The Night I Was a Movie Star—Almost
Okay, I admit it. By the beginning of last summer, I was starting to suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding my role in Michael Moore’s new film. The image of me, sitting behind the wheel of my taxicab, would be on the film’s marquee. Something I said on camera would be the movie’s tagline. And suddenly, not only would I be a movie star, but my novel, Vampire Cabbie, would shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
More about all of this later.
But yes, it is absolutely true. I almost co-starred in Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore wanted to feature worker cooperatives as an antidote to Capitalism. Apparently, Moore had read about Union Cab in Jim Hightower’s recent book, Swim Against The Current, which included a chapter about the worker-owned-and-operated cooperative cab company where I have worked for the past twenty-one years.
There was a lot of talk back and forth between my people and Moore’s people, but finally it was decided that an independent film production crew would come to Madison in early April and would shoot footage and conduct interviews at Union Cab and Isthmus Engineering.
About two weeks before the shoot, I was running a fare when my cell phone rang. I fished the phone out of my hip pocket. My cell phone seldom rings, so when it does, I answer it promptly, assuming that either someone died or that a tsunami has just engulfed most of California.
The call was from John McNamara. John’s my best friend. He’s also our Marketing Manager. Part of his job is handling customer complaints. When I heard his voice on the other end, I immediately thought, “What did I do?”
But no, that was not why John called. Instead, he called to ask me if I would be interesting in driving the film crew around town.
“Would I actually be on camera?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” John replied.
I almost drove the cab off the road. (Well, not really, but that sounds good.)
I was shocked and so, so excited. I immediately shared the news with my passenger, a hip, thirty-something woman who was getting her black-and-white former police car worked on. She thought it was way cool. So did I.
But poor John. He had been the one who had been contacted by Basel Hamdan, the film crew’s producer. He and Basel had been discussing the possibility of Union Cab being included in the movie for a few months. Finally, he got the green light from Basel, but the two days when they would be in town, John would be out of town, visiting his mother in Toledo. John was none too pleased.
But I was excited beyond belief. I told everybody I knew. I’d stop strangers on the street and tell them as well. I was going to be in a Michael Moore movie! I’d be one of the good guys in a Michael Moore movie!
And I could talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, on camera. If the final cut included footage of me, talking about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, I would sell lots and lots of books.
The only problem was the anticipation. That may have been the longest week and a half of my life, but I was excited. Frankly, I was not particularly nervous about being filmed, let alone being filmed by Moore’s film crew. The fact that Moore is well known for his in-your-face style of interviewing did not worry me in the least. After all, I was one of the good guys.
Mainly, I wanted to be in the movie, so I wanted to do a good job. It occurred to me that teaching myself to speak in sound bites would maximize my chances of making the final cut. No, I did not sit down and write scripts for myself, but I did put a great deal of thought into what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
Of course, I wanted to talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, but I wanted to discuss it in the greater context of how Union Cab, being the special workplace that it is, helped make it possible for me to write the book and is a haven for artists of all kinds. I wanted to talk about the importance of Union Cab providing jobs at a living wage in a humane work environment. And I wanted to talk about how Union Cab is a shining example of what I like to call Neo-Syndicalism.
I thought a great deal about what I actually wanted to say, and I actually practiced my “lines,” struggling to be as concise as possible.
I was ready, but then they threw me a curveball. The day before the shoot, Basel sent me an e-mail:
Thanks for the info – very helpful. We’re looking forward to tomorrow night’s shoot.
There are a few things we are looking to accomplish—first, we’d like buildings, restaurants or sights that are unique to Madison. Any landmarks or anything …
Also, and there are some things that we’d like to accomplish cinematically—certain visuals and looks that we’d like to capture that we have been thinking about. We can get into more detail about this tomorrow as this is for our Director of Photography to coordinate, but if you know of any places that have smoke—sewers or building that have smoke coming out of them, it would be helpful to what we are trying to do.
We’ll be in touch tomorrow …
All the best,
As Basel later explained, they were looking for a Taxi Driver visual motif. Okay, I was willing to do what I could, but understand: Travis Bickle is a bit of a sore subject with any self-respecting taxi driver. Surely, Michael Moore wasn’t going to all this trouble just to make fun of us?
Still, I wanted to be helpful. I got up early that morning and perused the Internet, looking for smoke or steam. I know that the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus has a vast network of steam tunnels, but where might the steam be released? I could not find any answers, but I did find a website largely dedicated to Tunnel Bob, a local character well known for traveling the campus steam tunnels.
