“Get a YouTube channel.”
--audition judge, “The Voice”
On Route 22 south, Stockbridge, Massachusetts to Amenia, New York, there’s a handmade sign: “Free Rooster.” There are working barns and silos and a pretty dusting of white. There are two cars in a row that tail me in the 35 mph zone and I pull over so they can pass, though my MetroNorth train from Wassaic to Grand Central leaves pretty soon. I work at a yoga center by day and sing by night (one night a week; maybe two in the summer months). I practice in the car, not my audition song, which seems like bad luck. I sing, because of the snow covered hills, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac and “The Hills Are Alive” from Sound of Music. I hit the high notes and this seems promising. I have an Artist Pass (I’m an Artist!) and a scan-able barcode. I have a specific audition time, 7:00 am at the Javits Center, as far west as you can go in Manhattan without falling into the Hudson. I have a hotel room booked at The Gershwin (not a coincidence) and a sassy red audition dress, borrowed from my twenty-something office mate. This is my New Year’s resolution, to audition for the TV show “The Voice.” I’ll soon enter my 40th year, when a lot of crazy resolutions get made.
At Wassaic Station I insert my credit card for a round trip ticket just as the bell clangs.
“On or off,” says the conductor. It doesn’t sound like a question.
On, right? I want to get on?
I poke at the screen. Nothing. It’s interesting to observe my non-panic. All those downward dogs have done something. So I might miss my train. It just seems like a bad farce.
“On or off,” he says again. And then I begin to understand the consequences of my actions. I choose the former. I assume everyone is auditioning, thus the conductor’s attempt to prevent me from boarding.
The ticket collector appears then, fresh-faced. Probably a tenor.
“Round trip to Grand Central?” I say. That’s the lingo, round trip.
“We only sell one way.” He seems sorry about this. He fiddles on his giant calculator to figure out the sum because this is not a number readily available because it’s not often that idiots can’t use the machine on the platform.
“$22,” he says, which is 1/3 more than it would have been five minutes earlier.
I hand over my credit card.
“We only accept cash,” he says. Now he’s blushing for me.
Cash. An important thing to remember, like gasoline. I dig around in my organized little wallet, cards on one side, bills on the other, a separate compartment for change, and I have it. He thanks me and I stare at the three dollars I have left and don’t say thank you back to him, a small rebellion. How had I let the rules slip? I am a follower of rules.
It’s worth mentioning that I lived in Manhattan for ten years before I ran away to the Berkshires. I had overpriced apartments. I had a teaching job at a university in New Jersey. When I left for my hour and forty-minute commute, I thought, survival of the fittest. On New Jersey Transit, Penn Station to New Brunswick, I turned up Jane Monheit and watched the Meadowlands creatures try to find food among all the muck; the swans perched on tire piles in shallow swamps. I managed to buy groceries and get a library card and pay taxes in two states. Years passed without anything different happening and still I felt I was paddling for some kind of respectable shore.
Until I didn’t anymore. Until (Eat, Pray, Love, yadda, yadda, yoga saved my life) I quit my job and hocked my engagement ring. I found a job in Stockbridge at the country’s largest yoga center. My new apartment, in a 19th century farmhouse, comes with a pasture--and cows. There is a sweet, decrepit cemetery where Sedgwicks are buried. Main Street is the Main Street, made famous by Norman Rockwell, who lived and painted there.
In Stockbridge, if you said ‘on or off’ you’d get your ass kicked.
I try to let it go. I think of other things to worry about, like hand sanitizer. What if I run out? Earplugs. What if I can’t locate a pair anywhere in Manhattan? How did I forget cash and earplugs? On station platforms there are billboard signs for musicals and I am the target audience. Mostly I’m looking forward to Brick Café on 27th Street, right next to the Museum of Sex, where I can have my grilled cheese sandwich and remember my other life and appreciate, more so, where I am now. That is the plan, in addition to wowing “The Voice” judges with my 70’s folk-rock renditions.
