My idea of hell is audience participation. Even when I'm among an audience that's clapping along with a song I get self-conscious.
"Look at him," I imagine people behind me whispering. "He's just going through the motions. What a very sad life."
But I can't help it. I felt that forcing the audience to become part of a show suggests a lack of faith in the imaginative powers of the creators. I prefer my fourth wall to be firmly in place. My idea of hell is a Renaissance Faire.
The second-to-last time I was in the World Trade Center, I wore culottes, knee-high socks and a paperboy's cap. It was July of 1997. A month before, I'd completed three years at NYU's Graduate Acting Program and I was dead broke. I'd never been so poor. One scorching, humid summer day I had an interview with a highly-regarded agent. I walked to her office rather than pay the buck-fifty to take the subway. I walked from 14th to 57th Street and arrived at my meeting having sweated through my clothes. The agent took one look at me, rushed through the meeting and dumped me on the sidewalk in three minutes flat.
I wasn't eating well. I was behind in rent. My vague plans to become an overnight sensation were not working out. The breaking point was coming. It was only a matter of when.
Then one of the head administrators from my old alma mater rang me up. "Jeff, a woman from Windows on the World called, and they need somebody to play a turn-of-the-century street vendor at a banquet next week. Are you interested?"
I put the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth and began a reflexive, "Nnnn," when I heard,
"They'll give you a thousand bucks."
"Nyesofcourse," I said.
Pam from Windows on the World called me later that day.
"So you like engaging with people? Like, improvising, you know, playing around, immersing them in the world of turn-of-the-century New York?"
"Oh yes," I lied. "I love interacting that way with strangers."
After all, the job was only three hours. No matter the humiliation, I could survive three hours. Three hundred and thirty-three bucks an hour? I'd do three hours in an Iron Maiden for that kind of cash.
In the years previous I cater-waitered for a twentieth of that rate. For one catering gig, the company told me to show up at Grand Central Station. But instead of working in that beautiful space, the night's catering staff was rushed by train to a McMansion in upstate Connecticut. It was built with the construction values of a movie set to be torn down when shooting was over. The home included one special feature: a gigantic ballroom constructed to hold their annual party. That year's party was set in the times of ancient Rome as well as ancient Greece.
After a three-hour setup the event began its lurch into full partyhood. I got what everyone agreed was the best position: I stood in the entryway offering champagne to the arriving guests. Among the straight women and gay men who comprised that night's work crew, it was considered the best position because the hostess had hired six bodybuilders to carry the arrivals (on a litter) the thirty feet from the driveway to the entrance where I stood. The bodybuilders were from a nearby Gold's Gym and none of them stood above five feet six. They wore scanty Greekish Romanish-style man-skirts and little else. When the guests disembarked from the litter it fell to me to turn my eyes from the retreating glutes of the bodybuilders and offer my tray of champagne.
Behind me in the foyer stood some actors playing Greek statues. Unlike those foolish bodybuilders who put effort into making their bodies ripped, the clever actor-statues wore foam-rubber muscle suits. Their job was to stand frozen in athletic positions. Another actor roamed around in a lion suit, growling. A performer down the hall portrayed a talking bush. For the guests' sake I wished I could offer hallucinogenic mushrooms but all I had was a bottomless supply of champagne.
"Jeff." I heard a voice behind me. I turned and saw nothing but the guys in the foam muscle suits. I turned back to the glutes -- or rather, the guests.
"Jeff." I turned again, and noticed that the statue with the discus was looking at me through the corner of his eye, his face otherwise frozen.
"Do I know you?" I mouthed. The party's fearsome hostess was only a few feet away.
"It's Christopher," whispered the statue.
Christopher! We'd dated briefly a few months before. He was perfectly handsome and a fun guy to boot. One quirk: he and his friends were unapologetic in their quest for cosmetic surgery. He'd already had his nose reduced, and new cheekbones were on the way. I liked him quite a bit -- but too much time together made me question the sleekness of my own nose and we drifted apart.
