Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Freelance Alley

I've been traveling along Freelance Alley for several years, performing an assortment of odd jobs, subjecting myself to roommates who'd I'd otherwise not have dealt with it, and living without health insurance.

I've worked uptown and downtown Manhattan, a brief stint in a hospital in Queens, New Jersey, and Connecticut as a full-time employee.

As a freelance worker, I miss seeing different people daily on the subways, people walking about the streets of New York, and coworkers with dramatic or problematic lives that made me count my blessings. It was some of those coworkers that set my wheels in motion: Take a chance in your life or become him!

Daydreaming in the workplace isn't always bad. It was in those creative visualizations I realized I'd best make a move to freelance or end up depressed and health-insured, en route to a weekly therapist's visit trying to reconcile a human desire for stability and comfort.

Freelancing isn't easy. I look for work daily on Mediabistro and Craigslist even though I have reliable work as a teacher and editor. I'm not asking for sympathy. I know there are thousands of others doing what I do at home, from free wireless coffee shops and lounges, or public libraries.

The Caribbean super in an adjacent building is my daily wake-up call: slamming doors, gathering broken bottles, and singing various melodies.
Time goes so fast sitting behind a computer screen researching, writing, or editing. I brew coffee, feed the cats and tropical fish, prepare breakfast and set about improving my craft daily. I look at the clock on the screen and wonder where the hours have gone when I hear students returning from school.

I've seen ads online for freelancer support groups, but realize I don't want to spend my time listening to people whine about not having medical benefits, sick and personal days, and office gossip.

I am happier working from my home office with buckling and warped floors camouflaged underneath a thrift store area rug, rather than working full-time in an office, trying to please an inconsolable supervisor and their boss.

When I worked in investment banks as a helpdesk agent and software trainer, I didn't like who I'd become: a working stiff, a zombie. The salaries were off the chart, the benefits and perks enviable. I wasn't content sitting at a desk surrounded by the long faces of people who'd either given up on their dreams or never had dreams of a remarkable life.

I hustle for work. I have created a freelance existence from scraps, sweat, and a desire not to be homeless and hungry in one of the most expensive cities in the world. It's better that I'm not in office with soulless people, my eyebrow raised, the hairs on my arms tingling, as yet another coworker regales the office with a play-by-play of their weekend in Atlantic City.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tres Chicas y Una Mujer

In the shadow of my mother, no woman stands a chance.

Every woman who vied for my attention, my mother sent away.

Isabella was too silly and not to be taken seriously. She wouldn’t be able to understand the often silent familial sabotage; her toothy grin and childish laughter were no match for my mother’s schemes.

In my mother’s kitchen, only she could be the queen.

Rosa’s recipes could rival my mother’s but she’d never allow another woman to cook in her kitchen — not while there’s breath in her body.

My mother would confront me when she smelled the aroma of Mexican food on my freshly starched shirts. “You’ve been eating at her house, again. Haven’t you?”

I don’t know if I feel in love with Rosa before or after I read Como aqua por chocolate

It’s a daunting task being my mother’s only son, her protection knows no bounds.

Nancy Q. thought she could stand toe to toe with my mother. It’s was an interesting image, both of them standing on either side of the formal dining table, hands gripped on the rounded, polished corners. Their eyes locked in battle.

Nancy Q. was determined to rescue me from the pressed monogrammed handkerchiefs and finger bowls.

My mother would have no part of that plan.

What would I have done had Nancy won the stare-off? She unnerved and captivated me at the same time.

She said she admired me because I was able to show emotions. I cried her in arms because I knew I had to let go of the past, and step out of the comfortable, albeit painful shadow where many people and things were sent to die.

I was still a child, not unlike the miniatures my mother kept locked inside her handcarved curio cabinet. I pleaded with Nancy Q. to be patient with me, to let me catch up to her emotionally, spiritually, and romantically.

I reached for her forearm. She pulled away. No words passed between us. My mother did her best impression of a gracious winner.

Nancy Q. walked out the side entrance, the screen door echoed as her footsteps trailed through my mother’s prized vegetable garden.

That night I ate dinner alone in my bedroom. My mother hummed a lullaby from my youth.

Had she fought for me because she loved me, or the realization that she’d be alone in the house where she buried three husbands in the backyard?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Texas vs. New York

Texas is vast and uncharted, and many cities that are supposed to be modern and sophisticated still have an outlaw mentality and rustic appeal.

