They Still Go to the Big City: Reflections on My New York Salad Days

Karen Carson

In the decades between college graduation in Boston at age 20 (I’d graduated high school in New Jersey at 16), and graduate school in Lawrenceville much later, my friends threw me a going away dinner, we packed up my posters, my books, and my newly-earned Bachelor’s degree, and I boarded the Amtrak train for New York City.

One evening, my cousin, Alonzo met me at the edge of the stage with a dozen red roses, as I took my bows with the rest of the dual cast of the opera, “Carmen.” Performed on a split stage, one cast performed the familiar tragic love story, the other presented an updated, “uptown” version, entitled, “Carmen’s Community”. My character had no name, no lines–and no salary, for that matter–so, channeling the great Anna Magnani from “The Rose Tattoo”, I was determined to make my mark, standing out from the other “cigarette girls.” Without warning the playwright  or the other actors, as we danced around Don Jose to the beat of The Habanera, I suddenly pulled out a pair of orange striped boxer shorts that I’d bought at the dollar store and, going off script, tossed the underwear in his face, implying that the character had left them at my flat the night before! Avoiding the director’s eyes, I basked in the applause, milking it for all it was worth.

At Astoria Studios where there was an audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, “The Cotton Club”,  I didn’t look like a young Lena Horne or Ethel Waters even on a good day, but I had worn a flower on the side of my head freshman year in college in an homage to the great Billie Holiday, and I’d impressed my teacher and classmates at HB Studios with an excerpt from her autobiography that I’d adapted into an excellent monologue. They had been moved. They’d clapped. Several classmates approached me afterwards to work with me. This audition was a cattle call so, if nothing else, I’d get more auditioning experience, and someone would keep me in mind for a future role. I’d cast plays before, and I knew that sometimes the people in charge of an audition were hoping to get their casting cues from whoever showed up.

I temped for weeks at a time at law firms, airline companies, consultant firms, and insurance companies, backing up data at the end of each day on huge floppy disks. At evening ticket sales jobs, I often fell in with a fun group of coworkers who shared my dubious view of being pressured to cold call families who could never afford season subscriptions. At least we got commission and a complimentary ticket. Some of us managed to sneak out early from the office, dragging tote bags of snacks and sodas to Central Park to enjoy the opera for free. We’d spread our blankets out so far away from the action that Pavarotti looked tiny enough to fit in my palm. Wolfing down Smilers subs–one guy made the best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever tasted!–we enjoyed being young at a time in our lives when we had no mortgages, no children, and could temporarily keep our college loan debt at bay. One evening after work, we met actor/producer/director John Houseman at a Q & A at The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street.. Mr. Houseman, known to my generation as the imposing Professor Kingsfield from the film “The Paper Chase”,was engaging and approachable in a vivid lemon sherbert sweater. I was so close to him, that I could see his hearing aid behind one ear and the liver spots on his hands.

After couch surfing at my cousin’s tiny loft on West 55th Street, I had the opportunity to return the favor when he needed a part time job. Although I had long since gotten rid of my childhood habit of tagging after my older cousin, I still missed him, and wanted to spend more time with him. Alonzo was a star student in Luigi’s master dance classes near Lincoln Center, and needed some extra cash before he went overseas to dance in a revue. Though he was a talented musician and dancer, he had often been passed over for many roles–including “A Chorus Line”–because he stood a head taller than most dancers. Tall male dancers paired with tall female dancers in heels were often in more demand out of the country and in Puerto Rico.

While sightseeing, I was tempted to join a group of gorgeous guys I’d run into at the Staten Island Ferry terminal who told me I was cute and looked just like Janet Jackson, but I thought better of it. I  enjoyed my role as ersatz ambassador to visiting relatives and friends. Back then I could walk for miles without stopping to rest, looking up at the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, and looking down at the cars below me and across to the Manhattan buildings before me. We passed NYU (where early one morning a stranger on a bicycle gallantly handed me a single red rose!),walking  far up and over to Columbus Circle (near the hospital where Alonzo would die), and finally to the fountain at the Lincoln Center plaza.

Most people lagged behind during my “walking tours”, but not my friend, Yuko. She was in New York on an education visa, staying with her uncle (whom she finally admitted was actually her older married boyfriend, necessitating a hurried, unplanned return to Japan when his wife came to visit).  We were an unlikely pair–a tall, curly-haired girl  and, a head shorter, the straight-haired, small town Kanagawa-ken adventurer in an “I Love New York” tee shirt, trying very hard to look Tokyo-chic in knock-off Liz Claiborne designer sunglasses. Yet both of us–still mortgage and baby-free– were much more alike than different.  Although hardly fluent in each other’s native language, we understood each other. I’d taught myself a few basic phrases in Japanese, could write my name in katakana, and had a good Japanese accent, while Yuko’s heavily-accented high school English taught by a native Japanese, made her shy about  speaking English with anyone else but me. Yuko and I shared an offbeat sense of humor, a curiosity about the world around us, and a love of Junior’s strawberry and pineapple cheesecake!

I still look at old photos of Yuko and I, taken at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival,  and at the memorial I held for Alonzo in space I rented at Brooklyn College. I designed the memorial program myself,  with Alonzo’s acting headshot on the front, and on the back cover, the most adorable grade school photo of him with a crew cut, and a toothy grin, wearing a little bow tie! 

