Move to New York

One of my favorite stories is the story of Linda and I moving from Toronto to New York in the fall of 1982. The reason I like telling it is it's a tale of what you might call “the storm before the calm.” We both had many, many wonderful years ahead of us in New York. We were to make many lifelong friends there, and share many memorable moments, both onstage and off.

But at the very beginning it was pure hell.

After two years in Toronto I had come to the decision that it was an acting backwater. True or not, it's how I felt (at the sage age of 22), and I was determined to break out. Linda and I weren't going to become big fish in the small Canadian pond, not if I could help it.

My thinking was influenced by experience. Not long ago I had done Neil Munro’s E.C.U. (Extreme Close-Up) at Toronto Free Theatre, which starred Donald Davis, one of the great actors of Canadian theatre at the time. Davis must have been in his sixties then; and he gave a wonderful performance as washed-up Hollywood actor George Marshall. But watching him night after night I couldn't help but think, what a waste this man is. A great Canadian actor, but has the world heard of him? No. Has he even got enough money to retire on? No. And I thought, I can't let this happen to me.

So soon after Linda and I got married I started singing this song: we've got to move out of here. We've got to. And it's got to be to London, New York, or Hollywood. Anywhere else is a waste of time.

After a time Linda came to agree with me, and we settled on New York as our destination. It was a process of elimination, really: London, England meant crossing the ocean; Hollywood was thousands of miles away; but New York was right down the street, practically, from Toronto. You could make the drive in a single day.

So New York it was. And 1982 would be our year.

Before we could go, however, there were some serious obstacles to overcome. Not only did we have to wind down our lives in Toronto - which were intertwined with friends, relatives, theatre companies and fellow performing artists - and then transport the whole thing more than a few hundred miles to the south, but we also had to cross an international barrier illegally to do it. I say “illegally” because, while we would have preferred to do it all above-board, in the end there really was no other choice. Green cards - that is, permanent Alien Registration cards - which would have permitted us to live and work in the United States with no time limit - were (and are) not easy to come by. The process was slow (many years), involved, and limited to certain narrowly-defined categories of applicants. Linda and I would make a better study of the green card situation later on (which I’ll recount in another story), but for now, we didn’t want to get stuck in the slow application process, all the while sinking a little deeper each day into the Toronto bog. The iron was hot, so to hell with it. We’d move now, and apply later. We were going south.

Linda, being of Estonian extraction, began calling members of the Estonian community in New York to see if there was a deal to be had, or a favor to be gained, as far as employment or a place to stay. At the same time, Linda also began the process of applying to Theatre Ontario for what was then known as a Professional Theatre Training Program Grant. PTTP grants were set up to allow Canadian theatre professionals to go abroad to study with masters in the art around the world and then, at the end of the grant, bring the knowledge they’d gained back to Canada with them. In other words, Theatre Ontario would pay your salary and travel expenses to and from the individual or group of your choice, plus your salary while you were there; all you needed to do was get a letter from said professional saying yes, they'd be happy to have you. It was actually a brilliant idea; what famous actor or director or designer wouldn’t be happy to have a free assistant for six months, paid for by the government of Ontario? And in many cases the grant was a brilliant success; people came back from Europe or the United States brimming with stories about their adventures, and filled with brand-new experiences and techniques that they wanted to share. In most cases, Theatre Ontario got their money’s worth.

But we, of course, had a different idea.

While Linda looked into the grant, what was I to do? I needed something to cross the border too; I couldn’t just ride on Linda’s coattails. I kept envisioning that moment when we hit the American side of the Peace Bridge at Niagara Falls and they said, ”And where do you think you're going with all this stuff?” and we explained that Linda was going on a grant and I was just tagging along. Somehow I sensed we'd both be laughed all the way back to the Don River. So I needed an angle. And I figured the most natural plan for me was to go as an acting student. I would sign myself up with some reputable acting school, put down a deposit, get the paperwork, cross the border ... and then screw the classes (and lose the deposit, but who cared) and take it from there. Turned out, after a little research, the best prospects were the Stella Adler Conservatory and the American Academy of Dramatic Art, both located in Manhattan. Adler answered me first, so it was to them I sent my check - for some three hundred bucks, as I recall. In due course I got my paperwork, with admonishments to bring the balance of my tuition to the first day of class.

Yeah, right.

