Warrior Rage in New York City
…or, Maybe We Need to Get out of Town for a While
by: Zoe V. Speas
When my mom moved to New York City in the 1980s, she was almost exactly the same age as I was when I moved in 2011. Her name is Cathy Jo – “Cathy” not being short for “Catherine” or “Katrina” or anything remotely mysterious or romantic, much to her dismay. And to add insult to injury, her parents tagged on “Jo” as a middle name – again, not an abbreviation of “Josephine” like in ‘Little Women’ – just “Jo.” Cathy Jo, a baton-twirler from Medina Ohio, the doughiest of the Midwestern breadbasket states.
When her parents dropped her off in the fiery, hot-glue heart of Hell’s Kitchen in 1982, it was the last they spoke for a year. She didn’t call, and neither did they. And that’s how it was.
Check out this gorgeous archive of Richard Sandler’s photography from 1980s New York City.
My mom – twenty years old and a dropout from her final semester Senior year of college (she literally had something like three weeks and one exam to go, but when you have to get the hell out, you have to get the hell out – I get it). She was homecoming queen-majorette pretty and green as grass. They plopped her unceremoniously into the city with shallow pockets and a dream of dancing on the Broadway stage.
I, on the other hand, stray from the parallel between our stories beyond the factors of age and Hell’s Kitchen as a dropping point. I talk to my parents every day. 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan – where she eventually would live with my dad – has lost almost all of the seductive, dangerous allure that it had in the 1980s. You know, the kind of charm that comes with being a rat’s nest for prostitutes and crack addicts and crime and artists of experimental theatre. Now, it’s just Starbucks and Shakeshack as far as the eye can see.
Don’t get me wrong: there is still danger in New York. The minute you think there isn’t and you let your guard down, bad things – very bad things – can happen. But compared to what my mom – Cathy Jo – must have seen thirty years ago, I feel like a pathetic little baby living up here with my whining about rent or loneliness or the impossibility of success in the face of commercialism.
But imagine my mom – pretty little Cathy Jo – in pre-Giuliani Big Apple, all on her own: in my mind, I envision her as some kind of urban warrior with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and orthodontics-perfect smile.
And this vision of my mother is mainly due to a particular story, one she’s told me numerous times when impressing upon me the importance of assuming the Gotham-toughened persona a single girl must adopt while living up here. It goes as follows:
Cathy Jo moved to New York in her busted, 1960s Volkswagen Beetle. I think she said it was yellow or baby blue, but whatever it was, it was covered in rust and the leather seats were ripped and leaking their foamy stuffing. She used to get whiplash driving over the most miniscule of potholes because her tires were so thin and never quite aligned properly to the chassis of the car.
I think it would be safe to say, in a nod to her Ohioan roots, that tipping a cow from her Dad’s Angus farm was a feat of Samson compared to the sneeze it would take to flip this little Bug.
So, she’d been living in New York for a brief enough span of time to still not quite know “up” from “down” and after having settled into her first (of many) apartments – just off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn – Cathy Jo, with her glorious feathered mane and tiny dancer’s waist, took a drive in her Bug to Manhattan, to the Upper West Side to visit a friend. She stayed out late, well after dark, and as you’d expect, simply got turned around in her direction.
Cathy Jo ended up plumb in the middle of Harlem. Little Cathy Jo, with her paper sailboat of a Beetle, cruised through the dark of the wrong part of town, white-knuckling the warped steering wheel.
She was doing okay for the most part – it was late enough at night for the traffic lights along the Avenues to be all green lights and she finally got back on track.
Then, she downshifted to a stop for a red light at a virtually empty intersection. She didn’t like this. Her whole body was a livewire of nervous energy; she tried to release some of it by drumming her fingernails on the steering wheel.
(drumdrumdrum) “I’m not gonna die here. I’m not gonna die here.” (drumdrumdrum)
And WHAM! Out of nowhere, four huge, monsters of men – although anybody looked colossal standing next to that car – shot out of the shadows into her intersection, encircling Cathy Jo in her Volkswagon.
It was dark and she couldn’t see their faces, but they could see hers well enough from the glare of the traffic lights and I bet they could smell the Ohio farmgirl on her like manure.
