There are worse things you could do.
A remembrance of teen lust, show tunes, and forthright sexual ethics.
It’s been a rough week, so forgive me for dredging up a 15-year-old piece of writing that may seem, in some ways, not well-enough updated for the Me Too era. I stand by the youthful consciousness who had these experiences and thoughts. I don’t see any reason to revise my 80s understanding of life with hindsight here in the 2020s. The 40-year-old thoughts and feelings persist without frustration. Yet here I am making a disclaimer, anyway—interesting, right? When the loudest and least subtle voices are amplified by social media, it can feel strange simply to own your own life stories without self-censorship.
There is some grown-up wisdom you hear promiscuously retailed—really only among the privileged, I suspect—about how you should not live your life in comparison to others.
This concept may make perfect sense as a piece of practical spirituality after you’ve achieved some maturity, security, and independence. But as a bromide, it breaks down upon close examination, especially in terms of childhood development. The process of becoming a functioning member of society is all about measuring up to standards set before your existence, without your input or opinion, in a world into which you’ve been thrust without your consent. Your parents, the cliche goes, are your first teachers. They model the behavior you will inevitably emulate—your mirror neurons ensure it—whether or not your later grown-up self would have wished otherwise. Your school, your town, your class, your gender, your ethnic community….everywhere around you, the stage is already set on which you must begin to perform yourself. The costumes have been laid out, the lines are written.
My adolescent self was split in two. In the gleaming light of day, I went to a fancy prep school where teachers and peers expected great things in my future. At home, there was a kind of perpetual night, in which I was abandoned, disavowed, shrunken and shriveled, living inside a bleak pit whose walls were made by my mother’s harsh words and my father’s foggy distance.
And out of that distance between day and night arose ferocious energy and ambition. I had this wild, weird fire inside me, to push, to defy, to leap, to argue, to say fuck you. Where on earth did I get the nerve, the moxie, the chutzpah?
(Maybe from all the intensely verbal Jewish boys and girls who were my schoolmates and friends…maybe from the air and soil and water there in the New York City metropolitan region, which imprinted a certain measure of cultural/secular Jewishness on every one of its denizens, no matter their actual religion or ethnicity.)
There was a long-running classified ad in the back of SEVENTEEN magazine for the Gateway Playhouse, a summer stock theater on Long Island’s south shore. The ad was a small black-and-white print panel, decorated with a graphic of proscenium curtains across the top and the comedy/drama mask in the middle, calling for young actors-in-training. I’d pinned it to the corkboard at my desk and mused over it every spring and summer for ages.
At sixteen, I had never yet been allowed to go to sleep-away camp. A few years earlier, my friend Peggy had floated the idea of me joining her at a music camp. When I asked about it, my father’s face grew grim. He shook and sputtered. I’m not going to send you away so you can go….go….PARK…with BOYS!
Yet somehow in the spring of 1982, I mustered the nerve to write to the P.O. Box on the ad, obtain and fill out the application, send it away, receive a date for my spring audition at the famous Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, and arrange for Peggy to accompany me into Manhattan on the appointed Saturday. I did all this with begrudging acceptance from my parents, but I don’t remember asking them respectfully what they thought of my plan. I think I just said I’m doing this and expected them to back it.
Or maybe I was more supplicating than that. Perhaps they thought allowing me a bit of leeway would bleed me of my rebellious energy. Perhaps they were so mired in their impending marital breakdown, they were grateful for a chance to have me out of the house. I was doing a lot of yelling and screaming and stomping around in those days. Family tradition.
I slept over Peggy’s the night before, and in the morning her sweet, reserved mother dropped us off at the PATH station. It must have been April or May, a warm and bright spring day. Over my leotard and stretchy white dance pants, I was wearing a hunter-green corduroy jacket I’d stolen from my father, with my black-and-white BOWIE pin near the collar. (Peggy had a matching one that said FRIPP in honor of our favorite prog-rock guitarist; we’d found the pins on an earlier Manhattan shopping trip to Canal Jeans.) In the city we tooled around: window-shopping, eating, strolling through Central Park, playing our roles as sophisticated young New Yorkers-in-training. As my afternoon audition time approached, we looked for the right address. Unsuccessful and confused, we asked a doorman in a heavy ankle-length linen coat and matching hat to point us in the right direction.
