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Couch #22 - Stephen S.

Couch #22 – Stephen S. – June 21th, 2010


INTERVIEW

Couch #22 belongs to Steve.   He lives in three bedroom, three bath house with a yard in Santa Clarita.  Santa Clarita is a combination of  Valencia, Saugus, Newhall, and Canyon Country.   They all banded together to form Santa Clarita  in 1985 so they could have more money for libraries and police forces and the like.

The couch was bought in 2003 from Sofa You Love.  It was the first piece of furniture that Steve and his wife Mary bought together.  They went to the showroom on Western one day and sat on the couch and saw how deep it was and they fell in love with it.  It’s extra deep and is actually a queen-sized pull-out.  It’s got styrofoam in it and down around the styrofoam.  They wish that there were three cushions instead of two.  The cushions are pretty heavy and they take a lot of work to make sure that they look good and don’t get deformed.   The couch has travelled with them from Hollywood to this house.  It’s one of the main reasons that Steve can’t move himself anymore.  It’s a beast, but is worth it.  He loves it for napping.  It’s so comfortable.

Steve worked on Avatar for about two years.  He finished that up about a year and half ago and is now a stay at home Dad during the day and a writer/director/filmmaker at night and during the day when he’s not watching his two boys.

Steve is married and his wife, Mary, works.  They started dating in 1992. Yes, they have been together for 18 years.  They got married in 2003.  They have two children, Jack who is 4, and Ryan who is 2.

For fun, Steve plays with the kids.  He also goes to the movies, to some concerts, and plays golf with some close friends.  Steve likes hanging out with friends although he doesn’t have much time to go out anymore.  Having two toddlers has taken care of that completely.   Steve usually goes to the movies after the boys and Mary have gone to sleep.  It’s nice, because in Santa Clarita, everyone is in bed by 10 o’clock, so sometimes he’s the only one in the 300 seat  movie theatre at that hour.  He enjoys that. That’s fun.

Steve was in an a capella group in college, so he still likes to dabble in arranging music for 4-part harmony.  Steve likes to shoot pictures of the kids as well as listen to music.  He and his wife  just started to growing tomatoes in the back, so that’s become a summer hobby.   Steve wouldn’t call filmmaking a hobby, because he likes to do that for work and he does take it seriously.  But as he’s not paid for it on every gig, it’s kind of like a hobby.

Steve is half Chinese and  a quarter Norwegian and a quarter Austrian.  So he’s a real mutt.   He always asks people to guess what he is and he’s heard everything from Italian to American Indian to Hawaiian to Filipino to Mexican.  Apparently he is poly-ethnic.  I have no idea what I would have guessed.  Steve’s Mom is Chinese, so even looking at his last name, I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Steve and I met probably 10 years ago.  He was living with our mutual friend Tim on Spaulding and I met him at one of the first get-togethers  they had in 2001.  It might have been a house warming party of sorts.  I had been out in Los Angeles less than a year and was working with Tim at the time.   I couldn’t remember the details, but when Steve mentioned this occasion, it all came back.  Steve also remembered a hat that I wore.  I still have that hat.  We’ve met and hung out many times since then and I was also the set photographer on “American Bar” which Steve directed.  Steve and I are acquaintances, but when we get together it’s very easy and friendly, so he would call me a friend.

Steve thinks that the 50 Couches idea is fantastic.  LA is a very transient city.  Whether it’s for work or to try to become and actor or filmmaker or because it’s the second largest city in the US, people are in and out of our lives and the city so quickly.  Couch living is a very integral part of the Los Angeles experience.   Steve lived on couch for three months.  He paid it forward and had someone on his couch for six months.  Seemingly everyone has lived on someone’s couch in this town at one point or another although it’s not really talked about.  The fact that I’m documenting it and have 50 different couches, 50 different places, 50 different people and a look into their lives, even if it’s just a couple of hours, is an interesting thing.  Steve thinks it would be a great coffee table book and he wanted to support me in my pursuit of that.

One thing that I’ve found interesting along those lines is having breakfast with my hosts.  It’s not something that you do with alot of people very often.   It’s not all the time that you see these people first thing in the morning in their home in a vulnerable state where they aren’t dressed and ready to go.    It’s a unique view of a person.