Linda's stratagem with the PTTP grant, meantime, paid off. She'd always been interested in avant-garde theatre, so she began applying to Joseph Chaikin, and Ellen Stewart, and anybody else she could think of in New York to see if they wanted a free assistant . It was Ellen Stewart at La Mama ETC who answered first, and so, letter in hand, Linda applied to Theatre Ontario to be Ellen's assistant for a period of six months. And by God, sometime in July we learned ... she got it!

Now we had a timetable. Linda’s grant with La Mama began in September. We would have to move to New York before then. We were on our way.

The next problems were transportation and accommodations. The latter came through the Estonian connection. Turns out a guy named Ralf Sams had a run-down apartment building in the Fort Green section of Brooklyn - so run-down, actually, that it was abandoned - but sometimes people were allowed to flop there for a night or two, or even a week. Word came back that he'd be willing to let us stay there for as long as we wanted for $50 a month rent. We could go move in anytime we liked, and take our pick of the unused living units. It sounded pretty good. As for transportation, we ended up renting a big old station wagon of the kind they don't make anymore, and got a one-way deal, where we'd pick it up in Toronto and drop it off in New York. And with that, all we had to do was wait for the day.

At the time Linda and I were living in a beautiful apartment at 446-B Queen Street East. It had lots of floor space, and so we threw a farewell party there late in August of 1982. It seemed like half of the people we knew in Toronto came. I clearly remember seeing Jack Messinger. Bob Naismith was there too ... and told me that he'd once had a green card but then he'd returned to Canada and lost it, and that I should never, ever make the same mistake. Virginia Laight was there. Chris Bartleman, I think. Hillar Liitoja. Allegra Fullton. Paul Amato. James Falcon. Elmar Maripuu. Michael Hollingsworth. It was a wild bash and also very bittersweet, seeing so many dear friends, all of them wishing us farewell. Not a single soul in the room, by the way, told us not to do what we were doing. In fact, many themselves would later follow; or move to still other countries, scattered around the world.

In early September it was time. Linda and I spent a couple of days packing everything into the station wagon. Early on the morning of the 10th we left our apartment for the last time; I actually locked the door and then placed the keys in the super’s box as a final ritual. Then we drove off, leaving behind our budding Canadian careers, a lot of friends, and (darn it) one of the nicest apartments I've ever known. Sigh. But we were resolved; and heck, it was an adventure.

What lay ahead was something like fourteen hours on the road. We had no trouble at the U.S. border at all, despite the fact that our station wagon was groaning with stuff. (That hard-won paperwork was worth it.) We proceeded to the New York State Thruway and cruised south, stopping only for gas and food. It was a long, long day, and by the end of it we were exhausted, tired, worn out, irritable. And of course, just when all that was happening ... we hit New York.

New York didn't arrive all at once, like small towns do. It's a metropolitan megalopolis, and it starts growing out of the weeds a good thirty miles before you hit Manhattan. Buildings start popping up with more frequency, until fairly soon the last fields are gone and you haven't even noticed. Then things start getting more compacted, and taller. Finally, in the last fifteen minutes or so, you can see the towers of Manhattan looming in the distance while now you're trying to stay on some of the most poorly-kept freeways in existence, jouncing from pothole to pothole around hairpin turns designed for much slower cars with 1940s wheelbases. At night - the way we did it - it's only worse because you can't get a good visual bearing; all you can see are all those city lights getting bigger and bigger, like some kind of stellar formation and you're on a runaway rocket. Linda and I fought off fatigue and tried to focus. We knew Sams’s building was on a street called Tech Place somewhere near the Brooklyn Bridge. So we stayed on the freeway until we got near the Brooklyn Bridge, and then, God help us, we got off and simply drove around, hoping to find it.

And we did. It only took about ten minutes, too. Then we pulled up in front of Ralf Sam’s building, turned off the car, and heaved a sigh. For the first time in hours the wind stopped. We could think.

And the first thing we thought was, where the hell is this? It was a dank, dark street on a hot, muggy fall night, in the middle of what looked to us, two innocent white bread kids from Canada, like the worst kind of urban jungle. (New York, I have since come to know, always looks intimidating to an outsider. Only after a day or two does it get charming.) At the end of the block were what appeared to be projects steeped in seamy decay, while all around us buildings loomed harboring god knows what kind of vice and sin. And here we were, as I say, two innocents from Canada with everything we owned in the world packed into that creaking, and now very vulnerable-seeming station wagon. Ye Gods.

