Back to Diary Index

diary

Brooklyn Life

 

A call from the agent is always an exciting moment.
An audition.
An experimental film. Hamlet… apparently.
The time was set for six o'clock in the evening; downtown on the corner of Grand and Mercer. I arrived five minutes before and was joined in the elevator by a man who could only be an actor. Late fifties with a bonne hommie bred, I suspected, of many actor laddie stories told late into the night. The lift didn't move.
"I don't think it's working," I said and started for the door.
"What's your time?" He asked, following my lead.
Apparently I looked like an actor too.
"Six."
"Ten after."
"Ah. Right."
We made our way up the dusty staircase to the dance studio on the second floor. The studio space itself was partially curtained off. Through the gaps we could see a sword fight in progress. Various other actors were in a state of limbo. Some lay on the floor, others practiced fight moves, some were learning lines. We sat ourselves down on two steel chairs and waited.
"Do you know what this is about?" the actor laddie asked cheerfully.
"I don't know a lot."
"Well I guess we're on the right place." He smiled and winked.
Through the curtains a man appeared sword in hand. He was joined by a gaunt youngish man in his thirties with long straight brown hair, with matching brown eyes; mournful, yet alert and intense, and a haggard face.
"We need more time. I have to go at seven and there's more work to be… he needs a lot more work," said the man with the sword, brusquely. The brown eyes turned to us and then looked away. "Okay. Give me five minutes. I just need… five, may be ten minutes."
The fight director disappeared through the curtains. The gaunt face turned towards us once more. "Hello. I'm directing this."
The actor laddie sprang to his feet and shook his hand and introduced himself. I smiled. And waited.
"So… let me tell you what we're doing. I'm making a film of Hamlet. I'm also in it."
"Which part?" The actor laddie asked with a practiced air of casualness.
"Er… Hamlet."
"Oh, great. Well done!"
"Yes… and we're shooting it all in one block over three days in August, rehearsing weekday evenings and all weekend days. Is this a problem for you?"
I shook my head.
"Well," said actor laddie tentatively, "I do have something this weekend…" The brown eyes shifted to me again. "…But I can change it easily."
I thought I detected a hint of panic in his voice. The haggard face remained impassive.
"Good…. That's good. So I am looking for a Polonius. Our Polonius has dropped out… and now… we're looking for another one."
"Not Claudius?" I asked. "I was told Claudius."
"Yes I know. They kept sending me these doddery old men though and I want a strong Polonius. We have a very strong Claudius."
I suddenly found myself wondering if I had aged considerably in the last year, to go from glamorous leading man to old character actor. Prospero was one thing, but Polonius...?
"So who was first? I'll see you now, shall I?"
The brown eyes flickered between us. He pointed at the actor laddie who looked at me quickly. "Well no, this young man…"
"I'll see you now," said Hamlet and dragged the would-be Polonius behind the arras. Through the gap in the curtains I saw the lean director watch closely as actor laddie launched in the dagger speech from Macbeth, with studied gesture and surreptitious glances in the dance studio's mirrored walls. I turned away. I always think it rude to hear someone else's audition, let alone watch it.
Or may be it's more to do with wanting to be totally centered on my self and the audition in hand with enough humbleness and detachment, so that I don't come away from the whole process disgusted at any ass-licking I might have attempted.
Gemma Jones always told me that she went into auditions with the attitude: - do I want to work with this person?
Eventually I sneaked another look towards the studio. Actor laddie was grasping Hamlet by the arm, parting with Clinton-like panache. Moments later, the curtains parted and Hamlet beckoned me to follow him. In a corner of the studio he instructed me to perform some Shakespeare. I gave him a burst of Leontes which is an internal, subtle, dark speech. When I finished, there was a silence. The brown eyes looked at me intensely.
"Could you try it more rounded?"
"Rounded?"
"Stretch out the sound a bit?"
I attempted to do so and then looked to him again for approval - direction, but there was a slight frown on his face.
"Say for me¨- Come what may."
"Come what may."
"Now say it more rounded."
"Stretched out?"
"Right."
I took a deep breath.
"Come…What… May."
"Yes, but real."
"Come… What… May."
We were now both frowning. I almost expected him to say 'Speak the speech I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…' But he grabbed a script and handed it to me.
"Say that."
It was a Polonius speech. Once again I attempted to give him the elusive rounded fuller sound. Another pause.
"You see, what I'm after is a Polonius… well…that is extreme… that is like Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal."
"I see," I said doubtfully.
"Like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast."
"The one where he's the vicious East End gangster?"
"Yes, yes, that."
"Oh right."
"Try again with Come what may."
I took a deep breath.
"Come what may, You CUNT!"
The rest of the studio fell silent. Hamlet stared hard at me.
"Close."
I found out two days later that I hadn't been what they were looking for.