My teacher, the late William Hickey (“The Producers”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”), trusted all of his students to choose our own scenes, and when and with whom we would present them. I had free rein to cast myself however I wanted to. My character choices  ran the gamut of styles from young, headstrong Lady Teazle in the Restoration comedy, “The School for Scandal, to Celia, the wife of a morphine addict, in  “A Hatful of Rain” to Celimene (in an Afro!) in Moliere’s 17th century comedy, “The Misanthrope”, to Catherine in “A View From the Bridge”, set in an Italian household by the docks in 1950s Red Hook. I cast  a classmate who was a retired high school principal as my father, King Lear. To get closer to a guy I had a crush on, I cast us as Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. I cast myself as Eve Carrington in “The Wisdom of Eve”, the basis of the film, “All About Eve.”

I am forever grateful to my beloved teacher, “Uncle Bill”, for allowing me to stretch my creative muscles even further than I dreamed they could go in a wide range of juicy roles. A small, delicate, leprechaun of a man with gentle blue eyes, he chain smoked from his corner desk, and sipped from a coffee mug of unknown contents, giving  an honest, yet never brutal critique of our work, as we sat across the stage from him, eager for his approval. Uncle Bill knew just how far to push each one of us individually. Like the handful of remarkable teachers I have studied under throughout my life, Uncle Bill was spot on in his assessment of individual talent, and knew precisely how to nudge his students toward greater accomplishments.

Early on, I had tried to twist Alonzo’s arm to do a scene with me but, die-hard night owl that he was, he refused to get up by 10:00 on a Sunday morning to make it to my 11:00 class! I regaled him with highlights of the scenes I’d cast him in. I promised a standing ovation. I begged. I whined. I promised him an entire pint of vanilla Haagen Dazs ice cream that he wouldn’t have to share with me. But no amount of cajoling would get him up before noon. “My heart isn’t even beating yet at that hour!” he opined. The guy in my class whom I was crazy about took me to his dad’s loft to rehearse our scenes and we, unfortunately for me, did just that. We rehearsed our scenes, and nothing more. Sigh.

Duncan, “Birdy”, and I, and all the other students were artists in a safe space with a teacher who loved teaching just as much–maybe even more so–than the film, stage, and television roles that made him a recognizable character actor. I miss him dearly.

One night when I got home, there was a message waiting for me. It was one sentence explaining that my father had died of a heart attack. Daddy had retired early at 52  with a government pension and secure insurance. It had been the carrot that kept his generation of veterans in one place for so long. He was glad to have  more time to go fishing with our neighbor, Mr. Sanchez, and to go hunting with his beagle and longtime hunting buddy, Mr. Morgan. Their friendship went far back to their army days and they, as did their wives before them, would all die shortly afterwards.  I hadn’t spoken to my dad in quite a while. It would be too easy to link my close relationships with my teachers to that estrangement. Too easy, in fact, but all too true.

When my older sister and my younger brother and I cleared out the family house, I found an old drawing on the floor that I’d made for my mother when I was seven and she was dying in the hospital. I had drawn purple, green and red crosses and written “God bless you” across the bottom of the paper. I also found my dad’s pocket phrase book in German and English with useful phrases like “Halt!” and “Don’t shoot!” for any unlucky American soldier under fire who may wander off and get lost on his way back from the latrines.

I’d been living in New York City when my father died, so I took a picture of my mother’s headstone from twenty years before to the stonemason to try to match the style. I instructed him to engrave a line in Norwegian from a favorite movie of mine. In the film, “The Days of Wine and Roses”, Lee Remick’s character toasts new boyfriend Jack Lennon with, “Til sammen i himmelen”. No doubt intrigued at this request from a young woman with brown skin, the stonemason asked me, kindly, if I was Norwegian, and what the words meant. “No, I’m not Norwegian,” I said. “It means, “together in Heaven”. “That’s very nice. Don’t worry. I’ll do a good job”, he assured me.

In years to come, on his birthday or the anniversary of my father’s death, I would sometimes make sausage and peppers with the good crusty sub rolls he used long ago on Saturdays while my brother and I lay on the living room floor, our eyes glued to the television in front of us..

I tell myself that my father is happy and free now, finally reunited with my mother. Maybe driving that old fashioned car in the picture they took when they got married. Or maybe it’s November where he is, and he and Mr. Morgan are wearing their orange hunting caps and vests, standing side by side, holding up the pheasant or duck or rabbit that they’ve caught, enjoying the savory smell of the onions and gravy they will cook them in.  And they are smiling.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, Alonzo had died from kaposi’s sarcoma, a complication of AIDs, but I had to call the hospital myself to learn this. During my last visit, he’d periodically pull aside his oxygen mask to laugh and talk with me, pointing admiringly to my sweater’s pastel design. I was happy to get the thumbs up from one of the most popular guys in our high school who’d been voted “Best Dressed” year after year. He was the star!  And he was my cousin! Image that! Alonzo had come out of a coma and, according to a friend of his, had even been able to walk to the bathroom on his own. But over the phone, a hospital operator had paused, telling me  there was no one by that name in that room or in the patient directory at all. I assured her that I was aware that hospital policy would prohibit her from telling me that he was in fact dead. She couldn’t confirm my identity over the phone. I paused, giving her the opportunity to tell me that I was wrong. But she did not.

About the author
Karen Carson is a Trenton resident and contributing writer for the Trenton Daily online publication. In addition to writing observations on cultural and historical aspects of the City of Trenton for the Trenton Daily, Karen Carson was also interviewed by U.S.1 about her original monologues on coping with job loss from the 2008 recession. Karen was also a featured guest on 1077TheBronc’s “Your Career is Calling”, and NJNTV’s “Classroom Close-up”. A former manager of volunteer audiobook recording talent and operations for a radio reading service broadcast for the blind, Karen was also recording liaison for local authors, producer of an international audio conference, producer and host of a book club for the blind, and speaker for state conferences and workshops on the topic of volunteerism.

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