Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Welcoming Committee

“Things haven’t been the same since they let the Negroes over the bridge,” Randy confided in me.

Negroes?

I should have protested immediately while I demanded he stop the vehicle. Any delay in my objection confirmed my consent through silence. Sure, I was in The South, but I didn’t think guys like this existed outside of hack Hollywood stereotypes. What was most upsetting though was his complete self-assurance that I’d agree with him. Did I look like a racist? I wanted to ask whether he felt the same way about Jews because, “You’ve got one in your backseat right now! Ha!” But I didn’t want to get into a fight. I just wanted to get to my destination without incident. Luckily, I was in such disbelief at what he said I couldn’t find my mouth to muster any opposition. Not an auspicious start to a trip where I was expected to speak incessantly for a month.

On the other hand, Randy was disarmingly friendly in that neighborly way I never got up North, so I wanted to believe I’d misheard him. But as I thought about what he said, it conjured images in my mind of some racist ‘Mad Max’ post-apocalyptic dystopia where Mel and the ‘Good Guys’ are trying to hold the bridge to protect their island sanctuary from some evil lunatic intent on spreading unmitigated carnage by releasing a ‘Horde of mutant Negroes’ on the innocent population.

I thought perhaps if I understood what this bridge was, it would all make sense. So I lobbed him a few softballs about the geography he was referring to and discovered the bridge in question connects the mainland with the more expensive oceanfront properties in town. The waterway separating these two landmasses is the Intercoastal. I knew it existed down in southern Florida where my grandparents used to live, but Randy informed me that it’s a 3000-mile passage built by the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1919 that starts in New Jersey, wraps around Florida and ends in Brownsville, Texas. On the ocean side of the canal there’s a sliver of land running along the coast that was prime real estate. And back in the day, Negroes knew what side of the Intercoastal to stay on, but ever since Civil Rights things had gone downhill - according to my driver.

As I glimpsed fragments of Randy’s face through the rear view, it became clear he thought it was up to him alone to halt the ascent of the genetically inferior. So now I re-shot the movie in my mind as though directed by and starring Randy. In the final scene, he stands on the bridge, all on his lonesome, preparing to fend off an attack. He wipes the sweat from his brow and places his aviators back on his face as the camera rises to bring into frame the approaching throng of screaming primates intent on destroying his America. I was relieved I already knew how that movie ended. It didn’t work out well for Randy.

But that didn’t stop him from continuing to talk while he drove. “Things were much more peaceful when everyone knew their place,” he lamented.

While I grew concerned that Randy might be a representative sample of the local inhabitants, I reminded myself that folks like him would not be populating the the site I was going to. I’d soon be surrounded by a rare selection of international artists who’d inspire me day and night. I was heading to The Atlantic Center for the Arts. I had been personally selected by Spalding Gray to spend a month with him as my mentor while I created my newest show. I couldn’t wait. A month with the king of the monologue. One of my artistic idols. And yet, it was such indulgence. Working on ‘art’, as the country prepared for war. But being accepted to The Atlantic Center was the kind of acknowledgment I’d wanted for a decade, so I wasn’t saying no. And though I was still unable to make a living through my creative work alone, this residency was a concrete thing I could point at to my parents (and that doubting monster inside my head) and say, “See! I’m not crazy. My career is coming along. And, Yes! I have a career... In the arts.”

Getting into an arts colony meant I was now part of ‘The Club’. Spalding himself talks about his stay at The MacDowell Colony in his monologue Monster in a Box. It actually was his waxing poetic about that bucolic New Hampshire hideaway that made me want to go to a colony to begin with. And now, to my utter amazement, I was actually going to one with Spalding.

I was well aware, however, that The MacDowell is one of the great artist havens of the world, while The Atlantic Center was far from renowned. I wasn’t being picky, but I had to admit most people had never even heard of the only place I was able to get into after years of fruitless applications. For over a century legendary artists from Thornton Wilder to Leonard Bernstein have sought refuge from the race of normal life at The MacDowell. Many a masterpiece has been scribbled in the individual artists’ cabins dotting that sanctuary. The Atlantic Center, on the other hand, was only twenty years-old and its lack of renown was partially due to its unique mission. No artistic celebrities came there to devote themselves to their next magnum opus. Instead, six times a year, The Center found three master artists in different disciplines who were each willing to choose ten ‘mid-career’ talents to mentor for a month; the hope being that great things would happen when the masters rubbed elbows with these thirsty up-and-comers. And I considered myself parched.