***

Somewhere around this time I lost my phone. It was later in the evening when for no apparent reason I just knew I didn't have it any longer. An hour's frantic search around the apartment proved fruitless. I still don't know where I mislaid it. It cost $180 to replace. I missed the free upgrade by two weeks. It is nearly a year ago when I left my filofax on a juice bar counter on Houston Street which had everything in it.

***

It proved to be an expensive weekend. I caught a train once more for Washington DC to audition for The Shakespeare Theatre. The audition seemed to go well. They are one of the best Shakespeare Theatres in the States. I was auditioning for the Associate Director, who gave me some direction… something I could follow this time. They want me to auditon again in New York for the later part of their upcoming season. Although I'm not sure how comfortable they would be having a Brit in their company.

***

 

Aquila's latest off-Broadway production, The Comedy of Errors, received pretty good reviews. The New York Times sent the infamous Bruce Webber to review it on a Tuesday in the previews. He wasn't as bad as they had expected, but it was luke-warm. Robert took it all in his stride and then was told he had gout in one of his feet. However it is Time Out's Critics Choice this week and Peter is confident that it will be successful this summer. I thought it was a wonderful funny show… nothing deep, just farce and slapstick and everyone having a good time.

***

I went to Fire Island with Louis, Lisa and her husband, Todd and Mark Pow. It was their day off and we set off around ten and arrived in Long Island around noon to stop off at Louis' parent's house - who are away on holiday in China - to pick up rugs, chairs, a cooler and surfboard. After buying drink and food we arrived on Fire Island's glorious long stretch of golden sand. The afternoon was spent swimming surfing sleeping eating talking swimming surfing sleeping swimming sleeping… A beautiful day. It was my first trip to the sea this summer. I do miss it when I'm in the City.

***

Just sometimes I feel completely relaxed and in tune with all around me. Sitting in a Starbucks on Union Square on 14th Street in the middle of the city, listening to mellow Jazz, I watch the world go by. An iced coffee Grande can last an hour. The sun blazes outside, but it is cool here; in fact a little too cool. The airconditioning in this country is such that often you'll find people packing a sweater on a 90 degree day just to wear indoors. I am feeling positively chilled. I've inherited my mother's thin blood and low resistance to the cold.
The New York Girls are looking just fine in their summer dresses. They exude the hauteur of knowing that you are young and beautiful, and live in one of the best cities in the world. A girl enters in a short skirt, which is completely transparent against the light streaming through the window. Another, a blonde, positively glows as she stands in profile; the finest of baby golden hair on her face catching the sun- light giving her an ethereal aura. The ubiquitous sunglasses, pushed back into her hair, seem to be a badge of New Yorker character. It gives the New Yorker a kind of unapproachable sassiness and the hip-ness of being so-cool and unlike the rest of America. The men seem to have a fashion too. Jeans, short-sleeved shirt worn outside, and a shoulder bag slung across the back, rather than briefcase.
The emphasis on fitness and looking good is huge here, but I imagine not as narcissistic as in LA. Whereas everyone else in the States seems to be overweight, here is the city of the beautiful.
I have come in to the city to put an unemployment cheque in the bank. The check finally arrived after being sent back to the New State Department of Labor a couple of times. It has taken me weeks to talk to a live person that was able to help rather than the computer voice system that is so prevalent today. Every little helps until the tour starts. Elkins of course didn't pay a lot. And at the end of the month I have to pay two months rent - the rent that is due and the deposit - that and the loan, makes it a bit of a squeeze this month.
Our landlord, Abdulla, gave us some basil from his garden. He left it in a pot outside our front door. When I opened it, there it sat like an orphan waiting to be adopted. A little while later I met Abdulla on the stairs who beamed when I told him how beautiful his gift was and how wonderful it smelt. He says he has some more that has been grown in Yemen that smells completely different.
"You have to water it every day in this weather… every day… it needs water."
The care he lavishes on his herbs - pronounced 'erbs' - and the rest of his plants in his pots and boxes is touching and somehow inspiring in the middle of our bustling city street. Basil is pronounced Bayzil here, which had me idly transposing celebrated English Basils and seeing how they would sound with the US pronunciation. Bayzil Brush, Bayzil Fawlty… well they were the only Bayzils I could think of.

