FRESH YARN presents:

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.

A man in pitch black glasses asked what was inside. Nothing, I said, delivering the bad news. It's a Kate Spade toiletry bag. Emphasis on Kate Spade. As if the designer name might have soothed him.

Some proceeded to open their bag right at the table. Delayed gratification not in their lexicon. Let alone the idea that the bag might be empty. Then the shock on discovery, the fallen face and sudden shift of focus to the opposite sex's, grass is always greener, bag. With eyes as wide as children they asked me "What do they get? What's inside theirs?"


It was about an hour of just these kinds of conversations when suddenly our station was hit with a brand new problem. Party people were approaching our table with no ticket at all.

We informed our empty-handed guests that they should have received their ticket as they entered the hotel.

"But no one gave us a ticket!" one man yelled.

"I have to go all the way back to there!" another shouted. As if doing so would have involved a journey of transatlantic proportions.

Add to that a twenty-deep swarm of Veruca Salts that surrounded our table and demanded their Oompa Loompas now!

That's when Target central offered up an explanation by whispering to us the top-secret news. There were one-thousand party goers, but only 500 hundred bags. 500 tickets were given out at the door, first come first serve. Mr. 501 and upward was going home empty handed.

And they might never have known what they were missing but then there we were. On display. Giving to those with a ticket. Withholding from those without. I imagined this goody bag shortage would be a disaster at a child's birthday party. But to our surprise these deprived adults behaved much worse.

We did our best to calm the disgruntled crowd. To swat back the siege like you would in a game of Asteroids. But it was no use...

Lucy and Ethel's boss had returned, yelled "Speed it up!" and that rapid river of bonbons was flying right past us.

It was a long and bloody battle. Though we did hear the darndest things.

"But he was in Elephant!" one publicist exclaimed.

And sure enough this sixteen year old Gus Van Sant discovery stood before me. With indie tossed hair, dressed in a black and burgundy Todd Oldham jacket surely not found in his closet back home in Iowa. I imagined it was bought for him by the same publicist that was heavily lobbying for his free bag. But he had no ticket and therefore no bag. Still I was struck that he looked so sad. As if all would be lost if he did not return home with one. I wanted to shake him. Tell him it was just a bag. With nothing inside. You're so young, you have your whole life to get one of these. And God as my witness, even without a Kate Spade Target line toiletry bag, the sun would rise again.

Just then one of my very favorite actresses of all time walked up to our table. She had no ticket but for her body of work alone I proudly slipped her a bag. She picked it up, looked right through me, turned, and walked away. Did she not understand what I'd just done for her? The precious cargo I had deemed her worthy to receive?

There was no time to think about it when the young girl who co-wrote Thirteen sauntered up to the table with the kind of self-worth and entitlement that I, even in my decades-longer life, had yet to achieve. And wouldn't you just know she had a ticket.


We were down to just two boxes of bags. And still they kept coming. The table our only protection from a Manolo Blahnik stampede. Drunk on Targetinis. Flashing their VIP tags and Day-glow bracelets to no use. Bag-less, they demanded to speak to our superior. I said the line formed just left of the free, top-shelf bar and endless chocolate fondue fountain.

I flashed on Mr. Rogers. How he was indeed dead, and the world was in trouble now.

Melissa and I had kept our shocked observations to a whisper. Several hours in and we were scolding them like a couple of preschool teachers. Punishing the greedy. Rewarding the humble. No longer just passing out bags. Damn it, we were teaching life lessons here!


My heart was pounding. An aerobic experience. My voice almost gone from explanation.
I looked out over a sea of outstretched arms, moistened eyes, bodies bent forward at the waist.

And right then it hit me. Hit me that perhaps the bags were not empty after all. In truth they carried the night. The link to all other gift bags. A token of having touched the dream. Of being on the inside. Worthy. And even as the night drew to a close and another season of self congratulations ended, they'd have their bag to wake up to and remind them they were special. Remind them they were there.

So no wonder a young actor in diesel jeans and Prada slip-ons leapt over our table and jacked a couple of bags then made a run for it before he got tackled by security and thrown up against a wall. He resisted. So much so he was threatened with hotel arrest. He went limp. Dropped the bags and eyed us like we got up early, met at Starbucks and plotted out ways to ruin his life.


The boxes were empty. The table cleared. A visual they couldn't deny.

We were spent to the point of looniness. Like those soldiers tested in the gas chambers without a mask, we couldn't have played a game of Patty Cake if we tried.

We needed to be taken off the beat. Guns confiscated. Screened for Post Traumatic Syndrome.

Instead they moved us on to another table. Another giveaway. But this table called for no tickets. No rules. After all it was just a book, a point driven home by one producer who said Touching the Void, the title of the book, had already been made into a movie so clearly it was of no use to him. I told him to take it and read it anyway. That I was forming a book club and we'd all meet back here in two weeks.

Melissa poured a cup of coffee from the dessert bar and drank it in plain site, unthinkable till that night -- all proper hotel employee demeanor learned at a two day seminar gone. We were tossing, practically throwing the books at them now. Aiming for their heads. Because we hated them.

And not out of envy. But for shattering the dream. The dream that kept us going. That we would one day get there. Get where they were. And when that day arrived... we would finally have enough.


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