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It was the winter of her discontent: She had no money, no acting parts, and no snow boots. Then a stranger let her know (rather bluntly) just how much she had to be grateful for.
About 25 years ago, I got off the bus from Washington, D.C., to start my career as an actress in New York City. As I lugged my suitcase behind me, I thought, "Look out, here I come!" But four months later, I still had no acting jobs. And no matter where you come from, no matter your education or training, you are not prepared for this city. I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment with a bedroom the size of a bathroom; you could fit a single bed, a dresser, and not much else. Every morning I got up at 6 so I could stand in the Actors' Equity line. I'd get a number so I could come back at lunchtime and audition, and then I'd go to whatever temp job I had.
Winter came, and I had never seen such snow. There were huge, slushy puddles at every corner, and you'd have to leap to get from the street to the sidewalk. One day I was slogging along in this mess—I had a fever, I was wearing sneakers, my feet were wet, I wasn't getting cast in any shows—and I started to cry. We're not talking pretty crying, either—this was snotty crying, with gulping sobs.
In the middle of 57th and Broadway, a man who looked to be homeless came up and said, "Whatchoo crying for, lady?"
He and I continued across the street to the sidewalk, where we finished our conversation.
"I have a cold (sob, sob), I hardly have any money, my feet are wet (sob, gulp), I want to be an actress and (snuffle, sob) nobody's casting me...."
And he said, "You got a job, lady?"
"Yes," I said, sniffling.
"You got a home, lady?"
"You got a family that loves you?"
"Then quit your crying," he said, "and get to work."
He didn't say it in a mean way. In fact, he could have passed me by. But in that moment he cared. He helped me snap out of my self-pity and be grateful for the opportunities I had had. I've tried to share this lesson with young people just starting out, but if I tell them to quit their crying, they reply, "That's easy for you to say." They don't believe I struggled, too. But that man was different. Today I work with Help USA, a group that assists people who are homeless because of poverty, domestic violence, or war-induced trauma. I never realized until now that this may be my way of giving back to a person whose name I never learned, of bringing the story full circle. That man had enough compassion for a dorky out-of-towner to tell me to believe in myself and to always be grateful for what I have. He didn't say that exactly, but that's what I heard. It's a lesson I'm happy to relearn every day.
— As told to Suzan Colón
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From the October 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!