Rob and Roberto may have similar names, but they're easy to tell apart, fortunately for me. I was due to meet with them one night at a Panera in Santa Monica to discuss the possibility of shooting a short movie project.
Talking about shooting a movie draws a certain amount of attention in a crowded restaurant. (I think it might have been finals week, as the place was teeming with college students, laptops, and text books -- I don't miss those days.) It draws even more attention when a certain member of your party is using his "outside voice." (You talk loud, Rob.) We eventually drew the very specific attention of an elderly gentleman a few tables away.
I had noticed this man earlier in the evening. He was ancient, withered. His face was a deflated balloon. He was fragile and crisp, ready to break apart. His white hair was rejecting the obvious attempt of a dye job, a reddish-brown coloring that was now drained to almost pink. He was dressed in numerous layers of khaki and white. In front of him was a laptop from the late-80s/early-90s -- that period when "portable" computers, well, really weren't. It was clunky and rigid, heavy and thick, depressing. Although I didn't get close enough to read the words on the screen, the format was recognizable from across the room: he was working on a screenplay.
When he overheard us talking about shooting a movie, he took it as an open invitation to strike up a conversation. And so he did, sidling slowly past our table as if he had business to attend to at the sandwich counter and just so happened to hear us.
I prepared myself to feel bad, to feel sorry for him. But Rob stepped up and did most of the talking with this man, leaving Roberto and me to ignore the situation and stare into the monitor of a more youthful computer.
Later that night, after the meeting came to an end, Rob and I stood around in the parking lot discussing the planned project and the night in general. Eventually, we got to talking about the old man.
"What did you guys talk about for so long?" I asked Rob.
Rob informed me that the guy was kind of a jerk. This was something of a relief to me; now I wouldn't have to feel bad for him.
It turns out that the screenplay on the old man's monitor had been a work in progress for some 12 years. He claimed to have some connections, people who were interested in what he was writing. Rob smelled bullshit. Rob also got the impression that the old man was trying to put us down. He kept making comments about how tough it is, you better know what you're doing, if you don't have connections, you're worthless, etc. Common knowledge, frankly, but there was hostility there.
Gore Vidal is credited with the quote: "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail." I think we all slip into that mentality every once in a while. I think we were on the receiving end of it that night.
I was back to feeling bad for the old man. But beyond that, I think I was feeling bad for myself. Scared, really. We all have our dreams and ambitions. We all pursue them to a certain degree, or sometimes not at all. Some people succeed, others don't.
There we were, Roberto, Rob and me, in a restaurant. Hopeful, eager. And there he was, on the other side of the room: our negative reflection. Still hopeful after all these years, but ultimately hopeless. Who was going to read his screenplay? Who was going to take him seriously in a meeting? Who was going to meet with him at all?
What separates us from him? Anything? We presumed we would be making a movie. Did he gather with some friends in a cafe and make the same presumptions back when he was our age?
Not knowing the first thing about the life this man has lived, I can only speculate about what would have prevented him from fulfilling his ambition to sell that screenplay. Whatever it was, will it happen to me? Will I be able to identify it? Will I be able to avoid it? Or will I one day look up from my laptop, notice that I'm the oldest person in the room times three, and realize that it just never happened?