By Shane Nickerson © 2006
As I glanced around the party, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of achievement. After all, I was on the Warner Brothers backlot at one of the hottest events in town: The Hollywood Premiere of “Heat.”
Al Pacino stood mere feet from me chatting up some blonde. DeNiro was getting worked by gladhanders on the other side of the room with the shy demeanor I had heard he possessed in “real life.” Val Kilmer basked in the adulation that all of the women present seemed to want to heap on him. “Al Pacino is right there,” I almost said out loud to myself.
I thought back to my days in New Hampshire when I yearned vaguely for a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle. Now, I was right in the middle of it. I was pretty much living the Hollywood Dream.
I balanced the glasses of wine on my small silver tray and walked towards Pacino. His glass wasn’t empty, but maybe someone in his group needed a refill. A tuxedo-jacketed woman with a bad dye job intercepted me.
“I want you to work in the street, please.”
She pointed out towards “New York Street,” just outside the building we were in. New York Street” would be instantly recognizable to anyone who has grown up watching television and movies. It’s a mocked up, generic version of any street in New York, which has been dressed thousands of ways to accommodate thousands of shows and films. On this evening, it was decorated for one of the nightly “functions” on the Warner Brothers Backlot, complete with buffet tables, rental tables and chairs, some “Heat” signage and about a hundred struggling actors dressed up in tuxedo shirts passing wine, spanikopita, sushi, wontons, and various other finger foods. To them, we were “The Help.”
I passed my wine until it was gone, and dumped my tray on a jackstand as I ducked behind the partition that separated the party from the “scullery.” In catering, the scullery is where dirty dishes and glassware go, and it’s usually the place you’ll find a bunch of bitter caterers sucking desperately on cigarettes for three to four minutes of reprieve from a job that can easily suck your soul. I was trying on smoking as a habit, mostly because it gave me something that I had control of while I was a slave to women with bad dye jobs on backlots that I had once been desperate to be work on in any capacity. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. I pulled out my pack of yellow American Spirits and walked over to a familiar face standing by an exterior façade used on “ER.”
“Hey Joel,” I said.
He took a drag from his cigarette and nodded, “Hey man.”
I dug my matches out of my pocket, which were buried beneath a wine opener and a bread crumber, and lit up my four minute break. He took a drag and added, “Crazy to see Pacino and DeNiro in the same room, huh?”
I inhaled the toxic smoke, which was somehow a big “fuck you” to catering in my mind, and nodded.
I could hear a crash of glasses out on “New York Street,” and the insulting applause that always seems to follow such a mishap, coming from the crowd of partygoers that probably never think of waiters or caterers as actual people. I inhaled deeply another drag of my cigarette and closed my eyes. This was not what I had dreamed.
“Are you working that WB party tomorrow night?” Joel asked me.
I was scheduled to, but I lied to him. “I’m not sure yet. Maybe.”
He crushed the butt of his cigarette with his cheap black shoes, that were flecked with the remnants of some kind of sauce and the sticky traces of assorted splashes and headed back towards the party.
“See you out there,” he said as he passed me. “Yeah,” I said as I took another drag off of the three minutes left on my American Spirit.
By the time I got back inside the building to get a fresh tray of wine, Pacino was gone. He’d made his appearance and bailed. Kilmer was in the middle of a nest of admirers at a table on New York Street, and DeNiro seemed to have disappeared as well. Within an hour, the party was over and the real work began: pulling linens off the tables, stacking boxes of dirty glasses, packing up the remaining booze and delivering it to the storage facility by the kitchen on the backlot. All of these things were left to do. I was making eleven dollars an hour to be there. As I stripped a linen off of a table under the glow of a backlot I once dreamed of working on, I had an epiphany. I looked at Joel, who was pulling unopened wine out of a red plastic tub and drying it off to recrate it.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told him as I balled up a tablecloth covered in soy sauce and frosting.
He looked up, nonplussed. “Strip tables?” he said, half-joking.
“No, this. Work here, like this. These people that we served tonight... they should be our peers. How can I walk into an audition and feel like an actor if I’m passing Al Pacino wine on the WB backlot the night before? I’m never working here again.”
He nodded and grinned, “Good for you, man.”
I’m not sure if he believed me or even cared. I pulled the last linen off of the last table and left Joel by the wine to find the party captain with the bad dye job. I had more work to do that night, but I had a new sense of power, which made the last hour or so easy. The rest of the suckers were all stuck there. I was never coming back. Not until I was working as an actor on that lot.
In the moonlight, as I walked back to my car under the world famous WB water tower, I took off my wine-stained tuxedo shirt and slung it over my shoulder. The cool, night air felt refreshing to me, and for the first time since I had arrived in Los Angeles, I felt like I had just climbed a rung of the ladder. I hopped into my 1988 Honda CRX and pulled off of that lot for the last time as “the help.” Next time, I vowed to myself as I waited for the arm of the security gate to let me out, I’ll be on this lot to live the real dream. I’ll be here as an actor.
And indeed, it was a promise I kept.
Shane Nickerson is an actor and writer from Los Angeles.