People from my early professional life seem to be popping up everywhere. I’ll receive an out of the blue email from one person, while the smiling face of another emerges from a sea of faintly recognizable features somewhere on social media. Funny how these old friends seem to know that all these years later I still have a land line, their instantly recognizable voices sometimes leaving long and detailed hellos from various places around the world.
Yet the sudden reappearance of someone I used to know well, after so many decades of silence, always jars me, for I have to remind myself that in truth we no longer know one another all that well, the years in between having claimed the real lives we all hoped we would eventually have and leaving us merely with memories of what we used to be like and perhaps a few fantasies about what we are like now.
When I moved to New York little more than three years out of college, I had no idea that life wasn’t about getting a job, making money and climbing the ladder of success, something I couldn’t possibly have suspected at the time because I’d moved there specifically to work with CBS Records as the (very young) National Director of Customer Merchandising. As an apprentice to the nascent women’s movement, surely there wasn’t a more fortuitous title for a young woman who had won every regional and national award for merchandising, prompting her company to summarily airlift her out of her sea foam-kissed life in San Francisco and plop her onto the concrete-encrusted island of Manhattan to begin a clamber to the top that would have been the dream of any college graduate.
New York City! Carnegie Hall! Wall Street! Lincoln Center! MoMA! Broadway! The Public Theatre!
As robust a diet for the heart, mind and soul of an energetic 24-year-old as anyone could possibly imagine.
On its best first date behavior, CBS put me up at the expensive, elegant, and old Waldorf Astoria, but soon enough moved me to the less expensive, inelegant, and old-fashioned Warwick Hotel, from where I conducted an exhaustive search for a suitable apartment in a city I quickly discovered was almost unaffordable.
I spent weeks pushing my fingers into moldy dry wall behind kitchen sink faucets, peeking between floorboards into the flats below, taking in an apartment’s surrounding noise to determine whether it was sufferable, and otherwise assessing the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the various pads I was contemplating renting. While I didn’t otherwise miss the City by the Bay, memories of its airy apartments sneered at virtually every place I inspected.
I didn’t sleep well those first few months. The dance between nerves and exuberance frequently worsened my life long insomnia, the antidote for which was to order up my car from the garage beneath the hotel and go for a post-midnight drive around the city. I’d meander up and down the avenues, discovering Hell’s Kitchen, Gramercy Park, Chinatown, Little Italy, the West and East Villages, the Lower East Side, and what were then Soho and Tribeca in barely recognizable embryonic form. I would drive up Sixth Avenue and wind my way around the six-mile loop that encircles Central Park, emerging from its pastoral and hypnotic stillness sometimes to the East, sometimes to the West, sometimes to the North, depending on my mood, even venturing up to Harlem and the Bronx, entirely convinced that nothing could possibly harm me, barricaded as I was inside the metal shell of my nondescript two-door Toyota Celica.
Since Tom Wolfe was still years away from publishing The Bonfire of the Vanities, which would have revealed the potential dangers I could have encountered in my solitary forays, I naively left no corner of the island unexplored in those late night excursions through the city where my father had been born, in which I’d dreamed of living since I’d first visited at the age of 14.
As it turned out, my chic but temporary Park Avenue hotel room at the Waldorf was but an amuse-bouche between life uptown and life downtown on the East side, which is where I finally ended up, in a post-War brick building utterly lacking in history, grace or style. But the not so small one-bedroom had its charms, such as real oak slat floors, which I hand-stained in Southwestern sandpainting hues, a bona fide black and white-tiled bathroom, and a Southern exposure onto a courtyard of trees that filled the apartment with sunlight and allowed me to gaze out at the moon from bed on those nights when I would lie awake wondering how long it would take to actually become a New Yorker, instead of simply wishing to be one.
And so began my life in New York City, a place where I knew not one person save those I was getting to know at Black Rock, the imposing building on Sixth Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets that housed CBS Records on its lower floors. I had an office in a fabled modern building smack in the middle of Manhattan, an apartment by myself close to the East side subways and bed pan alley (more formally known as 1st Avenue, with its coterie of hospitals). What more could I possibly want?
Not to have been so drenched in naivety, for one thing. Not to have been so trusting, for another. Not to have believed that being good at what I did was the only fuel I’d need to climb that ladder, for still another.
Significantly younger than most Directors at CBS Records, I quickly discovered I was a kind of fish bait, my youth, enthusiasm and desire to make something significant of the merchandising department at CBS Records completely clouding my ability to tell the difference between friend and foe in the shark infested waters of the music business.
Everyone wanted something from me. Various people from different parts of the company – sales, promotion, publicity, creative, product management – would knock on my door to introduce themselves, slyly slip into the chair opposite my desk and within minutes try to seduce me with the business philosophy specific to their particular department or their often surprisingly narrow musical tastes. I was taken out to endless lunches and dinners, at which I frequently imagined that Ricky Ricardo might waltz in from the kitchen at any moment and sit down next to me, impatiently ‘splaining it all because I just didn’t seem to understand that eventually I’d have to declare my allegiance to one faction or another, one club or another.
