I awake, awash in panicked disorientation.
Spilled out of my hammock, tangled awkwardly or perhaps intentionally by the meticulous and intricate weave.
If a hammock is nothing else, it is a playful joke on the uninitiated. Impossible to get into or out of while maintaining the least shred of dignity. Not unlike bicycles, the hammock’s trick isn’t difficult or complicated, merely a technique of establishing a relationship or perhaps détente with one’s center of gravity. But until you have internalized that trivial lesson the nefarious device will not spare you, it will find no end of amusement in callously humiliating you when availed of opportunity.
In the sub-tropical Yucatan peninsula the hammock is ubiquitous. And not for nothing. The citizens of the Yucatan share their milieu with the denizens of the Yucatan…a veritable ‘who knows what’s which’ of insects, small reptiles slithering and otherwise, arachnids, and other miscellaneous critters, of which only a scant few are not annoying, irritating, poisonous or deadly. The hammock, in a rather endearing and simple way, solves the problem of nocturnal cohabitation with this cornucopia, the lot of which aspire to nothing more than a chance to snuggle up in the warm, moist, comfy dark space between a mattress, a blanket, and a sleeping body. It is also quickly stowed and quickly deployed just about anywhere you can tie a rope.
Mine was a beauty. Remarkable complexity of color and engineering. Strength in simple waxed hemp string and a traditional peasant pattern that puts the lie to the conceit that science and nuance are the domain of the intellectual and erudite. Laboriously woven by a sun-weathered and handsome old Mayan woman, I purchased the hammock from her myself, at the door to her adobe hovel, ridiculously and shamelessly overpaying her an obscenity of American currency for it. Playing the starring role of the stupid gringo tourist I gladly gave her $12 dollars, many times her asking price which even in 1972 dollars was a pittance for such an amazing embodiment of artisan craft. What seemed like economic stupidity and largesse to her was really anything but…I could have sold the damn thing two weeks later in New York City for ten times the twelve, though that was not my intent. It was simply the most beautiful hammock I had ever seen, and I own it to this day.
My hammock remains true to its essence, amusing itself as it was by entangling me like a fly in a spiders’ web. It has been slung in an unusual place, far removed in time and distance from its mother in Mexico; center-stage, in the pre-dawn darkness of the theatre in Boston where I work, from the stage left lighting pipes to the stage right lighting pipes,.
Maybe the better way to say that is “the theatre in Boston to which I am enthralled.”
Sleeping onstage is a little bit odd and extraordinary. Well, not TERRIBLY odd and extraordinary…some performances I’ve seen it certainly felt like the performers may have been asleep, snoring their way through their parts and dutifully hitting their marks. But that’s entirely different. I ended up closing the main stage curtain, separating myself from the vast dark expanse of green-upholstered seats. It would be a bit warmer like that, not quite so exposed to scrutiny.
Shaking off groggy sleep, I recover my equilibrium and my bearings and locate the cause of my alarm: There on the floor just a foot or two upstage of my head, is a slithering pile of old hemp rope. In fact it is still in the process of uncoiling, serpentine, from its erstwhile perch high up on the fly grid, the trailing end still yet falling to the floor.
Stage work and the people attracted to it develop an insular, close-knit guild. Like circus roustabouts or America’s Cup sailors. I count myself a member of this oddly-flavored community. As you’ll find in any guild there are behavioral norms, unwritten laws, and codes of conduct.
Codes for revenge, retaliation, and retribution, member-to-member within the guild are most interesting. Like the combat military where overreaching and dangerously reckless CO’s are fragged by friendly fire in the heat and chaos of combat, the stage has a unique recipe for meting out retribution, but unlike the hapless ROTC heroes it’s ultimately harmless. The recipe: One unsuspecting stage manager/ artistic director/lighting designer who has made staff abuse and misery his professional calling card; and One bit of unscrupulous stagecraft. Mix until seething annoyance festers.
