Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Euro Train Dining Car

Or How to Avoid the Huddled Unwashed Masses in Style

Photo via Flickr by EURIST e.V.
I am one of those traveling fools who wants to have his seat and sit in it too.  But this is not so easy on the Euro trains.  Oh no. You need to book well in advance to get a good deal, then you need to reserve your seat.  Then they will assign you the wrong seat on the wrong train in a missing row of seats in a wagon that doesn't exist.  After they charge you extra, of course. Through the arguments with train conductors, conflicts with fellow passengers, standing in lines for refunds for botched seat assignments, I've learned one important lesson: skip the seat reservation.  Roll the dice.  You may as well, you get roulette-table odds on your seat reservations anyway. Best case scenario: there are empty seats on the train for you, for free. Worst case scenario: you don't buy the seat reservation, all seats are taken, and you get to sit in the dining car and spend that 10 bux on booze.

Your Seat or Your Cajones

I've made the train journey between Prague and Berlin at least 40 or 50 times for work (I'm a photographer, lucky me!) and no trip is ever the same.  On one crowded train, I had plunked my ass down in one of those ubiquitous Euro train compartments with the bench seats facing each other.  I didn't have a reservation on this particular trip, mainly because I was still bitter about how my last seat reservation had left me wandering the corridors aimlessly.  An older Spanish couple sat across from me, and from the get-go they were waving the arms and rolling the tongues.  I love Mediterranean types.  I gathered from my shitty high school Spanish and their body English (heh), that they were not sure of their seats.  The woman pointed to their tickets and their seats, and I understood that she was concerned about the reserved status of these particular seats.  I only heard the word 'cajones' and I completely reconstructed their entire conversation from the bottom up, as it were.

Photo via Flickr by fireboat895

"Husband, we are not in the right seats!


"If someone comes with a reservation, they will force us to leave!"

"They don't have the CAJONES!"

Enter: tall blond German man with square jaw and beady blue eyes, accompanied by a buxom blonde with Heidi braids, showing the couple his ticket for those exact seats.

"Entschuldigan sie, bitte, das is mein platz."


The Spanish couple left. No cajones were shown or compared, but if you have the winds of the Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust in your sails, this will suffice. So getten sie fick aus mein sitz, bitte.

Roll the Dice: Skip the Reservation

I used to buy the seat reservation.  But after receiving reservations for a wagon that didn't exist, a row of seats that didn't exist, and/or seats that crushed my knees into garbage cans, I gave up on the scam. It's even worse when there's an empty fucking train. All of your reservation money went straight down the train toilet boghole onto the tracks.

Don't buy the damn reservation.  Just take a chance. Between Prague and Berlin, it's 5 EUR per seat, per person, each direction.  For that price, I'd rather pour that money down my gullet by way of booze in the dining car. Avoid the huddled masses. Pass the rolling bistro on wheels pushed by a person waiting to be put out of their misery, step over the 600 metric fucktons of luggage and sprawling hippie backpackers, pass the toilets, and you will see the light: the dining car.  The most romantic part of the train.  They've got those little globe lights on the tables by the windows—even in broad daylight.

Big Sir's Tip o' the Morning

Czech Railways offers dining car happy hours with nice discounts on food and drink.  There's a long list of the hours and train numbers of each train offering the discount, but this is confusing as fuck.  Rule of thumb: if you are on the train and inside the Czech borders, you get a discount.  Once you leave Czechia, the prices double.  So if you are leaving Prague on a morning train, you'll have to start drinking early to save money.  Even if you don't need to save money, drink booze from morning til night anyway, in or out of the dining car. You're on a Euro train.  This is not only totally acceptable, it is mandatory.
Photo via Flickr by miroslav.volek

Monday, October 2, 2017

Tales From the Food Crypt

Wading Through Aisles of Expired Food in Prague

If you're just passing through Prague, you won't notice them. They're harmless looking grocery stores that you would easily pass in favor of supermarket chains like Albert, Tesco, Kaufland, or Lidl. You would be correct in your passing. But I'm here to tell you how the other half lives.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the levne potraviny, aka 'cheap groceries.' These places are just chock full of expired goods and bads from rich Western countries. And people shop there. And more of these stores open every year. People are too poor to care, so they shop, they buy, and they suck down more old sausages than a train station hooker.

