Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

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I realized a couple days ago that I’ve been focusing a lot on negative things in regards to my Mom. Part of what makes the story so interesting (and cathartic for me) is writing about all the crazy, off the wall shit she did. A lot of that ends up being negative, because the things she did were either negative in and of themselves or had negative ramifications (my upbringing is probably the root of some of my more serious problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD for instance). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I don’t hate my Mom. I don’t even blame her for most of the stuff she did. Her actions stemmed from an illness (albeit a mental one) – and one she is no more responsible for than someone who comes down with the flu. Some in my life think it’s strange that I don’t blame her more or carry a grudge. For one, carrying a grudge isn’t my thing – besides, I have enough other things to worry about in my life. Secondly, at the heart of it all she’s a good person – more messed up than most, perhaps, but still a good person. I have no doubt she would take a bullet for me in an instant (she said as much multiple times when I was growing up and the Mafia was supposedly stalking us). I don’t doubt, too, that she would give me her last dollar, or do anything she could to otherwise help me. Perhaps this wouldn’t come about in a conventional way – likely, it wouldn’t. She would get it into her head I desperately needed something I didn’t ask for (and didn’t actually need) and get it for me. I learned a long time ago not to question this, and just accept it as generosity even if the gift itself isn’t particularly on the mark. Most of what she does, however misguided, is out of a sense of love. A friend told me a few days ago that my Mom is drowning in good intentions. I think that’s pretty accurate.

In short, this is one of the reasons this blog has been so hard for me to write. Obviously, a lot of the stuff (I speak mainly of her delusions) had to be kept “secret” and never talked about, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of pulling back the curtain on my family, and that feels weird. Almost like a betrayal sometimes. That’s one reason, I think, that I don’t write even more often (though I’m sure twice a week is plenty for you guys to read). To illustrate the importance of what I’m talking about, maybe I should give you a peek into my family dynamic a little more. Grandma knew, I think – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with Mom. For all I know, something had been wrong all her life. The subject of her temper (and especially any delusions) was carefully sidestepped, at least by Grandma. Granted, she came from a different generation – one where mentally ill family members were hauled away to the nut hatch by the state. I don’t doubt that some part of her feared that outcome. Whenever Mom would yell or throw fits, Grandma would either stay silent or take Mom’s side. Whatever the issue was – let’s say I wasn’t practicing often enough – Grandma would come up to me after the storm was over and talk to me about it.


Grandma: Come on. Let’s practice your piano.

Me: Why? She’s just being ridiculous.

Grandma: We better do it. I don’t want your mother to yell.
And we’d practice, or clean my room, or do my homework or whatever it was that Mom was bent out of shape about. Sometimes – usually – it had little basis in actual reality. But when it did, it made things a little easier to manage. My point is, we went on like that. Heavy rains would come, the dam would creak and groan, and Grandma would come along with sandbags and shore it up. The dam never actually broke, in that the underlying issues were never addressed – Mom wasn’t told she ought to get help, or that she was nuts, or that she was being unreasonable. That dam didn’t break largely because of Grandma. She loved Mom. She loved Tim and I. She wanted the family to stay together no matter what, and I wanted the same. Love covers a multitude of sins. Grandma was empathetic about everything – even sympathetic – without acknowledging it directly. Mom didn’t act like a nut – she “got upset”. Mom didn’t threaten suicide or think the Mafia was tapping our phones – that subject was simply not brought up. I suspect those with a similar upbringing will know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember one time, towards the end of her life, I had a long talk with Grandma about Mom. I was an adult by then, and had come to some difficult conclusions – mainly that the things Mom said happened didn’t happen, and I had come to accept that the majority of my childhood was based around delusions. Anyway, I started talking about the past – hers specifically and ours as a family – just to get her warmed up and maybe prime her for some answers.


Me: Grandmom…why is Mom the way she is?

She thought a long time before sighing.

Grandma: I don’t know. I don’t know why your Mother is the way she is.

Me: She is crazy, right? It’s not just me.

Nothing from Grandma. She averted her gaze and ran her fingers through her brown hair.

Me: Has she always been like that?

Silence for a while.

Grandma: Family is all you have. Your Mom and Timmy, they’ll be with you for your whole life. You have to hang on to family.

I told her I would.

More silence.

Grandma: Did I ever tell you how your Grandfather and I met?
She had, many times. I asked her to tell me again, though. My point is she knew perfectly well – maybe all too well – that Mom had deeper issues than just having a “temper” or “getting upset”. But you didn’t talk about it, because to talk about it would be to expose your daughter’s nakedness. And you don’t do that, you cover it up.

My Grandmother wasn’t the only one who felt family loyalty should be above all else. I remember being at Uncle Richard’s one time, and seeing a headshot of a girl I recognized in the trashcan by his chair.


