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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