• Daniel Benhamu

THE ARTIST'S JOURNEY


https://benhamu.substack.com/p/theartistsjourney?s=w


I moved to LA a week ago after twelve years in New York. Saying goodbye to New York is simply impossible. It’ll always be alive within me, but looking back, I can hardly believe everything I lived through. As a Florida-man, that’s saying a lot. If you want to read about the New York escapades of an actor, writer, and martial artist, then cowabunga, dude! This is how a Florida-man’s artistic journey began.


I learned a hell of a lot about myself from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. My first time ever visiting New York was in June of 2010. Without expecting to, I was suddenly living in Murray Hill two months later. With humility, I admit, this mission could not have been accomplished without help from my parent’s. On the first day of having no errands to run, I sat at the foot of my bed staring out of the bars on the window of my first-floor apartment on 33rd and 3rd.


The office by day that is Manhattan stimulates the senses immediately. Once you‘re two-months in, your brain begins operating on a higher frequency. It’s enough to make you either entirely reject the effect it has or make you addicted to it. In the one hour, from one to two in the afternoon, the world felt like it had already spun a full rotation. People-watching was dizzying. Thousands of personalities were scattering in every direction around every square foot under the sun like a bunch of bugs when you lift a rock. The roach race.


The progression of how much can happen in a minute makes every hour so exponentially different that it’s often overwhelming. Information constantly changes and everyone absorbs it instantly. “Hurry up! It’s almost Showtime! Wait, is the train running? *Checking.* Shit, I’m not gonna make it. Aha! Citi-bike!” can all happen in two seconds. Every moment expands its possibilities further and further. Time can feel like quicksand if you’re in a rush yet stuck, or like a cheat code if you learn how to utilize your surroundings. The days are long, but the years are short. Whereas in Florida, the opposite feels true: the days are short but the years are long. My intention was to slow down and remember this very moment; like when staring at a ceiling fan long enough makes the blades begin to spin in reverse. I kept still, trying to clear my inner space to reverberate like a Tibetan singing bowl and find peace of mind.


But by 3pm on this sweltering Friday afternoon, I went from being entranced by the countless passersby to irritated about being underutilized. School didn’t start until Monday and I knew nobody. My roommate hadn’t moved in yet. As soon as I realized I’d be completely isolated for the next seventy-two hours, loneliness knocked on the door and changed the chemistry in the room. With New York being so compact, with millions of bedrooms veiled in glass, a more suitable nickname for it is a concrete zoo, not a jungle, because I felt trapped. Being amongst the crowd was somehow liberating. There was freedom to be found, but the best kind came from the mastery of structure. That must be what all these buildings represented.


Suddenly, a peculiar man walked by staring inside my window. He made eye contact with me instantly as if he knew I’d be there. It was bizarre because I went unnoticed for two hours, yet somehow, he saw me first. Like a glitch in the Matrix, I got the feeling he’d circle back. A minute later, he floated in the opposite direction, staring directly at me again as if we knew each other. He seemed like a lost dog with a reserved desperation in his eyes. Unlike the countless palm readers who open their doors to prey on these types, I closed the curtains and showered to unwind.


Roughly twenty minutes later, I stepped outside and sat on my stoop. There he was still, standing on the corner twenty yards away, although his aura felt more distant. He looked both ways yet resisted the urge to cross the street. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed me, then turned around to face me, staring contemplatively for the next five seconds. I looked in the opposite direction to see if there was anything else he could be curious about, but there was no one in sight now.


Receiving this uncanny attention was not new to me. Ever since I knew my name, strangers everywhere have approached me and repeatedly called me by the name of some random person I don’t know and have never met. This only contributed to my confusion. Regardless, it felt good to hear what other people were thinking. Anyone searching for someone who’d listen always chose me, or maybe I chose them. Not that that made me feel special or extraordinary, it just felt like we found each other. Obviously, we all need someone who'll listen to us, but apparently, it’s worth mentioning that we all need to listen to each other, too. As someone who’s always been naturally gregarious, listening may be where I derived the self-worth I felt robbed of whenever alone.


He stood still, hesitating between whether to stay or go. Before it got awkward, I nodded, acknowledging him, and then he meandered by me again, glaring silently, doing everything one can do to elicit a conversation without simply speaking. He passed my stoop for the third time now, like a vampire that cannot enter unless invited in.


I casually asked him, “What’s up man?”


He calmly halted. “Nothing,” he said, “just wondering.”


“Wondering what?” I asked.


“What’s your name?”


I smiled. “Daniel. What’s yours?”


“Angelo.”


“Nice to meet you.”


“You too.”


“What’s on your mind?” I asked.


He looked about mid-thirties, 5’6, 150 pounds, wearing a baggy flannel with a tank top underneath and scrunchy blue jeans. He removed the black monochromatic NY Yankees hat to wipe the sweat from his brow and look around when I noticed a long scar running across the whole backside of his shaved head.


He got pensive for a split second and then started purging, “Life, you know? My girl. She’s wanting to get more serious now. Cause we got some extra responsibilities now. And I’m thinking, like, I’m worried about the future of it, so I’m wondering where to go.” He widened his eyelids for a second, using the sidewalk to refocus.


I was not in a serious relationship anymore, but I also worried about the future and where to go.


Then his tone changed for what I thought was a new topic. “Yo – you ever been a father?” he asked, as if I might’ve gone through that phase back in the day.


“No,” I said.


“Oh.”


“Is she pregnant?”


“Nah, nah,” he said, frivolously.


“Well, that’s good.”


“Yeah, yeah. Nah, she’s living up there and wants me to start spending extra time there for some reason and I don’t know if it’s right though, you know?”


