It must have been July 1997, because we’d just emerged from the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, after catching a late opening-night screening of the Robert Zemeckis film Contact. It’s about Jodi Foster seeking signs of life from outer space. The opening shot is of planet earth, the camera pulling back, back, back, our blue globe and then our solar system and our galaxy dwindling to a point, the lonely vastness of the universe illustrated.
When I say “we” I mean myself and five friends, all of us fresh out of film school. Standing there outside the Chinese Theater, on the wide grey forecourt where for decades movie stars have pressed their hand and footprints into the cement, and carved their names.
We had all relocated to Los Angeles from elsewhere to be filmmakers. Which is a terrifying thing to do; I remember waking up on my first day in the city and crying at the ice-cold realization that I was anonymous here, a nobody. I’m pretty sure I actually muttered aloud, through tears, “Who do I think I am?” But then I paid my first visit to the Chinese and everything was okay. Its palatial hugeness, the impossibly ornate starburst ceiling, the imported statues from actual China, and especially the handprints outside—fossils proving the existence of ancient Gods—were a comfort. “Dreams do come true,” reads Anthony Quinn’s inscription in the cement. The Chinese assures you everything is attainable. You and your talents belong here. You will surely not be anonymous long.
The six of us talked about Contact for a very long time, excitedly picking the film to pieces, not wanting to break its spell and go home. Soon we were all alone, because in the mid-’90s, the only difference between a ghost town and Hollywood Boulevard past midnight was the absence of tumbleweeds—it was just a long grimy stretch of mostly shuttered souvenir shops, a place where hookers and tattoo artists could work in peace.
Soon we had company: A young man dressed in baggy dark blues and grays, baseball cap jammed tight over an afro. He was pulling bulging bags of trash from nearby garbage cans and piling them into a cart. It wasn’t clear at first if he was a janitor, or homeless. But he circled closer and closer until finally he stepped up and interrupted.
“Excuse me,” he announced, dim neon light shimmering on his dark black skin. “I have a gift from God. Hold up your left hand.”
You get used to these kind of interruptions in L.A. We have the highest concentrations in America of two things: traffic, and street people wracked with delusion. My friend Kel had little patience for either. “We’ve got no money for you, man,” he sighed. “Can you leave us alone?”
“Don’t want your money,” the man replied. “I have a gift from God. Hold up your left hand.”
Kel did, exasperated. We watched, amused.
The man looked hard at Kel’s left palm with bright, intelligent eyes. Finally he said, “Frank Sinatra.”
He grabbed Kel by the wrist and marched him across the plaza, directly to Frank Sinatra’s handprints in the cement. He pressed Kel’s palm into Frank’s palm. It fit perfectly.
“Holy cow,” said Kel.
Amusement was gone. We were riveted. I shot my left hand up. “I’ll go,” I said.
My hand, the guy barely had to think about. “Peter Sellers,” he said with conviction.
He grabbed my wrist and dragged me behind him. It occurred to me he was moving with complete, directed purpose. He didn’t have to scan the two hundred sets of handprints to find the right one—he knew exactly where it was. And if you go with me today to the Chinese theater, I can show you how my left hand fits precisely into Peter Sellers’.
The man did this four more times. Matching each of our hands with a movie star’s. He was unerringly accurate. Our brains melted; it was incredible.
And then he launched into a sort of rap, rattling off trivia about the Chinese theater and its holy cement, snapping his fingers as he spoke, a beat poet. You could give him a movie star’s name and he’d tell you the exact year they pressed their hands into the Chinese pavement, the title of the movie they were promoting, the words they inscribed. He knew everything.
By the time he bid us adieu we’d given him fifty bucks. He told us to pray—to remember, always, to pray—and then he pushed his cart into the night and left us there grinning and shaking our wondering heads.
A week after this incident it occurred to me I should definitely, definitely, make a short film about the man and his gift from God. I went back to the Chinese with a friend—same night of the week, same late hour—and we waited for him.
He never came. I never saw him again.
He couldn’t have died. He was maybe twenty-five, and strong and smart, and seemed like he could have talked himself out of anything. But I’ve been telling this story now for sixteen years. Eventually everyone I meet in Los Angeles hears it. I’ve told it on the radio and at public storytelling events. When I do, I urge anyone listening, if they’ve ever encountered this man, to contact me. No one ever has.
At first this delighted me. It was my special perfect L.A. story, the one no one could top, that began outside a movie palace and ended with a mystery.
But each year, in my mind, the story turned darker, like the long slow fadeout at the end of a noir. Especially each August, when I’d notch up another year in a town I gave myself ten years to conquer, as a screenwriter I never became.
The thing about the man we met in front of the Chinese theater in 1997 is that his gift from God was one hundred percent site-specific. There are no other places where these celebrity handprints exist, from these exact years, in this exact configuration. His God-given talent required him to carve out his legend in Hollywood forever. Anywhere else on Earth, he was just homeless. And even so, he’s gone.
RICO GAGLIANO is a writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He's co-host and co-creator of APM's nationally-syndicated arts & culture public radio show "The Dinner Party Download," and contributes to APM's "Marketplace" and to Dwell magazine. He posts enraged tweets about his arch-nemesis LAX at @RicoGagliano.