i got a phone call the other day from paula. she was in town from beaver county, pennsylvania with her husband and her little girl, catching up with friends and seeing the sights. could we see each other some time this weekend? she had sent me a smattering of phone calls and e-mails warning of her impending breeze-through but only some other part of me had paid attention, so her crash landing into my afternoon was a bit of a happy surprise.
or maybe the surprise is that she's in my life. this part of it, anyway. she was supposed to be trapped in my idiotic urban beginnings, like a mosquito in amber. from time to time, i would hold a memory of she and i up to the light and examine it closely, marvelling at how well preserved it was. i wondered what happened to her like i wondered what happened to all of rest of the people i had known then, a garden variety of freaks and weirdos and posers that i was pretty sure i'd never see again. and then one day she e-mailed me. and then she called me. and then she showed up and we met up and everything started up all over again, like it never stopped.
she's probably just as surprised as i am.
she and i met at a bar on the upper east side called name this joint. i can't remember exactly what she did there but i was a cashier at the spot in the back called atomic wings that served * you guessed it! * buffalo wings -- and yeah, they were actually good. it was my first job in the city. frankly, i don't know why they hired me. no one else would because i didn't have any "new york city experience." my not being able to type didn't help much, either. it took a year to live through that particular catch-22, it was one long gut-wrenching emotionally draining snag. everyone was so dismissive, so sure that i wouldn't make it past the winter. i watched my southern friends leave in waves. i was immovable. i had dreamed of living in new york city all my life. i wasn't about to turn high-tail and run home because it was cold and snowy -- colder than anything i had ever known, actually. i got some long johns, a decent winter coat and i kept going.
i worked a wide variety of crap jobs for my first six years here while i did my art on on my own terms and on my own time -- that is, when i could find my own time. all of that ended when i got cast in the original company of the first national tour of RENT. how? by walking into a cattle call of what ultimately amounted to more than 6,000 people in five cities. and puerto rico, for cryin' out loud. but i digress.
paula belongs to those first six years.
paula lived with lois, who also worked at that bar. i remember how she would have a bottle of tequila in either hand and she would walk through the crowd, literally pouring alcohol down people's throats. sometimes they would lean against the bar and tip their heads back and open their mouths like starving baby birds, yelling until she came along and obliged with some jose cuervo. it was the kind of place only a former frat boy could love. then again, so was the neighborhood. we always made goofy faces at each other, whether anyone was looking or not because we were so over it. we knew that we had to get out of there before it got all over us.
lois was a sweet-faced brown eyed girl. she was also, as it turned out, greek-american. first generation, i think. she spoke greek fluently. i remember hanging out with her and listening to her talk to her mother one day and being really taken with how melodic it sounded. like a bird, singing its heart out. like me, lois wanted to be an actress. but i heard that from a lot of people when i first got here. the numbers dwindled exponentially as time went on until the only actors i knew were the ones that were actually working. but i guess that's the magic of living in the city. it will force you to put up or do something else.
she and paula were a study in opposites, in a way. she was grounded, a preacher's kid, with strong family ties. paula came from a good home but she was adopted, and something in her was looking for those roots.
the one bit of fun that the three of us would have after work was hanging out at king tut's wah-wah hut at all hours. it is a legendary place, and deservedly so. it was the coolest bar i've ever known, before or since. i have yet to go to a bar that's topped it.when we'd close the place down, lois let me sack out at her apartment, which was a few blocks from tompkins square park. we would lie in bed and talk until one of us would say, we have to stop talking and go to sleep. and then we would keep talking and talking and talking. lois meant a lot to me. she was full of feeling, she had a sunny disposition and she wasn't afraid of hard work.
that was pretty much my first year in new york city. lots of "no," lots of buffalo chicken wings, lots of former frat boys reliving their glory days, and lots of downtown freaks.
remember: this was the early 90's, when the city was filthy and dangerous, and when all of the lower east side was one gigantic toilet. no one could stop talking about david rakowitz, the guy killed his ballerina roommate, then boiled her into soup and fed her to the homeless people in that park. (he was just up for parole, actually. he didn't get it. surprise.) eventually, the homeless people decided to turn the area into their own self-governed sanctuary. and they did, for awhile -- until the city came in and evicted them, then bulldozed their shantytown. it was a crazy neighborhood. it was nothing at all like the well-heeled, well-dressed hipsters that chain smoke and sip lattes and walk their canine kitties in the long dark shadow of all that mess. whatever.
paula was quite the wild child but i always knew that no matter how bad off she seemed to be doing or what she'd gotten herself into lately, she was a good girl at heart and that she would eventually straighten up and fly right. and she did. she finished school, got saved, found her birth mother and her birth father and her half-siblings, got married, left the city, bought a house, had a kid. now she's an out-patient psychotherapist, with clients ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 60. she's even riding horses and writing again. i am so proud of her, for all her hard work -- but also because i know that things could have turned out a lot different. and she knows that, too.
the first time we got together, we wondered aloud as to what happened to everyone we used to know. between the two of us, passing stories back and forth, we filled in a lot of blanks. the one we really wanted to find was lois. the last i heard, she married a puerto rican guy that made her happy and moved to queens. paula has tried everything and she can't find her. maybe she's left the city entirely. maybe she doesn't want to be found.
paula has another life but she and i will keep in touch, and we'll hang out when we can. we'll keep looking for lois. looking and praying. anything's possible. she has to be out there somewhere...