Me: Isn’t that Alison?

Uncle Richard gazed down at the garbage can. Alison gazed back up. I had seen her a few times – she had the lesson before me on occasion.

Uncle Richard: Yes. And do you know why it’s in there?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: She left her family. You don’t do that. You never do that.
I looked down into the trash. I thought Uncle Richard might be being a bit harsh on Alison, but I got the message. Family is family. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it is.

I’ve thought for years that the rift between Mom and myself started when I was a teenager – now I see it was actually quite a bit earlier. Right around the time Tim and I started to bond and create our own little world, we started taking her threats and hysteria a bit less seriously. I don’t remember what happened, exactly, but Tim and I were talking in the car – I think about alternate universes and whether or not they existed (we determined that they probably did, in some form) and Mom decided to go off about something. I think she felt I had done badly at an audition.

Mom: Show me what you did in the audition again.

I knew this was foolishness – it’s very difficult to replicate exactly what you did, especially for me. With music, acting, or anything else, each time I do it is slightly different – it’s kind of a one time shot. Still, I tried my best to approximate.

Mom: NO! That was terrible. You just bombed that audition.

I reflected back to the audition itself – I didn’t think I did such a bad job.

Me: Well, the casting person seemed to think I did okay.

Mom: This was a big one. This was the one that was going to make you. And you flushed it down the toilet!

I looked at her mildly. I had gotten so used to these outbursts I was barely responding anymore. I sighed, turned, and resumed my conversation with Tim.

Me: So, bro…when people time travel, do you think they end up creating alternate universes?

We tuned out Mom ranting and raving with our discussion. I glanced over, and saw that her eyes were literally bugging out of her head. She was clenching the steering while with a white knuckled fervor. I had a suspicions an unscheduled stop at Russ’s was in the offing. No doubt she would apologize to him about how badly I did on the audition, and ask for a second chance (aside from the fact that he had exactly zero to do with my acting career, this all seemed rather silly. Still, I bit my tongue).

Tim got fed up with her ranting, and with a shrug and a glance that said Sorry, bro he popped on his Walkman and disappeared. I grabbed a book and instantly buried myself in it. The problem with reading a book – especially when Mom was hyped up – was that I did not quite have as good a cloaking mechanism as Tim. He could ignore her with near impunity, considering his headphones were blasting. I could only attempt to be so absorbed and distracted with what I was reading that she didn’t even bother to disturb me. It didn’t always work. I got to hear about how awful I did, how I didn’t prepare well enough for the audition (even though I did), how I was going to be a failure and blow my chances. It was up to her to fix everything now and I better pray really hard that Russ would be understanding.

When I say that I was able to let her explosions roll of my back a bit more, that doesn’t mean I was unaffected. It’s just that her explosions stopped making me outwardly cry or yell – I did my best to keep a relatively calm demeanor. Inside, though, I alternated between worrying that everything she said was was true and trying to calm myself. Usually it was too much to deal with and I did my best not to think about it much. Still, I was usually inwardly roiling.

Looking back, I think that a lot of what she did was basically wage psychological warfare on her kids – Tim agrees. The thing is, I’m not sure she was even aware of any of this. Even if she was, she had (in her mind, anyway) a “good reason”. Like I said before, she’s basically a good person…just mentally sick.

Once home, Tim and I would hop on the Nintendo to play Super Mario or whatever. This was actually a really good method for drowning out the chaos, because there was a visual element as well as an audible element. Grandma didn’t understand it – she was suspicious of video games to begin with – and she didn’t like how engrossed we became. She could throw fits too – even more epic fits than Mom – but hers usually had a reason behind them. She was a little old Italian lady, so she was prone to fits of high drama and loud speeches. Either she had taken a sleeping pill and we woke her up by being too loud, or we didn’t come to dinner right away, or we didn’t clean our rooms, or whatever. We were so sensitive to outbursts that we shut off anything even remotely resembling them – and sometimes, that included Grandma.

Grandma: You kids aren’t even listening to me! It’s That Damn Nitenda.

Tim: NinTENDO, Grandma.

Grandma: Nitenda. Whatever.

For as long as she lived, it was not a Nintendo – it was That Damn Nitenda. All video games systems – and games themselves – were “Nitenda”. Tim and I laughed our asses off thinking about her trying to buy stuff from our Christmas list. We could just imagine her walking into Toys R Us or whatever and asking for a “Nitenda” (meaning a game, not the system), and the worker being horribly confused. Somehow, she managed to get it right most of the time – probably because we wrote stuff down for her.

I got a callback for that audition, by the way. I felt extremely validated – I knew, after all, that I had done a good job. I had prepared well, and gave a great read on the script. Mom had just been bugging out. She looked over at me with a very calm, almost beatific smile on her face.

