Life In the Tree
I had a dream a few years ago, in which I had seen to it that my friends and I got into a certain rock concert due to the fact that I'd be working there. This was/is not too far from the case with my real life: I've seen a lot of bands I probably wouldn't have otherwise due to working in the stagehanding game.
In this dream, at the end of the show, I was told that I needed to join the rest of the crew on a plane, as we were going to Jakarta, Indonesia.
"But this was just a one-shot deal," I said. "I don't work for you."
"You do now." was the reply.
I sort of feel like my life has become something along those lines.
I spent three days last week building The Singing Christmas Tree. For thirty years, this freak who has started his own church/non-profit organization has put this thing on around December time.
The 'Tree' is a pyramidal set of risers where people stand and sing Christmas carols and hymns. It is be-garlanded and lit with many tiny lights, and spins, occasionally. I was an electrician on this show, because "everybody needs to know how to do everything", as Rain told me. Having not done lights since I was (snicker snicker) Lighting Director on the Famous Mysterious Actor's Show, this made for a steep learning curve. Five rails of hanging lights, at least thirty mounted on the balcony, plus hundreds of tiny lights strung on the Tree, just like you would at home.
Basically, I spent those three days getting paid for putting up Christmas decorations.
After that, another dumb day at Nike, getting paid handsomely for doing very little, and then I was whisked away to Seattle. The Chief is a guy I've been hearing about for years, and I was offered a chance to go work with him, for hourly as well as lodging and meals.
Just as well: for all the money I make, I'm often broke. Also, I had no idea what I'd be doing up there, which made for a delicious sort of mystery/challenge.
First, let's meet the crew:
The Nail, a forty-five year old with a constant little cowboy hat fetish, and plugs in his earlobes the size of golfballs...Way too many tattooes, you know...He is one of those guys who peaked in the Portland punk scene of the late '70's, early '80's. He's still here though, and wants to tell you all about how fabulous he is. And the fact that he used to be in porn.
Mutumbe, which is the name we assigned to this particular person, were he to choose to become a channeler/psychic/smooth criminal. He is black, has well-kept, thin dreads and dresses impeccably. I have worked with him at the Ballet Theater for years, and I was pleased to have him along.
Were he to join the psychic friends' circuit, I suggested that he come out in a suit, explaining that he didn't go in for this mystical shit at all, and has an MBA from Wharton, and...Suddenly, rips off the suit; exposing a loincloth underneath! Mutumbe! Nubian Warrior come to explain to housewives how to please their man!
And The Chief: a mountain of a man, bleary-eyed philosopher and bon vivant.
Upon reaching Seattle, we secured our rooms and went in search of sushi. The first stop was a no-go: a hybrid of Japanese and Polynesian cuisine that Mutumbe described as "T.G.I. Sushi". We left after hearing that there was forty-minute wait.
The place we actually ate at was just called 'Uni', or something. Sexily lit, with nouveau cuisine-sized portions and presentation, fancy cocktails...I said out loud that in this, the most fashion-conscious of Northwest cities, I felt a little strange wandering around in dusty Carhartt's with tools sticking out of the pockets. It might just be a knowing affectation, or maybe I was just out of my element.
My three companions knew each other from the small community of stage workers in the Portland area, but also due to the fact that they're all denizens of Black Rock City. They faithfully attend Burning Man each year. Therefore, almost all the conversations we had involved sex and drugs. Certainly, I was able to keep up, just not so much with stories about either of these activities out in the fucking desert.
We spent a lot of time laughing, which is good. I was doin' my raconteur's best, causing The Chief to say, "You're going to fit in just fine, Rich", at one point. The Nail, indicating me, said, "This guy's even funnier than I am!"
In that I have a sense of humor, I suppose. It's not that he isn't funny; he just happens to have that thing going that all too many Americans do: he spends all of his time quoting cartoons and movies, occasionally singing popular songs in the style of William Shatner. Whereas I like to make up my own jokes, occasionally augmented by references to popular culture...And mere imitation of recognizable celebrity voices doesn't do it either. How about the absurd juxtaposition of corporate voice-over in everyday situations? The man who makes movie trailers for a living attempting to order a burger at a drive-thru? The man who does teasers for the local news who will read anything put in front of him, comprehending none of it?
Anyway, just as the evening was getting good, we had to bed down. I had a room at the Marriott Springhill Suites all to myself, and disappointingly, was only going to be using it for a lackluster shower and some sleep. I still get a little excited by hotels after all these years, and want to build a little fort, or something. This is life on the road, I thought to myself. See the world, or at least its airports and hotels.
In the morning, we gathered in the lobby for shitty coffee and the reading of the Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle's two papers. I still really wish they'd adopt the slogan, "Information for the Post-Intelligence Age". We also met the travelling road crew we'd be working with.
