I’ve had the same tightrope for 25 years. Mark, who was trained by the fearless Philip Petite, taught me how to walk the rope. Mark could juggle balls, bowling pins, and torches on fire while walking across. I can’t – but I can let the rope swing wildly under me and then stop it without falling off. I think of it as calming the rope down, the wild thing.
Walking the rope is controlling the beast of erratic movement, inside and out. If I’m not concentrating, there are consequences. Like when I realized, in a flash of insight, that Mark was the one calling me in the middle of the night, every night for the past two months, breathing heavily and talking dirty. I fell and that was my last time across the rope for a long time. Having my teacher stare up between my legs was an image in my brain I had difficulty erasing. Talk about a beast.
In the late 60s there was no Manhattan, just New York. It was the only place to be if you were to have a life in theatre, which I was determined to have. My first apartment was in Queens at the end of the line of the RR subway at Ditmars Boulevard, a forlorn neighborhood of dismal grime. The studio apartment was cheap but tiny for two girls just graduated from high school. I didn’t really know Judy, just that, like me, she didn’t want to go to college and wanted to start right in with a career. I’m not sure what her aspirations were because she only worked temp jobs and then left New York after one month, taking all my clothes with her. She also had sex with my high school sweetheart, Bobby, on the connecting daybed next to mine when I still refused to go all the way with him, our three heads nearly touching as they writhed and moaned their way to climax. There was also my landlord that waited for me in the narrow hallway when I got home from work late at night. He’d stand in the narrow hallway to my apartment so his body could brush up against mine. He never did anything other than press his lumbering body into mine, but I developed an ulcer nevertheless. I found a doctor in the Yellow Pages who also lived in Queens. At first, the doctor said he had to examine everything and started right in rummaging around in my vagina with his white plastic glove. I started to yell and didn’t stop until the secretary came in. I pulled up my underpants and stalked out, making my way to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, which I’d also found in the yellow pages. There I had to wait three hours only to be told by the emergency doctor that I should drink lots of milk and get more sleep.
In those days no one talked about being taken advantage of or inappropriate fondling, let alone sexual harassment because the phrase didn’t exist back then. I was 18 and in New York to study acting with the top theatre schools in the country. The pressure to find a decent place to live, make a living, and start acting school was enough to think about. I also had pressure from home. I’d just graduated from high school and my father wanted me to go to college, but I didn’t want to go to college; I wanted to be an artist. So I struck a deal with him. After my first month in New York, I would have a paying job, an acting gig, and be enrolled in an acting school. And if I managed these three vital things, he would send me one hundred dollars a month.
At the end of the first month, I scored a waitress job, was in the chorus of an Off-Off Broadway production of Pal Joey (with no pay) and was an eager student at the Irene Dailey School of Acting. Irene was on Broadway then in the play, You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. She was legit. Every morning I rode the RR subway to 42nd street at 4 in the morning to serve 25 cent coffees till 9, with a breakfast of all the chocolate milk I wanted. At 10, I was in class on 14th street studying voice, movement, and improvisation with Irene and another teacher who had me crawling around on my hands and knees to experience what it was like to be poverty stricken. Rehearsals for Pal Joey were at night and then I’d ride the subway back to Queens to face my leechy landlord and my sex-crazed roommate. At least I had a hundred dollars more a month.
My grim determination to study acting blanketed a deep insecurity that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’d acted in plays in a local college during high school and was in my first professional show in summer stock at 16. But these experiences didn’t prepare me for hard-core, fast paced New Yorkers who, I thought, had no time for a neophyte like me. I only realized later that playing other people was probably not the best way to gain self-confidence.
Men stepped in to lead the way. Ironic that I wouldn’t let my dad tell me what to do but when it came to men in New York, I assumed they knew better what was good for me. And because I was young and pretty and passionate about my path in life, a lot of men thought that was just adorable. Luckily, I had enough sense to let them know straight off that I would never sleep with them, which I never would have anyway because they were all considerably older by a good 30 years. Unfortunately, these men had power and that was something I severely lacked. They were the teachers, the producers and directors, the landlords and the bosses.
