I’m on the campaign trail with Julie Menin, the front-runner in the November 2013 election for Manhattan borough president. My job is to hand out literature to voters, explain Julie’s position on controversial issues and collect names of potential volunteers. We’ve crisscrossed New York City all day, and now I’m witnessing a tête-à-tête between Julie and a local power broker. We’re seated on metal chairs in the warehouse where he runs his business. The temperature is 38 degrees. I remain huddled in my down jacket, but Julie takes off her coat and begins talking about her commitment to small-business owners and how she’ll create employment opportunities. An hour later, he pledges to reach out to his community on her behalf. I want to tell him how tenacious she is, but I’m so cold my teeth are chattering and I can’t get a word out. Running for elective office, I realize, is nothing like what I imagined after watching seven exhilarating seasons of West Wing.
I’ve been an actor all my life. Only a few weeks ago, I was in a casting office, waiting to audition for a role in which the character is supposed to sound like a cockatiel when she sneezes. “Chirp,” I hear from the room next door, where another actor is auditioning. “Chirp.” I am grateful for the opportunity to land an acting job, but I’ve just turned 51, and after 30 years in show business I’m feeling restless, wondering, “Is that all there is?” A few years ago, I successfully reinvented myself as a writer, and I enjoy the work, but the long caffeine- and salty-snack-fueled hours of labor can get lonely. While waiting to chirp, I think about alternative careers to test-drive, and politics tops the list.
I’m passionately opinionated about the direction our country is headed in, and the glamour of public life appeals to me. But do I have what it takes to become an elected official? I call Julie Menin’s campaign headquarters—she’s a distant acquaintance of mine, so I know she’s the former chair of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan and helped lead the revitalization of the ground zero neighborhood. She agrees to show me the ropes. If elected, Menin would serve a population of 1.6 million. I’m a people person, so I’m game.
My apprenticeship starts at a senior center, among real folks with real problems. “I was stuck alone in my apartment during Hurricane Sandy,” says one woman.
“Julie wants to create a list of seniors and disabled so that in an emergency, care can be provided quickly,” I offer, citing a policy paper Menin has published.
“We need another hospital downtown since St. Vincent’s closed,” says a white-haired gentleman.
“I once had a painful splinter removed by a very attractive doctor at that hospital,” I nod in agreement.
A ponytailed senior in a Rolling Stones T-shirt excuses himself briefly and returns smelling like marijuana. He wants to talk about improving the facility. I invite him to volunteer (he will give new meaning to the term grassroots support).
On day two, we head to an Upper West Side apartment, where still more constituents vie for face time. As I’m barraged with questions, I find myself longing for the solitude of my writing desk. The words of a Dostoevsky character pop into my mind: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” I am not as much of a people person as I’d thought. Politics is not for me. Maybe I could run for president of my neighborhood association? We have seven houses on the block.
Back home in Los Angeles, I revisit my list. My home-decorating style is an eclectic Art Deco–Indonesian fusion culled from yard sales, and my wardrobe is boho punk; friends describe the look as Liz Phair meets Les Miz, which I take as a compliment. I could start an online retail business. I seek out Kimberly Rubin, with whom I worked during her career as a film producer. She now curates and sells signature vintage fashion, jewelry and home accessories on ModCameo.com. “I’ve got great taste, and I’m good at bargain hunting,” I tell her.
“But can you deliver for other people and at the right price point?” Kimberly asks. She invites me to assist her on a project she’s agreed to do for a customer.
“Two midcentury chairs? Easy,” I say. I spend a weekend schlepping to flea markets. Not only can I not find in-expensive midcentury chairs, but I accidentally drop $150 on a pair of Robert Clergerie boots for myself.
I eventually locate the right chairs on eBay, but they are “slightly soiled.” Yuck. I drift to YouTube for a video break. Cats on a treadmill are irresistible, especially when you’re bored. At another online retailer, there’s a set of authentic tulip chairs, only they’re in Atlanta and the shipping will be costly. Kimberly’s words come back to haunt me: “You need to amortize your price by the amount you’ve paid and the hours you spend shopping, tracking Google Analytics and keeping current on trends on other sites. You also need to factor in the costs of running a website and of photo shoots.” YouTube tempts me again. Yep, nothing cuter than kittens.
Fourteen hours later, I e-mail pictures of my top choice, and I’m only $2,700 over budget. “We’ll just have to tell them to spend more,” I say. From Kimberly’s silence I determine that, for me, shopping should remain a hobby. Clearly I don’t have the patience for this gig.
What about a career as a do-gooder? I’ve volunteered for many causes and once appeared nude in an Internet campaign to persuade people to opt out of receiving junk mail. Confident I can turn my zeal into a fully clothed profession, I reach out to my sister, Lisa, who travels the globe as a senior executive for World Learning, an 80-year-old nonprofit.
