Friday, October 07, 2005

The Price of Success

The click-clock of an uncomfortable pair of pumps is audible as a young woman approaches an Information Booth clerk at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The overdressed future soap opera villainess requests a list of nearby youth hostels. The clerk flicks a Welcome to New York brochure in lieu of a verbal response and eye contact.

Nicole Barnes traveled by bus from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to pursue a stage and film career in the city five years ago. The skyscrapers, honking horns, and aggressive people who populate this metropolis initially overwhelmed the Summa Cum Laude graduate from Emory College with a dual degree in English Literature/Performing Arts

Nicole thought her talents as an actress, dancer, and singer would earn her a Daytime Emmy. The acceptance speech that had long since been written was creased and folded inside her daily journal. Passersby did not notice her as she made her way up Eighth Avenue toward the first name on the list of hostels.

The triple-threat, as she or people with her talents are known in the industry, remembers having gone to four of the seven places listed in the brochure, to no avail. The leggy performer recounts a story of being approached by a would-be porno producer in a local deli. “There was a man with eyes that seemed to rotate in their sockets.” Nicole said she tried to imagine herself invisible in hopes that he would walk past her, unfortunately the man made himself comfortable at her table. “I could make you a star in no time. You could be the next Lena Horne with a body like yours.”

Nicole did not finish her overpriced egg salad on toasted wheat. “I think you should get your nasty self away from me,” she said, pushing her chair backward from the table. The man was not at all surprised by her rebuff. After making sure his toupee was in place, he scanned the room for his next discovery fresh off a bus, plane, or train.

Nicole’s encounter is commonplace for some performers who make the pilgrimage to New York City in hopes of seeing their name up in lights on Broadway and on billboards throughout the world. Unknowingly, they wear naïveté as if it were a favorite cologne or body wash. The New York City branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) does not maintain records of non-SAG members, roughly forty percent, of the performance pool of off-off-Broadway, low or no-budget films, and convention hosts, hostesses, and costumed actors. SAG does however keep track of the cardholding members who pay their annual or monthly dues.

The SAG offices are located in the heart of Times Square, within a stone’s toss from the offices Backstage, the performance arts weekly that lists hundreds of auditions.

An unofficial estimate is that fifty-five percent of New Yorkers share an apartment, not only because of the increasing rental rates, but also because sharing a space enables many to dedicate more time to local and regional auditions. Artists living with other artists can either create a nurturing community or breed contempt. Some performers buy into the idea that it is better to live with other artists who understand the plight of an artist. A former actress who now teaches theatre in a Brooklyn after school program said, “When I first moved here, I had no place to go. My first apartment was like that Cher song, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.

There are other hazards with which new and old artists must contend. One of those is the trap of stability and conformity offered by many jobs in corporate America. Working a day job is the last resort for an artist. The entertainment industry is one of insecurities, images, and potential substance abuse. Artists must navigate two worlds. Their world of make-believe and the real world of surviving in an often times unwelcoming city. Many with talent, desire, and thoughts of not going back to the nest, make decisions based on fear of not having shelter or food.

Flipping through Backstage, there are mainstream job ads that do not compete for attention with the audition announcements, yet they are there all the same. It might appear that there is a mixed message with the placement of these ads.

Parents of artists typically insist that their children earn a degree and find a real job. This is sound advice from parents that is received as discouragement by artists. “My mother was always telling me to get a degree. To do better than she did in life,” Nicole said. There is a dark side that many artists are unaware of. The life of a New York performer brings with it the notion of having to network at parties, clubs, and other social gatherings. There is no definitive number of artists who began using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the rejection and stress of auditioning and performing.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Give Your Love To Me

In a Manhattan landmark eatery on the Upper Westside,
the conversation in the corner began after surveying the
collection of signed memorabilia adorning the walls.
Peter Angel, an aspiring Pop/Latin/R&B singer, sat at the table,
fingers interlaced. A study in detached urban cool.

Peter is a native New Yorker, who grew up as the youngest child of two working class parents in the housing projects in Alphabet City, on the Lower Eastside. His father, a singer and guitar player, was his earliest inspiration in pursuing music, although he firmly believes his talent is genetic. The earliest sparks of wanting to be a performer took place while he sat in awe watching The Sonny & Cher Show and Donny & Marie Show when he was four years old.

“The first time I sang in front of an audience was in the sixth grade, I sang We Are the World. A teacher that I didn’t expect to came over and complimented me.”

Peter Marquez Angel, or Petey, as family and close friends know him, did not know at such a tender age that tragedy would visit his life a few years later. A hit and run car accident claimed the life of his older sister when he was fifteen. “That’s when my life changed emotionally, I was distraught. I wanted to express something inside of me.” During the days following his sister’s death he wrote his first song.

“It was as if something exploded inside my heart,” he continued. “I sang the song to my mother and she cried.” Listening to his singing voice on tape, it is clear that his past has shaped what will become a signature sound. Peter’s parents realized that he was serious about a career in entertainment after seeing how much work he put into his tribute to his sister. Vocal, acting and modeling classes gave him a technical foundation to hone his natural talents, which were at times a financial burden to his parents who were both factory workers. After having dealt with tragedy early on, he says it is the simple, mundane things in life that gets him out of bed in the mornings.