At the Gershwin, the concierge does not wear a tux, nor is anyone smoking or singing jazz standards in the lobby. I dump my stuff in my plain, white room, where I’m tempted to snuggle in and watch TV. But I force myself out again for a brisk walk down Broadway. I know the route, from Madison Square Park to Astor Place, home of the Writers Room, where I logged in many, many hours grading papers and sometimes writing my novel. It’s a familiar twenty-block frame, like a jazz scale, with a lot that can still jump out and surprise me if I let it.
I clutch my purse. I check out Whisk, a new kitchen supply store, where I want to buy a tiny, $1 spoon but I’m too embarrassed to spend just $1. I go to Strand and tell myself I won’t look for my book but I do. I tell myself I won’t be disappointed if it’s not there and I am. On the “Best of the Best” table is the bright yellow book by my college classmate, which did very well five years ago, and I feel the familiar swoop.
I need to eat and sit down and the need is sudden, mighty. In Maaz a nice man gives me a sample of the daily soup in a plastic urine sample cup. The nice lady substitutes fries for soup and I get the $9 deal. I don’t tell them I would pay $9 just to sit. When I bite into the falafel sandwich, I groan a little and clear my throat, pretending I haven’t groaned. I text my mother: I’m eating a falafel sandwich in NYC! She texts back seconds later, Sounds yummy!
I decide I’m too tired for free jazz on Christopher Street at 55 Bar, a place I remember feeling not so freakish, drinking wine alone. I don’t want to drink wine and there’s a two-drink minimum and I don’t have the resolve to order two seltzers and feel the waiter’s disdain.
Instead I walk the twenty blocks back in the cold, just to avoid the subway and delay my time in my room alone. I pay another $9 for two bottles of water and a small juice at 7-11.
“How much for the juice?” I ask
“$5.50,” he says.
“It must be really great juice,” I say.
The cashier could care less about my juice.
By 9:00 pm I’m tucked into a rickety bed made nicer by very white sheets. A portrait of Picasso looms above, his giant head, his intense, womanizing eyes. I flip on the TV. (Who-hum? it tones.) “Bridesmaids” is just ending and I’m hoping for something similar, but next up is the Beyoncé documentary I’ve heard about, her lovely face crammed into the laptop light.
She tells her laptop, or me, that she’s pregnant.
She talks about being an Artist, all the private jets she has to board. How will she do it all with a baby?
She’s on a boat with Jay-Z.
She fires her father as her manager.
She has to decide. What do I want? To tour? Make records? Raise a family?
It doesn’t seem like a hard list. Taking out the recycling is not on it.
Then she’s on the boat again with Jay-Z, about to go swimming with huge flashy earrings like lures. Piranhas could bite and I want to warn her, but she’s not worried. She feels blessed by Jesus and blessed by nature, all this water. All her hard work has finally paid off.
Then she jumps in.
I’m hooked like an earring, but I have to turn it off and try to sleep. (Ho-hum, says the TV screen. Bo-ring.) Later I’ll realize I caught the HBO premier and, blocks away, Beyoncé and her husband are on the red carpet with Oprah.
I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing to watch the night before my audition for “The Voice.”
At 4:30 am I decide I don’t want to go. What if I don’t? Would that be dumb? Would I regret it?
I do a downward dog. I take a picture of myself in my borrowed red dress and I look worried and pale. Maybe the red lipstick does that? I put on more.
At 5:40 the Gershwin lobby is empty and it’s still dark out. I decide not to take the bus. I say to the cabbie, “the entrance closest to 34th street, please,” just to have a preference, as New Yorkers do. I un-strap my backpack and turn off the TV. I’d forgotten about that--TVs in cabs. We glide there on black streets, all the way to 11th avenue. $8 fare, I give him $10.
Outside, the Javits Center glass glitters like a long Rubik’s Cube. There is a cement alcove where people have gathered, a small throng in the dark, below.
This is so doable, I think. Not so bad.
“Is this for ‘The Voice’?” A large boy-child has appeared next to me, his cheeks red and round.
“Yes,” I say, practicing confidence. And then we are connected, larger man and older woman, descending the concrete staircase to be on TV.
