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First Person

War Stories

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War Stories
I ran halfway to the audition.

My big black patent leather purse—proudly purchased at a Goldenbleu sample sale—was stuffed with a stack of headshot/resumes, tan Jill Stuart heels (I was wearing ratty Old Navy flip-flops), and an Arthur Miller play two months overdue to the New York Public Library.  Slinging the bag over my shoulder—which slammed a tourist—I hurtled through Times Square.

A block away, I slowed down to catch my breath and compose myself. Just down the block I could see the studio's name in a chunky block letters: "The Actor's Temple." As I neared, I noticed the name wasn't on a signpost—it was a flag.  And the flag had a Jewish star on it.

Ohhh.

Apparently, the Actor's Temple wasn't a place to worship' the craft'; it was a place to worship G-d.  (It made sense—of all people, actors needed to pray.)

I was only minimally surprised. A synagogue would not be the weirdest place I had performed my one-minute-and-forty-eight-second monologue. I'd auditioned everywhere from a midtown law office to the upstairs room of a hair salon.  (At the latter, when I arrived I was told I was reading for the part of a prostitute. This caused a last-minute change from my Fantasticks monologue to something a little less "I'm fifteen, a virgin, and my father sings regularly about his garden.")

Hey, at least a temple was sacred.

As I contemplated whether I should change my shoes outside or inside, an older woman with a whispy scarf and a gray bun opened the large wooden door.

"Are you here for the audition?"

"Yes," I exhaled. "Is it still going on?" Shit, I thought, I missed it.

"Oh yes," she said. "But I have to warn you, it's not just modeling."

Wow, I thought, stretching all five-foot-two of me. I look like a prospective model? Now this is new.

"He wants you to sell things out of a cigar tray." Looking at me head to toe, she added: "I mean, to me, money is money."

Then I processed what she said: Cigar trays? Sales? There is nothing I hate more than sales. (Or cigars.)  I debated whether I should bother going in. Well, I thought, she was right: money is money. Besides, I had run all the way there.

"Thanks for the heads up," I said, opening the door for myself. I smiled brightly to her as she walked away, scarf trailing in the air, heels clicking the sidewalk.

Inside the temple was a smaller vestibule. I paused before opening the second set of doors leading to the sanctuary, bracing myself for the hordes of girls with stiff curls and garish pink lipstick cramming the pews.

But as I opened the double doors, I realized that my nervous anticipation had been unfounded. There was only one girl with a curly blonde ponytail and awful pink lipstick. She was sitting in a folding chair, looking up at an old man with white hair standing in the middle of the room.

I was definitely not changing my shoes for this, I thought. 

I walked into the sanctuary and reached my hand out to the old man. "Hi, I'm Samantha," I said, smiling sweetly. The man shook my hand excitedly. "Here! Take these." He thrust a business card, an index card, and what looked like some sort of sales brochure into my palm. He instructed me on how to fill them out.

I took out a pen to jot down my measurements, eager to get out of there as fast as possible. My schedule was tight: I had to apply for a cocktail waitressing position at a bar by Madison Square Garden before hightailing it to my parent's house in Connecticut. As I scribbled down my weight and height, a coarse male voice yelled, "ATTEN-tion!"

The man stood with his arms stiffly by his sides, his chin erect. "Ladies, this is how we took our hats off in the Navy!"  He knocked his sailor cap backwards off of his head, putting one hand out behind him to catch it. He missed by several inches, the hat hurtling to the ground like a sky diver without a parachute. "Well, it's been fifty-five years since I done that, girls." 

This was turning out to be just as bizarre as I thought it might be.  But it was only the beginning.

"Look, Mr. Roberts!" a skinny blonde yelled out from behind me, her voice high and tinny. "Doesn't it look great?" Just then, at the back of the sanctuary a pretty Asian girl with full red lips and a long, low ponytail appeared wearing a white sailor suit, complete with a little white cap.

Was I in some sort of dreamland? Or does this man have some sort of sailor fetish?

"Yes!" Mr. Roberts exclaimed in response. He walked up to her to fix her shirt, but instead abruptly pulled her ponytail tight behind her head, stretching her features into a cartoonish image. "In the Navy, your hair is pulled back like this!"  He let go of her ponytail and laughed to himself. "But you're not in the Navy, now are you?" She laughed uneasily. Unfazed, the Asian girl added, "My brother was in the Navy, you know."

