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Saturday, January 21, 2017
BLACK AND BLUE IN WILLIAMSBURG: An Evening With Aaron, Cheryl, And The Spirited Presence Of A Legendary Few
Somewhere in the wintery wonderland of Brooklyn...
I've lived in Queens, New York all my life. Granted, I've been to four of the five boroughs but I've never seen much of the city in my time here, and it's one goal in my life that I hope to accomplish among others. Brooklyn is surely no exception here as I've traveled to it quite a few times in recent years; the last time I saw Brooklyn was when I went to a birthday party in Williamsburg in 2013, and before that, a New Years' Eve party for that year. And before that...well, I have no idea, probably a museum or a Circuit City when those existed but it was years ago and my head hurts trying to remember.
At current, I've been to Brooklyn twice this year. My first excursion was to a place called Pig Beach and while the food was okay, I still found myself a little depressed. I got there after an extensive walk from the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in the cold dead of night during one of this year's snow storms. It was a pretty treacherous hike but not too terrible that I couldn't keep my pace, so I soldiered on and eventually found my bearings. I arrived to the place in the good company of eyes awkwardly staring in my direction, undoubtely as the people in front of the door were probably wondering just who the fuck I was - at least from my perspective anyway, and as I walked in, I pretty much knew that I was the only person that people didn't know in the crowd.
They looked like university students, and everyone was talking to each other. Couples were there, people were mingling and arm-in-arm, the music was on full blast with big screen TV's hoisted atop on the wall playing sports highlights and the like, the room was darkly lit with modest neon-lighting drawn largely from the entrance where the Pig Beach logo was, and it was all lively and mostly copasetic. I sat down and had some expensive spicy beef sausage hot dog-like thingimajiggy with radishes and stuff for like $9.00, and I killed it in less than a minute along with my cup of hot tea. It was pretty unceremonious, on top of the fact that I wasn't there with anyone, just present at the recommendation of a friend whose family owns it and I was adamantly about visiting.
I probably could have waited until a better, more time-friendly weekend to go out with someone, but I almost never have time for anything outside of work, sleeping and pooping and I had resigned to the fact that after a year of putting it off, if I didn't go that weekend, just days after my birthday to enjoy myself, I was never going to. Still, I was a little depressed about not having company, as much as it reminded me how much I enjoy sharing a meal with people. And when you're with really good people with whom you can vibe...Holy shit. I mean, seriously: Hole. Lee. Shit.
That's the basic sum-up of pretty much everytime I've met with the very people I've centralized my work and my fandom on for the better part of my life and going into the millenium thusfar. Every evening I've spent with stunt performers who either work here are have traveled to New York City for one reason or another has been met with laughter, levity, kindness, understanding, generosity, love and excitement - all of which encompass the biggest high I get each and everytime. I felt that high as I was writing this entry recalling Friday evening, a week after stuntman Aaron Toney arrived in town for work, and to say the least, meeting him was a challenge in and of itself.
Before the new year, I already planned on reuniting with German stunt man and filmmaker Can Aydin since Spring 2015; His latest film, Plan B, is on deck for release in Germany soon and indeed, an official trailer for it is just weeks away, if not days. With the calamity that was 2016 and all the hope for a better year thereafter, scheduling came into play between my work, and Can's own obligations as well and while we tried to make something happen for two weeks in a row, sadly any chance of a second reunion would not come to pass. He eventually ended up flying back to Germany to take care of some more business before landing in Canada to finish some more work on one of his next upcoming productions, the new action drama, On The Ropes.
Fortunately however, all may not be lost as he may hopefully be back in town this season soon. I shared this story with Aaron and more following our eventful first-ever greeting just outside a lovely place in Williamsburg called Samurai Mama. It's worth adding that when I got there, I immediately passed it as I was looking for it, only to end up doubling back as there was NO lighting outside, except for a few quiet shimmers of it from the windows. No big, bright sign or anything. Needless to say, I was relieved when I got to the entrance and stood and waited briefly for Aaron who, in all his ninja might and prowess, stepped out from my memory banks of yesteryear filled with long evenings of downloading .mpeg videos from the Zero Gravity and Bilang websites, and out from behind the exterior curtain of the restaurant, and directly in front of me.
