KING OF THE ELEVATOR – AND DAVE BRUBECK’S BITCH
KING OF THE ELEVATOR – AND DAVE BRUBECK’S BITCH
by Shaun Costello
In the dead of Winter, in either 1990 or 1991, I was returning from a long shooting day, along with my assistant and sound recordist. I don’t remember which project it was because those were halcyon days for me, and I was booked solid. We were tired and cranky. It was cold. Snow was on the ground. It was late –must have been after 10PM, and we had been working since early that morning. I was using the off-line
editing system in a friend’s apartment in Manhattan’s West Eighties,
to cut the project, and we were returning our equipment to his
editing room. We were standing on the lobby floor, waiting for the
elevator. The door opened, and we lugged our equipment cases into the small cubicle and turned to face the front. My camera was visible because I seldom put it in its case. Before the door closed, an old man, bundled up with too many clothes against the cold, got in with us. He looked like a kid whose mother had dressed him for a snowball fight – his arms, covered with too many layers to quite fall to his sides, stuck out a bit. He wore one of those winter hats that people in places like Minnesota put on their heads, the kind with ear flaps that tie under your chin. The flaps were untied and stuck straight out at right angles from his ears. His thick, black-framed glasses were still frosted over from the heat inside the building. This was about as dorky a guy as you’re going to run into, and considering the late hour, and state of exhaustion, I was not ready for conversation.
The elevator door closed, but instead of turning to face the front of the car, the old man in the snow suit just stood there looking at us. He was grinning. ”You guys out shooting in the cold? Must have been an important gig to keep you out until this hour, in this kind of cold. Something big, huh?” On the streets of Manhattan, a film crew is often approached by gawkers and passers bye, looking to make a negative assertion, saying something stupid, going for the cheap shot, something you get used to and try to ignore. But we were trapped
inside the elevator with Mr. Dorky, who was just about impossible to avoid. I could probably attempt to excuse my behavior that night by reminding you, dear reader, of how tired I was – but there’s no excuse for being that big a jerk. “We’ll shoot anything”, I answered, “Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, no job’s too small, and as you can see, weather’s no object.” Was it my intention to belittle the man in the snow suit, to treat him with condescension and one-upsmanship? To show him just who he was dealing with here, late at night in the confines of that elevator? I’m a film director, you dork. How dare you speak to me.
His expression never changed. He just kept grinning, impervious to the pompous condescension I had dumped all over him. I can still remember his grin, framed by those those ear flaps. As the elevator came to a stop at his floor, still grinning he said, “It’s Tuesday. There are no Bar Mitvahs on Tuesdays. Night, boys.” And off he went, having won the bout with my surly personage by knockout.
As the elevator ascended to our floor, I couldn’t get the “Mr. Dorky” image out of my head. There was something about this guy – something strangely familiar. The door opened on the eighth floor and it fell on me like a ton of bricks, as I realized who the guy was. I turned to my assistant. “Do you know who that was?”, I asked. He just said, “Yeah”, and kept moving our equipment cases out of the elevator. “Do you know what kind of an asshole I was?”, I asked him. “Yeah”, he said again, grinning like Mr. Dorky, and turning the key in the apartment door. “Why didn’t you poke me, or something?” I was feeling deflated, like I had just behaved about as badly as a person can, regardless of my exhaustion, and pathetic need to exert my superiority over my fellow man. “You were too busy being a jerk”, my assistant told me, stacking cases in the editing room.
He was right. I was too busy being a jerk to notice that I had just treated one of this world’s true geniuses, and a personal hero of mine throughout my school years, one of this planet’s giants, with a combination of condescension and dismissal. The man had asked an honest question, and I, in my delusional need for one-upsmanship, tried to play King of the Elevator with a perfect stranger, whose only sin had been an engaging grin, and his refusal to take the bait. I felt such a fool. Such a guy. Such an asshole. A victim of my gender’s need to feel superior, even in an elevator.
And superior to whom? An old dorky guy in a snowsuit, who had the audacity to cross the line. To ask an honest question. To risk a moment of familiarity with a perfect stranger, with no motive other than simple curiosity. I’d like to say that I learned a lesson that night. That I woke up the next morning a better person, ready to take on the world. Able to slay the dragon. But none of that is true. I’m sure I awoke the next morning as big a jerk as I was the night before. Feeling impossibly crippled my own insecurity, and in awe of an old man in a snow suit, whose simple honesty had been so elegant. The old man, you see, was Dave Brubeck, who knew from personal experience that Bar Mitzvah’s were never held on Tuesdays. Rest in peace, Big Guy.
© 2012 Shaun Costello
Just wondered if you ever tried to drop him a line to explain and apologize? He sounds like the kind of guy who would have just laughed it off. Had the honor of seeing him at UC Berkeley in the mid-sixties. Great night! Wow! Still can “hear the music” in my memory! They were all “one” musician, so tight and in sync. How lucky I was and hope his sons will carry on with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Thanks for the story.
December 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm
You’re Welcome, Jana. No, I never did write to him. I did find out the scoop from my friend who lived in that building. It seems that Brubeck, who lived only a few blocks away, had a friend with terminal cancer who lived there, and he visited quite often, so his presense was familiar to most of the tenants. It was just one of those moments when you catch yourself doing something that you regret. I never forgot the elegant way he handled the situation, and how badly I had behaved. When I found out about his death yesterday, it all came back, and I thought I would write the story to honor him.
December 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm
Nice piece Shaun. Passed it on to my future son-in-law, who is a jazz musician and just idolized the guy.
December 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm