Sheryl Lee Ralph, Jonathan Groff and A Life Lived in Service
This was a kitchen of someone who did not cook. That much was obvious. I was going to need some Pixie Dust.
Two days ago my day today looked like an easy day. I would train Jennifer around noon or one and then go do the house party I was booked for. As a day’s work goes, that was easy and enjoyable; I could handle that without much stress or (as the saying goes) sturm und drang.
Only things never happen that way.
Mark Irish sent me an email and left me a voicemail AND contacted my husband. He needed a photographer to shoot an event, a benefit for Equality Pennsylvania in the afternoon of Friday. They were awarding Shery Lee Ralph and Jonathan Groff. I never heard of Equality PA before but if they were for equality I was for them; and if I could shoot pics of Ms Ralph and Mr Groff, I was, doubly, in. They weren’t paying much money. In fact, what they were paying was fraction of what I accept, just to pick up my camera; but I will do anything for Mark Irish. I will also do anything for Jonathan and Miss Sheryl. So I was on the hook for fifty bucks an hour for a good cause and for love. The big question was: how would I leave this event on the upper west side at 6:45 and get to my event on the lower west side, fifteen minutes later, on the MTA? Disaster was in the air.
Then I got a text from my friend Faye, who was having a birthday and wanted me to see her; and since I have a hard and fast rule about this (If someone WANTS to spend time with you SAY YES), I said yes. I moved some things around, got ready for my day, dressed in my catering blacks, charged my camera batteries, went to spend some birthday time with Faye and went on my merry way…..
The event for Equality PA was terribly easy. It was in the gorgeous, elegant, simple and sumptuous home of John Bernedt, author of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, where I would trail guest through four stories, pestering them for pics, sometimes accommodating their desire for shots with the celebs. It was the kind of work I am used to doing and which I have done time and time again. I was delighted to support a wonderful organization and to have a chance to shoot these celebs who have meant so much to me. Sheryl Lee Ralph was one of my great photo shoots for The Sweater Book and Jonathan Groff was in talks with me to be in one of my books that never materialized. I have spoken to neither in many years, though they live in my heart filled with love, each moment of every day. After a lot of time and many photos, as he was on his way out the door, I put my hand on Jonathan’s shoulder and said “I’m Stephen Mosher”. He smiled and shook his head a little.
“I love that you waited until now to tell me.”
“Well, you were WORKING!! So was I!!”
I met Jonathan during Spring Awakening and we spoke of doing a photo shoot. We exchanged some emails. We spent a really memorable afternoon talking. We ran into each other socially. I felt like we might have been friends. But he became the most famous man in the world and I stayed on 49th street. I have, lo, these 22 years, maintained a strict policy: never make the celebrity feel uncomfortable, as though you are sucking up. So I have maintained my distance, lest Jonathan feel as though I were sucking up to him for more than the fact that I liked him. Naturally, after all this time, he would not recognize me; but at least he knew remembered me and treated me with friendship and respect, as I knew he would. I told him, most sincerely: “I have had such a good time watching your success”. I have wished it on him. I love him as though we HAD become friends.
Near the end of the event, I turned to Sheryl Lee Ralph and told her “this is not our first time together.” She asked, full of fun and frenzy, when??!! I told her about our shoot for THE SWEATER BOOK and I told her that she is in my IPOD twice, singing songs from Thoroughly Modern Millier. She smiled and asked me to tweet her. The diva is a Lady and a Star and she knows how to treat a fan, a member of the public or a person she doesn’t even know she has met. She has been, is and always will be my diva.
What a stroke of luck that I was asked to work this event. Had I not, I would not have been given the chance to hear both speeches by the award recipients, both of them moving and sincerely meant, filled with humour and pathos. Jonathan spoke of his life as a gay boy and then man, about being in the closet until he was twenty three and about the quest for equality. Sheryl sang Endangered Species and recounted, for those too young to remember and those old enough to need no reminder, of the early days of the AIDS crisis. Both stars shared with all of us their personal experiences and journeys and left us feeling as though we knew them, personally, a little better.
My work at one event done, I threw on my coat and flew, literally, to my next event. I was doing a house party for a lady I met at a house party on Thanksgiving. She wanted to have friends for dinner and needed some hospitality to make it just right. On Thanksgiving she asked for my number and, ta da, here I was, my photographer hat exchanged for my hospitality hat. I was ready to serve.
