please stop tickling me

In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Friday, May 16, 2008

Slaving in the Inland Empire

How Renzo ended up in my car is this: he had arrived late, minus his belt. He needed a belt, and although he lived not far away, he was told that if he went to go get it, “it'd better be the shortest run of (his) life,” or something along those lines.

Due to high level of communication at work in this (and most) small production companies, I had not been told that we'd be travelling the four hours east in two minivans, and I didn't need to bring my truck. But I had brought it, and I'd done my usual and loaded for bear. On top of bringing my laptop and screwgun with case, extra battery and charger, I'd brought an entire tool belt, one messenger bag full of clothes and another, smaller one for books n' shit. On top of all that, I was fully prepared to camp a night in my truck if it broke down somewhere far away, i.e.; sleeping bag, pad, lantern...

So I certainly wasn't bringing all that along in a crowded minivan. Plus, I wanted to smoke, listen to the music I chose, and in general be alone, now that it was clear that I wouldn't be dragging along two or three stagehands.

But Renzo also was going to be sharing a hotel room with me, so I said, “If you want to ride with me, that's fine, just so long as you don't mind my constant smoking of cigarettes.”
He noticeably blanched. “You mean like, chain smoking? Or, say, five cigarettes in four hours? Or...”
I put him at ease, and off we went.

I was the only person in our twelve-person, three vehicle caravan who had even been to the Tri-Cities. Well, there was one guy, but I get the feeling that he got really stoned last year, then someone drove him there, and for all he knew, we were going to Idaho. For his part, Renzo thought that the Tri-Cities were up by Seattle.
This is not the case. Richland, Pasco and Kennewick are three hours east and another half-hour north of Portland. The closest town of any size in Oregon is Pendleton, where I grew up. This entire region is collectively known, sometimes, as The Inland Empire.

And we were going there because Lockheed-Martin was having an IT Day event at the convention center, and as always, someone needs to do the stage work for that.
Who is Lockheed-Martin?, most of my fellow hands wanted to know. "They make planes," said the bossman.
"They make bombers," someone else said.
"Basically, they sell war," I said.

The Tri-Cities have lived and died by the defense industry for a good long time. Hanford Nuclear Reservation (in Richland) was where the uranium for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs was enriched. Just down the road, in a series of depressing bunkers that stretch to the horizon, is the Umatilla Military Depot, where all the old chemical ordnance is semi-buried/leaking into the groundwater/slowly being incinerated...And that's just some of it.
On the other hand, this was my old stompin' grounds, and I was looking forward to it. "We're off to the dark and lonely East." I said to Renzo.

We got along well; matter o' fact, I do believe I made myself a friend this week. We talked about everything, and I also did that tour guide number I can't help but do whenever I'm in the Columbia Gorge. We stopped in Biggs, which is about halfway out, east from Portland. Renzo, born in Peru but raised in Miami, was amazed at how heavy the gusts were there, right where the winds from the Canadian Rockies crash into those sent from the Pacific Ocean.
Behind the counter at Dinty's mini mart, a cow-eyed woman who smiled distantly at something on the counter, still able to complete the basics of her job, but that's it. I asked her how it was going, and she just kept on contemplating whatever made her so happy.
** ** **

So we get there roughly three minutes or so after one of the minivans, and we all wander in, looking like we're there to rob the joint.
We're all wearing matching hats, and many of us are carrying tools. I myself have an impressive armload, and look like I'm impersonating a repairman.

It also turns out that our reservations, for whatever reason, were booked as only one night, as opposed to the three we actually needed. As has often been the case in my life, I was told to trust that this would be taken care of, and not to worry.

Everyone wanted to go out, and a few of us wanted to know where the nearest supermarket was. The bar wouldn't be hard work to find, according to the front desk ladies, but I saw how worried they looked when asked about the location of a store that sold food. We will return to this.

Those of us who wished a bit of bar time piled into one of the vans, driven by the one non-drinker among us, and tore off down the road. The non-drinker, I might add, is one of the most high strung people I've met in my life, and actually was making me a hell of a lot more nervous than most drunks would have.
The Tri-Cities have this odd southern California vibe about them, which is to say that it's an expanse of sagebrush covered at intervals by strip malls. In the area behind those malls, there sits an unnavigable welter of roads that- despite the fact that there's nothing really on them -have decided to class the joint up a bit by adding English-style roundabouts.

Or "rotundas", as our driver seemed to think they were called. We drove blindly and way too quickly into one of them, took one of the four options presented to us by the vague and incomplete signage, were briefly shot out onto a large main thoroughfare, saw something that looked kind of promising, ran back into yet another roundabout that led us back to exactly where we began.
This was terrifying. "Did we just slip into some kind of time hole?" I asked. I then requested that our driver slow down so I might better scan the horizon. Back out onto the wide main thoroughfare...Dark, but everything has neon signs...Red Lobster, Red Robin- ah! Red Lion, where we'd been directed.

