Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In Search of an Urban Identity, or, Reasons Why I'm Not Cool

I am not cool enough to be here. This thought runs through my head on repeat as I walk through the East Village to meet my new friend Ben for open mic night at Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A. I am not East Village cool. Some days I fake it better than others. Today not so much. I haven't done laundry in over a month so my wardrobe options are extremely limited. I'm wearing a grey v-neck t-shirt I found in the back of my closet this morning that seemed to be less dirty than anything on the floor of my room, a very old pair of jeans from the bottom of the drawer that are worn and ripping in between my thighs, my trusty old Converse All-Stars and a black cardigan that I wear every single day, and for some reason seems to avoid ever getting too dirty for me to not wear. And no underwear. I ran out five days ago and have been going commando ever since. It's actually kind of liberating... although going without underwear in my Morimoto uniform this morning was undoubtedly disconcerting. I don't know why it should be... my friend Kelly proclaims never to wear underwear with her uniform, and her skirt is much shorter than mine is. The point is, I'm painfully aware of how lacking my outfit is in the coolness I imagine to be requisite in the East Village music/variety scene.

Ever since I moved to New York I've been plagued with this stupid idea of what my life should look like. Truthfully, I've always had these ideas, this heightened sense of self-awareness regarding how I fit into my surroundings, and which surroundings I want to fit into. There's a cultural fabric to any urban community, woven by the collective aesthetic and idealstic consciousness of its inhabitants. I've never understood how people come to be part of a "scene". Maybe it's because of my nomadic upbringing that I've managed to accutely hone my ability to adapt to different environments; as an identity-seeking young adult, I am eager to find a scene to belong to, a communal tapestry to blend into. And so, I move through my urban adventures fluidly, observing with great care the rituals, fashions and attitudes of various communities, hoping to find one that will embrace me easily, as if I was always meant to be there.

It would make sense, one would think, that I should fall in with the Theater Scene. I am, after all, well versed in the audition vernacular, the rituals of post-show gatherings at various bars and diners in Midtown Manhattan, the geography of the Theater District, what with all its many rehearsal studios and theaters both big and small. I can talk Broadway talk. I still read playbill.com occaisionally, and I still check out the auditions listings, and although I rarely participate in the whole circus these days, I always know what's going on. These were supposed to be my people. I've been to enough open calls to know exactly what they're all talking about as they recap the day's audition lineup. I know who all the big agents are, who works for what agency, which casting director casts which Broadway shows, who's starring in what these days, and I know people who know people in every show on Broadway these days. I suppose I am a part of the fabric, though these days I feel a bit like I'm a loose thread dangling off the side, hanging on half-heartedly. My friend Molly includes me in her gang of theater friends occaisionally, and while they're all lovely, friendly people, and I can follow all their hours of shop talk with ease, I never really feel like I'm being integrated into the group. This, I'm sure, is no one's fault but my own. I suppose I could participate more actively in the conversation, though I don't really do the same kind of work that they do. Molly met her many actor friends on tour, in various regional productions around the country, several productions of 42nd Street, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Oklahoma, White Christmas... splashy, flashy spectaculars. This is not the kind of work I was meant to do.

Last week I tagged along with my friend Heather to a rehearsal with this band she has joined with her friends from the tour of Gilligan's Island: The Musical. The atmosphere was undeniably different than any gathering of "theater people" I'd ever encountered; one of the kids instantly poured me a cocktail (Smirnoff and jalepeno peppers) so I'd fit into the vibe and I chilled out in the corner of the small studio as they jammed away on a number of original songs that Ben, who'd been the technical director on the tour, had written. It was fun, cool... a group of people I instantly felt comfortable around. It's pretty awesome to have friends like Heather who will tell everyone that you're super cool, talented, sassy, hilarious and hot, so that when they meet you, they instantly like you because Heather does (and Heather, of course, has all those rockin' qualities as well, so you see, she's quite a reliable source.) My friend Elyse does the same thing... she makes friends for me, before I ever show up, simply because she's so charming and everyone assumes that all of her friends are charming as well (which, well, they are. My college friends rock.)

Anyway, the next thing I know I'm being invited to a dinner party with Heather and her tour friends, at the home of her friend Dani (an awesome girl who's awesome boyfriend happens to be starring in Jersey Boys on Broadway right now) and Ben is inviting me to join his band and bring my "fiddle" along. (I don't have the heart to tell them all that a "fiddle" is really just a violin played by someone who has more guts and less training than I do, but I figure I can make do... it's breaking me way out of my comfort zone, and I'm at a place in my life where I figure that's the best thing I can do for myself.) And I'm thinking to myself, "okay. I like the way this life is starting to look to me. Oh wait, it's my life. That's right. My life is pretty cool after all."

Last week I had an impromptu reunion with my ex-whatever-he-was. I'd been eagerly anticipating such an encounter, despite the nausea-inducing anxiety it caused me, not knowing whether it would be excruciatingly awkward and painful or plain and simply comfortable. Thankfully, it turned out to be the latter... it almost felt as though nothing had changed, like no time had passed (although we both obviously knew it had and were tactfully avoiding discussing it.) I won't get into the details, but later I found myself feeling strangely assured, even though nothing had changed and I knew there was still no way I was going to get what I wanted from him.

