A Half an Inch of Water

we want it scary, but not too scary...


The UPS man was on his first day of work, riding along with the man that was soon to be promoted into the regional office. He had worked for UPS over school breaks and holidays and was excited with the promotion to full-time regular status. He was making a tremendous hourly wage, receiving great benefits and getting a good daily workout by constantly running between truck and customers, hauling packages and hustling everywhere he went. He was taking copious notes, both on his clipboard and in his mind because he had found the greatest job in the world. He also wanted to make a good impression so he kept peppering the veteran with questions about his route.

“Are there any regular customers?” asked Jimmy.

The experienced driver smiled, as he remembered his first day, and said “A few.”

“Tell me about them.”

“Well,” said the veteran, “All the shops in town will get a few packages per week. You want to deliver downtown first, in fact, that is how we load the trucks.”

“I know,” said Jimmy, “I loaded enough trucks and used priority ranking labels to decide what stuff went where in the truck.”

UPS uses a sophisticated tracking system and priorities packages by zone, region, district and carrier route. The driver doesn’t have time to wander through the truck, looking for certain packages. He or she needs to follow their established route, and cross-reference their delivery manifest with the package lists. The truck is loaded efficiently so big items are near the door (not as far too carry) with fragile items sitting in hammocks at the top of the bin. Each stop shows how many packages are delivered and each multiple package delivery has labels that are very clear on what combination of packages are delivered. In big, bold lettering, it may read “1 of 5” so the driver can quickly scan the list, the truck and be confident that they have everything in one trip. UPS has tough, unforgiving schedules that are not too kind to drivers that have to circle back to deliver the rogue package.

The toughest challenge is one package to a customer that rarely, if ever, gets a delivery. The single packages have to handled several times and as a result, make up the highest concentration of mistakes. The driver has to plan the route and spend the minimum amount of time at a location. The new kid wanted to get a lay of the land so he could avoid making any mistakes so the veteran ran down the list of regular customers, in order of complexity and hoped the kid was paying attention.

After running through the downtown stores, the veteran told Jimmy that “there were a few residential customers that were always getting stuff” but for the most part, the territory was pretty traditional. He was proud to state that his customers gave him consistently high marks in company-sponsored satisfaction surveys which were one of the biggest factors in his promotion. Jimmy knew the area was a good territory and was determined to get the same bounce as his career developed and he was pleased that it appeared that the customer base was a solid group of people that were moderately appreciative of his work.

As the duo rode through the territory, Jimmy became more and more active with the deliveries and by the end of the second day, he did all the carrying and let the veteran do all the talking and make the introductions. He was so tired by the end of the first week, he stopped asking questions and just concentrated on the getting the packages to the right people. People seemed nice enough and the fast pace pleased him but the weekend could not have come any sooner. He lay in bed, with his legs vibrating most of Saturday, and didn’t feel ambulatory until late Sunday evening.

Monday morning came early enough and this time Jimmy was now driving and doing the whole process. UPS delivery is truly a one person process; the veteran was now one week away from ditching the brown uniform for a legitimate desk job and was likely enjoying the transition more than Jimmy was enjoying the job. The novelty was wearing off but to Jimmy’s credit, he returned to questioning the veteran on all the earlier areas of customer services.

“So, tell me about your favorite customers,” said Jimmy as they concluded their morning deliveries and were driving to lunch.”

“Well,” said the veteran, “I like the ladies at the gift shop a lot. They are always baking me fresh desserts and pies.”

“Anyone else?”

“The guys at the sporting goods store. They are always giving me tickets to things, selling me closeouts at super low prices. And there is Mr. Golden….Matt.”

“Who is Mr. Golden?

“You have met him once but he was on the phone. He always gets eight to ten packages a week, sometimes more. You can always deliver his stuff whenever you want. He always uses UPS and if you are late with the pickups or the deliveries, it doesn’t matter.”

“That is odd.”

“Not really, he is a good tipper too.”

“I thought we didn’t accept tips.”

“He is different. After lunch, let’s visit him. It looks like he has about five packages and I will formally introduce you to him.”

