Look Homeward, Brooklyn

We move the summer before ninth grade from our four-room apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to a four-bedroom Colonial house with a two-car garage on the south shore of Long Island. A town where every street is a drive or a place or a court. A place where kids play softball in the street and basketball in their driveways and roller skate in the park.

I do not play softball. I cannot shoot a basketball. I have scabs on both of my knees from learning how to roller skate. I do not want to move. I do not like change. I am six feet tall and weigh one hundred and twenty pounds, a walking hanger. My face breaks out, and I start to shave at the same time. I bear a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Newman on the cover of MAD Magazine.

“What about all my friends?” I plead to my parents, desperate.

“Don’t worry,” they say, knowingly. “You’ll make another one.”

I spend a lot of time alone that summer in our new four bedroom house. I am bored and restless, and I read, watch television, and snoop through everyone’s belongings. I discover my brother’s secret stash of pornographic magazines, like "Playboy" and "Penthouse," and hidden even deeper, the really filthy ones like "Screw" and "Spread." I read all of them cover to cover. In the back, there are ads from women who give massages; women with names like Delilah and Candida. I call the numbers in the ads and then hang up when someone answers. I call back and ask things like, “How much do you charge?” and stuff like that, until Delilah or Candida say, “Hey, how old are you anyway,” and I lower my voice and say, “Twenty-three,” and then they say, “Yeah, right!” and hang up on me.

“I hate this!” I say aloud, and there is no one in the house to answer me. I hate the fact that I have zero friends. I hate the fact that I am stuck in this big house on this drive on Long Island making prank phone calls to prostitutes and, worse yet, not following through.

What do I want to do? I say to myself. What do I want to do? I say again, this time aloud. What do you want to do? I ask myself over and over, walking from bedroom to bedroom to kitchen to den. What do you really want to do with your life?

“I want to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts,” I announce to my father one night as he sits in the den in his underwear, smoking a cigar, and watching "Bonanza."

My father nods, calmly. He doesn’t bring up Little League, which I joined for a week, played one game, quit, and left my parents to foot the bill for the crisply pressed uniform that still hangs in my bedroom closet; or the Cub Scouts, where my membership was so brief, that I never got a chance to wear any uniform.

“If that’s want you want to do,” nods my father, “I’m behind you one hundred percent. Get me some more information.”

That’s when I hand him the brochure. My father reads it from cover to cover.

“If that’s what you want to do, he says, still very calm, “make an appointment for an audition.”

That’s when I hand my father the date for my audition.

That’s when he turns off "Bonanza."

My father and I go shopping for clothes for me to wear to my audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. My father picks out a pair of yellow pants with a black snakeskin design.

“I can’t wear something like that”, I tell him, but my father, who works in advertising in Greenwich Village, says, “Trust me, these pants are in.”

The fact that my father, who is three times my age, and listens to Harry James and Benny Goodman and Helen Morgan, knows what’s in, and I don’t, leaves me depressed.

I wake up with hives on the morning of my audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I am itching all over with red scaly welts, but I do not tell anyone because I do not want to cancel my audition. My mother, who catches me with my right hand down the front of my pants, scratching frantically, shakes her head disapprovingly.

“Honey, I hope you’re not going to do that when you’re on the stage.”

My father drives me into the city to Madison Avenue and 28th Street. A receptionist gives me an application and a scene from a play to read. To this day, I can’t remember if it is Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or Anton Chekhov, but I know that I will be reading it in front of a stranger. My groin is itching like crazy, and I sit on the bench in front of the receptionist, slowly moving my pelvis back and forth for relief. The receptionist looks up for a minute, and I freeze in mid thrust.