On paper, this boy is perfect. Perfect in my estimation, at least. Early thirties but so childlike so there never seemed to be a serious age-divide, creative, goofy, genuine, sweet, with a whole slew of cool Brooklyn-hipster friends. Though he's not a hipster himself... he would be, if he cared at all what other people thought of him. He's one of those people who is inherently liked by everyone who meets him because he completely lacks pretension. He's just himself, his wacky, dorky, cool, fun self. He lives in this gorgeous apartment in one of the most charming parts of Brooklyn, works hard at a creative job which he is very good at, and has fun whenever possible. I must admit, part of the appeal of being with him was the idea of being integrated into his cool Brooklyn life, which to me seemed so ideal. His friends are all interesting, quirky, rad people, and they all adore the hell out of him. For a short time, I got to be the girl on his arm, the pretty girl who must have been pretty cool for earning such a great guy's affection. There was a part of me that loved the idea of being that girl, that felt so special and interesting and worthy of this awesome, charming, affable person's attention. Like I could see myself reflected in his eyes, and lo and behold, I was that cool, gorgeous girl that he was enamoured with. And I could be a part of such a complete life.

A complete life.

This is a great concern of mine. Living a complete life. A life that looks the way I want it to. The way I always imagined it would look. I've been obsessed with that idea since I was a teenager, going to performing arts school and dressing myself in avant-garde styles of my own creation, fashioned from self-tailored thrift-store finds and wacky accesories from costume shops and vintage stores I frequented with my best friend in dowtown Toronto. And then, converting to a SoCal girl in flip flops and jeans and sweatshirts in the winter, driving around the suburbs with my girlfriends on the weekends, making out with my junior prom date in his parent's convertible Mustang, and grabbing taquitos or Taco Bell on the way to rehearsal for the latest community theater show I was doing. And then, transforming into an urban college student, with tights and a leotard under my sweatpants for ballet class, running lines in the 6th floor lounge where all the theater kids congregated between classes, and then heading to the bar with my fake ID after rehearsal for a friend's birthday party.

Since I've lived in New York, I've yet to find my scene. I've dabbled in various places, be it with the hodge podge of creative kids who made up the service staff at Lunetta, the off-off Broadway crowd where artists make strange, overly ambitious art for free because it's the only way for them to work, or even the super-trendy team at Morimoto... where the maitre-d works part time at Gucci and everyone goes out after work to the clubs in the Meatpacking District. There are problems with all of these groups, for me. The kids at Lunetta all drank too much and slept with each other...too much drama in the workplace for my taste. The off-off crowd are mostly older than I am, and as much as I hate to admit it, they all represent a path I hope my career never takes... one of relative failure and settling for what one can get. They can be a jaded bunch. And while I dig all the Morimoto folks, I just can't keep up with that level of trendiness. If I had a ton of money and something to prove maybe I'd be all about the designer fashions and places-to-be-seen, but I just don't care. It all seems so silly to me.

And now? I seem to have lost out on one chance at being a part of the off-beat, low-budget Brooklyn scene, the first scene I could maybe see myself fitting into. Although, I had a moment, sometime after running into the ex-whatever, where I started to think, maybe my life is complete the way it is right now... maybe this is the way it's supposed to look after all. Just because I didn't get one big thing that I really, really wanted, a life that included this boy and his world at least for a little while, at least until it started to feel like my own... doesn't mean that can't still be a part of my life. It's maybe in past-tense now, suspended in the nether world of Things That Could Have Been or Things That Were For A Little While. Or maybe, it's one of those Things That Still Can Be...Just Not The Way You Thought They Would. After all, he and I are supposedly friends. That was the plan, anyway. We're certainly friendly to each other, and not trying to pretend the other doesn't exist. I have no doubt that I'll see him again, and relatively soon. I want him to be a part of my life...I always did. So maybe the feelings will fade from both of us and we'll be left at a place where we really can be friends, without romantic tension. Maybe. I hope so. That's my second choice...since I'm obviously not getting my first choice.

So maybe a life that is made up of many lives can be complete in it's own way. It's almost like I could draw a map, or a family tree of all the circles and scenes I can put my foot into. I have myself at the hub. Then all my glorious college friends around me in the center. They've all started to carve out their own niches in the city and now we share each other's niches when we can. Friends beget friends. Heather's tour friends, Molly's theater friends, Elyse's show friends, all the restaurant friends... maybe someday I'll get to share in Josh's niche as well... when we're really just friends.

My life has always been this strange montage of things. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, I have always depended on others taking me under their wing. I've encountered a great deal of generosity in my life, a generosity I try to share whenever possible...I only wish I had more to offer others in return. When you're established in a community, you have the strength of that community supporting you. When you're a social vagabond like me, it's much harder to feel safe and supported. I am thankful to have a toe in all these different ponds, but none of them feels like mine.

I just want something of my own.

Ugh. Phoebe, your life is your own. It's all you've got. You can make it whatever you want. It doesn't have to be anything other than it is. What you've got is varied and spicy and full of potential. Can you focus on the potential for a second? Instead of fixating on lost opportunities? There are so many opportunities you can't know about yet! Just be patient!

Ugh. Patience is so not my strong point.