Memories of NYC :Irish, Italians, and Jewish familes adopts a fat black kid from Cailfornia

A BILLION YEARS AGO: Before CD’s , Tweets, Cell Phones and Personal Computers

I moved to New York City to with big plans to become a Superstar before my 23rd Birthday. A couple of former roomates fell in love and moved from San Francisco moved to NYC. With a job opportunity, in Los Angeles, they asked me if I was wanted to move to New York. They lived in a rent control apartment that had been in the family for decades. I could live in the apartment rent free for two to three years. All I had to do, was pay the untilites and not bring any undo attention to myself.

There was nothing luxurious about this west side apartment, it was a large one bed room on the third floor. The elevator didnt work. With the help of some generous frenids in San Francisco, I enrolled in an performing arts school .

For the first two weeks, I lived on pizza slices and hot dogs from the Nathan’s Hot Dog Store on Broadway and that’s where I made my first friend. Born and raised in NYC, he wanted to move to California, he dreamed of surfing and living on the beach. When I told him I was from San Francisco he asked how often I went to LA? He was under the impression, LA and San Francisco were a couple of miles apart.

The first day of school was devastating! I had a few singing gigs in San Francisco and I knew my classmates would instantly admire how accomplished I was. However, many of the students have been performing all their lives, in school plays and summer performing camps, others were in choir’s for many years. Most were well prepared, while I could barely read music.

One by one, they announced the song they were going to sing and in which key for the pianst. . What ever confidence I had. was gone. A few students left before it was their turn , I was feeling that they did the right thing. When they called my name, I handed the pianist my sheet music and deliberately looked away. He told me to just start singing. “What I did for love” from a Chorus Line was my go to song for auditions, its a song I knew well. No matter how I started, I always finished well. The problem was couldn’t get started. It was like someone put a two hundred pound block on my abdomen. The pianist encouraged me to start again, but I couldn’t Humiliated and sucking back the tears, I stayed until the end of the class.

As I walked down the stairs, this tall thin kid tapped me on the shoulder. “I was looking forward to hearing you” “You have a nice speaking voice, see you tomorrow, glad you stayed.”

Next day, we didn’t have to sing. We saw a films of singers, and learned about various breathing techniques. I learned the kid’s name was David. David was popular with a lot of the girls and very direct and open about his sexuality. Popular, he believed being Gay , was why his parents divorcd. He said, he always knew he was gay and around when he was about 15, his father stopped talking to him.

David lived with his Aunt who was a seamstress downtown., the large apartment will filled with these angelic figurines. They ate out every day, and what they didn’t finish they would bring home, so breakfast could be cereal or corn beef, hot dog and coleslaw, her voice was thin but her accent was thick. She told me the story of her family immigrating to New York and that her mother and two younger brothers had died shortly after they arrived to New York.

I met a lot of people that first week, they were curious about the black kid from California. By that weekend I had new friends to hang out with. While most of them had a lot of questions about California, they made it clear New York City was far superior than California

It’s lonely and challenging to move to a new city alone,starting over making new friends. In New York, I didn’t experience the racism and segregation that I experieced in the Central Valley. Born and rased in San Franciisco Bay Area, I wasn’t prepared for the fear and ignorance that was the Central Valley of the 70’s. If there were too many blacks or people of color at party or gathering, my white friends said they were uncomfortable, if there were too many whites, some of my black friends ask me to tell them to leave “As this was a BLACK party”

There was a different kind of racism in New York City in the seventies. It was often defined by the neighborhoods. Cross the street and you could be in another in another world, Sometimes a hostile world. ” Hey Nigger, get the fuck out of here” I wasn’t prepared.

People live in bubbles often where people look like each other share many of the same beliefs. The problem with the bubble and racial isolation is ignorace. For a brief time in my youth, I lived in a mono community where opinions about whites and other races, were based on TV images and the most basic of stereotypes.

You may work with someone of another race but that exposure is limited and at the end of the day you return to your bubble.

The great equalizer in New York, is the Subway. Everyone rides it out of necessity. It is far and away quickest method of travel in the city. People of all backgrounds, hues, ride the Subway, for some it’s almost forced intergration.

For me the NYC Subway is a wonderful place. Hundreds of accent’s languages, in a single place, I often think of it as a symplony of sounds. In New York, simply sitting, you learn a new language, something about their culture, sometimes share an unexpected laugh with someone who doesn’t speak your language.

Perhaps there was a bond of the music and performing arts. But some of the kids invited me into there homes. This was different for me. In Cailfornia, while I had many friends of differing hues and backgrounds, we almost never went in to homes. It was too awkward, having your family stare and then ask questions about your friends after they left. There were homes you werent welcomed . There were no conversations, you just knew you weren’t welcome. Then there were the extremes, some white kids couldn’t be seen in the company of a black kid, if seen with someone other than another white could result in beatings and other punishments.

We would have to meet far from the neighborhood and we couldn’t be seen on public transit sitting next to each other. No racial politics entered our conversations, we were friends, going to movies, McDonalds and listening to records.

But here I am in New York City, and these kids are inviting me into their homes. Most of the people I met were very nice. Then there were others, you just knew., your friends knew, the experiment failed. Some of these families were genuinely concerned about me living alone.

Italian, Jewish and Irish familes that made me apart of the family.

When it came to the people I knew in New York City, diet was pointless. The first day I met Jason’s family, his mother went woooh, that’s a big boy, go bring him some food. It never mattered if I said I was full or wasn’t hungry, they would make a plate for me and more often than not send me home with even more food. Jason’s mother Ruth, was scary direct and honest. Your all alone in New York? If you were my son I’d make you come home! Who travel’s 3000 away from their family? I clearly remember Ruth saying sit down, tell me about yourself? She had away of looking into you soul, and would say bull shit if she caught you in a lie.

