In the second grade, Kerry Flanagan* picked me to go with her from classroom to classroom on St Patrick’s Day while she performed an Irish dance routine for the students. My job was to carry the record player.
It was a portable one of some bulk— a brown, tweedy, square suitcase full of wires and sound. I held it with two hands, leaning it on my thigh in order to propel it forward with each step of my leg. Before even fully crossing the threshold of each room, I would diligently spy an electrical outlet, and set up the player on a chair nearby. Then I stood to the side in the front, near the door, not quite part of the class, not quite part of the proceedings, but belonging.
I was excited to go along and I felt special. It meant that Kerry liked me and that, by association with her, I was talented, unique and deserving of attention. I used to tease her with my impression of her dance, sticking my tongue out a bit in concentration like she did, pointing my toes and jumping. She never offered an impression of my carrying the record player, with two hands, leaning against my leg, but ours was not a reciprocal relationship.
Kerry would go on to be the star in all of our school district musicals. She could dance, sing in a nasal voice with great projection, and had an irrepressible onstage charisma. She was suburban Long Island’s own little Bernadette Peters. She got the lead in the tenth grade production of Little Shop of Horrors, portraying the bombshell Audrey who was down on her luck, singing “Somewhere that’s Green,” the show’s dramatic spotlight solo, with a perfectly cultivated lisp. I was in the play, too—a background dancer and chorus member. It was a step-up from the year before, where in one scene I literally played a table in our high school’s misguided minimalist production of Leader of the Pack.
The summer after “Little Shop” I attended a second-tier music camp, primarily to play violin and get away from the beach/mall cycle of summers on Long Island. A few weeks in, auditions were open for solo acts in the variety show. Come and try out with any song you want. Bring the music. Even though I was listening to the Cure and the Smiths, wearing a lot of black eyeliner, and compulsively writing letters to a brooding artist boy back home, I was drawn to the promise of that incomparable combination of music, sweat and spotlight that a solo held for me. I knew the intro monologue and lyrics to “Somwhere that’s Green” by heart. I had brought the song (I had the whole score from the production) with me.
I was so scared. So nervous. Not because I did not think I could sing it. I was more confused by my deep desire to do so. By age 15, I was well-practiced in the arts of self-doubt, so when an undeniable urge made itself known, I was cautious and suspicious, pensive and philosophical. Even if I could accept that I wanted this, it seemed audacious to ask for it. Who was I to ask that anyone listen to me, give me a chance? It occurs to me now that I never asked who Kerry Flanagan was to force her Irish dancing on unsuspecting second graders so many years ago. Even back then, I saved my best interrogations for myself.
Earnest, impassioned adolescent renditions of “If I were a Rich Man,” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” took over the basement of the music building after hours. I was so close to walking away from the fluorescent lit room, but I handed over the music to the director and came in on cue: “A matchbox of our own, a fence of real chain link…”
My performance was a revelation. I was the star of the show, of the whole summer. The musical theater director built a special set for me: a trash can overflowing on a little platform that rolled out, a little slice of Skid Row. I sang perched atop the trashcan, first doing the monologue in my own version of the lisp, then singing the song with its crescendo and climax, and quiet whisper ending. I wore a green dress that innocently announced my blossoming bosom to pubescent boys in attendance. My newly acquired, late 80s Suzanne Vega bob haircut framed my face. I was placed center stage for the group number. I was voted “most unique” and “most interesting.” People told me I could have a career in singing if I wanted it. My photo made it into the catalogue for the following summer. No one there had heard of Kerry Flanagan. And someone was finally carrying the record player for me.
Needless to say, I was doubled over in the back seat weeping as my parents pulled away from music camp and drove me back to Long Island, where I would find my way to the chorus in Mame while Kerry played Auntie herself.
My life seems to move in cycles of carrying the record player or singing the song: from sitting quietly—though impatiently—while my first boyfriend noodled on guitars in Matt Umanov in NYC to teaching myself to play guitar, starting my own bands, and releasing two records. From writing my own small, self-published magazine, to advocating for independent literary publishers at a non-profit; from writing poems and even publishing a few, to picking up poets at the train station and driving them to and fro interviews and readings while in graduate school.
But there is always a part of me that more easily assumes the role of the girl who carries the record player. So close to the action, to the art-making, to the event, to the heart. Dependable, reliable, I set the stage so others can twirl, dance, write, sing and soar. As I write this, I realize that in fact, Kerry may not have selected me for the prized job, but that our teacher may have instead. I was already a straight-A student and very dependable. I could afford to miss the class time, and could be trusted to carry the record player, watch the routine respectfully, and bring back the equipment and Kerry in one piece, without sneaking out for whatever reasons a second grader might sneak out. I could handle the talent, then and now. But what about my own?
In her famous book “The Artist’s Way” Julia Cameron identifies a perennial truth: many academics, publicists, agents, and teachers are artists at heart, who keep themselves close to what they love but not quite at the center of it. No doubt, for many, these roles are their true calling, and they bring a genius and passion to this end of art-making that is inspiring in its own way. And for the majority of artists who must work full-time to support their art, academia and the humanities are preferable environments to the corporate sector precisely because they are close to ideas, ideals, creativity, learning and teaching. It is a means to an end that can make the life and work of art-making slightly easier.
But as I grow older, I more and more have to ask myself: do I want to be the girl who is carrying the record player, or the one dancing? Because after a certain point, the balance can tip: in making a living, the best parts of you begin to go to bringing others’ projects and visions to fruition, and you realize you simply must start carrying the record player for yourself, or something will be lost. It is terrifying. The question goes beyond the necessary quid pro quo of being part of an artistic community, mutual support and recognition-which I firmly believe in. Its where and how one applies the best parts of herself and to what ends. I am at a crossroads, trying to honor the still embattled urges to express, to share, to sing, to dance, to be part of the conversation, while making a living with integrity. These pursuits have rarely, if ever, been completely aligned, I don’t know if they ever will be. I can only remain vigilant, and honor the girl who carried the record player, and others who have and will carry it for or even with me.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent