October 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Memories of that boat ride and how I came to be part of Milton’s coterie were never far adrift because it was an oft-told tale at Milton’s soirees during that first year or so that I knew him.
I didn’t mind (who would) although sometimes it was all I could do to hide my discomfort and blushing (which as an African-American is pretty easy to do-but we still ‘blush’) whenever he told the story to a room full of people.
I never really knew from week to week who would be at Milton’s, his guest list (in the words of one of the regulars) were of “A lot of Hollywood and Theater folk you’d thought were dead and the beautiful young people that came to pick over their corpses” (a metaphor (one hopes but in show biz I learned that one can never be quite so sure) for jobs or to do anything in exchange for advancing their fledgling careers).
I enjoyed the parties because I wasn’t an actor-‘slash’-singer-‘slash’-dancer-‘slash’-model-‘slash’-playwright so I was in the rare position of not needing to hack away at anybody for anything so I could just relax and enjoy myself.
Many a night I grabbed a seat and a drink and watched the ‘show’ while the old and useful prayed upon the young, unknown and wiling to be used (and vise versa-believe me).
Late one night, after one such party I decided to walk downtown from Sutton Place to the West Village and one of the guys I’d met at the party, Terry Burk, decided to walk with me. I’d enjoyed the few interaction we’d had at Milton’s but there was usually so much going on and so many people vying for your attention that it was hard to ‘really’ get to know someone in all that chaos and alcohol.
It was a long walk but it didn’t matter, we were young and high off the evening and the cocktails, talking up a storm and getting to know one another.
Terry was a ‘solid’ guy (in presence and personality). He was about six feet tall with a build that looked as if it came through a life lived outdoors, paid for by labor and sport-not an expensive gym membership. He had rugged good looks, blond hair and blue eyes; and was as comfortable in his masculinity as he was in an old, fade blue denim shirt.
He could have been cast as a young John Wayne or Gary Cooper in a biopic.
As we walked through he told me that he had been on Broadway in the original production of Equus and was one of the last contract players (in the old movie studio tradition) at Universal TV when he lived in LA. Back in New York he was working on Daytime dramas (Soaps) when he wasn’t working on writing his first play.
I could have easily been intimidated by his pedigree but he revealed himself to be just a ‘good ole boy’ from the Midwest like me, having grown up in a small town in Illinois.
He seemed little affected by his years in New York or his successes and failures.
He was easy to talk to and I found that I could let my guard down and just be ‘me’ and not the ‘artist’ or whatever everybody else was expecting me to be.
By the time we reached West 10th street I knew I’d made a life long friend.
We quickly fell into the habit of talking on the phone everyday; he would fill me in on his auditions and how his writing was going, and I would tell him my ‘newest’ New York experience and illustration assignment.
So, when he called to ask if I had any plans for the weekend and to ask if I wanted to go with him out to a friend’s farm in Bucks County he was surprised when I confessed that it would be my first weekend out of town.
He said it was about time.
A few days later I was packing, excited to use the leather weekender luggage I’d purchased in anticipation of travel (that I’d yet to take), ready to trade the city heat for country breezes.
I was officially a ‘guest of a guest’.
October 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The rest of the evening was a whirlwind.
I met so many people and shook so many hands (attached to faces that I’d only seen on a TV or movie screen) that I was beyond sensory overload.
I think that because I was so overwhelmed that I ‘appeared’ calm, as if this was just a regular Tuesday night out on a yacht, hob knobbing…believe me the closest I’d gotten to ‘hobbing’ any knob was back in Kansas City when I stood on line to audition for the first season of the talent show, ‘Star Search’ and Ed McMahon the host, just ‘happened’ to walk past me on his way somewhere (anywhere other than near the talent-less hopefuls like myself).
But, I digress………back on the yacht the evening built to a climax when a helicopter appeared out of nowhere some time after midnight and with much fan fair (and wind) dropped the New York Times onboard so that everyone could read the reviews (which were mostly favorably).
When at last the boat docked, I floated off, surrounded by my new friends, chattering away, not wanting the evening to end, still trying to drink in as much of the night as I did champagne onboard..
There were ‘air kisses’ and ‘promises to keep in touch’ as some got into black town cars, or a fast exchange of business cards as others hurried to get out of the cold night air.
