Oct 31, 2014, 06:51AM

Zero Gravity

I didn’t want it to end, but end it did.

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The place in Mountain View was cute and funky, with lots of windows and an unkempt, wild abundance of flowers. A weathered old picket fence surrounded the front lawn, with a crooked arbor full of white roses and a broken gate. A redwood tree loomed over it all, and there was a huge hedge in the center of the driveway separating the two duplex units. The hedge and the tree were home to an extraordinary and diverse population of birds and squirrels. The light was beautiful.

It was a refreshing change from the sterile corporate monstrosities we’d been dwelling in since leaving New York. The cats adored it. They inspected every nook and cranny, clearly delighted with all the windows. After finishing his inspection of the place, Scooter stretched out on his back in our bed and fell soundly asleep in the afternoon light of the bedroom. Buster sat on the kitchen table, marveling at the squirrels and the hummingbirds. At $1200 per month, it was perfect for us. It had been just over a year since we left New York.

Daisy was thrilled to be back in a Waldorf school, and it was just a short hop away, about 15 minutes by car, tops. We were right across the freeway from Moffett Field, where the NASA Ames research facility is based. While Daisy busied herself at the school preparing for the new school year, I stumbled across an ad looking for volunteers to participate in a simulated lunar excursion over at NASA. It paid $300 per week. I jumped on it, and made it through the rather extensive and wonderfully catered screening process. I was going to the moon and eating quality Korean barbecue.

There were 16 of us, divided into four teams of four persons each. We were given wristwatches to wear that monitored our movements and baseline functions, to be worn 24/7 except when bathing. Aside from the basic orientation, the four teams only encountered each other when coming and going to and from the lab. The teams were clearly assembled for maximum ethno-cultural and gender diversity. I was the oldest member of my team, and the whitest.

We’d arrive mid-morning and the staff would download the data from our watches and strap us into these vest-like garments that monitored our breathing, pulse rate, and blood pressure. We were then guided to four separate little closet-like rooms with computer terminals in them. We were given about an hour’s worth of cognitive and reaction-time tests at the beginning of each session, and then we’d put on our radio headsets and begin exploring the lunar surface using skid-steerers controlled via the computers. We were following a trail of seismic beacons left behind by a previous expedition that had gone searching for water, found it, and then abruptly vanished. Various hazards popped up: mechanical failures, medical emergencies, the sorts of things that drive up stress levels when time is an urgent factor. The goal was to find the water reservoir discovered by the previous mission.

Researching the program’s director, a splendid and shockingly hip medical doctor from Austria named Norbert Kraft, I was delighted to see that his entire career is centered upon finding solutions to the physiological and psychological hazards of long-term space travel. He has a particular interest in the study of teamwork, and how persons from diverse cultural backgrounds can most effectively work together in isolated environments without going batshit crazy and killing each other. I’m intimately acquainted with the phenomenon known as “cabin fever” (or, more horrifyingly, Wendigo, to Native Americans) owing to having actually tasted it during a sojourn in northern Idaho in 1974, during which I actually was trapped in a cabin for a week or so with a couple and their somewhat autistic child during a February when the temperature never got above 20 degrees below zero. We played card games and smoked a lot of pot. We avoided alcohol. I’ve always thought that besides the bone loss associated with extended periods in zero gravity, the most dangerous thing about long-term space travel would be cabin fever. I’ve spent a lot of time on tour with various entertainment outfits, and being stuck on the road with a bunch of people you barely know is trickier than it sounds. About three weeks, if you’re not careful, you can take to hating somebody just because of the way he chews his food.

During the breaks, I heard some marvelous stories about just how weird it can get up there from Dr. Kraft and his staff. There have been fistfights in space. You can smoke cigarettes on the ISS. Nobody knows if anyone has smoked pot up there yet. There’s a gun on it, just in case. Firing a gun in zero gravity means bracing yourself against a wall first. If you don’t let the Russians take vodka up there, they’ll drink the rubbing alcohol. An American shuttle crew hated one crew member so much that they played country & western music for the duration of the mission simply because he detested it.

It was fun, and the catering was terrific. I’d arrive stoned, with a couple of cans of Red Bull and a pack of nicotine gum, and drive my little Bobcat around on the moon. We lost a guy on my team: I could’ve predicted it, he was a snotty little gangbanger wannabe with a bad attitude and no sense whatsoever of the need for brevity on the headsets. He offended the two women on the team with sexist remarks. He just stopped showing up. My team did better without him. I didn’t want it to end, but end it did.

I applied to a collection agency in San Jose. I needed a job. It was a little mom & pop shop down by the HP Pavilion. They were offering $11 an hour, plus some paltry commission, but I figured I could stand it until I found something better. I was in the conference room with these idiots and my resume, and the guy in charge said, “This resume is great, but you do skip around a lot. What’s going to keep you in that chair, if we give it to you?” Without hesitation or pause, I replied, “Eighteen dollars an hour would do it.” That was the end of that.

