HERE COMES THE FISHMAN!
My idea of hell is audience participation. Even when I'm in a crowd 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. To force participation on an audience seems a sign of weakness, a lack of faith in one's own imaginative powers. 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 day I had an interview with an agent and I walked fifty blocks rather than pay a precious buck-fifty for the subway. I 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 and fast.
Then an administrator from NYU rang me up.
"Jeff, a woman from Windows on the World called, and she needs 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 with strangers."
After all, the job was only three hours. No matter how humiliating, 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.
I'd cater-waitered in similar situations for a twentieth of that sum. For one catering job, the company told me to show up at Grand Central Station. But instead of working at the station, the staff was rushed by train to upstate Connecticut. We were given togas and became the slaves of a nouveau riche couple who'd built a tacky ballroom for the sole purpose of holding their annual party. That year's fête was set in the times of ancient Rome as well as ancient Greece.
After a three-hour setup it was time for the games to begin. I got what everyone agreed was the best position: in the entryway offering champagne to the arriving guests. Among the straight women and gay men who comprised that night's work crew, mine was considered the best position because the hostess had hired six bodybuilders to carry the arrivals, on a litter, 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. Once 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. They wore foam-rubber muscle suits and stood frozen in athletic positions. Another actor roamed around in a lion suit, growling. Another man down the hall played a talking bush. For the guests' sake I wished I could offer them 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 returned my attentions to the guests.
"Jeff." I looked again. 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 and gone camping with his friends.
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 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.
Pam from Windows on the World said, "We love actors here. If it works out, we use the same folks 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 showed up for my costume fitting on the banquet level, one floor below the restaurant. I was handed culottes, plus a loose shirt of rough cotton, a vest, and a newsboy cap.
Pam gazed at me intensely, as though trying to see into my soul. "So you like interacting with people in character?"
"Oh, definitely," I lied again. "To be honest, I think it's the greatest form of acting." To be honest, my ideal acting job 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 took the sheets. "I don't think I'll need a mike – I studied voice for three years."
"Trust me," Pam said. "In that room, you'll need a mike."
On the subway home I looked over the papers, which Pam had Xeroxed from a book. The street vendor cries were incomprehensible.
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!
And on and on. 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 comforted myself in the knowledge that I wouldn't be alone – Pam had hired four other street-vendor types who'd be my mute underlings, carrying props.
I arrived at Windows on the World and hope began its decline. Somehow I imagined they'd constructed an entire eighteenth-century neighborhood up on the hundred and ninth floor. But it was just a banquet hall, unremarkable from any other except for the views.
I braved on. A sound guy gave 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 briquets.
I tried to establish a jovial relationship with a fellow street vendor wearing a butcher's apron. Before I could get a word out 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 to the other three vendors. They whispered amongst themselves and glared at me.
Then, a strange foursome walked by. One couple wore giant black foam outfits, resembling those abstract characters you see crossing the street on "pedestrian crossing" signs. The other couple was equally bizarre: the man wore a suit made of plastic champagne glasses and the woman's dress was fashioned entirely of champagne corks.
I found Pam. "Who are they?"
Pam beamed. "Aren't they outrageous? I found them through this talent agent and couldn't resist!"
My breathing became difficult. "But – is there anything letting the guests know that we're in nineteenth-century Manhattan?"
Pam's face froze and she stared hard into my eyes.
"Yes. It's you."
The guests began to arrive. The men wore tuxedos and the women wore expensive-looking evening gowns crowned by that Upper East Side helmet hair. The banquet was for a society of lower-Manhattan property owners. I was going to vend to some of the richest people in the country.
Pam handed me my fake milk jugs. "Now get out there and sell!"
I stepped into the 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 board operator turned the volume, so my whisper sliced across the party like a horror-film promo.
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 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 recoiled like I was 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 hit me then: I was vending fake foodstuffs to people in tuxedos. Nobody would ever actually buy any. They probably owned servants who could buy real food. Even if I were the best actor in the world, I was set for a night of failure. But I was doing terribly, which made it so much worse.
At one point, Pam took away my tray of wax vegetables. "I know," she said, smiling. 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 was almost nil, I'd actually done "Oliver" at a 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 me my vegetables.
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 her smile was the greatest kindest I received 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, when 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 it may sound strange to say this, but 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 following, strangers gave each other the benefit of the doubt. And even the gravest misanthrope would be a fool not to participate.