At the bottom the huddled strangers are quick to tell us this is not the end of the line. They look a little stunned, cocooned in blankets, only their faces showing. They gesture around the corner.
“Oh,” I say, and follow my friend in the dark to the end of the line-- he has ended up in front of me somehow--past dumpsters and taxis creeping above us, past hundreds and hundreds of people who got up at god knows what time. As I was watching Beyoncé in her yacht.
I belong here, I tell myself, refusing to count the freezing people. My hat is not yet on, my clean hair flying, shampooed to reveal highlights.
The line snakes to 12th avenue. “We’re almost in the water,” I say, but my friend doesn’t turn around.
“We’re almost in Jersey,” someone says behind me, and I don’t reply to him either.
In line, my guy talks. He’s from P-A, spelling it out. When I say Massachusetts, not spelling it out, he says, “Wow. Have you done this kind of thing before?”
But he doesn’t wait for me to answer so I don’t have to say, 18 years ago.
“I used to do a lot of this in high school,” he says. Singing, he means, not cattle calls, and I understand that high school was not too long ago for him.
Behind me is a 17-year-old, waiting for his aunt to park the car and join him. Adults must accompany all minors.
I’m an adult, I think.
17 asks to borrow my cell phone and I say yes, of course, though I’m really thinking, I don’t have much hand sanitizer left.
“What if we have to wait outside for hours?” he says.
“They’ll let us line up inside,” I tell him. I’m the elder and it feels good to have answers for these boys, even if I’m wrong. I put on my hat, just the same, and my shampoo commercial hair is gone.
P-A says there are at least 1000 people in front of us. He counted. But by 6:20 am we are rounding the corner to warmth—we can see the lucky people inside, corralled airport-like between zigzagging stanchions.
“Sweet Jesus,” says 17. His teeth chatter. No sign of his aunt. I wonder if I can be his guardian and still audition but I don’t suggest this yet.
Someone checks my Artist Pass at the door, the first of seven times, and then, hot damn, I’m in. The cold sticks to us and no one un-layers. Outside, blanketed people continue to look in at us in as the sun rises over the West side. It’s a line that never seems to get shorter.
“It’s very organized,” says P-A. People will say that it in every line I stand in today.
It’s a good method for crowd control, I think. Reveal as little information as possible and there can be no rebellion. We’ll just wait in line and try not to piss anyone off. We won’t even pee until they tell us to.
The aunt finally shows, thanks me for lending my phone and hugs 17.
I realize then. I could be the mother of a 17 year old.
We fall into silence and wait some more. I count the 1500 metal chairs set up in the conference room below, divided into groups of 150. The rumor has already started: We’ll have to sing in front of one another down there, an audience of 1500.
“Do you think that’s true? Are you nervous?” says 17.
Then we see that we’re standing in line for security, which consists of several enormous men who aren’t smiling, except for one.
“Have your IDs OUT,” says the one. He doesn’t need a bullhorn. “Have them facing TOWARD us. Have your Artist Pass out of its folder or whatever thingy you brought it in. Otherwise I’ll have to give you a TIME OUT.”
Nervous munchkin laughter.
“OR you get my BELT.”
The other large men say boring, un-funny things like, “Come on!” and “Pay attention!”
But the ham checks me through. “Go ahead, Laura.”
I don’t correct him. And like that I’m separated from my two friends and the aunt. I think to wish them good luck but I don’t. It’s a slippery, temporary camaraderie here.
Beyond the wall of men are women in security uniforms. “Handguns? Aerosols?” says one to me. She’s chipper about it.
“I have two apples,” I say.
“Good luck!” she says.
There’s a metal detector wand next, to see if I’ve told the truth, and at last I’m allowed to take an escalator down to the carpeted conference room, which is the size of a Bed Bath and Beyond. There I’m shepherded to yet another line—for wristbands.
“Lines 4, 5, or 6,” says a walkie-talkie person. It seems like a test. He says it again.
4? Is that a lucky number for me?
The Walkies rule this floor. They are young and energetic and don’t have guns. I wonder if they’re called the Production Crew, as they are at the yoga center. I hear their lingo. Copy that. Roger that. I suppose it's universal. But the Javits Center Walkies must have verbiage and tasks specific to the venue and I want to know what they are.
