Stella, or The Alternator

When coincidences start happening all around you, you’re doing something right. At least that’s the aphorism as I understand it – Carl Jung by way of the astrology freak I had a crush on in my 20s. And I have noticed, when you get deep into something, inexplicable signs give you pats on the shoulder.

Friday was six days before shooting begins on my short film: working title is still “Cell Phone Range.” It’s about a young, ambitious, not particularly soulful guy who drives from the city to a remote, upstate summer house in autumn to interview an actress who just walked off her Broadway show. He gets lost on his way there, and Stella, an octogenarian, asks him if he needs directions. He says, “No.” Then, “Actually, yes.”

Like many men, he hesitates for some reason to admit that he’s lost, or needs help. Or even that there are questions he doesn’t have the answers for.

Six days before shooting, my partners Teddy Scheck and Matt Wiesner had spent the last few days turning big question marks into check marks. Permits? Done. Hair and makeup person? Done. Lodging for the cast? Done.

One little detail we still haven’t pinned down is casting Stella, though we’re looking into options for casting her locally. That way we won’t have to house her, nor have her endure a long ride – something I wouldn’t like to ask a woman Stella’s age to do. It’s the perfect kind of job for me. At a family reunion, I prefer the company of the elders; four-year-olds, I find, are all more or less the same. I’m useless haggling with the checkout guy at the light rental place, but turn me loose in a room full of seniors, and I’ll know everyone’s name in an hour.

So off I went on Friday morning to cast Stella, and do other miscellaneous stuff around our location in Phoenicia, NY. The first sign of trouble was going through the Battery Tunnel. I was using our old car – the ’95 Corolla that sits collecting Rose-of-Sharon droplets except for some neighborhood errands, and the occasional outing away from the city. It doesn’t have EZ-Pass, so I had to go through the toll booth at the battery tunnel: The automatic window didn’t roll down, so I had to open the door.

On my way to find Stella my car died...

On my way to find Stella my car died…

It seemed odd, but a car that old is full of surprises, and I had a noon appointment upstate, so I pressed on. Sitting in worse-than-usual traffic on the West Side Highway, my windshield started bothering me; rose-of-Sharon blossoms look just like bird shit when caked upon a car. I sprayed the washing fluid, and the wipers work at one speed, extra slow. It was an electrical system problem – the only one I’d ever had with this car was the alternator, which recharges the battery while the engine’s running.

I pulled off the highway at 50th Street and drove east till I found a place to legally pull over. By that time the radio had died. Then the car would not restart. I started cancelling my afternoon appointments. The tow truck driver wanted to know my exact location: Was I closer to 10th Avenue or 9th Avenue. “I don’t know,” I said, “near the middle,” and looked at the closest building for an address.

It was a gorgeous old Art Deco building that I’d never heard of but since learned it was originally a telephone company building. Its name, no surprise, is Stella Tower.

There are setbacks in any venture, but most of us have an alternator that automatically recharges that battery that keeps us going. And when that alternator struggles, you do what it takes to get a new one. 3 more days!

...right in front of Stella Tower.

…right in front of Stella Tower.

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