“Frank?” I stopped and turned, a few feet behind us stood a middle-aged African American man in a tank top, shorts and aviator sunglasses. He was tall and handsome with salt and pepper short, cropped hair. He was walking a fiercely tired looking bear of a dog whose tongue hung nearly to the ground.
“Hey…” I said, no idea who this person was. He took a few steps closer and stopped. The enormous dog took that opportunity to collapse onto the warm pavement inches from my wife’s feet.
“It’s Jean-Pierre,” he said and removed his aviator shades. “From The Helmsley. J.P.”
Suddenly, it all came back to me. Jean-Pierre Franklin from Slidell, Louisiana. We had met as room service waiters at The Helmsley Palace Hotel in the ’80s. We were both hired to replace picketing hotel union workers during the strike of 1985. We worked the overnight shift, making fifteen bucks and hour plus tips, to cross the angry picket line. I had absolutely no experience in the area of room service waiting, but they were desperate. Jean-Pierre had a few years at The Sheraton and some other places.
I would marvel at the way he could load up a tray with a dozen plates, glasses, tea pots and defy gravity and belief, hoisting it up on to his shoulder, whisking it toward the elevator, usually talking right until the instant the doors closed. He had fantastic stories. Stories about the South, his hometown near New Orleans, about his father who was in prison for armed robbery, and his mother who was a former Miss Louisiana and a card shark. It all fascinated me. He fascinated me. We became good friends, sharing tales from our adventures up from the bowels of The Helmsley Palace kitchen to the lavish suites above. The Euro-tourists, drunk couples, rock stars and celebrities. It was a fancy place and I was a kid from Syracuse who had never even stayed in hotel before.
Jean-Pierre and I were both struggling actors. I was living in the ’80s version of the East Village, taking my life into my own hands every early morning as I returned to the $215 a month illegal sublet I shared with a young Dominican couple. I slept between the kitchen and the entrance way on a cot, and they slept in the bedroom. They left for work before I got home so I usually had the place to myself. On weekends, I stayed away as much as possible, but they were nice. Celia, the wife, would cook amazing Dominican food, the aroma of which never left the air of the apartment. Sometimes I would come home to find Saran-wrapped bowls of asopao, a rice soup made with chicken or pork, or chapea, a hearty red bean stew, or some other delicious treat she would have left for me. Later, we would all be discovered to be subletting illegally and given 24 hours to vacate. Jean-Pierre lived in Forest Hills with a bunch of roommates he vaguely referred to as “the Germans.”
We would walk out of the hotel after our shifts, yanking off our black ties and nametags and he’d say, “Wanna get some eggs? I don’t wanna go back to Queens till the Germans are gone to work.” We’d sit at the Madison Diner and order Western omelets and toast with jam. We’d talk about theater and movies and acting. J.P. could recite from memory entire scenes from “The Deer Hunter” and “Platoon” or any number of his favorite movies. Eventually we’d finish our coffee and watch, through exhausted eyes, the bustle of midtown Manhattan, men and women in expensive suits rushing to offices and meetings, in and out of yellow cabs. We’d sit till the harried Greek waiter came by and busily cleared our empty plates and coffee cups in one swift motion, slamming the check to the table. Jean Pierre always insisted on paying, he never even let me leave the tip. “You get the next,” he would say, chewing on a toothpick. I never got that chance.
One night I took an order of pasta primavera and two glasses of tomato juice with lime up to the suite of boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Boom Boom was screaming at someone on the phone as I set the table. Just then his female companion came out of the bathroom fully exposed, only a silky robe dangling around her sides. I got nervous, or distracted, or both and spilled a full glass of tomato juice all over the carpet and onto Ray’s white suede Stacy Adams shoes.
Ray got really pissed. I got on my hands and knees and scrubbed at his enormous and expensive shoes, sopping wet with pulpy tomato juice. When I got back to the kitchen, I was asked to take my talents elsewhere. No big loss. I was a horrible room service waiter. I was a horrible waiter in general, and would spend the next few years being hired and fired from a succession of jobs.
I said goodbye to Jean-Pierre and never saw him again ’til that summer evening 22 years later.
“You still with the Germans out in Queens?” I asked him. He laughed so hard he startled the dog.
“Nah, man” He laughed some more. “The Germans, damn…long time ago.” He slowly shook his head, “Nah, I’m over here on 16th and 8th the past 15th years or so.”
