Craigslist ShuffleA struggling artist pays her dues in New York City
There were no misspellings. no horrible questions. Are you the “complete” package? Do you have unique, cutting-edge talent and the follow-through it takes to succeed? No inscrutable requirements. Must have full head of hair OR no hair AT ALL.
After months of looking for bandmates on Craigslist, it was a relief to find the Producer, a professional who also happened to meet my minimal standard of being sane, polite, and competent. His ad was vague, mentioning only that he was looking for a female singer to collaborate on a new album, but he hadn't used the word collab, nor did he make any wild, flag-raising claims. Still, the thing that appealed to me most here was that a producer, as opposed to a mere bandmate, had power. Something I lacked; something no one else I knew had any of either. I imagined a producer to be something like the Thomas Cooke of the rock world, riding the rough seas of Craigslist to unearth raw talent, returning to lay treasure at the feet of Tommy Mottola and David Geffen. At the very least, his SoHo address inspired confidence.
The studio was in one of those expensive Manhattan buildings that always look deserted. It was raining the morning of my audition and I’d made the unfortunate decision to eat a croissant along the way, only to notice once I reached the door that it had flaked down the front of my black jacket. I pawed at myself uselessly for a moment, realized it was hopeless, then rang the buzzer for the second floor. Within a moment, the speaker crackled and a clipped male voice came at me.
“Is this my eleven o’clock?”
“Are you the Ricky Lee Jones one or the Annie Lennox one”
“I . . . sorry?”
“Second flo—” Then the door sang its flat note and there was nothing left to do but open it. As I stood inside the doorway, wondering what to make of this exchange, a familiar sensation began to creep over me. Let’s call it hope slippage—the quick drop of pressure when oversized expectations are ratcheted down, violently and without warning. This is going to be bad, a voice inside my head whispered. Run away, while you still can! But I didn't run.
The Producer was sitting in an Aeron chair, backlit by an enormous Mac screen. When he got up to greet me I noticed that he was strikingly good-looking, with a John Edwardsy haircut and a long-sleeved shirt whose color could best be described as expensive. Everything in the studio looked very modern and new. A twenty-four-channel mixing board without a spot of dust among its matrix of knobs, a sleek desk made of dark wood, a side table with a neat stack of Tape Op back issues.
“Helena?” he said, looking down at the list in his hand.
“Well, Alina, it must really be throwing it down out there!” he said with a nod at my dripping guitar case. “I forget, did you ever email me that list of influences?”
“I think I mentioned Sinéad O’Connor—”
“Roight!” he said, making some notes on his list. “So then you must be the Sinéad O’Connor one?”
“Um—” I said, finding it surprisingly difficult to push the words “I am the Sinéad O’Connor one” out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you go ahead and set up over there while I finish some things.” The Producer pointed to the back wall, where a Marshall stack waited on a square of lintless carpet.
“No problem,” I said, and felt it again, that small drowning sensation. I knelt down to thread a daisy chain cable into my pedals and took the opportunity to give myself a little talk. So what, I said to myself, if this guy doesn’t have a very personalized approach to things? I was living in New York City now and would have to accept the fact that not everyone was going to recognize my unique qualities until I actually proved myself. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Remember what the inscription said? I had found it a few weeks ago while running errands in the Fashion District: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These were words carved into the stone face of the landmark Farley post office, high above the doors. Channel their strength, I thought, the strength of gloom-deflecting mailman warrior gods, pounding the streets of New Amsterdam, carrying out their noble mission without complaint!
“Are we all set here?” The Producer swiveled around to face me, Moleskine open on his lap. He managed to look both bored and expectant at the same time.
“Totally!” I found myself saying, in a false, bright voice that came from nowhere. And then it all went as shitty as I thought it would.
