Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Feels Like Home: How I Got to New York

Familiarity
When my father found out he was dying he decided he wanted to make memories while there was still time.  So the summer I turned 11, he took me to New York.  He booked a package deal that included three nights at the Waldorf, two Broadway shows, and a tour of Manhattan.  It was my first time in the city, but there was an immediate feeling of familiarity I can’t quite explain.



Making a Home
I was determined to make New York my home.  My mother said I could go as long as I graduated from high school and paid for it myself.  And so at 16, I did.  The Markel Evangeline Residence for Women was my first home.  It sat in the heart of the West Village on a tree-lined street.  We were provided with two meals a day and weekly linen service.  No men were allowed past the first floor.

In the summer, students moved out and young dancers and aspiring actresses lived there while attending various performing arts programs.  Every morning I would eat breakfast with students studying at the Joffrey Ballet, as well as a couple of former Mousekateers who were trying to reinvent themselves as serious actors, then head off to take classes, audition, and explore the city.

All of our phone calls went through the main switch board, which was answered, “Salvation Army Markel Evangeline Residence for Women.  How may I direct your call?”  For anyone who didn’t know better, it sounded like I was living in a women’s shelter.  But it was an ideal way for a young woman, not yet legal, to find her way in the big city.

Before I left for New York my grandmother insisted that I meet her friend’s nephew who worked in the theatre.  Rodger McFarlane was the executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a philanthropic organization that serves the theatre community.  He gave me his card and told me to call him when I got to town.

That summer Rodger took me everywhere:  parties at the Central Park Boathouse, Broadway shows, weekends in the Hamptons.  He introduced me to writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer who, when he heard I was interested in writing told me, “Writing is like throwing up.  You have to get it all out and clean it up later.”

My first job in New York was as a Broadway usher.  It was the perfect job for a theatre kid. I subbed around at different theatres, which allowed me to see all of the shows on Broadway that I otherwise couldn’t afford.  It was a job that I worked on and off for more than 10 years.

Hell's Kitchen
The summer ended and I stayed.  Eventually I moved into a rent-stabilized apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, an apartment that would become my home for more than 11 years.  Unable to afford a broker, I waited for the Village Voice to come out, then sat outside the landlord’s office until he opened the next morning.  At 18, I had no credit history or steady income, but I did have 6 months of rent that I could pay in advance if he’d just take a risk on me.  The apartment was a railroad flat in a walk-up building.  The ceiling in the bathroom caved in every 18 months and my stove was older than me.  It was filled with mismatched furniture bought at thrift stores or pulled in off the street.  My mother later told me that she always knew I’d never come back. She said that part of being a parent is knowing when to let your child go.  She knew I was ready.  She had faith in me.

Navigating the city made me feel independent, autonomous, powerful.  Over the years I pieced together a living babysitting and ushering.  I worked in offices and as a production assistant, freelancing while I was writing plays.  I ended up square dancing with Paul Newman at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut and working as the PR assistant for Isabella Rossellini’s line of makeup.  There was the limousine ride I took with Jacques Chirac and the time I sang on stage at the Shubert Theatre.  I was living the life I had spent my childhood imagining.  And even though money was always tight, I had my little railroad flat to go home to.

Over the years the apartment provided temporary shelter for friends and family.  It’s where friends congregated to eat spaghetti and call their parents in the hours after 9/11, where plays where written, and where I studied for two college degrees.  There were the Girl’s Nights where we laughed, and cried, and talked of falling in and out of love, and the nights when a dozen young playwrights would crowd in and read their work.  It’s where my mother and I sat on the couch after doctors at Sloan Kettering told us her prognosis was grim and where I celebrated my first New York production.

My time in New York is limited now.  But even when I've been away, the same feeling of familiarity comes rushing back as I navigate the streets.  I stop off at the Little Pie Company for carrot cake, and scour the shelves of the Strand and the HousingWorks bookstore.  I see shows and visit with friends.  I watch as my daughter discovers the city and am grateful that I have the opportunity to introduce her to the city I love so dearly. And I hope New York never stops feeling like home.


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Monday, June 19, 2017

Dreaming of New Orleans

There are those who are born in New Orleans, those who move to New Orleans, and those who dream of New Orleans.  A microcosm of America’s melting pot, New Orleans is a city whose people are as diverse as its history.

My parents lived there in the years before I was born.  My dad worked for British Leland and my mom taught school in the Lower Ninth ward.  They shared an apartment on Chartres Street across from the Le Richelieu Hotel.  My mom was a fixture at the Greek bar down the street and my father faithfully marched in the Parade of Underwear each year.  But then my mother got pregnant after they were both told they couldn’t have children and they decided to move back to Mobile where they would have family support.  I never quite forgave them for that; I would have made an excellent French Quarter baby.


When Mobile felt too small, New Orleans became our mecca.  My mom and I would drive to New Orleans for the day, sometimes with just $20, where we would find street parking, then split a Po-Boy at Maspero’s in the Quarter.  We would stop off at the Idea Factory where we tested all of the wooden toys.  I loved reading the historic markers and eating beignets at CafĂ© DuMont.  We would ride the streetcar out to the Camellia Grill, then walk over to Yvonne La Fleur to try on hats. An entire day could be spent wandering through the bookstores and vintage clothing shops.  You don’t need a lot of money in New Orleans; the people and the landscape are enough to keep you entertained. 

