Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No Good Deed

The goddamn mice got my chocolate.

I love dark chocolate. The good stuff, 70% and more cacao content. Yeah, I’m a fucking chocolate snob. Deal with it.

It’s expensive stuff. Thank God for Trader Joes. I don’t know who’s legs they’re breaking, or what chocolate baron they have compromising pictures of, but by some dark art they manage to sell fucking awesome chocolate at a price that won’t send you into cardiac arrest.

The problem is the nearest Trader Joe’s is 20 miles away, so I can’t get there as often as I’d like. So whenever I’m in the area of a Trader Joes, I stop in and stock up.

I keep my stash in a box in the iShed, which is a large, shed-sized closet in our bedroom. Around mid winter this year, I went to retrieve a bar from the stash when I made a horrific discovery.

My chocolate supply had been savaged. Half of my precious bricks of chocolate had been gnawed to fuck. Scraps of paper and foil wrapping were everywhere. It was ugly and there was only one explanation.


I salvaged what I could of the chocolate, and got ready to deal with the little bastards. Now ordinarily, one would just set a few traps, kill the little fuckers, and be done with it. Problem was, ever since we’d gotten a hamster (our beloved Ozzy, now sadly passed) we’d felt a lot closer to the rodent world. It didn’t seem right to kill Ozzy’s cousins, even if they were relatives of the no doubt in-bred, banjo playing and savage variety.

When we’d had mice in the house when I was a kid, my dad would always build a simple humane trap, a flat piece of wood balanced over a garbage can. The mice would walk out on the wood to get at bait positioned on the end, the stick would over balance, and the whole thing would drop into the garbage can., We’ d find the mouse the next morning, drive it off somewhere, and let it go.

I tried to build my own humane trap, adapted from my father’s design, and came up with the stupidest, most goddam complicated things you’d ever seen.

Night after night I carefully set and baited it, yet no results. I’d come out in the morning to find the trap either un-triggered, or triggered but with no mouse in the can. This went on for two weeks, with me constantly refining my design, yet meeting the same results. I could almost hear the little fuckers laughing at me in their high, squeaking voices.

Enter a soundman friend of mine who advocated using the Have-A-Heart trap. I did some online research, decided to give it a shot, and looked for one in my local Home Depot and hardware store. Nothing.

I called around. The nearest Have-A-Heart available was at a store 15 miles away. I was committed, drove the 30 freaking miles to spend 20 bucks on a trap. The price of a soft heart.

The war began.

That night I followed instructions and set the damn thing. Sure enough, success!. The next morning I found a deer mouse cooling his heels behind the mesh prison of the trap. Who was laughing now, I wondered.

Our hamster, Ozzy, had been the cutest little rodent in the world, but this creature, which we named “Dinky” was anything but. Some online research revealed this was a deer mouse. Deer mice are not cute. They’re actually uglier than sin, well most sins anyway. Dinky sported huge, bulbous eyes, a flat almost shark-like snout, and grotesquely large feet. Its fur stuck out in all directions, as if the little bastard had just stuck its tail in a light socket.

Still, we had him, and we were going to do right. I drove Dinky and the cage out to a nearby public park and let him go.

Over the next few days, we captured three more of them. They all got the same treatment, taken to the woods and set free.

Superbowl Sunday approached. We had inlaws coming down, so I had a lot of cooking to do. Coming back from a shopping trip on Saturday morning, my wife surprised me with interesting news. She’d been in the bedroom when she’s spotted a deer mouse climbing in the venetian blinds. She even had a picture.

While everyone else went out to do something fun, I stayed behind to cook Chile, the traditional superbowl meal.

Suddenly, the mouse went running by in the living room. It was a tiny one, a baby, a dinky Dinky. I ran after it, in vain, but then set the trap figuring maybe I’d get lucky.

Dinky Dinky was clearly lost, because he was running all over the place trying to find his way back to the nest. I spotted him a number of times, darting from bedroom to living room, from living room to my son’s room. I kept setting the trap in different spots, with no luck.

Finally, as I was putting my Chile on the stove, the little SOB ran right into the kitchen.

Now the kitchen was where we let Ozzy romp. Since hamsters love to escape and love to chew on walls, I’d protected the kitchen by placing wooden boards over any hole she might be able to get through, as well as over spots in the wall where she liked to nibble. I’d also closed off access to the area under the stove and the fridge.

So when dinky Dinky ran into the kitchen, I chased him into a corner by the fridge. He tries to go behind it, but was foiled by my protections. I had the little shit cornered.

I grabbed an empty pasta box and threw it down. The thing, seeing a possible way out, ran right in. Ha! Got him.

Like the others, he was driven away and set free.

But I was getting pissed, there seemed to be an unending supply. And in case you’re thinking the same mice were just coming back, I was following trap directions to the letter and driving them at least 2 miles away before releasing them.

I went on a mouse hole Jihad, finding any crack or seam one could get through and stapling wire mesh over it.

