When I interviewed for the job of the overnight meat clerk at the local Stop & Shop, the assistant manager was impressed that I graduated with honors (B.F.A. Dramatic Writing, NYU), and told me that I should pick up the job quickly.
As overnight meat clerk, my principle responsibilities are as follows:
a) Carry the meat from the meat locker to the meat aisle
b) Organize the meat
c) Check the expiration dates on the meat
d) Organize the meat locker
One consolation I have as overnight meat clerk is that over the July 4th weekend, I will be able to say that I have touched most of the meat being grilled in my town.
My other consolation is Gordon Willis, who lives across the street from me. Cinematographer for the three Godfather films and the best Woody Allen movies of the ‘70s and early ’80s, he is a two-time Oscar nominee that pioneered the use of underexposed film and minimalist lighting in establishing the mood of scenes. Additionally, he is renowned for having crafted the period piece “look” still widely used today, and for creating the prototype of the contemporary visual effects film with 1983’s pseudodocumentary Zelig.
Sometimes, I watch Gordon Willis mow his lawn.
He is my only hope to get out of the meat relocation grind. I have screenplays that should be seen.
Salvation, right across the street.
If Gordon was a typical older man, immobile and in need of friendship, I’d go straight up to the door and strike up a conversation, break the ice by asking about the pins on his U.S. Navy insignia cap, listen to his stories and eat whatever food was offered, something like that. But judging from the vigor with which he cut his lawn — using a hand push mower — he is in good health.
Just knocking on the door is too transparent. Any contact needs to be casual. I need to know when he checks his mail, when he takes the dog for a walk, what he grills on the barbeque, so that I can just happen to walk by, and strike up a conversation.
The only way for me to make this happen is to watch. And watching — when you are a single white male with a low-paying, frustrating, lonely job — makes you a stalker.
I know this, but I don’t see another way.
Tomorrow, I begin stalking Gordon Willis.
I have been replaced as the overnight meat clerk by a Czechoslovakian whose work papers came through at the last minute. He does a better job than I did, and the manager has given him inventory duty — I never got to do inventory duty — which involves extensive paperwork and writing.
The Czech barely speaks English. It was, essentially, my major.
I have been relocated to aisle ten — soda — where I never even have to check expiration dates. I’m not sure if this means I’ve been demoted. It’s something I think about when I’m watching Gordon Willis.
Gordon remains elusive. In his front yard, rhododendrons are trimmed, woodchips are spread, gardens are weeded; in his house, lamps are turned off and on. Yet he hasn’t appeared during my surveillance hours, which makes me nervous.
The weather has been good. There’s no reason for him to stay inside.
I hope he is okay.
Gordon is okay.
And so am I, because I have made contact. Sort of.
Driving home after work at eight in the morning I saw Gordon checking his mail.
My street is a dead-end, so watching one’s speed is customary, but even still, I think I might have driven too slowly. Scared old woman slowly. Drive-by shooting slowly.
At the time it seemed necessary.
I raised my hand in greeting well before he looked at me. We made eye contact. He returned the gesture.
I held my smile but cursed the closed car window. Rotten air conditioning. A verbal hello would be better than an open hand. Then we could have one of those conversations where he leans his elbows on the car and we agree to have a cup of coffee tomorrow.
My car rolled past him.
I was miserable until a few hours later, when I realized it was Saturday. Last week, when I watched him mow his lawn, it was also Saturday.
Gordon Willis comes outside on Saturday.
It is Saturday.
There have been some reasons why, up until this point, I haven’t felt like a stalker, although I knew I was stalking:
a) My notes on Gordon’s movements were mental, not written down
b) I’ve never smelled anything worn by Gordon
But today, I woke up early, so I wouldn’t miss him. I didn’t work last night, so I’d be rested. I watched the Godfather movies — even part three. I watched Annie Hall. I watched All The Presidents Men. I searched for Gordon’s 1980 directorial debut Windows, but couldn’t find it. The guy at Blockbuster said nobody watched Talia Shire movies anymore.
I am leaning against my house, looking at Gordon carry a piece of wood. He puts it down and has a good stretch, easily holding both arms above his head. The physical activity does not make him cough. He is a peerless senior.
I don’t know if the stretch means he’s going to get more wood, or that he’s done for the day.
I need to go now.
I walk towards my mailbox like I am getting the mail. After passing the hydrangeas, I lift my hand high. Gordon notices and responds with his own lifted hand.
My entire world can be defined by Gordon Willis movies.
I am a poor worker that needs a favor from Don Corleone.
I am Robert Redford about to ask Deep Throat for the answers.
I am Woody Allen, twitching while I move.
The summer light hits my face in subdued yellows and browns.
I walk toward Gordon Willis.
His hand is dirty from carrying the wood. I shake it hard.
“I’m Chris,” I say. “I live across the street.”
I loved The Godfather.
“Gordon. Nice to meet you,” he says.
“What are you doing?” I say, and point at the piece of wood.
I’ve got this great movie idea.
“Building a step. You can’t get to the road from this part of the yard, so I figured it was time.”
Hey, didn’t Manhattan have steps in it?
“Well, I like to keep busy,” he says.
“So… how are you going to build the step?”
I need you, Gordon.
“Well, I’m thinking about cutting into the hill here and here,” he says, and motions to where he’s going to cut into the hill.
“Seems like the right idea.”
You’re all I’ve got.
“How many… pieces… of wood… are you going to use?”
I’ll build the step for you.
“Not sure, yet.”
“Looks like… five… could work?”
I will carry and organize your meat.
We talk about building the step for the next ten minutes. I am unable to change the subject to film or my career. Then we shake hands, he goes in his house, and I go in mine.
He’s a very nice guy.
I will work in a supermarket the rest of my life.
I wonder what is below soda.