I won't lie to you. The second Aaron popped outside as I was typing to let him know where I was, I nearly screamed at the topped of my lungs and I probably drew the attention of a lot of people nearby, although honestly I didn't care. Friday night was cutting it close as the clock wound down before I would have lost my chance to meet someone whose work I've heralded ever since I claimed my sister's computer upon her moving to Saskatchewan for an arts and humanities graduate program during college, and started regularly digesting some of the best martial arts action shortfilms ever made by people with no money and all of the skills in the world to make great cinema.
Upon meeting Toney, you're kind of in the presence of greatness. No lie. Formerly of the aforementioned Zero Gravity next to Suleiman and folks such as Kerry Wong, Tony Chu, Lateef Crowder and Sam Looc, Toney's shared credits with the group preceding his now flourishing career in stunts for mainstream film and television represent an honorable hallmark for the martial arts action genre. In an age where VHS tapes were all but dead if not dying as was the genre with a changing movie landscape largely attributed to CG spectacle, Zero Gravity launched a pre-YouTube movement that paved the way for other talented people to arise in the world of screenfighting and the quintessential unmasking of martial arts cinema mechanics.
The Stunt People, Jabronie Pictures, Team FistyleZ, Whirlwind Action, VJ Films, The Z-Team, Mag-Fighters, Young Masters, Eclipse Stunts, LBP Stunts Chicago, Dardrex Productions, Rising Tiger Films and Reel Deal Action, believe it or not, are just a crumb of a community at large that has all but sprouted on its branches and leaves, and to this day, not a day goes by where you won't find someone on YouTube with ambition to take up the craft of stunt performance in the wake of all this history and legacy. It's endless, really. From screenfighting to parkour, gymnastics, cirque and other aerial stuntwork to extreme sports, every week has become an adventure in finding these reels for myself when I load the weekly Hit List, and to have lived this far in my life to meet someone I now get to share those thrills with in writing and record is a humbling honor...And no less, in the added company of a one Cheryl Lewis, a stuntwoman I finally met in person last June as she and I caught up with a few more people to see Xu Haofeng's The Final Master.
Aaron and I sat down in a waiting area within Samurai Mama with Cheryl in transit, and it was ample time for him and I to engage in a heavy, jovial, spirited and jocular guy chat about our respective youths, work, friends and family. For drinks, I had a Kojiberry which was sweet and rummy with ice, and Aaron had some tea. I think it had a specific name to it, though really its most memorable characteristic was that it was hot. It was real hot because Aaron couldn't stop blowing it. Dude was thirsty and suffering I felt his pain. I hugged him and cradled him in my arms as we shared tears. We had a moment...
I'm kidding. Still, that tea looked pretty hot and I reckon it was. 😆
We shared some more stories, I banged my head on a metal fixture right behind my head, it hurt, I laughed and toasted with Aaron about it and I nearly hit my head again a second time much later on, and all while we waited for Cheryl who chose to take the G train instead of an Uber, which I am now curious about thanks to Aaron, the idea man. Cheryl eventually showed up around 10pm and we finally got down to the grub, with Cheryl and I snacking on some really great delicious sushi and Aaron chowing down on a sick bowl of ramen. I didn't get to endulge in the ramen greatness because my family and I had dinner, but the sushi was awesome, as was my Kojiberry, and so was my chocolate mousse, and I was wondering if they even had a dessert menu in the first place; The waitress handed them to us and the chocolate mousse was the first thing that caught my eye the second the menu landed in front of me. Sold. No idea what it looked like or if it was any good, but you know damn well you're in a daring, bold establishment if they're serving chocolate. And if you work in the food service industry and chocolate is in your repetoire, you do not get chocolate wrong. Why? Because...well...YOU DO NOT GET CHOCOLATE WRONG!
And no, Samurai Mama did not get the chocolate wrong. The mousse was neat and filling, and I pretty much murderdeathkilled it like the sushi and that beef sausage thingimajiggy at Pig Beach weeks earlier. Surely, while the food was nice across the board, nothing beats eating in good company, and rest assured, unless I'm having a shit day or I'm too tired to be bothered, for as long as I can help it, I never want to go out and eat alone ever again.
The night was starting to wind down as Aaron and Cheryl and I toasted. I helped Cheryl catch up a little bit on the American Ninja franchise a la the late, legendary Steve James who plays the baddest, most electric supporting character in this eclectic series and I even recommended Aaron take in a viewing of That Phat Samurai Guy's reaction/roast video to the first four American Ninja films. I wrote about that video here and it's all the fun in the world everytime you watch it, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet. I also learned Cheryl was into photography as well and she even shared some of her adventures around lower Manhattan once upon a time, as I recall.
