Monday, September 14, 2009

There’s Got to Be a Morning After

The first few years I worked for Marvel, the appearances were sporadic. And since the majority occurred on the weekend, the most any actor could hope for was booking eight days out of the month, and that wouldn’t be enough for a Spider-Man performer to support himself in New York without carrying another job or finding additional acting work… paying acting work. This was even true for the most-seasoned veteran, Jeremy, who made more per Spidey gig due to his tenure with the company.

I moonlit as a waiter, which offered flexible scheduling, although the salary sucked—the legendary Tavern on the Green, where I worked for a short time, paid only $2 an hour. But the tips made up for the shortfall.

I never made the gossip rags as an actor, but I did as a waiter (Go figure!) That's me in my waitering togs behind the left shoulder of Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau, a photo that appeared in the June 15, 1987 issue of US magazine. I was working at the famed Tavern-On-The-Green at the time.

Oftentimes I’d work the Friday before an early morning departure to a gig. Even had I gone straight home—an hour commute, if I caught the trains right; otherwise the wait between them at that time of night could be upwards of thirty minutes—I’d only be looking at a handful of hours’ sleep. That’s if I went straight home. But anyone who’s waited tables knows that as soon as the last table in your section has departed and you’ve cashed out is when your evening begins.

There was always a nearby watering hole that would be the bar of choice. The kitchen staff could usually be found already a few in the bag when the first members of the wait staff arrived. Cooks—at least those working the kitchens of New York City restaurants—are notorious for their alcoholic intake. I once worked with a head chef who hid bottles of Old Granddad whiskey in the kitchen, secreting nips as the night progressed until he could hardly stand let alone prepare a meal. A sous chef I once worked with went to the pub o’ choice after his afternoon shift one day and remained there drinking copious amounts of beer until his next shift the following afternoon, which was a double. After that next night’s shift, he went back to the bar!

And before you get all in my face about bars not permitted to legally remain open a full day, I will clarify. True, New York law states that an establishment cannot serve alcohol for 24 straight hours; they must lock their doors for at least one hour a day, during which they cannot serve. The bar of which I refer circumnavigated this law by allowing/reminding patrons to order as many drinks as they wanted before the appointed hour—I believe 5–6 am in this pub’s instance—then the owner/manager locked the doors. While the following sixty minutes ticked away, customers were free to drink those potables they had already purchased while the bartenders stood idly by until time was up. Then they’d resume their regularly scheduled service.

(Back to our posting, already in progress) Quiet nights necessitated closing sections in the restaurant early. Depending on how early would dictate whether the waiters serving those sections would either cut their losses and go home or start blowing their meager night’s tips on liquid refreshment. They were also the waiters most plastered by the end of the evening, having begun drinking the earliest.

One weekend I had a single-day, Saturday Spider-Man gig at Camden Park in Huntington, West Virginia. Whenever possible, flight arrangements were made the same day as an appearance. The convenience and possible sleep deprivation of the actor be damned. If a few shekels can be saved having Joe Spidey depart at the crack of dawn—meaning his awakening at least two hours before said crack—so be it; never mind Spider-Man’s subsequent lack of joie de vivre, the obvious absence of bounce in his step, or his mumbling of children’s names. In all honesty, it was an understandable policy. The client was picking up the tab, and the appearance fee alone was several hundred dollars a day. For a small business, that’s a hefty bit of lucre. Add one night’s stay at a hotel, plus dinner, depending on when the performer arrives, and the expense becomes too onerous to bear. Of course, the client risks the character’s being late due to a travel delay, but it was a worthwhile financial gamble.

In this instance, Camden Park was featuring two heroes, Spider-Man and Captain America, so all expenses were double. The additional cost of hotel accommodations for two people—Marvel policy insisted on each actor getting his/her own room—would have added a few hundred dollars to the total. Ouch!

And the actors, including myself, preferred leaving the morning of a gig. We were only paid a meager per diem fee of $30 for travel days when I began Web-Slinging. And that only applied if leaving before 3 pm. Thirty dollars was hardly fair recompense for a day’s work—in my case, a Friday night shift was guaranteed to bring in a hundred dollars after tipping the busboys and bartenders. The Camden Park job would allow me to appear without losing money.

Strangely, though I had moved to Queens from Jersey City several months before, my boss Barbara had scheduled me on a flight out of Newark Airport. I can only imagine that she must have made the arrangements before my relocation. She couldn’t possibly have forgotten about my move; it was her former apartment I was newly subletting. Fortunately, Turner—one of the waiters with which I worked—lived close to the airport in New Jersey. We were both working that Friday night shift, so he graciously offered to put me up at his place, from which I would leave for the airport via car service the following morning. Besides saving the client the insane amount of money it would have cost for a car service or taxi to get me to Newark Airport from my new home in Forest Hills, Queens—for cabs, there was an added charge of something like $45 on top of the meter fee for leaving the state; I think simply threatening the cabbie with a trip to New Jersey cost $25—the shortened trip to my point of departure made it possible to have a quick drink with my buddy after work.

Does anyone not know where this is going?

The Friday night shift was all that I dreamed it would be. I had to dream it; I couldn’t recall a thing by the time I got to my friend’s apartment that night… or, more precisely, early the next morning as it turned out. That quick drink turned into several, which in turn translated into, “Let’s continue this party at the Scrap Bar!”

The Scrap Bar was literally a hole in the ground. Located on MacDougal Street off Bleeker in The Village, the bar was situated down a flight of stairs from the street level. The only indication of its being anything other than a skanky, dark descent into the building’s basement was a string of barbed wire, interlaced with Christmas lights, that spanned the entrance. I believe “Scrap Bar” may have been welded into a rusted sheet of metal amid the wire, but it was hardly legible in the dim colored rays cast by the festive holiday lights. A heavy iron door—natch—lead into an only slightly more illuminated room about the size of a one-car garage, only with the headroom of a phone booth. Continuing the theme set by the name, the walls were adorned with floor-to-ceiling corrugated metal sheeting. A smattering of tables—large machinery cogs set on thick iron axles—stood before an oh-so-comfy metal bench that arced from the doorway around the left side and part of the far wall. An eight-foot bar of—wait for it—iron, stood in the far right corner from the entrance. It was fronted by metal stools.

What little illumination there was, came from fluorescent lighting set beneath the front overhang of the bar and behind overhanging metal sheets along the back of the bar. Long strands of plastic tubing (Plastic! What the—!), set with pinpoint bulbs—that afforded even less light than solar walkway lamps—meandered along the walls and ceiling; and four television sets set into the wall behind the bar, the screens of which displayed nothing; their blueprint-blue screens simply glowed. The soundtrack to this post-apocalyptic cantina was uncharacteristically not Heavy Metal, but rather Alternative. Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Roxy Music, The Cocteau Twins, et al. filled the darkness from speakers secreted in the cornices set in the metal sheeting along the walls. To call The Scrap Bar a dive would have been an insult to dives.

I loved it.

Many beers and a few shots of Ouzo later, Turner and I headed for Jersey. I vaguely recall meeting Turner’s roommate, Brian, who was still awake when we arrived sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Fortunately, he was not nearly as shit-faced as we were and was able to schedule a car service and set the clock for me to wake up a mere couple of hours hence. Brian was even prescient enough to calibrate the alarm to its loudest setting and position it next to my head on the floor where I was sleeping.

Two hours later, I still didn’t hear it. But because it was so loud, it woke Brian up in his bedroom down the hall. When the noise continued more than a minute—a clear indication that I was 1) still unconscious, 2) too hungover or stupid to figure out how to turn it off or 3) dead—he stumbled into the living room and shut it off himself, screaming curses at me the whole time. That and the fact that he might’ve kicked me—I cannot recall, but given my state, it’s entirely possible—roused me enough to rub two of my few surviving brain cells together and force myself awake.

I mumbled an apology while Turner’s roomie stomped back to his room. Actually, I said, “bibe bwowwy.” My tongue was about the size of a Sealy Posturpedic King-sized mattress and it was nestled firmly between the bags of sawdust that were my cheeks. The fact that any noise came out was an accomplishment.

