The Boy from Virginia Breaks Routine (The Concrete Choronicles)

Novemeber 2012

 The first day of November, I did something I hadn’t done in a very long time. I decided I was going to an open call. It would be my first open call in New York and I wanted to make it count. So I planned an outfit that would make me look 60s chic without going overboard, and I skimmed through my appropriate sheet music, finding that I actually didn’t possess the right songs for the show being cast. I instantly reprimanded myself and was about to can the entire idea when I thought to myself, ‘You made a decision. You can’t back down now.’ So I decided I’d go to the audition with whatever was in my songbook and if I were lucky enough to be called back, then I would do the extra prep work then. The fact that I’d built up the resolve to go to a cattle call was good enough.

The next day, to take away the stress of not feeling fully prepared for the audition, I linked up with a friend from London who’d happened to be in town on his honeymoon. He and his partner chose an unfortunate time to be in New York, however, as Hurricane Sandy blustered her way through town not too long after their arrival, leaving the newlyweds without power below 14th Street. Being resourceful, however, he’d managed to find alternative living quarters. He also managed to get me from the Upper West Side to Hell’s Kitchen to say hey and to meet other artists. It was a visit I welcomed wholeheartedly because I was in desperate need of London energy. I hadn’t been able to make many new friends in the city who weren’t co-workers, and the friends I did have in the city were so scattered about the place that linking up with them was becoming a more difficult task. I wasn’t feeling loved in the city.

I’d begun to prefer the London Fog to what I’d started calling “The Rotten Apple.” I knew I shouldn’t have allowed my emotional success to reside in such a specific location, as I definitely had hardships there as well…but forcing a connection with a place wasn’t healthy either. It felt akin to trying to make a relationship work because one felt he must; not because the foundation was strong enough for it to work on its own.

Upon linking with my friend -a former co-star in a brilliant new musical I’d had the chance to workshop multiple times while living in London- I was able to relax and talk shop for a bit. We’d both been informed that the show we work-shopped had been picked up to be performed by one of the most reputable companies in the world. We were both on pins and needles hoping that we’d get a call or news about when the show would premiere, and if we’d both still be a part of it. Conversation waned once the hype about art was over, but it was an important enough conversation to plant a seed of hope in me for my future. In the back of my mind, I was confident that, regardless of whether I lived in New York, London, or the Amazon, I was going to be a part of that new show if it killed me. I believe that second day of November was the day I remembered what ambition felt like. But how long would that memory remain?

The next day, I woke up, threw on a decent outfit, gathered some sheet music from my song book and packed a headshot and resume, and then trekked into midtown at 6:30am to attend the open audition for Motown the Musical. Having known someone who was a part of the workshop, I was confused as to why the show was still auditioning when they seemed to be fully cast. Still, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to be seen.

About thirty-five other early bird artists and amateurs felt the same way, I discovered, when I entered the lobby of Telsey and Company. They were cold, and shivering, and ready to show the world that they belonged on a stage, anyone’s stage. And here I was…feeling…like I’d gone back to high school. Instead of feeling like I was at an audition, I felt like I was at a forensics competition with all the assorted characters. There was even the overachieving, know-it-all girl who made a list of all the people who came in so no one could jump the line.

“There’s an order here, and we want to keep it that way.” She smiled one of those psychotic smiles that warned me not to cut in line, or I’d be cut. Then she gave me the sheet of paper that was already covered in scrawls. “Number yourself and sign your name here.” I complied, mainly because it was 6:50am and I am a firm believer that all drama should be put off until noon.

What she failed to do, however, was read the fine print on the website –and the door– that said “unauthorized audition lists would not be taken into consideration at all unless distributed by Equity.” So after the doors were officially opened into the audition room (and after about 200 more people showed up), I moved from being the thirty fifth person to number eleven (merely because I was closest to the door). In waiting for the auditions to begin, I watched a good twenty people change into their best thrift store costumes to emerge as people from my grandparents generation. I enjoyed their efforts, and their outlandish afro wigs. Power to the people! I watched American Idol wannabees riffing up, down and around the scales as they warmed their voices. Girls plastered on too much make up. Guys got in touch with their falsetto. Yet, I was still wondering if singing Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” would motivate me to do exactly that. I wasn’t worried, but I was overwhelmed at the environment. I’d luckily avoided open calls my entire London career because of my wonderful agent there. It felt strange knowing that I’d only have 16 bars of a song to represent all of what I could possibly do. But when they called my name, I knew I’d have to try.  

It was a very brief audition. I wasn’t asked to remain, like some others were…and I was ok with it. Unlike others, I wasn’t there to compete or make fun of others or challenge anyone. I was there to challenge myself. The hard part was done; going to the damn audition. I was proud of myself for taking that risk. I laughed off the entire day and prepped myself for a return to work and normal non-actor routine.

My wake up ritual had become the same. My iPhone would play a snippet of the pop song I’d programmed to wake me up at my designated time, and I’d listen to see if one of the 4 other roommates were plodding across the floorboards. If so, I’d wait until I heard a door shut, and I’d start my day of avoiding people until I had to step outside of my building. Considering we still did not have a bathroom to call our own, I’d sometimes had to go to the coffee shop next door to pee.

The election was around the corner. In my mind President Obama was just bound to win. I had no doubts. But I was also disappointed in myself for not getting my absentee ballot mailed off much sooner that the day before elections. It was evident that my vote wouldn’t count, but I did try. Unfortunately just as I’d missed my chance to vote on time, I’d also missed the moment when the POTUS actually won his second term. Walking through Harlem at 10:58pm (I’d stayed at work late and went to the gym) and hearing the cheers and the overall relief at the victory was enough to warm me up on the suddenly chilly Election evening. If anything was certain in my life, it was that our President would be spending the next four years doing his best to make a difference. That was about all I could count on.

The next week, I was supposed to be celebrating my debut on ABC’s Revolution! I’d made the mistake of telling friends and family that I would most certainly be a part of the episode that was airing only to receive an e-mail from my agent stating “your part was cut from tonight’s episode.” I wasn’t completely crushed. I’d gotten paid for my work already, so that was proof enough that I actually did the job. “Embarrassed” is a more appropriate word for how I was feeling. People root for me -sometimes- and I wanted those people to be proud that I’d made it to primetime. Truth was: I hadn’t. The only lesson I learned, at that moment, was a professional one. Keep all successes quiet until they occur. I made a vow to myself from then on that if I did anything regarding film and TV, I wouldn’t speak about it to anyone. If I booked a job, I could be happy about it, but only to myself. To tell anyone else would be getting their hopes up and I didn’t want to do that to anyone. I’d experienced enough empty promises in my life to shatter the dreams or expectations of others. Funny enough, I was also beginning to get bored with the empty promises I was making to myself.

During the month of November, I’d been having sporadic text conversation and occasional meetings with my college heroine. Mo, a dead ringer for Brandy Norwood (if she’d worn box or micro braids and had a music career), was my saving grace many times in NYC.  There was once a time in our lives where we both considered ourselves royalty and lately we’d started asking life, “How in the hell did we end up in this particular moment?” There was something absurd about the fact that we were growing up and experiencing these epic highs, lows and adult-isms that we were somehow prepared to deal with. Getting older was just laughable to us. Mainly because we felt no older than the day we’d met back in 2003. Only now, she had 2 amazing sons and an apartment in Harlem and I…well… I was a no-money nomad who’d gotten complacent. This was a problem…

Two months prior, Rihanna released a song that, though lyrically cheesy, changed my perspective on things. “Diamonds” was a song that told you to shine bright. While others paid attention to the childlike tonality of Riri’s singing voice, I was hearing a command. The message in that line burst through like sun rays through interrupted sleep. “Shine bright like a diamond.” Be not afraid to illuminate this world in whatever way you can. The song itself wasn’t about individuals, but I took the message of “shining” as my personal responsibility. And I told Mo one day, “We must hold each other accountable. Please don’t allow me to let my light dim. And I will do the same for you.” It felt like I was in a twelve-step program…but I knew I couldn’t shine alone. No truly successful person ever shines alone. I would need loads of help from willing participants and people I could trust. In mid-November, Mo became a woman I could trust with my light. As diamonds, we promised each other not to dull.

But even diamonds get soiled every now and again…

It was hard to feel like I was shining at all when I would go back to my box of a room and have to sleep on a borrowed air mattress with borrowed sheets. Besides my clothes, I felt I was still borrowing my room though I was paying rent. I had no furniture. Most of my stuff was still in a suitcase, and I couldn’t shift or adjust myself on the mattress without sounding like I was farting out the tea, and Entemann’s cake that was becoming my nightly best friend. I wasn’t owning anything, not even my life. My life wasn’t being lived in the way I’d wished. Tough times wouldn’t last, I knew. But God knows I didn’t feel like waiting until the struggle was over for it to be beautiful. I wasn’t feeling beautiful. I was feeling stunted.  Luckily art would save the saved the day for a day.

After filming a small role for a “Finding Me,” a thriving webseries based on two popular independent films of the same name, I’d planned a trip back home to Virginia for Thansgiving which was that same week. My niece would also be turning one year old that week and I refused to miss her special day. Since her birthday was the day after turkey day, I’d also be killing three birds with one stone: food, family, celebration.

Despite a terrbible Chinatown bus journey home, I arrived back in Virginia, hoping that in the time I’d been away that things would have changed. I hoped my sister would’ve become more responsible, that my mother’s worrying about things she had no control over would subside, that my little brother was flourishing in school, and that my niece would still remember my face.

