I was shelving books at Shakespeare & Company Booksellers in New York City when I failed the State Bar Exam for the third time. The paparazzi did not stalk me like they did when John F. Kennedy, Jr. failed the bar exam, but I did have to tell my Czech immigrant parents, my live-in girlfriend, my close friends, and eventually even myself. What I told myself was this: It’s no big deal, I never wanted to be a lawyer anyway.
It was my fifth month at the bookstore, and despite a fifty-cent raise (from $5.25 to $5.75 per hour) and being appointed the official alphabetizer of the philosophy section (from Aristotle to Slavoj Žižek), I expected to be elsewhere. The year was 1996, and I was twenty-seven years old. Kurt Cobain went down at that age, and yet I was startled when I, too, found myself in a place called nowhere.
At Shakespeare & Co., I discussed my problems with Ian Zaretsky, a law school graduate and aspiring writer who put out a sporadic samizdat humor zine called Eat This. Zaretsky, built like an English Bulldog, often stood precariously on the fifth rung of a wooden ladder placing magazines into overstock. From this high-altitude perch, he’d bark words of wisdom in his hoarse Bronx accent, “Now that’s the right attitude! Guys like you and me, we don’t want to be lawyers. We want to be writers! Hey René, while you’re down there, could you hand me that stack of Modern Bride.”
It became a tradition. Ian stood atop the ladder; I handed him overstock magazines. He liked to refer to me as his personal assistant. It gave us the opportunity to talk man-to-man, lawyer-to-lawyer, writer-to-writer. But was I a lawyer? Although Ian and I had both disavowed the law as a profession, there was still one great difference between us: he had passed the Bar. I had not.
The degree of Juris Doctor entitled me to place a JD at the end of my name. But what do the letters JD mean if the doorkeeper who stands before the Law refuses to let me in? Jumbo Dunce? Junkyard Dog? I was a “Doctor of Law” admitted nowhere. I needed to be somewhere.
At the bookstore I tried to forget about the law. The uptown Shakespeare, located on the Upper East Side, sold books to an eclectic crowd: Hunter College students in puffy Northface jackets and Jansport backpacks rubbed up against mink furs and Prada handbags. One afternoon, Whoopi Goldberg came into the store looking for a biography of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950s television series. I asked Whoopi if she knew the biographer’s name. She looked me straight in the eye, furrowed her brow, and laughed, “I hate when they ask that! You the Evil Man!”
Yes, Whoopi, I am the Evil Man.
A few days later, Zaretsky took a phone call requesting that we hold all copies of the Paris Review issue # 138. Fifteen minutes later, George Plimpton walked in like Andy Warhol, his shock of white hair disheveled. It struck me odd that the editor of the Paris Review wanted to buy his own journal. Nonetheless I asked Plimpton, “Are you here for the Paris Review?” He nodded yes, paid Zaretsky at the register, and disappeared out the door.
Around that time Zachary Levy joined our staff. Zack sported a ragweed goatee and thick lenses with severe black plastic frames that screamed, “I am a filmmaker!” A sheepskin hat covering his ears gave the impression that he was a Tartar wandering the streets of New York City. In the mornings, he invariably showed up late, and, without fail, his hair was sculpted into some sort of accidental Johnny Suede pompadour.
I imagined taking a series of black and white headshots of Zack with my second-hand Nikon FM that I bought for $330 from an Orthodox Jew at Adorama Photo in Chelsea. My high art idea was to exhibit the photographs under the title: Zachary’s Hair. However, I soon learned that there were aggravating factors to Zack’s superfreak hair that went beyond Tartar hat-head.
Zack, a bookseller by day, was a grip at night—all night. After a film shoot, he rarely got more than an hour or two of sleep, rolled out of bed, realized he was late for his bookstore shift, left hair as is, and bolted out the door.
Zack explained to me why grips are called grips: “Grips grab things,” he said, showing his open hand, slowly clenching it into a fist, “and they move these things from one place to another.” Zack insisted that if I was persistent enough, I too could become a grip.
I scoured the production list put out by The Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. A film entitled 1999 caught my eye; an outfit called Vinegar Productions was shooting it. I faxed the company my “grip résumé”, which listed such things as how I worked at my old man’s machine shop on Long Island. I figured if I could “grab” stainless steel rods and tubing of varying lengths, I could handle anything.
My phone rang: a spunky female voice on the other end told me that while there was no pay (for me), I could report to the shoot in the West Village as an intern.
“What’s the film about?” I asked.
“It’s about a group of friends who get together on New Year’s Eve, in 1999, after not seeing each other for ten years. Each of them is going through an existential crisis,” she said.
“Sounds cool,” I said.
“And maybe, in addition to gripping, you could give us some legal advice if something comes up,” she said, with a giggle.
“What’s that?” I asked, confused.
“Legal advice, you went to law school. You’re a lawyer,”
“Uh... yeah... sure, maybe,” I mumbled lamely.
The following Saturday, at 6:30 am, I wandered the desolate streets of the West Village. I bought a cup of coffee at a bodega, and then I searched for the improbable intersection of West Eleventh Street and West Fourth Street. The coffee cup declared that I loved New York…well, maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Then something unexpected happened: I stopped being me.
As the caffeine coursed through my veins I experienced what Spalding Gray called the “perfect moment.” I felt no fear. I disappeared into the labyrinth of the city, and was absorbed by it…a thought without a thinker. I was not in the city, I was of the city…the superconsciousness of brick and asphalt and concrete and steel. Everywhere a profound solitude, and then...I was me, again.