When I began to sing, I noticed that my voice sounded weirdly thin, as though this were a concert being broadcast, live, from inside a Dixie cup. The Producer watched me while doing tight, controlled half-turns in his Aeron chair. He looked very much as though he was trying hard not to grow a third eye in the back of his head so that he could check his email. Time seemed to move in jagged, stop-motion animation. One second I was fully present, the next my brain had run off in search of someplace less sinister. Now the Producer was writing something down on his notepad. Was that good or bad? I hit the chorus and the heavy bass notes balked at the edge of the carpet, dying an ungraceful death between us. The Producer tapped his pen against his desk. Was he trying to tell me something? Was my timing off? The reasons for going through all of this suddenly seemed very far away. I was in a horror movie and this was a fake office, painted mauve and filled with product placements. The slick, handsome producer was actually an alien tapeworm in nice pants. When he reached over slowly to open a desk drawer, his face would slough off, and then cockroaches would start falling out of the light fixtures. I would think maybe they were just raisins at first until I felt them moving over my bare arms—
Then it was over. The hum of the hard drive and the rattle of the AC vent were the only sounds. And there was I, a patient lying on the metal table in my paper dress, awaiting diagnosis.
The Producer cleared his throat and clicked the base of a ballpoint pen against his desk. He took a last, wistful glance at the computer screen and then turned back around to face me.
“How many albums,” he began, “do you suppose PJ Harvey sold in the U.S. last year?” Click, unclick, click.
I stood there for a moment, blinking and wondering what this was all about. “Lots?” I offered lamely.
The Producer shook his head, a bit sadly. “Not lots. Not lots at all. Maybe a load for New York or L.A., but forget about the rest of the country.” He paused to consider his cell phone, which had started blinking. “You like PJ Harvey, I gather?”
“I do, but—”
“Roight,” he interjected. “Well, I’m afraid that’s not what this project is all about.”
“Can I ask,” I said softly, “what exactly is this project about?”
He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “This,” he said, sweeping an arm over the mixing board, the city, the world, “is about a second house in the Hamptons. For me.”
Then the Producer opened a desk drawer, pulled out a CD, and offered it to me. On the cover was a picture of a girl in a flowy dress, slightly blurred, running across a field. It looked like a still from a tampon commercial. The Producer waited impatiently for me to say something, as though he’d just handed me the clue that would clear up our little misunderstanding.
“Something you produced?” I managed.
“Back in England. I found this Scottish girl and we cut the album in a week. Know how much I cleared on that one?” I shook my head mutely.
“Fifty. Bloody. Grand. Licensed some of those songs for commercials and never even had to leave the studio.” At this the Producer leaned back in his chair and laughed softly. Not sure what exactly to do with myself, I decided to laugh along with him, like we were in this together, just two people answering the clarion call of second-home ownership. “Fifty grand is nice, but the only thing it buys you in this town is a parking spot, roight?”
I nodded. It was true that you couldn't build a house on a parking spot.
“So this next project has to be bigger, something worth millions. I see blokes with half the smarts pulling it off all the time.”
Then there was a soft knock at the door and an older woman with straight blond hair and a posh overcoat stepped in.
“Jill” said the Producer. “Is it that time already? Jill, this is Helena.” He waved a hand in my direction and continued, “Jill and I are working on some jingles and were about to step out for tea. Shall we see you downstairs?” It wasn’t a question. As soon as we were outside the building, the Producer held out his hand in parting. “Well, thanks for stopping by,” he said. “Cheers!”
“Cheers,” I echoed, cheerlessly, turning back toward the subway. With a sinking heart, I considered the picture of myself in an hour, face bathed in laptop glow, scanning Craigslist for posts ending “only serious inquiries please.” If my father the scientist were here, I thought as I walked, he would remind me that success is only a matter of statistics and that pessimism is an illogical response to failure. Failure only means that you haven’t thrown yourself, face-first, against the brick wall of probability enough times. And to quit after only one try? That would be committing statistical suicide.