“Yeah, I guess. So, what are you gonna do?”


“I’m not sure, but these are life-long responsibilities that are possible right now, you know?”


“Not really,” I said. This didn’t make sense anymore. “But I hope you can figure it out.”


He got more eager unexpectedly. “Yo, did you read the newspaper this morning?”


“No, why?”


“Cause I think the Yankees played yesterday and I’m trying to find out who won.” He shifted back and forth. This topic seemed to matter the most.


“They have newspapers at the bodega over there,” I said, pointing across the street.


“Yeah,” he said. Then added, “if I were to go professional in anything, it’d be in... a sport.”


I appreciated his sincerity, but couldn’t help myself after that. I was like, “Yo, what drugs are you on?”


“Me? None. None.”


“No?”


“Nah, man. I don’t do drugs.”


As a Florida-man, I knew that wasn’t true, but it wasn’t my business. I understood if he thought I’d judge him or be afraid if he admitted it, but I wouldn’t have. I may’ve given him more credit instead.


I just said, “Alright, well I’m gonna grab food, but good luck, man. Hope it all goes well.”

“Yeah man. Thank you.”


I went to the bodega and ate a ham, egg, and cheddar cheese croissant. Between each bite, I wondered if there was any insight to be mined from my first stoop moment. Could it be a metaphor for my life in any way? Was I lost? The last few years of my life indicated as much. Everybody in Florida thought I was on a downward spiral because I’d transferred to four different colleges each semester after high school. I was pinballing to every corner of the state, longing for something more from life. I couldn’t rid myself of, as a friend once put it, “an incessant melancholy sensation that is almost innate.”


Everywhere I went brought out the worst in me. My personality had increasingly become intolerable, at least to me, and unbeknownst to most, I found myself stuck in an unsustainable, self-destructive lifestyle. A major part of my true identity had gone missing along the way. I couldn’t pinpoint when or where the split started, but this shadow-self had been haunting me for a few years now. He’d officially become my kryptonite. The chase to capture him led me here, which was, oddly enough, the safest place for me to be.


Having escaped where I grew up, the first thing I needed to do was raise myself as if I was my own parent. A big group of friends no longer served me. This was a new era of growth beyond survival. For my own sake, I no longer had any interest in doing anything that wasn’t creative. What better way to start than to become an actor and speak other people’s lines, I thought. Otherwise, I had nothing to say as an individual. Yet I had no training or experience as a professional performer. It was just my dream as a kid. That’s where I was starting all over from.


Looking back on my life, the feeling of despair swelled up in me like a tsunami. It seemed like everything I had ever done was for the sake of other people and not my own purpose. Nothing I had learned seemed useful now. Sometimes you’re just alive throughout a period of your life with no knowledge of its purpose, no new thoughts that propel you forward to connect one dot to the next. Hell, this path might not contribute to my future well-being either.


The first person I mentioned wanting to be an actor to was my ex. We dated in high school and as freshmen in college. She replied, “An actor? You can’t act. You’re too predictable.” I broke up with her soon after and moved away, not solely because of that. A few months later, I told some friends I wanted to be an actor while at lunch. They all scoffed. Fortunately, I failed my business-degree classes, so I moved again. Over and over, I made these decisions and followed through the very next day, regardless of my enrollment. I finally arrived in New York, with a chip on my shoulder and a trail of breadcrumbs.


I finished eating and saw Angelo still on the corner. He carried himself differently, though — more aloof. This was his natural state.


“Good afternoon,” I said playfully.


“Good evening,” he said deadpan.


“Yeah, that too.”


“Oh man, I fucked up,” he said nonchalantly.


“What did you do?”


“It’s my last day.”


“Where you goin?”


“To California.”


This did not sound possible, but I withheld doubt. “For what?” I asked.


“For good,” he said.


“What are you gonna do there?”


“My life’s just starting,” he confidently confessed. “I’m gonna go there and smoke weed.”


Alas, the truth. “How old are you?” I asked.


“Twenty-four.”


“Twenty-four!?” I nearly yelled. He had not aged well. We were only three years apart. All of a sudden, he impulsively drifted toward the corner and disappeared. I wondered, was his age a sore subject? Was his life just beginning? Was mine?


After twenty years in Florida and one conversation in New York, I realized that the American Dream was to leave – at least for a few years. Angelo’s vision of paradise sounded pretty romantic. I hoped life would be gentler to him. Then I saw what he could’ve symbolized. He reflected where I felt I was as an artist. My art was on the street, drifting away, in a fog. Despite my burning desire to be an artist, if anyone called me that, I found it repulsive and rejected the title. I had no tangible artwork to claim yet. I had never done anything artistic before moving here. Part of me wanted to stop now before I devoted a decade to something so risky that I might eventually be forced to quit.


How ironic would it be that my grandparents fled from Morocco and Slovakia to Venezuela, my parents moved from Venezuela to America – without speaking English, and then I decide to go back to where it all started. Anyone with immigrant parents knows: we’ve been dreaming of escaping since we were young – in order to endure a similar struggle our parents had to overcome. Leaving now would be quitting, though, which wasn’t an option anymore. I’d done that enough, but when times would get rough, taking that midnight train to Georgia was always on my mind.


Being here was about the self-discovery of my artist identity. I needed to be my own savior from now on. However, if I wanted to reach my goals, there would have to be some serious behavioral changes. Otherwise, my paradise might eventually mirror Angelo’s. I’d already let my art become an unrequited regret, like his professional sport. I could never let that happen again. I went home and wrote down our conversation. My intention was to better understand it someday. Here is the first little victory I achieved as an artist in New York.

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