Cab Fare — Episode #7: “Quitting Time”

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The “Last Saturday Night” Edition…

Friday Dues

Paying Friday dues at A Service Cab, in Metairie, LA: business as usual.

Every cab driver with the freedom to choose her hours has a unique approach to quitting time. Many drivers in the uber-capitalistic wilds of Louisiana favor the money pardon—once having made a personal, daily quota, they can stay on and earn lagniappe if business is still rolling, or they can go home then and only then. Since we don’t get paychecks, this is one part of a successful strategy for making a living driving a cab. We’re not employees; we’re independent contractors. The money doesn’t flow in; it flows out. Note that independent contractors should not be confused with independent cab drivers, i.e. the cabs without name recognition driven often by immigrants and/or as a family business.

Independent contractors pay whatever company with which we contract “dues” whether we own the vehicle or not and in dubious return we reap the benefit of the company’s license to operate, their logo (for better or worse), their radio dispatching services and, in the case of renters like myself, their vehicle maintenance services. The exchange here is, I say, dubious because our contractor status means taxi companies do not comply with OSHA safety regulations in a job the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports as being 21-33 times more likely to result in our murder than any other occupation in the U.S. More to the point, in addition to not dispensing regular pay or health benefits (or benefits of any kind), taxi companies collect their dues from the still-living no matter what.

At $1440 a month to rent and $840 a month to own—not to mention gas, cleaning expenses and occasional tolls—that’s a lot of cab fare collected before one of us sees a dime of spendable currency. I figured it out one year and, on average, I have to make $2000 a month in fare and tips before I have any lunch money for myself. Or, breaking it down daily, based on a six-day work week, the first $60 cash I make goes directly to the company, the next $20-$40 goes to Exxon or Chevron (fuck Shell) and, sometime after that, I can eat. If I work only five days one week, the first $72 cash I make goes to the company; and so on… When cab drivers get sick and really have to stay off the streets, things get even dicier, to say nothing of the myriad ways in which we can be ticketed because, in addition to the police, we’re beholden to the Taxi Bureau.

Despite incredible pressure to maximize hours, not all of us choose to be dictated to by a quota—though we may (and more than likely do) have an amount in mind at the start of any given workday. Fellow Jefferson Parish driver Ricky McGehee claims he used to work 16 hour days, 7 days a week, but would take 3 days “off” every three weeks to drive to Florida to see his then-girlfriend. That’s lifer behavior, for sure, but it’s easy to get burnt out on those kinds of hours, even if a major advantage of doing that for the entire year Ricky did is that you have a basic framework for knowing when to hit the streets and when it might be in your better interest to do something else. So in addition to the quota system, a lot of drivers simply make a work schedule and more or less stick to it. This can be based on several variables, but more often than not it comes down to the dispatcher. Cab drivers tend to find a “main squeeze” in a dispatcher and some become quite loyal to that person who, unlike the driver, has a set shift schedule like that of a convenience store worker. Either way, though—quota or regularly scheduled hours, oft-printed on a business card—the cabbie has essentially married himself (roughly 80-90% at any given time in the company with which I contract) or herself (the remaining 10-20%) to the driver’s seat.

My Orleans Parish colleague Harry “Nebraska” Lehman has an approach to quitting time that he expresses with a personal maxim: Whenever something that normally would not bother him starts to bother him, he knows it is time to steer homeward. I have found this thinking useful many times since picking up two women against my better judgment in the middle of the night way out in St. Rose. They had a screaming baby. They had no car seat. They had a million mostly unpacked belongings they crammed into my front seat, back seat and trunk. They had no clear destination. They told me one place, then another, and then I was sitting in the car waiting for them at a Brother’s gas station while they bought fried chicken at four AM.

I left the meter running to help them get all of their stuff out at the cheap motel they finally settled on—(legally, the meter isn’t supposed to stop until the vehicle and driver are free to go)—and the older woman started yelling at me for that while I was trying to expedite their exit without any help. When people yell at me I rarely react well, but especially not when the bone of contention amounts to maybe fifty cents. I got everything out, collected the money, and just as I was pulling away, the older woman began yelling at me to stop. The motel was full up. They wanted me to drive them to the next one, and I foresaw an unending string of “no room at the inn” moments. Despite the baby and the hour, I decided that this was not my problem, shook my head and drove off. Her scream of Bitch! next resounded through the lot.

Naturally, I headed home after that. I can’t remember if it was Carnival time or not, but I know I had already worked an obscene amount of hours before I picked them up and I should have just gone home instead of giving into the voice that insists that you can take just one more run. That voice is up to no good, and to give in to it is to surrender your better judgment to the addictive pull of the 24/7 radio that becomes as ingrained into your psyche as the bump-and-grind effect of the dips and grooves in the I-10 between Mid-City and Lakeview while going 70 or 80 miles per hour—and just as potentially lethal. Never mind that you are working for tips and doing so by the book while people abuse your goodwill. While that’s annoying, that’s not what gets you killed—letting it get to you is what gets you killed. Or, that’s my working hypothesis.

As a service worker in a drinking city, I often find myself seeking a grace note on which to end the night. No matter how the day has been going, I look for that one person who—or experience which—will give me something new to think about, some perspective on life I previously didn’t possess. Last Saturday night, during the odd-man-out that the weekend before the Superbowl typically is, I found her when I least expected it. She waited for me despite the cold outside the Copa Cabana, a hopping Latin club on Metairie’s stretch of Airline Highway, at two in the morning. She was so happy to see that I was a woman at the precise moment when she wanted a strong, female hero. Her English was poor, and my Spanish almost non-existent, but somehow we got on. She is done with men, she declares to the insular space of the cab interior. All her life, she has only wanted men, but not anymore. Now, she wants only women.

You hear this facetiously a bit in my line of work, but unlike the others, she shook my hand, then kissed it. You drive a taxi, and you are a woman. It is so dangerous, but here you are. At first, my inner cynic suggested that she was trying to get away with a lower fare because she had handed me a wad of what looked like ones, but as I parked on the curb outside of her apartment complex, perhaps guessing my thoughts she asked me to tell her what she had given me and shook and kissed my hand once more. She had tipped me almost 100% for a relatively short run, all of $8. Then she was gone with a smile that seemed to start at her toes and carry her off into the atmosphere rather than to her door.

I wish they could all be like that. That same evening I had encountered a trio of young women who seemed to be auditioning for the alternative cast of Girls. The alpha female got in first after flagging me down at Barcadia—(and here, New Orleanians have a decided advantage over other readers because no good thing can ever come from Barcadia; the patrons, like the music, are vacuous and fatuous at best, often worse). Miss Alpha had gotten her period and her two fawning Betas were going home early without any fun having been had. The first third of our trip was spent hearing the Tragic History of Alpha’s First Day Ever of the Menstrual Cycle and the Betas’ servile replies that if their beloved Alpha could have no fun, then neither could they, fun be damned.

Sometime after that, as my brain’s defense mechanism let me drift in my own thoughts, shit got real as our 21-or-22-year-old Alpha described the night of her worst breakup, when she had drunkenly called the lad up on her cell outside of a bar to dump him. She found out from friends afterward that he had been cheating on her with an actress she didn’t really know. That’s when I got her ass fired from the Country Club, because Daddy is on the board, she boasted after singing some Taylor Swift acapella. The singing had brought my mind back to the trio in the car. It ended with a final apology for Mother Nature and a Beta mumbling something about studying pedagogy instead on a Saturday night.

