Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Small Miracle on Laurel Canyon

“...the human name doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”
from “Eskimo Blue Day” by the Jefferson Airplane

It was mid-September, in the full frenzy of the pre-strike television season. I got off at 4:30, ending another bruising, body-and-soul draining day on the rigging crew at Radford. We’d only worked eight hours, but it was one of those pedal-to-the-metal days right from the start -- nothing but hundred foot lengths of 4’0* all day long -- “picking it up and laying it down” all over the studio lot. I was one whipped puppy crawling home in the slow-motion parade of traffic up and over Laurel Canyon, keeping one eye on the BMW in front of me, and the other on a massive Ranger Rover glued to my rear bumper. The tiny bottle-blond at the wheel of that big plush tank had a cell phone stuck in her ear all the up to Mulholland, and all the way down to the quiet sea of glowing brake lights at Hollywood Boulevard. Drivers like that make me nervous: small people in huge cars paying more attention to their phones than the road ahead – especially when I’m directly in front of them, belted into my little Japanese tin can.

I could breathe easier now that we were stuck in an honest-to-God traffic jam -- mired in rush-hour gridlock, I didn’t have to worry quite so much about that blond mistaking the gas pedal for the brakes and crushing me like a rhinoceros stepping on a mouse. So I sat there with everybody else, going nowhere, staring at nothing while absorbing the usual litany of bad news from the radio: I.E.D’s, suicide bombings, and beheadings in the Middle East, melting ice caps in the Arctic, and the endless stream of self-serving lies spewing from the mouths of politicians – all of it adding smoke to the dark cloud of doom and gloom hovering over humanity these days.

Then I noticed something odd enough to rouse me from my post-work stupor: three people waiting at a bus stop off to the left -- a white couple and a black man in their late twenties/early thirties -- all of whom were staring intently up into the sky with expressions of beatific wonder generally seen only on the faces of severely mentally ill or deeply religious people here in LA.

Given that Southern California has been the birthplace of so many varieties of spiritual Kudzu over the years, I figured they must be missionaries from some religious cult, out to save us from our heathen selves. Nobody looks that happy in real life, not while waiting for the bus during rush hour in Los Angeles. But these three didn’t act at all like missionaries – they weren’t passing out leaflets, religious tracts, or otherwise proselytizing all these potential converts trapped in gridlock, nor was there any sign of the artificially serene, Yahweh-or-the-highway passive-aggression that typically radiates in toxic waves from religious zealots. They just stared up at the far ridge or Laurel Canyon, looking truly blessed. In a way, they reminded me of the cinematic legions who answered The Call in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – wide-eyed believers glowing with a sort of inner rapture, as if sensing the presence of hope from above and beyond.

I leaned forward until my face was almost inside the steering wheel, craning my sore and aching neck trying to see what they saw, wondering what on earth could inspire such quiet, reverential joy – and, truth be told, feeling a little bit jealous. I wanted some of that too.

There was nothing -- only a yellow mist of smog drifting in the pale blue sky above that steeply wooded hillside. I saw no smiling Jesus beaming down on rays of golden sun, flaxen hair glowing in the celestial back-light, no alien spaceship hovering overhead, its crew of superior (albeit strangely gender-free and disturbingly hydrocephalic) beings bringing miraculous solutions to all our earthly woes, nor was Tom Cruise up there riding atop the sturdy shoulders of John Travolta and Kirstie Alley. There wasn’t even Brad and Angelina with their big pouty lips and gleaming Hollywood smiles, waving to the eternally worshipful tabloid multitudes. All I could see were a few baby palms coming up between the big pines and eucalyptus on the hill.

By now other drivers were looking too, twisting in pretzel-like positions to see what was up. Even that tiny peroxide blonde behind me finally put down the goddamned cellphone and stuck her little plastic Barbie head up through the sunroof of that urban battle-tank to get in on the action -- and now she too had the same mesmerized expression of calm joy on her wrinkle-free, botox face.

What the hell was going on?

I kept staring up at that hill, and gradually my city-vision adjusted to this strangely forested landscape – dirt, trees, and real unmowed grass can indeed seem abnormal after an extended stretch in the world of asphalt and concrete – until suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, and I finally saw what had so captivated all these people around me. It was an alien visitation, all right: three large creatures up there under the trees, a four-point buck and two smaller does doing what deer have done since the beginning of time -- nibbling at Mother Nature’s salad bar of lush green grass.