As I peered at Randy’s sagging, wrinkled, ruddy face, I imagined the day when I’d get into The MacDowell instead of its cheap younger cousin who hasn’t amounted to anything despite his excellent education. For starters, replace Randy with some freckle-faced, twenty-one year-old intern from Hampshire College who’d pick me up from the train station. (I know the train doesn’t go to Peterborough, but it was my day-dream, and I didn’t want to take Greyhound, goddamnit. The smell from the bathroom alone would destroy the mood.) I’d be hazy after a few Jack and Gingers on the long, romantic trek north from The City on good old Amtrak, and as we rumbled toward the campus, her sundress creeping up her bare thighs each time we hit a bump in the road, I’d stare at the way the setting sun glimmered through her hair, full with youthful luster. When she’d catch me looking at the wispy strands of hair covering her unshaven legs (the only physical sign of her current experiment with ‘feminism’) she’d let me know, with a shy smile and a tiny bite of her lower lip, that if there was anything I needed while I was there... I shouldn’t hesitate to let her know.

We hit a bump and I came back to reality to see my real driver, twice my age and twice my weight, struggling to shift his diabetic ass to a more comfortable position in his seat. My fantasy torn asunder, I told myself to be here, now, or I’d miss the whole thing.

I don’t need to sleep with a co-ed during the summer of her sexual exploration to make this an amazing experience. What I need is Randy and his crap-ass minivan taxi. I should be grateful that he’s providing me with a juicy character. I should study every aspect of him. Forget sex. It’s a fleeting distraction (which I can hopefully have my fill of with the artists I meet at this colony.) I don’t need that from my driver.

I considered keeping Randy talking about Negroes and bridges to draw out his crazy and get as much material as possible for some new show, but I hesitated. Though I collected crazy characters the way artists fill pages of a sketchbook with ideas for use in some yet-to-be-conceived-of larger opus, the truth was all I wanted to do was get through this ride without some ugly show-down. And Randy had said The Atlantic Center was only half an hour from the airport. Surely I could sit through any vile thing he had to say for a mere thirty minutes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Validation

If this seemed cowardly, let me put things in perspective. I fear confrontations so much that I freak out when I have to do something as simple as validate my parking ticket “illegally.” For instance, if I park my car at a mall like Hollywood & Highland when I go to the Hollywood Bowl, I feel like I’m cheating the place. Normally, I’d have to pay $15 to park at The Bowl, but this scheme costs me just $2 plus a fifteen-minute walk to the concert. My guilt over the ethics of this and my fear of getting caught makes it so I can’t just walk into a store and demand they stamp my ticket the way most of my friends would without hesitation. Instead, I worry they might look at me and say, “Why should I validate you? You’re not a customer here. I can tell just by looking at you that you’re one of those KCRW-listening, indie film-watching, ‘I’ve-got-a-screenplay-that’s-gonna-sell-any-day-now-so-I’m-riding-unemployment-until-it’s-done-but-I-still-want-to-go-to-The-Bowl-cause-The Swell Season-is-playing’ assholes. So I’m not going to let you scam this poor store so you can get a cheap parking spot. No way. Buy something right now or I’m calling security.”

So, to avoid that scenario, I have to enact an elaborate charade in order to earn my validation. I walk into the Oakley store and ask if they have any bicycle sunglasses. I figure I’ll try on the two they have, say they don’t fit (they never do) and then I’ll get my stamp and leave - a legitimately dissatisfied customer (to any casual observer). Instead, when I ask the tiny Filipino girl behind the register if they have any cycling glasses, she points me to an entire WALL of the fuckers. Goddamnit. Now I have to try them all on to prove I’m really looking.

