My view looking down through one of the Willis
Tower Ledges, two glass boxes mounted high up on
the building. Note the little specks in the red circle;
those are cars. Image copyright, Teece Aronin.
When Michael grew up, he became a stand-up comic for real, appearing in clubs all over the East Coast, including the famous Caroline's in New York. Over time he was traveling farther and branching into motivational speaking.
Then there’s me. I grew up loving movies. Comedies, horror films, silent films, early sound, German expressionist horror films, B-flicks, it didn't matter; I was crazy about them. I've loved Cinerama, cinema verité, film noir, shorts, and documentaries. My fondest dream at age 10 was to be a film historian some day. In high school I participated in something called the Youth Film Forum, and in college I majored in theater thinking I might eventually transfer to the California Institute of the Arts to study film-making.
I spent two summers in L.A. working for Forrest J (no period) Ackerman, editor of the magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Because of Ackerman, I met Darlynne O'Brien, widow of Willis O'Brien, who gave the world the original King Kong and the process of stop motion animation. Through Darlynne I met Ray Harryhausen and was a guest for the weekend in the home he shared with his wife, Diana. I even got to hold the Oscar Willis O'Brien won for Mighty Joe Young.
I say all that to say this: If God were to choose between Michael and me which of us should be in a movie, I think it should be me.
So anyhow, Michael's starring in a movie. It all started years ago when he opened for comedian Christopher Titus and they became friends. Titus had an epiphany and wrote a script about a crooked L.A. cop who cheeses off the mayor. As payback, he is ordered to train a squad of police cadets with disabilities, but the cadets prove themselves more capable than anyone at the police department or City Hall expect. Michael was one of the first people Titus thought of when dreaming up the plot and cast. The title of the script: Special Unit.
A few weeks ago, Michael and I were on the phone making plans for the kids and me to join him and his wife, Mia in Chicago where Special Unit was an entry in a film festival.
“You know,” I said, “I’m the one with the life-long dream of being in a movie. I’m the one who studied film history. I’m the one who studied acting. I’m the one who rubbed elbows in Hollywood.”
“Well, baby,” said the bridge-builder, “there’s always porn, so chin up. And down. And up.”
“Mi-chael . . . “
A few days later, Michael called and said that while we were in Chicago, we should take the kids to Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. At 110 stories, Willis Tower is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It has an area called the Skydeck with two things called the Ledges. The Ledges are glass boxes extending about four feet from one side of the building. For the price of a ticket, visitors can step onto a Ledge where they will have just three glass walls and a glass floor between them and a very messy landing in eternity.
Michael emailed me a link to pictures of the Ledges with a note saying, “You and Mia can play rock, paper, scissors to decide which one of you gets to cut the glass out from under me. Choose wisely.”
I wrote back, “If we play rock, paper, scissors to see who gets to cut the glass out from under you, there is no need for a wise decision, dumb-dumb.” Michael called me later to tell me that was mean.
The following Friday the kids and I packed the car and headed to Chicago. When we arrived, Michael, who had insisted on paying for the hotel, had us booked into adjoining rooms. That evening we all had dinner together, and Michael gave each of the kids and me an engraved thank you gift for coming. We talked about going to Willis Tower the next day.
“You pay for the Uber going out, and I’ll pay for the Uber coming back,” Michael suggested. He calculated that there would be plenty of time when we returned from the Tower to get ready for the film festival. My college friend, Marc would meet us at the theater with his family. The plan had a faint Rube Goldberg tinge to it, but Michael was confident it would all work out.
The next morning Mia called us into their room looking concerned. Michael was lying on the bed and had thrown out his back while putting on his socks. I looked at the cloth culprits covering his feet. They were orange, teal, and white-striped and looked like they'd been made for a child with big feet, which is more or less how they’d ended up. They looked too innocent to have caused so much pain.