Top 10 Least Successful Food Chains

I'll never forget one of Letterman's Top 10 Lists, which featured names of the least successful food chains. But I could only remember 'Food Crypt' and 'Risky's.' So I Googled the motherhumper:

Top 10 Least Popular Supermarket Chains - May 3, 1990

10. Pick 'n' Lick
9. Larva Town
8. Food Crypt
7. Risky's
6. Price Hiker
5. Rex Reed's Grocery Rodeo
4. The Expiration Date Grab Bag
3. I'm-Not-Wearing Pantry
2. Hitler's
1. Bag This!

Since Germany and Austria border Czechia, it's probably too soon to open a Hitler's. But The Expiration Date Grab Bag is open for business, and it's turning a brisk trade.

Prague Suburbs: Industrial Wastelands and Soviet Housing Blocks

It wasn't always this way. In Commie Times, Czechs huddled in their cozy concrete high rise flats with fizzling sparks of socialist joy warming their cold hearts. There were exactly two shops: the one where they bought all of the usual Czech sludge: goulash, dumplings and cabbage, and the one where they stood in line for hours to get oranges, bananas, or any other fruits from warm countries outside of the frozen Eastern Bloc.

I've lived in a few panelaky, or gray, Commie housing blocks. They crush the soul, truly they do. Now I live in an old 1900s, pre-Soviet building in an industrial suburb, as usual, not because I can't afford to live in the tourist-besieged Prague center, but because I like cheap rent. And quiet nights. I live in Praha-Liben, a downtrodden neighborhood that is slowly looking up. My Libenese neighbors are mostly poor working class folks living in a few old, crumbling buildings.

The sprawling O2 Arena and mall complex are at the end of our street, and in between us and mass consumerism are some newfangled apartments for a mish-mash of various nouveau-riche slobs from Slobovia, One street over, there's a few ubytovna buildings, or dorm housing for Ukie laborers. And there's your garden variety poor Czechs who pine away for the good old days of Communism in their absinthe dementia.

The Expiration Date Grab Bag

Czechia has long been a dumping ground for inferior goods from richer countries. What's worse, the exact same German brand of juice you buy in Germany for 1 EUR is 2 EUR here. And it's worse quality. And Czechs make half what the Germans make. But one thing is certain: they don't throw away their food here like in Western countries. They just drop the prices.

So we go to the Food Crypt or the Risky's. There are at least three in our neighborhood, which tells you all you need to know. I buy expired food and I'm not ashamed. It's radically reduced in price, and mostly familiar Western brands. So what if the box of Kellogg's Special K breakfast bars are a few months after the sell-by date? There are enough preservatives in those little chocolate bastards to embalm an elephant. And they cost a quarter per box, rather than 1 EUR. Now THAT's economy. I save money on both food and embalming.

Not all foods are expired. Some are past their 'best by' date, and some poor products are just victims of bad marketing or differences in consumer tastes. Central Europeans hate spicy things, so there is a dearth of spicy sauces, Cajun whatsits, South American marinades, and exotic BBQ sauces at discount prices. I buy them all. My wife thinks I'm mad. But no two BBQ sessions taste the same, I tell ya.

Shopping With Various Slobs From Slobovia

The Food Crypt is full of a fine cast of characters. We don't have Walmart. We have the Food Crypt. I can show up in my worst clothes, unwashed, hair sticking up, tartar sauce on the crotch of my trousers, and nobody bats an eye. The other day I entered the Crypt. A hunched homunculus with a walrus mustache, coke bottle glasses, greasy ball cap, and a fake gold chain crossed my path. He was wearing a faded t-shirt with English lettering (a perennial favorite here): Czech Made Man. It was almost like the cover of that Fat Boy Slim album. He and the usual assortment of gypsies, tramps and thieves were wandering the aisles. I don't know which of those categories I fall into, but I'm leaning toward the tramp.