“No way,” I replied. “We’ve been on 23rd and 8th for over 18 years.”
“Wow,” he mused. “We musta passed each other by a thousand times.” After briefly reminiscing, we exchanged email addresses and went our separate ways.
As we walked home I thought about Jean-Pierre and the impact our brief friendship had on me. Not in any monumental way, but significant nonetheless. We were both broke and our prospects for success at the time were bleak. He was always covering for me, enabling me to hold on to that cushy job a lot longer than I should have. But most importantly, we offered each other much needed encouragement, a valuable commodity for out of work actors. We’d religiously scour Backstage every week for auditions for student films, or Off-Off-Off Broadway plays, or regional commercials. If one of us got something, we’d sneak off into the back room and help the other prepare for it. Once I gave him a few pages of a script that I had been working on to read. He was effusive.
“Damn, that’s good, man. You got a gift, Frankie boy. A gift.” It was the first time I thought of myself as a writer. He organized the bus boys and dishwasher in the break room to read it out loud. It would later become the basis for my first film. Without this small gesture of support I may very well have put it aside. He had my back, and I had his. We were in the same boat.
As we relieved the babysitter and kissed the kids goodnight, it occurred to me that my time spent with J. P. might make an interesting concept for a movie. A New York story about two people who randomly meet and spend only a short time together, but that time has a deep impact on their lives going forward. A simple concept.
I immediately began writing a story about a wealthy, 12-year-old cello prodigy and a 23-year-old girl from upstate New York who has just broken up with her slacker boyfriend and been fired from her job as a waitress. Through a random set of circumstances she is hired to take over as his nanny, and they end up spending the summer together in his cavernous uptown mansion. They talk, and sit in the park, and while away the hours, somehow managing to help ease the loneliness and the seeming hopelessness of their own existence. An unlikely but all-important, and ever so brief time in both of their lives. A small glimpse of how we live, especially in New York City, where people tend to frequently pass in and out of each other’s lives.
I finished the screenplay in about two months and embarked on securing the financing, which I didn’t think would be too difficult. I was wrong about that. I received four solid years of rejection slips. “There’s no dramatic conflict,” they said. “Nothing happens.” “How about if the kid wins a spelling bee?” Or, “She teaches him karate and he beats up a bully.” Or, “Maybe she’s a vampire, and then he becomes a vampire,” (actual note). At a certain point I became so desperate to make this film that I started letting these ridiculous notions infect my brain.
In a misguided attempt to make it more accessible or whatever, I changed the ending. I rewrote it so the slacker boyfriend character comes back and shoots everybody before killing himself. The 12-year-old boy is left bleeding on the street. Like I said, I was desperate. I gave it to my wife to read. When she finished, she walked wordlessly out to the hallway and threw it down the garbage shoot. As I listened to the pages of my script flapping toward the basement incinerator she turned to me. “That’s garbage,” she said.” I will not let you do that.” That was that.
I went back to the original ending and kept at the task of convincing perspective financiers. A couple years later, I got lucky and Leighton Meester agreed to play the lead role, not only an incredibly talented actress, but someone who understood the character and the writing beyond my wildest expectations.
Production on the film was an excruciatingly difficult 20-day battle. The post-production was even worse, having to fight and scrap every step of the way to maintain the simplicity of the story. The notes and comments I received after the film was finished were even more preposterous and ridiculous than those I received on the script.
But, in the end, I made my movie. I made exactly the movie that I wanted to make. I told the story that I wanted to tell. Word for word, seven years in the making. My story. No vampires, no explosions, no gunplay, but an enormous amount of dramatic conflict nonetheless. A simple, true and beautiful story about two people and loneliness and friendship and heartbreak. I made the kind of movie I would like to go see. That’s the best you can do.
I’m glad the hand of fate brought J.P. and I together. Once again.
“Like Sunday Like Rain,”, starring Leighton Meester and Debra Messing, hit select theaters on March 6 and will be available on Internet Digital VOD and DVD on April 21.
Frank Whaley has written and directed four feature films. His first, “Joe the King,” received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at The Sundance Film Festival. Whaley has appeared in numerous films including “Pulp Fiction,” “Swimming with Sharks” and the upcoming “Rob the Mob” as well as Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”