I was sitting at a black wrought-iron table, sipping a flavored hot tea called Cardamom Spice from a cup with embossed white letters on cobalt blue, spelling the words River Cafe. My table was surrounded by a dozen others, each with a view of the river beyond a small park in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia. I had followed century-old cobblestone walkways to the aroma of a roving wooden cart hawking fresh beignets, and found a river of restaurants and shops, hotels, and tourists. A man with a broom swept his front stoop as if clearing the way for another day of commerce in 1958. He did it with pride, smiling at everyone who came near his window, displaying a lathe-like device that would later press and roll toffee.
This moment for me was about sitting back, drinking my hot cup of tea, and watching the world pass by. This is when I’d normally be fighting D.C. traffic and chattering on Bluetooth in preparation for the morning meetings. Loved the genius of Mr. Jobs, God bless, but my many electronic devices keep me connected from sunrise to the hour I leave my dog out by the fluorescent yellow bulb on the back deck just before turning in.
A pretty young waitress, black stockings, curly dark hair, and a sweet dimpled smile, warmed my drink, and I began to feel that all was right with the world. I could smell the sweetness of Vermont syrup over pancakes, served at the next table. A large Mark Twain-styled paddle wheeler floated up with the tide, a screaming whistle shooting steam skyward. It was almost surreal. But then my perfect moment was gone …vanished like an act in a Vegas show of illusion. A box truck pulled curbside, creating a giant dark shadow over my sunny morning, the sweet air rapidly dissipating, replaced by diesel fumes. A group of young men, one fat with hair to his shoulders, and the others wearing black t-shirts—some type of rock band entourage—jumped to the pavement at the loud squeal of brakes. Paneled doors flew open and others began to converge from nearby streets, as if the entire effort to destroy my quiet moment had been choreographed.
A few loud shouts from the long-haired fat guy led to more activity, and tables and chairs around me began to disappear as well. Several of the men were unloading equipment from the truck that had so rudely interrupted the morning sunlight that, a short time ago, had been streaming across my cobalt blue cup. Out came all manner of lights, spotlights like the ones used in a theatrical production, then long coils of black cable began to unfurl from metal spools like fire hoses—only, there was no fire. As others quickly departed the River Cafe, I had decided to hold my ground. The cute, dimple-faced waitress now stood at a distance, watching the circus that had begun to form, no longer interested in keeping my cardamom tea steaming hot or even lukewarm.
“Mind if I join you?” A young girl, in designer jeans and white blouse, came looking for a place to sit, chairs all around us continuing to be moved away at the pace of an Olympic 400-meter race.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m Tony Jennings.”
“Hi,” she said with a big movie star-like smile. Her teeth were whiter than white, and straight in an unnatural way, like the girl that always showed up at the end of toothpaste commercials. “I’m Tracy. Tracy Gordon. Like…are you like, one of the extras, or an actor? Oh my god,” she suddenly looked startled. “Are you the lead?”
Perhaps this was a toothpaste commercial and I was about to be in it …the guy with the midlife crises drinking his cardamom tea. “Perhaps you could fill me in a bit, Tracy. I thought I was coming here for breakfast. I’m certainly no actor. Are you?”
“Oh my gosh!” she said. “Sorry.” She looked slightly embarrassed, and then sat down beside me. One light suddenly flipped on and 1000 watts of tungsten lighting flooded the River Cafe. “Like, you didn’t know? They’ve been shooting a motion picture here all week. Savannah!”
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“No, no,” she laughed. “That’s the name of the movie.”
Several of the rock band guys were moving in around our table. A camera, on what looked to be some type of moving crane, suddenly rose high in the air, like some kind of modern dinosaur surveying its prey. Its nose read Fujinon.
“So, you are an actress,” I asked.
“Like, well …maybe. I mean, I don’t have any lines or anything. My job is to walk across from over here to just behind that window,” she said, carefully pointing toward the toffee shop. The proprietor had also vanished. “And if it’s, like, yesterday, I’ll have to do it about twenty times,” she laughed again. “But, like, I’m really a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. This is Scene 147, the last scene in the show. Totally awesome, isn’t it?”
“Really rocks,” I said, trying to seem hip, but failing miserably.
“See that guy over there?” She was pointing to a man wearing faded jeans and a Tampa Bay Rays cap, who was, at this moment, explaining something to several people, with a series of animated hand gestures, as if words were not enough. “He’s Charles White, hottest young director in the film industry. Worked on Flowers in the Rain last year. Brought in about twenty million. Now he’s writing his own contract with every major studio in Hollywood.”