For now I don’t ask questions, I just obey and get in line 4, where I begin to see I’m not the oldest one. Lots of grown women like me wear hair bows, hair clips-- hard, girlie objects lodged on their heads to make themselves look softer. I have one too, a fat, red barrette stashed in my bag. There are older men who have been singing along to Journey since the 70’s. There are young theater people who look like Smash actors in crisp, buttoned outfits. There are a lot of young men wearing hats and vests and bow ties, all at the same time. There are young women with black nail polish, not so crisp, warming up with eyes closed, placing themselves back in their bedrooms (where they are safe, like I was, an only child with a Godspell soundtrack). There are older ex-theater people trying to look like young Smash actors in crisp, buttoned outfits. There are I want to be on TV! kids who look charged behind the eyes and may not be able to sing at all.
These are my people --all of them-- though I don’t want to admit this at the time. I think of the Barry Manilow quote on my fridge: “Misfits aren’t misfits around other misfits.” Barry Manilow could be the patron saint of the Javits Center. He’s in town right now, just like Beyoncé, singing at the St. James Theater for $250 a ticket, which is more than the price of my hotel room for two nights.
I think to take a photo of this giant, muffled room.
“No photos!” says a headset, not necessarily to me. “They’ll kick you out if they catch you.” Would that be a relief? I tried but I got kicked out for trying to take a photo of 1500 metal chairs! It could remain an abstract idea like the Book of Questions questions: Would you rather be blind or deaf? Would you make it if you auditioned for “The Voice”?
In front of me are young people who know each other from some kind of singing group. They do “Wade in the Water” and jump around and put on British accents and seem grateful to belong to one another. There are many groups like this, High School Musical chirpers who can’t stand still. They wear sneakers and tight sweatpants.
When I was your age, we had to make our own costumes for Chamber Choir. It was called Chamber Choir, not Glee Club. We didn’t have Glee or Smash or Nashville. There was Beverly Hills 90210 and we liked it.
Two young talkers behind me have the quiet tone of stressed out people trying to calm themselves with words. One is a songwriter with a high voice. He’s just here for the experience. The other is a songwriter with a low voice. He writes music with his roommate. He drops the names of music venues and I’m pleased I know them still: Living Room, Cutting Room, Rockwood Music Hall, Piano’s-- a block away from where I used to live.
“The 80’s--what a time,” says High Voice. “You could move to New York with no money, the downtown scene. Madonna! I could talk about Madonna all night. But don’t you think it’s coming back to that? It’s about great melodies, like the 80’s. It doesn’t matter, your background or genre.”
Low voice can’t really get a word in.
“You write with your roommate? You’re so lucky. You live with people who are into the same thing. I brought a disguise today, in case my parents see me on TV. I have a dinky little job, no one there into music.”
Dinky, I think.
High Voice says he doesn’t go out much because he wants to have a demo of his songs first and you never know when you’re going to meet in the business and it would be worse to meet someone and have nothing to offer.
He’s a brilliant talker-outer of things and I want to tell him so--I recognize this quality. But good for us. We haven’t talked ourselves out of being here yet.
Then they switch to what they’ll be singing.
“'Oh, you look like M-J.' So original. I get that a lot,” says High Voice.
I want to turn around and see if he looks like M-J.
“My favorite singer is Whitney Houston,” he says.
I get distracted by a girl in front of me trying to do the time step on carpet. I think, Maybe I’m standing near people who will later be on TV.
At 7:00 am I have my Artist Pass barcode scanned by a tired woman with a smart phone. I’m given a wristband--purple! --though I wonder what the orange ones are for (minors) and why I don’t get one (I’m old). I smile for the woman who checks me in and she is charmed by me.
I’m charming, I remember.
Then a Walkie tells me to sit in a specific silver metal chair, one in a group of 150. High Voice ends up right beside me. I see now that he wears big neon green glasses without frames. If he didn’t have them on he’d look just like Michael Jackson.
“Do you have any lotion?” he asks.
