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Vermin On My Resume

The most outstanding difference between professional theater and black boxes, beside the production value, is vermin. They should put “VERMIN FREE” on the marquees on Broadway. I’d be impressed.

The first show I ever did was at a black box on 22nd Street. The theater was up one long, long, long flight of stairs. There was no elevator.

I was told that when my father came to the show he yelled at my stepmother, “Jumpin Joseph, don’t sit near the wall!” He knew the decrepitude of the place meant vermin, and he was sure something was gonna crawl up the wall and jump in his pocket and he would bring it home and his entire life would be ruined.

I was really happy about being in this show.

I had to learn a Southern accent. I worked on it for days. I listened to it as I walked up Sixth Avenue on the way to the audition. I read for the director and felt I had done my best accent. The director said, “Go outside and wait and I want you to come back and read it again and THIS TIME I WANT YOU TO DO IT WITH AN SOUTHERN ACCENT.” Huh? I somehow got cast.

I was so excited with my first job, that I offered to help with things for the set. I brought half of my tiny apartment. Lamps, pillows, throws and a rug. The rug got smaller everyday as the mice were eating it at night. There was a box of chocolates in the show. They ate the chocolates. And, they were individually wrapped. By the end of the show my rectangular oriental rug was an octagon with long sad strings protruding from every corner. It was useless and got pitched.

On to roaches. The biggest roach fest I worked at was a storefront theater on the lower east side. It was next door to a fish distributor, so if the temperature went above sixty-five, the smell was horrendous. The manager’s office had them crawling all over everything, even in daylight.

There was a kitty litter box in the bathroom. We were once looking for a flashlight and someone said, “We can’t find anything, the only thing I can easily find is cat turds.” There were always plenty of those on hand. On opening night I actually put on rubber gloves and cleaned the bathroom. The litter box had to stay, but I flushed the offending turds.   I couldn’t have my husband’s aunt from Sutton Place use a filthy bathroom with stinking turds.

The most remarkable vermin fest was a theater near Eleventh Avenue, which I dubbed “The Mouse Festival”. I have never seen anything like it. There were pipes running around the walls of the dressing room, which we called “the mouse highway”. It was pretty much non-stop. The first rehearsal at the theater, an actress left an open container of dried fruit on her dressing table, and when she came off stage there was a mouse in it. From then on, when we could, we hung anything edible. I was afraid to touch the rug in the dressing room. This made changing a challenge. The vacuum cleaner didn’t work, and I was sure the rug was full of ancestral mouse poop. I quarantined any clothing I wore to the theater when I got home.

The dressing room had large windows with deep concrete sills outside. The owner of the theater had placed a large plastic bin full of water and an algae (more vermin) covered rock on the sill. This was for the pigeons. The Pigeon Spa. And mounds of birdseed were supplied everyday, the excess that fell on the floor being eaten by the mice. The room was it’s own ecosystem.

The denouement occurred one night when I was in the wings sitting in a folding chair waiting for my final entrance. It was a dramatic scene. There were guns. There was death. And I felt something on my toes. Yes, a mouse on my toes. I let out a high pitched scream which sent the rest of the cast into the giggles so we did most of the final scene with our faces turned away from the audience to hide the hilarity. And yes, the audience wasn’t immune. A gigantic one was running around the bleachers under the audience’s feet one night. A friend in the audience insisted that it was a rat, but I won’t admit that.

Now this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. In my life.   I had an audition at a place on Eighth Avenue. I used the ladies room, which looked pretty skuzzy. When I got home, I took my coat off and went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and there was a HUGE WATERBUG ON MY SHOULDER. My husband said when I took my coat off he noticed something on my shoulder, but he thought it was an epaulet. An epaulet? Like it was so big he saw it across the room? And it had rode home on the train with me. Under my coat. No!!! This is the most horrifying thing ever.

My father was right.

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