“Pretty impressive,” I said. “I loved Flowers in the Rain. Sad story, though.”
“Oh my gosh!” she said. “I, like, cried through that whole thing …especially when Jen’s dog died.”
Looking to the sky, I commented that he might have rain in this movie if they didn’t get moving.
“That guy over there is one of the leads, Joan’s, like …boyfriend. He ditched Linda back on New Year’s Eve, and now I think he’s getting ready to propose.”
Suddenly, I was having difficulty following what was real and what was film story.
As the young actress wannabe finished texting someone, she looked toward a girl coming from a Winnebago, now parked behind the box truck. “That is Carrie Lee. All the guys are hot for her …and she’s, like …this totally awesome actress. Asked me for a bottle of flavored water yesterday, Grape Supreme.” Tracy then broke into a giggle.
“You don’t say,” I commented.
By now, my cup of cardamom tea had gone stone-cold, but lights coming from all sides began to warm the outdoor cafe. The cables and wires ran like snakes into a small village covered with an open tent, where tables of monitors lined up and brought the keen interest of the young director and his growing entourage. The camera crane continued to float up, down, and across the tables, while the rock band guys moved their truck. Dark clouds were beginning to drift off the coast and I had become interested in how this drama would play out. I said my goodbyes and wished Tracy another meaningful encounter with Carrie Lee. Then I started to leave.
“Sir, sir,” someone yelled from behind.
Nowadays, when someone refers to me as a sir, I generally take it as meaning …old. “Respect your elders, always call them sir,” I could hear my father telling me as a young boy.
I turned to find a clean-cut gentleman, nothing like the box truck guy, looking over the edge of his narrow, black wire-frame glasses. “Sir,” he said it again. “Would you mind staying? We’re a bit short on extras and, quite frankly, we could use someone your age to be in this cafe scene. You know …from a distance, it’s that George Clooney kind of look,” he said, with a smart-assed half-smile.
“You mean, Scene 147? Me …in the movie?” I laughed.
“If you don’t mind. Won’t take but an hour. It’s our last scene, and we’re about to wrap. Got to fly to New York tonight, don’t have time to track down any missing persons. Besides, an extra’s an extra. We need bodies.” I could have followed that line but decided to oblige. No compensation, but then …maybe Carrie Lee would ask me for a Grape Supreme.
Soon after, umbrellas were brought out for the tables, which were apparently center stage for this high definition artistry. Word had it that they planned to move forward with or without rain. Someone offered me a sport jacket to cover a pasta stain on my left sleeve. The roving camera must have picked it up. I was suddenly becoming self-conscious and wondered if they’d ask me to suck in my gut just before Mr. White yelled action. I wanted to get the attention of my waitress, but she appeared lost in conversation with some Hollywood character dressed in purple, a white scarf wrapped around his neck. Guess my green Izod short sleeve wasn’t captivating enough. Not sure about the sport jacket, but it definitely carried the smell of a department store clothing rack.
My quiet moment had now stretched into a half day of controlled insanity. After undergoing several takes, I soon realized the depth of my acting career would amount to lifting a cup of cold cardamom tea to my lips, pretending to drink it, then picking up a folded morning edition of the Savannah Times, quickly handed to me by one of the black-shirted workers to make me look busy. Others talked on cells, or appeared to talk to one another. Given my age, I guess I was chosen as the low-tech bystander. The challenge, and I use the word loosely, was to lift cup, grasp paper, and gaze to my right in the exact same motion over and over again. Apparently, my degree in Biophysics had little to do with this role. If one of us failed our assigned task, someone screamed continuity, and we did it again.
A light rain began to fall, and the wind along the river made the table umbrellas flutter and jump. I was now thankful for the department store jacket, but ready for this to be over. Tracy, the girl I’d met earlier, had now become quite good at walking toward the toffee shop, and I wondered if she was dreaming of expanding her repertoire a bit.
Suddenly, I noticed the 20-million dollar director didn’t look so happy. He leaned over a monitor under the canvas tent and was, again, surrounded by a small army of black shirts. He took off his cap and was quite animated about something. I immediately wondered if I had lifted my cup incorrectly on that last take, then saw the problem. One shot from a final wrap…and the lead actor had left the set. Carrie Lee returned to the Winnebago and all hell was breaking out in the once quiet outdoor cafe. As they say on Idol, welcome to Hollywood.
