September 2006 Archives
September 26, 2006
Author: Matt Vancil
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:An ex-con father tries to repair his relationship with his son by hatching a scheme to catch Barry Bonds’s record-breaking home run ball.
Synopsis:WALLY DASSLER gets out of prison through a work-release program, forced to work as a beer vendor for the L.A. Dodgers. Though he hates baseball, Wally decides to use the opportunity to reconnect with his baseball-loving son, 13-year-old RUSS, who lives in San Francisco and is a huge Giants fan. Wally hasn’t seen Russ since he went to prison three years ago, and he fears Russ hates him. It’s a little more complicated than that; fortunately for Wally’s sake, Russ is also eager to reconnect with his father.
One of Wally’s duties is to deliver manila envelopes from his unpleasant boss, BOYER, to a mobster bookie, CAMPESE. Turns out, Wally still owes Campese a great deal of money, and it’s implied (but later revealed) that Wally went to jail as a fall guy for Campese and his goons. Wally also strikes up a friendship with a washed-up Dodgers relief pitcher, ELLORY SYKES.
The plot kicks into gear when Russ shows Wally his easy ability to predict when homeruns can be hit. Unable to deny his gambling past, and still owing Campese plenty of money, Wally tries to figure out if there’s any kind of betting market for predicting homeruns. He makes some small bets so he can slowly pay back Campese, but he learns that the real money would be in baseball artifacts. His interest is especially piqued when he learns that Barry Bonds’s record-breaking single-season homerun ball sold for $450,000. Since Bonds is closing in on the all-time homerun record, this gets Wally’s gambling gears working. He takes Russ to a Giants game in San Francisco, where he notices how often and how easy it is for players to hit homeruns into McCovey Cove.
Wally tells Russ they’re going to catch Bonds’s record-breaking ball, using Russ’s statistics. Russ tells him there are too many probability problems — what if he doesn’t hit in McCovey Cove, what if it’s an away game, what if he hits it when the Giants aren’t playing the Dodgers (Dodgers games are all Wally can afford)? Using the statistics, Wally thinks it’s pretty likely that Bonds can break the record during a Dodgers away series against the Giants near the end of the season. He decides to enlist the aid of Sykes, enticing him by saying everybody will remember the loser as much as the winner — everybody remembers Bill Buckner, everyone will remember Ellory Sykes. He also offers a share of the money for the ball. Sykes agrees that, if all the conditions are met and Bonds is ready to break the record when the Dodgers play the Giants in San Francisco, Sykes will throw the pitch to ensure that Bonds will hit into McCovey Cove.
Things get complicated when Sykes meets Russ. Russ shows him some statistics and gives him some pitching advice, insisting that he could actually have a pretty good game if he stopped telegraphing his pitch when he adjusts for the shoulder injury that classified him as “washed-up” in the first place. To Sykes’s surprise, the kid’s right, and suddenly his pitching game is back. In fact, Sykes pitches so well that he almost singlehandedly leads the Dodgers to be serious playoff contenders. When Bonds suffers a mild injury that throws off his statistical schedule for breaking the record by two homeruns, Wally practically begs a reluctant Sykes to take a dive on two Bonds at-bats. Sykes, worried that his comeback will be short-lived, agrees to give up the homeruns.
After this suspicious return to bad pitching form and a few hostile remarks from Sykes, Russ suspects his father is only spending time to use him for information on getting that ball, and he only wants the ball for the money. He becomes reluctant to help, and Wally insists he’ll spend time with him outside of baseball. He tries to go to watch his “mathletics” competition, but he’s held up by Campese and Boyer. They both suspect Wally of intentionally helping Sykes get his game back to bet Sykes will start winning games. Their threats cause Wally to completely miss Russ’s competition. He arrives just as everyone’s leaving the school.
Wally also managed to steal Boyer’s cell phone. Russ has told him that Bonds has caught up and will break the record in Colorado, ahead of schedule, if something isn’t done. Using Boyer’s phone, Wally calls in a fake bomb threat, pretending to be a terrorist. The game is canceled, to the disappointment of the crowd. There’s an ugly scene in the parking lot where Russ and Wally finally have it out; Wally demands to know why Russ never visited him in prison. Russ tells him he was embarrassed and ashamed. Wally tells Russ why he was in jail in the first place: he developed his gambling problem to help put JUANITA — Wally’s ex-wife and Russ’s mother — through college, and then he went to prison for Campese so they wouldn’t hurt his family. He’s hauled off by a school security officer and spends the night in jail.
