Hard Knock Life

The day I was cast as an understudy  my not-even-remotely-a-stage-mother mother tried to talk me out of doing the show. You’ll have way more work to do than anyone else and there’s only the smallest chance that you’ll ever get to perform. I refused to let her rain on my parade. I’d managed to eclipse the bajillion scrawny fifth graders with their pitchy renditions of “The Way We Were” with my jazzed up performance of the infinitely-more-awkward-than-I-realized-at-the-time “Darktown Strutters Ball.”* Sure, it was a bummer that my dentist’s daughter got the title role, but hey, she had red hair. And I was all the girls’ understudy. That was like nine parts. That was like the biggest part of all!

My mother was skeptical. I just want you to really think about it. You know, it’s easier to walk away now than quit once you’re in there.

But I had no time for this kind of sane, compassionate logic, especially when it stood in the way of my obvious and imminent fame. I was ten. I had graduated from afterschool children’s theater to the big time—Community Theater. It was all part of a journey. A journey that started with the “Camelot” soundtrack and “Fame” reruns. A journey that would really take flight after my last ballet recital, an historic event at which I threw off the shackles of classical choreography and executed my best “Flashdance” to the Prelude from “Carmen,” while my classmates pliéd earnestly in their lacy mantillas and gipsy-themed tutus. My teacher pulled my mother aside afterwards and informed her I would be less-than-welcome to continue my study of ballet with her, but I clearly had an aptitude for drama. Alison might enjoy acting, she’d said. And here I was, one step closer Broadway . . . or, more accurately, about a block and a half off the street called Broadway in my hometown.

I made my grand entrance on the first night of rehearsals through a stage door with plenty of theatrical flair and jogged up the stairs to find a cast that didn’t really know what to do with me. I did what Annie did during readings. I stood on stage with the other orphans, learning their steps, never really being allowed to participate. To the adults in the cast, I was underfoot. To the other orphans, I was an interloper, not really one of them. This is for orphans only, not understudies, said the pageant orphan as she led the others in a chant about jellicle cats in the green room. Pageant oprhan told the other girls they wouldn’t understand, they couldn’t understand drama until they saw “Cats” on Broadway, On Broadway!

“I went for my tenth birthday. My parents understand that if you’re going to be a real actress you have to see real theater. “ Pageant orphan waved her hands around. “Not this amateur crap.”

Her acolytes nodded in agreement.

I cleared my throat. “My parents** feel the same way. That’s why they took me to London to see ‘Cats.’ I saw all the important plays with the all the real serious stars.” I tried to remember a single play other than “Cats,” but stalled. “I saw the Queen Elizabeth musical. It’s amazing. It’s going to win all the awards.”

“You’re lying,” she said.

Of course I was. I’d never been to London. I’d never even been to New York. I didn’t know what the fuck a jellicle cat was.*** And the Elizabeth musical? Well, it was more of a work in progress. I’d written one song about Divine Right that sounded sort of like “Material Girl.” I hummed a few bars.

“That sounds like ‘Material Girl’.” Pageant orphan gave me the sort of long, narrow, nostril-fluttering Begone Peasant! sniff I felt totally undermined her credibility as a Depression-era orphan, but clearly no one asked me to weigh in on casting choices. “I’m going to find out if you’re lying, liar”

I shrugged. I didn’t care. I slumped away to the basement where I sat in a prop throne and thought about how “Elizabeth!” would be a huge hit. I pictured my name on a playbill. I imagined winning a Tony. To all the Bitchy Orphans in the Community Theater production of “Annie”: This is what real talent looks like, losers.

I tried to talk to Annie about it. As I was her shadow, we spent lots of time together and I’d known her since preschool. Do you think some of the orphans are assholes? Do you notice that everyone is mean to me? Would you be interested in getting on the ground floor with my exciting new musical about Queen Elizabeth I? I think you’d be a really interesting choice for the lead, seeing as you’re a natural redhead. But Annie was very serious about being Annie and already very serious about her career. She didn’t have time for my shit.

After two weeks, I’d managed to befriend one orphan, a freckled eleven-year-old, who rasped like a pre-adolescent Kathleen Turner and projected an enviably adult level of blasé world-weariness. She would join me in the basement during our off hours and we’d poke around in costume and prop storage until we were yelled at by the stage crew or scared off by giant spider crickets. Freckles lived on the other side of town went to the Catholic School where I knew virtually no one, so I auditioned another round of bullshit on her.

