The lineup at the 109th was my first real gig. I could tell right away it was going to be different from anything I’d done before. For starters, the auditions were held at a police station and not at some university or playhouse or community center. The setting had excellent art design, really got you in the mood. The script only had one line (“Gimme your phone, bitch!”), superbly written and easy to remember. And the audience was concealed behind a two-way mirror, which was great for me, since I’d always felt that having an audience compromised the quality of my craft.
I was discovered three hours earlier on a sidewalk outside the Flushing Jewish Community Council soup kitchen in Queens. Mr. Ed Weston, talent scout for the 109th, spotted me by the bulletin boards, where I stood scanning the postings for audition calls. Like most boards, this one was a bust, nothing but notices for food donations. Not that I wasn’t hungry—I was a starving young artist, after all—but my real hankering wasn’t for canned beans. I craved a meaty role I could sink my acting chops into. Luckily, I lingered long enough to catch Weston’s eye. He looked me over and said those five magic words: “Yeah, you look the part.”
They called five of us in at once, far more efficient than any other audition I’d ever been to. We sat on stools, wore Yankees caps and delivered the line. They had the guy next to me repeat it several times. If he’d asked me for pointers, I would’ve gladly helped him out, but it was probably for the best that I didn’t, because when I got out of the room, Ed grinned and told me that I was picked out of the five.
I think back to that moment whenever I’m feeling down. There’s nothing quite like being the audience favorite—it’s better than sex, better than bacon, better than that dream where you’re flying over green hills and telephone poles. And that was before I learned what the other guys already knew: This wasn’t an audition at all.
It was a real show. I was getting paid to act.
We each got five bucks and all the free coffee we could drink. I didn’t like coffee but I drank five cups anyway, because drinking free coffee was exactly the kind of thing that struggling New York actors did. I gave Ed my number and asked him to call me back if they had more parts I could use to beef up my resume. He told me the cops rarely needed white guys, but I showed him my Hispanic headshot and he agreed I could pass for Latino with enough special effects makeup and the right attitude.
I called my dad that night with the good news. My dad is my rock, and the lifelong president of my online fan club. My mom left us before I was born, and my dad raised me as an only father. When he got mad at me for normal kid stuff, like leaving the freezer door open or forgetting to fill the waterbed, he never yelled. Instead he would bite down on his fist and growl, and then calmly say, “You better mention me in your Oscar speech, Oscar... that’s all I got to say.” Then he would launch into the story of how, when the doctor handed him the scalpel, pointed to my umbilical cord and said “Cut!” I stopped crying, because there was no point wasting any tears between takes. See, I was born an actor.
My dad paid my rent on a room in a run-down walk-up in the Bronx. The walls were flimsy and painted a depressing mold green, and the floor was scratched-up bathroom tiles, except for the bathroom, which had a hardwood floor warped by the humidity. The place smelled like two-week-old grapefruit juice left out in the sun. It motivated me to get out of there, hit the streets and pursue my dream. I kept my head down and my chin up. I answered every audition call in the city. I heard the words “Thank you for coming, we’ll be in touch” in my sleep. I acted my heart out for those bastards behind their desks and camcorders. Someday my break would come. Ed Weston was just around the corner.
Ed knew I was a star, and he took me on as his pet project. We started with the free coffee, made our way to beer, shared a few tacos, then burritos, then we branched out to foods that came on plates. Finally, he said to me, “Oscar, you telling me you wanna do this shit full time? Be a professional lineup filler?” He was laughing. I was not. Sure, the 109th was way-way-off-Broadway, but it was a chance to practice my art in front of an (invisible) audience, and for a good cause. Weston coughed up some kimchi dog and then turned serious, and maybe a little sad. Complicated fellow, that Ed. I based a few of my characters on him over the years to come, though I never told him that. He had a past he worked hard to bury, and he was touchy about being thought of as a criminal.
“Hey, Oscar, buddy, as long as they keep calling me, I’ll keep calling you, you know that. But come on, man. This ain’t no way to make a living.”
“It’s acting,” I said.
He pushed the kimchi from his lip into his mouth and said, “Whatever you say, buddy. Whatever you say.”
Before long, I was doing up to five shows a week. Most shows were silent. This allowed me to engage in the purest form of acting. I’d even invented a name for it: “body language.” My posture felt different when I was a pickpocket, a purse-snatcher, a convenience store robber or a public urinator. One show had a whopping twelve words in the script. I called my dad back home and ran my line with him until every word was a part of me.
