Jeffrey took an interest in the mailman when he was seven years old. It was summertime and so he was free to sit by the bay window at one o’clock each day to wait for the truck, refusing to return to his toys until the mailman had visited our mailbox. He waited for three hours one Sunday before Dad told him the mailman wouldn’t be coming.
Jeffrey claimed his fascination for the mailman stemmed from a social studies lesson about the United States Postal Service. He was carefully observing the mailman each day because he was considering a career in the mail business. We told him he’d have to wait a couple years before he could career-shadow a mailman.
I happened to come home at a quarter to one on a Tuesday and saw Jeffrey marching to the mailbox with what looked like a letter in hand. We made eye contact as I pulled my bike into the driveway. He spun on his heels and walked back inside.
I found him pouring over an episode of SpongeBob like nothing had happened. Asked him about the letter. He didn’t hear me the first time, so I asked again. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. And, could I please be quiet so that he could pay attention to SpongeBob? He didn’t observe the mailman from the bay window that day.
I found him at his post the next day. Sitting on the loveseat. Staring expectantly, through the bay window, at the mailbox.
The mail truck crept into view. A mailman with a bushy grey mustache sifted through envelopes, grabbed a few, and opened the door to the mailbox. He furrowed his brow when he looked inside. He pulled out a sheet of paper and read it. Then he looked at our house and considered it for a moment. His face was forlorn.
Jeffrey chuckled and left the room.
The next day, I announced that I would be running some errands. I could feel Jeffrey’s eyes boring into my back as I marched out the front door. It was a quarter to one and I had nowhere to go. So I rode my bike around the block.
When I came back, Jeffrey was visible through the bay window. He jumped to his feet as I approached the mailbox. I found a folded sheet of unlined paper inside. In the erratic penmanship of a second grader, Jeffrey had written:
i hate you and nobody ever loved you
yours truly, jeffrey
Jeffrey had fled his perch by the window and before I could walk the driveway the mail truck pulled up beside me. The mailman opened his mouth to say something but shut it again when he saw Jeffrey’s letter in my hand.
He said, got more hate mail for me? Well I got mail for you, too. Then, he shoved our mail in my face and drove away.
Jeffrey stopped writing him.
It was Memorial Day weekend and, as such, quite crowded on the beach. They walked a ways, past sunbathers and surfers, and settled on a sparse stretch opposite some coquina rock. Then they put down towels and waxed their boards and cracked open beers.
Somebody said it would be smart to eat the sandwiches right away. Otherwise they might get sandy. So they dug in.
A seagull landed nearby and cocked its head to watch them eat. Then another landed. And another. One after the other until they were surrounded by a legion of seagulls. It was quite common to see such flocks at the beach. But they always maintained a respectable distance, so nobody thought anything of their growing numbers.
Billy unwrapped the first half of his sandwich. The chef had been generous. There was a layer of tuna three or four inches thick. He savored it. Clumps of tuna dribbled down his chin and dropped on his lap.
His friends said the sandwich stunk. The seagulls cocked their heads. One by one, they inched closer to Billy. Curious sunbathers watched from the safety of their towels.
A bird as big as a basset hound hopped over to him. It was missing a foot and had no shame. It cocked its head and assessed Billy’s size and pecked at his crotch. He shooed it away and took another bite. His friends were wrapping up their sandwiches and urged him to follow suit, but he just kept eating.
Another seagull dropped out of the sky like a feathered meteor, grabbed the second half of the tuna sandwich, and flew away. Billy jumped to his feet, cursing, and gave chase. A handful of other gulls took flight too, squawking in excitement, eager to share in the spoils. They collided midair, exploding into a white fireball that landed in the ocean.
The sight so disturbed the remaining birds that they took to the air and circled the picnickers. Neighboring parties relocated their towels to avoid the fray. Bird shit rained down on Billy and his friends so they ran away.
The flock chased Billy like an angry cloud. His lungs filled with fear and he screamed. Help me! Help me!
The birds chased him all the way to a crown of coquina rock. He turned around and ran the other way. The flock followed.
People watched and shouted for Billy to go this way or that way. Go into the water! Fight back! Drop the sandwich!