I set the trap Sunday night, assuming it would be empty Monday morning. To my shock, we not only had caught a mouse, we’d caught the biggest one of all. This thing was huge, easily twice the size of any of the others. This was it, the “boss” as they say in the video game lingo. I knew this had to be the last mouse.

I left the thing in its trap. We were going to release it later, when it suddenly started squeaking. This was something none of the others had done. Shane, my son, goes to see what’s happening and suddenly exclaims. “Oh my God, it had babies and it’s eating them.”

Thus the size of this large Dinky was explains. Not the big daddy, but the big momma. Five dead, pre-born baby mice lay on the tin floor of the cage, a sixth stirring weakly but clearly not going to make it. Momma mouse, with an insane gleam in her eye, was chewing on something red and bloody. A 7th baby, or maybe the placenta. I’m hoping for placenta because the other option just doesn’t seem right.

My wife freaked, and insisted I get rid of the horror at once.

Into the car and off to the park we went. The weather had turned cold again. When we got to the park, I set up a little nest for the momma mouse in the crack between some rocks. I even stocked it with Ozzy food. Yeah, I felt bad for her.

Then I opened the trap to let her go. Now the Have-A-Heart traps open at both ends, and for some reason, I opened both ends. Rather than hop out the far end into her new nest, momma mouse leapt out the close end, right into my open jacket.

She clawed her way up my shirt as I recoiled. I tried to shake her loose, but she found my sleeve hole and ran up into it.

I jumped up now, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to gesticulating and cursing a bit at this stage. I ripped the jacket off, and shook the goddamn creature out of my sleeve.

She didn’t want to go, hung on gamely, but finally relented and dropped softly to the snow. But instead of running away, she just sat there, staring up at us, the saddest expression I’ve ever seen a mouse convey on her face.

We’d trapped her, she’d delivered her babies prematurely, killing all of them, and now we’d taken her from her warm, cozy home out into the middle of nowhere. Worse, when she’d managed to find another warm place to nest, my jacket, I’d kicked her out of that as well.

At last she turned and ran off, ignoring the nest I’d built for her.

I’d gone through all this so I wouldn’t have to kill the mice, so I could feel good about ridding my apartment of pests. I didn’t feel good. I felt like shit. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

The only bright spot, my anti-mouse efforts worked, and she was the last we captured. Thank God. I don’t know how much more being humane I could have taken.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Serial Killler

Donald Harvey’s killing spree came to an end in 1987. It was a fluke. He’d poured cyanide into the feeding tube of a near-comatose patient who’d suffered massive brain injuries in a motorcycle accident. Ohio law dictates that anyone dying as a result of a traffic accident requires an autopsy.

In a second coincidence, the young pathologist who performed the autopsy on Harvey’s victim had training in chemistry. The assumption was the cause of death was pneumonia, a common occurrence in accident victims with major head trauma. The autopsy bore that out.

Until the stomach was opened and the rookie pathologist was overwhelmed by the smell of bitter almonds. Due to his background as a chemist, he recognized the smell immediately as cyanide. Toxicology tests were ordered and the results were conclusive. The man had not died as a result of pneumonia; he’d been poisoned.

Harvey was eventually fingered as the killer. While Harvey was in custody, an intrepid local reporter began gathering evidence that Harvey had committed more than that single murder. With pressure building, Harvey confessed that he had in fact killed more people, and was convicted of 33 murders, though the total number he dispatched was believed to be higher. Most of them were so-called “mercy killings,” but a few were of the decidedly non-merciful variety.

When a tenant living upstairs from Harvey’s lover, Carl, discovered that Carl was cheating him on a shared electric bill and threatened to call the police, Harvey poisoned him. A similar fate met a young woman who, rightly, accused Carl of embezzling money from a business where they both worked.

When Harvey began to suspect his lover was cheating on him, he poisoned him, slowly, with arsenic, not enough to kill the man, but enough to make him sick and keep him home and away from temptation.

When another lover, a married man with a wife and children, gave Harvey trouble, Harvey dispatched him as well.

On one occasion, when an elderly stroke patient threw a bedpan at Harvey, he retaliated a few days later by jamming a straightened coat hanger up the old man’s catheter, perforating both the man’s bladder and bowel. An infection set in, and the man died three days later.

They say that in the film business you get to go to all sorts of places and meet all sorts of people. This is true, because a little while ago, I met Donald Harvey.

As usual, the context was a shoot for a cable TV show about autopsies, specifically the autopsy that had led to Harvey’s arrest. We interviewed the pathologist who had caught that fateful whiff of poison, and we interviewed Harvey’s lawyer. All that left was Harvey himself.

I have to say. It feels weird to know you’re going to meet a man who killed so many people. The weirdest thing about the experience was how casual it was. We pull up at the prison, and walk into the visitor center where two jovial, constantly joking guards greet us. They ask us to sign in, and hold onto our IDs (“so we can identify the bodies later,” one quipped) then take a cursory look through our cases of equipment. (“CNN brought a whole load more ‘n this,” we learn.)