He smirked. Girls, this is the East Side you’re on. The Ansonia is across town!
He raised a discreet two fingers out of the long cuff of his coat to hail a cab. We screeched our urgency to the cabbie who flew through Central Park to get us to 73rd and Broadway just moments before I was supposed to check in. (In our flurry getting out of the cab, poor Peggy lost her wallet and was never able to retrieve it.) The Ansonia was kind of a wreck on the inside. Newly installed drywall in the lobby, not yet painted. Ugly carpet and narrow hallways leading to the elevator. Upstairs we found the right rooms and were ushered in by a tall, lanky, halfway bald blond man with a smoker’s haggard skin, wearing light brown corduroy dungarees that stopped at the ankle and drooped in the ass, and tan boat shoes with no socks. He was the staff choreographer. A few stage mothers and their daughters waited with us in the wood-floored outer room amidst the movable ballet barres. I smiled gratefully at Peggy as we sat and caught our breath.
When it was my turn to sing I followed the choreographer, George, into a back room where a short, pretty, chesty white woman with long dark eyelashes and curly auburn hair almost down to her waist sat behind her auditor’s desk. She was Sharon, the theater’s creative director and a daughter of the founders. A mustachioed bespectacled accompanist, Rick, sat at the upright piano and accepted my sheet music: “When You’re Good To Mama,” the prison matron’s song from CHICAGO, full of sexual innuendo and double-entendre. I’d always loved its snarly, vampy style. I giggled and tried my practiced joke. Don’t take this too literally about me! George and Sharon and Rick smiled and nodded mildly. I made it through the vocals reasonably well. I gestured sarcasm, sex, and power to the best of my ability given my scrawny chest and crippling virginity. (The prison matron character is meant to be a battle-ax: the formidable Queen Latifah would come to play her perfectly in the 2002 movie version.) I belted out the last note. Rick smiled and said nice job as I retrieved my music.
A short while later I was called back in with the rest of the young women to watch and copy George as he ran through a series of loose-limbed dance moves, his dungarees sliding droopily down his nonexistent ass, his boat shoes slapping on the peeling linoleum. I left the audition exhilarated and hopeful. I had done this, I had made this happen. The inner power felt tangible. My father came to pick us up at curbside outside the Ansonia in his new Jaguar SX-S. (This was a car he just showed up with one day, claiming, I’m tired of only buying things for you girls, I want something for myself for a change! My mother was enraged and refused to get in the car for months.)
My father seemed happy for me that afternoon, or at least he made a good show of it in front of Peggy. I don’t remember how he or Mom responded when I was accepted. It was not a job, more like summer camp. Whether dutifully or proudly or resentfully, my parents paid a couple hundred dollars for my lodging and training for six weeks, drove me out there in early June, and handed me a wad of cash for food. Getting financial support for my ambitions should have pushed me forward with confidence. It should not have mattered whether my parents approved of my dreams or supported them in an emotional sense. It should not have mattered that in their daily words and deeds they continued to run their own children down, or that living under their roof made us feel small, weak, and worthless.
None of that should have mattered because my parents paid for summer stock—just as they’d paid for expensive schools, nice clothes, and loads of Christmas gifts. I had nothing to complain about.
(My sister once asked Dad to teach her how to tie her shoelaces. In mere minutes he got so irritated and impatient that he yelled at her and walked away. She never approached him about it again. In general, he and our mother were people we generally avoided even as we grew up under their roof.)
Eastern Long Island was like a crazy dream: cute little seaside towns filled with people sporting thick New York accents from out of a black-and-white gangster movie. The theater was a converted farm with a long gravel driveway. It had two large buildings converted to theaters, equipment sheds turned into prop and costume shops and rehearsal spaces, and cinderblock, barracks-style outbuildings serving as administrative offices and dorms.
After sending my parents off with awkward hugs, I met a fellow apprentice named Marissa, a sassy blonde girl from Manhattan who wore a short red and black kilt, Doc Martens, and heavy black eyeliner. We settled into our separate cement-floored dorm rooms and walked into town to get some pizza. On the way back, Marissa turned backward and stuck her thumb out. We accepted a ride from an old guy in his thirties driving an MG with the top down, then giggled with relief when he dropped us off at the theater gates without even bothering to try to rape and murder us.
