Monday, August 18, 2008

Up in My Business

Between mentoring, the film festival circuit and my gym, I’ve recently started making friends with a whole new group of actors and writers, most of whom are in their 20’s. Many of them have what we in the business refer to as “shit jobs.” These are the jobs that sustain us when we are first trying to get a foothold in the business or when we’re between gigs. I’m very grateful to say that I haven’t had to have one of those jobs in a while, but back in the day, I had plenty.

When I was a young, unemployed college drop-out living in Austin, Texas, I harbored big dreams of moving to New York to study acting, but hadn’t quite sucked up the guts (or the money) to do so. Finally, I registered with a temp agency and was sent to work in a large mailroom that handled all the mail for every social service agency in the state of Texas. There were about thirty-five of us in the main sorting room – many of us temps. It wasn’t particularly challenging work since every piece of mail had a numerical code on it and you simply shoved the envelopes into the box with the corresponding number. The only tough part was lifting the heavy bins full of mail (and of course, the sheer monotony of it). Our supervisor was a kind, soft-spoken guy named “Mr. Ramirez” who appeared about twice a day to handle all the problems and complaints (of which there were many). But everybody who worked there knew full well that Mr. Ramirez didn’t really run the mailroom. The mailroom was truly run by a thirteen-year veteran employee named “Mabel-Ann.”

Mabel-Ann was a 50ish, tough-as-nails black woman who knew her job (and everyone else’s) backwards and forwards. Because of the high employee turnover, she generally waited until you had been there at least two weeks before she bothered to learn your name. Mabel-Ann was a woman with many opinions; all of which she shared freely as she jammed the mail into mostly the right boxes. In fact, it was almost impossible to not know what was on Mabel-Ann’s mind on any given day. Her constant chatter sort of annoyed me, but I did love it when some regional office would call to complain about their shredded mail and Mabel-Ann picked up the phone. She had a masterful way of dealing with such people that, while staying within the guidelines of the employee handbook, also clearly conveyed that she didn’t give a fuck about them or their mail. She could be hilariously funny, but also surprisingly mean -- especially if she felt threatened. I can still remember one day when a temp worker innocently made a suggestion to Mabel-Ann about how she was handling the mail and received a blistering warning to “Never, not now, not ever, get up in her business again.” And God help anybody who left a mess in the break room because that “sad, sorry behavior” would work its way into Mabel-Ann’s unending monologues for weeks to come.

I managed to avoid her for a while, but the mailroom was Mabel-Ann’s fiefdom so it was inevitable our paths would cross. And cross they did one day during “Crunch.” “Crunch” occurred every day at exactly 4:00 pm when (I kid you not) a loud buzzer would sound that sent us all scurrying like rats. The buzzer meant that all the mail had to be pulled, packaged and loaded onto an outgoing truck in one short hour. It was a huge job. Whatever you were doing, you dropped it and rushed to the rows of mailboxes that lined the room. Beneath each box was a slot that contained a large manila envelope. Your job was to cram all the mail into this envelope, label it, use your “tape-gun” to seal it and then toss it into the big cart that was hopefully behind you. One day as I was diligently trying to wedge a huge stack of mail into its corresponding envelope, I looked up to find Mabel-Ann glaring impatiently at me. “We ain’t got all day!,” she barked. “Do it like this!” Grabbing the manila envelope with her left hand, she snapped it in the air, instantly cracking it open. Simultaneously, her right hand shot into the next mailbox and with a strength she’d gained from thirteen years of doing this work, crushed all the mail into sort of an oblong wad and hammered it into the open envelope as if she were punching someone in the face. Slamming it onto the counter, she slapped a crooked label on it, sealed it with a wrinkled piece of tape and tossed it into the cart where it banged roughly against the side. Glancing at my horrified expression, Mabel-Ann huffed at me, “We ain’t sending these to our mothers!” and marched away. At the time, I didn’t have the balls to point out that Mabel-Ann had just jammed the mail intended for the Fredericksburg office into an envelope bound for Freeport.

