I was nearly thirty. That is to say, I was twenty-nine. I was growing lonely more and more. Many of my friends had given up their dreams of becoming professional actors. Collectively, we lost our enthusiasm, our optimism. A few of us had gotten small parts here and there over the years. One had a non-singing role as a literal spear-carrier in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Ernani.” Another friend, who owned a nurse’s uniform, had been hired as a day player on “One Life To Live.” None of us had rousing, successful resumes.
By the time I was closing in on thirty, I had begun to wonder if I wasn’t like most of my friends. I didn’t want to leave The City, but I was ready to stop putting every spare dime towards acting classes, headshots, and all of the other investments in my career that had yet to pay off. Many of my friends had already left. Some to take a stab at film work in sunny LA. Some returned to their hometowns, settled down, got regular job-jobs, and began raising children. A few turned their attention to developing small theater companies in bucolic communities.
Me? My claim to fame was playing Goneril in a television production of “King Lear.” The shoot was in a Manhattan hotel room with the cast perched around a queen-sized bed. The director explained this was a modern interpretation. I was pretty sure The Bard was spinning in his grave with yet another creative (and I use that term loosely) take on his play, but it was a paying gig and television. Who was I to turn it down?
Our Lear was a befuddled, bespectacled senior citizen who fumbled his speeches. Typecasting. He had one line in which the director wanted him to emphasize a specific word. It took forty minutes of retakes for Lear to deliver the line acceptably. The camera focused on me at the beginning of the speech and then panned over to Lear in the middle. I spent the forty minutes of those retakes looking at myself on the monitor. I did not like what I saw.
I was beige. Completely beige. Dyed blonde hair, ivory complexion, white blouse that looked ecru on camera. Everything about myself was pale and unremarkable. Even my eyes, Paul Newman-blue in my mirror, receded under pale eyebrows. It was torture looking at a face I hardly recognized as my own. Who was this woman reflected back to me? Who had I become?
It’s no surprise the producers didn’t pay the cast. The director failed to film the credits, so the production was incomplete. Still is. I have to admit I was relieved the show would never air. I wouldn’t have to explain why King Lear held court from a bed in the Times Square DoubleTree hotel. I wouldn’t have to explain why a ghost recited Goneril’s lines. I wouldn’t have to explain to family and friends that, at this point in my career, I couldn’t say no to any project, regardless of how ludicrous.
One Saturday, not long after we finished taping “King Lear,” I took the number seven train to visit a friend in Queens who hadn’t yet convinced her husband to move to her hometown in Texas. Just before her 34th Street stop in Long Island City was an area known as Sunnyside. I gasped when the train pulled into the station, and the doors opened to reveal the brightly painted sign for Bliss Street.
This was it! I was subletting an apartment on the Upper East Side and needed to be out by the end of the month. Apartments are cheaper in Queens than those in Manhattan, I reasoned. I could find a cute little place with large windows that opened up to the cheery sunlight. This was called Sunnyside, after all. I needed a cocoon to burrow in and re-assess my acting non-career. The thought of envelopes from my mother addressed to Connie Parker, Bliss Street, Sunnyside, NY sent a warm shiver through my spine.
I hopped out of the subway car as the doors began to close and called my friend from a payphone at the end of the platform, telling her I would be late because I had found the perfect place to look for a new apartment. I was sure I wouldn’t be long. This was kismet.
I felt a tiny smile tug at the corners of my mouth, which was welcome and slightly strange. I realized feeling happy and hopeful had become foreign to me. Bliss, I thought. I have missed my bliss. Isn’t that what Joseph Campbell preached? Find your bliss. Mine would be found in Sunnyside, Queens.
I skipped down the long staircase from the elevated platform to Bliss Street below. It was an August Saturday, and the warm breeze on the street gently lifted my hair. I stopped, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply, ready to begin my new adventure. Instead, I set off a series of coughs from the exhaust that filled the air. There were few pedestrians on the crumbling sidewalk, but cars crowded the street, some double parked, many honking impatiently. Instead of the bakeries, diners, and quaint quirky shops that filled 34th Street near my friend’s apartment, small windowless factories and auto repair shops lined Bliss Street.
“It’s probably just this block,” I muttered and headed east.
Unlike Manhattan, where streets changed from block to block in terms of ethnicity and economics, Bliss Street repeated its thread of cracked sidewalks along plain brick buildings with large metal doors. Without any trees to provide a bit of shade, my cotton shirt began sticking to my stomach. The back of my neck was glossy with sweat, and I twisted my limp hair into a top knot secured in place with a pencil from my purse.
I walked over a mile and was coughing regularly when a stocky, blonde man slammed the hood of a gray LeSabre and stepped through the open metal door into the street. He wiped his grease-stained hands on a rag.
I gave him an abbreviated version of my apartment quest and resolution to find a place on Bliss Street. I waited while the man wiped the tears from his eyes using a clean corner of his rag.
“Oh, honey,” he began before starting another round of giggles.
Finally, “Sorry. You look like a smart cookie. You ever hear of irony?”
I assured him that I had.
“Whoever named this street was full of it. If you know what I mean.”
I sighed, thanked him, and headed back to the subway entrance.
I turned around as he caught up with me.
“This place may not look like much, but it’s mine. Nothing makes me happier than to poke around a car’s engine. That’s my bliss. Don’t give up. You’ll find yours.”
I found my smile as I watched him trot back to his shop. He was right, of course. Bliss isn’t a street. It’s a state of mind.
Growing up in the midwest, Cerys Harrison was fascinated with New York City and, after graduating from college during a recession decided to move there, thinking it was more glamorous to be an unemployed actor than an out-of-work librarian. She had a successful detour in advertising before returning to her hometown, libraries, and writing. And an occasional turn on the stage. Visit her on Twitter @parkerscorners.