The next day, he’s bailed out by Juanita (but is picked up at jail by his mother, ABBEY), who tells him Russ will be at the Giants-Dodgers game. Wally phones in another fake threat: a shark sighting in the water near McCovey Cove. As all the kayakers waiting to catch balls vanish, Wally — and a toy boat with a fake shark fin tied to it — float into the otherwise-empty cove. By this time, Boyer and Campese have figured out Wally’s real plan. Campese, armed with a gun, confronts Wally in the Cove, while Boyer threatens Russ in the stands and steals his laptop, which is loaded with all the statistics and analysis formulae.
Sykes is on the mound, and Bonds is at bat. Instead of taking a dive as he’s already done twice before, Sykes remains true to himself: he strikes out Barry Bonds, to the dismay of the San Francisco crowd. When Campese tries to shoot at Wally, the Cove is surrounded by cops and closed off for real. Wally sneaks away, just in time to find Boyer with Russ’s laptop. Boyer smashes it, Wally is prepared to kick the crap out of him when Boyer calls for the police. Wally slips Boyer’s cell phone back to him, then tells the cops that Boyer — who has been pretending to be a Giants official — broke into the stadium, and he’s the one who called in the fake bomb threat in Colorado and the fake shark sighting earlier. The cops check the number, it matches what they have, so they haul him away.
Wally gives Russ a mitt, with a loving inscription burned into it. He realizes his scheme to catch the ball is over, but he no longer cares. He’s just happy to spend time watching the game with Russ. On the mound, Sykes is getting tired. After getting nailed in the elbow by a ball, he’s relieved. Unwilling to give up even though his father has, Russ thinks the pitcher relieving Sykes will pitch Bonds a homerun, and that homerun will go right into the Dodgers’ bullpen. Wally sneaks into the bullpen, where he meets up with Sykes. They make amends for Wally’s unethical behavior. Bonds hits a homerun in the opposite direction of the bullpen; Wally isn’t concerned. However, it hits the foul pole and bounces — right into the bullpen, where Wally catches it with the mitt he got for Russ.
Wally tries to get back to Russ through a sea of reporters. He barely manages to slip the ball to Russ before being hauled off by police. He’s sent to a minimum-security prison. Russ visits him at the first opportunity and reluctantly explains that he sold the ball for millions. Of course, it wasn’t the real homerun ball — it was a ball he had signed earlier by Barry Bonds. Russ still has the actual ball.
Comments:There are a lot of really nice moments here, and quite a few twists and turns in the story that transcend the average sports movie, even while it fits very comfortably in the genre. There’s nothing here that could be called bad, but there are a few things that could be better. While well-written overall, there are a few moments where the dialogue relies a little too heavy on clichés, and other moments where it’s pretty on-the-nose. This speaks to one of the few major problems here: the characters, while interesting in the broad strokes they’re given, are never really dug into deeply. They’re all interesting enough that I wanted to know more, but we never really get it.
Wally’s an interesting case. He has a pleasant, attentive, caring mother. He has an ex-wife who, one assumes, is both intelligent and driven, and their son seems to follow in her footsteps. So where did Wally go wrong, in being a screw-up? Did he really just get in over his head in an effort to make a quick buck? There’s a hint at something deeper in his not finishing college, and his belief in a general sense that he’s a fuck-up (rather than believing just the gambling and dealings with Campese the landed him in jail was his only real misstep). Is he following in the footsteps of his unseen father, or is it something else? He seems intently focused on get-rich-quick schemes. In the script right now, his primary motivation for getting rich quick is to pay back Campese and quit his Dodger job.
What if it were more complicated than that? What if there was no Campese, no mob threat, no money owed? That subplot is really the only weak thing in the script, because it relies so heavily on clichés. It’s tied up pretty nicely, but pretend for a second that the subplots not even there. If Wally is just one of those guys who gets fixated on wealth, but putting more emphasis on another of Wally’s goals — mending his family. He landed in jail because (among other things) he couldn’t support his family, and he discovers something that will supply them with so much wealth that none of them will have to work a day in their lives. Getting that ball becomes symbolic of his quest to get everything back to what he sees as “normal,” before he screwed everything up. This would strengthen his realization that it was never the money — it’s the time spent together, bonding.