New York City is cramped and overcrowded with overpriced empty apartments on the Upper Westside and in Harlem. Manhattan could take a lesson on rental prices from Texas, and Texas could take a lesson in convenience from New York City. (There aren't enough late-night or twenty-four hour grocery stores throughout Houston.)

Large families are rare in Manhattan, yet normal in Texas. Texas is a good place to raise children, yet too cumbersome and expensive in Manhattan. Money and power play well in both locales. Large familes should receive a tax break while children are young.

Religion, pomp, and circumstance plays well in both places, although southerners tend to take their religion more seriously than New Yorkers.

Lots aren't vacant for long in New York City. In Texas they're either a sign of decay or time standing still.

When southerners visit and/or relocate to the north, expectations and bad habits travel too.

It's easy to lose oneself in the busy streets and transit system in New York City. Texas is too big, one could get lost on the winding and intertwining highways or open fields.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Too High, The Cost

Artists who relocate to large cities to pursue their careers have to pay exorbitant emotional and spiritual fees to survive. Artists either work in dead-end and exhausting hospitality industry or office jobs. Bureaucracy and office politics aren't part of the curriculum in most artists' schooling.

Beyond office politics, there are incompetent and obnoxious small business owners, office/department managers, and misunderstanding and jealous co-workers.

What separates artists from these types of people? Is it our humanity, patience, and sensitivity? Or perhaps our desire to communicate on a different level that sets us apart from the masses.

The cost is too high. Misguided parents, teachers, or family members discourage creative souls from pursuing their art in hopes of saving us from a life of . . . auditioning, performing on stage or on television and film, or writing fiction, screen or stage plays.

"All excellence is equally difficult."
- Thornton Wilder

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?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Cannibal in the Concrete

I have toyed with the idea of artists as cannibals in New York City or Los Angeles, devouring agents, producers, editors, underpaid editorial assistants, and overpaid personal assistants who seemingly take pleasure in rejecting fiction submissions, artwork, demos, and director’s reels.

What if artists treated those in power like they treated us? What if artists never returned power brokers’ phone calls and e-mails? If young writers or musicians treated their agents with disdain, treating them like spoiled children who needed a spanking, I think they’d at least consider their tone of voice.

I often times think of (bad) agents and others behind the scenes as child prodigies gone wild. They were once talented or believed to be talented children and teens (overbearing stage parents optional) who grew up to exact vengeance on other creative souls. This might be a very bleak picture, but visit a random office in New York and soak up the energy oozing underneath the door. It’s easy to walk away from the wheeling and dealing, more difficult to make it work in the entertainment/media industry.

In a parallel universe, I cast agents and others who control artists’ destinies in a production reminiscent of Mad Max meets Gladiator meets The Hounds of Baskerville wherein the aforementioned power brokers have to fight for their lives in an arena or coliseum against artists they’ve wronged or ignored, or run for their lives in a thick, wooded forest from hybrid artists/hounds with fangs and claws hell-bent on devouring their flesh and souls. I don’t know if there’d be prizes for outlasting the combatants in the arena, or making it safely to the end of the forest.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Between Us All

Growing up in a southern ethnic family, I thought everyone had as many aunts and cousins as I did. I can’t recall when I first realized my family was large, yet it was probably when we received a plaque at church on family day. My grandmother had eleven children, nine girls, two boys. They in turn had twenty-two children. The grandchildren have thus had thirty-three children.

It wasn’t difficult to establish territory in my family, but it took maneuvering to create physical and emotional space. I’d sit in a corner in my grandmother’s living room while voices bellowed –my family’s normal indoor pitch would rival trained singers at the Met Opera House, without enhancement. There’s inherent pressure, judgment, and competition in most families.