Another guard comes out with a big flatbed dolly for us and we roll inside the prison itself.

Inside we meet our media relations person, a terrific guy, who leads us to the interview room. We pass through a couple of those automated gates and go into one of the parole hearing rooms. Other than the bars on the window and the fact that every piece of furniture is bolted to the floor, the room is only remarkable because of how unremarkable it is.

We set up. I’m wondering if there are any guidelines: don’t run any cables or put any lights too close to where “Inmate Harvey,” as he is known, is going to sit in case he might decide to grab something and try to up his body count. But no one seems concerned. It’s just another shoot, except for the clanging of the big metal gates and the occasional announcements over the loudspeaker that “the count is clear.” (Prison talk for “All prisoners accounted for.”)

We’re finally ready and Inmate Harvey is brought in. No handcuffs, no leg chains, no hockey mask, no burly security guard with him (though a guard does stand ready outside the door).

As for Harvey himself, you could not ask for a more unassuming person to fill the role of serial killer. Harvey is in his 50’s, average height, average weight, average looks. The only thing remarkable about him is his quiet, delicate manner and his eyes, which are slightly crossed – the effect magnified by the thick glasses he wears. He’s very concerned with his appearance; after we put a lavaliere mic on him, running the wire down his shirt, he takes a long moment to make sure the shirt is tucked properly. As the producer applies powder to his face so his skin won’t shine on camera, he remarks, “We’d better not let the other inmates know I’ve got make-up on, or they’ll start chasing me around again, like they did when I was younger.”

We have exactly one hour with Inmate Harvey and get right to it. Our producer has no fear, asking him point blank why he killed and what it felt like to kill. I really wish I had something amazing to write about the interview, but other than the pure surrealism of sitting in a room and calmly and openly discussing the means by which Harvey disposed of his victims (“I used whatever methods were available to me at the time.”), there’s nothing much else to report.

We’d been warned that Harvey liked to fuck with people, find their weak spot and prod it like some cut-rate Hannibal Letcher. For example, sensing that a previous interviewer was homophobic, Harvey began describing his relations with some of his lovers in graphic detail, utterly freaking the guy out.

None of this is on display as we work through the list of questions. Harvey answers questions with long, rambling, self-defensive monologues that mainly argue that “he’s not the only one who did things like this,” blaming doctors and nurses for also putting patients out of their misery. As far as he was concerned, he was helping the people he killed, though I doubt the man who got the coat hanger up the catheter would agree.

The one time he shows any true remorse about what he’s done is when he tells the story of mixing cyanide to kill one of his patients. He did the work under the hood of his stove. The hood was blocked, and he sniffed some of the gas himself, throwing himself back from the work area to avoid killing himself.

Checking the vent outside, he discovered that vapors had escaped and killed a family of birds nesting near the vent outlet, including a number of babies. That, according to the man who’d taken the lives of so many people and shown almost no remorse or emotion, was “real sad.”

The only clue to Harvey’s evil is his eyes. His voice his soft, his manner is soft, but there’s something stirring behind those eyes, something vast and pulsing, a squirming horror from a Lovecraft novel.

His rambling, sometimes incoherent answers often lead the producer to ask him to rephrase. Since her questions will not be included in the interview, he needs to give his answers as complete thoughts. (The example we always give to interview subjects is: “If I ask you what your favorite color is, don’t say “red” say “my favorite color is red.”) This leads to the one truly remarkable moment in the interview:

Producer: How many people did you kill?

Harvey: (After a moment’s thought.) Eighty-seven.

Stunned silence. None of us had any idea the count was that high. But after a moment:

Producer: Okay, I need that again as a complete statement.

Harvey: Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot. (Clears his throat, folds his hands on his knees.) I killed eighty-seven people.

Ah, showbiz!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Five Second Nightmare

One and a quarter million people have been shot with a Taser. I’m one of them. This is how it happened:

I’m shooting for National Geographic Channel’s show Factory Floor with Marshall Brain. The show profiles how things are made, and for this particular episode, we’re in Arizona shooting at a tennis ball factory and the Taser factory.

When the team arrives at Taser, we are a mess. The first day of our two-day shoot was at Penn Tennis Balls. We spent 17 hours on the factory floor shooting hand-held with the Sony F-900, one of the heaviest video cameras currently available.

So we’re in pain. I’ve got a splitting headache from breathing tennis ball fumes and not drinking enough water the day before. Add in that one of the key features of the Taser factory is an ultrasonic welder, a machine that joins plastic parts by vibrating them so fast they fuse together. As it performs this particular trick, it emits a high-pitched squeal that makes your teeth scream. My headache gets worse until I’m pretty sure my skull is going to implode.

We suffer through the day to the part we’ve all been waiting for – the product demo. Our intrepid host, Marshall Brain, has agreed to be tased on camera. Now I'm one of those guys who got into the film business for adventure and new experiences. What is getting tased like, exactly? I feel the need to know. So if Marshall’s getting tased, hell man, I’m getting tased too.

