When I was eight I got my first job. A friend of my mother’s was a casting agent, and needed a few schoolgirls in uniform for a street scene on the east end of 82nd Street, between Park and Madison Aves. The film was Kramer vs. Kramer, the subject, an anguished Upper East Side divorce with an only child at its center, a situation I had just become familiar with myself. I was terribly confused because my best friend Gaby had a large posse of cousins named Kramer. The talk in her house about ”the Kramers” was therefore always about cousins: in my mind Kramer was merely a synonym for cousin. You can imagine my muddled idea of what the film might be about.
My grandmother acted as my chaperone, coming down from upstate for the privilege of spending the day with me and some movie stars. At the shoot I was given a stage mother, and a stage sister, my friend Kendall. All day our little family walked up the street, past the action between Dustin Hoffman and his “son.” I began to wish that Kendall was my sister: her real mother was the only single mother I knew, and she made her living baking gourmet cookies. The more we pretended, the more I imagined the three of us in their (our) small cookie-filled apartment on the exotic West Side.
Once the action stopped we’d traipse back to the starting point and wait for the next take. Mr. Hoffman played endless rounds of rock-paper-scissors with us and Streep stopped by, though she wasn’t in the scene, causing a huge stir among the adults. I had no idea who she was, and in fact knew celebrity only as the state of another huge film star, whose daughter had been a friend of mine in nursery school. Famous meant rich enough to provide one’s daughter with an in-bedroom jungle gym. That was power.
It’s still a shock to see my smaller self on the screen, but even more of a shock to see a smaller New York, the exact Manhattan milieu I grew up in. The Kramers ate in the restaurants we did, and walked down the same streets, past the same shoe repair shops and delis. I like to think that I got to play myself, for a second, in the story of another neighborhood family.