an excerpt from my new book of stories with dogs in them
(all leads on potential publishers are welcome)
So it’s 1985 and I’m twenty-one years old but I haven’t yet realized I’m no longer a child. I’m grabbing whatever work I can get to support my twin habits, marijuana and stand-up comedy. A friend leaves a message on my answering machine and it’s 1985 so I have to rewind a micro-cassette tape to hear what’s been said. The recording of my friend says, “There’s an extra gig you’ll want to do. Trust me. Get there early tomorrow. Like six a.m. early. People will be lining up and I think they’ll only take the first fifty or so.”
Now, I’m a trained actor. I have a brand new degree from college that says so. Plus I have skills. I’ve studied Alexander Technique and stage combat. I’ve developed breath control and physical flexibility. I don’t take jobs as an extra. I work intermittently as a Production Assistant making about the same amount that I would make as an extra and earning about the same amount of respect, but extras – called “atmosphere players” to make them seem less wholly dehumanized – are the very lowest rung on the production ladder. They’re not on the lowest rung. They are the lowest rung, the thing on which those on the lowest rung stand.
Still, my friend tells me it’s a hundred and fifty bucks for anyone who gets in on the job and in 1985 that’s a decent bag of grass and a lot of subway trips down to the IMPROV in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve got nothing on for the day. Plus, there’s something about the way this friend left the message, something breathless, something conspiratorial, something that says, “This is serious. You want to do this.”
The address is just over in New Jersey, so I take an early morning bus and because I’m neurotically punctual I’ve left enough time that I get there just after five fifteen and I’m the first one there to be an extra. This is a small shoot. I wonder if it’s a commercial. Two cube trucks, one with all the lights and camera equipment in it. One hasn’t even been opened yet.
I locate an assistant director, recognizable by the status symbol of a hand-held button mic on a spiral wire running from the walkie talkie at his belt to the epaulette of his Banana Republic linen safari shirt. Production Assistants and DGA trainees get walkie talkies. Only Assistant Directors get the wired mic’s that allow them to turn their heads and talk into their shoulders instead of pulling the radio from the holster every time.
I tell the A.D. that I was told to get here early to be on line to be an extra. He tells me to wait by the door of the bar. That’s what the address is. It’s a bar on a street in New Jersey with two cube trucks parked around the side of it and people loading in film-making equipment from one of them. I ask if they can use a hand. He tells me to go wait by the front door. I explain that I’ve been a P.A. on a bunch of films. I worked on the New York location shoots for Cagney and Lacey. He tells me to go wait at the front door. I go.
I crouch near the front door smoking cigarettes and probably a joint at some point. An Airedale wanders down the street alone. It pees on the corner of the building and I say, “Hello, Airedale.” The Airedale takes this to mean, “I love you and would enjoy scratching you about the ears.” The Airedale is correct.
I scratch it about the ears. It kisses my face. A tag on its collar tells me its name is Lola. I fold my legs and sit on the cool sidewalk with my back to the wall beside the door to the bar. The Airedale, far too large to be a lap dog, decides it is a lap dog. First it sits on the nest of my lap, alert, watching the world, panting, looking outward, front paws on the sidewalk in front of us. I continue to scratch it. I confess that I’m not entirely certain why I’m here. I don’t know what the shoot is. I tell Lola that I didn’t want to come off as a rube, asking the A.D. what the job is for which I’d taken the three forty-eight bus out to a New Jersey bar.
I tell Lola that I’m hoping it’s not porn. I’m aware that some people would be excited to get involved in a porn shoot. I’m not one of those people. I have never had much interest in pornography, so I’m not even certain there’s any such thing as extras in a porn film, but the two cube trucks and the seedy-seeming location have me wondering. This certainly isn’t the kind of set up you’d see for a proper film or TV show.
Lola shows very little interest in my rambling monologue. After a while she pushes back with her front paws, shifting all of her weight onto my lap and then curling up across the entirety of my thighs, my shins, my crossed ankles. She gets comfortable and although I become quite uncomfortable I like having the company.
A few more people show up around ten to six. I inform them that if they’re here to be extras the line starts to my right. One of them, worried, asks if we were supposed to bring pets with us. I don’t understand why he thinks that for a moment because nobody else has brought a pet and I’m a little bit high so it doesn’t occur to me that people might assume the huge dog curled up in my lap might be mine.
I’m twenty-one. I’m not all that self-aware. I’m tall and my beard grows in thickly enough that if I shave too early in the day I look downright scruffy by evening. Still, I always feel like the youngest person in any group and it never occurs to me that I might not be perceived that way. I mask my insecurities. I admit to nobody that I don’t know what we’re here to work on. I try to seem casual and in control.