“No,” I say, without thinking about whether this is true.
“Hm,” he says, looking at my big backpack. He has a plastic bag from Stop and Shop in his lap.
He follows my gaze. “I have a disguise in case we’re being filmed and my parents see me on TV.”
I don’t tell him I know this already. In addition to the large glasses he wears a ski cap that says New York.
“Somebody in this room does. Someone has lotion,” I say, not knowing what else to say about the disguise.
The woman behind us hums along to her iPhone and she’s good. She’s an I-Sing-in-My Bedroom singer. I don’t know any of the songs she’s singing, but M-J does.
“That’s my song!” he says, of each one.
There is a complication about vocalizing. It has to be done. But how? Every so often the little trills and sighs and horse lips are punctuated with a Beyoncé type wail and people look around to see where it came from and then there’s an I’m not intimidated by that whoop or two, followed by M-J saying, “She can sing. Damn.” It’s female voices belting out, not male. The non-vocalizers resent the vocalizers. And the vocalizers don’t care about the rest of us, which makes the rest of us resent them more. They are focused and determined. They are the winners here.
“I don’t want to change my routine too much,” says M-J. “I don’t want to wear myself out. I think just before we go in is a good time to warm up, don’t you?”
“I think it’s probably good to start now,” I say.
“Go ahead, then.”
I don’t go ahead.
“What kind of songs do you sing?”
“Jazz,” I say, because it sounds cooler than Old White Folk Singers.
“Ella Fitzgerald?” he says.
“That’s a genre I’ve been meaning to learn more about,” he says. “Cole Porter. Gershwin.”
I’m staying at the Gershwin.
“Do you know ‘Saving All My Love For You’ by Whitney Houston?”
“She’s my favorite singer. That’s kind of jazzy.”
It isn’t but I don’t say so. I still don’t know his name. He doesn’t ask mine. In between talking he falls asleep in his chair, his neck bobbing, his plastic bag almost slipping from his lap. I think he’s trying to read what I’m writing until I actually look at him and it’s just that his neck is cocked that way, his eyelids closed behind his lens-less frames.
When he wakes up again I decide to tell him. “I’m writing a story.”
“And you’re auditioning?”
“Yeah,” I say. Which, I realize, is the same as 'I’m just doing this for the experience.' It’s my excuse, should I fail.
“Are you a writer? That must be a good living. I mean, not a millionaire or anything but—right? I mean I’ve heard you can develop later, you hit your peak when you’re…45 or 50, even?”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Oh, you’re young!” he laughs.
I love him.
He falls asleep again. He wakes up and says, “I’m nervous. Are you nervous? Damn. She can sing.”
At 8:15 am, the Walkies herd the first seated group into lines of ten by the exit doors. The doors lead to ugly, concrete stairs, as revealed though cracks when the Walkies go back there for secret meetings. We crane for clues. What are the Walkies revealing to Group One?
Group One becomes very serious. Then they start vocalizing en masse, chickadees at a feeder.
“Have fun everyone!” says a Walkie. And then the first group marches through the doors. Will we see them again? Someone starts clapping—they auditions have begun! And then we’re all clapping. It would be bad luck not to.
The new rumor is that we sing in front of each other in groups of ten, which is probably true.
It’s organized, I’ll give them that,” says M-J.
And finally, we’re allowed to pee. In the bathroom line I meet a woman from Chicago in a bright print dress. She says, “I have a rule that I won’t wear uncomfortable shoes for any length of time.” She looks down at my flat, sturdy boots. “Well, maybe for like…an hour.” She says this is better than the American Idol one, where the judges are mean. “There’s a Disney one next week. It’s free, like this.”
I do the math. I have spent $325 on this trip so far, between gas, train fare, cab fare, subway fare, hotel, falafel sandwich and juice from 7-11. I took a day off from work to get here.
I see my expression in the mirror and worry about the barrette again. I feel undone without it, less polished. But the frizzy hair is me—it’s how I look.
I return to M-J chatting up the cute man in a bow tie beside him. He’s still talking about Whitney Houston. I can’t tell if his hands are yet moisturized.