Mom: You better call Russ and thank him for getting you that callback.

 

 

I think most would agree I didn’t have a “normal” childhood in many respects, and social outlets were no exception. Between being home schooled and being on the road all the time, I didn’t have a lot of options to make friends. Most of the people I hung out with were adults – Uncle Richard, Uncle Carlo, Russ, and Mom. If they were not well educated, they were well traveled and wise. They were funny and interesting, and I considered them my peers far more than others in my age group. This cliquishness bred a bit of contempt for normal people – when I met “normal” kids, I could not believe how immature they were. They didn’t talk about books, or talk in depth about  music (other than what bands they liked – they wouldn’t tell me why they liked them, just that they did). Beyond video games, I had little in common with them. I was friendly enough, but they could tell I wasn’t like them and resented it. I didn’t play in the dirt – I despised getting dirty (still do). I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me. When it came out what I did – the music, the acting – even kids I had managed to become friends with would flare in resentment. I eventually learned to shut up about it, but this made me uninteresting to them. Neighborhood kids would sometimes come over if Mom ordered pizza. They’d pretty much eat the pizza and leave. If they did stay, they’d try to take advantage of me in some way – a lot of things went missing from my house, for instance. Not big stuff – mostly toys and maybe some video games would disappear. The big trend at the time was trading cards, and my brother and I got into Magic: The Gathering with the neighborhood kids. They played with us, but they laughed at us a lot. We traded cards with ignorantly (or sometimes gave them away when we were told they were “worthless”) – we got the raw end of a lot of trades. I suppose that’s fairly normal for kids to take advantage of each other, but I did feel as if this had an edge – I was the “rich kid” (I wasn’t, really, but everyone assumed I was).

If the normal world held little for me, I did find members of my own tribe I could connect with. I would see these kids at auditions, and we’d chat in the waiting rooms. Sometimes, if the stars were aligned properly, we would all go out to lunch or hang out. These times were pretty rare – maybe a few times a year – and a lot needed to fall perfectly into place. For starters, Mom had to be in the right mood – if she was grumpy that day, or distracted by her delusions, or wanted to race home in time to catch Russ at the studio, I was likely not going to get to hang out with my friends. My friends, of course, had to have nothing going on as well, but they also had to be doing something that interested Mom. If it was something “weird” (like grabbing Chinese food or watching a foreign film) she was instantly disinterested. Most importantly, of course, Mom had to like them – or at least decide they weren’t plotting against us. If she thought they were “in competition” with us, she’d never have agreed to hang out. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by that. In those days, you had a ” type” and you were sent out on auditions based on that. If they wanted a bookish kid, I got the call. Someone with red hair and freckles wouldn’t be competition for me – or a 300lb kid, or a Jewish kid, or a black kid…you get the idea. The people who weren’t likely to get the same calls as me were the people Mom would gravitate towards.

There used to be a pretty cool place in the city called Ed Debevic’s – it was a retro type place. It had a full on, unapologetic 50’s atmosphere – complete with waiters and waitresses on roller skates who smacked gum and were rude (they were supposed to be). Sometimes they’d even hop on the tables and sing. There was even a giant atomic warhead in the waiting area – I was a little skittish about it at first, because I wasn’t interested in getting radiation sickness. But my friend insisted it was only a metal shell, and I relaxed. My friend and I talked about Batman over dinner, and Mom even let us hit a comic store afterwards. I was euphoric.

Had I lived in the city and gone to school there (there was at least one school of “child actors” that probably would have fit the bill for me), I no doubt would have been happier socially. As it was, I lobbied Mom vigorously for more time with friends, and when I got it I treasured those times. Aside from having my brother, I was pretty freaking lonely. I have no idea what I would have done if I were an only child. Hell, I still have a picture of me and a kid I knew and hung out with a couple times – it sat on my dresser in a frame for a full decade after our last visit together. Like I said before, I eagerly held on to those times I was able to socialize with members of my own tribe.

I read in a book once that the universe subtracts. But I think it can also add and multiply. A lot of things are a tradeoff – I could have had a Dad who wasn’t a psycho. I got a bum deal on that count. But in return, I got not one but 3 incredible father figures. I could have lived a “normal” life and had “normal” friends and done “normal” stuff. Believe it or not, I longed for that normalcy and stability so much I could taste it. In return, I got a career in an industry whose veil few manage to pierce. And I did have friends – as a kid, I called them my New York friends  – and they were all vibrant people. I am, ultimately, who I am supposed to be. I know the people I know and experienced the things I was meant to. Sometimes I wonder how different things might have been – and even if as a kid I had wished fervently for things to be different, I embrace it today. The tradeoffs the universe gives you may not always be fair – they may not even always be what you want – but you need see them for what they are: they are a gift.