The Shining and Perishable Dream: An Homage to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That”
“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”
Joan Didion, Goodbye To All That
The night the writer Joan Didion first arrived in New York City in the mid-1950’s, she holed up in a motel room for a few days to recover from a fever. She was twenty years old. I was eighteen when I rolled in forty-odd years later on the Ringling Brothers Circus train. We parked in a rail yard in Long Island City, Queens, and each day we’d bus across the river into Manhattan to perform at Madison Square Garden. With six shows on weekends, and two shows every other day except Monday, there wasn’t much time to explore the city. The train yard was a grungy wasteland, and stories circulated of circus folk venturing out at night and getting beaten or robbed. The highlight of the stop was performing on Late Night with David Letterman, but even that experience was mostly bewildering. We rushed on set to perform our sixty-second clowning bit (picture a tuba, shaving cream pies, general mayhem) before being herded out of the building as quickly as we'd arrived. On camera, Letterman seemed amused by our antics, but during the ad breaks he just looked like he wanted to be left alone.
“I could . . . feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or
later . . .”
Like Didion, I found the city both thrilling and exhausting. Manhattan was a sensory assault, and everything moved at surprising angles, determined to simultaneously run you over and shake you awake. The circus paid me a $173 a week. In regular towns, this was enough money for groceries and an occasional splurge. New York was different—it was barely enough to do anything. It was hard to take advantage of the city as a tourist, not only because we performed thirteen shows a week, but also because to enjoy many of the pleasures of the city, you needed money to do it. So I spent my limited free time wandering, eating dollar-a-slice pizza, and marveling at the sheer diversity of life on the streets. After a month, the circus rolled out to the next city, even though I couldn’t tell you what that city was. New York had taken my imagination hostage, and I promised myself I would return.
“I had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
I left the circus after my year-long tour was up, and began studying Theatre at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. My junior year, I took the opportunity to spend a study-semester in New York, and this time, I lived with my college classmates in a hotel on the Upper West Side, a world apart from the train yard in Queens. I interned at New Dramatists, one of the premier breeding grounds for American playwrights, saw shows at night, and drank giant blue daiquiris in the Mexican restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel.
New Dramatists graciously organized a reading with professional actors for a one-act play I’d written the previous year at college. I invited everyone I knew, confident in artistic destiny—build it and they will come—because what could go wrong if you believed in yourself and grabbed at every opportunity? Play readings can go wrong in a thousand ways, of course, and mine may have set a new record. The main actor was too old, didn’t understand or care about the character, played everything with the wrong emphasis, and the lights kept flickering for no reason. It was a fiasco. NYC had chewed my play to soggy bits. An hour later, when the reading finally ended to tepid applause, I walked out onto W 44th St. and threw up on the sidewalk.
Yet my Big Apple fever dream persisted. Back in Oregon my senior year, a New York playwright spent a semester guest teaching at our college and we became friends. I asked him what I should do after graduating. “Move to the city,” he said, as if it were the only reasonable life choice. He promised me dinner once I got settled. I pictured hanging out in his loft, getting introduced to his friends, writing and acting in well-received plays, settling my score with the city.
After graduation, I moved back in with my mom in Colorado, and worked odd jobs in Boulder. My longtime college girlfriend and I broke up; I had a slow and painful recovery from a botched hernia-repair surgery. An uncertain year passed, and all the while New York beckoned. I acted in some local productions in Colorado, and auditioned for prestigious acting schools like NYU, Yale, and Julliard. I was rejected from all of them. Great lives have great obstacles, I told myself, so I tried out for less-vaunted institutions (although no less advertised in the glossy pages of American Theatre Magazine) in the heart of New York, several of which seemed happy to take my tuition.
This time, like Didion, I arrived in the city on a sweltering summer evening in the pouring rain. I was twenty-three. As the bus passed through the tunnel into Manhattan, it all seemed like a terrible mistake. Eight million other souls were just beyond the rain-smeared window, all jostling to live out ambitions of their own. I had never felt so terrified. After I started acting school a couple weeks later, my playwright friend made good on his promise of dinner, and took me to Carmine's, a famous Italian place in midtown with insane portions and prices. During dinner, he told me we probably couldn’t hang out much because it would make his husband jealous. In fact, he had to leave dinner early to get home, but I should feel free to stay and have some dessert. I didn’t understand. There wasn't anything romantic between us; I wasn't even gay. I didn't stay alone for dessert, and I never saw him again except once on the street one brutally hot summer day several years later while I was hefting an air conditioner over my shoulder towards my fourth-floor walk-up. He said we’d have to get together soon. With his husband, he went on to write award-winning TV for HBO.
“That is what it was all about, wasn’t it? Promises?”
I stayed in New York for five years. Two of those years were spent in acting school and three more working as a freelance stage carpenter at off-Broadway theaters to pay my bills. I auditioned for plays, but without an agent, I was on the sidelines, forced like so many thousands of other hopeful actors to buy a trade magazine called Backstage each week which listed upcoming auditions. We all had pagers back then which were linked to voicemail numbers. If the pager vibrated, I'd race to a public phone and call in, hoping it was an audition or a job. Occasionally, you'd hear about someone breaking through and landing an agent or a part, or being involved in an off-off Broadway project that got noticed by a producer and moved to a bigger theatre. These stories were the engine and fuel that kept me and thousands of others going, even if some part of me understood the statistical improbability of success ever happening that way.
“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable . . .”