And then, at 9:30 am, it’s time for our group to line up. Because I am on the aisle, I end up first in my line of ten. First in a line! After three and a half hours of waiting.
“No singing once you’re upstairs,” Holly with the Walkie reminds us. (“Go for Holly,” I heard her say.) We start yipping and sirening, just like Group One. I practice my words. I practice my back up song, should they want to hear another. I scurry for my headphones and open my keyboard app and play a middle C over and over so I can drill it into my head. My pitch pipe would be easier but I feel too embarrassed, using it. It looks like a coaster.
“I just hope I don’t start too high,” says the Bedroom Singer in the adjacent line. We could help each other this way, play notes for one another, but no one does.
The doors open and we march up concrete stairs, the superstitious applause rippling behind. “Watch your step!” says a Walkie. “We don’t want to have to clean up brains if you fall!”
No one laughs. I see my brains as blue and red and purple on the steps. We fly down a hallway. Then another. There are Walkies pointing and smiling at every turn. “Good luck! Have fun!”
Then the same security ham is sitting on a stool in a very long corridor of rooms. “Step forward,” he says. “We need to fit ten of you in there at a time.”
In there? I don’t know how to juggle my purse, my coat, my bottle of water large enough for a desert hike, my backpack containing my list of songs in keys and starting notes, should they decide they need to find a piano and a pianist and hear my whole set. The list is in a protective plastic sheath and it will never wrinkle. There are questions racing through, when I should be manifesting my starting note. Did I get points for keeping my Artist Pass also wrinkle free, also in a protective sheath, until it was taken from me? For wearing a dress that is red?
A diva wails from within and Security says, “Someone’s going to church!”
“It is Sunday,” says M-J.
I sound nothing like that. Am I supposed to?
“The number of times I’ve heard that song,” Security whispers to M-J and me, though everyone else in line hears him too. “She’s a client.” I assume he means the original recording artist, not the nearby belter.
“A client? “ says M-J.
“I’m her bodyguard,” says Security and I wonder if this is true.
“Say hi to her for me,” says M-J.
I don’t know the song or who they’re talking about.
“The number of times I hear THAT,” he says, beaming. “That’s big shoes to fill.”
Don’t worry, I want to say. I croon. I like John Denver. I like to warm up with a glass of wine and a set of moldy jazz standards while people are still eating dessert.
“Everyone here can sing,” whispers M-J.
I nod. Do I look like I can sing? Is he still waiting for a demo?
Ten file out of our conference room and one flips her hair, eyes shining.
“Thank you!” she chirps to Security. She got a call back. Everyone can see it.
“Have a good one!” he says, taking some credit for this.
Then they’re ready for us, in a room the size of my kitchen. I was thinking Flashdance, a big airy studio with sunlight and six judges with spectacles and clipboards. But this is a windowless nook. A woman behind a laptop will watch us. Just one. What about differing opinions, a way to spar and consult about my overall worth? How do I know what this one person is looking for? She has dark spiky hair and a stiff handkerchief scarf in checked brown and black around her neck, like a cowboy about to face a lot of sand. She’s hip, Californian. She is probably 15 years younger than me.
Then a small, tired man appears with a VOICE sticker over his heart, JARED Sharpied in. Jared tells us where to sit and then sits himself, folded into the extra chair, observing, legs crossed and hands sandwiched between legs. Eagle pose. Beside Jared are two parents looking cramped and wildly uncomfortable, especially when, minutes later, someone does a Bruno Mars song about wanting “to sex you,” a verb form I don’t understand.
But before this happens, the Lone Ranger speaks. “You ready? How you feeling?”
“Good!” I say, the perfect parrot. Do I feel good? I have no idea, but I’m smiling; I’ve had a lot of dentistry. My thigh could touch the person beside me if I wanted that to happen, but the person beside me is still M-J. I sit straight, my stuff squished behind me on my chair, as she gives her little speech.
“To begin, have any of you been in a room with me before?”
Silence. It’s a weird way to say it. I don’t catch her name, which seems important to know.