I staggered to the bathroom, caroming off the walls like a pinball, Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” pounding against my skull. My stomach flip-flopped more than a candidate up for election as I stripped and pulled myself into the shower. Yes, I had factored in time to bathe. I know what you’re thinking: Why not forego the shower and sleep a little longer? First of all, an extra thirty minutes of sleep would have been inconsequential; it’s therapeutic effects on my state would not have registered, not nearly as much as a hot shower. I also didn’t want to stink of booze or body odor when confronting my fans. I also brushed my teeth, having packed my toothbrush alongside the costume in my gym bag. I wasn’t worried so much about people catching a whiff of my breath—which would have made fans look forward to my farts—because the mask provides an effective buffer. Rather, nothing helps allay impending puking more than a minty fresh mouth, mint being a homeopathic remedy for upset stomachs. Plus, to have not brushed would have meant spending the whole morning with the unappetizing taste of stale beer in my mouth, anathema to keeping one’s stomach down.

At one point during the shower I thought I was going to get reacquainted with the potables of a few hours prior, but it thankfully subsided and I was able to complete the task unimpeded. The livery blessedly awaited me when I walked out the door. I don’t think I could have handled calling the car service to inquire where my ride was, which would have entailed awaking Brian to get the number—I’m pretty sure I’d have felt the kick this go-around—dialing said number—focusing and motor functions being low on my list of abilities at the time—and wending my way through the morass of the monosyllabic-grunt exchange that would have commenced betwixt my inebriated self and the car dispatcher, ninety-percent of which could trace their roots back to the Paleolithic era. I used my waning moments of lucidity to mumble “Newark Airport” and “American” to the driver before collapsing in the backseat to catch what few winks I could manage during the quick trip to the terminal.

Mark Nutting—Captain America—was already waiting when I stumbled to the gate. Mark was the consummate Red, White and Blue Avenger: tall; blonde-haired and blue-eyed; with an expansive chest, chiseled jaw line and perfect smile. He couldn’t be more “American” if he rode in on a John Deere tractor, apple pie in hand, whistling John Philip Sousa marches. And he had the personality to match; a genuinely good, honest, charismatic fellow with a great sense of humor; the kind you’d want as a big brother; the yin to my yang… certainly if viewed at that instant. If my appearance gave any hint of the previous evening’s escapades, he didn’t acknowledge it. But he wouldn’t. I spared him the agony of being politely ignorant, quickly revealing my state. I knew he wouldn’t think ill of me; that just wasn’t his way. He simply laughed good-naturedly. Thankfully, either the additional shut-eye or the cup of coffee I now gripped and sipped settled my stomach enough to enjoy a vomit-free flight, despite the headache which continue to throb.

Here's Mark as Cap in a promotional shot from the Winter 1991 in-house Marvel newsletter. The angle makes him appear skinny, but in person, Mark filled out the costume nicely. In later years, Marvel made the Captain America actors wear a muscle suit under his signature red-white-and-blue threads. But Mark would have looked fine without it.

We landed about an hour and a half later, where we were picked up and dutifully whisked to the park. The sun was shining, and the day was already warming up to be a “scorcher,” as my mother would say. One consolation was the humidity or lack thereof. Still, I prayed we would be signing in a shaded area. I had no delusions that our event would be held inside, never mind air conditioned.

We arrived with an hour to spare before our scheduled appearance and escorted to the main office at the front gate where we would be transforming into our superheroic alter egos. Along the way our chaperone pointed out what was to be our signing area. A “holding pen” would have been a more apt description. In an empty expanse not too far from the entry gates were a dozen forest-green wooden tables, each approximately two and a half feet wide by six feet long, configured into a rectangle, which couldn’t have been more than ten feet by twice that long. Gone was any hope of shade.

Well, I was never one to “phone in” my Spider-Man appearances, regardless of the circumstances, and I wasn’t about to do so now, especially as I was responsible for my current state of infirmity. I whispered a little prayer in my head to whatever power was in charge asking for strength to see me through the day and swearing sobriety—or at least temperance—the night prior to any gig thereafter. As I pulled the mask over my head the fabric felt like a cheese grater against my scalp. I could swear the pulsating of my head was visible, resembling Fred Flintstone’s toe, the affect’s of a dropped bowling ball. With Cap leading the way, we bound from the office and hit a wall of heat.

