After work on Tuesdays, my mother comes home to the apartment in the Ansonia Hotel where we live with my grandmother and takes me to acting class. The year is 1952. I hate acting class even worse than I hate second grade! My mother says I will learn how to speak with “charm and grace.” But she doesn’t fool me. I know why she sends me there. She wants me to stop talking out the side of my mouth like my father. Talking out the side of my mouth makes me feel like my father. I can be my father when I talk like him. I can be strong and tough. I can have him with me all the time, not just on Saturday night at C & L Restaurant, or on Sunday afternoons, or on nights when he stops by Nana’s apartment–which is across the hall from the room he rented when my parents separated–to say goodnight.
In acting class, I don’t say a word. I don’t look at anyone. For an hour, while I stand under a spotlight, in front of a heavy black curtain, beside other kids, mostly older, who, unlike me, really want to act, I keep my head down, stare at the wooden floor of the stage and pretend to be invisible. The kids stifle giggles when the teacher asks me to read a line in a play, or repeat a line exactly the way he has said it.
When he calls on me, I get the same feeling I had in the auditorium at P.S. 87 the day all the kids in second grade were sitting in assigned seats and the teacher at the podium pointed to me out of two hundred pupils. She was checking to see if we had the right seats. I was sitting in the center. All eyes were on me. “What’s your name?” she said.
In a whisper, I said, “Roberta Allen.”
“What?” the teacher said. “Speak up!”
“Roberta Allen,” I mumbled.
“Louder!” she said. “I can’t hear you!”
“Roberta Allen!” I said, my anger beginning to show.
“I still can’t hear you!”
“ROBERTA ALLEN!” I finally screamed, my voice powered by rage.
One day I decide I’ve had enough of acting class. I am standing in the noisy school yard with Diane Pine, a girl in my class, waiting for the bell. My mouth set, my arms folded across my seven-year-old chest, I say to her, “I’m not going to acting class! My mommy can’t make me! I’m gonna run away!”
“You are?” Diane Pine’s blue eyes open wide.
“I’m gonna make greeting cards and sell them on the street!”
“You are?” Diane Pine says.
With Diane Pine as my accomplice, I run away after school on Tuesday, the day of my next acting class. I have everything I need. A drawing tablet. Blue ballpoint pens my father gave me for drawing. Pencils. Crayons I stole from the supply cabinet. At night, after I sell greeting cards and pay Diane Pine for leftovers from dinner, I am going to sleep under her bed so her mother and father won’t find me.
Diane Pine lives on 74th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West in a basement apartment in a brownstone. In order to get there, we have to walk down a dangerous side street. We pass drunks, low-lifes, women in short, tight skirts. They stand around, talking loudly on the stoops of decaying tenements. I watch them out of the corner of my eye. This is adventure! I tell myself. But when we cross Columbus Avenue on our way towards Central Park West, we are back in ordinary life.
“Remember,” Diane Pine says, “you have to be very quiet.”
We creep down the stone stairs to her apartment. Diane Pine unlocks the door. To our left is the living room. The blinds are drawn. The only light comes from the TV. The sound is turned down real low. Her mother, The Burnt Log, lies on the sofa, dozing under a blanket. Diane Pine told me she does that every day. The Burnt Log fell asleep one night with a lit cigarette and burned most of her body and part of her face. We tiptoe past her over the living room carpet to reach Diane Pine’s room in back but suddenly the floor creaks and wakes her up. She opens one eye, then the other. The fire has not damaged her sight. Or her hearing.
“What are you doing, Diane?” she says, lifting herself, painfully it seems, onto her skeletal elbows, and looking me up and down. “Who’s this?”
“Roberta,” Diane Pine says. “She’s in my class.”
“What is Roberta doing here?”
Diane Pine is quiet. She shuffles her feet.
“What’s going on?” The Burnt Log says. To look at her, you wouldn’t think she had that much of a voice.
Diane Pine sighs. “Roberta ran away. I said she could sleep under my bed at night.
She’s gonna make greeting cards and sell them on the street.”
“She’s what?” The Burnt Log is silent for a moment. “She can’t stay here! Diane, give me the phone!”
Diane Pine looks at me, helplessly, while she obeys her mother.
“What’s your last name Roberta?”
“Allen,” I say, in a whisper.
“Where do you live?”
“Does your mother know what you’re doing?”
I shake my head no.
“She must be worried sick! Diane, you better not try anything like this!”
“No, Mommy,” she says. I feel sort of bad for Diane Pine, but not nearly as bad as I feel for myself. The Burnt Log calls my mother.
When my mother arrives, she puts on her “nice act” for The Burnt Log. As soon as we are out the door, however, she wears her gargoyle face and drags me up the stairs to the street. Shaking me like a dirty rag, she shouts, “Little devil! You humiliated me in front of that woman!”
But she never makes me go to acting class again.
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books and a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met. She also teaches Micro Memoirs at The New School and conducts private writing workshops.