I put the first pair on. Yup, I’m really a customer. See me shaking my head with disappointment intermittently to indicate that none fit quite right. After sampling ten, I find one that actually works and I do kinda want some nice shades so I ask how much. “$210” she says without blinking. I’m temporarily blinded by the price. And then a wave of self-destructive thoughts cascade over my brain. My old classmates could surely afford $210. We all went to Princeton, but they became consultants and investment bankers while I chose the ‘artistic life’. So now I go through a grand farce just to get $2 parking only to have my spirits crushed, reminded of what real people with real money go around buying all the time.

After this wildly compressed mid-life crisis, I tell the teenage salesgirl they’re too expensive. I start to leave, but then stop and muster my casual voice to say, “Oh, hey, can you stamp this?” She couldn’t care less. Finally, ten minutes after I entered, I walk out raising my ticket in triumph to indicate ‘mission accomplished’ to my date who’s been sitting on a bench wondering what the hell happened to me. (And I say I don’t know why I’m not married.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gator Country

And if validating my parking is a traumatic confrontation, cab rides have ended in all-out catastrophes. My first year out of college, I travelled to Europe and got into an argument with a Parisian cab driver upon my arrival. I told him the name of the hostel I was going to, but he couldn’t find it on his map. He asked me what arrondissement it was in. I had no idea. This was his city, for godssakes. Exasperated after searching his map unsuccessfully for five minutes, he gave up and said he couldn’t take me there. I was baffled. This would never happen in New York. But I remembered I had a friend in town at a well-known hotel I was sure this guy could find and perhaps the concierge there could help direct us. When we started driving, I politely asked him to restart the meter which had been running the whole time. First he feigned any knowledge of the English he’d been using the last five minutes, and then when I pressed the point that he wasn’t even taking me to where I wanted to go, his response was to slam on his brakes, throw my luggage on the sidewalk and kick me out of his car on a rainy Sunday night in a part of town where there were no other cabs to be had.

So I was not about to accuse Randy of being a bigot in the middle of gator country. And forget being tossed out on the side of the road near flesh-eating reptiles, what if Randy was friends with the local sheriff? Any backtalk from me and I might find myself holed up in a jail without so much as a phone call. It sounded like a set-up for a B-movie, but I felt like I was already in one, so who was to say things wouldn’t just continue down that path? And even if I could get sprung quickly, I was already two days late. An additional sojourn in the local hoosegow seemed like an ill-advised move.

With this in mind, I let Randy shuttle me down the coast the rest of the way without a peep. I stared out the window, not far from the beaches I grew up playing on every spring when I’d visit my grandparents down in West Palm Beach. We went down with such regularity each spring that I honestly thought Palm Sunday was a local holiday. Seriously. It was strange coming to Florida without any intention of seeing my grandparents for the first time. They were all dead now, so it wasn’t an option. And as I dwelt on this, my childhood memories cocooned me from Randy’s chattering on about how John Travolta had a mansion nearby which was once owned by a big rum-runner during Prohibition.

The tropical scenery was just beginning to feel familiar when he turned inland, away from the warm waters. Now we snaked our way into the unforgiving, sandy-bottomed jungle. And as we pulled into the Atlantic Center’s driveway, in case I forgot where he stood on civil rights, Randy bookended his performance in perfect sonata form, with a recapitulation of his theme and a shake of the head.

“Yup. Things just haven’t been the same since they let the Negroes over the bridge.”

Or in other words... Welcome to Florida.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Great Coming Together

Randy pulled into an empty, gravel parking lot and dropped me near two long, low-slung buildings hidden amongst the pre-historic flora. As he pulled away, I looked around and tried to figure out where to go, but there were no signs marking the paths and certainly no freckled intern waiting to greet me. I walked down one trail, wheeling my bag in the sand, past what looked like a nice set of army barracks, but I couldn’t find a soul. I stopped, stood still for a moment, and listened for signs of human activity. But coming from New York where I lived on the same block as a fire station, and after hours on a roaring jet plane, followed by Randy’s rant, it just seemed terribly, terribly, wonderfully quiet. I thought to myself, Yeah. I could get some real work done here.

Assuming this was the right place.

