Close your eyes.
I want you to think.
Think about, of all things, a bathroom.
Think about it. Imagine it. Visualize it. Listen to it. Yes, I even want you to smell it.
In fact, I want you to think about every bathroom you have ever been in. A lot, isn’t it? So many, you can barely visualize all of them. It’s more like a collage, isn’t it? A whirling collage of bathrooms; there goes the bathroom from your home with the shower curtain and bathmat you picked out yourself, with the too many bottles of shampoo. There goes the bathroom in your grandparents house with the pink color coordinated tub, sink and toilet. There goes the bathroom from work with the row of stalls, and if you’re a man, the bank of urinals on the opposite wall. And here is the bathroom at your favorite dive bar with all the graffiti and the stall with the door ripped off. Bathrooms, everywhere, a cacophony of toilets flushing, hand dryers whirring, water running. The smells of disinfectant, of soap, of bleach and, yes, even those odors that are not discussed in polite company.
Think that’s funny, do you? You can open your eyes now.
This story does not begin in any of the bathrooms in that colorful, cacophonic collage of your mind. It begins in January of 2005, two months and change before my 30th birthday, in a purpose-built drug testing bathroom. I am wearing nothing but a hospital gown and socks, and I am trying to generate a specimen. You might be surprised that I had made it to the seasoned age of twenty-nine without ever having been drug tested.
I think, in all the other jobs I had ever had, they preferred not to look for things they did not want to find. Not that I, or any of my previous colleagues, had ever had a drug problem. At least not that I was aware. I just had never had my body searched for drugs before. I guess I had always thought that ones presentation; one’s clear articulation of speech, one’s impeccable dress, one’s perfectly knotted tie would speak for itself. And if I had the extra money to spend on pot (not that I would be spending it on pot), I certainly wouldn’t be applying for this temp job at Whitman Dunn Capital, a wealth management firm in the network of towering investment buildings in midtown Manhattan.
And that, that was the rub right there. When I had signed the chorus contract at Opera Company of Philadelphia, the factors I had failed to take into consideration were the time and cost of the commute to Philly. The low rehearsal rate of pay that didn’t increase until the performances. Which brought me to this: the need to supplement my income with this $20 per hour temp job. In finance, which I assumed, I sucked at, if my performance in math class many years ago in school was any indication.
That was depressing. I remembered math class. How it was forty minutes, every day, and I slogged through, hating every one of those forty minutes, barely passing, if I was lucky. And now here I was, being sentenced to hours of math at a time, for my failure to do the math of the cost/profit ratio before signing my contract with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. I could appreciate the irony in that. And now my in-processing into the facility to begin my math sentence involved a drug test.
Only trouble was, that specimen was not forthcoming. I had tried everything, from visualizing Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls, Bash Bish falls. Every waterfall I could think of. I tried reciting the alphabet backwards and simply clearing my mind, so maybe I could do it without thinking. I had had two cups of coffee that morning, surely I could produce something.
I couldn’t turn on the faucet, because the spigot on the sink had no taps, I surmised, to keep people from diluting the specimen. The toilet, also, had its water dyed blue and had no flush lever, I guessed, for the same purpose. In the humming of the florescent light, and the tiles rising up to the ceiling in the windowless, elevator sized bathroom, it was just me, the sink and the toilet. And the cup. Don’t forget the cup.
Amazingly, after a period of time, by this point the drug testers must have thought I had escaped into the vent or drowned myself in the blue water of the commode, the cup was warm in my hand, and I pressed the red button. Almost immediately the door buzzed unlocked, and a women in scrubs wordless had her hand out to take the cup. Then the toilet automatically flushed with a pneumatic whoosh and water issued forth from the spigot of the sink.
And then, after a whirlwind of papers, W4 forms, agreements, clauses, triplicate forms, Bic pens, a sexual harassment video, and a credit check, which, amazingly I passed (!!!), I walked into the building, my clothes back on, my tie once again neatly knotted. Here was the building in which I would be working, and I rode the elevator up to the 19th floor where I would meet my boss, a Ms. Barbara Cohen.
I waited in reception for awhile until Barbara Cohen made her grand entrance. She was a squat, scowling, lumpy woman of about fifty, with her face made up to the point of being practically white with the exception of her lipstick, which was fire engine red. And her hair, which was dyed an artificial shade of red and stuck out in all directions. Kind of like Raggedy Ann. A sociopathic looking Raggedy Ann. With a scowl to end all scowls.
I stood up, put my best foot forward and extended my hand.
“Ms. Cohen, My name is Rob. Rob Pagnani and I believe I’ll be working with you.”
She didn’t take my hand.
“No”, she said simply
“No?” I repeated. Was there some mistake? Was I on the wrong floor? Was she not, in fact, Barbara Cohen? Oh please, let this be the case. I had read somewhere that lipstick was made from these insects called cochineal, which were crushed into a red paste and formatted in such a way they could be stuffed into lipstick tubes. Barbara’s mouth compressed and she crushed bugs between the creases of her scowl.
“You will not be working with me.” she snapped, ”You’ll be working for me, and that’s something I want to get straight right now. I am your boss.”
As I understood it, my job was to process the receipts of travel expenses incurred by stockbrokers, to be either reimbursed or written off, as a tax exemption. I was briefed on the Excel program used on the computer, handed five fat binders and led into the office proper.
Anyone familiar with a New York office would know this setup; row upon row of gray cubicles in a grid in the middle of the room, a row of offices along the left wall, presumably for the stockbrokers and executives. And along the wall behind which was reception and the elevator banks, were a couple of pantries and a men’s and a women’s restroom. There was also a row of windows on the west wall, where if you cut your eyes properly, you could see the southeast corner of Central Park. There was also a row of windows on the opposite east wall where you could get a view of the steel grey East river and the low, dull buildings of Queens extending into eternity.
“Nice view,” I offered timidly
Raggedy Ann wheeled around to face me, ”That view is for the stockbrokers,” she squawked in her awful, Brooklyn accent, ”Not you. They’re making us money. You’re costing us money. So I don’t want to see you do so much as glance at that window. Do I make myself clear?”
I was so taken aback I couldn’t answer yes or no.
And finally, after we walked through the narrow maze of identical, grey cubicles, I was shown to mine. Complete with a desk, two drawer gray file cabinet, a computer and a mesh, ergonomic, chair on casters, which supposedly cost $1500. Before Raggedy Ann left she had advised me of the cost of the chair and that I had yet to offset that cost with my worth to the company. Or lack thereof.
Well, what was I to do? I fired up the computer, launched the Exel program, cracked one of the fat binders and started to acquaint myself with the process. Presently, I heard the roll of plastic casters against carpet
“Hey!” A voice whispered.
“Huh?” I looked behind me and noticed that there was a guy, presumably from the next grey cubicle over. He was still sitting in his chair, which he had rolled back to glance in my cubicle.
“What’s she got you working on?” He was anywhere between thirty-two and forty, had kind of a bleached out, worn out, stretched out look. Tired. I had always prided myself in knotting a nice, symmetrical Windsor, but his tie was askew, done in some kind of half assed knot that looked as though it would take hours to pick apart. His hair had streaks of grey and was gelled back from his hairline, which looked like it was in the process of receding at an alarming pace.
“Oh,” I looked up. “This.” I lifted up the cover of one of the thick binders. “These travel expense things”
“Yep. I did those when I first got here. Doing something different now”
“What do they have you doing?” I asked, not really curious
“Ah….. same shit, different name. Benny,” He extended his hand and I shook it. It was clammy.
“Rob. Yeah, they brought me over here about a half hour ago.” I explained “Barbara….. you know the red haired lady”
“Bloody Babs” he leaned back in his seat and chuckled.
“Bloody Babs?” I repeated
“Yep. My nickname for her. Stay out of her way as much as possible. She’s horrible. Nobody can stand her”
“I kinda picked that up,” I said tipping my hand, ever so slightly. I did not let on that I had already mentally assigned here the slightly more benign nickname: Raggedy Ann.
“Yeah, you know, I’m just temping here,” I continued, “Just a few months I guess.”
“That’s what you think,” he smirked.
“Well, here’s how it works. Did you go to college?”
“Yeah,” I answered, ”Bachelors. Half a masters”
“Doesn’t matter. You could train a monkey to do this job. All that creative study, critical thinking, arts, music…. Whatever you studied. This is where it got you. To this shitty little cubicle.”
“Well, you know, I’m only going to be here just a few months max. Just to make a few extra bucks,” I clarified,” You know, I’m an opera singer. Not doing too much now though, just have this chorus gig down in Philly”
“Yeah, I was an actor. Did Shakespeare, you know? But this is how it works: They’ll keep you here for a maybe three months. Then you know what they’ll do? They’ll offer you a permanent position at enough of a raise that you’ll take it. Not enough of a raise that you’ll be happy, but enough that they know you’ll take it. Kinda like how a crack dealer gives the occasional freebee to a crackhead? To get them hooked? And then BAM! This is your life. And by the way, that’s the last raise you will see for a long time.”