She did.

Me and my neiceAnd after spending months without me, she walked right over to me so I could pick her up. I almost cried from happiness. Sometimes joy really is in the eyes of a child. My niece looked at me with so much curiosity and no judgment, and then rested her head on my chest. Only a child’s love can be that unconditional, or so I’m told.

Thanksgiving Day was full of food -that I helped prepare- and family. The next day, my niece’s  first birthday was simple and fun, and then it was time for me to return to New York, where the cold has settled in and I’d have some personal changes to make.  What was great was that I was able to spend the end of my month seeing two more friends from London who’d come to visit the city. If anything could lift my spirits, it would be ANY Londoner.

Deep in my heart, I knew that I would eventually go back to London. I didn’t know how or when it would happen, but seeing my friends solidified that it would definitely happen. Because I believed in that dream so damn much. Somehow I knew that it would be art that would make me return. But until art decided to make its move, it was back to my daily routine: wake up, avoid roommates, pee at the coffee shop next door, get dressed, and serve people all day long until I got off work, went to the gym, came home, drank tea, ate Entemann’s cake, and fell asleep. Then repeat.

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The Boy from Virginia Weathers the Storm -Part 2- (The Concrete Chronicles)

After my week from hell, I’d managed to summon enough energy to start my (unpaid) training at the Harlem restaurant. Though my serving skills and shorthand were rustier than I’d expected, I’d proven competent and friendly enough to be among the staff there. I’d even met the owner of the restaurant who made it her business to remain warm and friendly with me during the busiest of times: Sunday Brunch. I was thrilled to be surrounded by good food, and hard-working people, but I also felt that the work being done was much harder than it needed to be.

In London, I worked diligently as a waiter, even setting a record for most tips received at my particular branch during my second month there. Serving comfort food, however, to greedy Harlemites after church or foreign tourists getting their voyeuristic fix was more taxing than serving the high end, suburban clientele I’d once served on the murky, yet lovely Thames River. Still, I gave it a go…for free. Deep in my mind, I’d believed I’d been given this opportunity to train because it would eventually become my new -hopefully lucrative- job. I mean, it happened so quickly that that had to be the reasoning behind it, right?

The next week, I wasn’t on the work schedule for my day job as much as I’d been before, and I was okay with that. Soon, I’d be out of there. I’d be making enough tips to pay my bills and save up for dance classes or theatre classes or that gym membership that I’d signed up for the previous month and hadn’t yet used. Not one to languish in idle time, I managed to acquire quick side job: cleaning an apartment.

I’d mentioned to a new New York friend the month before that I’d had a background in domestic and janitorial work and I didn’t mind cleaning as an occupation. Knowing that I wasn’t at full financial capacity and wanting to help me out, she allowed me to clean her apartment, which, oddly, helped me clear my mind. It also helped put a much needed $40 in my pocket. After hurrying home to buy some items for my empty section of the shared fridge, I hopped on my laptop to revise my resume. It was high time I applied for a job in a field that I could manage. The first month I moved to New York, I discovered a small cleaning company that needed “Cute Guys” to clean houses, paint walls, organize shelves, etc. As dubious as I was about the company, I quickly learned that judging a website by its homepage wasn’t particularly appropriate.  I read their mission statement and got the feeling that they were quite friendly and legit. And hey, people referred to me as “cute” in the “puppy dog” way so I figured that adjective would suffice until I could become cute in a “sexy” way. What I truly cared about was that I didn’t need to take off my clothes to clean a house.  I indulged people’s fantasies on stage. I refused to do so while cleaning a toilet.  

I sent my cover letter and resume via e-mail and prayed for a response sooner than later. In addition, I’d sent my resume out aimlessly to other retailers looking to hire soon. If I could manage two jobs in New York City, I would. No sooner had I clicked “send” did I hear a large ripping sound followed by a soft thud and what sounded like trickling debris. It came from the bathroom, which was situated immediately next door to my room. The guy who roomed next door to me stepped out of his room moments before I decided to step out of mine and I dreaded the origins of his subdued “Holy. Shit.” 

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Upon exploring the bathroom, myself, I concluded that I had, indeed, heard falling debris. It had been preceded by the bathroom ceiling caving in over the tub; the only tub that was shared between the 5 people who occupied the apartment. Dirt, ceiling, dry wood, and probably one hundred years of dust/dust mites layered themselves like lasagne inside the tub, with remnants of the recipe powdering the bathroom floor. I managed to speak an underwhelmed “wow”, and my roommate began to rant while simultaneously laughing incredulously about how “this has happened before but not to this extent.” (I wish I had known this before moving in.) He made some phone calls to our other roommates while the lead roommate (a British guy who was never home due to flying all over the world), made a call to the super.

Within an hour the super was surveying the bathroom and speaking at the glacial pace Miranda Priestly mentioned while she was being all devilish in Prada.

The tub

“It looks like the ceiling came down,” the simpleton said. Ya think? “I don’t know how this could’ve happened.” Part of me wanted to say, ‘we’re not concerned about the how, but instead with the where are we going to shit and shower now?’ My next door roommate had reached a moment of calm and decided he would give his diagnosis.

“You see,” he began, “I think if you look right there (he pointed at the piece of ceiling that was hanging). I think that the tape you put up, wasn’t strong enough.” (Hold on, our ceiling was put up with tape? What kind of ramshackle apartment was I living in?)

“No. That’s not it,” my super said matter of factly, still sloth-like. (Was he high? I understood he was West Indian, but I hate to feed into stereotypes, even when they are true.) I didn’t have time to answer my own internal question because the Roomie was now reprimanding the Super for his shoddy job and storming out and down the hall to his room. I’d actually witnessed a hissy fit but lemme tell you; if they don’t look good on two year olds, they’ll never look good on a twenty three year old. Kids these days, huh?

I gave up trying to rationally explain to our Super that I thought the ceiling caved in because the ceiling was old and the shower condensation caused whatever adhesive was there to fail. He nodded his head, considered my evaluation, and then said, “Nah. There’s flooding or something. A leaky pipe somewhere.” Some people prefer their own truths.

Shenanigans aside, my roommates and I were left with one option: in order to shower and use the rest room, we would have to go up to a vacant apartment on the fourth floor of our building. This would last for about two weeks, the Super told us, while they completely renovated our bathroom. At least we’d be getting a modern room in this ancient apartment of ours.

I figured now was as good a time as ever to become invested in my personal health. I had no acting gigs, no agent, no connections in New York. I had a job I’d soon be leaving for another, and more importantly, I needed a place to shower. My gym had shower, steam room, and sauna…and I was paying for it anyway. So unlike my roommates, I made it my mission not to climb up to the fourth floor, unless it was for exercise -and my bladder’s- sake.

*          *          *

The week was swimming by fast, despite little activity. I was becoming addicted to cardio as the weather was starting to change. Our bathroom construction was driving me insane. Hammering and drilling began every morning between 9 and 11am. On the first day of renovating, the Super managed to put holes in my bedroom wall: the curse of living next door to a faulty room. My day job was becoming more tolerable and, dare I say it, I was building an attachment to the friends I had made there, even though I was on my way out the door. Just as I’d started coasting on the new vibe that was settling in…I got a rude awakening.

At the end of my third (unpaid) training session at the Harlem restaurant, I was told that someone would be in touch. The hiring manager who previously showed an interest in me before beginning my training had become distant and rarely engaged with me at all. It couldn’t have been because I was doing an awful job, was it? (I had made some mistakes, but I was rusty and I was literally thrown on the floor as if I’d been working there for years.) I was being trained by a veteran waitress who knew the ropes and who had expressed that they were in dire need of someone like myself since they’d recently fired a guy for being drunk on the job. In addition, the hiring manager was never there when I was working. Regardless, it was she who’d stopped me at the door when I inquired about being put on the work roster.

“Thanks for coming in, but we won’t be needing your services.”

The sentence was simple and sharp. Like a box-cutter. There was some half-hearted attempt at mentioning that my information would be kept on file…but everyone knows that’s the new version of “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You.” Then she walked her pug face and animal print blouse back into the restaurant. Hungry Hungry Harlem folk started to line up outside the door and I turned swallowing my rejection to walk past their growling, expectant stomachs. For the second time in New York, I left a job site confused and wondering, What next?

I’d just closed the door to my room when the veteran waitress called me to ask what had happened. She’s seen me come to the restaurant and asked why I wasn’t going to be joining them. “I don’t know,” was the only answer I had. I really didn’t know. I didn’t know why I couldn’t manage to get a new job. I didn’t know why I wasn’t good enough to serve food at that restaurant. I didn’t understand why my apartment was falling apart and I hated that I couldn’t seem to get my life in order. Something needed to be done. So I did the only thing I could think of: I emailed my manager to ask her for a private meeting.

*          *          *

When a person puts in two weeks’ notice at his job to find another, and then that other job opportunity falls through in a big way, there’s no choice but to use your last dime to buy a margarita with a friend. It was a Sunday and not only was the drink welcome, but so was the company.

Erin had contacted me a week beforehand to reconnect. She was a fellow thespian who I’d met in college and whose work always captivated me. I was sure that she’d be living the best life there  ever was in New York City. So when we hugged each other on the corner of 43rd and 8th, I’d figured, from her smile alone, that she was living the dream. It wasn’t until we got to Blockheads that the truth came out for both of us. Life hadn’t been a crystal stair for her either and she was only just starting to climb her self-made staircase.

