The general laborers came and went that spring, working for a few weeks and then quitting without notice, eight dollars apparently not being enough to compensate even the most unskilled. No matter. For every man who quit, there were five more waiting in line to take his place, eight dollars apparently being enough to fill any vacancy. I was responsible for showing the new recruits around on their first day, which took about twenty minutes and got me out of carrying drywall. Here’s the porta-potty. Here’s the foreman’s office. Here’s the paper to sign. They wanted to know what the job was like. They wanted to know if there were health benefits. They spoke quietly and conspiratorially, as if what they asked might be perceived as treasonous. They wanted to know if they might have the opportunity to learn some plumbing or carpentry. “You’ll have to talk to the boss about that,” I’d tell them, but the answer was no. What they should have been asking me was if there was a union.
No one knew that I was the boss’s son. About once a week my dad would show up in his powder-blue Mercedes and walk around inspecting the progress, displeased and concerned, finding everything urgent and subpar, showing neither love nor special dispensation toward me, nor did I show any toward him. This seemed to come easily to the two of us. I was just another workingman in wet overalls and he was just another big shot in a three-piece suit and a safety vest. The roles we played were generic, superficial, and true. Later, he’d tell me, “I’m doing this for you, not for me.” What “this” was was not entirely clear. “One day all of this will be yours,” he’d say. “This” was three subdivisions and a ten-story office building downtown. “This” was the powder-blue Mercedes. According to my father, he wanted me to learn the meaning of hard work up close and personal so that I would know what life was really like, but also because he wanted me to experience what he had gone through growing up on the outskirts of town with six siblings, odd jobs, and no help from the government. In short, I was living a version of his life, albeit in reverse.
From time to time, I would be paired up with a guy named Duncan Dioguardi, who was my age but looked ten years older, and who liked to order me around—put this here, put that there. He enjoyed the power, while I enjoyed the cold comfort of knowing that I could burst his bubble by telling him who my dad was, but a good actor never breaks character. Clearly, I was a novice and not very good at hard work, as Duncan and my father had already surmised. I got winded fast. I got apathetic fast. I cut corners when I could. I waited for opportunities to go to the porta-potty. I waited for opportunities to smoke cigarettes. The cigarettes got me winded faster. “You need to get into shape,” Duncan would tell me. “Why don’t you use your next paycheck to buy yourself a ThighMaster?” This was a joke for him. He would walk around in short-sleeved shirts, impervious to the chill, a tattoo of a snake coiling around his bicep and crawling up toward his neck, en route to devour his face, a dramatic and striking image if ever there was one, doubly so against his pale skin, slick with drizzle. In the meantime, I slouched beneath drywall, imagining L.A. in the spring, waiting for lunchtime, quite proficient at not being the boss’s son, and all the while reassuring myself that one day in the future I would be performing some version of this role with nuance and veracity, out of shape or not. “What did you draw from to create the character?” the critics would ask me. “Why, from real life,” I would say.
When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible. When I spoke, I tried to approximate the speech patterns of my co-workers—the softened consonants and the dropped articles—lest I reveal myself for the outsider that I was. No hard “k”s, “x”s, or “f”s. The irony was that my father’s specified plan of self-improvement for me dovetailed with my own: experience real life up close and personal.
The other general laborers knew one another from high school or the neighborhood or the previous work site, which had paid ten dollars an hour. They hoped that the subdivision wouldn’t be finished until fall, maybe even winter. They didn’t mind working forever. They were still counting on a chance to learn a trade—but half of them would be gone in two weeks. As for me, I’d grown up in Timpani Hills, where none of these men would have had any reason to visit unless they’d come to do some roofing. I’d gone to the best schools and had the cushiest upbringing, including a pool in the back yard and weekend acting classes, where my dad would watch me perform on parents’ night, misty and proud in the front row, his boorishness temporarily abated, supportive of his son’s passion and talent until he realized that his son was intending to pursue acting as something more than a hobby. Now all that history was inconsequential, pulsed inside the blender of collective toil. No one would have been able to tell me apart from any of the other general laborers I sat with on my lunch break, smoking cigarettes amid exposed crossbeams. Just as no one would have been able to tell that I was the boss’s son. To the latecomer entering the theatre, I was indistinguishable from the whole.
