Friday, July 17, 2009

7. Ars Gratia

I am a security guard at the ------------ Museum of Art. I stand at the doorway separating the 18th century French room from the 19th century French room--near the front of the museum. I have a stool, which I sometimes sit on, especially toward the end of the evening. It is not a hard job, and I don’t really have much to do. There has never been a break-in during my entire time there, and what little training I had has gone largely unused. I carry the nightstick and wear the uniform, though, just like I have for the past twenty years. I greet patrons when they enter, if there are only one or two of them in the room, which is often the case during the week. They say hi and nod, particularly the college students. They seem happy to see an elderly black woman in this building. They remind me a little bit of my grandchildren, and it is possible that I remind them of their grandmothers. I am a bit of an authority figure, although it would be hard to take me too seriously, stuffed as I am into this black and white uniform, like a maid, wearing masculine clothes and with a patiently chirping walkie-talkie on my belt. I am not sure why that would make me seem less than threatening, but in my case it does. I tell them stories about the paintings. In twenty years I have read the signs in my room over and over, and the signs in other rooms almost as many times in my hours off. I know all their information by heart, and a lot more besides. I’ve read, and I’ve talked to the curators and docents that work here. The chairwoman of the board is a nice lady, not at all stuck up. She always says hi to me when she sees me, and a few times we’ve had long discussions about the museum, and the pieces in my rooms. It was from her that I learned that Bouguereau used to paint labels for jams and preserves, when he was a poor student. I’ve picked up a lot from her. And I’ve picked up more from going home at night and reading, on the Internet and in books from the library, about the art in the museum. I suppose I could almost lead a tour. When a student does ask, I tell them what I know, and they take notes, writing it down for a report they’ll compose later. In twenty years you don’t just learn about the paintings--you learn about the whole museum. I know the history of this building, every addition and renovation; again, from talking to the people who work here. The resident historian, Mr. Farnsworth, isn’t as approachable as the chairwoman, but I’ve heard him talk a time or two about the things that have happened here, from the stop on the Presidential tours, to the fire, to the time the museum was used as a public shelter after the hurricane, and the security people were scrambling to make certain nothing was stolen or damaged. When the workmen have come in, to repaint the walls or replace the light bulbs in the high ceiling of my room, if I am there, they always say hi. When the walls have to be moved around for a new exhibit (never in my room, but the workmen pass through on their way to the traveling collections area), I see the work that goes into it, the rewiring of lights and air ducts and motion sensors. I know all the janitors by name, and practically have the rotation of their shifts memorized, just like for the signs on the walls describing the paintings. I got this job for one reason. After my children were gone and my husband died, I spent a lot of time going around--to concerts at the music hall, to charity fund-raisers, to meetings of senior citizens and such. I liked the music I heard at the classical concerts, but never fit in with the other people going there, me in my black dress and they in their evening clothes; my dress was black because it was plain, their clothes were black because they were fancy. I didn’t know what they talked about at the intermission, and my hearing is not what it used to be. The charity fund-raisers were not much better. They had nothing to do with me. I went instead to the parks, taking long walks. On one of those walks I saw the art museum and decided on a whim to go inside. Right there near the entrance, in one of the first rooms, I saw it. It was by Watteau, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was a picture of a man, standing in a forest clearing, looking up at the clouds. He was wearing exotic, beautiful clothes, but he seemed completely unaware and unconcerned with that--his attention was fixed on the sky. It was beautiful. I knew then that I wanted to be near this painting. I got the job as a guard. I have kept it for twenty years. I know everything about this museum, about its locks and alarms. I know when who goes where and when the building will be empty. I know the painting, too, every fleck of paint and every stoke of colour. And tonight, I am going to steal it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