But it was good to see him. During a break, we laughed at the preposterousness of the party. My laugh became a spit-take when he told me he was making a hundred bucks an hour. I was getting sixteen bucks an hour for three hours of backbreaking setup – hauling tables, chairs, and cooking equipment – plus another four hours of tending to the guests, followed by the equally strenuous breakdown. All Christopher had to do was wear a foam-rubber suit and hold a discus.
I wanted a job like that.
And Pam from Windows on the World seemed to offer the perfect street vendor gig.
"We love actors here. When we click with an actor, we use them again and again." Though it was hardly Broadway or a TV series, I sensed a reversal of fortune. A couple of street vendor gigs a month could save my life.
Three days later I was up on the banquet level for a costume fitting. I donned my culottes, my loose shirt of rough cotton, my vest and newsboy cap.
Pam gazed at me searchingly. "So you like interacting with people in character?"
"Oh, definitely," I lied lied lied. "To be honest, I think it's the greatest form of acting." To be honest, my ideal acting job at the time was a nice suffocating Ibsen play.
But the lie worked. Pam smiled. "So show up at six tomorrow for the sound check."
My eyes widened.
"You'll be on a cordless mike. And here." She handed me several sheets of paper. "I found these actual street vendor cries from the turn of the century. They're really fun."
"I don't think I'll need a mike," I said. "I studied voice for three years with some of the best teachers in the country."
"Trust me," Pam said. "In that room, you'll need a mike."
On the subway home I looked over the papers. Pam had Xeroxed them from a book.
HERE'S NEW MILK FROM THE COW!
SO SWEET AND SO FINE
THAT DOCTORS DO SAY
'TIS BETTER THAN WINE!
CHARCOAL BY THE BUSHEL!
CHARCOAL BY THE PECK!
CHARCOAL BY THE FRYING PAN
OR ANY WAY YOU LEK!
COME OUT YOU OLD LADIES
WITH YOUR BALD HEADED BABIES!
HERE COMES THE FISHMAN!
BRING OUT YOUR DISHPAN!
PORGIES AT FIVE CENTS A POUND!
What could I do? I sat in my little apartment that night memorizing them, working to make the street cries roll effortlessly off of my tongue.
The next day I reminded myself of the paycheck. And I took further comfort knowing I wouldn't be alone – Pam hired four other street-vendor types who'd carry props and act as my mute underlings.
When I arrived at the banquet hall for the big night, hope began its decline. I imagined Pam and company had constructed an entire eighteenth-century neighborhood on the hundred and ninth floor. That assumption had lived in my head the entire time but I realized then that nobody but me had put it there. Instead I gazed into a carpeted, dated banquet hall, indistinguishable from any other anywhere in the US except for the views.
I braved on. A sound guy handed me my mike which, to my disappointment, worked. Pam gave me my props – a basket of empty milk jugs, with white paint inside to depict milk. A tray of wax vegetables. A small bag filled with charcoal briquettes.
I tried to establish a jovial relationship with a fellow street vendor who wore a butcher's apron. Before I could speak a word he said, "I heard they're giving you a thousand bucks."
"What a rip," he scowled. "They're only giving us three hundred." He turned on his heel and marched over to the other three vendors. They whispered amongst themselves and glared at me.
Then a strange foursome walked by. One couple was dressed in giant black foam outfits that were designed to resemble those figures on "pedestrian crossing" signs. The other couple was equally bizarre: the man wore a suit made of plastic champagne glasses and the woman had a dress made of champagne corks. Meanwhile it was my job to conjure for a hundred people a one-man diorama of 1900's lower Manhattan -- and these freaks made absolutely no sense at all in any context anywhere.
I found Pam. "Who are they?"
"Aren't they outrageous?" she beamed. "I found them through this talent agent and couldn't resist!"
My breathing became difficult. "But – is there any clue to let the guests know that we're in Manhattan in 1900?"
Pam's face froze and she stared hard into my eyes.
"Yes. It's you."
The guests began to trickle in. The men wore tuxedos and the women wore expensive-looking evening gowns. The banquet was for a society of lower-Manhattan property owners. I was going to vend to some of the wealthiest people in the country.
Pam handed me my fake milk jugs. "Now get out there and sell!"
I stepped into the developing crowd and turned on my mike.
"MEEELECK COME!" my voice boomed across the tinkling piano and light party chatter. I saw a woman jump. I tried lowering my voice. "Meeeleck come! Here's new milk from the cow! So sweet and so fine that doctors do say 'tis better than wine!"
I offered the startled woman my basket of painted, empty milk jugs. "Would you like some meeleck, milady?"
The woman recoiled as though I'd offered her a basket of venereal warts.
The pedestrian-crossing-sign couple walked by.
I veered in another direction. "Meeleck! Who'd like some meeleck?" The more I lowered my voice, the higher the sound operator turned the volume. My whisper sliced across the party in a manner better fit for a horror-film preview.
I thought another prop might work better. After all, the "meeleck" street cry was the hardest. I returned to Pam, who handed me the bag of charcoal without meeting my gaze.
I found one of my fellow vendors and tried to engage him. "Charcoal by the bushel! Charcoal by the peck!" I tried to make my whisper sound hearty and filled with fun. I was still by far the loudest thing in the room. "Charcoal by the frying pan or any way you lek! Wouldja like some charcoal?" I pointed my mike at the vendor, my only savior in a crowd of strangers.
"Man, I'm not talking into that," he said, and walked away. I hate to say it but I'd've done the same thing.
The next two hours took a month to unfold as I veered and blushed madly amongst the hideously wealthy people, all of whom turned away as though I were a drunk bum on the subway. A drunk bum on a cordless mike. "Please, God," I could imagine them thinking. "Don't let him come near me."
The preposterousness of the scenario only struck me then: I was vending artificial foodstuffs to people in tuxedos. Nobody would ever buy any. They all probably had servants who could buy real food. Even if I were the best actor in the world I was set for a night of failure. And I was doing terribly, which made it so much worse.
At one point Pam removed the tray of wax vegetables from my sweaty blushing person. "I have an idea," she grinned forcefully. She was really trying. "Why don't you get up on that little stage and sing that song from 'Oliver,' you know, 'Who will buy this wonderful morning'?"
Though my knowledge of musical theater approached 'nil' at the time, I'd done a production of "Oliver" at my hometown community theater several years before. I probably could even remember some of the choreography.
"Never heard of it," I said.
Pam's face fell, and she handed my vegetables back.
And I went into a deep, soul-searching funk.
What was wrong with me? In the past I'd come across these people, these audience-participation people, and they filled me with revulsion. They seemed so happy and carefree and, well, GOOD at what they did – they approached strangers with a sparkle in their eye, a smile that hinted at fun to come, and even if the fun wasn't as promised at least they offered the hint. These people, these clowns, these Renaissance Fairegoers, they suggested a universal joke that strangers wanted to be in on.
And then it occurred to me: maybe I just don't like people very much. I couldn't give a stranger the benefit of the doubt and on some level the people at the banquet sensed that. Even if I was carrying a basket of free gold ingots I was doomed to failure from the beginning.
Maybe I was in my heart a misanthrope.
After an eternity the guests ate dinner and left. I hung up my culottes and said goodbye to Pam and she smiled at me. I think that smile was the kindest thing anyone had ever done in my twenty-five years of life. "You were great!" she said. "We'll be sure and use you again!"
Two weeks later the check arrived. For six hundred dollars. A year before, or a year later, I'd've swallowed the loss. But I was so desperately poor, I had to call Pam.
"Pam? I got the check, and thanks so much. But it was for six hundred dollars, and I thought you said it would be for a thousand." My voice was quavery.
A moment. "Six hundred?" she said. "There must have been a mistake."
Two weeks later, the remainder came. I really do think it was a mistake. But Pam never did call me again.
The last time I was in the World Trade Center was December 2000. I had Christmas Eve dinner with my boyfriend and my family. Life was looking up by then.
Less than a year later I watched the towers burn from my rooftop. And the months that followed were my favorite time in New York, because people were so good to each other, so gentle, before the tragedy of that day became something meaner.
During those months, strangers gave each other the benefit of the doubt. And even the gravest misanthrope would be a fool not to participate.