Sucking Down More Klobasa Than a Train Station Hooker

I pick up a box of my favorite expired breakfast embalming bars, skip over the expired chips and dips, and head to the meat section. There is always a human clog in the meat section at all times. Not just because Czechs are big meat eaters (heh), but because there is an actual law the prevents the selling of expired meats in the EU. So there I head, looking for discount salamis thrown over from Germany. My favorite brand of smoked salami is Houdek, a Czech-sounding-yet-made-in-Germany brand. They're extra smokey and delicious. And the meat is of a higher quality than the usual tubes of lips and assholes you buy in Czechia.

Score! There, wedged in between the slab of greasy bacon and the hunk of unidentified meat! Houdek kabanos, with cheese! My favorite! Whoa, mama, I could hardly find these babies in Germany, they were so popular. There they were 2 EUR for a pack of two. Here they are only 75 cents per package. So I bought almost ALL OF THEM. Why not? They don't expire til the end of November, and I have a big freezer.

So I swaggered out of the Food Crypt with an armload of German salami and a 3-liter box of Italian wine. All for less than a tenner. I don't plan to live on this diet for too long. And if it keeps up, I probably won't. But I am a Wide Body Jetsetter living LARGE in Post-Communist Czechia. And a Czigga's gotta eat.

"Get Your Old School Cartoon Bombs Here!"

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Total. Freakin. Filler.

Me (young and naive):

I hope something good happens.

Me (now):

I hope whatever bad thing happens next is at least funny.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Melvis Is My Stage Name

Or How Karaoke Changed My Life (No. Really, Man)

The following contains Elvis impersonation and karaoke addiction.
You have been warned.

Czech Karaoke Championship
It began as a drunken experiment with me on a mic mumbling Elvis tunes. I wasn't like those loud and proud karaoke fools who throw their hearts and voices into it for the love of musical exhibitionism. I was with a group of fellow students in an Aussie bar in London. I was the class clown, so I had to get up there and damn the consequences. So I mumbled drunken Elvis with my mouth mashed on the mic. I know. How unsanitary. How many other drooling drunks had gone before me?

So along with the shared saliva and camaraderie of a communal microphone were the hazy memories of magnificent firsts: our first trip abroad, our first croaky karaoke, and for some of the group, their first time drinking legally whilst under 21. Hell, I think half of those kids only went on the London Semester trip so they could pub crawl at age 18. I was there because my photojournalism prof had fucked off on sabbatical, leaving me with a semester full of empty dreams and broken promises (or vice versa). Good enough reasons, one and all. And in that last minute Hail Mary pass at the sky, with a heart cracked and leaking purple piss and vinegar, I got on a plane. And my life changed forever.

Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow

Try something new. If you have no courage, pick up a glass and pour yourself some liquid courage. If you do not drink, don't want something new and are too shy to try, just give up and get into the gawd damned box. Darwin will erase your wimpy ass.

While the origin of karaoke is rather unimportant compared to its awesome power to free your soul, consider Japan. Kara = empty and oke = orchestra. They not only invented the fucking thing, they made it a required social outing for managers and employees of large companies. I can only imagine the hours spent before work doing jumping jacks and push-ups, followed by 10 hours of mind-numbing, robotic labor, followed by being forced to sing 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' in front of the entire day shift. This was the original corporate team building exercise. It was also a way to separate the men from the boys during promotion time. If you could not do your jumping jacks, pushups, robotic labor, heavy drinking AND singing your guts out—you might as well stick a ginsu in your gullet.

London Semester: Pub Crawls, Fish and Chips and Karaoke
(Punctuated by Occasional Inconvenient Studying)

The very first flight I'd ever taken was for my study abroad semester in London. I was still reeling from the jet-lag and the pub crawling when classes had finally commenced.

"You're late again, Craig," said the English teacher.

"Don't you mean, 'You, squire, are tardy once again?'" I might have said (It's all a blur. But I'm a smartass, so, yeah, I probably said that.)

As I slumped into my seat I definitely remember uttering what would become my mantra for the rest of the semester: 'This classroom shit is seriously fucking with my pub crawling schedule.'

