Working for a movie studio isn’t what it used to be. 1,813 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The first time it was the sign along the wall of the Studio lot. Someone had pulled off the two small "e"s leaving "Ent rtainm nt". Was it a dig at the kind of films the Studio produced? Maybe it wasn’t even vandalism, just some yokel who had shown up and, after the decidedly inferior Studio tour compared to Universal or the fabulous back lot at Warners, concluded that a souvenir was required. They could go back to Paduca or Clover or Groversville, hold up the purloined letters and say, "Look what I got me," basking in the praise from their friends. Maybe they did it in broad daylight. Spontaneously. Maybe they came back at night. There was surveillance all over the interior of the lot. Jeffrey Baumann didn’t know if there were cameras monitoring the perimeter.
Jeffrey did something at the Studio with contracts for a living on the credits for the movie advertising. If asked, he would readily agree that he was an office drone working in any business. The only advantage Jeffrey saw was that he got to watch the Studio’s films in private screening rooms during the day, sometimes with only two or three others people. But given the quality of the Studio’s output lately, that wasn’t much of a perk.
The lot wasn’t the most interesting lot of all the studio lots that someone visiting Los Angeles might take the time to tour. Though years ago, the lot had been huge with its own ranch and animal park, now it was roughly an isosceles triangle, a quarter mile at the base and a half mile at the sides, with the tip chopped off. All this Jeffrey learned on the Studio tour he had to take when he first started working there twelve years before. How interesting was it, really, to have some bouncy guy with unkempt blond hair and a scraggly beard in a blue shirt and shorts guide you briefly through the ratty set. That was the amazing thing, how nasty and cheap the sets looked when you saw them close up and in person. And then he’d lead you to an old musty dusty stage where he solemnly intoned that Esther Williams used to do her high dives into a pool that was underneath the floor, preparing to soar — that’s right, soar — while the cameras rolled. At Universal, a shark literally leapt out of the water, trying to bite off your arm. Scary. Here you had to imagine an actress from yesteryear and her chorus of bathing beauties soaring. Esther who?
Jeffrey didn’t know how long the letters had been missing, but he’d taken a different route to work that morning because of an accident and road closure, and come down the slight hill that led to the lot. He saw the giant water tank with the Studio name on it and drove the road that ended facing the lot wall.
There it was. Or perhaps, there it wasn’t: the sign with its missing letters.
He parked and walked to his office. Regular hours started at 9, but Jeffrey always came early. So early the coffee place wasn’t even open. He had to get a jump on things, though really it was a way to show everyone how hard he worked. Emails beginning at 7 A.M. and Jeffrey was on the case.
At that opening hour, he might walk past a crew setting up for a shoot and pushing carts laden with lights or recording equipment. They were bearded tattooed men, once in a while a tattooed woman, forcing their lumbering burdens along the walk. Once he’d thought about going into production, but a couple of months chasing jobs when he first came to Los Angeles years ago had burned the desire out of him. It took him fifty tries to get one job finding paint for a banana while a crew stood around smoking. Another hundred calls and he was a lettuce wrangler on a commercial shoot for a day, sent up 60 feet onto a catwalk without a safety harness to set light. It was a difficult job for a man who got vertigo on a step ladder; views from high windows made him swoon. These were stupid jobs. Unless you were the director, what was the point?
Whenever he mentioned any of this to his wife, she always turned it around on him. Instead of agreeing, instead of supporting, instead of telling him he was right, she somehow made him feel that he had failed precisely because he wasn’t the director running things.
"I’m sure you tried," his wife said, more than once in a way that made it seem as if there was a faint stink on him that kept her from getting close.
And Jeffrey had tried for several years. The office job was fluke: he’d been filling in for someone and they died. Jeffrey always joked later that he had an alibi for the night of the death. People thought, what a wag!
He believed he was a hard worker, good at what he did, diligent about the spellings of every actor’s name. The only fault in his evaluations was that he wanted too much feedback, a code word for praise.
At that early hour, Jeffrey changed three documents on the computer even though the sun had barely risen, the light outside still gray. It was the calm time, before the phones rang and the email inbox chimed. He was his own assistant so he filed, clipping each sheet neatly into a folder. He answered correspondence and sent messages, possibly overdoing the cc: list. A little guiltily, he checked his Facebook page, posting a picture of his black cat sleeping (what a beauty). And then, at the stroke of 8 when Facilities manned their phones, he called and made his report on the missing letters, informing them about the broken sign.