Lying, I discovered, was a lot like acting, but you got to write your own script. In those days, my fabrications tended toward little kid wish fulfillment I have a secret uncle in England and he’s a Duke and one day when he dies, I’ll inherit his castles and I’ll sleep on a giant lily pad in an enormous indoor pond in the golden-domed  grand ballroom or the more prosaic status-y stuff I have three lavender-dyed rabbit fur jackets and the fancy kind of Casio keyboard like Howard Jones and sixteen Swatches basically my whole wardrobe is Esprit or the frankly bizarre My parents have this giant all-white music room and in it is a shiny white grand piano**** that I play because I’m a total prodigy. My piano teacher says I’ll probably end up at Julliard, but I’m like, yeah, Ms. Adair, sorry, I’m An Actress.” Freckles didn’t ever try to call me out. She just sort gave me this wry you poor, dumb bastard smile and went about her business

Eventually I ended up hanging out in the costume shop, because I found rooms with a surplus of tulle crinolines friendly and extremely calming. The costumer chatted at me as she made orphan dresses, including one for me to wear, should the others fall ill.

“You’re bigger than the other girls,” said the costumer, which was both true and a friendlier version of pageant orphan’s No one would ever believe you’re an orphan because orphans aren’t fat. “What size do you wear again?”

I considered the withering shame I felt over the tag in my jeans and then gave her an imaginative  number.

“Are you sure?” she asked, after I’d stated a size small enough to qualify as delusional

I feigned annoyance instead of hurt. “Of course, I’m sure. Are you calling me a liar?”

The director gave me a walk-on chorus part in one song, a big number about New York City, my spiritual home. The costume shop had neither a dress in stock nor time to make a costume for a walk-on. Thus, an inexpensive black party dress party dress was procured from the outlet mall. I looked exactly like the kind of thing I’d wear to a church in Asheville in 1986.

“Is this the sort of things girls would wear in New York in the 30s?” I asked the costumer at the fitting.

“I don’t think the audience will pay that much attention. You’re only on stage for a minute.” She tugged at the back of the dress. “This is way too small for you. I don’t think you told me the right size.”

I didn’t say anything. I just stood there listening to the orphans giggling on the other side of the rack as she sighed, frustrated, and muttered about the need for elastic panels and Velcro.

The show ran for three weeks. Annie and two of the orphans went on stage sick, despite high fevers and chills. I never got to duet with FDR***** or be fully dressed without a smile. I made it out for thirty-seconds of grapevine and curtain call per show. I was listed in the program as Chorus/Understudy.

On closing weekend, several teachers and a bunch of students from my elementary school came to a Saturday show. I spent that performance pretending to forget that Annie was a classmate and believing that all of those people were just there to see me. Afterwards, I stood in the lobby watching swarms around the orphans, around Annie, and I realized that it’s possible to be on stage in all the bright light, in front of all the people, even people that know you, and still feel absolutely invisible.

My mother let me go out with the cast on the night of the last performance. I rode with Miss Hannigan, and we went to what could best be described as the local version of a Bennigans/ O’Charley’s before they literally opened an O’Charley’s in the same parking lot a few years later. I was one of the only kids whose parents allowed her to go along that night. I sat at a long table in the bar with the grown-up and ate mozzarella sticks while they liberally quaffed from plastic pitchers of cheap beer and told the fantastical, self-aggrandizing tales that actors do, even when they are just small town amateur actors at a small town Community Theater. Wherever they were, I was right there with them. That suburban strip center bar might just as well have been Sardis and I a rising  inguenue and our show a masterpiece.

They were nice to me, those older actors, nice and funny and tripping over their words in an effort to stay appropriate It’s fucking hard—sorry—it’s hard work to be a fucking—sorry—it’s hard work to be a—what the hell—it’s hard work to be a fucking understudy.

I blew bubbles into my Coke and smiled, gratified, feeling finally at home among these weird old people with their red noses and boring day jobs.

A waitress came by to see if we wanted refills. “What are you guys?” she asked. “Some kind of church group?”

“We were in a play,” said one of them ” ‘Annie’ at the community theater.”

“Oh I love that movie.” She smiled down at me. “And were you the star, young lady?”

I looked down at the table to see if any orphans were around. “Yes,” I said. “ Yes, I was.”

I think it t was a good lie.

At the very least, just that once, no one corrected me.

 

*I learned it from my preschool teacher and my parents were jazz fans.