I took my headshot out of my purse, and as I attached to the index card, Mr. Roberts again yelled, "ATTEN-tion!" pitch jumping drastically on the second syllable. I was starting to feel like Cuba Gooding Jr.

"Ladies, let me explain why we are here." He cleared his throat. "You see, I was in the Navy fifty years ago. And after the war, our wives developed nag-itis! We couldn't sit at home, so we went into business together. And we created these!" With that, he pulled a tiny package out of his pocket, glistening gold. He thrusted it into my face. 

It was the shape of a little anchor.

"So what you girls do is ride one of those little bikes—you know, the ones they have in Central Park—over to the Intrepid and sell these little beauties!"

Oy vey.

"And now we are on to what you really want to know about," he continued. "Money!"

Alright, I thought. For me to wear a sailor outfit and ride around New York in a pedicab selling chachkas to New York tourists—who we know are the absolute worst—I had better be making at least a hundred dollars an hour. (Make that two hundred.)

"There are big and small anchors. One is five dollars, one is ten. For every anchor, you make one dollar!" With that, he put his finger into the air.

Was this some sort of joke?

"So Einstein," he continued, "if you sell fifty anchors, how much money is that?" I snapped the answer.

"Fifty."

"COR-rect!"

Who was going to sell fifty crappy little anchors in one four-hour shift?  I should just leave, I thought. But I had a moment of sympathy for Mr. Roberts.  These anchors were obviously his babies. I couldn't leave—yet. 

I must have had a lot of sympathy, because ten minutes later I was up on the bima tugging on a tight white sailor skirt behind the red velvet curtain. If I was Catholic I would have crossed myself and said ten Hail Marys. I knew that the outfit I was putting on had been tried on by at least sixty other sweaty girls that day. I tried not to think about it.

Having stuffed myself into the coarse polyester, I walked out from behind the curtain in my flip flops, slightly self conscious (which could have had to do with the fact that I felt as though I were about to do a porno movie).

Mr. Roberts looked at me. "No!" he yelled. Yikes, was it that bad? "We need to see some knees!" Great, I thought. Then Blondie walked in from the back. Her skirt was so short she looked like she was in her underwear. He turned to her.

"Are you comfortable that way?" Ok, so he wasn't a total perv.

She nodded her head firmly. "Oh, yes, Mr. Roberts. I am very comfortable," she said in her deep Southern accent. Good luck with that, I thought.

I searched for a shorter skirt. After two more tries, I found a skirt that didn't pass my knees but also wasn't up my butt. He approved. I quickly changed back into my street clothes.

I stepped down, handing him the sailor suit. "Thanks so much, Mr. Roberts," I said. As I went to shake his hand, I noticed that the two of us were the only ones there. Blondie and the Asian girl had both departed. Mr. Robert's eyes conveyed a poignant sadness, invoked by the end of his day telling his old war stories to pretty girls.   I reached out to him.

"I'm in a play in the fall," I said, "about World War II. It's based on real letters written between a wife and her husband, who was a soldier in the war. I think you would like it."

Mr. Roberts smiled. But the sadness was still there. "Oh well, my war was Korea. But I would like to see it. Please call me when it goes up." 

And that's when I felt bad—for his loneliness, the time since his glory days, and a life that had dissolved into tiny gold anchors.

"Bye, Mr. Roberts!" I yelled out to him, opening the door to the vestibule. As I walked out into the sunshine, I thought, what a day.  But it could have been worse.

At least it wasn't a fireman's suit.



Samantha Karlin works in film, television, and theater. She is currently starring in the TV show "From Date to Mate," coming out in June on Shalom TV, and in the new gospel-rock musical "Rock-A-My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," coming out  at St. Clement's Theatre in August. She is a senior executive at meezoog.com, a dating website, where she writes a dating advice column and develops new content for the site. She studies acting with Peter Miner at Terri Schreiber Studios, voice with Doris Yarick-Cross of the Yale School for Music, and works with Ingrid French Management. Samantha is a graduate of Tufts University. Samantha can be reached at samanthabackstage@gmail.com.

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