Steve’s been listening to Ray LaMontagne alot for last year and half or so.  Especially “Jolene” and “Empty”.  They strike a chord with him.  Other than Dora, Diego Thomas the train, that’s what he’s been listening to the most.  I’m still hoping Mr. Topham Hatt is going to give me money for this couch book.

Steve likes to grill filet mignon with his own seasonings but his favorite dish is Chong Yao Gai, chicken with ginger, garlic, scallions, in soy sauce and oil base.  His mother taught him how to cook it.   It’s one of the dishes she made and he loved it growing up.

Steve really likes “Amelie”, “Fight Club” and “Ju Dou”.  Those are in the top 5 for sure.  He also likes movies  “Empire Strikes Back”  and  “The Shawshank Redemption”.  And he likes a movie that not a lot people liked which is “Meet Joe Black” with Brad Pitt. He really enjoyed that.  He liked the music especially.  It’s long and if you aren’t really into it’s easy to see why it sucks.  A lot people got fired after that movie because it bombed.   But the soundtrack album is just fantastic.   Steve also loves Clare Forlani in it and thinks Anthony Hopkins gives a fantastic performance.  It’s cheesy special effects but that’s not what it’s about.

Steve encourages me to complete this project.  When he first heard about the idea, it stuck with him.   We hadn’t chatted in a while and he saw the post on Facebook and told his wife  that he thought it was a great.  He thought that if I can handle it, and my back doesn’t go out or something else, then I should do it for 30 or 50 or 75 or 100 days.  It could be the summer of couches.  What a story.  Steve thinks that I’m living a lifetime or at least 10 years of experiences in 50 days. I’m becoming friends with strangers, closer friends with acquaintances, and even closer friends with friends.  Steve wonders what I’m on that’s keeping me going.

Steve also encourages me to take the interviews and put them together somehow.  Whether it be a trailer to put on YouTube  for the upcoming book or something else.  I need to get these in front of people.   He thinks that could help me to promote the book and promote the idea.

Steve got a Master’s degree in filmmaking 4 years ago and he’s trying to do as much as possible with it.   At the same time he has his two boys who take up a great deal of his time.  The initial thought when they moved up to Santa Clarita, was that he would have more time in the evening to work on his career after caring for the boys all day while his wife was at work.   They had always agreed that one of them would be home with the kids.  They thought “Who loves your kids more than you do”?  and so who better to provide for them?  So they didn’t want to put them into daycare unless they had to.   Steve thought that he could care for the kids as well as getting some thing written and produced.  It hasn’t worked out like that.  Life throws you curves.   But he’s working it out.  For example, Steve had just shot a music video the weekend before.  So it is happening, but he’s constantly wanting to do both things and it’s a struggle.   He wouldn’t give up the past year and a half of being home with his kids for anything.  Not a lot of Dads have the opportunity to that and he’s thankful for that.   But on the other hand, Steve’s 35, he’s ready to get a his feature film done, to find the money, to get it in front of actors, and to get it up and  going.  Hopefully Steve and his family’s move back to Maryland will give him the support of family to help with the kids which will help free up some time.  As well, he’s hoping to be able to make trips back here to work exclusively on things for a week or two.   Hopefully that will help him find the balance between his career and his kids in that inbetween place where he lives.