“Come to an event in Washington, and we’ll put you to work,” she says. “You’ll need to know the backgrounds of the attendees, because that’s key when engaging with potential donors.”
“I can do this. I learn lines all the time!” I say.
“Oh, and read up on our AIDS project,” she adds. “We have programs in more than 60 countries, so just get familiar with all of them.” Gulp.
Guest bios begin flooding my e-mail inbox. I open the first one and am perplexed. Is it written in Cyrillic? After several minutes, I realize I’m looking at acronyms of government agencies. Someone works at USAID; there’s an ADA of the B of E&E, a PTP, an IDEP and an IREX. I have no idea what any of these mean, but I remind myself that I did once play an attorney on Boston Legal, to excellent reviews.
I arrive at World Learning’s D.C. headquarters in time to attend a series of educational seminars. Documents are passed around showing graphs labeled “Capacity building,” “Auditing performance gaps” and “Intervention chain implementation.” I’ve seen the words before, but never in those combinations. At the end of the session, one line in my notes reads, “Need a nap.”
I duck into my sister’s office to review my cheat sheets on projects in Liberia and Macedonia. I thought I’d put them in my handbag, but they are nowhere to be found. I pull out a school field trip permission slip that was due two weeks ago, fossilized breath mints and a Post-it that reads, “Call Barbara N!!!” I have no idea who Barbara N is. Lisa’s desk has color-coded calendars and briefing documents stacked in tidy piles. It’s not possible that we’re really sisters.
By the time the guests arrive at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium that night, I am exhausted—but also starstruck by the many celebrity politicos. I shake hands with one of my heroes, Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, then race across the room to get my picture taken with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. At dinner, I’m seated next to Joseph Sebarenzi, former speaker of the parliament of Rwanda. He’s on my list of dignitaries to chat up! It turns out that we both have teenagers, so we commiserate about how much time our offspring spend on Facebook, and I completely forget to talk about World Learning’s important projects in Liberia. By 11 pm, I’m so tired I excuse myself, having neglected to track down the eight other dignitaries on my list. At midnight I nod off on my sister’s couch. The next thing I know, it’s 10 in the morning and Lisa has been at the office since 7. It’s exciting when your work has global impact, but I’d need to start mainlining caffeine and Adderall to keep up the stamina for this job.
I have one last arena to explore. I am good with kids. As a mom, I’ve had 15 years of hands-on experience in the field. The birthday parties I threw for my son were always a hit. I call my friend Cheryl Bayer Brady, who, with two other former executives in the film industry, founded a popular Los Angeles children’s enrichment center. Moms take pole dancing or Pilates while kids learn how to play African drums or run a radio station.
“Our mission at Creative Space is edu-vacation,” Cheryl announces on the phone.
“Like educationand vacation combined?”
“Exactly! But we encourage silliness.” Cheryl was once head of comedy development at the Fox Network. “Listen, we’re about to brainstorm the theme for our summer camp,” she says. “We always do an age-appropriate spoof of a movie or play. The theme needs to inspire dance, music and conflict resolution. Why not pitch me something?”
The next day I am instantly in my element as I enter Creative Space’s brightly decorated loftlike interior. There’s kid art on the walls and a large bed in the lobby. This could be a good fit.
“Ready for my pitch?” I excitedly say as we squeeze into tiny chairs in one of the five large play spaces. “It’s called The Body. The littlest campers can spoof The Incredibles with The Incredibones because bones are the superheroes of the body. And they can make skeletons out of dry cleaner wire hangers. Older kids can do Left Brain Story. Instead of the Jets and the Sharks, they’ll sing and dance about how the left and right brain duke out decisions.”
“I love this!” Cheryl practically sings out in response.
I am thrilled that I have found a place where my comedic brain will be welcome. We peek into a classroom of preschoolers. “Hi, ChaCha!” says Cheryl. “Hi, Marzipan! Can you say hello to Annabelle?” My heart melts as I look into the toddlers’ big eyes and sweet faces, but I have to ask what might be a make-or-break question.
“If I worked here, would I have to change diapers?”
“Sure. I wouldn’t ask my teachers to do anything I wouldn’t do.”
I nod and smile, and as I drive away, I know in my heart that I won’t be around to choreograph Left Brain Story.
Back home, I revel in the peace of being at my writing desk, revising an essay I’ll perform at a literary salon that night. Waiting in the wings of the theater, I feel an excitement I haven’t felt in months. When I take the stage, I am relaxed, and the laughter of the audience washes over me. I feel positively elated. Maybe I’ll do this just a little while longer.
ANNABELLE GURWITCH, author of You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, is at work on a comedic memoir due out in spring 2014.
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