But worse still were the rays of the sun. I was immediately blinded as the white mesh fabric that covered my eyes reflected back, effecting “snow blindness,” its debilitating brightness salting my wounded cranium; God’s spotlight, shining an accusing finger on this sinful member of his flock. A favorite adage of my grandmother came to mind in that instant: “You made your bed; now sleep in it!”

I did.

Without breaking stride, I followed my colleague, casting my eyes downward beneath the mask, which enabled me to just make out his boots below the blinding rays of the sun. I could hear the crowd cheering our approach to the makeshift superhero petting area. They appeared as nothing but amorphous shadows in my limited purview. Suddenly Cap leapt, gaining the autograph zone as the crowd parted. I followed, but seasoning my leap with spidery goodness that allowed me to cheat a leg onto the table without giving a shout-out to my feebleness.

Captain America and I stood there soaking in the adulation. Actually, we were scared witless. People screamed out our names, like those hapless fans at rock concerts who are so overwhelmed with being in the presence of their musical hero/es, they just scream his/her/their name for lack of any other way to express themselves. Only in this instance, everyone was one of those fans. And they were all straining toward us, arms outstretched with comics and assorted ephemera they wanted us to autograph. It was like a scene from Night of the Living Dead, a tide of zombies straining against slapdash barricades to get to the last humans on Earth. Maybe we should have waited until after lunch!

The park did not supply security, either, probably thinking the tables would keep the rabid hounds at bay, as it were. We were on our own, back-to-back, neither deigning to plunge into the frenzy that tightened around us as the tables inexorably scraped closer inward. Every time I considered confronting the wide-eyed, salivating spidey-o-philes encircling us, I had visions of the Scarecrow when the flying monkeys attacked in The Wizard of Oz. I’d submerge amidst a flurry of flailing arms, webbed swatches of red- and-blue flying hither and yon, only enough of me left to gesture and cry, “And then they took my Web-Shooters and threw ’em over there!” At least Cap had a shield. Of course, an ax didn’t help the Tin Man much.

Almost at once, we both decided to enter the fray. “Once more unto the breach, my friends… once more!” I shouted and jumped onto a table. Cap strode forward opposite me. Better to divide and conquer… yeah, right! I was immediately covered in hands pawing every part of my body. I felt like the water pump in The Miracle Worker. Yes, asses were fondled, heads were petted, biceps were squeezed. Fortunately, in my crouched position, I was able to keep from getting my jewels pinched. A pen appeared from a women’s handbag and she was nice enough to let me keep it after I autographed a comic book for her (Bless you!). I hate to think what would have happened had she taken it back and left me without a writing utensil to provide signatures to the rest of the pack. Still, neither my presence nor the autographs I was feverishly scribbling assuaged the roar of the crowd. You’d think I was signing blank checks.

For the next two and a half hours, I remained hunkered on the table, signing. Occasionally, I straightened for a photo, but I was quickly back in autograph mode. I signed comics, ticket stubs, napkins (They quickly ran out of the few hundred comic books that Marvel provided); a Sharpie materialized and I scribbled on sneakers, T-shirts, pant legs, backpacks, baby bibs, breasts… Yes, breasts! A woman with platinum blonde hair, enough makeup for the entire summer run of Cats and a figure that would make Dolly Parton blush pulled the top of her blouse down to the tips of her aureolae and commanded, “Sign these!” The view was vertiginous to say the least. The NFL ground crews responsible for painting the team logos in the end zone have less room with which to work. I took full advantage. John Hancock was turning in his grave with envy when I was done. This set off a torrent of requests for autographed breasts. I felt like I should have thrown beads.

This evolved to other body parts; arms, legs, feet, faces, foreheads, backs and asses! It was inevitable. This was long before the “Brittany” look, so in most cases, there was less of a peek than one would get from the average plumber, Joe or otherwise. Still, it was surreal; a nerd who used to think Trixie on Speed Racer was hot, now inundated with women exposing themselves to him. Oscar Wao eat your heart out!

