When I was ten years old, I took dance classes at a studio called Dance Connection. My teacher was Miss Aimee, a former New York City Rockette. Tall and leggy, she knew how to teach any step in jazz, tap, and basically had the best lines for ballet. While not a tumbler because she was nearly six feet tall, and most tumblers are short, what she lacked in experience she made up by being a killer choreographer. On staff she also had defectors, a family by the name of the Cravelli’s, who danced at a rival studio where they had a top notch acro dance squad. With her background and drive plus the Cravelli knowledge base Miss Aimee had some awesome recitals.
Dance Connection, despite the talent under it’s roof, was housed in a humble locale. Right down the road from South Park Shops and the Giant Eagle, the supermarket where I later worked and everyone knows my mother, it is right as my hometown becomes less residential and more industrial. That is one thing about Western PA, is even though the steel industry is a pale shadow of what it once was, that blue collar factory element still persists in a way.
On the top floor, before one went downstairs to the studio, was a television repair shop owned by an old drunk who chain smoked on the stoop. Up the hill was a ferocious pitbull. Angry and evil, he growled at anyone and everyone. This beast used to distress my mother, because she feared he would break from the chain that imprisoned him and possibly mull my sister Skipper or myself. Of course my mother was not the only one that feared the lost son of Cerberus. Eventually, it would be revealed that the animal was beaten, abused, tormented and starved by it’s alcoholic owner and apprehended by the state to a better home. While in hindsight the son of Cerberus proves sympathetic, at the time he scared the bejesus out of me.
The building was owned by a slum landlord named Lesier. Actually the Lesier’s were a family notorious for not only being terrible about the upkeep, but aside from that they were deadbeat fathers and womanizers. One was even revealed to have a second family. Then again, when you are Don Juan that is a full time job I suppose. Either way, they were terrible about the upkeep of the building. More often than not, a pipe would leak suspicious liquid as we entered, and there was always something wrong with the stairs or banister. Of course on our way to class we passed apartments that housed either singles trying to get their start, divorcees looking to start again, or some sort of drifter.
Then we would enter the studio. Unlike the outside, the place was pristine and clean. Mats were out, and we were ready to tumble. Most of the time I liked to throw the hard tricks. Sometimes I landed on my head. Actually, that was more often than not. Other times, after a lot of work I got it. Then there were those times I scared the crap out of my teacher because I didn’t stretch. I hated stretching. Like a frustrated child at a dinner party I wanted my desert first. Then I would get hurt and wondered why. Still, the dance studio was my safe place.
Whenever I was in my tumbling class, all that mattered was my next move on the mat. School was difficult. I was a reader, and I was kind of quiet and strange. This made me a moving target for a lot of my nasty classmates. To top it off, I had braces with rubber bands, gum bands as they were called when I was growing up, and cystic acne. Sure, I fought back, but they were still awful. Sometimes, I fought with my parents. I wanted my own way. My brother Wendell could be an asshole. Skipper could be a know it all. Here those things didn’t matter. Even if I ate the mat, I was safe. In a world crawling with so much drama, that is all anyone, especially a young person wants.
In the studio, there was always a coke machine. My brother Wendell was a Pepsi guy, and had drank so much of it and more often than not shirked his teeth brushing. Once, his teeth were so stained the dentist thought he was chewing tobacco. My mother denied this, and the dentist had dealt with Western PA youth. He knew my brother could be lying and questioned him about this. Finally, my brother came clean about the volume of his Pepsi drinking. While he was on limited access after that and my parents inspected his teeth before bed, Pepsi was never my drink. It was too sugary. That is why I fell in love with Coca Cola.
After class I would rummage through my pocket to find change. Then I would insert my quarters into the machine and out a can would come. Sweat pouring down my face, I would take a gulp. The icy outcome would be a reward for a job well done. I would watch some of the older girls, star cheerleaders at our local high school. Others twirled and were on the pom pom squad. I didn’t know if I wanted to do any of those things, but I wanted to entertain people and share my writing with the world. The dream seemed lofty, the goal seemed out there, so I would just stop thinking and finish my coke instead.
When dance ended, before my parents remodeled a retirement home in South Carolina, we would vacation in Florida. After dinner, we always made our way to a local Mom and Pop store for candy and other groceries that my mother might need. Wendell and I burned and our father looked like a lobster. We got the Irish set of the genes I suppose. Skipper freckled beautifully, and my mother bronzed like a miniature gold statue.