Now back in Brooklyn. The thunderstorms haven't materialized and it is still sultry, but not quite as humid. Outside on the street, the kids are playing in the water streaming from a fire hydrant. I'm tempted to join them.
As I look from the platform of 4th Avenue Metro Station, the Statue of Liberty stares imperiously back at me in the distance over the rooftops of Brooklyn Heights and across the Hudson. From a distance she looks like one of the souvenir statues you see all over Times Square. I'm quite moved when I see her. She looks straight over where the Twin Towers used to be. Now she is alone.
My mother asked me where I'd be in September. After a little interegration I realize she's worried about the anniversary of September 11th. I hadn't thought about it, but now… I'll be rehearsing and in my penultimate week before the first performance; exactly the same as last year.

Last night, Dave, my room-mate - an actor, but working for the NY Mayor at the moment - told me about his time up on Cape Cod. He used to be on a whale watch boat, that as the name implies, took people out to look at the whales. The skipper liked him and gave him some extra work to do on his fishing boat. When the boat was ready, he took Dave out and they went fishing for tuna with just lines with bait attached. The finally caught one after fighting it for an hour and a half which turned out to be eight foot long and was called Blue fin Tuna. Dave said he was given the line for about a minute and a half and the rush of fighting the monster fish just blew him away.


Highly prized as a sports fish and one of the most valued food fish in the ocean, the blue fin tuna is dangerously close to extinction. This amazingly regal, streamline fish is one of the largest species of tuna reaching lengths of up to ten feet long and weights of close to 1500 pounds. Like most tuna the body of the blue fin tuna is large and round tapering at the tail. The outer part of the body is a shimmering blue while the underside presents a spotted silver color. Found in every warm and temperate ocean in the world these beautiful fish are known for their incredible migratory ability. The blue fin tuna is from the Perciformes order and in the Scombridae family. This is a very interesting warm blooded fish which is often characterized by its yellow fins and its amazing ability to move through the water at speeds of over thirty miles per hour when being pursued. Like most tuna, the blue fin tuna is considered part of the mackerel family. In the beginning when it was discovered what an incredible difference there was in the tunas circulatory system and bone structure this fish was at one time classified in an order that was its own. Even today scientist differ in their opinions concerning the classification of this fish.

Eventually Dave found himself part of the crew, going out at four in the morning and returning around seven at night. He said the hours up til midnight were spent in the bar, and then four hours sleep before venturing out once more. On hot days like today I can see how difficult it must be for him to be away from the blue and the waves and the surf and the spray; and be stuck in an air-conditioned downtown office. I suspect he misses the acting life very much as well as the sea.

I am fascinated with the feeling of isolation that I sometimes feel here. The strange paradox of walking around this bustling metropolis packed with people, observing the exuberance of the New Yorker, the charectors, the old, the lovers, the intelligentsia and all the rest… and yet my life is insular, inward and alone. No family or friends, at least not friends that I have a past with - except Robert. No roots, no feeling beneath my feet that this is where I belong - at least, not yet. I can't work out if I am lonely or just a loner.

lone·ly (l n l ) adj. lone·li·er, lone·li·est \Lone"ly\, a. [Compar. Lonelier; superl. Loneliest.] [Shortened fr. alonely.] 1. Sequestered from company or neighbors; solitary; retired; as, a lonely situation; a lonely cell.
2. Alone, or in want of company; forsaken. To the misled and lonely traveler. --Milton.
3. Not frequented by human beings; as, a lonely wood.
4. Having a feeling of depression or sadness resulting from the consciousness of being alone; lonesome.
I am very often alone. I don't mean I am lonely. --H. James. Syn: Solitary; lone; lonesome; retired; unfrequented; sequestered; secluded.
lon·er (l n r) n. One who avoids the company of other people.

