Back in the day, he was walking down Lafayette Street in the East Village. Just another actor manchild. You could tell because he was fit and, under his leather jacket, he wore a button down shirt with jeans and carried a battered leather shoulder bag. Although he wasn’t really pretty enough to fit the classic stereotype. His most distinctive feature was his luxurious and unruly shrubbery of curly light brown hair. Because it was in fashion at the time, women would stop him on the street and ask where he’d gotten it permed. He enjoyed that a lot. Because he knew he wasn’t really pretty enough.
It was a dreary, grey March day on Lafayette Street. The cold, raw wind didn’t move the low hanging clouds that lazily spouted a light rain. The raindrops pelted the small piles of dirty snow and made nasty sodden blobs of the paper garbage and other crap on the pavement. As usual, he didn’t have an umbrella or a hat. With a practiced ease, he zig zagged down the street, simultaneously dodging pedestrians and cleaving to the shelter of the building overhangs and canopies. Walking between the raindrops, he called it. At the intersections and in the open spaces, he lowered his head and let his shaggy mane blunt the force of the wind and water.
He scurried along past Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. That soured him and painted the hint of scowl on his features. Because he’d never worked there, just auditioned at Equity cattle calls. He’d seen parts in “Backstage” casting calls there that he’d been perfect for. So many times he’d dutifully risen at 5 A.M. to wait in line to sign in. The line was, for all practical purposes, composed of two hundred people just like him. Except that they were mostly prettier, but couldn’t boast as glorious a shrubbery of hair. But he would keep at it until the day he couldn’t stand being a begging supplicant anymore.
The rain quickened and he lowered his head, as the Public Theatre gave him no more shelter than affirmation. Only the crannies created by the building’s vertical supports offered cover. And the one he was approaching was occupied anyway. A gaunt black man, dressed in rags, huddled in it to avoid the rain. A homeless junkie, he reckoned. He’d been in New York for a few years now, so, while he couldn’t identify a single flower other than a rose or follow an animal trail in the woods, he could spot a junkie, pickpocket, or gangbanger at fifty yards. Not that he’d had any trouble—he was male, kinda big, and obviously poor. Anyway, it was raining harder still, and he was barely on time for his acting class. So he didn’t pay any attention to the nodding pile of humanity wedged into the cranny. Until that pile of rags came to life and spoke.
“Man, with hair like that, you don’t need no umbrella.”
They both laughed and their eyes connected for a moment before his quick pace carried him past the sheltering column. It was a nice moment. And, for some reason, it made his work better that day. He loved his coach—she was a theatre actress of great talent and integrity who also had an Oscar. Despite that, she was one of the least pretentious people he’d ever met, so much so that she often came to class dressed little better than the junkie in the cranny.
That could have been the end, but it wasn’t. Because an inviolable law of nature is that junkie stories don’t have happy endings.
He was headed for acting class again. But now he poured sweat and his skull felt suffocated underneath its thicket of hair on this hot, fetid, vilely humid Manhattan summer day. He still swiftly zig zagged down Lafayette Street, aching for the caress of the air conditioning in the studio. Now he bent his head down from the heat instead of the raw wind. Wafts of various stenches came off the pavement and assailed his nostrils. He was churning by the Public Theatre when he heard a rattle. He knew it wasn’t a rattlesnake, although stranger things have happened in New York. It was a death rattle. Coming from that same cranny. But this junkie was white and not much older than he was. Still a little pudgy so this guy hadn’t been at it that long before this OD. As he watched, he heard the rattle once more, followed by a whistling sigh. Then the essence wooshed up out of the prone man. He swore he saw it. Then there was no man, only a body. He looked around—nobody else was near. Uncertainly, he stood there, what was he supposed to do? Call a cop? He had a vision of passing a couple of hours talking to the police in the blistering heat. Was that necessary? He’d miss class. And the guy was obviously dead. Dead as a doornail, as they said in the sticks where he’d grown up. So he walked away. He wondered if that made him a shit. But he did it just the same. Maybe he finally had his New York state of mind.
He couldn’t focus on the scenes presented in class, but his partner didn’t show so he didn’t have to work. Just as well. After the class, he and the coach and a few others adjourned, as they often did, to an unpretentious bar/restaurant nearby for burgers and beers. His coach was in a Broadway play, which they’d seen, so they teased her about cheating towards the audience because once she’d critiqued a Shakespeare scene in class by sweetly saying, “Where is the audience in your castle?”
She smiled indulgently at them, “You know, when Simone De Beauvoir was asked how she could live with Sartre after writing The Second Sex, she said, ‘That was philosophy; this is my life.’ Well, acting class is art, and Broadway is show business.” Then her face clouded and she sadly added, “Acting in New York is hard because you have to put up walls around your feelings just to walk the streets without going mad, but you have to let down all those defenses on stage.”
He felt like she was talking just to him, but of course, she wasn’t. He didn’t say anything but it assuaged his lingering guilt for walking on. He felt full of affection as well as admiration for her in that moment.
That moment too consoled him. Right away. For the next day, right before her matinee, she stroked out and died. She was only in her sixties.
There was a memorial for her in a Broadway theatre. He went. Stars of stage and screen eulogized her. And they all described the same woman he knew from the master class. That struck him—he’d seen very few people who were exactly who they are. And most of them were junkies.
CHRISTOPHER HORTON‘s work has been published in the print anthology, Literary Pasadena, and online at Hollywood Dementia, Maudlin House, Page & Spine, and Shout Out UK. He lives and writes in Hollywood, which at least sounds romantic.