But maybe Papa’s laws of probability applied only to people like Papa [aka Alex Vilenkin, professor of physics and director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology], a Soviet émigré who had noble goals and the iron constitution to pursue them. My goals were small and ignoble: to record some songs, to play a Tuesday-night show at Arlene Grocery, to be a person whose ambitions weren’t best described using air quotes. Was it even worth a struggle? I could always go back to living with the low-grade shame of having a dream in life and doing nothing to pursue it. It was a common enough affliction, like dandruff or a deviated septum. Certainly a far distant cousin to that other kind of shame, the kind that confronts you directly in the form of rejections that are blunt, damaging, and Google-searchable. Coming to New York to become a singer had only made me realize exactly how fine a palate for humiliation one could develop. It was as though I had signed up for some kind of twisted Iron Chef competition in which shame turns out to be the surprise ingredient. There were countless subtle variations on a few persistent themes: the shame of not being good enough, of secretly wanting something from someone, of pretending to like people you don’t like, of rejection, of self-doubt, of looking like a poseur, of being too ambitious or not ambitious enough . . .
Papa clearly had the inner strength to endure defeat and triumph—but me? I had all the resilience of a slug being introduced to a nice teaspoon of sea salt. The fatal flaw, I thought, must lie in my upbringing, in the fact that Papa had honed his character against the whetstone of a totalitarian regime, whereas I had grown up in the Reagan-era suburbs of Boston, wondering why the sprinklers were always left running in the rain.
In my family you learned to solve your own problems. Perhaps this was because the Soviet Union just wasn’t a place that coddled its weak or troubled—personal issues requiring anything short of a visit to an asylum were typically self-medicated away with vodka, dubious herbal remedies, or emigration. Besides, the kinds of problems I had growing up were not even things my family remotely recognized as problems. I would complain about my lack of ponies, my inability to learn French, their unreasonable refusal to send me to five-thousand-dollar summer camps for the performing arts, and they would consider my words with a preoccupied and distant air.
“Yes, life is hard, isn’t it?” my father would say, without looking up from his lined pad of yellow paper. My father, who had been denied any kind of livelihood in our native Kharkov, who’d been blacklisted by the KGB and sent to serve hard labor with convicts, who had arrived in the United States knowing no one, with a young family and one hundred dollars to his name, who then completed his Ph.D. in physics in just one year, would shake his head. “Sorry to hear about gym class. But you’re very resourceful. I’m sure you'll find a way to manage.”
Perhaps it was precisely because I had nothing to oppose or protest, no wars or famines to suffer through, no evil ideologues to oppress me, that I was anxious. It started with the mansions. The big, imposing Colonials and Victorians and the brick compounds of a more recent vintage that could easily be confused for the embassy of some Mediterranean country. I walked past a stretch of them every day on the way to school, my worries only growing as the grand parade of stately manors, laced with snow like exquisite pastries, unspooled before me one by one. It seemed that somehow by going to school, and then going to college, and then getting a job, I was expected to come back to a place like this and acquire an impossibly terrific and expensive house. All I had to do was look around and learn by example. My parents had pulled themselves up out of nothing, acquiring a sizable mortgage and a Honda several cuts above a Civic. They had filled entire photo albums with pictures of themselves riding llamas in places I could not pronounce. Their Russian friends were similarly accomplished, having all invented a magical, cash-producing piece of math that lived inside a computer. It came as no surprise, then, that their children were the straight-A students, the violin prodigies and science fair winners, the shitty athletes and social misfits with untamable hair and oversized lips, waiting with barely concealed bwahahas for the day when they would rule the world.
Only I knew exactly how doomed I was. There were faint assurances from different quarters that it was only a matter of time, my innate ability to solve integral equations and calculate the torque of falling objects on the moon was bound to surface sooner or later. Out of all my relatives who had emigrated from the Soviet Union, the only person without a Ph.D. in the sciences was my loser mother, who’d only managed to drag her slacker ass through a master’s in physics. But as I sat there, listlessly sniffing rocks in earth science class and trying to determine their salinity, I knew the only thing that I really cared about was singing and writing songs. I wanted to write songs just like Sinéad O’Connor’s. Not the ones that made her famous—the other ones. But since this rather specific subject matter wasn’t covered at school, I had the gnawing feeling that I would get stuck doing something else when I grew up, something grim and joyless and papery. And I worried that I would end up as bitter and bitten as the school secretaries with the lipstick-stained teeth, standing outside by the fire door and glaring at us as they sucked the last dregs of youthful desire up through a Lucky Strike.