The code of conduct of the stage categorically forbids revenge against actors and performers, EVER. But when an “insufferably pompous authority” badly needs a lesson taught, the likely first step of his education is the simple but effective “dropped rope.”
The flying/rigging system of a stage is a splendid thing . Above the stage is an open area where the scenery and lighting equipment is flown. Above that is the grid, a platform at the very top of the building, perhaps 70 or 80 feet above the stage deck where pulleys guide ropes and cables, carrying the static weight of the flown scenery and lights. The ropes traverse the fly grid then back down to the fly deck, an elevated platform off the floor, stage right, where the ropes and cables are tied off to a pin rail with belaying pins. In fact it looks much like the deck of a clipper ship or frigate of the high seas. “Arrrrr, Matey.” The lore of sailor and stage rigger are in some ways intertwined.
Retribution is swift and ruthless. The person of interest is coaxed to a mark onstage. The stagehand at the fly deck locates an unloaded rope at that location and pulls the belaying pin securing it, and walks away. Within the next twenty ticks or so the incrementally overbalanced section of rope hanging in the air above the mark starts pulling, silently and faster until 300 feet of heavy, coarse hemp rope plays out onto the meticulously coiffed and deserving head of the poor stupid bastard. When a rope is dropped on you, it hurts, it will knock you down, it scrapes you up a bit, it will embarrass and humiliate, it will rumple and dirty your clothes; but it will not really damage you. And anyway, the goal of a rope-dropping is not to hurt the self-important waste-of-oxygen, but rather to send him a message.
Looking at that rope pile on the stage, a mere foot from my head, I found myself unable to shake the notion that someone had just sent me a message. Taken a little shot across the bow.
Tomorrow’s call is a pseudo-religious cult holding an initiation seminar. The cult becomes petulant when journalists writing expose call it a cult. Ostensibly a self-help/personal actualization organization, it charges people stupid money to let the cult denigrate, abuse, cheat, and make fools of them. A confederacy of loons and idiots, codependents and enablers, an unfathomable and ironic calamity. But this story is not about them either; merely about the fact that the cult had the temerity to call a load-in at 4:00 a.m. Does ANYONE call a load-in at 4:00 a.m.? All I can come up with is the rickety little fishing boats in the Yucatan, that break the moonlit glass surface of the Gulf long before sunrise and are back in time for the women buying fish for midday dinner. It is a point of divergence then between sailors and stagehands, one traditionally starts ante meridian and the latter starts post. Unless you’re somehow me and somehow in Boston.
The last subway train is at 12:30 p.m., and doesn’t resume until 5:30 a.m., forcing a choice: either go home and attempt 3 hours of sleep, arise and walk through the decaying and very moonlit-broken-glass-like Mission Hill and Roxbury housing projects ante-meridian, before morning light; or camp out overnight at the theatre. I opted to stay.
I had locked the building meticulously before stringing my hammock. Disentangled from my repose, I sprint to the back of the stage to the fly-deck ladder and run up it to the pin rail. I was expecting a stage hand or maybe two of them, crouched behind the large rack of dimmers and having a good laugh at my expense. I am neither too good nor too important for a good-natured hazing. I’ve dished them out myself.
Deserted. The deck is deserted. At a glance I take inventory of the ropes on the rail. I know the stage like the back of my hand. All were in place. I laugh a silent laugh to myself, enjoying the little joke a bit more. These guys were meticulous and there had been some setup, some planning. Since my perp is not here he has to be up on the grid, 80 feet above the stage and the only way up or down was the old vertical ladder bolted to the wall there beside me. I had a pretty good idea who I would find at the top of the ladder: Pellegrino, who was not your garden variety prankster; or perhaps Chris, who in a later incarnation went to work at a New York ad agency and was the imagineer of the nonsense word “fahrvergnugen.” A very likely candidate. It might also be Mondo, he has a stage door key that no one else knows he has. I hope it is him, because he would remember to bring coffee. I climbed. The ladder creaks and groans the whole way up, my hands and clothes becoming dirty from the thick layer of dust. I’m counting myself uncertain as to exactly how my merrie prankster managed this same climb without waking me.
