No Strings Attached
Updated: Dec 1, 2021
About three weeks into my studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, my acting teacher, Mr. Gushee, asked me, "How did you hear about this school?"
I couldn't tell if he meant, "Gawd you suck, what brought you here?" or "Wow, you're amazing, how did we get so lucky that you found us?" I remember I was wearing a yellow shirt at the time, and I went home thinking that perhaps yellow garnered me too much attention. I wasn't wearing nearly enough black, like the rest of my classmates.
I was very serious about becoming an actress, which meant not only involving myself in my studies but living the life I believed would, by osmosis, make me brilliant for the stage. I frequented the Carnegie Hall Cinema and watched Barbara Stanwyk and Katherine Hepburn in old movies about women with chutzpah. Strong, independent females who stood up for themselves and didn't take crap from anyone. Under my breath I whispered, "Yeah, that's who I want to be."
My studies in the Big Apple rendered me poor. I frequently heated ketchup with water for soup and snuck into second acts of plays and the symphony without a ticket. I never took a cab unless someone paid for it, and most of the time, I didn't take subways either but walked the 35 blocks every day to and from school. Once I found a $50 bill inside a second-hand copy of Walden's Pond. It was like winning the lottery.
One day, while pulling a sweater over my head, the arm on my glasses broke, which I repaired with a safety pin. The overall effect was something like the Leaning Tower of Pisa balanced precariously over the bridge of my nose. I was sitting in a café writing in my journal, struggling to keep them from falling off my face, when a man asked if he could share my table. The restaurant was full, so I happily obliged him and continued to write. I was deeply engrossed in a description of the "repetition exercise" when he interrupted.
"Looks like you could use a new pair of glasses," he mentioned over a tossed salad and tea.
It's things like this that really drive me crazy; statements about the obvious that seem to require a response that will lead to a conversation I don't want to have about being poor. I was never one of those "artists" who liked to look poor. I've never understood a fashion statement like ripped jeans or torn tee shirts that proclaimed poverty nor do I understand why rich people would want to look like they don't have two cents to rub together. I peered up from my coffee and, trying to send the clear message that I was writing something extremely important, responded with a, "Yeah."
"Maybe the safety pin is a fashion statement?" he asked.
"Nope," I said, hoping he'd take the hint that I wanted to be left alone.
He was quiet for a few moments, then noticing I was reading Stanislavski's, Building a Character, asked, "Are you an actress?"
For a large part of the population, the word "actress" is synonymous with the word "struggling." And when a female is in financial straits, it's not unusual for men to want to take advantage of them. So, when (let's call him Mr. Jones) passed me his card, I was immediately suspicious.
"If you ever want a new pair of glasses, call me. No strings attached. It would be my treat."
Mr. Jones was an older gentleman who, when you are twenty, means forty and up. Well maintained, in expensive casual clothes with a cashmere sweater, he was, on this particular day, probably wearing the equivalent of my rent. He tucked the Wall Street Journal under his arm, grabbed his tennis racquet and then, as he bid me farewell, tapped the card on the table and said, "Call me."
I finished my coffee, stuffed a few packets of sugar from the table into my coat pocket along with his business card and began walking home. I'm going to tell you right now that even touching that card felt dirty. It sullied my torn coat and made the pocket feel greasy to the touch. But I took it nonetheless.
I've been wearing glasses since I was two. I have amblyopia, otherwise known as a lazy left eye which, as a child, meant frequent visits to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and consequently a patch. The patch made me look like I'd actually lost an eye and gave the impression of disfigurement. People always stared at me. Children taunted me. And in the end, it did very little to improve my sight. I have absolutely no idea what good vision feels like. What I do know is that glasses are a necessity. They aren't a fashion statement; they are a part of my body like a hearing aid to someone hard of hearing. So, it wasn't easy to turn down an offer for new glasses when new glasses were something I desperately needed but couldn't, under my current circumstances, afford. It's probably worth mentioning here that my father would never have sent me money, and I would never have asked him for any. I just naturally assumed he didn't have it to spare, which may or may not have been true. What was for certain is that my stepmother would have most assuredly told him that "bailing me out" wasn't going to build character and that it was my choice to go to school in New York, so it was up to me to figure out how to get by. The day they dropped me off on West 85th, he asked, "You sure you're going to be okay?" and she piped in, "Don't worry about her. She'll be fine." I was nineteen. In New York. On my own.
I studied his business card in my room, holding it between my fingers like I might a used tissue. Mr. Jones. President of ---Jeans. And then below that, his phone number. I went to the local library to look him up. He was clearly worth millions. Well, I thought to myself, this is going to be either one of those stories about the eccentric millionaire who bought me a pair of glasses out of the goodness of his heart or the story about the guy who used my misfortune to trap and murder me. It was hard to believe that Mr. Jones expected nothing from this act of generosity. He didn't look philanthropic to me, but then again what did I know? I could barely see out of my lenses. Three days went by, during which time I contemplated my options going back and forth, trying to decide what to do. On the third day, I phoned him.
"Hi, it's the girl with the safety pin in her glasses calling. If you meant what you said about buying me a new pair of spectacles, then I would be most grateful."
"Okay," he replied, "Let's catch a film and talk about it."
Oh fuck. Here we go, I thought. Shit. I'm Coco in Fame.
We agreed to catch an early showing of Pretty Woman (an unfortunate choice) and then grabbed a bite to eat afterwards.
"That was fun," he laughed.
"What? Oh, the movie. Yeah. Interesting."
"Two glasses of Chablis," he said to the waiter.
Oh Gawd, I thought, here we go.
"How would you feel about a carriage ride through Central Park after dinner?" he asked.
In my head I was thinking, "On my own, it sounds delightful."
Out loud I said, "I've narrowed down the glasses to these two choices," showing him two types of frames. One expensive pair that would hold the lenses I needed, and a cheaper pair that would, undoubtedly, last about a year before needing to be replaced.
"Let's talk about this later." He said, "after we've had something to eat."
But I didn't want to eat with him. I didn't want to see a movie. I didn't want to hear his life story over Chablis and roasted Cornish hen. I just wanted glasses. "No strings attached" That's what he'd said.
Is there anything worse than being forced into a situation where you have to be rude? It's that moment when everything your parents imparted to you, all the things they taught you about being polite and respecting your elders, has to be incinerated. And at that moment, you just hate the person who is forcing you to become the worse version of yourself in an effort to avoid something much worse...being victimized. Because like any good victim, I was beginning to blame myself. It wasn't his fault, it was mine. I knew better. I should have known better. I deserved whatever mess I was in.
The waiter arrived with our food. I stared at it, incapable of swallowing even a morsel.
"What's wrong?" he asked, "Isn't it good?"
At the table beside us a woman was having a fight with her date. "Do I look like the kind of girl who gives a shit about what you think?" she said and promptly got up and left. Barbara Stanwyck. I suddenly thought, what would Barbara Stanwyck do?
I put my fork down. I swallowed hard. "Look," I said, shoving my plate to the side, "Maybe I've given you the wrong impression here. You offered to buy me glasses which I rather desperately need, and you said no strings attached. I've given you two options. Let me know how you would like to move forward?"
He looked at me frozen in mid chew.
"However," I proceeded, "I need to be clear. I'm not going home with you for glasses. I'm not going to the movies with you or having dinner or catching a play. I don't have time for these shenanigans. So, what's it going to be? Are you the decent guy you set yourself up to be when we met or are you a cliché?
He blinked. He swallowed his food. He paid the bill and left.
A week later, my new glasses were ready to be picked up. They were the least expensive of the two choices and they cost me nothing but chutzpah.