We caught up over nachos and much needed frozen margaritas (though it was approaching 30 degrees outside) and I discovered something: Every little interaction in life counts. Erin and I weren’t the closest of friends in college, but we’d always been pleasant to one another, and as I said before, I thought she was a stellar performer. I kept thinking to myself, ‘why hadn’t we been friends back then?’ Yes, we shared a department major, a circle of creative folk, and now a profession that would send us on the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Still, the ease of our conversation made me feel that our reunion should’ve occurred much sooner. I felt I was speaking to a kindred spirit who knew my plight, and like me, was successfully surviving. I was both comforted and inspired by Erin because I knew, in that moment of eating guacamole and chasing it with frozen tequila, we’d definitely be the sort of friends to call on one another in times of emotional hardship. More importantly, she wouldn’t judge me for my negative/insecure moments, because like many other creatives, she’d probably already been there, done that, and gotten a souvenir.

God had decided to put the person I needed into my life at the exact moment I would need them. Funny how the Universe works.  

Our conversation -as well as the margaritas- gave me clearer insight to the environment I’d infiltrated. I’d come into New York trying to find peace. What I’d ended up doing thus far was shifting my emotional balance. If I didn’t actively try to salvage my situation and turn it around soon, I’d fail in this city. Failure isn’t a brand to which I happily subscribe. 

Life only works if you stop bullshitting yourself, and lend it a helping hand. So, the next day, with a clearer head, a plan of action -and more humility than I thought myself capable- I decided to ask my manager for my job back.

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The Boy from Virginia Finds a Place (The Concrete Chronicles)

September 2012

            At the start of the month, my sub-letter had returned and I was still without a new place to live. Being the person I am, I hate overstaying my welcome anywhere and I had the unfortunate feeling that I would be overstaying for a few more weeks. Luckily for me, the sub-letter was a gem of a woman, and she and her roommates (who had made my acquaintance before she did) became the first “sort-of” family I’d made in the city. Having been in New York longer than myself, they seemed to uderstand my plight and excused my housing delay. Excusals aside, I still needed to find a place  and ASAP.

            Finding a decent place to lay one’s head comfortably in New York City is among the more difficult life-tasks I’ve ever taken on. Period. Not only is it tedious, strenuous, and merciless…I’m sure it’s a rites of passage for aspiring New Yorkers that truly separates the boys from the men. (To feel my pain, click here)  With no potential roommates and no decent leads on the horizon, I was back to being a boy. So where to start on this second go-round?

            I’d put up a status blast on Facebook saying that I was looking for housing and/or roommates and for people to contact me. I received two private message replies from people I knew, but we’d wanted different things; some people wanted Brooklyn, some wanted Washington Heights, but more importantly, our pockets also wanted different rent amounts to pay. I was still craving Harlem, but I felt I wouldn’t be able to afford the area considering the epidemic of gentrification it’d gone through.

My bro, Ray.

My bro, Ray.

Then I’d received a surprise message from a young man from my past. He was an actor I’d been in contact with for four years but our only interaction was at his movie debut back in Philadelphia in the summer of 2008. Somehow, I’d remained on his radar and he’d made the selfless attempt to reach out and assist me in my search for a place to live. I conceded that this might be the only true helpful gesture I’d receive, so I made plans to have him help me.

It’s not that I couldn’t find a place in New York. It’s just that I couldn’t accept the very first one that became available. Shopping around for the right place to call home was a good idea. I’d turned down a small place in Washington Heights at the end of August because it was the first place I’d actually seen and I didn’t want to just say yes. I also turned it down because the renter was all too eager to pressure me into being his roommate. When he explained that his former roommate had just…left one day and didn’t tell him he was leaving; though I felt sympathetic, I also felt there was also a reason behind that guy’s sudden departure. Red flags told me to consider other options.

It was funny however that I’d ended up in Washington Heights, yet again, to link up with my friend. He’d told me that he had success with a room rental company. They would charge a small finder’s fee, but I’d be able to hopefully find a place in two weeks or less. Catch was, I’d be living like a boarder in a room in someone else’s house and the renter’s might’ve only spoken Spanish, but there was a possibility I would luck out and ended up somewhere comfortable. It worked for him.

The agency (if I should even be allowed to bestow such a  legitimate name upon them), was one of those “hidden-in-plain-sight” type of places that looked like it could double as a tax office/ immigration office/ job centre, (etc.), but when we got there, the woman who was responsible for housing placements wasn’t there. No one could seem to contact her either, but I was assured that she knew what she was doing and was good at her job. I thanked my friend for his help and we planned to meet up again if I made any further progress.

The next day, I decided to go at the search alone…silly me.

After ending up at another room rental agency, and sitting for about two hours after they took $150 from me as a finder’s fee (when they hadn’t even found a room for me yet), I was supplied with an address on the back of a small business card. I headed to the location and ended up…in. a. fucking housing. project. Lies and deceit? Not this time.

 The room I’d been sent to was on the ninth floor of a building with an elevator that decided it would take the Lord’s day of..on a Thursday. I skipped steps up those nine flights, occasionally passing elderly people who were wondering why I was taking the stairs and then I ended up outside of the apartment that was written on the business card. Even before I stepped in, my Tommy senses were tingling. The door opened and I was greeted by a man in a wheelchair. A man who looks as if he hadn’t bathed, who was in a wheelchair. There was also a woman present (His mother? His nurse?) who seemed to care less that I was there. There was a bed that looked as if it were stolen from a hospital, cold dull-looking tile floor, a box fan in the window, and a television was playing…Who gives a fuck what it was playing because in my mind, I felt as if I were in a hospital ward. The man in the wheelchair did his best to sell me his apartment, and while my heart felt like it was being sliced and diced by that box fan in the window, I tried to maintain my dignity (which had spun on its heels, sucked it’s teeth and headed back down the stairs). Thank God I’m an actor because I was able to remain diplomatic, take a deep breath and say things like, “Hmm…well…I..have…some other places to see, but I’ll get back to you. (insert forced smile) I’ve seen all I need to see here.”

And then I rushed down the stairs of the projects and rushed to work, all while my brain was being mangled to death by confusion and the feeling of being swindled.

I went to work my shift and I couldn’t even function. All I could think was, ‘I was sent to project building. I. was sent. To a PROJECT. To live…(OK, yes they are livable spaces, but I’d had my healthy dose of underprivileged living as a child. I didn’t need a reprise…back to my thoughts)  And I can’t get my $150 back. I’m a fool. I’m alone in New York. And I’m a burden to these wonderful women I’m staying with.’ My insides were debating whether or not they wanted remain inside of me, and it seemed my tears were doing the same. As I swallowed everything back, I couldn’t help but think the worst.

‘I’ve lost favor with God. This is punishment for what happened between my sister and me. I’m no longer one of his chosen people.’ Had I ever really been chosen to begin with? I mean, here I was crashing on a couch; my luggage (though neatly stacked) littering a living room that wasn’t my own, and my growing despair puddling the carpet. I wasn’t completely down and out, but I was definitely around the corner from it. Or was I?

Though I was discouraged by the small amount of people who stepped up to help me in my situation, I had to give a hand to all of the co-workers on my job. The ladies all offered their assistance to me in some way, whether it was offering to bring in a lunch, or to provide money, or to even shelter me for a bit. And my actor friend also came with me to try and get my money back from the people who’d taken it. He went with me to view more rooms, and other (much better) options I’d found from Craigslist. People -not the ones I expected- were subtly showing me that I mattered and that I deserved to be in New York, just as much as anyone else. I was immediately humbled. My heart hadn’t planned on being in NYC, but people wanted me to succeed here.IMG_1237

That subtle encouragement was more help than I’d given to the burn victim who’d lost his nose who begged me for money on the train. It was more help than I offered the family who was kicked out of their hotel room whilst visiting the city for a holiday. It was more help than I could give myself, because I’d even forgotten how to do that effectively. The job I did was so rooted in helping others, that I didn’t know how to pamper myself. Instead, I worried myself. I stressed myself. I had started to hate myself for being -what I considered- incompetent and inefficient. What was my purpose?

What was worse…I was beginning to crave the city where I faced the most challenges, and yet felt the most loved: London. Would I ever return? Had I given the Big Apple enough of a chance? I felt like it was biting me instead of the other way around, and I could tell I was becoming bitter to the taste.

To pull myself out of the funk that was beginning to waft through my brain, I decided to join one of my current roommates at an event called Sundae Sermon. There’s nothing like an outdoor picnic full of Harlemites, House music, and high spirits to completely turn your mood around. In the span of 5 hours, I’d felt free and as if I were being introduced to the pulse of the city. Sundae Sermon is where I met two wonderful people who would become my “friends of the moment” (you encounter many of those temporary types in New York). And it was under their wings that I got completely shit-faced drunk (as you do, when you feel free).

That Sunday was only a temporary relief to what needed to occur. I still needed to find a place and I was determined that I was NOT going to remain a lodger on a couch for another month. So it was back to Craigslist. I’d abandoned the agency, and my chances of getting my money back so whatever methods I used this time would have to work. Or else.

I’d courted the idea of moving to Brooklyn. I’d even gone all the way out there from the Bronx to view a place. The renter of the apartment was older than me, but well put together. The room was spacious and the entire place would’ve only been the two of us. So far so good. There was a pool on the roof of the building. Great! I don’t swim, but great, nonetheless. The commute was lengthy, but I was excusing that for the pool I’d never use. Hmm…I could see myself here….