After my encounter with the Producer I took a long break from Craigslist, preferring to spend my time writing songs in the bedroom of my Hoboken apartment and performing them for an exclusive audience of cats. Eventually, though, I paired up with a cellist recruited through a flyer tacked up at Maxwell’s and a drummer I found on Craigslist to form a scruffy little band called Disfarmer. We recorded some demos, played a few shows around the city, and were denounced as “Björklike” by Chuck Eddy in The Village Voice. It was finally looking as though all my modest dreams were coming true, until one day my cellist announced she was moving to D.C., and a few months later the band fell apart. I found myself right back where I’d started, at the beginning of another miserable hunt for bandmates on Craigslist. This thought was dreary enough to consider, but now there was the other problem as well. The problem of the ultimatum.
It happened while I was living in Austin, moving through a series of office jobs that carried me effortlessly toward a very specific career that I didn’t want. I woke up one day to the vision of my future as a big, rambling house out of a Brontë novel set on fire, the prospects for escape narrowing as each hallway filled with smoke. My panic crescendoed until one night I called Papa, my words all tumbling out in a bitter rush. I explained that I’d made all the wrong choices in life because I was too scared—scared of performing, scared of asking for help, scared of failing at the only thing I really want to do. Wasn’t it sad, Papa, that I’d missed the chance to be an Olympic gymnast or president of the United States or Yo-Yo Ma? Papa listened quietly to my rant, and when I was done, he agreed that I should at least try singing, otherwise I would always regret it. But being a practical person, he also gave me the following ultimatum: You have until you are twenty-five to do something with your music. After that, he all but said, it would be time to get about the business of living up to other people’s expectations.
When I hung up the phone the world seemed different. It was true that as a student, the imposition of an arbitrary and cruel deadline always had the tonic effect of rejuvenating my determination. But this time it had the opposite effect, and I froze, becoming a veritable human Popsicle of indecision. When I brought up the ultimatum with Papa many years later, he said, “I didn’t give you that ultimatum—I just strongly suggested you give yourself that ultimatum.”
“Wow.” I was full of doubts on that score. “You’ll have to forgive me for totally misinterpreting you like that.”
“Either way,” he added, chortling, “I don’t regret it.”
But after Disfarmer broke up, no one was chortling at the ultimatum. I was already two years behind schedule—a twenty-seven-year-old disappointment. How would I ever catch up? Jonesing again for the quick fix, I did what I swore I would never do again and answered an ad posted on Craigslist by another producer: George from Brooklyn. A week later I found myself on a Coney Island–bound F train, rattling toward one of those ill-defined neighborhoods where the streets all trail off into endless chorus lines of fix-a-flats and scratch ticket bodegas.
The man who met me at the station was much older than I was, with a pockmarked face and watery eyes. He wore a faded army jacket and a logoless baseball cap pulled down almost to his eyes. George, I realized, was the kind of guy who immediately makes you feel sketchy just by association.
From his hello, it seemed like I had already done something vaguely annoying just by showing up at the station. He took my guitar with an exasperated yank that said, Come on, you know you’ll end up hurting your ovaries if I let you carry that. Then he told me that his real name was Georgi and he had come to the States from Tbilisi with help from Jewish Family Services. I waited for an opening to tell him that I was born in Kharkov and we both spoke Russian, but he never stopped talking. It was the familiar patois of failure: a first wife, then a second, an estranged daughter now grown and studying business administration at Baruch, a revoked cabbie license, too many moves from the blurry edges of one borough to another. He sucked hard on an unfiltered cigarette and walked hunched into it like he was afraid I might snatch it from his mouth and run away laughing.