The Atlantic Center was located in New Smyrna Beach, and while that might invoke images of an idyllic sanctuary where I could choose my own little bungalow with ocean views like some Thai paradise that Spalding waxed rhapsodic about in Swimming to Cambodia, I didn’t see any beach here as the “Beach” part of New Smyrna might suggest. Nope. This place was in a fucking swamp. I knew this already, but seeing it firsthand was something else. It didn’t matter though. This was my first time at an arts colony, so I could have been in the Siberian tundra and I’d still have been excited. After all, I was a “Resident Artist.” They were putting me up. And feeding me. And providing me with rehearsal space. And a community. And unrestricted access to one of my artistic heroes. All I had to do was wake up every day and make art. How hard was that?

And while this was far from a vacation, I was still thrilled to be escaping a bleak, New York January. A January in which the euphoria of “The Great Coming Together of 2001” had faded. There had been a time after 9/11 when all New Yorkers walked through the streets with an affection for their neighbors you could actually feel. People looked each other in the eye and nodded to their fellow man as if to say: We’re in this together, buddy. We know. We were there.

Nine months later, this new intimacy was documented statistically in the largest spike in birth rates in decades. Women threw themselves at men in their mission to be close. I myself was picked up by a girl at a vigil at Lincoln Center one night. It was the last thing I was expecting. I came out that night just to ‘be with people’. I couldn’t stand watching CNN in my little studio, all alone. I had no idea how to mourn and I thought this community - my community - would teach me and support me. We stood in front of that iconic fountain from FAME, (Re-mem-ber!), surrounded by temples of travertine, holding candles a stranger had passed out among us when I noticed this cute girl in the distance. The moment she looked at me I looked away. This was supposed to be a somber event. Mixing it with lust seemed highly inappropriate. Still, she was really pretty and I’m still somewhat shocked that any cute girl might find me attractive, so I began flirting back. Meanwhile, the group of us, a few hundred strong, stumbled from song to patriotic song, trying to remember the lyrics, but failing time and again. Here we were, standing in front of our nation’s Mecca for music, flanked by The New York City Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet and The New York Philharmonic - and we couldn’t get through a single fucking song. And I’m not talking about all four verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Just the first one. We had no idea how to be patriotic on that ‘little island off the coast of America’ as Spalding liked to call it. It had been so long. I remembered in elementary school putting my hand to my heart every morning as I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, but as we tried to muddle through even “America The Beautiful,” no one knew the words after the first verse and we all just started humming because we knew the occasion demanded more. It was pathetic. But as I was walking away, more dispirited than when I’d arrived, this girl broke off from her friends, handed me her card and said “Call me.” That’s usually how I pick up women. I don’t. They choose me.

On our date a week later, I walked her home after dinner. We had a nice time, but there were no sparks. She was even more beautiful up close, with her straight brown hair and perfect figure, but the conversation sputtered. A few blocks from her place, she confessed that she really couldn’t invite me in. I told her I wasn’t expecting she would. She continued, “It’s just that my doorman will be watching and he sees everyone I take home. At a certain point, he’ll lose respect for me and it’s just so embarrassing...“

“It’s OK,” I assured her and we continued in silence. As we neared her building, she piped up again.

“Well, maybe I could sneak you in,” she caved to no one in particular.

The doorman didn’t seem to take note of me at all as we entered the ornate lobby of the building 63rd & Madison in which her father had bought her a one-bedroom that cost ten times my entire Ivy education. When she shut the door to her apartment, I considered pouncing on her in the hallway while the lights were still off, but I wasn’t sure if that would be appropriate. I hadn’t gotten the green light yet. Heck, we hadn’t even kissed. Finally, she turned on the lights, offered me a seat on the couch and... a glass of water. Dammit. Water? Maybe she didn’t want to fool around.

I tried making conversation, but it was awkward now. After a few minutes, she stopped and said with coquettish disappointment, “You’re not very aggressive are you?”

“I thought I was being a gentleman and-“

And she put a finger to my lips, took me by the hand and lead me to the bedroom. Magically, by the time we got to the bed, she had completely disrobed - somehow with just one hand. While impressed at her agility, I protested weakly, “That’s actually one of my favorite parts...” Disrobing my lover for the first time. The anticipation. The slow unveiling of the flesh. Her feigned resistance as I push forward, slipping my hand under her skirt, until she finally gives in and lets me take it all off.