** I would go to Broadway with my parents the following spring. To my great displeasure, they did not score “Cats” tickets, due to expense, timing and/or their disinterest in the material (my parents’ favorite musical was “Company”). We ended up seeing “Big River,” a down-home, y’all-ish Twain adaptation of full of New Yorkers pretending to be rednecks that twanged their way through ersatz bluegrass foot-stompers. I was a self-loathing southerner from birth, convinced that my greatest misfortune was having been born in East Tennessee and brought up in Appalachia. I could not have been more disappointed when I realized I’d come all the way to Manhattan to see people in overalls fail to enunciate their long-I’s” This is exactly like all the bullshit I hate back home, I said, though probably not in those terms exactly because I was eleven. I sobbed at intermissions and asked Mom why we couldn’t have seen anything else, seriously anything, even “Starlight Express.” My parents were tolerant, even sympathetic, to my brattiness. We’d spent the run-up to curtain sitting in the Algonquin lobby, where I’d had Shirley Temple and Dad had a martini and talked about Dorothy Parker and Elaine Stritch. They hadn’t enjoyed the show much either. “We probably just should have taken her to something classic. Something with sequins and tapdancing.  Like 42nd Street,” said my mother, afterwards, on the way back to the hotel. “Or maybe we should have just seen the Rockettes and gone to Sardi’s.”Or maybe just “Cats,” I thought, as I gazed wistfully at the Winter Garden Theater through the cab window. Those giant green eyes promised answers to all of my deepest questions: Would middle school suck? Would I get a Nintendo ? Would I become a Broadway star? What the fuck is a jellicle cat?

***I would, actually go to London with my grandparents about two years later. I would, in fact, see “Cats.”  I still don’t know what a jellicle cat is.

****This probably had something to do with watching “Imagine” video on VH-1.

*****People don’t realize this, but being a kind in  the stage version of “Annie” can be very helpful years later when studying for the US History AP. Roosevelt’s cabinet? Still got it.

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The Blizzard of 93

Boarding school students don’t get snow days, per se. At my high school, the day students had an option to call in once the roads got bad enough, but classes were never  canceled, unless the Headmaster announced a holiday. If I’d been an overachiever, I might have reckoned these self-determined snowdays a source of anxiety. As it was, I basically looked at them as administrative license to skip school.

When the Blizzard of 93 came through, I was already on spring break, so I didn’t even have anything to miss. I felt like this was really unfair and it probably exacerbated a bad mood  caused by being (in no particular order) 1) seventeen 2) stuck at my father’s house and thus 3) sharing a bedroom with my eleven year old sister  while 4) increasingly running out of food.

This latter point was a serious issue. Food on Dad’s custodial weekends was a dicey proposition in the best of times. He was famously hopeless in the kitchen. We would make a desultory run to whatever grocery offered  the most extensive prepared foods department, stock up on yogurt, bagels and novelty sodas and then basically eat out the rest of the time. Left to his own devices, my father would have survived on what he calls “orangies.” ginger ale and the occasional takeout Greek salad that he would eat approximately 75% of. The rest he would stow in the refrigerator, along with hard-to-identify ex-vegetables and unopened, yet rendered unopenable dairy products  as part of what looked increasingly like a long-term, biological research project.

We hadn’t anticipated the Blizzard and had, thus, made no effort to load up on frozen pizzas or boxes of macaroni and cheese. By sixteen, I could cook a handful of things, but Dad had no raw ingredients and even if he had, I wouldn’t have volunteered. I’d recently come to the satisfying conclusion that obligatory cooking for men was for chumps and/or  slaves to the patriarchy. I was determined to be neither. I would, and in fact did, eat plates of Dad’s rubbery spaghetti clumps (which managed to be,  at once, over and undercooked) before I’d so much as boil a kettle for him.  It was, I believed,  a point of righteous principle.

By Day Two of the Blizzard, we’d consumed most of what was most obviously edible–rye toast, stale water crackers, canned clam chowder, what looked like maybe Gruyere. I re-read The Secret History for maybe the third time since I’d gotten it for Christmas and stared balefully out the window. My sister called my mother on the hour to remind her that our time with Dad was legally done and it was time for her to pick us up. We needed to go home, to her house,  where we had things like sandwiches and a video library containing more than Dad’s old tv commercials and a copy of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Mom would respond sympathetically and promise to come fetch us as soon as the roads were passable and the power had been restored at her house. “You girls are lucky to have power,” she said. “Most everybody else is sitting around in the dark.