But the goal was always to move to Harlem. I couldn’t sell myself so short…or so long-distance.

Just when my focus became clearer, I came across two listings for places to live in Harlem. Both about 10 odd blocks from one another. One option was a two bedroom that I’d share with a Turkish man. I loved the place…but you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. …Interesting setup… but a small price to pay. I thought I marketed myself and my intentions well. But I was informed that he’d get back to me.

The other place was right in the middle of everything. I was three blocks away from Sylvia’s -overrated- Soul Food restaurant (I mean, it’s good, but it’s not down south cooking), There was a grocery store across the street from the apartment, I was four blocks from 125th street (one of the most iconic streets in Harlem) and to top it off, I was in a decent building with a doorman. Granted, it wasn’t a real doorman like you see on films about people who live downtown, but it’d suffice. IMG_1407

Only thing…I’d have to share this place with four other people. But after having interviewed with all of them, they seemed nice and one of the guys was originally from England. To me this was an omen. Even if I could just live around this man to hear an English accent, I’d be fine. I equated his accent to feeling like I was home. Like the Turkish man, they told me they’d be in touch soon. They were and they informed me that I was their second choice. If the person who they’d chosen decided not to take the room, it would be mine. But I’d have to wait three days to see if I got the place.

The other Harlem apartment I was interested in had a second round of interviews to which I went and encountered two other guys who also wanted the place. It was as if we were on a TV show competing to be the Turkish man’s Next Top Roommate. I didn’t mind this process, but I just thought to myself that the next time I went apartment hunting it would be with people I knew, and people I could trust.

Two days later I’d gotten notice that the first person decided to pass on the apartment, and that I could go ahead and move into the Center of Harlem if I was still interested. It was the final week of September and I was happy that I wouldn’t be entering October on anyone’s couch. I passed on living with one other person to live with four because the rent was most definitely in my range and my room had an actual closet. That is a true luxury. (You have no idea the multitude of places in New York have no closets at ALL…which is NOT okay)

After receiving that news, I also found out that I’d booked a small part on a new show for NBC. Revolution, it was called. Though I knew nothing about it, I was happy as hell to be able to do some actual work on a major primetime television production. But everything in my new New York life was complicated, of course…

I booked the job as a local hire. What did that mean? That meant I was hired because people thought I still lived in Virginia. Where were they filming this show? In North Carolina, a good 5 states south of where I now lived. An obstacle? Yes.  I knew I was going to get my ass to that set if it killed me, but I had less than 24 hours to plan a journey back down south. This would mean trying to find someone to cover my shift at work and also trying to find a cost-effective method of getting to North Carolina.

It was a Tuesday, I’d need to film Thursday, and somehow, be back in New York on Friday for my shift. No one wanted to over for me, and I didn’t want to get written up on my job. But I decided that I’d somehow make filming work…and I’d also make work work…and I’d do this by going into the money I’d saved up for my deposit and first month’s rent on my new place. My rationale: I’d get it back once I was paid from the show.

Wednesday morning came. I was packed and ready to go to the Port Authority Bus Station when I got off work at 4:45. I managed to catch a $64 bus (very last minute) to Richmond Virginia, then transfer to an $80 bus to Wilmington North Carolina; a journey that lasted a total of eighteen hours. Because NO buses would be headed back to New York at the time I needed one, I had to book an early morning ($188) flight to New Jersey, where I’d eventually catch a shuttle back to Manhattan. I was beginning to worry about my money big time.

 Once off the bus, I walked to my lovely hotel, which had been negotiated by my Virginia talent agency, and I promptly fell asleep. Once I’d awakened and after a lovely self-date at Buffalo Wild Wings, I made my way back to the hotel and caught a van to set. It would be a late night shoot. Working on any film set is exciting, but seeing your first on-set explosion has to be the best thing you’ll ever see (unless you catch fire). I never tire of seeing how many people it takes to put on a production and this was no different. I’d had my hair and make-up done and gotten in my costume and sat. IMG_1376

I sat.

And I sat.

 I ate at craft services. And then sat some more.

At 4am, (after arriving on set at 7pm the night prior), I geared up to yell my one line in multiple ways. But because I needed to be back in New York by 5 the next day, the crew rushed through my performance (or either I hit my mark and got it right the first time, who knew?) and I was hurried back to my hotel to prepare for my flight.

I’d arrived back in New York at around noon on Friday. I was proud of myself for accomplishing a hell of a lot in a small amount of time. I’d also had the help of my mother through what could’ve been a messy process, but overall, things kinda of worked out. I was back at work, though I felt a bit underappreciated because I’d gone through hell and high water, (and money I shouldn’t have touched) to return to a job that was paying me a fraction of what I made in 10 hours. Regardless, I’d ended my month with less woes than when I started it. Soon enough I’d be off a couch, and in my own room in Harlem. With no worries and no stress.

 

Yeah, fucking, right…

The Boy from Virginia Starts Over

Final two weeks of July 2012

My impromptu, yet necessary trip to New York had been more than successful and I came home with both dread and anticipation in my heart. Dread because I’d have to figure out how to navigate being in a house where negative energy had become a tenant, yet I brimmed with anticipation because I would soon be away from the familial shenanigans. It also helped that I had a gig that would help make the time go smoother as an extra on adocu-drama about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Me as an "uncredited" Union Soldier in Killing Lincoln

Me as an “uncredited” Union Soldier in Killing Lincoln

During that small job, however, I said a tiny prayer to myself:

“Dear God, I ask to never play another slave or underprivileged antebellum man again. We both know there are more stories to tell that are more interesting than being on the periphery of someone else’s history. Please and thank you!”

 

            Once that gig was finished, and once I’d handled all of my paperwork for my job, it was time to hop another bus to the Big Apple. My only regret was leaving on my mother’s birthday. Having not been in the country to celebrate it for the previous 3 years, I’d wanted to at least plan a huge outing or give her a  huge gift, but her celebration money soon turned into moving money and next thing I knew, I was saying “I love you and I’ll call you when I arrive at my new place.”

            Nine hours later, I arrived back at the Port Authority (a station that was becoming more and more familiar to me) with larger luggage, a backpack, my smaller wheelie luggage…and no one to meet me upon arrival. One of my new (temporary) roommates has texted me the information I would need to find the place in Bronx, and lucky for me, I had my map app on my iPhone, but I was still hoping that someone could assist me with my luggage. The last thing I wanted was to let go of my bags for a second and have them snatched away from me as quickly as I let them go. Little did I know, I had nothing to be afraid of, except blocking the doors of the “2” train, which I couldn’t help given the size of my luggage and my not wanting to over exert myself in the sweltering heat.

            I enjoyed what little dribble of A/C the train decided to distribute and ended up at Intervale Avenue. It was when I departed the train that I realized there were no elevators here…and the escalator was broken, and that I was way too dressed up for what looked like “the hood.” (No lie, I was in dress pants, a button down shirt, dress shoes, and, if I recall, a tailored button down vest) ‘I guess I won’t be fitting in today’, I thought to myself. After a deep breath –and a prayer- I dragged myself and my luggage down the stairs and huffed and puffed…about three blocks…in the wrong direction. It didn’t take me long to call my new roommate and ask her to meet me (something I felt she should’ve done, anyway. But hey, I was in New York, from here on out, I wasn’t expecting any hand-outs or any manners).

            A girl with a Texas accent greeted me and though I couldn’t get an immediate read on her, I knew we’d get along as she led me in the right direction to the apartment and to the room which I’d sublet for the next month. I spent the evening trying to get acquainted with the local bodega (which closed a bit too early for my own liking) and then I slept as work began the next day.

Sunset view from Intervale Avenue station

Sunset view from Intervale Avenue station

 

August 2012     

            For the month of August, I would accept whatever hours were given to me as well as take other shifts if no one else wanted them. I just wanted to keep busy and re-learn the art of selling soap and lotion (among other things). Coming back to a job you thought you knew well can be daunting. I constantly found myself knowing that I was capable of doing a fantastic job, but feeling like I wasn’t quite up to par, given the differences between working for the company in the US versus the UK. All I could do was compare what I’d done overseas to what I was doing on home soil. Still, I’m a hard worker and I wanted to make sure I could actually do my personal best, regardless. If I can recall, I believed I worked 8 days straight with no complaints, just a strong desire to make money and refocus myself.

            It had been the end of a week of long shifts, acclimating myself to Manhattan, failed attempts at apartment/ roommate searches, and to top it all off, I’d discovered some news that made the ground tremor. It had come to my attention after my final shift of the week, that back in Virginia, I had been disowned as a family member. Actually, being disowned would have been a privilege. I was told that I did not exist. A source close to me informed me than an uncle on my father’s side claimed that he didn’t know my mother had any children, though he’d met me on multiple occasions when I was young. What baffled me wasn’t the fact that he could say this with conviction. I wondered how he could’ve brought himself to deny that I was alive because I’m sure it’s not something he came up with on his own.

Then it hit me.

The only way that anyone could jump on board with saying that I didn’t exist was if the seed was planted by another source: a familial source that could’ve been angry with me. That source had to have been my father, who I’d not spoken to since before returning to the United States. It only made sense considering he was none too pleased when he learned I had arrived back in the states and hadn’t contacted him. (That was due to his lack of help when I needed him most back in January 2012 when I was basically being detained in Britain and had exhausted all of my funds trying my best to return home.) If, indeed, he had disowned me, and succeeded in having others jump on board with this foolishness in which he would deny his own progeny, then I guess I’d have to follow suit and continue not existing in his world.