Billy weighed his options. Finish his tuna sandwich while being pursued by 20 seagulls. Or, drop it and go hungry the rest of the day. He reached the boardwalk and turned to run the hundred yards back to the coquina ridge. The birds followed.
Sunbathers stood up from their towels to watch Billy Hiller finish his tuna fish sandwich while evading the flock. One bite after another, he ate his lunch while on the run. Reached the coquina rock and ran back to the boardwalk with the squawking flock on his heels.
He tossed back the last of his sandwich and screamed victory. The birds knew the sandwich was gone and landed in defeat. They hobbled around, pecking at sand and shells and each other.
Billy Hiller ran at them with everything he had. They exploded into flight and landed again a few dozen yards away. When they settled, he chased them again. And again and again and again.
He refused to let them rest. All day long, until he was red in the face and it was time to go home.
Billy Hiller hasn’t eaten tuna fish since.
I met Alan Thicke while working on my first real movie in 2006. It was a low-budget comedy and he was starring. I’d never heard of him before.
I was hired to be a producer’s assistant. Which really meant that I was an unpaid intern. The executive producer told me that he had absolutely nothing for me to do. He’d only hired me for tax purposes.
We were shooting on an empty floor in a Daytona Beach hospital. The set was crawling with leathery grips, who were indistinguishable from plumbers. All of the camera technicians looked like the walking dead with oysters under their eyes. The AD ran amuck like a headless chicken. The entire crew seemed perpetually stressed and miserable and haggard.
But talent were glamorously pampered. Each had his and her own trailer and enjoyed television and air conditioning and praise. The crew bowed and curtseyed and rolled out the red carpet each time an actor descended on set. They made out like bandits.
The only thing I ever had to do was help Alan Thicke troubleshoot his television remote. I was aimlessly wandering the hall when he stuck his head out and said, hey guy, can you help me out here? I stepped into his room and he pointed the remote at the television and shrugged. It didn’t work.
I vaguely recognized him. He had familiar features. A square-nose below a pronounced forehead below a thick silver mane. I fiddled with the remote, trying to place his face.
He was familiar like the neighbor with whom you’ve never spoken but always wave to. Like a grocery store manager you pass in the frozen section and nod to. Or like an old pediatrician I’d long forgotten. Namely because he was wearing scrubs for his upcoming scene.
They later told me that Alan Thicke was the dad on Growing Pains. I’d never seen Growing Pains before. Had to google it to figure out what it was.
No matter how many times I pointed the remote at the television, it wouldn’t work. Pressed the buttons as hard as I could and still it wouldn’t turn on. I began to sweat.
All the while, Mr. Thicke observed me with a sense of detachment, like he was in another room watching from a security monitor. I didn’t want to fail the only task of my internship. I didn’t want to let him down.
It took me a few minutes to discover that the television was unplugged. So I plugged it in. Then the television and remote worked flawlessly.
Mr. Thicke thanked me and asked how long before he would be needed on set. He wanted to take a nap. I said I didn’t know. He made a pffffft sound and scanned me from head to toe like I was defending a geocentric view of the universe. Then he asked if I wanted to be an actor.
I said that I wanted to be a filmmaker.
He raised his caterpillar eyebrows and nodded in slow motion. He settled on The Price is Right and stopped flipping through the channels and crossed his legs in the British style. Then he turned his full attention to me.
He said that he had a son about my age named Robin. Maybe a little older. But roughly the same age. Anyway, somehow, at some point, Robin had gotten it into his head that he was going to be a musician.
Mr. Thicke said that he’d spent years and years trying to deter Robin from pursuing a career in entertainment. He’d warned his son that it would be a long, arduous struggle and that there was absolutely no guarantee that he’d ever amount to anything.
My heart sank. Mr. Thicke looked me over and smiled. He said that filmmaking was a hard path, too. Even people with connections in Hollywood fail to break in.
What’s Robin’s backup plan? Mr. Thicke shrugged and said that he was a stubborn kid. He didn’t have one. And the unfortunate thing was, Robin’s career was slow going.
Very, very slow.
My last production gig in Florida was for SeaWorld Orlando. They wanted a bunch of pre-show videos featuring glassy-eyed trainers talking about all the animals. Something to show guests on the jumbotron above Shamu Stadium.