So there you have it: the beginnings of my broad career as a wide body jetsetter (and functional alcoholic) began with the simple need to pub crawl in a slightly more interesting place than California. During that 5 months in London I learned a great deal: A) The people match their weather: cold, cloudy and dripping with sarcasm, B) Curry, C) Brits don't like Americans (who knew?) D) I wanted to travel and live abroad for the rest of my life. And I also learned an important life lesson that didn't involve curry spice or strong ale tolerance. My spastic, in-your-face social retardation could safely be channeled through a microphone. In public. A group of Aussie chicks were a-flutter. Our token lesbian student cried out 'You could make me switch!' to the shock of her roommates. I have it on video, so she should have an excellent career in politics.

A Praguelodyte and the Birth of Melvis

My microphone mumblings continued in Prague, Czech Republic (One half of The Artist Formerly Known As Czechoslovakia). I read somewhere that some people were going there. I heard that Prague had expat newspapers and websites just itching for writers and photographers. And the best part: even if you failed at that, you could always teach English. The only requirement to teach English in Prague in 1997 was to have an English-speaking tongue flopping around in your mouth. And since the local 'papers' paid DICK, I chose to teach. My first interview for a Prague language school went exactly like this:

Interviewer: "Are you a native speaker of English?"

Me: "Yes."

Interviewer: "Where are you from?"

Me: "California."

Interviewer: "Can you start tomorrow? We pay 200 crowns per hour."

Me: "I don't think that's enough time for me to prepare a lesson. Next week would be better."

Interviewer: "Can you start tomorrow? We pay 300 crowns per hour."

Me: "Preparation, schmeparation. I'll do it."

Melvis Beta
So when I wasn't showing up late to lessons or teaching students about the failed American Dream propaganda and the magic of my favorite dystopian films, I would further vent my spleen on the karaoke stage. This quickly became a habit and later, an addiction. When I knew I officially had a karaoke singing problem was when I paid a woman a hundred bux to sew me an Elvis costume. I was making about $200 per month in those days, so to spend half your monthly income for your singing habit is worthy of an intervention. But the Czech Karaoke Championship was coming up. I needed to dazzle them. Karaoke isn't about the best singer; it's about dazzling the crowd. And I was going to bedazzle a costume, wear a sequin encrusted belt, and thrust my pelvic prowess and fake karate moves at them, Viva Las Vegas style. I squeezed my belly into the white jumpsuit, pulled the zipper past my belly up to my sparse chest hair (pulling a few along the way), and Melvis was born.

The Big Night came. It was down to me and my rival, Johnny Night-train. All of the other mic-slingers had bitten the dust in the blare of stage lights and the screams of the crowd of hundreds. I went out there to unleash my final song, my crusher, my crowd pleaser, my heart breaker and life taker: Suspicious Fucking Minds. I wowed them, I wooed them, I got them clapping and howling, and when I kicked upwards and sideways with each crescendo, I knew I had the prize. And then the Night-train sidled up to the mic while I was huffing and puffing in my beer. The stage went dark. Then a spotlight hit him. Then he went full metal tranny on our asses and sang Like a Virgin. Like Madonna. It was freaky, seeing a tall man dressed in black rub his chest and wriggle like a serpent. Then he dropped to his knees, fairly fellating the mic and rubbing his nethers while squealing.

The rat bastard won. Madonna had kicked Melvis' ass in a fair fight. He was number one, and I was a big, fat, stinking hunk of burning number two.

Melvis 2.0: Berlin

Defeated, I dragged my lounge lizard ass to Berlin. A new town, full of promise: cheap rents, tons of feckless wanderers and creative types, a liberal loophole in conservative Germany. A new life for the serial expat and a tabula rasa in cyberspace for a new blog: Dunkin' Berliner. 2009 was a great time to live in Berlin. The vibe was easy, the rents were cheap, and the gentrification process was only in its infancy. The hipster beardbeast had not yet sunken its gluten free claws into the Berlin Bear. You could sit in a park all day grilling on portable grills and swilling from portable potables (like Sternberg export, at 40 cents per bottle, a perennial favorite of punks and cheapos like me). Then one day in Mauerpark, I heard a croon like a clarion call: karaoke on the horizon. I swaggered directly into the ultimate mosh pit of outdoor karaoke: the Bearpit Karaoke. This is the stuff of legends: one man, one bike, one laptop, two speakers and a microphone. In that open air stage I found my addiction again.