6. Do Unto Others

Good evening, my name is Sarah, and I’ll be your server for the evening. Here’s a menu of our drinks and appetizers to start you off; our soup of the day is Crème de la Mushroom. If you’d like some suggestions on your wine for the evening my boyfriend Allan will be around in a moment with some recommendations. He’s not really my boyfriend. Hi, my name is Sarah, can I refill your glass? Allen passed me in the kitchen and told me you might be running low. No, he didn’t. Good afternoon, my name is Sarah, and I’m here to make your own marriage look like crap. Not really, but that’s what I think I’m doing, sometimes. My job is to pretend that Allen is my boyfriend, and to let you know that fact whenever it looks like you might be about to make a scene over your breadsticks, and it’s my job to look like I’m head over heels while I do it. My manager had this idea, see. Well, let me backup. I work in a “family-style” restaurant that’s part of a national franchise. Foreign food with American flavor; the kind of place that aspires to have separate forks for meat and salad, but knows you can never remember which is which, so you’ll open your rolled-up napkin to find two forks of the exact same size. But they stay away from being too rigid about the franchise bit, trying to keep from feeling too much like a chain. We’re thinly spread enough that a lot of people don’t realize we’re a chain at all. Anyway, corporate lets the individual managers have a fair bit of wiggle-room in how they set up and operate, floorplan, décor, menu, etc, it all gets some slight tweaks from restaurant from restaurant. So the manager of the place I work at had this bright idea. Wouldn’t it be great if, whenever you sensed some conjugal tension developing at a table, you could send out some glowing reminder of how great it all really could be, how it used to be when you first started dating back in college? Then so reminded, you would amend your ways and embrace a kinder, friendlier stance, all aglow in remembrance of simpler times, like you’d just walked out of a Frank Capra marathon at the theatre. Yeah, he thought so. You can’t spring this on waitstaff all of a sudden, though, it’d probably count as some kind of harassment (“Local Manager Urges Sex Play Among Employees!”), I don’t know, so he phased it in slowly, hiring people with the understanding that this was what they’d be doing, and not asking the waitstaff already there to change anything. Eventually enough people left that he had a fair-sized couple’s army hired up. I was a theatre studies minor in college, so I guess it fit me okay. Allen’s a not exactly my type, but we keep it together. Everybody, when they were hired, has to go through some interpersonal communication courses at the community college, which the manager actually pays for up front; if we stay a year, he keeps the bill; otherwise, we pay him back. The idea is that we’ll be able to recognize the signs of an impending argument and be able to prevent it. It doesn’t take a lot to work in a reference to your significant other, not with enough practice. Allen’ll engage them in some small talk; yeah, he just came up from California, his girlfriend and him are going to get engaged as soon as they get enough saved up from working here. That’s a little heavy, but Allen likes it because it has the bonus effect of leaving larger tips. He says. Allen refills your icewater and thinks it’s, whew, quite a scorcher out today, huh? Doesn’t even wanna think about what it’s like for his girlfriend, over by the grille; yeah, your shrimp kabobs’ll be right out. I’m going to get you a new fork, and, just to ensure you have even faster service, sic my boyfriend Allen on getting you a new basket of endless steak fries at the same time. Oh, you like my hair? Yeah, I got it cut for my boyfriend, he’s serving over there at the next table. (You don’t think I don’t get random compliments from patrons? Hells yes; we women need to stick together, and if you think your husband’s ignoring you, first thing you’re going to do is random-nicety the pants off everyone you meet.) So what’s the point of all this? Cueing. Letting people know how it could be. Monkey see, monkey do. And the point, for my boss, isn’t really getting those two people happy--it’s keeping the atmosphere of the entire restaurant peaceable, preventing a blowup that could ruin someone else’s enjoyment of a platter-sized onion blossom. You get paired up randomly--no picking your partner. That’s the irony of it: if we were friends we couldn’t always be nice. If we were really dating we might really have fights, bad days, shifts where we can’t smile at each other. But we’re not, so we don’t. To be honest, Allen’s actually kind of a douche. But like I said, we keep it together. There are six other couples on staff, and we’ll have maybe three or four out on any one shift, in addition to the “single” waitstaff. Usually you get assigned right at the outset--the concierge identifies problem parties (she’s been through training too) and specifies to the kitchen to send out the first half of a couple. It tends to be families with young kids, but we have college-freshmen-home-for-Christmas-break meals, newly-engaged-and-you-didn’t-tell-us meals, old-fart-and-longsuffering-biddie meals. Separate codes for each one of ‘em, plus a few more. If a family looks okay and doesn’t get assigned a couple, then starts freaking out over whether Mary is too fat to order the shrimp entrée, we have to Go Polygamous (or polyamorous, I suppose), our own pet term for sending out a couple player who isn’t actually paired with the waitstaff already out there. It’s tricky, though--if Kelly claims to be Ryan’s girlfriend, she better hope she hasn’t already claimed to be David’s anywhere within hearing range. Our manager’s a forward-thinker. For those rarer but still possible parent-child spats, like the one I already mentioned with the freshman home for the first time, or a kid telling off her mom to shut the hell up about her being a stripper (it’s happened), for those--the boss is contemplating father-son and mother-daughter waitstaff pairings. Maybe gay and lesbian couples for those most awkward of spats (the more unusual the fight, the more our innocent bystanders’ potential embarrassment). They wouldn’t have to be full time--they could do double duty as hetero couples, only turning into other combinations when the situation demanded it. And why stop there. I’ve only been here nine months, but I’ve seen arguments or the starts of arguments between fledgling entrepreneurial partners, religious leaders (you should’ve seen that one time the Lutheran pastors’ convention descended on us), foster- and birth-parents, you name it. And my boss is pretty popular at the BBB; I’m pretty sure the idea will spread to the other businesses around here before long. Waiting rooms, church pews, concert halls, high school auditoriums for your kid’s first play, golf courses, poolsides, soccer games--anyplace you’re sitting around with other strangers, you could be surrounded by other strangers who know how to always act polite to each other, always turn the other cheek, always do what they know they ought to do. Then their shift will end and they’ll go to be surrounded by other actors, also doing their turn at making nice. I don’t know. It could happen.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

