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SOAPBOX: He missed an opportunity — but found something bigger

Long before he was a reporter/host for The Show, Sam Dingman was a bellhop in New York City. But he didn’t always spend his shifts carrying suitcases. He tells the story on this Friday installment of our SOAPBOX series on the theme Missing.

The role was Nightclub Patron No. 2. One scene, three lines. The show would be performed only once — at 2:30pm on a Sunday afternoon, in the basement of a bar. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I got the email inviting me to audition — next to an exposed steam pipe in my first apartment in Queens, New York. I was so excited, I pumped my fist and burned my elbow on the pipe.

I pored over the script, considering every possible delivery I could think of for my three brief sentences: “Double vodka, lime, no ice.” “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” “I can’t talk about that.” I marked up the pages, just like I’d learned in theater school. For each line, I chose an objective: to impress, to seduce, to deflect. And at the top of the page, a super-objective: Find connection at all costs.

At the time, I was working as an overnight bellman at a luxury hotel in lower Manhattan, and for the three nights leading up to the audition, I ducked into the luggage closet, locked the door, and practiced. “Double vodka, lime, no ice.” “Don’t I…know you from somewhere?” “I can’t talk about … that.” I’d go through it six or seven times, and then think: Wait, what if, during the drink order, he’s not completely sure about the lime? What if it’s more like, "Double vodka…lime? NO ice."

Oh yes, that’s good! He’s uncertain about the lime, but DEFINITELY doesn’t want the ice. YES, that’s it! Clutching one of the hotel’s branded pens, I crossed out my objectives and started over again.

Of course, there wasn’t simply the question of how to say the lines. Who was Nightclub Patron Number 2? How did he present himself to the world? Every night, once I was safely ensconced in the luggage closet, I found a spot out of sight of the security camera, loosened the thick brass buttons of my jacket, and stepped out of my heavy striped pants, revealing the costume I’d concealed beneath my bellman’s uniform. The first night, it was a tracksuit. The next, a loud paisley jacket and linen pants. Every once in a while, guests would wander off the elevator and call out, “Hello? Can somebody get me a cab?” I froze, lest they discover me muttering the same three phrases over and over again behind the closet door. Eventually, they’d wander off, and I would resume my stealth rehearsing.

In the end, however, the audition went pretty much the same as all the others: I arrived 20 minutes early, played the scene to the hilt, thanked the director profusely … and didn’t get the part. There was no formal rejection — I just never heard from them again. Except for this time.

Months later, at a friend’s birthday party, I was walking back from the bar (gin and tonic, plenty of ice), when I bumped into the director. I was shocked when he recognized me, and even more shocked when he asked if I wanted to know why I didn’t get the part. It wasn’t my first gin and tonic of the night, so I said, “Sure!”

“The thing is,” he said, “it just seemed like you wanted it too much.”

It would take me 20 years to learn that New York is a place where you’re supposed to have things, not want them. But I finally realized what I wanted all along, which was: to leave.

→  Hear more SOAPBOX essays

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Sam was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.