“Geez” I laughed uneasily, ”How long have you been here?”
“Three years,” He answered somberly, ”Three long, grey years. Haven’t seen the sun in that long, because….,” he gestured in the direction of the windows at the far end,”That view is for the stock brokers. Because they’re making them money……”
“And we’re costing them money,” I finished, ”I know, I heard it”
“It’s tax fraud, you know,” he said suddenly
“What is?” I asked
“That job. What you’re doing.”
“This is how it works,” he said,” That binder is full of receipts for expenses the stockbrokers incurred while travelling, or supposedly doing business.”
“Yes…..” I interjected
“It’s supposed to be run through that program so it can be reimbursed to the stockbroker, or written off as a company expense. Either way, nobody pays any tax on it”
“Yeah, I got a rundown of the program,” I answered
“Well, if you look at those receipts, you’ll notice that a lot of those items sure as hell aren’t business expenses, and therefore can’t be written off. The IRS would never buy it. So this program alters the nature of the expenses ever so slightly, or at least makes them vague enough that they hope the IRS won’t ever look too closely. Let me show you,” He wheeled the chair over to my desk and selected a fat navy blue binder. He thumbed through a few pages. ”Ah! Here you go. Here’s a forty-five hundred dollar tab from Bazooka’s.” He pointed accusingly at a receipt taped to the page.
“Forty five hundred dollars?” I asked incredulously, ”What’s Bazooka’s?”
“It’s a titty bar in Vegas,” he explained flatly, ”Now the last time I looked, I have to pay tax on my titty bar money, you have to pay tax on your titty bar money, but these fuckers……. They get to write it off as a business expense. And this company pays for it. Tax free.”
“A business expense?” I asked in disbelief, ”How is a strip club a business expense?”
“Well you know…… they’re entertaining clients, potential investors, it gets listed in the program as food and beverage”
“At forty five hundred dollars??” I asked, ”In Vegas??? What kind of clients? You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Wish I was,” he said, ”When you spend some time on this, you’ll see all the crap they run up. Just for shits and giggles, go through it. It only took me a few seconds to find a twelve hundred dollar titty bar tab! Oh, there’s more. Mysterious charges at 4 AM, emptying the mini bar in a hotel, trashing the hotel room in a drug induced orgy with prostitutes, and then, all of it paid for by the company, tax free, and getting the taxpayers to bend over and take it.”
“Al because these guys are making them money…..”I mused
“But the best part of it is, ”he continued with relish, on a roll now, ”If the IRS ever did a full audit, this company’d throw you under the bus. They’d say you were acting without authorization and pin it on you,”
“But why would I do that?” I asked
“Ah, they’d trump something up. But by that point, a few years in federal prison would be preferable to this soul sucking excuse for a job”
“Jesus” I stood up to stretch my back.
He wasn’t done. “See that card?”
“This?” I fingered the ID card on the chain around my neck. The photo of me wasn’t one of my better photos, ”My ID?”
“Well you know that chip in your card?” He continued
“Yeah. It’s actually pretty neat.” It was. When you approached a door you were authorized to go through, it would automatically click unlocked when you approached it. No swiping, no tapping, it would just smell you coming and unlock.
“Neat my ass,” he growled, ”It’s an RFID chip. Do you know what that is?”
“Not really,” I answered, ”It unlocks doors…..”
“It tracks you” he answered, ”Right now, they can tell exactly where you are. Not a big deal right now, because you and I are exactly where we’re supposed to be: right at our desks. But that chip can track you within five blocks.”
“Yep. People have been fired because they said they were doing something work related, and they were tracked to Bloomingdales. Some poor guy had the card in his wallet, took a sick day, and was tracked to PJ Clarkes out on 59th and Lexington where he was having a beer. Bam. Fired!”
“Holy shit. Really?” I asked.
“Not stockbrokers, of course, because they’re making them money. Lowly little administrative shits like you and me. They really watch us.”
“You know, let’s say nature calls at 10:35 AM, so you go to the men’s room. It logs you in at 10:35.”
“OK,” I prodded
“And lets say, you leave at 10:55 AM,” he continued
“Well, I guarantee, within ten minutes, you’ll get a phone call from HR, asking you why you spent twenty minutes in the bathroom.”
“No way!” I chuckled skeptically
“Did that happen to you?” I asked
“So what did you tell them when they called?” I asked
“I gave them all the details!” he answered with satisfaction.
I burst out laughing. At that moment a grizzled, humorless looking woman, her mouth scrunched up in a puckered scowl, popped up from another cubicle, like a prairie dog, and gave me a look of death, ”SSSSSSHHHHHH!” she snapped.
“Oh….. sorry,” I mumbled as I lowered myself back down to my $1500 chair. I was having some serious misgivings about this job, but I wanted to stick around long enough to earn at least a couple of paychecks. I needed them.
“And you know about the intellectual property clause, right?” he whispered
“No, what’s that?” I asked
“You know all that paperwork you signed, when you first got the job? The ones you didn’t read all the way through, but still signed your life away?”
“I read them” I insisted
“No you didn’t” he said dismissively, ”You didn’t have time. Well there is one document you signed called the Intellectual Property Clause. It goes like this: Anything you create while on company time becomes their property. Anything you write, anything you say, anything you think! Lets say you signed a birthday card for your girlfriend. Bam! That card is now company property!”
“That’s a bit much.” I said
“Well, you really can’t send personal emails here, and that’s just as well. AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, that kind of thing……. They have a firewall in place preventing you from accessing your email. And don’t try sending personal emails from work, remember, they’ll become company property!”
“I think I read that…..”
“You’re an opera singer, you say?” he asked
“Yeah….I guess. Just doing chorus work, now though”
“Well, lets say, just for the sake of argument, you become rich and famous…”
“That’ll be the day…..” I laughed
“And you’re performing all over the world. You’ve made a bunch of recordings. People are buying them left and right. You’re getting wined, dined. Gorgeous women all over the map, dropping their panties at the sound of your golden voice.” he continued
“That sounds great,” I added
“OK, well, lets say these guys here suspect that, back in 2005, when you were temping, which is RIGHT NOW, that instead of doing your tax fraud work there, you were thinking about your music, you know…. Rehearsing in your head…. Just going over your music. Instead of doing your work.”
“Well, in theory, they could sue you, citing the Intellectual Property Clause. They could claim that all the proceeds of your illustrious career were their property, because you thunk it up while on company time, instead of doing your work.”
“That’s a bit paranoid…..”
“Yeah… just in theory. It’d never happen. But you know, it’s the principle of the thing…..”
Out of my peripheral vision, I caught sight of a compact guy in a tailored blue suit, storming through the channel between the grey cubicles. He had an open accordion file full of papers in his right hand, a Styrofoam cup of coffee balanced precariously on the file. In his left had was his Blackberry glued to his ear, on which he was having some kind of aggressive conversation, and the man was totally oblivious to anything that was going on in the outside world. The H bomb could have gone off right there in the office, and he would have stormed forward, intimidating, cursing and threatening into his Blackberry.
He also didn’t notice the collision course he was on with a young woman carrying a stack of paper, who, at the last minute, tried to get out of the way, too late. And there it was: a blizzard of papers in the air, the young woman yelped in pain as the scalding coffee slammed into her décolletage, papers everywhere, the Blackberry went flying, and hit the side of a cubicle.
“You fucking idiotic whore!” The guy in the blue suit barked, ”You ever think of watching where you’re going? Huh? Dumb twat.”
The girl (she was only about twenty three) squatted down to scoop some of the mess in order, the coffee soaking an increasing brown stain into her silk blouse, soaking into the papers, coffee everywhere. The guy was about my age, give or take a couple of years.
The guy looked around for his Blackberry, located it on the floor, and stormed back over to the young woman.
“Pick that shit up!” he growled.
At that point I had had it. There was no way in hell someone was going to talk to a woman like that and get away with it, so I got up, strode over to the asshole in the suit, grabbed him by the arms and slammed him into the side of a cubicle with as much force as I could get.
“Hey Creep,” I said menacingly to him, ”Apologize to her right now or you’re going to lose a couple of teeth. OK, asshole, I’m waiting….. One…. two………”
Actually, no I didn’t. I just made that up. Would have made this story a little more interesting, and a hell of a lot shorter, but to my discredit, I did nothing. I sat there aghast, watching this drama unfold before my eyes. I think I might have tried to get up to perhaps help straighten out some of the papers, but Benny motioned me back in my seat.
“Sit down,” he hissed, ”you don’t want to get involved”
The woman was trying in vain to get the coffee soaked papers in meaningful order. Her back was turned, but you could tell she was sobbing.
“Stupid cunt,” the guy snarled
Out of nowhere Raggedy Ann materialized, and Benny and I silently rolled our chairs back to our desks.
“What’s going on?” She demanded
“This……” The blue suited asswipe sputtered,” This stupid……”
“Get this mess cleaned up and watch where you’re going in the future,” She squawked, ” Remember, they make us money. And you’ve just cost us money”
Blue Suit Fucker smugly sauntered away with his Blackberry, ostensibly to get himself a new cup of coffee. I hope it gave him the runs.
And I sat there with my mouth catching flies, speechless.
When the coast was clear, I heard the casters roll
“Bet that was forty-five hundred dollar titty bar guy….” Benny said
“How can you stand this?” I asked sadly
“Apple juice,” he responded
“Apple juice?” I repeated
“Apple juice,” he responded again, ”Lots of it”
“I don’t understand.”
He regarded me, dead on.
“Rob, you ever notice that Apple juice and Johnny Walker Red look very similar?”
He wheeled his chair over to his cubicle and I heard the hiss of the zipper on his messenger bag. He emerged with a plastic one quart Apple & Eve apple juice bottle, filled to the top with an amber liquid that looked like apple juice, but probably did not have a drop of anything that came close to apple juice.
“Apple Juice,” he concluded
“Oh,” I caught on.
“So. Would you like some apple juice?”
He didn’t wait for a response
“Go in the pantry. Get yourself a plastic cup.”
“Ok” I agreed
“Just make sure you go to the pantry on the right. That’s the one for us peons. The one on the left is for the stockbrokers. That’s the one with all the cans of free soda. The Execupop. Because they make so much money they can’t afford to buy their own damn soda.”
“Alright,” I said, ”I get it. Thanks”
“Pantry on the right. Come back here with a plastic cup. And I shall pour you a nice big glass of apple juice”
THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IS NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH
“They’re going to ask for it. You know they’re going to ask for it”
Ashley’s studio was on the 5th floor of the Manhattan School of Music: a stern, greyish, overheated building on Broadway near 125th Street, built in the very early part of the 20th century. It had been the old Juilliard, before Juilliard relocated to Lincoln Center. I had underestimated the amount of time it took to get from Midtown East to the studio, and had burst through the door out of breath, sweaty, smelly and unfocused. And ten minutes late. Ashley was not happy about that, and had made her displeasure known.
She was about six feet tall, stood in a somewhat regal, but imposing stance: a cross between a queen and an inquisitor, and had me in a look that was a cross between a gaze and a glare.
“Well…..” I squirmed under her scrutiny. I wondered where she learned to sizzle people out of those dark eyes like that. Is that something they taught exclusively to sopranos? Was it a special secret soprano master class, where they rounded them all up, then got a bunch of divas in there to teach them the glare? Maybe Maria Callas taught it. Maybe they exhumed and resurrected her once a year to teach this special class. Maybe as a final exam Maria Callas would hold a piece of plywood in front of their faces and only let them out when they could each burn two holes in the board. Now just didn’t seem the right time to ask Ashley that question. ”I was thinking that if I started with the Questo Amor, that’d be my Italian aria. And I have the avant de quitter on the repertoire sheet, so they might ask for that instead.”
“Let me tell you something,” she snapped, ”If you have the balls to put the Largo on your repertoire sheet, they will ask for it!
It was a few weeks before my 30th birthday. And the repertoire sheet in question was for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, sometimes called the Met Competition. It had somehow escaped me that in the past couple of years they had lowered the cutoff age from thirty-two to thirty. A couple of months ago I thought I had two years and change to do the completion. I had recently found out that the deadline was a matter of weeks. So now I had to shit once and for all, or remove my procrastinating ass from the resplendent commode otherwise known as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
I had never liked entering into things before I felt ready, and just hadn’t felt ready to do the Met Competition. Who knows what bridges I’d burn? I had heard that if you pissed the Met Opera off enough, they would encase you in concrete and bury you somewhere under Lincoln Center. Or they’d roll you up in one of those gaudy red carpets and dump you in the East River. Or silence you forever by pouring molten silver down your throat. Or something like that. And a bad audition might just be enough to do the job. The Metropolitan Opera is not to be fucked with. This is one case where I would prefer to err on the side of caution. But if I wanted to do it, I had to do it now or forget it. They had the preliminaries for this vocal competition at the major cities all over the country. Even though I lived in New York, I had selected Philadelphia, partly because I was already down there working with the Opera Company, and partly because they had the latest audition date, which suited my procrastinating hide just fine. The late date was not lost on everybody else, so that location was also going to be pretty competitive. That was okay. I just wanted to DO the competition. Winning or even placing was secondary. I just hoped I kept that reasonably healthy outlook as the date grew closer, but I doubted it. Never worked out that way.
As pro forma, I had selected five arias, including the extremely difficult “largo al factotum” from the Barber of Seville and the equally difficult “Avant di Quitter ces lieux” from Faust. I had also chosen the Questo Amor aria from Puccini’s second opera Edgar, interestingly one of the very few freestanding baritone arias in Puccini repertoire. It was a respectable aria. And I had picked two more arias from standard repertoire.
My logic was this:
While I could certainly sing the largo al factotum without embarrassing myself (and by extension Ashley), it probably would not place me.
I was much better at the avant de quitter. I actually stood a chance of placing with that, or thought I did.
Out of the five arias on the repertoire sheet, the audition committee wanted to hear two. I got to select the first aria, they would pick the second.
Using that formula, if I started with Questo Amor, that would be my Italian aria and I doubted they would want to hear another Italian aria, especially since I had the Faust (the avant de quitter), which would rule out the largo al factotum. They would probably go with the avant. Not exactly a bluff, but……
There was no therefore because Ashley wasn’t buying it. And she was still holding me in that look. You could have curled up under the piano, and that look would still burn into you. You could climb into the piano itself, slam the lid, curl up into the fetal position on the strings, and those eyes would burn right into the piano and hold you accountable. You could slither under the carpet, burrow into the vent, immure yourself in the wall, Amontillado style, and her eyes would still find you. You could open the large, double hung window and jump out, but you would be incinerated to a single piece of ash floating its way down to Claremont Avenue before you hit the ground.
And that look was warning me not to play mind games with an audition panel, much less that of the Metropolitan Opera. The Metropolitan Opera is not to be fucked with.
But I can be one ballsy bastard sometimes.
THE CLOCK AND THE CALENDAR
It was really starting to take its toll on me: this job, which seemed to increasingly neutralize my will to live. If I could just get through this month, get to the performance rate of pay (the rehearsal rate was terrible; barely more than the cost of my commute to Philly, forcing me to keep this awful temp job), and I could rid myself of this soul crushing existence.
There was this three hour commute to Philadelphia. And this preparation for my last and only shot at the Met competition, which was looming closer and closer, bearing down. And juggling my calendar among all these obligations, trying to keep everybody satisfied. At which I was spectacularly failing. When I wasn’t working my temp job, or at opera rehearsal, my life consisted of subway trains, commuter trains, and running from one point to another to catch a train, where each transfer point, if it timed out perfectly, would get me to my next post on time. And if it didn’t, well, the dominoes fell. And the money. The $50 it cost to get to Philly. The meager paycheck after they deducted the federal tax, the Pennsylvania state tax, the AGMA (opera singers union) dues.
Benny slugged away at his “apple juice” in the next cubicle til he was so shitfaced he could barely stand up, I processed receipt after receipt til the grid of the Excel spreadsheet made me crosseyed, til I could not even look at two intersecting lines without getting dizzy. Self-important stockbrokers snarled, sneered, berated and blustered their way through my existence. I was constantly stressed out and pissed off. And negative. My girlfriend, Mary, wondered what the hell my problem was, why I was in this funk, and I knew exactly why, but no solution was on the immediate horizon. I was pissing Ashley off with my constant distractedness and eternally being on the losing end of bets I placed with the punctuality of the New York City Subway. Time was the commodity, and the only thing I had less of than time was money.
I’d race out the door of the office building, tear down the stairs of the subway station at 53rd and Lexington, and if I was lucky, an E train to Penn Station would be forthcoming in the next minute. If I was extremely fortunate, I would have time to get a sandwich at Hot & Crusty or Zarro’s at Penn Station to take with me on the train. That was rare, though. Most of the time, I found myself rushing down the stairs of the platform at Penn with the warning bell ringing loudly as I leapt through the door of the train as it slid closed behind me, almost trapping me in the process. Or worse, I’d risk breaking my neck on those stairs only to find the butt end of the train sliding down the platform into darkness, those red tail lights mocking me….. so long, sucker!
On the train, I’d get out my music and look it over, get out my cheap MP 3 player and listen to recordings, just to drill it into my head once and for all. I’d study the bass/baritone chorus line for Aida (the opera we were doing in Philly), look over my completion music, pore over other repertoire choices, as Edison, Metuchen, New Brunswick, Princeton raced by. By the time I reached Trenton, and transferred to a grimy SEPTA train, I would be so fried, and usually so hungry all I could do was catatonically watch the gloomy, shopworn suburbs of Philadelphia roll by against the white January sky. Bristol, Croydon, Bridesburg…….
