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Sunday, September 27, 2009
The Rain Dance
The God of Hollywood must be appeased...
Autumn in New York is so beautiful they wrote a song about it, a haunting refrain expressing the complex emotions evoked by the seasonal shift as summer fades and the northern hemisphere tilts towards winter.
It’s nothing like that in LA, where the Santa Ana winds blew into town right on schedule this week, radically upping the fire danger while bringing brutally hot, dry, and miserable conditions for every living creature unable to scuttle indoors to the cool bliss of air conditioning. But for the events related in last week's post, I’d have been one of the lucky ones working in a cavernous air-conditioned sound stage, but having been rudely ejected from my comfortable cocoon into the sweaty Horse Latitudes of unemployment, I suffer through the baking heat along with the other 12% of California's residents currently out of work.
It’s 92 degrees here at the keyboard as I type, with the temperature steadily rising and nothing but a box fan over in the corner blowing hot air at me.*
I made a classic mistake back on the home planet – and fool that I was, did it knowingly. With the vibe so strong that our show was coming back, I didn’t bother to file for unemployment. My plans were to be away for only couple of weeks or so, and with the state Employment Development Department overwhelmed by a human tsunami of applicants, it didn’t seem worth the effort. I've recently heard several horror stories of people spending an entire day on the phone trying to break through the EDD voice mail system, of applications lost in the flood, and claims filed on the Internet (which the EDD voice mail helpfully suggests) being ignored because – due to the once-Golden State’s current financial difficulties (we’re flat broke, and then some) -- there simply aren’t enough bodies at the EDD to process them all. One old friend of mine (a gaffer who has had a terrible time finding work this year) finally had to call his congressman to cut through the confusion and red tape, and only then did his claim go through.
Given all that, why bother to file? Hell, I’d be back to work by the end of the month anyway, so screw it.
Thanks to the Not So Great Depression were currently enduring, millions of people from the normal world are getting their first taste of doing the EDD Shuffle. Until now, dealing with unemployment hasn’t been an integral part of their lives, but for those of us who followed the gypsy muse into the film biz, unemployment is regular stop on the road. Indeed, some of us came to Hollywood in part to avoid the regimentation of full-time work demanded by the Normal World, where each year is laid out in a grid pattern of 52 equal portions, only two or three of which might be reserved for “vacation,” while the rest is devoted to keeping one’s nose firmly strapped to the grindstone.
Nothing about that sounded good to me when I first came to Hollywood, but like so many things that held great appeal when young – multiple shots of Jagermeister at midnight, the occasionally heedless use of certain “controlled substances,” and a few expedient but ultimately poor choices of female companionship – the joys of intermittent employment tend to fade with age. Not working means no income, and as the years pile on, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s really no such thing as having too much money in the bank. When that Final Day of work comes to an end, and I walk away from the last set of my professional career, my wallet will begin the inexorable process of wasting away to nothing.
Since those who run out of money tend to wind up living under bridges and freeway overpasses these days, this is not a comforting thought.
Wanting to work won't make it happen, though, and that's where the EDD enters the picture as a bridge over economically troubled waters. The first time I filed for unemployment, my check came to forty bucks a week. This wasn’t much even then, but at the time and place (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...), it was just enough to get by. The current maximum payment in California is $450/week ($475 with a $25 stimulus-boost from the feds), still barely enough to get by on in this vastly more expensive era. You won’t save a penny on unemployment, but it will buy groceries and pay the rent, keeping the wolf on the other side of your door until the phone starts ringing again. For the average free-lance Industry worker, unemployment checks are a Godsend without which many of us might have been forced out of the biz a long time ago.
That much hasn’t changed over the years, but nearly everything else about dealing with the EDD is now very different. Back in the old days, going on unemployment meant being assigned a day and time every two weeks to wait in line for the check -- mine was 10:55 a.m. every other Tuesday, with the 10:50 person in front and the 11:00 behind. This turned the ritual of going to unemployment into a social occasion, an egalitarian collection of actors, grips, juicers, and AD’s among all the civilians there for the same reason. The unemployment line could be a good place to network and compare notes as to what movies (and jobs) might be coming up in the near future. It also served to get you off your ass and see first-hand that in being unemployed, you were anything but alone.
Back then, it wasn't unusual to spot well-known actors/actresses waiting in those lines, by my only true celebrity sighting at the unemployment office happened during an argument with a burly EDD security guard over where to park my motorcycle. Having cut it close time-wise, I was in a hurry to take my place in line – but while he was going into explicit detail as to exactly where I could shove my motorcycle, the big guard suddenly shifted his gaze, then stopped in mid-sentence.
“Look," he blurted, "it’s Orson Welles!”
I turned around and sure enough, there was The Legend himself, emerging from an old convertible wearing an enormous blue terry-cloth bathrobe, holding a huge smoldering cigar in one hand. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there to wait for an unemployment check, but headed for an editing facility just across the street from the EDD office. After looking both ways (and making sure everyone in sight had seen him), he planted that giant stogie between his teeth, then squeezed his enormous frame through the doorway of a brick building and disappeared.
The magic of the moment completely defused my squabble with the guard.
“Leave your bike here,” he shrugged, waving his hand at the very spot where a moment before he’d forbidden me to park. “I’ll keep my eye on it.”
Such is the magic of true celebrity in Hollywood. I never saw Welles again, but what had been an otherwise banal morning was forever burned into my memory banks.
The modern system of filing a claim via telephone or Internet, then receiving the checks in the mail, is doubtless more efficient, but I miss the camaraderie of going in every two weeks and waiting in line with the rest of the gainfully unemployed. The checks usually come in right on time, but operating from home while waiting for the phone to ring is an infinitely more isolating experience. After a while a cold paranoia begins to seep in, as you start wondering if maybe you’re the only one who isn’t working... and that way lies madness. So you get on the phone and call everybody you know, and when it turns out they’re not working either, you don’t feel quite so bad.