In former times, in the heyday of vaudeville and penny theatre the grid was a busy place. The theatre was busy, constantly lit, and every show had it’s own scenery with work to be done up here, riggers moving the big wooden pulley blocks around, adjusting and re-adjusting for the new scenery coming in that day. Now today, in the age of sedate jazz concerts and school functions and civil engineering and building inspectors, the old rope systems had been retired, replaced with steel cable solidly anchored in place. Nobody had come up here for ages and there was no reason to, except maybe to inspect the emergency fire doors once a year or so.
The theatre is a place where humanity is on display. Something happens to buildings like these…theatres, churches, courtrooms, where the walls are mottled and stained with the splattered emotions and exhortations of the human condition. Theatres are smeared with emotional energy and they’re grimy with dust. The dust of thousands of shod feet trodding in the dirt from the cobbles of Massachusetts Avenue and back bay; The dust from the carbon-arcs, the spotlights that light the action. The dust of the actors’ pancake makeup and old costumes and equipment cases and paper dust from the printed programs. Dust from the cigars and pipes of the men and the cigarettes of the women when it was still fashionable to smoke. The dust is thick on horizontal surfaces beyond the reach of the cleaning crew, like an archaeological record of the dreams and terrors, the joys and despairs played out on the stage.
Theatre dust has an unmistakable scent…an acrid smell almost like old cement or new plaster. It’s the smell of hot lights and tuxedo starch, the smell of physical sweat and obscuring cologne. It’s the smell of ink, the smell of toil, the smell of sin, the smell of art.
And it collects in the corners and un-trod places, on the upper curves of pipes, on the acoustic panels hung above the audience, on the old props long forgotten in subterranean storage rooms.
And it collects on the fly grid.
There before me is an unbroken expanse of theatre dust, almost three eighths of an inch thick, undisturbed by hand or heel for probably 5 years. I flick on the work-light. Above center-stage I see the pulley block that guided my rope, a little cloud of dust still settling in the air around it, sparkling in the white gleam of the fluorescent work-light. It sat in the middle of a broad field of completely undisturbed dust. Occasionally you see rodent tracks in the dust but they tend to lurk in the obscurity and shelter of the walls, not out in the center. My own footstep at the ladders’ landing look like Neil Armstrong’s first boot-print on the virgin surface of the Sea of Tranquility
Climbing down to the stage again I feel cold and just a little bit exposed. A ‘message,’ indeed.
I pick up the rope and coil it, taking note of its decrepit condition, wondering how many decades it had sat untouched up on that grid before it found inspiration to take a walkabout, coincidentally at the moment that my sleeping head was its target.
Inexplicable as it was in the context of the normal, I am a pragmatic believer in the scientific method. The explanation was not yet within my grasp simply because I had not yet gathered the relevant data. That’s exactly the problem. With that clear direction in mind I move the ghost light over from the back of the stage to a more comforting position at center stage near my hammock, where it will more adequately illuminate any incoming practical jokes or purposeful ropes.
A theatre is a public place. It is a large place. It is a complex structure with pitfalls and hazards innumerable. Since the time of Shakespeare a “dark” theatre, the term for a stage that has no show and thus no life, is never fully devoid of light. Tradition calls for a lamp to be left lit at all times. A tall stanchion with a bare light-bulb on top. These are the “ghost lights,” luminaries who’s sole purpose is to allow the ghosts to wander about without fear of tumbling off the proscenium into the orchestra pit. In my theatre, there are two; one here on stage and one in the upper balcony a hundred twenty feet away.