“Don’t be offended if I don’t look at you,” she says. “I’m taking notes but I’m listening. And please don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a callback. I’ll tell you at the end.”
Okay. Don’t be disappointed.
“Stand at the X on the floor. Sing a verse and a chorus, please.”
My brain does a little scramble. Verse and a chorus? My song is verse, verse, chorus, bridge, verse and chorus with big finish.
“All right!” she says, which is not a question.
First up is an older guy, mid forties. Oh shit, I think. Is it oldest to youngest? He sings “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin” by Journey in a grizzled, convincing way. He’s good. I close my eyes because I can’t bear to watch Handkerchief not watching him. I am having an involuntary Zen moment, focusing inward. I keep breathing.
“Whoop!” I say afterwards. I clap and then we all have to clap for each other.
Then the Bruno Mars guy is up and the parents in the corner get to flinch.
Then a male twirlie sings “Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt with a quiet start and very careful phrasing.
Are they following the rules, just a verse and chorus? She isn’t cutting people off.
Then I’m up. She calls me Laura and I don’t correct her. I stand on the green X and say, “Willyoustilllovemetomorrowbycaroleking.” Bright smile. I pat my thighs a little for the beat, which is a Godspell move, dorky. It feels like I’m in the right key.
I only want her to look at me.
She can’t hear how I good I am yet, the subtlety of me, the thing you hear if you spend an hour in a piano bar listening with wine. But then she does look at me, at my loudest when I belt. She smiles a little in that second and I know I’ve reached her but I don’t know what else the smile means. Maybe she’s laughing at how ridiculous I am, a 39-year old woman wanting to be on TV. Then I close my eyes on her because it’s where I usually close my eyes, and the high head voice note that I usually nail is a little wonky. Then I stop in a place that seems weird but I’m following the rules, verse and chorus only— and maybe this is my biggest mistake, following the rules.
“Thank you,” she says, and it feels, overall, like it was not so great. Not my best.
Everyone claps because I have started the clapping and they have to.
I listen closely to her thank yous after that. How grateful is she?
M-J does another Journey song, “Wheel in the Sky,” and I get the feeling this is a sudden decision after hearing the first guy sing. M-J has a clear, quiet voice, right on pitch. He looks small up there in his New York ski cap. The disguise in the plastic bag remains on his chair.
A very handsome man sings an Emo song. Earnest looking, polished shoes. Not yet full of himself.
A white woman wanting to be Jennifer Hudson sings “I’m Gonna Love You” to the wall rather than to Kerchief.
A teenager sings Taylor Swift with a lot of heart. She’s nervous, still wearing her coat and scarf, her eyes closed the whole time. Bruno Mars on my right thumps his hands hard for her. The thank you from Kerchief sounds genuine. The parents look terrified.
A big brassy woman in five-inch heels who looks like Martina McBride sings Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” She’s my age with a streak of red in her black hair and I can see her nailing it in front of a country band at a burger joint, the regulars at the bar going nuts.
And that’s it. Only the parents and Jared haven’t sung and they’re not budging.
Nothing’s wrong with the burger joint, I think. Or the piano bar. Yet I can see us, all of us, on the spaceship set of “The Voice,” putting it on for the judges’ chairs, their backs turned. We’re all entertaining enough to watch on TV for a minute or two.
“I’m not going to move anyone on,” says Kerchief.
The air leaves the room. She doesn’t apologize. “Come back again,” she says.
Why not now? I think. Why can’t we come back and do it again right now?
“Thank you!” someone chirps.
I don’t thank her. There is scurrying; no one wants to linger except the earnest, handsome man, who says, “What can I work on?”
“Get a voice coach and a YouTube channel,” she says.
A YouTube channel? I feel like I’m underwater. It’s taking too long to gather my junk.
“You’re just not ready for ‘The Voice,’” she adds. It sounds like she’s reading from her laptop, What to say to the losers.
I almost ask the same question, What should I work on? just to fill the awkwardness as I pack. But I don’t want to know. Or I already know--I don’t want her to read something from the list that I’ll end up believing. I’ll take Emo’s: I’m just not ready for "The Voice."