I’m not sure if misery really does love company, but being out there in the dark all alone isn’t much fun.
Other than doing it all from home, the basic ritual remains the same: when a job comes to its inevitable end, (assuming no other work is in sight), you call the EDD at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, answer the twenty or so quick questions, and voila – you’re on the dole. A packet from the state arrives in the mail a week later with all the essential information, including a claim form to be filled out and mailed the following Sunday. If you work at all during those two weeks, whatever money earned must be reported, and will be deducted from your check. Should your earnings significantly exceed the weekly award, you'll receive nothing at all -- but so long as you keep sending those forms in, your claim stays open until you resume full time work.
To me, that’s more than fair. An unemployment claim is good for a year, and given the hit-and-miss nature of free-lance work, it’s not uncommon for an Industry worker to keep tapping that claim throughout that year whenever the work dries up.
Gainful unemployment isn’t all Sweetness and Light, though. Failure to be straight with the EDD when reporting income (even an innocent mistake) can lead to serious consequences. When I was doing commercials, my best boy once forgot to report a single day’s income (the only day he’d worked that week) when he filled out and sent in the form. The EDD caught the mistake a few months later, and not only did they make him pay the money back, but he was barred from receiving any unemployment checks for twelve weeks thereafter. While unemployed (and needing that money), he had to keep sending in the forms every two weeks until all twelve unemployed weeks had elapsed.
Needless to say, he never made that mistake again.
The same thing nearly happened to me when the production company for a Nike commercial I’d worked on (a one day job) reported my income to the EDD for the week I was paid rather than the week I actually worked. Six months later the EDD jumped down my throat in a big way, convinced that I’d failed to report my income that week, but a frantic call to the production company up in Oregon eventually straightened things out. Fortunately, my habit was to keep the paperwork from all my jobs – every work date, call sheet, and a contact list with names and phone numbers – for at least a year after each job. People make mistakes, and once the EDD starts breathing fire at you, having such documentation might be the only way to avoid getting burned.
The most important reason to file is the money – money to pay rent, buy groceries, and keep the lights on without completely draining your savings – until you land another job. But filing a claim also serves as a ritual appeasement of the Hollywood Gods -- and sometimes it really does seem that until you file, work won't come.
That's why I call it "doing the rain dance."
After all these years, doing the rain dance has been burned into my psyche, so when unforeseen circumstances extended my stay on the home planet, I began to regret having ignored the basic code of free-lance life: hope for the best, but always assume the worst. Six solid months of more-or-less steady work dulled my instincts and left me complacent – which is why I found myself dialing and re-dialing the EDD’s number last Monday morning in a vain attempt to file a claim. No luck. Every attempt left me wading through the same robotic voicemail prompts only to have a metallic voice drone “Please call back later" -- at which point it hung up on me.
That's the sort of bureaucratic runaround that can push a guy down the road towards Ryder Trucks, if you know what I mean... so rather than add fuel to the growing fire within, I surrendered to reality and spent the next hour filling out the vastly more intrusive and complicated on-line claim form. At this point, I can only hope my claim doesn’t languish on the bottom of some digital slush pile beneath so many others lost the cyber-void of a paralyzed bureaucracy drifting helplessly towards the abyss.
What I’d forgotten back on the Home Planet was that when you want it to rain, you have to do a rain dance. Call it a ritual, call it superstition – call it what you will -- but filing for unemployment is the first thing to do when you want work to materialize from the ether. It’s as if there really is some fickle-but-attentive God of Hollywood that knows all, sees all, and is determined to make every one of us humble mortals toe the line -- or else. The EDD won’t actually get you a job, but sometimes it seems that only after enduring the hassle of battling the bureaucracy to file a claim – yet another example of the endless dues-paying modern life demands right up until the day you die – will the God of Hollywood allow your phone to ring.
One way or another, you‘ve got to do the rain dance.
But does this actually work, you wonder? Not according the wisdom of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the ancient Latin phrase positing that a causal relationship does not necessarily exist between one act and circumstances that follow. Although it’s hard to argue with such wisdom, I filed my EDD claim on Monday, and late Thursday afternoon the phone rang with a job for Friday. Yeah, it was just a one-day gig on a cable episodic show, but it broke the dry spell. Besides, one thing has a way of leading to another in this silly business.
Did filing my claim finally appease the angry God of Hollywood? Who knows -- and who cares, because I choose to follow the ancient advice “go with what works” – and the rain dance works for me.
* Before those of you living in Arizona, Texas, New York, or anywhere else in the US write to tell me what a complete wuss I am -- and how much hotter it is in your particular corner of the world – save your breath. Seriously, I get it. I too have endured the summer heat of Florida, worked under the brutal Texas sun during July, and suffered in the cotton fields of North Carolina during August and September (shooting a movie, not picking cotton.) I’ve learned first-hand just how miserable the routinely extreme heat and humidity of other states really is.
Yes, it’s hotter and more miserable elsewhere, but life is graded on the arc of a curve based on local conditions to which we as individuals have grown accustomed. It’s all relative – if you were to beam an Eskimo from the North Pole to a parking lot in Phoenix at noon in mid- August, the poor bastard might well assume he’d been sent to Hell. As brutal as the heat can be in Death Valley (I’ve suffered there too – the hottest place in North America), it’s still not as bad as the heat our military people endure every day in the Middle East summers. So unless you’re over there carrying a hundred pound pack and God only knows how much in weapons, ammunition, and body armor, give your keyboard -- and me -- a break, okay?
As far as I’m concerned, mid-90’s and rising is frackin’ hot.