For my first film audition I had to fill out a form. I’d never had to do that before in an audition, but all the other hopefuls were scribbling away so what did I know? On the form, when I got to the line will you perform S & M? I asked the girl next to me what S & M meant. She looked at me and said, “Are you kidding me?” and turned away. I left it blank (there was no internet in those days and no cell phones. My education consisted of books and the woods back home. S & M could have meant Susie and Mark for all I knew).
After a bunch of girls came and went, I was called into a plush office where a middle-aged, puffy-faced man sat in a large swivel chair with his feet up on the desk. I handed him my mostly filled-out form, my headshot and résumé. When I went to sit down in the chair opposite, he told me to walk around the room first, turn around, then walk some more. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice.” He proceeded to tell me what my part would be in the film. I was inwardly thrilled. He was considering me already for the lead! “You’ll play the nanny. Working for a rich family. The father lusts after you. There’ll be a golden shower scene with you and him. A few friends over.” I interrupted and asked what a golden shower was. He laughed and said I was so cute. “It’s where they pee all over you.” Jumping out of the chair, I said, “Is this a B movie?” (that’s what porn films were called). He laughed again and said of course it is, “What did you think?” I shot back and told him I’d never be caught dead in a B movie; “This is disgusting.” He jumped up, threw my résumé and photo of my face in my face and said, “You come in here with your fat résumé and dare to insult me? Get out!”
Afterwards I sat in Howard Johnson’s on Times Square having a hot dog and coke and thought it through. I’d promised my dad I’d never take off my clothes for any job and I never would. But the fat résumé part? I’d had some experience but certainly not like the creepy director inferred. I’d just chalked up another confusing, humiliating audition to add to my big fat career.
I got my first real paying job with Kelly Girls, a temp agency. Waitressing didn’t count because number one it was exhausting, and number two, I had to wear a white uniform that spotlighted every one of those ten pounds I’d gained on the creamy chocolate milk. Even my boss at the restaurant said, while patting my butt, I should lay off the chocolate milk. Luckily Kelly Girls sent me to Wall Street to an ad agency job. I wore a shiny purple blouse with a matching mini skirt. To be alluring was the only power I had, and I needed to get out of the 5 AM, poundage-making waitress job. The ad agency had only two men and one of them needed a secretary. The other guy had a secretary, a doughy matron that hated me from the get-go. I told them I could type 120 words a minute, which at best I could eke out 60 and she knew it. When the guy asked me to take dictation, I wrote down a bunch of symbols and abbreviations which worked well enough to get the job. I was good at memorizing.
I lasted at the agency for three weeks until my boss invited me for dinner at his apartment on 5th Avenue opposite the Met. When I went to the bathroom after dinner to pee, I came out and discovered that he’d gotten into his big fluffy bed naked and was waiting for me. When I saw him, I burst out laughing and said, “Are you kidding me?” Of course, it was a stupid thing to say to my boss, but I went into work the next day anyway. He didn’t show up for a week. I thought he was really sick because when he came back, he looked peeked and distraught. He leaned over my desk (I had my very own) and whispered, “You best leave.” I felt guilty, but I reasoned myself out of not feeling responsible because I’d told him I would never sleep with him right from the very beginning. Men weren’t good listeners.
After months of pounding the relentless concrete, urine-soaked subways, and the shaming auditions (exhaustion and insecurity are a lethal mix for nailing an audition), I finally found a secure place to live. The Katherine House for Girls, on 8th Street between 4th and 5th Avenue, was a residential hotel for girls. The idea was for the “girls” to have a safe place to stay until our careers got going and we’d found our own apartments.
At the Katherine House, I lived in a tiny pea-green room with a tiny sink, tiny bed, tiny desk, and a tiny chair where I sat and wrote volumes of poetry every morning on my cheap baby blue typewriter. Most of the poems were about the thrill of walking the slack rope and the dread of being followed. I wrote a poem that even got published called “It’s not that I would like to be a man” about wishing I had the freedom of men, walking the streets without the unending catcalls and whistles.