An enormous black man from Texas, and his two cracker minions. The enormous black man had the same speech patterns as Johnny Cochrane (or worse yet: the actor who portrayed Kramer's attorney on "Seinfeld" who was supposed to be like Mr. Cochrane). This made listening to, and taking orders from him, difficult.
We were deep in the bowels of the Washington State Convention Center, and were charged with the lighting and wiring for sound of a stage soon to be occupied by one Sylvia Browne: channeler, psychic, frequent guest on 'Montel'.
That's her up at the top. Note the blank stare of implied wisdom. And the vacant little smile: I am your friend, and can heal your pain, or maybe just tell you how to please your man. She is in a wheelchair, and has the odd face of someone who I think went through a windshield at some point.
Most of her fans are also middle-aged women of a portly type, often in wheelchairs themselves. I find this degree of fan devotion to be disturbing-crippling yourself, I mean-and...
The tour manager is a little firecracker of a lady in her early forties . That's how she'd probably enjoy being described: firecracker. She has the corporate smile in place, and could very well be an effective PR flack for anything or anyone. She just happens to work for this monster who lies to the stupid and insecure.
The fans were already streaming in (in as much as moving slowly could be described as streaming, I suppose), and we still had some work to do. The video screens were up, the pipe and drape hung at sixteen feet, the lighting truss hung, the speaker wires run, the ramp built, but a few more items remained to be done, and the firecracker wasn't having it.
She took a moment to scream at everyone, then wandered over to me, the smile turned back on. "Aren't I bossy and cute?", she asked.
Well, you're half-right, I nearly said, but actually intoned, "It is, after all, your job." A little meaningless platitude I enjoy sharing with people who aren't really listening. I don't know what the hell that was.
I needed an extension cord. Nothing complicated or hi-tek about it: just a damn extension cord to run from the camera out in the audience to the backstage area. This led to the Johnny Cochrane and the Git 'er Done type who worked for him debating at length the merits of extension cords vs. me just crawling under the stage and painstakingly unfurling the existing power cable running to the...I pointed out that the show would be starting in three minutes, and debate of this sort was counterproductive.
The Johnny looks at me and starts spieling: "Rich: now looka here, Rich. Rich Rich Rich Rich Rich..." he was really wasting time, explaining something, theoretically, but not so much. I did as he said though (which involved me crawling under the stage and painstakingly...), as he was boss.
We went and got lunch. I hadn't eaten anything since sushi the night before, and now it was nearing One P.M. I was exhausted and cranky. We chose this strange place named Von's, which I'd noticed the night before. It advertised itself as the 'Martini/Manhattan Memorial'. Whatever. It specialized in rotisserie meats with absurdly long menu titles. And 'personal pitchers' of beer that were in fact enormous mugs, difficult to lift.
After this, I met up with Disco Boy, up on Capitol Hill. Went to a joint called 'Bleu', causing me to wonder aloud if I'd like it even less were it spelled 'Blue'.
"No, you'd like it even less if it was spelled B-L-O-O," he said.
Inside, the joint was strange and claustrophobic, but in a comforting way: it felt like a warren of train berths, or something. Apparently they change the decor of the entire place on a bi-monthly basis. I'd enjoy being their carpenter.
I ventured that there was a time when running a con job was a great deal less complicated than the spectacle I'd been involved in all day.
"Like nerve tonic?" Disco wondered. I relented: pretty much since the dawn of the Broadcast Age, it had been like this. Still, it was oddly depressing.
We sat there and discussed the entertainment biz, our exotic personal problems and generally had a bunch of laughs until I had to go back downtown.
Now, any time spent with Disco Boy is time well spent, but I am now sad that I missed the show. Apparently at some point, a woman in the audience asked Sylvia about her niece, who had been missing for the last eighteen months. Was she okay?
"She's dead," came the flat response. "Somebody strangled her."
Even for a professional swindler, this seems a bit cold. I guess there was also a woman who stormed in at some point, shouting about how all The Voices in her head were saying too much for her to handle, and Sylvia, you gotta help me...And was wrestled out the doors by the numerous security staffers.
And then load-out, and more laughter of the delerious sort...Further debate about the proper packing of a truck (I've seen some vicious arguments on this subject)...Me interjecting, finally, having done this sort of thing a lot, subject to disapproval by Johnny Cochrane...
We drove (well, I drove, as The Nail is just not to be trusted, even behind the wheel of his own vehicle) back to Portland, cracking a constant string of jokes in a tired way.
And a whole lot of other things happened, since Thanksgiving fell the next week, and much to be said there of course. Just not here. It has been sleeting outside. Tiny white beadlets of frozen precipitation, bouncing off the neighbor's roof like happy little ping pong balls. Nice to see you guys again.
Labels: th' workin' life