My life was finally beginning.
After years of over-protection, my parents had now flung me carelessly into a debauched world. The youngest of us actors-in-training—every one of us female, if I’m remembering correctly—was not even sixteen. The oldest administrators, Sharon and her brother Roy, who were meant to serve in loco parentis, were not yet thirty. Choreographer George and music director Rick may have been close to forty, but neither were leaders in any larger sense.
While the hired actors and dancers were predominantly young women or young gay men, the staff and stage crew were straight guys in their twenties. The half-dozen of them all lived in a building they called the Hilton, a ramshackle two-story shed divvied up into thin-walled private bedrooms. These guys worked and lived here year-round, I think, so the place had a whiff of permanence despite the unpainted drywall everywhere, exposed electrical wires, and dilapidated wood steps to the second floor. I suspect these young men must have looked upon the annual influx of attention-loving teenage theater girls the way lions look upon antelope. Toss in some freely available booze and pot, and you practically guarantee the systematic widespread loss of virginity.
Then again, maybe it was the girls who were equally the pursuers. I realize that in 2022, in some circles, that’s a controversial thing to say, but I stick with my experience of the moment. I was hardly the only 16-year-old girl I knew who avidly sought out sexual experience. This was simply not an abstinence-pledge kind of scene.
Peggy came to visit me on my second weekend there. The crew guys were throwing a party featuring a 32-gallon plastic trash can filled with Kool-Aid and grain alcohol. They called this concoction Hairy Buffalo. Two red Solo cups of the stuff and I was stumbling and slurring.
A guy named Jeff had told me a few days earlier that he found me not necessarily pretty but intriguing. I’d taken that insult as a challenge. I thought: What the hell? I am gorgeous, you idiot. Everybody back home knows it. An Italian-Jewish boy from Long Island had been steeped in blonde-blue-eyed sexual propaganda his entire life. He simply did not have the eyes to see what was right in front of him. I was going to enlighten him, was I.
At one moment during the party, I was on my way down the narrow haphazard steps and Jeff was on his way up. We accidentally-on-purpose collided. I fell backward onto the steps, he fell forward onto me. Get a room, yelled several someones, and in short order Jeff and I were both naked on his bed. We were stupid drunk and on fire, hands and mouths everywhere. If Jeff had tried to fuck me at that moment, I would have been enthusiastic. Instead, I heard drunk Peggy yelling from outside Jeff’s thin plywood door She’s a virgin, she’s a virgin, be careful! All I remember next is seeing Jeff’s earnest face momentarily unlocked from mine and pushed back on the other side of his pillow. He echoed Peggy: Careful, Sandy. I glanced down at his cock—the first one I’d ever seen up close. It seemed to have developed a mind of its own as it danced and squirted and finally went slack. Jeff’s eyes closed and soon so did mine.
I always got everything I wanted, didn’t I? Even the chance to fool around with a guy who hadn’t known quite what to make of me. I’ll show you intriguing! Peggy must have stumbled back to my dorm room to sleep. Our friend Zach had come to visit, too. Over the years Zach had developed a serious crush on me, and because I was somehow both attracted to and repulsed by him, I had been behaving in ways that alternately gave him hope and shut him down. Sometimes I’d acquiesce and make out with him, other times I’d run away and laugh. Now, callous and drunk, I didn’t even take care to ensure Zach had a place to sleep that night. He must have found his way to the second narrow cot in my dorm room across from Peggy, or maybe he crashed in the back of his car. In any case, my friends took off the next morning without saying goodbye.
They must have spent at least some of the ride home talking about what a selfish bitch and poor host I’d been. All these decades later, I actually hope they did. Or would that be a form of compounding my self-absorption? There’s a certain vanity in imagining you’re the object of hatred.
That summer I found myself in a chorus or supporting role in every professional main-stage production. In CAROUSEL I donned gauzy see-through pants and worked the background of the carnival set pieces as a belly dancer. In BEATLEMANIA! I and three other girls were outfitted in a series of period costumes—from pastel poodle skirts to neon paisley psychedelia—and directed to scream and cry and dance around for the band: pretend groupies.
