This Is Not a Drill

Today is Friday. It’s been almost a week and one day since my last day of work, on Thursday, March 12th. I’d say that means I’ve been in isolation since then, but I did got grocery shopping at the Park Slope Food Co-op on Friday, so I technically have to date my isolation to then. Plus I have left the house to go for walks, checked mail, etc, so I have touched doors and mailboxes and packages and so on, but I always sanitize and wash my hands afterwards, so hopefully that doesn’t count. Oh, and I bought bananas on Tuesday, but with all of us (mostly) being six feet away, and the person behind the counter wearing a mask, and me sanitizing and washing hands again after coming back from buying the bananas, let’s say that that doesn’t count either. So I’ve been isolated since Friday. That’s almost a week. Which means about another week until I’m out of the incubation period. But if I go grocery shopping again, which I will probably have to do before the week is out — because even though I stocked up like a motherfucker to the extent that I could in a one-bedroom with limited closet space, and we now have frozen vegetables and dried fruit, I am saving those for the real emergency that we hope never comes and we will need fruits and vegetables, which I also happen to actually like — does that set me back to day one? I hope not. We all hope not.

Anyway, last Thursday — impossible to believe it’s only been a week — I was working on a commercial. That was way before we all went into shelter-in-place (or whatever they’re calling it. We’d probably call it that if the governor and the mayor didn’t hate each other), before we knew about asymptomatic spread, before bars closed, before schools closed, before we were really thinking about flattening the curve or had maybe even heard that term, before people started hoarding (or maybe they were starting to). But the first cases had been confirmed in New York, we knew about social spread, and production was already taking precautions. There was a ton of sanitizer on hand (who knew it would become like gold?), and the first location we were shooting in, a Synagogue, actually required us to sanitize at the door. All of the food at craft service was packaged. We didn’t break for lunch so there was no need to deal with catering. Signs everywhere encouraged us to wash our hands. It’s hard to say how much of this would have happened had we not been working with celebrity talent, a comedian, who had a small child at home.

“Has that been sanitized?” he asked every once in a while about various objects, including the slate. 

Was he doing a bit? Hard to say. I mean, the slate was in fact getting put in his face, so, a reasonable ask. And the spot we were working on required that he actually put a few different props in his mouth, so, considering that, he was extremely chill (with the propmaster using gloves, keeping props on an isolated, clean tray, wiping down surfaces with Lysol wipes, etc). How a set feels often comes from the top down, and this person kept things professional and friendly. People who have worked in TV generally treat the crew well because they are used to being in the trenches with them and value the work that they do. I was glad to be working with someone like that on my last workday, who also had jokes.

“Now I’ve dropped that on the floor. Of this medical facility,” he said once when he dropped his script. Oh yeah, our second location was a doctor’s office — specifically, we were filming in an exam room. A tiny exam room, with six to twelve of us packed in there at various times, definitely not maintaining six feet of distance from each other. We didn’t know what kind of doctor’s exam room, because we never know that kind of thing in our business — we just show up somewhere, and that’s where we work, hoping it’s been properly cleaned (I can’t tell you how many restaurant kitchens I’ve worked in that definitely have not). But needless to say, that script got picked up and thrown in the garbage, by someone else. This might have been a fairly chill famous person, but he was still a famous person, with all the privileges. He wanted the work day to be short so he could get home to be with his kid, so the crew didn’t break for lunch. He thanked us at the end of the day for that, but we would have had to do it regardless. That’s just how this business works.

We all did our best to make it feel like a normal day, even though, throughout it, more and more news was coming down our phones (also hopefully carefully sanitized on the regular. I know mine is so much that I’m worried it’ll kill the touchscreen) about how things were not normal — Broadway getting shut down was the big news that day — and that this was likely going to be our last day of work for a while. Aside from my boss, I often don’t say goodbye to people at the end of a normal workday, because I don’t know exactly when I’m going to see them again, but I know it’s likely to be the next day, or the next week, so why bother? New York’s film production community is small, and the group of those of us who regularly do commercial production is even smaller, so you see all of the same people over and over. But on this day, there was a lot of, “See you whenever,” or “See you hopefully not before too long.” Then I took the subway home. Yeah, exactly: the subway.