Not that it was all cheesecake. Oftimes it was chicken thighs, cellulite and stretch marks. Elderly women who hadn’t been so excited since The Lawrence Welk Show was renewed the first time were hitching up their bloomers, unsettling my fragile stomach. The few times I hesitated when confronted with underage girls, their moms goaded me on, sidling up with their pound of flesh as soon as their daughters were done getting branded.

Throughout, the sun’s rays beat down and the temperature rose steadily as noon approached. I was one big ache and soaked with sweat. I must’ve reeked of alcohol, but no one commented. Who knows, maybe that’s what sent the females wild. I didn’t see Mark once, but at some point past noon, he tapped me on the shoulder and addressed the crowd in a stentorian voice that could only have been Captain America’s. “Sorry folks, Spider-Man and I have to take care of some business. We’ll be back later.” I wanted to kiss him and sigh, “My hero!” Instead, I alit from the table and bolted from the area, breaking land speed records on my way to our dressing room and respite from the horde of hysterical humans and the heat.

As much as I wanted to unzip, my hands were shaking and I couldn’t quite get my arms over my head, the result of severe dehydration. Mark was directly behind me, though, and gave me a hand. My head must have looked like a newborn’s when I unmasked, squeezed after hours of steady compression. I collapsed in a chair and wallowed in the euphoric cool of the office air conditioning. After copious amounts of water and a sandwich (By this time, I had sweated out the toxins poisoning my body and was ravenous… and strangely desirous of a glass of milk.) I was feeling better. The headache was gone, but I was overcome with fatigue. Still, I didn’t dread the resumption of signing the way I shuddered in anticipation of the earlier round.

Also lunching at this time was World Wrestling Federation (neé World Wrestling Entertainment) celebrity Sergeant Slaughter, who was also a member of the G.I. Joe Adventure Team on a then Saturday morning cartoon, entitled G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (In the mid-eighties, Hasbro re-envisioned G.I. Joe from a single 12-inch doll to a team of 3-inch elite special forces operatives). The Joe cartoon ran in various incarnations from 1985 to 1991, and during its run Slaughter was introduced as a Joe.

An imposing figure, Slaughter turned out to be an amiable family man of two little girls, who made his home in Connecticut. He revealed his desire to design and begin a program of special countrywide appearances with actors playing the various members of G.I. Joe. No foreigner to character events himself, he took great interest in Mark and I and our escapades (I wisely failed to mention that morning’s indiscretion). Similarly, we were not shy about extolling our virtues as actors and experience as characters, as we tried to convince the good Sergeant that we’d be perfect for his little venture. Numbers were exchanged and Mark and I turned our attention to Slaughter’s wrestling career. He neither supported the veracity of the “sport” nor disavowed it. And we respectfully didn’t press the issue. He claimed his signature move the Cobra Clutch was authentic and that no one had yet been able to break the hold. I certainly wasn’t going to test him on the point.

That afternoon’s signing went much the same as the morning’s with the exception that I wasn’t running on fumes and the sun, having started its descent, was less oppressive. By the last hour, it had settled behind some trees, and Cap and I found ourselves shaded with an occasional breeze pleasantly soothing our weary bones. It seemed as if my penance had been completed.

The park officials thought it a shame that we didn’t have time to try out a few rides. A devout rollercoaster aficionado, I would normally jump at the chance to pop my coaster cherry at Camden Park, even if it risked missing my flight. But my body had been battered enough, and I was grateful not to have to invent some excuse for not accepting their hospitality.

It was at this moment that Mark elected to tell our hosts of my morning malaise (Apparently, Pollyanna, he’s not!), unsubtly remarking how “Steve, probably isn’t in any condition to enjoy the kiddie rides, never mind a rollercoaster (So much for the adage: ‘You can take the man out of the Captain America costume, but you can’t take the Captain America out of the man.’).” It was quite a revelation to the attendants, who would’ve never guessed that I was suffering, considering the great job I had done as Spider-Man. We shared a laugh, and the park officials went on to relate another Cap/Spidey appearance of a few years prior, during which the actor playing Captain America went on the coaster soon after lunch. It wasn’t immediately apparent that anything was amiss as the two heroes disembarked, other than the fact that the good Captain was holding his shield strap-side up and horizontally to the ground as if he were panning for gold. The Red-White-and-Blue Avenger had hit the mother lode, all right, but it wasn’t gold chunks he’d discovered!

