The Camera and The Audience

by

04/25/2018

Neighborhood: Midtown, Times Square

It’s a summer Sunday in New York and my father and I take the subway to 57th Street. We’re going to a movie called My Fair Lady. The movie is about a lady who wears old clothes and then fancy clothes, and goes to a ball where everybody loves her because now she’s pretty. As we leave the theater, I am singing a song from the movie, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”

I sing all day and into the night, standing in my nightgown on the top bunk of the bed I share with my four-year-old brother. I stand on the bed and imagine an audience. They stare up at me, waiting to break into applause. I sing until I pass out.

I wake up the next day and the audience is still there. They watch everything I do and discuss it. Mostly they think I’m enchanting, like the lady in the movie, so I do things to enchant them. I pretend to be an accomplished ballerina, to speak French and Chinese. I dress up in my mother’s fancy clothes and pose to be admired. The audience murmurs, “Yes.”

By the time I turn seven, I know why the audience is there: it is because I am an actress. Not just an actress but also a very great one, destined for fame. My parents seem to agree, calling me Sarah Bernhardt. But they say this in a way that’s also making fun and then I have to have a tantrum before I go back to my room to perform for the audience.
Sometimes the audience is replaced by a camera.

The camera watches. If I cry, it sees me cry. If I’m embarrassed, it’s doubly embarrassing because it’s being recorded. There is no place to hide but this is also good because I get to practice being convincing all the time.

I also practice being pretty. This is a challenge because my hair is unruly and I have terrible eyesight but won’t wear glasses because they make my eyes look bulgier than they naturally are. But through will and device and what I see as a matter of survival, I am able to convince people and thus the camera that I am pretty. I flaunt it; I have to; what else do I have that anyone in real life wants?

This does not always work in my favor. For instance, when a Puerto Rican man places his hand on my crotch as I get off the merry-go-round in Prospect Park and says, “I give you five dollars if you suck!” I am eleven and know the word fuck; did he mean to say fuck? It is not in my favor when at thirteen, after looking at the dry cleaning delivery boy through my lashes because I am practicing flirting, the boy follows me down the block saying things I do not understand. I am carrying my dad’s suits.  He pushes me down a stairwell.

“Linda, linda, que linda,” he pants in my ear, pinning my hips to the wall.  I think, wait, this is my movie and it doesn’t go like this. I scratch the boy’s face with the hangers holding my dad’s suits and I run.

The camera gives me strength. It is my constant. It lets me know I am supposed to get the leads in the plays in high school, in college. I get them. I love being primped over, to feel the costumer’s hands pin and tuck. I love stepping inside the skin of a whore, a singer; a murderess, though I suspect

I may be cheating, that instead of my being them, I am having them be me.
I dismiss out of hand my mother’s offer to send me to Yale Drama School.

“Meryl Streep went there,” she says, hopefully, caringly, maybe with some panic.

What am I going to do after college, she wants to know? She says I do not seem ready for anything. But she doesn’t know about the camera.

I get a job as a cocktail waitress at an Irish pub in the South Street Seaport. Four nights a week I bring beer and Scotch eggs to Wall Street traders not much older than me. I make good tips, if not as good as Dawn, a tall girl with a rump like a horse and teeth to match. Dawn wears stirrup pants and knee-high boots and when she is not leaning over customers and letting her waist-length hair tickle their laps, she is standing with me at the bar, chewing gum and telling me that she is a dancer and an actress.

I find this pitiable, think: she’s making this choice rather than having been chosen, and thus her pursuit will be futile. But our shifts are long, and after listening to tales of maybe-callbacks and maybe-managers, I ask Dawn how she gets these auditions.

She narrows her eyes at me and says, “Why do you want to know?”

Which presents a quandary. I never tell people I am an actress, because I think it should be obvious, and also because I feel protective of it. It’s not a thing you take out and flap around; it’s too tender and might not survive.

I tell Dawn anyway. I tell her I act.

“You do?” she says.

Which confirms that I should not be telling people, and also, that I really don’t like Dawn, who now begins to tell me about every upcoming audition, the outfit she will wear. Who one afternoon asks if I can cover for her because, she says, “I have to go home early and loofah my ass.”

Dawn then whips her horsetail ponytail in a circle and explains she is up for a Rodney Dangerfield video that requires she flex her naked ass six inches from the camera. Because it’s early and the café is empty, though perhaps it would have happened anyway, she then leans forward and clenches and unclenches her butt cheeks at me.

Dawn does not get the job.

I quit this job soon after. I start to work for a caterer. I work with three quiet middle-aged women who do not talk about their asses and do not say anything about mine, which expands exponentially with each walnut cookie/cheese gougère/platter of tarragon chicken I prepare, so that fairly soon I am fifteen pounds heavier, I am verily encased in fat, a buffer between me and the rest of the world and the wonders of New York and my youth. I keep my head down. I see little daylight.

