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.