And then at Suburban Station in Philadelphia, the race against time would resume. I’d sprint out onto Market Street, run like a madman across the front of City Hall, then dash down South Broad Street to Locust Street to the entrance of the large rehearsal hall of the Academy of Music. With the last ounce of energy I had, my breath ragged in my lungs from the sooty winter air, I’d bound up the stairs and into the rehearsal hall where Orlando, our union guy and senior chorister, was standing impatiently by the sign-in sheet. If you were late, you’d have to sign in on the blue sheet and get docked fifteen minutes. And if you were more than fifteen minutes late, you had to sign on in the goldenrod sheet, get docked a half-hour and incur a castigation from Orlando during the union break. He was a tall, skinny blonde guy about fifty, from Tuscany, and he was a taskmaster. I saw him dress other guys down (luckily not me…. yet) in his heavy Italian accent, for everything from arriving late to being unprepared with their music, to failing to be adequately warmed up. Luckily, my sprint from Suburban Station usually warmed me up more than sufficiently. A lot of the time, though, I’d arrive with Orlando ready to pull the white sign-in sheet away, and I’d look at him pleadingly, while he’d impatiently hold the sign-in sheet and snatch it away as soon as I signed in, to replace it with the blue sheet. Also, I knew if my union break was consumed by having Orlando tear me a new back passage, I wasn’t going to have time to get something to eat. I would usually use my union break to grab something, most often from the overpriced Cosi around the corner.
And then, after rehearsing the rhythmic, martial, satisfying choruses of Aida, everything from Sul del Nil, to Guerra Guerra, the starting gun would go off again and I would race back to Suburban Station to catch the train, so I wouldn’t have to wait for the late train that would get me back to New York at around 1 AM. I cursed SEPTA’s lack of frequency with their trains.
I would sink into one of the grey, poorly upholstered seats in a heap, drag myself across the platform at Trenton, collapse into another train seat and look out at the lights of the New Jersey towns flashing across the black windows until they hypnotized me into a restless, uncomfortable slumber back to Penn Station, where I still had a forty minute subway ride back to my apartment, where I would simply undress, take my contacts out and pass out next to Mary in the bed. That is, if I could sleep. Sleeplessness had been a problem, too, lately, and sleep deprivation was adding to the weight of the increasing matter that was taking its toll. This was not how I envisioned entering my thirty-first year.
“Hey, did you know that Greyhound has this deal: if you get your ticket online, you can get a ticket to Philly for ten bucks,” Benny hadn’t had his apple juice yet, so he was still lucid. I had told him of my predicament; my difficulty in finding a cheap, fast way to get to Philadelphia.
“Wow, thanks!” I fired up the computer, launched Firefox, went to Greyhound’s website. Sure enough, there was a bus out of the Port Authority that would get me to Philadelphia in enough time to make my rehearsal. And it was only $10.
And later that day, I found myself in the begrimed, brown, bottom level of the Port Authority Bus Terminal to board a decrepit Greyhound bus that looked like it had survived a demolition derby, by a very small margin. I didn’t care. Ten bucks to get me to Philly, hell, at this point I’d ride in the back of a manure truck.
As the door of the bus closed with a hydraulic hiss, I noted with satisfaction I had two seats to myself, and I was the only one on the bus that was so lucky. Surely, I had played the assholish trick of sitting in the aisle seat and pretending I was asleep so nobody would sit next to me. And the monitor screen was inches from my face, but I had the whole two seats to myself. The bus began to back out.
But what was this? The bus stopped dead, the door hissed open and up the steps huffed a sweaty, morbidly obese woman carrying a plastic bag. And I realized that the luck gods, once again, were taking a piss on my pantleg. I was about halfway back and I watched in utter dismay as she squeezed herself between the seats of each row, and I resignedly stood up and stepped back so she could drop herself in the window seat. Thwunk! I raised the armrest and sat in the aisle seat, one cheek on the seat, one cheek hanging over the aisle.
The bus resumed backing out, the lights went out, plunging it into darkness, making studying my music completely out of the question, and I cursed every force in nature, and after cursing them, begged forgiveness and asked them nicely if they were done with me yet.
As the bus lumbered through the Lincoln Tunnel the PA system clicked on. “Good afternoon, welcome to Greyhound. We’ll be gettin’ into Philadelphia in about two hours and fifteen minutes. Please remember, there is not to be any smokin’ anywhere on the bus, and the drinkin’ uh alcohol is strictly prohibited. Even in the bathroom. Especially in the bathroom.” (especially in the bathroom???).
As if to emphasize that point, an empty Colt 45 bottle rolled its way forward from the back of the bus in an arcing motion. “My name is Vinny. Sit back, enjoy the ride and thank you for ridin’ Greyhound. (you’re fucking welcome) Our movie today will be Napoleon Dynamite.” (Oh GREAT! A movie! A movie that sucks! Wonderful! Exactly how I wanted to spend a bus ride to Philly with half my ass off the seat.
Well, I didn’t have to worry about the movie too much because the monitor screen in front of my face wasn’t working correctly, just flickering into snow. Nonetheless, I could still hear the idiotic dialogue, through the busted speakers, which distorted every sound at either frequency. The bus moved at a decent clip down the New Jersey Turnpike; New York City rush hour had yet to begin.
I heard the rustle of a plastic bag next to me, then the unmistakable creak of a Styrofoam clamshell food container being opened, then the salty odor of fried chicken; a big steaming pile of it in the container in the woman’s lap next to me. There was the frictive sound of her teeth against the bones as she scraped them clean, and….. wait a minute…… what was she doing with the bones? I realized she was tossing them under the seat, as I heard them clatter to the floor. And then, for a hot moment, I thought she was shoving me out of the way before I realized she was simply wiping her greasy hands between the seat cushions. If I had been hungry before I boarded the bus, I sure as hell wasn’t now.
Somewhere before we crossed the Betsy Ross Bridge into Philadelphia the bus got pulled over. I am not kidding you. I don’t know why. It sure wasn’t for speeding. And we sat for forty minutes while Vinny the bus driver wheedled, bargained, simpered, whined, and finally got issued a ticket from the New Jersey State Police.
And when I finally made it to the Academy of Music, I had to sign in on the goldenrod sheet. And got an earful from Orlando. And went hungry.
No more bus.
THE NEW YORK PEOPLE
There were about twenty or so of us from New York; occasionally we’d see each other on the train on the way to Philly, and at rehearsal they called us the New York People. While Orlando could really be a bastard about punctuality, they actually cut the New York People a good deal of slack with regard to time. Sometimes they would they would let us out a little early at the end of the rehearsal, if they were feeling particularly charitable and sensitive to the infrequency of the commuter trains at that hour. “Thank you, New York People, you can go home”. No complaints there.
Word also got out that a young woman, Lucy, a mezzo, had a car. She lived in Astoria, Queens and had a Dodge Neon. But there were four empty seats in that car. What’s that….. 20% of the New York People. And a bunch of us got the idea.
”Hey Lucy, how’re you doing….. You sound great by the way, I bet you’re carrying that whole section. Listen….. you know I live in New York, too… you think I could maybe catch a ride with you? I’d kick in for gas and tolls. I’ll even buy you lunch!”
And so we tried it. I jumped into the back of the car right where Fort Washington Avenue intersects with the entrance to the George Washington Bridge. There were three other New York People in the car. And Lucy at the wheel. We sped down the New Jersey Turnpike and even had time to stop for lunch at Roy Rogers at a rest area, and true to our word, we all kicked in for Lucy’s lunch, filled her tank and sang her praises. We found a parking space right on Locust Street and made it to rehearsal a half hour early.
The problems didn’t really set in until our second trip back from Philly. There are an awful lot of jokes made about fat opera singers, and generally speaking there really isn’t that much to them. That being said, nobody in the car was particularly small. And a Dodge Neon isn’t really known for its durability.
Three of us sat in the back seat. The guy in the middle seat was a big, scary looking bald guy who had a goatee and looked like a biker, complete with the leather jacket. His name was Aphid, weighed about three hundred plus pounds, was six feet two, and really was just about the nicest, most friendly guy you would ever want to meet. He sang with a ringing heldentenor, and he really did carry his section. For reasons best known to himself, he wore a pink Hello Kitty watch, which I thought was an odd juxtaposition against his black leather jacket. He also didn’t have any trouble falling asleep. On the way back to New York, by the time we made it to the Ben Franklin Bridge, he would be dead to the world. And by the time we made it to the Turnpike, he would be sawing logs.
You never realize what bad shape I-95 is in until you fill a Dodge Neon with five ample opera singers. Every time that car would hit a bump or a pothole, Aphid’s head would hit the ceiling, and he would wake up, say, ”What the hell was that?” then rub his bald head and go back to sleep before the bottom of the car rebounded against the asphalt and tore the ass out of it.
