Over dinner my husband and I talked of redecorating our apartment when the subject of our little black bar stool came up. “It won’t match the color scheme,” I began to muse. “Oh well, I’ll paint it,” I shrugged.
Or we can just get a new one, my husband offered.
No. The stool stays. Always. It’s a reminder.
…It was nearly a decade ago when I arrived in my first Los Angeles apartment to call my own. It was in the heart of Hollywood and it was a studio apartment with one small sink to wash both your face and your dishes; it was infested with cockroaches; the tenant next to me was a drug addict who had full on band practice at 3am with guitars, drums, amps, and all; and the worst part… the building was directly over the 101 freeway and thus, vibrated every time a big truck drove by, which was always. I loved it. It was mine. It was simple, and it was the perfect place for a struggling actor who had just arrived for the adventure of their lifetime. It wasn’t as if I’d planned to live like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver forever, but for the moment, it was just right.
It wasn’t long after arriving in my oubliette-like home that a neighbor put up a sign that he was selling some furniture. I was in need of some, so I took a gamble that he wasn’t a psycho-killer and knocked on his door. The gentleman who answered was much older than I’d expected, in his fifties, perhaps. He was warm and humorous. (Definitely not a psycho-killer) His apartment, identical in structure to mine, was chock full of furniture, boxes, and junk. It occurred to me that he might have been a hoarder. I didn’t want to waste his time so I looked around his jumbled possessions and finally decided to splurge on a $5 brown barstool. I didn’t have a bar, but I could definitely find use for the stool somehow.
Before leaving with my newfound purchase the gentleman began explaining why he was selling so much stuff. He related that he had just moved back to the building after twenty years of living elsewhere, and now had too much stuff to fit in such a tiny studio.
Moved back? I thought. But, why?
He went on about how over the past twenty years since he’d lived in the building he’d lived in many different places: condos, houses…Big houses, nice neighborhoods, he emphasized the words big and nice.
He was dangling a carrot and I bit. “Why did you come back here if you lived in so many better places?” I blurted.
He smiled at my naivety and explained warmly, “I’ve been in the business (The entertainment business) for thirty years, it goes up, and it goes down. I’ve made lots of money and I’ve lost lots of money. Now I’m back here. Hopefully, I’ll be back up there again.” I nodded along in disbelief that someone could have had any amount of success and still wind up back here. He had to be crazy, maybe a drug addict. How else to explain it? He studied my face, as if he could read my thoughts.
“You an actor?” he asked, though I suspect he already knew the answer. “Yes,” I answered sheepishly, wanting to point out my degree and my measly two professional theatre credits to prove that I wasn’t just like everyone else in this town, despite that fact that, painfully, I was.
“When you make money, you’ve got to learn to hold onto it. Just cause you make money one week doesn’t mean you’re going to make it again the next. Learn how to hold on to it,” he gently advised.
I thanked him again for the barstool and left utterly bewildered. I couldn’t understand how someone could endure thirty years in the business of Hollywood and end up back where they started. I sat on my new stool and stewed. I looked around at my shabby surroundings and knew that this, for the long term, was not acceptable. How could I avoid the same fate as my neighbor?
My mind traced back to the acting job I’d had right before I moved to LA (professional credit number two). I was in Florida and the dance captain of my show told me a similar story. He regaled me of his days as a successful dancer on Broadway, of his countless national tours. “The money was good,” he said. “I used to wear fur coats and diamond rings, now I’m in my forties and living with my mother.” He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes, “Get an IRA. Put money into it. Trust me.”
I took his advice to heart and opened an IRA before moving to LA. I almost never put any money into it, but it was there. Now there was this little brown stool chock full of warnings and lessons learned the hard way staring back at me. There was no avoiding the stool; you could hardly move a foot in the apartment without coming into contact with it. Sure, I could toss it, too depressing to hold on to, or I could keep it as a reminder. A lesson learned from the mistakes of others who had taken the time to share their tribulations with me. I decided that I shouldn’t avoid the cold hard truths of the world any more than I should avoid the dentist so I painted the stool black and it soon became my coffee cup stand for when I was at the computer. I also decided that it would stay with me, no matter where I ended up. A constant reminder to save my money; that what comes up, may come crashing back down.
The following month I booked my first big voice-over gig. When the check came I put half of it into my IRA, the other half I put into savings.
It’s been almost a decade since I purchased my $5 barstool. I re-coated its black paint job after my dog went through his teething phase. I touched it up now and then whenever I had the can of paint out. It’s still standing, still shiny black, though, perhaps it will soon be yellow. Regardless of its color, it will always be a reminder of merciless gravity, that no matter the level of success I may find for myself, to always be grateful, and to always hold on- because no matter how great the ride, you never know how long it will last.
As I end my story, I get up to clear our dinner plates. My husband looks over at the stool, as if he’s seeing it suddenly for the first time. He smiles to himself. “I like that story. The stool stays.”