But that wasn’t how my 9/11 girl played things. Now that she had stripped herself completely, she pulled me (still fully clothed) on top of her and before a single kiss, put a stern finger in front of my face and warned, “Just so you know... We’re not having sex.”

And we didn’t.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trust Exercises, Getting High and Having Sex

This ‘Great Coming Together’ was a fragile thing and it only lasted as long as we New Yorkers were awoken each morning by the smell of smoldering steel and singed flesh. As the new year rolled around, that brotherly love went back to Philly and we retreated to our hardened shells as we set about the task of licking our psychic wounds on our own.

So just being in Florida, I was grateful for a respite from that inescapable void I was greeted with every time I got out of the subway downtown. Like most New Yorkers, it was instinct to orient myself the moment I emerged from the earth by scanning for The Towers. For my entire life in New York they had been a compass, constantly proclaiming the idea of South. Without them, I was literally lost. I spent months getting out of the Spring Street stop spinning in circles - unsure which way to proceed. If I had to endure the occasional white supremacist rant to escape being haunted by that negative space where They once stood, I was willing - especially if I also had the opportunity to live for a month with one of my artistic heroes. Perhaps his guidance would provide clarity at a time when the world was in chaos.

That’s what we do as artists, right? We collect the overwhelming insanity life, chop it up, cook it, add some spice and serve it back to you, all delicious now. And then we watch you eat it, in hopes that with one savory bite we’ll see your face relax and turn inward, letting us know we’ve given you a brief haven from the crush of just getting through an endless stream of days.

And life had really been rushing by lately. The night before I left, I was at a cast party ‘til 2AM, so I spent the rest of the night packing. I don’t fall asleep easily on planes, so just as I’d begun to snooze, we landed. Now here I was, a grizzled mess, thirty-six hours since I’d last slept, wandering around a swamp, searching for a place to lay my weary head. But first I wanted to find my group and connect as soon as possible because I was already two days late.

I was tardy because I’d been producing a show with the company I’d founded after 9/11, called Raw Impressions, Inc. We’d just moved to the most historic off-off Broadway theatre in the East Village, LaMaMa E.T.C., and I had to make sure our first performances there went off well. They did. Like gangbusters. The new work we’d commissioned was the best we’d done yet and we not only sold out each show, but we turned people away. So I came down to Florida with a little swagger in my step. How many of my new comrades could arrive saying, “Sorry I’m late guys. I was producing a show in New York. Oh, hey, Spalding. Good to see you again. Been a while since running into you at The Performing Garage.”

The other nine people in my group would marvel at our intimacy and I’d take a seat near him. I wouldn’t talk much, but they’d all feel the respect Spalding had for me when he turned to me for my assessment of a piece before agreeing with me and then adding an insight of his own. He’d be harder on me than the other kids just like my dad was when he coached my soccer team, but I’d know it came from a place of love. After The Atlantic Center, he’d invite me to tour with him, doing a short opening act to warm up the crowd. It would be his way of passing the torch to his new protégé.

In reality though, I was terrified that by the time I arrived in Florida, even just two days late, everyone would have already bonded. They would all be Spalding’s little children and I’d be an outcast. And he was MY hero, goddamnit. It just couldn’t go down that way. So a month before arriving I talked with the admin people at the colony asking if I could send something down; a short video introduction, or an essay someone else could read to the group so my presence could be felt. Something, so they knew me as part of the community from the beginning. But I was told by The Center that this wasn’t necessary. Whenever I got here was fine. They were all extremely casual about it. I was not. I knew there’s always an odd man out in group dynamics and I didn’t want it to be me.

I left my bags and wandered the grounds unencumbered, but all I found were empty buildings. It was like a neutron bomb had hit. They were probably all at the beach doing trust exercises, getting high and having sex. OK, maybe not, but I bet the cute girls will have paired up with the cute guys by now. I probably had a month of bitter celibacy to look forward to instead of passionate art-making, love-making and a never-to-be-forgotten experience bonding with my idol.