So it lasted maybe three trips, before Lucy announced that we had collectively destroyed the shocks in her car, and there would be no more rides to Philadelphia. We all felt bad and gave her the money we had saved on the train fare to cover the cost of getting her shocks fixed. And the New York People, Lucy included, were back on the train.
No more car.
MR. NO TIE MAN
When I looked in the mirror one morning, I really didn’t like what I saw. I hadn’t shaved yet, and the black stubble contrasted against the dull, pasty white skin. There were dark rings under my eyes and what was that…. crows feet?? I turned, so that perhaps I might look better in a different light, but nope, no different. I looked worn out, washed up. Old. I was turning into Benny. Is this what turning thirty looks like, I wondered? I don’t think I would even mind turning thirty if I had more to show for it. But what did I have to my credit at this point? An opera chorus gig. A temp job from hell. Barely a pot in which to piss. A hostile ex-wife. A girlfriend who was going to turn into my ex-girlfriend if I didn’t get my shit together fast. And fucking crows feet.
And when I went through my closet I realized that I hadn’t had time to get to the dry cleaner and was out of dress shirts. The dress code called for a shirt and tie. What to do…. I rummaged in my drawer, found a black turtleneck, put on some nice pressed pants, and finished the look with a houndstooth blazer. And actually, despite my initial assessment, I didn’t look too bad. I doubted anyone at work would give me a hard time about it. That was good, because there was something I needed to discuss with Raggedy Ann…… er…. Ms. Cohen.
Mary, always sweet as pie, set the coffee maker up for me. In fact, she did it every day, no matter how much of a downer I was. No matter how much I carped, bitched, complained, moaned ad nauseum, about the factors in my life that sucked, I would always wake to find the coffee maker with fresh ground coffee in the filter and water in the reservoir. And the commuter mug placed right next to it, even though I could barely hang onto a commuter mug without leaving it somewhere and never seeing it again.
As I sipped my coffee on the A train, heading to midtown I rehearsed what I was going to say to Raggedy Ann: That next Monday was the sitzprobe. The sitzprobe was arguably the most important rehearsal in the opera. This was where the chorus, principals, and orchestra got together under the baton of the conductor to run through the music before moving to the staged rehearsals in the house. One did not miss a sitzprobe. One did not come late to a sitzprobe. One did not approach a sitzprobe with anything other than the utmost professionalism. Ever.
And I needed to get out of my temp job fifteen minutes early if I was to catch the train to Philly that would get me to the sitzprobe on time. I had brought it up before and I hadn’t gotten an answer. I needed to get an answer and it had to be yes. I just wished I had the leverage of being able to tell them to take this job and shove it, but I wasn’t there yet. I was still in the rehearsal rate of pay.
When I arrived at my cubicle, I came face to face with the first unpleasant surprise of the day. A shrimpy young man about twenty-five with a bad complexion and over-gelled hair was sitting at Benny’s desk.
“Where’s Benny?” I asked
“Benny doesn’t work here anymore. I’m his replacement” He spoke in a nasal, sort of whiny tenor. I took an instant dislike to him
“What happened?” I asked
“I heard he got fired,” he snickered, ”They said he got caught drinking. In fact he was wasted!”
I regarded him stonily, ”You shouldn’t spread gossip.”
He looked me up and down, ”No tie, huh,” he smirked, ”Well aren’t you special. Mr. No Tie Man!”
For the remainder of the morning, everybody, including Blue Suit Fucker, had a smart ass comment about my lack of a tie.
“Hey, lose your tie?”
“Wow, a rebel! No tie! Bucking the system!”
“A man without a tie!”
“New look, huh… no tie!”
And the little worm in the next cubicle kept harping on about it, ”Hey, Mr. No Tie Man!”
“Give it a rest, asshole,” I snarled. I was in no mood to deal with this little weasel and I seriously considered hitting him up the side of the head
“What??” he asked, as though nobody in the world had ever addressed him as “asshole” (somehow I doubt that).
“You heard me.”
“Touchy touchy,” I heard him whine under his breath.
After lunch, I located Raggedy Ann and pleaded my case.
“No,” she snapped
“No?” I repeated, incredulous.
“We need you here. This is your job!”
“It’s fifteen minutes,” I insisted, ”What would you have me doing for fifteen minutes that was so important?”
“I don’t need to justify my decisions. I am your boss.”
“I really just need fifteen minutes,” I said reasonably, ”Just fifteen”
“If everybody who felt like sneaking out of work early just went ahead and did it, where do you think the company would be?”
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
“If everybody who had a contract with an opera company needed to leave fifteen minutes early once in awhile and gave you a weeks notice about it, would it really be that terrible?” I asked
“You’re not leaving early,” she answered smugly
Oh, but I am. Try to stop me.
The conversation was over. And as I turned to leave she blocked my path and glared.
HOW ARE YOU?
The Academy of Vocal Arts is located in several brownstone townhouses on Spruce Street, in a neighborhood in Philadelphia called Rittenhouse Square. It is a short walk from the Academy of Music, just walk down South Broad Street to Spruce Street, follow that and you’ll be there in just a few minutes. And this was where the Metropolitan Opera National Council was having their Philadelphia auditions.
It was a Saturday and I had rehearsal in the morning at the Academy of Music. There were a few of us there who were going to the Met Competition that afternoon. I had been very careful at rehearsal not to over sing. There is a danger in Verdi choruses, especially the bass baritone part. They’re fun to sing, all those perfect fifths, rhythmic bass lines and and thundering low Fs. And there is the temptation just to bear down, and if you are not a bass, rather, a baritone, like myself, you can easily shoot your wad, blow out your voice and be unable to sing any high notes without straining for the remainder of the day. So I was very conscious of that.
After rehearsal, I had a light lunch at Cosi, and walked up Spruce Street to the Academy of Vocal Arts, or AVA, as it was called for short. For January, it was really mild and the sooty snow against the curbs was melting relatively cleanly.
When I checked in, a white haired, benevolent looking older woman assigned me an audition time and a practice room in which to warm up.
“Just up the stairs on the second floor there,” she said kindly.
I walked up the wide, carpeted stairway, the mahogany bannister sliding in my hand, turned right and located my practice room, as I inhaled the musty elegance of the place. The practice room had a high ceiling and a window. And a baby grand piano. It was beautiful. A practice room or a studio with a window was still a novelty to me. Ten years ago, in undergraduate school when I was getting my Bachelor of Music degree, the practice rooms of the music school were windowless, cinderblock boxes buried deep in the bowels of the earth, with beat-up upright pianos shoved against the wall. And after these years that novelty still had yet to wear off. I walked over to the large window and peered out at the handsome brownstone townhouses across the street. I went over the piano, opened the lid, struck a C major chord, and it rang out, in perfect tune.
Well, I was pretty well warmed up from rehearsal that morning, but I did a little vocalizing (always hated warming up, never really did it for me), set my music on the stand and went over a few trouble points in my repertoire. There was only one problem and it was a big one: That healthy attitude towards the competition I had had a couple of weeks back, in Ashely’s studio had somehow evaporated in that time, and now I was feeling restless and edgy. The liberty of not giving a damn about the outcome of an audition rarely lasts. And I could feel my pulse rate rising, and the back of my throat tightening. Not good. Not good at all if I wanted to nail the Avant di Quitter, or if it came down to it, do the Largo Al Fattotum without looking like an unskilled, untalented putz.
There was a solution, and though I am thoroughly convinced I am going to go straight to hell for this, here it is: a shot of tequila. Just a shot. An ounce and a half, maybe two. No more. Didn’t have to be expensive tequila, either: Cuervo Gold would do just fine, or even Montezuma: the crap that’s like $10 a liter and casual restaurants all over the country use it to make their half-assed, cloyingly sweet Margaritas. But for whatever reason, a shot of tequila was what it took to relax me, loosen up my vocal apparatus, open me up, get the soft palate out of the way. Ashley would kill me if she knew. She would literally tear my head off and drop kick it out the window. Without bothering to open it.
I didn’t have any tequila, though. Unlike Benny, I don’t carry my booze in a plastic Apple & Eve bottle. And remembering to bring my repertoire binder was enough of a challenge without throwing a flask of tequila into the mix. But I did remember seeing a liquor store on the way here, just a couple of blocks away. I shrugged into my black pea coat and walked towards the door.
“I’ll be right back,” I flashed one of the old ladies at the door a smile.
The store was dark, cramped, grubby and smelled like cat food. The liquor was lined up on shelves at one end of the store behind bulletproof glass. There didn’t appear to be any size smaller than a liter, and that was odd, but I set a couple of twenties down on the bulletproof “lazy susan” style turntable.
“Could I get a bottle of the Cuervo Gold?”
The Latino guy behind the glass eyed me distrustfully, rotated the turntable, took the twenties, grabbed a bottle and set it on the turntable with $5 and change, before rotating it back to me.
“Could I get a bag, please?” I asked.
