|Apr/May 2008 Nonfiction|
For every wildly successful Hollywood agency or production company there are dozens of lesser-known entities that occupy the fringes of the entertainment industry. The straight-to-video shops, the lesser cable networks, the talent agencies that cobble together a business off B- and C-list clients. Companies that elicit only blank looks from strangers when mentioned at L.A. parties, followed by a quick brush off in the form of a drink freshening, bathroom visit, or a simple but unmistakable refocusing of the eyes on a distant target followed by a mid-sentence departure. For two brief stints in 1997 I worked for a place that occupied this Hollywood substrata: Brad Silver Productions.
I was hired by the company as researcher for a documentary on the history of computer graphics. Tracking down images of the first computer mouse, early attempts at CG effects and related geeky lab experiments wasn't exactly my dream job, but at that point any position which paid upwards of ten dollars an hour and wasn't run out of a trailer was fine by me. I didn't even care when I inadvertently found out, several days into my new gig, that the focus of the company was a whole lot more unsavory than I would have guessed based on my own innocuous to-do list.
A few days into my new gig, the phone rang when I was alone in the office. "Brad Silver Productions," I answered.
The caller asked for Jennifer, the coordinator. When I informed her that Jennifer wasn't available, she asked me to pass on the following message: "Tell her we need more Asian butts."
"More Asian... butts?" I repeated.
"Yeah," she said.
"Okay," I said, feeling incredibly awkward as I wrote the message on the pad. I was torn between hoping I hadn't written down a very hard-to-explain misheard message and really wishing I wasn't working in a place where such a message would elicit no reaction at all. "I'll tell her."
As it turned out, I had heard correctly, as I discovered when Jennifer read the slip of paper and dropped it back on her desk without comment. The bread and butter of Brad Silver Productions was Playboy videos. I was surprised to learn these videos were organized by race, and further, if the message I took that day was any indication, by body part.
I can't say that this information didn't give me pause. This knowledge would have been unlikely to dissuade me from taking the job had I known it in advance, but it was a timely reminder that my don't-ask-don't-care approach to the workplace had its downside.
There would be a problem at Brad Silver Productions, but it would not be my repeated exposure to X-rated material. Nor would it be something I could have anticipated even I'd been more thorough with my questions during the interview process. In an office where I had few co-workers--Brad, a laid back guy who was frequently out of the office, the two editors upstairs who I saw only infrequently, and Jennifer, the coordinator--my only problem at work would lie with my fifth co-worker: Brad's assistant, Stacey.
Stacey was a recent arrival from the east coast and had started working there only weeks before I had. As an out-of-towner in her mid-thirties with no apparent industry contacts, securing a job as Brad's assistant was actually a pretty good score. It was a production office, despite their less than high-end emphasis, so I'm sure she could have learned something if she'd put her mind to it. I myself had spent one of my lunches attempting to teach myself the editing software at one of the stations upstairs despite the fact that the only material I had to work with was shots of naked women on horseback.
It appeared, however, that Stacey didn't subscribe to the bloom-where-you-are-planted school of thought. I guess she performed the basic functions of her job, whatever they were. But doing the minimum left hours of free time in her workday--hours she felt could best be spent talking to her co-workers.
At first I didn't mind her chattiness. Who could object to a few friendly getting-to-know-you conversations in the office?
"So where are you from?" she asked me on my first day.
"Massachusetts," I said, "but I've lived here for four years."
"Do you have family back home?"
"Yeah," I said. "Everyone lives there but me."
"Do you go back a lot?"
For the first few questions I was flattered she was taking such an interest in me; once she got to her fifth or sixth question, I wondered if she was secretly penning my unauthorized biography. The extent of her curiosity about the minutia of my life was startling. "How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where did you go to school? Do you have a boyfriend?" For the first day or two I provided thorough answers to her queries. By the third day I answered as briefly as I could without being impolite. Within a week I was beaten down to long pauses followed by one-word answers.
These questions and accompanying interstitial remarks were marked by the occasional chummy innuendo--a type of remark usually reserved for use by your actual friends. "I bet he really enjoyed that," she might say with undue emphasis, following up on what I thought was a perfectly innocuous story about a Scrabble game with my boyfriend. She employed a similarly invasive style with callers, like the time she took a message from someone with a Jewish-sounding last name and asked him if he was "a member of the tribe."
