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.