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The Gift Bag
By Michelle Pilar Hamill

I have glimpsed the dark side of humanity. I did not attend a cock fight or rent the DVD of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. No. I worked the gift bag table at the Independent Spirit Awards.

As a not yet successful screenwriter living in Los Angeles I worked part-time as a banquet server at Shutters on the Beach. A four-star hotel with an oceanic theme. Passing hors d'oeuvres of chicken sate with peanut sauce to guests who didn't make eye contact. Grabbed a deep fried polenta square mid-sentence. And returned focus to their posse.

By the end of last February there had been a two month dry spell since the busy holiday season of December soirees. So when I got the call to work the after-party at the Independent Spirit Awards I was flat broke and knew I had to take it.

The Independent Spirits are given for excellence in Independent film the night before the Oscars and had become so prestigious that none other than Mr. Tom Cruise was hosting. It's the award show Hollywood's "it" crowd deems their favorite. They're laid back. Casual. And everyone has a really great time.

I'd like to tell you I was mature enough, humble enough to know that work was work. That waiting tables was nothing to be ashamed of. That even though this was a town that thrived on feeling-better-thans, that ate dont-you-wish-you-were-me's for dinner, my iron clad self-esteem could take it.

But the truth was I feared running into anyone I knew. Especially at this gig. Thus shattering the illusion I had worked so hard to cultivate of a writer whose ship was on the verge of coming in.

I worried I'd find myself serving soup to the producer considering my script. Or crumbing the table of a long ago friend who made it long before I did or perhaps ever would. That I'd feel like a loser. Never get there. Doomed to clear tables till the end of time.


I blew out my bangs straight down over my face. Considered buying some fake glasses at the Sav-On.

Still, it didn't help to know that should someone ID me I'd be wearing the hotel's maritime uniform in a style not seen since The Love Boat. A polyester cut so unflattering, Heidi Klum would be hard pressed to pull it off.

My brother said to make light of it. To spin the humiliation in my favor. That I was so brilliant I could use the nautical ensemble to my humorous advantage.

My mother, another optimist, was excited for me. As if I were attending this thing as Sofia Coppola's personal guest. Would sit at the Lost in Translation table and clap wildly as we swept all the major awards.

Just once I wished my family would join me in my self-pitying loop, throw their hands up skyward and exclaim, "It's not fair! You are a gifted writer and this madness must stop!"

My mother suggested I bow down 3x7 and give my fears away. And like a good little pessimist, dying to be an optimist, I did. I asked God to please not let me run into anyone I knew. Or better yet to help me be grateful and accept where I was in my life. Which was, according to my mother, exactly where I should be.

I started to believe when the first blessing arrived. Turned out we would not be wearing our uniforms but fitted navy blue long sleeve tees, with the Independent Film Project logo and matching caps, good for hiding under. Best of all were the laminated staff passes that swung from our necks on a long satin cord.

Joy upon joy! Who wouldn't feel the importance that comes with a laminated credential? I thought now I might even be able to pass myself off as an IFP volunteer working for a better society through independent film.

Things were looking up. Even more so when I was assigned to the gift bag table.

Perhaps you've heard about the phenomenon of the award show gift bag and the envy that surrounds it. Not unlike the birthday goody-bags of childhood but on a much grander scale. And year after year they grow grander. Last years Oscar gift bag took up an entire hotel room and contained everything but a pony and keys to a small country, both rumored to be in the works for this year.

But as it turned out the after party gift bag I was giving out was actually just an empty bag. A toiletry bag to be exact. The men's was cut from a nice quality leather. The girls from a kicky pink & black polka dotted cloth. But both were stuffed with nothing but white tissue. They were created by the name brand designer Kate Spade who, just like Isaac Mizrahi, was debuting her Target affordable line.

In fact Target sponsored the entire after party. So much so we were informed that the cranberry and vodka concoction, usually called a Cosmopolitan, would for one night only be renamed the Targetini.

More good news when I was paired up with Melissa. Having recently ended a successful run on Broadway in the half-hearing, half-deaf revival of Big River, I didn't have to explain to her the dilemma of waiting on the ones we had wished to work with.


We were given our work orders. Instructions on how the gift bag table would go down that night. One ticket per person. Tear the ticket and throw it away. The boys must only get a boy bag. The girls only a girl bag. Most importantly: No ticket. No bag. No exceptions.

We would be closely monitored they told us. Screw up and it was back to balancing a tray of long stemmed glasses across a crowded dance floor where white men struggled to find the beat to "It's Getting Hot In Here."

The normal hotel protocol was to make the guest happy at all cost. Whatever they wanted, give it to them. So Melissa and I were secretly thrilled to be given a bit of power over the ones we longed to be.

We stocked our table with the his and her toiletry bags. Came up with a plan for smooth operation. Moved through our routine with confidence. Everything under control.

Much like Lucy and Ethel's brief but shining first moments at the candy factory. Wrapping chocolates. Cocky. On top of their game.

Our first transactions flowed smoothly. Ticket. Bag. Ticket. Bag. Freed from a night of clearing dirty dishes I was liking this table.

But anarchy soon arrived in the form of a skinny ingénue insisting on a boy's bag. I told her the rules. That my hands were tied. But she kept on insisting. Till she finally realized we weren't close to backing down. Flipped her hair and huffed away.

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