Georgi’s studio smelled like burnt brownies. It had dismally low ceilings and was crammed with books, vinyl, heaps of clothes, tea bags hardened into the bottoms of stray cups, and pillows fat with cigarette smoke. It was as though a spaceship from Planet Lonely Bachelor had crashed right here, into a dumpy fourth-floor walk-up in south Brooklyn. He walked over to a bed submerged in old synthesizers and tangled cables piled so high that they blocked much of the light from the room’s only window, and cleared a space. Then he sat down on the bed and motioned me over. I didn’t really want to sit next to him on the sour-smelling sheets—it made me feel like I'd answered a different kind of ad—but there didn't seem to be any alternative.
“Sit!” Georgi barked. So I sat. Then Georgi grabbed a framed photo from the nightstand and pushed it into my hands. “First of all, this is Stacey.” Unlike everything else, the frame wasn’t dusty. I could tell the shot had been taken at the downstairs bar of Acme Underground, one of the city’s crappier starter clubs. There was a perky blond girl smiling and then half of Georgi’s head sailing out of the frame, leaving only one deranged blue eye.
“Who is Stacey?”
“She was my partner, until last year.”
“She moved?” I asked.
“We fell out. And then she left for California. On a bike. Here’s another one, with the fucking bike.” He plucked another dustless photo from the inner frame of a mirror. I barely glanced at it—a girl on a motorcycle—before handing it back.
“Now pick a track number so I can play you something of ours. One? Nine? Seven?”
“I will play you track six. Six is better.”
Georgi punched at the stereo and the music started: a sugary keyboard run, the chug of programmed drums, a familiar bass line. Then came the girl’s voice, totally uncomplicated. It wasn’t bad exactly, it was just the kind of music that automatically shut my brain off. If this song were a feeling, I thought, it would be the feeling of standing in line at Starbucks, waiting for a half-caff latte while checking out the overpriced mugs. And the words were awful. When it ended, Georgi reached for a cigarette.
“Not bad,” I said wanly.
“Can I just tell you something?” Georgi lit the cigarette, not bothering with the window, and went on, “I know that Americans don’t like honesty, but please, allow me to talk, OK? You will have to know how it is if we are going to work together. Understand this: if Stacey walked back in here today, even after everything that happened, I would take her back without any questions. Sorry, I wouldn’t care whose ass was in here. Vot tak.” He reached down for a dirty coffee mug to ash into and continued, “Now I will tell you that the next girl won’t be such a fucking mess, with the jealous boyfriends and the brother always turning up at the apartment with some kind of ‘emergency.’”
Georgi jumped up and began pacing up and down. “I have my theories about what was going on too. She wouldn’t answer calls for days, and then come up with some bullshit story: ‘I went to City Island for the weekend.’ ‘Is that right?’ I would say. ‘Do you consider me some kind of idiot? I mean this is New York City—who turns their cell phone off for the weekend? Am I that stupid? What do you think? Do I look like a total idiot to you?’”
What I thought was that Russians really loved that word: idiot. It was like an honorary pronoun. Then I did whatever one does in these situations: shook my head, did my best impression of a sympathetic look. I wondered how far things could actually go before I overcame the constraints of politeness, picked myself up, and walked out the door. As if in response to this internal question, Georgi sat back down heavily, knees thrust out, and checked his watch. “Shit, it's already three thirty,” he said, taking out another cigarette and tapping it on the inside of his wrist. “Play me something.” I stood there uncertainly, staring down into the furry crack between the wall and the bed.
“What? Do you need a water or something?”
It occurred to me that the fastest way to get out of there was just to do as Georgi asked. Even though he’d never explained what it was, exactly, that I was auditioning for, I had a feeling it was best not to know and stood up to get my guitar. Georgi sat there in his stained pants atop a tangle of wires on the bed, waving the smoke away from his face. Though poignant in its own way, it was the kind of little scene that somehow never gets immortalized in a snow globe. I took a breath and sang a song that I’d written a long time ago, about a girl in a bad situation.
