The Road to Beverly Hills

Sunday, Oct. 3, 1999. Holiday Inn, Charleston, W.V.

My name is Robert Kaufman. I normally write about social policy for a small magazine of opinion, but right now I am driving from Washington to Los Angeles in a 10-year-old Honda Civic with my friend Elizabeth Ash. Elizabeth is moving to my hometown, the California hamlet of Beverly Hills, to become a sitcom writer. E’s Pottery Barn hope chest is in the backseat, stuffed with books. Her 13-inch television is in the trunk. On the roof are balanced a wood futon bed frame, E’s mountain bike, and E’s queen-size futon, which I failed to convince her to throw in a Dumpster. The whole pile is tied down with a variety of bungee cords, giving my Honda an appearance not unlike an updated version of the Joad family vehicle in Grapes of Wrath.

E has recently written several quickie celebrity bios, and here is an instant celebrity-based guide to our characters: For me, think the youthful Elliott Gould of, say, California Split, slowly turning into the more eccentric Elliott Gould of Kicking & Screaming. For E, think the dewy Mariel Hemingway of Manhattan with a touch of Alan Dershowitz. In the unreadably bad novel I wrote last year, E was the basis for a Washington femme fatale. By Page 20, she’d already run through four men, including the male protagonist, who wrote about social policy for a small magazine of opinion. I trashed the novel when the one person I showed it to was, how to put it, less than fully supportive. “You have no idea how to write fiction,” she said. “For instance, you have this character–all he cares about is sex and welfare policy! Nobody will believe that! You have to flesh him out a bit! Give him some real human qualities.”

Why would I take a week off from work to drive E and her stuff 2,800 miles across the country? Because driving across the country is my idea of a vacation. I’ve done it about 14 previous times. I enjoy doing it alone. Doing it with another person is that much better. True, I used to be interested in E, but that was years ago, and we’re now just good friends. I have no desire or expectation that anything romantic will happen on this journey. Please remember this, as it is an important point. No expectations. None at all. Zero. Right.

I would say the trip began with three trouble signs. In order of increasing troublesomeness, they are:

1) E is on a health kick and declared, “I only want to eat tofu on this trip.” I try to let her down gently, suggesting that while of course they surely stock the basic tofu products in, say, Silt, Colo., they might not have the selection she has come to expect.

2) She mentioned that there is some guy who wants to meet her in Las Vegas and take her to a show.

3) She has brought a tape of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

We’ve already discovered that it is hard to follow the news on the road. This morning, at our hotel in Washington, we briefly saw the new outsider/insurgent candidate for president, Al Gore, giving an interview to Bob Schieffer on CBS. It seemed as if Gore’s thin hard carapace of impenetrability has been replaced by a thick, smooth gelatinous coating that is equally impenetrable. But I don’t know for sure. I also know there are some expense-account accusations against Gore’s campaign manager, Tony Coelho, but don’t know who the anti-Coelho factions are that are spreading them (or why they couldn’t dig up something bigger).

And has the following point been made on the Op-Ed pages: that Arianna Huffington and Warren Beatty have chosen to attack centrist Democrats as cynical sellouts who ignore American poverty just when, according to the Census Bureau, those cynical centrists are making the greatest strides against poverty that have been made in my adult lifetime? (“Poverty Drops to 20 Year Low”–that was the USA Today headline we saw at a Wal-Mart in Morgantown.) Poor Beatty has a need to think Clintonite Democrats aren’t tackling race and poverty, much like Marx had a need for a proletariat, except that Marx’s need was theoretical, while Beatty’s is only theatrical. And Marx’s was closer to reality.

The best sign so far? Somewhere in the Maryland panhandle, E and I were for some reason discussing Wendy Shalit’s book, The Return of Modesty, which makes the case for chastity, patience, courtship, etc. Shalit argues that when you walk down the street you can tell the virgins by their fresh, healthful glow. E’s critique, in full: “I don’t know. I always thought it was the girls who got fucked that had the healthy glow.” She also said she hasn’t had sex in two years, which I didn’t believe. But, come to think of it, she does look a bit pale.