Friday, June 26, 2009

Which one is Zack?

Nobody could find Zack anywhere. All we had to do was give him a phone message. The message was cryptic - it just said "I'm home okay" - but nobody could locate the kid. I walked up and down the New York City dinner cruise boat looking for Zack, one of the 48 kids on my Wheels bus in 2002. It was only the second day of the trip and there were four buses (about 200 kids) on the boat - finding him was no easy task. I met up with one of my co-staff members and we both shrugged our shoulders. We tried to remember what he looked like but the only detail in my mind was that he was wearing a University of North Carolina hat. It takes a while to have every kids name and face memorized.

The boat docked and we put 97.9% of our kids back on the bus. The group leader stayed off for the time being, cell phone pressed against his ear. Next to him was the program director, also on her phone. All of the kids might as well have had their noses pressed against the glass watching this mess unfold.

Then the police showed up. It was logical - a group gets on a boat cruise with 48 kids and returns with 47. Though I probably couldn't pick him out of a line up, I hoped he wasn't dead.

Earlier that day Zack had pulled another vanishing act. During a visit to the Museum of Natural History we gave the kids free reign, provided they met back at a certain time. Zack, an NYC native, spent a little time in the museum before sliding out one of the side doors, hopped on a subway train and went to a friends house. He returned in time for check in none of us the wiser.

Confident over his afternoon success, he bragged to a few of the other kids, saying he could probably skip the boat cruise and nobody would notice. He went on to say he didn't even want to be on the trip and he was sent there as punishment. As prior to any activity, the kids lined up and we counted them, reaching our desired total of 48. We began to walk down the dock, but Zack dropped back, hid in the bathroom until we were gone and hopped a train uptown to his Uncle's house. Once there he phoned the office to let us know where he was and that he had arrived okay. Considering we might panic, this was a thoughtful gesture. Unfortunately the office heard this as a message to Zack, not from Zack, resulting in all the evenings events being set in motion.

As the cops showed up and discussed the very real idea of dragging the river, our group leader received a phone call from Zack's mom. She had originally had no idea where he was and was freaking out when we first contacted her. Eventually on her list of emergency contacts, she reached the same Uncle's house where fled to. We now had a dilemma: the group had to head back to our hotel in New Jersey and get ready to drive to Boston the next morning. What would happen to Zack - his status on the trip and his luggage that still resided in the Jersey hotel.

"Leave his stuff in Jersey," his mom said, "we'll come get it. He's not going on the trip."

Judging by her comments she had come to a realization that this trip would not serve as a good punishment for someone. If he didn't want to be there he would find a way not to be there. In the years that followed, the staff began to make ID cards with kids pictures and names. These are one of the first things made in the pre-trip week. Before they are distributed to the kids, the staff uses them as study aides to memorize who is who before actually meeting them for the first time. I think we might have played a big role in why the ID card studying became such common practice.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Death to Bouncy Balls

During my years staffing USY on Wheels I had the best summer job in the world. Unfortunately, I finished my classes during school the last week of April and Wheels didn't begin until the second or third week of June. That was an eternity. I went to a temp agency in Hamden, hoping to earn some money for the trip. That and my parents didn't want me doing nothing for five weeks. I was fine with that, but ended up losing that argument.

I aced the typing test and did well in the interviews, but there was nothing available. I couldn’t understand why nobody wanted a smug 19-year-old. It took another week to find a job for me at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. It sounded okay - a known company where I would probably be doing some computer related task.

Nope. The temp agency thought I'd be perfect for a job in their warehouse.

I showed up for my humbling first day and was told about my job. There were Health Care expos across the state that Blue Cross had involvement in. The warehouse stocked all their literature - brochures, booklets, pamphlets and other information. The presenters at each expo would call in the amount they needed, and we would fill the order. It seemed simple enough.

Just like any health expo, job fair, college fest or car show - it wasn't the information that drew people in, it was the free stuff. Key chains, buttons, coozies - this is why people would humor you and listen. I know this first hand as my father used to go to conventions and return suitcases full of swag. Pens, fun shaped tablets of paper, hats and chachkies all with the drug company's name and logo. Once he came home with gallbladder and stomach action figures.

This year, Blue Cross would hand out bouncy balls. Not just any, the kind that triggered a small red light to illuminate when you bounced them. There were hundreds of cases of these balls. When you opened a box, each ball was individually wrapped in plastic, like a happy meal toy. The powers that be were furious about this. The idea was for the balls to be free inside the box so the average consumer wouldn't have to struggle with a plastic wrap. Upon being introduced to the balls, I realized that this would be my main job. I was to open each box, cut out each ball, throw away the wrapper, place the ball back inside and reseal the box.

I forget the break down of how many boxes there were, but at the time I calculated somewhere between 70 and 75 thousand balls. That’s 75,000 red lights, all triggered by the slightest touch. I could see those lights when I closed my eyes. I could see them in my sleep. I later learned that I was the fourth person that the temp agency sent and the only one who lasted more than one day – one guy didn’t even make it through his lunch break.

The thought of quitting entered my mind but I didn’t have a choice in the matter. My dad dropped me off in the morning and picked me up each night. I survived the job by dragging the task to a snail's pace. It was a six week sentence for a job that could have probably been finished in two if I was focused or monitored. I made the most of my breaks. The only other employee in the warehouse was the delivery driver and I got to have a break for every cigarette he smoked. I used all of my breaks to read. By the end of my time at the job I had finished nearly five books.

Occasionally there would be a large delivery that would require an extra hand and I got to head out on the road with the driver. We would make small talk while I attempted to stick my head out the window to avoid his second hand smoke. During one long drive, he revealed that he just got out of prison and I was convinced I was in imminent danger.

