Driving The Mule
The Mule at rest, with two waiting tubs full of pain, er, cable.
After a solid month on the show, we finally reached our hiatus week, when the writers, actors, and crew get a break to catch their wind and recharge the batteries. I was looking forward to a nice slow week off, during which I could deal with the usual laundry list of tasks that can’t easily be accomplished on weekends. Monday was bliss. I slept late, got up without the “help” of a blaring alarm, walked over to the weekly farmer's market to get my fix of fresh strawberries from Ventura (picked that very morning), then rolled through the rest of the day at an easy pace. By late afternoon, this lovely week off felt like an old pair of well-worn and very comfortable slippers.
Then the phone rang.
Sometimes you just know. Call it a premonition or “sixth sense,” but at the sound of that ring, I had a sinking feeling that the bell was tolling on my entirely too brief sta-cation from reality. Sure enough, the studio rigging gaffer was on the line. With the television season finally ramping up in earnest, several stages needed to be prepped for a couple of big new network episodics.
"You want to work the rest of the week?" he asked.
Truth can be a slippery and dangerous thing. Given that I’d just weathered the assault of getting my own show off the ground, I really wasn’t – in body or spirit – ready for further punishment. What I was ready for was my god-damned week off, but with only fifty paid days under my belt this year (a pathetic pace even by my own increasingly anemic standards), I didn’t have the luxury of saying no.
"Sure," I lied, trying to sound cheerful. But we do what we must, so when the alarm dragged me from the warm embrace of sleep at 5 a.m. the next morning, out of bed I crawled, into my car I climbed, and off to work I drove into the bleak, gray dawn.
Working on the studio gang couldn’t be more different from doing a pilot or any up-and-running show. Where working a show calls for considerable patience, attentiveness, and a certain degree of physical and mental agility, working on the gang is a clinic in Newtonian Physics and the repetitive application of brute force. The gang is responsible for installing, powering, and setting up the big dimmer packs used to control most of the lamps on the show, while providing all the cable the show boys need up high -- and a big episodic uses a lot of cable. The dimmers would come later in the week, but on this day, our job was to send nine full tons of cable up to the catwalks.
After four weeks as a “show boy,” I had to rapidly shift gears to a very different operational mode.
Shifting gears like this is an essential skill for grips and juicers, most of whom have to take whatever work comes along, but it's never easy. Working the gang is a very physical job. All that cable is heavy, and even with the help of an electric hoist, getting it up high requires a lot of muscle. Driving the mule (running the hoist) takes practice to do right, and due to the ebb and flow of circumstance, I hadn’t handled a hoist in nearly two full years. Sending a two hundred pounds of cable forty feet up can be a tricky task (you really don't want a load to break loose and kill some unsuspecting carpenter working on the stage floor below), and since I hadn't done it for a while, those first few loads drew a sweat that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature -- which was hot and getting hotter with LA broiling under the season's first serious heat wave.
I dug deep into my memory banks to get up to speed – two loops or three around the rotating drum?* Which side to set the adjustable turret, thus determining what direction the drum will spin? Where to put the foot switch so it will be convenient, but not in the way? There are no hard and fast rules for such things (or official training in the art of running a hoist, for that matter), so you learn by watching, then doing. A four person crew is required -- two on the floor (one to load and retrieve the sling, the other to run the hoist), and two up high who pull the cable in, release it from the sling, then stack all those tightly wrapped coils in long neat rows along the catwalks. The person running the hoist has to watch carefully to make sure each load is properly secured as it goes up, then halt the rise at the proper moment before releasing it at the "sink it!" command of the high crew.
It’s a delicate dance that must be done right lest bad things happen. If you sink the cable too slowly, the high crew has to work extra hard to pull the heavy load in onto the catwalk – but release it too fast, and you risk dropping the load or (in the worst-case, nightmare scenario) dragging one of the high boys off the catwalk. As mom would say, no good could come of that... While I was running a hoist several years ago, something went way wrong at that crucial moment of transition up high, and two very heavy hundred-foot coils of cable fell like twin anvils to the stage floor. Nobody was near at the time, but losing that load scared the hell out of me. It also got the full attention of the construction crew working on that stage, who stayed well out of our way the rest of the day.
Hey, there’s a silver lining to every cloud.
With two years of rust to wade through, it took a while to get into a good working rhythm, a taks made the harder by the deafening noise of the construction crew. On most stages, the mule can only go in one spot – below the hang – which on this stage was near the elephant doors and surrounded by various power saws in constant use. The ceaseless screams of tortured wood and clouds of finely powdered sawdust were bad enough, but the din was compounded by the maximum volume music blaring from an industrial-strength boom box. Carpenters, it seems, are physically unable to work without being pummeled by the sledgehammer assault of heavy metal music. I finally had to resort to wearing earplugs, which made it harder to pick out the "sink it" cries of the high crew from the background cacophony, but at least lessened the chances that I'd go home at the end of the day with permanent hearing damage.
For the first fifteen minutes, I felt like a fish out of water – a show juicer suddenly back on the killing floor, running a machine capable of doing serious damage should anything go wrong. But as load after heavy load headed skyward, all the little tricks gradually came back to me. By the time we took a breakfast break, I was fully into the rhythm, at one with the mule and the rest of the crew. That was a good thing, because every one of those tubs full of cable lined up outside the elephant doors had to be empty before our day was done. And even though the young studs on the high crew did the seriously heavy work, driving the mule isn’t exactly a walk in the park -- I'm still sore in places that haven't hurt for a long while.
But work is work, as they say, and it all pays the same. Actually, this work -- being in service of a broadcast network show -- paid $4/hour more than my cable-rate show.** If I had to work a lot harder and sweat like the proverbial pig to make those additional thirty-two bucks a day, such is life in the big city.
Besides, it's always useful to reboot one's perspective, and there's nothing like a four day ass-kicking in the steaming cauldron of the LA summer to make me appreciate shifting gears back to my nice little sit-com on a cool, quiet, air-conditioned stage.
There's no place like home...
* To maintain full control over the load, I use the minimum number of loops around the rotating drum – in this case, two. Three loops will provide enough additional friction to make each heavy load much easier to lift, requiring very little muscle power on my part, but releasing that load on the “sink it” cue is a lot harder. Using three loops requires flipping one loop off the drum at the exact right instant -- and if something goes wrong, you can lose control. Using two loops, I had to work harder on every load, but was able to maintain full control, thus making the process easier on the high crew and considerably less dangerous for everyone else working on the stage floor below.
** A new episodic pays a dollar under full scale for the first season -- yet another giveaway on the part of our upstanding union leaders, few (if any) of whom will ever have to work under the terms and conditions they negotiate.