The Taser guys tells us they’ll just tape the Taser probes to us, but Marshall is insistent. He wants to get shot with the damn thing. And if he’s getting shot, I’m getting shot. Our producer jumps on board as well, and so does the Production Assistant. We all want to “take the hit,” as they say in Taser parlance.

We set up downstairs in a conference room. My headache is really getting bad now. I’ve taken Advil to no avail. I am seriously hurting.

Marshall gets tased first. Two guys stand on either side, ready to grab him when he drops. A trainer stands behind with the Taser. (They shoot you in the back for safety reasons.) We roll cameras.

The trainer yells, “Taser, Taser, Taser,” and shoots Marshall. Marshall goes stiff as a board as the taser hits, his eyes roll up, and he gives a little “ohhhhwwwwwww,” as he is gently lowered to the floor by the men by his side. He is absolutely incapacitated, unable to do anything for those five seconds.

When the tasing ends, he looks up at the camera and gives a very concise report on the experience.

Then it’s my turn. For the fun of it, we’re going to be filming me getting tased as well.

I take my place on the mat. Terrified I might embarrass myself, I’ve invoked the “long car trip” rule and made sure to go to the bathroom first.

I can’t see the trainer with the taser, but I feel him behind me. I feel the goddamn thing pointing at me. My headache worsens, my brain boiling inside my skull.

Let me explain: up to this point, I thought the idea of getting tased was pretty cool. Even after watching Marshall suffer through it, I still thought it was cool. When people later ask me why I did it, I answer honestly: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now, with two people holding me, a guy pointing a Taser at my back, three freaking cameras rolling, and the whole room watching, I realize it was maybe not such a good idea after all.

But when the trainer asks, “Are you ready?” What am I going to say? “Forget it, I don’t want to do it?” Like I’ll ever live that down. So I suck it up. “Ready,” I yell, and what the hell, my voice barely quavers.

They ring the bells of doom. “Taser. Taser, Taser!” The trainer yells.

I hear the thing fire, a flat pop. I can hear the darts coming at me, actually hear them zinging through the air, hear the tiny little wires spaying out behind them, angry wasps seeking tender flesh. My tender flesh.

A momentary digression on how the Taser works: The Taser cartridge contains two barbed darts - think straightened fishing hooks - attached by very thin wires to a handgrip where the battery is. The darts, or probes as they are known, sink into your flesh, the barbs are there so the probes don’t pull out, and the wires carry an electrical charge into your body. The waveform of the electrical charge is designed to make every muscle in your body seize up. I have to tell you, before taking the hit, the thing I was most worried about was how they get those barbed probes out of your back. That, I figure, is going to hurt.

That bit of nastiness is forgotten as the probes find their target. The entry of these things feels like a double bee sting, only these are bee stings delivered on the end of a well-swung baseball bat. One hits me in the lower back, the other goes right through my belt and stabs me just above the right butt-cheek. The probes are maybe 15 inches apart.

I have only a moment to comprehend that violation of my being when the charge hits and some universal elevator cable is cut – an express trip straight to a fiery hell.

The first thing you feel is actually nothing. You have no idea what in hell is going on. The feeling is so outrageous, so unexpected, so outside of your experience, so just plain wrong, that you have no way to process it. That reprieve lasts for maybe a tenth of a second. Then you notice your entire body has gone stiff. I’m suddenly standing on tiptoes, every muscle straining. I can feel the current snapping from probe to probe with the muscles of my back between them providing the conduction medium.

I now fully comprehend how magnificently awful an idea getting tased was. Imagine ten million electric hyenas set loose in your body. Each of them has a muscle fiber in its slavering jaws, and all of them are tugging and ripping in different directions at once.

Now add in some intense heat. The spots where the probes hit turn painfully hot.

I can hear the Taser clicking away. It makes this weird noise, like a grandfather clock ticking at a supersonic speed. That’s got something to do with the way the charge switches between the two probes.

It hurts like hell, and I am maybe a second into the experience when all this comes clear to me. Four long seconds stretch out before me. A single thought runs through my mind: “What was I thinking?”

Unlike Marshall, who went down with nothing more than a long moan, I manage to get a few words out. They are, of course, all curse words. “Fuck!” I say through gritted teeth. “Motherfuck! Goddamn it, this really hurts!” I’m saying this as the guys lower me to the mat. I have no idea I’m being lowered to the mat. All I know is that one second I’m standing, the next I’m flat on my belly.

The pain goes on. It’s bad, but there’s something worse, a sense of wrongness that makes the experience truly awful. It is such an unnatural, terrible sensation, as if some horrible swarm of alien insects living inside you are now making a bid for freedom.

Finally, the clicking stops. Five seconds are up, and the Taser shuts down. The pain ends with the finality of a slamming door.

I feel insanely relieved. So relieved I just shout “wow, wow, wow” several times before my brain realizes I’m repeating myself. I look into one of the cameras taping me and explain the experience. The phrase “that fucking sucked” comes up a lot.

Now the probes have to come out, the part I feared the most. But after getting tased, they can rip barbed needles out of me all day, I don’t give a rat’s ass.