At eighteen, his lucky break came in the form of a backup gig. A local rock band modeled after Santana, Brother’s Bailey & Cruz, seasoned veterans in the local New York band circuit, well into their forties, put out the call and he responded. “I was so nervous. I mean, these guys could have been my father. I had something to prove. I was going to show them that I had the talent and drive to keep up.” Peter remembers standing on stage, mouth opened, and singing the first song that came to mind. Soon after the audition ended, he was welcomed into their fold. Being in front of an audience was scary at first for him, but the fear turned into a solid stage presence that borders on sensual and fun.

Artists that have inspired him to reach higher in his own life and career include Stevie Wonder, George Michael and Billie Holiday. Perseverance is what he gleans from his favorite artists. “Billie Holiday. She had such an interesting style. Loved by many people and yet so destructive at the same time. She had an irony in her voice. She sang from deep places. I don’t often hear people sing from such depths. You knew something was going on.”

“I am a dream chaser. I know what I want. I know who I am and what I want out of life.” The soulful singer makes no excuses about life. He realizes that people are in charge of their lives, for the most part. “Anyone who knows me knows my priorities. I am determined to succeed.”

Peter is not always so dogged about pursuing music; he allows himself down time. Collecting Japanese Anime and shopping are high on his list as ways of recharging his inner artist. “I will myself from sinking into despair. I have learned that we are here one day and gone the next. “I can’t force my writing. Creativity comes in spurts for me. When my muse visits, I write.”

Who is Peter Angel? Stay tuned and buckle your seatbelts.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Hudson Alley

Memories served up lukewarm like last week’s leftovers.

The original dish an accident of spontaneity and invention.

Memories that linger off-center in the back of the mind, retrieved by a scent, color, or surface.

Remembering now that she wouldn’t last for more than a few months. There was a vacant look in her eyes upon first meeting.

Remembering now the decision not to fall too deeply or become emotionally attached. The way she entered the room signaled she was just passing through.

Memories of infidelity while upstate with friends. Feeling helpless and misinformed while she taunted and seduced an alleged friend.

Remember, everyone wants happiness. Some have selective recall when it comes to other people’s joy.

Memories rising and choking like a flooding ditch down south.

Remember this journey shouldn’t be traversed. It’s unorthodox and can cause emotional damage.

Traveling back and forth along Hudson Alley is familiar and painful. When will new sites be erected?

Memories of when it all ended and she moved out and on, leaving behind ethnic porcelain miniatures she placed prominently on a bookshelf when she first arrived to make it seem more like home to her.

The house felt empty as soon as she placed her suitcases near the front door even though an emotional separation came long before her betrayal.

The memory of her face and body collapse over space and time to new memories jockeying for position.

The memories weren’t all bad. There was hope and optimism for longevity. What happened between the time she packed her suitcases in her small foreign town and landed at JFK International Airport?

Memories of what could have been must be replaced with what transpired. Hudson Alley isn’t off-limits, yet its neon lights and inviting music aren’t responsible for the patrons and businesses that populate either side of the dead-end street.

One way in, many options out. Hudson Alley isn’t for the naïve or overeducated.

Hudson Alley exists between here and infinity.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Giving Back to the Community

One of Marissa Wiley’s favorite restaurants is a local Soul Food restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. For our conversation, we returned to a familiar haunting ground, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, Southern Cuisine, on West 110.

While we poured over the menu, we caught up on each other’s lives. The waiter interrupted to take our order. Marissa chose the smothered chicken, candied yams, and string beans. The meat loaf, collard greens, and potato salad seemed to dance off the page. The contents of her oversized purse were unloaded onto the rickety table supported by a matchbook. The waiter arrived and stood at a distance, the hearty, pepper-laced entrees in hand, as Marissa cleared the table back into her purse. Our chat was temporarily delayed by clanking silverware, boisterous laughter and conversation in the quaint restaurant.

This thirty-two year-old single mother is a natural caretaker and nurturer. In 1990, she began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity one weekend a month. In contrast to her major of Speech Pathology at NYU, she helped homesteaders build their apartments. “Seeing a smile on the face of a father carrying his wife over the threshold made what I did worthwhile. I can’t stand selfish people. We all have to do our part.”

She continued her path to Volunteerism with an eight-month stay at Safespace, a homeless shelter for teenagers, and a two-year stint as a mentor with The Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The next stop was The Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Program for about four years, during which time she made home visits to elderly and AIDS patients until they died.

Marissa is currently taking a break from volunteering. “If I could do it over, I would finish school all at once instead of letting my family get in the way. Now there’s Nia, work, and school. My priorities have changed.”

Marissa was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY. The family later relocated to the Bronx. Rissa, as family and close friends know her, does not like to talk about her divorce. “I was too young when we got married. He was too domineering and possessive. We are learning to be friends now.” There was something childlike in the way she coiled her corkscrew curls around her left ear as she reflected on her past. When speaking of her mother, her voice was a mixture of love and resentment. “I can’t blame her for getting Cancer. It robbed her strength and made me question my faith.”

A jangle of keys with a clear acrylic picture holder contained a photo of her three-month old daughter, Nia. The photo resembled a smooth-skinned black baby doll recently introduced in toy stores. “I wanted to have a baby, and didn’t want to wait until I was an old maid,” she said in a voice that carried a built-in intimacy. As she stretched and pushed the hair away from her face, she revealed a long forgotten scar on her forehead. “I got this when my mother returned home early. I hid underneath her bed. I cut myself on a metal file box when I was twelve.”