Sometimes the passengers with the greatest potential to be the worst I will meet on any given evening end up reminding me how cab driving can be so fun. Two men waiting for me on an ill-lit street near the Jefferson Heights end of the levee with a bicycle, guitar and two backpacks became my working class heroes that same night. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a fun trip. The big man, who looked not unlike Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver in Deadwood, only dressed in t-shirt, sweatshirt and jeans, spent the first ten minutes disassembling his bike so that we could fit it in the trunk. After taking the seat and both wheels off, we still had to tie it down with the only thing on hand, a handkerchief, and hope for the best on some of the worst roads Jefferson has to offer. His friend got buried under first one guitar and the backpacks, and then a second guitar in a box, all on top of him in the backseat while his buddy shopped, my only respite the entire ride from them nagging each other like old crones.

Their story was pretty simple. They have a deal with a local rock ‘n roll “headliner” to hold his guitars for him in return for a jam session every now and then, which consists mainly of the little guy playing classic rock favorites while the big guy—the little guy’s student—adds his none-too-steady voice to what otherwise might be described as music. I know this because the big guy left his bike seat in the trunk and I had to return to give it back, at which juncture he invited me inside for a song. My instincts tell me no, I can’t, I need to go back to work, but I have learned that that voice is wrong, so I ignore the fuck out of it. Counter-intuition more often than not appears to be my best friend. I go inside. The little guy is no longer a dejected, mostly-toothless, old gasbag, but alive and well like Frampton never was with a Martin acoustic in his hands. Play that last one again, and I’ll sing, the big guy says, and they go to town on an obscure Credence Clearwater Revival song. The little guy wants to be John Fogerty so bad, he’s nearly popping out of his tie-dyed jeans to make the action on the neck look just that effortless.

Even though I don’t know the song and I hated every minute of driving these two, this aura of pure joy pervades the room. I don’t know what either of them does for a living or where they’re going next, but for just a few moments, both are so happy to be alive, singing and dancing and playing, that I forget about all of our differences and am really blessed to witness this moment, which is happening in just as sacred and sanctified a bubble as two little children playing in a field under the light of the sun. It is said again and again in various tongues that we carry our prisons around with us; but we carry the means of our redemption too. I thanked them for it with an uncontrollable smile and they reciprocated and then I stumbled back through the chill to the cab to pick up the mic. The dispatcher awaits a voice to answer his call.

Cab 109, go to where music and passion are always the fashion…

Jo Custer is a lot of things, but today she is just a writer happy to have a new post up after several months’ absence. You can follow her writing, filmmaking and cab driving adventures @Sonuvab and/or by following this blog. This summer she’ll be writing Cab Fare: The Book.

Cab Fare — Episode #5: OTR in Louisiana

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I’m always late to the party…

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Today is Tuesday, May 14, and I am ensconced in the airport Motel 6 in Monroe, Louisiana for a second night and possibly until Friday morning. I haven’t figured out why yet, but the air here smells particularly unappetizing. Nothing has smelled right since somewhere past Lafayette Sunday evening, not long after I left New Orleans, and now three distinct regions of Louisiana bring a certain olfactory expectation with them according to their cuisine. The Creole cooking of New Orleans I associate with subtle spice and night blooming jasmine, the Cajun cooking I’ve yet to try in the central/southern part of the state I already associate with the bayou air of the Atchafalaya Basin, while the barbecue of the western and northern ridges redoles of overpopulous refineries and freshly dead livestock.

I didn’t notice the drop in appetite until today when I went to a Chinese buffet against my better judgment. Some Asian buffets in Louisiana excel. There’s one in particular I like in Hammond, when I’m there. Any Chinese restaurant bearing the Englished-over name of Peking rather than its phonetically more Chinese rendering of Beijing is bound to disappoint but, tired of breathing the air outside, I relented and went inside. I ate for protein and vitamins, but even the sushi and salad seemed distressed, the cucumbers tasting like they had lived very unhappy, water-starved, little lives.

You’re probably wondering what the hell I’m doing in Monroe, Louisiana working out of the cab and choking down sad cucumbers. It’s a good question, a fair question — after all, just a little over two weeks ago, the Kickstarter for Sonuvabitch ended and we didn’t make our goal. I’ve been quiet on the social media since. Many have ascribed emotions to me that I haven’t felt. Mainly, I’ve just been working. The good news: Of the backers I’ve been able to talk to, all but two have renewed their pledges so that we may shoot this fall. The better news: I’m one of the drivers working on the other side of the state out of motel rooms and, if the work lasts long enough, I should be able to finance the remainder of the film. I’ve asked cast and crew to work without pay. For the most part, I’m not receiving much resistance. Right now, it’s good to have a break from the madness of trying to make and finance a film. Breaks can be invigorating, as can changes of scenery and routine. The last three days have provided a lot of scenery and are not yet routine.

Those closest to me in the last year know how I’ve grown to almost despise the cabbying life. It takes too much energy and time away from the writing and filming life. It requires too much of my attention — any — and often for little recompense. In times of feast, a driver has to lay plenty by for the famine, which often stretches from just after jazz fest until Halloween or later. It is a 70-75 hour week just to get by even in fair times and there have been far too many weeks where I was ready to split and the only reason I didn’t was because of the archetypal mystique of cabbying and its meager rewards. People think it’s cool. They want to know more.

What a sorry crutch for any writer or creator to nurse, and I haven’t even nursed it well. My cabbying days are numbered, have no doubt.

But the numbers haven’t come to an end just yet.

As with everything in life, nothing’s worth doing if it isn’t worth writing about. This new state-wide view from my steering wheel has pumped fresh blood to my brain and writing arm alike. This is Day Three of my new adventure and already I know more about this place in which I have lived for three years. I’ve driven through towns the Louisiana born and bred taxi company manager hasn’t even heard of.

I’ve seen a few things. I won’t surround your senses with Cajun country just yet. I haven’t seen enough of it and there’s too much I don’t know. But the insulating borders of the state intrigue me.

Some say that the western and northernmost borderlands of Louisiana might as well be Texas and Texarkana, respectively. These areas have verifiable similarities in styles of living, architecture and in accents. The architecture strikes me the most. There’s no joy in much of it. It isn’t typically hardcore western frontiers that might only last a few months before a new gold rush dictates a move of business and which demands, then, a prominent place for a sign more than any other consideration. It’s mainly low ceilinged structures with posts extending across the front porch so that the inhabitants can sit on the porch and catch the breezes without the other weather intruding.

Function trumps comfort; blandness, decoration.

I have often thought in the last three years that I would have trouble after this living anywhere a person identifying as male and heterosexual might have a problem emerging day after day from a house painted pink. So the juxtaposition of houses found in New Orleans and, say, Mansfield is sharp. The construction of them may as well be a century apart.

Last week, before I began living out of motels and had to drive back to New Orleans after every increasingly tiring trip, I was making my way back from the city I’m stationed outside of now, via US 61 south, when I saw a billboard telling me to stop at the plantation home of President Jefferson Davis. My memory has been failing a lot lately and so the only thought that really ran through my mind was that if there was a president I couldn’t recall, then it must be my duty as a lover of history to stop and refresh my memory. I needed a stretch anyway. I got to a pair of pillars off a state highway and read the following sign:

Please do not drive through the lane unless you plan to tour the house. It causes damage to the road. Thank you.

I shrug and continue down the lane. Of course I’ll take the tour.