With the probes out and band aids in place, I stand up to get ready to film the next victim, our producer, as she takes the hit. As I move behind the camera I realize something wonderful.

My headache is gone.

The Taser cartridge I was shot with (you get to keep it as a souvenir)

Pointy, nasty things.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Land of Mean

I’m in Ohio with a small production team. We’ve just finished shooting a corporate video and are driving to the airport to fly the hell home. We’re on I-275, an interstate that circles Cincinnati. We’ve been warned that I-275 crosses both the Indiana and Kentucky state lines, and not to worry, keep following it and we’ll get to the airport.

Sure enough, we cross into Indiana. Our director has to use the ladies room, and we need to fill the rental car with gas, so I get off at the first exit advertising a gas station.

I can see right off the gas station is an odd affair. Most of the vehicles at the pumps are either rusting out, are pick-up trucks, or both. In the distance, some kind of multi-smoke-stacked power plant or factory spews what I hope are clouds of steam into the atmosphere. There’s a mini-mart attached to the gas station, which is not at all unusual, but next to the mini-mart - a pawn shop. That’s a new one on me. There’s a line of guitars hanging in the window of the shop, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

I fight off the urge to browse guitars and pump the gas, using our producer’s credit card to pay at the pump. I get the pump started, hand the card back, then fill the tank. But when I’m done and try to print a receipt, the machine ain’t working, and directs me inside.

Have to have a receipt, right? So I dutifully march into the store and ask for one. Unfortunately, I’m told by the cashier, who obviously has a less than regular relationship with her dentist, that I need the credit card to get the receipt.

No problem, I run back out into the parking lot, ignore the siren song of those guitars hanging in the window (after all, how in hell am I going to get a guitar home with me?) and get the credit card back.

Into the shop I go again, only now, magically, a line 12 people long has appeared at the register. Not only that, but everyone in line looks profoundly pissed off. Several of them are muttering curses under their breath. One particularly desperate looking woman bursts in through the door behind me, makes it a few steps into the shop, mutters “Oh, fuck this” under her breath, then bashes back out through the door.

That weird vibe I sensed before has been pumping iron. It’s like someone managed to distill hostility into an energy drink and these people have all just downed a six pack. That or it’s something in the white clouds those smokestacks are spewing.

A woman gets on line behind me--a particularly tough looking customer. Her age is indeterminate, but with the frown lines etched into her face and her lips pinched, she might as well have “don’t fuck with me” tattooed on her forehead.

I avoid her fires-of-hell eyes and survey the counter. Some local entrepreneur is selling his homegrown horror novels in a little display box set between the cheap cigars and what is perhaps the most dubious looking container of beef jerky I have ever seen. (And I’ve seen some pretty damn dubious containers of beef jerky in my days, let me tell you.) I pick one of the books up. Lots of nice blurbs on the back. One of them is attributed to the editor of “Horrow World Magazine.” Awesome spell-checking on that one. That or someone’s publishing a horror magazines for three year olds. I’m thinking of buying one, then see the price if 13 bucks.

I put it down and decide I want some candy instead. I’m a Peppermint Patty guy, but don’t see any. The nearest relative is Junior Mints. Okay, fine. But the Junior Mints are behind me, and behind the angry looking lady. I smile at her. “Excuse me a moment,” I say, implying as best I can that I’ll be taking my place in line back in just a moment. I duck around her, and seize a box of junior mints.

She promptly steps forward into my place in line. Her body language is clear. You move, you lose. I’m suddenly glad as hell she wasn’t my first grade teacher.

Okay, fine. She’s only got a pack of gum, no biggie. I fall in behind her, I’m not going to get in a tussle with her as she definitely has home field advantage and looks like she could break me in half with little more than an angry glance.

The line creeps forward. The door bangs open and that strange, desperate-looking woman darts in again. This time she makes it as far as the display stand of Ho-Hos before she mutters, “Oh goddamn him, goddamn him” and stalks back out again.

The line moves. The woman who was once behind me but is now ahead of me reaches the counter. She slaps her gum down with a gunshot crack, making everyone within 25 feet flinch.
Then she starts asking for something. Her voice is low and husky, three packs a day husky, a dry croak that sends shudders through my bones. “Ten on number 16, twenty on number 12, ten on number 1.”

I have no fucking clue what she’s talking about, until I notice the giant display of lottery tickets mounted above the counter. Each type of ticket is contained in its own little plexiglass box with a number on it. Number 16, for example, is a scratch off game with a top prize of $75,000, each ticket costing five bucks.

The higher payout tickets, the ones that could potentially net you a cool million, cost $20 a piece. I’m shocked—20 bucks for a fucking lottery ticket. Robert Heinlein once correctly stated that there are more optimists than mathematicians, but this is insane. I mean, how fucking optimistic is it possible for a Hoosier to be? Why not just set fire to that twenty, at least you’ll get some light and heat out of it? Clearly someone at the Indiana Lottery Commission has cojones the size of basketballs, plated in solid brass.