The lesbians in the company tried to convince me I was a lesbian. The men from sales regaled me with an endless string of sexual jokes, watching the look in my eyes as they tested just how far they could push me. Once, as I passed a group of salesmen in the hall, they loudly started to take bets on how long I would last in the unctuous, smooth-talking world known to Joni Mitchell fans as the star-maker machinery. How stupid of me not to have known that the salesman’s hand I had suddenly felt on my ass a short year or so before, as I stood at the back of a huge ballroom at a convention in London watching a band perform, would turn out to be benchmark male behavior in the music division of what I had long believed was Bill Paley’s sophisticated and dignified CBS. Everyone wanted something from me, and most believed I was young, innocent and desperate enough for a career to let them take it without a fight.
I thought I could overcome it all in time if I just worked hard enough. Eventually a visionary graphic designer in creative services slipped into the chair opposite my desk, offering to help me turn the department into a reservoir of beautiful merchandising materials for the scores of signed musical talent with whom we worked. I gladly accepted her offer, relieved she was neither predatory female nor predatory male, and I set about keeping my promise to the company and to myself to make something spectacular of my department.
Yet my memories of the innocent and blissful life I’d had at CBS Records in San Francisco, where I was free to love whichever musicians I pleased, where I felt cared about and met wonderful people, some of whom remain my friends to this day, had already begun to fade into the distant past, replaced by a hotbed of political jockeying for position on that corporate ladder in the Big Apple. Few people I met were genuine, and it was difficult if not impossible to concentrate on simply being good at my job. All these years later I still remember with undiluted clarity the day the man who would become my boss took me for my interview lunch at the Warwick Hotel a few blocks up from CBS Records on Sixth Avenue. Walking toward us hand in hand was a couple of mixed race. Having come from San Francisco, where heterosexual couples, young couples, old couples, gay couples, lesbian couples, and couples of every conceivable racial combination lived in harmony, the sight of this one was a natural part of my human landscape, but they compelled my future boss to stop in his tracks as they passed and announce, “Where I come from we just don’t do that.”
Shortly after I was officially hired, I discovered that I was being paid far less than half the salary of my male predecessor, who had virtually run the department into the ground and been fired so that I could replace him. When I presented this discovery to my boss, I was given a long list of reasons why I was being paid so little comparatively, among which were the tantalizing, “He is married and has children, you do not,” to which I replied, “Shall I get married and have children?” to which he responded, “He has a mortgage, you don’t,” to which I asked, “Shall I buy an apartment?” which brought forth the ever delicious, “You have a boyfriend to take you out,” to which I happily suggested, “Shall I ditch my boyfriend?” Had I had a few more years on me, and considerable more meat on my bones, I might not have been so shocked by such blatant discrimination, and might have simply inhaled more deeply on hearing such ignorant words.
My flattery at being called a renegade marketing expert by a journalist for a major men’s magazine eroded the instant I read his printed description of my black spike-heeled shoes, fishnet stockings and short, tight Agnes B leather skirt. I knew what I looked like, and was pretty sure that whatever renegade skills I had were not due to my costume, which was de rigueur in the music biz; I was the same girl at CBS Records as I was growing up, when I’d ride my horse down the middle of the Rio Grande river, bareback and shoeless, nary a fishnet stocking or spiked heel in sight. But to reject a man’s flattery in that world was a form of professional suicide, and to suggest that my job performance was more important than the outline of my ass against a chocolate brown piece of stretched lambskin was tantamount to digging my own grave. I was young in years, thin of skin, and wholly unprepared for the slippery world of corporate sexism, politics and manipulative behavior at the hands (sometimes literally) of both men and women.
While I may have been pathetically short on worldliness and people in whom I could trust, I had a deep stockpile of creative resourcefulness and I began to seek solace in the cultural landscape of New York. I threw myself into acting lessons with a legendary teacher, whose tiny studio in the back halls of Carnegie Hall became a creative respite on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. I went to scores of plays, poetry readings and documentary films, and combed the city’s museums and bookstores. I spent Saturday mornings walking the streets of lower Manhattan, often hanging out for hours in any one of a number of fabled Italian coffee houses in the West Village. I began a serious yoga practice and buffed up my cooking skills. I turned my nondescript apartment into a surprisingly cozy little pied-a-terre, in which, I am happy and proud to say, I still live. I got to know myself outside of the confines of family and the creatively proscriptive behavior of a corporation, whose mission, oddly enough, was supposedly to set its clients creatively free.
Slowly I became a New Yorker and began to feel as though I belonged in my father’s city. Slowly I made real friends outside of the music business. Slowly I became a woman, instead of a girl with the title of Director, the rose-colored glasses of naivety lifted off my eyes, my skin thickened and slightly battle-scarred, yet still an incorrigible idealist.
While many of my colleagues at CBS Records thought of New York only as a place in which to make money and from which to escape on the weekends – most often to the beaches of Long Island – I happily developed a far more complex relationship with the city that had become my first home as an adult. New York became my mentor, my friend, my teacher. I may have been raised in the Northern New Mexico desert, but I grew up in New York City. The 24-year-old who moved to Manhattan and believed that a job with a title and salary and office would get her through life, had finally learned that what she did for a living would prove to have nothing at all to do with whom she became as a woman. I fell in love with New York. I fell in love with being alive. And, in a way, I fell in love with myself.
Yet perhaps the most important lesson learned during those many late nights in that small studio in the back of Carnegie Hall is what all actors, but few business people with whom I worked at CBS, seem to know: to ‘do’ is not the same thing as to ‘be.’ And what we do is most certainly not who we are.