I cradled the torn recycled wine box in my arms. I carefully opened the lid that was hanging by a shredded corner and peered inside. Dozens upon dozens of Broadway Playbills were squeezed tightly into the space where six bottles of wine had once resided. “I could use one of those bottles right now”, I thought as I struggled over the decision to ship the box or throw it away. My heart was as heavy as the box of memories before me, each Playbill representing a significant turning point throughout my fifteen years living in New York City.
I was moving to Spain in a few days to be united with the love of my life. A tumultuous twelve-year affair was, at last, getting its long-awaited “happy ever after”. The only compromise to this happy ending was saying goodbye to the only other love affair that ever really mattered — my love with New York City.
As I stared into the box I felt the weight of my decision to ‘ship’ or ‘throw away’. If I shipped the box, would the pre-show cocktails at Joe Allen and the romantic dimly lit dinners come with it? Would this small container of little paper books bring the excitement of an overture beginning, or the warm tears on my cheeks during a curtain call?
“Honestly,” I thought. “How would having the Playbill of Ragtime, Wicked, or True West in my possession really impact my life?”. What I knew for certain is that shipping the box couldn’t bring New York City to Barcelona. But, throwing it away would mean leaving myself behind.
Fifteen years earlier I was headed to the Big Apple on a Greyhound. I hugged my parents goodbye in the desolate Flint, Michigan parking lot. My hand was wrapped tightly around the antique key my father had gifted me, “This is your key to success”, he said. Lifting myself onto the bus I turned to wave one last time. I looked up at the bus driver with a deep sigh of relief. At last, I was stepping away from the girl that for years had answered to “strange” and “different”, and I was embarking on a journey that would soon bring me into a world of acceptance.
I traveled eighteen long hours seated two rows from the aromatic bathroom before arriving at Port Authority. With two large duffle bags and $1,800 to my name, I was ready to seduce this city with my Midwestern charm. I lugged my duffle bags up Eighth Avenue to meet my dear friend from summer stock theatre who had persuaded me to move to New York City that year.
The journey to the true me was finally beginning. My borrowed futon and my new life were waiting for me in the three-story walk-up above the famous Ray’s Pizza. I would rest my head every night just blocks away from the magic of Broadway, where I would begin building my treasured Playbill collection.
The Playbills played my memory like a well-orchestrated symphony at Carnegie Hall. Each title an important lesson. Each experience a personal transformation. I pulled Art from the box. The ticket stub fell out from the pages and onto my lap. In an old-style typewriter font, it read, Royale Theatre Orchestra Row G. Wall Street guys always liked showing off their wealth with orchestra seats and dinners at stylish places like Odeon. Those fancy dinners and orchestra seats became my cover-up. Anything to escape the waitressing nightmare that was slowly crushing my dreams of becoming a professional musical theatre performer.
But, those evenings spent at the theatre with sophisticated financiers were not only an escape. Soon they became life lessons in culture and money that took me lifetimes away from Olive Garden and country bars with karaoke. Yes, Art, IceMan Cometh, and Closer were accompanied by Steve, Allen, and…what’s his name. Each seasoned gentleman suitor with his personal story and worldliness. I eagerly soaked up the curriculum and was thrilled to have been admitted into this prestigious school of life. With this prestige also came lessons of self-respect and sexuality. Since these men usually had only one thing in mind, I learned my boundaries as a “lady”, and also about my own desires.
These sometimes dirty lessons in sex and money were the experiences that launched my streak of Thursday nights at the theatre alone. Proving my independence, I treated myself to dinner and a Broadway show on my own dime every week for nearly a year. I felt a sense of freedom as I scanned the TKTS ticket board for discount tickets, and took pride in my “table for one” at a restaurant of choice made possible from a week of budgeting and dollar slices at Ray’s.
Looking once again into the box, I drew True West from the sea of memories. An evening spent with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. This was one of the best evenings spent alone, without compromise. Seat selection didn’t matter as long as I could witness the greatness of these two actors on stage. Being in their presence was a time and place where my dreams as a performing artist were revived. I didn’t need those other men. Alone, I was accompanied by my own emotions and my passion for the arts. I dug through the box to find more of those evenings — The Real Thing, Contact, The Full Monty. Where was Proof? I began to dig with a sense of despair. I could feel myself fading.
Oh! Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters. I held it close to my chest. With a deep sigh, I recalled all the intermissions reading each and every bio and headshot in those Playbills imagining my name there one day.
The decision to ‘throw away’ came suddenly. The one lesson I still had not learned from those years in New York was how to plan and prepare. I was packing at the last minute with no help from friends. I approached the packing with another lesson I did learn as a New Yorker — convenience at all costs. Getting rid of a problem was as easy as riding the elevator six floors down to the dingy basement and dropping it into the recycling bin.
