Sunday, May 29, 2011

long tryout

Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

-- Milton, Lycidas

The Bronx is up but the Battery's down.

-- Betty Comden

I've never lived on this island before. Like any immigrant, I have my dreams but I don't know quite what to expect. My work is already here. Many of my friends are here. A lot of my fantasies are here. They say that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Of course, you're supposed to come here as a tap-dancing ingenue from the stix. But I never tap-danced, and I learned to sing for my supper in other parts of the country. No longer young, I came to the island and got work, and as I worked I learned that I didn't like doing this work any more. So I went to school again and became a pastor, living all the while in the suburbs. Deep suburbs.

I lived in those suburbs on eight and a half acres of woods. I've watched storms that tore off limbs and hurled one trunk at another, leaving the field swathed in casualties. On the other side, I've seen a shoot grow out of a pine stump to three times my height. I knew every tree, the crossings of the marsh, the splittings and meldings of a tiny river and its tributaries. My kitty and I could take walks on the place. How will we deal with the loss? It's a new life, but also a death. The move makes real a fantasy; but it also is a grief, for I leave what I love.

I had a client on the eleventh floor of a building only a block or two away from where I shall live. He was 101 years old and had been blind for a decade, but he told me what I would see if I looked out his window. I might have seen my new home. It's on the ridge of the island, which slopes up gently on the west and down precipitously on the east. In the plain below the bluff, the Polo Grounds once stood, where Willie Mays made fabulous catches. Across the Harlem River used to stand the house that Ruth built, torn down so that millionaires can have luxury boxes. If I choose to reward their vandalism, I might walk across a bridge to the expensive imitation just up Jerome Avenue.

Half an hour from here by subway are the famous museums on the even more famous park. "Is it safe?" the tourist lady asks with two kids in tow. Yes, it's safe: there are shows and games and concerts, and walkers and runners and cyclists, and people cross the park every day, emerging on the other side unharmed.

I've gone to school here, worked here for eight years. I've climbed in and out of subways, mounted and dismounted from buses, and said, "I ought to live here. I feel like I live here. But I don't live here. It will take me an hour and half to get home." Traveling from one client to another on the West Side, I've said to myself, these are my people. Some of my work will now be a few blocks away from my front door. If I go to a show or out to dinner, I can come home and change clothes, take a shower. Leave off my heavy, even heavier-looking, laptop bag.

There's a part of me that's all a-quiver to come here at last. If you make it here you can make it anywhere. As a juvenile I thought I would come here to conquer the stage, looking forward to triumphs in Shakespeare and Chekhov, which were the only forms of showbiz I could imagine succeeding in. But I never came here, since I couldn't imagine how to make a living. Turns out I did learn to sing for my supper, but not here or anywhere close to here, and my songs were a long way from classical, sung in a country where no one knows that actors can live. I stood in for cops and truck-drivers, farmers and befuddled American dads, in commercials and training films and trade shows and syndicated TV. I'm no ingenue hoping to tap dance her way down Forty-Second Street. I'm not a star. I'm not going to be a star. I'm not even in showbiz. But I have made it here: I have a job and a place to live, though like Milton's shepherd I must find "other groves and other streams." After the longest of try-outs, I've come to New York, and I've got a piece of the town. The Bronx is up but the battery's down.