Jimmy thought the whole tipping story was bizarre. During training, the UPS group leads always stressed the inappropriateness of tipping. It got to the point in the training that the idea of getting a tip was comparable to handling a warm, overflowing jar of gleet. They had lunch and Jimmy felt it best not to inundate his mentor with additional questions about this supposed uber-customer. After lunch, they arrived at his house and Jimmy dutifully grabbed the neat stack of overnight boxes and followed his boss to the door of Matt Golden.

As they got to the door, an impressive stack of overnight boxes awaited them. Jimmy had not seen that many pickups at one place before and acted a bit overwhelmed as he re-balanced the new pile while trying to pull out his check-in/out wand.

“One thing at a time, Jimmy,” said his boss. “Put the new stack on the bench there and then wand the new ones in.”

Jimmy smiled and nodded. He placed the incoming stack on the porch bench and quickly reviewed the address to assure accuracy. If he wanded in the wrong package, the error would be caught and his efficiency rating would be affected. He checked off the packages but couldn’t help looking at the sender’s addresses.

“Amblin Entertainment, Miramax, Paramount , NBC and Gracie Films,” muttered Jimmy. “Who is this guy? A movie star?”

“Nope,” said his boss. “He calls himself a fixer and a tweaker.”

“What does that mean?”

The mentor rang the doorbell and said, “Ask him yourself. He will be right here.”

A moment later, an average looking guy, in his pajamas and needing a shave, wanders to the door and smiles, “Hey, man! I thought you were done with me.”

“Not yet, Matt. I got to break in the new guy.”

Matt’s attention moved from the familiar face to the new one and he smiled, “Hey, nice meeting you. I am Matt.”

Jimmy smiled and handed him his new stack of overnight packages and said, “I know, it is nice to meet you. My name is Jimmy.”

Matt smiled and put the stack of boxes down inside his house and said, “Nice to meet you, Jimmy.”

“So, what are you? A movie star or something?”

“No, I am just a lucky slob that fixes things.”

“Like a handyman?”

“Well, in a way but instead of fixing a toilet, I fix scripts. And when I think about it, I am more like a plumber than you think.”

The boss interrupted the conversation and said, “Hey, we got to scoot. We will likely see you tomorrow.”

Matt said, “Hey, if you guys are running behind, you can leave this packages and just grab them tomorrow.”

“Nope,” said Matt, “I already placed them into the system so they can get moving today.”

“Anything else you need?” asked the boss.

“Thanks for reminding me,” said Matt. “I need another box of labels, with my sending address and account number and another box of medium cartons.”

“We will bring them tomorrow,” said Jimmy. “It was nice meeting you.”

The duo carried the outbound packages to the truck and Jimmy said, as they jumped into the cab, “He is a nice guy; I still don’t know what he does for a living.”

The boss smiled and said, “If you ask him, he will tell you. It is a fascinating story.”

The rest of the week went smoothly and together they dropped off about ten more packages to Matt’s house. Matt wasn’t home on these occasions but posted hand-written messages each day to pick up the packages on the porch and to drop off the new ones by the door. He apologized each time he was not there and always added that they could skip him anytime they want if they were running behind. They never did but appreciated the option.

“He seems to be very busy,” said Jimmy as they walked back to the truck for the last time as a team. His boss had completed the two-week orientation and Jimmy was going to be on his own starting Monday morning.

“He’s a good guy,” said the boss. Of all my stops, I enjoy this place the best.”

They finished their route and shook hands. The next time they would see each other, the boss would be a real boss, complete with new responsibilities and a non-brown suit. No UPS executive that came through the ranks wears brown again. The uniform traumatizes them enough to keep them in blues and grays, with an occasional foray into a blue blazer and khaki pants but the dark brown color is dismissed forever.

