The Buzz, 11-22: Gangster's Paradise
Anchored in Gotham
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- It's a helluva town but it can also be a helluva cold and hard place without an anchor. The good news is that your fellow New Yorkers know this too, and are usually looking for opportunities to create windows of humanity in the grey landscape. On an early passage one sweltering June in the 1980s, loaded down with luggage on my way back to San Francisco, I was rescued by a smartly coifed woman who worked at Lord and Taylor, and who not only hauled my big suitcase up the subway stairs for me, but answered my request for directions to the JFK Express by taking me there, on the way offering me her clean white tee-shirt to wipe the sweat off my face.
Returning to New York City in earnest this week after nine years in France and a Greyhound and Amtrak tour of the country this summer and early fall, with prolonged stays in Fort Worth, Great Falls, and San Francisco, I found that old dread of being alone in this grand place returning. Most if not all dance-world friends had moved on, and I seemed to have migrated from the 'must see ASAP' column to the 'must fit in over the next month' category. "I can see you from 1 to 3 p.m. December 13," one friend said.
Fortunately I am not a New York neophyte, and I remembered that the key to not falling into the abyss here is to find your own immediate community, typically work, interest, or project based. Here's how I once explained it to a Parisian pal: If you call someone in New York and ask them if they're free for coffee this week, they'll probably say no. But if you call the same person and ask them if they're free to work on your project, even it doesn't pay, if it's something that interests them they're likely to say yes.
I had a concurrent need which supplied my project: I did not want to lose my French, nor the French person now permanently inside me. So I answered an ad for a group of French people putting on a show for an upcoming festival. The organizer wrote back that the text was several sketches by Boris Vian, the legendary French writer, composer, trumpet player, jazz critic, singer, jazz impresario, bon vivant and enfant terrible -- in effect, an iconic figure of post-War France. One of Vian's many fortes was hard-boiled parody-tributes to the American crime genre, circa the 1950s. His most notorious novel is "I'll spit on your graves," in which his made-up American author, "Vernon Sullivan," takes on the voice of an African-American out to seduce and kill white women as revenge for the lynching of his brother. The book was banned in France after a copy-cat killing. Vian died of a heart attack at the age of 39 ten minutes into a private screening of the film version of the book, whose making he had opposed. It was almost as if because of his heart condition -- which he knew about -- he'd packed as many lives as possible into his short time.
So the organizer invited me to audition. I said I wasn't too keen on auditioning in French, as it had been years since I'd acted; in San Francisco, I'd studied and performed at the Center for Theater Training, the pilot program for the city's School of the Arts. For a while there I dreamed of coming to New York, going to NYU and one of the high-caliber acting studios with which it's associated, and making a career of the theater, but I'd decided that much as I loved acting, I didn't love it enough to weather auditions where you compete against hundreds of people and often arbitrary casting. (The kicker for me had been an audition for a Wrigley's gum commercial where we were asked to get on our knees and bark like dogs, the director literally going down the line and saying, "You -- stay," "You - go.") And I decided that journalism seemed a more reliable way to make a living. (Hah!) "Look," I said, "I'll be happy even if you just give me one line."
I attended my first rehearsal and informal audition this Friday. We started out by reading a sketch called "The Gangster." (There are four or five sketches in total, all set in bars. The idea is to also perform the program in local bars, with music.) I was asked to read "The Barman." Well, it turns out that the Barman is actually the Gangster masquerading as the Barman, who he's just killed, as he's on the run from the police after killing seven people in a jewelry store heist. He basically kills everyone who enters the bar, with the exception of "The Girl," to whom he gives "the 45 bobines" (look it up) to keep her from screaming after she finds out he's killed the Barman. I know all this sounds violent, but the 'truc' with Vian is the humorous twists of language he uses. Think Godard's "Band a part" or even "Week-end" and you get the idea.
After the rehearsal, we went out for Peruvian food to a place on the Upper West Side. "Hey! I've been here before!" I said. Another New York dread I'd been dealing with is that eating out had reportedly gotten more expensive since the last time I'd lived here, from 1995 to 2001. Not here! I ordered a spicy Conch stew -- rare in New York because conch aren't fished like they used to be -- with a generous side of sweet plantains for 12.95. We split a bottle of dense and fruity Argentian malbec -- a variety I'd gotten to know and love as it's the base for Cahors, a signature wine in the southwest of France where I'd spent the last three years -- for a reasonable $27. Crispy foccaccia type bread with spicey orange and white dips was thrown in. We got out of there for $24 apiece with tip and tax. More important, for the moment, anyway, I seemed to have found an anchor. (Next week's rehearsal will be followed by a light meal of beaujolais nouveau -- I'd been complaining about missing that tradition this year -- and fromage.)
But the really hallucinatory part, I realized as I walked back to Yonkers (where I was staying until Saturday) from the 242nd Street subway station, was that ** years after abandoning my 'reve d'enfance' of coming to New York to act, I'd somehow backed into acting in New York. Not because I had decided to revive that dream, or change careers, but because I just wanted to meet some French people and not lose that part of myself. As I made my way towards 261st Street, walking across from Van Cortlandt Park, I realized that this might not be a particularly safe area late at night. I also realized that Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was filming across the street, so if I felt threatened I could always call for Stabler and Benson. And I realized that I was now part of that New York acting continuum. I belonged again. At least for now.