I tried to be nonchalant about the statement, but it vexed me. I thought to myself ‘Wait a minute. People who I’ve known, but may not have dealt with much, are saying that they do not acknowledge me as my father’s son? Better yet, they state that they, indeed, know who my mother is, but are convinced that I’ve not existed over these past 27 years? I’m HERE! And I’m sure those people I interacted with have the factual knowledge of my being a product of my mother and father’s love.’

Obviously love wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to keep my parents together and it wasn’t enough for me to “exist” after all these years.

The news shouldn’t have been as heartbreaking as it was, but I couldn’t help but feel jilted by this man I used to champion for his charm, joie de vivre and genuine loving nature. Who knew he would grow to become so dilapidated in his mindset and disdain for me; his blood, who has only done his absolute best to do right in this world?  In the aftermath of that news, I was beyond disappointed in this man who, at that point, would hold no weight with me beyond the circumference of where he grew up.

I’d have to ask God for healing, to grant me the power to forgive, and to push me to be greater. I promised myself not to subscribe to poor examples of leadership. Then I thanked God for the many powerful men that had been placed into my life; some older than me, but the majority of men were my age, who I’d met in high school, college, and overseas. If you can’t emulate your father, the only solution is to emulate the Holy Father you see in the spirit of others. Thank God, I’m blessed with many fine examples of men who love, uplift, and inspire and who acknowledge my existence.

Patriarchal tangents aside…

On my days off, I had to reward myself with things that would make me feel like a competent human being. On one day off, I linked up with a friend from high school and we managed to go see Valerie Simpson perform live under the stars. Nothing like a bit of old school to make one appreciate the good things in life.

Brandy

Brandy

On another day, I swapped shifts with a young lady at work so that I could go meet Brandy Norwood (my absolute favorite vocalist) in person at BET’s 106th and Park. Despite feeling like I was way too old to sit in the audience of that show, I was happy I waited in line for 2 hours with the 18-24 year old fans (called STARZ), to see an artist who I respected and admired for her never-ending desire to be what God made her: a supernova of positive energy and light. The highlight of that experience was getting the chance to see Brandy debut her first video in years, “Put It Down,” and having her push a fan aside so that she could hug me. I’d hurriedly yelled to her that I traveled all the way from Virginia to see her (this is a true story) and she left the person she was with and gave me the hugest hug saying “Thank you so much for coming. I appreciate you so much.” If I ever get fans in this lifetime, I’ll have to keep in mind that appreciating them at all times is how you keep them.

 On other days off, however, when I was frustrated with myself for thinking that I wasn’t good job at my new job (or led to believe so by some in the all-female environs I was in), I found another activity to bring me peace: Walking.

            I’d had bad day at work and it was the customers who were giving me a hard time. But I was so incensed at feeling like I was perpetually doing something wrong that once I left work, I couldn’t go home. So I commenced walking downtown. As the numbers on the New York streets decreased, my heart sank below my ribs, past my abdominal organs and sauntered in tandem with my trudging feet…until I trampled upon a smidgen of joy: The Donut Plant in Chelsea. I thought to myself, ‘The people in this section of town probably don’t even eat donuts. Probably trying to watch their figures. Well, fuck them; they aren’t in need of gourmet salvation as much as I am.’ Uncharacteristically, I didn’t indulge in my donuts immediately. Instead, I allowed myself to be lead to the Chelsea Piers, which would soon become my favorite place in the city. It was where I  eventually devoured my donuts. It was, also, where I found the most peace. IMG_1115

            Open water. Something about it soothes the shit out of my soul. Can’t swim a lick, but boy-oh-boy, I can listen to lapping, waving water for hours. I imagine that it’s God having a conversation with only me. Once the conversation is over, I imagine mermaids reassuring my existence with their serene smiles…and then I envision an asshole of a prankster pushing me into the water and me drowning. This drowning is further aided by the appearance of an octopus which suction cups me to death and drags me deep into the ocean-y abyss. (Yes, that is how quickly my spiritually enlightening situation turned ridiculous because my imagination ran wild.IMG_1118Once I pulled myself out of Imagination Land, however (looking around suspiciously to make sure no one was trying anything sneaky), I walked back into my New York life, from Christopher Street to 72nd Street. From there, I took the “2” back to Intervale Avenue.

            The final two weeks of August I decided to be more proactive in my apartment search as my month of subletting was rapidly coming to an end. Looking for housing in New York has to be one of the most frustrating, strenuous, and unsatisfying acts in the world. Things started well. I’d found two potential roommates online via one of those “We’re artists and we’re looking for roommate/sub letters” groups on Facebook. Everything started fine. We all got along, and we were looking for various apartments in various places together. We were mainly looking to stay Uptown, and in or near Harlem. We saw a perfect apartment, but at day’s end, the price range was completely astronomical for our artistic budgets. Also, there was the little thing about guarantors, and filling out an application that was longer than a work application. “Tedious” isn’t a good enough descriptor for what we went through.

Eventually, one roommate decided he’d want to live in a different environment while the other lucked up and had her leased renewed for the same low price she’d been paying…and I was left with no one to live with. I had no leads on affordable places to stay and about 5 days left before my sublet was up. Had I been given a false sense of security about my circumstances? Was I truly working hard enough to survive in this city? Where was my focus? How had I allowed myself to get to this point with no safety net whatsoever? Was my beginners luck coming to an end? By the final day of September, my clothes were packed and in the living room of the sublet, but I hadn’t moved out because I still had no other alternatives…and that was after seeing roughly fifteen different options and almost being scammed by one Craigslist posting. Things were not looking good…

Waiting on the train...

Waiting on the train…

The Boy from Virginia Tastes the Concrete Jungle

July 15th, 2012

When I stepped off the Greyhound Bus from Norfolk, Virginia at 7am that Sunday morning and stepped foot into New York’s Port Authority Bus Station, my small overhead wheelie suitcase in tow, I’d only set two goals for myself: 1) Find the location of the room I’d rented for the next two days and 2) find a job. Oh, and find a place to charge my phone. So, three goals total. And I had four days to accomplish them all. It had been four years since I was last in New York City, and despite prior recollection, it wasn’t to attend grad school auditions (which had happened earlier in the same year), but instead for a movie premiere of a relatively well-known television show-turned film. When I last came to New York, I’d become one with midtown and scraped the surface of Harlem. Manhattan was my island (in my mind). But, as this particular trip to New York was a much needed exodus, I didn’t care where I stayed, as long as it resulted in me eventually being able to live there on a more permanent basis. So, I took out my iPhone, typed in the address I was given, and used my lovely Embark NYC app (best app for subway transportation) to figure out how to get to where I was going. After purchasing my Metro Card I weaved my way through the underground maze to find the “7” train that would take me to the dreaded “G” train. You see, the place I was about to venture was a borough that’d only existed in hip-hop lyrics and my youngest uncle’s anecdotes: Brooklyn, new home of the hipsters I thought I left in Shoreditch, London.

            Half an hour later, I was rushing out of the Myrtle-Willoughby station to make sure I could meet this random woman who’d allowed me to rent her room for the next two days. She’d had to go to work but she’d wanted to drop off her key to me and allow the previous tenant to move out (I’d later find out that subletting and room- renting is the norm for most New Yorkers strapped for cash). This meant that I’d only be dropping off my stuff and then heading immediately back over the bridge into Manhattan. I left the apartment with a folder of resumes in my hand and my cell phone and charger (still hadn’t managed to accomplish that goal), and decided to head back to Manhattan.

            My plan was to see if I could get a job with the former company I’d worked with over in London. I knew that they had 4 branches in New York and I was going to dedicate the full day to visiting every single store. I was also going to visit each branch because while overseas, I’d met the manager of one of the shops and I wasn’t sure which one she managed. So my journey would serve a twofold purpose. If none of them were hiring, I was equipped with a sexy resume to take elsewhere. Considering the summer heat and the early hours, I decided to go furthest from my location and ride all the way up to the Upper West Side.

            I’d gotten to the Upper West Side Branch a bit too early for my own liking. The shop manager hadn’t yet arrived. But I was in luck.

            “She’ll be here in about thirty minutes,” The perky manager on duty assured me.

            “Great, well then I’ll come back,” I replied just as perky. Hell, perkiness was a requirement for the company, and I knew how to serve it with all its sweetness. “I just want to make sure I meet the manager in person.” I flashed my best Crest smile, and took my shine out of the door with me.

            While I prepped to give my little “This is why you should hire me” spiel to the manager, I killed time by walking up Broadway and into a Barnes and Nobles. Anytime I’m in a bookshop, I just imagine I own it for a little bit. Then I sigh when I realize I’ll never own all of these books, and I resign myself to flipping through the pages of interesting books and reading the book jackets while making mental lists of future literary material. After thumbing through my tenth book, I realized I’d wasted enough time and that it was about to be “showtime.” So I briskly walked back down Broadway, blazer blowing in the wind (which always makes me feel important and business-sexy). With each block, the anticipation grew, as well as a bit of anxiety. I hate interviewing for jobs, but I understand protocol, and I wondering how to sell myself as I entered the shop.

            “She’s still not here.” I was informed. Darn. I was too eager. I hoped that wouldn’t work against me. I decided to browse the shop and become familiar with the items I’d left behind. Yes, I knew these products like I knew my way around the stage, but now I was on American turf and I’m sure rules would be different.

