Did I ever tell you about the time I was a Director’s Assistant? (Capital letters mine…) No? Just another little ‘why not’ from the past – a freelance moment… a foray into the unknown for $900.00 a week (plus GST) no experience necessary.
It was 4 years ago, just about this time in June of 2001 (and can you ever think of something happening in 2001 without thinking: “This happened before/after September 11th, before that date that killed innocence as it smashed into the twin towers – when are we going to stop thinking this way?”) and I experienced another one of those right time/right place moments I used to be famous for.
One of my girlfriends was organizing a tour of homes in the Annexe area – a fundraiser for the local homeless, to whom the Annexe was also a home… of sorts. (Rather more outdoorish than most.) Only the grooviest, swankiest, most famous or most unusual homes needed apply. And she got a swack of them. For twenty bucks you could see them all, then stop by afterward for a swig of lemonade or a cup of tea accompanied by crumbly home made cookies and cakes, and sip and munch to the strains of Mozart emanating from the string quartet hired to keep home base Hart House rockin’.
You’d start with the home of the former advisor to our most famous former Prime Minister, a fascinating shack with a converted guest house/office filled with candid photos of Trudeau and family and surrounded with the sort of fascinating memorabilia that made it one of the longest and slowest stops on the tour.
There was the French Chateau-style mansion that was so over-the-top designer-y one wondered where the corresponding unnaturally beautiful model people were hiding. (I mean, seriously – you couldn’t live there: you couldn’t eat or watch TV or go to the bathroom or any other human activity. One false move with a dust rag or a pair of improperly placed feet on a priceless hassock and the whole thing would have collapsed in sympathetic horror. It positively screamed ‘don’t touch!’ so we looked instead, and some of us even goggled at the incredible excess.)
There was the Zen garden home, the ‘why is this home on the tour’ home, (extremely nice, but in stark contrast to the Chateau, it actually looked as though humans lived there… more tidily and fashionably and elegantly than thee and me, but still…) there was the art-filled, every-room-a-different-daring-colour home; and then there was the home that I was placed in as a security guard cum traffic cop, making sure the visitors didn’t swipe the silver or touch the nick nacks, and to keep moving, keep moving, as they slid through the rooms and hallways, then squirted out the back door and into the ornamental garden, preparatory to clearing out altogether and high-tailing it to Hart House for High Tea.
It was a popular tour; after all, who doesn’t want to see the neighbours’ stuff, mentally totting up the value of the furniture and accessories (as if Bob Barker were going to quiz them on it in a “come on down!” type moment) and praying for a few seconds of ‘all clear’ so they could whip open the closets and drawers to see where all the unmentionables and real life crap was crammed?
Thank heaven then for the worthies like me, eagle-eyed and nearly psychic as we cased the crowd for likelies casing the joint.
I think my home was the best. An absolutely stunning three storey, free-standing giant of a classic Victorian red brick house on Admiral Road, the home of a painter who had rendered nearly every wall and primary surface with Trompe L’Oeil painted effects that provided many fascinating moments of wondering whether what you saw was real, or the result of the talented artist’s cheated perspective.
I was placed in the kitchen, the last outpost before the outdoors. It was the second shift of the day, so the older gentleman sitting at the kitchen table simply looked to me like an exhausted visitor waiting for his wife or grandchildren, and hoping that waiting for the fam by the exit might make them shift a little more smartly.
But really, I hardly noticed him – there was so much to look at! I’d done a quick tour of the entire house and had marveled at each room’s individual style and artistic choices, and particularly enjoyed searching for the teeny tiny renderings she’d hidden in even the most incongruous spots; if she’d painted a load of laundry on the washing machine door, or a browning apple core and crumpled envelope inside the wastepaper basket, I wouldn’t have been surprised – the detail was amazing.
But I liked my room best. In my room, in the kitchen, the walls were painted to look like ancient, yellowing brick, and the windows looked out onto another world entirely.
Architectural details that didn’t suit were transformed into alternate visions: a square half pillar created to cover pipes and electrical elements was painted to look like a narrow floor to ceiling bookcase – a panel under the sink given a Trompe L’Oeil finish so perfect you wanted to try to pull it open by the painted-on handle that looked three dimensional no matter the angle you observed it from.
The floors were painted to resemble ancient stone tiles, with tiny weeds and bluebells peeking up between the cracked and crumbling squares – and there were words and snatches of poetry inscribed here and there looking as though carved from the stone itself. The radiators were adorned with delicate, incredibly real looking vines and climbers; tiny wasps and ladybugs and centipedes scattered and scurried across the faux leaves.