Most surreally, I was in the chorus of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ a musical revue honoring the Harlem Renaissance and quite specifically written for five African-American actors. The entire show is premised on the idea of these three black women and two black men being able to be blunt and honest with each other in the absence of any white people. It was years before I recognized the fundamental absurdity of this production. Somehow the directors had either missed the whole point of the show or decided for economic and practical reasons that they couldn’t stage it without creating roles for the all-white actors and dancers who’d been hired for the entire summer. So the songs that had been originally conceived as solos and duets and trios for black performers alone were now each accompanied by a stomping, swirling chorus of white background dancers—plus me.
The five principal players were Manhattan theater professionals who’d come out to the summer theater just for the two-week run of their show. They were the only other people of color I encountered all summer. Once when we were rehearsing, one of the lead actresses was back in her dorm room getting over a cold, and for the sake of blocking the director asked me to stand in place for her.
Sure, I’m about halfway there anyway.
Everyone laughed, heartily and nervously. I had dared mention the obvious. It was the 80s. Race was not something mentioned in polite “mixed” (read: majority white) company. We were kids, even the oldest among us. It may have been just fine, a joke like that, in that absurd setting, a show about urban black culture and identity made feasible at a summer theater in the lily-white suburbs of Long Island. Shortly after this little incident, one of the male leads took me aside to tell me I reminded him of the black actress Jayne Kennedy. I thanked him for the compliment, although it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. It was always either Jayne Kennedy or Irene Cara to whom I’d be compared, by people grasping earnestly for some kind of category in which to fit me. There weren’t that many brown-skinned cheekbone-flaunting famous women around to choose from.
When we weren’t rehearsing or performing, the vast gang of us—dancers and crew and trainee kids all together—drove farther out east on the island to our favorite bar, where Rick would sit at the piano and we’d all crowd around singing “The Rose” or “American Pie” or various Billy Joel songs until nearly sunrise. I’d come home intoxicated by beer and song alike, fall into a heap on my unfolded clean laundry atop my dorm cot, and wake up just a few hours later for midmorning dance classes led by one of the pros.
Other nights there’d be parties thrown for us by theater supporters in or near the town itself. At one of these events, the hostess was a prematurely wrinkly, bottle-blonde white woman in her forties who drunkenly yanked me aside in her narrow kitchen to tell me something important. I should stop pretending to be black, she said. I should embrace my Indian heritage. I found this confusing, bizarre, and laughable. There was nothing about me that signaled black culture at all: not my speech patterns, not my clothing or jewelry, nothing. I was completely a product of my private high school and its elite assimilations; even my dear friend Josephine Torrance, whose father was an accomplished, well-admired professor-turned-politician (Republican), was culturally more Anglo- than African-American. She and I were once in a pizza joint in downtown West Orange, and the broadly smiling, beefy Italian-American guy behind the counter said to me, Are you Indian? You don’t sound like it. I was too flummoxed to respond—he was trying and failing to flirt with me, so I felt a little sad for him. Josie cackled and said, Why don’t you ask me why I don’t sound black! Poor guy’s face fell. He handed us our slices silently.
I sounded like myself when I spoke. No discernible accent, all regionalism having been washed away by excessive television viewing. Proper English pronunciation, crisp diction, complete sentence structures, slang only employed with an ironic wink. Maybe I’d picked up some Yiddish habits from my many Jewish friends. Saying Oy vey when exasperated. Describing Peggy as a meshugenneh shiksa. The unique mix was mine alone, a syncretic and one-of-a-kind self emerging every time I opened my mouth. Just as it did for everyone else.
But in one context I was not myself at all. One fall day after summer stock, I was sitting at my piano with the AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ songbook, working on a few of my favorite songs from the show: “Mean to Me,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Lounging at the Waldorf.” In each case, I’d been so fully imprinted by the particular phrasing and sounds employed by the black actors who’d been jobbed in for the show that I could not break out of their song interpretations. Note for note, rhythm for rhythm, timbre for timbre, I was stuck inside their versions. Helplessly, I bent my voice toward the goal of sounding like them. Imitation seemed to be the goal, but it frustrated me on some level, even before I knew how to grow beyond it.