But back to the lady’s order. The cashier isn’t getting it. She thinks ten dollars on number 1 is an order for gas. She’s trying to punch it up on the pump when the runner up in the Little Miss Evil Pageant, 1962, hisses “No, goddamn it, I mean ten bucks of the number 1 ticket.” She reaches past me, (for a second I think she’s going to punch me) then raps her knuckles on the lotto display so hard the plexi shudders.

The clerk gets it, grabs a ticket for her. Another mistake. The woman glares harder, her voice hardens. “I said ten bucks, that’s two tickets, tickets are five bucks each. What the hell is wrong with you?”

The clerk scowls, but doesn’t retort. I glance behind me; everyone else on line is scowling as well, deeper scowls, as if feeding off the lady’s hostility. Menace gathers in the atmosphere; this place could break out in a bar brawl any second.

The door slams open again. Guess who? This time the desperate woman vanishes into the snack aisle, lost to sight, but still muttering loud enough the for the whole store to hear.
“Goddamn it, fuck, goddamn it, fuck.”

Evil lotto lady gathers up her purchases, shoots a closing “dumbass bitch” to the woman behind the counter, and huffs out, lottery tickets clutched in her sinewy fists that I somehow sense have strangled more than their share of kittens. I see her stop by her car and start scratching furiously at the tickets. The lottery may be, as a friend of mine calls it, “a tax on stupidity,” but I ain’t going to be the one to break the news..

My turn. I pay for my Junior Mints and get my receipt, being as nice as possible as I can be to the counter woman without offering to wash her car.

Then I flee. Fuck the pawn-shop guitars. Evil lotto lady is still scratching, and I sure as hell don’t want to be within fifty feet of this lady when she finds her scratch offs are all duds. I want out of this crack house, now.

We drive on, crossing briefly into Kentucky, finally reaching the airport and, hopefully, sanity.
We unload at the curb. I have one of my lighting cases with me, a big ass thing made of formed plastic, heavily padded to protect the fragile contents inside.

On the flight out it weighed in at 50 pounds, right on the nose to prevent an excess weight charge.

There’s a scale outside, next to the skycap station, so I check again just to make sure the case hasn’t been eating chocolate covered avocados and put on a few pounds. Yep, 50 pounds on the nose.

I head inside to the check-in machines. Now the curious thing is that I actually shot a corporate video for the airline we’re flying on when they first introduced these machines, so I know them inside out.

Yet as I stand there punching all the right buttons, one of the attendants comes over to “help.” Help, in this case, consists of hovering next to me, looking over my shoulder, a deep scowl on her face, telling me which buttons to press a micro-second before I press them. It almost becomes a game, me trying to get to the goddamn button before she can tell me what to do. I lose. She’s clearly a pro at this, lots of practice.

The weird thing is, as she instructs me, she doesn’t sound nice or happy about it, she sounds mad as hell that she has to stand there doing this. I don’t want to tell her she doesn’t have to help; she might be related to the lady at the mini mart.

I get checked in, then take my bag over to the counter for the checked-bag tag. The mean lady asks me to put it on the scale, and I dutifully do so.

“Oh no, we have a problem,” she tells me with barely disguised glee. “This bag is overweight.”
I look at the scale. 51 pounds.

She gives me this grin of evil satisfaction. “You’re going to have to take a pound out, or I have to charge you for an overweight bag.”

Okay, it’s one fucking pound. ONE FUCKING POUND. But there’s something in the air, this woman is pissed at me. I search my memory banks for some offense I might have committed. Did I date her in high school or something then take someone else to the prom? Do I look like her ex-husband? Does she think I’m the guy who backed his Hummer up over her dog? I mean, what the fuck?

I smile. “Weird,” I say. “The case weighed 50 pounds when I left New York, and weighed 50 pounds outside.” Then I make my crucial mistake. “Let me try it on this other scale.” I lift it and transfer it to the scale next to the one she was using. Yep, 50 pounds on the dot.

She scowls. Now I’ve done it. Instead of just humbly taking a pound of something or other out of the case and putting it in my carry-on bag, I’ve gone and proven her wrong. I can see the gears whirring behind those beady eyes. She wants me dead, skinned, and hung on the wall behind her, but the best she can do is charge me for something, anything.

She studies my case, thinking, then her eyes light up with slick malice. “Okay then,” she says. “I think maybe the bag is oversize.”

“Oversize?” I ask.

“Maximum luggage size is sixty-two inches, width, length, and depth combined.”

Now I’ve flown hundreds of times with equipment cases, to almost every state in the fucking union, on pretty much every airline still on this side of solvency, and I have never in all those hundreds of flights heard of an oversize bag charge. Overweight? Yep. Excess bags? Sure. But oversize? Nada. (Turns out this is true, airlines do have luggage size policies, written in blood on the human skin pages in a forbidden book stored in a locked vault a mile under the Vatican, but somehow this lady got wind and wants to be the first person in human history to invoke the policy.)