Jared clips our purple wristbands as we file out, though I want to keep mine. It occurs to me I could duck out, wait in line again, do it all over, but no, they’ve thought of that, which is why they scanned our barcodes and checked our IDs. We’re in the system now.
I pass my old friend P-A in the hallway, waiting outside his own conference room with his own group of ten. I can see he has questions: How many judges? How long did it take? How did you get in before me when I cut in front of you hours ago?
“Good luck! “I say, trying to look like the Hair Flipper with the callback. Then I sail away from him, following exit signs.
A small woman with a bucket and a mop asks, You audition in there?”
“Yeah,” I say. It must be a weird day at the office for her. All these boys in bow ties.
“You get in?” she says. She’s the first to ask me.
I shake my head and she seems sorry. She goes back to her mopping.
In the lobby there’s daylight and lonely stanchions. The 7:00 am auditions have closed; it’s 10:30 am. There are tired people sitting on the marble floor, shoving their mittens back on.
I don’t quite want to leave but I do want to leave. I decide to pee. In the bathroom a woman in cowboy boots is crying at the sink. “We came all this way. Do they even know that?”
They know that.
“It was, like, 10 seconds. And they didn’t choose anyone in the room.” She wasn’t in my room and my heart lifts a little. She’s talking about another group of rejects.
I don’t cry. But in the mirror I see how pale I am, how weird my hair is. Hat head. I should have used the barrette.
Was I terrible?
Do I reach people?
Yes. The woman who stapled my forms together before scanning my barcode. M-J. He thinks I’ll be a rich writer some day. Kerchief, for a second. She saw me.
And that’s how I’ll bounce back. I feel it happening on the walk from 11th avenue to 5th, my backpack digging into bones I know as cervical spine. I’m a few paces behind a woman with fixed blond hair and a big white bow. I hear her chirpy voice on the phone saying, “Yeah, I’m good.” She sounds good. “I didn’t get it, no.” Her boyfriend is tall; his long johns are peeking out from under his jeans. He pats her on the back a little. I remember that about Manhattan, how you can stalk people on long avenue stretches, walking behind or in front if they stop to tie a boot. At the stoplight I stand closer and resist the urge to tell her I like her hair bow and that I didn’t get a callback either.
Then they duck into a diner across the street from Penn Station, holding hands.
I shift my backpack and wear it in front of me like a child, a papoose. I can look as weird as I want to now. I want to be home in Stockbridge, where they know my name at the library. They even say it right. I could go back today, forget the second pre-paid, no refund night at the Gershwin because I thought I’d need to be here all day.
My mom hasn’t texted. I don’t call anyone yet, not even Nana, who’ll ask me if her boyfriend Blake was there. In the eventual recap I’ll say, 'No one in my room got a call back. And not just in my room.' The numbers will grow bigger, the weather colder, with each retelling.
By the time I get to 5th avenue, I decide to stay another night. I can write for the day, hole myself up in the Brick like I told M-J I would. I order a scrambled egg sandwich on sourdough and present my 20% off coupon, which the barista is confused about because it’s printed out, not just a barcode on my phone.
“I’m old fashioned,” I tell her. Yesterday I was too cool in the crowded pace of hipsters--coupons are for country mice. I have one for the Museum of Sex too, $3 off, but that one will stay in my purse. I’ve already seen the rhinestone-studded lingam lit up in the window next door and that’s enough.
I wonder about M-J, where he’s heading now. If he’ll keep his disguise.
“It’s so weird,” he said in line. “Your life can change in a second. And Whitney Houston didn’t have that. I mean, she made it big before these kinds of opportunities.” I hadn’t really been listening. I was trying to remember my words, manifest my key. But now I think about the Whitney Houston I used to love--before Bobby Brown and her reality show and her awful death. She just sang the shit out of songs and looked beautiful and made bad 80’s videos. She got to do more than a verse and a chorus.
“Laura?” My order is up. The barista is a cool young thing with a hat, the kind Britney Spears made popular. In the café no one cares about the Javits Center, almost in Jersey.
“Lara,” I correct her. I’m starving.