Jimmy’s first solo flight went without incident and all his regular customers welcomed him and all the non-regulars were oblivious to the change. Some folks are so enamored with receiving a package that the ghost of Joe Stalin could deliver to them and they would be none the wiser. Jimmy noticed during loading that Matt had five more packages, this time all from ABC television. Each one was a uniform size and appeared to be the size of medium-sized city phonebook. He knew they were scripts, his old boss told that over celebratory beers on the last day of work together.

He was assuming Matt wasn’t home so he put the scripts down on the porch bench and was going to leave a sticky note on the door to notify Matt of their arrival, when the door opened and Matt walked out.

“Hey, Man,” said Matt. “It looks like you are flying solo.”

“I sure am. I have a bunch of scripts or whatever they are for you.”

Matt hefted the top package and said, “Yep, that’s a script. It has to be a pilot because it is heavier than most.”

“It must be fun writing for television and movies,” said Jimmy.

“It’s okay but it isn’t writing; it is more like typing. Wait, it is more like correcting.”

“Correcting?”

Matt pulled out a colored felt tip and waved it out in the open. “I don’t write as much as I fix things. I make things funnier or scarier or more dramatic. In other words, and I certainly have other words, I just try to make it better. I am a fixer.”

“How did you fall into that?”

“Dumb luck,” said Matt. “It’s a long story and you are probably on a tight go. Your UPS schedule doesn’t give you much down time.”

“You are the last stop,” said Jimmy, “because my boss told me to leave you to last. I got an hour before I drop off so if you can tell me the greatest hits in thirty minutes, I got the time.”

“Fair enough,” said Matt. “Take the outgoing scripts off the chair and let me demonstrate some underwhelming luck and odd timing.”

“It all starts with my old friend, Kia.”

For the next thirty minutes, Matt told the story of his exposure to show business and how it was a series of factors that converged into his current career. He had gone to a television studio to see his old friend, Kia, who was working as a production assistant on her first legitimate gig. The crew was watching a scene in which the heroine and her sidekick converged on the bad guys. They shot the scene several times and the director called to cut. It was time for lunch and the scene really wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes it is best to walk away from something and try again later instead of continual takes: especially when things aren’t working like they are supposed to work.

“So we had lunch.”

“Is it free?” asked Jimmy.

“The food on any movie or television set is always free. Just take something like you know what you are doing. The majority of the young staff would be guaranteed at least one legitimate meal a day so secondary and tertiary staff members would graze different sets for the best spread.”

Matt went on to tell the story that during lunch, while he was eating on a picnic bench on the far end of the area, the Director came up and sat down next to him. He nodded politely and kept eating because he didn’t know his place and wasn’t going to risk his free lunch or his friend’s job by overstepping his bounds.

“Did you talk to him?”

“Eventually but he was the one who initiated the conversation.”

“What did he ask you?”

“He asked me what I thought of the movie.”

“And you said?”

“I said it was all right and kept eating.”

Matt continued to tell the story of the Director, not satisfied with the non-enthusiastic answer, continued to push for specifics. Matt repeated his opinion but the Director wanted more. Eventually, Matt elaborated on his answer and said the movie was okay but it “could be funnier.” Matt was obviously embarrassed, telling Jimmy the story of a non-show business telling the director some brutal truths.

Jimmy felt compelled to ask a question but chose to soften it by placing it within a rhetorical wrapper.

“Who would dare question a director?” asked Jimmy.

“I have learned in my life that people who tell the truth do it for one of two reasons: One, because they don’t have anything to lose. And two, because they don’t know any better.”

“Which one were you?”

“Unfortunately, I think it was a bit of both. I had to have been the only guy on the set who didn’t know who was who. I was just a friend of a P.A. that got to see how a movie was shot while eating free food.”

“So, what happened?”

Matt took a deep breath and noticed the time. “You have to go, you said you had thirty minutes and you have gone over by ten.”

Jimmy jumped up and grabbed the outgoing script packages and begged for a rain check.

“You have to tell me the rest of the story.”

“No worries, man” said Matt. “We can pick it up next time you have some time. This will keep for another time.”

Jimmy shook his hand and scooted back to the truck. He had just enough time to bring the truck back if the traffic lights cooperated. He cleared his mind of all his questions and concentrated on getting back in time. His legacy was not established well enough to start deviating from the rules of promptness and timeliness.