For the 2 hours I was there, I’m not even sure I was able to see all there was or all she’d done – even the most prosaic kitchen related stuff was up for examination – were those really cups and crockery sitting on shelves behind glass cabinet doors, or were they painted on, complete with glassy glare reflected off a sun that shone through the pretend window all day and all night?
So I enjoyed myself; it was just the sort of room that I would have been transported by as a ten year old, and it was doing a pretty good job of thrilling me to bits even now.
But I had a job to do and after standing and chatting and indicating to the throngs who thronged through (and noticing that the crabby kids who’d been dragged whinging and bored nearly out of their tiny minds through other houses had become mini-explorers here: clever Nancy to put this house last, the threat of building tantrums dissolving as the children perked up and were doing the dragging now, as they insisted their parents come! here! now! to see some clever treasure revealed) I went over to the older gentleman to see if there was some help or assistance with which I could provide him.
He was an attractive senior citizen – bald as an egg, but the egg was gleaming and tanned, his skin unbelievably smooth and pink with health, and the moustache and Van Dyke beard were of a particularly creamy silver. He had shining blue eyes that matched his soft denim shirt, and his shoes (if I was not mistaken, and it turned out I wasn’t) were Prada. Interesting.
But we’d been given explicit instructions about exactly this sort of thing – absolutely verboten – though the thought of dragging an old man off what was to be fair not a priceless heirloom, but a fairly standard kitchen chair without giving him a moment to catch his breath or rest seemed unnecessarily Gestapo, so I gave it a while.
But fair or not, actually, fair was fair and finally it was time to give him the heave ho or risk his putting down roots – painted or otherwise – and becoming a fixture amongst the fixtures.
“Are you waiting for your family?” I tried, thinking this awkwardness might be easily sorted with an astute daughter-in-law or wifely presence.
“In what way do you mean ‘waiting for my family’?” He replied with an unsettling gleam of mischief in his eye; I had to think – was there any other way to interpret the question?
But before I could come up with anything (and who knows how long that might have taken) he clarified his question.
“In the larger sense I am nearly always waiting for my family,” he twinkled. “But this minute? No, I’m just watching the crowd go by.”
“I’m so sorry, but I’m terribly afraid you’ll have to move, or at least stand,” I told him, embarrassed to be giving the bum’s rush to such an interesting and articulate old article. “I’m afraid the owner doesn’t want the visitors to use the family furniture – you understand.”
“I suppose I do,” he replied, coruscating even more brightly, perched as he was on his maple throne. “But since I am the owner, I’m allowing myself a little leeway.”
The next two hours were marvelous; we chatted away like a couple of girlfriends at lunch with hats. He told me all about his life as a Director (those were his awards and trophies and plaques – real, not painted on – in the cabinet on the second floor) in film and television. He told me about his famous lover of many years past and how whilst she’d been with him, her politics had sat several notches left of centre (a Socialist flirting with Communism; but then, she’d flirt with anything…) and 180 degrees from where they now reside and where she now writes about them for publication, an ultraconservative married to a famous man of great means and influence. (If he can hang on… but that’s another story…)
I told him about my newspaper advice column and my travels and travails and my family and friends and my terrier and the time simply flew. Too soon the next volunteer appeared and it was time for me to collect my bag and bid him adieu and I have to say I was sorry; there was no question of us actually becoming girlfriends with hats – he had a gorgeous young artist wife and say what you will, a friendship of any sort would have left itself open to all sorts of unsavoury inferences – but I’d grown fond of George in the scant time I’d been protecting his domain from pickpockets and shoplifters.
But he stopped me. He had an idea, he said. What if I were to become his assistant on the episode of the television drama he was set to begin filming in two days time?
What if? I’d never done such a thing before in my life, I told him. Nothing simpler he informed me, all I had to do was sit beside him and hand him his leather-bound script whenever he needed it and tell him to take his pill at 4 PM. But the dog, I said; I couldn’t leave her alone for the sorts of hours a director needs to be on set. No problem he said; she could come with us and sleep on the bed in his air-conditioned dressing room/office at the set, or in his airconditioned trailer/dressing room/office on location.
I’d run out of excuses, but actually I don’t know why I even tried. I had never been a Director’s Assistant before – and when was I going to be offered such an opportunity again? I’d spent minimal time on film sets, only remembering them as stultifyingly boring, but in the presence of my new girlfriend/boss, how dull could it be?
I decided right then to find out.