The parking lot was so dark, one could easily run over a careless pedestrian. There was almost nothing indicating that this was a hotel at all, and could have just been a very large manor house on an estate that had been plunked down right next to a mall.
Outside, lots of young kids milling around, smoking, as you can't do that indoors in Washington. Lots of white baseball hats in that crowd, and you know what that means...
Inside, packed to the gills with fratboys and sorority sisters, beefy dude checkin' IDs at the door. I wanted no part of this situation where it would probably take an hour to get served, and nothing but annoyance the entire time. So I left, thinking it would only be a brief walk back to the hotel.

I had forgotten that we'd sort of gotten lost getting here, even though we were truly only five minutes or so away. Crossing the massive thoroughfare, I found what looked like the right road, avoiding getting killed by Red Robin employees speeding off into the night from another oddly unlit parking lot, and plunged in.
Then I remembered that I needed to negotiate a maze of mostly featureless roads featuring roundabouts that further confuse one. I knew I was heading south; but where is that, exactly? An enormous, deserted bus stop served as a promontory, but all I could see was lights twinkling in the distance, any of them possibly being the Hilton Spring Garden Inn (tm) where we were staying.

Further trudging along seemingly endless and dark roads led me ultimately to the massive, beige Benton County Justice Center. I had noticed it earlier during our 'rotunda' phase, and was trying to put this information to work for me. I briefly considered walking into the jail to ask directions back to my hotel, but thought better of it.
Behind this, a large expanse of weedy pavement with a rickety wooden tower in the center. This was an abandoned drive-in theater from back when this all would have been on the edge of town. I started walking through it, then realized that if there was ever a place to fall into a hole, pierce one's foot with something sharp and rusty, or just wander for a mile before coming up against some fence in the darkness, this was it. Instead, I skirted the edge of the lot, and ultimately saw the hotel's sign, a red beacon in the darkness.

On the way back, I noticed both an enormous complex named the "Toyota Center", and the Three Rivers Convention Center. Even though no one else knew it yet, our worksite was happily located across the street from our hotel.
It had taken perhaps forty-five minutes to walk back from a bar maybe ten blocks from my hotel. Renzo and I elected to drink whiskey and watch 'Iron Chef'.

What we did the next day was construct a stage, send up a modest amount of lights on trusses, and put together an enormous soft LED wall. More or less a twenty-five foot tall TV, this thing was comprised of fuck-who-knows-how-many individual panels of venetian blind-like strips of metal with multicolored lights on the front. The whole thing was held together, naturally, with hundreds of insanely fragile aluminum connectors. Each individual panel cost $2500, I was told, and upon completion would look like this:

That's a picture from the Tri-Cities Herald from that day, and the figure walking in front of it is this guy from L.A. named Don. The four enormous (and puzzling) styrofoam Oscars that stood behind it were installed the next day, which I had off.
In that photo, it's still in test pattern mode, but when in use, it would enlarge the head of whoever was on stage to massive proportions. This fact apparently was lost on a hapless opera singer who, during the actual conference, sang for quite some time with a giant snot ball dangling out of his enormous nostril.

This particular instrument, like many I've encountered in my line of work, is the kind of thing that only a handful of people in the world own. When they aren't traveling around installing it themselves, they rent it out for even bigger dollars. I figured that the software that controls it is proprietary, but nope: that's free. It's the massive expense of purchasing (and later safely shipping and installing) the actual piece that's the problem.

That day's load-in took thirteen hours, minus two meal breaks and four smoke/coffee breaks. We stagehands are nothing if not hyper-legalistic, and will burn your ass for not giving us as much break time as the law allows, even on a non-union gig like this one.
Lunch was at the Wok King, over on the massive thoroughfare named Columbia Center Boulevard. I suggested that this sprawling Asian smorgasbord (or 'smorgy', a word I'd never heard until that day) with its hum bao filled with horrifying yellow paste and baby ocotopi in a gritty broth should have "It's Disgusting (c) !" as its motto, accompanied by a cute little frog or something.
Dinner was at a casino of sorts that seemed to have been cobbled together from the remains of a Chuck E. Cheese. It was dollar taco night, and I prepared myself for what that probably meant. But no: it was fantastic pork, roasted carnitas style. Earlier, I'd been reminding everyone that while it might seem that Outback Steakhouse was the only near-decent food to be had in this area, one could probably find hundreds of fantastic Mexican joints.

(Gee, this sure is taking a long time, huh? I'll break here, as there's still way too much more information to impart. Tomorrow: Rich and Renzo try to find a supermarket)

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Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

You are living the glamorous life, aren't you? Hope you brought the pepto-bismol.

1:11 PM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Oh, nothings so chi-chi as that, Jill. Good ol' Walgreen's generic equivalent of antacid pills, thank you very much.

5:11 PM  

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