What’s Russ’s story? He’s a mathlete, obviously gifted, but he also understands the practicalities, knowing exactly how Sykes needs to adjust his throw, but — even more impressively — knowing exactly where Sykes was going throw and being able to connect with the pitch and knock it out. Even if you know what you’re looking for, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, which leads to the impression Russ is at least a halfway decent athlete, in addition to being a math whiz. This is a dichotomy that could be really interesting. What’s his life like at school? Is he popular among nerds or jocks, or both? Or everyone? Or nobody, because he’s not really a math nerd or an athlete — he just loves baseball to a degree that alienates fellow students. Beyond this, when he has conflicts with Wally, Russ still plans to help him. Why? If he really thinks Wally is only interested in the monetary value of the ball, why continue to help him? A little more depth into the character might explain this.
Sykes is a pretty interesting character, too. It’d be interesting to see him with the team. His interactions with the wise catcher, Hiruma, are really nice, but it seems like with Sykes being a fairly bad pitcher at the start, then getting his groove back, it’d be nice to see a change in attitude from his teammates. It’s easy to imagine they don’t like him at first, because he does nothing but give up runs. Do they like him more once he starts winning games from him, or do they like him less because they’re jealous of the attention he’s getting or the younger players don’t like an “old-timer” stealing their glory? A lot of interesting conflict could come from his interactions with the team, which could then motivate or complicate some of the decisions Sykes makes through the script.
A minor story issue: I admit being fairly ignorant of how parole and work-release programs work, but I can’t figure out why Wally is hauled back to jail at the end. Is it because he’s fired from his job? Although I recommend getting rid of the Campese/Boyer subplot, if the author keeps it, wouldn’t he be exonerated by Campese and Boyer being arrested, which would hopefully bust their gambling scheme wide open? This isn’t to say I think it’s a bad choice to send him back to prison at the end — I liked that. I just don’t understand why, so the reasons should be clearer.
And as a practical issue, though the use of real teams and players add to the authenticity of the script, it might be a tough sell convincing Major League Baseball and the Dodgers to license the franchise when the script portrays team employees as corrupt (i.e., running gambling rackets, fixing pitches). Same with Barry Bonds, who is notorious for not allowing his likeness or name to be licensed without a dump-truck full of money. Perhaps going with fictionalized teams and players — but clearly patterning him after Bonds — would make this an easier sell, if less authentic.
September 2, 2006
At a certain point, I was asked to stop wasting my time on scripts that I passed on. Eventually, I lobbied for not even wasting my time with the full scripts — if it didn’t grab me by the first act break, I shouldn’t have to waste my time on it. However, I still had to write a paragraph or two to justify my passing, and occasionally I’d be e-mailed with something that required informal notes. Thundercats Part 1 was one of those things, the first part in a proposed live-action trilogy that would be pitched to Warner Brothers (who owned the rights for the original cartoon).
Thundercats Part 1 by Seth Lockhart & Evan KilgoreThere’s a lot of really good stuff here. I like the initial setup of how the Thundercats came to be, the idea of conflict between Thundercats and Thunderians, and the main story of Claudius and Livia, and their Romeo & Juliet-like relationship, ultimately leading to the birth of Lion-O. I also enjoyed the references and the foreshadowing to the planned sequels — those were nice touches.
The only negative thing I have to say is that I just felt like it got too bogged down in the political situation. I understand that the potential for a Thunderian-Thundercat war, and then the attack by the Plunderians — all of that is essential to the story, but isn’t it possible to get across the information that’s building to that without spending so much time in political meetings? It should be scaled back and personalized. In a way, it already is; it’s clear both Claudius and Livia’s parents feel strongly that their relationship shouldn’t be. I think the conflict and the “taboo” of their relationship could be played up, while the political upheaval can be put in the background. Still there, building in the background until it finally boils over into the foreground. Does that make sense?
