Saturday, November 26, 2005

Jack-of-Many Trades, Master of a Few

Creative types arrive in New York City by bus, train, plane, or carpool to make their mark in The Arts. Many artists fall into careers as waiters or graveyard shift word-processors in hopes of flexible employment that allows time for auditions and meetings with power brokers. Too far away from their original goal of illuminated names on Broadway marquees, a book deal, or a revolving show at a prominent gallery or museum, some engage in destructive habits to mask the pain and disappointment.

The daily grind causes many to return no sooner than they've unpacked their clothes and family photos. The culture shock doesn't sit well with some, and others still leave voluntarily because they can't recreate a similar comfort zone of their high school or college theater department.

Many artists relocate to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or London to pursue a career on stage, in film, on television (soaps and/or perhaps a Law & Order spin-off), or behind the scenes in a technical or administrative role.

I have worked in many industries in New Jersey and New York, and have entertained thoughts of working in others just to see if I could forge a viable secondary career as I pursued my dreams of being a working artist.

I mastered the fine art of survival on the East Coast these many years later. I mastered the art of camouflage and adaptability.

My first job on the East Coast was a lateral transfer from Houston. My supervisor in Houston arranged the transfer by phone and fax. I worked as Credit Authorizer at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue. It wasn't glamorous. We were discouraged from entering through the main store; better that employees use the obligatory side entrance with a security guard who'd rifle through backpacks and gym bags with a change of clothes for auditions. I remember I was one of the youngest working the day shift. There was an assortment of faces, accents, and quirks to contend with all around me, or it wouldn't be New York. Co-workers talked of exotic places like Coney Island, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

I hadn't grasped the concept of boroughs when I first moved to the East Coast. I traveled to and from work, with minimal stops in between. This was when I lived in Union City, NJ, in a hovel of a basement apartment. I had to sleep with the oven door opened and stovetop burners lit because of the freezing cold. I withheld rent, hoping that my stereotypically bad landlord would regulate the heat, and I'd no longer endanger myself in the event the pilot went out overnight. What a sad story that would have been to die of gas inhalation. I was sued. I appeared in court, and was ordered to pay the back rent. I didn't. I set about finding a new apartment with my stash of cash. I moved all of ten blocks away in a different town, West New York, NJ. I lived on Broadway, across from the A& P, in a neighborhood that reminded me of Texas.

I've always had an out of body experience in most of my past jobs. I always felt that I'd made a mistake or was desperate not to return down south to pursed lips and conciliatory hugs from family and friends. I love my immediate family; and some of my former friends in Texas wouldn't let me forget that I'd fallen flat on my face. (I think of an Erma Bombeck Book, Family - The Ties That Bind . . . And Gag)

I remember some of my previous jobs, and others are a blur. I worked outside in the cold of winter hawking appointments for a podiatrist. I worked as a roller-skating host in a trendy Lincoln Center restaurant. I worked as a corporate software trainer, and then later on two different information technology helpdesks. The salary, vacation, sick, and personal days were great, but I was a miserable soul who was often at odds with co-workers and managers. At one of my last corporate jobs on a helpdesk, I was reprimanded for writing fiction.

I stopped telling people I worked with that I was an artist (actor, writer, aspiring director). It seemed a running joke in restaurants where some people took to wearing t-shirts that mocked being an actor. On the front: I'm a New York actor. On the back: Oh yeah, which restaurant?

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