Through the years these families shared more than food with me. I learned about cultures and traditions. They had questions. One evening at dinner at Nicks house, I heard “nigger,” others at the table heard it too and everyone rushed into the kitchen. His sister, Nancy was the first to return, red faced, slowly others returned, a once lively table, was silent. A couple of days later, I learned that a cousin, refused to sit at the table with a black man, his grandmother ordered him out of house. I received several calls,apologizing, asking me how I was doing. I knew that I was loved.

On the weekends, it wasn’t my friends who called, it was their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. While some of my freindships faded, the relationship with the families remained strong and most exist today, decades later.

Performing school was much harder than I imagined, everyone was so talented. At one pont, I simply stopped going to class. I thought, I would go out on auditions instead. I would repay the couple who paid for my schooling after I got on Broadway. I never repaid them, they invested in me becaused they believed in me, all my calls went to the machine, I mailed them twenty dollars, the envelope was opened and returned with the twenty dollars without any message.

New York City was a distraction, the cities energy was blinding for a ninteen year old. Everyday, I would tell myself, I needed to start looking for a job. My biggest expense was my Con Edison bill. At 19, I lived on slices, french fries and Nathan’s Hot Dogs. Down to my last sixty three dollars and an Con Ed bill of ninty one dollars I called Ruth. She said, if I ever needed help to call her. I asked if I could borrow $200. Summonced to her apartment, she said $200? That’s a lot of money. Knowing the answer, she asked me how much I earned every week? I understand you’ve dropped your classes, so you have a lot of free time. You can do little odd jobs for me, and I will pay you for the work you’ve done at the end. I told her if there was anyway could get $91 dollars for my Con Ed bill? She said, I’m don’t have $91 in odd jobs today. But I’ll call my husband, may be has something for you to do. I’ll have him call you.

My love for New York City were the people. Fiercely loyal and proud. The sheer weight of the city, was overwheming at times. There were days, where I just wanted space. The luxury of sitting on a park bench alone. I found the late nights my favorite time, I would walk down Broadway, early in he morning singing .

I speak of Ruth more than anyone I met. She was my mother/father. Why don’t you go back home to your mother. Your not going to school, you dont have a job, you have a dream. Dreams don’t pay the bills.. You don’t have the luxury of a dream, without a job! Can you drive? Do you have a license? She gave me an address in midtown and told me to go their immediately, she told me to take anything they offered. It was a limosine service., my job was to sweep and move cars in the building.they paid me $4.00 an hour. Eventually, the company, helped me get a license to drive a limo. The company had many different contracts, most of the accounts ,I serviced were between midtown, downtown and the upper east side. I wore a uniform and hat.

By this time, I was making $6.25 and hour, driving a streached Oldsmoble Delta 88 from 10pm to 4am. . Because these were contracted cars, tips were few. In the daytime, I went on auditions, early evening I hung out with friends drinking coke or coffee and eating tons of french fries. Went to the theater as often as I could.

My short time in New York prepared me for the world. The crowded streets are unforgiving, as were the auditions, if your weren’t prepared, you were told in uncertain terms to move and make way for those who were prepared. Harsh, yes but honest.

In a resturant ,you need to be prepared, know what to order, when asked. Its not uncommon for the waiter/waitress to move on to another table who are ready to order.

New Yorkers can be the nicest people in the world and are more that willing to help visitors but timing is everything. If you ask for directions before the light changes or before the subway or bus arrived you may get help from someone. However, If you ask a question, as the light changes or the bus or train arrive your likely to be ignored. Harsh yes, with millions of people in a relatively small place, space and time are luxuries that people can ill afford to waste.

It’s been more than 40 years since I was going to take New York City by storm. The couple who lent me their apartment, got married, had a child, she is somewhere in Northern Cailfornia and he is very sucuessful in Southern Cailfornia.

Today, We have all grown older, many of my friends have died,others have left the state. For more than forty years , I have been someone’s cousin or uncle from Cailfornia. We facetime, exchange cards and gifts every Christmas. My Italian relatives now living in Jersey, mail quarts of gravy (sauce) every hoilday. The kids, now and then look at my picture and ask, how we are related? Some assume someone at sometime adopted me. “We just are” .

Today, only two of us remain in the city. Ruth died in 1978. Losing her was like losing m my mother dying and it took me years to recover. Today, I cant walk by the building she lived in. The Roseli family moved to Jersey, and every year I get a card on my birthday.

At 19 I auditioned everywhere for everyone and prayed if they only only I could get a call back. In those two short years no one ever called me back! God has a sense of humor, I’m living in Sacramento, visiting a friend in New York City, in my forties, three hundred twenty pounds, I get a modeling job where the artist made serveral molds my body. My body has been in several art galleries all over the world.

if there were anywhere but desert. wednesday, 2000 by Ugo Rondinone :: |  Art Gallery of NSW
Picture: Google/Artist Ugo Rondinone

Less then ten years, later, I audition for a local commercial shot in San Francico,and got the job. I auditioned for other acting gigs and have reached the conclusion, call backs are overrated.

Every now and than I remember traditions, things learned a billion years ago, I will hear something in Yiddish and say to myself, I know this! When I visit my Italian family I ask for more gravy, not sauce. My NY roots are deep, bagels aren’t toasted, and pizza is a “slice” meant for folding.

FAMILY IS A BIG WORD………….. Most people believe blood lines link family. I guess that’s what we were told. My family is HUGE, we are not linked by blood we are linked by love. For reasons, I will never understand, I didn’t get the love from my family that I wanted so desperately. But God gave me an extra large family that I needed.