The rest of the week flew by for Jimmy. Matt had his usual five to ten script boxes but he hadn’t been home to accept them personally and it was just as well because Jimmy’s schedule was so tight he couldn’t find any free time to hear the next chapter. It didn’t slow his imagination down because he found himself piecing together the first part of the story with what Matt is today. Obviously something went right for him to be in show business and it seemed like he was doing great.

The middle of next week, an opportunity presented itself and Matt found a nice gap in his schedule. Luckily, Matt had received some packages so he was hoping that he would find him home and in a mood to finish the story. He pulled up the driveway and was pleased to see Matt outside his house, in his bathrobe, hitting golf balls over his house. He was ready to waste a question and ask what he was doing but before Jimmy could open his mouth, Matt told him.

“In case you are wondering, I am hitting golf balls into my swimming pool.”

He nicely chipped a ball over the roof and a moment later, a pure satisfying “ploop” signified success. Matt put down the club and walked into his house and grabbed a stack of returns and handed them to Jimmy.

"Here is today’s batch.”

“Thanks. Can you tell me the rest of the story?”

Matt checked his watch and said, “I can tell you the next piece but I can’t promise to deliver all the details.”

“Whatever you got will be fine. Now, you were munching on a bagel and had just told the director that a scene wasn’t funny.”

“Close, I said the scene wasn’t ‘funny enough.’”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Not really. Let me explain a bit more.”

Matt sat down on the porch and pulled out his marker for a prop and continued telling the story. He emphasized that much to his surprise, the director was appreciative of his opinions and Matt assumed it was because the Director was feeling the same way and his own unbiased opinion had just validated internal opinions. As the conversation went on, the Director asked him, half-jokingly, if he could do any better.

“I don’t know if I could do any better, but there are some easy things can improve what you got,” said Matt.

“Like what?”

Matt thought for a moment, and said, “The scene takes place in the kitchen and all you have to rely on is the dialogue, correct?”

“Correct.”

“Relying on just dialogue is tough because there usually aren’t a series of magic words that pull the scene together. So, my first recommendation is not to make the words any funnier but to help the words you got with something funny going on at the same time.”

“Like what?” again asked the director.

“Well, for example, have something boiling on the stove or cooking in the oven while the dialogue is going on. If the audience knows that there is some food that is almost ready to burst, burn or boil over, it would add some nervous tension to the scene and allow the words to pace the laughs.

“Good idea,” said the director. “And nice touch on the alliteration.”

Matt leaned backward in his chair and looked at Jimmy. “So, I went back to eating my bagel and thought nothing of it. I sat down in a chair in the back and waiting for Kia to finish shooting for the day.”

Jimmy said, “Did Kia know about your Director discussion?”

“Not right away,” said Matt. “I was going to tell her later about it after she asked me about my impressions on being on a real movie set. It’s tough because she has the theatrical tendency to communicate in a slightly condescending manner; the one all creative people use when they think they already know the answer to their question.”

“So, when did Kia find out?”

“When we were walking off the set, the director came running up to us, with a copy of tomorrow’s script with a stage pass sticking out of it, and asked for some help.”

“And what happened?”

“Well, Kia blushed and started to stammer. She had never talked to the director before, as her place in the caste system was two large steps below the gaffer, and she was kind of mumbling while she tried to act cool.”

“And?”

“The director looked at her and said, ‘I am not talking to you. I am talking to him’ and pointed to me.”

“Ouch”

Matt smiled and nodded. He went on the recreate the dialogue between the director, himself and Kia. It was obvious that Kia was embarrassed and the director was again oblivious to anything that wasn’t going to help his film. Matt tried to downplay the dynamics between the three but it was evident that Kia was not happy when they finally walked off the lot. Feigning a headache or some ache, Kia skipped dinner and left abruptly. Her career was just beginning and after several months of back-braking and demeaning work as a PA, her friend walked into a great job with a legitimate shot at a screenwriter’s credit.