One thing I think I’m either lucky about or extremely unlucky about, depending on how you look at it, is that that was my first day on set in a week. I was supposed to go to Florida for six days to visit my in-laws on March 5th. We were supposed to go stay with them in their apartment, in a retirement community in one huge building of over 350 old people. When we decided to cancel our trip, the day before we were due to leave (thank you Jet Blue Agent Whose Name I Don’t Know for allowing us to bank the flight even though it had been booked before the window during which they were allowing that at the time), it seemed like we were being overly cautious, but neither my husband nor I wanted to risk being patient zero for 350 old people. Especially given that, let’s face it: my lifestyle, in particular is a petri dish. I live in a city of 8 million+ people. I ride the subway, often pressed up against many of them if I’m traveling during rush hour, and holding on to handles or poles that god knows how many of them have touched (and avoiding touching those poles so that you fall on the people around you, or wrapping your elbow around the pole so that you don’t have to touch it with your bare hands leading to you hog space that you should be sharing with five other people, is just wrong. Any New Yorker worth a damn knows that). On my average workday, I eat catering where I share utensils with upwards of 50-200 other people (maybe more if there’s a big crowd scene), and craft service where there are bowls of peanut butter pretzels and celery and grapes and oreos that that same number of people have had put their fingers into regularly over the course of a couple of hours. I touch equipment like c-stands and sandbags and cables that dozens of other people touch, or step on, or drag along the floor that everyone else has stepped on — floors that rarely get cleaned, by the look of them, if you’re on a soundstage, where the air is hopefully well-ventilated, but who really knows? And then the next day, I’m almost always in a different place with different people and a whole new set of germs. So an abundance of caution seemed like not a bad idea. Someone in the NYC film production community is going to turn up with COVID-19, it’s inevitable. And it’s also inevitable that they gave it to a lot of the people they were working with. So we are waiting for that shoe to drop. (Update: it has.) And those six days I was supposed to be gone was six days less that I didn’t have to be in that particular petri dish.

The reason that I was unlucky for missing all of that work, however, was that that that’s upwards of $4200 I could have grossed in those six days that I now don’t have. That week we were supposed to be gone was the busiest one yet this year; about half of those days, I received calls about multiple jobs, and I probably could have been working every one of them (yes, even the weekends, because we work weekends). Mind you, this always happens when you make plans to travel, the work calls pour in, and even though I called everyone when I found out I wasn’t going, I couldn’t get any of those days back now that I was staying in town. I did get two days of editing work (which I should have done from home, but did at the co-working space Civic Hall because we weren’t really thinking that way yet two weeks ago, and Civic Hall was still open then), but it didn’t make up for the loss. In our business, you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid. There is no sick leave or sick pay. If you’re scheduled to be on a job and you’re sick or otherwise can’t make it, you have to replace yourself with someone who can do your job, and that person gets your paycheck, end of story.

When we don’t have any work, the only way we can get income is to claim unemployment. I can do that because I get paid by payroll companies, I fill out I-9s and W-4s every time I work, I get taxes and benefits and dues taken out of my paycheck, which a lot of freelancers don’t, and so they are my employers of record in the system — again, lucky. I’ve been busy enough in recent years, though, that I didn’t have an active claim — and it took me multiple hours over the course of three days to get one set up. First, the New York State Department of Labor website was only semi-operable. I’d get to a certain point and then get a message that something had gone wrong or I’d timed out, and to check the browser recommendations — which, when clicked upon, said “This application is designed to work with Internet Explorer {5.0} (yes, in curly brackets) and Netscape {6.0} and newer versions.” Netscape. Yesterday, I finally managed to complete the online portion of the application around 8 am (when they are supposed to open, but I’ve heard now the online system is available off-hours too), only to be told that I needed to call and speak to a person to complete the rest. This is par for the course whenever I’ve applied for unemployment, probably because I inevitably have had more than eight employers in the past 18 months (this time the list had 11), and do work in multiple states. I called eight times and consistently got disconnected after going through seven levels of phone menu. I complained on Twitter, got a predictably useless response from the DOL, and personal help from a NYS Assembly member I also tweeted at who got the Governor’s office to tell her that…they’re working on it. Then I finally dialed randomly and got on an actual hold some time after 4 pm, which led to me speaking to a guy who was definitely in Albany and not NYC judging by the speed at which he did things, but who very capably helped me get through the rest of my application — which, it turned out, had gotten bungled by the online system because — surprise — it’s overloaded. 

Here are a few more ways in which I am lucky because I work in film production:

1) We have these weird jobs that force us to be resourceful and good at trouble-shooting, which are skills you need in a crisis, and we are used to adapting to crap conditions and rolling with the punches. Stoicism in the face of long hours, shooting outside in winter, in un-air-conditioned spaces in summer, sometimes filled with fake smoke that we assume is safe to breathe in but we don’t always know for sure….that’s just how we do. 

2) And this is HUGE: most of us have union health insurance, which is good health insurance. And the union says they are working to preserve our heath insurance, which hopefully means that we won’t have to worry about not earning enough hours to qualify for it during this time, which can be the one challenge for a lot of people. You can bank hours, but only up to 450, which, considering you need 400 every six months to keep your insurance, kind of stinks.

