Thursday, April 1, 2010

John Porell's Arm

Last Sunday I took a call dispatched from the cab's computer: "25 Northern Ave." It wasn't an address in the traditional sense of being a building with a number, but in the world of cab these things occur and you head to the general area where the address 'would' be, while keeping your eyes peeled. On my way up Sleeper St. toward the 'old' Northern Ave., a young man whose body was strapped with a multitude of electronic gadgets peered into my window: "25 Northern Ave.?"

I nodded and replied, "Hop in."

For the better part of the night the steel girders of the 'old' Northern Avenue Bridge had been illumined in Klieg lights and abutted by trucks filled with electronics with cables running up the wooden planks of the pedestrian way for what appeared to be a night of movie making.

The fellow with the electronics came around and entered the passenger front seat, explaining the cab wasn't for him, but one of the actors. He then began talking into what seemed to be thin air, announcing our route and telling security to clear a path for a cab at trailer number five.

The scene I drove into- a lot filled with trailers, dozens of cars and trucks, and people with equipment running in every direction, was radically different from the scene I'd return to a few fares and hour and a half later when trying to return a lost communications battery pack.

I try to return lost items directly to their owners- people often throw me a few dollars for my trouble, and there's the peace of mind in knowing object and owner are reunited. Frequently, I don't find lost articles until 4:30 AM, when I'm wrapping up for the night. Then it's a trip to Boston Police Headquarters Hackney Division where a bleary-eyed sergeant fills out a form identifying the property, cab number, and time, and places the item into a large card board box along with hundreds of other articles comprising that day's 'lost and found'. I usually leave with a receipt for the property and sense of doubt that owner and item will ever reconnect.

The last of six trailers was pulling out of the lot when I returned, and a mere five members from the crew remained, sharing last minute stories on the day's events alongside their own running vehicles. I held up the Motorola battery device, whereupon one fellow's face lit in instant recognition as he leapt toward me to retrieve it. They ended up pulling out of the lot directly behind me, and I was struck by how differently the vacant area appeared now, as opposed to ninety minutes ago when I'd pulled into the organised mayhem with the security to pick up the actor.

At that time, the fellow strapped with his electronics jumped from my cab still seeming to speak into thin air: "Actor John!"

A tall fellow standing off to my left raised his hand and hollered back, "John here!" We exchanged nods and he entered the cab, giving me his address in Jamaica Plain.

He made a quick point of identifying himself as 'an actor with a day job', explaining he was no longer a kid and had responsibilities, but tried when possible to land those jobs that filmed locally. He went on to tell me he'd spent the better part of that day's shoot lying in an awkward position in a squad car for a television pilot called "Boston's Finest", which they hoped would be picked up by ABC as a regular police drama series. "If it becomes a regular series filmed in Boston, and I can balance it with my job," he shrugged, "who knows".

As we rounded Atlantic Ave. before entering 93, he identified another fellow exiting a car at that moment at the Intercontinental Hotel as one of the pilot's stars. He mentioned his name, as well as others from the day's cast, and other series they had starred in, forcing me to confess to having killed my television years ago, leaving most shows and celebrities unknown to me. He laughed with the reply, "Hey- I do a lot of local theatre and an occasional movie too. Did you see "Shutter Island"?"

"You were in that?"

"Yeah," he said, "In part."

He told me he'd been with director Martin Scorsese for about fourty five minutes the day of his shoot. In his part, he was behind bars uttering a string of stuttering threats as Leonardo DiCaprio approached down a hall, then jutted his arm out toward DiCaprio's throat as he passed.

"Scorsese told me I nailed it," he said.

"That's great!"

"Well, yeah," he replied wistfully. "It might have meant a little bit more if he hadn't cut my lines. I'm billed as the 'Wild-Eyed Man', but all you see in the film is my arm. All of my friends have told me they saw my name on the credits but missed me in the movie. I have to send them to the clip from the film's trailer, give them the exact second to hit the pause button, and explain,'You see the arm? That's it.'"

We laughed, then shared memories of scenes from various films until arriving at his home. Once there, I asked if he'd mind telling me his full name.

"John Porell," he answered.

I warned him, if he caught his big break and became a regular on a series, my future passengers would have to listen to me blather on about how, "I knew him back when..."

He returned the kind of smile you make when you bite the inside of your lip, hearing words you want so much to be true, you'd never dare say them yourself. Whether this becomes his break is anyone's guess. But one thing his smile told me, his hopes and dreams weren't in the rummage of any 'lost and found'- they were right with him as he bounded the steps to his home.

(Some of the bits of John Porell that Scorsese doesn't want you to see.)


  1. In New York, the actor who is trying to hit the big time is a frequent passenger. They tend to be great fares, usually full life. If John Porell becomes well known, I'll know I heard of him here first. Btw, I lived in Jamaica Plain for awhile in 1969, right across the street from the arboretum.

  2. Just saw Shutter Island and John Porell's arm last night. Used to work with John in Boston. He's a nice guy and a fine actor. Thanks for your story - really captured a slice of life and made me a little homesick for Boston.

  3. I'm proud of you for having done away with your television years ago. No need to waste time with those now that you can choose exactly what you want to watch online. That's just me.

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