I didn’t know about the very different tradition of jazz vocalizing yet. Had not heard Billie Holiday or Shirley Horn or Nancy Wilson; had not encountered the notion that to make a song your own you should phrase it in your own sincere manner, using a voice and diction that matches how you speak; that there should be no real artifice or vocal costume you have to don. I don’t think I consciously knew the difference between singing a song exactly the way you’ve heard it and using that song as a vehicle to express yourself. I didn’t really know any of this and yet I still, somehow, felt less than doing my karaoke versions. There was already a “real me” voice signaling its discomfort, although it took me decades and the right kind of coach (after too many of the wrong kinds) to let her emerge. That’s a different long story.
One afternoon after summer stock, I was singing the Ain’t Misbehavin’ songs the way I’d heard them: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Viper’s Drag,” “Black and Blue,” My mother came stomping into the living room. She, who made her living as a gynecologist serving poor black women in East Orange and Newark, yelled:
What’s the ugly sound you’re making?
Why are you singing like that?
Toward the end of the summer, the trainees were given the chance to produce a single matinee performance of GREASE on the very last day of the program. It was a public, ticketed event but also an opportunity for your family to see how you’d progressed. Churlishly, selfishly, self-protectively, I said nothing about it to my mother and father, just asked them to pick me up around dinner time, long after the curtain had fallen.
Tommy, the young director, asked me and one other woman to audition for the role of Sandy. After choosing me for the part he took me aside and said, Garrett would have done a good job, too, but she doesn’t have your ability to switch from good girl to bad girl.
I belonged nowhere in particular and for the moment this was a useful thing.
Already I had come to suspect that musical theater was not the place for me. I’d done everything in my power to fulfill my dream of apprenticing at the Gateway Playhouse and now I was vaguely, secretly unhappy. This was not my world. I was driven, it’s true, but the people I met there were even more focused and ambitious than I, even if they didn’t seem all that talented. Many dancers, singers, actors, and band musicians had a single-mindedness I could not understand. They seemed to lack the constant self-criticism that filled my head. They seemed delusional in their self-confidence. Some of us apprentices were trust-fund babies, but the working adult performers mostly came from humble roots.
This was not the kind of summer stock that attracted graduates of the Yale theater department. And it was musical theater, a form whose fundamental silliness—not to mention its cultural conservatism—was beginning to dawn on me. Consider GREASE. I had seen the movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John a dozen times on HBO, but until performing in it I hadn’t noticed its narrative absurdity. What was the message? Dress like a slut and get your man. Given that society still divided women into two camps, virgins versus whores, it didn’t even seem accurate.
After summer stock I went on to perform in exactly one more piece of musical theater. It was hard when Miss Gambone left my school for another job. She’s the one who made me a star. She had been the original source of my confidence. Without her, I had no guarantees. Her replacement, Mr. Carnoy, was kind and enthusiastic, and had cast me prominently in the nonmusical plays he produced in his first year, but he did not assume I was the de facto female lead of every show. And during my senior year when he mounted auditions for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS—the musical adaptation of “The Princess and the Pea”—I was dismayed to discover that a talented 11th grade transfer student named Jill Feinstein was also short-listed for Princess Winifred.
At the finals I went before Jill to sing “Shy,” a big-voiced showstopper made famous by Carole Burnett. If I’d knocked it out of the park—if I’d been able to hit, cleanly and powerfully, that loud, fat, comical high note on the hook I’m SHYYYYYYYY—the role might have been mine. But I went up to stand in front of the grand piano and just as I approached that critical phrase, I found myself crooking an elbow and leaning back on the edge of the piano case, louche lounge-singer style, as if to shrink away from the Broadway-level challenge of the song. Instead of belting the high note, I melted vaguely into it.
Mr. Carnoy expressed mild, smiling approval but seemed puzzled. He had heard about my CABARET star turn but at the moment I was not grabbing the room with my powerful diva presence—quite the opposite.
