Sunday, April 4, 2010

Keeper of the Flame

Shortly after she left Bryn Mawr college, Katharine Hepburn moved to New York City to pursue her acting career. She got a job as understudy for the lead in a play called, appropriately, The Big Pond.

"I learned the part and sat on the sidelines quite convinced that I would be far superior to the leading lady I was watching, Lucile Nikolas," she wrote in her autobiography, Me. "She was a very competent actress who did not have the advantage of being very young and absolutely outrageous and full of a sort of wild confidence based on nothing but energy and ego. Of course I thought I was scared to death, but all I can say now, looking back, is that I was not scared enough. Open a door, I'd go through. Even if the room I was entering was on fire."

This is who I should have been. At least, this is who I thought for years I should have been, back before I stopped second-guessing my 21-year-old self. Before I realized that all my choices—as safe and un-outrageous as they may have been—brought me here, to a place I'm happy to be.

But for many, many years, I berated myself for my Hepburn Deficit Disorder. Why couldn't I have had that energy and ego? Why didn't I assume that I was better, more talented and capable than the next woman—instead of what I did assume, which was that pretty much anyone else on the planet was more deserving than I. Why couldn't I charge through an open door, instead of peering tentatively around the doorframe?

Well, as Hillary Clinton once said, "Coulda, woulda, shoulda—didn't."

I'm over it now. Pretty much. But the other day I met the alternate-universe version of myself, and I have to admit, it gave me a pang.

He doesn't look much like me—he's about two feet taller, almost 30 years younger, African-American and gay. He's a senior at Stanford, my alma mater, and he found me through the alumni association. He wants to move to New York and hoped to get my advice about neighborhoods and jobs and...whatever. Mostly he talked and I listened—with admiration and a rueful shaking of my head.

"New York is the ultimate city!" he said as he perused the diner menu, before telling the waiter he'd please like the "freshly brewed coffee."

"It's so easy to be gay here, it's so easy to be African-American here. This is where it all happens. It's the greatest city in America!" No, he said, he definitely did not want to go home to Los Angeles. "Noooo, no, no. Maybe when I'm older and I'm ready to retire."

He had just auditioned for a summer theater program with Steppenwolf in Chicago, and was casting about for a job he could get in the fall in New York. "I'll do anything—I'll start in the mailroom, I'll get people's coffee. I'll walk dogs. Although I hear that's really competitive."

His plan was to work for a year while studying with his acting coach, go to drama school for three years, and then, ideally, move to London or Paris—where he'd spent his junior year abroad and attended every theatrical production he could grab hold of. "I saw 60 plays last year," he said. "I was broke, but I loved it."

When we met for freshly brewed coffee, he'd been in New York less than a week and had already seen four plays on student-rush tickets. His favorite was Red, the two-man play about artist Mark Rothko, starring Alfred Molina.

"It's about the nature of art, what is art—that whole difficult conversation and dialectic that people have," he said. "I saw it in London and I think it's even improved since then. The staging is so cinematic."

I walked him to his subway, and he thanked me profusely for my time and all the (non-existent) help I'd given him. As I turned and began to walk away, a middle-aged man leaned in to me and said, "Way too pleasant for New York."

I laughed. "Oh no," I said. "He'll do fine."


S said...

a darling story, Susan. i really enjoyed reading it. x shayma

Karen said...

OK, I loved this story, but the tiny thing I want to comment on is that the middle-aged man at the end assumed you're a New Yorker! You passed! You're in!

Michele Hush said...

Wonderful, Susan. New York needs both of you.

Marilyn said...

I love this story, Susan. NYC is better off for having your kind eyes (and keen ears).

mindy said...

I am a transplanted (to LA) New Yorker and I love your posts. Even after 20 some-odd years and my son's recent NYU rejection, I still love and miss the place. (That rejection letter did hurt, though, so if you should ever run across anyone from the admissions office back there, kick 'em for me, will ya?!?)