A woman walked into the shop. I recognized her right away. It was the manager I’d met in London. When I reminded her who I was, she brightened as much as I did! I explained that I was desperately looking for a job. She said that she was hiring and wondered if I could do a trial shift the very next day. I came to New York with no set plans, so I immediately said yes and breathed a sigh of relief. I’d been looking for that woman specifically, and what were the odds that the universe would lead me directly into her shop first thing? Serendipitous, or Divine plan? Whatever it was, I was thankful.

Evening on the town. Streetcar Named Desire

Evening on the town. Streetcar Named Desire

I’d spent the latter part of that evening catching up with an old friend from college who was wonderful enough to purchase a ticket for me to see Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire with Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood.The show was stellar, and to this day, I feel I’ve not seen a more specific Blanche onstage. Reviews aside, I also bumped into one of my favorite professors from undergrad who was my mentor and one of the reasons I decided to go to school abroad. The Universe was giving me a lot of people. And New York was catching me in its net after my fall from grace in Virginia.

           

July 16th, 2012

The next day, I woke up, fully prepared to attend my trial shift at my potential new job. (I was also excited because I’d be able to reconnect with someone whose career I was secretly obsessed with, buuuut more on that later.) No one told me that the weather was on full Hades and that black and white clothing was not going to bring my body Arctic peace that day. So, to escape the heat, I decided to go another place I’d never been before, the Upper East Side.

What I learned on that part of town was…that I couldn’t afford it. That and the fact that I felt like I didn’t belong there with the clothes (and perspiration) I was wearing. So after a very brief walk around, I decided to take the plunge and walk through Central Park. I spent ample time there, only because my interview was at 2pm and it was only 12:30. Personally I didn’t understand the hoopla about the park.

Central Park 1 Central Park 2 Central Park 3 Central park 4

Sure it was expansive and full of wonder, but I was only temporarily awed by it all. Then I remembered that I was comparing this park to Hyde Park in London and that’s when I realized I needed to start booking it through the haze to my trial shift. I passed by young black men break dancing in the park for passersby, gaggles of tourists in similar states of wonderment, and many statues that were clearly holding down the fort when people weren’t around.

 After eating an overpriced tuna sandwich at a place called Viand, I’d made it to my trial shift about fifteen minutes prior to my needing to be there. (Had to give a good impression, right?) Soon, I donned the infamous black apron that had been a part of my wardrobe for two and a half years in London, and went out on the floor to show my old job that I still had their skills. An hour and a half later, and having made a cumulative sale of over $350, I. Was. Hired. Goal one: accomplished! Logistics and paperwork would be handled later, but I was definitely on the team which meant I could go back home, and pack up my life and move to the concrete jungle.

One of the most inspiring people I know.

One of the most inspiring people I know.

I beamed with pride in myself as I hurried to meet my fellow actor friend,who’s been inspiring me since I met him. Though he and I weren’t the closest of friends four years ago when I first met him, we’d always been privy to one anothers journey’s. I believe that, in and of itself, was enough to connect us. We’d met over coffee and I’d apologized for being late. He’d congratulated me on the job and then it was down to business. I needed to tell him why I was actually in New York. After responding incredulously to what I’d told him, and confirming that a move was definitely the right decision (“Dude, yeah, you needed to get out of that situation. For your own health”), the issue of housing arose. Where would I stay? Had I looked into finding an apartment? Just as I was about to answer those questions, I saw something like clarity wash over his face.

“Oh!” he said, He fumbled for his phone and began to search his contacts as he spoke to me. “I know someone who’s looking for a roommate and you’d be perfect for each other.” I felt like he was about to find me a boo, not a roommate. “Lemme see if the room is still available.”

He made a call. The phone rang. He dialogued. The room was not available.

“You know, it’s ok…I can go on Craiglist or Air BnB or something,” I conceded.

“No no no. Give me a second.” He swiped through his contacts once again. Made a call. He talked me up. Then he handed me the phone. The young woman was looking for someone to sublet her place for a month while she was on tour and it was so affordable that I couldn’t help but say yes. It was in the Bronx (not too deep in the Bronx). It would be available in two weeks. It was near the 2 train (the exact train I’d need to get to work). All in all, it was perfect.  I had a place to stay (temporarily). Just like that. I thought to myself, this meeting was destiny. He read my mind.

“Isn’t that God?” He asked. Part of me wanted to ask ‘where?’ until I realized he was referring to my situation. “I mean, look at it. You came all the way to New York – with nothing, mind you- and on your second day in the city you walk away with a job AND a place to stay?”

He was right, but he made me sound like some sort of chosen miracle person. So I tried to talk down the situation, “A place to stay for a month…not a home…”

“Still, it’s a place to stay!” he said. Could the wonder in his tone have been legitimate? Was it possible that a person I was in awe of felt the same about me?

“Who are you? I mean, how many people can say that’s happened to them?”

He kept piling on the special, so I felt obliged to tell him, “I guess I’m blessed.” And then I bowed my head and blushed, like a kid who’d been told that he made Student of the Month. I blushed because I’m not good with being praised for things that I have no control over. And while I tried my best to laugh it all off, I could tell that my friend could see something in me that I couldn’t. He’d identified a light in me that I wasn’t acknowledging and one in which I refused to acknowledge. I hoped, as I sat in his presence that his light would rub off on me as I was still feeling guilty about my home situation, and still numb to what had happened to my cousin months earlier.

After we parted ways, I ended my night with another college friend who lived in Brooklyn. She got me drunk on corner store wine and I ended up drunk, nauseated, and eventually asleep on a bench at Clinton-Washington station (and it was only midnight). Once I realized that I’d been asleep and possible prey for the kitten sized rats that roamed the city nightly, I quickly sobered up enough to figure which direction to go on the train, and then I walked back to my rented room. Day 2 in New York had been an unexpected success.

I’d spent the next two days connecting with friends, since I had nothing else to do, and exploring the city that would soon become my home. While those last two days were basically a blur of buildings, subway travel and oppressive heat, standout moments included reconnecting with a friend who was still reaping the rewards of her Tony nomination, and watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday at Bryant park with another friend from college.

IMG_0875Cinema in Bryant Park

My big sis.

My big sis.

(When people come back into your life, it’s definitely for a reason and this friend of mine would prove instrumental in ways I’d never imagined in months to come.) I remember having lunch with two of my former colleagues from undergrad (one a distant cousin who also inspired me in more ways than one by just being an amazing individual). We’d eaten at the bar where there were pictures of The How I met Your Mother Cast, and I told them both the real reason I was in the city to which they left judgment behind and comforted me with friendly words and comfort food.  I also remember getting lost on the subway returning to Brooklyn to stay with another friend as I couldn’t navigate the “J” or the “M.” When I made it to my destination, I vowed to never ever use those lines again.

 

July 18, 2012

On my final day, the levees on the sky seemed to break and there was a terrible thunderstorm which drove me into the movie theater to watch Moonrise Kingdom. That was the last activity I participated in that Thursday before I returned to Port Authority, dragging my small wheelie overhead suitcase, and hopping back on the Greyhound Bus to face my recent past…and pack/prepare for the future.

In four days, I’d accomplished more than I’d planned. And after such a warm, humid, balmy welcome to the city, I felt like, once I made the actual move, I’d accomplish a wealth of things I’d never experienced before…

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The Boy from Virginia leaves London (Chronicles of a Return Home)

February 12, 2012 around 4:00am

I crept into my shared Brixton flat still damp from the night out I’d had with my friends, a group I’d lovingly dubbed the BBoyz (which stands for both “Barcelona” boys and “Brown” boys). Somehow-as always-I’d allowed them to persuade me to spend “one more hour” out on the town and seeing as it was my final night in the United Kingdom, I obliged. I tossed my vintage London Fog trench onto my bed and tried to heat myself up. My tuxedo shirt was soaked though with my dance-sweat and my H&M combat boots needed to be peeled from me and packed into the suitcase I’d finished pre-loading only days before. It had been 2 years and one month that I’d spent in London, and the memories, trials and the overall tribulations had swarmed my mind in a rush of images. I blinked them away as I desperately tried to make sure I’d packed every single thing I needed and had all my alarms set so that I could hop on my one-way flight back to Virginia, a place I’d hadn’t lived consistently since I was 14 years old. Was home an accurate term for America anymore?

            I had so many thoughts (a trait that has seriously become my downfall), and as I tried to filter them and make sense of the flurry of emotions I only thought I’d prepared myself for, my mind kept going back and forth between two things: the death of Whitney Houston only 2 hours prior, and what would soon be the end of the life I’d created across seas. Between my grieving for Brandy Norwood (yes, I thought of her heavily at the time because Whitney was her mentor) and trying to process how such a legend could be snatched away from this earth, I only kept thinking that if I were to die, I’d need to leave behind something of which I could be ultimately proud. I didn’t know what that would be back then, and even today, I’m not sure if what I have to give to this world is as significant as my voice. Yet, maybe the idea is merely to give freely of oneself in the best way you know how. Even in love; give. The taking is easy. The giving is courageous.