Anybody who has lived in Madison for a long time knows who Tunnel Bob is. His appearance is quite distinctive. He is extremely tall and lanky, with long arms, legs and a rather long neck. He is also chronically mentally ill.
Maybe Tunnel Bob could tell me where to find smoke or steam. But how could I find Tunnel Bob?
I did make a few phone calls to places like the UW Physical Plant, but no luck. Well, I tried.
Still, I was excited. I went into work early and selected the newest cab I could find then took it to the carwash. I couldn’t pick up the film crew in a dirty cab.
Ah, but the waiting, the waiting. Basel had told me they’d need me to pick them up around seven PM, but when the appointed time arrived, I did not hear from them. Minutes hung like hours, but still no word, which presented a problem in terms of doing my job and making money. The phone call could come any second! I had to be nearby and not engaged in a long call when they were ready for me.
Finally, Basel called. They were still at Isthmus Engineering. They were running a bit late.
Finally, at around ten Basel called to tell me they were just about ready for me and that I should meet them at their hotel, the venerable Inn on the Park, in about a half hour.
Perfect. I was dropping off on the near Westside, just ten minutes from the Capitol Square. That gave me plenty of time to finish my call and more importantly, go to the bathroom. I was not sure when I would get another chance to relieve myself.
The Open Pantry near the west end of the campus was a mere half-mile from where I dropped off my last passenger. When I emerged from the bathroom, I had a big surprise. Not just a surprise, but Kismet!
Sitting on a stool in the small dining area in the Open Pantry was none other than Tunnel Bob! I could not believe my good fortune.
But there was just one problem. Asking someone who is chronically mentally ill a straight question and getting a straight answer is not as easy as one would think. The question: where might I find smoke or steam? I had to ask him three times before I he told me there just wasn’t any smoke or steam to be had. As I feared, it being April and fairly warm, it just was not likely. January or February, that’s a different story.
Oh, well. I tried. I made every effort.
I arrived at the Inn on the Park shortly after the film crew. Right away, they struck me as very nice. Despite the fact that it already had been a long day for them, they were excited and ready to go, including the intrepid cinematographer who had flown in on a red-eye the night before from Europe. He pretty much was running on little more than adrenalin, having not really slept the night before.
The crew quickly went to work setting up the shoot, while Basel and I chatted. I sadly told him there was no smoke or steam to be had, though I did tell him our head mechanic could make smoke if he wanted. Basel shook his head. “That’s okay,” he said.
He asked me about prominent landmarks and views. I told him about Bascom Hill, State Street, the Capitol Square and a curious optical illusion on the southside of town where, when you pull onto this one street (O’Sheridan off Lakeside), the Capitol looms large at the end on the horizon, but as you move closer, it shrinks.
“Cool,” Basel said.
We talked about the Taxi Driver motif. I remembered a story John McNamara had told me several years ago. We used to have a driver named Steve Fleischman. He was very intelligent, but a bit unbalanced. His nickname was Fleshdog.
As John told me, it was election night 1986, the horrible night when Tommy Thompson, a conservative, small-town Republican, whose nickname from his years in the state assembly was Dr. No, defeated amiable Democrat incumbent Tony Earl.
Apparently, Steve had this cab-load of College Republicans. It was their big night, so they were all drunk and excited about Thompson’s unexpected win.
“Aren’t you excited about our new governor?” one of them asked Steve.
In classic Fleshdog fashion, Steve replied, “You know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is we need a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”
The passengers started freaking out. Steve quickly reassured them, “It’s just a movie. I was just quoting from a movie.”
Basel liked the story.
“It’s election night, you know,” I said. I repeated Fleshdog’s line.
Basel patted me on the shoulder. “Save it for the filming,” he said.
The crew quickly got to work prepping for the shoot. The sound person slipped a wireless microphone under my black leather biker jacket though the exact placement was a bit delicate. It took a little while to figure out how to set up the mike so it would not pick up took much rustling.
They mounted a camera on the outside of the cab. They put gels on some of the windows to cut down on glare. They did test shots with the hand-held camera inside the cab.
I was quite impressed with the attention to detail. Frankly, I never thought of Michael Moore movies as visually strong. His films don’t look bad, but I’ve never thought they look exceptional. I quickly learned that there’s a great deal of hard work that goes into making the movies look as good and sound as good as they do. It’s not like one can just go out and buy a digital camcorder and shoot a movie like it’s nothing at all. The crew worked hard to make it look easy.