I can’t get rid of the camera, but I don’t look at it.

After work, I go to a Ukrainian bar in the East Village, where the drinks are served in small water glasses by an unsmiling Ukrainian bartender who looks as though he might enjoy smashing in the faces of his new scrawny art school customers. I know people by first name only, including Angus, who, when I get queasy from the booze, runs over to a place on First Avenue and buys me spleen sandwiches. Angus has an apartment nearby. After I complain, for the thirtieth time, that I don’t like riding the train home at three in the morning, he invites me move in with him; says he’s figured how he and this other girl I’ve seen exactly once and I can partition his apartment, and to prove it, draws the schematics on a bar napkin. I choose to see Angus as a romantic, a gallant Scotsman in the form of a burly pipe fitter in a soiled undershirt and black hair so greasy you can see the comb marks. I am touched by the offer but do not take him up on it. I continue stumbling to the F train and falling asleep on my way back to Carroll Gardens, where I live alone in a $350 a month railroad apartment.

I have no boyfriends. Sometimes I have sex, with a friend of a friend, someone I meet at a bar. I always go to their place. There is the very drunk Irish kid with the gunshot wound in his gut who lives in the basement of his mother’s brownstone, next door to the Hell’s Angel’s encampment on East Third. There is the lawyer on the Upper West Side who, after forgettable sex on his mattress on the floor, looks beatific as he confesses he is embarrassed by his small fatty breasts. There is the NYU student in whose dorm room we try not to make any noise, which is not hard since his penis is the size of my pinkie. There is the brother of a girl I rowed crew with in college, a man several years older than me who, in the middle of sex, goes to the next room to have an overwrought forty-minute phone call with the married woman with whom he is having an affair. I lay on my back and listen: the woman is, I take it, at an airport with her three young children; she is overwhelmed and requires a good deal of reassurance from a man whose dick is no doubt still wet. He comes back to bed to tell me how trying the woman’s life is; her son is a famous kid actor, they travel all over the world, he’s been in such and such a movie; have I seen it?

In my second year of catering, on a bright May afternoon, I look down at the four-thousandth walnut cookie of my career and realize a monkey could do my job, and that I have to quit, now.

I quit. I get work on indie films, behind the camera, craft services, PA, lighting. I love being the girl that is spattered with paint; whose knuckles are scabbed from climbing a tree in order to run cable. Still, part of me wants to be the one in the dressing room, having the hem of her gown straightened by the wardrobe mistress, having her eye-shadow done just so.

Shortly after turning 24, I am setting up lights at three in the morning for a low-budget slasher-flick about a group of sorority sisters forced to spend the night in a haunted bordello. After watching two blondes get chocolate-syrup “blood” squirted on their baby-doll peignoirs, I get up the nerve to mention to my buddy the gaffer that I want to be in the movies.

He sucks his teeth and says, nicely, “Are you going to bring your own tools?”

After I tell him, nicely, to go fuck himself I think, if I keep working behind the camera, I will not wind up in front of it.

I start to audition. I go on a cattle call, for an off-Broadway play. There are twenty girls ahead of me on the wood stairway of a warehouse in the West Forties; upstairs, there are eighty more. While the ad said, “White, 20-25, must be comfortable with Southern accent,” there are women of all races and ages and at least two transvestites. Full-length mirrors lean against the walls. Girls in various states of undress peer into them, brushing rouge in their cleavages and applying some ghastly stuff marketed as “professional make-up” that smells of linseed oil and is so thick people end up looking like mimes. The girls all talk at once, so much gossip and squealing that one of the casting directors sticks his head from the audition room and says, “You gotta keep it down, ladies,” and the girls all say, “So-rry!,” and the door closes and they start up again. There is a constant plucking at and pruning of one another’s bodies, use my gloss; take my stockings; pinch your nipples, bend over so I can spray your hair. When a girl’s name is called, she shivers herself erect and strides toward the door in her clickety heels, to a whispered chorus of “break a leg!” And when the door closes behind her, the other girls look at it, anticipating, maybe, their own flop or glory.

My name is called. I walk toward the door. If the girls are wishing me luck I don’t hear it. I stand before five casting people seated at a table. We exchange niceties and I think; they’re bored; they’ve done this all day. I ask whether they want me to do a Southern accent. I am told that won’t be necessary, which is good because my lips are so numb I’m afraid I’ll have trouble speaking at all.

I read with one of the casting directors. Afterward, I am looked at for five seconds. I am asked to read another section. I take this as a good sign. I am thanked for coming. I walk back into the room, where all the girls look at me for a beat before going back to their ministrations. I wonder if it would be easier all around if I felt some alliance with them, or if I considered them like sunflowers turning their faces toward the sun, toward beauty and possibility. But I don’t. I look at them and see a bunch of broken dolls.

