(Photo by C.P. Storm/Flickr)
Last fall I received my first press release. I was elated. On a tiny level, I had arrived. Someone had noticed me. Someone wanted to utilize my Web site to reach an audience, thus acknowledging the fact that I had an audience – and a Web site. My chest swelled with pride. My right hand shook my left hand in congratulations. My bald head gleamed in the sun.
The press release promoted a local comedy group. The publicist, Robert Axelrod, wanted to know if I cared to interview director Bill Johnson. Of course, I thought. I cannot refuse my first press release. But what should we talk about? What could Johnson say that was worthy of a column? How could I make this worthwhile for both Johnson and my readers? Then it hit me. I should steal another writer’s idea.
Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten once promised a group of public relations flacks that he would mention their products in The Post if they told him their most embarrassing stories. It was a great piece.
In that spirit, I sent the following e-mail to the publicist Axelrod.
“I’d be willing to interview Mr. Johnson and plug his comedy group if he had a particularly interesting and REAL story to tell that had NOTHING to do with the sketch group.”
Weeks later I sat down with Johnson at Mexicali Cocina Cantina in Studio City where he shared the following story with me. I knew, as he told it, that it would serve as my Valentine’s Day column. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I present to you the story of how Bill Johnson, above, convinced the woman he loved to move to Los Angeles.
Bill Johnson and Miya (pronounced Maya) Jones met in college. They were friends. He went to James Madison University. She went to University of Virginia. After college Johnson moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment and Jones went to New York City to live with her parents. They stayed in touch. In 1999 Johnson took a trip to New York and made plans to visit Jones – as a friend. Sparks flew. She took a trip to Los Angeles. They knew they had the makings of a relationship.
They built their relationship on a foundation of outrageous long-distance phone bills. Jones told Johnson she not happy in New York. Johnson repeatedly asked Jones to move to California. She hemmed and hawed. Johnson was persistent. Jones’s mother, overhearing her daughter’s phone calls, would say loud enough for Johnson to hear, “If you like her so much, why don’t you come and get her?” Johnson and Jones would joke about him whisking her away in a red chariot.
One night in April 1999, Johnson could not sleep. He had been restless for weeks.
“So I was trying to sleep one night and I just had this overwhelming urge to go get her,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘That’s crazy.’ It’s two in the morning and I’m thinking about, ‘Go get her.’ So I turn over and try to sleep. I can’t get it out of my head. ‘Go get her.’ It’s 2:15. I’m not going to get her.
“It’s not letting me sleep, so I get up. I go open up my phone book and I am like, ‘What if I got a plane ticket out there on standby and rented some car to come back or something?’ I get American Airlines on the phone and they say a standby ticket will be $1,900 dollars if you want to go right now. So I go, ’No. Bye.’ Click. ‘Go get her’ is too expensive.
“I try to go back to bed. Now it’s 2:30, 2:45, 3:00, and it won’t get out of my head. ‘Go get her.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, alright, fine, I’ll play with this instinct of ‘Go get her.’ I get up. I open the phone book and I look up Dollar Rent A Car and I reserve a car.
“I said, ‘All right, I am going to walk through this and at some point my body is going to go, ‘You are really tired. Stop.’ So I put stuff in my backpack and put it on … I start heading out to my car and I am almost saying out loud, ‘OK, go get her, you can go ahead and tell me that this is crazy now because it’s three in the morning and I barely slept last night.’
“I get in my truck. I start the engine. Still, ‘Go get her.’ I’m playing chicken with this crazy voice in my head about ‘Go get her.’ I drive down to LAX. It’s 3:15, 3:30. It’s early in the morning.
Johnson bypassed Dollar and pulled into Budget with his backpack and three CDs – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Madonna’s Ray of Light and Morcheeba’s Big Calm. He asked for a midsize car with a CD player. They had what he needed. They asked how long he would be gone. He said six days, estimating in his head three days there and three days back.
“I walk out to see what car they have and I am looking at a laser-red, 1999, 35-year-anniversary edition Ford Mustang,” Johnson said. “I am looking at it like, ‘Oh, no!’ All I can think of is this red chariot thing.”
(The 1999 Ford Mustang convertible – one of the finest red chariots ever made.)
Johnson parked his truck on the street, figuring he would return before the city street sweepers came.
He hit the road at 4 am. It was happening. Go and get her had turned into, “I’m going to get her.”
