A Knuckle Sandwich and a Side of Steroids Please

It was in the time of eighteen hour days and all-nighters. Just starting out in the film business, the concept of benefits, unions, or overtime, was just a fantasy. The pay was horrible. But I would get a credit!

It would have been a sweatshop if I was operating a sewing machine, instead of a moviola. It was still a sweatshop.

The job was down in Venice, at a B-movie studio conjured out of a defunct lumber yard. I was up all night cutting sound effects for a bad sci-fi movie. I had just completed editing the grisly sounds of our hero removing a potato sized tumor from his buddy, without any pain killers. They were on a spaceship.

I was proud of my work. But I felt like I had operated on myself.

The producer would come through and lay off a few editors, every week or so. I would get laid off. A few days later, I’d get the call and come back in. It just put us behind schedule. Thus the all-nighters, effectively halving the pay for the same amount of work.

When it was all over, I received the ‘recidivist award’ for the most rehires for a single show.

My sister-in-law expressed concern at my lack of rest. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” was my ‘witty’ response. She didn’t laugh.

This particular day, I was running on empty. I needed food. I needed sleep.

I walked down to the Venice roundabout where there was a health food store. I could use some healthy food. Sunlight and air would perk me up. Maybe they could super-size about eight hours sleep for me.

Walking past Gold’s Gym, I thought, ‘I bet everyone there eats at the health food store. They must be really healthy.’ I was hallucinating.

Inside, a line of customers waited to order food. It was cool, quiet, and dimly lit. Sometimes everyone would shuffle a couple steps toward the counter. I hoped to eat before I fell asleep.

On either side of us, were display tables filled with inviting, plump, fresh fruit and vegetables, everything that was in season. I wanted to lie down on those nice, organic heads of lettuce for a snooze.

People would come in from the beach, laughing and horsing around. Their laughter was jarring.  Everyone waited patiently.

The guy in front of me was from the gym. He had pimples up the back of his neck and a shaved head. His sleeveless shirt revealed all his muscles gained from pumping iron. He looked really strong, but could he tie his shoes? I think he was grass fed.

One of the beach kids shoved a friend, who then bumped into someone else. Like sweaty dominos, each person in line accidentally bumped into the person before him. When I got nudged, I almost caught my balance, but then bumped into Mr. Pumper.

I apologized.

Enraged, he turned on me. His fist shot out and hit my shoulder, knocking me backward. I held up my hands, attempting to appease him. “Hold it, man! I said I was sorry.”

He charged, head down and roaring. Had we been outside, he would have tackled me. I would have been down and it would be over. Instead, we crashed into the vegetable display, which collapsed and sent fruit and vegetables everywhere. Outclassed, I put him in a headlock and hung on. He reared back and swung me around. My feet left the floor. Everyone scattered.

I felt like one of those rodeo clowns. Not the real clown, but one of the stuffed decoys that the bull tramples after ripping it to pieces.

Everyone was yelling to stop. Finally, the guy calmed down. I let go. He gave me a dirty look and then got back into line. I was dazed and disheveled.

Then everyone else got into line, as if this happened all the time. Just a normal day at the health food store.

I ate my flavorless sandwich in the park.

Back at work, everyone asked me what happened. Did I get into a fight? I told them “that health food store has a pretty rough clientele. Those sprouts really pack a wallop.”

Car Flipping & Car Stripping

How difficult is it to flip a car? Success at this dubious endeavor might best be achieved with training. You don’t want to depend on happenstance in such matters.

However, I once climbed to the crow’s nest of the pirate ship in Tampa Bay, just in time to see some guy lose it on the Bay Drive. I’ve never seen a better triple flip, even in the movies. He was airborne. I wished I had a camera. Nothing bounces quite like a car. It was spectacular.

And amazingly, everyone walked away from it. Pretty good, for an amateur.

Then, the time my boss’s daughter wrecked the company van. She hit a telephone pole, twenty feet above the pavement. How did she do that? Luckily, she was unscathed.

They always call it an accident, but I think you almost have to be trying. It isn’t that easy.

Driving on ice takes a particular skill. In high school, a friend hit an ice patch just as we entered the first bend of a dog leg at the base of a hill. That ’58 Caddy spun 180 degrees and miraculously didn’t collide with anything. We just drove back up the hill, turned around, and tried again.


“Hang on!”

What a way to wake up. I rolled onto the floor in the back of the old Buick. All I could see was a spray of mud, sod and uprooted trees flying by.

We slid to a stop. Upright. We didn’t flip. Life is full of surprises when driving 70 mph, in a snowstorm.

Just hours out of Minneapolis, heading east, it was Easter break. My friend Paul and I were accompanying our high school buddy, Jim, to New York City for an acting audition. Paul and I had no agenda, except to not get arrested, or killed. So far, so good.

Jim got the car going again, slammed it into drive and, followed by a rooster tail of mud, we made our way off the grassy meridian and back onto the freeway.

It’s embarrassing to go careening off the freeway like that. I didn’t sign up for a demolition derby.