Michael was rejecting Mia's advice that he not go to Willis Tower. He insisted that with a cane and/or wheelchair, he'd be fine. When it became clear that even sitting up caused searing pain, he agreed to stay put and rest. Mia would go out and buy a cane and arrange for a wheelchair while I took the kids to Willis Tower.
"Maybe we can all go to Willis tomorrow," I suggested, but Michael said their flight was at 5 a.m.
"Well, maybe I should still take the kids tomorrow. What if we get tied up downtown and can't get back in time for the movie?"
"It's barely 11," said the sage. "You have plenty of time."
The kids and I took an Uber to Willis Tower and walked past a line of people stringing out of the building, down the sidewalk, and around the corner. We walked into the lobby where a severe-looking young man in a dark blazer stopped us.
"If you're here for the Skydeck, the line is over there."
It was the same line we'd passed coming in.
"And it's an approximate two hour wait from here," he continued, helpfully.
Who knew? Standing in line, I tried to calculate whether we should stay or immediately call another Uber and head back. But I was carrying this little cheapskate around in the overpriced matchbox-sized handbag I'd bought so I wouldn't have to lug a bulky purse around Chicago, and he almost threw up in there at the thought of spending that much money without seeing anything.
The line had jumped forward every 10 minutes or so, and eventually we passed through a security check. Later we came to an open space where there was a green-screen with a mat in front of it. At the head of our line was another stern looking young man in a dark blazer, this one ushering people to the green-screen. About 10 feet in front of the green-screen was a woman with a camera. Her job: photograph your party so that before you exit, someone else could sell you a fake picture of yourselves standing on one of the Ledges. Why people would buy such a picture after taking real pictures of themselves on a Ledge was beyond me. My daughter, Sydney is shy and told me she didn't want to have her picture taken.
"No problem," I said. "We'll just tell them we don't want it."
When it was our turn to step in front of the green-screen, I told the usher that we didn't want our picture taken and would just mosey on through. He seemed very serious about his work and a little menacing when it came to carrying it out.
Usher: "Ma'am, please move with your party onto the mat."
Me: "As I said, we don't want it, but thanks. We'll just pass through and that will speed things up a little."
Usher: "But we do it for everybody."
Me: "But my daughter's uncomfortable with it, so we'll pass."
Usher: "But we do it for everybody."
Me: "But we don't want it."
Usher: "But we do it for everybody."
Me: "But we don't want it!"
It occurred to me that this was hardly speeding things up, and I was surprised nobody had yelled at us yet. It seemed wiser to just get onto the mat and get it over with.
"Okay, come on, kids," I said, stepping onto the mat with my back to the camera, "let's get our pictures taken."
The photographer yelled at the usher. "Oh they can just go!"
It took Syd at least five minutes to coax her face out from behind her hands. She said she couldn't believe I'd done that. Jon appeared to be in awe. I explained to Syd that I'd done it for her because they were making her uncomfortable.
"Well, I'm more uncomfortable now!" she moaned.
An hour later we stepped onto one of the Ledges. I wasn't sure until the last second that I'd be able to do it, but as a friend who'd done it once told me, you are so high up that the height almost becomes an abstract idea and therefore not as frightening. That's how I experienced it too. But it was a little unnerving that cars appeared to be a quarter the size of my pinkie fingernail.
When we got back to street level there was no time to stop at the hotel and change clothes, so we Ubered straight to the movie theater. Syd had tossed on a sunny yellow tank top that morning and would have felt self-conscious at a film festival in November and in Chicago, so my friend brought a little shirt with him that fit her perfectly.
We all converged on the theater lobby within minutes of one another and sat together in two rows. It was a little weird seeing Michael's dimpled face on a movie screen, and I smiled thinking how far he had come since his first performance in junior high. Then I thought of all the actors and film-makers I know of who started in stand-up: Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg; the list goes on.
And now, I have to admit that if God were to choose between Michael and me which of us should be in a movie, I think it should be Michael.