After I park and go into the lobby of a converted outer building, I am greeted by a woman with a Texas accent I can’t quite place and am distracted during our entire conversation by the conversation between a man to my left and the couple with whom he is talking. The woman, the docent, tells me that the couple is from Maine — a man from Connecticut and a woman from Boothbay — and yet the man with whom they are speaking is prattling on about how he doesn’t understand how America could have “given it all away” in reparations. The couple is being polite in the New England sense — which is to say that they are listening to what he has to say without replying. I get a mild sense of vertigo as the docent takes ten dollars from me and directs me toward a gazebo-like structure to listen to a full ten minutes of audio touting what a good man Jefferson Davis was.

That’s Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy of the United States. Oh yes, it’s all coming back to me now…

I sit and listen to the audio which insists that Davis didn’t want to secede from the Union, but rather wanted states’ rights and state sovereignty. I actually don’t care about this. I believe in states’ rights as well, as long as we can all agree that human life is sacred. The bit about how the northern states used slavery as an emotional and political issue, though, leaves me a little cold. I’ve read the Civil War era letters insisting that Lincoln was a puppet being used against the South. I have no time for such speculation. The only thing that should matter is that an imbalance was corrected that had nothing to do with money or land or the price of cotton.

The rest of the tour is easier to take. It involves the plantation’s original architecture and heirlooms and graves and I even get to sit on the back verandah and listen to some audio that is supposed to be the voice of Jane Davis, Jefferson’s mother. I sniffed the pollen laden breezes and watched the lizards leap on her prize roses.

Sometimes New Orleans makes it easy to forget where I am. The day I left was Mother’s Day and there was a shooting at the parade. Many Louisianans fear and despise New Orleans and its drunkenness, violence, and excess. I see the looks on their faces when they realize a New Orleans cab driver has crossed their paths. They often cannot look away, wondering what on earth could have brought a cab so many miles away from all the very busy, important people who have to get to their hotels, restaurants, and bars. What could there possibly be here for someone who would prefer all that to God’s country?

Yet, when I drive through the town of Bastrop, Louisiana at 3:30 am — an eleven thousand person establishment whose city page lauds it as ‘a place where business is done by a handshake, where folks still wave to one another and say “how are you?” and where newcomers are welcomed with open arms’ — the only gas station open has a night box where newcomers and town folks alike stand in line to pay for gas.

I’ll take the dangerous place with less fear on pump one, please. Fill ‘er up.





Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer/director/producer and cab driver who has recently discovered the simple joy of a frozen strawberry daiquiri in a motel room with nothing to do but hit “publish.”

SONUVABITCH: Returning from Nothing

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The independent film community recreates a theme so often that at times I’m convinced we’re really at work perfecting how to not make film as an artistic approach, replete with its own rules of expression, more often than the actual business of filmmaking.

It happens, you know?

An actor presents a director with an openness to revisiting a role. A treatment goes into circulation, exciting the crew, to whom the process matters most. A second treatment draft sprouts the first draft of a script which also goes into circulation. People respond, some tried and tested, some new. Feedback returns, to be carefully weighed, eschewing commentary on that which will change. More drafts go out. More readers surface. More feedback returns. A few select readers — (the smallest contingent, because even stout enthusiasts weary of rereading) — stay the course but start to grind gears over minutiae having more to do with screenwriting technicalities than storytelling. The thrill of Kickstarter success wears off.

The high from the last film, finally cut, dissipates eventually too.

An independent filmmaker/cab driver faces her first summer of explosive heat, low tide business and a hurricane. After having been single for four years, she starts dating again and, sensing a glimmer of hope for an actual relationship, throws out a silent, temporary towel without so much as an email to the team. She’s been working on not one but two films for too long and she’s worn out. Some of the crew members have moved on. She’ll form a stronger team later. The best of them will be ready to return to making the film when the potential is hotter than the air.

A few months go by and she reaches out to people sporadically, a cat stretching her limbs, not ready to pounce quite yet, but checking all the muscles for the inevitable and anticipated. She writes a couple more drafts and reconnects with people over the script, some of whom thought the project may have been permanently shelved — because, hey, it happens.

It happens all the time, but it was never going to happen to Sonuvabitch. Almost a year to the day after appearing in treatment form, the not-quite-ten-page script Sonuvabitch has audition dates at The Shadowbox Theatre. The curtain will come up at 12:30 on Saturday, January 26 at which point Casting Director Michael Martin and Director Jo Custer will have to dance with the Mardi Gras clock to cast the film with talents who can commit to the production schedule.

Sonuvabitch goes into production on Sunday, May 19th. On that day, we’ll shoot the opening scene and the transitional scene, both interiors. On Monday, May 20th, we’ll shoot at least three of the four exteriors. We’ll be up very early that day and likely driving a fair amount. Saturday, May 25 and Sunday, May 26, we’ll be shooting a six page scene set in a jail.

Hurricanes and relationships come and go, but given enough time for reflection and personal and professional growth, a Jo Custer film is a sure thing. I can’t wait to get down to the real creative work.

Today finds me meeting with Hotcakes co-producer, editor and IT guru Bob Krieger about the Sonuvabitch website. We may go with another WordPress, we may not. After that, the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) has its “3rd Thursday” at Rock ‘n Bowl. There’s a Big Lebowski theme that has me thinking about wearing this pink, fuzzy bathrobe within which I’m currently ensconced. Or not.

Decisions, decisions…

Jo Custer is the writer / director / producer of Hotcakes and Sonuvabitch, the latter of which is in pre-production. She’s also working on a video discussion series called Reel Point of View, a few sundry articles for which she is still researching and interviewing, and soon will embark on some film writing for a great, online feminist rag.

You can best keep up with the ongoing making of Sonuvabitch and the rest — not to mention Jo’s “Cab Fare” series — by following this blog.

Cab Fare – Episode #3

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New Orleans East, Land of All Our Hopes and Dreams.

Every occupation has its hazards, but for some reason, the majority of the population believes the cab driver to be a constantly endangered species. We had a new murder among us in New Orleans East last week. I didn’t hear of it until my housemate returned from San Diego. She and her boyfriend, their brows furrowed, hit me with the news. A cab driver turned up dead behind an apartment building in an area from which I pick up on occasion. The East, as it’s known locally, is always a little dicey. A good analogy might be that if New Orleans were New York, The East would be Hoboken. Or Newark.

Cab drivers, in my experience, are solitary creatures. One of my favorite dispatchers, a fellow writer, once said: “Cab drivers aren’t exactly known for their recognition of authority figures.” That might seem like a non-sequitur, but in truth, we tend to be so independent, so judgmental of herd mentalities, of people who can’t think or strategize for themselves, that we tend not to listen to anyone but ourselves. We also, with few and rare exceptions, don’t talk much outside of chance meetings while paying dues. I’m one the few drivers who has almost a dozen of the other drivers’ numbers, most of whom I call or talk to in person fairly regularly. I didn’t hear about the shooting in the East from any of them.

When people get into my cab, the conversation typically starts with the question, “Aren’t you scared, driving at night?” Or, it addresses my gender, which just boils down to the same thing, except wrapped in an unwelcome package. I’ve never cared much for the suggestion that I might be more at-risk than the next cab driver on the sole count of my being a woman. In fact, I dismiss it as fear-mongering, the kind that limits women’s habits and behavior too much. Several cab drivers have been attacked or killed since I started hacking — and I’ve heard all sorts of stories in the same vein, going back a few decades — and not a single one of those incidents involved a woman.

Probably my favorite conversation regarding my gender and its dubious connection to the more traditional shapes of cab drivers represented in the media occurred when I picked up a small bevy of Morgan City Cajuns with accents worthy of a movie of the week.