When we got to Newark, we stopped at a pay phone to call his cousin Ed for directions. Jim repeated them, I wrote and read them aloud, as we drove. We turned right and passed a cluster of young scholars, stripping a car.

We were driving in circles. We passed the group again. They watched us as we drove slowly by, watching them.

We were lost, and the natives did not look friendly. The third time we drove past, the car was abandoned. That club of Future Mechanics of America didn’t know who they were dealing with. Hah!

We found our way to cousin Ed’s three story townhouse. Bars were on all the windows, including the third floor. One of us guarded the car as we unloaded. Ed also had us remove the car’s battery, and bring it inside. Ed was not paranoid. It’s hard to steal a car with no battery.

Before taking the train into ‘the city,’ Ed’s wife fried up a monumental breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Every time I cleaned my plate, she doubled the serving. Our trio must have consumed two dozen eggs and at least as many pancakes. She only stopped cooking when we left the table.

The park near the subway station was festooned with graffiti, compliments of a group identified as the ‘Pythons’. I don’t think they were the ‘Monty Pythons’.

That night we saw a concert at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. Emerson, Lake & Palmer headlined. The bands, It’s a Beautiful Day, and Curved Air warmed up. Amazing show.

We got back late. Ed picked us up at the station, saving us a walk through ‘Python Park’. He took us on his personal tour, indicating the points of interest in the historic city of Newark; where a politician’s body was found, the mob bar, the front, the bridge built with inferior concrete, where so-and-so was murdered, where what’s-his-name was kidnapped… All the touristy spots.

We hit the road again, north to Montreal, a most beautiful city.  We re-entered the U.S. at the upper peninsula of Michigan with only a small hang-up over having no proof of citizenship. Who brings birth certificates?

A week into the trip, we were on two lane blacktop. Paul drove while Jim slept in the back. Spotting a gas station, Paul hit the gravel drive too fast and lost traction. We yelled “Hang on!” The car slid sideways and landed in the narrow ditch, hung up at each end by the bumpers. All four wheels hung free, like in a cartoon. With no ladder handy, we had to jump to the ground.

But we didn’t flip the car.

Occupants of the nearby tavern emerged to offer advice on our predicament. “Looks like you overshot the turn.” “Could you do that again?” “Planning on staying awhile?” “You can’t park there, you know.”

With the tow truck driver paid, the gas tank filled, and the car undamaged, we resumed our journey home. No one died. We kept tires on pavement, the rest of the way home.

Smoke gets in Your Eyes

“Nobody inhales! That would be insane.”

Having heard about firefighters succumbing to smoke inhalation, I felt it was too obvious that smokers couldn’t be inhaling. Why would they do that?

I like the smell of tobacco. The rituals accompanying it attracted me. My Mom would have a friend over for Folgers coffee. I would listen as they talked, and watch the languid stream of smoke rise like a cool clarinet solo. Then, that ethereal jazz dance would agitate and disperse into cooler air currents. Still, tobacco’s allure was a mystery.

My parents were away for the weekend. My friend Toby and I conducted an experiment on “why people smoke?” The results would be anecdotal at best. And our procedures wouldn’t pass the most basic of musters. But we were dedicated guinea pigs, seeking the truth about smoking.

It was in the news. The surgeon general spoke out about tobacco giving you cancer.

Everyone smoked.

Something had to be done. I was ten.

My folks smoked Pall Malls, in that very distinctive red pack. This was before filters were introduced. I filched a pack from the carton and met my friend at the abandoned culvert amidst the tall grass and cattails. Redwing blackbirds sang their song.

Divvying up the cigarettes, we discussed inhaling. It just made no sense to me. How could anyone do that on purpose? No evidence supported it. That would be crazy.

We lit up and attempted sophistication, mimicked smoker’s mannerisms, flicked ashes like pros, adopted tough guy attitudes, and practiced blowing smoke rings. It was a mystery.

After furiously smoking ten cigarettes, (but not inhaling), it remained obscure to me. What was the attraction?

Not long after that, my Dad quit. He said he was having lunch in a restaurant, when a man came in wearing a breathing tube and pulling an oxygen bottle behind him. “I won’t do that,” he said. And he quit cold.

My brothers and sister each took up smoking. After cajoling our parents to quit, they all heard the call.

I would flirt with it, but never let it become a habit. I didn’t want to take orders from a cigarette. I rolled my cigarettes to think about each one, rather than just lighting up another, and another, unconsciously. How many people blow through a pack and don’t even remember it?

‘Drum’ rolling tobacco was my brand. It was quality, aromatic, flavorful, shag, tobacco. I sound like a commercial.

After graduating from college, I went camping in Glacier National Park with my friend Paul. One evening, the neighboring tent was occupied by two women from the Netherlands.

Our foreign visitors kept exclaiming they were “scared of the beers!” After a few minutes puzzlement, we factored in their accents and realized it was the ‘bears’ from which their terror arose, not a bad case of Budweiser. They were terrified by the warning signs posted depicting the ferocious grizzly bears lurking in the forest.