Birthday parties at Granny’s house required traffic control because of those not a member of the family. Neighborhood kids, school classmates, and their parents didn’t know the inner workings of our clan. Social gatherings would bring out the best in my family, which wasn’t unusual, but a rarity among the strong-willed and boisterous women. Flanked by family and strangers in photos at the age of three, four, or eleven, I had no desire to leave that type of life. Twenty years later, there are pictures of me blowing out birthday candles in New York, surrounded by friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

My family wasn’t one for social politics and ladder climbing. The contradiction for my young mind back then was wondering how my aunts and mother could rip each other apart through plotting and petty competition, and as soon as an external threat would manifest, they’d unite to thwart the intruder. In the space of my family, I learned different lessons. Men are different from women beyond the obvious physical. Women are nurturers and men are wanderers. Women are intuitive and men are spontaneous. I gleaned these lessons shielded by the number of family members around me at any given time that enabled careful observation and study. I don’t think if my family were smaller, more intimate, I’d be who I am today. In the space of a large family, there are several influences and role models within the bloodline, in-laws, and romantic suitors who ingratiated themselves into the protective fold. There were times I wished for less noise, competition, and internal strife, but then that wouldn’t be my family. I had to learn to navigate within the boundaries of personalities, agendas, and misplaced ideals.

I learned not to take things personally. My aunts or cousins loved to tease and taunt, in jest and out of malice. Whenever I felt at odds at with my family, I had surrogate family members in the form of classmates, teachers, or mentors at school. I’ve always been in a group, for better or worse, from my earliest memories. When I wasn’t at my grandmother’s house with my enormous family, I was a member of several extracurricular activities. The group format is second nature to me. I didn’t examine my participation in the school glee club or student government as an extension of my family, I accepted it. There are expected roles in families and groups. In my immediate family, I’m the oldest of three sons, and in the extended family, I was the extrovert who participated in theatre, out-of-town debates and competitions, and read scriptures in church. That was my world, the life of an artist. I didn’t have to wait for hand-me-downs from older cousins or deceased uncles. I had first choice of roles in school plays, emceeing school pageants and sorority debutante balls, or reading stirring passages from the Bible.

The weak of heart might be overwhelmed in large families or groups. I escaped through the characters I played on stage, in commercials, or the offices I held in after school activities. I had to carve out an existence within my family, learn who I was when with them, and develop an identity without their clannish protection. I don’t think my family enabled me in any way, yet it took me a few years to break out of that large clan mentality when I relocated to the east coast. When I look back on my early years in New York, I realize that I tried to recreate the comforts of southern-style family living and relationships. I ended up in more precarious situations than I care to remember trying to transport that way of thinking to the metro area. I would have been better off calling my younger brothers and reestablishing our damaged relationship or flying to Houston to visit my family instead of taking in a roommate or trying to fix or counsel a friend.

I think I’m getting closer to finding mutually beneficial groups. A few years ago, I happened upon roller-skaters and in-line skaters who dance-skate to house and disco music in the spring and summer in a makeshift outdoor rink in Central Park. I lower inhibitions and work off steam while skating, and get a great workout in the process. When I want to lose myself in a crowd, I dance with African and Caribbean drummers in Central Park. These two communities allow me to tap into different parts of my personality without judgment. I don’t have to play a part or feel obligated to attend and participate as I had to as a child and young adult with my family. I can be invisible or blend into the scenery in Central Park if I so choose. I can sit and listen to the music without ridicule for hanging out on the sidelines.

There’s a trait that’s either natural or conditioned that causes me to reach out and build surrogate families or extended communities. I formed and moderate biweekly fiction and screenwriting critique groups. I’m still in a similar role of big brother, but there’s a give-and-take of support, encouragement, motivation, and information sharing without the familial guilt or feelings of obligation. We convene because we want to improve as writers, and in the meantime, enhance each other’s lives. What better gift to give to each other?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Not Enough

Often times Thank You is not enough. Sometimes I want an arm and a leg as an expression of gratitude.

Sometimes I want to attack a punching bag like a championship boxer, or put my fist through a wall.

Sometimes it would be nice if someone cleaned my apartment or at least cleaned out the litter box.

There seem not to be enough hours in a day to sleep, let alone write new original fiction, screenplays, essays, or devote to all the tasks that populate my “to do” list.

There’s always a wife, husband, mother, or lover who wants more than their partner can or willing to give. Those who want to maintain our sanity save a space inside to retreat, or a comfortable corner chair or a table in the back of the local coffee shop underneath an imagined cloak of invisibility.

The witch in Sinbad & The Eye of the Tiger didn’t have enough potion to reverse the effects of the spell to make her fully human, leaving her with an eagle talon. As she lay in her son’s arms, she said, “Not enough! Not enough!”