“I don’t believe,” Mr. Thibodaux (fake name) opened, drawlingly, “I’ve ever encountered a female cab driver before — and an American, to boot.” Women tend to be females more often than not in the southern vernacular, a trend I find viscerally off-putting, especially when preceded by the. He follows up with, “You are American, aren’t you?”

Normally, I wouldn’t let him get away with that and would spin the conversation around artfully, but I detected a playful note in his throaty voice and took a slightly different tack.

“Well, I was born in Maine, so I’m more American than you are.”

Thibodaux’s buddies in the back seat howled. “She’s got you there, pard!” one cried, and they all decided they liked me. Cajuns are funny, especially when you call them on shit. We ended up having a genuinely enjoyable cab ride to the Acme Oyster House, and Long John Thibodaux even took my card, saying he might be interested in investing in a film. I already knew that’s not happening, but it was nice of him to think of it as a possibility. More often than not, candor opens up a lot of doors — though it has the power to shut them too.

One of the major judgment calls I’ve had to make as a cab driver concerns an area known as Stand Six, which comprises all of Kenner north of Interstate 10, a rather large area to be considered a discrete stand. It used to be two stands, Five and Six, but was consolidated for reasons unknown into just plain Six, leaving no Five and confusing the hell out of many a new cab driver, since there’s no Stand Seven either. Those who know New Orleans’ redheaded suburb Kenner will not be surprised to learn that a certain portion of its nocturnal activities are given to people without cars — or without any desire for identifiers — who make their merry way typically to lower Kenner, south of the airport, to obtain their drug of choice. The first time this happened, things got a tad too personal for me.

I tend to love transvestites. I find them endearing. One of my brothers used to dress up in my mother’s negligees and heels and often put on makeup (sometimes, I helped) and call himself by a traditionally female name that only changed one letter of his given name. We thought it was adorable. So when I pick up my first transvestite, my heart strings flutter. I smile. I can’t help myself. I probably start using the word baby a little too gratuitously too, a word I’ve picked up more occupationally than personally. It helps to smooth the little pains a New Orleans cabbie can too often experience, floating from bar to bar.

She gets into my car and tells me she can’t say where we’re going, a sure sign of trouble. When I was just starting out, if I didn’t have an address to plug into the GPS, I would get a little worried unless it was a major landmark. When the passenger needs to make a series of calls to discern the destination, I still get downright anxious. We’re within 300 feet of the place when she finally discovers where we’re going, exactly. Half a dozen young men wait for us in a staggered sort of formation outside of a smallish shotgun house. She gets out of the car and makes a transaction right outside my window. I try very hard not to look, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t green. From the way she was acting, it was probably cocaine.

I also try not to think about the number of concealed weapons I can’t see.

As long as the transaction takes place outside the cab, I’m told, I’m not at fault. But I suspect that when I’ve seen it happen and the buyer gets back into the cab, I am. So I’m pretty annoyed with her right now, especially when she decides she wants to make a stop at the Brothers gas station up the street. I need gas anyway, so I tell her I’ll make her a deal and stop the meter while I fuel up, if that’s alright with her. It is. This is how I make nice.

While we’re inside the Brothers waiting in line to pay, she checks out my ass in the same way most convenience store patrons check out the front page of a newspaper they aren’t going to buy. “You really have no ass at all, do you?” she says. It’s a statement, not a question. All I can think about is George Carlin’s bit about the profound differences between a black ass and a white, because now I kind of want to hit her. When she’s two dollars short on the fare later on back at her place, the punching impulse returns. When I’m watching television news coverage about a shooting at an apartment building that looks just like hers a week later, I wonder if she got in over her head. Hard to say. Kenner attracts idle people with bad habits like an unsown field attracts weeds.

One of her relatively near neighbors hopped into my cab late one night, only a bit more forthcoming about the entire affair. The complaint you most often hear about black drug dealers and users from white cab drivers concerns a perception of naivety or out-and-out stupidity. To wit, certain veteran white cab drivers feel like these passengers think they’re stupid, like they don’t actually know what’s going on. I’m not sure that’s the correct analysis. I think more often than not, the passenger simply doesn’t care. That seemed to be the case with this guy, since he took me up a few streets before we found the right one, and then he had to literally get out of the cab and go door to door to find his dealership.

When he gets back into the cab, certain he has found the right house, he tells me we need to hit an ATM and mentions one around the corner. He already put $40 on the front seat as soon as he stepped into the cab, but the meter’s approaching that number rapidly. Never mind that ordinarily his ride would have only cost about $15. I turn the corner and mention back that the ATM he’s thinking of is in a gas station that’s closed. No, it’s open, he says. We go that way. It isn’t open. So we go to the next gas station, three miles down the road.

As it turns out, he has to go back to the neighborhood we were just in, and he puts another $40 down on the front seat before he gets out and starts talking to the people spilling into the street as the sun limns the horizon. A woman takes out her trash and steps onto the pavement. Three guys wander up from an apartment building, cloistered together. My guy stands in the middle of all of this as more and more people join them. When he finally gets back into the cab, people have to part like a curtain for us to get through them all.

On the way back to upper Kenner, to his place not far from the lake, he has relaxed some. His purchase is secured and safe in his pocket and he’s looking forward to his day.

Halfway back to his place, he clears his throat.

“I was really impressed with your demeanor through all of that.”

“Thanks,” I say. I felt neutral about it, to be entirely honest.

“Can I get your number? I’d like to take you out to dinner.”

“Thanks, but I don’t do that.”

“You don’t go out to dinner? You got a boyfriend or something?”

“Yes,” I lie. I figure I will need all the excuses I can muster with this guy.

“How about lunch? Can I take you out to lunch?”

“Nah, I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“I mean, like a business lunch. I’d like you to be my personal driver.”

“So I can be at your beck and call to pick you up whenever you want drugs?”

This takes him aback. I don’t think he thought me naive. I think I broke a code. We’re not supposed to talk about these things, apparently. I bow out of the dubious position. Maybe it’s because I went from potential girlfriend to personal chauffeur in under two minutes.

Hard to say.

I picked him up only one more time before I decided I didn’t want to take these kinds of orders anymore and stopped playing Stand Six at night. When he gets into the cab, as so many men often do, he has the words, “What’s up, brother?” on his lips and has already started talking about his day in a friendly manner. Then he sees who’s driving.

“Oh. It’s you.”

A stony silence follows, followed again by recriminations I’ve apparently inherited from our last encounter. Some passengers really do expect their cab drivers to entertain them. He obviously wanted me to, for sure, but I was in no mood for it. This was awkward. Even for me, this was awkward. I had half a mind to throw him out of the cab, but at some point when he mentions how much fun he’s not having, I tell him that if he just chills out, we’ll get through the cab ride just fine, and ask if I’m taking him to the same street. I don’t think he likes the fact that I still remember the street, a blindside many passengers have.

He has me park at a closed gas station on Loyola Avenue this time, a pretty rough section of town. This means he has to walk a block or two to make his buy, which is fine with me. It’s possible that by having me park there, he was being somewhat chivalrous. A guy with a cell phone and a not so fully concealed gun has been hanging out in an abandoned apartment back that way. I know that because I picked him up three times in one day, only to be approached by the little girl from next door whose father told her to tell me that no one lived in Apartment C. These, fair Kenner, are the people in your neighborhood.