The American grizzly cares nothing about Walt Disney. And Hanna Barbara’s Yogi Bear was nowhere to be found. Grizzlies are truly scary. Not one is named Whinny.

Desirous of exhibiting good old American hospitality, and of an opportunity to promote healthy habits of diplomacy and foreign cultural exchange, Paul and I did our best to salve their fears.

Initially we feigned bravado and spoke grandly about the bears being more afraid of us, than we of them. Wisely, they didn’t buy it.

Taking advantage of the language barrier, Paul made silly puns at their expense such as, “the saucy natives of the Netherlands are referred to as ‘the Hollandaise’”, going dutch, and vague references to Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ‘bear’ for love. It was embarrassing, really. I wouldn’t have done that.

Then I hit upon the fact that bears are afraid of fire. I pulled out my rolling tobacco to defend against any rampaging grizzlies. When they saw my pouch of Drum, the women started exclaiming excitedly, “Droom! Droom!” It turned out Drum was manufactured in the Netherlands and was their leading brand. I became an instant hero.

Common ground was established. Cultural barriers melted away, and soon, a pungent haze of fine tobacco smoke rose lazily from the tent, while we chattered the night away.

The bears knew to keep their distance. And a mystery was solved.

Let’s Pretend!

I liked pretending. It was one of my favorite games as a child. It led to my wanting to be an actor.

The few times I was on stage, when a kid, fed an increasing appetite for attention, applause and adulation. Once awakened, the ego becomes insatiable.

In first grade, a magician chose me to be his ‘swami’ at a school function.  I stood there in a floppy silk hat so he could have an unwitting straight man. I was stage struck!

Then, for a skit at a summer camp, I was cast as the patient receiving an operation in a vaudevillian style Frik and Frack routine. It was written by my Dad and a friend of his and packed with as many puns as can fit into a two minute scene. Throughout, I could only think of my blackout line and so giggled uncontrollably during the whole skit. I was so thrilled to be on stage, it was the high point of my summer.

By the time I was cast in a middle school musical, I was a veteran walking the boards. The rest of the cast were a bunch of amateurs. Cast as the hunchbacked villain Dick Deadeye, in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” my solo was delivered in a perfectly monotonic snarl.

My burgeoning career hit the skids on entering high school and encountering a genuine theater department. I couldn’t get cast in anything. Maybe they saw something I didn’t, lack of acting talent. Still driven, I became a techie, ran the lighting board and built sets.

I had a bird’s eye view the night the director thought it would be funny to juice the explosive charge at the close of one act. Blowing up a child actor is frowned upon in those parts. That director’s contract was not renewed. The actor survived with minor burns.

I realized that I would never get cast for a play after one drama class exercise. We were to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy as an animal of our choice. Struck by the “sleep, perchance to dream” line, I thought the perfect animal would be a three toed sloth.

I lowered a lighting bar and draped myself on it, feigning drowsiness while doing the assignment. The instructor was not amused. He thought I was criticizing the assignment. I can see that.

In my defense, my sloth had more metaphorical integrity than the whole parade of cats and dogs presented by the other students.

When we moved and I changed schools, I became that school’s theatrical wunderkind. I acted. I wrote. I directed. Well, ‘directing’ is a term too grandiose to use with a straight face.  I’ll confess that I was responsible for what happened on stage.

I saw this avant-garde play performed brilliantly. They made it look so easy. I had to do it. It was hilarious! What could possibly go wrong?

If you must know, friends with no interest in acting joined the cast as a favor to me. And I had no memory for dialogue. This was the point at which I knew unequivocally that I was not an actor.

The play was aptly named, “Out at Sea”. No one could remember their lines. Combining scenes and rearranging liberally, we rewrote and ad-libbed, stumbling around like a troupe of buffoons lost in a house of mirrors. Meanwhile, the poor girl who volunteered to prompt us from off stage, panicked and ran down the hall in tears of despair. Those were the days.

We did get applause when it was over, especially for the fact that it was over.

Over the years in Hollywood, I appeared on camera very occasionally as an extra or as a double. When working in post-production, I built a modest reputation for my ability to portray the voices of robots and time bombs, counting down, blithely unconscious of the fact they were about to explode. I worked all the time.

The only other acting, ‘of note’ that I participated in was at an improve/comedy club in Minneapolis known as Dudley Rigg’s E.T.C. A friend of mine from high school, Jim Monitor, was staging Aristophane’s “Lysistrata” concurrently with the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Oedipus, the King”. Dudley and Jim hired me to be the stage manager. We wrote some silly songs together. And I wrote a couple of supplementary scenes (just to punch it up a bit).

But the thrill was to appear briefly as Tiresias, the blind seer from “Oedipus,” who, being blind, accidentally wanders onto our stage by mistake. Wrapped in a blanket and pinned with a smile face button, I delivered Tiresias’ opening lines from “Oedipus”. One of the soldiers then ceremoniously turned my character around (a’ la Laurel and Hardy), and booted him off the stage.

That was my most successful role. I was an actor!