Then I met Frank, the photo retoucher for Richard Avedon. He took me under his wing and retouched me, to put it mildly ‒ taught me how to dress, do my makeup (which till then I’d never worn), and how to act around men. Be bold, don’t suck up, and slap them if necessary, which I never did. I’m not sure I even considered doing that till after-the-fact, which of course is too late. Frank also took me out to fancy dinners and drove me across the Brooklyn Bridge at night in his BMW convertible with the top down. I told him the first time, like every older man I dated (I never seemed to meet any boys my age in New York) that I would never, ever, no matter what, sleep with him and I never did. I met Frank because I answered an ad in the Backstage newspaper for an artist’s model. He paid twenty dollars an hour which at the time was a fortune. I only had to lie there on a love seat in his fancy Eastside apartment and he’d paint me. While he painted, he told me he’d always wanted to be an artist but there was no money in it, just like in acting, so he understood my predicament. He let me watch him when he retouched photographs of famous models, erasing all the lines and excess skin and anything else that didn’t make them appear perfect. That was the best training I could have had, learning that these famous people were as flawed as I was, at least physically. Unfortunately, Frank fell in love with me and became obsessed like all the others. I’d thought by telling men that I would not, under any circumstances, have sex with them that that would solve any further issues that might arise. Apparently, I was wrong. This made my life more confusing than it already was.
I was beginning to learn that men would never be the way to solve my stomach problems, my crazy roommate and landlord, a succession of audition rejections, overcrowded and elitist acting schools, temporary jobs that lasted one week or three if I was lucky, and a cockroach infested apartment if I could afford one. After months of demeaning auditions and a few measly Off-Off Broadway acting jobs with no pay, I figured I had no talent and decided to quit. My theatre career was over. Finished. New York was the last stop. If I couldn’t make it there, I was nothing.
There are all kinds of tightrope walking situations. Some are on a taut wire, like moving to the city at 18, and some are on a slack rope, like waiting six weeks to act in a five-minute scene in Lee Strasberg’s acting class, hoping for a morsel of feedback. Either way, there’s always the potential of falling. Just keep on pretending. After all, that’s what acting is all about.
Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in The Rupture, Critical Read, Epiphany, Memoir Monday, Westerly, Channel, Capsule, Tiny Molecules, Sky Island Journal, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.
Stephanie Liebetrau lives and works in Port Elizabeth/ Gqeberha. She completed a Diploma in Graphic Design at Cape Technikon. Her evocative oil paintings & collages fuse South African women with natural elements to create hybrids that diffuse the boundary between the real and recreated. She explores themes such as Eco-Feminism and remains fascinated by the “fragile hieroglyphics” in nature’s design. Her work is often ekphrastic, inspired by poetry, scripture and sacred texts.
One of the joys of Johannesburg’s summers are the quick, violent, electric thunderstorms that follow a day so hot that the tar on the road melts and sits in the cracks like black shiny lava. Mid-afternoon relief comes in the form of large raindrops, forked lightning and, sometimes, even hailstones that pelt down from the heavens for three or four minutes and then move on, leaving in their wake rivers of mud on steaming roads, clogged storm drains and, on occasion, hail damaged cars, trees, flower beds and heads. I look forward to the tension of a building storm, the darkening sky, the surreal light, and then the climactic release – crashing chords and rolling tympani.
I love this about Joburg, but that’s not today. It’s late afternoon and, a few clouds are hanging onto the breathless sky – white, fluffy cumulus. “No precipitation,” as the weatherman says. I pull the Toyota Venture panel van into our driveway at 49 MacDonald Street in Kensington, Jeppe Town, and I let the engine idle in front of our tall, wood panelled front-gates. My wife climbs out to open them, her long blond hair swishing as she turns, so elegant in her red satin dress and ankle high leather boots. A cassette tape is playing one of our daughter’s favourite tapes: a Laxmi Devi story about Huberta the Hippo who loses her home to a Tugela River flood and embarks on a quest to find it. It’s one of my own favourites, too; recorded in 1975 with superb voice work and orchestral sound effects.
