Friday, December 19, 2014

"Christmas At Harrods - Part Two"


I have no idea what I was thinking. 

I have absolutely no aptitude for working with my hands, and I had just taken a job wrapping toys at an upscale department store, an assigment where the use of the hands is exclusively demanded. 

I shudderingly recall my school experiences in “Manual Training” where in “Leather Shop”, the bar for my objective was progressively lowered from making a wallet to making a change purse to making an irregularly-shaped eye patch.  And even then, I required help. 

Now here I am, standing at a conveyor belt leading from inside the Harrods Toy Department to the dank and windowless storeroom that was our designated “Work Area” over which rolled oversized, wire carrier baskets laden with upcoming gifts for the holiday season.

The next wire that came through basket was yours.  You lifted it off the conveyor belt, and you carried it to your workstation, which was a bar-high, group table, equipped with a heavy roll of Harrods-green wrapping paper, a handful of “Cellotape” dispensers, a pair or scissors and a foot-round ball of medium-strength string. 

There, one by one, you dutifully gift-wrapped every present in the basket.  When you finished, you returned all the now-wrapped presents to the basket, which you then directed to the next stage of the operation, which was either a delivery truck area (for local destinations) or the store’s downstairs post office from which the purchased presents were airmailed overseas.

Finally, you took the completed “work order” receipt and you skewered it onto the large, vertically projecting nail that every toy wrapper was provided, the measure of your accomplishment being determined by the number of receipts on your nail at the end of the day.  You then returned to the conveyor belt for another basket. 

That was the “Game Plan.”  Here’s how it worked for me.

Badly.

I was a terrible gift wrapper.  I wasted way too much Harrods wrapping paper, overdid it big-time on the Cellotape (three-inch wide Scotch tape that you peeled off a giant dispenser), and my string-tying left a lot to be desired in the tightness department.  (You could lift my efforts by their strings and the presents would fall completely out of them)

In my (at least partial) defense, the presents redirected to the mailroom, I was informed, would be entirely unpacked down there and then specially re-packed for overseas shipment.  When I was criticized for my strings being too loose, my inevitable response was,

“How tight do they have to be to make it all the way to the basement?” 

I was a terrible toy wrapper – Strike One.  I had a questionable attitude – Strike Two.  And I was excruciatingly slow – Strike Three.  A not entirely apt analogy, because, although it is traditionally “Three strikes and you’re out”, I was inexplicably retained in the lineup and permitted an unlimited number of swings.

To some degree, a respectable “receipt count” was the luck of the draw, your rate-of-speed depending substantially on how many items there were in the next basket, and also – no small concern – what exactly those items included. 

Best-case Scenario:  A wire basket containing a single item, that item being a rectangular deck of cards.  Even I could have handled that one.  In less than twenty minutes to boot!

On the other hand, if your next basket was stacked high with gift purchases, or, more frighteningly, one of those gift purchases was a tricycle…

How do you giftwrap a tricycle! 

It takes forever!   The handlebars.  The wheels.  The little step in the back.  The bell.  And why – you’ll love this! – was that tricycle not packed in the regularly shaped cardboard box it originally arrived in?  Because Harrods – in their wisdom and inexplicable cheapness – had removed the tricycle from its shipping container, which they subsequently tossed into the furnace to heat the building!  

“Who are these people who are ruining my life!”

I shall mention but one of them, as he was the only one with whom I was in immediate contact. 

That gentleman was my boss.

Imagine a squat, ruddy-faced fireplug from Glasgow, and that’s who I’m talking about.  A former policemen, he was now managing a less than “type cast” assemblage wrapping extravagant Christmas presents for overindulged rich kids.  (A number of my colleagues were temporarily furloughed longshoremen, whose suitability to this dissimilar arena was highly questionable.)

I dreaded this man coming around me.  There would be no pep talk or bolstering compliment, but instead, an always angry, indecipherable bluster.  “Indecipherable” because, well… have you ever tried to understand a person from Glasgow?