I tell the guy that Lola and I have just met. She’s not mine.
He says, “Oh. So . . . is she in line then, or not?”
I say, “No. We’re in line. She already got a voucher and filled it out.”
He seems confused by this so I let him off the hook. “She just wandered up and we made friends,”
The line has grown now. It runs almost the full length of the block.
Somebody steps out of line to peer around the corner of the building. The man, wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves torn off to make it a sloppy vest, hisses in a loud stage whisper to the gathering line, “They came around the other side. He’s HERE!” A mutter passes down the line, a building excitement. I’m the only person sitting down and I have a dog in my lap. Plus, I’m doing everything I can to seem non-nonplussed, so I make no move to get up and displace the dog, no move to find out why people risk their valuable places in line to go look past the side of the bar toward the cube trucks to see for themselves. Someone says, “Holy shit. I can’t believe this is happening,” and I wonder once again what I’ve gotten myself into.
When the A.D. comes back I recognize the man he’s with as the director John Sayles, but I only recognize him because I once saw him from afar when he was on the Sarah Lawrence Campus scouting locations a year or two earlier and someone had pointed him out to me. I couldn’t imagine that a bunch of extras hoping for work on some small project in New Jersey would be that excited over the arrival of the indie director even if they did all know who he was and recognize him by sight.
The A.D. and mister Sayles walk along the line looking at people, muttering to one another, chuckling. I apologize to Lola and try to stand up. She reluctantly moves from my lap, gives me a look that says, “I thought we really had something,” and then she trots back up the street from whence she came.
The A.D. says “Hey! Extra! Your dog’s getting away.”
I say “She’s not my dog. Her name’s Lola.”
John Sayles stares at me for a long moment, blinking slowly and then goes on with his examination of the people on the line.
After a moment of quiet discussion with the A.D., a decision is made. Mr. Sayles goes back around the side of the bar to join the crew for the back-door load in.
I brush some Lola hair from my pants.
The A.D. says, “You shout the number one,” then he turns to the next person and says, “Then you shout the number two.”
I say “One.”
He says, “Shout.”
I shout, “One!”
He points to the next guy and that guy shouts “Two!”
The A.D. points to the next person on the line who shouts, “Three!”
Then the counting picks up naturally and the A.D. moves down the line until the loud counting hits fifty. He says, “Okay! You fifty, stay where you are. The rest of you, I’m afraid we won’t need you today.”
A great many people groan and sigh in disappointment and move off into the early morning streets in pairs and small clusters, seeking an IHOP or a Denny’s or a bus back to Manhattan.
The fifty of us move into the establishment. One guy unhesitantly moves behind the bar taking up the role of the bartender without being told to do so. I am impressed by his confidence. I wait to be told where to stand.
The A.D. confers with John Sayles and then groups us at the bar. “You two go to the pool table and play a round but stay on this side of the table so the camera gets you. You stand near her at the end of the bar. You on a bar stool,” Once we’re all in position he goes back and talks to the director a bit. A camera points at us. Hot lights make the bar warm and far brighter than it is ever likely to have been in its existence.
The A.D. adjusts some positions. He picks up a bullhorn even though we’re in a small space and we could hear him if he just projected a little bit. His voice comes through harsh and distorted. He says, “Okay! We’re going to run playback. We want to get a bunch of you guys, listening, enjoying the music before we bring them out. Okay?”
An excited buzz runs through the room.
I remain utterly nonchalant.
The director shouts, “Roll film!”
Someone shouts, “Rolling!”
The director shouts, “Nice and relaxed, guys! Focus up here at the stage!”
We do as he says.
He shouts, “And . . . Playback!”
I hear the first chords of Springsteen’s song Glory Days.
People begin to move to the music a bit, staring up at the stage where nobody performs. I turn to the woman nearest me and say, “Are we doing a Springsteen video?”
She laughs and says, “What did you think we were here for?”
Abruptly I am having the best day of my life. I let the music move through me. I dance a little. I focus on the empty stage.
Sayles shouts, “Cut!” and the A.D. repeats it through the bullhorn to be heard over the music. The song shuts off. Sayles talks quietly to the A.D. The A.D. comes over with the bullhorn. He says, “Nice interaction, you two!” to me and the woman. He tells the people at the bar not to clump up at the center. “Don’t worry. If you can see the lens, you’re in frame. Don’t look at the lens.”
We do it again. And again.
Then the feeling in the room changes. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band come in from the back. Bruce hangs his guitar around his neck. Little Stevie has a mandolin. Clarence Clements, the Big Man, walks in taking up an impossible amount of space with the pure energy of his smile.
The camera turns to face the stage. The song plays over and over again, still playback of the album track, but the actual E Street Band with Bruce lip synch their hearts out to their own music. Little Stevie mugs and overacts when he joins Bruce for the harmony moments at the shared mic.