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
I used my first month’s pay to buy fake facial hair and colored contact lenses so that I could extend my repertoire to include brown-eyed gangbangers and mustachioed molesters. I told Ed that I was fine with nudity as long as it was essential to the story. “Man Accused of Indecent Proposal” was one of the most demanding and gratifying roles I ever played. I was growing as an artist.
Sometimes Ed sent me on the road. I played the 64th, the 88th, and the 141st. I performed some shows on stools, others standing up. My colleagues were dependable actors, for the most part, though I never encountered another leading man like myself, who wasn’t afraid of electrifying the room. Ed bought me a beer every time I got picked. This was our new tradition. It got so he didn’t even have to tell me I’d been picked anymore. All he had to say was, “Come on, Shenker, wipe that dumbass tattoo off your face and let me buy you a beer.” Those were the good times.
I still went on auditions now and then—for bit parts in locally shot crime shows, experimental underground theater companies, wet wipe commercials, or artsy student films about tortured men who took long walks and stared out of bus windows—but I found them tiresome. Their scripts came with way too many words, which got in the way of my acting. I preferred it when they asked me to prepare a monologue of my choosing, and I’d do my “Gimme your phone, bitch!” But too often, the silence that followed my performance was heavy with confusion. How I hated watching everyone in the room shift uncomfortably and exchange glances. How I hated hearing “Go on” or “Is that it?” or “What the hell was that?!”
Ed gave me a raise, seven bucks a show, but even then, I could barely afford to feed myself on days that he didn’t treat me to a cranberry-lamb skewer from the halal cart outside the precinct. I needed money, which meant I had to refine my art and become the best actor the city of New York had ever seen. If I put in the hard work, eventually someone would take notice, and success was sure to follow. It was like my dad always said, “The world keeps turning, so make sure you shine all the times.”
I took my rehearsals to the streets. Like my characters, I stalked defenseless women down dark alleyways. My eyes were peeled and trained to spot an unsupervised cellphone. My stride slowed whenever I passed an occupied ATM. When a subway train roared by, I screamed “Who the fuck you looking at?!” under the cover of its rumble, to exercise my throat.
The method worked. My dad noticed the change right away when he drove up to visit for the first time that summer. “My god, Oscar,” he said. “Tell me you lost all this weight for a part.”
“Yeah,” I smiled. “More than one part.”
“Well, isn’t that something. Come here, give your old man a hug.”
There wasn’t much I could tell my dad about my career that he didn’t already know from reading my acting blog. He filled me in on our hometown. Uncle Regis had finally retired from directing the middle school’s Thanksgiving play, after giving up on finding an actor who could fill my turkey shoes. Everybody was asking about me. Then he sighed and said, “Son, I came here for a reason. I’m so sorry to put you in this position, but I’m going to have to cut back on your provisions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, apparently there’s a new machine that can do what I do without making any mistakes, so I’ve been out of a job these past few months. And seeing as how I’ve been supporting you out here for coming on eleven years now, well, I don’t have much savings set aside.”
“Oh, Dad... I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “The good news is, nothing like that’s ever going to happen to you. Makes me happy to know you’re an actor. No one’s going to be replacing you with a robot any time soon, am I right?”
“Yeah, there’s no way a robot can act better than me.”
“No way, not my son,” Dad agreed. “That would have to be some robot.”
“I don’t think a robot like that even exists.”
“That would have to be some science fiction robot that could act better than you,” Dad said.
“I bet scientists wish they could build a robot like that,” I said.
“I’m sure they do, but it’s never going to happen,” Dad said. “It’s a fantasy.”
We had a little chuckle at the expense of those silly scientists. Then my dad sighed again and got up. “I hope you can find a way to make it work out here, son. I really do. But worse comes to worst, you can always move back in with me. That wouldn’t be so bad, now, would it?”
I immediately filed my dad’s visit under “sense memory,” to be used if I needed to summon tears in future performances. Losing his job to a robot had changed him. The Dad I knew would never have suggested that I abandon my acting career. The Dad I knew understood that to give up on acting was to die.
