Yes, that's our garage yesterday afternoon at about 4 p.m. and that's Jesse L. Martin, gorgeous Detective Green of "Law & Order." A stunt man inside the garage is about to have his arm set on fire.
This scene immediately preceded it, in which Jesse and Dennis Farina (Det. Fontana, his partner) knock on our front door, while a crew swarms all over our porch. They're looking for the bad guy, a bomber of some kind--the one setting himself on fire.
And do you know why television stars and a hit series production crew were here, paying us for all this fun? Because we are a dilapidated house. Yes, that is what the script called for..."a dilapidated house." After 19 years of sheepishly emerging each morning from our facade of peeling paint and broken stained glass, gazing longingly at the immaculately restored landmark homes of neighbors, we have been chosen and exalted for being exactly what we are. Dilapidation rules!
The crew couldn't have been any nicer. Which we expected--Law & Order shoots a lot in this neighborhood, and has a good reputation for putting things back as good or better than they found them. But "better" in this case is much better--we get to keep the cute cottage-exterior garage wall! The garage has gone from being a hulking dark beast to a charming potential studio. Thanks, guys! (Unfortunately, we do not get to keep Jesse--but he did admire my ongoing efforts to strip the white housepaint from our stained glass front-door panels.)
The first scene involved a dainty 5-year-old child actress, who got the kind of supportive coaching warranted when the next 2 pages of script depend on, well, the willingness of a 5-year-old. Her direction came from a gal with an English accent worthy of "Nanny 911," making me think that I will try this accent with potentially unruly children in the future. She did fine, opening our big glass front door on cue for Dennis and Jesse.
Next came the garage. Dressing this set required creating a sort of reverse Potemkin village; they had to re-scuzzify things inside and out. Rich Irony: They covered our gorgeous, budget-busting new lattice-top fence with...faux crappy stockade fencing, just like the stuff we took down. And a truck from a prop house disgorged a workshop's worth of rusty wheelbarrows, grills, shelving and other detritus, just like the stuff we dumpstered awhile back. (If I'd known, I'd have saved it for them.) My favorite prop was a gruesomely realistic barrel marked "TOXIC." We never had one of those, but it is so utterly the sort of thing we might have had.
My main worry was the garden. Don't step on my blue suede shoes, or my struggling perennial borders, or my 'Martian Giant' tomatoes. And while the garden in general is pretty brown and crispy (especially the poor ferns), there was still plenty left to get trampled. But they were touchingly considerate (see sign they made, left), and several folks (especially the set painters) asked about particular plants, including the red-berry-laden cranberry bush viburnum and the hyacinth bean vine covered with purple sweet-pea-like flower bracts.
Det. Green had to enter the garage, gun drawn, and toss a blanket over flaming guy. (That's his stunt double, on the right; they don't let the real Jesse get near the real flames.) The stunt men generously showed me the tricks of the trade of self-immolation. You paint yourself with fire-retardant stuff, explained the veteran stunt pro who was dressing and rigging the actual stunt man. You saturate underclothes made of Nomex (the same stuff racecar drivers wear) in still more flame retardant (a foul-smelling brew, worn wet even in winter), and then cover the area to be engulfed with an indestructible-looking woven material. Then you paint the area to be ignited with BestTest Rubber Cement, and do your thing with the mandatory presence of an EMS crew and a representative of the FDNY. To rehearse the set-up, the gaffers set off a "flame bar," which produces the requisite alarming lighting effects; the director yelled "POOF" as a cue. Once "rolling," the actual stunt apparently went well (I saw the red flare and heard the "POOF" from within). Or, as someone said contentedly afterwards, "A good day is when no one gets injured." (The senior stunt man recalled going back to work the same day after getting 10 stitches in his forehead from "falling down dead"; he recommends morticians' putty to cover fresh stitches on camera.)
As daylight waned, I handed out bug spray (why an epidemic of killer skeeters in a dry season after we paid to have the gutters cleaned? Why?) Then came the final set-up, in our ground-floor rental apartment. (Our wonderful tenants absented themselves, since about half their furnishings had been stowed across the hall.) The detectives did five takes of this brief interviewing-a-suspect scene, hitting their marks each time on the pink wall-to-wall carpeting over which my mother tripped and shattered her hip and what was left of her life in 1993. Directly overhead, I rustled up frozen fish filets and Kraft mac & cheese as the blazing white "day for night" lights in the driveway flooded the kitchen with Close Encounters-like mood lighting. We had to have coffee in the living room, so that our footsteps wouldn't squeak overhead; we got our own "handler" to tell us when to shush.
And when they got the take they liked, at 10 pm, the whole gang rolled it all out ...the kettledrum-sized lights, the artificial trees outside the windows, the reflectors, the cables, the "honey wagon" full of wrap sandwiches, the tissues for blotting actorly brows...in a lightning operation that would put FEMA to shame (as if that weren't redundant). Dennis Farina shot out into the night, but Jesse (as I call him), still a new enough star to have imperfect pounce-proofing reflexes, hesitated long enough to be captured by my fawning burbling self for a picture. (It's on film, not pixels, and will be uploaded very shortly.) And you can also be sure I will alert you to the episode's air date, sometime next month.
Speaking of FEMA, this whole surreal and delightful episode provided a welcome respite from the harrowing coverage of Katrina and her ghastly wake. My nightmares of vulnerability--the house torn apart hanging open to the rain, the cats scattered, the family God knows where--had gotten so bad that I've being going on a "news fast" every few days, which seems rather cowardly. And as tens of thousands scrounge their salvaged bits of stuff in wet garbage bags, it was a strange time to turn our dilapidated house into a fantasy world under the golden dappled September sun. (I still don't trust that kind of sun, those deep blue skies and crisp-shadowed first-days-of-school; they can be as treacherous as hurricanes.) It'd be grand to sign over our entire check from NBC to the Red Cross, but it's come just in time to pay the gas bill and the first month of Catholic school tuition, jobs for which no other funds had yet volunteered. Part of being house-poor is wishing the stained glass was fixed; part is wishing for the ability to make such Grand and Generous Gestures.
On the other hand, breaking my news fast reminded me that "house poor" is a really asinine concept for someone with a roof over her head and a loving family beneath it. Even a roof that leaks (it does). Even after the film crew goes home (they have). All is quiet now, and we have kept as a souvenir the paper sign taped to the house that read, "SET." Nobody has struck our set, and that is enough.
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby don't cry
"The Boy in the Bubble"
(c) 1984, Paul Simon