My Turn: Hollywood's Economic Casualties

I think of our street as a bellwether in the great sprawl of Los Angeles's middle class, a canary in our collective coal mine—as Santa Lucia goes, so goes the country. An ordinary block of ordinary people, mostly married, with children, well-paying jobs and nothing-special sorts of homes, it's a Gap block, not a Nordstrom block; a Target block more than a Wal-Mart block; a block that likes Starbucks by the cup but buys store brands by the pound.

It's L.A., so nearly everybody works in the entertainment industry and always has. It's one-gig-at-a-time work: a movie in the fall, pilots in spring. When you strike it lucky, a series will go a few seasons or a feature film for six months instead of the usual three. Employment here has always been serial, and the shooting seasons have a rhythm our families have grown up dancing to. While we're accustomed to dealing with feast or famine, things are a little different these days.

My husband, Roger, is in digital effects; I'm a dialect coach. My next-door neighbor teaches acting. Across the street are a set medic and his wife, who works for a big production company. Diagonally across from us is the personal assistant to a filmmaker. Down a few doors is a television technician. Our babysitter is the daughter of a first assistant director. Here you can find a props master, a set decorator, an animator, an art director, an electrician, a grip.

On our narrow street of once-modestly-priced, 1950s cottage homes, there are 23 kids, 16 of them between the ages of 5 and 9. After-school wars are waged in the street on tiny little bikes filled with light-saber-wielding, Nerf-gun-toting speed demons. In the setting sunlight, mothers in their 30s and 40s, home from work, stand guard on the corner, drinking coffee and sometimes $4 wine from Trader Joe's, yelling "Car!" when an unwary commuter approaches. Where I grew up, the moms watched from the front stoops and wine was reserved for the racier sacraments, but otherwise it's a lifestyle familiar to our mothers—albeit a little nicer around the edges.

Most passersby will only see the idyllic scene that is our street. They won't hear that the conversations, more and more, are about how we'll make next month's mortgage payments and, if we can't, whether we could afford to rent somewhere in the neighborhood so the kids could keep going to their good public school.

Gone are the days of planning vacations, plotting tiny additions to our tiny homes, weighing whether tumbled marble in the shower really does raise resale values. Instead, we talk about how many times we can plunge that toilet that keeps getting blocked before we're forced to call a budget-breaking plumber, whether you could really learn to repatch a roof from a book at Home Depot, how long we can keep the family dog going with the price of her medications.

Health insurance is a month-to-month, nail-biting agony, since nearly everyone depends on Motion Picture insurance through their respective unions, but in Hollywood you have to get 300 hours of work in every six-month period to qualify for it, and 300 hours of work is getting harder and harder to come by. Moviemaking is a fraction of what it was 10 years ago—or five, or two—and TV work is scarce on the ground since producers turned to short-staffed, nonunion, profit-intensive reality programs. The many micro-entrepreneurs grind their teeth and hope they get enough work to retain one employee on their books so the insurance company won't yank their small-business policies. And none of the 23 children had better get sick if one of those policies lapses, because God help you then.

Roger's effects shop has a lot of empty desks these days. He recently laid off his longtime right-hand man, whose wife lost her job right afterward. They have a 2-year-old with a heart condition and nightmares about missing their $1,200 COBRA payments. Marcus, our technician neighbor, scours the Internet daily for work; last week he found a studio facility hiring technical people in Dubai. His wife doesn't know whether to dread his applying or dread his not. As for me, I've fought since our youngest was born to work at home, and I've been lucky so far. But between the death throes of episodic TV, the faltering economy, the lure of out-of-state tax incentives for producers and a threatening Screen Actors Guild strike, jobs in L.A. have grown sparse enough that I, like many others, expect to dust off my suitcases soon, though the prospect of three or four months at a time without tucking in my little boy makes me heartsick and weary.

Yes, gone are manicures, gym memberships, premium channels and lawn-mowing guys. Gone are eating out, kids' karate lessons and buying organic at Whole Foods. Gone for parents are new clothes, dental appointments, dry cleaning and babysitters. Long gone are plane tickets to see grandmothers, contributions to college funds and little checks to charities.

Such losses, many of them, are petty things. But we recognize them for what they are: canaries in our coal mine. As Santa Lucia goes, so goes the country. In the gathering twilight, we, the downwardly mobile, nurse our cheap wine, watch our precious children, set our shoulders and pray that the things we do hold dear are not leaving us for a lifetime.