Pick-up of a Dancer



451 Broadway, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Manhattan

“Excuse me, are you from Denmark?”

What a line.

Yeah, I decide, he looks a little slick, but he’s safe enough.

“From Iowa! But what are you doing in the city?” He knows he is charming. He is fortyish, but has smooth brown skin, a Latin accent, and white linen shoes. White linen shoes in this dirt-dusted city, now that is something. I must look like a complete slob in my high school track shirt with the collar cut out. I just finished dancing. I am sweaty.

“Uh, I just finished dancing over at Dance Space.”

“Isn’t that studio right over there? Yeah, my ex-girlfriend used to dance there. On the fifth floor?”

It was on the sixth. “Yeah.”

“Have you gotten your pictures taken yet?”


“Your headshot. I can give you the best rate in town. I’ll even take the proofs for free and you can see if you like them. Only then do you have to buy them. If you don’t like them, you owe me nothing. Everyone likes them. I have like ten girls waiting for me now to take pictures of them. You obviously couldn’t do them now.” He looks me up and down for the third or fourth time. “But here’s my card. Believe me, it’s the best deal in town.” And what a town.

I know I can handle this city. It is only a place, after all; it isn’t an event, like an earthquake, a test, a death of someone close. But at the same time, I fear the effects of all those events. Will living here be such a culture shock that I’ll want to cry and run home to Mommy? I know I’m not just here to study dance; I’m testing myself, to see if I have the gumption. And will living here change me, harden me, resulting in the death of my old self?

“My name’s Riad, by the way.”

“I’m sorry, what is it?”

“That’s okay, it’s Riad.” I notice his hair, shiny like wet asphalt. The rest of his body isn’t shiny at all, and it is incredibly hot out.

“Nice name. Mine’s Jill. Well, thanks for your card and everything. I guess I better go.”

“Tell me something. Would you be willing to take pictures for me?”

“What?” Is this guy for real?

“I wouldn’t be taking pictures of you, you’d be taking them for me.”

“But I, I don’t know how really.” He’s crazy.

“That’s okay. You’re an artist, you have an artist’s eye. I can tell. I’d train you. It’s really easy.”

Reed? Rad? Riad.

Riad’s shirt is lavender silk. There are no sweat marks, even with the linen pants he wears. I decide to walk with him to “where it’s quieter.” We are on Broadway and Houston. The shoppers are still limping along in their too-tight shoes, the street vendors are still bleating their calls of onlys (Only two bucks! Fresh fruit! Hot nuts only a buck! Name brand purses! We’ve got Prada! Only ten dollars!), the cell-phoners are still running into people. I walk with him for a few blocks before I get uncomfortable.

“I really better go pretty soon.”

“We’re almost there. Just around the corner I think there’s a good spot. I can’t believe there aren’t any benches or anything.”

“Yeah, I know. You have to go to a park or a restaurant and buy something just to sit down!” We both shake our heads in mutual disbelief. Here is a guy who has a weekend home in Bermuda and a loft in Soho — I saw it on his card — and he’s interested in something I have to offer. Even if it’s my “European looks,” who really cares? In class I’m just one of 30 or 40 who struggle to get to the front of the room to try and see the instructor’s slips and slides and bends and breaks.

I got really sad again today. I danced badly in Michael Foley’s class, for one thing – and whenever that happens I think, how the hell am I supposed to get a dance job if I can’t pick this up? I’m encouraged in some respects. I see other dancers in class or at performances and definitely feel I can do it, but I am troubled when I can’t relax enough in class or pick up the steps fast enough. (Enough, enough. Isn’t anything ever enough?) How long can I go – am I willing to go – without getting dance work when I move to New York? I’m scared of that, and what kind of job I’ll have in the meantime, and if I’ll feel kind of lonely and discouraged like I do right now. But this, this is interesting…

The street isn’t exactly deserted. I find a spot with the least amount of old gum, dirt, and flattened cigarette butts. We sit on a cement stoop. Riad sits up a step, apologizing, because there are no clean spots next to me. I don’t feel unsafe. I can still smell tar mixed with honey roasted peanuts. I can still hear the steady rush hour soundtrack. Below the stairs is a restaurant with a large window that the diners can see through, and besides, it is still light out. The tables are dressed in white cloth and the dishes sparkle. Are rich people less likely to run out and save a woman being assaulted? Riad seems like he really wants something from me. I don’t believe that it is photography; couldn’t he just hire a professional? I don’t think it’s sex or anything, either, but I listen to him very carefully to detect anything in his voice that might reveal such motives.