My dispatcher comes on the radio to ask me how I’m doing. Sometimes a new driver takes this question, always phrased the same way, literally, and we all hear the dispatcher reply, I wasn’t enquiring after your health or some such. I tell him where I am and that I’m on a continuous, the kind of continuous I’d rather not be on. Oh, it’s one of those, he says. He used to be a cab driver too, but some serious health problems and a general disdain and mistrust of people got in the way. I tell him that I’m not going to take these kinds of runs anymore. He doesn’t blame me. Then don’t take those kinds of runs anymore.

That same week, a cab driver friend of mine named John pulled up in that same area and proceeded to wait for the guy to come out of the abandoned house. I called him on the phone to tell him what the little girl had told me and to warn him that he had been really active with us lately and to watch himself. I hated to do it because John was once attacked by four youths who stabbed him repeatedly and left him for dead in an empty lot. If it hadn’t been for the dispatch radio, he would more than likely be dead. He pressed the dispatcher so much for a phone call that the dispatcher told him to calm down and not be so impatient about leaving the premises. After three minutes, we’re allowed to start the meter. After five, we can just take off. Most of us will wait when it’s slow, but if we have any reason to believe that there’s danger or a hassle afoot, we tend not to stick around.

I never like to cause fear in anyone and hate to hear it in their voices or see it in their actions. It sends ’round ripples. But, you have to watch yourself out there, player.

I’ve been hearing that one since before I left Pittsburgh, where I lived as a minority in a neighborhood in upheaval from threatening gentrification. I prefer to leave it at that.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wed., August 1. Follow her on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Casting for Independence

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Recently, I sent out a casting call to a few places on the web in the hopes of eschewing the bottom-feeder element among those who troll regularly on craigslist looking for “speaking parts” and roles that pay, a sorry impediment for any independent filmmaker in any of the 43 states which employ a tax credit. I kept it brief and to-the-point.

Here’s a screen cap of the thing:

A Final Draft script page followed that announcement with centered character names and character descriptions where the dialogue normally goes, like so.

I thought when I sent it like so that it would attract talented people who might enjoy fun, creativity and a relief from the often too businesslike nature of a highly malleable artform. I thought it might speak to some people — and it did. Utilizing my direct, one-on-one approach to all communication surrounding this casting call, I’ve found a few people who will be auditioning with me in my home starting this month. I’ve even found a couple of probable crew members — people with gumption and drive, people who speak up.

But as the net so often facilitates, I also turned up something unpleasant: The Professional Extra. If you’ve never dealt with A Professional Extra, here’s an example of what a run-in between an independent filmmaker and The Professional Extra looks like. First, his initial response, or what non-filmies might call an application for employment…

did treme, the tomb, breakout kings. Sunuvabitch western short audition. batob rouge [name and number omitted] 5’11″, 228 lbs, shoe 10, coat 44L, pants 38w/32seam, shirt 17.5 L. baton rouge . age 50 aug2012. [sic]

He sends this appalling introduction to himself as a person along with six attachments, all of which are non-professional head shots and none of which are a resume, reel or a link to a piece of his work. In keeping with my tradition of personal contact, I respond.

Thanks for responding. Apologies for the late response, but I like to handle the casting communication one-on-one. It takes more time, but it’s better quality in the long run. I have a few concerns. You mention Treme, The Tomb and Breakout Kings, but no independent films. Have you ever worked on a smaller set before? Also, in addition to not having a professional head shot, you don’t have a resume or a reel for me to look over? Finally, you live in Baton Rouge. That’s a ways away for an audition, especially without a res, reel or head shot. If you can handle guns, especially, that needs to be spelled out in your resume… Let me know if maybe you just overlooked these things or if you can put them together and we’ll talk some more. Thanks again, and thanks for your patience.

Fair enough, right? Mm. My friend Jeremy Sloan’s advice not to respond to people who didn’t comply with the casting call criteria starts looking like gold with his next email:

I think the instructions, in the holding tent: posts, should be more clear as to the need.  We were instructed to submit for extra/background work.  I’ve heard horror stories about independent films and how the cast background were treated.  Please remove me.

My gut tells me that if his request is sincere, his email ends here. It does not:

for the record: I worked at Sony Pictures/The Culver Studios in California on 33films, 22music videos and 9 TV-sit-coms.  Im also a dance-choreographer with Military experience: my weapon is the M-16, .380 handgun, M-60 & M-30 rapid-fire tripods, explosives and I shot “sharp-shooter” 37/40 when qualifying with the weapon.  No one worth their weight in salt, would refer to a fire-arm as a “gun” had they ever truly handled one. I also, can perform/execute the 21point fire-arm inspection in the 21seconds required & take one apart, clean it and put it back together … but thanks.

So I respond, probably a little rashly, but now, I have a pretty fine point to make:

I’m sorry you were misinformed. I never use background or extras in any of my films. We don’t have the time to train non-professional actors who don’t already live and breathe the theatre and film world and have a basic understanding of project needs, how communication works, and who lack the fundamental understanding that the first words out of any actor’s mouth should be inquiring after the story. And since I pay all of my people, I like the extra layer of comfort knowing that they’ve earned it — and aren’t just looking for handouts. Please consider yourself removed from this one-on-one communication. Truly, no reply is necessary.

..and part of that point involves shameless invoking my Vietnam vet father:

But I will forward your email to my 30 year military father. He will laugh, no doubt.

We’ll stop here for now — partly because we’ll need a little more backstory to continue and partly for suspense’s sake. The backstory: I ran into fellow filmmakers Dave Kirtland and Tracey Davenport last summer and we talked about people we had both worked with and how independent filmmakers really do need to share more so that we can get screwed less. At the moment, it would appear that we’ve both hired a heroin addict in the past, which might help to explain why he crapped out on both of our projects, but certainly doesn’t help us — especially since we’d had no communication regarding said employee during the long-past, critical, respective timeframes. Hindsight indeed.

My feeling on Professional Extras is mixed. I certainly don’t want to equate them with or treat them as heroin addicts — and, as I pointed out to my co-producer, considering some of the things heroin addicts do for money to fill their veins, set work ain’t that bad.

But I feel as though a cattle element has muddied the waters for too many aspiring actors and I’d like to clear the air a little, for the percentage of people who are accustomed to responding to casting calls as though they were little more than measurements when they would much rather be reading script after script. I know you’re out there, and that’s why I take the time to respond to my casting call trawling yield, despite the surprises of the net.

Let’s start with the basics and hopefully get more in-depth from there:

1.) You are a person, not a set of numbers. Is it good to have this information at hand? Absolutely. I just spent weeks getting measurements from one of my actors way in advance of his performance or even a rehearsal because we need to outfit him for the poster. Part of the reason it took weeks is that he’s a stage actor and not accustomed to this part of the regimen. Wardrobes are scrounged and adjusted for actors and the process is seldom quite so corporate as studio film sets tend to be. We could do with less of that, not more. Sizes and looks shouldn’t matter nearly as much as they do. That’s one of the powers that independent filmmakers stand up to every day, fist out, ready for the tank to roll us.

2.) You should have something to say. You should be looking for a role that will challenge you, a script that will move you or make you think differently about the world, or at least about some part of it. You won’t get a script sent back to you because of a set of measurements. You’ll get a script sent back to you by virtue of your ability to communicate who you are, what you’re looking for and what you bring to the table. I’ve never minded working with people with little experience. What I mind are the folks who don’t try or who are too impatient or full of themselves to recognize an opportunity for future work.