And like I said, the cinematographer was particularly intrepid. At one point, we were driving down State Street, he opened the window and shot footage with his entire torso out the window, Basel hanging on to his belt for dear life, a terrified expression on his face. I thought this only happened in the movies.
Later when we were just about done, I realized I had not shown them the optical illusion of the shrinking Capitol. I told the cinematographer. He was ready to jump back in the cab and grab the shot, but Basel pulled in the reins, claiming the guy needed to finally get some sleep. I’m not sure, but I think Basel had simply had enough.
We were ready. The crew packed into my cab, four of them. The rest followed in a minivan. Normally, four people in my cab is a bit crowded, but with Basel, the sound person, the cinematographer and one other person, it was utterly cramped. Of course, the cinematographer bounced back and forth between my cab and their minivan.
They wanted landmarks. They wanted stunning visuals. Right away, with the minivan following close behind, I nosed the cab up the side of Bascom Hill, the glacial blister that is the epicenter of the UW campus. Atop Bascom Hill sits Bascom Hall, named after John Bascom, the founder of the University. I parked the cab almost right next to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, feeling particularly entitled. As a cab driver, I can drive and park in places where civilians cannot, but with Michael Moore’s film crew in tow, hell, the sky was the limit!
The crew was quite impressed with the view from atop Bascom Hill. There’s a great view of the Capitol, along with a festively lit State Street.
We drove down State Street to the Capitol Square. We drove around the Square and back down State Street. We pretty much drove the circuit for hours, up and around and around and down, turn around and do it all over again.
The cinematographer attempted to recreate one of the more famous shots from Taxi Driver. “Glance toward the rear view mirror,” he said. “Shift your eyes back and forth.”
I tried, but it was hard. Finally, I think we got it.
As we drove, Basel and I talked. I knew I could direct what I said to a large extent. I was wired, so anything I said, they would have and could use, if they chose to do so. Basel interviewed me as well.
“Is the co-op cab company in your novel like Union Cab?” he asked.
Well, there’s a softball I could launch over the fence. I answered yes and discussed Union Cab’s structure.
He asked if Union Cab offers health insurance. John had warned us that they were likely to ask about that, given Moore’s interest in health-care reform. No problem, Union Cab does have a health plan. It’s a good health plan, but it’s too expensive—but that’s not Union Cab’s fault; that’s the fault of our broken health care system.
That was really the only thing approaching a gotcha question. Overall, I felt like they all treated me with a great deal of respect. They didn’t act like it was weird that a cab driver wrote a book about a blood-sucking cab driver.
Interestingly, I found out later that the interviews done the next day were not quite so respectful. Karl Schulte, our general manager, felt downright harassed. When discussing the fact that Karl's wage is only about four times as high as the lowest-paid employee, Basel asked, “What are you, some kind of hippie?”
Rebecca Kemble, who drove them around the next day, also said she felt a bit badgered, but again, I did not feel disrespected in the least.
At other times, Basel said nothing other than helping to direct the shooting. At one point, we stopped at the campus end of State Street. The crew vacated the cab and climbed into the minivan. They wanted to shoot the side of the cab. Basel remained in the cab and told me to drive very slowly but at a steady speed. The minivan drove alongside of me.
We painstakingly drove the length of State Street and turned onto the Capitol Square. Just then, a squad car approached. I promptly pulled over. The minivan pulled over behind me. The square car pulled over in front of me.
Oddly, the officer did not turn on the lights. Basel and I waited for what seemed like forever. The officer did not approach our vehicle.
Feeling like the crew was my responsibility, I broke one of the chief rules when dealing with police during a traffic stop, but I figured that because I was driving a taxi, it would be okay.
Making sure my hands were visible, I got out of my cab and carefully approached the squad car. “I’m with Michael Moore’s film crew,” I said. “We’re shooting a movie.”
“Return to your vehicle!” the officer snapped.
I sheepishly got back in the cab and described the exchange to Basel.
“You didn’t say we were Michael Moore’s film crew, did you?” Basel asked me, a bit annoyed.
“Hey, you didn’t tell me not to.” Then I made some snide remark about the cop not having any African Americans to pull over, referencing the shameful fact that Dane County has the worst per capita discrepancy of incarceration of African Americans of any county in the country. The bitter joke around here is that DWB is way worse than DWI.
A moment later, four more squads showed up. An officer approached the cab.
“I’ll do the talking this time,” Basel said.