THE EXPERIENCE

I left Dave Ellis’ place on Monday in need of a shower, but wanted to finish up my  “Why am I doing this?” blog before going  to the YMCA in Hollywood and then heading up to Santa Clarita to Steve’s place for the night.   I knew that I probably didn’t smell all that fresh, but I didn’t care.  I located a coffee shop on the way to Hollywood and where I knew I could park and headed to Starbucks #7 near Beverly and LaBrea.   Having listened to Leslie and the Badgers the day before I found myself in the mood to listen to some country music.  I have musical tastes all over the map including some country.  When I’m in the mood to listen to that, I lean on the “Barn Dance” mix that  my friend Jay put together a few years earlier.  The story goes that he had been asked to DJ the end of the season “awards” for the LA Derby Dolls Roller Derby Club .  The theme for that party was a “Barn Dance” and his friend, one of the Derby Dolls, Kasey Bomber, knew that he would have the right, good old country music.   Jay gladly accepted the invitation, but had none of the equipment necessary.   As I had a laptop with iTunes, he enlisted me, or rather, my laptop.  He figured that he could DJ the party using that and plugging into the PA that the bands and emcee would be using.   This was back when the Derby Dolls were in a space in the Little Tokyo Shopping Center and were not quite as big as they are today, so Jay wasn’t getting paid to do this and the Derby Dolls weren’t particularly concerned about it not being quite “professional”.  In exchange for using my laptop, I was invited to tag along.  As well, since he had to add the music to my laptop, it gave me an instant library of 100 or so new and old country favorites.  I should also note that at that event, I met one of the Dolls, Gori Spelling, and a friend of hers and they would keep me entertained for the evening.  As well, that event would be the first time that I would be introduced to the magic that is the band Restavrant.  It was a fun event and I’m reminded of it everytime I bring up that playlist on my iPod or iTunes, which is quite often.  On this day, I was particularly listening to Hank Williams III from his first album as well as BR5-49.

Once I was at Starbucks and parked and as I already mentioned, I figured that I might not have the best aroma, and so I grabbed a seat away from everyone.   That wasn’t an unusual move on my part.  I usually wanted some peace and quiet and some privacy, so I would grab a more secluded seat when I could.    This location wasn’t the most spacious of coffee shops, but it also wasn’t the most populated, which made it easy to find a seat but difficult to keep away from anyone else who may walk in.  So, on this day, I settled for the seat near the bathroom just to keep my distance (and B.O.) from everyone else.   I got an iced tea, unsweetened, and plugged away at the “Why am I doing this?” blog ’til it was done, checking my email intermittently.  I always had scheduling issues to deal with, as well as messages both supporting me and offering couches, and notes asking to be removed from my mailing list.  Breakfast had been late morning, so I wasn’t particularly hungry.  Time was short, so I wanted to simply get the blog done and move along.  But by the time I finished the blog, it was already getting late.  Traffic would already be bad.  I would have to skip my stop at the Y.  I shot Steve an email alerting him to the situation and made sure that I could get a shower in when I got there.   I also wanted to let him know that I would need to leave early the next morning to go do my weekly volunteer work at Sante D’Or Animal Rescue.  Being on the run every day, I had lost track of what day it was and only just realized it was Monday.  What this meant was that I would have to do the interview and most of the photos that night and could not push any off ’til the next day.  Steve let me know that none of this was a problem and so, after checking my email for any early response to the blog, I packed things up and started to make my way to Steve’s home.

Steve lives with his wife Mary and their kids in Santa Clarita.  That’s about 30 miles from where I was in Hollywood.  And it was already after 4pm.  I was now dreading the drive.   It was going to take me 45 minutes when the traffic was light.   I couldn’t imagine how long it was going to take at rush hour.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Other than a couple of stop-and-go sections, the traffic pretty much moved and was there in just over an hour.  I found their house easily, parked out front and went to the door before unloading my things.   When the parking was easy and the walk short, I usually wanted to be sure that I had written down the correct address and had the right house before hauling all of my things.

Steve and the kids greeted me at the door and we exchanged pleasantries briefly.   The kids are young, and so it was getting close to dinner time.  I was shown a guest room upstairs with a it’s own stairway and private bathroom.  I could put my stuff there and use that bathroom.   Of course, there was also a bed there.   It was a shame that I couldn’t sleep in it.  A few of the places I stayed at had guest rooms with perfectly good beds in them.   But sleeping on them was against the rules.  This wasn’t just about staying at a different place every night, it was about sleeping on a different couch every night too.  And I never once broke that rule.  Okay, there were a couple of day beds.   And yes, if it was a fold out couch, I did fold it out.   But I never slept on an actual bed.  Oh, and let’s not forget the love seats.  While none of those treated me poorly, they weren’t exactly the epitome of comfort either.  And while we’re on that topic, some of the couches, well, they were more comfortable than the bed I had slept on for too many years.  Looking back, I can’t believe I tolerated that mattress for so long.