She spins from the counter, opens a drawer and grabs a fucking tape measure. I’m flabbergasted. Why does everyone hate me today? Did I accidentally wear my I’m From New York, So Fuck You, Hick tee shirt? No, pretty sure I left that at home.

She starts measuring the case. “Twenty-one inches wide, fourteen inches deep, and...” she takes her own goddamn sweet time, measuring the length, “thirty-two inches long.” She sounds like she’s handing down my sentence for multiple homicide. I add it up in my head and know I’m toast, but she’s got to do it the official way. She punches the numbers in on her computer and practically screams in triumph as it displays the results. “Ah hah! Sixty-seven inches.” She crosses her arms, grinning at me. “Five inches over the limit.”

I take a deep breath, one of those deep, cleansing types of breaths they talk about in Yoga classes. I have to get through this. I have to pass through the gauntlet of insane airline clerks and get on the fucking plane home. My one goal.

“Okay,” I say. “What now?”

She stares at me, not saying anything. I have no idea what to do. I get the sense she’s expecting me to just say screw this and leave the case behind. Maybe that’s her scam. Maybe there’s a room somewhere filled with oversize cases people have abandoned at her station. She then takes her booty and sells it at the pawn shop attached to that creepy gas station.
“The case is oversize,” she says again.

“And?” I prompt.

“It’s oversize.”

“So then...?”

She doesn’t say anything again. I want to scream. But I don’t. Screaming won’t work. I’ve worked for her airline; everyone on camera talked about how nice their employees were supposed to be. I’m with the one that didn’t get the memo.

We just stare at each other awhile, a standoff. I decide my only move is to smother her with politeness. She's made of Corbomite. Any hostility shown is only going to come back at me doubled. (That's a classic Trek reference for you young-uns. Google it if you're confused.) If I protest, she'd going to decide that the case is not only oversize, but the color clashes with the cargo compartment, entailing a bad interior design fee.

I take out my wallet, calm, steady. “All right, it’s oversize.” I say as kindly as I can. “How much is the oversize charge.”

She scowls in disbelief. She clearly wants a fight. Maybe she’s mad at someone and is taking it out on me, I don’t know, but she’s looking for a row and I’m not giving it to her.

But she doesn’t say anything. She won’t give me a fucking answer.

I remove my credit card and offer it to her. “Just put the charge on this.” My smile is so sweet you could spread it on toast.

She looks at me, at the case, then back at me, chin and lower lip twitching, then sighs. “Okay, I won’t charge you. This time.”

She slaps the routing tag on the handle. I do a quick check to make sure she’s sending it back to New York, and not to Port Au Prince. Then she makes a big deal about getting the other attendant to help her carry it over to the oversize belt.

I start to tell her the case has wheels and she can just roll it, but the look I get in return sends me scurrying.

I get the hell out of dodge before she changes her mind. I’m stunned. What in God’s name is wrong with these people? (And for the record, I looked it up, the stdard oversize charge is a whoppoing $175. That works out to $35 bucks an inch. )

Into the terminal I go and find my gate. Just before we board the plane, I decide I need a cup of tea. There’s a coffee shop nearby, so I trundle over and order a jasmine green.

Sure enough, my luck holds, the woman behind the counter fixes me with an evil stare, sighs as if I’m her deadbeat cousin who’s always mooching 20 bucks off of her, and asks in a voice that could not be more uninterested in the answer, “What size?”

“Medium,” I respond.

With another heaving sigh, she turns to fix my drink.

I thank her and pay. There’s a tip jar on the counter. By no valid metric known to man did this woman earn a tip from me, but you know what, I’m not gonna play that way. Sure she was surly, but fuck it, I put a buck of my change in the jar.

I don’t bother to see if this elicits any sort of positive reaction, because at this point I know it won’t. I’ve pretty much figured out that every other human on the planet is a raving asshole.
Lost in my misanthropic musings, I go to put some sugar in my tea, and as I remove the top, I knock the whole goddamn thing over. Every last drop of it spills out across the counter in a fragrant tide.

Fucking awesome. I dump the cup, and grab handfuls of napkins to clean my mess up. Then I have a decision to make. Do I really want to drop another two bucks on another cup of tea, or should I just forget it already.

Fuck it, I want tea. Back to the counter I go. “Could I have another jasmine green, please.”

“Why?” she demands.

I sigh. “Because I just spilled that one.” I shrug. “One of those days.”

She spins to the urns, makes another cup. I dig more money out. I’m holding it in my fist, ready to pay up, when she turns with the drink. Something’s changed. Maybe she heard the desperation in my voice, saw the plea in my eyes, but she’s not angry at me anymore. She’s almost smiling now, like the sun about to peek from behind the clouds. She hands me the cup, waves my money away. “You’re good, hon.”

That’s all it takes. Life is good again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The God of Sleep Hates Me

If you go into the film business, don't count on getting a lot of sleep. Sometimes it's work, sometimes its the 2am panic attack that keeps you staring at the ceiling all night, and sometimes it's the God of Sleep who's decided it'll be funny to watch you lurch around set the next day like a zombie.