Staying those two extra days in New York would be my downfall. I was sure no one else made the mistake of being late. No one else would have the temerity to think they had something more important to do. I was a fool and certainly no one else would be as stupid as me.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Not The Only One

“Spalding should be arriving sometime later this afternoon,” the helpful woman behind the desk told me. I’d finally found the office and asked when my group was next meeting. This wasn’t the response I was expecting.

“He isn’t here yet?”

“No. He was delayed in Boston. Once he settles in, he’ll let you know then when he wants to meet with y’all.”

I’d beaten him down. What luck. We were both late. It seemed Spalding had missed his plane. He’d missed it by two days, which was weird, but at least I didn’t have to worry about everyone else bonding with him, leaving me on the outside. Since Spalding was AWOL, it turned out most people were indeed at the beach. My paranoia proved accurate for once. The woman in the office told me which room I was assigned to and I made a beeline for the door and began unpacking.

My room was in a structure that resembled a very long camp cabin with a dozen doors – each to a separate room. Inside, our accommodations were highly reminiscent of your average Motel 6. Luckily I’d brought my own towel. Still, there was no cell phone reception in The Swamp. No Wi-Fi. No loudspeakers for announcements. No written schedule. There was no route for communication at all really. I didn’t know how Spalding would tell us when or where he wanted to meet, so I decided I’d try to meet some of my fellow artists who could fill me in on what’s been going on. I was so curious as to who the other people were whom Spalding had also chosen to join him on this adventure. They were probably going to be more inspiring than Spalding himself in the end. I developed a new fantasy, that we’d bond for life and form a touring company, ‘The Spalding All-Stars’, telling our stories across the country while we slept with adoring fans in every city as we stumbled into new stories and became just a little bit famous.

As I unpacked, I discovered I’d forgotten to bring a candle. I sighed at the thought that Ya’el certainly remembered a candle when she was here. I imagined her looking at the room when she arrived, eyeing it for ways to disarm the sterility of the space and then getting to work. I didn’t do a lot to consecrate a living space considering how much I travelled, but what little I did, I picked up from her.

Ya’el’s family moved all the time when she was younger and she’d been on tour most of the two years we dated, so she had a very specific ritual she used in order to make every new space home. It consisted of one part Nag Champa, two parts candles and a third part one very hot bath with eucalyptus scented Bath Therapy. Once she’d lit everything up and started her soak, she was home. It didn’t matter if she was just there for one night. She was home. And when I traveled with her, I found it remarkably how effective this process was. I personally had a weaker nesting instinct. I wasn’t packing any incense and there was no bathtub in my room, but I did like the candle idea and stole it outright when I had a mind to remember. This time I’d have to wait ‘til someone made a trip into town to get one.

Now that my suitcase was empty and my clothes were thrown in drawers, I decided to get out and explore. My group might be meeting already for all I knew. So I wandered around the campus and poked my head into any place that looked interesting. To get from building to building we had to traverse raised wooden walkways built up above the sodden, marshy earth. It was actually quite dry at that time of year, so there wasn’t much water underneath the footpaths. I wished the boardwalk were not there as it kept me at a distance from nature, but I supposed it was necessary in rainy season, or one would have to wade through a knee-deep water littered with bracken and the occasional four-legged Jurassic throwback.

The main walkway led past the theatre, the dance studio, a music lab and the visual arts hive. The buildings were all of a post-modern architectural design with cedar siding, slanted metal roofs and lots of big, mahogany framed windows. I popped into the dance studio and looked up to see the 40-foot high vaulted ceiling under which shone a baby grand piano all by its lonesome on a slick hardwood floor. Two of the walls were made almost entirely of glass which made it feel like you were dancing right in the middle of the endless vegetation. It was breath-taking, and just as Ya’el had described it. For a moment, I had a vision of her stretching on the floor beside me, sprawled in a position of dancerly opposition. I blinked the image to oblivion, left the studio and continued on until I came to a fork in the path. One route led to the administration buildings I’d already been to and the other led to the mess hall. I went in search of food. There, by the coffee machine, I found my first sign of life. Tom, the amiable, gray-bearded chef of this joint let me know when dinner would be and asked if I was looking for my group because they were all gathering near the theatre right then.

“Spalding’s finally arrived?”

“No. You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Spalding’s been arrested.”