There were noises from the office suite, the clash of a door opening then slamming shut. Light switches flipped with a click and then a woman’s voice saying, "God damn it." More clicks. More damns. Footsteps down the hall. Light from under his door. Footsteps back. Something tossed on a desk. Drawers opening.
Jeffrey stepped out of his office to ask, "And how are we this morning?"
"Don’t even," Maria said, slamming shut a drawer hard enough to make her computer screen sway. "It was a parking lot on the 405 and then the damn street was cut off down here. I had to go the long way around. My key card didn’t work." She made a sound not unlike a cat yawping up a hairball.
Though she had only been there for a few minutes, Maria had stored up at least a day’s worth of complaints and unleashed them. Not at Jeffrey personally; he was just her audience. People thought Hollywood was so glamorous like everyone drank champagne around a pool 24/7 and then watched an unending supply of young nubile women who swam topless. That was Jeffrey’s fantasy (apparently). Maria hoped that one day she’d run into George Clooney on the lot, and that he’d be happy to meet her.
Sometimes Jeffrey saw the actress on that show about sex: Directors Of Sex? The Infinite Sex? She was pretty on screen, but in person her head seemed unusually big and her cheeks sunken. He saw her sucking on a cigarette and he smiled when he walked by. She glared at him, or he thought she did. Clearly, another person having a bad day even as charmed as her life was with a hit series; she wasn’t living the life.
Jeffrey and Maria weren’t living the life, either. Maria prepared licensing deals for toys and books and t-shirts. Finished with her complaints, Maria sat down at her computer and began inputting fees and percentages and countries for the deals. She typed hard on the keyboard and Jeffrey could hear the pounding clicks.
He told her about calling in about the sign with the missing letters.
"What a boy scout you are, Jeffrey."
"What do you mean? Someone needed to know."
"And you were the person to tell them." She typed for another moment then looked up and said, "Good boy."
"Good job, I mean."
Unsure if this was a sarcastic jab or not, Jeffrey said he was going for coffee. He wanted something a little exotic — a mocha cappuccino — but the coffee cart in the commissary produced swill so he took a walk off the lot and up the block.
Traffic raced past at the light and he stepped back from the curb in case a bus came by and smacked him dead with its side mirror, something that had happened to another Studio worker not more than a month before. Contributions for the deceased’s family had been requested.
The call from Facilities about the vandalized sign had been unremarkable. Information had been taken. The person hadn’t even said “Thank you” or “Glad you noticed it.” A little later Jeffrey got a confirming email that his work order for the sign had been approved. He thought that was strange because it wasn’t really his work order. Just something he’d seen and in the spirit of — what? — community responsibility, or a disturbance in the universe that he could help correct, or a sense of pride in his workplace, he’d reported it. Still, he’d demonstrated corporate loyalty and gotten nothing in return. That was the way things were these days.
Take the final screw you to everyone that the departing head of the Studio pushed through: a scheme to move everyone in every department into different offices. Jeffrey had ended up with 96 square feet, a closet compared to where he’d once been. He’d had to give up his plants, get rid of two bookcases and downsize his art. The company perquisite table clearly stated that at his executive level — a vice president for 12 years — he was entitled to not less than 150 square feet, space permitting. There it was, the little qualifier that screwed him. Space permitting. While Jeffrey loved those little legal turns of phrases — "including, but not limited to," "good faith negotiation" — they worked against him, too.
Apparently the legal group he was part of wasn’t particularly respected, judging from the tomb they occupied now. It was dark and musty, and despite the filtration machine he’d purchased at his own expense and kept running on high all day, the air remained stale. Jeffrey was always hoarse at work. Some in this suite had perpetually runny noses and red-rimmed eyes. Others developed coughs. An air quality study had been commissioned — "We’re here for you," the People & Organization representative (formerly HR) had said — but the results were “fine.” There was even a strong suggestion that staff was "manifesting these symptoms" as a way to get out of work. (“Here for you,” indeed!)
Part Two tomorrow