I applied to Ikea. I’ve always loved their stuff, and figured it could be fun for a while. They were very receptive, and even gave me a start date to work in their rug department, but the drug test came back positive for THC metabolites, despite my best efforts to beat it, so I missed out on selling rugs for $10 an hour because I’m a pothead. I applied to a few bookstores, but they all seemed to prefer young people they could push around for $9 an hour, kids who grew up under Reagan with no memory of a time when working people in this country had rights and dignity. At home, things were swell. Daisy was happy, and the cats loved their new home. Daisy puttered in the garden, bringing some semblance of order to it. She bought a hummingbird feeder and a birdbath. She scattered birdseed around. The cats chased each other, leaping and tumbling and spending lots of time in their new windows, watching the squirrels and the birds.

Four of those windows didn’t work at all, and we’d informed the landlord of this when we moved in. We expected it’d be fixed by winter. It wasn’t a huge concern to us. My biggest concern was finding a job. I got my medical pot card, owing to a tendency toward glaucoma and my HCV+ status. For a very brief period of time, there was a marijuana dispensary in Mountain View, Buddy’s, on the far side of the freeway in an industrial park. I was driving there one day when I spotted what appeared at first to be some kind of mutant circus tent. It was Shoreline Amphitheatre.

It had only been about 18 months or so since I’d last worked a load-in, and that was with Eliot Feld’s Balletech, considerably less challenging than working local crew for a rock show. It’s always Cirque du Soleil that lights their eyes up when they read my resume. Eliot Feld just adds class to the act. He always has, since 1992, for me.

It was like the first time I mainlined methamphetamine. Plugging into the amazing and diverse network of people left behind by Bill Graham and swinging full-tilt into the flow of their magnificent ball-busting enterprise bought me an extra decade of life. It was like running away with the Big Apple Circus in 1988, only with better drugs and catering, and a lot less yelling. Catering is extremely important to me: I was a child actor. A union child actor. I grew up in the theater. I’d never worked rock ’n ’roll except as an artist, in a spoof band that was seriously misinterpreted back in the naive 1990s.

I plunged into it with the same intense obsessiveness that I brought to collections, minus the dark and horrible zero-sum game aspects. The tasks are as opposite as one could conceive: physical duress in the service of beauty, and psychic duress in the service of greed. The season was closing at Shoreline, but I sufficiently impressed my new employers that I got plenty of work in other venues. A high point at the time was loading in and out the Rolling Stones’ dressing room trailers and complex at the Oakland Coliseum on their “Bigger Bang” tour. You sort of feel you’ve arrived when you’re throwing away Keith’s empty fifth of Absolut and swigging off the half-bottle he left behind.

One of the crew chiefs at the Stones show took note of my work and started hiring me for load-ins and load-outs with a company called Theatreworks, Silicon Valley’s premiere theater company. I started getting the occasional union call from the local IATSE. I’d drive up to Berkeley, SF, Oakland, Concord, fucking Marysville, anywhere, anytime. I established myself as a guy who just wanted to work. I was mainly working as a loader, loading and unloading the trucks. It was rugged work, and I look pretty scrawny at 5’11” and 145 pounds. One of the union guys loved to call me “Spaghetti Arms,” but they all respected my safety protocol, and at the time, I could lift anything. I’d seen enough blood at the circus.

In the circus, we largely (and wrongly) regarded rock ’n ’roll roadies as pussies, owing to the fact that you’d hire one, and as soon as he or she figured out that there was mud involved, they’d quit. That didn’t apply at Cirque du Soleil: they only perform on asphalt or floor. Rock roadies never lasted at real circuses. Part of the appeal of circus to me was the constant possibility of everything running off the rails, total chaos being an ever-present possibility in areas where people are confined with wild animals and attempts to defy gravity.

It peaked for me with the 2007 Rock The Bells show in the expanse of parking lots of AT&T Park in San Francisco. I’d last seen Rage Against The Machine in 2000, covering the Democratic Presidential Convention in L.A. It had been their last appearance. I’d never seen Public Enemy, Wu Tang, or Cypress Hill, and I desperately wanted to see Immortal Technique, my favorite hip-hop act.

50,000 people showed up. I had the time of my life racing around the site hanging on to the rails of a golf cart putting out fires of various sorts while a twentysomething maniac from Humboldt County tried to get me to shit my pants with terror as he pushed the golf cart to its absolute limit. It was over the course of that production that I came to bond with the BGP warehouse crew, formally known as “Ambience.” None of us knew it at the time, but the crash of 2008 was going to change everything.

When it’s all blue skies and roses, look over your shoulder. Something’s coming.


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