Once I became a less willing partner in Stacey's daily grillings, which later expanded to include current events, life plans, and the cultural differences between the coasts, Stacey countered by evenly dividing her conversational attacks between Jennifer and me. It was obvious from Jennifer's thinly veiled annoyance to this shift that she had already suffered through an initial round of such attention before my arrival and did not welcome her reintroduction to Stacey's chat circle.
Without any formal planning, Jennifer and I both adopted the same system to ward off Stacey's intrusions: by assuming stoic, humorless expressions and avoiding eye contact both with her and each other, as if to suggest that the idea of any personal contact would be a breach of office etiquette. This slowed Stacey's talking but did not staunch it.
Each day at work, when Stacey grew tired of our brief and unenthusiastic answers to her repeated queries, she invoked plan B: calling a friend or family member back home to pick up the conversational slack. This was only slightly less annoying than having her speaking to us directly, since it did not spare us the unrelenting sound of her voice. The worst were her calls to her young nephew. Not only were these conversations especially annoying, by virtue of the toddler-aged content and the babyish tone of her voice--"Do you miss me? Are you a big boy now?"--but these talks had the additional feature of being thought so charming that they were worth repeating to us verbatim once she hung up the phone.
"He was so cute," she would say. "I asked him where his wa-wa was and he said he couldn't remember. Then he said he'd ask his mommy!"
I can't say with certainty what a wa-wa is, but I do feel sure about this: there is no meaning I can imagine that would significantly punch up that story. No matter how charming a toddler is, a story involving one has a very limited target demographic. In the same way that any retelling of a drunken college escapade or a dream you had last night better be a real humdinger when trotted out for a general audience, any tale that involves the words wa-wa, ba-ba or pee-pee had better be carefully vetted before passing on to your already irritated co-workers.
Despite the relative lack of effectiveness of our tactics, Jennifer and I both soldiered on as best we could. We peppered our responses with longer delays and more brusque answers, stopping just short of rudeness. During a rare moment when Stacey was out of the office, Jennifer vented. "She talks all the time," she said. "Why can't she shut up?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe she doesn't know it's annoying." This was what I assumed. But how can you possibly tell someone to put a sock in it when she ignores all the social signals that she is annoying the living crap out of you?
Probably because she was bored by the combination of work and the limited interactions Jennifer and I provided her, Stacey began expanding her repertoire of inappropriate behavior. One afternoon she announced she was going to lie down in the conference room for a few minutes and promptly fell asleep for over an hour. When Brad returned, along with a client, and flipped on the light in the conference room, he found her peacefully slumbering.
My laid-back boss made a rare annoyed noise, accompanied by an apologetic look to his client. Then he turned back to Jennifer and me. "Can one of you wake up Stacey?"
A week or so later, on a particularly productive day for me on which I managed to ignore Stacey's series of phone calls home to her sister, nephew, and long-distance boyfriend, I sensed Stacey had reached a new level of boredom. My desk faced the wall, away from her, and both Jennifer and Brad were out of the office. I was working on a spreadsheet of the media I acquired, and typed in silence while Stacey aggressively flipped the pages of a magazine. It was obvious she was doing so as loudly as possible to draw attention to herself, which made me even more intent on remaining aloof. She reacted out loud to what she saw as she went through the pages--"Wow! Huh!"--but I kept perfectly still and quiet, like a child who believes that by not moving you can render yourself invisible.
"Nancy?" she said, when my productive silence became too much for her to bear.
Crap. She was addressing me directly. I couldn't ignore her outright. I kept my back to her, answering in a faraway voice that implied I was denying her most of my attention. "Uh huh."
"Would you donate your eggs to your brothers if they couldn't have children?"
This query was obviously inspired by an article in the fashion magazine she was thumbing through, but it was in keeping with her new strategy of engagement. In her quest to up the chatter quotient in the office, she had given up on mundane requests for personal facts and now focused on ethical dilemmas and philosophical queries. My minor annoyance gave over to suppressed rage. Why must she continue to try to drag me into her world? Couldn't she leave me alone and make another call, send another email? Couldn't she do the crossword or start drinking on the job? There were dozens of less disruptive things she could do than speak aloud.
I answered as flatly as I could manage. "That wouldn't make much sense, would it?" I asked. " That would only apply if I had sisters."
"Oh," she said, as if thinking through the basics of biology for the first time. "Well, what if you had a sister? Would you do it then?"
This was too much. I didn't have a sister, and it was going to take a hell of a Christmas miracle for the stork to visit my sixty-year-old mother. Why must I be forced to think through the ethical ramifications of a possible egg donation, especially under these conditions? I was honestly trying to do some work here.
