I was the tall kid. Fourteen, just got my working papers stamped. Mom pointed to an ad in the Riverdale Press for openings on a reception movie crew. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Quinceanerars, confirmations, High School reunions, you name it. I crossed the border into Yonkers and rang the bell at the address I had been given. Jefferson Lincoln, presumably a professional name, opened the door and took a look at me.
“You’re my new light man, kid. Sign here.” Jeff explained that my job would be plugging and unplugging the hot lights, moving them from shot to shot, but most of all I would have to hold the lights way up high for some critical shots where having a ladder would have broken the flow of the party. I would get $15 dollars per job plus the rubber chicken meal and (unofficially) drinks from the open bar. Almost all the jobs were on weekends so it wouldn’t interfere with schoolwork. On my third job I managed to smack a lady with a light pole, but they still wanted me back. Height was money in that business.
Eventually I moved up to carrying the clapman—the traditional joke was that the Clapman broke his leg. The other official joke was why silent footage was marked on the clapboard as MIS—Some refugee director once yelled out ‘Mit Out Sound.’ Showing up on time and attrition due to crappy pay and more outfits providing the same service finally moved me up to camera work. The affair movies were pretty much boilerplate. Single-frame shots that would make the place settings appear like magic with the salt dancing around the pepper, the first dance shot (they still needed me to hold the light directly over the happy couples’ heads), the round-the-table shots But I got to be the chase guy. My new job was to wander around the venue and get shots that weren’t planned but which would make the movie. The teenage cousins and friends feeling each other up, Uncle Max yelling at Grandpa Jack for putting him at a table with Cousin Shirley. One time, when everyone was on the dance floor for the obligatory Hokey-Pokey, I captured a bridesmaid and an usher in flagrante under an empty table. I got a bonus for that one.
There was one time that topped them all, like an Everest looking down on Vermont’s Green Mountains. I had been to plenty of orthodox Jewish weddings, but this one was an ULTRA orthodox wedding. Technically, I was an orthodox Jew myself but I had scant intercourse with the Fur Hat & Stockings-instead-of-Pants guys. I was more of political Jew, a member of a Zionist Paramilitary protecting old Holocaust survivor Jews in the South Bronx when they walked to the Synagogue, scaring the crap out of Russian diplomats, advocating for an Israel consisting of both sides of the Jordan, the original Empire of David and Solomon. Silly me.
Every marriage is based on a contract. Every Jewish marriage has a formulaic contract, a Ketubah, literally a “writing,” specifying a dowry and a bride price along with a set of obligations of the groom to a bride in Israel, as it is said, even if the wedding is in Brooklyn. Specifically, he is going to feed her, clothe her, and do her according to the custom of Jewish men. The Black Fedora crew goes that one better. A big table is set up in a room in the event venue, the Chussen’s Tisch, the Groom’s Table, even though the person with the least control over the table was the groom. Piles of cash, deeds, stock certificates, certified checks, and promissory notes are yelled and screamed about, continually revised, and finally handed over from each to the others, ultimately winding up in a bag for the bride’s side, a bag for the groom’s side, and the big bag for the happy couple. The Tisch at this affair could have shaken market volatility on three continents, or at least that’s how it looked to me, but what did I know? I gathered that the wedding was between the descendants of the Grand Rebbe from one shtetl in Poland who had survived the camps, and the survivors of a Grand Rebbe from a shtetl in Lithuania. I could tell from their clothes that one side was Mystical Hassidim and the other side was literalist “Misnagged,” literally those who wanted no truck with mysticism. I geared up for the fireworks I might get a chance to film. Retreating to the ballroom, I planned my favorite montage: The guests writing out their gift checks at the table, traditionally done before the Grace After Meals. Jeff, for an event this important, took over principle photography personally. He caught my eye and gave me a series of hand signals—none of us had ever understood the code except for break and wrap. But this time it was clear that Jeff wanted chase coverage of a door on the upper level. Little did I know that I would experience something I had heard about but never seen. I took a hint from the fact that the couple was missing from the dais table and, when I looked, were nowhere in the ballroom.
It was easy to tell which door Jeff wanted me to cover; it was a suite with the door closed and two men, one from each side, witnesses, I knew them to be, outside the door. Somehow it was possible to fold all 6’4” of me behind a decorative column and still be able to shoot. I clearly heard a geshrie, a scream, and then something at the intersection of moan, groan, and a sigh. This was years before the Steadicam was in general use but I managed to get a clear shot of the opening of the door on my elbows and knees. There it was, the strangest thing I had ever witnessed at a wedding. At the time, the strangest thing was shooting a five-hour Ukrainian Orthodox wedding, now relegated to second place on the weirdness index.
The groom came out carrying a bloody sheet with a hole in the middle of it. The witnesses draped it over the balcony railing to the cheers and delight of the guests below. The guardians of chastity then tossed the “bedgevant” down to the revelers; the men took it and danced around the entire ballroom with it. Possibly 10 or 15 minutes would pass before the crowd broke up; I stationed myself in the parking lot to chase the honeymoon getaway. For the first time that night, I was flustered: I couldn’t find the consummated couple. I had done dozens of getaways, virtually always the same, sometimes a tossed bouquet, sometimes tin cans tied to a rear bumper, sometimes Just Married spray-painted on a car, always with the couple in jeans. That’s how I found them; a cherry-red ’73 Corvette Stingray was navigating the to the exit from the parking lot. The groom’s Pais, side-curls, were gone and the pair was dressed in Miami casual. The big bag was on the seat between them, the bag with the guest’s checks was on her lap. No matter what was agreed to at the Tisch, according to my footage, everything in the bag was now theirs. I had one more shot to chase. I started counting down from a hundred. When I got to 37, the “machetunim,” the in-laws, ran into the parking lot only to hear the Doppler shift of a 454 cubic inch engine. The fathers almost came to blows but the guardians of chastity kept them from physical damage. The last straw was Cousin Absalom, a Cohen, Talmudicaly required to know about any sort of bodily discharges. He mentioned one word: Ketchup. The fathers were too despondent to fight. Independently, they each decided on Jeremiah 16:9, “For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will cause to cease out of this place in your eyes, and in your days, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.”
My last shot was the two men, arm in arm, consoling each other.