“I’m sorry, I have to quit now.”
I started out in San Francisco as the first female member of IATSE Local 16, the stagehand’s union up there. Even though I was small and tiny I was really strong and fit, and when I was 27 and first got in I did a lot of movies and television shows as an assistant prop master. I can remember distinctly being on the set of Alan Parker’s Birdy and thinking, “Boy, I could do this forever” and being really excited about it. But since I turned 50 I’ve gotten more and more tired and cranky and just not as able physically to work the set. So for the last ten years I’ve specialized in shopping or prepping for a couple bosses, and that involves the acquisition of the props, the returns, the rentals, keeping the office straight, but not really being on the set and loading the trucks and moving the carts around and all that kind of stuff. For example, on Collateral I got Tom Cruise five different kinds of metal briefcases, and then they picked the one they wanted and then I went out and got twelve more. So I have a little bit of creativity within the parameters of what they are looking for.
Now I’m 61. Last fall I got a call from a prop master who was working on Beverly Hills Chihuahua Part 3. It was a two-woman crew and she asked me to come in and just shop for four days. And I said, “Sure, I can do that” so I went in and did a really good job and at the end of my four days, they said, “We need a 3rd in the prop department, on the set. Would you like to work it with us? We don’t have anybody and it would be cool to have another woman.” And I thought, “You know what? It’s five weeks; it’s a quick shoot. I’m old and tired but I can do this one more time. One more time my body will come through.” How hard could it be, you know? It was a Friday and we were going to start the following Monday and we were pre-shooting at some giant mansion in San Marino. And it was basically bringing all of these little dogs in, putting little eyeglasses that I had found for them at doggie stores, little costumes and doing green screen and all that kind of stuff. Testing the cameras. Testing whatever.
So we got there and we were parked the farthest away from everybody, three blocks away. And the first thing I had to do was unload the entire prop truck by myself. And I’m going, “Holy moly.” I could barely get up the stairs of the truck at this point now because my knees are pretty bad. The treads of the steps were killing me physically. It was crazy. I was sore five minutes after I started moving stuff around. Within the first hour I was thinking, “Damn, how am I going to make it through five more weeks of this when I can’t even make it through this next ten minutes?” It was horrible. So back and forth I did that all day long. And at the end of the day the prop master and her assistant went back to load the truck and they left me on the set for the last hour. They just kind of threw me up there and when they yelled wrap, I had to take the cart and all of the little props that the Chihuahuas were using and the directors chairs, put them over the cart, and wheel the cart back down to the prop truck three blocks away.
Now, I’m 4 feet 10 and the cart is really big—it’s maybe five feet long and three feet wide and it’s maybe four feet tall. It also has big hooks on either side with stuff hanging off of it. On top of it you have your props and after you stack your director’s chairs on top of that your cart is six feet tall. So I can’t see where I’m going; it’s just the cart in front of me. I don’t know if I’m going to run into anybody. I’m desperate, hoping I’m not going to lose the cart, that it isn’t going to careen off the side, fall over, kill somebody, kill myself. There’s grass on both sides with a little sidewalk in the middle, and I’m pushing this heavy cart and trying to keep it steady, because even though you try to ratchet things down, things are wobbling all over the place, you know? It took me twenty minutes to go three blocks. It was crazy. So by the time I got down there, I helped them load the truck and at the end I turned to this woman, my boss, and said, “I’m sorry, I have to quit now.“ Those are the exact words: I’m sorry, I have to quit now!
I was shocked that it had come to this. I was angry, I was crying—because I always knew there was going to be an endpoint for me, but I never seriously thought it would really come, you know? I finally had to make a decision and I decided that that part of my career was now completely done. That part of the job that I thought, when I was 27, that I could do forever—I couldn’t do it anymore. My brain was willing but my physical body wasn’t going to be a part of that. And this woman, this prop master, was wonderful—she gave me a big hug and she said, “Don’t worry about it, I understand.” But there’s a little part of me that felt humiliated—that I was letting people down or myself down. To admit to myself that whatever I was doing still wasn’t good enough—that it couldn’t be done—that was hard.
I guess what I loved specifically about props was being in different places that caused me to use my inquisitiveness. I love to explore strange places and different places. I like nothing better than going into some weird little factory, and going, “Whoa! Is this where you make Tupperware? This is really cool!” Because who goes to a Tupperware factory? I saw the private linear accelerator at Stanford University that the public doesn’t go to, which was a phenomenal thing! So I miss the fact that films could do that for you, especially in my department. Being on a film you could introduce yourself and say, “I’m working on X, Y and Z so that’s why I’m here” and they’d go, “Okay, come on and look.” But that’s stuff I can still do with my photography—without props, you know? I can still knock on the door and say, “Hey, I’m doing this and I really want to see your place would you be willing to show it to me?” And I’m never going to lose that because that was always in me to begin with.