It seems like some interesting material could come out of a war, intensifying a personal conflict between Claudius and Livia. As the problems between Thunderians and Thundercats become more divisive, they both have the choice: do they choose love, or do they choose conformity? It could reach a point where if Claudius and Livia are even seen together, they’d probably be killed — so do either of them think the other is worth the risk? Ultimately they do, and they sneak around. Some of this is already here, but I just think the personal story needs to be played up in favor of the grand political machinations. I would almost suggest they both be as far removed from the political scene as possible, until it forms problems in their relationship. However, I know Thundercats is an established franchise; while I don’t know too much about it, if the backstory of Claudius as king is set in stone, changing it would be an even bigger problem.
I had a couple of questions that I think are a little unclear:
Only 40 years pass between the Thunderians creating Thundercats and the current story, so why do they act like Thundercats go way back? Are the life spans of the Thunderians and Thundercats supposed to be the same as actual cats on Earth (5-10 years)? The conflict between Thunderians and Thundercats seems like it’s been building through multiple generations, so if they have shorter life spans, that needs to be clarified; if they are supposed to live a typical human life span and this isn’t a multigenerational struggle, then that needs to be clarified, too.
When the Plundarrians are first introduced, it’s stated that they all have to wear encounter suits because of the harsh conditions on the planet. This makes sense later on when it’s revealed they’re actually exiled Thunderians. But let’s pretend we’re before the point where we learn that, because it doesn’t make much sense. If the Plundarrians were indigenous, their genetic makeup would have them adapted to the planet; if they couldn’t survive the conditions, the whole species would die off before they could reproduce. So the reveal that they were Thunderians all along isn’t terribly surprising, because it doesn’t make sense that they’d be native to Plundarr. I actually think this is easily fixed, if there’s some kind of explanation/implication that the Plundarrians destroyed their own planet through pollution or nuclear war or something. That way, the encounter suits make sense, but the reveal that they were Thunderians is a bit more surprising.
I think most of the good stuff is already there; some of it just needs to be either heightened or diminished to make it go from good to great. It’s close, though. I hope this helps.
September 5, 2006
As I slowly approach that all-important 60-day mark, at which time I will finally get paid to sit in my underwear reading crappy screenplays (formerly just a hobby, along with sitting in my underwear writing crappy screenplays), the gears are starting to grind, and I’m a little more irritable than usual. Also, I smell terrible. What a world.
I’m soon-to-be paid to give my opinion, which I’m currently handing out free of charge (its actual value). This is all I do. I read things, and I explain why I like or dislike it, what could be improved or eliminated, and whether or not the author has “what it takes.” I’m not really clear on the definition of “what it takes,” so I usually skip that part. It seems to be implied that if I actually bother to write full coverage on it (rather than writing a short paragraph explaining how much time I wasted and make suggestions about places it could be lodged, rather uncomfortably, in the human body), the author has “what it takes.” So that’s good enough for me.
Over this past summer, The Manager has cultivated a small group of Actual Clients. I like to think I had a small part in that, because I’ve read billions of submissions, and in general the few that I’ve liked have ended up sending more, and soon they’re sending rewrites, and finally The Manager announces that he’s sending one out to production companies, so let’s hope it’s “the one.” Usually the rewrite stage is where I realize they’re “clients,” but sometimes I don’t even know until he says he’s sent something out. I’m not sure if this is part of the disconnect from doing this job from 2000 miles away, or if it’s part of the disconnect of being an intern nobody cares about.
I want the scripts he sends out to be good. As good as humanly possible, if not better. I don’t actually care about these writers or their scripts; through e-mails mediated by The Manager, I’ve come to realize that — like most writers — they’re a bunch of assholes. Which is fine, because I’m one too, but I want their scripts to be exceptional because at the point when I decide I’ll become The Manager’s client, I want production companies to still accept material from him. Like everything else I do, this theoretical act of selflessness and dedication to an unpaid internship is motivated by greed, abuse, and self-interest.
The trouble started about two weeks ago, when The Manager asked me to take a look at a script that he thought he could “start sending out.” It was a period piece about a guy who can communicate with ghosts. It had some good stuff in it (or maybe I’m just a sucker for period pieces), but there was a complete logic breakdown in the third act. I don’t ask much from horror or action movies, but they least they can do is be sorta coherent from beginning to end; this didn’t deliver on even that meager request. I made a half-dozen suggestions to clarify the problems, which would have constituted a time-consuming, major rewrite. Maybe the writer is some kind of speed-demon (or perhaps speed-freak), but before the week was out I heard it had been sent out.