I understand how she felt at the moment. There are times when I give it my all, when I know success (or victory) is within sight, and the bottom falls out of my world. Instead of crying in my yet to be born son or daughter’s arms in operatic fashion, I soak in a hot Epsom salt and wintergreen alcohol bath (one of Granny’s cure for physical ailments). Sometimes it helps to busy myself with household chores, like scrubbing the algae from the aquarium.

I try to remember as my body temperature rises in those “moments” that I’m experiencing a temporary setback.

. . . to float back and forth between the branches of a live aquatic plant like the tri-color shark — that would be enough of an escape from the world. Until the next e-mail or phone call, or knock on the door.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Sons & Daughters

Little boys seek out a replica of their mother, or the the complete opposite if their childhood was filled with pain and remorse.

Little girls seek out idealized versions of their father. Some girls compete with their mother to find an improved version of their father.

Somewhere in between childhood and adulthood, boys become sons and girls become daughters.

It's difficult for some sons to see their mother in any type of pain, especially a silent and growing pain that accumulates over the course of years at the hands of their father or other male figurehead.

Astute daughters are able to see the pain their father suffers at the hands of their emasculating mother with unresolved father issues.

There are good sons and daughters who stay the course and are reliable. They remain at home hoping for a change in their parents' behavior.

Is it conditioning, wishful thinking, or luck of the draw that one child becomes strong and reliable while others fade into the background, or lost to drugs and alcohol?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Changing Times

I can’t recall my first real friend back in grade school, yet I do remember natural and instigated rivalries some teachers created perhaps to motivate us, or out of spite to see us go for each other’s jugular on the playground or in the cafeteria in front of the hairnet lady scooping mashed potatoes and beans onto our trays.

How do we find and cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships? I attended the same grade where one of my aunts was an administrative assistant, and about seventy percent of the children’s parents knew each other because they, too, played out a similar awkward drama as classmates when they were children and young adults.

I remember discussions and gossip around my grandmother or mother’s house about who was who in my class and school. I don’t think I felt the tug of loyalty and friendship until junior high. While in elementary, I didn’t really spend time with anyone away from school. I went to school with my cousins and aunt, performed in the glee club, and did my homework.

I remember the names of all my teachers back then, some fondly, others I’d just as soon forget. My kindergarten teacher many years later, and in another school district was my youngest brother’s teacher. I think my mother came to school in first grade because the teacher paddled me. A big no-no as far as my mother was concerned. No one should be hitting on her child! It was her job to chastise me.

My second grade teacher made the biggest impression on me and other classmates. She enjoyed teaching, and I’ll always be grateful for that. I think we were group academically by second grade. I didn’t care much for my third grade teacher. I think we’d developed a reputation for being rowdy by third grade, and accused of killing our fourth grade teacher within the first few weeks of the new school year. We were called brats, little terrors, and it was difficult finding a substitute or replacement teacher for our class after the original teacher had a heart attack. However long after the death and readjustment, our second grade teacher became our fourth grade teacher – hooray!

My fifth grade teacher and I weren’t mortal enemies, nor were we cordial. She’d proudly display on her chest hair between her breasts. She was definitely masculine, and any male child she deemed not as masculine as should be, and masculine as she was, she wasted no time in telling the offending boy. For once, I loved my mother’s bravado. The fifth grade teacher was fond of punching the boys in their chest or arms when they committed an infraction. I was untouchable! Had I done anything, under no circumstances was she to discipline me, but rather tell my aunt who’d in turn tell my mother. I didn’t get into trouble that entire year, and I thoroughly enjoyed her frustration in not being able to toughen me up.

I came into my own in junior high, after having attempted and failed at puppy love in fifth grade with one of the prettiest girls in class. Junior high was my foray into leading theatrical roles, public speaking, emceeing school beauty pageants, my first awkward kiss with a girl in braces, and academic excellence. It was in sixth grade that I learned not to be a divo. I had the starring role in the original law week play, and one afternoon during a ‘free period’ in Social Studies (honors) class, the then director sent for me to come to rehearsal. In my mind back then, I felt there was no way I was going to give up a ‘free day’ in any class to go rehearse – that was work.

I thought: I’m the star of the play, he needs me. He’ll wait until after school. He sent for me two or three more times, and if memory serves me correctly, the bear of a director personally came for me. “Little man, come on now. We need to rehearse.”

I didn't budge. A lesser actor replaced me. I sat in the audience on the day of the performance and watched as he butchered a role that had been originally mine.