I walked alongside Pauline and Milton, accompanying them on their way to the queue for taxis, the last two of my ‘table mates’.
I was bursting with gratitude but thought I’d sound like an ass if I blurted out my thanks for their rescuing me.
So, what I couldn’t ‘say’ I decided to ‘do’ and walked down the street ahead of the line to hail them a cab so they wouldn’t have to wait on the sidewalk getting any colder or older. It was the best thing I could think to do to show my appreciation for their kindness.
I kissed them both on the cheek and wished them a good night as they settling into the taxi. As I was about to close the door Milton reached out for my hand, gave me his business card and said, “I’m having a ‘Gentlemen’s evening’ at my apartment on Sutton Place on Friday, stop by for cocktails if you’re free.”
“A ‘Gentlemen’s evening?”…..was he talking about what I thought he was talking about?
Was my ’Godfather’ inviting me to a ‘fairy’ party? I pondered as I walked from the pier to the Brooklyn bound IRT……no town car was waiting for me.
No matter, I couldn’t wait to get home, take off my glass slippers and tell the Teacher all about my night as a ‘guest of a guest’.
October 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I knew my movie knowledge would come in handy one day.
Who knew I’d actually meet people who’s names had scrolled up the screen at the end of a movie I’d watched a million times…….’go know’.
I could see by my tablemates’ expressions that they were charmed, if not impressed, solidifying my position as ‘table mascot’; looking at me like I was some clever little monkey performing tricks of trivia.
Instead of peanuts I was fed champagne.
After hearing me say that I’d not met Rosemary Harris, the star of the show, Milton (Goldman, the theatrical agent) grabbed me by the hand and before I could say “Fairy God-father”(pun-intended), I was standing in front of her trying my best to make small talk.
I didn’t have to worry about what to say (or boring her to death) because before long Milton was dragging me off to meet someone else (something I would later come to appreciate as one of Milton’s most endearing traits-the notion that ‘everybody should meet everybody’ else-at least twice) whether they wanted to or not was quite another matter (and obviously no concern of Milton’s).
He took it upon himself to introduce me to any and every other celebrity onboard.
From that first introduction I became (for quite some time there ever after) as the ‘kid’ that designed the ‘Playbill cover” (when in fact, I had ‘designed’ the poster for the front of house and all advertising visuals for the production).
But hey, I was being ferried about by an (obviously) important person, making me (temporarily, at least) important (by default) and people were forced to pay attention to me –to ‘me’, so what did I care about the details of my accomplishment.
We must have made at least two passes in and around the boat, with me smiling and trying my best to remember every detail (for as long as I lived, thinking my life could not possibly get any better than this night) so that when the ship docked and I was a mere mortal again I could re-live what could only be a dream come true.
And then I met ‘Betty’…… who happened to be ‘Lauren’ as in ‘Bacall’, as in “Lauren-you know how to whistle, don’t you Sam, you just put your lips together and blow- Bacall”.
‘Betty’ being her ‘real’ name and the one most people in her real life called her-including her Aunt Vera and friends like Milton Goldman.
I stood dumbstruck as Milton boasted about me like a proud parent. I was so tongue tied that all I could think to say were self deprecating things about my artwork, like how there are so few lines on the page (as if that somehow ‘apologized’ for my taking up her time).
“Young man”, she said in that trademark husky voice of hers, “there is great assurance in brevity.”
And with that she was off.
To this day I don’t know if she was talking about my talent or if that was just a great exit line.
October 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
While the party raged on all around us I settled into the rhythms of the conversation at the table, my eyes and ears dancing from whomever was talking to the next. Trying to be heard above the dim was twice as challenging because I had to amp up the volume for the seniors I was entertaining.
None of that mattered really; I didn’t care if I lost my voice in the process because Vera and her friends had saved me from wandering around the ship all evening, pretending to have a good time-to actually having one.
I found myself the subject of much curiously; a young man unknown amongst so many that were.
I answered all of their questions with candor and ventured an opinion or two when ‘I’ wasn’t the topic of discussion.
Not wanting to be overly familiar (but not wanting to appear too formal) I’d taken to using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ when addressing my new ‘friends’, not sure if I should be calling them by their first names or not.
I thought my ‘nom de compromise’ was something Emily Post would be proud of until I heard, “If you don’t stop calling me ‘ma’am’ I’m going to fucking scream.”
I looked across the table at Pauline Trigere not sure if she was joking, serious or somewhere in between-the champagne making distinctions less obvious.
I apologized; wondering how good manners could be offensive.
“My name is Pauline,” she commanded. Vera tried to pacify her by saying it didn’t matter because I didn’t know who she was.
“Yes I do,” I said, correcting her.
I told her that she designed Patricia Neal’s wardrobe for the movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.
I could see her expression turn from sour to sweetly intrigued.
Seeing that they were all so amazed that a twenty-something was aware of anything pre-Donna Summer I decided to show off and told Kate Reid that I thought she was too young to have played Natalie Wood’s mother in ‘This Property is condemned’
(I hadn’t spent my entire childhood in front of a television watching old movies-and memorizing the credits for nothing).
October 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
She told me that her name was Vera Bacall, ‘Betty’s aunt’.
“How do you do,” I said, introducing myself as I squeezed in next to her at the small table, wondering if I’d missed something.
Confusion aside, I was grateful to have someone to talk to (and a place to sit), reconciling fact from fantasy and being a part of the sophistication and glamour (even if it was on the periphery) of the evening was proving to be exhausting.
I had been adrift in a sea of celebration and Vera had thrown me a lifeline.
Introductions were made and more champagne was brought to the table. Of the six people at the table I recognized one face, Kate Reid (the character actress) and one name, Pauline Trigere (the designer); the others were Ms. Trigere’s male companion (a man whose name I never really ‘got’), Vera’s silent husband and Milton Goldman, a ‘theatrical agent’ I was told (who kept sneaking glances at me).
Settled at the table with my wine, I looked around at all the…..’How shall I say this?’…..’mature’ faces staring back at me expectantly.
I got the feeling that the Manhattanites’ I’d just met were all old friends (‘old’ being the operative word) and they’d heard each other’s stories a million times already so they were eager to hear mine.
I may not have been a native but I wasn’t naïve as to how New York (and New Yorker’s) operated. I knew that ‘nobody did nutin’ for nuttin’ and if I was to remain seated I’d better start ‘singing for my supper’ (or, rather, charming this table lest they become bored and throw me back like a fish that ‘upon closer inspection’ was deemed undesirable).
It may sound cold-blooded but that’s how New York works-it is (at it’s base level) a simple exchange of goods and services: poor to rich, young to old, the unattractive to the beautiful and so on.
Everybody trades what he or she has to offer for what they want.
Of course there were gestures that were sincere and without agenda but they were few and far in-between, the exception and not the rule.
In a city of nine million people (a large population of whom are very ambitious, and willing do anything to get to the top of their chosen profession) one learns early on what is required to succeed and not to take it personally.
So, having learned (at least that much) of how ‘the world according to ‘the city’ worked I could (somewhat) relax.
Besides, I loved being around old people so I was in my ‘wheel house’ and I was starting to enjoy my status as ‘the young person at the table’. I have always sought out the company and counsel of seniors because I found their stories fascinating and their advice (culled from years of experiencing highs and lows) to be shorthand for my own life experience.
October 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As the night air at sea turned chilly I had no choice but to go inside where it was warmer. I felt like the ‘little lights’ of New Jersey trying to compete with the ‘Bright lights, Big City’ across the Hudson.
Walking into the large interior space that had been gaily decorated for the festivities I got a better look at all the revelers. They looked like the usual suspects that I would have seen if this were a ‘movie about a Broadway show opening night party on a yacht’; celebrities, chic couples dressed to the nines that were patrons or patrons of the arts, beautiful young people that looked like models, actors, singers or dancers from other shows.
I grabbed a glass of champagne as it floated by on a silver tray to anchor the sinking feeling that was coming over me as I realized that I knew no one and was stuck onboard for four hours with no escape.
I chugged the champagne, retrieved another flute and did my best to disappear, hoping no one could see what I felt.
You’d think that someone who spent most of their life in a dream world reading books and watching old movies about the rich and famous would be happy….but, fantasies are one thing and the reality only points up the difference between who ‘they’ are and who ‘you’ aren’t.