Case in point, I'm working on an infomercial for a hair product. I don't find out until the day before the shoot that we're not at our usual studio in Northern, New Jersey, we are, in fact, at a different facility nearly a two hour drive from my home.

Call the first morning is 8am, which means dragging my ass out of bed at 5:15 to be ready to leave the house at 6:00. 5:15 isn't so bad. I've done plenty of shoots where I've had to get up at 3am.

I drive to set with a co-worker and we get ready to hit it. We need to light, get cameras positioned, and get the hell home. A standard day is 10 hours, so if we get it done in 10, we'll get back home in time to catch some Zs.

The God of Sleep doesn't want to hear that shit. Things start off badly, a clusterfuck snowball rolling down the mountain, growing as it pulls more snow up, building, building, building. First off, the director has a later call than the crew. This, of course, is insanity because without the director there to walk us through the shots, we have no fucking clue what we're doing. We start anyway, some general lighting we're pretty sure we're going to need.

When the director gets there we spend an hour or so dicking around with character placement, blocking, and so forth. We light our asses off, and by 2pm are in decent shape. Rehearse for an hour, do three more hours lighting, and we're home by 8pm.

God of Sleep says nay!

The rehearsal takes five fucking hours. By the time we get back to lighting we're already in overtime. We're not out of there until 10pm. This gets me home at midnight. I get my ass to bed as quickly as possible.

I nod off at maybe 12:30am. This is going to give me a fairly acceptable 4 and 3/4 hours of sleep. Not good, but liveable.

Here's the rub, and where the God of Sleep works his ironic magic. I live right next to a parkway. The parkway has a pair of overpasses no more than hundred yards from my front door. Low overpasses. It's a parkway, trucks aren't supposed to be on it. Yet every so often, a truck does get on, by accident, trying to take a sneaky short-cut, who knows, but they get on, and the signs indicating a lot bridge ahead are minimal at best. Not only that, but the overpasses come out of nowhere. As you cruise up the parkway, you come around this fairly sharp corner, and there, before you, is this hulking arch of solid stone.

When a truck hits an overpass, it's a pretty amazing sound. The first time you hear it you think some terrorist asshole finally got hold of a nuke and the apocalypse is upon you. The next few times you come awake in a limb thrashing panic convinced a small plane or helicopter is crashing in your kitchen. By the time it's happened a dozen times, you get kind of used to is and barely leap out of bed.

So 2:50am or so. Some hapless driver is cruising up the parkway maybe starting to wonder if he took a wrong turn or not. He comes around that corner and I can only imagine the terror in his heart as the overpass hoves into view, with no time to stop.

The result is an earth-shaking scream of metal and wood slamming into solid stone at 50 miles per hour. KAWHAMMMCRASHHHH. The sound throws me out of bed. I'm chewing on my own heart which has leapt for cover behind my teeth.

As I get my breathing under control, I realize what's gone down. Another fucking truck crash. I go to the window and take a look out. Not only a crash, but this one got stuck in the overpass.

Now usually I go out and take pictures of these truck crashes, I have a whole gallery of them. Here's a sample:

(This one hit at maybe 5am so the recovery operation lasted until dawn.)

But no pictures tonight, too durn late, too durn tired. (And to show you what a obsessive fellow I am, I actually feel guilty for letting this one get away and not going out to add it to my collection.) Unfortunately, as I try to get back to sleep, the crew that's been called to move the truck decides they have to rip it part piece by piece to get it unstuck. Lots of clanking, crashing and swearing. I am getting nowhere with the whole sleep thing.

I finally nod off again around 4am. I'm trying not to look at the clock, desperate not to let myself know how little time I have left to sleep before the alarm goes off.

Maybe 20 minutes after I've drifted back off to slumberland, the God of Sleep plays his final card. It's time to move the truck. Usually this involves nothing more ear shattering than the tow truck's engine revving as they tow the stricken truck a few hundred yards up the road to a spot where the shoulder is wide enough to move it off onto. Nothing an exhausted film dog couldn't sleep through.

This truck is different. To get it out from under the overpass, they've deflated the rear wheels. A big chunk of something is making contact with pavement, because when they start towing it, it drags, making the most ungodly rumbling, screeching noise you've ever heard. It's worse than the crash because it goes on, endlessly on, God's fingernails on the universal blackboard.

That wakes me up, and wakes me up good.

The dragging, well, drags on. And on. And on. The boys are taking their time, and it's ten minutes before the sound mercifully fades.

I stare at the ceiling. There is nothing left for me to do now but claim whatever scraps of sleep are left and try to make the best of it. I only hope the next day goes smoothly. It's not that much to shoot, no reason we can't get it done in 10 hours. Ten hours and a four hour commute I can handle on 2 hours sleep.

It's a lovely dream, but like all dreams, is vaporized by the bright light of morning. We work a bone-crunching 16 hours.

And the thing that really bother me? I didn't get a fucking picture.