He gave me a hard look and sighed heavily, as though I had just asked him for his firstborn child, rotated the turntable again, put the bottle in a narrow brown bag and rotated it back to me.
I felt strangely conspicuous, walking down the street with the bottle of tequila, even if it was in a bag. The bag had been designed for the purpose for which it was currently being used, and was just a couple of inches taller than the bottle. I didn’t want to grasp it by the neck of the bottle in the bag; that would make it’s contents obvious, and I knew the white haired ladies with their pearl necklaces and clip-on earrings would not look kindly on me bringing a bottle of booze into the AVA. Especially when they were having an opera competition in there.
I walked casually down the street; nothing special was in the bag…. A rolled up magazine, a bottle of Evian, a stick of salami….. I tried to roll down the top of the bag, as though this were my lunch and I had brown bagged it, but who the hell packs their lunch in a liquor bag? Luckily, the ladies were so busy checking in other auditionees that they didn’t notice my entrance, and I walked casually up the stairs and back into my practice room, which was exactly as I left it, closed the door and locked it. I removed the Cuervo out of the skinny brown bag, unscrewed the cap and took a swig to the top of the curved label just below the neck of the bottle.
Well, as soon as the salty, warm potion burned its way to my bloodstream, as always, it worked. I continued warming up, ran through the trouble points of the repertoire, pleased with how my voice was feeling and sounding against the high ceiling. I praised the forces of nature for putting a skeevy liquor store two blocks away, and forgave them on the spot for the nasty bus ride, the destruction of Lucy’s car, the firing of Benny and the mere existence of Raggedy Ann.
And pretty soon I was in the anteroom, lined up with other auditionees, as the protocol ladies briefed us on what was about to happen.
“You will be announced by name, age and voice category. You will acknowledge your audience, turn to the piano, greet your accompanist and give him your music”
That all sounded pretty standard, I’d done similar things many times before.
“But when you greet the accompanist, whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t say “How are you?”
One of the auditionees must have looked quizzical, because she clarified, ”He simply hates that greeting.”
A greeting that wasn’t “how are you”…….
Well, there was always, ”How do you do?” Nah. Sounded too much like, ”How are you?”
“Pleased to meet you”? I wasn’t meeting him, though. He was just playing the piano.
“A pleasure” had creepy connotations, sounded like somebody pleasuring themselves.
And I realized I was overthinking this and I’d think of something.
Before me, there was a buxom twenty-nine year old mezzo, who did a really good job of Carmen; I could hear her through the door.
Then a wispy little twenty-six year old tenor with hair so blonde it was practically white, who actually sounded great when he sang Che Gelida Manina from Boheme, but when he came to Ha! Bien souvent, from Werther he completely crashed and burned. Too bad. I was rooting for him.
“Mr. Robert Louis Pagnani. Age twenty-nine. Baritone.”
I strode out onto the stage. The space was a relatively small concert hall; what I would call a “wet” space insofar as there weren’t a lot of porous surfaces e.g. curtains, carpets, air vents, to absorb the sound. The stage could probably accommodate a small chamber orchestra, and had a curved apron. I acknowledged the hundred or so people sitting out in the house and, as per standard protocol, turned to the accompanist and handed him the binder, open to my first selection. He was an older gentleman with perfectly coiffed white hair and a severe white beard.
“How are you?”
The words rang out and hovered, resonated in the concert hall, and I wondered for a second who had said that before I realized it was me. The hall was silent. The radiator clanked. An old lady gasped. Another old lady fainted.
No she didn’t. I made that up, too.
The accompanist gave me a look of death before the beginning the introduction to Questo Amor.
Despite that gaffe, I realized very early on that my voice wasn’t letting me down. As a classical singer you are not supposed to go by sound, you’re supposed to go by feel, but it is impossible not to hear yourself and consciously or unconsciously adjust your voice accordingly. And this hall was giving me back exactly what I needed to hear. I thought of every crappy audition I had ever done, and how the acoustics of the room was one variable in your performance you could not change, and I wondered where this hall had been all my life.
When you open your mouth to sing before an audience, no matter how big or small, as a singer, you enter into an unwritten, unsaid contract with them. That contract is that in exchange for the time they invest listening to you, you are promising them gold. And if you mess up and give them shit instead, even once, you have breached that contract, and it is very hard to spin that shit back into gold. And it takes one cheeky bastard to continue with the selection, sell it as gold, even while giving them shit.
Fortunately, I was holding up my end of the contract. I was one with the piano, one with the hall, sang the high G perfectly, and ended with a three-point landing. Holy shit.
“Thank you.” A voice came from out in the house, ”We would like to hear……”
not the Largo, not the Largo, not the Largo, not the Largo………..
“….. The Avant di Quitter”
Oh Sweet Jesus, Thank God
The Avant di Quitter is tricky, though. It starts off easy enough, but then there is a tempo change. In that tempo change there is a phrase ”Le premier le plus brave.” And that “brave”, while not the highest note, determines how you will do for the rest of the aria. Your pièce de résistance of that aria is the final “O Roi des cieux”, the “O” being sung on a high G, but if you mess that “brave” up, you have already paid a visit to the gold to shit currency exchange for the remainder of that aria, and have the remainder of the aria to think about it. Kind of like if you jump out of an airplane and your parachute doesn’t open, you have a very long ride down to think about it.
My luck was still holding out, though. I hit the “brave” perfectly, did the “O roi des cieux” flawlessly, and ended with another three-point landing. Wow. Even the accompanist nodded in approval, grudgingly forgiving me for daring to ask how he was.
As I stepped into the antechamber, one of the auditionees who still had a few people ahead of him looked at me in admiration. “You’ve got balls,” He breathed and I thanked him before I realized he wasn’t praising my performance. He was referring to my greeting of the accompanist. He thought I did it on purpose!
Much as I would have loved to stick around, I did have to get back to New York. I listened to a few more auditionees, grabbed my backpack (which had still the better part of a liter of Cuervo) and buttoned up my pea coat.
As I walked away from the building in the direction of Suburban Station I looked behind me and there was one of the other guys from opera rehearsal who had also done the competition. Martin, I think his name was. A tenor.
“Oh hey,” I greeted him
“You sounded great, Rob, you really did,”
“Wow, thanks,” I said, ”You’re really doing my ego good!”
“In fact, I’d be amazed if you didn’t make it to the next round,” he continued.
“Wow….. keep going, keep going,” I said, before adding, ”You sounded great, too”
“I wish,” he sighed, ” Why the fuck does every tenor in the world have to do Che Gelida Manina? Don’t they have any imagination?”
“But you did that, didn’t you?” I laughed
“Yeah, but I don’t suck at it,” he answered sullenly.
“You don’t,” I agreed, ”You sounded really good”
“And what was with that accompanist, not letting you say “how are you?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, ”that was weird, wasn’t it?”
“When you said “how are you”, everybody in the back room just cracked up. The old protocol lady almost had a stroke”
He was laughing, and I was also starting to see the humor in it and I started laughing, too.
“I didn’t do it on purpose, you know,” I said, ”It just sorta……. popped out”
We were laughing in earnest now, and I remembered the tequila in my bag.
“Jerk. Who does he think he is, anyway” he asked, referencing the accompanist, “Isn’t this competition nerve racking enough without him playing stupid little mind games? What….. are we here for his amusement?”
“Want some tequila?” I asked out of left field
He looked around, as though he thought a tequila bar was in the immediate vicinity.
“Got some in my bag,” I explained, ”Do you have a cup?”
He did. It was a paper Starbucks cup, and he dumped out the remaining black coffee into the snow. I walked over to a bench near a garbage can on South 18th Street, got out the commuter mug I had not yet lost, as well as the bottle of the Cuervo. I poured the better part of its contents into my commuter mug, and the rest into his Starbucks cup.
“Mexican coffee,” I commented as I tossed the empty Cuervo bottle in the garbage can.
Well, we walked down 18th Street sipping the tequila and having a nice conversation, cracking jokes, coming down from the high of the competition, and getting a nice buzz. We parted company at Market Street, as he wove unsteadily off in the direction of the 15th Street subway station and I continued in the direction of Suburban Station.
“See you at the sitzprobe on Tuesday,” He called, ”Hope you get that phone call. Or email”
“Yeah, you too,” I called back.
There was some time at the train station before the next train departed, so I sat on one of the wooden benches and sipped more of the tequila.
If I had been feeling no pain when I walked through the door of Suburban Station, by the time the train got here, I was completely soused. I wove down the stairs to the platform, barely made it onto the train before I passed out in a seat.
I woke up somewhere around Newark, both still drunk and hung over. I didn’t even know that was possible: being drunk and hung over at the same time. I guess most of the time you sleep through the worst of your hangover, and then by the time you wake up, you’re sober, and better able to deal with it. But, man, this was brutal. My mouth was dry, my contacts were dry, and the harsh, florescent lights of the commuter train were hard on my eyes. And my head…. And I still had no idea how I managed to transfer across the platform at Trenton to this train.