So, I walked around, wondering how ‘a boy like me ended up in a place like this’ wishing desperately that the Teacher was with me.
I would walk and stop, lean against a wall or column, wait a few minutes (that would ‘seem’ like the right amount of time ‘one’ would pause before moving on) and stop again. Once or twice I’d lean into a conversation (as if I was part of the group) but quickly scurry away when a well-manicured eyebrow would notice my presence and arch in suspicion, confusion or dismissal.
I don’t know how long I wandered around, wondering if I was fooling anyone (least of all myself) trying to look like I belonged, oblivious to the fact that no one was taking notice of me until I felt a hand on my arm.
I stopped, startled, wondering if this was the part where someone realized I ‘didn’t belong’ and threw me overboard.
I looked down into the kohl-laden eyes of a chic, little old lady who was saying something to me out of her ruby red lips. Her lipstick carefully painted outside the lip line to make her lips appear more full and youthful to match her perfectly pulled skin and lacquered, blondish coif.
But, I couldn’t hear her over the din. Seeing my puzzled expression she motioned me closer. I leaned in and she repeated, “I love your brooch” followed by something else I still didn’t hear.
I said something in reply (I’m sure what but I’m sure it was any honest answer to her query). Whatever I said (or she thought she heard) it made her peal with laughter.
She’d never let go of my wrist during this exchange and in her mirth she reached out with the other and pulled me closer, almost into an embrace. Then she turned to the table and announced, “This young man is delightful!”
“You must join us.”
Much commotion was made, waiters’ were summoned and room was made for me and soon I found myself sitting next to my rescuer.
September 24, 2012 § 2 Comments
“You go!” I said, panicked, knowing that the Teacher was more sophisticated and would ‘fit’ better with the ‘in’ crowd than me.
But, he wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that this was ‘my night’.
He spent the rest of the subway ride convincing (and reminding) me that a night like this was what I’d moved to New York for and what I’d fantasized about when we were living Kansas City, dreaming of ‘possibilities’ and a night like this.
“I mean, come on”, he said, “a party on a yacht! This is straight out of one of those old movies you love so much.”
When we got back to our apartment in Park Slope we ran straight to our small bedroom, trying not to bump into each other as we both started pulling things out the closet, doing our best to put together something resembling ‘Black tie’ (which I did not own or have time to rent).
I fumbled out of my clothes as the Teacher handed me his white dress shirt and I’d grabbed a black and white bow tie off the hook inside the closet that I’d recently learned to tie by hand.
I put on a black shawl collared, Willie Smith bolero jacket and paired that with vintage tuxedo pants over black, patent leather army dress shoes with red socks. We both looked at the final result in the bathroom mirror, the teacher smiling his approval.
As a final touch he pinned a diamond shaped, art deco rhinestone brooch with rhinestone fringe (that shook as you moved) onto my lapel that I’d found in a Lower East Side thrift shop and then we were back out the door, racing against time to get to the city.
We reached the dock just as the boat was about to leave.
At the foot of the gangway the Teacher kissed me goodbye, told me to have a good time and to remember that I was ‘just as good as anybody on the boat’.
I surrendered the invitation to the intimidating person standing onboard with a clipboard in one hand and his finger on the end of a velvet rope in the other. Although I was inches taller than he, and I was the ‘guest’ (well, a guest of a guest) he somehow managed to look ‘down’ on my second-hand finery and me but stood aside to let me pass.
Finding a spot with the last of the elegantly dressed latecomers, I stayed on the deck; to watch as the boat pulled away, waving to the Teacher, not ready yet to face my fantasy.
As the yacht pulled away my knees weren’t shaking because of the motion of the boat or the October chill, I was excited and scared, not knowing what was too come, the patent leather of my army surplus shoes shining like glass slippers reflecting the lights that decorated the bow.
I looked at the Teacher on the dock waving to me as he got smaller and smaller, the boat moving farther out on the Hudson away from the city as it started its tour around the island.
Seeing the smallness of him against the city that seemed to consume him all I could think of was his largess and that this wasn’t the first time that ‘we’ did something that benefitted ‘me’.
I realized that I’d been wrong, Lowell Nesbitt wasn’t my ‘fairy Godmother” that night……the Teacher was and always had been.