My name is called, and I walk toward the auditorium. I catch a glimpse of myself in a full length mirror; all six feet and one hundred twenty pounds of me with a wisp of a mustache that has barely grown above my upper lip and my chemically straightened blonde hair that looks like somebody plopped a straw hat onto my hair and my yellow pants with the black snakeskin design, a fire-engine red shirt, a black belt with a silver buckle and matching black sandals, sandals! and I think, Oh my God, what was I thinking? I’m auditioning at the most prestigious acting school in the United States, a place where Edward G. Robinson and Spencer Tracy walked the hallways, and I look like something right out of an Andy Warhol movie.

I make a mental note to kill my father for making me wear those damn pants.

I stand on a round stage in the auditorium. Someone sits in the back. It is dark, and I can’t tell who it is. I hold my play by Miller or Williams or Chekhov, I can’t remember, and I have tried to memorize some of it, but right now my hands are shaking, and I pray I don’t drop the book. I’m trying hard not to concentrate on the increasing itch several inches beneath my ugly belt buckle. The voice in the back of the theater asks me to read, so I begin. It’s actually going pretty well, me standing there grinding my thighs together, reading from Williams, or Miller, or Chekhov, or whoever the heck it is, when I do something really dumb. I look up. I look up because my public speaking teacher always told us to make eye contact with the audience, which, in this case, means one person sitting in the last row of the theater whom I haven’t even met, and when I look back down at the words in my hand, I lose my place.

I start reading the first line my eyes focus on, which is a line I read three lines ago, so I start making up words, any words, to stall for enough time to find the line I was originally reading. I’m actually standing on stage at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts verbally plagiarizing Williams or Miller or Chekhov or whoever the hell I’m supposed to be reading, and I’m uttering a bunch of nonsense trying to find my place so I can finish this damn thing I’m reading, which, by the way, I can’t make heads or tails of, and get off this stage and into the nearest bathroom and undo my yellow pants with the black snakeskin design and pull down my Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear and scratch myself to heaven. I pick a line, any line, and I race through the piece faster and faster and cannot wait to finish and jump off that stage. Finally, out of breath, I stop.»

“Thank you,” says the voice from the back.

I run out of the theater, past the receptionist, past my father, and into the nearest restroom. When I emerge, my father is standing there with open arms and a big grin.

“You’re in!” he says.

Just like that.  I couldn’t understand it.

Riding through the Midtown Tunnel on the way home my father leans over and pats my leg.

“They liked the pants,” he says, satisfied, as if a snakeskin design had anything to do with my acceptance into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

And at this point I don’t argue.

I wake up at six o’clock in the morning on the second Saturday in October for my first acting class. A cab takes me to the Long Island Railroad station which takes me into New York’s Pennsylvania Station where I grab the 34th street cross-town bus. I am no longer a fifteen-year-old refugee from the geek table at a Long Island high school. I am Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s, "Look Homeward, Angel," and I am leaving my rural hometown in North Carolina to start a new life in the big city.

There are twelve students in the Saturday teenage program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and they come from a host of distant and exotic locales: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Mamaroneck and Scotch Plains, New Jersey, which, being from Long Island by way of Brooklyn are the kinds of places I’ve only read about on road maps. One of them, a girl of seventeen with a mass of curly hair and an enormous bosom that she displays proudly, approaches me and extends her hand.

"Hi, I’m Lynda."

"Hi, Lynda," I say.

Linda thrusts her chest toward me.

"That’s LYnda with a y," she says, defiantly, as if expecting, even daring me, to disagree.

For the rest of the semester others will snicker and whisper and lewdly refer to the size of her upper frontal anatomy with all the usual immature phrases that kids use, but for me, from that moment on, she remains then, and always, Linda-with-a-y.

Another student, Ann Corbin, arrives in a limousine and in full theater makeup. She is fifteen, but reminds me of one of my mother’s friends. She doesn’t talk to any of us, and during our music class belts out a tune from a Broadway show that ends with, “I am going to be a star, dammit!” and you know she means it, too, dammit.