We continued chatting about music, movies and what I was looking forward to from here on out, and for certain, John Wick: Chapter Two, Logan, Power Rangers, The Fate Of The Furious, Guardians Of The Galaxy: Vol 2 and especially Plan B are on my increasing list if I can help it. It's also worth mentioning that Aaron, in the months since serving as one of several key Black Panther doubles for Captain America: Civil War, worked on Power Rangers as the Blue Ranger double for the role of Billy, played by actor R.J. Cyler, and Aaron was emphatically sure to see if I was being genuine about my interest in seeing the film and not merely fanboying because he was in the room; Genuinely speaking, I had my doubts even as the first teaser looked great, but the official trailer last week absoutely sold me. March 24 it is!
I also gave Cheryl a leg up on Fabien Garcia's independent thriller from 2014 called Die Fighting which I reckon she'll see soon enough after I discussed it. It's a personal favorite as much as is for most of the people I've spoken to on it and to say the least, I hope Fabien and his team at the newly-named Z-Team Films will be able to advance their endeavors as filmmakers and artists. I wouldn't have it any other way and the same goes for Aaron who advanced a really cool independent project a few years ago called Throne, presenting a spectacular trailer that teases a world of action. Like most projects of that caliber and of an independent nature, that one still needs time to bloom with a few scenes and tweaks needed upon scheduling and opportunity for it cast and crew to congregate. I'm on Aaron's case a lot about this one and I'm pretty sure he's ready to Falcon kick me about it by now but...that's fine. Yay stunts! 🍻✊
By 12a.m.-ish, our evening was up as the restaurant closed, but we aptly made sure to take photos of us together before all was said and done. After my Kojiberry, the first was with Aaron and Cheryl, and the second two were courtesy of our kind waitress as we sat together and I nearly fell asleep in the coziness of Cheryl's shoulder. I also took the liberty of taking a selfie for all of us just outside and a few doors down where there was proper lighting. We each gave our share long-winded hugs and I gave Aaron one of my proper, manly pick-up hugs as well, and to boot, Aaron motivated me to keep on doing what I'm doing. Truly, I couldn't be more thankful that he gave me the chance he did on social media and allowing me to network with him and the people who share his craft. It's not easy to earn trust among this crowd, but if you're fortunate and you exemplify yourself and allow things to flourish naturally, there are people who, above some of the detractors out there, will take notice of you in the best, most endearing way.
Heck, you may even get to call them friends, hit your head on something, drink a toast and share dinner and companionship...
I need to be a Californian someday.
Conclusively, I can't end this piece without sending a message to a select group of people who played a pivotal role in my growth from mere fandom to something of a journalist to the stunt industry...
Hole. Lee. Shit.
Hmm.. seeing a few familiar faces here...
Apart from Tony Chu, I've seldom had a conversation with stuntmen Kerry Wong, less so with his brother Greg among a few other members of the Zero Gravity team, and that includes Larry Leong who became one of my favorite performers in Zero Gravity's early days long before he moved on to other endeavors.
As the main roots of today's generation of young and aspiring film professionals, you guys and the latter members of your team helped light a fuse in me, personally, that hasn't burned out in all of thirteen years. The arduous, strenuous work you guys do is an essential column of the backbone that holds my own inspiration together, principally, to do what I do now, even as I'm stuck here in the suburbs of Queens in an occupation seperate from this just to keep a roof over my head.
For all that and more, were it not for you, Friday night might have had me stuck at home in bed, listening to Seether and wondering if the last girl I fell in love with ever gave a crap about me, or some dumb bullocks like that. Nope. Nah, you all had a different plan...A plan that included grouping yourselves with some of the best and like-minded people that you've ever known. Because of that, I now get to group myself some with these people too, and so I'm smiling a little more these days, and busier even.
Sure, life is still hard as it always will be. Things are up and down, notably slow at times...and still, I gather as much that without Zero Gravity, though it might have taken me a little longer to find myself here if I were to be so lucky, I cannot imagine things happening any other way they than they did. I sincerely thank you all and wish you all the best in your endeavors, in film or other. For everything you've done and the people who have followed in your footsteps, your existence is ingrained in my own drive to become something better, and no less, in the service of people I couldn't be prouder to share a meal with and call friends.
Thank you all for Friday night, and for the memories, past and forthcoming.