My first acting job was in a devised project in the New York Fringe Festival. The play was based on an ancient Greek text, and since they couldn't pay us, the project was pitched to the cast as the Next Great Thing, a sure-fire hit destined to move off-Broadway. The audition consisted mostly of rolling around on the floor and striking dramatic poses. The director and his girlfriend were both really good looking, and one of them was rumored to "come from money" so I thought maybe they were going places. I got a part, such as it was. But the only place the play ended up actually going was a sunken garbage-pit in Chinatown, where we rehearsed and performed. The pit was in a pedestrian square, and each day we would carefully sweep the ground for used hypodermic needles and broken glass, but it was fruitless, because every night, unseen drunken people above us would hurl bottles down and shower us in glass.
My last audition: the address was a warehouse on the far west side of Manhattan, and I had learned from experience that it was best to get there early. Arrive late and by the time it's your turn a couple hundred dramatic monologues later, everyone behind the table looks not just like they won't remember you, but actively like they wish you were dead. As I got off the subway and headed west, I saw from a distance a line of people wrapping around the block. I assumed it was a soup kitchen serving breakfast to the homeless, but as I approached and realized it was the audition, I knew in my gut I couldn’t do it this time. I walked right by on the opposite side of the street, walked with purpose like I had somewhere better to be, like all those ambitions and dreams lined up over there clutching their headshot/resumes had nothing to do with my life. I walked all the way to the Hudson River, and stood there a long time, traffic on the West Side Highway roaring above my head. Another piece of the dream fell away, but I felt some relief too. I no longer had to hope that someone sitting behind a folding table would look up from a two-foot stack of headshots and see something special in me.
“I cried until I was not even aware when I was crying and when I was not, cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries . . .”
Like Didion, I found myself crying a lot, experiencing a depth of loneliness and claustrophobia that frightened me. I had moved several times over the five years of living in Manhattan, and while my apartment that final year was on a nice block on the Upper West Side, just a block from Central Park, the apartment itself was only a hundred square feet. Standing in the middle, I could reach out my arms and touch both side walls. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize it was not an apartment at all, but was actually the end portion of the hallway that some enterprising landlord had closed off with a door. The shared wall with my neighbors might as well have been a curtain. I could hear the creak of their toilet paper holder as they unspooled squares, not to mention the cacophonic symphonies of their gastrointestinal tracts.
Despite not acting anymore, I continued to write and work as a carpenter. For a little while, it looked as though a small but reputable theatre company was interested in producing one of my plays. They gave it a couple readings, and were talking about a full production in the fall. It felt like I might finally be getting some traction, and I didn't have to stand in any lines to do it. I had self-produced a different short play a year earlier, and the experience was numbing—renting space in a walk-up Black Box space that smelled of dog shit and mold, trying and failing to get an audience other than people who knew me or the cast members. This new opportunity felt legitimate, and gave me some hope.
I met one of the producers at her apartment on the Upper East Side. She was about my age, and I expected a modest building. A doorman let me in and gave me a ride in a wood-paneled elevator. The apartment was beautiful, with high ceilings and sunlight in every room. It was ten times the size of the hallway-with-a door I lived in across town. This was that other New York that Didion was talking about when she described “the very rich”. This was the New York of inherited wealth, where the whole city belonged to you, where you could claim space and opportunity as rightfully yours. Sitting at her dining room table talking about my play, I realized just how much of an outsider I truly was.
I was tasked with revising the play one final time over the summer. After spending a couple months working in their suggestions, I reached out to deliver the finished script, and then waited and waited. Weeks later, I got a voicemail message saying, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction." It was impossible not to take it as a personal rejection, that somehow it was me that did not meet their standards.
“All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken . . .”
My lease was up. As my twenty-ninth birthday approached, I shipped some boxes home to Colorado with a vague plan of perhaps returning to Portland, Oregon. To do what I had no idea. I ended up staying in Colorado, applying to grad school to become a teacher, and starting therapy. It took me a year to sift through the thousand unraveled threads of my New York identity and begin to find new pathways. There was ambivalence at every turn. Therapy taught me to pay closer attention to the stories I was telling myself about my life. This essay contains several of those stories: the last audition, the play reading. Did they actually happen the way I remember them? Or are they deeply biased perceptions that I am constantly revising to help make sense of my life?
A couple years ago, I returned to New York City for an education conference, and had dinner with a friend from acting school at his apartment. He pulled out a photo album from our years together at Circle in the Square, and I flipped through pictures of myself having a good time with friends—at parties, restaurants, swing dancing at Windows on the World, the club on the 104th floor of the now-destroyed World Trade Center. Photo after photo of actors and writers and directors, who mostly, like me, eventually left New York to live newly-imagined adult lives elsewhere. The city was especially hard on those who came from somewhere else. Didion writes that for those who grew up in the East, “New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.” For those us from elsewhere, “it was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
The photos shocked me: how selective my memory of those years turned out to be, almost exclusively skewed towards negative and painful experiences. The album told a different story; a story of a young man, an outsider, living the most honest life he knew how to live at the time, and apparently having a pretty good time doing it. Sitting in my friend’s apartment, I felt like I had forsaken that person, and felt bewildered by the loss.
I used to believe that humiliations and failures wore off over time, that the math was simple: one success would cancel out a previous failure. But I was wrong. Failures are like scars; they last forever, especially those that you acquire when you’re still young. Maturity is learning to live with them, to not be ruled by their power. We are not kind to artists in our culture, and because of this, many artists are not kind to themselves. We idolize those at the very top, and feel sorry and embarrassed for the rest. New York came to represent a specific form of shame in my life. And I was wrong to feel that way. I was just young and living a most perishable dream.