“Sir, sir!” Just when I thought it would end, I’d wake up and stop this hallucinatory dream …the preppy guy with wire framed glasses was again eyeing me and calling for my attention. “Was it the cup or the paper? Did I gaze left?”
“No sir. You’re fine. We need a stand-in for the lead. If you’re okay with it, we’ll get you to sign some paperwork and move into wardrobe. The Winnebago over there.”
Twenty minutes, I was signed, sealed, and delivered on set with makeup on my face. My bargain priced jacket had been replaced with tan slacks, leather jacket, and expensive sun shades propped on top my head. I was also given a splendid Swiss watch with a diamond jeweled band. The director calmly walked me through the shot.
One last shot, no close-ups …me and Carrie Lee walking hand-in-hand along the river. Whatever had happened with the now-former lead, they needed someone with a similar body build. I guess between the big guy moving lights and the bystander with the scarf, I was it.
I left my cold tea behind. Tracy stood off to the side, a look of absolute shock crossing her face. It was as if she were saying, I hit my spot a hundred times and he gets the break?
As a light rain continued to fall, someone yelled “quiet please!” The outdoor stage went silent. I could feel my hands shaking and placed one inside my pocket to hide it from the cameras’ view.
“Action!” I walked slowly toward the mark placed for my stop point. I could hear my heart pounding and wondered if the microphones on big poles behind us were picking it up. I rotated, looked toward Carrie Lee, now giving me a Hollywood smile right on cue. We took each other’s hands, mine sweating profusely, and took the required seven steps toward the river, backs to the roving camera now rising skyward.
Her face was beautiful and indeed captivating, and suddenly I forgot that we were filming. It was like I was in one of those old black and whites, the silver screen. It was time to walk the red carpet. I then pictured myself wearing one of those cool hats like Humphrey Bogart used to wear.
Then she said it. “Ready?” She let out a tiny laugh.
Her face grew closer, eyes looking right through me. God forbid, she knew what I was thinking. She was like someone I’d dreamed about a thousand times, a familiar face.
This was no longer acting, I’d thought. Then we kissed. No imagining this time. The cool breeze blew her short blonde hair off to one side. Her touch was soft and wonderful. She pulled away, ever so slowly, still smiling.
I then realized people were applauding. The director was happy again. The black-shirted entourage moved about, hurriedly picking up cables, lights, and tripods. The box truck moved back up the alley.
But all I could hear was the softly falling rain. I could only see the eyes of this person who had suddenly walked into my life.
As I was being thanked by several people at once for saving Scene 147, Carrie Lee was walking back toward the Winnebago. Two young fans ran toward her and then giving her a big hug. She turned briefly and gave me another look. Then she was gone.
With amazing efficiency, dozens of workers quickly packed, pushed, and pulled all manner of equipment. The riverside cafe began to return to its original form. The crew moved out, and its diesel-fumed truck soon gave way to the smell of hot beignets now pushing back into view. I sat down, trying to grip reality and what had just happened, when my waitress reappeared, asking if I’d like a new cup of cardamom tea.
I saw my lovely wife and kids coming toward me, arms loaded with shopping bags, along with some toffee in a box.
“Have a good morning?” she asked with a smile, and then looked quickly down at my mug. “Oh no, haven’t been drinking more of that cardamom tea again, have you?” She said this with a knowing smile. “You know what that does to you,” she said half-smiling.
“It’s been an interesting morning,” I said.
I took her hand and walked toward the riverfront, and could feel all was right with the world again.
“The kids want to go see a movie,” she said with that tilt of her head and cute smile I’d fallen in love with years ago.
“How ’bout Flowers in the Rain?” I said. “I hear it had a really good director and made 20 million.”
We kissed and turned to see our kids jumping and laughing. The old riverboat again blew its whistle of steam to the sky, and I smiled. No cameras, no shouting directors …not even a guy in a black shirt. This was life, a scene unscripted. The best kind there is.
About the Author
In his everyday world, Doug Long works behind the camera as a television producer. Based in Tampa, Florida, his works have included documentaries, television series, cinematic styled training programs, and projects focusing on historic preservation efforts and conservation. No movies to date, but he has played the role of extra on occasion. In his other life, working on his tablet in outdoor cafes and late at night, after letting the dog out, he transcends into a writer. A longtime passion, he is currently working on a series of short stories and hopes to one day write his first novel. Inspirations include John D. MacDonald, Randy Wayne White, Stephen King, and anyone who has ever been published.