The giant thugs put their hands on the shell of the Beetle and began to push the car back and forth, rocking it like a baby’s cradle. Cathy Jo knew and thought to herself, as she clambered around inside like a trapped hamster, that once they tipped this car over, she’d be lost.
So Cathy Jo – whose mother once washed out her mouth for using God’s name in vain at the dinner table – clenched her hands onto the steering wheel and the gearshift, braced her body against their growing momentum and screamed at the top of her lungs:
“Get your MOTHERFUCKING hands off my MOTHERFUCKING car, you GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKERS!”
She tumbled down into her seat when the rockers abruptly quit their rocking. She waited through a tense, delicious moment as the four men stared into the car at her and she glared right back into their faces.
Oh, the sight she must’ve been! They would’ve seen a hairdo, some Spandex, and my mother’s flaring nostrils, blazing eyes, and tight lips pulled back from her perfect, sparkling teeth.
I’ve seen that look before. Trust me, it’s terrifying.
“Okay, momma, okay.” One muttered.
“Easy, momma.” Another.
They backed away from the car – “okay, momma, okay” – and in that moment of uncertainty and as soon as there was enough space from them to do so, Cathy Jo dropped the Beetle into gear and gunned it through the intersection, headed downtown.
How, I ask you, am I supposed to compete with that?
I’m extremely grateful to the powers that be that I haven’t been in a comparable situation where such an explosion of warrior rage has been compelled from me out of fear or life-threatening danger. The closest I’ve come is walking home late from work with keys stuck between each knuckle of my fist, stiff with awareness of some dude walking a hundred feet behind me who, in my late-night paranoia, I logically assume might want to turn me into a Law and Order: SVU case the likes even Detective Benson has never seen before.
But I do know a little something about the City’s warrior rage, about the kind of lunatic Gotham can make of you sometimes. It’s a dwarf of a story compared to my mom’s, but this is Gotham 2014 not 1982, and it’s my story, my tale:
Rehearsing a non-Broadway production in midtown Manhattan can be a spastic, slightly schizophrenic experience. None of the artists at my level have theatre spaces belonging entirely to themselves like you’ll find at the Pearl Theatre or the Ensemble Studio Theatre. We nomads of theatre hop from lily-pad to lily-pad across the city, taking the most economically friendly studios that are available to us.
In fact, there’s a network of these commonly used spaces: Ripley-Grier in the 30s, Ripley-Grier (another one) in the 50s, the Pearl offices, Shetler Studios, Clinton Cameo, etc. They punctuate the thirty-block 8th Avenue stretch from Penn Station to Columbus Circle and God forbid you show up to rehearsal at one Ripley-Grier studio only to realize too late you were called to the OTHER Ripley-Grier thirty blocks downtown.
God forbid it, but it happens to me all the friggin’ time. I operate from an honest-to-
Pete pen-and-paper datebook that I carry in my purse to hold my schedule because iCal stresses me out, but the drawback here is that my Moleskine doesn’t send me ”Push Notifications” when the location for a rehearsal has been changed.
So last week, I head to rehearsal on W. 43rd Street (Clinton Cameo) after a long, freezing, stupid kind of Thursday, and I’m clinging to the excitement I have for the rehearsal process like a life vest to keep my spirits afloat.
I get to W. 43rd twenty minutes early and ring the buzzer. Nothing. Again – buzz, buzz – nothing. Not a damn soul. I’m standing outside an empty studio, my script in hand and something has gone very, very wrong.
Full of dread, I reluctantly take out my iPhone and check iCal to see what iKnew was going to be there. Notice: new loc. for rehearsal; Ripley-Grier Studios.
I look up from my phone. Ripley-Grier. The building near 36th with the giant ’520′ in art-deco lettering on the front. Seven blocks away and I’ve got fifteen minutes to get there.
Like an idiot, I’ve worn my 3″-heeled boots because I’d planned on strolling gingerly and cautiously at my own pace to work and to rehearsal. My ankles are throbbing and threatening to sprain, but at last “520″ appears above the stream of avenue traffic just a block away and I continue to sprint. The end is in sight.