Just as no one would have been able to tell that I didn’t really want to give Duncan Dioguardi a lift to his house after work, but his car had broken down—yet one more item to be added to the list of immediate problems. What I wanted to say was “Why don’t you ride home on a ThighMaster?” But what I actually said was “Sure, jump in!” I could hear the sprightliness in my voice, all false. It was Saturday. It was four o’clock. The foreman was letting us off early because the drywall hadn’t been delivered on time. The new recruits wondered if they would still be paid for a full day. Theirs was an argument that made sense only on paper. “Go enjoy the weather,” the foreman said, as if he were bestowing the good weather upon us. Indeed, the sun was high and there was no rain. When the breeze blew, it blew with promise. I should have been savoring the first official nice day of spring; instead, I was driving an hour out of my way down Route 15. The traffic was slow-going. We stopped and started. We stopped again. Duncan Dioguardi apologized for the traffic. Inside the car he was surprisingly thoughtful and courteous. He had his seat belt on and his hands were folded in his lap. “Setting is everything,” my dear old acting teacher had once told me, and then we had done exercises to illustrate this concept: forest, beach, prison cell.
“I don’t mind traffic,” I told Duncan. I was being courteous, too. I softened my consonants. I dropped my articles. Through the windshield, our midsized city crawled past at a midsized pace. Midsized highways with midsized cars. Midsized citizens with their midsized lives.
We talked about work and then we talked about ourselves. Away from the subdivision, it was clear that we had little in common. He told me that he’d been doing manual labor since he was fifteen, beginning with cleaning bricks at a demolition site on the north side of the city. I was taking weekend acting classes at fifteen. “A nickel a brick,” Duncan told me. “You do the math.” I wasn’t sure what math there was to do. Duncan was the one who should have been taking acting classes, not me, receiving instruction on how to transform his supply of hard-earned material into that thing called art. He’d already lived twice the life that I’d lived, while having none of my advantages. He was what my father had been before my father hit it big. But Duncan Dioguardi was most likely never going to hit it big. His trajectory seemed already established. If I wasn’t careful, my trajectory would soon be established. The tattoo of the snake heading up to Duncan’s face was not an affect but as apt a metaphor as any of what the past had been like for him, and what the future held. He needed no affect. I was the one who needed an affect. “Don’t ever get a tattoo,” my acting teacher had told me. “A performer must always remain a blank slate.” So here I was, playing the role of general laborer, with flawless skin and stuck in traffic.
It was four-thirty. If I was lucky, I’d be home by six. Maybe I would take a nap, assuage my fatigue and apathy, wake up fresh and do something productive, like read a script and enlighten myself. Sometimes I would lie in the bathtub and read aloud from my stack of current and classic screenplays, playing every single character, men, women, and children. Even the stage directions were a character: Fade in. Int. bathtub—night. Fade out. Everything was deserving of voice. Meanwhile, Duncan Dioguardi and I lit cigarettes, one after the other, inhaling first- and secondhand smoke. We fiddled with the radio. Tupac came on. Tupac was all the rage. We nodded our heads to Tupac. Apropos of Tupac, I told Duncan about how I was planning to move to L.A. I said it casually, as if this plan were already in the works rather than a doubtful dot on an undrawn time line, and I was unexpectedly filled with a brief but heartening sense that, merely by my vocalizing that something would happen, something would actually happen—as per pop psychology. Duncan told me that he had lived in L.A., between starting high school and dropping out of high school. What else had Duncan done by the age of nineteen? Where else had Duncan lived? He was so far ahead of me in the category of life that I would have been unable to catch up even if I began living now. “What was L.A. like?” I asked him. I could hear my counterfeit casualness being usurped by genuine yearning. “It was magical,” Duncan said. He got quiet. He contributed no follow-up details. He stared out the windshield. “See this traffic?” he said. I saw this traffic. “This isn’t L.A. traffic,” he said. I pictured L.A. traffic on a Saturday at four-thirty, sun high, never rain, bumper-to-bumper, all of it magical.
Suddenly, I was telling Duncan Dioguardi about my innermost desires, speaking confessionally, spilling my guts, spelling out exactly how I was going to become an actor, how I was going to rent a U-Haul, not give the boss any notice, fuck the boss, drive a thousand miles in a day, arrive in L.A., find an agent, find a place to live, start auditioning for film and television, maybe even “Seinfeld.” “Keep an eye out for me on ‘Seinfeld,’ ” I said. If you say it, it will happen. Somewhere along the way, I had stopped dropping articles and softening consonants, because it was too difficult a ruse to maintain while also trying to be authentic. I told Duncan about having performed in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” twice, at the rec center, one fall and the following fall. I’d had only a small part but I’d got some laughs. I didn’t tell him that there’d been fifteen people in the audience. Perhaps he’d heard of the production? There had been a four-star review in the Tribune. No, he hadn’t heard of it.
“You can do better than that bullshit,” he said.