I’m no stranger to deer. Growing up in the sticks of Northern California, deer were as common as dogs are in the city. Despite my father’s best efforts to protect his vegetable garden, armies of hungry deer would leap any barricade of barbed wire or electric fence, and easily sidestepped my clumsy adolescent attempts to ward them off with a home-made trip-wire cannon.** Back home, deer were everywhere – but not here in LA, and certainly not at the gridlocked confluence of Hollywood Boulevard and Laurel Canyon. And yet here they were, a family of deer serenely feeding a couple of hundred feet above all these stalled automobiles and gawking humans as if we weren’t even there.

I felt a sense of wonder at the sight of these sleek, ethereally graceful creatures so comfortably at home in their little green Eden overlooking the city. Then I remembered the earthquake back in January of ’93, when the city shook like a rat in the jaws of a terrier just before dawn, leaving millions of us scared and in the dark – but in that shockingly dark sky above were stars like I’d never seen before in LA. The night sky here is normally a joke -- a handful of wan stars barely visible in the overpoweringly bright urban glow -- but the quake knocked out the power, and thus all the lights, allowing us a brief, precious glimpse of a primordial night sky blazing with stars.

Such moments of actual reality (as opposed to “reality”) are all too rare here in the urban dystopia. Trapped in this bright and noisy rolling hamster cage of modern life, we drive and work and work and drive – and then we watch TV – in a routine that eventually flatlines into the steady hiss of static. In time, we lose track of anything beyond the day in, day out struggle of the rat-race. We forget who we really are, and what we actually need to thrive as human animals. Blinded by the lights of the Industry and technology, we just keep churning away as memories fade of the paradise from whence we came.

But here were three emissaries from that forgotten world, bearing a silent reminder that we would all do well to stop, look, and listen every now and then. Maybe we in the Industry are a little too proud of our slavish dedication to work -- our willing eagerness to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, no matter how long it takes, regardless of the toll exacted on us as human beings. Unfortunately, that’s what the Industry demands. Anything less than an all-out, white knuckle effort is seen as the selfish, slacker behavior of lesser beings who just don’t get it. It’s a bit like trying to reason with Al Queda – how can we reach a livable accommodation with such an inherently uncompromising system?

I have no answers, only questions. When we work for The Machine, perhaps we inevitably turn into machines ourselves. Maybe there really is no going home again. Maybe losing Paradise -- and living to regret it -- is simply an inextricable part of the Devil’s bargain that is conscious life.

I really don’t know.

The traffic signal finally turned green, the gridlock broke, and the great herd of four-wheeled machines finally began to move, carrying us all home as the deer ate their fill. Like everyone else, I poured a drink, nuked some dinner, then turned on the toob, applying the usual modern anesthetics to numb body and brain, gearing down from one work day in preparation for the next.

Keep those gears polished, lubricated, and in good working order...

But later, while drifting off to sleep, I could still see those deer up on the hillside.

I see them now.

* 4’0 has long been the foundation of most lighting rigs, each cable capable of carrying 400 amps of power. The smallest practical 4’0 rig (using three phase AC power) consists of five separate cables -- three hots, one neutral, and one ground – for a total carrying capacity of 1200 amps. That's a lot of juice -- enough to power six suburban homes with all the lights on and every appliance running full blast. But that kind of capacity comes at a price: a hundred foot coil of 4’0 weighs between 84 and 96 pounds, depending on the thickness and grade of insulation, and thus remains both the bete noir and the daily bread of the rigging juicer -- our cross to bear.

** I’m ashamed to admit that this “cannon” eventually exploded like a bomb, sending our neighbor’s innocent Persian cat to the vet for a long and expensive stay. The cat survived, but his hunting days were over – after suffering through that blast, the poor animal couldn’t hear any better than a rock.


Unknown said...

I'm not industry, but I read your blog because you have such a lovely turn of phrase, a great way of setting a scene, and a very entertaining tone. I also read it because I am an actor, and that path might one day lead me out to said smog ridden wasteland.

The picture you paint is often bleak (and I do so appreciate the truth), that it's nice to hear about the little touches of wonder like this. Thanks for sharing all of it.

Michael Taylor said...


Thanks so much for your generous comments. Like most Industry bloggers, I write for tips (tips = comments), and responses like yours are very gratifying.

Don't be discouraged by my bleak tone. When you're young and on the way up, Hollywood can be a very exciting place to work. It's a different story when you're old and eyeing the exits, but maybe that's true after thirty years of anything.

Listen hard, and if you hear the call loud and clear, give it your best shot. Maybe I'll see you on the silver screen...

Unknown said...

Oh, I am not so easily discouraged, I assure you. I'll see what I can do...

Michael Taylor said...