As we were driven to the airport, I was thankful I hadn’t contributed anything new to the park’s dubious legacy. I couldn’t imagine having lost my lunch while in the suit. Talk about a facial! Ugh! The gig was a complete success and blessedly uneventful. But the appearance wasn’t over yet…

Unsurprising, I had no recollection of how small the airport was and, it being a Saturday evening, the terminal—all one of them from what I could tell—was empty, aside from a ticket agent or two and some security personal. Mark and I each carried not but a single over-the-shoulder bag, his noticeably larger as the Captain America costume was more involved—with boots, gloves, headpiece, etc.—than Spider-Man’s. There was also the matter of the shield. Still a few years from Marvel Personal Appearance heyday, when all the costumes would get a much-needed upgrade and several new characters were introduced, Cap’s shield was transported in the same duffel bag with the rest of his togs. A heavy, cumbersome, metal thing, the shield measured in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half to three feet wide. Scrapes from numerous battles with screaming fans across the country covered its surface, and the bolts which fastened the strap to the back penetrated its face like the neck bolts on Frankenstein’s monster. On the gatekeepers’ security monitor, Cap’s shield must have looked like a satellite dish.

I had just eased through the checkpoint and was picking up my bag when I heard the confused voice of the security agent manning the screen inquiring about the strange item in Mark’s luggage which had just passed her view.

“Sir, what’s do you have in your bag?” she asked Mark.

“Oh, that’s my shield… I’m Captain America.” he innocently replied with a toothy grin.

“Excuse me?”

By this time the second agent at the walk-through metal detector had come over. I could see that Mark’s response was not going over too well, so…

“And I’m Spider-Man!” I offered (What the Hell was I thinking?!!).

As if my two cents hadn’t exacerbated the situation enough, I unzipped my bag and drew out part of the costume…

“See?” I added, as though I had just presented the key evidence to the jury. What was I expecting, the agents slapping their foreheads like they could have had a V-8, offering a drawn-out “Oh-h-h-h…,” and sending us on our way, apologizing for their stupidity?

The agent picked up her mike and said one word: “Security.”

As Mark and I desperately tried to explain exactly who we were—visions of spending the night in the county hoosegow dancing in our heads—two gun-toting airport officers appeared at the gate. The situation looked hopeless.

“I can vouch for them, officers.”

Sergeant Slaughter had just entered the gate area. He still wore his signature hat and mirrored glasses, though even sans these the gate personnel would have recognized him. Turns out, one of the security guards had heard of the event at Camden Park that day. In fact, his wife had taken their kids there to see Spider-Man. After handing out a few autographed comic books—the smart actors always kept extras with them—we were on our way. On the flight, I couldn’t help but wonder why we had so much trouble at the gate until Slaughter arrived. Didn’t the gate agents know that a Captain far outranks a Sergeant?


John III said...

Good to see you back Vroom! That was some long story. A good one though! There is nothing worse than going to work with a hangover. It's been many years since I had to and I don't ever plan on it again. I did however,get really messed up a two years ago after a Halloween party dressed up as Captain Jack Sparrow. But I really wanted to nail my part! lol One of my friends drove me home as my wife didn't go since we had a newborn at the time. So as we get about 3 blocks from my house..we get pulled over by the police. There we are, Captain Jack and...Evil Kneivel. So the officer asks him what planet he is from, gets him out and runs sobriety checks on him. I promptly pass out before I throw up. 20 minutes later, he gets back into the car and says we can go. I muttered something like, "get me home I'm seasick." and the rest... is history. Which means I've never come home like that since!

Vroom! said...

Hi John!
Great story. If you're going to get shnockered, what better way to do so than as Captain Jack Sparrow? I hope you were drinking rum, Captain Morgan preferably :-)

I never got drunk before an appearance after the Camden Park gig. Now, AFTER a gig... that's another story!

Thanks for reading!

John III said...

Yes, it was Captain Morgan....and with some helpings of Red wine. Never, never again. This year my friend and I are going as Jake and Elwood Blues. Wife doesn't want to go again. She's pregnant again. Go figure? I owe her big time I'm sure!