“I can help the next person in line,” I said, and the next sorry bastard stepped forward with a stack of VHS tapes. “Great picks. You’ve got style.”
“I should. I’m an art director,” he said.
“No kidding? I’m an artist.”
“You should come over and see my collection.”
“Oh, that would be cool. I’d like that,” I said.
“When?” he asked, and he stared at me.
“Did you just ask me to come see your etchings?”
He was middle-aged, thinning hair, a little thick around the middle. He wasn’t dressed like an art snob but rather as a working man: dirty white tee and worn khakis.
“So where do you direct art?” I asked.
“That’s my dream job,” I said. I’d been fascinated by set decoration for at least twenty seconds.
“Give me your number. I’ll call you when I have something for you,” he said. I wrote my phone number on his receipt and he left.
He wasn’t the first gay man to flirt with me. Growing up I was a target for every boy or man in my small South Carolina town who had a desire to defy Leviticus. The line formed behind Creepy Daryl on the school bus and continued through Bobby, the arcade attendant who used to give me tokens in hopes of seeing my Q*Bert.
Maybe it’s like that for all boys, I don’t know. Men’s advances didn’t bother me unless they became too aggressive or came from friends. For the most part I found it flattering that someone showed an interest in me. Kindness is kindness.
This was new, though, this notion of flipping a little flirtation into a gig. I wasn’t game for going to the dude’s apartment, but if a little sweet talk got me some movie work in an an art department so be it.
He called a couple of weeks later. “It’s just a day’s work, but it’s a TV movie with George Peppard.”
“The A-Team guy?”
“That’s so cool. What’s the gig?”
“You’ll be an art department assistant. Can you meet at the Cineramadome at 6 tomorrow morning? We’ll caravan to the location from there.”
“I’ll be there.” I set my alarm for 5:30 and tried to sleep, visions of Peppards dancing in my head.
The phone rang. “I’m on my way,” I shouted, and then I woke up enough to see the clock: 6:45. I threw on some clothes and sped to the Cineramadome. John and a crew of four guys glared at me. “Sorry, my alarm didn’t go off.”
“Let’s just go,” John said. We drove to San Pedro and found the flurry of activity that marked a movie set: the trucks and lights; the tables of snacks; the truck drivers sitting on their asses; the stressed out assistant directors running around. I followed John to a white moving truck.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked. “Do you need me to paint some backdrops or something?”
John rolled up the big door on the back of the truck. The cargo bay was packed floor to ceiling with oak shipping pallets. He pointed to a wooden dock off in the distance. “Take all of these down to that dock and stack them like it’s a working dock.”
“What do you mean?”
“Make it look like On the Waterfront.”
Those of you who have never been fancy pants assistant art directors may not be familiar with the pallet jack, an unholy sort of manual forklift with metal wheels. The wheels are steel because a stack of pallets weighs about the same as those twins on minibikes in the Guinness Book of World Records. I, on the other hand, weighed a buck forty-five and subsisted on refried beans and ramen noodles, neither of which I managed to eat in my panic to get out the door.
I jammed the forks into the first stack of pallets, lowered the lift gate, and rolled toward the dock. Down the sidewalk wasn’t too bad, but when I hit the wooden gangway the steel wheels stuck in the cracks between the floorboards. I pulled the pallet jack back to the sidewalk, turned it around, and pulled it down the gangway board by board: pull, move, stick. Pull, move, stick….
I spent the next six hours emptying the truck. My feet blistered. My body shook. My face and arms reddened in the sun, but it was done.
George Peppard emerged from his trailer. A makeup assistant added some finishing touches and an assistant director fussed over him as he walked down the gangway. The camera crew got into position, and George hid behind one of my dozens of stacks of pallets.
“Action!” The director yelled. George peeked from behind the pallets, came out revolver first and crept around the dock. “Cut! That’s perfect. Let’s get one more for safety.” George did it again, and the director said, “Moving on.”
“Okay,” John said to me. “Load them back up.”
I would have cried, but I had neither the fluids nor the energy. Pull, move, stick, then up the hill to the truck, over and over until it was full. We said our goodbyes there in San Pedro, and John never offered me another gig. I never saw the finished movie, but I bet my pallets looked fantastic.
As a veteran of the Shipping and Receiving department of a small-to-mid-sized business, I am quite familiar with the pallet jack. Hard to believe I was actually qualified to be the assistant art director on the set of On the Waterfront.
You coulda been a contenda!