Gelber was that whenever he asked about T, Ross seemed uncharacteristically laconic, to the point where his responses felt willfully evasive.
Driving home on a Saturday night after seeing Kinky Friedman perform at a small club in Santa Monica, Jenny broke the silence that reigned in the car. “What’s up with your buddy?” she asked Gelber.
“Why do you think something’s up?”
“Because the inseparables seem eminently separable.” When Gelber shrugged, Jenny continued. “Just making sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine,” answered Gelber with what Jenny took to be a noticeable absence of conviction.
Though troubled by the change in his relationship with Ross, Gelber chose to believe that it owed to things going on in his friend’s life rather than to any willful or conscious attempt to duck him.
That explanation crumbled, however, on a Sunday morning a couple of months later. While reading what she playfully referred to as “the women’s Sports Section” of the New York Times – the Sunday Style Section – Jenny spotted something that caused her to darken.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gelber.
“Sure you want to know?”
Without speaking, Gelber approached so as to peer over Jenny’s shoulder. To his dismay, among the wedding announcements was one, complete with a photo, of Ross’ marriage to the socialite daughter of a newspaper magnate.
“You okay?” Jenny asked, watching Gelber turn ashen.
His only response was an unconvincing nod.
“Want to talk?”
Gelber shook his head.
Despite Gelber’s denials, what he viewed as an incomprehensible betrayal gnawed at him by day and even more so at night. Nor were his hurt feelings at all assuaged when Ross’ long-in-the-works book about the comic, for which Gelber had given notes and suggestions on several early drafts, received an over-the-top review in the newspaper controlled by the author’s new father-in-law.
Tougher still for Gelber was the news that Ross and his bride, without so much as a call, a text, an email, or a even postcard, had relocated to the Coast, settling, according to scuttlebutt, in what was described as a Beverly Hills mansion.
But any fears Gelber may have had about awkward chance encounters were negated by the realization that the two couples moved in entirely different circles. Ross, thanks to his wealthy patrician wife, had joined LA’s country club set, while Gelber and Jenny were part of a crew that was far more bohemian.
Over time, the void in Gelber’s life was filled in several ways. Work was a primary component, as he moved from his first documentary to one about the Latinization of baseball. Then came the start of pre-production on a third, about a Los Angeles black cultural mecca called Leimert Park.
“Still hurt?” Jenny asked Gelber one Sunday morning while they were headed toward Venice to meet another couple for brunch then some time on the beach.
“What do you mean?”
Gelber shrugged. “Life goes on. But what I don’t understand –”
“He was our friend.”
“In point of fact,” corrected Jenny, “he was your friend.”
“He and T were our friends.”
Three weeks later, while driving home after a long day shooting interviews for his Leimert Park film – the first with a young trumpet player, the second with a female poet, then a third with a member of the early rap group The Watts Prophets – Gelber got a call from a producer he knew casually.
“There’s a project I want to talk to you about,” said Andy Susman.
“How much do you know about stem cell research?”
“Other than that W was against it, and Obama for it? Not a whole lot.”
“Then I’m sending you galleys of a book coming out this Spring.”
“I’m in production, so it may take a little time.”
“Just know that once you start it, I doubt you’ll stop.”
Though the package arrived the next morning, it wasn’t until the weekend that Gelber carried it into the kitchen and grabbed a scissors. He was holding the manuscript and laughing when Jenny stepped in.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Guess what I’ve been approached about.”
“Strange subject matter?”
“Look who wrote it.”
Taking a peek, Jenny went bug-eyed. “Your Peter Ross?”
“The one and only.”
“Think it’s a coincidence?”
“Wasn’t it Freud who said there are no coincidences?”
That afternoon, Jenny was seated in the living room with a cup of green tea when Gelber stepped in with the manuscript. “Interesting?” she asked.
“So what’re you going to do?”
“That’s the real question.”
After filming an interview on Monday morning, Gelber called Andy Susman while his crew was breaking down the camera and lights. “So,” he began, “I read what you sent.”
“Before I ask your opinion,” responded Susman, “any questions?”