The home in which I was working was a typical New York apartment. Not a lot of room, so you make the most of what you’ve got and you keep going. It was quaint, it was fun, it was magical and it was wonderful. My client is a magazine editor who is probably in her late fifties, maybe early sixties, though I cannot hazard a guess. She is WONDERFUL, sweet and kind and I love her. I took to her the day I met her and this evening brought it home. I am devoted to her. She is a New York city career woman with eccentricities and habits and big wants and desires. For today, she wanted, simply, to have her friends over for a casual, fun dinner party in an apartment with no dining table and no room.
And no cookware.
And no stemware.
And no flatware.
My new friend was overheard to say “oh, I NEVER cook!” and I can vouch for that. Everything was from Citarella. There was a veggie lasagna and three fruit pies. There was a lovely salad that she herself made, there were six bottles of champagne, four bottles of red and five bottles of white There were varying vodkas in the freezer, some vermouth and some whiskey. There was a baquette. There were a variety of dishes and glasses and napkins, none of them matching. It was WONDERFUL and personal and casual and Personal. There was an ENORMOUS aluminum container of lasagna. Only.. when she opened it, it was a handful of one portion lasagnas. It wasn’t enough for fourteen people!!! She left me to man the house while she ran to the store to buy more.
While she was gone I made everything perfect.
Upon her return I focused on part one: snacks. There was bread and cheese, crudité and spinach dip, nuts. There was a buffet table bedecked with an eclectic collection of mix N match plates and glasses (all of which were probably inherited from Mama and Grandmother). There were two bottles of red wine, breathing and there were florals. Next up: guest arrival. Ta Da! Guests to be buzzed in and de-frocked of their outer vestments. There they were, the interesting New Yorkers one reads about in books and sees in New York movies, the editors, the writers, the designers, the people from other countries who choose to make this their home, the people who understand the art of conversation, none of whom would feel a compulsion to look at their phones during this dinner. Drinks for all. No mixers on hand, I did what I could. As the guests arrived, my client called the liquor store for tequila. It would be there momentarily. Four guests wanted to wait for the tequila. The others would have white wine, vodka or Pelegrino. While the guests were relaxing into their drinks. I looked for something to put the lasagna on in the oven to heat it up. Nope. Nothing. I went through every cupboard and drawer. There was one 5×7 pyrex dish, two huge stone dutch ovens and a Teflon skillet with no handle. That would work! I put the lasagna in these and into the oven. I continued to answer the door and make drinks and hang coats and do all that I could so that my client could enjoy her party. The most important thing is that the host enjoy their party. In order for this to happen, each guest must feel that they have been, personally, attend. Attention must be paid. Especially to the host. Only after her guests were served would she even think of taking a drink for herself. When I asked this sweet, statuesque, bird like lady what she cared for, she asked “should I have the champagne or the tequila?” When I asked what her preference was, she remarked “tequila won’t leave me hung over, will it?” This is different with everyone. I told her, indeed, that champagne always hurt me the next day, between the sugar and the carbonation; she nodded her head in agreement and asked for Tequila, neat. Most of her guests, all over forty, if they were drinking Tequila, they wanted it neat – maybe one ice cube, maybe a squeeze of lime. This made them all happy and in a holiday mood.
So, now every guest had a drink and all the lasagna was being heated. Truthfully, I felt like I was on SURVIVOR, trying to make what I could out of what I had. And I won. There was one spatula, one serrated knife, no oven mitts. Nevertheless, dinner would be on time. Then the hostess told me that, instead of a buffet, we should plate the dinner in the kitchen (by the way, smaller than any room in any of your homes – it is the kitchen on your sailboat) and serve it, individ. Thank heaven for all the chefs with whom I worked at My Cooking Party. It may have been a miserable four years but it had great rewards: thanks to my time in that place and those chefs with whom I worked, so closely, I learned how to chef, how to plate and how to move about the stove and oven without burning all of my skin off. Before you knew it, I had plated and served fourteen plates of salad N veggie and beef lasagna!
Every guest was smiling. Every guest was at home.
I did it.