My infamous friend Matt explained it pretty well: “He finds great high-concept, commercial ideas in terrible scripts, but he seems to think that’ll work itself out later on down the road.” As I say, I’m no expert, but all I’ve ever heard or seen is the opposite: you sell the Earth-shatteringly great screenplay, and then as more cooks start peeking at the broth, it’s slowly ruined as they try to turn it into every other movie ever made.
But long gone are the days of Joe Eszterhas scrawling a drunken, coke-fueled idea onto a napkin and being paid $4 million for it. And those days were never there for the unestablished newbie; simply put, nobody will even buy a script that’s mediocre, much less one that’s flat-out bad. Life’s too short, and believe it or not there are too many good scripts out there to waste time trying to make a bad one good. Part of a manager’s duty to his client, and to himself and that wonderful 15% he earns, is to make sure that client is writing the best possible screenplay, especially a newbie manager who will be breaking through along with his client.
So I was willing to let it slide; maybe the writer came up with some kind of brilliant way to fix all the problems with a few simple changes. Maybe The Manager was even right that somebody will see the potential and they won’t worry about everything that’s wrong with it. I neither knew nor cared. Later in the week, The Manager sent me a screenplay by an author whose previous script I really liked (which had been “sent out,” and I could say with pride that it should have been). It was disappointing compared to the other script, but it had some good stuff. It’s basically the story of a prostitute and a mob enforcer, bookended by elaborate, mob-related goofiness. The beginning sets up way more than it has to for a payoff that basically involves all the mobsters dying.
This was my only problem with it: the relationship is the story, and yet it doesn’t start until the midpoint. The enforcer and the prostitute meeting is the act break; I thought they should meet in the first act, all the pointless mob stuff should be scaled way back, and the relationship should be expanding. In the end, even the mob enforcer dies, but as written, I had a hard time buying that these two people met and fell in love in the 48 hours before he’s killed. I’m not saying I can’t believe that would happen; there’s not enough of them connecting for me to buy it. If there were more relationship, the ending might be easier to take.
Last week, I got a rewrite of the same script. This didn’t surprise me, because unlike the script about the Prohibition-era ghost whisperer, a major revision wasn’t necessary; I saw deleting or changing a lot, then writing a few new scenes. What did surprise me was that…absolutely nothing I had suggested ended up in the script. In fact, with the exception of a few new scenes that just explain more mob bullshit, the script was exactly the same. And the new scenes actually weaken the rest of it — the rare rewrite that’s worse than the previous draft — because they exist solely to explain information that we already know. I wrote The Manager and explained that I think the changes are worse and every suggestion I made in my coverage still stands.
The Manager wrote back that he made the suggestions for the new scenes. He explained his reasons, which actually kind of made sense, but then he said something that really stuck with me: “In the end, I want [the mob enforcer] to live.” I realized that the dying was the problem all along. The convoluted mobster stuff really isn’t bad. It’s unnecessary, but it’s actually kind of interesting at first, until you realize that it’s actually about a relationship and the enforcer’s redemption. And then since that suffers because there’s so much mobster stuff, then that stuff becomes expendable. To me, anyway…
…but if the enforcer lives, that changes everything. I could easily believe everything that happens in the first draft I read, from beginning to end, if the enforcer lives, and he and the prostitute go off to live a quiet life. Even if it’s implied that things won’t work out between them, I could easily buy their entire relationship as the start of something. I just can’t believe it as the whole relationship, especially with the prostitute’s reaction when he dies, like she’s lost her one true love.
But, The Manager went on, the author is very insistent that the mob enforcer must die. Why? I don’t know. He’s a screenwriter. For some reason, screenwriters are obsessed with their main characters dying at the end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this before, and I even did it once myself before I realized how fucking moronic it is. Nine times out of 10, the “main character dies” ending isn’t earned, just like it’s not earned here. Some movies really justify the hero dying at the end, and the fact that I can’t think of one off the top of my head is evidence that it’s a pretty rare thing.
So, fine, the author doesn’t want to change the ending. All that means is he needs to change everything else. I was a little irritated, though, because it seemed pretty clear that the writer — apparently with The Manager’s approval — dismissed my criticisms. At times like these I wish there were more of a dialogue — preferably not going through a third party like The Manager — so I could really understand what the writer is going for, and maybe help them get there. Of course, whether or not he agrees with me, the mere fact that I say, “This is what the story is” should perk his ears up. If he disagrees, that’s a flaw with the screenplay, not the reader.
