Friday, April 15, 2011

I try to cope

Years ago I was working with a very successful writer on a play he had written that was being workshopped in Westchester County somewhere.  He had been one of the writers on All in the Family and . . . I don’t know what.  I think, actually, he wrote for the Dick Van Dyke Show.  And truly I would name drop here if I could remember his name.  I can’t.  Anyway, he had this amazing gigantic garden apartment in the West Village.  I lived in Little Dominica, which may or may not be what it was or is actually called, in a roach and rat infested hovel somewhere between Harlem and some nice place farther north.  On occasion, you know a clear day, I had a view of the guy across the alley getting out of the shower. It wasn’t really a selling point. 

It was a nightmarish trek to get from the workshop space in Westchester to my apartment in the upper reaches of Manhattan.  It took anywhere from two to three and a half hours depending on the trains, planes, buses and my feet.  Oh and the time of day and perhaps even the time of year.  Consequently one night when we had worked very late the playwright offered me a ride home.  Successful sitcom writers do not ride public transportation.  He drove a BMW.  I naturally accepted his generous offer because turning my three hour commute, at that time of night, into a 20 minute car ride was a no brainer as they say.  I discovered very quickly though that he didn’t take direction well.  So naturally we got completely turned around in my neighborhood after getting off the highway and while I was trying to get him pointed in the right direction he ended up going the wrong way on a one way street. And again no surprise this happened in front of a policeman.  I know that you somehow knew that was coming.  Of course he got pulled over and the officer, as if following a sitcom script, said “sir, are you aware that this is a one way street?”.  Remember this is a sitcom and he was a sitcom writer so his response was naturally “I'm only going one way”.   Apparently someone forgot to point out to him along the way that NYC policemen carry guns. I guess you can get away with that if you are driving a BMW in a crappy neighborhood in upper Manhattan at 1:00 in the morning and you look terrified.  So he didn’t get a ticket and I got home.  He also made it home which I know because I saw him the next day.  

But I learned from this experience that the one way to do something depends on your situation and perspective.  And yes there is usually a best way but sometimes that is just not possible.  I also learned that terror is not always useful.  Panic can definitely get you turned around.  So the other day I got an order for some brackets that are probably a variation on a design from some major European drapery hardware manufacturer.  Only there is no way for me to confirm or refute this because, as with most of the orders I get, it came in the form of a napkin drawing.    And don’t pretend that you don’t know what that is.  Every designer and workroom I have ever worked with does it.  It’s usually a crude pencil sketch of a complex part with some dimensions.  They are actually a remarkably efficient way of communicating in my opinion.  They just look rediculous.
How could I have questions?
The thing about purchase orders from designers is that they are a little bit like sheet music if you aren't a musician.  They make no sense and somehow they can be translated into something beautiful by people who have spent years alone working on their craft and therefore can understand them. This napkins sketch was of a bracket that looked to be entirely machined.  How can I tell?  Trust me. Ahhh, I love saying that.  Anyway, this would be tricky because, although I do have a lathe and grinders and a drill press, I do not have a milling machine which would have been the best way to do this.  Not the only way, however.  The brackets consisted of a ¾” round solid bar about 11” long with a 1 1/8” dia. cope cut out of one end for a rod to sit in.  They mounted on a hidden stem that was attached to a covered back plate.  Very slick.  I'm sure you can see all of this in the napkin sketch.   

After looking at the sketch for about a week I concluded that getting the cope was the trick without a milling machine.  The rest of it was cake.  I finally decided that my best choice was to use a drum sander in a die grinder.  My only question was how ugly would this be.  Okay, not my only question.  I did wonder if it would work at all. 

Turns out it was noisy and it was dirty and it was probably a little slower than a mill would have been but in the end the brackets came out looking just the way the designer wanted them to look.  So, although I went the wrong way down the one way street, I still managed to get to my destination.  