I’m listening and fiddling with the seatbelt buckle that has been jamming on its release. Half a matchstick seems to have, heaven-knows-how, stuck in it. My five-year-old daughter has her thumb in her mouth and a glazed far-away look as she listens, a sure sign of tiredness.
Huberta the Hippo woke up one day.
She saw that her house had been swept away.
It was only some branches and bits of cane
But it was cosy and warm and home in the rain.
My wife returns to the car, undoes our daughter’s safety-seat buckle, picks her up and carries her to the open gates. Mother and child in each other’s arms. Three young men are approaching us unseen; two on the right, and one on the left side of the road. I’m distracted; listening, digging out the match. I don’t see them. The seatbelt buckle gives.
She had slept like a rock through the storm and the mud.
The Tugela grew bigger and came down in full flood.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” she said to her friends.
“I slept through the storm and now evening descends,
And I can’t find my home, I must leave on a quest
To find where it went, North, South, East or West.
One of the young men pulls the car door open. Startled, I try to yank it back. “What are you doing?” I shout. He waves a gun at me. A World War II Luger. I had seen one before, in an exhibit at the Chris Barnard Museum, in Beaufort West. Barnard’s had a swastika on the handle. I step from the car looking across to see where my wife and daughter are? The other two guys are climbing into the vehicle.
“I can’t take you with me I’ll do it alone.”
She said to sad faces in her softest tone.
But the voice of a Hippo is a grunt, and a squeak.
She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.
The one youth and I are in an awkwardly close proximity to one another, as I climb out.
“Bye Bye,” they all said, and she moved through the swamp,
her feet in the mud going clompity-clomp.
Eating weeds where the river joins up to the sea,
She never looked up to the shadows in the tree
Where the hunter was waiting with his bullets and his gun.
Poor Huberta. She was too large to run.
I freeze. Silence. He has quite bad acne and is tall and tik lanky; eyes distant, dilated; tombstones of intoxication. All three are wearing baggy denims, collar shirts open showing T-shirts beneath, low-slung bucket hats. It is 5.30 in the afternoon and a neighbour is loading boxes into the back of a truck. He has a helper. They are oblivious of what is happening to us.
“I can’t take you with me I’ll die alone.”
She said with a sad face in her softest tone
But her voice was a wheeze, a grunt, and a squeak.
She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.
We’ve just returned from a pre-school Christmas event, and my daughter is dressed in her favourite, pink ballet tutu. Her angel wings lie discarded on the back seat, with her tiny satin ballet shoes. I suddenly remember the fourth member of our family, who isn’t with us, but who is in the house with the child minder. I get confused.
“Where is my son?” I ask the lanky youth. My eyes move across to see that my wife and daughter are moving through, past the gate.
A hippo is heavy and a hippo is strong,
Its teeth are sharp and very long,
But the scariest thing is the blast of its voice
When it is trapped in a corner and faced with no choice.
The bullet enters my left leg, just above the ankle, ripping through my Levi’s, the Doc Marten boot, and the sock, and exiting on the other side, removing a chunk of me before slamming into the tarmac. The exhausted brass cartridge pings to the ground. The gun blast flashes a matrix of thoughts through my mind, a fast forward, freeze frame, suspended animation.
When dreaming, the human brain can incorporate external stimuli at lightning speed to ensure the credibility of the created scenario. Whilst in deep sleep, for example, the sensation of a cat jumping onto one’s stomach may be absorbed into a speedily augmented dream, as a stomach punch, or a chest bump, thus keeping one from waking. In the split second before the bullet’s impact, I worry that the sound is wrong. It needs to be re-worked. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to do this,” like when a pregnant woman changes her mind about giving birth, just as she goes into labour – a frequent occurrence according to our children’s midwife.