“Yeah, why me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Buddhism, baseball, and a black art scene in LA don’t make me the most obvious choice for a film about stem cells.”
“You don’t find it interesting?”
“That’s not what I asked. With all the folks who make documentaries, how’d you come up with me?”
“You know I’m a fan.”
“You’re still not answering.”
“What do you think?” asked Susman.
“First, I suspect the usual suspects in the fields of science or medicine must have said no.”
“Not no, exactly. More like they’re busy, or have overlapping projects.”
“Which leads me back to Why me?”
“If such a thing still exists.”
“The writer says the two of you are kindred spirits.”
Gelber had to hold back a laugh. “Did he also tell you when it was we last spoke?”
“Then do yourself a favor and ask him.”
Gelber grabbed lunch with his film crew at an Indian buffet, then interviewed a visiting trumpet player named Roy Hargrove before checking his messages, which included two from Andy Susman.
It was not until he was driving home after conducting one last interview that Gelber placed a call to the producer.
“My man!” Susman responded. “All Ross says is that you two are really tight!”
“That’s the term he used?”
“And that you used to roll in the Apple.”
“Emphasis on used to.”
“Hey, shit happens. Can I count you in?”
“Let me think about it.”
“It’d mean a lot to me.”
“Like I said, let me think about it.”
Before Gelber had a chance to do much thinking, his phone rang again. “So who does a better version of Get It While You Can?” asked a familiar-sounding voice. “Howard Tate or Janis?”
“I’m fine thanks,” replied a none too happy Gelber.
“I understand you’re pissed,” said Ross.
“How about I buy you a beer and we talk about it?”
“Why, no benefit for you to attend? No paparazzi looking for you and the missus?”
“One beer, Kenny. For old time’s sake?”
Begrudgingly, Gelber entered a joint on Cherokee that was a dive bar long before such a term existed. Instantly, Ross, who was seated in a corner booth, sprang to his feet.
“There he is!” Ross exclaimed, wrapping Gelber in a bear hug. “Man, I missed you!”
“Funny way you have of showing it.”
Ross took a deep breath. “I get it if you’re hurt.”
Ross shrugged. “Sit while I grab us some beers.”
Gelber took a seat, then watched Ross return with two bottles of Negra Modelo. “I know I behaved badly,” Ross said as he placed one of the beers in front of Gelber, then sat across from him. “I’d like to explain if you’ll let me. Or better yet, make it up to you.”
“For starters, by making you a part of this project.”
“Whoa,” said Gelber. “Is that to help me, or to benefit you?”
“I see it as a win for both of us. Way back when, wouldn’t it have seemed like a dream come true for the two of us to join forces on something?”
“That was another time and another place.”
Ross sighed. “Doesn’t it matter that you’re my best friend?”
Gelber surprised Ross by chuckling.
“What’s so funny?” Ross asked.
“Your wedding guests were enemies?”
“I fucked up,” said Ross with a shrug. “I fucked up big-time. But why won’t you give me a chance to make it up to you?”
“There are a whole lot of directors floating around town.”
“But why not you?”
“Let’s not go there,” Gelber stated, getting to his feet.
Gelber studied Ross for a long moment, then turned and walked away.
“Kenny, please!” Gelber heard Ross yell while he was unlocking his second-hand Saab.
With no great glee, Gelber turned to face his erstwhile friend. “What?”
“You have no idea how important this is to me,” Ross pleaded. “If the film gets made, I’m no longer just Mr. Olivia Pitt.”
“There are other guys.”
“Not on the list the network will accept. Will it help if I tell you that you’re the one I trust.”
“Not a whole lot.”
“B-because?” Ross asked, his lip quivering.
“I no longer trust you.”
Jenny was going through mail when she heard Gelber step in through the front door. “How was shooting?” she asked.
“Okay with you if we don’t buy beachfront property in Malibu?”
“Something tells me this is about a certain book.”
“Which you-know-who just turned down.”
Jenny smiled. “Somehow we’ll manage.”
“I know so,” she said, giving Gelber a kiss.
About the author:
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.