Christ.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Matter of Curiosity and Speculation

I thanked Tom for the info and raced over to the theatre to find out what the hell happened to Spalding. There I found a short, muscular guy with deep crevices for laugh lines and a map of tattoos cleaving to his skin who introduced himself as Paul. He had well-groomed hair in a Caesar cut and a highly-affected vocal style with a slight lisp. I asked if he was in the solo performance group. He replied, “No, I’m with Spalding’s group.” I say that’s what I meant.

“Oh, you’re the late guy.”

Great. My reputation preceded me.

Then he filled me in on the situation. They’d been telling them for the last two days, that Spalding was going to arrive any minute, so people were now gathering to talk about what they were going to do if he never showed up at all.

Frank, a 50ish bruiser with a Brooklyn brogue, joined us and shared his theory that Spalding might have had a nervous breakdown. It was believable, but it didn’t explain why he’d been put behind bars. Unless that was a ruse. I joked maybe he just didn’t like Florida. Then a 20-something Latina girl with long wavy black hair named Graciella joined us. She confided that she’d heard Spalding was arrested while trying to smuggle drugs onboard. That seemed plausible, but too mundane. This was Spalding Gray. There had to be an amazing tale behind this. More and more people joined us and as each one introduced themselves, they’d slip in their own theories until we were swimming in a sea of suspicion.

And then, like the ghost of a sailor emerging from a fog on the deck of a ship, not realizing he’d died decades earlier, Spalding appeared. He was a wraith – a haunting of his former self. He limped toward us with such wounded gentility, he seemed ethereal. He greeted everyone and apologized for his delay. He spoke quietly, without looking people in the eyes. We were perched around benches that formed a big ‘U’. He stood. He said he was sorry if he paced at times, but he’d been in an accident and needed to stretch his leg on a regular basis. I knew what he was talking about, but this was news to the others.

He knew his delay would be a matter of curiosity and speculation, so he offered to clear the air about it. He had been arrested and he was now going to give us the details. We were about to get a story from the master storyteller himself. A virgin story that no one had ever heard before. What an entrance. What a way to begin. We would be able to look back years later and know that we were the first people other than his wife and lawyer who knew what had happened. We all leaned forward, a group of excitable cub scouts around a campfire - desperate for a good yarn before we called it a night and went to our tents.

“Last week I was in, uh... Boston giving a, um, uh... performance. And I was, uh... scheduled to fly straight down from Logan International to um...” He paused so long, I thought he’d gone somewhere else in his head, “Daytona.” And he’s back. “I arrived at the airport, no problem. And I, uh, picked up my, um... boarding pass and went through security where I found my gate. No, uh... problem.”

Spalding was having a hard time getting the story out. ‘Uh’s and ‘Um’s peppered every halting sentence. Finding the most mundane words seemed to be a surprisingly onerous task. The cause of the struggle didn’t seem to be him being traumatized by the arrest, it was simply the burden of placing one word in front of the next that he labored under.

“Now, as I was, uh... waiting for the plane to begin boarding, I found out my flight was on a Airbus 300. So I asked the ticket agent at the gate if, um... the plane was safe to fly on. Apparently you’re not allowed to ask those kinds of questions any more.”

As he told us his tale, I was struck by how his fans stood up for him like he was family and how others had no idea who he was. Those he touched, he left a deep mark. Most people had only seen one movie of his, but they still felt like they actually knew him. How weird it must be to constantly meet strangers who know everything about you and have a presumption of intimacy when he knew nothing of them. For most stars from baseball to rock n’ roll, you can love their work and know nothing of their personal life, but for Spalding the two were inseparable.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Love & Despair

I fell in love with Spalding the summer of 1992. Oddly, Kathie, his future wife, was falling for him at the same time. She would be pregnant in less than a year's time. My love, on the other hand, was unrequited.

I first encountered Spalding in a local video store along High Ridge Road in my hometown of Stamford, CT. I rarely rented movies before then. Never once in college. I was always studying, writing or performing. I didn’t even go on dates to movies. Hell, I didn’t go on dates. But within weeks of graduating from Princeton I‘d been hit with my first major failure in life and I retreated to the flickering screen as I became a nocturnal creature in order to avoid contact with the world. What was this colossal defeat that left me completely paralyzed?

