Sitting in my favorite NYC café, sampling key lime cheesecake and staring out the window at the city wildlife. The zoo walks by on parade.
The bejeweled cougar in the green sequined dress stands awkwardly – her shoulders glued to her ears and holding her up in youth-longing tension. A mom’s tongue licks between her upper lip and front teeth, reigning in her frustration with her misbehaving child. An old man presses his nose to the bakery window.
Suddenly I’m the one on display. I revert to my writing. Maybe the way I tie my hair in knots, tap my nose with my finger, and chew on my pen allow for interesting café wildlife study.
I look around.
A child chews on her hat strap that belongs under her chin. A large woman wriggles in between table and chair, shaking her booty before she sits. A man uses a laser light to trace the edges of the chair next to him. Strange. I pocket it all. I see it and take it. Does that make me a thief? Cataloguing an array of character traits? Recording habits, tendencies, and actions in the people around me.
The work is endless. On Christmas day I’m noting the way my dad chews his chutney, the way my sister shows off her biceps and the way my mom laughs graciously at her guest’s story – the same one she hears every year.
I enter it on a spread sheet like a psychological study. I could make a killer charades game with my findings, but they all serve as part of my personal acting pool. I draw from the list to define and create a new character. A large woman wiggle when I walk plus hair knotting plus a lick between my upper lip and front teeth equals comedy? Maybe… but give me a laser light just in case. Gold.
It’s no wonder my idol, Meryl Streep, is the chameleon she is. She slips on character traits as if they are her own natural born habits. The way her eyes dart on the ceiling searching for words in The Hours. The way she breathes a sigh and releases her shoulders for the first time in the movie, eyes still dancing and trying to compose a coherent thought. Her break down is fragile, overwhelmed, and exhausted… like an ancient fortified vase cracking under pressure.
She does it with poise and grace, carefully compiling a character in the most natural sense.
Unlike Anne Hathaway – forgive me, I’m sure she did “steal The Dark Knight Rises” – but girlfriend is so inconsistent. One minute she wears her character traits seamlessly and the next, she’s forcing a characteristic on like a shoe that won’t fit – cutting off toes and heels to make it work. She tries too hard to be the cold wife in Brokeback Mountain and the stoic White Queen in Alice and Wonderland that we forget we actually liked her as the dork-faced Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. It’s not that she’s bad, she just she just doesn’t know what she is – and neither do we. She isn’t flawless. She isn’t Meryl.
I sit in the café. On my second coffee, carefully cataloguing and not-so-subtlety trying to copy the sneer on the face of the girl at the next table. She watches her boyfriend watch another girl. I sneer, mirroring her. I see you, girl. Not sure if she sees me but maybe she will notice what I took the next time she goes to the theatre or clicks on the TV.
(New York City cafe feature photo by Larry Luxner)
Jana (it rhymes with “banana” or “anna”) is an artist from Clarksville, Maryland. Growing up her parents always told her to “be whatever you want to be.” Seeing as she has come from three generations of doctors, she obviously became an artist. As an actor, she has performed internationally Off-Broadway, and locally to the Baltimore/DC area. Favorite roles include Juliet, Ariel, and Caliban. Jana is the Founder of Red Connect Online, a social media marketing company that creates customized advertising campaigns for small businesses. You can listen to her podcast, Confessions of a Closet Christian, on the E-Squared Media Network. You can also follow her on Twitter (@Jana_Stambaugh) and friend her on Facebook.