“You would be supplied with a laptop computer, a digital camera, and a 35 mm camera. I would teach you, of course, how to use them all. Tell me something. Do you listen well?”

I feel like I am being interviewed now, and I don’t want to screw up. Matching his direct eye contact I say, “Um, I think I do. I try to be a good listener.” Weak, Jill.

“That’s what I thought. You seem like a good listener. You see, I’d be taking you to Europe and, although everyone speaks English there, sometimes their accents are very thick and you have to listen to them closely.” I nod my head as if I knew all along he wanted to take me to Europe and supply me with expensive technology and it all made perfect sense.

“You would take pictures for two databases, buildings and people. One of the reasons I spotted you out of the crowd was that you look European. People in Europe hate Americans so they’ll be more agreeable to having their picture taken by someone who looks like one of them.” What will they think when I open my mouth, I think.

Opportunities like this, like this could be, don’t come along everyday. Isn’t it all about connections? In dance it’s the people from Julliard and SUNY-Purchase who tend to get dance jobs. That is the difference from them and everyone else. I know, I’m being too negative. It’s just that they seem to get jobs a lot easier.

Come on, Jill. You’re doing pretty good. I think you could actually live here. There’s a lot of concrete (since when is a playground, where the only green thing in it is the paint, called a park?), but things grow here. People grow. The buildings built closer, the stories stacked higher, the autos all faster. (They start honking before the light turns green, in anticipation.) People never stroll. They walk an Alice-in-Wonderland’s white rabbit pace.

It won’t hurt to find out more. “What kind of databases?”

“Well,” he began slowly, as if he was hesitant to expose something, “the databases are for an Internet site I am creating. I can’t get too specific about it because the Internet is a very competitive business.”

Wait a minute. “Oh, yeah? So competitive that you can’t tell your employee why she would want to travel to another continent with a strange man to do photography, a vocation she has never done before? Why don’t you just hire a professional photographer?”

Riad smiles knowingly, but I think I can detect a little more guard in his eyes. “You’re smart, Jill. Perfect. You’re just what I need. I guess I can tell you just a little more about the Internet site, but you must promise to tell no one.”

“Sure, okay.”

“Well, every year hundreds of rich people in Europe leave their houses to go traveling. These wonderful houses are left bare for no one to enjoy. My Internet service would connect travelers looking for a nice place to stay, some place more like home. The rich people, in turn, would get paid just by leaving an empty house behind, a house that would then be filled with life, with joy, with dreamy European travelers eager to keep the house as beautiful as ever. You would take pictures of these houses and of the owners. I would pay for everything except for your food. I can’t support a caviar habit you know.” He winks at me and gives another knowing smile; this time his eyes are arrogant.

For some reason I want him to like me. You always hear about people getting their big break from just one person. Maybe he can’t give me a career, but — “Wouldn’t a free trip to Europe be nice? Everyone your age dreams about a chance like this coming up.” Riad’s words echo my thoughts.

Remembering he hasn’t yet answered my question about getting a real photographer to do the job, I ask him about it again. He replies, “They’re too expensive, and for my purposes the photography certainly doesn’t have to be award-winning.” The smile again. I notice how white his teeth are.

“Okay, I guess that makes sense. And I’ve never been to Europe before.” What am I saying to this mysterious man? I want him to think I’m interested; why? (He weekends in Bermuda…I can reach him 24 hours a day on his cell phone.)

So this is New York.

“Well,” he continued. “Why pay more when it’s really not necessary. This is a good deal for me and you, Jill. You see, I put an ad in the Village Voice. Maybe thirteen people answered it, but none of them were quite right. One girl thought I wanted to be her sugar daddy. Another guy was a trained photographer and expected to get paid lots of cash. Isn’t an all expense-paid European vacation – 30 countries in three weeks – enough? All but one of the guys who had answered the ad came on to me. I don’t have anything against gay guys, but it was creepy.”

Riad’s charm is beginning to cloy. I say that I’ll think about it. It’s getting late and I must go now. I notice a smudge on his linen pants from a cigarette butt. Even with his white teeth, I wouldn’t be surprised if he smokes. He requests that I get back to him within three weeks. He gives me his beeper number where I can reach him at any time and asks for my number and some other minor information concerning how long I’ll be around.

I give it to him.

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