Coped round bar

There is probably no lesson here, there almost never is, but feel free to take what you want from it. I enjoyed making the tools I had do the work that needed to be done.  

The unfinished completed brackets

Now back to work.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I don’t know how many of you have tried Bikram yoga.  I haven’t.  Bikram, as I understand it, is a yoga practice where you go into a room where the temperature is set at 105 degrees and you do difficult yoga poses for an hour.  I’m not exactly sure why it needs to be 105 but I’m pretty sure I would be a limp noodle after that.  I don’t really need to spend any more time in that sort of heat.  The only thing that would make Bikram more like my work experience for six out of the twelve months of the year would be if it lasted many more hours and you had to wear a leather apron, a respirator and a hood.  Oh and you would need to stand in front of a 2000 degree forge and the room would actually need to be more like 125 degrees.  As you can imagine Bikram has very little appeal to me.  So you might be surprised to find out that this past week I reacquainted myself with what I like to call Billkram.  There is no yoga involved.  I generally have a love/hate relationship with working in live theater.  There is something compelling about the collaboration and the drive to curtain, but mostly it‘s painful.  My buddy Bill is a “tech something” at a theater in LA.  He’s in charge of getting the shows up.  And I will say he is amazingly good at it.  I haven’t actually ever met anybody that I think is better.  If you have a theatrical vision, Bill is the guy to make it happen, and every once in a while he hires me to help on a project.   The projects I’m brought in for are always challenging and thus we arrive at Billkram.

Billkram can best be described as a fitness program for the completely insane.  In this case it involved climbing two flights of stairs followed by an open frame staircase followed by a 55’ of uncaged ladder to the grid in a theater built in 1918 to do some rigging.    The platform at the base of the ladder was made of an open weave steel frame.  That way if you lost your grip on the worn smooth rungs you would be julienned before you hit the stage floor another thirty feet below that. The grid itself was made up of 2” I-beams with 6” gaps.  One of which was loose.  My foot easily fits in a 6" gap.  There was one moment while I was up there that I couldn’t decide if it was better to be there or on the stage when the big quake hit.  There was almost a hundred years worth of junk just lying around.  Old fly pulleys and turnbuckles and bolts.  If it shook hard enough a lot of stuff would fall.  Of course, so might I.  

Anyway, you don’t really need heat to work up a sweat when you are experiencing terror, but fortunately it’s really hot eight and a half stories up.  And in case you are wondering even if only one other person can see you, crawling is undignified.  So once the trembling subsides a bit, you just need to walk over and around the fly system.  Periodically you might trip and, of course, the crew on stage is flying things in and out so that the cables keep moving.  Fortunately the "head light" that was lent to me failed to last more than a couple of minutes so I spent most of my time in the dark.  Except when one of the other two people up there looked at me.  Then I was blinded by their "head lights", which seemed to work just fine.  In some ways it's probably better that I couldn't see anything but the gaps.  That way if a bat or some rodent scurried by I wouldn't know it.  This, in fact, only happened while I was in the alley. 

The goal of this particular Billkram session was to climb to the heated grid and hoist up a few thousand pounds of black drapes and a large wall that was scenery.  I might be exaggerating the weight, but I have no idea. For the wall we got to use manual chain hoists.  This involved kneeling on the I-beams and pulling on a chain until entirely drenched with my own sweat and then pulling much more.  I got a blister.  As a side note, the people onstage wanted to know what we were dropping.  I told them to get an umbrella.  Not that we could hear each other at that distance.  Anyway, that might have been the easy part.  We didn’t use hoists for the drapes.  Forty feet of black velvet pulled thirty feet into the air.  Better get two umbrellas.  After about seven hours it was time to climb down.  The Billkram session was almost over.  And, of course, by then you don’t care anymore if you drop the eight and a half stories.  It would be a relief.  

Obviously, though, I made it down and back up the next day for more.  But once again I was reminded of why I always return to my cave to make things.  Even the summers in front of the forge are easier than Billkram.

Now back to work.