After getting the brief tour and staring at the bed longingly, I returned to my car to grab my things and bring them inside.    After unloading, I returned to talk to Steve and Mary for a minute.   Now, I hadn’t showered since Friday.  That’s three days.  So I must’ve smelled of body odor with a hint of too much deodorant.   I’m not sure if Steve caught a whiff of that or if he had just remembered that I had asked or if he was just worried about time, but almost immediately he mentioned something along the lines that if I needed a shower, I could take one now.   I actually recall this being the second time he mentioned it, so I’m guessing that I was pretty ripe by this point.  Maybe I just heard it that way and maybe that’s because I felt filthier than I ever like to be.   So, I then excused myself to the guest room, grabbed some fresh duds and all the necessary toiletries and cleaned myself up.   Afterwards I felt so clean and so refreshed.

I  also felt hungry at this point.  As I hadn’t eaten since my late breakfast at Dave’s place, so it was no surprise.  Dinner is often a topic of discussion before I got to my host’s home, and Steve’s home was no different.  Steve had offered me the choice.  I could have the best pizza in the Los Angeles area, or home made Chinese food.   While I love pizza, it had become a staple in this couch surfers diet.  It was safe and easy to order or pull out of the freezer, so I had had it more than a few times.  Chinese food, on the other hand, I hadn’t had at all.  In fact, I couldn’t recall the last time I had it.  And I like Chinese food.   I also don’t think I’ve ever had home made Chinese food.    So, home made Chinese was the choice.  And as I wandered downstairs to see when dinner would be, I could smell it.  Chong Yao Gai, or chicken with garlic, ginger, and scallions.  I grabbed a cold beverage and seat at the table and proceeded to chow down.   It was a simple dish, but quite delicious.  While I had cooked many things myself, I had never tried Chinese.  Steve told me that it was fairly easy, so when I finally land and can really cook again, I might have to try it.  I was actually surprised that Steve had cooked at all.   He had been working all weekend and had been up all night directing the music video for Earth at Night’s song “I Can’t Promise Anything” and then on little or no sleep, had to be Mr. Mom all day.  And I thought I wasn’t getting enough sleep.

During dinner and afterwards there was, of course, conversation.  Steve informed me that he would be moving back home to Maryland at some point in the fall.  Both he and Mary are from Maryland (they met in High School)  and their families are still there.  They wanted to return there so that they could raise their two boys with the family around.  It’s not only nice to have those people around during one’s formative years, it’s also helpful when you need a babysitter.  Steve’s mother had also recently become ill and that cemented their decision to pack home and head home.  I told him how my brother was living in Maryland.  I had traveled to New York to house/cat sit for my cousin in the fall of 2009 and had taken a trip to visit to Maryland to visit with my brother, his wife, and my youngest nephew.  My father had also come up to visit.  It was a short visit and we mostly stayed at the house, but I did get to see a little bit of Maryland here and there.  There weren’t any crab cakes on the menu, however.

Steve and Mary have the most adorable children too.  Jack and Ryan.  If you say their names together, you get that character from the Tom Clancy novels.   I got a chuckle out of that right away and apparently I’m not the only one.  Steve told me that it was not intentional and is sometimes a topic of conversation among people meeting them for the first time.   I forgot to mention earlier that when I arrived at the house, I almost immediately dug my camera out of my bag and began to start shooting.  It was only for a few minutes when I first arrived, but I couldn’t help myself.  I also wanted to be sure to shoot photos of the kids when the sunlight was coming through the window and while the kids were still showing off for me .  Now that dinner was done, I shot some more photos.  As I recall, Jack liked trains and had a wooden train town with tracks and the whole nine yards set up in the living room.  My youngest nephew also liked trains.  On the same trip that I had taken to Maryland, I must have watched a few Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons including one of them a number of times.   In addition, neither Jack nor Ryan could get my name right.  They were told to call me Mr. MacKay and instead kept calling me Mr. Okay.   I smiled every time they said it.  Steve and Mary sat down with the boys on the floor and played with them while I was shooting away.  At one point Jack got upset about something.  I think that Ryan must have been getting more attention for a moment and/or Jack didn’t get his way and so he threw a small fit.  Steve and Mary quickly straightened him out and all was well.

