As a teenager, I went to an acting school in Manhattan. My ultimate plan was to move to Los Angeles to become a movie star, but first I felt it was important to have some respectable New York training and a few New York theatre credits on my resume. What happened was exactly what happens to most actors who go to acting school in Manhattan: I fell in love with the city and decided that Los Angeles could wait.
While taking classes, I stayed for a couple of months at a YMCA within walking distance from the school, and there was a period of six weeks that I lived with my aunt and uncle in Queens and took the subway into Manhattan. For the rest of the time, which was most of the time, I commuted on the Long Island Railroad while I was still living at home.
It took me five years before I found a place of my own, three blocks from the Holland Tunnel, on the Jersey side. During those five years, I looked for an apartment every now and then, in between taking roles in community theatre on Long Island. I was also working at the A&P as a cashier, saving up for the big move into the city. Eventually.
Part of the long delay was that I was just not ready. I was very much a kid. Another part was that people saw me as just a kid, and were reluctant to rent to me.
“You still live at home?”
“You’re an actor? Oh.”
The interviews went pretty much the same every time. They would scrunch up their faces and wonder how I would be able to pay the rent if I didn’t have a job-job and I was so impossibly young. If it wasn’t for a friend of mine recommending me to her landlords, and vouching for me, it may have taken another five years before I was able to sign a lease.
Two funny things about that. First, I wound up living in my brownstone garden apartment for thirteen years, before finally moving to Los Angeles. Those landlords thought they were gambling on me, but it turns out I was a safe bet.
Second, there was the day a lady came into the men’s sweater showroom office where I was working my nine to five job in the fashion district. I had been hired as a receptionist and data entry clerk, and would be called upon to model during the weeks when all the buyers from department stores across the country would travel to NYC to place their orders.
“You look familiar, have we met before?”
She couldn’t place me, but I recognized her instantly. She was one of the scrunched up faces who declined to rent me the tiny bedroom in her untidy five bedroom apartment she shared with messy roommates who had not cleaned the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, even knowing they would be showing the vacant room to a prospective tenant that day. Also, with a cat, who jumped up on my lap and began purring instantly.
“Oh, wow. He never does that. He doesn’t like people.”
Instead of living in that crowded hovel, I had my own beautiful apartment in an 1860s brownstone, with exposed brick and French doors and an antique redwood mantle on the fireplace and a clawfoot bathtub and the original ceramic stove. I loved every inch of that apartment, and had found a perfectly respectable job-job, and now was so glad this scrunched up lady had ignored the advice of her cat.
Another friend had also tried to help me find a place while I was still living at home and dreaming of becoming an actor. She was a friend of my mother’s, and was an actress and singer, and was living in a high-rise tower that was full of government subsidized apartments for performing artists. I’d been there a few times, and even house sat for her once or twice. She had cats, and when she was out of town, I stayed in her studio apartment and took care of the cats.
The place had a long waiting list for people who wanted to move in. Understandably, since it was centrally located, just blocks away from the theatre district, and the rent was cheap. Not controlled, but subsidized. So you paid a percentage of what you earned. Of course actors were clamoring to get in.
This friend had said she could help me get my name on the list. It might take a few years, but what did I have to lose?
I was not particularly happy about the notion of living in a high-rise, to be honest, but it was the few years part that kept me from putting my name on the list. At that age, the prospect of waiting a few years seemed unbearable. What if it took ten years? I’d be so old by then!
This past Christmas, I found myself back at that building, while visiting some other friends who are now living there. (They waited twenty years!) In the lobby, I watched people come and go. Actors, most of them, probably, but also other people in the business. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it must be like to live in that environment. To ride up in the elevator and meet this agent or that producer. To find out your next door neighbor is on Broadway. Oh and hey, there is an audition coming up for a director who lives on the nineteenth floor. You know, the kooky lady with the white poodle.
In the elevator, I looked at two guys standing next to me. Were they in a theatre company together? Did they have a network of artists who had all met because they lived in this building? What if I was living here, instead of visiting friends? How many times would I be standing next to someone in the elevator, or chatting with a neighbor, and discover a possible work opportunity? A show, a play, a writer’s circle?
After getting out on the right floor, I paused to study the view from the large plate glass window. Writing a story in my mind, a story of parallel lives. How different would my journey have been, had I put my name on that list as a teenager? Living in midtown Manhattan for a ridiculously low rent. Would I have even needed a car? How easy would it have been to walk to and from rehearsals? To make contacts with other people whose paths I crossed in the course of the day? The week? The year?
How much sooner might have I joined the union? How many more regional theatre jobs might I have gotten? Maybe I might have done more work Off-Broadway? Maybe I might have found work on Broadway?
It’s pure speculation, of course. The truth is that I lived the life I’ve lived, and there is no point in exploring parallel universes. Other than as an interesting writing exercise. There are too many unknowns to commit to any conclusions for certain. If I lived in a high-rise stack of identical generic apartments, would I have been as happy as I was in my beautiful historic home, with the kitchen window access to an actual backyard, with trees? A window into which my landlord’s lovable blue-eyed Husky would poke her head and howl to wake me up in the morning?
If I never had a car, would I have done all that Shakespeare in New Jersey? Would I have had the chance to develop my clown and mime skills, working parties all over the tri-state area? A set of skills I now rely upon here in LA.
Might have. May have. Who knows? We make the choices we do, and the best way is to be grateful for that.