For ten weeks I was the regular target of his spittle-inflected diatribes.  And all that time, I had no idea what he was saying to me.

“Errrroll, yir sta-ch (a throat-clearing utterance)-rangs ah weetewlewse!”

“Errroll, yew goo ‘a git moor poor-ch (another throat-clearing utterance)-chaz ra-ch-(and yet another) cites ohnyirneel!”

(An inadequate representation of how distant his pronouncements were from decipherable language.)

It was only through careful consideration – and more importantly the proximate context – that I determined he was telling me that my strings were too loose, and that I had to get more purchase receipts on my nail.  Not that that it hanged anything.  I was abominable at the job.

Okay, so that was the bad part.

That I am everso skillful at delineating.

Tomorrow  (a considerably shorter post):

The Discernible Perks About Toy Wrapping at Harrods.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Christmas At Harrods"


Over the years, I have related a number of Christmas stories.  One of my favorites involves my experiences at Harrods Department Store in London, where I lived for a time in the late 1960’s.  Not in the store, but in London.

I shall not republish the original version of these recollections.  As usual, I have neither the patience nor the technological facility to resuscitate them.  And anyway, I obtain more pleasure reliving those experiences via the process of writing the stories over again.  I’m like an old uncle:  “Tell us the ‘Harrods’ story!”  Except nobody’s asking me to.   

Anyway, here we go.

After a month’s vacation in Canada, I returned to London to resume my open-ended hegira, an extended sojourn highlighted by three classes a week at the Actors’ Workshop and a full-time job as a substitute teacher at Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Juniors School.  (I had started off as a substitute teacher, but the school’s headmaster, Mr. Kinsman, took an inexplicable shine to me, and arranged for my full-time employment.)

Two days after the school year started, engaged in a heated dispute with the Teachers’ Union, the British government decreed that all the substitute teachers in the country would be fired. 

Including me, even though I technically had a full-time job, the British
government exhibiting a disturbing insensitivity for the “gray area.”

In just two days, my illusion of year-long stability had gone “Poof!  Having returned to England with a guaranteed job in my pocket, I was now summarily unemployed and in jeopardy of floating into oblivion, or back to Toronto, neither option appearing inordinately attractive to me.

What do I do in a crisis? 

I whine and I complain.  It works every time.  The people around me become so annoyed with my continual moaning, one of them inevitably comes up with a solution to my problem.  Not because they are necessarily compassionate.  They just want me to stop.

Although in this case, innate kindness was a definite contributor.

There’s was a beautiful (groomed, coifed, and facially assembled) young woman in my acting class named Belinda Rokeby-Johnson.  I was instantly enamored by that last name, having never known anyone with a hyphenated surname before.  I knew Liebowitzes, Friedmans and Devors.  I knew no Liebowitz-Devors.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson was unmistakably of the “Privileged Classes.”  Fulfilling the responsibilities that this nobility of birth required of her, Belinda consistently, without a whisper of condescension, behaved towards “the little people” in a manner familiarly characterized as “Noblesse Oblige.” 

“Noblesse Oblige” is an Upper Class tradition that deems it the duty of its high-born members to give aid and comfort to the less fortunate in the world.  (Which inevitably included me.  Once after dinner at Belinda Rokeby Johnson’s townhouse in impeccably fashionable Eton Square, her husband Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) drove me back to my modest apartment in a red Aston Martin convertible, and before dropping me off, he handed me a freshly-minted ten-pound note.  I heartily objected to this charity, but the “Ten-er” ended up in my pocket.)

Okay.

CUT TO:

Early October, by which time I had been out of work for over a month.  It was at this juncture, the needle on the Pomerantzian “Complain-O-Meter” having risen to the “Intolerable” level, that Belinda Rokeby-Johnson proferred this suggestion:

“Why don’t you get a job at Harrods for the ‘Holiday Rush’?  A lot of my friends do that and they love it, because they can get a seventeen percent discount on their chinchilla coats.”