Jimmy said, “How bad was that day?”

“It was tough so I decided to review the script that night and was fascinated about how a screenplay was constructed. I had never read one before and I learned it is a little story with more words dedicated to the scene that the actual dialogue. So, I looked at the next day’s scenes and took out a brown marker and marked suggestions throughout pages. It went pretty fast so I also decided to do the rest of the script and finally, I went back to scenes all ready shot and commented on things they could easily add or delete.”

“Why a brown marker?”

“It was the only one I could find to use and since no one uses brown and it stands out. So, I kept using the color and still no one uses it besides me.”

“So, are you improving the writing, you know, making it better?”

Matt made a sour face and said, “Good writing isn’t using magic words as much as it is bringing the reader to new places and people want to something to bring them there.”

“What do you mean?”

”It is just my opinion,” said Matt. “I think people want some excitement but you can’t go too far. People like to laugh but not pee their pants and people like to be scared but not traumatized. I also think people want the ride to be enjoyable and just skirt the edges of emotion. Instead of drowning them, you just dip them into a half an inch of water and make them feel like they make drown. Or instead of lecturing to them, you place the issues into easy-to-digest chunks for them to debate internally but you don’t tear their heart out or cause too much discomfort.”

“I like being scared,” countered Jimmy. “I love roller coasters and scary movies.”

“I also like roller coasters but you have to remember that roller coaster designers can make the ride ten times scarier and faster but no one, except for the insane and the ignorant, would ever ride the ride more than once. The trick is to bring them to their own personal edge and back into their safety zones so enlightenment can begin to grow. If an audience gets hit between their collective eyes with too much unfiltered pain or emotion, it just becomes hurtful. It implies the writer just wants to injure the audience’s mental state and have them feel an undiluted pain with no safety net of time and wisdom.”

Unsure about those insights, Jimmy didn’t want to become distracted from the story. He paused and said, “So, back to the story, how did the director react?”

“Well, he was waiting for me when I came to the set and when I opened the pages and allowed him to see my notes, he began to salivate. I said, ‘I would give back the script under one condition; he makes Kia an Assistant Director.’ He said he ‘couldn’t make any promises’ so I tore out that day’s shots and handed those pages over to him but I made sure he saw there was more ideas in upcoming days.”

“And?”

“And I walked off the stage, handed my all-access pass to a cute girl holding onto a packet full of publicity stills outside the main gate and went home.”

Jimmy looked at his watch and was crushed that the time was up. He didn’t want to abuse Matt’s good nature so he reminded him that he was taking up too much of his time. Matt agreed and they decided to pick up the story next time they met. Jimmy picked up the boxes and assured Matt he would be back.

“No problem, man,” smiled Matt as he turned and started hitting golf balls over his roof. He turned and started walking towards his truck. He heard Matt make contact with a ball and a few moments later he heard a distinctive “ploop.”

“Congratulations” he yelled over his shoulder and from the distance he heard a pleasant “thank you.”

Jimmy was full of questions as he drove away. He was curious about Kia, the Director and the events that caused Matt to consistently receive scripts by the armfuls. He never saw Matt work but he would ask that question when he knew him better.

Jimmy pulled his truck into his stall and was surprised to see his old boss walking by the docks. He honked his horn and waved at the newest Regional Manager in the company. They converged, shook hands and Jimmy spent a few minutes enthusiastically telling him that the job was great, production metrics and overall efficiency was high and that he truly loved his job.

The boss smiled and asked how his old customers were being treated. Jimmy smiled and said, “They are almost over you.”

The boss then asked, “How is Matt? I miss our chats.”

“He is great and he is telling me a fascinating story.”

“About how he started?”

“That’s right! How did you know that?”

“Because, it was the first story I asked him when we met. So, where are you in the story?”

“His request for Kia …”

“…to become an Assistant Director?” interrupted his boss.

“Exactly.”

“So, you don’t know what happens?”

“No”

“You will love the rest of story.”

"Well," paused Jimmy. "The tips have been great."

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