Bearpit Karaoke in Mauerpark
But the Bearpit grew in popularity, from mere dozens to several hundred people clapping and cheering and beering on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It became harder to get on stage as the list grew longer. I felt that twitch and that itch. I needed my fix. So I jumped into the jumpsuit and threw myself at the crowd. It went wild. There are videos of me on YouTube. But it wasn't enough. I needed to dazzle them more. Such is the nature of addiction. A short stroll across Mauerpark is the flea market, home to all sorts of overpriced bric-a-brac sold to hipsters by Turks. One bagful of rhinestones and sequins, one patient girlfriend with needle and thread, and one month later: Melvis 2.0 was ready for action. I was going to get on the that stage again, not just to dazzle and shine. I was going to propose to my lady in my Melvis costume in front of 1000 people and the internet. I was going to sing Love Me Tender like Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart. But the season was over. The rains came, the karaoke crowd subsided. And my new costume hit the mothballs again.

I never did get to propose on stage. We got married anyway. We eloped in Gibraltar, honeymooned on the Costa del Sol, and I did end up singing Love Me Tender to my new bride in the resort bar in front of dozens. Anti-climatic? Maybe. Sweet and romantic in the most cheesy way? Oh yeah.

A Wardrobe Malfunction of Elvisian Proportions

Got Any Blue Suede Shoes?
Don't rest on your laurels. You get fat and you crush them. Well, at least I did. After a few years I kept my shiny superhero costume in a bag in the closet, until one fine day. The Hard Rock Cafe Berlin had the ultimate karaoke event: Sing For Your Supper. Sign up, sing your guts out backed up by a live band(!) and stuff a burger in your face for FREE. This is better than a karaoke contest. Even if I wasn't the best, I would get free food! This was the perfect opportunity for the Melvis costume to come out of the closet and back into the limelight.

I talked to the manager. It was all set up: before my name was called, I would have 5 minutes to sneak off to das wasserschrank, slip into my costume and then storm that Berlin stage in a blitzkrieg of buh-huh HUHs and fake karate moves and a gyrating pelvis amid a real live band!

FUCK. The zipper on my massive, custom made jumpsuit hit my seedy underbelly and split. All those 40 cent beers added up to a fortune in failure. I tried to suck in the gut and rezip. But it split again, this time just between my gut and my groin. Zipper stuck, belly and sack out in the breeze. It was a fail. An epic fail. And then a voice:

HRC Manager: 'Melvis! We're Waiting! Let's go!'

Me: 'Wardrobe failure.'

HRCM: 'Well suck it in and get out here!'

Me: 'No. Really. They really don't want to see what's hanging out. It would put them off their supper. Maybe get me arrested.'

So I sulked in the toilet until the next singer had come and gone. I donned my civvies and slithered back to my table, which was right below the Great White Belt of the King himself. I looked up at the blue plastic prescription bottle which was (oddly) included in the display. I wanted to crack the glass and hope for a pill to swallow. Then I would slither off back to die on the toilet, just like The King.


I've done a few karaokes since then, mostly low key, sans sartorial flair. The Melvis 2.0 suit never got to strut and fret its hour upon stage. I got too fat to fit into the fucking thing, truth be told. But it lurks in the back of the closet, waiting for me to either lose weight or to pay a tailor to enlarge the thing. And when that day comes.....Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.

