I've always been good at getting into things for free or finding unique ways to make money. Every time I've lost a job, until I get the next one, everybody tells me "You are the busiest unemployed person I know." That's because I never really unemployed: I'm always working on something.
While I was working at record labels, I got spoiled by how many free concert tickets I could get – from the symphony and opera at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to Kid Rock at Irving Plaza, Matchbox20 at Hammerstein Ballroom, Tori Amos at Madison Square Garden, and AC/DC at our sales convention. My boss tried to sign Norah Jones before she made her Grammy-winning album for Blue Note. I saw the Killers before they were famous in some dark club on the Lower East Side.
But as I've eased out of the music industry, the perks have subsided, so I've got to find my own way in.
Luckily, living in a big media center city like New York or LA, you have access to things like TV show tapings, whether it's Jimmy Kimmel Live or CONAN or some other talk show or special event. Sometimes you can get free tickets through these companies that are hired to fill audiences, and sometimes you can even get hired by one of those companies to be in the audience.
And then there are the seatfillers.
You ever notice how on awards show telecasts, you never see an empty seat, even though winners and presenters and performers are always getting up to go on stage? That's because a herd of seatfillers are at the ready to jump into somebody else's vacated seat and keep it warm until they come back.
This week, for the first time ever, I was a seatfiller.
I've done the paid audience thing and even the free audience thing, to make a little money, or just have something to do, or because I was a fan of the host or the guests on the show. I never did it to be on camera, but I was surrounded by a weird cult of attention-grabbers, vying for seats in the front, networking with the wranglers for some privilege or another. It's soul-sucking work.
Turns out, seatfilling is kind of worse.
But, being a seatfiller got me into the Grammy-produced tribute to Stevie Wonder concert for free, a ticket I might normally have bought myself when I had money, but just can't swing right now.
The show was opened by Beyonce, who I could barely see from my initial position behind the cameras and the teleprompters. And then I got called out of my seat a few times, each a false start that resulted in getting sent back to the holding area. One of the wranglers looked at the other who had picked me, and snarled, "They need to be fancy."
Oh well, I guess I'm not so fancy.
But I didn't need to be seated up front next to Tony Bennett or behind Tyler Perry or in Lady Gaga's seat. I was there for the show, which was a star-studded affair that could've only been put together when all these artists were already in town for the Grammy's two days before.
Besides, even if I had looked fancy enough to be seated up there, as a seatfiller, you're not allowed to talk to anyone or ask for an autograph or God forbid take a photo. You might as well be a cardboard cutout or a mannequin. You're just filling space. You're not anyone. You don't speak. You're just a body.
And any seat you fill is not yours. Someone – probably not a famous person, but some sponsor or label exec – just got up to pee, and they're coming right back to kick you out of their seat. You get up as quickly as you can, you feel inclined to thank them, and then you scuttle away, momentarily with no seat at all, feeling lost in the aisle, until someone in a headset scoops you up and points at some other seat. You hope this will be the one you can stay in for the rest of the night, but someone inevitably comes back.
You feel like you're missing half of the show in this game of musical chairs, because even when you're sitting, you've got one eye on the end of the row, waiting to be replaced. Or, more aptly, for the person you replaced to come back.
I thought I would have a great time at a free show full of the top musical acts of yesterday and today, where I'd get the chance to see Stevie Wonder perform himself for the first time ever (despite some near-misses at the Redeye Grill and the Four Seasons), but I found myself just waiting for it to be over. Even when I got my own seat with an unobstructed view not too far back in the orchestra section, where clearly no one had been sitting all night, I still worried about being evicted.
I became so anxious, I even left as all the night's performers were assembling onstage for the finale performance.
And as I walked by myself back to my car, which I'd had to park in the designated seatfiller lot a half mile away and on the other side of the 110 freeway, I realize that I've always felt like a seatfiller in my life. Any time I spent with my parents, I felt like I was just some poor substitute for my sister. Many friendships have been formed out of convenience – because I sat next to the person in class, or behind them at work – and once that physical proximity went away, so did the friendship. I've often felt like people spent time with me (even lovers) just because they wanted someone, not because they wanted me. They wanted someone to dine with, someone to drive with, someone to have sex with – and when I was that someone, I felt like I could be anyone.
I was just a body.
Just a placeholder.
For position only.
Over the years, I've been recycled through jobs, made commitments to people who changed their mind about me, and kept the bed warm when men who were otherwise spoken for were feeling lonely. My whole life feels like a revolving door. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I keep waiting for someone to tell me it's over, thank you, but get out.
I'm not sure going to the concert was worth that feeling. I'm not sure doing anything I've done – taking a job I shouldn't have taken, loving the wrong person – has been worth that feeling.
And I don't know if that feeling will ever go away.
The Forever Now
Go With Your Gut
Somebody to Love
Putting Pop Music on Pause