We couldn’t just sit here. We had to do something. So we got out and went to reconnoiter.

This was our next shock. If the outside of the building seemed like West Side Story, the inside was more like Taxi Driver. Dank, dark, and crumbling, there was clearly a good reason that people had abandoned Ralf Sam’s building. It was horrible and depressing. But we had nowhere else to go, it was too late at night, we were committed. So we did our best to make a home for ourselves. Upon investigation, the best apartment we could find was up on the third floor, and that wasn't much; it had no running water except a single pipe that ran out of the wall, below which was thrust a basin. Trash and detritus was everywhere; the walls had been half-pounded to rubble by renovators. There was no electricity either, so no light in the apartment itself, except that gained by leaving the hallway door open. I began the process of hauling our stuff upstairs from the car while Linda tried to clear the debris - shattered plaster, gravel, heaps of paint cans and brushes - aside to make a place where we could sleep. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we managed to get our stuff safely inside. Fortunately there was a mattress, not too flea-bitten, on the floor. We collapsed on it and went to sleep.

The next day we woke up to a chilly morning without the prospect of a bath or even rudimentary heat. To relieve ourselves we had to go down to the ground floor and use a toilet there. After doing this, I remember sitting back in the apartment and trying to take stock. Linda was on the floor over by a dusty window, and began sobbing. I patted her shoulder and said there, there with as much courage as I could muster. But really, I thought, what have we gotten ourselves into? Had we really walked away from everything we knew - for this? It almost felt like we had made the worst blunder of our lives.

Almost. But there were glimmers. Linda would be reporting to La Mama the very next day, Monday, to start her apprenticeship with Ellen. I would be tagging along to start the process of apartment hunting. So very soon we could stop wallowing, and start improving our situation. Then we’d feel better. And in fact, why wait until tomorrow? There was plenty to do right now. We spent the rest of our Sunday making something livable from our disaster-zone apartment. I ran an electric cord in from the hallway light so we could have power inside. We got a hot plate, a heater, and some light bulbs from a hardware store on nearby Flatbush Avenue. In this, the era before the cell phone, we located the nearest pay phone on the street outside, which would become our lifeline. We made plans.

We went downstairs and telephoned our local contacts - many of them soon to become new friends - and announced our arrival. They were overjoyed to hear from us, and their enthusiasm made us feel better. In fact, I believe we even met up with some of them later the same day, at the New York Estonian House - a recreational & cultural center, with a beautiful bar, on 34th Street in Manhattan. Thus began, by inches, the all-important process of letting go of our Toronto life and creating our new, New York one. In the coming days we took the subway for the first time, and began getting acquainted with street names, and locations of things. I remember noticing how the World Trade Center’s twin towers, while ugly, were awfully useful because you could always orient yourself by them, even when you weren't in Manhattan. They were so big you could see them everywhere.

And within a few days, Linda and I even began to feel proud of what we had accomplished. From gloom and fear, we moved into a sense of happiness, even wonder. By Golly, we'd done it! We had actually done what so many of our friends in Toronto only dreamed of - actually pulled up our roots and re-potted them in New York. We were illegal immigrants, true, with no status whatsoever; but that could be dealt with in time. At least we were here, now. And by God, here was pretty cool. There was the Brooklyn Bridge, right down the street! And Central Park. And Times Square. And Broadway. Here were off-off Broadway theatres, and art galleries, and Soho, and the Fish Market. Here was Wall Street and the Upper West Side, Macy's and Gimbel's. Because it was late in the year, we got to see New York putting on holly and lights for Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. It was as if, in apology for that first rude shock, the city now laid out its most charming face to win us. And it did. We fell in love.

By December of that year, I believe - or at the latest by January of ‘83 - we had moved out of Brooklyn into our apartment on East Third Street in Manhattan, which is where we'd stay for the next eight years. Soon after that we had a phone, I was job-hunting, and we were planning to set up our own nonprofit theatre company. Linda was working at La Mama with Ellen, and I had done a couple of shows myself. We had a phone number, we had friends. There wasn’t the slightest thought in our heads of going back. Back? Why would we go back? We lived here now. We were New Yorkers.

1983 Paul Linda thm