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Saturday, March 19, 2011
The Tolling of the Bell
“...never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne, Meditation XVII
Sometimes you just know. The phone rings at an odd time of day – say, 10:45 on a crisp, bright Tuesday morning – and some sixth or seventh sense tells you it isn’t just another wrong number, collection agency, or the Scientologists. Not this time. Reverberating all the way down the hall, the ring seems louder and more insistent than usual, like the tolling of John Donne’s bell.
Before I'd picked up the receiver, I knew that this beautiful sunny day -– a day that had been all mine a few seconds earlier, stretching out like spring break during our hiatus week from the show -– was about to be wrenched from my grasp.
It was a job call, all right, and not for tonight or tomorrow, but right now, as in jump into my work clothes, lace up the boots, and put the pedal to the metal.
Forty-five minutes later I walked onto the sound stage for a solid eight hours of hard, dirty labor. And as often happens in this oh-so-fluid business, one day morphed into three for a total of twenty-four hours gainful employment, thus canceling whatever vague plans I'd made for my hiatus week in a straightforward exchange of time, sweat, and pain for money.
Such is the basic equation of life below decks in Hollywood.
The show was a big network multi-camera sit-com wrapping after the conclusion of a 22 episode season. The extra hands – mine and those of another juicer – were called due to a change in the studio's booking schedule that now had a pilot loading in on that stage the very next week. Even so, additional help beyond the core crew isn't ordinarily needed to wrap a multi-camera show in four days, but walking around looking at the very large and elaborate sets, I saw this was no ordinary sit-com. The dense lighting style of the DP required a truly massive quantity of lamps and assorted rigging equipment, every last bit of which had to be pulled down from the pipe grid, properly wrapped, sorted and matched against the Best Boy's paperwork, then returned to the lamp dock.
Looking up at this mountain of work, I understood the Best Boy's cry for help.
Much as I would have liked to turn the job down (I do like my hiatus weeks off), I couldn’t, for all the usual reasons. In the fading light of my so-called career, I’m pretty much hard-wired to stand and deliver when that bell rings with a job offer. After so many years of living with the uncertainty of intermittent employment, this is now my default setting, one that requires extraordinary circumstances to successfully override. Then there’s the matter of “hours” -- to maintain coverage under the union health plan, I have to accumulate at least 300 working hours per six month qualifying period.* Logging any less than 300 means dipping into the bank of hours -- excess hours compiled during previous qualifying periods -- to make up the difference. That bank only goes so far, and once exhausted, leaves an Industry work-bot at risk of losing the health care plan, which is the first step on the slippery slope towards financial disaster.
And that really sucks.
Finally, there’s the minor detail of income. My little cable show has provided a more-or-less steady stream of modest paychecks for the better part of a year now, but it’s break-even money at best. When your monthly income barely exceeds the monthly expenses, all it takes is something unexpected – an accident requiring medical care, car repairs, a traffic ticket, or catastrophic computer meltdown – and you're back drowning in red ink.**
I've often heard that a shark must keep swimming at all times to maintain the flow of oxygen-bearing water through its gills -- and if the big fish stops moving, it will die. Likewise the Hollywood freelancer must maintain forward motion or suffer a slow professional demise. Upward movement is not required (at a certain point, professional ambition gives way to practical reality), but the work-bot who does not keep working begins to spiral down into the dark abyss. This too has been burned into my brain over the years, and thus I didn't have much choice but to take that job. It was three days of dirty, bruising, physical work -- you'd be amazed at how much dust can settle on a pipe grid over the course of 22 episodes -- but thanks to a good crew (who had a big boom-box and good taste in music), I managed to have a few laughs along the way, and now another paycheck is in the mail.
That's what it all boils down to in the end: work=money and money=life. Like the itinerant farm worker who rises in the cold and dark pre-dawn to harvest another crop in the fields, I too must take what's offered. Sooner or later the phone will stop ringing as the job offers go to younger work-bots -- and ready or not, my time in Hollywood will be done.
I'm not ready for that, not yet, anyway, so until I am, I'll just have to keep answering that bell whenever it tolls.
* This will rise to 400 hours in August. That sucks too...
** The fine for running a stop sign or red-light in California (the latter infraction targeted by automatic cameras at many intersections) now run upwards of five hundred dollars...