A bit of both I expect. And too much introspection I suspect is unhealthy.

 

I was at an engagement party the other night. It was Aquila's company manager. I was trying to put on a happy face and not appear too cynical. But everyone seemed to be far too tipsy anyway to really notice. Later in the night a man came up and said hello. I didn't know who he was, but he soon jolted my memory.
" I've cut my hair since you last saw me. I'm Ross from Bleeker Street."
And now I remembered the eclectic young man who wore a lot of iron about his person and ran the Bleeker Street Theatre box office.
" I've been hoping to run into you,: he said.
"Really?"
" Yep. I have something for you."
I looked at him blankly.
" A package. Come round after four and pick it up. I've saved it for nearly a year."
I was suitably intrigued. So today at six o'clock I arrived at Bleeker Street. It was strange to be back there. A lot has happened in a year. Ross smiled when he saw me and dived into the steel cabinet behind him. One by one he searched through the drawers, until finally he produced as if presenting a rabbit out of a hat - the package. I was completely overwhelmed when I opened it. It was from a close friend. Inside was the most beautiful 1867 copy of The Tempest, a lovely topaz, mosaic patterned stone from Scarfell Pike.(a little piece of England), and a sweet Tempest card with a careful and lovingly written message inside. This came on a very dark day in personal life.

I went into the city to the bank and then walked in to St Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle and really turn it all over to a higher power. I was in there for about half an hour, praying and meditating. I have been told that this is a good thing to do by some of the books I've read in personal times of crisis.
Anyway what I'm trying to say is that I found it strange that this wonderful gift came when I probably needed it the most. Isn't that strange and glorious in a way? Someone looks out for you, you see.