I thought the dark might be preferable to another go at Roger Rabbit. I was out of batteries for my walkman which meant I could listen to neither Cocteau Twins nor “Your Arsenal” and we’d exhausted the  meager, pre-internet entertainments of Dad’s apt-to-crash Macintosh. At some point Dad had directed us to go outside and do something. But we hadn’t thought to pack   snow clothes and neither of us  were really outdoorsy people in the best of circumstances. So we sort of bundled up in his 70s era ski gear and wore socks as mittens and  walked about three feet away from the front door into approximately two feet of snow and stood there, forlorn and befuddled, until a girl I’d gone to public school with came happily stomping down the street. She was naturally blonde and effortlessly popular and had an attractive snow outfit. I was none of those things and was wearing an ancient blue and orange parka with Nixon-era ski tags still attached to the zippers. She was also Jehovah’s Witness, which I knew meant she never had to pledge allegiance and had weird ideas about watchtowers and birthday parties. I didn’t know if discussion of snow days fell under the  latter proscription. I decided not to risk it. And  so we were left with a literally  frigid exchange of “How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Cool.” “Awesome.”  After an extended period of stultifying pleasantries, my sister and I went back inside, where I hoped I’d discover we’d managed to pass hours but, in fact, the whole hoary outside incident had lasted about seven minutes.

Dad volunteered to make dinner. This consisted of the crunchy, gelatinous  spaghetti noodles, the contents of a rusty container of so-called “Red Clam Sauce”(provenance unknown) and a “salad” comprised of Spanish olives, water chestnuts, artichoke hearts  and baby corns.

“Antipasti!” said Dad, when he put down the plates. He’d lit candles and turned on  “Sketches of Spain” to improve the ambiance and perhaps distract from the contents of the plates.Regardless,  sister took one look and started crying. I put on a dress and  did my best to enjoy the experience because Dad let me have a small glass of vinegar-y Red Wine (provenance unknown–could have actually been vinegar).

I knew Day Three would be ugly from the moment my sister  discovered a long-forgotten can of Pepperidge Farms Vichyssoise behind several years of New Yorkers and a box of Lemon Chamomile Tea in Dad’s uppermost cabinet. I think I tried to convince her it was mine, then attempted negotiations, before she looked at me with the hunger-ravaged face of a picky eater forced to survive for more than 72 hours on little more than granite-hard Scandinavian granola and Black Cherry New York Seltzer. She would not surrender. And I refused to back down.

The fight lasted maybe five minutes total, but was famous for its intensity. My sister tended to go hard and quiet and cruel when angry. She could maintain a steady fury for days, if not weeks, at a time.  I was –okay, I am– a slow build, but when I do go off, it tends toward blinding, thunderous, Incredible Hulk-style rage, which lasts for approximately 10-90 humiliating seconds, after which I generally cry, apologize and want to take the person I was screaming at out for ice cream or wine. Given that,  I don’t remember how the Vichyssoise argument played out, but I do remember at some point, I was standing barefoot in my pajamas in a snow drift on Dad’s back porch, howling “Fuck You. Fuck You. Fuck You. I Fucking Hate You!” at the boring, hungry and pallid March sky.

By the time I came back inside to restore circulation to my frozen toes, my sister was back on the phone with my mother. She was whispering and giving me a species of furtive glance I took as sign that she and Mom were discussing how fast they could commit me. I apologized (natch) and Sara ate the vichyssoise. She was, after all, my little sister.

Sometime later that day, my mother finally came to get us. I think we sobbed with relief, when we saw her car round the corner onto Dad’s street. It’s possible Dad did too.

We’d be stuck for several more days once at Mom’s house, but it was a productive, happy stuck–with Sassy Magazine and mixtapes and a giant snow bear my mother and sister built in the front yard. By the time they called me out to see it, to pose in front for a photo, I figured the travails of Dad’s house had ended. Things were (more or less) back to normal.

Mom walked out to take the picture.

My sister flashed me a look I knew to be I’m so not over the vichyssoise thing.

I tried to give her a look that said What the fuck was in the clam sauce anyway?

She smiled and flashed a peace sign.

I tugged at my shirt.

Click.

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At Twelve

Being 12 is pretty much the worst. It’s definitely worse than 11, probably worse than 14 and even marginally worse than 23. It’s hard for me to imagine anything as miserable 12, except for 13 (or maybe smallpox), and trying to reckon the actual true nadir is roughly equivalent to trying to figure out whether you’d prefer questioning at the Witch Trials or the Inquisition. I tend to think, even if thirteen is actually worse, you, at least/by then, have a sense of what’s coming. Nobody expects 12, or for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition.

My dad tried to warn me. He left a letter tucked into whatever Gothic novel I was reading a few weeks before my birthday. It kicked off as follows:

“Dear Alison,

Being 12 is not the greatest fun you’ll have in your whole life. On the other hand, you’ll learn some things being 12 that will be real important to you when you’re 22, 32, and 42.”