5. Look Away

Don’t you ever wish someone had told you to look away during that part in Indiana Jones where he falls into the circus car full of snakes? Or that part in Star Trek where the Klingons dig into a tasty feast of maggots? What about in The Tin Drum, when all those eels dart out of the horse’s eye sockets? But you kept watching, and now you have that image stuck in your head forever, thank you very much. I don’t like bugs. Hate ‘em. There’s lots of movies I like otherwise, but there’ll be that one scene, that one quick shot with something that absolutely makes my stomach churn, and for weeks after keeps me looking under the sheets before I get in bed and examining all my food before I take a bite. I know better than to watch The Fly, or Swarm, or Tremors. But there’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids when there’s only that one scene with the giant cockroaches. I really like The City of Lost Children, except for those parts with the flea. They’re quick; if I close my eyes, I’m fine; the trick is knowing when to close your eyes. So I started keeping lists; I’d watch movies and carefully take down the minute and second when the bugs appeared; then I’d take note when they’d passed from the screen for the last time. I did this for a lot of movies, all of my movies, hundreds of them; whenever I’d watch one again I’d have my list at my side, ready for the bugs. I wondered if anyone else did this. I wondered if anyone else would like to have a look at my lists. They were pretty long, covering all of mine, and my friends, and a lot of the video rental store’s movies. So I put it online. First I got a blog, then registered a domain name and got up a full-fledged website. I found out other people kept lists, too, for whatever it was that freaked them out--spiders, drowning scenes, clowns, weird food, blood, snakes. They emailed me their lists. I put them up. I gave them editor access for as they added new movies to their lists. I made the site a wiki, where anyone could add their own lists, their own categories of creepy stuff. I called it (I’d originally called my blog but there was already a website registered in that name, a repository of horror stories of customer maltreatment, where people told the “you-won’t-believe” stories about rude waiters and incompetent clerks.) It took off. People are scared of all sorts of stuff. One guy put up a list of all the movies with unexpected shots of clouds of steam; another has a list of movies where women characters wear red nail polish. Check it out; you can browse by movie title, genre, or specific creepy thing. You’ll see a list of start and end times, ratings of just how horrifying each shot is, from Mildly Creepy (an icon of a guy peeking through his fingers) to OhMyGoshHideMe (an icon of someone behind a welder’s mask with earmuffs and their hands across their face). Stuff gets reported pretty quick; I’ve got guys running bootlegs who put up warnings before stuff even hits theatres. We’re working on getting review copies, as soon as we convince the bigwigs we’ve got a big enough base to make it worth their while. So that’s what I do now, keeping up with the website. A couple of psychologists emailed me once, something about analyzing people’s fears and self-efficacy, but they never called back. Some film students came through once and started vandalizing, deleting every title in the registry, but we blocked them pretty quick and I had everything on backups anyway. Go check it out. You’ll never get taken by surprise again.