"No," I said, turning back to the computer screen.
"Why?" she asked.
Why? Why did I have to have a reason for resolving this non-situation? My patience became see-through thin. "Why should I?" After all, what had my fake sister ever done for me? "Screw her. Let her adopt."
My harsh stance quieted her. She went outside for a while, and I enjoyed the quiet, filling out my spreadsheet in efficient silence. Shortly afterwards, I heard a dog barking, and watched a large animal bound into the office.
"C'mere," said Stacey to this huge mutt, which I barely outweighed. She threw a ball to it and had it fetch repeatedly. Keep in mind, this was a one-room office, and it wasn't some little terrier. It was a huge, fluffy eighty-pound beast, capable of knocking a stapler to the ground with one swipe of its tail.
"Isn't he adorable?" she said, wrestling with him on the carpet. Then the baby voice I'd heard used on her nephew made its appearance. "Aren't you a sweet dog?"
Despite a lifelong love of animals, and dogs in particular, despite years of trying to convince my unyielding mother, who regarded a Labrador in the house as no less an invasion than a rabid fruit bat, to let us adopt one, and despite a particular love for large, fluffy, sloppy dogs like the one Stacey had led into our office, I couldn't drum up one iota of interest for that dog. Its tangled black fur did not call to me; its big, friendly eyes and wagging tail did not melt my heart. I regarded that dog with the same distaste as the jar of Advil I once sloppily fumbled, lid open, right into the toilet. After my initial glance at the animal, I quietly turned back to my computer screen and continued typing. When it came near me, I staved off physical contact with it by stretching my leg in front of my body. When it jumped up on Jennifer's desk, knocking papers askew, it was all I could do not to drag it outside by its tail.
After Stacey finally returned the dog to the owner next door, and plopped herself back in her chair with a sigh that suggested she now wanted to talk about the dog, my previously misdirected anger again found its proper target.
I don't think Brad understood what a problematic employee Stacey was until long after Jennifer and I did since he was so frequently out of the office. A few weeks after the day she fell asleep in the conference room marked the second time I witnessed a questioning expression on his face regarding his recent hire.
Like every other producer type in town, Brad was always looking to transform himself into a major Hollywood player. He had recently decided to start a side project as a talent agent, partnering up with his girlfriend, Ruby, who had access to a lot of talented high school students from some area performing arts programs. They were answering politely and doing their best to make a good impression. Stacey was asked to join them during the interviews and take notes.
Because of the size of our office, I was able to hear virtually everything said in their meeting and could see much of the action through the uncurtained walls. I could see the young men and women leaning forward, talking animatedly about their plans for the future as Brad and Ruby nodded encouragingly and peppered them with questions. They were leaning forward, answering politely, and doing their best to make a good impression. I'm sure they all regarded the chance to be represented by these two nascent talent agents as their big break.
I was highly skeptical about this new enterprise, suspecting that neither Brad nor Ruby had enough juice to make anything happen for these kids. Who knew, though? This was Hollywood. Anything was possible.
Stacey was so quiet, sitting on the edge of the couch and writing the occasional note in her notepad, that I forgot all about her.
"So you've been doing quite a bit of acting?" Ruby asked one young man as he leaned forward in anticipation.
"Yeah," he said. "I've been cast as a lead twice."
"Can you sing?" Brad asked.
Before the kid could answer Stacey interrupted. "I can sing," she said. I turned to watch her as she said this, leaning forward as if she were about to burst into song, which I thought she might without further encouragement. "I have a really good voice. You want to hear me?" The boy whose interview had been interrupted looked over at her nervously, and then back at Brad and Ruby. I recognized the look. It's the one you give adults when you're not quite one yourself, to ask whether you'd correctly interpreted the behavior of another adult. The that's-fucked-up-isn't-it? look. Neither Brad nor Ruby returned the kid's questioning gaze.
"Um," said Brad, probably wanting to strike a tone somewhere between authoritarian and subdued. He clearly wanted to definitively silence Stacey while playing down the fact that what was happening was incredibly weird. "Not right now."
Their conversation resumed, but I'm sure everyone in the room was shaken by the interruption. That wasn't the sort of shit that went down at ICM, and even in a room peopled by amateurs, everyone knew it.
Alone in the office later, Jennifer and I discussed what we'd heard. "That's was hilarious," I said. "I totally thought she was going to bust out with a Broadway show tune."
"I never thought I'd say this about anyone," said Jennifer, flipping through the pages of her African-American woman Playboy binder and making a notation, "but she is so unprofessional."