During the six weeks that I worked in the mailroom, I did manage to pick up a little more speed during “The Crunch.” I even became well-liked enough to be the butt of a few of Mabel-Ann’s jokes (which, believe me, was a good thing). Mabel-Ann was the first real “star” I had ever dealt with. Like all stars, she had a big ego and I quickly learned that it was well worth my time to say something engaging to her first thing in the morning. When I started bringing my lunch, I got invited to sit at her table in the break room where I would soon learn about her hard scrabble childhood, her shiftless ex-husbands and her three grown daughters, none of whom had yet produced a single damn grandchild. In time, I also learned about her dyslexia and diabetes, both of which she felt had kept her from her rightful place behind Mr. Ramirez's desk. I came to admire how Mabel-Ann had found ways of taking what was at best a shitty job and turning it into a reasonably entertaining way of spending your day. When I sprained my hand trying to crush a state resource directory into an envelope, I knew it was time to resign my position in the mailroom. When I came in to get my final time sheet signed, Mabel-Ann hugged me and said I'd done a fine job.

Of course, I had no idea that years later Mabel-Ann’s voice would often ring through my head as I sat writing African-American screenplays. When I auditioned for “Boston Legal,” I summoned up a memory of an odd, wealthy man I used to bartend for -- and I’m pretty certain that mimicking his imperious Yankee attitude and East Haddam accent were what got me the job. I’m also sure that many of my new young friends tend to think of their shit jobs as some sort of awful interruption of their lives; some huge pain in the ass that does nothing but rob them of what must seem like extremely precious time. But most scripted stories are not about the lives of artists. They are about people working with somewhat less grandiose dreams. Believe me when I tell you that those bad bosses or irritating co-workers may someday pop up “in your business” at a very crucial moment and you will be surprisingly grateful for the brief time you shared with them. It’s often from life’s unruly fabric that we carve our best, funniest and most truthful work.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being distinctively middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

2 comments:

LB said...

So true -- the beauty of shit jobs, beyond them being great source material for your writing, is that they almost always include a damn memorable character right at the center. I once worked for an agency in town (now defunct) which was ruled over by the wife (previously nurse) of the late owner. She knew less than nothing about business, writing, deals or anything that didn't relate to her drag-queen updo and matching St. John suits. She wanted every employee to walk into her office in the morning and say, "Good morning, Mrs. X," which I resolutely refused to do, since a)it wasn't a good morning b) the pay was so low I qualified for a subsidized electricity bill and c) in my post-college, proto-feminist phase, I was disinclined to show respect for a woman who'd gained her position by preying on an addled old man on his death bed. I will never, ever forget the day this harpie called the whole support staff into her office to declare us "dirty little pigs" because someone hadn't flushed their tampon down the women's room toilet (of course, we all suspected the real culprit was one particularly messy agent, but I digress). It was a half hour tear on our poor breeding and lack of manners, complete with righteous fist banging and shrieking. I'm sure the old bat's long dead, but parts of her have shown up in so many character's I've written, she'll never really die. The good news is that shit job, well, in introducing me to my ultimate villain, it's paid for itself several times over. Not that I'd do it again or anything...

LB said...

So true -- the beauty of shit jobs, beyond them being great source material for your writing, is that they almost always include a damn memorable character right at the center. I once worked for an agency in town (now defunct) which was ruled over by the wife (previously nurse) of the late owner. She knew less than nothing about business, writing, deals or anything that didn't relate to her drag-queen updo and matching St. John suits. She wanted every employee to walk into her office in the morning and say, "Good morning, Mrs. X," which I resolutely refused to do, since a)it wasn't a good morning b) the pay was so low I qualified for a subsidized electricity bill and c) in my post-college, proto-feminist phase, I was disinclined to show respect for a woman who'd gained her position by preying on an addled old man on his death bed. I will never, ever forget the day this harpie called the whole support staff into her office to declare us "dirty little pigs" because someone hadn't flushed their tampon down the women's room toilet (of course, we all suspected the real culprit was one particularly messy agent, but I digress). It was a half hour tear on our poor breeding and lack of manners, complete with righteous fist banging and shrieking. I'm sure the old bat's long dead, but parts of her have shown up in so many characters I've written, she'll never really die. The good news is that shit job, well, in introducing me to my ultimate villain, it's paid for itself several times over. Not that I'd do it again or anything...