“What’s going on here?” the officer asked politely, if not pleasantly.
“We’re an independent film crew, working on a movie,” Basel replied.
“Oh, cool,” the officer, said with a smile. “We were just wondering what was going on and why that minivan was driving the wrong way down the street.”
And then just like that, the squad cars left us to return to business.
“Wow, that guy was really nice,” Basel said. “They’re usually not that nice in New York.”
I growled softly.
We quickly got back to work. We were on one of the streets that spokes off the Capitol when I decided it was time. The Capitol glowed brightly directly in front of us.
“It’s election night,” I said. “The good guys won. The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice will keep her job. I guess the corporatists won’t be able to buy themselves another seat on the state supreme court, at least not this time.
“But you know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is what we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Basel smiling. Cut and print, as they say.
Basel finally called it a night around three in the morning. Damn! It was well past bartime.
As we unpacked, everyone complimented me on my efforts. One member of the crew even asked me if I had acting experience.
Yet all I could think of was the things I didn’t do, what I didn’t say. For some stupid reason, I had forgotten to bring a copy of my novel, Vampire Cabbie, so there was no shot of me in the cab, holding the book for the camera.
I forgot to talk about Neo-Syndicalism. I never got around to talking about all the artists who work at Union Cab and what it is about the workplace that makes that possible. And when Basel asked me about what makes Union Cab a humane workplace, I badly fumbled. This is a question I should have knocked out of the ballpark. It’s an aspect of Union Cab I truly believe in and truly love. And I actually practiced how I would answer that specific question.
Instead, I babbled incoherently about how a bunch of us are Star Trek and Star Wars fans.
“If a driver sees another driver whose headlights are off, even during the day, we tell the dispatcher. This isn’t to get anybody in trouble, but just so the dispatcher can give a friendly reminder for safety reasons.
“This one dispatcher is a huge Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica fan. One time, I spotted a driver driving without the headlights on. Instead of telling the dispatcher the driver’s headlights were off, I said, cab so-and-so has switched off his targeting computer.
“The dispatcher then says, ‘cab so-and-so, you’ve switched off your targeting computer. Is everything all right?’”
God, I’m such a dork.
Still, I did feel pretty good about the whole thing, but that changed a couple months later when Basel e-mailed the following message:
I hope you are doing well.
We are in the middle of editing the film and there is one section where we would like to re-record some audio of you. It relates to the evening that we drove around in the cab with you, and there is a part that we need to make sure that we have crisply and cleanly—it is the Taxi Driver line.
Pearl Lieberman from our crew will happen to be in Madison this weekend, so we thought that it would be a good opportunity to record this bit of audio—it will not take much of your time at all—it is just reciting that line a few times in order for us to make sure we have it.
Let me know what your schedule looks like for Saturday and you and Pearl can arrange a time and place to meet.
Also, I’m having trouble getting through to you by cell phone, so please send me the correct number. Also, I’d like to discuss the line with you, as well.
All the best,
As Basel would later explain, they loved the “wash the scum off the streets” line, but wanted me to add, the words “Wall Street.”
That weekend, I met Pearl and her boyfriend. It turns out that her boyfriend was none other than Bob Wasserman, a guy I’ve known since the early 1980s. In fact, we worked together in the Rathskeller at Memorial Union, and I represented him in the infamous bagel grievance.
As we sat in my sweltering car with the windows closed, to try to keep out the road sounds, Pearl struggled with the small camera Basel had thrust at her literally as she was getting in her cab on the way to the airport. Fortunately, Bob is one of the best sound people in Madison. The camera’s batteries were dead, and there was a problem with the cord, but Bob was able to jury-rig something.
We recorded several takes as I tried to get the flow right, along with the right inflection of the added words. I knew my motivation. I tried to say the words “Wall Streets” as if they tasted like the nastiest things ever.
And then it was done.
And then my delusions of grandeur began. I would be on the film’s marquee! My words would be the film’s tagline! Michael Moore would show up the Madison opening. There’d be a big party at the Orpheum Theater. We’d all be on stage. I’d be right up there with Michael Moore. I’d step up to the microphone and say a few words about the film’s importance and Union Cab’s importance.
“Say it, say it,” the crowd would yell.
“I don’t know much about politics,” I would say with a wry smile. “All I know is all we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets—Wall Street.”
And the crowd would go wild.
Alas, it was not to be, but maybe we might be in the bonus footage on the DVD.
And now it’s time for me to go to work at Union Cab, sticking it to the man for thirty years.