With my 21st birthday only a few months away, I felt panicked. If I was ever going to get out of Austin and become a professional actor, it was now or never. Finally, I made the decision – I was moving to New York! There was only one problem. I was scared shitless. What I needed was a partner in crime, so I started looking around for someone even more reckless and irresponsible than I was. I decided on my friend, Jenny.
Jenny was half Native-American and half Jewish and was maybe a couple of years older than me. A self-proclaimed artist and a true free spirit, she seemed to change art mediums, boyfriends and addresses every other week. Sexy and forthright, to say that Jenny “had a way with men” would have been a gross understatement. Knowing she was always up for an adventure, I talked her into coming.
By the time our departure date rolled around, Jenny had somehow managed to meet and have a wild, weekend-long, sexual fling with a businessman visiting from New York. She announced that she was now engaged. Although she would still be accompanying me on the trip, she cautioned that once there, she would naturally be spending most of her time with her new fiancé.
Since neither of us had much money, our means of transportation was the Greyhound Bus. Forty-eight grueling hours later, we arrived at Port Authority at 2:00 AM on (what I would later learn) was the coldest day of that year. We were met by Jenny’s fiance who was sort of a grumpy guy who looked like he was already regretting his decision. Although Jenny’s bags had made it to New York, all of my luggage had been lost en route. “Check back in a couple of days,” I was told. We then stepped out into the dank, scary world of the Port Authority to look for “D’Vonn.” Allow me to explain.
Before leaving Austin, I had managed to secure an apartment for Jenny and me in New York from a friend of a friend. Although the guy had not lived in the place for years, he still held the lease. I’d heard that neighborhoods varied in Manhattan, so I warily asked him where the apartment was located. “On Broadway,” he replied. My heart lept! After all, Broadway was where I was headed anyway!! I’d be close to work! I enthusiastically forked over the $200 in rent and was told that my bus would be met by a black guy named "D’Vonn" who would give me the keys.
Oddly, there were quite a few black guys in Port Authority at two o’clock in the morning (and none of them looked all that friendly). Sucking up my guts, I began approaching every black man I saw and politely asking if his name happened to be “D’Vonn.” Finally, I found him and soon we were all piled into the fiancé’s car for the trip uptown.
That was when I learned that Broadway actually ran the entire length of Manhattan. My new apartment was located near 141st Street in what was (at the time) a particularly rough section of West Harlem. The building was one of those once grand, old structures that had seen better days. As it turned out, D’Vonn didn’t need to bring us the keys, since the last tenant had removed the lock and taken it with him.
Pushing open the door, we found that the apartment had only one room (with a separate kitchen and bath). And it was extremely cold! Apparently, the building hadn’t had any heat or hot water for weeks and all the tenants were on a rent strike. Jenny took one look and wished me well. As she and her fiance bolted out the door, D’Vonn warily handed me a knife and said, “Here, you might need this.” Suddenly, I was alone. There was no phone in the apartment and I was terrified. I pushed a chest of drawers in front of the unlockable door, and then jammed a chair against that. I slept sitting up that night, clutching my knife and praying I wouldn’t freeze to death before dawn. As I closed my eyes, I began murmuring what would soon become my New York mantra. “It can’t get any worse than this.” I'd soon learn that...it could.
At first light, I discovered that all the windows of my apartment (which was on the bottom floor) faced an interior air shaft. The shaft was filled with about four feet of garbage (tossed from upper floors) that was now higher than the level of my windows; which meant they could never be opened. It was sort like a giant aquarium, except instead of fish, I had pigeons and rats. I checked my wallet. I had sixty dollars to my name. I knew exactly three people in New York and none of them very well. One of them suggested the name of a temp agency and two days later, I had a job filing index cards in a real estate office.
Since Greyhound was unable to locate my luggage for a full ten days, I was forced to wash the only set of clothes I owned in the bathtub each night. I’d then bake them for an hour in the oven, before hanging them up in front of a box fan that some tenant had thankfully left behind. Since there was still no heat or hot water, taking a bath meant I had to heat pans of water on the stove and then ferry them to the tub, one at a time.
Sensing I might be stuck in Harlem for a while, I posted a notice in a neighborhood Laundromat and soon had a new roommate named Leon who was (coincidentally) also Native American and a jazz musician. Three nights later, I came home to discover Leon having sex with a woman in the middle of the floor. In the morning, I was introduced to Cheryl, his ex-wife (also Native American) who had apparently moved in with us. I actually liked Leon and Cheryl and the next few days were sort of fun until Jenny showed up again. Her engagement now over (big surprise) she needed a place to crash. My heart sank when Jenny spotted Leon. Clearly, it was love at first sight. Cheryl, however, had staked a previous claim, so things got a little tense in "the room" for a while. Finally, after about ten days, Jenny made new living arrangements and I never saw her again, although I later heard she returned to Austin.
Miraculously, I found an affordable sublet on a bulletin board in the East Village, but didn’t tell Leon or Cheryl until the last possible second for fear that they might come with me. Since I couldn’t afford a cab, I moved myself, my suitcases, a lamp (and a twin bed from the Harlem apartment) downtown piece-by-piece on the subway. Because I had to change trains and then walk nine blocks into Alphabet Town, it took all night.
My new apartment (also in a slightly dodgy neighborhood) at least had hot water and heat. My temp job had turned into a regular gig and although my salary wasn’t princely, I knew I could manage the rent. The apartment was on the top floor of a six floor walk-up with windows that faced north, so it got lots of light. I had now been in New York for five rugged weeks, but I had survived. Wrapped in a blanket, I celebrated my 21st birthday, sitting on my fire escape, drinking a beer and staring out at the lights of the city; certain that I had proven myself. If I could make it here, I’d make it anywhere. Come on, come through, New York, New York.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv