I recently went to a nightclub to hear a musician whom I know and like. The next morning I got an e-mail from my musician friend, who asked whether I’d recognized the woman who waited on me. The waitress, it seemed, was an actress whom I’d praised in my Wall Street Journal drama column on more than one occasion. “I am totally embarrassed,” I replied. “It was the context–and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her offstage.” To which my friend responded as follows:
She didn’t mind–she said she preferred that you not see her in her Clark Kent guise. That would be like someone in the business catching me in secretary mode. We all have to do our time in the trenches, don’t you know.
I do know, very much so. Many years ago I worked as a teller in a downtown Kansas City bank, a job that allowed me to pay the rent while simultaneously playing jazz and writing concert reviews for the Kansas City Star on the side. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and the only thing that made it tolerable was that for some inexplicable reason, the people whom I knew in my “real” life as a writer and musician almost never came into the bank to do business. Had they done so, it would have broken my heart.
I wrote about this experience eight years after it finally came to an end, when my feelings about it were still fresh and raw:
At night I was a writer, on weekends a jazz musician. During the day, though, I was a servant. My nameplate was displayed for the world to see, and strangers, seeing it, called me by my first name. I despised them for their casual familiarity, but I despired myself even more. Once I had been a young man of unlimited promise. My teachers had predicted great things for me. Now I spent my days making change. My promise was running dry, my great expectations turning sour. I was sure I had gone as far as I could go. I expected to spend the rest of my life punching a clock.
So yes, I know how it is–which is one of the reasons why I now spend so much of my middle-aged energy seeking out memorable performances in tiny theaters far from Times Square. I know what Orson Welles meant when he told Peter Bogdanovich that artists “need encouragement a lot more than we admit, even to ourselves.” As long as I live, I’ll never forget how much I needed it once upon a time.