.***

A 93 degree searing day in Brooklyn. I had got out early. The run at six, back at 7 to shower, breakfast, water the basil, and then tea on the balcony. I decided to go down and look around BAM - the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This is where the RSC and Shared Experience tour their shows. They have a very good art cinema here. It's quite a urban area, quite similar to Woolwich or Hoxton in London... I mean not the prettiest. As I was making my way back I passed a Salvation Army Office. I had put my name down on their internet site to volunteer a few weeks ago and hadn't heard anything back. Outside a few people had congregated. I asked a large black guy in Salvation Army t-shirt about how I become a volunteer. He pointed to a staircase. I strode up to the first floor and looked around. All the doors were closed. There was no sound. I had just decided that may be it was a bad idea, when a large friendly lady appeared at the top of the stairs. She had startling golden eyes, that seemed to swirl and glow in the gloom.
"Can I help you?"
Her accent was Caribbean.
"I was looking to volunteer," I said hesitantly.
She stared at me for a moment.
"Okay, follow me."
She took me into one of the offices and introduced me to another black lady with wiry grey hair and a straight dancer's back..
"Lara, this man wants to volunteer."
Lara smiled. "What days can you do?"
A pause. I hadn't really thought about this.
" I suppose I'm free all days until August 12th and then just Sundays till I leave mid-September." "We don't work Sundays."
"Don't you?"
"What would you like to do? You can go out on the truck with Maria and go and make and deliver food, or you can come back and help out at the soup kitchen downstairs at five."
"Oh the truck sounds good to me."
"You wanna go today?"
"Sure. Why not."
"Okay, I need you to fill out this form..."
After filling in the form, which took a little longer as I pondered what names to put down for references, and being thanked and blessed by the big boss woman supervisor, I was taken downstairs by the golden-eyed Maria and introduced to another volunteer.
"What was your name again?" I asked. I always forget a name straight away; one of my faults. "Liani... as in Julianni, the ex-mayor." Liani was also black and large with slanted brown eyes that gleamed like a cat that had got the mouse when she smiled.
"Right."
"Right," said Maria, "Let's go and load up."
In the cellar and past the soup kitchen was the storage walk-in cupboards that had the huge fridge and freezers. We took out various meat, bread, cheese, and buckets of ice and brought them upstairs out to the Salvation Army Food Truck. A van to be more precise, but that had a kitchen in the back with microwave, sink and various cupboards. There was a couple of seats at the front and one large seat facing sideways at the back of the kitchen area.
"So..." said Maria, after we had packed everything into the back, "Ready?"
I sat near the in the back, but on a cool box behind the two front seats to get the benefit of the air-conditioning. I also was worried about getting sick as Maria flung the van over the potholes of the city and swerved around the Brooklyn traffic. There followed a non-stop conversation on life, parenthood, academia and the city. Sometimes I seemed to be forgotten.
"So this white guy gets up and he is saying this and that and I think there has got to be a one black man here who will talk..."
Through Brooklyn we swerved and curved.
"Men shouldn't talk so much. I don't like a man that talks a lot. It isn't right."
Later we flew over Brooklyn Bridge.
"I like that Elton John. I know he gay and all that, but that's up to him. But he write good music." Tearing through downtown Manhattan.
"That's the tune I'll play at my wedding."
"Are you not married?" asked Liani.
"I have been. It was okay. You know. I had the babies too young."
"How old?"
"Twenty."
"Oh that's not too young."
"Yeah, but you know, now I can study. I am studying to be a criminal lawyer. But you know, I can't decide. I'd like to be a forensic scientist. But I don't like morgues."
"Then it's decided," I said.
"Yeah, but you know... I think I'd be okay, coz I saw this man in shelter and they'd left him there for a while and he had these bedsores, you know? Mind you, at home I'll throw up if my children throw up. I just feel it when I see it."
"Uh-huh."
"What about you?"
Liani looked out of her window and shrugged. "I got three degrees and at the moment. I'm in real estate."
"How much money do that make?"
"How much?"
"I hear you can make a lot of money in that."
"Oh yeah, on a half million house you can take home $100,000."
"Really?"
"But then they tax you and stuff."
"$100,000, that's good though."
"Uh-huh."
We parked up on Houston Street and then began preparing the sandwiches. About two hundred in total. First we had to put on the hairnets, aprons and gloves.
"Coz you never know... the health inspector, he come round... you never know."
The bread was torn out of the wrapping and the slices lined six deep. I was given the job of putting a dollop of mayo on each slice, while Liani followed it up with the cheese slices. Soon I was into a rhythm.
"You can cook." said Liani.
"Excuse me?"
"Look how fast you go."
"Right."
"You can cook."
I hadn't thought of dolloping mayo on a piece of bread as cooking before. Maria followed up with the turkey breast and then each slice was wrapped in a small cellophane bag and put in a box. "Okay. That's it. Here we go!"
Washington Square was our destination. This former glamorous square of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries had become an infamous drug dealers' paradise in the seventies and eighties, but had been cleaned up by Liani's namesake and was now mainly one of the stop-offs for the homeless and the very poor and the NYU students whose buildings surround the huge arch and the square itself. I was in charge of the drinks. There were two large plastic containers. One with ribena fruit juice and one with iced tea. I started preparing the cups and filling from each.
"No!" cried Maria suddenly.
I turned around startled.
"Just fill from one. If they see there's a choice, then they can start making trouble. You know... that guy's got iced tea, I got fruit juice. They can accuse you of prejudice and all sorts."
I realized I had underestimated what a minefield this job was in reality.
"Now if they touch the food, then get them to take it. Even if they don't want it, tell them to give it to someone else."
Another truck had parked further up the square. They were apparently handing out condoms and giving free aids tests.
For the next hour a steady stream of down-on-their luck, the poor, the druggies, the alcoholics and the... well anybody who didn't have a home came to the window. Maria asked for their name, age and place of origin. Some would give ridiculous answers.
"John F. Kennedy."
"Okay John, and how old are you?"
"25" said the silverhaired Mexican, his gold tooth glinting in the noonday sun.
"My, you're looking fine today. And where you from?"
Some of the more dirty looking would be offered a kit, which consisted of a plastic bag with various toiletries inside. Sometimes Maria would ask them if they wanted to go to a shelter.
"No." A wild eyed black guy with fierce intelligent eyes looked at me suspiciously.
"Why not?" asked Maria and pulling his attention back to her.
"Don't you like that better than sleeping outside."
"No good."
"No?"
"Let me tell you why. They put a curfew on when you can come and when you can go. People can steal your stuff. you know what happens in those places."
"But isn't it worth it if after six months you get a home?"
"I wanna home. but I don't wanna go to no shelter. I don't trust their shit. I don't trust it. But I wanna home. I can make a home. I can make a home real good."
"Yeah, but you know the way... in the shelter for at least six months. "
"Six months of curfew. Where's my freedom in that?"
"And you got freedom now?"
"Kind of... sure." And the fierce eyes turned towards the sky. "He don't look after me, you know. That's a lie. He don't. I do. He don't give a damn!"
"Well God bless you anyway."
"And you too. Thank you miss."
A child of about ten appear at the window.
"Where's your mother today?"
"She sick?"
"Sick?"
"Yeah, you know."
"Uh-huh. Do you think she'd like to have information on the shelters?"
"May be.""
"Let me give you this to give to her and tell her I'm here nearly everyday. If she wants to talk to me, tell her to come here, okay?"
The child shrugs.
"Okay."
"How old are you Joan?"
"82."
"How old are you Nick?"
"73."
How old?... fourteen. How old?... 43. How old? 35. How old? 87.
"How old do I look?"
"I don't know. Just give me a number. I don't care. I just need a number to put down on the sheet. You know the rules."
All life drifted into view. An old man in a motorized wheel chair. A talkative woman with skintight lycra shorts, bright red lipstick and needle marks all away along her arm. A 21 year old blonde girl from Germany. A native American who looked suspiciously Mexican and spoke fluent Spanish. And so it went on. For an hour. We served - and it was a slow day - 100 people. I have never felt so appreciative of what little I actually do have in my life right now. They were tired and their eyes were wary, but all of them were resolute, some were downright eccentric, some had very little sanity left and yet all were polite, and this truck's visit was one of their ways of surviving the Big Apple. We drove back to Brooklyn and I left the truck to continue its journey to the Brooklyn projects. "They're kids there. their mothers, you know... out working.. the streets... you know. They survive on our food. They live for our visit."
Maria thanked me and went inside to get her lunch. I walked the mile and a half across the baking sidewalks to 16th Street, locked the door and wept. It was a day for perspective. Another gift. I return tomorrow.

