April 26, 2009

Early Afternoon of the Dead


Luca is a funny, if slightly mad Italian filmmaker who grew up in the Alps but was transplanted in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, he asked to interview me for a film he was making, and I agreed. More recently, he filmed a five-minute promotional film for my new book. And as soon as that was finished, he asked if I’d do another short bit for something else he was working on.

            It was called 60 Writers in 60 Places and involved, um, sixty writers, see, each reading something aloud in a public place. So he filmed people reading in churches and peep shows and subways and a hospital (well, the hospital didn’t quite work out) and several other lively locations.

            Perhaps not surprisingly, he asked me to read in a graveyard.

            Greenwood Cemetery, to be precise.

            At this point I should back up a bit.

            When he was filming the book promo, he wanted to shoot a few scenes in the subway, since there are a couple of subway scenes in the book. I was worried it might lead to some trouble, given the city’s insane and paranoid policy about filming in the subway system. I knew the complete ban on all photography had been relaxed, but there were still permits and fees involved.

            I mentioned Luca’s plans to a friend, who knew several people who’d been busted for filming in the subway. Without the proper permits, you’re looking at some hefty fines. He offered a few pointers, but in the end it all sounded like more trouble than it was worth. I started to get nervous, and mentioned these things to Luca.

            “Oh, we’ll just go and do it,” he said. “It will be fine.”

            “Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t know if he was insane, naive or simply fearless, but I had a very bad feeling about the whole thing—especially considering the nature of the book.

            On the appointed day, my guts all tight and wormy, we trudged over to the subway station, where Luca whipped out his camera and started shooting.

            Then he kept shooting. Trains came and went, people on the platform stared nervously, yet on he filmed, unconcerned.

            “There are security people back there watching us,” he whispered at one point. “But they’re keeping their distance.”

             I knew we were going to be arrested and killed.

            When he was finished, he packed up his equipment and we walked away. Nobody had said a word.

            Greenwood Cemetery was another story. Last time I was there sixteen or seventeen years back, the guard at the front gate presented me with a litany of “thou shalt nots.” If I did any of the things I was told not to do, he warned, I would be thrown out. And sure enough, an easy stroll through the monuments was made incredibly uneasy by the inescapable presence of roving security vehicles. If I made a move to eat one of the donuts I was carrying, they would’ve pounced. I never went back.

            When I mentioned Luca’s latest plans to another friend, he filled my head with horror stories about the times he’d tried to film in Greenwood.

            “There’s no photography of any kind in there,” he said. “And if you try—if you even pull a camera out for some other reason—this car will appear in a matter of seconds and these thick necked guys in dark suits will jump out and rough you up.” It had apparently happened to him more than once. “You don’t even want to try,” he said.

            So once again I started to get nervous. I even dropped a line to Luca, suggesting that maybe he should come up with an alternate site. Some other, less threatening graveyard.

            “It’ll be fine,” he wrote back, and that was that. I could smell the impending doom. Big guys in suits.

            Even as I thought this, though, I started to think something else:

            What the hell’s happened to me? I used to taunt cops on a daily basis. I used to break the rules as a matter of principle. Now I’m worried about security guards at a cemetery? What kind of coward have I become?

            When I mentioned my concerns to Morgan, she said essentially the same thing, though in a much nicer way.

            Part of it might be the fact that it’s just harder to run away with the cane. Especially in a graveyard. I wouldn’t get ten feet before I tripped over a headstone.

            But I sucked it all up, and decided to go along if only to see what happened, fully prepared for the worst.

            When I opened the front door on Friday morning and saw Luca waiting on the sidewalk with his tripod and big camera bag, I knew we were screwed. It wasn’t exactly like we’d be able to play dumb at the front gate.

            I said nothing. We loaded into a cab, and ten minutes later pulled up to the cemetery entrance, where a guard waved us to a stop. The driver rolled his window down.

            “Can I help you?” the guard asked.

            “We’re just going to the cemetery,” Luca told him.

            “Uh-huh. You have relatives here?”

            “No,” Luca said, “we are just visiting the whole cemetery. We heard it was very nice.”

            Oh, that’s not the thing to tell him.

            “Then you can get out here and walk.”

            This was about to turn bad. We would get out, the car would leave, the guard would see the tripod, and we’d be stuck.

            Sure enough, I stepped out with the cane, Luca got out with his tripod and camera bag, and the cab did a quick U-turn and drove away, leaving us standing there alone with the guard.

            “I see you have some photographic equipment with you.”

            Oh, God, here we go.

            “Yes, I will be taking some pictures.”

            Oh no, Don’t tell him that.

            “Well,” the guard said, reaching inside his booth for a clipboard, “we have a very strict and clear policy regarding photography.”

            “Yes,” Luca said. “You see, Jim is an author and I thought this would be a very interesting place to take a picture.”

            Oh, that’s the wrong thing to say.

            The guard paused, perhaps catching Luca’s accent for the first time. “Well, it is a very interesting place . . . You don’t have any video equipment in there, do you?”

            “Oh no, just photographs.”

            Oh god. We’re into the lies. We’re going to be caught and shot by large men in suits.

            Luca pulled out his wallet and showed the guard his green card.

            The guard wrote something down on his clipboard while saying, “Because if my supervisor sees you shooting any video, he’ll stop you and ask a lot of questions. And I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”


            “Everything is okay,” Luca assured him. “It’s just a regular camera.”

            At this point, the guard pulled out a map and unfolded it. “Here, let me point out some of the more interesting spots. Now, you go through this Gothic archway up ahead, and you’ll see a lake . . . ”


            “There’s an old chapel here built back in the early twenties that you can go into . . . And this whole area here,” he said, pointing on the map, “is an historic area—the Revolutionary war was fought here. Over here, on the top of this hill, there’s a statue of Minerva, and you’ll see she’s . . . ”

            What? I decided at that moment that in the future, I would stop worrying and just accept what Luca had in mind.

            A few minutes later, we shook the guard’s hand and thanked him for all his help. Then, with map in hand and video gear in tow, we headed into the cemetery.

            Later that day after getting the shot he wanted, Luca commented, “You know, we really should call and report that guy.”


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