Later that day, Stacey turned to Jennifer and asked if she knew right away she was going to marry her husband. Stacey was obviously at some sort of transitional point with her own boyfriend--a relationship we were forcibly kept abreast of--and sought advice. "Nope," said Jennifer. "On our first date he told me there was no way he was ever going to marry me, so not to get my hopes up, and I said 'fine.'" I had a feeling this was true, because Jennifer impressed me as a real unsentimental nuts-and-bolts type, but part of me hoped she'd made up the story just to irritate Stacey, who professed a rosier view of romance.
"He said that to you?" asked Stacey. Jennifer nodded and turned back to her work. Jennifer probably already regretted offering up that little nugget of information. Stacey could spend an hour comparing tampon brands; this subject could keep her going for a month. "But then you won him over, right?" asked Stacey, using the recurring innuendo version of her voice.
"I guess," said Jennifer, who had clearly said her last word on the subject.
A short silence followed where I reviewed all the outstanding videos I was waiting for. I reached for the phone to dial to follow up on a still outstanding tape. "What is with you guys?" asked Stacey, who usually maintained an even temperament. Both Jennifer and I looked up in surprise. "Where's the love? Everyone back home thinks I'm hilarious."
I'm fairly sure neither of us responded. I know I interpreted the question as rhetorical. I'm sure my expression mirrored the one on Jennifer's face. It was the very look I'd seen on my mother's face years before when we were discussing Johnny Carson. "He's not that funny as far as comedians go," I was saying.
"Comedians?" she'd said, with the same expression I was looking at right now spread over Jennifer's face. "He's not a comedian."
"What?" I had asked. I hadn't even gotten to the meat of my point; I certainly hadn't expected to be shot down by this strange meta-level rebuke. "What is he, then?"
"He's more like a commentator," my mother had replied. It was quite possibly the most insulting remark ever uttered about the Tonight Show host. And now, for the first time, I knew exactly how my mother had felt when she uttered this sentence.
Shortly before my first work stint with Brad Silver Productions ended (I would ultimately return for another short run a few months later) Stacey managed to instigate a lengthy discussion one afternoon with one of the editors, who had come downstairs for a cup of coffee, about the legitimacy of pre-nuptial agreements. The editor felt they were inappropriate in all instances. "When you marry someone," he said, "you take everything that goes with it. It's a vow."
Stacey nodded, obviously thrilled to have snared a conversational partner. "I could see that."
I decided to put in my two cents. "But what about if the other person turns out to be insane..."
The editor made a gesture of finality with his hands. "You've made a commitment to that person. When you get married you have to believe it's for life." That was his final word on the matter, and he brooked no arguments. Then our hopeless romantic returned to his station to cut together more softcore porn.
After he left, Stacey and I were left alone together. It was almost the end of the day, and I rose to wash my coffee mug, brushing off Stacey's efforts to extend the discussion. She gave up after a few minutes, her spirit obviously broken.
"I know you guys don't like me," said Stacey.
I sighed. Why couldn't she wait until she was alone with Jennifer for this big heart-to-heart talk? Why did it have to be with me? I searched for something diplomatic to say.
"It's not that we don't like you," I said. "It's just that it's a small office, and we don't always have time to talk." That was a pretty whitewashed version of it, but it was close to the truth.
She seemed to accept this explanation, but later, after I thought about it, our little conversation made me angry. If she knew she was bugging us, why did she continue to do it? Did she not think we had a right to work undisturbed? Did she think her need to talk continuously trumped our need for respectful silence?
She knew she annoyed us, and that knowledge wasn't enough to stop her from doing so. In fact, it was quite possible that her attempt to corner me in our little end-of-day tete-a-tete was simply her final, masterful conversational tactic. How could I refuse to engage in an exchange in which I was accused of not liking her? Strategically, it was a brilliant move.
I was a lot less tolerant of Stacey once I realized that our discussion had no discernible impact on her behavior. Whereas before I'd assumed she was simply insensitive to our needs, I now saw all of her attempts to speak to us as tiny hostile acts.
I was gone within a week of our heart-to-heart discussion, and felt awash with sympathy that Jennifer would now become, again, the main recipient of Stacey's attentions. When I returned a few months later, Stacey had been replaced.
"What happened?" I asked Jennifer.
Jennifer offered up a rare smile. "Brad told her he'd be out having lunch with Ruby. Stacey laughed and said 'A little love in the afternoon?'"
Apparently, he'd fired her instantly.