He offered me a second run-through but I got to the same place in the song and made the same strange gesture again, leaning back when I should have been standing forward, throwing away the magic of the moment, essentially refusing to sell it. It no longer mattered that two years earlier I had conquered the whole school as Sally Bowles. Jill Feinstein stood up after me and thrust herself into the song, big comic gestures, big confident presence, and when the time came for her to sing shy, she stood firmly on her feet, held her chest upward and forward, and belted the note like a pro. She became the Princess. I was given the smaller role of Queen Aggravain—villain, more or less. I sang “Sensitivity” and a few other fun songs but I was not the star.
It was a harsh early lesson in relative versus absolute value. I was already living with a weird double sense of entitled bullishness and under-confident bearishness. I thought the role should be mine; I did not have the heart to fight for it. All it took was a Jill Feinstein to breeze in with solid stock in herself and best me with one damn note.
So playing Sandy in GREASE the summer earlier ended up being my last starring role ever. My costar was handsome, openly gay, and friendly but not warm. We did a poor job playacting unrequited passion. But hey, the dancing was great, the songs were fun. Tommy decided to add “Hopelessly Devoted,” a Sandy solo that had not been in the original Broadway book but became Olivia Newton-John’s showstopper in the movie. In rehearsals, I more or less aced it—or so I imagine. But the day before the performance, I came down with a bad cold. Maybe this was karma for excluding my parents from the audience. Loaded up on Dayquil and coffee, I somehow made it through our afternoon performance without fainting.
I mustered my standard level of cheerful charisma and clear diction for all our scenes and dance numbers but in solos, I could not hit my high notes or even my low notes cleanly. I wanted to power through the big loud chorus of “Hopelessly Devoted” but instead I could only croak weakly. And yet, out there were the faces of people in the audience, their smiles warm, their eyes alight. I sounded like crap, there were bags under my eyes, I could barely pretend to be attracted to my costar—and I was a brown girl playing a white girl’s role—yet still this room full of strangers was sending me love.
(Could it be that my father was dead wrong about my professional prospects, and more generally about this country and its wide-open welcoming future to all who would dream and strive?)
Whatever else I was, whatever confused identity I might pull together from contradictory scraps, I was the star of the show.
After the rest of the cast was lined up on the lip of the stage, I swept out from the wings to take the very last bow. I was Sandy, the good girl with a dark side, the wholesome girl who (inexplicably) just had to wear a tight, low-cut outfit to get her man.
But I secretly wanted to be Rizzo, the character played in the movie by the droll, unflappable, fiercely intelligent Stockard Channing, with a sassy short haircut and self-protective bravado. Musical theater characters and plots were bullshit, but I might have loved the chance to play Rizzo.
She was the real deal. She didn’t have to tart herself up for anybody. She didn’t manipulate or lie. She wanted what she wanted, and wasn’t afraid of the consequences of her desires. She was full of a wild and fierce fire. She sang the best, truest, most inspiring song in the entire show: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” In it, Rizzo sets out her own standard of value, in full defiance of the operative 1950s mores. She wants to have sex with her boyfriend. She has sex with her boyfriend. He treats her unkindly afterward. Is there a price she pays? Yes: she cries in secret. She can’t make him be other than he is: a stupid teenage boy, negligent and hurtful. Still, she regrets nothing.
Rizzo has a pregnancy scare that turns out to be a false alarm—thus maintaining the show’s happy ending—but you get the feeling that a real-life counterpart, a Rizzo-made-flesh finding herself “in trouble,” would either terminate the pregnancy, or have the baby, and be okay either way. She would never let her parents whisk her off in hidden shame to some faraway home for fallen women, let her baby be ripped from her arms against her will and passed off to adoptive parents who’d been carefully matched by race and religion, skin and eye and hair color.
No, she would run away from home and get a job as a truck stop waitress or insurance agency secretary. Struggle and fight and work things out for herself. Raise the kid, make a living, go to night school, move up the ranks: the American dream, single-mother style.
Maybe occasionally she’d let the shit-heel father show up and play daddy if he didn’t defy her house rules.
Then in the late 1980s in a college class on Intro to Women’s Studies or History of Social Protest, her grown-up daughter would tell her professor and her friends about her mother, who was too busy raising her to be an activist and yet proved her independence and self-ownership every day of her hardworking life.
My mom is amazing, she’d say. She’s the bomb. She’s my hero. She’s my best friend.