3.) While you’re at it, never send a response to a casting call from your phone unless it is wicked smart and you’re prepared to write 500 words with clarity of spelling, mechanics, grammar and punctuation. This should be a given, but I get that most of us are on the go. You should also always try to make sure you get it “in one” — meaning that you provide all the materials requested on the first go. If you forget something, follow up by all means, but don’t follow up needlessly. Don’t send a second email telling me that you’ve lost weight since the last head shot and a third email to tell me how much weight, exactly. One, I don’t care. Two, it makes me think you’re too insecure to have good camera presence.

4.) I’m not sure when references ceased to be a part of a resume, but it appears to have coincided with the equation of a “C” grade with that of an “A.” In my day, you had to earn an “A” and a “C” meant you were simply checking off the list. References should be on your resume, not name-dropping. It doesn’t matter if you worked on Django Unchained if I can’t call Quentin Tarantino to ask him how you were to work with, one on one. This independent filmmaking sphere contrasts sharply with the larger sets and some of us would never want that to change. Matthew Libatique said in an interview years ago that he never wanted to direct on a Hollywood set again because, unlike his role as a DP, he never even got to talk to the actors. That’s even truer on pay channel TV shows like Treme. Directors come and go; the DP runs the show. Even if you somehow ascend from the ranks of A Professional Extra, chances are the only references you can send me are going to be in costume, hair and makeup or other actors. That’s assuming they remember your name.

5.) Go out into the independent world and get dirty, my friends. Don’t stay thirsty. New Orleans has a vibrant arts scene and actors are constantly in demand onstage and in student films, both of which are a great way to start. With Fringe Festival coming up this November, even more opportunities to wet your beak will appear. Take advantage. The commitments on student films and opps like Fringe are small but sturdy. You get a real view into what it’s like to be a professional actor and then you have a trail to follow. I dropped out of a grad program in film because it wasn’t a good fit, not because I hate students or learning. You should always be a student of whatever field you pursue and hiring someone who has helped out a student likes me just fine. It’s a solid.

6.) Don’t count the lines, lest you discount the heart. I used to do that, in dramatics, as a kid. I would always feel so disappointed whenever I got another role that was “just a few lines.” I wasted quite a few roles with my disappointment, which is doubtless part of the reason why even in my final role in high school I didn’t get cast as the lead. I got cast as Liz King, Police Chief, NYPD in My Gun is Pink. You can bet your ass I didn’t throw that part away. I gave it all I got — because deep down, I knew that had I not been such a horse’s ass, I would have been Babe. When working in film, you can’t have any expectations about dialogue. It’s a visual medium. It took me 17 years to figure out the importance of giving it your all in the small things, but when I mention film, the importance doubles. For one thing, your performance is static. The best thing we get from you is the best thing we get from you, and that’s what goes into the cut. We can’t cut a character out of a film because I don’t write extraneous characters. If you turn in a shitty performance, all we can do is cut your part down. Trust me: You don’t want to be that gal or guy. The editor will not speak kindly of you and, frankly, neither will I. Give all or nothing. Those are your options.

7.) As crew member and friend Casey Moore is fond of pointing out, the short filmmakers of today are the feature filmmakers of tomorrow. Oh, some of us will fall by the wayside. Filmmaking is a lot of work and most people don’t find that out until they’ve failed a few times and feel too beaten to move. But the vibrancy of your art community and its hiring potential is in your hands, to some extent. When you see people expending effort, do yourself and your community a small favor and expend some back in their direction. It will never be wasted where it is appreciated, I can guarantee you that.

That pretty much covers the major flaws I detected in my casting call responses. Of course, some things simply go beyond repair. While I was responding to all of my potential actors and crew members, I duly forwarded my Professional Extra’s email thread to my father with a brief preface:

Hey Dad. We’ve been casting for the next film … I got this response from a guy which I thought you might get a kick out of. Were you aware that when you refer to a firearm as a gun, you obviously don’t know what a firearm is? I did not and I want to take this opportunity to yell at you for leaving that out of my education ;-)

To which my Dad replied in his own, charming way:

Hey Johanna – While in the Navy, I had to qualify on the range on the 12 Guage riot pump shotgun  & standard issue .38 revolver (prior to the D.C. riots, lootings, sit-ins in ’68) and before that the M-60 machine gun (we carried two in the after station windows in the P-2V in Vietnam). I guess we weren’t  well schooled in movie lingo — we just called them guns. Sorry for the shortcomings of your education. Penn State was supposed to pick up the slack!!!

Meanwhile, The Professional Extra can’t help but take one more predictable shot, since I promised my Dad would laugh:

the laugh will come when your film hits the screen

I manage somehow — though just barely — not to reply that I would certainly hope so. It is, after all, a comedy.

Our last film, Hotcakes, has a few laughs in it too. We’ve sent it to a few fests and today I said the hell with the password protection. You can watch its entirety on Vimeo.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wednesday, July 18. Follow on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Cab Fare — Episode #2

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I JUST GOT OUT OF PRISON… ARE YOU AVAILABLE?

Swamp outside Gramercy, LA along the Airline Highway (US 61). Yes, they have a jail there.

I picked up an ex-con for the second time before I realized it was his primary occupation. He’s a convivial sort of fellow, very easy to talk to, even if he doesn’t always know how to have a two-way conversation. At the very least, he never bores when his sentences begin to run a tad too long. I didn’t ask what he had served time for; I never do. He bragged of other places he had been, but spoke of Angola in a more demure tone when I mentioned it. “I think I could get in there,” he told me. “I think now I’ve got that kind of pull.”

Only a month before its controlling company laid off half the staff of New Orleans’ only newspaper, Times-Picayune reporter Cindy Chang began reporting the findings of a year’s worth of investigations into how Louisiana became the prison capitol of the world and what that has come to mean for the state and its citizens. In the 1990s, the state responded to the prisoner surplus by empowering sheriffs to build prison additions to their jails, offering a monetary incentive out of the state coffers of $25 per prisoner per day. Already taxed to supply basic, necessary equipment for their deputies, the sheriffs took such action that today, Louisiana has five times and thirteen times the incarceration rates of Iran and China respectively per capita, with some of the most aggressive sentencing in the country. The story is so involved and fascinating and the observations and conclusions so woeful that it got picked up by NPR’s Fresh Air.

There’s rather a schism between Louisiana’s jails and prisons. In prisons inmates learn a trade, work a job or attend classes. In jail inmates lay around. The average life expectancy of a Louisiana con is 72 years, with the last 20 years of their lives spent much of the time in bed, too sick to work. It’s easy to ferret how prison might be seen by a con as something to which he should aspire, especially one with a reputation — like Angola.  The average sentence in Angola is 25 years to life. That’s one of those prisons where freed men have been known to walk right up to the door and knock, begging to be let back in. Their artists and the rodeo they put on are almost as famous as their inmates’ crimes are infamous. An actress friend of mine once expressed interest in going to the rodeo and seeing some of the art work, though she said they’re not allowed to sell.

I didn’t ask my charge what it would take to find himself ensconced within Angola’s walls. That seemed too intimate a question. Since I had picked him up before, I knew I would eventually pick him up again, and that changes things substantially. With regulars especially, a sturdy wall of circumspection is prescribed. My cab — like 99% of other cabs — sports no plexiglass divider because they’re too costly. The smart cab driver substitutes that old divider metaphysically, by creating a supple, adequate buffer of separation. The sum total of what I put out there — via speech, body language and even driving tactics — always adds up to the same thing: You have your world and I have mine. I control the merging of our worlds, often with little more than the cab as the linking narrative.

Of course, some passengers don’t recognize our separateness. Usually, the drunker they are, the less they recognize where their life ends and yours begins — and this is very much in the physical world because drunk people don’t have time for the metaphysical. If they did have time for it, they wouldn’t be drunk, but perfectly sober, trying to see if they could make you drunk on the sheer abstraction and articulation of their every thought.

