Introduction: Night of the Ninjas
I’m not someone who’s had to deal with much personal drama outside of the usual: growing up with parents who hated each other, two marriages and divorces, the ups and downs of various relationships, raising a daughter, and watching friends crack up and overdose. There was the cancer thing, too. As you can see, though, there’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that most people don’t go through, nothing that says, “Penny, you were lucky to get through that one.”
Oh, except for when I was robbed by the knife-wielding ninjas.
Let me explain: I had come home one night after watching dailies of myself, something I never do because I think I look terrible. I pulled on my favorite flannel nightgown, the one with a New York Times crossword puzzle pattern on it, and applied a facial mask, one of those thick pastes. As it began to harden, I heard a strange, unsettling noise inside one of the other rooms. I thought it was my daughter, Tracy, and her boyfriend, Gio Coppola, who were supposed to be there, or my niece, Penny Lee, who was living downstairs in an outside apartment.
“Tray,” I called.
“P-Lee,” I said, trying my niece.
I walked out of my bedroom and looked in the living room. It was long and narrow, with sliding glass doors that provided a 180-degree view of Los Angeles, spanning the high-rise buildings downtown to the Pacific Ocean. At night, though, it was a black carpet of shimmering lights. As I stared across the room, I saw someone run into the den and try a terrace door, which didn’t open. I don’t startle easily. I’ve directed seven movies and know a thing or two about dealing with unexpected crises. In an emergency, I’m as calm as a heart surgeon.
Moving methodically, I found the clicker for my alarm system on top of the bookcase, and just as I did, a guy emerged from the den. He had a stocking over his head and a knife in his hand. From his stance, I sensed he was nervous.
“Who’d you let out?” he asked, thinking I’d opened the front gate.
I took a breath.
“My assistant,” I said, lying.
Another guy then appeared, this one dressed like a ninja and holding a large sword. That was a nice touch, I thought. I assumed they must have watched Tracy, Gio, and my niece leave and then come up the hill, thinking the house was empty. They told me that we had to go to the bedroom, but we were interrupted by the phone. The first ring caused all of us to freeze and stare at the blinking light. It was the third line, I noticed — the alarm company.
I guessed the clicker had worked.
I picked up the phone and immediately hung it up again. They glanced at me, then at each other, then back at me.
“Otherwise it’ll keep ringing,” I said.
I knew they wanted to steal something and unfortunately for them I didn’t have much in the house to steal. I had only lived there a little more than a year after renting a couple of different homes over the years. I had some old couches downstairs, a piano in the living room, and knickknacks from movies. None of it was expensive or valuable. I noticed them checking me out for jewelry. I had on a necklace and a ring that had been my grandmother’s.
The bad robber — the one with the stocking over his head and the knife in his hand — told me to hand over my jewelry. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m doing a movie. I wore them on camera. I have to match in the shots.”
They exchanged looks, and I suppose this being Hollywood, they understood. They grabbed some cameras on a shelf instead.
By now, my facial mask had hardened, making it difficult to talk. As the bad robber went to look around the house again, he instructed his ninja partner, aka the good robber, to watch me. He said something along the lines of “If she moves, kill her.” He had watched too many movies. Still, I wondered how that would work. Would he impale me with his ninja sword? Cut off my head? Would his blade go through my facemask?
When the bad robber was gone, I turned to his partner and said, “I’m going to wash this mask off my face.” I didn’t ask. I told him. Then, without waiting for an answer, I went into the bathroom, scrubbed my face, and returned. My robber was surprised when he saw my face.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “If we’d known it was you, we never would’ve come up.”
“Well, you can leave anytime,” I said.
He didn’t move. Neither did I. We stared at each other, unsure what to say next. It was like being in a bad improv class.
“Is this going to be your career?” I asked.
“No, I’m going to college,” he said.
“All right,” I said. “So this is just a part-time job?”
Then the bad robber returned. He was frustrated by how little I had in the way of loot. He looked at me as if that was my fault. I started to explain that had I known I was going to be robbed . . . But I did have traveler’s checks, which I got out. In the meantime, the phone had continued to ring, and this time I picked it up. It was my friend Susan Forristal from New York checking in. I told her that I couldn’t talk. Later, she told me that because I had hung up so quickly she thought I was with someone having sex.
Not quite. And when the phone rang again, the bad robber, now annoyed, took the ninja’s sword and destroyed it, reminding me of my old friend John Belushi’s Samurai Warrior character. Of course, this being my life, as soon as the phone was in pieces, another extension began to ring.
“What can I do?” I said, shrugging.
“Just sign the Traveler’s checks,” he said.
“You know, I think I have to be there in person when you cash these,” I said.
“Just sign,” he said.
“I’m sorry I don’t have more for you,” I said. “I have a Roy Rogers plate in the kitchen. I think it might be a collector’s item.”
The phone rang again and I answered it. This time it was the police, a lieutenant so-and-so.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“So far,” I said.
“Do you know these people?”
He asked a number of additional questions. Since we had already established the basics, they struck me as superfluous. Actually, they struck me as stupid and pointless. I was being robbed. The robbery was in progress. The robbers were in my home. I did not know them. They were robbers. What more mattered? Annoyed and frustrated, I turned to the bad robber and held out the receiver.
“It’s for you,” I said.
I just couldn’t deal with the cop anymore.
“It’s okay, we know her,” I heard the robber say. “She owes us money.”
Then he handed the phone back to me. He looked ju...