I’ve just pushed into the revolving door of “520″ when the familiar hand of doom closes around my heart again and forces me to take out my phone again. I’m on my second circle-through in the door when I find the notification:
Notice – new loc. for rehearsal; Ripley-Grier studios – 939 8th Avenue.
The other one.
The one between W. 55th and W. 56th. And I’m walking in circles in a revolving door twenty blocks away with seven minutes before rehearsal starts.
Internally screaming (okay, not so internally), I try to hail a cab, but it’s snowing and much colder now and in the deluge of taxis flooding 8th Avenue, not a single one of them has their call light illuminated.
Because that’s how it works in Gotham sometimes. Seven minutes. To sprint twenty blocks.
I’m half-weeping in frustration and agony over my stupid choice to wear these stupid shoes because I wanted to feel pretty and in my crazed state of mind it doesn’t make sense to try to catch a train because the ACE trains never come for me when I want them to and so I send a harried text of warning to my stage manager and begin to power walk North.
Sweat is pouring down my face and neck and chest but it’s at least ten degrees below freezing so I’ll probably catch pneumonia and die. Calves burning. Every crosswalk I happen upon is permanently stuck on “Don’t Walk” so I jaywalk them and flirt casually with death.
42nd street – 43rd street (again) … 47th – 48th. Somehow I have made it ten blocks in six minutes, in heels, so calculating my lateness at this pace, I’ll only be about ten minutes past time, and that’s not too bad, is it? That’s not too late to arrive for someone to never want to work with me again after the show is over, ten minutes late, right?
It’s important to note that I’ve been muttering all of this out loud, from the complaints over my style choices to the commute math that becomes the most intense mental aerobics your mind-calculator does in a day. Counting and sobbing as I climb up the mountain that is 8th Avenue, like a madwoman surely, and then -
The blockade. I see them half a block ahead. It’s almost 8pm on Thursday (which counts as Friday), and the first of the 4-person-wide parades up sidewalks in stilettos and skirts has its Grand Marshall blocking off the path ahead of me.
They’re tall and skinny, with long, carefully touseled hair and they probably weren’t all blonde but in my head they were. Fur coats, they wore, ones that puffed wide around their waists but then went no further down, leaving not a shred of fabric to protect their stilt-legs from the cold.
I’m right behind them now, peering desperately through their linked elbows to find a way through. All their heads are bent forward, and I see the bluish glow of cellphone glare glinting off the feathery fur of their jackets. The opposite flow of traffic squeezes past single file to accommodate the blissfully ignorant blockade. They shoot dirty looks at the girls but don’t stop to confront them. They, too, have places to be.
“HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?!” I cry aloud to myself. I’m late, late. Cold and crying, nine minutes past call and so many more blocks to go, stupid city, stupid girls, I miss home, why is January eleventy billion days long – oh my god these fucking girls and their smartphones -
“Would you PLEASE get off your GODDAMN cell phones and WALK LIKE HUMANS?”
They glance behind, over their pointy shoulders at me, startled, ugly surprise spreading across their beautiful painted faces. But they’ve broken their ranks now and I spy a gap between the two of them. I seize the opportunity and push through, limp-running up towards W. 50th.
“Ohmigod, Demi, did you fucking hear that?!”
“Fucking crazy bitch.”
“Little cunt freak! Like Jee-zus.”
Their voices are louder when they’re trying to whisper – have you noticed that about girls? – so I pivot on my heels, running backwards up the avenue now, and let the carnal noise erupt from inside my guts like molten rock spewing from a volcano.
Not even words. Just the joy of that sound releasing and the spit flying from my mouth, fingers clenched like bearclaws, miraculously not tripping as I continue my backwards flight.
The girls gape at me, eyes bulging even more noticeably due to the cat-eye makeup they’ve applied. I see them freeze in places and someone collides into them from behind and one girl drops her cell phone to the sidewalk.
For a moment I’m tempted to apologize, to assure them I’m not a lunatic normally, but it’s one of those days and the fault is the City’s not mine, but instead I face forward and run flat out before someone tries to commit me to a home or tazer me.
I made it to rehearsal eventually and it turned out we hadn’t even gotten started (most people were stretching on the floor and chatting lazily), but I think the point here about warrior rage and the lunacy of Gotham is clear:
Maybe we need to get out of town for a while.