Neil White is an author, playwright and publisher. On occasion, he will contribute other stories of mortification to HottyToddy.com
By Neil White
Email Neil White at firstname.lastname@example.org
On an unbearable Mississippi August afternoon, I was doodling on a legal pad in my office, phone propped between my neck and shoulder, listening to the marketing director of a hospital in New Jersey. Carroll — the woman who works with me — placed a pink Post-it® note on my credenza. With her thumb, she pressed the adhesive edge against the wood, pointed to the message and raised an eyebrow. While the woman on the other end of the line talked about non-invasive gall bladder surgery and sleep disorders among the elderly, I read the message —
Ashley from Paramount called.
I half listened to my client as my mind raced. HarperCollins had recently published my memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts —detailing the year I was imprisoned with the last victims of leprosy in the continental United States —. Friends, family and a few industry folks suggested the story had the makings of a film.
I wondered if Ashley was a producer or a director or maybe in development for Paramount. But why hadn’t she called my agent? She must really want to talk to me. Perhaps the story had moved her so much, I imagined, that she wanted to make a personal connection before venturing into uncomfortable negotiations.
I finished with my New Jersey client and hung up. I dialed Ashley’s number. Her line was busy and I was transferred directly to voice mail. The person you have called has a full message box, a recording answered. Please try again later.
A busy woman.
Paramount Studios took John Grisham from unknown to superstar with the release of The Firm. And he received $900,000 for the film rights. I could clean up.
Paramount had also produced the Star Trek movie series — a show where all life is valued and sacred. Paramount just might have a director in their stables with the right sensibilities to accurately portray the leprosy patients as dignified, wise and monastic.
I tried Ashley again. Still busy. Straight to her full mail box. I took a deep breath. I needed to calm down.
I was sent to prison not because I was particularly greedy, but because I was excessively prideful. I didn’t hoard money; I used it. Used it to impress others, to win awards, to garner applause. Up until this moment, I had been able to keep the idea of “a film” at arms length . . . out of the scope of my life. Obsessing over a movie deal went counter to everything I learned while living with the last Americans imprisoned for a disease. Live simply. Don’t seek out accolades. Do your deeds quietly. Don’t chase applause. Deflect attention.
The prospects of a movie deal were clearly dangerous territory for me.
I knew what I should do. Pass along Ashley’s number to my literary agent. Then forget about the call.
But I couldn’t resist the temptation. I wanted so badly to know how she felt about the book, what she thought about the characters, the story line, my transformation — and how all this could be adapted for the screen.
During the next fifteen minutes, I dialed Ashley’s number seventeen or eighteen times.
Finally, “Hello,” she answered in a soft, informal voice.
“Hello,” I said, clearing my throat, trying to conceal my excitement. “This is Neil White . . . from Oxford, Mississippi . . . returning your call.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. White,” she said, “this is Ashley with Paramount Uniform and Janitorial Supply. I was calling to see if you needed any mops or brooms.”
As mortified as I felt, I also knew that my response could have been much more embarrassing. I could have said to Ashley, “This is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, returning your call.” Or, God forbid, I could have referred the call to my film agent Howard Sanders at United Talent Agency in Hollywood. Perhaps with a clever little note attached: Howie, looks like “Sanctuary” is gonna happen. Can’t wait to hear what they offer!
Ashley, perhaps wondering if I was still on the line, said, “Do you need anything from us, Mr. White?”
I told her we didn’t need any cleaning supplies and thanked her for thinking of us.
Ashley had already given me exactly what I needed.