An old school chum of mine calls to hire me for a job. She grew up in the upstate New York town of Goldens Bridge, a town just about to celebrate its 75th anniversary. They're marking the occasion with a massive party and want a video made to document the event for future generations.
I don't know much about Goldens Bridge. I'd seen the name on signs as I drove by on the highway, and may even have passed through it once or twice. My memory tells me it's a quiet, simple sort of place of winding roads and neat little houses set on charming, wooded tracts.
Goldens Bridge does boast one famous citizen, Oscar winning actress Marisa Tomei grew up there. She will, I am told, be attending the party. Which is cool. But not that cool because I have a standing policy about not getting excited about working with celebrities. (The only time I've ever violated this was when I did a shoot with Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But that's a tale for another day).
We arrive in town and learn the first event we need to cover is a "memory sharing hour" in the town hall.
The town hall is a strange structure. It's pretty much all meeting room, a vast, barnlike structure outfitted with bleachers surrounding a central floor that seems capable of seating the town's entire populace. The meeting hall fills quickly, until it's packed to the brim. We're set up down on the floor in the middle, so we can pivot to see whoever speaks.
Now when you say "memory sharing hour" I picture something like this: a sweet, little old lady stands up and tells her story about the time that "little Johnny Smith stole the pie off my window, ate the whole thing and got such a bad tummy ache we had to call Dr. Gruber?" Then Johnny Smith, now all grown up, would sheepishly smile and raise his hand in acknowledgement, and everyone would laugh.
That's the picture in my mind.
What happens is this.
More stories follow, all of them delivered at a bellow, all of them about protests and strikes, and getting their heads busted by the cops. Or this gem. "I remember a story my mother told me. When she passed through Ellis Island they asked: Do you favor the overthrow of the United States government by sedition or revolution? She thought about it a second, then said: both, I suppose." Fists pump. "Strike! Strike! Strike!"
Steve and I look at each other. "They're commies," he whispers. "They're all commies."
And indeed, they are. As we learn, the sleepy town of Goldens Bridge, NY was founded as a colony for Manhattan communists. As it turns out, several of the small lakeside communities in suburban NYC were founded by communists and socialists looking for a weekend escape from the hot, sweltering city in which they worked and plotted socialist utopia.
Unfortunately, Steve and I are both what you'd call free-market capitalist types, but judging by all the shouting and raised fists, we both realize this isn't a good place to be making any declarations about the superiority of prices over central planners in transmitting economic information.
Those folks must have gotten some sort of memo, because they seemed to have stayed away from the meeting hall in droves. The ones packing the room are the true believers.
As if that weren't surreal enough, one of the townfolk stands and says something along the lines of: "I just want to say how ashamed we should all be. This was supposed to be a place of tolerance and inclusion, but over the years we've had almost no people of color living here. And right now, look around, do you see any African Americans?"
And indeed, there are nothing but white faces surrounding us.
That's when every eye in the joint turns on Steve, my soundman. Now as I said, Steve is south asian. He is not African American. But he doesn't care. He positively glares back at the room full of guilt-stricken, fishbelly white commies and gives a defiant, "you're goddamn right," nod of his head.
For the rest of the day, Steve is treated like a king. Wherever we go people are running up to him offering water, soda, burger, hotdogs. One guy in his late 70's even offers to hold his boom pole for him. When Steve politely declines, the guy practically tries to wrestle out of his hands. Me, standing right next to him, heavy camera on my shoulder, dripping sweat, I might as well be invisible. If I want a water, I'm getting it myself.
We keep shooting. Every once in a while I spot Marisa Tomei off in the distance, but never approach. Like I said, when I meet a celebrity I like to do it on equal footing. We're both professionals. I'm not impressed at all. No big deal. If I don't meet her, no problem. If I do meet her, I'm going to be totally cool and totally composed, because that's how I roll.
It's a hard day, but it's a fun day. There're kids swimming in the lake, (which the townfolk supposedly built themselves in the 40's,) games of horseshoes and badminton, we shot lots of interviews with residents young and old, some of them hard-core socialists, some of them suburbanites who just happened to land in Goldens Bridge and have fallen in love with it.
We do not interview Marisa Tomei. Which I'm totally cool with.
In order to be able to shoot over everyone's heads, I put the camera up really high on the tripod. Too high to comfortably operate. I need something to stand on, but the folding chairs are kind of rickety. Looking around (film people are masters at making do with locally available materials) I spot this huge wood pile. There's a pretty respectable section of a tree stump sitting there. I grab it, haul it over to the camera, flop it down and stand on it. It puts me at the perfect height. Great. It's a little wobbly on the uneven ground, but nothing I can't handle. As long as I don't shift my balance to quickly, I'll be fine.
I look around for Steve. He's got his audio feed running from the board. There's almost nothing for him to do except twist a few dials and keep an eye on the levels. So he's sitting down with a couple of old ladies feeding him grapes. Me, I'm going to have to stand for the whole thing. It's been a long, tiring day so I do what I often do in moments of quiet, I take a deep breath, lower my head, close my eyes and just try to breathe some of the tension and exhaustion away. Prepare myself for the next ninety minutes.
Suddenly, someone grabs my elbow. Surprised, I yank away. The stump shifts under me. I lose my balance, and I fall.
Right onto Marisa Tomei. Who, thank goodness, catches me. Though in doing so, I practically knock her on her ass. The drink she was holding goes flying and my some miracle doesn't splash all over her. Which is a lucky break as it's fruit punch, and I do not want to be the asshole who splashed fruit punch all over Marisa Tomei and ruined her favorite pair of jeans.
We kind of stumble back together in some car-crash version of the tango before I regain my feet and hop away from her. In my peripheral vision, I can see everyone staring at me.
"Oh my God, I'm sorry," I say.
"No, no, I'm sorry," she says. "You looked really tired, I just wanted to make sure you didn't need anything. I didn't mean to startle you."
"'I'm, ah, fine, fine." I'm not fine. I'm totally embarrassed. The vow I'd made to be totally cool, totally non-plussed if I got the chance to meet one of Hollywood's A-list actresses is out the window. I look like an ass.
"Well, ah, be careful, okay." She says.
"Yeah, yeah, of course." Is what I manage.
There would have been more awkwardness, but thankfully I hear the mic click on. The show is starting. I have to work. I give a little stupid wave and a sheepish smile. She retreats. Fast.
I climb back up on my stump and start rolling, burning with the embarrassment that can only come from making a clumsy spectacle of yourself not only in front of hundreds of strangers, most of them aging socialists, but in front of a major movie star as well.
At least the talent show is good. The founders of Goldens Bridge may not know shit about economics, but they sure as hell know how to sing a folk song.