My favorite yokee dealers in Prague:

Photos by Gabriela Sarževská

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Extra Humans

Long Days in the Life of a Film Extra in Prague

Peter Falk: [sketching a female extra, who is waiting on the set]

"What a dear face! Interesting. What a nostril. A dramatic nostril. These people are extras. Extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit. Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans."
"Wings of Desire (1987)"

I sat in a fake pub with a glass full of fake wine staring into a plate full of cold food: Schnitzel with mashed potatoes. The television studio set was a near perfect replica of every single Czech pub in this country: wall-to-wall wood, heavy wooden tables with brewery brand linens, and tan walls with antique photos yellowed with the patina of an endless smoke cloud. As I sat there staring at my prop plate with the food on it, I wondered if they expected us to eat this cold slop. When the man said AKCE! I picked up the lemon and squeezed it over the schnitzel in a vigorous circular motion. On the next take, the PA* came to our table and made a sour face while miming a sour man waving a sour lemon over his food. Then he said 'neh.' My inner De Niro replied 'Are you talking to me?' but my limited Czech language informed me that we would in fact have to chop that cold shit up and shovel it in. Action!

One of the greatest parts of being a freelancer is that I can set my own hours. When there is a slow season for my photography work, I can keep my idle hands from doing the Devil's work in many ways; writing travel pieces and blogging is one way, being a film and tv extra is another. Prague is a film production paradise: it wasn't bombed to shit in the two world wars, so its architecture has survived the ages. This makes Prague a prime location for shooting period pieces, war epics and basically any film or tv show in need of buildings and streets dripping with history. And there have been some major and minor epics shot here: Amadeus, Mission Impossible, Kafka, Blade 2, Triple X (Vin Diesel), not to mention hundreds of films shot in Prague—but set somewhere else.

The Allure of Doing Nothing All Day

"I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be."
- Peter Gibbons, 'Office Space'

Most of being an extra on a film set involves sitting around for a 12 hour day staring at the coffee and snacks tent. Your small stipend for sitting around (about 30-40 bucks per day in Prague) means that this is not the job for movers and/or shakers. It also means that you don't have to work very hard for your money. Extras are basically breathing props. They producers always have more extras than they need, they never use most of them, and when they do use you in a scene—it could easily wind up on the cutting room floor. Extras are pawns on the board and directors move them about freely.

I've done a dozen extra gigs for advertisements, tv and film. Some of them were more memorable than others. One long night was spent in an ice hockey rink as a crowd extra. We all donned our goofy hats and scarves and did The Wave on command while scenes changed bizarrely from hockey hi-jinx to graceful figure skating. For some crowd scenes, a camera on a drone flew overhead to shoot the crowd. The sound of the whirring blades was too close for comfort, especially when the director shouted: "If something goes wrong with the drone, keep your head and your hands down, or they will be chopped off!" Cold comfort, really. How many extras do they plow through per year with that aerial death machine?

The gigs that stand out the most are the productions that fed, watered and caffeinated the extra humans for the entire 12 hours. If they had a tent on the set devoted to a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner—with endless coffee, juice and water breaks—those were the gigs. The rest of the productions, the cheap-ass, boiled-hot-dog-Czech-breakfast-gruel-lunch-bread-dinner mother fuckers can eat a dick. If I'm only getting paid beer money for a long day, y'all better feed my wide ass.

I have other memories from film sets not entirely related to food. I once spoke with the Maytag repairman, the Big Guy from WKRP, the late Gordon Jump. It was a week long shoot set in a field in the Czech countryside. This epic Maytag commercial unleashed a product that could cook 2 meals at the same time, pizza for the kids and casserole for the parents. It was a mock-up of an epic battle scene from Braveheart. A hillside full of screaming children assaulted an over-the-hillside of parental units. The Maytag man stopped the battle and dropped the appliance bomb. Off camera, I spoke to the Big Guy about the food. I was a vegetarian at the time and I couldn't stand the boiled hot dog breakfast the Czechstras were getting. He gave me carte blanche, the pass to the crew chow, the knowing wink, the secret handshake, and the keys to the kingdom. The crew gets all the good shit. I lied. That memory was entirely related to food. But no moment in my checkered past as an extra human was more memorable than being yelled at by a famous director.

The Joy of Verbal Abuse From Roman Polanski

Cut to: 2004 and a five minute chunk of my 15 minutes of fame on the film set of Roman Polanski's 'Oliver Twist.' I was given a simple task by the director himself. The scene: a bustling Dickensian London street, full of filth, hay, horseshit, grime and grit—all constructed on a hill on the backlot of Barrandov Studios in Prague.

