Sarah, a 26-year-old actor, relates a story that takes place at another watering hole in Harlem. She lives just uptown from Alexandra in Washington Heights, but “not on the bourgie family side, on the Dominican side.” Sarah is every bit an actor, talking with her hands and expressive face. When asked about gentrification in Washington Heights, a trend largely due to the influx of young (often white, like Sarah) creative types, she launches into a story, illustrated with animated gestures.
She was sitting at the bar next to a “cute biracial” CNN anchor whom she didn’t recognize. “We had a heated discussion about gentrification — at this shmancy brunch place.” He was commenting on the positive aspects, and the ability of people to better themselves, achieve success and afford higher rents. Sarah’s face grows serious. “But people can’t always better themselves; some people don’t have the same opportunities and aren’t the ‘right’ race, age, or gender or whatever. You can’t not have a computer growing up, and then suddenly write perfect college entrance essays. And I feel weird because I’m white, and since I ‘have’ that, I guess I can’t really talk about it.” Asked if her privilege has made life easier for her as a struggling actor, she replies, “We weren’t making enough money to be spending it like [crazy]. I work hard; I have worked, like, every job. But my parents are extremely generous, so I do have some privilege. They paid for me to go to a one-year acting conservatory.”
Sarah has resisted the draw of grad school in theater arts for the very reason Alexandra mentioned. “I mean, yeah, I should probably take more classes, but I can’t afford it. The more money you have, the better school you go to; the better school, the better showcase you’re in; the better the showcase … then an agent comes.” She has worked in theater since college, auditioning when she can, when having to make rent hasn’t been getting in the way. One of her dreams is to do a television series, since that medium seems to command the creative zeitgeist.
She has worked in bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, she’s blogged, babysat, and the list goes on. She currently blogs for a website called ClaimFame and is a nanny for a family with a 13-year-old boy. “This weekend was his bar mitzvah, and we spent the night at the Natural History Museum.”
“Kids in New York don’t realize how cool that is,” she says. It seems like this New York is pretty different from the Washington Heights New York. Are there really two New Yorks? One of privilege and one without?
“I mean …” She hesitates. “I have friends that have a lot more disposable income, and I try to live at their level and can’t. A lot of people who get help from their parents. I mean, the resentment is there, and it causes a lot of strain on relationships. Because even in the arts, the more money you have, the more opportunities you have.” So why not get a day job in the corporate world, perform on the side, and live “at their level”?
Here Sarah identifies a sort of tipping point that most artists fear: When is it time to give up the dream? What happens when we find what is behind that “door to the unknown,” and it’s not what we think it is?
“I’m just green enough to think success is possible,” she says. “I mean, in the short term, I’d be happy with just getting enough of my own stuff on camera to get a reel to show people. My goal is to feel like an artist all day every day, and to not be crammed into … you know?
“My whole family has been in the corporate world in some capacity,” she says, “and there’s the idea that you need to ‘change’ yourself. But it’s also like, at what point am I 35 years old and still babysitting?”