Johnson turned the car east on I-10. He watched the sun come up over the desert. He stopped in Las Vegas for breakfast at Denny’s and gassed the Mustang while breakfast was cooked. He took I-15 north to Utah and hours after leaving the desert found himself driving through snow. He headed up I-80 through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
It was in Colorado that he made the decision. He was not going to stop until he reached New York.
After a caffeine break, he hit the road and watched the sun set over Denver. He took I-70 through Nebraska in the dark of night, which is probably the best way to see it. The caffeine wore off as Johnson drove through a rainstorm. He began bartering with himself. If I can make it to Lincoln, he thought, I will stop for the night. But by the time he reached Lincoln, he was reenergized. He watched the sun come up over Des Moines, Iowa. He kept on. He made good time and avoided tickets by staying exactly nine miles per hour over the speed limit.
(Above: Another wild and crazy day in Nebraska. Photo by jasminedelilah/Flickr.)
He passed by Chicago and through northern Ohio and watched the sun set over Pennsylvania. During the drive, Jones kept calling Johnson. He never betrayed his location.
At the eastern Pennsylvania border Johnson saw a sign that read 60 miles to New York City.
Said Johnson, “It was the most painful 60 miles of my life. I was barely holding it together.”
He snaked his way through the city and made it to her street. And after 2,800 miles on the road, every mile navigated without use of a map, and 43 hours in the car, all driven without benefit of sleep, Johnson missed.
Like a swallow returning to San Juan Capistrano after the 6,000-mile journey from Argentina, Johnson swooped into town, aimed for the nest and bonked his head on the tree trunk instead.
At 2:30 am Johnson convinced a building concierge on River Road that he was in the right place. The concierge woke the tenant who lived in the unit in which Johnson was sure the Joneses lived. Johnson called Jones to tell her that her phone should be ringing. She asked, “Are you here?” Johnson only responded, “Your phone should be ringing.” “Shut up,” she said. “You’re messing with me.” Johnson said, “You live on 40 River Road.” Jones said, “I live on 30 River Road.’” Johnson asked the concierge to apologize to the probably-irate New Yorker he mistakenly woke at 3 am. He had missed by one block.
“I go to the right place and recognize the concierge from my last trip there,” Johnson said. “I go up and knock on the door. It’s 2:30 am and there she is. She says, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. How did you get here?’ I’m like, ‘I drove.’”
Ask a man a simple question…
Jones’s parents were in Reno, Nev. at the time. Upon hearing that Johnson had driven across the country they “freaked out,” afraid that their daughter would be gone before their return. Jones’s father called the house and asked Johnson what his intentions were with his daughter. Johnson said, “Mr. Jones, my intention with your daughter is to marry her.” Mr. Jones then asked if they planned to live together. Johnson said they would each have their own place in Los Angeles. Mr. Jones replied, “OK.”
Johnson and Jones promised not to leave until her parents returned.
Johnson stayed for a month with his parents in Virginia. All the while Budget kept calling about the location of the car, worried that Johnson was giving the Mustang the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas treatment. So much for three days there and three days back.
As the month passed, Jones expressed doubts. Johnson finally told her that he had to get back to Los Angeles. He was between jobs, but he had to return the car. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Jones had been telling her mother she was worried that Johnson would leave without her. Her mother responded, “Go! I didn’t think he was going to come.”
Before attending a friend’s graduation in Virginia, Jones and Johnson made plans to meet in Virginia, return to New York City together, pack her belongings in the less-than-spacious Mustang and drive to Los Angeles. Jones met Johnson’s family during their Virginia rendezvous. Johnson’s father, a man not known for bursts of sentimentality, pulled his son aside after meeting Jones and said, “This one was worth driving for.”
Johnson drove Jones from New York City to Los Angeles in their red chariot.
The total damage on the car: more than 10,000 miles driven, no oil changes, and at least a $1,300 bill. Add gas and it would have been cheaper to buy that American Airlines ticket. This, of course, is what happens when you plan a road trip at 3 am on no sleep. When Johnson returned the Mustang, he was sure it was moments away from all four tires spinning off and steam shooting out of the engine. He has yet to show his face in a Budget office again.
Johnson and Jones lived in separate apartments for six months before moving in together. He proposed to her at Columbus Circle in New York City in April 2001 and they were married three months later in Maryland. They have a son and daughter.
He got her.
Bill Johnson is the director of the Magic Meathands comedy group. The Meathands perform every Thursday at 8pm at the Spot Cafe Lounge, (4455 Overland Ave., Culver City, Calif., 90230.)