After a few hours of this, the camera having moved several times to catch the faked performance from several angles, Sayles talks to the A.D. for a moment and the A.D. says into his bullhorn, “Okay! Stand by for a bit. We’re going to try a different set-up. This wasn’t on the shot list so it may take a minute to get it right.
Bruce steps to the edge of the little stage and talks briefly with the director. Sayles nods. Bruce lifts his guitar over his head to get clear of the shoulder strap. He hands the instrument to the A.D. and goes back to the space I have not seen, the mysterious backstage world from which he and the band emerged when they came on stage.
The A.D. holds Bruce Springsteen’s electric guitar in one hand. He holds the bullhorn in the other. He says, “We’re gonna need a stand-in for a minute. Can we get – you know what? I don’t know anyone’s names. Dog boy. Number one from this morning. Get over here.”
I move through the crowd nonchalant, unoffended by the nickname but also feigning casual film-set savvy.
He hands me the guitar. He says, “Stand behind the mike.”
I stand behind the mic.
I’ve already been doing stand-up comedy for a couple of years so without thinking I move to adjust the height of the mike stand. I’m taller than Bruce Springsteen.
The A.D. does not use the bullhorn. He says softly but sharply, “Don’t move the mic. Bend your legs.” I bend my legs until I am the right height for the microphone.
The repositioning of the camera requires some shifting around of lights. I keep my legs bent. They need me to be the right height to get the shot lined up, to get the lights properly focused. The camera and the tripod go on a dolly. The dolly goes on a track. They move it from left to right, aiming the lens at the band, at me.
They want to try a test run of the newly added dolly shot. I hear them making the decision, calling for quiet on the set, announcing that we’re doing a rehearsal. Bruce has not returned.
I’m in for the rehearsal. The A.D. calls for playback through the bullhorn. For this moment, as the music plays, I keep my knees bent awkwardly, but I am Bruce Springsteen. I know the chords. I play them on the guitar and hope I’m not offending anyone by doing so. It’s not plugged in. Nobody can hear it over the music.
Behind me and to my left, Patti Scialfa sings her part of the song and taps at a tambourine. I glance at her. She grins at me. I grin at her. We have a connection. I can feel it. She’s beautiful. She’s in the E Street Band and we make grinning eye contact on the stage.
Maybe she enjoys watching the joy of this young man pretending to be his own hero. Maybe she likes that I know the chords. Maybe she is just acting, behaving as though I am Bruce and we are performing together.
I am twenty-one and my blood is twelve percent plasma and eighty-eight percent testosterone. I can smell her from where I stand and the pheromones lie to me.
I do not know that Patti and Bruce have their own thing going on, a sexual tension that will eventually turn into an extramarital affair and then an enduring marriage. She’s smiling at me and I’m on stage with the E-Street Band. I have Bruce Springsteen’s electric guitar in my hands, I know the chords and right now I can’t imagine anybody not falling in love with me.
They call for the music to stop and do some adjustments to the dolly track.
I’m comfortable now. I turn to Patti and say, “How cool am I, right now?”
She says, “You’re the boss, baby!” and then after the briefest pause, “It is baby isn’t it?” She winks at me and oooh, ooooh, I’m on fire.
Bruce emerges from backstage. He smiles at me as I clear the guitar strap and put the instrument back in his hands. I am aware in that brief moment of friendly, hand-off, eye contact that he has the smoothest shave of any man I have ever seen in my life. I wonder for a third of a second whether he went back stage just to grab a second pass of the razor before they continue shooting.
He says, “Thanks for covering for me.”
Little Stevie says, “Why’d he call you Dog Boy?”
I say, “There was a dog in my lap before.”
He says, “What?
I say, “Her name was Lola.”
Bruce says, ‘What?”
Then the A.D. says through the bullhorn, “When the extra’s done hanging out with the band, we’d like to get back to work.”
Bruce gives me a smiling, go away nod, pointing to the bar with his chin and I go.
I glance over at Patti to thank her for making me feel welcome, maybe to see if I can get her number, but she’s steadfastly not looking at me, focused on her tambourine as if she’s tuning it or doing delicate repairs. I feel betrayed. I thought we really had something.
We finish out a ten-hour day. I fill out and hand in a voucher. Several days later I receive a check for a hundred and eighty dollars minus taxes. The informative stub tells me that I got a pay bump from “Atmostpheric performer” to “stand-in.”
For years thereafter I listen to Bruce and all I hear is Patti, singing along off mic behind me and to my left. I think of her smile and her smell and every time, as a shadowy after-imagining, I wonder if Lola wanders the streets of New Jersey and occasionally thinks of me.