Prologue: That headline was a complete misnomer. It was only one member of the cast of “Orange is the New Black.” Clickbait much? Also, Everyone I went to high school with who reads this will say, Kendra, please to get over yourself. To which I will respond, It’s nice when some things never change, isn’t it?
In 1998, I was a freshman in college. It is well-documented that the internet was brand new [to mine eyes]. I had also spent the prior four years in an all-girls Catholic high school run by nuns. It was everything you’ve read: strict, overprivileged, competitive, and raucous fun. But I was much too busy overachieving for the fun part, for which I was rewarded by a local civic organization with a sizable scholarship.
Pro-tip: don’t ever give a 17 year-old a scholarship in the form of a check made out directly to her. She might use it for another kind of education.
Like she might teach herself how to use the internet. And buy a flight to New York City.
The plan for the weekend that I told my mom: I was staying with my high school gal pal at Fordham.
The plan for the weekend that I didn’t tell my mom: I was staying with Greg at NYU and would place a call on his landline to my gal pal at Fordham to say hello for two minutes.
In the weeks leading up to my maiden voyage to NYC, I realized I had no clothes that were not ill-fitting because for the 12 years prior I had worn a polyester uniform that resembled the upholstery of chairs found in nursing home lobbies. That scholarship once again came in handy when I received the most cliched of clothing catalogues in the college mail: Delia*s. I called 1-800-DELIA*s with debit card at the ready and proceeded to buy a full outfit that I deemed suitable for NYC hijinks. Per the custom of tele-service, the operator noted that because I had spent $50, I was eligible to receive the free Cosmic Kitty tote. Cosmic Kitty was not my style per se, which, we had established was Catholic tartan chic, but a girl needs a catch-all for NYC, surely.
Full disclosure: I no longer lie to my mom. I no longer use civic scholarships for weekend rendezvous. Or to buy clothes from Delia*s.
Fast forward to my arrival in NYC. It is hard to imagine but none of us had cellphones, so when I asked Greg to meet me at LaGuardia, the only thing he knew was approximately when my flight was arriving and that I would be wearing blue glitter headboppers. Somehow we found one another, like two star-crossed loves in a Rumi poem.
NYC was a drug to my system. I was so electrified by the Big Apple. The Drifters were right–the neon lights ARE bright on Broadway!! There really is always magic in the air….
During my last full day in NYC, we went to see the debut of “Ragtime.” On our way, we stopped at Greg’s friend’s apartment. His friend was named Chernus and all I knew was that Chernus went to Juilliard. Remember that I had spent four years besting other girls on geometric theorems and not watching “Party of Five.” I didn’t have ticket stubs from Barenaked Ladies Concerts. I didn’t have an ex-boyfriend with a pager. I didn’t (gasp) know what Juilliard was.
I stood awkwardly in the doorway of Chernus’ apartment. It had exposed brick. The walls were covered in posters of cultural things. The posters were in frames. Chernus was, like, a grown-up. Who went to Juilliard. Whatever that was. Greg and Chernus joked and traded notes about Broadway shows. I stood frozen in the doorway, clutching my black tote, the embarrassing Cosmic Kitty reversed to my side so no one could see.
I bawled in the balcony at “Ragtime,” all over my Delia*s cardigan sweater. I hadn’t packed any tissues in my Cosmic Kitty tote because I didn’t know that a live performance could wreck a person like that.
After the show, we met Chernus by the back door to the theater. And we met Audra McDonald and took a picture with her. We wouldn’t realize that you could only see my forehead in the picture until we developed the camera film. So meta.
As we were walking back to the subway, Chernus said he had to go. Greg said, “Kendra, show Chernus how you do the reindeer dance from ‘Waiting for Guffmann.'”
Hah. That’s okay, I said.
“She has to protect her Cosmic Kitty,” Chernus laughed.
And that is the story of the time I hung out with Michael Chernus, aka Cal Chapman from “Orange is the New Black.”