I had spent countless Sunday afternoons in that windowless basement, and the occasional weekday evening, filling the shared laundry machines with my treasure of quarters. The recycling bins, more like barrels, were lined up against the drab grey wall. Each one was kept in order by the friendly Ecuadorian maintenance man, who would speak Spanish with me, never once criticizing my errors with the language. He always looked out for the tenants and would notify us of any mishaps in the building.
But he wasn’t there that day when I carelessly threw myself away. There were so many last-minute items that found their way to that recycling bin that day that I had hoped to God he wouldn’t notice the box belonged to me. Would anyone know it was me inside that box?
This time I didn’t turn back for one last look or a wave goodbye as I had in Flint. I darted back to catch the heavy elevator door before it closed, saving the time it would take me to wait for its return. Riding the elevator up I didn’t hear the final whispers that echoed from the box.
My landing in Barcelona was charged with the thrills that go along with love and adventure. I absorbed the newness of the culture and was distracted by love and love-making. I didn’t at first realize what I had done.
Then, as the newness started to wear off, it began. The Playbills made their appearance like another revival of Guys and Dolls. I continued to replay the decision I had made to ‘ship’ or ‘throw away’. My heart was filled with deep regret. For weeks, then months, and then years I replayed the decision I made to ‘throw away’ day after day.
I tried to remember each of the titles and who had starred in the performances. What did Titanic starring Brian d’arcy James have to do with my new life in Barcelona? Repeatedly, I started the process over and over again trying to list each Playbill from the box: Lion King, Kiss Me Kate, True West, Gypsy, Spring Awakening… Each and every time kicking myself for not choosing to ‘ship’.
I tried to pinpoint the actual moment I chose to ‘throw away’, but the exact instant never revealed itself. I only knew that the reckless act that took place in that gloomy basement that day was not the funeral I had imagined for myself.
The decision to ‘ship’ or ‘throw away’ lingered over me during those first three years living in Barcelona. It showed up when I landed my marketing job working with European CEOs. It made another ugly appearance when I attended my first theatre experience performed in Catalan. And again (and again) every time I struggled at making a new friend.
Oh, how I longed to hustle through the crowded streets of the theatre district and find myself there at The Gershwin waiting for the curtain to rise. What I wouldn’t give for a negroni at Joe Allen, or late-night eats in Hell’s Kitchen. If only I had chosen to ‘ship’! Maybe then these feelings of longing would go away.
I finally learned to let go of the box of Playbills. After all, they were just printed programs. As more time passed and the longing to ‘ship’ subsided, I took a deeper look and soon realized it was never about who starred in what, or with whom I had attended those Broadway shows.
That tattered box, now recycled into a new list of Broadway stars, defined the mourning I never allowed to happen when I left my single independent New Yorker behind for a new stage of life in Europe. A life now filled with companionship, family, career satisfaction, and new friendships.
Slowly, I began to understand that it was the unmourned loss that haunted me, not the Playbills themselves. Had I never truly addressed my loss of the independent life that took me over a decade to build?
How could I reconcile with the strong independent woman I had betrayed? How could I get her to understand that this new married life in a foreign place distanced from the icons of the fast-paced New York City life was not the end, but truly the beginning?
The peace offering came one day when I least expected it. Five years had passed since the decision to ‘ship’ or ‘throw away’. The shabby cardboard box was long gone now. I stood in the center of the charming Barcelona neighborhood of Sant Andreu inside a marvelous space dedicated to creativity and arts. I had recently been accepted as a Cultural Resident at the well renowned Fabra i Coats, where I would soon connect with a group of locals and share my experiences as a performing and visual artist.
Standing in the wide-open space of a renovated cotton spinning factory, I felt the momentum of my new life catch me, and it took my breath away. Under the ultra-high ceilings, in a space filled with natural light, I felt the overwhelming power of all that I learned from my love affair with New York City. Standing on the history of those old wooden floors I realized just how far I had traveled from that Flint parking lot, and its history. At that moment I accepted the descriptions of me that I had once escaped. “Strange” and “different” suited me in a different way now.
I took a deep breath recognizing the woman I had left behind. This time there was no need for a last look or a long goodbye. She had never been inside that box. She was standing right beside me all along. She forgave me for not noticing her before.
The space embraced me, and I was suddenly home. Thousands of miles away and an ocean between us, New York City and those Broadway lights gleamed once again. But this time the memory wasn’t tied up in a box of paper and ink.
What I learned on my way to independence is the root of all that is good in my life now. What I built through the energetic streets of Manhattan still resides within me and continues to drive me and all that I am still capable of.
I paused for a moment to wonder, “If given the opportunity again today, would I choose to ‘ship’ or ‘throw away’?”. I didn’t dare fall into the trap. I knew it didn’t matter.
We can never really throw ourselves away. Because who we truly are, always resurfaces in the recycling process.