I wasn’t sober, but I was still able to drag myself out at Penn Station, find a water fountain (of which there about two), and managed to get to the subway platform where I waited for the cycloptic blue eye of the A Train to come roaring out of it’s burrow and begin my 40 minutes of hell back to my apartment.
And the next day: that hungover Sunday, and the Monday after that, my phone remained silent, my inbox remained empty, and I stopped checking when it became obvious I had not placed in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
HUGE GOLDEN TESTICLES
Tuesday was the day of the sitzprobe and I still had no idea what I was going to do. Actually I did. I was going to that sitzprobe. On time. My uncertainty rested on the process of that execution. I had about five hours to think it over. I had thought of everything from creating a situation that would send Raggedy Ann on a wild goose chase, to constructing a paper mache likeness of myself, Alcatraz style.
The solution came in the form of an older, bald guy, Peter, who needed my help. He needed my help organizing a program on the computer in the chain of actions directly preceding or following mine. I cleared it with Raggedy Ann and we set to work. We made conversation and it turned out we shared a background in classical singing; in fact he had, at one point sung in Wagner operas at Bayreuth. As it was on my mind, the subject of the impending sitzprobe came up and I confessed I had no idea what to do about it.
He looked surprised, ”Go,” he said
“I know,” I said,” I’m just not sure how to negotiate it”
“Well, we’re pretty much done here. We accomplished what we needed to accomplish,” he said,” And I can pretty much finish up. Go ahead.”
“What about Barbara?” I asked
“What about her,” He asked, ”She won’t care and even if she does, who gives a shit? Don’t miss your train. Go. Sing well”
So I did. I even had time to grab a sandwich from Zarro’s, and I relaxed as I gazed out the window at the ever darkening swamps of New Jersey, past the lights of Newark Airport, across the Raritan River at New Brunswick. The chips were going to fall where they would.
I got to the sitzprobe a half hour early, ran into Martin the tenor who asked me if I had any more tequila (he didn’t place in the competition either), greeted Orlando and sat down with my section to plough through Aida in it’s entirety under maestro’s baton.
After the sitzprobe, there were some of us who still needed to strip down to our underwear for our final costume fitting, the rest of us walked through the rabbit warren of corridors to the dressing rooms that flanked the stage of the Academy of Music in four tiers, where we were assigned our dressing rooms. Mine was on the third floor and I shared it with three other guys. The dressing room was across from a doorway that opened out onto a catwalk and looked out over the stage, about fifty feet up.
The Academy of Music is one of the oldest opera houses in the country, and the one of the only major opera houses that still uses a pulley system on their stage (most others have gone to hydraulics), so it really was kind of a thrill to go through the doorway, and look over the railing as the pulley system hoisted backdrops, scrims and electrical booms up and down. The stagehands were below, wheeling in enormous statues of Egyptian looking cats, cracking open oversized plywood cases on wheels that contained gigantic slabs covered with Hieroglyphics, and a huge figure of a gilded, anatomically correct baboon. Complete with a pair of huge, gold testicles. With a set of balls like that, I bet he would have no problem saying, ”How are you” to the accompanist. He’d probably also gnaw his nose off in the process.
Opening night, and the performance rate of pay, was the following Friday.
I was barely through the glass doors beyond the elevator bank before Raggedy Ann blocked my path. You could tell she was waiting for me and you could tell she was using the time to get good and steamed up. The capillaries in her eyes matched her fire engine lipstick and her scowl was squashing bugs with a vengeance. Her face was whiter than I had ever seen it, despite the makeup.
“I heard you left early yesterday,” she snapped, ”After I specifically ordered you not to, you left early!”
“Ordered?” I repeated indignantly, but then I forced my voice back into a more equitable tone, ”Look, we were done with what we needed to do, it was later in the day, Peter said there was really nothing more to do……”
“You do not work for Peter,” she cut me off, ”You work for me. I am your boss, and when I tell you not to do something you follow that order without question”
I stood motionless, watching Raggedy Ann have a tantrum right before my eyes, right in front of the reception desk, and we were getting an audience, too: The receptionist (who was the poor girl who got the coffee dousing, collision and verbal assault from Blue Suit Fucker) looking on sympathetically. There was also the little shit in the next cubicle who had replaced Benny, and Blue Suit Fucker, both of them smirking in the background. I was watching this little performance, too, but it was pissing me off more and more as each second progressed, and I dared not open my mouth for fear of what might come out.
“When I say “jump”, your only question is “how high”. I am your boss and your job is to do what I tell you to do. You don’t make this company any money. You should be thankful you have this job, and it is not your place to question or undermine my authority!
I watched, incensed, as she flew around on her broom a few more circuits of the reception area, and I still stood perfectly still before she concluded, ”Do I make myself clear?”
I had been waiting for her to say, ”You’re fired,” so I could turn around and walk out the door, never to see this God forsaken place again, but she didn’t. And I was so furious that my mind wasn’t thinking clearly enough to gracefully extricate myself.
“Crystal,” I hissed through my teeth and glared at her.
“So get to work. You’re already five minutes late,” as she stormed off.
The girl from reception handed me a glass of water, and I thanked her, though I think a glass of Benny’s apple juice might have done more good.
I returned to my cubicle, sat in the $1500 chair, fired up the computer, as I had every previous morning since I came here. I opened up Firefox and found Yahoo, where my personal account was. They had a firewall in place preventing employees from accessing their personal email accounts, but it didn’t take too many workarounds for me to defeat it.
I created a new email message and started typing. And I typed, oh I typed. I am not a very fast typist, most of the time I can get maybe forty five or so words per minute, but my fingers were flying on that keyboard. I have a friend called Molly, a beautiful, kind, woman I met from one of my opera gigs, with a wide smile, brown hair, blue eyes and an ability, similar to Ashley, to hold you in her gaze. Incidentally, she also was a soprano. I might ask her about that special soprano master class someday. I figured I’d send this email to Molly.
I typed with fury, relish, and mania, as though I’d just busted an adrenaline valve somewhere in my body and it was just tearing through the landscape, as though the Hoover Dam had suddenly disintegrated without warning and Lake Mead was now a roaring rapid, uprooting trees and destroying every bridge in its path.
I typed everything. I typed about the tax fraud, about Blue Suit Fucker and what he did and about the twelve-hundred dollar titty bar tab. I typed about the Execupop, and the little worm in the next cubicle. I typed about how much I hated this job and where they could shove it, how much I hated this company and the mangy, flea-bitten, pinworm-afflicted horse they all rode in on.
“Hey, easy, you’re going to break that keyboard,” I heard the little shit whine from the next cubicle over.
“How about I break it on your head, asshole?” I called back.
I typed everything. And when I got to Raggedy Ann, I must have filled at least three quarters of a page.
And at last, when I was shaking from rage, joy, satisfaction. When I was sweaty, exhausted, limp, furious, jubilant and worn out. When the pulse was ringing in my ears and sloshing through my chambers, I sat back and read my handiwork. I laughed my head off, just before pulling the firing pin out of the grenade and clicking the “send” button.
And I worked ‘til about a half hour before it was time to go. I reached behind the computer, unplugged the keyboard, tucked it under my arm as I walked down the channel of cubicles, found a very visible wastebasket, tossed the keyboard into it with an audible thud, and walked out the door a half hour early. That night when I went to bed, I slept like a baby.
Molly never got that email.
Whoever invented the snooze button on an alarm clock really understands human nature all too well. It almost seems like a custom made invention for me and my tendency to procrastinate on just about everything, including getting up. And I had just slept so well the previous night, Mary warm beside me, that I just kept hitting the snooze button, until I absolutely had to get up or guarantee myself late for work. And I didn’t want to miss the show. There was going to be one.
I dressed respectably, though I didn’t bother with a tie. I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, but Mary, as always, had set up the coffee maker. And when I walked through the glass doors into the reception area, I knew something was up, and I knew exactly what it was. The receptionist was eyeing me strangely, though somewhat solicitously, and I wished I could scoop her up, take her away with me and find her a dream job, where there would be no more fuckers in blue suits.
When I got to my cubicle, there was a guy I’d never seen before standing in front of the $1500 chair that was pushed in. They still hadn’t replaced the keyboard. Or fished it out of the trash.
“Are you Rob?” he asked
“I am Rob,” I answered
I am Rob
“They need to see you in conference room D on the eleventh floor”
I am Rob
I rode down to the 11th floor and as I approached conference room D, I noticed there was a security guard standing right outside the door. I knew exactly what that was for. They didn’t station security guards outside conference rooms for nothing. I eyed him and he eyed me as I entered the room
“Roooooob, shut the door, please”
I am Rob. I shut the door
It was quite a large conference room for what was about to occur, eight seats on each side, one at either end. Maybe they ran out of smaller ones. That happens sometimes. Especially given the impromptu nature of this little powwow. Sitting at the head at the far end was a guy I’d never seen before in a suit. From human resources. Had to be from human resources. And in the immediate perpendicular seat was Raggedy Ann. And nobody else. He gestured to the seat directly across from Raggedy Ann, at a right angle to him.