Climbing back into my hammock, and secure in my assessment of the perimeter, I settle in. But of course I am not fooling anyone least of all myself with this lame brush-off of my heightened sensory state, which I would hesitate to describe as fearful, but begrudgingly admit to mildly apprehensive. Looking at the main curtain heretofore closed, I get back up and pull on the big heavy cables that open them. When I was a child I was not given to worry about monsters under my bed or in my closet, but the peace of mind of leaving the closet door open and a cursory inspection of the underside of my mattress was a very inexpensive purchase of insurance. If as I assured myself, someone might be messing with me, I wasn’t going to hand myself to them on a silver platter.
I re-establish my hammock. There are no more ropes above my position precarious or otherwise. The doors’ chains and locks are secure all around. I close my eyes and try to imagine myself asleep again. Anticipating the coming day’s stage call to be an horrifically banal affront to my dignity as a sentient being, I will be needing my happy sleep. I settle into the quiet of the pre-dawn, ever-optimistic that another hour of sleep was mine to claim.
This old building is a place where people gathered and music is played. Through the years it had been a vaudeville house, a warehouse, a movie theatre, a burlesque house and even a bowling alley. These days it is a place where music recordings are made. In fact it is a ideal space for recording music. Even at the height of rush hour and the nadir of drivers’ patience, located as it is alongside an 8 lane turnpike AND a subway, it is still a QUIET building. Remembering the moments of playback, where the exquisitely sensitive microphones had recorded dead, deep, none-more-black silence, from which the tiny, subtle triple-pianissimo sounds of the instruments had emerged as if from the void of creation itself; this building is quiet, profoundly so. Modern architects undergo a purgatory of torture, trial and error to achieve the same level of quiet that this structure accomplishes casually.
But you’d never know any of that now as I lay in the quietest part of the day, fighting the cacophonous riot of sound that is going on all around me. The walls creak, the floor is humming, the roof settles, the air itself is vibrating. As if the building has declared that it is off duty and would make whatever damn noise it pleased. I would like to chalk it up to my heightened sense of awareness but it is really just too much, just over the top.
Sounds that the uncompromisingly sensitive recording equipment have never heard, sounds that would cause any music producer to declare a ‘stop’ and “someone find that damn clattering noise before we can continue” kind of sound.
Ridiculous. Lacking any other credible plan I formally declare the noises to be insignificant, moot. I distract myself from the distraction by re-visiting the concert that had filled this room a few hours ago…George Shearing sitting at the 9 foot Bosendorfer, that one over there now pushed off center stage against the wall. Coaxing chord clusters and voicings and deceptively simple melodies from the long hammer-struck copper and steel wires actuated by ivory keys; hitting those wires in a way that somehow causes vibration to turn into music, music that was very soon to be silenced by the illness that was already well on it’s way to claiming him. Music can be an exquisite language, and musicians like the aging Mr. Shearing speak it fluently.
There’s magic in theatres. Magic that happens when inspiration encounters the improbable and serendipity waves her hand. Magic. It’s palpable, it’s alive. It makes swirls and eddies in the ancient dust.
Do you know that feeling? When you’re deep in distracted concentration and that indelible feeling arises that you’re being watched? It’s uncanny and unshakable and it’s even more palpable when you’re asleep.
In that little neutral zone between sleep and wakefulness I was sideways in the hammock, facing the balcony through the mesh. Up beyond the mezzanine in the upper balcony by the exit well, he was standing, backlit in the dim pool of sallow yellow cast by the low-voltage bulb of the ghost light. Dressed in a top hat and a black silk tuxedo, standing still looking at me.
I am not quite so clumsy out of the hammock this time, up the service stairs to the mezzanine in 8 seconds flat. There is only one way down from the upper balcony. The emergency exits were adorned with thick padlocked chains. Anyone leaving would have to go through me.
…and I was alone, standing in the pool of balcony ghost light. I am certain he was wearing a tuxedo and a top hat. Not like a costume but like something he wore every day. I look down for a long unadorned moment at the empty hammock at the edge of the little pool of ghost light on stage, swaying gently back and forth as if someone had bolted from it. The room is as quiet as the infinite sleep. The demarcation between reality and dreams can be tenuous, particularly so in a place like this…particularly so.