(Note:  I can attest to the fact that, during the “Holiday Rush”, there were a number of super-wealthy young women taken on at Harrods.  You could see their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces and Bentleys dropping them off outside the store, where their jobs as “Sales Personnel” paid the equivalent of less than fifty dollars a week.  (Though they did save “a sizable packet” on the coats.)  Such employees proved to be a mixed blessing.  They had the appropriate perfect manners required in “Sales”, but they were unable to make change.  (Because they had never seen any.)

Like the inevitable holes in a well-worn pair of undershorts, there are a number of irredeemable perforations in this narrative.  For example, having decided to follow up on Belinda Rokeby-Johnson’s suggestion, I must have called the Harrods Employment Office, gone in for an interview, and been told I was hired, and maybe even in which department I’d be working.  But I recall nothing about any of that.  The application process could not have been easy for me.  Which is probably why I have forgotten it.

What is now left is the indelible memory of my First Day – arriving at the Harrods “Employee’s Entrance”, located directly across the street from the department store, and being taught how to “punch in” – I had never seen an employee “Punch Card” before, my only previous employment experience being at summer camp where they worked you around the clock. 

I then descended to the basement, where, lemming-like, I would follow the other Harrods employees through a labyrinthine tunnel under the adjacent thoroughfare and into the building.  (Harrods employees were forbidden to use the actual store entrances.)

I then took the stairs – Harrods employees were forbidden to use the store’s elevators or escalators – up to the “Toy Department”, where, after reporting, I was escorted to a dank and windowless (more on that later) back room area where I would be working.

I was nervous, but I was ready to begin – a ten-week assignment, at a job for which I was eminently and prodigiously unsuited.

Tomorrow:  My toy wrapping troubles and travails, including an overseer from Glasgow, with an accent so thick I could never understand a word he was saying.    

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"So There!"

I can't say I was a huge fan of Canadian beer.  It seemed watery to me, and you had to drink it in taverns, and I am not exactly a "tavern" kind of a person.

But I love this song.  And I thank my special Canadian friend for passing it along.

Check it out, eh?

   

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"A Victimless Arrangement?"


It is, I am aware, the definition of curmudgeonliness to complain about a situation that is never going to change.  But here I go anyway.  Again.

Even in the off-season, baseball, for those interested, has a way of remaining in the headlines, showcasing specific events, such as the recently completed “Winter Meetings”, where major trades and “free agent” signings are triumphantly announced. 

If you, as I am, are a regular viewer of the MLB (Major League Baseball) Channel, you will be kept up to date on the latest front office maneuvers, listen to authoritative reports concerning trade rumors, insider scuttlebutt and consummated deal announcements, along with discussions about what all the horse-trading means for the futures of the teams involved – who came out on top and who “got took.”

Included inevitably is also talk about how much players are being paid.  But that’s pretty much bookkeeping, provided virtually without comment, other than whether the deal itself makes financial sense to the participants.  But no commentarial dwelling on the amounts, as in, “Baseball players are paid way too much money.”  That’s a “given”, is the thinking.  So why talk about it?)

Examples of recent deals:

Oft-injured Hanley Ramirez signs a four-year contract with the Red Sox for eighty-eight million dollars.

Pitcher Jon Lester signs a six-year contract with the Cubs for a hundred and fifty-five million dollars.

Giancarlo Stanton signs a thirteen-year contract extension with the Marlins for three hundred and twenty-five million dollars.

After seeing pitcher Justin Verlander sign a seven-year deal with the Tigers for a hundred-and-eighty million dollars, fellow teammate, pitcher Max Scherzer, turns down a multi-year offer from the Tigers for a hundred and forty-four million dollars.  It’s not enough money.  The man has to look out for his family, who apparently can not possibly get by on a hundred and forty-four million dollars.

Scherzer may not have said that (though other players frequently trot out this rationale for turning down a fortune.)  That may have been me, being snarkily sarcastic.

We are not talking about intrinsic value here – like whether a ballplayer is worth more than a teacher – we are talking about the player’s monetary value in the current marketplace.  The “Free Marketplace” does its unjudgmentalized thing, oblivious to whether any athlete is worth three hundred and twenty-five million dollars.  Even if it’s spread over thirteen years.

I have mentioned this before. 

Hall of Fame Dodgers lefthander Sandy Koufax’s biggest contract was for a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars for one season.  (And he got that only after a thirty-two day holdout.)  Somebody computed that Koufax’s salary was the equivalent of six hundred thousand dollars today.

Clayton Kershaw, now pitching for the Dodgers, recently signed a contract for two hundred and fifteen million dollars, during a part of which he will be paid an annual salary of thirty million dollars.  

One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year – okay, make it six hundred thousand dollars – versus thirty million dollars a year.  Check me on my math here, but I believe that means that, for one season of pitching, Clayton Kershaw will be paid fifty times more than Sandy Koufax. 

Is Clayton Kershaw fifty times better than Sandy Koufax?  Unlikely.  Kershaw’s twenty-five, so his career statistics are yet to be recorded.  But…yikes! – Fifty times more than one of the greatest pitchers of all time?

Of course, it’s not about comparative value between generations.  (Although it is considerably more than an inflationary adjustment.)  Skyrocketing salaries are essentially the result of changes in the game, primarily free agency, which allows players, through the now permissible mediation of their agents, to offer their services to the highest bidder, and the substantially larger TV contracts, which infuse the teams with more money to pay for salaries.

“So what?”, you say.  It’s Free Enterprise.  It’s how America works.  Besides, why concern yourself with a high stakes “urinating contest” between multi-millionaires and billionaires?  It’s a victimless arrangement.  Everyone’s happy.  Everyone’s getting what they want.

That’s true.

Up to a point.

During the last World Series broadcast, in a game played in Kansas City, I recall an announcer filling some dead air by reporting that “Standing Room” tickets for the game at Royals’ Kauffman Stadium were selling for nine hundred dollars apiece, and that good seats were going for twenty-five hundred, and more.

Upon hearing that, I wondered…

Who exactly is paying for those tickets?

You see, the money to pay the player comes not just from competing billionaire owners’ pockets and ballooning television contracts.  It also comes from the ever-increasing ticket prices, the inflated parking fees, and the twelve or more dollars for a cardboard cup of beer.

The enormous paydays for ballplayers is hardly a victimless arrangement. 

Somebody and their family is getting priced out of going to a ballgame.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Always Frustratingly Perplexing Switcheroo"


Paramount Studios – The Late 1970’s – Late Afternoon – Most Likely On A Wednesday.

I am attending a runthrough of an episode of Taxi during its first season of production.  Why, I have no idea.  I am, at least partly, not on Taxi’s writing staff in order to avoid going to runthroughs, more specifically, the subsequent “Rewrite Nights”, which can (and often do) extend into the following morning.  It was my preference to simply write scripts for the show and go home before it got dark.  (Or “more specifically” a second time, before it got dark and then light again.)

But somehow, inexplicably forty-five years after the fact, I am there.  It is possible I am there because the episode they are rehearsing was originally written by me, and I was simply snooping around.  What I rapidly determined in my snooping was that my script had been detectably rewritten, during the “Production Week’s” series of “Rewrite Nights.”

Suddenly, out of the predictable excitement accompanying the getting-closer-to-“Show Night” preparations, I hear the unmistakable voice of actor (and Taxi regular) Judd Hirsch, calling out,

“What happened to that ‘primordial ooze’ line from the ‘Table Reading’?  I kind of miss that line.”

I could have hugged the guy.

The “primordial ooze” line was mine, included in the “Table Reading” version of the script, but a casualty of a subsequent rewrite, replaced, it was determined, by a more predictably laugh-inducing…

“Big Joke.” 

