Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Passport To New York - Part One

I’ve had as many jobs as the years I’ve been on the East Coast. I had a job waiting for me as a credit card authorizer at Lord & Taylor's on Fifth Avenue before I had a place to live. One of my supervisors in the credit collection department at Foley’s in Houston arranged a lateral transfer over the phone and with corroborating faxed documents as a personal favor and parting gift. My co-workers couldn’t believe that I was leaving the comforts of southern living for New York City El Paso salsa jokes aside. I had no sensible reason to uproot and move to unfamiliar territory and endure inclement weather. An alumnus, a female photographer, at my high school’s fiftieth-year gala anniversary dangled the possibility of New York in my face at one of the rehearsals during my junior year. “If you ever make it to New York, I’d love to photograph you!”

After graduation, I arranged a visit to New York and an audition for the theatre program at NYU. I called her with the good news that I was on the way to the city and she offered her living room futon as free shelter. I remember locking myself in the bathroom when her two obese protective cats wanted no part of my spending the night in their apartment while the lady of the house was away.

I also remember a bobtail cat at my Granny’s house the summer before I started first grade. I began the school year with bandaged legs due to allergies and sores. I don’t think I recalled that episode or my belligerent mother who warned Mrs. Johnson of my condition, and that she’d best be careful about disciplining me should I misbehave, as I tried reasoning with two growling and hissing cats from the other side of the locked door. I slept in the oversized bathtub on her plush white robe, covered with expensive towels as long and thick as bed sheets. She returned the next morning and the psycho cats trotted over to her, cooing and meowing as if nothing had happened. She laughed when I recounted the previous night’s adventure. The apartment was on West 72nd Street, five minutes from Central Park West. I wasn’t going to allow cats that needed medication and therapy to change my mind on moving to New York. She never photographed me.

I returned to Houston after auditioning for Tisch School of The Arts at NYU, and began the emotional and spiritual process of letting go of family and friends. I had to find out if my drama coaches and guidance counselors were telling the truth about my acting and public speaking talents. I wouldn’t have been satisfied performing in local theatres, cutting ribbons at dedications and special events, or working as a radio deejay. I had to find out if I had real talent, unlike many of my privileged high school classmates who received special treatment. I needed to hear from reputable New York professionals that I had that elusive quality to create and sustain a career as an actor.

The often times overwhelming magic of the city was an experimental drug back then, and I was a willing addict. My original plans were to come to New York and work one job, audition on my lunch break or at the end of the business day, and lay the foundation for taking over Broadway. At some point in the early stages, survival and saving face became more important than pursuing my dreams. I didn’t want to give up too soon and return defeated to face my family and friends. It was more than the geographic, social, and climate differences that gave me pause. I wasn’t content working in the authorization department with a surrogate mother supervisor who fussed over me, concerned for my well-being and smooth transition from Houston to New York. I thought I’d be happier working in the collections department. Cliché aside, I didn’t know what I was giving up until I no longer had it. The supervisors in the collection department didn’t make eye contact in the mornings or as I left for the night. There were no seductive smells of home cooked meals warming in the microwave during lunch. There was pressure to collect and close delinquent accounts. There were disciplinary meetings about personal phone calls to Houston on company time. I resigned months later and began years of seeking out the perfect artist’s job while auditioning for theatre and film roles.

During this early transitional period, the next decisive test of whether to stay took place in a courtroom in New Jersey for withholding rent from an unscrupulous landlord. I lived in a basement apartment the size of a broom closet in Union City, and had to sleep with the oven door opened at night to keep warm. My first winter was bleak; my mother sent an electric blanket to help combat the cold. I appeared before the judge who ordered me to pay the back rent or face eviction.

I was fortunate to have met and befriended a Dominican whose family treated me as of one of their own. I opted not to pay the landlord, and in the one-week grace period, I scoured the neighborhood and surrounding areas for a new apartment. I walked into a realtor’s office and used tools from my actor’s training: motivation, cunning, and a desire to remain on the East Coast. She showed me several apartments before I settled on a one-bedroom in neighboring West New York, New Jersey. I told her that I had to find an apartment before I left on tour as an actor/dancer, an explanation for the urgent search and easy deposit. She was smitten with me, and I knew it. It was one of my better performances.

My Dominican friend, his cousin, and I moved the twenty or thirty blocks between apartments over the course of two days in grocery store shopping carts. When we returned to the first apartment for a final check, a law enforcement officer had plastered a yellow eviction notice underneath a metal rod and bolt across the door. I didn’t mourn the loss of the mop and bucket captive in the tiny abode. The experience taught me that I was resourceful, and perhaps similar to those cats that staked claim to their owner’s apartment.

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