"Exit the Kill Zone!"
I make the climb one slow step at a time, trailing behind my two fellow juicers. They're both younger than me, of course -- one by eleven years, the other by twenty -- and I'm in no rush. Still, I'm breathing hard by the time I join them up high, where we pause for a minute to catch our breath.
Seven in the morning feels way too early to climb fifty-five steps.
The show we're about to wrap enjoyed a full season run of 22 episodes, after which the producers -- confident of a second season pick-up -- agreed to pay for a "fold and hold," whereupon the show crew cleaned up any loose ends that might present a hazard, then gathered their personal gear and walked away, fully expecting they'd be back for Season Two.
This industry seldom rewards such optimism. I've been down that dark road before, when my then-new show's first ten-episode season went so well that the "star" boldly predicted we'd have a five-year run -- and I was dumb enough to believe him. As I heard the story later, that cocky little bastard then handed the network a list of demands which included (among other things) a huge raise for himself and bringing his mother onto the show as a cast regular for the following season.* Suddenly realizing what a pocket full of trouble this little rooster really was, the network dumped our show like a hot potato, which is how a one-month fold-and-hold -- along with our "five year run" -- turned into a three-day wrap followed by a phone call to the California State Unemployment Department.**
So it goes.
It's a given that this town views any display of giddy optimism as hubris -- one of the Seven Deadly Sins -- which is why the Gods of Hollywood take such pleasure in punishing anyone so rash as to assume they're entitled to success. Unfortunately, the ensuing thunderbolt from above often results in massive collateral damage, laying waste to guilty and innocent alike. But one man's loss is another's gain in the zero-sum game of Hollywood, which is why the original crew of this show was long gone and we were about to clean up their stage.
So here we stood in the catwalks, surveying the mess they'd left -- and it was ugly.
"I hate cable," sighed one of my fellow juicers.
I just nodded. There was no need to say anything else, because he spoke for us all.
As the mechanism that conveys electricity -- the essential juice -- to our lamps, cable is both the foundation of our livelihood and the bane of every juicer: a back-breaking, shoulder-destroying, knee-grinding, ankle-crushing necessary evil. Once in place and properly hooked up, it channels the immense quantities of power we use to light our stage and location sets, but wrangling all that cable during the rig, then wrapping it later, is a bitch, especially for those of us who aren't quite as young as we used to be.
Cable is the single worst thing about being a juicer. Manhandling BFLs is no big deal -- nobody expects you to put an 18K on a stand all by yourself -- but a juicer often has to wrangle hundred pound rolls of cable alone. Anybody can plug in a stinger to charge a producer's IPhone, but to run, power, then wrap such heavy cable takes a real juicer, and that exacts a toll. The longer you do it, the higher the price.
In the long-ago words of the late, great Jimbo: "I'm mining my body."***
He wasn't kidding.
Finally running out of reasons to procrastinate, we got to work. As always, the early stages were slow, but after a while we caught our second wind and got into a good rhythm, which is when the work really gets done. While my two younger compadres attacked the Gordian Knot in the center aisle, I had the easier task of dealing with the danglers -- fifty and hundred-foot cables rigged over the side of the catwalks to reach the set below. I'd detach the end of each cable from the waterfall (the main power run coming up from the dimmer room), then tie it to my hand-line and slowly lower the loose cable to a juicer on the stage floor, who coiled it nice and tight as it came down. When he had it all, he'd release my rope, then snugly tie the cable wait for the next one. Once all the danglers were down, I joined in on the center catwalk, where we freed up the cables, then wrapped them to an empty catwalk, leaving a long row to be lowered later.
This is heavy labor, but time passes quickly when you're working at a steady pace, and soon it was time for breakfast (or "coffee," as this union-mandated break is called), so down those fifty-five steps we went -- and after twenty minutes in the commissary, it was back up high to continue the battle.
Loading up on coffee and/or orange juice at breakfast has consequences. Sooner or later you've got to pee, but that means yet another 110 steps… unless you can find an empty water bottle (with a cap, of course) up high to serve as a mini-honey wagon. Unwilling to make any more of those down-and-up round trips than strictly necessary, that's exactly what I did -- very carefully, I might add.
Hey, you do what you've gotta do to get through a cable day.
Once we'd restored some semblance of order to the center catwalk, it was time to start dropping all those fifty and hundred foot coils of cable, which weigh somewhere around 40 to 80 pounds each. The procedure isn't difficult, but you have to do it right, because getting careless and moving too fast can send one of those car-tire sized coils plummeting to the stage floor. If somebody down there isn't able to get out of the way, that person's entire day -- entire life, really -- will be ruined in a big way.
I wrap a 5/8th inch line all the way around the top rail once, then feed the end below the knee-rail to the catwalk, where the juicer I'm working with loops it through the coil (or two, if they're fifty-footers), and ties it securely with a clove hitch or bowline -- his choice.
"All clear?" he asks.
Before nodding, I scan the floor below to make sure nobody is wandering into the danger area, then yell "Exit the kill zone!" in a loud voice. With a construction crew slowly -- and noisily -- tearing the sets apart while we work, it's crucial to shout
Over the side the cable goes, and the weight hits hard, but I keep a light two-handed grip on the rope -- that full wrap around the rail makes all the difference -- and with a buzzing whir, the rope carves a shallow groove in the soft rail as the cable drops towards the deck. Friction absorbs this sudden release of energy, converting it to heat, raising the acrid sent of scorched wood from the rail. Watching the cable, I tighten my gloved grip at the last possible instant, bringing the coil to an abrupt halt. It dangles there, four feet off the stage floor, until a cable cart is rolled underneath. Then I ease my grip, allowing the floor juicer to guide it into the cart. He loosens the knot, frees the rope, then yells "Hollywood!" to let me know I can pull it back up. We'll repeat this process, periodically switching roles, until all those coils of cable up high are on the floor.
But that'll take a while, and now it's time for lunch, so back down those fifty-five steps we go.
After a relaxing hour, during which we eat, then retire to a shaded porch on the studios "Residential Street" back lot to chew the fat about politics, the continuing insult of cable-rate (and the cheap-ass networks who love it), and the cynical lament of all aging workers that their business (whatever it may be), is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket.
In other words, same as it ever was.
Then it's back we go, up those fifty-five steps again, which have just about killed my thigh muscles at this point in the day. Three hours later, we're done -- the cable wrapped, dropped, and sent back to the lamp dock. The construction crew is still dismantling the sets, but our work here is over. Once the sets have been torn apart, the rigging grips will take down the network of green beds, and the stage will then be ready for the next show to come in. When that day comes, the process will start all over, rendering order from chaos, chaos from order, and back again. We make an idiot-check up high to be sure everything's done, then make one last trip down those steps.
This day has been a serious workout, and I know my back (along with everything else) will pay the price tomorrow morning, but right now it feels good -- the pleasant sense of physical weariness that comes from a tough job done well. What comes next is uncertain. This was the last show to be wrapped here at my home lot, and the ramp-up for the new TV season has yet to hit.
That's just as well, because I can use a few days off to recover. And when the check for this day arrives in the mail, I'll know at least one thing: we all earned our money today.
* She'd appeared in the final episode of the first (and only) season.
** The last I saw of that "star" was his mug shot in the newspaper after he landed in jail upon getting nailed for his third DUI. Some people never learn...
*** The Gaffer who long ago taught me what it means to be a professional in this industry.