(Let me be clear here.  Did I just throw the words “primordial ooze” out there, believing the audience would hear them and suddenly convulse into hysterics?  I most certainly did not.  I was going somewhere with it.  Though not, apparently, somewhere the show’s “Top Brass” believed would elicit “Maximum Comedic Effect.”)

So there it is.  No, wait.  Not “there it is” yet.  I had coffee this morning; I’m a little jazzed up. 

I need to include this section first.

When you write a sitcom script, you spend the better part of a day (and sometimes longer) involved in, what they call, “beating out the story.”  Which is exactly what it sounds like.  You have a story idea, and, in collaboration with the show’s “People In Charge”, you work out the developmental “beats” that will ultimately expand that story into a full-blown episode.

You go home and you write the outline.  You get “notes on your outline”, after which you go home and you write the script.  (I emphasize “go home” because that was, maybe, my favorite part of the process.  The office “energy” made me deleteriously jumpy.)

During the developmental process of the script, it was repeatedly drummed into our heads that our writing choices must remain “true to character” and as consistent as possible with identifiable reality. 

Any joke that exceeded those parameters was considered a “reach”, meaning that it stretched beyond the show’s acceptable parameters for procuring a laugh. 

(Note:  Every show had its own distinct parameters.  A joke deemed acceptable on Laverne and Shirley might be (and regularly was) considered too broad and exaggerated for Taxi.  (Hence Taxi’s generally acknowledged reputation for “higher standards.”  Not to be confused with Laverne and Shirley’s reputation for higher ratings.)
   
However…

Even on Taxi at some point – that point invariably being on “Rewrite Nights” – those parameters seem to have been temporarily shelved. 

The gloves were now off.  With the testosterone-level spiking mightily in the room, “Rewrite Night’s” unambiguous objective was to replace any joke in the script with a room-determined – adjudged by their immediate reaction to it – funnier counterpart. 

It is then that “primordial ooze” comedy becomes vulnerable to a phenomenon I have just coined and now call “Big Joke Mania”, an unbridled “Rewrite Night” ritual, in which the joke receiving the biggest laugh gets into the final version of the script, even if – and herein lies today’s argument – that “Replacement Joke” adheres less to reality and character than the more rigorous original. 

This unquestioned “Switcheroo of Standards” inevitably befuddled me.  If, during the script’s “Developmental Period”, it was demanded that the writer hew as closely to believability and “character” as possible, why did they (in my view, at least) pay diminished heed to those parameters on “Rewrite Night” and start “swinging for the fences”?

And here things get contentious.

To me – and not just in retrospect, I was always of this opinion – the inherent joke structure itself – which by definition requires a “set-up” and an accompanying “punchline” – seems irretrievably contrived. 


Do you see the problem here?  You insure that everything in the show feels real.  Then the characters open their mouths, and they speak in a Kabuki-style sitcom rhythm that nobody comes close to speaking in actual life.  And that’s not just the bad sitcoms.  It’s all of them.  (With the qualified exception of Seinfeld.) 

So, to me again – though never to a substantial portion of the television-viewing audience – regardless of its content, which may in fact be startlingly insightful, if that content is presented in a standard “set-up-punchline” formulation, you are delivering a comedic conversation pattern that is generically unnatural.  

(This, to me, explains why current sitcom writers, seeking verisimilitude in their dialogue, shy away from classic joke-writing formulas today.)

For me, it was always a search for a less formulaic “Middle Ground”, a solid joke, offered in a clever hopefully less predictable construction.  The laugh may be smaller (although, hopefully, not much smaller.)  But, in the tradeoff, your show, I believe, earns “Quality Points” (and therefore audience loyalty) for its integrity and credibility.

Contending on “Rewrite Night” – with the room’s atmosphere crackling with competitiveness, and the joko-centric “punch-up” specialists added to the mix – the “primordial ooze” line (attributing an anthropomorphic persona), actor Judd Hirsch and myself…

Are all destined to be sorely disappointed.

(NOTE:  The preceding dissertation was presented by writer for whom conventional joke-writing was not his recognizable strength.  But who did all right nonetheless.)