My dad and I would make trips to New Orleans as well, often driving his 1961 Rolls Royce. We would meander through the French Quarter where we would stop to watch the street musicians.  I loved to imagine the stories the buildings could tell.  Before we left he would wrap his arms around the lampposts and pull his body into horizontal position, while I begged him to stop, mortified.  It was the perfect place to retreat to when we needed to escape or buy a little happiness.

When my mom knew she was dying she asked me to take her to New Orleans one last time.  Katrina had devastated the city just months before, and she needed to see for herself that her beloved city was still there.  I drove her through the Ninth Ward where red x’s marked the houses.  We wandered through the French Quarter making our requisite stop at the Idea Factory.  It was bittersweet; we both knew this would be the last time we would walk the familiar streets together.

It is in New Orleans, in some ways, that I feel closest to my parents.  It is where they both seemed happiest and where some of our best memories were made.  It is where I learned my first lessons about diversity, acceptance, and how to keep a beat.  It is where my ex-husband proposed, where I fell in love with Tennessee Williams, and where I gave my first performance tap dancing on a street corner.


I’ve carried on the tradition.  Each year after Christmas my daughter and I drive to New Orleans and I watch as she scours the French Quarter shops with money in hand.  We eat beignets and ride the street car, and I tell her stories about her grandparents and the memories we made together.

Dreaming of New Orleans is part of a three part series on the places that 
helped shape my life.  

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Capturing The World


Each month when National Geographic arrived in our mailbox, I would sit on our couch after school and pore over every story looking for Jodi Cobb’s name.  One of the first female photographers for National Geographic, Jodi’s photographs explore the human condition and capture secret worlds, worlds that I was mesmerized by as a child.  Jodi was my hero.

Heroes play an important role in our lives. They encourage us to transform ourselves for the better.  Our heroes provide us with a reflection of who we are and who we aspire to be, often serving as a moral compass.  Their accomplishments and what they stand for provide both inspiration and direction.  They introduce us to possibility, nourish our hopes, and affirm our most cherished values.


Specializing in long-form photojournalism, Jodi has repeatedly put herself in harm’s way while in search of the perfect, most honest photograph.  With a career that spans four decades, much of her work focuses on human rights issues and the condition of women around the world.  Through her work she gained unprecedented access to the Geisha women of Japan, which resulted in a Pulitzer-nominated book, as well as the sheltered lives of the women of Saudi Arabia. She sought to explore the definition of beauty as defined by cultures around the world and documented 21st Century slavery by exposing the harsh realities of human trafficking.

Jodi was introduced to other cultures at an early age. Her father’s work in the oil business took them all over the world giving her an early taste for travel and an acute understanding of just how big the world really is.  By the time she was 12 she had been around the world twice. When her family finally returned to the States, Jodi found herself trying to explain to others what the world was like, a mission that fueled her career as a photojournalist.

After high school, Jodi went on to earn a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and returned for a master’s degree in photojournalism.  Her work – and her perseverance – quickly earned the attention of National Geographic. The world of photojournalism was very male-dominated at the time, but Jodi was determined to prove herself.  Her persistence paid off: she was the first woman to be named White House Photographer of the Year. 

For the past two years, Jodi has been hidden away in her attic compiling her retrospective, a book that will feature photographs from her career.  It’s a daunting task:  forty years of photographs must be narrowed down to the 500 that best represent her work.  Loyal to film, Jodi only started shooting digitally around 10 years ago, making the process tedious.  But the effort will be worthwhile: by telling the stories of these underrepresented communities, she is also telling her own story; it is the story of her own life in pictures.

Even though her work takes her away for months at a time, she has made DC her home.  We meet at a busy restaurant that affords us a view of the water and the Kennedy Center.  My daughter is with me for this lunch armed with her own questions and insights about Jodi’s work.  Jodi is patient as she listens to a six-year-old's reflections on her work.

We are related in a way that only Southern people take the time to keep track of; my grandmother and her father are first cousins. We are from branches of the family far enough removed from one another that our paths have never crossed.  There are so many questions I want to ask and she knows it.  She brushes them off saying she wants to know more about me.  We exchange stories and family folklore.  As we talk I see hints of my mother and her cousins in Jodi’s face:  the eyes, the smile.  The relationship might be distant, but the genes are strong.

As lunch comes to an end I thank her for being a great role model and for introducing me to a world filled with possibilities.  There’s a great lesson to be learned in revisiting our past and reflecting on who our own heroes are and what they represent for us.  It also serves as a reminder that there may be people watching us from afar and we may never know the impact we have on their lives. 

When we return home I go back to teaching and driving carpool.  On our way to swim practice one afternoon I hear my daughter in the backseat, explaining to two friends that there are places in the world where women wear gold rings around their necks to protect them from lions and tigers.  She knows this to be true, she assures them, because a photographer told her about them and there are pictures to prove it.  It’s a story she heard from Jodi, whose work continues to inspire the next generation of young women.
- Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder


You can follow Jodi on Instagram at @jodicobbphoto

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