“Have a seat”
He hadn’t taken his eyes off me since I had entered the room, and he watched me sit in the leather chair.
“Roooooob, Are you aware we have a policy prohibiting the accessing of personal email accounts?”
“Yes, I was aware of that policy,” I answered neutrally
He slid a folder with the company logo on the front towards me. He had an identical folder in front of him, as did Raggedy Ann. But theirs were open, so I opened mine.
And there was the email I sent, printed out. Two full pages, 12 point font, stapled together. Wow, they even stapled it for me. And I knew, with satisfaction that they had both read it. Raggedy Ann knew exactly what I thought of her. I practiced the Ashley gaze on her. She looked away.
“Did you write this?” he asked, articulating every word, generous with the consonants, stingy with the vowels.
I flipped to the second page. Actually, for me being so pissed when I started the email, it was amazingly articulate. And it was nice to see it on white paper, in document form, instead of on the screen of a computer. Complete with a staple and in a crisp folder as though it was company property. Which it was. My little goodbye prezzie. From me to them.
“……They are, for want of a better word, a community of parasites; the world benefits little to none from their existence. They merely exist to enrich a small population which neither requires nor deserves any further enrichment……..”
“I did write this,” I answered.
He looked surprised, as though employees who violated the company’s internet policy were not usually as forthcoming, especially when it was their jobs on the line.
“This does not look like an email sent by someone who wants to keep their job,” he observed.
“You’re very perceptive,” I answered drily
“Perhaps you should seek opportunities elsewhere,” he said
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I concluded.
I have never been out of a building so fast. The time it took, from me being in that conference room on the eleventh floor to the sidewalk of E. 52nd Street had to be record. And the air outside felt cleaner than it had been all year. It was delicious.
I walked up Madison Avenue to 59th Street, the day beginning to take momentum and form as the sun moved across the sky from the east, and the weight started to rise from my body, ounce by ounce, then finally pound by pound, and life began to animate itself all around me. For the past several weeks, I felt as though I had been watching my life march by, with little input from me, as though from a soundproof capsule, in greyscale, and now that capsule was slowly cracking open to let the world around me in. Color, everywhere, kind of like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the house lands and everything just goes from black and white into color, just like that. All the sounds, here, now, gone in a second from a tinny mono speaker to a lush, rich surround sound. Kind of like that sound check chord the play before a Miramax movie. BRRRRRRROOOOOOING!
I walked across the bottom of Central Park on 59th Street, where the horses and buggies were lined up for the benefit of the tourists, their nostrils snorting and breathing vapor into the chill, and the sky: this rich clear azure. I looked across the park and noticed the progress they were making on the Hearst Building: one of New Yorks freshest skyscrapers, made almost entirely of triangular panels of glass, and the girders were rising up, poking into the blue.
Isn’t it funny, I mused, how the skyline of New York was always metamorphosising, but people from their offices rarely partake in that life, rarely even notice it happened. How do you get to see it from a cubicle? Did you know that before the building is even done, while the girders are still naked fingers pointing at the sky, they have already moved people into the offices on the lower floors? Did you know that? I had once joked to Mary once that nobody in the elevator better push the button of a floor that was not finished or they would go shooting into the sky like the Wonkavator. Mary had thought that was funny.
In the morning, the looming Time Warner Center didn’t cast it’s two ominous shadows over Central Park, and as I drank in the cool, January air, my stomach growled, alerting me I had not yet had breakfast. There was a place past Columbus Avenue, out by John Jay College, as close to a diner as Manhattan has. It was time for breakfast.
I sat down at one of the small tables and looked over the laminated menu, and decided on one of the really big breakfasts, complete with hashbrowns, toast, eggs, meat and grease. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my cellphone.
I tried out the thing that a lot of the stockbrokers did with their Blackberries: slamming them down on the table as though they were the masters of the universe they thought they were. My phone was a blue, plastic Nokia, the cheap one that came free with the plan. I had chewed off the top of the antenna in nervousness once, so it looked ridiculous, but I couldn’t resist trying that obnoxious little trick at least once.
I was about to put the phone back in my pocket when the LCD screen lit up and it started ringing. The phone didn’t vibrate anymore, because I had accidentally dropped it into a deep puddle in Philadelphia. Didn’t destroy the phone, but it wrecked the vibrating feature, and now all my phone was capable of doing was emitting a disembodied bleat, like a senile llama.
It was a 212 area code; the number was one I had not seen in awhile; it took a minute to remember it was the number of the temp agency who had sent me to Whitman Dunn Capital. I moved out to the vestibule before answering the phone, because I knew it was going to be quite a conversation.
“Robert, this is Kim at Advantage Staffing Resources,” She sounded pissed as hell and I don’t blame her.
“We just received a call from Whitman Dunn,” she said, barely keeping the indignation out of her voice.
“I bet you did,” I said
“Well, they’re furious,” she continued
“I bet they are,” I said
“Well……. we won’t be needing your services any longer,” she finished
“I bet you won’t,” I said
“Well………” she seemed flustered, at a loss for words.
“Goodbye,” I said gently as I pressed the red button that ended the call, removing them, and everything they were associated with from my life forever.
And I went back to my table where my coffee was hot and my breakfast was waiting.
New York City has no shortage of overqualified, unemployed performers, but the East Village has slightly greater shortage of small theatres that do everything from avant garde works to Shakespeare. Mary is very good at finding a deal, and often she has gone on Theatermania.com, and scored us tickets so see some show or another at a discount so ridiculous I wondered how they could offer it.
It was mid April of 2010, and we were sitting in a small, black theatre that holds maybe ninety. The seats are arranged in three tiers, on three sides around a black, square thrust stage. Out in the tiny lobby, on a tiny table there is a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white and a stack of paper cups; it is complimentary, and it gives me a twinge of guilt, knowing how little we paid for these tickets to see Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
We had had dinner at 1849, a place on Bleeker Street where the music is too loud, but the food is delicious; they serve perfect steaks and Blue Point Beer, and we had walked our way across NYU to the East Village to this little theatre. Before the lights dimmed, I leafed through the program to see if there was anyone I might know. I had looked at the headshots out on the lobby, and the guy playing Falstaff looked vaguely familiar, but from where I couldn’t say. He had a grey beard, and Mary commented he looked like the perfect Falstaff. She knows Shakespeare better than I do. I leafed through the program and noted that his name was Benjamin.
As the play progressed, I still tried to pinpoint where I had seen the Falstaff before. That was good, because Shakespeare often causes my mind to wander, then I guiltily try to align my mind back to the plot line, sometimes with little success. Were people in 16th century the really that much smarter, or at least more attentive than me?
There was something about the righteous indignation of his monologues that seemed familiar, and out of left field it just hit me. Bam. It was Benny. From Whitman Dunn. Being Falstaff; no longer the miserable, defeated, lump of drunken unhappiness cloistered away in a grey cubicle. Falstaff. With a beard.
At the end of the play, the theatre was so small that the cast exited from the dressing room into the lobby. And there I was, face to face with Benny, the vestiges of the stage makeup still on the edges of his face.
“Benny,” I said
He recognized me in a second, ”Whitman Dunn. Rob. How the hell are you?”
“Good, good. Yourself?”
“Good. I am Falstaff!” he announced
“I see that. And you were great!” I said. “This is my fiancée, Mary”
“A pleasure” he said (and I forgave him immediately for using the word “pleasure”)
“You know, I learned that role when I was over at Whitman Dunn. They were always on my case about how little work I was getting done. Because I was busy learning Falstaff!”
“You’ll be hearing from their legal department shortly!” I joked “Intellectual Property Clause. As in breach of!”
“No I wont. They went down in the recession. Man that job…. took a lot of apple juice to get through that. I’ve cut down though. Drinking better stuff. Just less. Much less.” he said seriously
“That’s good,” I said, ”You would have killed yourself. You know, I left only a couple of weeks after you,”
“I heard,” he said
“You did?” I asked
“Yeah. Bethany from reception, remember her?…. When that asshole slammed into her on the first day you were there?…..We kept in touch and she told me all about it. She even managed to get a copy of the email you sent and showed it to me. I just about pissed myself laughing when I read it. From what I understand, you were the hero for the week!”
“Is she still working in finance?” I asked
“Oh hell no.” he answered, ”She’s going to med school,”
“But remember the asshole that slammed into her? Well he got caught in some shady deal, and he’ll be getting out of federal prison in about a year. They caught him in 2007”
“Wonder how he liked that?”I wondered
“You two want to get a beer with me? We’ll exchange email addresses.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of that email, would you?” I asked, ”It was mysteriously deleted from my sent box”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, ”Come, have a beer with Falstaff!”
I would dearly love a copy of that email.