We also discussed how couch surfing is such an L.A. experience.   Steve, like many of my hosts who had moved here from across the country, had both stayed on couches at one point as well as hosting other people on theirs at another.   We talked about rent control and how it’s both saved many of our friends from going broke, but also trapped in their present flat.  I had been that person and that had made leaving both that much more difficult and that much more imperative.    As part of this discussion, I mentioned how I had found sleeping on couches at other people’s home, more restful and comfortable, at times, than I had remembered sleeping on my own bed.  Not only had my mattress been old and some couches more comfortable as I mentioned before,  I also found the situation or location to be more relaxing.  In Hollywood, I had been living in small one bedroom apartment with paper thin walls.  The neighbors were noisy even when they didn’t intend to be.   The car alarms went off more often than necessary.  And then there were helicopters.  The helicopters would circle either looking for someone or assisting patrol car with their lights.  And they would circle, and circle, and circle for what seemed like forever at times.  Forget about watching television or talking on the phone.  And if it happened really late, don’t even think about falling back asleep.  And except for a rare occasion, I hadn’t remember hearing those sounds since I’ve started my journey.  Things were peaceful.   It really is strange what one gets used to and accepts as “normal”.

As it got later and both the kids and Mary were getting tired, I sat everyone on the couch for some portrait shots.  Once that was done, they said their good nights.  I took advantage of the break in the action to check my email and see the responses to my earlier blog posting.  Steve returned a short time later and joined me at the table.   He offered me a beer, which I gladly accepted and we continued to talk as I downloaded some photos from my digital camera which nearing capacity.    As if a continuation of or maybe a twist on my conversation with Dave Ellis earlier, we discussed  dating parents.  While the conversation with Dave focussed on our willingness to date women with children, Steve and I discussed the difficulty of having a social life when one is a parent.   Not being a parent, it’s not a topic I’m familiar with, so I mostly listened to his take on the situation.  Of course, he also lived 30 miles outside of Los Angeles, so even when he could manage to leave the kids with his wife or a baby sitter to do something socially with his friends, it was quite a hike to get anywhere.  This obviously meant that he just didn’t attend nearly as many events as he did just a few years earlier.    And, of course, in addition to having those family obligations, there was also a career to think about.  Steve had directed some things and that was still his passion.  But with family scheduling to consider as well as needing to be mindful of his families financial security, pursuing his dreams was not the only priority these days.   And that, of course, was a bit frustrating.  There is only so much time in the day to do things with a wife, children, and a house that’s a little way outside of the city, that time gets eaten up fast.   Friends are seen less often and dreams get a smaller piece of the time pie.  Why couldn’t one have it all?  Was it even possible?  And if so, how?  And at what cost?   These were things that Steve and I pondered.

My take on it was a different one.  I had no home, no wife, and no children, so I was able to pursue my passion.  In fact, absent those things, it was all that I had to hang to.  No having worked in a while and having continued to struggle financially, my social life had taken a hit in recent years.  We had all gotten older, so even when friends didn’t have the excuse of a wife, kids, girlfriend, or job, most of them just simply weren’t going out as much as they once were.  Being unemployed, or self-employed as well as single I was at home by myself all the time.  I now needed to go out even more., but finances and friend’s new schedules, prevented it.   This isolation and the depression that goes along with it, led me to find something positive and productive to fill that void.   I needed something to distract me.  I need something I could build on and hopefully one day profit from.  I needed something that was therapeutic and brought me joy.  Photography was that and continues to be that.  It consumes me at times.  I do enjoy it and I am grateful for the freedom that I have to pursue it.  But I too struggle with finding time to both pursue my passion and lead a so-called “normal” life, which one day I hope will include a wife and children.  So, while Steve and I  lead seemingly opposite lives, we are very similar in our struggle.  Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.