He went on to explain  in lines like: “Being 12 means you’re officially somebody important and nobody hardly at all—both together” and “Sometimes you’ll be doing the thing you know feels right to you—the adult thing—but somebody won’t pay attention and still make like you’re a kid, or worse, a non-person.” Reading it now, knowing my father as I do and sharing with him a penchant for both paradox and humorous understatement in potentially fraught situations, I totally get what he was trying to say. Not-quite-twelve-year old me found it utterly baffling. The only part I could make heads or tails of was a section toward the end when Dad was (I think) trying to empower me to make the choices I wanted, bullies be damned, but he chose the example of me choosing to watch MTV, and snack instead of going outside, getting plenty of exercise and not snacking. By the transitive power of hormones, I read this as “you choose to be fat, fat people deserve to be bullied, therefore you choose to be bullied.” It felt like a punch in the gut. I’m pretty sure I both believed it and thought Dad was total jerk for saying it. I avoided him for weeks, re-read my favorite biography of Elizabeth I (whose father was a notorious asshole) about six times and ignored the stack of conciliatory New Yorker Cartoons he’d slip into my backpack as Dad code for “Are you mad at me? Why are you mad at me? Puns, buddy, puns!

I  have neither a child nor a biological clock nagging me to run out and get one. This means I won’t have the chance to get all vague and existential in a letter to my own miserable, hormonal offspring. I probably won’t be able to sit down with a kid I love and tell her that people are assholes, usually because other people are assholes to them, and they make people feel sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out because they’re sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out themselves. No one deserves to feel that way—not even assholes!—but we all will, sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, until the times that we don’t and it’s a cycle. I’m pretty sure no one enjoys middle school except psychopaths. The best way to get through 12 (and 22 and 32 and 42) is to be gentle with yourself and easy with others. In as much as it is possible, find the humor, the (lower-case) grace and camaraderie among people that don’t expect you to be any more than what you are: a person with a voice and a mind and a story and  right to make her own choices and take up her own space.

Also, avoid perms. They’re terrible and anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is not your friend.

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Folk Remedies

My great-grandmother, Gladys Mitchell, spent the vast majority of her life living on a farm in the rolling meadows of eastern Franklin County, Virginia, spitting distance from what is now Smith Mountain Lake. Granny was  a superb quilter, a capable farm wife, an unfailingly kind and generous person and the kind of rare culinary talent that causes people to turn to tears and poetry when recounting her deceptively simple dishes* decades after the last Sunday dinner.

She had little formal education, having left school early, sometime before marrying my great-grandfather when they were both teenagers in the teenaged years of the 20th century. They spent the first part of their married life in a mining town in West Virginia. My great-grandfather dug for coal and played minor league baseball and Granny raised an ever increasing number of my great-uncles and aunts. A mine collapse left my grandfather with a broken back and little alternative  but a return to the family farm, where they could grow a little tobacco and raise maybe just enough to feed a family.

Granny may have had odd notions and strange ideas before settling down in the deep country. Or she may have picked them up from family, from neighbors, from the other farm women at church down the hill or from some tenant farmer hired on to help with the harvest  during the worst years of the Depression. For real, though, odd notions and strange ideas. Superstitions and myths and whatever washbasin alchemy  was going down in the old kitchen house.

Consider Granny’s recipe for wart removal, as recollected to me recently.

  1. Collect a small pebble from the yard.
  2. Rub wart with pebble until you draw blood.
  3. Wipe blood on pebble.
  4. Place pebble in small box, tied with ribbon.
  5. Walk to end of road.
  6. Throw box containing pebble over shoulder.
  7. Do not look back as you return to your house.
  8. Your wart will disappear, as it will have been passed on to whomever (whatever?) picks up the box.

Obviously, I have never (and will never) tried this.  My  own medical concerns (warts and all) were seen to by my grandmother and mother, women, respectively, a generation or two off the farm, full-time residents of the modern world in which afflictions large and small were more likely to be solved by a trip to CVS  instead of supernatural intervention.

Still, I like to imagine some archaeologist, years hence, uncovering a repository of small pebbles in decaying boxes tied with old ribbon alongside the rural highway near the old farm.  Maybe she’d come down with a mammoth case of Plantar Warts while riddling out the purpose of the boxed stones. I don’t really believe that and neither do you, but if we did, we might be able figure out the secret to Granny’s caramel cake. It’s probably just a question of oven temperature and sugar proportions. But maybe, just possibly, it’s pixies.

 

 

*I come from a family of great cooks and we have a stack of her recipes and not one of us can replicate the Greats. Granny passed away in 1990. Twenty-five years later we’re still arguing over ingredients and techniques.

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