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Ibuprofen, snacks, nasty encounters

Picketing writers may need their creature comforts, but that doesn't mean their resolve is weak.

January 20, 2008|Jodie Burke | Special to The Times

You know things have changed in Venice when a guy in a Porsche blows past your picket line and gives you the finger.

A woman in a Mercedes followed him a few minutes later by rolling down her window and screaming, "My husband is out of work because of you . . . !"

It was raining. The traffic at a crawl on Abbot Kinney. We didn't have umbrellas. We were marching in front of the new Smart Car dealership in a slow, monotonous circle, trying to get passing cars to honk. My first location picket.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon were reportedly inside shooting a scene with Sissy Spacek for next year's holiday release "Four Christmases."

I didn't think it would be so hard to stir up a little support for our cause in Venice, my adopted bohemian hometown. I thought of Jim Morrison and the Doors. Strange days have found us. If this sidewalk could talk, it would howl. What would Allen Ginsberg and all the beat poets and hipsters who hung out here in the '60s think?

"You should be glad you're not picketing Bendix in South Bend in the 1930s," my father, a staunch conservative, told me over Christmas dinner. "When I was a boy, they shot and stabbed the scabs when they'd cross the picket lines."

Times change. Don't get me wrong. We believe in our cause. We are just as dedicated and committed to a fair deal as the Bendix workers were, but we form our picket lines armed with Clif Bars, sunscreen and bottles of Advil Liqui-Gels. (The ibuprofen helps dull the lower back pain after walking a three-hour shift.)

Guns and knives? No. The worst violence I'd witnessed was the day Jason Segel crossed our picket line at Sony's Madison Gate and we flung barbed modifiers at him. He shouldered our barrage in his oversized trench coat, letting our heckling slide off his tall frame. He seemed mellow and unconcerned as he strolled by us with that laid-back slacker slouch he perfected as Nick Andopolis on "Freaks and Geeks." When he emerged an hour later, however, he bent down, picked up a sign and picketed with us for hours. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America too. "Sorry we hassled you," I told him. "I didn't want to go in," he admitted. "But they sent a letter threatening to sue me if I didn't."

The one person I didn't expect to take up our cause was my father. A retired bank president, Dad embodied The Man for thousands of people over the course of his career. When I'd visit him at the bank after school, he'd let me spread out my homework on his boardroom table, then send me down to the employee break room for pop.

The break room was in the basement, next to the giant old vault and it was as creepy and damp as Harry Potter's Gringotts. Dad would never go with me because he said his employees needed a place where they could complain about him freely, without threat of being fired.

Even as a kid, it was hard to believe my father allocated an approved whining zone. Suffice it to say, normally we oppose each other on every social and political issue. Except, to my surprise, this one.

The day I became a member of the WGA, my father read through the annual report, leaned back in the recliner he's retired to, and commented, "Somebody cut you guys a crappy deal."

Signs of support

The rain isn't abating, but things are looking up, because traffic is getting worse (more honking!) and the drivers stalled in front of us seem more supportive.

A cop car pulls up and parks a few yards away. For the first time in my picketing career, I get nervous.

"I can't afford to go to jail," I say to my friend and fellow writer Adam Kulakow. The police officers sit, safe and dry, just watching us. Adam doesn't say anything, but I know what he's thinking. As Venice residents and professional screenwriters, our experience with police is when we call them. We're not the troublemakers around here. We write features, which means we sit quietly by ourselves, bent over keyboards, alternatively cracking ourselves up or pulling out our hair, alone in our little rooms.

"The guys from Stroh's Deli said they'd give us a free lunch when we're done," Adam informs me. "Whatever we want, it's on the house."

That's good, because hunger is making me feel dizzy. We are singing "Jingle Bells" and I am finally realizing what it means to exercise one of my rights as an American. It may not be the 1930s anymore, and I may not be a factory girl. We are too uncoordinated to juggle umbrellas with the strike signs. But we hold something beautiful, something pure and crucial. For me, it has finally come to life from the page and we have given it a voice, albeit a hoarse one. The 1st Amendment.

'Crash' course

Writer-director Paul Haggis shows up with an umbrella. He is a reliably faithful picketer. His tireless presence always seems to buoy the other writers' spirits. He greets me with a "How are you?" When I mumble, "Dizzy," Paul claps his hands, waves his umbrella aloft and says, "All right! Figure eight!"

Within five seconds, Haggis has nimbly organized us into a remarkably fluid, serpentine shape. Our line elongates once again as he shouts, "It takes a director!" We do an about-face and begin to weave in and out of each other. Simply walking in the reverse direction provides unexpected relief.

Sometimes my dad calls me when I'm picketing. He probably never imagined he'd have a daughter on the line, but he tells me to keep it up, that this is "a life experience." He is a chief executive who is proud that we are standing up to demand our worth and combat corporate greed. I tell him, "I'm at Sony today. My gate captain's name is Luvh." I spell it for him.

I can hear my father grin as he says, nodding off in his chair, "You've got love on your side."

Burke was in talks to write a feature film for Sarah Jessica Parker to star in and produce when the strike hit. She is working toward her first produced screen credit, but for the moment, her pencil is down.

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