We discussed some other things including whether I had considered and looked into doing stock photography to make some extra cash.   I had, but since my digital equipment couldn’t really output what they required, I hadn’t gone any further in that pursuit.  We talked about the fact that I was still shooting film and how I was not happy that Fuji was discontinuing their Pro 800z film.  That had been my go-to film for years and the other options just weren’t the same.   I told Steve about Blurb and about how easy it was to self-publish these days and that absent a publisher interested in putting this book out, that would be my path to getting the coffee table book of some of these photos out and into people’s hands.

I also mentioned how I had been sick just  a little more than a week prior and how I had been struggling to stay healthy since then.   Steve had a solution, it was an old family solution.  Gan Mao Cha tea.  It was something that his mother swore by and something that he kept on hand to this day.   As I’ve mentioned before,  in my travels I learned of a number of solutions to help me feel better and fight off sickness.  I add this one to this list and I still have a packet of this tea with me just in case.   As I was there, and as the topic was raised, Steve put the kettle on and made me a cup right then and there.  Mary didn’t like the taste and so I was given that warning.   While it was unusual, I remember finding the taste intriguing as well finding that a warm drink hit the spot.

We talked about John Hughes’ films and I specifically mentioned how “Some Kind of Wonderful” was one of my favorites.  And as that conversation wound down, I noticed the time as well as that I was tired and so it was time to get some individual portraits of Steve as well as as self-portrait with him, and conduct my interview of him.   Once that was complete, it was definitely time for bed.  Steve prepared the couch and I brushed my teeth and put on bed clothes.  I confirmed the morning schedule, as I always do, and it was off to sleep.

I slept in later than I would’ve liked on Tuesday, so I would have to hit the ground running.  I still needed to take the couch photos and get some pictures around the house while the light was good.   I also wanted to get more photos of the kids.  Steve made me a cup of coffee and while I’m sure he offered me something more, I had a banana and an english muffin with butter.  I took the requisite couch photos but then became distracted by the kids.  Ryan was on the floor of the kitchen with a package of Ritz crackers while Steve made them breakfast.  I sat myself on the floor of the kitchen and began snapping away.  Before too long, being the ham that he is, Jack came in and sat on the floor too.   I love moments like that.   As an adult, how often do you get to just sit on the floor of the kitchen and play?

Breakfast was soon ready and the boys took their seats at the table.  I returned to my couch photography before they joined me in living room.  Of course, my camera once again turned to them.  Steve joined us and I sat on the floor some more and played and took pictures.  After a short time of this, I remembered again that I was late.   I took a few more photos around the house and then made myself presentable and packed everything up.  I loaded up the car and said my thank yous and my goodbyes.    There was traffic on my way to Atwater Village and the Sante D’Or Animal Rescue, but it was expected.   I sipped on a gatorade and once again turned on my Barn Dance mix.  I was feeling good.  It was going to be a great day at the rescue before I landed at my next couch in Hollywood.

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About 50 Couches in 50 Nights

My name is Dean MacKay. In June and July of 2010, I slept on 50 different couches in 50 consecutive nights. I took photographs of the couches, both as a couch and as my bed. I took portraits of my hosts and interviewed them. I documented their homes on film and digitally as well as in a journal. I was treated to home cooked meals and intimate secrets. I was cared for when I was ill and checked in on after I was long gone. There were sleepless nights and busy days and times spent discussing the past and dreaming about the future. I drank a lot of coffee at a lot of different coffee houses. There were old friends who became closer and acquaintances who I now call my friends. There were even strangers who invited me into their homes. Threads were woven among them all. My skills were honed as I practiced my craft on a daily basis. I learned many things about my hosts and I continue to learn many things about myself. These times are unforgettable. This journey was initially born out of necessity. The economic times had taken their toll. But the fruit of this labor is not simply financial. It is emotional and spiritual and societal. I tapped into something that is still developing. And as it develops I will share with you this knowledge as well as providing you a way to share it with others. I hope that you will support me as this journey continue and grows. I plan to unveil many things from this work including a coffee table book on the couches, and perhaps other books and a documentary. I'm also hoping to get the blog carried on a major website. Of course, and second project is also in the works although what form it will take has yet to be determined. Any assistance or advice that you can offer to further these projects is welcome. Your support, both financial and emotional, is crucial to my success. Thank You. © Dean MacKay 2010

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