            I’d given so much of myself to a country that had given me the worst exit process ever. Getting out of college wasn’t as difficult as leaving the United Kingdom (Thanks UK Border Control…), though even that was hard too, if I recall correctly. But unlike other places I’d given myself to, I felt like things were actually reciprocated in London. When I laid a foundation, my English universe around me helped me build a house. And I felt that in my journey to the past (England is five hours ahead of Virginia), I’d be demolishing the house that Tommy built. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in my mind: Deny.  I denied that I was leaving for good and vowed to return if it was the last thing I did. So, with prayers for Whitney Houston and her family on my heart, prayers for my safe return home in about 6 hours, and a body that had finally got some heat from my duvet, I warmed up to the idea that a return home was not permanent and would ultimately be for the best.

 

February 12, 2012 around 9:00am

If I dreamed at all that night, I’m sure it was about something fun because I awoke prepared and with no fear.

My best friend -an Italian gent and former RSAMD classmate who I considered family-called my phone to tell me he was ready to accompany me to the airport. It was time. The leaving was real and I couldn’t deny it any further. So he’d come to flat early in the morning to help me schlep my luggage to the airport via the Tube system.. I said goodbye to my lovely roommate, who had become like a big brother to me, gave him my keys and he locked the door behind me. I walked confidently out of and away from my Brixton flat, luggage in tow, my best friend at my side. With each step I pressed into the pavement, the ground soaked up the despair I’d swallowed deep into the pit of my stomach. I felt the wind try its best to blow away at the thick skin I’d managed to wear that day. But the silly banter and conversation between my Italian brother and me served as a barrier to its breezy attempts.

As far as I was concerned, I was going to make it to the airport with no tears, no regrets, no sadness, because as I’d said the night before, I was going to return home to London. Period.

My friend seemed to have the same thoughts. He treated me as if we’d be hanging out at his house the next day, talking all things theatrical and gorging ourselves on homemade casserole. He was in denial too. And I appreciated him so much more for it.

An hour’s train ride later, I arrived at London Heathrow Airport and my brother and I looked at one another and basically gave each other hugs and both said, “This isn’t the end.” There were no tears (thank goodness, because I would’ve looked at him like he was crazy) and it was the simplest “see you later” I’d ever experienced with him. He watched me step through the door into the departure gate and if he did shed tears upon my leaving, at least he had the decency to wait until I disappeared behind the double doors.

I had two hours to kill until take off. So what better way to spend that time than to send goodbye texts to everyone? I decided if I was going to be schmaltzy, I would at least do it along the lines of of a high school yearbook (you know, “You’re an awesome friend.” “Never change”. “K.I.T *happy face*”)…but with my signature honest/ loving style. I’m very sure I sent all of the BBoyz a text thanking them for their contributions to my London life and for being my family when I felt I had none. I thanked every single person, teacher, mentor, coworker, friend I could via text. And the most important person I thanked was the last person I texted: a friend of mine who I credit with helping me discover the true meaning of “adventure.” He was a person I swore I would write a novel or a series about someday as his presence in my life gave me a confidence I’m certain I’d never have if I’d never encountered him two years prior (um…that was along sentence). So I told him all of this in the sappiest text message I have ever sent to him. And fortunately, I got a sappy text back. (But not a seriously sappy text as Brits still manage to keep a certain awkward, stoic, aloofness about themselves.)

“Now boarding…” began the announcement and I knew that after a flash of my ticket/ passport and after a walk down a long cold corridor, I’d be terminating everything. “Hasta la vista, London.” With departure imminent, I began to think…

“I’ve managed to perform a multitude of shows while I was here…I just performed a lead in a phenomenal workshop with a well known playwright…I have been well reviewed twice in this country by The Globe….I’ve been on a set with both Dev Patel and Ed Westwick…I’ve met one of the coolest British celebs I’ve ever come across and have been privy to see him multiple times in London…my agent has been the most phenomenal agent I could’ve asked for…my friends love me…I’ve done so many things that I’d never have done in America…I’ve been to SPAIN and spoke Spanish with the natives!!!… I’ve loved…have I made a difference here?…did I leave anyone behind who may have loved me enough to try and keep me here? (That last question is definitely going to remain unanswered in this lifetime I’m sure).”

I felt the plane pull away from the gate, and like the best move I’ve ever watched, I replayed the entire duration of my two years in five minutes. I saw myself getting on a plane in Virginia and leaving my family behind to start my graduate career and eventually my theatrical career in Scotland. I saw my first day at grad school. I saw myself graduate with my Masters at the age of 24. I saw me performing and being both happy and sad at some of my experiences. I saw loads of successful and rather unsuccessful auditions and conversations with my agents after all of them. I could hear myself singing at Cellar Door in Covent Garden and I could see how many times I’d hung out with the people who had become my family. And as the pressure inside the cabin increased, and I felt the plane begin its ascent into the sky, I descended involuntarily into tears.

Window seats can be blessings. I didn’t have to face the other passengers who were prepping the seven hour flight home by watching in flight films. So I looked out the window as the clouds began to blanket my view, and the city that had once appeared huge to me became a net of streets and tiny cars driving on the wrong side of the road. Had it been a dream? These past two years? Had I truly lived away in another country and gained love, respect and ultimately freedom for myself?

It felt like I’d gone over the rainbow, overstayed my welcome, and was being forced back into the world of sepia, black and white. And true…I guess there is no place like home…but what if you couldn’t discern which home was the right one?

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The Boy from Virginia Expresses Support

I stopped praying the day after my cousin, Carlos, was buried. It’s not that I stopped believing in God, nor because I stopped believing in the power of prayer. To be honest, I can’t really give a specific reason as to why I’d stopped. Could it have been that for almost two weeks straight I’d been talking to Him non-stop? Maybe I felt like I’d been bothering God too much. Maybe I stopped praying because I couldn’t deal with the intensity of events that had occurred during those surreal two weeks. Maybe it was because I was so emotionally drained by the time that everything was over that my first thought was not to pray but, instead, to rest.

So I did. And have been resting ever since, it seems. Somehow during this “rest” period, I seem to be losing my motivation, my hopes, and my will to keep on a happy face when the air around me is so desolate and at times suffocating. I’m ready to breathe again. But what will it take for me to breathe more easily?

When I first returned to America on February 12th, I had so many dreams, goals, aspirations. I brought them across the Atlantic with me when I left London. I figured that the relative success I’d experienced over in the UK would accompany me through Customs and sit with me and my family at dinnertime. But I should’ve known that leaving London, I was leaving the future. (Literally…Brits live 5 hours in advance of those of us living on the East Coast). So after taking my journey into the past, it would become evident in the months to come, that focusing on my future would prove even more difficult. Here’s the crux of why:

In London, I created a family out of friends. They may not have been blood, but damn if they didn’t contribute to and help change my life. More or less they made my life more amazing. In Virginia, I have my family, and very little people I can call my friends…well…just a couple from my childhood. They haven’t been as privy to my life as (per se) my mother has been. Through hearsay, they’ve soaked in my triumphs…but I’m sure they’ve never heard of my failings. Then again…there was always one family member who knew what I was going through and made the effort to get to know me and accept my journey in this world. You see…it’s one thing to be proud of your family. It’s another to love them unconditionally and be present for their ups and downs. My cousin, Carlos did the latter…and it hurts me to my soul to no longer have him on this earth…It was just over month ago I was watching him in action, being the king that most men only wish they could be.

I can’t believe it was just over one month ago…

The fight, the commotion, the gunshots, my fear. Blood. Sirens. Tears. God, the tears. The montage would occur every single night for two week before allowing me a less chaotic sleep. And each night, I unashamedly made the ugly “trying-to-stop-your-tears-from-falling-out-your-eyes” face because I just couldn’t understand why this situation had to occur in the first place. In my life, I’ve only heard about confrontations that “spiraled out of control” as cliché as it all sounds. To witness such spiraling up close and personal is something I never want to experience ever again (and I know I’m not alone in that desire).

What I got to see, firsthand, was the aftermath of gun violence. This was not my first time losing a family member to gun violence. When I was eight, a cousin of mind was killed by a gun. He lived about three more days afterwards and then he died. I was too young to understand the circumstances or situation that lead up to his shooting, but I did understand that my cousin was gone for good.

From a young age I was exposed to death more than a kid should’ve been. That exposure showed me that life eventually ends, and the world keeps going. But then again…so does grief. At this point in my life, I’m certain that grief never dies.

Nor does shock.

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that pure shock may’ve been the emotion that hit the surface first. I mean…how else does one respond to his first time of seeing someone draw a gun with clear intentions to shoot a person?

It was just an argument, initially; something that you might see on some VH1 reality show where females, who don’t know how to handle themselves with words, decide that each other’s faces would look better on each other’s knuckles. Well, once that skirmish turned into all out war at my Aunt and Uncle’s 30th wedding anniversary dinner, a deadly threat came out of nowhere. Fearing that the threat would become a promise, loads of us ended up outside. I, among many, pleaded for peace. Nearby a struggle to keep a hand down was lost and that same hand possessed the instrument which would spark fear into a group of people dressed in formal wear who were, only moments ago, celebrating a milestone of love. The hand holding the gun fired into the air.

PopPopPop. They sounded like fireworks, but there was no glittery cascade. Only the crescendo of screams. Then the scattering.

I remember vividly seeing the gun. And upon hearing the first shot, I turned away from what would be the scene of the crime because 1) I knew that if I stayed, I’d be in the line of fire. 2) my mother and her bestie were nearby and all I wanted to do was protect the two women I came to the function with. 3) If I were to be hit by a stray bullet, I at least wanted to make sure I knew my mother was alright. I kept thinking to myself (while I was running back into the venue shouting from the top of my lungs for people to “GET DOWN” and “GET BACK INSIDE THE BUILDING) ‘I don’t care if I die as long as my mom is alright.’ Who knew that nobility would be a quality both me and Carlos also shared.

