When I walked into my Lower East Side apartment that afternoon, the little red light on my answering machine was blinking. The message was from my agent, an enterprising young fellow about my age who shared a tiny office in Midtown with a reflexologist and an aura reader. Our careers, he had assured me, would grow together, along with his office. Let's call him Swifty.
He was a little hard to hear on my antiquated machine, but the message was downright heavenly. Would I like to read for the role of a wily woman in a regional theater production? Swifty asked. He mentioned the time and place. I tried to call him back to celebrate, but the aura reader informed me that he'd gone on vacation for a week, to Newark.
I was an actor in those days, which meant that I drove a taxi, worked as a Kelly Girl temp typist and went to lots of auditions. I even worked as an actor sometimes. I earned my Equity card by signing on to do a dinner- theater gig in a play called Hot Turkey at Midnight, in a small town outside Atlanta. As the dinner buffet was hauled away, we actors descended from the ceiling on a Magic Stage. I loved it.
Struggling actors are odd creatures. Computer programmers might ask each other if the job they've just come up with is a good one. Actors are willing to settle for any paid job at all, and never mind if it's a "good" one or a "bad" one.
Making the rounds, I learned, was a lot like driving a cab. I always ended up back where I started. But there was one difference. Making the rounds, my feet got sore; in the cab, it was another part of my anatomy.
Now my luck was changing. I had a real audition, not a cattle call but one with an actual appointment and for a specific role, a week off. I was walking on air! If it had been raining, I'd have splashed through puddles like Gene Kelly! It never occurred to me to wonder if I was up to the challenge. If Dustin Hoffman could play a woman, why couldn't I?
My girlfriend at the time helped me with clothes and makeup and accessories, and coached me for hours on how to walk, stand, talk, gesture. I was on cloud nine. I read up on Stanislavski and pored over my battered copy of Michael Chekhov's classic book about acting.
It didn't bother me that this female character didn't have a name. So what? Hadn't I played "Tough Cop" in a high school production? My buddy Earl played "Elderly Passerby" in a play, and my ex-girlfriend Cindy was "Plump Raisin" in a TV commercial. The important thing, after all, was to work.
On the day of the audition, I was just this side of overtrained. I wanted to arrive in a limo or at least a cab, but I'd spent my last $1.69 on eyeliner and had to borrow a couple of subway tokens.
I arrived at the rehearsal studio on time and climbed the stairs, hardly wobbling on my high heels, proud of my determination as an actor, my devotion to my craft. With graceful, scarlet-nailed hands, I gave my picture and résumé to the girl at the table. A wily woman if ever there was one, I strode into the studio — where some actress was intoning the words "So attention must be paid," speaking to Biff and Happy and referring, of course, to that unhappy salesman Willy Loman.