I started to think, “You know, if they’re just going to ignore me, I’d really like to start getting paid now.” If they want to pay me for my opinion and then ignore it, that’s fine; but I’d rather not waste my time handing out free advice if it’s not going to be used. Especially when said advice, if followed, will help me in the long run.
But hey, this was just one script. If The Manager really can’t convince the writer to change things, maybe he’s just inordinately argumentative. I could understand The Manager wanting to keep him around for that one really good script, even if his others are crap that he refuses to change. I figured, as long as he didn’t keep doing this over and over, I wouldn’t feel so useless and unappreciated.
And then came a doozy. I still can’t figure out if The Manager ran out of scripts, but over the weekend he sent me something of his own — again! — but it wasn’t even a screenplay; it was a 20-page treatment for the movie version of an established comic-book/TV-series. The first thing I thought was, “Does he even own the rights?” but then I realized I don’t care one way or the other. I read through the entire treatment, and while there was actually a lot of good stuff there, it reminded me a lot of the new Star Wars movies, all three of which failed creatively.
While there are too many reasons to list, a big one (in my opinion) was the focus on tedious intergalactic politics, pre-Empire. You gotta admire the Empire, at least, for keeping it simple: rule everything with an iron fist, and crush all dissenters. Watching Darth Vader strangle a guy from 20 feet away is way cooler than spending seven hours watching Galactic Senate hearings, praying for something to happen, for the love of God…and then when it finally does, it’s retarded, but that’s unrelated. The main thing that sunk this treatment for me was the attention paid to overcomplicated politics that, ultimately, don’t matter to the story a bit. It’s planned as a franchise (i.e., as many sequels as possible), so from beginning to end this is mostly set-up. Hell, the only character that I recognized from the TV show isn’t even born until the end. But here’s the thing about starting off your franchise with a movie that’s all setup for sequels: it will suck. Especially when the core of your story revolves around characters who will be dead by the second movie, dealing with politics on planets that they’ll flee at the end of the first one…
Remember in the first Superman movie, the way they handle Kal-El being sent away from Krypton? It’s 15, maybe 20 minutes at the most, to set up Jor-El, the politics on Krypton, what ultimately leads to their doom, and Kal-El being sent to Earth. This is a similar idea (including the birth of a baby and fleeing the planet), stretched out as an entire feature. I didn’t have the heart to say, “Cut this down to 20 minutes, then start your movie,” but I was honest enough to say that the politics bored me to tears. It’d be so easy to take everything but the essentials and hang the stories on the central relationship, which is pretty interesting, and then you’d have a pretty decent movie loaded with action and tension and drama, instead of people sitting around discussing peace treaties.
I had a few, more minor complaints, but the big thing was the politics. I wrote The Manager back, and he e-mailed me back almost two hours later on the nose with a revised treatment, which he believed I’d like a lot more, but he specifically pointed out that he “could” not address the political situation. Why not? It’s “too essential to the plot.” It is? The revision is almost identical to the first one; the only changes address one of my minor complaints (note that I had more than one).
It irritates me because, especially when The Manager sends me his own material, I see this as a favor to a friend/colleague. I see it as someone seeking my advice because he trusts and values my opinion. It bugs me when I’m totally ignored for reasons that are either unclear or stupid. It’d soften the blow quite a lot if I were at least being paid, but it’d still bother me a little bit. If you’re not going to listen, why bother asking? If you disagree with my opinion, why do you trust it? I don’t get it.
September 15, 2006
Not too long ago, I was bitching about café jobs. Because, aside from the occasional obnoxious customers, I like café jobs. I like being able to prepare and sell a product I enjoy, I like droning on and on with excitement about coffee, I even like talking to customers. I hate to admit it, and I know my blog in no way reflects this, but I actually like people. “People” in the general sense of people waltzing into a store, ordering a drink, maybe chit-chatting. As long as I don’t have to forge a relationship more complex than that, I love people. It’s all the people I know well who I can’t stand. Does this say something about me or them? Or both?