Tucked away in a seedy elbow of Metairie, there sits a bar called Cocktails and Dreams. Nothing on the outside of the place gives any indication of its name. Not until driving right up to it, amid crankily parked pickups and hot rods and deceptively deep gravel puddles, does the name present itself in a semi-circle from the trim of the bar’s colorful clock, inside. Only two kinds of clientele leave the inner sanctum of Cocktails and Dreams to stumble out into a cab, the drunk and randy and the randier — but also more drunk.

One of the nights I picked up a couple with long neck High Lifes still in their hands stands out above the rest. They were originally both going to the same address. It didn’t work out that way in the end, though. He stuck his hand down the front of her shirt and the only way that I know this — because I didn’t see it firsthand; I seldom, if ever, look — is because she announced that he had done so, and followed up with a report on how uncomfortable that made her feel inside a taxicab. I drove on, silently.

Often, as a cabbie, the mission is all.

When we arrive at her place, they have a rather lengthy discussion — about $4 worth of idle metering — and he gets back in the cab and supplies a second address. He is very put out. It takes him about 10 seconds after her rejection to lay it all out for me.

“That was my ex-girlfriend. I just got out of jail and she won’t give me no pussy. Can you believe that?” There’s a beat. It isn’t a long one, but I hear it and I know what’s next, before he even says it. It’s that kind of beat. “Are you available?” He doesn’t laugh, but I do.

In retrospect, I wish I had been up on the Louisiana prison system in advance of this particular meeting because I had no idea what he was talking about at the time and, lacking a proper context, failed to retain any of the names he mentioned — not even the name of the jail he’d gotten out of after 14 months. Naturally, I steered the conversation back to his former life, rather than his hopes for the evening’s outcome. I’ve gotten a lot of marriage proposals in the cab and have been asked out a few times (that’s a whole, ‘nother post), but this was the first time I’d been explicitly propositioned for sex.

So I used my years of phone room training and started by validating his feelings.

“Wow. If I had been locked up for 14 months, I’d feel the same way you do.”

Then I started asking about what jail was like, as any curious person might probe an expert. Never underestimate the psychological need of nearly any man to feel like an authority on a subject he knows enough to talk about at length, especially if it furnishes him with a means to save face. The ride was only a few miles away, but I remember enough to say that this man must have been released from one of the jails-turned-prison, and not a prison. He had never learned a trade and found being locked up boring in the extreme. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he didn’t want to go back.

I should also mention that in addition to paying for his lady friend’s fare, he tipped me rather well, after asking me one more time if I was sure I wasn’t available.

“No, I have to work all night. I don’t have a man at home paying the bills. I have to do that myself,” I said. Sometimes having a working class father pays off in dividends.

“Well, I can respect that,” he replied, just before he shut the door.

Jo Custer is a writer and an independent filmmaker trying to make a living out of that and cab driving. Some days work better than others. The next episode of Cab Fare will be up Wednesday, June 27. Follow on Twitter (#cabfare) or friend her on Facebook if you wish.

Cab Fare — Episode #6: OTR in Louisiana

Greeting and salutations. It is Friday, thank all of the relevant gods, and I am yet again sitting in a Starbucks — only this time in Bossier City rather than uptown Shreveport. I have earplugs in my ears to muffle the conversation of two very southern voices spilling from two women who decided to make this their faculty room and who I moved twenty-five feet from to little avail. Naturally. They’re teachers, so why would they understand a need for quiet concentration?

This week diverged from last week in that instead of heading to a motel in some other town Sunday night, I left my house Monday morning around 5 am and headed straight to Abbeville, Louisiana. If you don’t know Abbeville, it is deep country, Cajun country and not far from Avery Island, where the purveyors of Tobasco hang their spice infused hats. My first two wards had French accents so thick you could have cut them with nothing but a well-whetted couteau.

From there, I drove due north and then northwest, all the way back to the Bossier City Motel 6, of which I have grown quite fond. They have a pool, the floors are hardwood, and it is clean in a way that can only mean it’s recently built. The staff is friendly and capable and for the most part the other guests don’t seem to be drunken ne’er-do-wells. I had an unfun moment last week outside my motel room in Monroe when a drunken, shambling man startled me after I rounded a corner. He took my surprise for fear, his first mistake. Had he been a squirrel, I would’ve jumped. First he told me he meant me no harm and then he asked if my husband was inside the room.

I gave him the look of death, said No and went inside.

I hated that moment, mostly because I was too tired to go back outside and set him straight on the fact that I wasn’t displeased because he was a drunk, shambling man asking shady-assed questions at 4 am, but because it wasn’t alright for him to make any such assumption of marriage, nor to ask me any such question of any such kind. I was just too exhausted.

Speaking of drunken, shambling people, if you look at a road map of Louisiana, you’ll notice that its interstates look like the DOT must have once been run by a dyslexic Zorro. Interstate 20 comprises the top line of the backwards Z, running from Dallas through Shreveport and its suburbs — which includes Bossier City (pronounced with a long O and a sort of zhy diphthong, rather than the comparative form of bossy) — through Monroe an hour and a half down the highway and on into Vicksburg, Mississippi. I have gotten to know it pretty well.

Down this highway I rumbled Tuesday morning, not long after this conversation:

Dispatcher: You’re picking up R— S—…
Me: Like the rock star?
Dispatcher: Yes. That’s why he’s on Medicaid.

If you’re wondering how far from Shreveport an obscured rock star might live, the answer in American terms is about an hour and twenty minutes, as the Jo drives. I met him at his shotgun shack less than twenty miles from the Arkansas border. He was chock full o’ wonder.

R— S— the Rock Star was in fact utterly shocked that a taxi-cab had driven all the way to his place just to retrieve him and after asking a few questions the responses to which wouldn’t stick (and he would ask again and often), he called his baby sister to let him know that a New Orleans taxi-cab had picked him up and that he was indeed riding in the taxi to the hospital. In his sixty or seventy years of living, R— S— had never been in a taxi before. I was his first in all that time.

Must’ve been the ease of parking, I decided. If you had rock star parking, why pay a driver?

Of course, his phone call to his baby sister doesn’t stop there. This was the day after a tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma and R— S— the Raconteur has things to say.

I was in a tornado once. It tore us up. It tore us–that’s a scary cloud. It picks up a house or whatever and whatever it picks up, it just drops it back down. I don’t ever wanna see one of those again. It sounds like a freight train and comes down and gets real wide and it’s black.

My ears pricked up at those words. On May 31, 1985, my father’s hometown of Tionesta, PA hosted no fewer than seven tornadoes and the stories were epic: a swath of river being sucked dry; old growth forest being twisted into used matchsticks; hailstones the size of snowballs. I remember every last detail of that day, primarily because nine years old was an epiphanic year for me, but also because our parochial school’s annual awards ceremony took place at the fire hall in “downtown” Tionesta and I spent an hour contemplating an unfamiliar, yellow sky.

Starbucks status update: The teachers left but were replaced with a fellow who keeps answering his cell. I’m in a quieter corner. Mr. Leon Russell on the SRX is all I hear through the plugs.

Love me some Leon Russell. “Tightrope” is a good song, true treasure.

I’m up on the tight wire/Flanked by life and the funeral pyre/Putting on a show/For you to see
Like a rubber-neck giraffe/You look into my past/Well, maybe you’re just/Too blind to see

Leon Russell having been lauded again and again as a “musician’s musician,” if R— S— were here, I’d ask him if he digs Leon as much as I do and get the inside scoop.

But of course, R— S— is not here. We got to Shreveport with some effort. I misgauged my fuel consumption and had to stop at a gas station on the way and, as my way of saying sorry for the stop, I fetched us both some coffee. I got off the highway via an exit I hadn’t taken before and R— S— the Generous complimented me on knowing my way around. It’s logic and signs, I said.

When we finally pull into The Shreve, making the curving exchange between I-20 and I-49, the dyslexic Zorro’s long swipe southeastward through Mansfield, Natchitoches, Alexandria and eventually Lafayette (i.e. the first half of the drive I have ahead of me today), R— S— points out the Horseshoe Casino and tells me that the rooms in that hotel start at $115. I tell him that the Bed ‘n Breakfasts in Natchitoches begin at $125. He tells me that the hotel has 25 floors. I tell him that is not high, that it’s not really even a skyscraper. He points to the rest of the skyscape to the right of the interstate. That’s downtown Shreveport, says R— S— the Tour Guide.

You may’ve noticed that I have taken to calling it The Shreve. I cannot tell a lie: this is all film writer Bill Arceneaux’s fault. It sounds a lot to me like The Shire, which may be coincidental.

Or maybe not.

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I do know that my stature feels lessened here, like I have less room to grow. I went to the mall around the corner from LSU’s Medical Center while waiting for R— S— to receive the celebrity medical attention that is his just due as an obscure rock star. The mall is open but none of the shops are and so I do what thousands do every day in malls across the country — I power walk the perimeter and think how proud Dr. Meg will be when she hears of it. Afterwards, I sit in one of those special massage chairs you pay $5 for 15 minutes worth of dubious mechanical comfort, all the while staring at a small playground of other mechanical rides — a miniature rocket ship, a fire rescuer’s truck and a fire rescuer’s helicopter, which has been shorn of its rotors. I suppose this was for logistically sound safety concerns, but it seems wrong, something to be fought.

Helicopters fly. Take away their wings and they’re museums with expensive seats.

Starbucks status update: The worker wearing the drive-thru headset came out onto the floor to speak with a customer. I don’t hang out with many rednecks, she says. I’m not from here.

No one laughed except for me. Sigh…

Outside-of-a-Burger King status update:

I’ll be home soon. I am waiting on the north side of Lafayette for money because of the enormous cost of gas yesterday, after getting sent way south, but I’ll be home tonight.

Good. I’ve been feeling too short lately — both in stature and in patience.

Cheers.

Jo Custer is a film writer/director/producer (Unclear Pictures) and theatre producer (Four Humours Theater) trapped in the body of a cab driver.

You can best follow her adventures by following this blog and @sonuvab.

The Doubt Killer

Originally posted on Wide Awake but Dreaming:

Yesterday was one of those days where I seemed to be busy from the moment I work up, right until I was ready to fall asleep.  It makes for a long time staying busy, and busy I was, yes indeed.

I’ve spent a bit of time the during last week where I’ve been discussion writing with a couple of writers, and there is one question that always comes up:  why do some people sell, and others don’t?  Or, better yet, why do some writers seem to attract an audience when others don’t?

It’s a puzzle.  You find yourself wondering how someone can come up with an idea that equates to Hillbillies Aliens + Excessive Racism + Locked in a Spaceship = Their Next Great Novel, and people going, “That’s fantastic!”, and when someone points out that the concept of having a multi-billion dollar colonization effort hinging on a bunch of dimwitted thugs…

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Actors to Watch: New Orleans

We held casting for Sonuvabitch in late January and early February of this year and then I sat on the decision-making for a bit. We’re only a third of the way through pre-production and already this film has held a steep learning curve for me as a writer, as a director, and as a producer. The most important takeaway from the process is that as I give more specific character descriptions to the actors, the better the audition will be — monologue included. The pieces can really start to fall into place in the initial audition, with effort.

I’ve also learned that we have an incredible amount of undiscovered talent. I felt like we were holding auditions somewhere just off Broadway. I attribute that mainly to my choice of casting agent. Actor Michael Martin’s interpretative skills galvanized our pool of auditioners, many of whom were seasoned actors with fine arts degrees and years if not decades of stage work behind them.

I’d like to talk them up now a bit, if you don’t mind. You’ll be seeing them soon — not in Sonuvabitch, but somewhere. I can almost guarantee it.

+ Kate Adair is the Sonuvabitch Costume Designer and she’s doing a hell of a job. I’ve been learning about look-books and the kinds of design considerations that go into wardrobe, which has sparked my interest. She’s also my back-up should something happen to the actor playing our Russian mobsterella cashier. Kate can do a Russian accent and can sizzle with it too. When she isn’t acting or costuming on shows, Kate is busy clowning around with The New Movement. I have yet to see a stint of theirs with her in it, but she makes our department head meetings fun and is so facile to work with that I often forget she is there — a behind-the-scenes behind-the-scenes type.

Jessica Nicole Gordon I’ve actually worked with before, on my one and only grad project and last student film ever, Toll Road. Jess choreographed  her own dance moves and then executed them beautifully. She shares the fruits of her Masters in Musical Theatre from NYU with her hometown and will one day be one of New Orleans’ more luminous assets, assuming enough local filmmakers and stage directors realize what they’ve got. Lovely, which can be a curse, she has a quiet intensity that can also be quite powerful. Horror filmmaker Greg Kurczynski, behind the camera as Jess performed, immediately wanted her contact info. I’m not withholding it per se, but I don’t think a four course dinner at Domenica would be out of line, either.

Cat Wilkinson has intensity to spare too, speaking of intensity. Her audition convinced me so much that she was crazy, I had to go to video to be reminded of the part where she walked into the room. She gave a monologue with a chair turned around backwards, and exuded such toughness that I was unusually drawn into the moment in a visceral way which made me rue the fact that I only had two speaking parts for women, neither of which really suited her. Actors like Cat make a writer-director want to add a character to a script, but we were already listing over twenty roles on an independent short, an almost unheard of number, otherwise I might have done just that.

Marisa Welles I wrote the part of the Nanny for in the first place, although the role started out as a young mother. There are many reasons to love and adore Marisa Welles — chief among them an incredible amount of integrity — but second is her utter professionalism. She canceled her audition and told me that I knew what she could do and that if I saw anyone who blew me away to just call her. I called her. Marisa wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t really seen herself in the role to begin with and suspected she wasn’t the best choice for the part. Her comedic chops are currently being exploited elsewhere — shooting Last Spring Break on South Padre Island as I type this — and I’m glad for her. She deserves a feature after all this stomping around on stage and in shorts.

Matthew Rimmer somehow didn’t get the note that we weren’t hiring SAG. He has a lot of versatility. It can be hard to find principal material male actors in their prime in this town. They don’t seem to like to audition much for the small stuff, I guess. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity. It can make casting a film properly – (and I’ve only done it properly twice now) — pretty hard. What it means is that scores of indie filmmakers have abandoned hope of finding good talent at affordable rates by casting a wide net and are writing for friends or male actors ages 30 – 50 with whom they’ve already worked instead. It’s kind of traditional. It’s also really damn limiting. So while I couldn’t cast you, Matthew, because you are SAG, thank you so much for at least coming out.

. . . . .

Jo Custer is the writer/director/producer of Sonuvabitch, which is now in the location scouting and pre-production stage. It is set to shoot beginning May 19. Fundraising to make it happen begins April 1, no fooling.