This time I didn’t wait around to hear a verdict when I was done; I just bent down to unplug my tuning pedal and began stuffing my guitar back into its case. Georgi watched me pack my things wordlessly. It was suddenly very quiet, except for the radiator making wet, dying noises. “It seems to me,” he said slowly, “that you have your own thing going on.”
“I guess,” I said.
“So do you need me or not?”
It was an oddly dramatic thing to say and implied a level of intimacy that I hoped we’d never attain. Nonetheless, I decided to make the most of my Katharine Hepburn moment. I took the handle of my guitar case, straightened up, and raised my chin. I looked Georgi in the eyes. “Um . . . maybe?” I said.
“Then let’s go,” said Georgi, tossing his cigarette butt into the dirty mug. “I have another girl to meet at the train.”
Waiting for the F on the elevated platform, I pulled out my phone and called Ben, a friend from back home who had just finished his M.F.A. and moved to Brooklyn to make it as a video artist. We had a habit of calling each other whenever things went badly, which is to say that we were always in touch.
“Ben, I’m such a loser,” I said as soon as he picked up the phone. I’d felt ready to yammer on for hours, but found myself running out of things to say after fifteen seconds. Apparently nothing had actually happened.
“Whatever, dude,” Ben began—because everyone who grows up in Massachusetts tries to mask their lack of familiarity with the sun by adopting the vocabulary of a surfer—“sounds like that guy’s just a douchebag. Another douchebag in a sea of douchebags.” Then Ben excused himself to go finish up a video starring a toy pony head on a stick. I understood; he was busy and had parents of his own to disappoint. The F train arrived and I settled into a window seat, pressing my cheek against the scratchiti as it pulled away from Kings Highway. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Swinging out over Brooklyn, above miles of brick and concrete and soapstone-faced buildings rolling out to the horizon, I had to admit: the odds were against me.
Maybe my fatal flaw had been that I’d set the bar too high, measuring myself against the expectations of people born with dictator-defying superpowers. The mailmen would make for more appropriate role models. The mailmen weren’t facing a hail of bullets or trying to feed a family on one potato a day. Theirs were ordinary problems—crotchety old ladies, July thunderstorms, hungry dogs. A bag of mail and one day to distribute it; this was the kind of challenge even someone like me could cope with, given the proper footwear. As the train passed Ditmas Avenue I noticed that I should have been feeling terrible, but somehow, felt okay. I was a directionless twenty-seven-year-old facing a dwindling probability of success, but hey, at least I didn’t share the final bottom-feeding rung of the Craigslist ladder with someone like Georgi. There is a certain peace that comes with the realization you aren’t ruining anyone else’s life but your own. I pondered this strange new calm and wondered: Had I just limboed below that final humiliation threshold, beyond which nothing else could hurt me? Had my resolve finally hardened, like the feet of some fire-walking swami? Was my luck about to change? There was no answer to these questions or to the question of what to do next. Nothing left to do now but enjoy the view until the train dipped back underground and carried me on toward Manhattan, where even with the weight of the whole city over my head, I wouldn’t feel a thing.
Excerpted from You Must Go and Win, by Alina Simone, published in June by Faber and Faber Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2011 by Alina Simone. All rights reserved. Reproduction of the text in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.
ALINA SIMONE, J97, SMFA97, is a singer and writer based in Brooklyn. She was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and emigrated to the United States after her father, Alex Vilenkin, now a physicist at Tufts, refused recruitment by the KGB. Her albums, including Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware, sung entirely in Russian, have earned national airplay and critical acclaim. Her latest album, Make Your Own Danger, has just been released. The current article is excerpted from You Must Go and Win (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Simone’s new collection of essays about Russia, family, and the tragicomic struggle to make it in indie rock.