At any rate, I was bitching about these jobs because I could probably do one forever, without being promoted or anything, except the pay is shit, the tips bring them to almost above shit, and the benefits — if there are any — almost always suck. I wouldn’t really want to turn one of these jobs into anything resembling a career anyway, but if they paid better, I’d love working at a job like that for a few years, until either something better comes along or I’ve saved enough to go on a coke-fueled bender that will, with any luck, set me on the path to my chosen career of “drug mule.”
Because these jobs don’t pay well, I automatically see them as demeaning. I see them as the type of thing where the customers who walk in automatically look down on me, think of me as a failure, fully aware that I’m a fat, disgusting almost-25-year-old who has given up on his dreams and is resigned to working shit jobs for low wages. I can’t remember who said it, so I apologize if you’re reading this blog and know it was you (but feel free to tell me in a the same condescending, obscenity-laced way I correct people), but when I said this, one of my friends said, “Fuck ‘em. It doesn’t matter what they think. You like the job, you’re only doing it because you like it — and, in fact, are taking a pay cut to do it — and you know you haven’t given up on anything. You just need money.”
Which is true, and it made me feel a lot less shitty about taking café jobs. It’s not about how other people see me — it’s about how I see myself. And as you all know, I see myself as vastly superior to everyone I meet. Except for all those people who are better than me.
So I had an interview about a month ago with the assistant manager at a coffee shop way the fuck out in Evanston. It paid well, had good benefits, was located in the middle of the yuppie part of Evanston (which means: obnoxious customers who tip well), and has more branches in Southern California than it does in Chicago. I figured it’d be a good start; I could work there for a year or two, then put in for a transfer to a different branch, or just quit and try to get rehired on the other side.
The first interview went pretty well. The assistant manager had a pretty good poker face, but in the end he betrayed his feigned apathy because I’m just that witty. He also told me he was recommending me for a second interview with the manager. I was pretty pumped, until it turned out to be a pain in the ass for the assistant manager to even schedule an interview. I couldn’t tell if she was flighty or disinterested, but I’m in a I need a job right now mentality, and she’s saying, “Ummm…can you wait a couple of weeks?”
I finally had my second interview, and I knew instantly that I didn’t get it. She didn’t seem interested in the answers to my questions, she seemed on a general level to dislike me, and at the end of the interview, while she feigned politeness, it was one of these, “I have a bunch of other interviews, so I’ll get back to you,” which could be taken either way, but I felt like it was the brush-off. And I was right, because I never heard back. When I finally called, she said, “Right,” in a tone that suggested she barely even remembered me, and then said, “All the positions are filled. Have a great day!”
I wondered what had happened. Usually I’m the one who instantly hates people, while everyone else tortures me by being really nice and thinking I’m just joking around when I say things like, “I will chop your head off and scoop out your insides like pumpkin filling.” The opposite only happens in rare circumstances, and when it does, it drives me nuts.
I developed this really half-assed, stupid theory. Almost two years ago, I got a wild hair up my ass to get a burr grinder. In Seattle, my sister’s then-fiancé (now husband) and my job at Tully’s Coffee got me obsessed with creating the perfect cup of coffee at home. In order to accomplish this, I’d need freshly ground beans. But those cheapie blade grinders build up so much heat and static electricity, they practically double-roast the beans (or, in the case of Starbucks, triple-roast them. You need a burr grinder, which doesn’t generate that level of heat. Some of the low-end ones generate static, but that’s why I refused to settle for nothing less than the Solis Maestro Plus.
I planned to buy one from Amazon, but returning through mail-order is a pain, so I decided I’d do a little try-before-I-buy action…except very few places sell the Solis Maestro. It’s a specialty item made by an obscure, foreign brand, so the only place I could find it at was — wait for it — this particular coffee shop.
At the time, the same manager worked there. I called up to ask if they had it in stock, and she said yes and she’d hold it for me. She was very excited — this thing cost $150, and if it’s anything like any of the other coffee shops I’ve applied to, nobody will ever buy it — especially when I actually showed up and paid for it. She was less excited when I returned two days later and gave some lame excuse to return it (I think it was, “It doesn’t work right”).
Is it possible she remembered that, remembered me, and this did me in before I even started? It seems unlikely; I probably wouldn’t have gotten a first interview, much less a second (I didn’t do the first interview with her, but if she had known, she probably would have just told the assistant manager not to recommend me). But maybe it was one of those nagging things. “Why do I know this guy? This is going to bug me for weeks.” Well, weeks passed, and maybe she put the pieces together. Or maybe she did at her store what the managers did at Borders, keeping a running tally of “frequent returners” to flag them in the computer and make sure they didn’t do it too often.