I am, and have been, involved in the business of sound design and music composition for most of my life. Commercial dictates have trained me to be a rapid sonic problem solver. I listen quickly through audio files, accepting or rejecting sonic fragments for composite assemblage. New sounds are often built from old. A good gunshot may have a combination of a close-up twig snap, a volcano rumble, a bazooka firing, and an axe hitting a microwave oven, all speeded up by thirty percent and distorted through a sonic shredder. It may not even contain an actual gunshot sound.
My sonically suspended brain is thinking: “. . . it’s too compressed . . . too metallic . . . too rattly, maybe I could EQ it out?” It’s almost as if something is loose in the gun, a dropped mechanical part, or a kicked refrigerator. Also, the spatialisation is completely wrong. Gunshots occur in a space, whether a parking lot or a garage or even out on the street; sound bounces off surfaces. This is dead. A dead sound in a dead room.
Huberta and her house are sucked out of the environment and a silent hole is punched into the otherwise perfect suburban evening ambiance; a short-frozen eternity, an inhale into a vacuum, like when a toddler hurts herself . . . the long inhale before the scream-storm breaks. Beethoven, tension, and then the release. I am released. I am triggered to perform an instinctual, perhaps predictable, movie-inspired action. I hit-the-deck, hit-the-dirt hard, keep my head low; just as in the comic books of my youth. I dive into the neighbour’s driveway and lie on the short mown fresh grass. The sensation of searing heat climbs up from my leg, burnt nerve endings, I imagine. Huberta creeps back into audibility.
“I’ll take you with me, can’t do it alone.”
She said to the angels in her softest tone
But her voice was a wheeze, a grunt, and a squeak.
She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.
The dull rumble of distant city traffic floods back into my audible consciousness. The truck next door is still being unloaded. Unaware, unconcerned, oblivious, other people’s lives continue within a normal day. My pathetic, rust ridden van has left, in a trail of grey exhaust fumes. The hijackers turn left onto Roberts Road. I stand up, watch the blood ooze over the top of my boot and wonder at the fact that there’s no actual pain – only a sensation of a blood boiling heat.
I limp into the house. My wife has quickly hooked our distraught daughter up to her favourite video: Disney’s Lion King. She’s watching with her thumb in her mouth, knows every bit of the dialogue by heart; normally her lips would move in sync with the movie; not today though. Today she’s still.
“Thank God they didn’t come inside,” my wife says shocked, cradling our toddler-son who is staring, wide eyed at us, plastic dummy firmly gripped between new teeth.
I call the police, staring at the bloody footsteps I’ve left on the newly varnished pine floorboards. I notice a pale bit of naked exposed wood in the corner that the workmen had missed.
A neighbour gives me a lift to the hospital a few blocks away. I am admitted only after being able to produce proof of my hospital-plan insurance, which involves phone calls to my wife, who is herself busy with four policemen who’ve eventually arrived from the Jeppe police-station. According to them, the youths, who are known as the “Luger Gang,” had stolen the weapon in a housebreaking and were responsible for other crimes in our area.
“The cops were useless!” my wife tells me later. “They spent ages looking for the cartridge, theorising about the trajectory of the bullet, and the calibre, and the weapon, and who stood where, and when. I eventually found it lying in the road where it must have bounced. They were more hinderance then help, I tell you, and then they all left, without even opening a docket or taking a statement.”
It was remarkable. They never even spoke to the main eyewitness – me – nor made any proper investigation. No mention of what had happened, anywhere, in fact. No newspaper article, not even a paragraph on page 6. It was just another day in Johannesburg, where being shot down in the street is as routine as buying a newspaper.
What was big news though, was cricket.
I awoke in a haze of painkillers and confusion as patients and staff crowded around a television set watching the match.
