By Heather Kristin
At age eleven my fraternal twin Heidi and I auditioned for a Sunkist Fruit Rolls national commercial. Our mother had packed our belongings, along with our headshots, from the New York City shelter and told us not to tell the casting director that we were homeless.
A week later after two call-backs, I got the job and arrived on set, wearing overalls with star patches covering the ripped fabric and Keds sneakers. No one seemed to notice that I had stuck masking tape to the bottom of my shoes to hide the holes and that my brown hair was greasy from lack of a bath. The hair and makeup ladies came over and gave me a Punky Brewster hairdo. The costumers placed glasses on my nose, and taped fake braces on my teeth. Clearly I was going to play the nerd. Again.
The other young actress had wavy strawberry blond hair and wore a red satin jacket with Annie embroidered on the back. She began singing my favorite song, The sun will come out tomorrow, and the crew smiled back. I was more than jealous. I wanted to pull on her pigtails and sit on her. Instead I went over to the crew’s craft service table and binged. I filled my hungry belly with egg rolls, mini hot dogs, pudding pie, Fluffer Nutter, gummy bears, and a cherry soda.
About twenty minutes later the director brought us to set. We were told to sit on a stool and look directly into the camera. He instructed me to twist my fruit roll-up into a mustache and then told the pretty girl to twist hers into Marilyn Monroe shaped lips. Then we were supposed to stick the roll-up on our faces, pop it into our mouths, chew, and after each take spit the pieces out into a nearby garbage can. The pretty girl spewed. I gulped it down. I was hungry and had no idea when my next meal was coming.
The next day the shelter found us a home for a few days at The Times Square Hotel. A social worker handed my sister Heidi a huge block of government cheese and we left. When we arrived we saw a water bug crawl off a queen sized bed in our one room. I rushed over to the window wanting to go back to the commercial set and all the free food. I pulled the retro curtain back and watched the trucks pull into the The New York Times Building. As the sky grew dark, the moans from the bathroom down the hall became louder. I asked God to send our father, whom I had never met, a message of love, counting the stars from our window. I named the brightest one the star of hope. If I couldn’t find one, I knew the next day was going to be bad. On the day my commercial check arrived in our P.O. Box, the sky was filled with clouds. That’s when I knew that we were not going to find a real home anytime soon.
We spent a year sleeping in shelters, subways and stranger’s apartments until the Department of Housing Urban Development found us a rent stabilized apartment on Ninth Avenue and Forty-Sixth Street, known as Hell’s Kitchen. Our talent agent never knew that we walked between druggies, hustlers, drag queens and hookers on the way to an audition at a midtown ad agency. I remember the Eighth Avenue storefronts had photos of topless women with tiny stars covering their tits, wearing leopard print thongs and pink fluffy handcuffs and sidewalk preachers wore giant signs that read The End is Near.
For me it was the beginning of recording my memories in a diary. Afterward, I’d whisper a passage to my doll resting on the windowsill, looking up to the sky. Releasing our secrets on paper allowed me to know that my family’s journey was not a figment of my imagination. I felt less alone.
But Hell’s Kitchen never felt like home. Our mother, raised in the Midwest, told us it was a temporary place filled with temporary people. Heidi and I spent our days playing with the gypsies in front of their mother’s tarot card storefront and our paranoid mother spied on the neighbors with a cassette recorder. She thought they were criminals and never tried to fit into the neighborhood. In fact she stuck out in block association meetings, was known as a rabble rouser, and made enemies with the superintendent of our tenement. A few years later eviction papers were served for lack of rent payment.
Instead of enduring homelessness again our family moved to our mother’s hometown in the boondocks. She settled and bought fourteen llamas, my sister got married to a Republican attorney and moved to a small town, and I found a rent stabilized 10X10 studio apartments near Central Park. For the next decade I continued to pursue acting, wrote in a diary, waitressed during the day, and counted the stars at night.
I spent years ashamed of my past, of being homeless, of a mother who loved and neglected me. During the day at work, I wore a mask of confidence but alone at night surrounded by clouds and tall buildings, I realized that I had been scared into silence and shame. At one point the weight of these two lives- the constant performer and the insecure child who never really mourned the loss of parents- became difficult to bear. Something had to change. I wanted more than standing in the spotlight of an un-heated theatre or arguing with a director who wanted me to take my top off in an un-paying student film. It was hard to accept that I was no longer the cute, impish child, and was living a life of my own invention. I gave up acting. With the money I saved from waitressing, I entered a writing contest, won, and went back to college. A few years later I became a magazine writer, got married, and moved to Brooklyn.
After a few months of domestic bliss a part of me missed reciting a monologue to a group of strangers. So I went to a website that listed auditions, marked one on my calendar, and picked out an outfit. A few days later, I jumped out of the subway and walked towards the theater on West 52nd Street. My heart pounded as I re-traced my steps of my old neighborhood.
At the audition, I felt light-headed, nervous, and filled with doubt. I performed the required one minute monologue and approached the casting director’s table stacked with headshots. I took a deep breathe and asked, “Can you recommend a better monologue for me?”
“Do you feel lost?”
“Are you lost in this monologue? You seem to be.”
This was not what I expected to hear and I felt unprepared. The room spun around.
He continued, “I don’t know where you are from so I cannot suggest a piece for you. Only you know your journey.”
I left the building and walked down Ninth Avenue, determined to find myself. The gypsy’s tarot storefront was gone and the buildings that were once filled with crack dealers had been replaced with sleek condos. Tourists, baby carriages, and rickshaw drivers zoomed by me, and there was no trace of the mayhem that had filled the neighborhood. Suddenly I felt no connection to the past, like my home had been erased by gentrification. Hell’s Kitchen was like the cleaned-up version of myself.
I walked until I reached the Upper West Side and waved to my old local deli owner. But my former apartment was no longer my home. I kept walking down the crowded street, alone. I had no destination in mind. Time and space felt limitless.
Hours later, I reached the Williamsburg Bridge. Night had fallen. The stars were just coming out, and I found the star of hope from my childhood. With my eyes I followed the bridge’s iron rail, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn, which would transport me from where I stood on a grid overlooking the East River to the apartment that my husband and I had made warm and cozy for our new family. I smiled and knew that this was where I belonged. It wasn’t the first time the twinkling light guided me home and it wouldn’t be the last.