"As soon as you get in there, you stab someone," he warned me, "and finish the job, or else you'll look like a punk."

I silently nodded back to him as if I was taking mental notes. The only thing I noted was not to anger this man who I shared a truck cabin with, miles from anyone I knew. When the subject changed to NASCAR I was able to breathe again, even though all I knew were Dale Earnhardt jokes my college friends told. He asked who my favorite driver was and I quietly said Dale.

“The Intimidator,” he laughed. “Good man.”

It must have been the right answer because two days later I received a Dale Earnhardt pen that he got from "a guy who got them cheap." All in all, he was a pretty nice guy for an alleged murderer.

The job was easy, the pay was alright, and I probably wouldn't have found anything else to occupy my time before my real summer job. I took a couple of the bouncy balls as a souvenir. As soon as I got home that night, I took the drivers advice and stabbed a ball with a pair of scissors. I pulled it apart, ripped out the light and smashed it with a hammer. I didn't want to look like a punk.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Driving Phyllis Diller

I landed my first job in Los Angeles through a friend working on a movie set. It was an unheard of independant movie that went nowhere, but it was filming on the Universal lot, which was a big thrill for me. This was before I worked for the company for four years, so the excitement of living and working in Hollywood was still very much a factor.

I was able to drive on to the lot and park behind the house from Psycho. I waved to passing studio tours because for all they knew, I was somebody. The location had all the glamour of Hollywood, but the job itself saw me locked up in a stuffy old trailer making photocopies. The first day I worked nearly fifteen hours for an hourly wage that was not near worth the amount of work I was doing. At this time I was living my terrible USC subletted apartment, so at the end of each day I had to drive all the way back there.

The job was wearing me down after only a few days. I think it was obvious, because one of the slightly higher ups offered me a chance to do something different: go pick up one of the stars and drive them back to the set. Higher budget movies would probably use a town car service, but this one was going to wow the talent with my 1995 Toyota Camry.

With my yahoo map print out in hand, I headed towards the familiar address. I later learned that it was familiar because it was the same street as the OJ Simpson murders. I pulled into the driveway and pressed the button on the intercom, informing her that I was here to take her to the set. The gates slowly swung open and I pulled into the turnaround. I got out of the car and put on the biggest smile I could. Out came Phyllis Diller and her daughter (and/or manager). As I started to head back to the drivers side, I realized she stopped at the passenger side and I needed to open the door for her. It felt like a monumental mistake, but this was my first time, so I tried to shake it off.

As she got into my car, she did not scoot in far enough, leaving just enough of her backside in the way of the door closing. I attempted to close it as gently as I could, thinking it was set. When I sat down and began driving, everything seemed cool, until I noticed the door ajar light was on. I couldn't bare to pull over and say "I'm sorry I forgot to close the door." I had too much pride and did not want to lose my job. Plus, she would think I was a moron, which, as it turns out, I was.

I continued to go as if my Grandmother was riding in the car with me. She can't tolerate any speeds above 30 or even the slightest bumps. The ride took us over the Sepulveda pass on the 405 and on to the 101 back to Universal. A ride that normally took 15 minutes at mid-day ended up taking nearly twice that. Neither of them noticed anything, spending the entire ride trying to figure out how to program Phyllis' new cell phone.

During the entire drive my head was swimming with thoughts of her falling out of the car on to the highway. It would be a very detrimental black mark on my resume if during my first job I ended up killing a comedy living legend.

We made it to the lot and through the security check point. I jumped out and sped around the car to open the door for her. I was trying to make up for not opening the door for her in the first place and I also didn't want her leaning on it to find out it was open. As it turns out, the door had latched just not fully shut, so it wouldn't have opened all the way.

Later that week I declined an offer to pick up Henry Winkler, fearing that something terrible might happen to one of my alma mater's favorite alumni. I left the job a few days before production ended in order to start working at Universal full time in the theme park.

Post Script:
Okay, as I was looking into the movie for this blog entry, I found out that not only did it finally get distribution and a release date, the release date is today, June 12, 2009. It seems purely coincidental that the movie is hitting theaters nearly five years to the date that I actually worked on the set. I would have never even known about it if not for a random googling to check some of the movie details.

See for yourself:

Friday, June 5, 2009

Student of the Month

There are eleven schools in my beloved hometown of Hamden. One high school, one middle school and nine elementary schools. Once a month, each school selects someone who embodies everything they are looking for in an ideal student. Those students get to attend a special ceremony at the Board of Education office where they are awarded a certificate and get to meet the Superintendent of schools. Parents come and take pictures, there is a small reception afterwards, it's all very nice.

I won this award in December of my Senior year of high school. As a result, I had to sit at the front of the room with a 12 year old girl and nine elementary school kids while the Superintendant, Dr. Alida Begina (seriously), talked about how proud she was of everyone. It was a little awkward because I had already been accepted to college, not to mention that I was the only student with sideburns.

The best part was when the Superintendent went down the line, asking each student what their favorite flavor of ice cream was. It was very cute when a first grader took a long time to think of their answer or a third grader said knew exactly what they liked right away. I could tell the she was aware of the silly turn that the ceremony took when it came time to ask me. I was several inches taller than her and being the smartass that I was, I said "Chunky Monkey." Dr. Begina didn't know what that was, so I had to explain all of the ingredients.

All I could do was laugh to myself. The entire presentation was geared towards the younger kids, who had earned their accolades by making a great diorama or reading very, very well. I never really found out who nominated me or for what reason, but I did get a gift certificate for an ice cream cone (the survey question tied in nicely), a bumper sticker for my parents (I'm Proud of my Hamden Student of the Month) and certificate to hang on the fridge.