But as much as Dad’s breakdown scared me, it also strengthened my resolve. I kissed him goodbye at the train station and then unleashed my craft on New York City like never before. I was no longer rehearsing. I was taking street art to its very limits. I was like one of those human statues who pose perfectly still in public parks, only better, because I could move.
That night, the line between Oscar Shenker the man and Oscar Shenker the character blurred out of existence. You could say I overdosed on my own talent. Or you could say I mugged an old lady.
I was eight blocks away when I realized I had her purse in my hands. I’d jumped her from a dark stoop around the corner from the ATM, a prime mugging spot I knew about from my time at the 109th. She had two hundred and three dollars in her wallet, and five of the most delicious cough drops I ever tasted in my life.
Was I ashamed of my crime? Of course. Was I proud of my fearless performance? You bet I was. Was I happy to eat three times in a single day? The happiest man on earth. Was I terrified when, a few days later, I was called in by Ed and handed a script that read “Hey lady! I am a real-life mugger! I’m here to rob you! Give me your purse!”? I don’t know if “terrified” is the word I’d choose, but I was worried, yes.
Ed was waiting for me in the hallway after the lineup was over, as always. I was sweating so hard, I must’ve left a trail of makeup behind me like a slug. “Everything okay, Ed?” I asked. My teeth were chattering.
“Everything’s great, if you like Mondays,” Ed said. “Come on, I know a good schnitzel place nearby, we can start the week off right.”
“Does that mean... she picked me?”
“Yeah, she picked you, buddy. You did great. Let’s go get our schnitzel on.”
With a mouth full of breaded cutlet, I realized I had nothing to worry about. Naturally, the old lady had remembered me—I was on fire the night of the mugging. But that just made her another in a long line of victims who’d singled me out in a lineup. I imagined the officers on the other side of that two-way mirror nodding to each other. “Guys, we got ourselves another Shenker fan on our hands,” they probably said, annoyed but hardly surprised. She was old, and it was dark, and she had picked their best man, their marquee headliner. She was your classic unreliable eye witness. And thanks to good old Oscar Shenker, lineup filler extraordinaire, the police would not waste another cent of hard-earned taxpayer-dollars on her wild accusations.
If I’d had a day job—and I was often on the brink of stooping to normal, non-acting work, such as masseur or assistant florist—–I would’ve tendered my resignation that day. The time had come to make a living off of my talent.
The way I saw it, the only difference between my work and that of a Broadway actor was a matter of time and place. The city was my stage, its citizens (especially the weak and the elderly) my audience. I never charged more than the price of a ticket to a fine Broadway show, and all the seats to see me were front row. I gave the audience a thrill and got their hearts pounding. They were sure to remember my act and speak of it for weeks to come. I knew for a fact that they often did, since they came into the precinct the next day to do just that.
Happiness is the absolute knowledge that you are fulfilling your promise to the world. And for a while there, I knew happiness. I performed nightly to the adoring shrieks of an audience who never knew what hit them, and I returned for encores daily. I even paid for Ed Weston’s lunch one day, a steaming bowl of Tom Yum Koong. Ed caught a glimpse of my plump wallet and whistled into his soup. “Looking good there, Oscar. You finally get yourself a job?”
“Yeah? Where’s it at? Hook a brother up.”
“I’m an actor.”
“Shit, Oscar, I know that. But what’s your job?”
“That is my job. I’m an actor.”
“For real? Where you acting?”
“Around here, actually.”
“So, like, local stuff? Community theater?”
“Sort of, yeah. But more street-based.”
“Damn. If I knew acting paid that much, I would’ve been an actor too. But I’m too old now.”
“It’s never too late to follow your dream, Ed.”
“Oscar, buddy, it’s always too late. From the day you’re born, it’s too late.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not true.”
Ed looked up at me mid-slurp. “Hey, relax,” he said, and reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “I’m just messing with you. I’m happy for you, buddy.”
I loved that man like a second father. Like a first mother. The next time I saw him would be the last.
I was in high spirits. The night before, I’d put on my most elaborate, accomplished show yet. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, said the great actor Charles Dickens, and I did all three that night. I brought my audience to his knees and, while he was on the ground, tickled him until he howled with laughter. I pinned him down and told him that after this night’s show I was giving up on my acting career (a lie), packing my bags and going home to live with my aging father (more lies). I cried in his face and my sadness hit him like a fifty-pound onion, flooding his cheeks with tears. And then I tied him up and forced him to wait until someone found him there, stunned by the magnificence of my show.
