When I was eight years old, my father came home with a beta max player and a copy of Carl Reiner’s film The Jerk, so my evening ritual after lights out was to lug this large piece of equipment into my bedroom and spend one hundred and forty-four minutes, every night, with Navin Johnson.
While my other friends were listening to Duran Duran and “Waking Up” before “They Go-Go’d”, I was the sole student in the Academy of Navin Johnson. He became my guru, Buddha, my compass. Navin was the first person to properly encapsulate exactly how I felt growing up, in that I loved my family and my town deeply but felt an enormous disconnect to both.
I wanted to be Jewish, Navin wanted to be black. He had big dreams, mine were bigger. He was going to “Be Somebody” and dammit, so was I. Instead of playing with Barbies or Star Wars figures, I was casting the kids on my block in a “bio-doc feature film” about me and my band Mary and the Recorders. Instead of playing with kids my own age, I was hanging with my best friend; who happened to by my 70-year old Italian Grandfather, Papa Charlie who lived for four things; cocktails, cigarettes, Carvel ice cream, and me.
Navin saw each new experience as an opportunity for something BIG, and for as long as I can remember, so did I. My first big break in acting came when my sister was cast as the lead in her 8th grade musical Carnival. Because I was her younger sister (and someone must have taken pity on me), they allowed me to be “the feet” in the “saw the person in half “ act….you get it…someone was the head and body and I was scrunched into a small box with only my two small feet peeking out while my sister and Anthony Trulio sang “Always You” and sawed the box in half. My feet were the only things visible for one and half minutes of the entire play, but it was my debut, and I was hooked.
After the show, my parents took us to Swenson’s for ice cream to celebrate, and right when their signature dish, “The Kitchen Sink” was served to us (20 scoops of ice cream in a silver bucket), I burst into tears. “Don’t like your ice cream, Mary?” my mother asked. My response? “Mom, I’m worried about when I’m invited to the Oscars, because I can only take one parent and I would have a really hard time choosing between you and Daddy.” And it didn’t stop there…tears over a grilled cheese at Friendly’s after my first gymnastic class (where I could barely do a cartwheel) that, “I’m going to miss you guys when I have to leave to train with Bela Kahroli in Texas….when I’m on the Olympic team.”
Just as Navin thought – after seeing his name in the phonebook and announcing “things are really going to start happening for me now!” –that he was on his way to big things, I carried this extreme optimism (narcissism? delusions of grandeur?) with me wherever I went.
It helped me get into a college that I was grossly under qualified to attend. It helped me survive a year in Italy while speaking only what could generously be called a hybrid of Italian/Spanish, largely mixed in with English and hand gestures that only a 20-something year old American girl could pull off. And, it gave me the courage to leave my overprotective but weirdly perfect and loving family environment to pursue my dreams in the Big Bad City (located 14 miles from my childhood home).
Ultimately, my “Navintude,” as I’ve come to call it, gave me the chutzpah to create my business, make a family (when every doctor on the east coast said "never"), and laugh in the face of anyone who told me, “Um, Mary, that's impossible….” “NO” was never an option for Navin and it certainly wasn’t one for me. When I arrived to New York City in 1997, I spent the first few months, broke, jobless and incredibly restless, thinking, “How the hell am I going to crack this city?” And now, almost 20 years since my arrival, I'd love to share with you (if anyone even reads blogs anymore) my journey.
But like Navin, I too stumbled upon hard roadblocks. I’ve had my heart stomped on and broken pretty badly, both in my personal life and in my professional life, and I’ve constantly had to readjust my dreams (that's where the whole "if you can't join 'em, serve 'em" comes in), which forces me to ask myself the question: Am I talented, lucky, or am I just a lovable Jerk?
Thank you so much for coming on this new adventure with me. My hope is by sharing my silly stories, recipes and tips, you will believe me when I say, that all your dreams can come true, even the ones you didn't even know you had.
Peace and love,
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