I stumbled onto the four-story orange brick rowhouse almost by accident: located on West Eleventh between Bleecker and West Fourth, this was where the film was being shot. I sat down on the cold stone steps, and nervously sipped away at my cup of joe. What was I doing here? I entertained thoughts of walking away. Somehow I gathered up enough nerve to knock on the door. Two perky blondes answered the door and escorted me to the DP on the third floor.
The DP (Director of Photography) was wearing a cordless headset and microphone. He looked like a football coach. I told him my name. He told me to report to Michael, the Key Grip, on the first floor.
As I descended the stairs of the Federal-style townhouse, each floor was teeming with gaffers and grips. Each room was labeled with its respective shot sequence. Lights of varying size and wattage were lugged from one room to another as technicians shouted strange words to one another like “Inkie” (translation: 250 Watts), “Tweenie” (600 Watts), “Baby Baby” (1000 Watts), “Baby Junior” (2000 Watts), “Beefy Baby” and “Rinky Dink.” As I passed by a small bathroom, two guys with electrical tool belts and long black Metallica hair were suspending high-wattage lamps from the ceiling above the bathtub.
On the first floor, I introduced myself to Michael, the Key Grip, who looked a lot like Mikhail Baryshnikov. Soon he had me cutting wooden dowels on a circular saw. As I made each cut, I pondered the liability in the event of an injury. I tried to suppress my lawyer thoughts, telling myself that I was, de facto, an unpaid grip.
Another grip named Isabel took my wooden dowels and with remarkable skill and dexterity she attached them to the lighting rigging. With a French accent she told me she was a film student at NYU. Isabel wore a leather tool belt over lightweight stretch dungarees. I wore a black T-shirt, Doc Martens, torn jeans, and had the bewildered face of an amateur.
I ran out of wood roundstock to cut, so Michael sent me to take $20 from the petty cash box to buy more at the local hardware store. I stopped at Brewbar, a café along the way, and ordered a latte. I sat down, sipped the steaming java, and tried to experience yet another perfect moment…I waited, and waited, but it never came. Instead, I grew increasingly anxious, even frustrated, so I kept walking.
The neon-orange storefront of Garber’s Hardware, established in 1884, occupied the ground floor of a five-story tenement near the corner of Horatio and West 4th Street. Large block letters on the outside say what’s inside: keys, bolts, screws, shades, glass, plastic, security, gates, locks, tools. I stepped into a maze of densely stocked hardware. In Manhattan, every square centimeter counts, and it counts big time…it means turning a profit or not. I hate asking for things, but because the locus situs of merchandise is top secret, I had no choice.
Back at the townhouse I gave Michael the materials, the change, and the receipt. He seemed quite pleased, even surprised, that I had purchased the proper diameter of wooden rod. A brunette walked in and asked Michael what he thought about the results of the presidential election from the previous night.
“Another four years of nothingness,” he responded, resuming his work with a hot glue gun.
I told Michael I had to go to my bookstore job. He said OK, and encouraged me to come to the night shoot on Monday night.
The night shoot was at The Kitchen, a performance space on West 19th Street converted from an old icehouse built in the 1880s. When I walked in, the film crew was wolfing down donuts and coffee. It seemed like everyone knew each other since kindergarten, or at least from previous films. I grabbed a cup of joe and sipped it at the edge of the crowd. I smiled politely at inside jokes, but before nostalgia carried me away, a woman in headphones broke up our circle of friends. At exactly 7 p.m., she demanded that all grips prepare for the first scene.
Several rows of aluminum shelves were set up to resemble a video store, with one aisle requiring lighting from above. Michael, the Key Grip, grabbed a special ladder that allowed him to dangle in the air inverted like a vampire bat. All the grips (except me) handed him assorted equipment. I felt like a foreigner in a strange land, listening to a language that I did not understand…I didn’t speak grip. The woman in the headphones shot me angry bulldog looks, like I was a slacker. I walked over and told her that I was just an intern. She shrugged her shoulders, so what?
I grabbed one of the telescopic steel devices, but I couldn’t figure out how to “extend” it to its full length. Another grip named “Stogie” (perhaps not his real name) showed me the trigger-release mechanism. But by the time I mastered it, Michael was down from the ladder and the gaffers were called in to set up the lights.
The lighting was finished; lamps were tested; light readings were taken; actors stepped on; actors rehearsed; then the director, Nick Davis, walked on in full-length black leather jacket; the cinematographer set the aperture, zoomed in…Action!
The ten-second scene: a young couple browses through a video store and the man accidentally drops one of the video boxes onto the floor.
All that work for ten seconds? I thought, deflated. Someone behind me whispered that the sequence was shot in Super Slo Mo. The film’s cast included two unknown actresses, Jennifer Garner and Amanda Peet.
The crew broke down the set. All the equipment had to go upstairs for the next scene—a nighttime roof shot. As I lugged a telescopic steel light-stand up the staircase, I pretended that I was a refugee uprooted from my homeland, carrying only life’s essentials.
Once I reached the rooftop, I gazed in awe at the 360-degree panorama that surrounded me: the neon-blue of a nearby clock tower, a tugboat on the Hudson, clusters of man-made light like an exploding star. I was having a Super Nova of the senses. Giant open-faced lamps lit the rooftop, projecting wide beams of light particles into the blackness of the sky. In the windows of brick buildings near and far, thousands of bare electric bulbs ignited, burned, and expired like fireflies on a summer night. I descended the stairs and disappeared into the night without telling a soul. I walked the dark damp streets of Chelsea alone.