On day one we shot at Discovery Cove, where guests pay hundreds of dollars to swim with dolphins in pools lined with faux rock and manicured palms and food carts. A square-jawed trainer named Brent waded into the pool and read cue cards about echolocation and melons and positive reinforcement. A bottlenose dolphin named Penny floated patiently at his side.
Brent readied his whistle, nodded, and flicked a wrist. Penny zipped past him and jumped and everybody groaned. She’d failed to slap the water with her tail flukes before jumping, which was an integral part of the maneuver. As a result, we didn’t get our shot and Penny didn’t get a fish.
The director called cut and we rolled again. And Penny missed again. And again and again and again and again and again and again and then she finally got it and we broke for lunch.
I struck up conversation with a dolphin trainer named Becky. She had sun-bleached hair and bronze skin and aspired to work with orcas. I asked her a lot of questions because I had an inherent interest in zoology that had developed during my Fat Stage in middle school. And also because I thought she was pretty.
Becky said that orcas are dolphins and dolphins are very smart. Nobody knows how smart they are, though. The Shamu tank is divided into different sections. SeaWorld opens and closes different gates at different times to keep the orcas stimulated.
I asked her about Tilikum. The big orca who ate the head trainer a few months prior. Becky said she didn’t want to talk about it. So we chatted about the weather instead.
On day two we set up at Shamu Stadium. They called an orca named Katina to the main pool and closed the gates to keep the others out. She had a newborn baby, Makaio. The senior trainer, Constance, waded onto a shallow lip and fed Katina to keep her close.
Constance explained that Makaio wasn’t nursing and nobody knew why. Should he decide to nurse, said Constance, we have to cut and let him finish. Absolutely no interference allowed.
We got a couple of takes of mother and son at the edge of the tank, on their marks. Then, Makaio submerged and began nursing. Constance called cut and was all smiles. The crew oohed and aahed.
After a few moments Katina dropped below the surface, forced Makaio to stop nursing, and pushed him onto the ledge so that he was fully exposed to the air. Constance gaped in shock. Katina gaped for fish.
We started shooting again. Finished early, solely because of Katina’s assistance. Makaio had lost his interest in nursing by the time we wrapped.
They opened the gates and a third orca swam into the main tank. He hugged the glass and lapped the pool like a black torpedo with swiveling eyes. Searching every nook and cranny because he knew he’d missed something.
I pressed my face to the glass. He locked eyes with me on every pass. Then the AD told me to collect the crew’s trash.
We shot in the sick bay on our last day. It was warehouses and concrete and razor wire. They had a couple of SeaWorld executives in suits standing over a little pool filled with sea turtles. Talking all about their efforts to rehabilitate injured wildlife. Conservation. Preservation. Breeding programs. Flashing pearly whites and talking about the future. Our children and our children’s children.
At wrap the gaffer asked me to carry a bunch of equipment back to the vans. Lugging C-stands and lights and hampers back and forth. All under the watchful gaze of a bottlenose dolphin.
He was in an above-ground pool that couldn’t have been more than twenty feet in diameter. Just deep enough for him to submerge and turn around. He propped his head on the edge of the pool and watched me do my job. Stared me right in the eye when I looked. And I could feel his eyes on me when I wasn’t looking.
It reminded me of an uncomfortable and cathartic bus trip I had in Milan, once. An old woman wouldn’t take her eyes off me. Just smiled and watched me read my book. Unapologetic, too.
I couldn’t concentrate with her eyes on me so I tried to make small talk. She didn’t speak English. I didn’t know Italian. So I just nodded and smiled back and she kept watching me.
This dolphin was the same. Like somebody who spoke a different language. Using his eyes to communicate with me because that’s all he had.
At the end of the shoot Becky said I should apply for a job at SeaWorld. Said I was a good fit. I told her I had actually applied and been hired at the beginning of 2010. Took a test about cetaceans and pinnipeds and sirenians and aced it.
A jovial lady in a pink muumuu gave me a W2 and an I9 and everything was fine and we joked. Then, she said I was supposed to do a drug test and my heart stopped. There’d been nothing on the application about any fucking drug test.