I still had his money in my pocket, all seventy-eight dollars of it, when Ed called me down to the precinct. I sat on my stool, ready to deliver my line.
But they never asked me to.
For some odd reason which I could not comprehend, their attention was focused entirely on an uninspired regular from my supporting cast: suspect number five. He was told to step forward and kneel. He was ordered to make a tickling motion in the air. He was asked to grimace and pretend to cry. He complied reluctantly, playing my character as a deflated man, dead on the inside. He was doing it all wrong.
A voice crackled over the loudspeaker, “Thank you, gentlemen, you’re free to go. If we need you again, we’ll be in touch.”
I’d heard those words enough times in my career to know that no one would be in touch with any of us. And yet my fellow actors turned to file out. “Wait a second, excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me, hold on. Hold on. This isn’t right.” Suspect number five shuffled by, and I grabbed his sleeve. He shook me off and skulked away. “I said hold on! Stay here!”
“Clear the room, gentlemen,” the disembodied voice said.
“Wait!” I said. “Cut! Cut! Back to one! Wait!”
Ed popped his head into the room. “Oscar, you okay there, buddy? They told me you were shouting something.”
“Wait!” I cried over Ed’s shoulder. “Don’t let him go! There’s been a mistake! The guy’s remembering it all wrong! Look, I’ve got it all here! I’ve got his money, and his credit cards, and his ID!” I called out to a room full of officers behind Ed’s back. I pulled my wallet out to show them the evidence, but no one seemed to care.
Ed said, “Shit.”
“Officers!” I shouted. “Officers! It wasn’t number five, it was me!”
“Oscar, tone it down,” Ed said. He grabbed me and forced me up against the wall.
“It wasn’t that other guy, Ed. It was me. That guy can’t act. This is bullshit!”
“Oscar, Oscar, listen to me,” Ed said. He pushed my wallet out of sight. He crowded me into the corner and spoke in a strangely hushed tone. “Calm down. Look at me. Oscar. It’s going to be okay, buddy. Nothing bad has to happen. Put the wallet away. Put it away. Put it away. Alright? Now listen to me, Oscar. You and me, we’re going to sit down, we’re gonna clear our heads, we’re gonna figure this out. You’re okay, Oscar. Breathe. I’ll call your dad, I’ll let him know you’re staying with me, and we’ll talk it through. It’s okay. It’s okay. Listen to me, Oscar. Eyes over here. You with me? Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re alright. You’re calm. Are you calm? Are you going to stop shouting? We’re going to walk out of here like it’s a normal day, like it’s any other day. I’ll take you over to my place, we’ll order in, get you a nice bowl of pho and a cold beer, and we’ll talk, okay? We’ll have a nice talk, just you and me. And we’re going to make sure that everything works out. As long as you stop doing what you’re doing, as long as this is the last time, it’s going to be fine. But I’m going to need you to calm down. Can you do that for me, Oscar? What do you say?”
He was making absolutely no sense, and his oddly monotonous tone was insanely grating. I rammed through him like a football player. My last memory of Ed Weston is of him on his back on the floor of the lineup room, the wind knocked out of him.
I scrambled around the bend and into the audience chamber. Thankfully, my audience was still there, sitting with an officer and another man in a suit and filling out paperwork. “It’s me!” I said. All three of them looked up. “From last night! It was me!”
“The fuck is this?” the man in the suit said.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down and take a step back,” the officer said.
I was sick of being told to calm down. Has that ever even worked, in the history of mankind? Has anyone ever been calmed by the words “Calm down?” Has anyone ever given up on their dreams just because someone told them to “Be realistic?” Has anyone ever stopped trying just because they were told “You’re no good?” “You have no talent?” “You stink?”
No. I didn’t think so.
I kneeled before my audience and looked the man in the eye. “This is it,” I said, lip quivering, chin quivering, eyelids quivering, cheeks quivering, nostrils flaring—the works. “After tonight, I don’t think I can afford to do this anymore. My dream is dead. I have to go home.”
My audience stared at me in disbelief.
A tear ran down my cheek. And a tear ran down his.
“Do you remember me?” I asked.
It took him a long while, but at last he swallowed hard and nodded.
“Then tell them,” I said.
He kept on nodding.
I took his hand in mine.
“Tell the world. Tell them how I changed your life.”