by Steve Gaines

In a back street…looking for seven dollars
(one of life’s little theatricals…outside the proscenium)

in December of nineteen ninety-eight I was working the boards in Buffalo

the Studio Arena … Main and West Tupper
a long gray building adorned with large gold stars on its side
anchoring the northeast corner of the theatre district
playing a Polish bartender eight shows a week
just returned to the Muse back from my old day job
fresh from retirement out of academia
without wheels and walking to and from my apartment between shows
about a half a mile eighteen times a week back and forth in that western
New York weather
where I met up with a “woman of the streets” along Virginia Place
a street too narrow to allow a casual avoidance without turning back in
a panic
knowing I was about to be “approached” hoping to avoid it

“never show fear in the face of the confrontation”…I had learned that somewhere

so I answered her hail…slowed to a crawl…made eye contact reluctantly
and we met in the middle of the block hard by an Arby’s…in the snow
across the street from a radio station next to a barbecue restaurant on
a warmish December evening
on my way home to the Colter Bay Apartments above a sports bar
windows overlooking the attendant parking lot
my quaint little home from home along Delaware Avenue
across the street from a EMS unit with twenty three ambulances
leaving at every other hour of the day

it was a time in my life when I was out on my own unplanned and
ill-prepared
incapable of the simplest intelligent rejection of such requests as I
was sure were about to befall me
unable to say no in any convincing way…when I should have known better…

alone and anxious to understand but out on my own in the “big city”
out of my depth in any number of areas and stretching the envelope of my
“old age!”

not so flexible in my basic social interactions
incapable of the “unhearing” rejection of the more street wise urbanite

so here was this unavoidable encounter with the “other half”
a meeting with the great unwashed…a young and “homeless looking” woman
and I was committed to the experience by politeness and my cowardice
something I had failed to control over a long and curious lifetime

she was very good!

the best I had encountered along that stretch of familiar brick
among all the many encounters of my daily sojourn

though things began casually it became theatrical very quickly
and she turned out to be a far better actor than me

me…making a living at it!
she…just looking for seven dollars
awash in her sad eyes and expectation
her rationale explained reluctantly
but pouring out like a prologue fit for the Bard
no brief interlude either
no simple song and dance sans scenery
she brought me the entire story
three acts and an epilogue!

how she and her infant son were apparently without a place to sleep for
the night

not that I didn’t wonder why he wasn’t with her at the time?

how she had misplaced her identification and the mission wouldn’t let
her in without it
how she wasn’t a junkie
showing me the white’s of her eyes
demonstrating a firm hand at arms length with not so much as a quiver
how embarrassed she was to have to ask me
how unlike her usual self reliance and ability to survive without
begging
her ability to get by strictly on her own not a panhandler by trade

“really!”

all the scenes of a docu-drama in real time
no made up story this
but sounding and smelling of the truth
with just enough hint of reality in her awkward approach

I began to wonder

“I don’t know! maybe she is for real”

she was convincing in the abstract that’s for sure
just inarticulate enough to make it seem like the first time

for example all the time making realistic small talk
like the unseasonable weather
the football team…the hockey team
why had I left Nebraska?

a tiny “N” logo hanging inconspicuously from my jacket noticed in the
dim light

a seamless performance including exposition

all just for me!

she tugged me slowly into something like believing
lulling me into a complacent acceptance

almost!

she was very good!…very good indeed!!

too good maybe…suspicion rife on the winter air
after all I had been approached those many times before in these same
environs
so it seemed unlikely that she was the genuine article
it seemed rather far fetched in the face of other realities
…however… there was my typical gullibility
just a rube from the provinces and an easy mark
she was leading me somewhere into my own need to believe
dressing me in my own naivete
pulling me in like a lamb to the slaughter
setting me up for the grand pitch on every word
playing me for one of those suckers born every minute

…and maybe I was…

so I began to examine the moment more objectively
began to question my easy enjoyment of the story
…and arbitrarily made the first stumbling attempts to disengage

at first denying the possibility out of hand
like any reasonably affluent middle class drone being propositioned
I put her out of mind
began to think about moving on
looked casually beyond her as if I were impatient to get somewhere more
important!
trying to establish my sophistication and disbelief
my impatience with such a crass interruption
an insult to my busy schedule after all!

she did not take the hint but kept at the performance unabated

and I did admire her work

she really was good!

so very good in fact that I began to play other curious and oblique
fantasies in my actor’s head
imagining other subtexts and rationale
began to make up new little realities and truths for her

like she was an eager student out looking for advice
….indeed I thought of encouraging her to take up a my profession?

good advice from no lesser pundit that me…ex-professor and all!

get some new teeth and a better wardrobe perhaps
put together a resume with all the proper names to drop around like all
us other actors do
“little lies” distributed at the drop of a hat
padded and polished reflecting the fine edge of make believe
defining our importance for whatever potential benefactor seeking our
skills

perhaps she should consider becoming more like us
simply take advantage of her natural technique
find a good agent…the business is always looking for more faces

of course we would never “beg” for a role
we would never prostrate ourselves on such a barren stage
never waste such good work in the street!
and we would certainly ask for more than seven dollars!

my imagination was spilling over
the performance was mutating…if only in my mind
and suddenly like an entre act coming out of the dark
I began making up lists of “other truths” for her
like maybe she was doing well enough without a job
maybe she was comfortable in the streets
maybe she didn’t need the real world the rest of us did battle with
she was just eccentric
she just out on a lark
was her Mercedes parked just around the corner?
might her broker give her a call on her cell phone at the wrong time
interrupting a performance
or perhaps she was actually a middle class housewife just padding the
slush fund
picking up a little extra to pay her QVC bill?
easier than turning tricks I supposed!

god! how had I become such a cynic

we stood there for the longest time since I was loath to break into her
soliloquy
but finally it wound down to the coda
the denouement in her final pause for effect
and when she made the big pitch I actually came up with a couple of
dollars
not the entire seven of course
since surely some other fortunate audience awaited her around the next
corner
and I was loathe to cheat them of such a fine performance…

in the echoes of our parting she wished me a “happy holiday”
even using the generic politically correct salutation
never dropping the character for a second
staying focused…playing all the points
pure to the subtext and her eyes clear her handshake steady
having been able to read me like a book
sucking up the last little bit of doubt hanging on the winter evening

she was good! very very good

deserving of accolades I would never merit

I walked away thinking the “worst”
that she had been telling the truth all along
I guess just to justify my two bucks
paying for my ticket

what a miserable bastard!

with such a thankless promises for her
since that other “truth” would abandon her for real
with a night in the cold sleeping under cardboard in some anonymous
doorway

she had perhaps been too believable for her own good
too convincing by far
the performance so obvious in its transparent ease
like any tour de force made to look so perfect and without effort
or was I just being too narrow?

having been put in my place by her perfect work
held up to the brilliance of her finely drawn characterization
and coming out a poor second…if that!
and in my jealousy a stern reminder of my own inadequacies
my own characters something less than so accurately drawn

a victim of my own tepid reviews…

I would have been better served to have watched more carefully perhaps
to have learned something
but no,, I was blinded by the experience, my objectivity had abandoned
me at the very beginning
she had put me to shame

journeyman hack that I am!

on my best day simply wielding my technique like a sledgehammer
an actor as subtle as a bill board
and someone in need of all the lessons I could find
whether in the street or not

yet there she was
uncostumed
unaccompanied
unmade-up
without so much as one little spot light
singing her aria in the dark
flying solo!
out on the bare pavement “in one!”
working so bravely in that back street and without a net!!

she didn’t need truth or fiction
she was really one with her “art!”

she was really good!!

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