Home, it's been said, is less a physical place than a state of mind. George Carlin famously defined home as "where you keep your stuff." Specifically, it's where you keep your heart. It's where you sleep best, and where you feel most comfortable walking around naked. I propose that Hollywood isn't necessarily a physical place either, but rather any place where the spotlight makes things grow. It's where you preen best, and where your body double feels most comfortable walking around naked.
Last week, I thought I had left Hollywood when I boarded a plane at LAX and landed in Amarillo, Texas. Since my upcoming rollicking profile of Charlize Theron (Hollywood is also where you're allowed to shamelessly plug) wasn't due until this week, I had taken a brief hiatus from my showbiz beat to chronicle the latest troubling chapter in America's drug war. In the summer of 1999, 43 residents of Tulia, Texas a dry little town of less than 5,000 people in the windswept panhandle were arrested for dealing cocaine. It was the most ambitious drug sting in the history of Swisher County, and there was great buzz surrounding the bust and self-congratulation among the majority of townsfolk at the time. Now the buzz has turned. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have become quite concerned that 40 of those 43 arrested were African-American. That represents about 12 percent of Tulia's tiny black minority. Critics are also troubled by the stiff sentences handed down by predominantly white juries (a white man with close ties to the black community received more than 300 years; a young black man received 20 years for selling just an eighth of an ounce of cocaine). On top of it all, the white undercover agent who conducted the sting has a shady past that includes accusations of theft and running out on debts facts that were not allowed in any of the jury trials.
The ACLU has filed suit against Swisher County, as well as the sheriff and the district attorney, on behalf of Yul Bryant, a black man who was arrested after apparently being misidentified and whose charges have been dropped. Some of the cases are being appealed, the Department of Justice has been alerted to the problem, the media is on the case and Tulia finds itself in the spotlight a spotlight that has led to all kinds of grandstanding, manipulation, alliance-forming and hammy acting. In other words, Tulia has become Hollywood. Helping get national publicity focused on the situation is Randy Credico, an activist from New York. Credico also happens to be a middle-aged standup comic, who's performed in Vegas and does a Mickey Rooney impression even when he isn't asked for it. Earlier this year he served as campaign manager in the jokey bid for the New York Senate of Al Lewis, a perennial Manhattan character-about-town most famous for playing Grandpa on TV's "The Munsters."
If Credico is in charge of marketing the scandal, then Gary Gardner, a white Tulia farmer, is the cause's publicist. Gardner alienated most of the rest of the white population of Tulia when he spoke out against what he perceived as the racism of the community after the first drug-bust trials last year. Now, when reporters come to town to cover Tulia's controversy, he helps set up interviews with the black residents, almost all of whom are on probation or related to someone who was arrested in the sting. Gardner is also a comic-relief supporting player, since he uses the "N" word and calls the protest "a white show, but it's aggressive whites who have to run it because these people can't fight for themselves." The media finds Gardner irresistibly quotable. Also irresistible are the alarming accusations from the ACLU and the NAACP that Tulia is guilty of ethnic cleansing.
Amid all the noise and show business is the truth. Tulia is a town with a deep racial divide, and only now is the white majority of being forced to stare into it. It's hard to see anything, though, with the spotlight shining so bright and hot. And that's the way it is in Hollywood. Hooray.