Roman Polanski: You! Can you speak English?

Me: Yes sir!

Roman Polanski: Good. I need you to stand by the bookstore, reading a book. The kid runs by, you drop your book, run after him and yell 'STOP, THIEF!'

Me: No problem!

Polanski: You need to wait until the kid hits that mark by the sewer grate in the street. Do you see the mark by the grate?


Polanski: ACTION!!!

Dozens of extras milling about the 'street.' Horses trotting, extras walking, extras shopping. A team of horses attached to a carriage narrowly misses grinding me under hoof and wheel. I yell 'STOP, THIEF!' I am too early. The kid had not yet arrived.

Polanski: CUT!!! STOP!!! WHAT THE FUCK!?!


Damn, that Pollock can speak the French! No wonder he lived in France.

And with that, I was exiled off camera, another pawn sacrificed, moved off the board, relegated to the cheese bins of film history. Damn. This pawn could have taken the queen. We'll never know. I took a nap inside the store with the wooden wheels of 'cheese' and dreamed of the smažený sýr  I would have after this epic finally wrapped.

I didn't have the stones to tell him why I couldn't see the mark. Just before The Auteur yelled ACTION! A well meaning but clueless PA* snatched the glasses off my face. They were my glasses. I need them to see 5 feet in front of me. Without them I am nearly blind. But they didn't match the costume. So they had to go. So I did what any extra human would do: I tried to do the scene while blind. I endured the screams and verbal abuse of the director with all the star-struck confusion of a 6 foot 5 guard dog being yip-yapped at by a 5 foot pedigree chihuahua. Yes, the man is short. Yes the man is famous. He also survived the Holocaust and the murder of his wife and unborn baby by Charles Manson. He gets a pass.

Method Extras

On the set of Genius, an upcoming TV series about the life of Albert Einstein, I was a quaking, spastic live prop in a loony bin. I was sitting and rocking on a bench at the end of a long hallway, third twitching loony on the left. We started the long day at 5:45 in the ay em. I had to be at Barrandov Studios for costuming and makeup, which meant that I woke up at oh dark hundred, scant hours after I had just started the REM sleep. A phone alarm tune, a bowl of coffee to the face, and one tram ride later—I'm on set. In the costume building I waited around in my underwear for the casting chicks to find clothing that would fit over my wide body. It's a good thing they finally found something to strap onto my elephantine frame. You would not want to see me on the big screen in my shorts. It's frightening, I tell you. I wore a threadbare 1920s suit covered with a tattered bathrobe and natty slippers. I really looked the part. Then over to the makeup wing, where the stylist rushed me through the process in record time. I closed my eyes and felt a wet brush assault my face like a rodent in heat. I opened my eyes and saw a caterpillar mustache glued to upper lip. A quick rustle of hands in my hair, 'Done!' she said. Either she was the fastest stylist in history or I already look loony enough at 6 am to pass muster.

In the van the way to the location, an abandoned 19th century building in Prague-Strašnice, a large bald man with freaky eyes was laughing like a lunatic. It was a 40 minute drive to the location. He did not let up. He was the first extra in history to stay 'in character' for the whole day. A method extra. His crossed eyes, maniacal laugh,wet lips and leering grin had me wondering if this was really an aspiring actor or an actual loony. It was that realistic. The whole day was set in one hallway made up to look like one of those old style sanitariums where they used to throw tards and twitchers before the advent of modern medicine and the Special Olympics. A smoke machine hissed clouds of white mist at the end of the hall while the AD* shouted "Tell them to ease up on the smoke! It's like a barn fire in here!" This particular AD was a fount of wisdom and advice all day. After several takes of the same scene, the AD simply announced "I could do this all day long, but I would rather not!"