Sport isn’t high on my list of interests and I’m often the butt of jokes around a braai when I try to enter sporty banter and so when I asked the other patients what was going on, the man in the opposite bed informed me that we were watching the world’s greatest cricket player. His name is Sachin Tendulkar and, as my grogginess recedes, I see him hit the ball into the stands a number of times. India playing against South Africa, and I am enchanted with his performance – a carefully choreographed ballet. My leg has been cleaned and dressed whilst I was unconscious, it throbs a bit but, strangely enough, no great pain. I spend the day watching the batsman and the hospital inmates watching the batsman and bowlers and fielders and umpires watching the batsman, forgetting the world they’ve left, and being transported into another, watching, wishing, dreaming. “It all looks so easy,” they say. “It always does in the hands of a champion.”
I was thinking that while some people practice their bowling or batting or playing an instrument, others are practicing the art of criminality. They’re getting better every day and becoming more confident and brazen in their talent. They’re getting together with others of similar interests and forming gangs and syndicates and a lot of this becomes possible with an ineffectual, and therefore complicit, law enforcement.
After two days in hospital, I am sent home on aluminium crutches and a few days after this am back in the studio. I was one day into the middle of a recording project that had a looming deadline. Deadline – what a word – apparently a rough line marking the boundary of prisoner of war camps during the American Civil War. A single step over the deadline and you were shot by the guards.
The vehicle turned up a few days later, in Soweto. I received a call from a woman at the insurance company who said that it was at the Diepkloof police vehicle pound – also known as Midnight Spares – and that I should retrieve it as soon as possible. “Bits and pieces of the engine and body parts are being sold,” she said, “as we speak”.
A few months later a policeman from Diepkloof called me: “Mr. Swinney, we have found your car!”
“What do you mean?” I was staring through the lounge window at my vehicle, recently refurbished and repaired, by the insurance people. It looked new.
“We have your car—the white Toyota Venture.” He reads the registration number and other identifying texts out to me.
“Impossible,” I let him know. “I’m looking at it. It’s standing here in my driveway. This was all sorted out months ago. I’ve got the car, its fixed, and I drive it every day.”
It turns out they had a clone with the same vehicle, model, chassis and registration numbers. Later I thought that we should have driven over in the original and collected it; we would have had two identical cars.
At that time of the incident, I’d been working on a track for a British Channel 4 movie, titled Jump the Gun (1997) The movie was workshopped by the cast and contained South African stories, taken from the lives of the actors. I was working as a producer on the soundtrack with Joe Nina, a popular Kwaito star. Sony Music co-opted me to produce a track for the soundtrack album by a stoner-rap group called The Original Evergreen. The song, “Mr. Hijacker” (later titled “Peter and Jane”), is a scarily prescient rap written by Waddy Jones, and tells the story of a couple who get hijacked a short distance from their home, by three guys wearing blue overalls, balaclavas and using a 9mm Parabellum (another name for a Luger). The track employs found orchestral samples and ghostly sound effects under a lazy beat. Its narrative moves, like a film, through a hijack, a murder, a shoot-out with cops, arrest, incarceration, and then a prison rape. A hijack hauntology and a heavy tale told in a, still optimistic, “New South Africa”. Unsurprisingly, it was shelved by Sony and no actual soundtrack album was ever released.
Much of the later solo work I did with Waddy Jones after the hijack was lost when the Jaz Drive – a temperamental, new, removable one gigabyte hard drive system we were using – crashed irretrievably. Jones left the group shortly after this and started performing under the name Max Normal, and eventually as “Ninja” in the internationally famous Die Antwoord. This was the last job I did at the studio, before packing everything up and moving to Cape Town, a place of safer refuge . . . or so we thought.
This essay was made possible through a Mellon Fellowship grant.
Warrick Swinney is a sound specialist who has been writing and composing for most of his life. He completed an MA in Fine Art at UCT and is currently a Mellon Foundation Fellowship PhD candidate at University of the Western Cape (UWC). He is writing a series of essays on a segment of the socio-political and audible history of the South African transition period (1984-1998).
Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.