Gunshots continued behind me, along with the screams and the clacking of heels and dress shoes, as I ran into the building, mother in tow. We were safe. But bullets can come through walls, so I tried to get as many people to go into the main dining room as possible. I became frazzled. What do I do next? How do I remain calm? Is anyone hurt? Tommy, stay calm. Has anyone called the police? Tommy, fucking calm down? I’m calling the police!

I turned around and saw one of my first cousins: the daughter of the bride and groom. And I’ll never ever forget hearing her say:

“I’ve been shot”

My mind went blank, but my body didn’t. I breathed and couldn’t believe I was seeing blood trickle doen her leg. When my synapses decided to work, I thought…she’s been shot in the leg. She’s alive.

“Someone get me a cloth or something to tie her leg up with. I need to stop the bleeding!!!” The voice was from a woman who had already started some first aid on my cousin.

I grabbed the first thing I could see: the ribbon from the back of one of the chairs in the venue. Another man donated the shirt off of his back. “I don’t need it,” he said.

I think I muttered the word “shit” so much that night that it became ineffective. I muttered it as I called the police. I muttered it as the phone rang. I segued into a quick interlude of “why the fuck am I on hold” when the police dispatch didn’t pick up. My refrain of “shit’s” picked up once more when I went outside and was informed that Carlos had been shot. All cursing ceased when I saw him lying motionless on the ground; his lovely wife with him, devastated. His parents, my Uncle and Aunt, torn up with emotion. No one thought that a night that had been dedicated to love and celebration would end with casualties and an arrest (Yes, the shooter was caught).

I could spend pages elaborating on the hospital visits and the doctor & surgeon updates…but I won’t. Each day was like being on a see-saw. Emotions went up, then dropped. Patience was tested. Tears came and went. Faith was strong. Sometimes…it was barely there. Life went on.

I filmed an episode of a TV show to days into the hospital period. In it, I played a young gang member who robbed people at gunpoint…and also shot people at point blank range. I’d played men who used guns before, but as an actor I could at least justify why the character felt the need to use one. In this series, I played a person who showed a blatant disregard for human life. A cold-blooded killer who saw nothing wrong in what he was doing.  I felt strange (absurd even) to be playing a killer, having witnessed two days prior what guns actually do to a human life; how a tiny metal bullet can cripple and utterly destroy internal organs, shortening the duration of time one has left on this Earth. Still, like a professional (who gives a flying fuck about professionalism at a moment like that?) I powered through, occasionally finding moments to smile.

I spent the hospital period thinking heavily about the myriad of people affected by my cousin. (Hell, they were showing up in hoards at the hospital.) My Aunt and Uncle were always on my mind. So were my other cousins, his siblings. I mean, his oldest sister understood his pain. She would eventually walk again, warrior that she is, but she understood. I next thought about his wife, the woman who I only heard about before returning to the states. And I thought about his son: his contribution to this world. And that’s when the pain hit hardest.

Let me tell you something. I may not believe in true love for myself, but I will say that my cousin chose wisely and very well. His wife is one of the most graceful queens I’ve seen walk on this earth. I knew from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet that he chose the love of his life so watching her deal with this situation really touched my spirit. And my little cousin, his son…to lose his father? I never understand it when God decides to take a parent away from his child. That more hurtful than anything.

Eventually, I would think about my mother’s relationship with him. It was a special one. He loved being around my mother and would visit sporadically and call all the time. He loved my mom and he stood in place for me when I couldn’t be there for my siblings. He was a mentor to my older brother and truth-teller to my sister. But what did he mean to me? Well…

My history with Carlos is both long and brief, it seems. I feel that during childhood, I only remember my cousin from important events: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, family reunions, maybe a theme park trip? We weren’t necessarily the closest growing up….but who’s really to blame for that?

Then something happened. I went away to private school. And while my relationship with my oldest cousin (his older brother) began to decline, Carlos made himself more present. I would hear word -through my mother- that he was asking about me and wanting to check up on me. We eventually exchanged email addresses and phone numbers.

When I went to college, he came to Philly to see me perform. Not only that, he also hung out with me and got a chance to participate in my “actor’s life.” We had drinks. We chilled. He met the people in my life who made me happy: my college friends. I was merely happy to have a family member in my age range hang out with me and be privy to what my life what about. Yet, nothing tops him giving me a hand when I didn’t know where to turn.

I was in Scotland, and I’d just signed with my agent and I viewed my first and only flat in East London. I knew it was where I wanted to live, but I had to make a decision fast. Even before moving down, I was booking castings left and right and remaining in Scotland would’ve been counteractive if I didn’t act soon. But I would never have afforded my security deposit or rent on my retail salary. My mom gave Carlos a call and no questions asked…he helped invest in my future. I don’t even think that he knew how much he was contributing to my life experience by doing that. Indebted to him? Yes. I am. Forever.

“Cuz” he would say. “You are doing a good thing with your life and I’ma support it. Besides I know once you get big, you got me!” He would express his support for me all the time. Still, anybody can express support. My cousin showed it.

I was fortunate enough to support him on the very day I returned home from London, February 12th. That was the day of his wedding dinner. He married his lovely wife the next day. People who know me know that I’m in a conflicted place about love. I don’t truly believe it’s an exclusive emotion, but in m€y life, I am randomly shown that it does exist exclusively for some people. Additionally, when love is genuine and it truly works, it shines. Both Carlos and his wife lit up a room when they entered together. Their union was one of the most perfect matches I’ve seen in a long time and to top things off, they have a wonderful son. I was very proud of my cousin for having it all and for handling his duties as a husband, father, brother, cousin, and friend.

The moment in which I was most proud of my cousin happened about 30 minutes before the chaos that ensued. We were on the dance floor at the wedding anniversary, me trying my best to dance but not sweat out my rented tuxedo. A younger cousin of ours was also on the dance floor and my cousin spoke to her in front of me. A sort of apology was occurring, it seemed. Some misunderstanding had occurred and my two cousins were making amends. But one of his statements to her was “You are too good for him. You are too much of a Queen for me to allow anyone else to treat you like that. You gotta know that about yourself. I don’t want nobody treating you less than the Queen you are.”

And just like that…my heart was warm and I knew that Carlos and I were of similar ilk. What a poignant thing to say to a young woman who needed to hear it. To be honest, what woman doesn’t need positive encouragement from someone who believes in her? That was the last time I had the privilege of seeing his light shine so brightly. But his final act of leaping in front of a bullet to save a life was when his light was at its most brilliant. The Warrior I had come to know had become a Hero. Just like that.

My thanks and gratitude should be extended to every single person who showed support during that time. My family wasn’t aware that I had the world praying for my cousin, but I did. What was most endearing was the outpour of love from friends near and far, strangers, and even Twitter/ Instagram randoms (yes, I asked for prayers wherever I could get them). Still, though the power of prayer was both electric and palpable, it didn’t have the energy to keep my cousin alive. I. however,  have never been so proud of the love and humanity shown by others. I have been fortunate enough in my life to experience the kindness of strangers. My hope was that that kindness would extend itself to others who also deserved it. Luckily, I’ve not burned too many bridges in my life. I think that’s a quality I shared with my cousin, whose death has left a bit of an empty space in me.

But I’m being selfish.

I didn’t lose a son. I didn’t lose the love of my life. I didn’t lose a father, or a mentor. I lost my cousin. So why do I grieve? I lost one of the few family members to have ever been privy to the artistic side of my life. To have been privy to what made me happy in this world: my dream. I lost a family-friend, someone that I do feel is truly difficult to find. And I feel selfish for speaking about how much he meant to me when he was clearly many things to numerous people.  Those who know me know that among the things I value most in this world are my friends and family. When you are my friend, my loyalty to you is unmatched. I’m sure it was the same with Carlos. Also, Carlos was a young black male who actually loved me. Not saying that other male members of my family don’t, but I can honestly say that I felt it from him. That makes a difference to me. In a world where people do not tell each other how much they mean to them, I had a cousin who always let me know “ I love you, Cuz” and “Whatever you wanna do, I’m with it. Just let me know so I can support you.”

Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a loved one. No matter how many losses you may have experienced beforehand. Each death is the end of a specific chapter. And it’s an ending that it completely out of our hands. But whatever lesson it is I’m supposed to learn from this situation…I just don’t know. All deaths make people want to love more. I try to do that every day. But it is hard to accept that an innocent life was snatched from this world. Not a day will go by that my family and I won’t yearn to see Carlos once again. He’s left bit of himself behind, though. Through his son, he lives on. Through pictures, he lives on. Through memories, he lives on!

I have a confession, before I close this entry: I’ve not deleted his phone number from my iPhone, nor his final text messages. We discussed his son and how inspiring his innocence was to us as adults. We discussed plans for a summer trip to Busch Gardens. I told him I’d just booked the lead in an episode of a crime-drama show called Wicked Attraction.  His final reply to me was “ I’m proud of you cuz.”

To a Hero (and now Angel), I say, as I’ve said many times before: “Thank You, Cuz. I’m proud of your entire life.”

Your birthday was one month ago today. You would be 26. We all miss you down here…and like I’ve said before, Carlo, I’ll never ever forget the King you are. Love you, Cuz!

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