Extra Becomes Actor: Pawn Star

Sometimes, just sometimes, a casting director might notice your picture on the computer with all the other human props and pawns and recommend you to the director personally. This wasn't my hope or dream. I have other hopes and dreams. This was just a lark. So when they called me in for an actual casting, I went with it, thinking there was no way in hell I was going to be chosen. The part was for a Russian General. There was no chance that I was going to get a part as a Russian General in a Czech television commercial. I barely speak Czech and I fear Putin. Especially when he's shirtless on horseback. Fortunately for me, there were no lines, just using angry facial muscles. I've already got that characteristic, probably acquired from a long life of cynicism. Plus I just turned fiddy.

After a callback(!) and an actual offer for the part, I broke the barrier from extra human to super human. Hired to be an actual actor I was. An übermensch. And it wasn't even a German production. The Czech gambling giant Tipsport hired me to play a Russian General at a roulette table full of exotic characters. I still had to get up at oh dark hundred. I still had to dump a bucket of hot coffee on my face to wake up. But this time they sent a car to pick me up at home. Both ways. Two days. And the pay was 30 times higher.

I was dropped off on the muddy back lot of the Art Nouveau Hotel Evropa on Vaclavske namesti in the center of Prague. This landmark building seems to be under slow and constant reconstruction, largely financed by renting the joint out as a film set. The entire interior of the hotel had been commandeered by the crew of the Tipsport shoot. The lavish interior was strewn with cables, props, duct tape and extras. A long hallway was completely boarded up from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Maybe it was to protect the historical walls from being whacked by props slung haphazardly by grips, gaffers and gophers.* I didn't ask.
Most of the waiting around on this particular shoot was done off set, in plastic tents erected in the muddy parking lot. In a moment of confusion I almost went to the extras tent, but I was quickly ushered into the cast and crew tent. What a difference. They had rows of warm buffet breakfast foods, pastries, breads, juices, teas, fruits and espresso from one of those fancy little machines. A large heater tube blew hot air throughout the tent. Meanwhile, next door, the common extras had to get their water from icicles and chew on cold hot dogs and stale bread. Poor bastards. Just a few meters from them, we übermenschen were living large in a caterer's cornucopia of never-ending food and drink. The only ones treated better than the cast and crew were the two main Czech actors. They shared a trailer off to the side of the lot, with their own private space so they wouldn't have to mingle with pawns or peons. Hell, they even had a private toilet so they wouldn't have to get any extrament on them.

A Man in Uniform Draws The Babes
(Photo by Gabriela Sarževská)
Most of my 'acting' involved sitting around a large roulette table with other actors. Between takes, I could sit and watch the DP's* screen and watch he and the director communicating. In the digital age, you can see exactly what you will get in each shot on a big flat-screen. The light hit the mist from the ubiquitous smoke machine just right and carried into every shadow, creating that 'cinematic mood' that makes the on screen image look so much better than real life. In one close up scene, the camera was suspended above our heads for a tight shot of just our hands on the table. Just off camera was a giant flat-screen monitor so we could view and position our gambling hands on the table. We needed to know where our hands would be when we were placing bets and moving chips. I saw my hands on the screen and told the actor next to me to look at the screen for some very important acting tips. My left hand was full of chips, and my right hand, bored and idle, slowly extended its middle finger.

I just hope the director wasn't staring at the screen at that exact moment, especially if he knows Polanski. If so, I'll probably never work in this town again.




Russian Roulette (Photo by Gabriela Sarževská)
PA – Production Assistant. Basically a recent film school graduate with a cattle prod.

AD – Assistant Director. Does all the shouting and heavy lifting that The Auteur (Artsy Fartsy Director) won't deign to do (like speaking to extras).

DP – Director of Photography. The eyes of the director. The one who makes the real image magic. Chooses the angle, lighting and mood of the whole scene, then tells the cameramen and lighting crew how to set it all up.

GRIPS, GAFFERS and GOPHERS – The blue collar workers on the set; burly men and women who grip, gaff and gopher cables, light stands, and coffee. They seem impervious to the artistic pretensions of everyone around them. They do the thousands of hours of manual labor required to keep the whole ship from springing leaks and sinking. They wear Batmanesque utility belts of tools and bandoleers of duct tape in many colors, sizes and shapes.