3) We have a union, at a time when you do appreciate having a union. Even if I don’t know how much they can really do for us aside from dealing with our health insurance and sending us emails with links to info and resources, which they seem to be doing daily, it’s good to be part of a work community. When many corporations aren’t looking out for their workers, we have at least a small way to look out for ourselves. 

And that’s especially good because we are used to the corporations on which we depend for our income — the studios and production companies — not stepping up. Since we are not full-time employees, with long-term contracts, they studios don’t really have to do anything for us, and word is that they are doing the bare minimum. So far, it sounds like most production companies that were shut down in production on TV shows and movies are offering two-weeks pay to their crew people who have been laid off, which is something. But those are straight, eight-hour days, when most people on TV shows are used to working 12, and count on that overtime to make enough income (which, yes, is a shitty lifestyle to begin with). While it wouldn’t help me, since I don’t do full time, I’d love to hear that they were at least going to pay their crews straight time until they start shooting again. Netflix has announced it’s setting up a relief fund not only for their own cast and crew members but for non-profits that help film crew and cast in general, like the Motion Picture & Television Fund and Fondation des Artistes, and that’s a start. Certainly the highly-paid celebrities who work with those crew people could do likewise, and I have faith that some of them will, although the fact that none of them have yet offered to do so publicly is disappointing (Cher, I know you’re putting your money into helping health workers, can’t argue with that). But again, this is par for the course in our industry. Crew people are used to being treated like the lowest cogs in the machine, who are worth far less than the high-priced talent with whom we regularly work, or the clients and agency in my case. My last day of work was supposed to be Friday, March 13th (yep), but that day got canceled — late enough that we all got paid for the day, so I’m fine with that. But did they do that for our safety? No. The celebrity talent backed out. Only today has my union finally suspended all work connected with it. Because, again, carrying on is just what we’re used to doing. We need the work.

And isn’t that just the story of America? The world of hurt that the film production community is probably now entering, that’s our big problem as a country: most Americans work our tails off, but America doesn’t work for us. Because in these “United” States, we don’t look at ourselves as part of a community. We have communities — local, civic, religious, cultural — sometimes we see ourselves as part of those. But the idea of being part of a global or even national community? Naah. Americans have always had this idea of individualism and independence as part of our “national character” — something I’d consider a national character flaw. And then, the last four years of “America First” degraded things even further, showing how little we as a nation seem to value taking care of our fellow humans, or working with them, or even treating them with dignity. If you ever get into an argument with a Trumpkin on Facebook about the heartlessness of our immigration policies, it’s always “You shouldn’t care about those people.” Whenever you defend social services, it’s “People should take responsibility for themselves.” As if if it doesn’t hurt you or someone you know, you shouldn’t give a damn. That’s not just the ethos of those assholes on Spring Break in Florida or the ones going out to crowded bars on St. Patrick’s Day after the point in this pandemic when there was no way you could reasonably claim not to know the meaning of “flatten the curve.” It’s been the ethos of the modern Republican party for quite some time, and especially this president, who basically told all of America’s governors to fend for themselves. Maybe now people will see that it’s reached an extreme that has the potential to literally kill us if we don’t repudiate it. Republicans love to talk about the founding fathers, but they never seem to remember how one of them once said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” You’d think a virus that has spread from one end of the globe to the other and back would drive this point home. Maybe it still will.

We are facing a massive human disaster and I’m here to say that I am going to be hurt by it. Me. And you know me. I’m likely to get sick because I live in New York City (which at last count had 40% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States), and because I work in an industry where, until a week ago, we were just basically sharing all of our germs. I probably won’t die, and hopefully I won’t give it anyone who will die, but economically, even if I don’t get sick, it’s probably going to wipe out all of my savings, and kill a lot the bars and restaurants and other small businesses in my neighborhood. It’ll be much, much worse for others — the ones with no savings, no health insurance, the ones whose jobs may not ever come back (I’m pretty sure mine will. Everyone needs entertainment). That’s why I’m signing up to help seniors and immunocompromised folks in my neighborhood who need help because they’re afraid to leave the house. But I’m going to suffer because of this, and in particular, because our society and government don’t have the systems and safeguards in place to protect the country as a whole an people like me in particular when there’s trouble: artists, independent contractors, gig economy workers, the poor, the vulnerable. The system doesn’t work for everyone, and it should. It has to.

Next time, it could be you, but that shouldn’t matter. You should care because you should care. We are all human, and we share one increasingly globalized planet, and more and more, what happens to one of us affects us all. And if a global pan-fucking-demic doesn’t convince you of that, I don’t know what will.

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