Filmmaker retraces life on East Village Streets



On a Friday night in October 1991, a young woman named Rosemary Abitabile who’d been living on the streets of New York City for three years, thought she was going to die.

“There was this guy I knew who brought me to the Emergency Room at Cabrini Hospital,” says the Rosemary Rodriguez of today. “I’d gotten very, very sick. He got me there at 11 p.m. They put me in a hospital bed and put an I.V. into me. The bed was warm and comfortable. It was great.

“In the morning a doctor came around and said: ‘We can’t find anything wrong with you, we’re going to have to have you leave.’ A social worker brought me some breakfast. I hadn’t eaten in four weeks. I took the tray and purposely went and sat by the bathroom, just in case . . .

“The breakfast was scrambled eggs. So good. I ate the whole thing — and I didn’t get sick! A light bulb went on. I went and made that phone call — the one you see in the movie, the phone call to my mother in Florida.

“Until that moment my parents didn’t know if I was alive. My mother called my sister in New Hampshire. It’s a five-and-a-half-hour drive to New York, but my sister and her husband got to Cabrini in four and a half hours.”

The movie in which a girl named Alix, played by Ana Reeder, goes shaking and whimpering into a phone booth to call the mother who doesn’t know if Alix is still alive, is “Acts of Worship.” Written and directed by Rosemary Rodriguez, it opens this Friday Nov. 21 at the Village East Theater, Second Avenue and 12th Street, only a few blocks from Cabrini Medical Center.

“This is the place it should open,” says Ms. Rodriguez. “That neighborhood has a lot of meaning in my life. The East Village is where everything in the movie happened.”

A wave of emotion passes over her.

“It’s opening just before Thanksgiving,” she says. “That friend — the guy who got me to Cabrini — has been incarcerated ever since. He gets out the same weekend the film opens. I wonder if he’ll get to see it.”

“Acts of Worship,” nine years in the making, pulls very few autobiographical punches. “Alix” is purely and simply Rosemary, and undergoes all of the degradation Rosemary experienced on those streets between the ages of 27 and 30. It omits the reasonably normal growing up that preceded it.

Rosemary Abitabile Rodriguez, born in Boston, raised in Amherst, New Hampshire, is the adopted daughter of working-class Italian-American parents. She went to Brandeis, “where everybody else was pre-med or pre-law and I was kind of lost, not on that track, but I did well, graduated cum laude, and in senior year I took a film theory class.”

That led her straight to New York and “big hopes, no job,” so she pursued her interest in filmmaking at NYU’s School of Continuing Education.

“Then on a fluke I got a job selling film stock, videos, and splicers at Rafik, Broadway at 12th Street, and then went across the street to Film Video Arts as manager of its film-loan department. I was ‘using’ (cocaine and crack) all the way through all of this.”

The nightmare started, or hardened, when, at 27, she “was kicked out of the friend’s apartment I was subletting at St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue, right next to the Good Food place. I was putting her, the owner of the apartment, in a real bad position; it got to the point where she didn’t even want my money.”

So it was onto the streets for Rosemary.

“Slept all over. Sometimes on a roof. Sometimes in a stairway. Sometimes telling a sob story in a bar and ending up on their couch.

“At the time, it felt good. Credit cards not bothering me any more. Nobody can phone me. Nobody can find me. Just get high and stay there.”

Which takes money, yes?

“That was the problem. I existed pretty much by shoplifting, mostly art books” — as in the movie. “You know in the movie where the girl gets to the point of selling herself?” — a scary, sordid scene in a car. “I’m not denying I went there. It’s in the movie to show the need.”

In the film, Alix is discovered unconscious on a stairwell and taken under the wing of an East Village-based photographer named Digna (actress Michael Hyatt), a capable grownup with a career, an apartment, a man — and a few problems of her own.

The two women develop an on-again-off-again interdependency — and Alix repays Digna’s warmth and concern by stealing the latter’s best camera (“that camera is my life”) and selling it for drugs.

“Well,” says the real-life Rosemary, “I betrayed many people that loved me, sure” — but the Digna of the movie is a made-up character, and represents, if anything, another half of Rosemary herself. “Digna has an apartment, a job, a boyfriend, a career, yet she also has a hole inside. I understand that. Making this film was very cathartic for me.”

Rosemary Abitabile Rodriguez not only has a boyfriend, she has a husband, one and the same. He’s Nestor Rodriguez — “lifelong New Yorker, stand-up comic (and in the movie as such), reluctant producer (i.e., co-producer of this very movie), painter, photographer, everything. Incredible. We’ve been married 10 1/2 years, and it’s now 12 years that I’ve been off everything.”

With what might be called a grim laugh: “So I can make a film and REALLY have my heart broken, really know what pain is like. That’s the truth, Jerry.”

Three years on the streets. Nine and a half years to get the picture made that tells about that girl, those streets. It’s not as if this movie hasn’t been made before. One thinks of “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), of “Mean Streets” (1973), of “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971 — the film that filmmaker Rodriguez says most influenced her), and, most particularly, of John Avildsen and Norman Wexler’s scalding, unforgettable “Joe” (1970), where 23-year-old Susan Sarandon was Rosemary Rodriguez, was Alix, waiting to be born. Not a bad act to worship.

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