It is sometime between coffee and lunch when I nearly cut my left index finger off with the molten edge of the cutting wheel. Standing there, on the gallery of the Gotham City Police precinct set, I peer into the dark hole in my work glove and for a moment my legs nearly give out as I see nothing but crimson and feel nothing but pain. My impatient task master, Hoaung – introduced to me as Juan and who I assumed was a Latino until a closer observation of his stocky features moved the pin to a different part of the globe entirely – is waiting for me to continue, as if losing the tip of a finger is no reason to delay production. I steady myself against the metal railing we are welding. My co-worker Gary, a little too eager to show Hoaung he is not intimidated by metalwork, urges me to see the medic.
Removing the glove, I am relieved to see the blade only took a divot out of my fingertip, although the force of the blade managed to drive black fibers from the glove deep into the wound. I am running out of fingers that will open my iPhone 5, dammit. My fingers are all chewed to hell, cracked and split, the cracks and splits filled with grease. When I laugh about this with my friend Stephanie and say I don’t have the hands of the landed gentry, I have real working man’s hands, she says they are the best kind of hands to have, and I say only someone who doesn’t have to wear those hands can say that. It’s like those design magazine photo shoots where the rooms are grungy industrial all peeling paint on the walls – it makes a great photo, but you can’t actually live in a room like that, you’d have asbestos flaking into your coffee.
The medic is sitting at a 6 foot white plastic folding table behind the unfinished penthouse set on stage one, reading some conspiracy diatribe about the NSA on his iPad. He seems slightly bothered and yet slightly eager to assist me. I expect iodine, he produces this flimsy moist antiseptic towelette – the kind you might use to clean your eyeglasses or wipe the butter off your fingers at some take out clam shack. Next he produces a band-aid, drops it on the floor, and manages to get it stuck to itself when he opens it. He has a first aid kit the size of a Honda Civic, but instead of tossing the band-aid and reaching for another, he fumbles for a ridiculous amount of time to unstick it from itself, and then applies it to my fingertip. My imagination, trained on a diet of silent film comedies and first person Polar Expedition diaries, begins to wonder what economies would have been applied if, say, I had lost an arm.
It is Monday. I have been awake since 2:30 AM. I drove all the way to Brooklyn from Western Massachusetts on three and a half hours sleep. It is about 10:00 AM now but feels like five in the afternoon. My first day on this job, first day back in the saddle as a zombie no less and they stick me with a welding detail. I haven’t worked with metal in years. I am not doing the welding, just assisting. Which means, besides manning the cutting wheel: cutting all the excess lengths of steel bar stock that need to be welded, carrying the heavy sections of railing up from the ground floor of the stage to the gallery level, holding them in place, throwing them up on sawhorses, and holding the wooden spacers right next to Hoaung’s welding torch which manages to blind me no less than a dozen times before lunch.
The stage is cavernous, the set built on the stage is enormous. I have never seen such a large set for a network TV pilot. This is a Batman origin series – a Warner franchise – so they are going to do it right, I guess. The set reminds me of elements of Grand Central Station, or elements of an imagined Grand Central Station used in Saturday Night Live sets. Lots of riveted steel beams, soaring to great heights. Lots of windows, high up. Later I will learn the intention is to light the set with shafts of light through these windows, – an early precursor to the Bat signal. This is fantasy. I love this set, but right now all I want to do is curl up and sleep.
The stage floor is alive with men. How many? One hundred? Two hundred? Hard to say. These men, and they are mostly men — the construction crews especially of Local 52 — have an incredible work ethic. They start their day at 6, with no bullshit. Meaning, at 6:00 AM sharp you hear saws and hammers. People aren’t sauntering in and jawboning at six. That happens earlier. At 5:30. The common phrase is “having had”. You show up on time, having had – meaning your breakfast, your coffee, and you damn well better be ready to work with the rest of your brothers. I never see people shirking. All morning, all week. No one is reaching for their phones, making calls, checking emails. They are all business. The carps take a twenty minute coffee break at 8:30. Everyone breaks for lunch at noon. The day ends sometime between 6 and 6:30.
I know some of these guys, but many of them are strangers. I don’t usually do this kind of work – actually making scenery. I am here for two weeks punching a time clock, earning hours to keep my union health insurance, because if I lose my family’s health insurance it will cost me $1800 a month. It is very good health insurance, too good to lose.
Some of the guys give me the stink eye — as a new guy, for all they know I am a permit worker, not a legitimate card holder but someone trying to get into the local, or someone from another local, like local 481 in Boston. I don’t have anything to prove, so I don’t care. I do marvel at how many men here are my age or older, men who have been working this hard their entire lives.
Within the first half hour, my black shoes are covered with a fine white powder – the air is thick with dust from all the wood being cut – but not just wood. MDF, that nasty composite material formed from wood chips and formaldehyde, along with other materials, and scenic treatments being used. It is a toxic environment, and these men, unlike me, have to breathe this air most of their working lives. Every month now, I receive newsletters with announcements from the local bearing grim news of members dying, as often from cancer as not. None of this ever gets noticed in the wider world. Few people ever complain about the working conditions.
Just before lunch, a warning cry comes down from the rafters. A rigging grip is high aloft, and his cry reminds me of the link between stagehands and sailors – the first stagehands in hemp house theaters were sailors. It’s all rigging, after all. Knots, ropes, pulleys, chains, canvas, muslin. Whether you are flying scenery or sails, both activities involve transcendence. Maybe it’s my fatigue, or my overactive imagination, but for that one brief moment, I am transported. Taking in the scene, this closed world, the all-in-this-togetherness of it all, it is as if I am on the high seas, as if this magnificent set is a ship, and we are all on a grand adventure together. That moment passes as quickly as it comes, but recalling it even now, I swear I can smell the ocean.