We had Sally Army chores and blatant sexual innuendo by Maria urged on be her young cool black helper, Roger. Maria driving furiously once again. The van lurches from side to side. All morning I have listened to innuendo and politely played the game of benign neglect. I sit on the cool box just behind the two front seats hanging on to the sides of the van. Maria calls back to me.
"I give up on black men."
" Oh?"
"I been let down too many times, you know."
"Oh?"
"Yeah, I look for some white man to treat me right."
"They can let you down too."
"Hey Roger he just dissed me."
"I think he scared. He right to be scared of you. You're a big scary black woman that is looking for it."
"You know that Frank, he tried to come on to me. You know that man can eat. I never seen him without food in his mouth. He just talks and eats. Not right that a man talk so much. How can he talk so much and eat at the same time? But he does, you know. Man, he fat. He said to me do you think I'm too fat? I said, I'm fat too. I'm fat, you're fat. How can two fat people get together. If I sit on you, I have to move the fat out of the way just to find the thing, you know? That's what I'd have to do man... just roll his fat away, try and find his thing to sit on it. No good. With a skinny man you can feel it all. You know Richard?"
Silence.
"Richard, why you so quiet."
"You told me you didn't like a man who talked too much."
A pause and then a huge roar of laughter from the driving Maria.
"Roger, he just dissed me again."

 

 

***

 

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

 

Love and light

 

Richard

 

 

 

Go to Elkins