There are only two other boys in the class; Ron Noodleman, from Howard Beach, Queens, who arrives wearing as much make-up as Ann Corbin; and Leonard Frankel, a white kid with an enormous Afro from the Bronx who has a speech impediment and tries to sing "Try to Remember" from "The Fantastiks," but he pronounces try as twy and twy, twy, twy as he might, he can’t get it right.

At this point I’m starting to feel like I’m Steve McQueen compared to these guys, when the door opens and in walks Ric O’Reilly. Ric O’Reilly is taller than me. He is better looking than me. He is a better actor than I am. He is my competition. Ric O’Reilly will go on to be nominated for an Academy Award several years later, and I will watch the awards show on television and seethe with envy as he parades down the red carpet with his date, reporters scrambling for his attention, but a short time later Ric O’Reilly’s career will peak and then wane and fade to a whisper, and by then I could care less.

But, of course, I do not know this at the time.

All I know is that anytime any of the girls need a partner for a kissing scene they all pick Ric O’Reilly.

Our speech teacher is John Forbes, and he reminds me of George Sanders, the type of proper Englishman you’d expect to find hosting Masterpiece Theater in front of a fireplace, wearing an ascot and puffing from a long cigarette holder.

We are each asked to read a selection from our favorite book, and when I am called on I read a passage from "The Catcher in the Rye." I have practiced this selection for weeks and as I read I feel the emotion in my voice rise up. Suddenly I am Holden Caulfield and every other angst-ridden male, from Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," to James Dean in every one of his three movies. I continue reading and I know, I just know, that when I am finished I will look up and John Forbes will rise from his chair and pronounce, “Good God, Boy! you are magnificent!” and take me by the arm and lead me down the hall where I will read for another teacher, a teacher with great power and great connections, and before I am even finished this other teacher will proclaim to Mr. Forbes, “Good God, you’re right!” and then I will be given a role in a new movie, and my reading as Holden Caulfied in "The Catcher in the Rye" will be likened to Marlon Brando’s I-coulda-been-a-contenda soliloquy in the back of the car with Rod Steiger in "On the Waterfront," and I, too, will become a contender.

I finish my passage from "The Catcher in the Rye" and look up to find Forbes with his head down on the desk. Silence. After about a minute of this Forbes looks up and leans back and takes a deep breath.

“You’re from Brooklyn, aren’t you?” he declares, and I nod my head yes.

“Is there anyone else here from Brooklyn?” he bellows, and everyone is quiet and they look down at the floor.

And as I stand there, tall, skinny and vowelly challenged, prepared to defend my Brooklyn heritage and bastardization of New York as “New Yawk” and coffee as “cawfee,” Leonard Frankel, the kid with the blonde Afro, meekly raises his hand.

“I’m from the Bwonx”, he volunteers, and John Forbes bangs his head back down on the desk.

Robert Weinberger was raised across the street from the Cyclone roller coaster ride at the world-renowned Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, New York. Despite this trauma, he has forged an eclectic career as an entertainment publicist, journalist, and screenwriter. His screenplay, Tell Me a Movie, was a finalist in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowships in Screenplay competition, and his memoirs have been published in Memoir Journal and Ink Filled Page. In a previous life, Robert toiled as a publicist for Universal Pictures, working with some of the most recognizable names in the entertainment industry — none of whom return his phone calls.

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§ 4 Responses to “Look Homeward, Brooklyn”

  • Mary Simo says:

    I wanted t0 give 5 stars but it would not let me rate it for some reason..

    I absolutely loved this story!!!! As a former actress myself, I could definitely relate to the nerve racking first steps into the “biz”. The author’s sense of time and place just shined as brightly as that great image of those yellow snake-skinned pants. The humor and character details were warm hearted and simply hilarious. I wanted to read more to see what this new actor was going to do next.. Loved it..

  • This is great! Is it part of something longer?

  • Luisa Mesa says:

    Beautifully written! I absolutely loved every bit of it…!

  • Margarita Rodriguez says:

    Very good. Is there more?

§ Leave a Reply

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