She led me to a man shaped in form and personality like a fire hydrant. He asked for some leg hair. I had no choice but to say yes. He trimmed a bunch from my right shin.
I got a phone call from a restricted number a couple of days later. I answered and heard a lot of static. A gravelly voice asked if it was me and I said yes. It was Dr. Charles Weimeraner, of Anheuser-Busch. He asked if I was ready to hear the results of my drug test.
I said yes. Then there was a really really long pause. Really really long. Like he was going to tell me I had HIV.
Then he said, you tested positive for THC. I considered my options. I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He ignored me and asked when I’d last used.
Truth is, the last time I’d used was twenty minutes before his call.
But I told him I’d taken a single puff of weed on July 4th, six months prior. He laughed and said he found that hard to believe. My leg hair was more cannabis than human.
I got an official letter stating that SeaWorld had a zero-tolerance drug policy. For the safety of employees, guests, and animals.
A few days later, Tilikum dismembered the head trainer. On the 24th of February. The day I was supposed to start.
The L train serves millions and runs from 8th Avenue to Canarsie. I used to live off the Halsey Stop. It was crowded at all hours of the day. Filled with glassy-eyed commuters in the morning and inebriated hipsters at night. Took me thirty minutes to get to work on a good day.
I rarely got a seat. I didn’t like to stand in the morning because I was tired and dreaded work. And, I didn’t like to stand in the evening because I was tired and dreaded my shitty apartment.
Every once in a while I’d get a seat. And then some elderly lady would hobble on and and I’d feel obligated to surrender it.
One time an empty train car rolled to a stop right in front of me. Not a soul on it. The other cars were packed. I strolled into the empty car and planted my ass right in the center. Felt pretty proud of myself. Like I was getting away with something.
When the doors closed I caught the stench of rancid vomit. We accelerated and left Halsey and I considered walking between train cars to escape. But the MTA says not to do that. I was afraid I’d fall to my demise. So I stayed in my seat and endured the scent of upchuck.
It was the worst thing I’ve ever smelled. It was as though the perpetrator had collected the spew and cooked it in a wok. Or baked it in an oven. Or swallowed it only to shit it out again. Like rotten eggs and curdled milk and hot orange juice and other people’s cooking and feet. A stink so putrid it was visible. Hung frozen in the air like dragon’s breath.
I buried my nose in my sweater and found puke there too. My olfactory receptors were singed. Corneas burnt.
I changed cars at Myrtle-Wyckoff. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder. I didn’t get a seat.
But I did have a view of the empty car. A man in a suit noticed all the space and goose-stepped right in. Sat center-car, grinning stupidly, like he was getting away with something.
Then the doors closed and his eyes bulged and he grabbed his throat. Opening and closing his maw like a bass gasping for oxygen. Stood up and paced around urgently on stiff-legs, looking for an out. The doors opened at DeKalb and he ran into my car.
He was green and dripping sweat and on the verge of tears. People inched away from him, eying him like he was a crazy man. He smelled like puke.
I surfaced at Union Square. Threw out my sweater for good measure, then went to work.
He was all arms and legs and Adam’s Apple. There was a parakeet in a vest perched on his finger. He walked very slowly because he was admiring his bird.
People watched him with curiosity and contempt. A lady in a leotard tried to pass him but it was crowded and he had his elbows out.
Suddenly Leotard Lady screamed and dropped her bags and startled everyone.
She threw her arms wide as if to bear-hug somebody. The Bird Man stopped and turned around and glared at her. Then Katie Holmes leaped into Leotard Lady’s open arms.
Katie swung her purse in a great arc and smacked the parakeet right off The Bird Man’s finger. He shouted, my bird, my bird! Katie was too busy hugging the lady in the suit to notice.
The parakeet fluttered around and screeched. The Bird Man plucked him out of the air and put him back on his finger. He yelled, watch where you’re going!
Katie Holmes paid no attention. She locked arms with Leotard Lady and they paraded down 7th Avenue like schoolgirls. The Bird Man continued walking north.
My friend came out of the bodega. I told her I’d just seen Katie Holmes. She said she’d just seen a man with a parakeet in a vest.