These are the paranoid things I think about, when in fact this is an Occam’s razor of rejection: she didn’t like me. Was it me personally, my work history, my not-entirely-subtle implication that I’d blow this pop stand at the first opportunity, the fact that I had a 45-60 minute drive one way? No idea, but there was something about me that made me an unacceptable employee, and as usual it sort of shattered my confidence. Employers haven’t exactly been jumping to hire me, and in most cases I can chalk that up to them either not looking at my resume at all, or giving it a once-over and deciding I don’t have enough experience. Entirely reasonable considering most of the jobs I apply for are way out of my league, but a job at a coffee shop? How could I not get that?
Shaken but still desperate enough for money that I needed to just keep plugging away on applications, I kept on rolling. On Friday, I went to Borders and tried to butter my manager to get my old job back, but she wasn’t there at the time. I filled out applications for half a dozen coffee shops in the area, tailoring it to make me the most desirable applicant (but, for the first time ever, being truthful on the application), but it turned out none of that mattered. The first application I sent out that day got a callback that afternoon. I scheduled an interview for Monday, and I said to myself, “I’m going to get this job.”
The weird thing is, my interview was actually worse than the other one. I felt incoherent, I was taken aback by his line of questioning (which was different from most coffee shop interviews I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot), and I thought I was sunk until I realized he plowed through a sheet of questions labeled “first interview” — not writing any of my answers down, mind you — and then proceeded to another sheet labeled “second interview.” Huh. Did that mean it was going well?
“I’m going to be straight with you,” the manager said. “I’m not desperate, but I do need employees who can do the job, and you have experience. I’m going to go ahead and hire you.”
“Uh…okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
He ran off to get the paperwork. I waited patiently, observing the traffic-free coffee shop, admiring my new work environs. He returned and slowly filled out most of the paperwork for me, explained to me my job tasks (most of which are common sense). As he filled out one of the forms, he asked, “How long have you been out of work?”
I lied, “Since May.” He nodded without taking his eyes off the paperwork. I added, “I’ve been looking around, but nobody seems to be hiring. Or, at least, they’re not hiring me.”
He glanced up, suspicion in his eyes.
“Uhh…” I elaborated. “What I mean is, I’ve been applying for a lot of office jobs, and I guess I just don’t have enough experience.”
The suspicion didn’t exactly go away with that remark. I continued, “I prefer working in cafés, anyway, but the office jobs pay a little better.” Finally he nodded and returned to the paperwork.
Again to pass the time, he asked, “Why’d you leave Starbucks?”
I sighed. “The manager didn’t work around my school schedule,” I said, adding, “You don’t have to worry about that since I’ve graduated, of course. She kept scheduling me at times I just couldn’t work. I’d always tell her, but she wanted to argue with me about it, so eventually I just quit. School was more important.” This is, of course, almost entirely untrue. The manager worked sufficiently around my work schedule; it just happened that I had a hard time getting up at 4:30 to go in for a shift from five to nine, then enjoy my 90-minute one-way commute to a three-hour class. Instead, I went home and slept, then called up and quit without notice.
“Which Starbucks was that?” he asked. I told him. He nodded and then said, “I worked for Starbucks for five years. Who was the manager?”
“Uhhh…” I thought. What if he knew my old manager? What if they were friends and he called up to check out my story or use her as some kind of reference or something. Instead of coming up with a fake name like “Mike Hunt,” I blurted out her actual name. Not even just the first name — first and last, right out there in the open.
He nodded, but his eyes didn’t have a look resembling recognition. The nod turned into a shaking head, and he said, “I don’t know her.”
I shrugged noncommittally. I was getting worried at this point that my stupidity and unfortunate bout of Tourette’s-like honesty would cause me to lose this job before I even had it. Fortunately, he didn’t ask me any more questions. He handed me the various tax and benefits forms that I could fill out on my own, gave me a training manual, and sent me on my way.
I felt reasonably good — I had, in the span of an hour, gone from having nothing resembling a job to being somewhat gainfully employed. Not really in my chosen career path, but as a wise and nameless friend once said, I haven’t given up on anything. I just need money.