Most people who frequented the store were local redneck types, and rocked a mullet better than anyone I had ever met. These, not the transplanted Cubans and Haitians, were the true Floridians. Others who came in from the North were those who retired or moved down to the panhandle because living was cheaper. Our family were clearly outsiders, but we paid and minded our business so they treated us in kind.
Wendell usually got a Snickers and much to the dismay of our parents, a Pepsi. Skipper got a Kit Kat and water because she, being absolutely perfect, was never one to even touch soda, or pop as we called it growing up. I always got a Coca Cola and a Twix Bar. My Twix was never mine for very long, because Skipper or Wendell would always trick me into giving them the other half. To this day, I still share my Twix Bars.
Up North, we drank Coca Cola from cans or plastic bottles. In this store, they had glass bottles. This fascinated me, and my dad explained that this was the way they made Coca Cola when he and my mother were children. I had never seen such a thing, and it fascinated me. The hillbilly shop owner got a chuckle as the little blonde Yankee gawked at the retro construction. Of course I purchased it. How could I not? I wondered how I would open it. My teeny, tiny hands were not very strong. Wendell was no help, because he was not much stronger. He suggested I break it. Skipper was confused. At the suggestion of my mother, my dad was able to open it and down the hatch the Coca Cola went.
After that, I began a sort of OCD fascination with glass coke bottles. During my travels as a comedian, and trust me on the road you spent your fair share of time in diners, I have come across the same glass bottles. Same with some old school eateries in Brooklyn. The glass bottle is refreshing to see. It portrays a certain innocence lost and an era gone in a world that has become so dirty and corrupt. It symbolizes a time when things weren’t so complicated, and makes me want to set my hair in curlers.
Then I remember all the bad things from the era that’s gone. This was a time where women were expected to stay in the home and have babies. Of course being gay was out of the question, you had to marry a man or woman because that was just unnatural, and it was a mental illness. Add in the fact that some of my greatest friends and I would have never met because blacks and whites could not mix. Suddenly the glass bottles lose their romance. I become grateful times have changed. Sure I like the kitsch, just not what it stands for.
Around the time I was 13, my dance school closed because Miss Aimee’s husband got a job in another state. I remember feeling depressed because my safe place was gone, so I turned my energies to performing. Around the time I was 16, I began taking a weekly acting class downtown with a woman by the name of Jackie McDaniel, the wife of a well known Pittsburgh actor, director, writer, and teacher. The class was either Wednesday night or Saturday morning depending on the semester. Of course my folks were thrilled with my focus but eh, you only live once. So I was out to prove to them that maybe, just maybe, I could do this.
There was a girl in the class named Angelina Hammond. She was a real diva. Perfect in every way, Angelina acted, sang, danced, and even wrote. She got some local agent with a big mouth to promote her, and booked a few local gigs and thought she was amazing. Jackie’s prized pupil, Angelina received her five minutes of praise at the beginning of class. As a matter of fact, she had just landed a role in an indie film and even was fixing to publish a book. Oh, and she sang whenever possible. Angelina could sing, and sounded like Christina Aguilera. However, she would remind you of how great she was in case you forgot.
I really didn’t like her. To top it off, Angelina was head cheerleader at her high school, one across the way from mine. According to her friendemy Cheri, Angelina was bulimic but flaunted it rather than hid it. Whether or not she was committed to the eating disorder I will never know, but like everything else about her it was a way to get people talking. To say I didn’t want to beat the crap out of her on the regular is the understatement of the year.
Dealing with Angelica always meant a cold beverage break. I would go to the second floor, insert my quarters, and get myself a bottle of soda. Angelina irked me. She intimidated me. I wasn’t thin and pretty like she was. I didn’t have a voice like she did. I wrote but no one was publishing my stuff. Jackie liked me, but didn’t brag about me the way she bragged about Angelina. However, whenever the Coca Cola hit my lips, I knew I was going to be alright. She was just one of many like her I would meet. I would have my revenge on this girl who developed an eating disorder for the purpose of attention seeking. I wouldn’t rearrange the face of the phony bitch, but instead would have the better career.