Out on the street, it is ninety-eight degrees. My hair is frizzing and the black stockings I have worn in an attempt to look slimmer are so constricting they might as well be around my neck. Still, I am hopeful I will get the part.
I don’t get the part.

I go on another cattle call. I read for another five people. The director, a bald man, comes from around the table and has me sit, facing him. We sit knee-to-knee for five minutes, ten minutes; he asks me questions, he gets me to argue with him, at one point I am screaming.

“Amazing,” he says, and I know I can play the character, a girl who works in the ticket booth of a porn theater on Forty-Second Street; I know because like her I am trapped. I believe the director sees this. I further believe this when he says he wants to see me again, to come to his apartment that night, “so you can show me all your colors.” His young assistant writes down the address.

I go home. I call my friend. I tell her I have a callback and the director wants to “see all my colors,” and does she know what this means? She’s working in the film biz, in the art department. Does it mean he wants me to wear something colorful?

“I guess,” she says.

I arrive at the director’s apartment in the most colorful thing I own, a purple Cossack of sorts. Which, I can see by the dumbfounded expressions on his assistants’ faces, is not what the director meant at all. We all do our best. The director and I again sit knee to knee. Maybe he asks if I want some tea. And when he asks if I can “dredge up a memory that calls up humiliation,” I have no trouble.

I show up at my next audition, an open call for Prince’s Purple Rain, wearing a tweed skirt and loafers, a headmistress amidst four hundred bad girls in spandex, lingerie and zippers.

I hate auditioning. I can’t bear to be around the other actresses, nearly all of whom seem critically unprepared. I am conversely star-struck by the few who have it together, who breeze in on high heels with a steely look in their eyes; who appear taller, who smell better, who seem ready.

I am not ready. I need help.

Maybe I need an agent.

I answer an ad for an agent looking for “young Mediterranean-types, long hair preferred.” His office is off Times Square.

“Come at six o’clock,” he tells me on the phone. “And wear heels.”

The building in ancient; the elevator is out of order. I climb the steps, the marble worn thin at the centers. The door to the agent’s office is pebbled glass embedded with chicken wire. It opens directly onto one room. The man at the desk blinks. He skin is the color of a raw potato.

“Who are you?” he asks.

I stay in the doorway, taking in the stacks of headshots on the floor, the years’ worth of newspapers. I tell him, we have an appointment. He frowns at my shoes.

“Those aren’t heels,” he says and reaches into his desk.
Through the window overlooking West Forty-Third Street, I see part of a pink neon marquee; I hear traffic and the rain. I look at the black pumps the agent is holding out to me. They are old, with a pinprick pattern at the toe; something my grandmother would have worn. I take the shoes. The agent comes from around the desk and lies on the floor.

“Stand on my chest,” he says.

And part of me wants to, to see how far this can go, to maybe plant the point of one heel on his windpipe. I picture the whites of his eyes bulging as his air is cut off. For now, he closes his eyes and his mouth lolls open, like my grandmother’s after the stroke. I silently set one shoe on the desk, then the other.

I do not feel like a fool as I walk onto Times Square. I feel like I need to get lost. The girl I am in my head, beautiful, adulated, does not exist. I walk downtown; then I am running, through a lonely part of Seventh Avenue in the Twenties, a stretch of discount toy and cheap electronics stores. There is barely anyone on the streets, and if the camera is here, it’s way up high and going higher. I watch the taillights of cabs speeding downtown. I imagine young people in them, heading to important places whereas I am aimless, so agitated and ashamed that I want to scream.

*

Nancy Rommelmann’s latest book, To the Bridge, a True Story of Motherhood and Murderwill be published July 1She writes for the LA Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other publications. More at nancyromm.com.
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§ 3 Responses to “The Camera and The Audience”

  • Deane Funk says:

    Took the day off from work to putter and meander solo in the city. Picked up dry cleaning, bought some tires to replace the worn pair on my bike. Contemplated all the cons trying to work their scam from the craigslist ad selling my car. Some dude almost hooked me with a website play. I googled– red alert, new site of foreign origin. The Russians? That’s what we all think now. My head was perfectly set up by these events to read your Camera piece as I ate 3 tacos at Y porque No? on Hawthorne, and caught parts of the conversation of the older man and his daughter at the communal table with me as I read your piece. Reminds me of the time 35 years ago when I met a fortune teller on Laguna Beach, and she looked at my palm, declared I’d have an easy life (and I have) and then we made love. You might be that fortuneteller come back to visit me.

  • Leslie Gregg says:

    Excellent…….only word fir your writing…thank you.

  • terry finn says:

    excellent. evocative. i was there then. doing the same thing. we probably worked at the same joint till 2am – then i would go uptown to drink half my tips away

§ Leave a Reply

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