I took a kitchen with absolutely no supplies and served a stunning dinner and drinks to fourteen people and helped my client to have the best night possible. I won. And, in the process, so did all of they.
There are days when I feel badly about my life. I spent $70,000.00 of my own money creating a book that so few people bought that it became no more than a blip in the worlds of literature and art. I conceived an idea for a film and caused my husband and our two best friends to undertake a project that, while it has a cult following, came up so short of fulfilling our desires as to leave all four of us a little broken hearted and afraid of our next artistic venture, lest it suffer the same fate. I had ideas that yielded little to no return. I walked the halls of Hollywood movie studios and captured the visages of legendary talents. I put all that I had into my dreams only to see them fail, leaving me broke, broken and broken hearted. And now I am a fifty two year old cater waiter, photographer, personal trainer, writer, doing whatever they pay me to so that I can stay for one day more, in my home of 22 years. So, most days of the week I feel like a failure.
Here’s the thing though: there’s nothing more complicated than perception. What feels like failure in this moment need not feel like anything more than another bloom in the vase.
People look at my online resume and profile and think I am a success. I do not. So, when I do not, I simply change my mind. Yes. I didn’t go all the places I wanted to go with my career. Look, though, where I DID go. Yes. I am a cheap photographer for hire. Today, though, someone hired this would-be, has-been, never-was to photograph a legendary diva and an exciting and brilliant talent in todays’ show business world. And, each of them, upon speaking to me, chose a degree of friendship and dignity with which to treat me. I served an organization that is working to change the way things are in the world. I helped someone wonderful, a person I truly like, to have a perfect party experience, leaving she and her guests feeling happy. I did that. I threw my first party when I was 13. I’ve been throwing parties ever since. When I work in hospitality, I know what to do because I throw parties, myself. I know what would make it possible for me to relax and enjoy my own parties; and that is what I give my clients. When I left that house tonight, guests asked for my card and my client said to me “You’re a GENIUS.”
I once heard it said that there is no greater purpose in life than a life lived in service. Whatever I have done in my life, I have been in service. When I am a cater waiter, I am there to make sure that the client, the host, the guests get the best service possible (interestingly, some of the caterers and staffing agencies for whom I work don’t send me out that often, in spite of how good I am — I think it is because of my age; they like them young). They don’t know what they’re missing. When I am behind the camera, I am there to serve the model, the client. It is essential to put all of the focus, every iota of attention on their needs and their desires, to make them feel at home so that their shoot yields photos that reflect them in their truest form. When I am training someone, I am at their service, there to tailor their session for their physical needs and their emotional fortitude, not an easy thing to do when people would rather, really, not be exercising. Even in my life…. I am at the service of my husband and my family. They call, I come. It is a rule by which I live, something that they all know. This is what I do. I am here to serve; and nobody does it better.
No. I didn’t get my dream of being the next Herb Ritts. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t even get the credit. I got something else.
I got the struggle. I got to find out who I am, how hard I can fight and what I am made of. It’s not an easy life and sometimes I feel quite tired. Then I remember: it doesn’t happen for everyone. This may be all that each of us gets. Sometimes we just don’t have enough talent, enough luck, enough stamina, enough .. whatever it takes to really succeed at our chosen craft. And I guess that’s me. In fact, it is most of us. Not every person gets a brass ring or crosses a finish line. Most of us are just Ol’ Man River. Deep breath. So what.
You know what I do have, though? My family. My husband of 30 years, A seventy thousand dollar scrapbook. Clients who call me a genius. I have my health, my growth and my wisdom. I have a different kind of happiness.
And I have the chance to snap a pic of Sheryl Lee Ralph singing acapella with an award in her hand, the chance to have a genuinely gratified person call you a genius because YOU made their party perfect.. you did. Four years at My Cooking Party, my bosses never once said anything like that to me. It is in the quieter moments, you get the chance to go home and hit the pillow with the knowledge that you did SOMETHING today. You made a difference. You won’t get the money or the recognition but, sometimes.. in the cool grey of the dawn, those people will remember what you did for them. And they will be happy. It is said that people won’t remember what you said to them but they will always remember how you made them feel. When you have satisfied, truly, their needs through the service that you have provided, they will feel happy.
And that has to be enough.