As it turned out, Angelina got turned down by all the big name drama schools. They didn’t share her or her small time agent’s opinion about her work. The book that was supposed to hit the shelves was never published. As for the album, that never materialized either. Looking back, she sounded like Christina Aguilera and that was it. So do a lot of other girls, and their demos get thrown in the trash, a good place for copycats. Angelina did transfer to a good acting school though, and finished. Now she works as a car show model in LA, a far cry from her potential. These days, she seems healthy and has a fiancé. She seems to have mellowed and is happy. Maybe just as the bottle of Coca Cola gave me comfort, that, not success, is all she ever wanted in her life.
For the record, I became the one Jackie McDaniel brags about…
When I worked bagging groceries at the Giant Eagle, a local supermarket, there was always a soda machine in the break room. This was a welcome site after several hours of bagging groceries on my feet. I worked in the front end with the rest of the younger folks. Most of us were in high school. Some kids went to my district, others the next school over. Sometimes, we more or less hung out instead of worked. The lifers, those who made a career in the service industry, were sometimes annoyed with us. For the most part, we weren’t too bad, but it was a case of teenagers on the job which made things a little crazy for our front end manager.
After I would get my plastic bottle of coca cola, I made my way to the break room where I was greeted with a consistent, revolving door cast of characters. One was a guy by the name of Ryan who swore he was a vegetarian, but the only meat he would eat was steak. Another was Dominick, a kid who was slightly autistic that was always having a run in with Bob, our bagger with Down Syndrome. Whenever I would see Dominick, he would tell me about how much he hated Bob and vice versa. It was funny in a really horrible, wrong way. Add in Suzanna, the single chain smoking mother who had custody of her grandchildren because her dead beat daughter either ran off with a trucker pimp or was in rehab yet again.
Usually, I downed sugar cookies and coca cola as I listened to their tales of woe. Ryan would defend his vegetarian status, and tell me steak didn’t technically count. Kelly, a girl from a town over who was in love with her 50 year old band teacher and dreamed of becoming an undertaker would challenge him. Then she would cry about how her band teacher rejected an awkward advance she made as she wore her Britney Spears button with pride. Bob with Down Syndrome would call Dominick slow, an incredibly ironic turn considering the source. Then Bob would talk about Rita, another mentally challenged worker he was in love with and even once told me they had sex, an awkward but brave confession. Dominick called Bob a retard, which is not only terribly spot on but again, he had no room to talk. However, he was not so forthcoming about his sex life, Thank heavens. Suzanna would tell me all about her grandchildren, and how she wished her daughter would get it together…
Sure, my waistline expanded but so did the collection of stories in my lexicon. That is perhaps why Coca Cola has always been my lucky soft drink before going onstage. Heck, several times a week, I drink a can of coke with dinner. When times are good, this beverage is a steady friend. When times suck, it is a steady friend. Last year, I even got a Coca-Cola inspired calendar and cut the photos out when the month was done pinning them on my wall. Each of the young women looked happy, robust and of course had the warm smile coca cola brings myself and so many others.
Not so long ago, I was having dinner and received a wonderful fan letter from a young man in Australia. Like Joan Crawford, I will answer all my fan mail personally until the end of time, even if it overwhelms and kills me. In between bites of food, like I always do, I took a sip of Coca Cola.
As I read the fan letter, perhaps one of the most touching I have ever received, I took another sip. Flashing before my eyes was my journey. I felt the safety of my former dance studio, and heard the voice of Miss Aimee coaching me through a difficult maneuver. I felt the rays from the sun on our family vacations, and saw my first glass coke bottle. I felt the depression of losing my safe place, and the rage towards Angelina Hammond that wouldn’t let me quit. I felt the warmth from all my supermarket friends, and the laughter from the tales of their nutty lives that somehow made perfect sense to them.
While I am a long way from the dance studio/the family vacation/groveling under Angelina Hammond/bagging groceries, my journey is still not finished. I don’t know where I am supposed to go next. Will it be more recognition for my abilities as a ventriloquist and comedian? Will it be more book writing? Will it be more television? Will I cut an album? Will I play Sydney Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or both? Maybe this is the farthest I am meant to go in show business, and my next stop is being a wife or mother. While the feminist in my cringes, my mother did a fine job at both and it is a worthy calling for any woman. Or maybe I can have it all.
Either way, no matter where the wind takes this swashbuckler armed with a puppet, story, costume, and song, rest assured a bottle, plastic but preferably glass, or a can of Coca Cola will be in my hand.