My problem wasn’t that age old “I have no idea what to do with my life.” I didn’t, but I was content not knowing. But I was calm in the face of gross uncertainty only because I’d decided if I surrounded myself with the right people in the right place, everything would eventually work itself out. So the question was, “Where I was going to be confused about things?” And choosing that was easy. In every generation there‘s an epicenter of creativity where people imbued with the spark of life congregate with all the other misfits. And in the early 1990s that was Seattle. It was home to the new superstars Nirvana, Microsoft and Starbucks. If those 800-lb. upstarts could conquer the world from Puget Sound, starting from nothing, we all could. Seattle also had the most exciting new burgeoning theatre scene in the country. So I’d heard. I didn’t actually know anyone there, but the rumors were fantastic. So I was going to plunk myself down in the middle of “Emerald City” and find me my own Algonquin Table. However, I had one additional challenge I gave to myself. And this was non-negotiable:

I had to get there by bike... from Connecticut.
This was not a random hurdle I’d come up with. It was a custom-built, ritualized first step into adulthood. I’d wanted to do the trans-continental cycling trek for almost a decade. I’d gone on my first tour when I was 13. And while it was hard, it was also my first taste of real freedom. I spent two weeks cycling from Albany to Montreal and back. It was the first time I’d been away from my family for that long. I went with four older boys (15-18 years old) and one 30 year-old leader. The independence I felt on the road was intoxicating. I carried my own packs, tent, sleeping bag. I could go anywhere and survive. I needed nothing but what I carried with me.

And then, seven years later, I would hit the road without a guide. And discover the country for myself. The people I’d meet. The things I’d see. The stories I’d have to write about. I would finally become a man in the world and this was my self-designed initiation. Flinging a graduation cap in the air didn’t cut it. I needed a real challenge. A grand adventure I could look back on with pride as I told my grandchildren how I dipped my rear wheel in the Atlantic, crossed the Rocky Mountains powered by my very own legs and presented my front wheel to the Pacific in triumph - an auspicious omen for all my future success to come, definitively proving I indeed could accomplish anything I set my mind to!

I got as far as Gettysburg.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Road to Gettysburg

The only other great failure in my life was being unable to convince the local board of education to buy me a laser when I was in high school. Seriously. I needed a fucking laser pronto. Xenon preferably. I made a formal presentation and everything. Back in high school, I was heavy into physics and obsessed with holography. For an independent study I’d designed a holography studio which would cost start to finish a mere $2000. When my request was rejected, I spent an entire year playing the piano during the period when I would have been making breakthroughs in 3-D technology. After that, I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist if it meant I would be subject to the whims of those with the purse strings. (Somehow my pea-sized brain didn’t see a similar obstacle in the arts.) I also feared I’d become a pawn of the military and my awesome intellect would be used for evil by President Reagan and his hawkish acolytes. (I had perhaps watched “Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn” one too many times back then. You see, despite how much I loved watching lasers blow things up, I took to heart the message of the film that scientists can never trust the military.) That fear was so present after my proposal was denied that I actually turned down a full scholarship to Lawrence University because it was contingent upon my majoring in physics.

* * *

So from Gettysburg, I returned to my father’s house a broken young man. I was unaccustomed to failure and didn’t take it well. I’d flunked the first and only required milestone for beginning my life. And now I was in limbo with no map pointing the way out. And after months of telling people I was going to cycle across the country, and start my life in Seattle, I didn’t know how to see them again and admit I’d failed. So I hid out. Worse, my level of personal integrity bordered on the insane when I scoffed at the suggestion I get on a plane like a fucking normal person. In my mind, to do so would mean beginning my adult life with a cheat. And I’d never cheated in my life. I’d rather fail a test than cheat. I didn’t get cheating. I would always know. And the wrath of my own judgment would be harsh and everlasting. This was the foundation for the rest of my life, we were talking about. It had to be pure. Or it would be nothing at all.

So I just froze up, afraid to pick up the phone or leave the house. I cordoned myself off in my room and spent my days sleeping ’til noon. I avoided my father whenever possible. My mother had recently moved out, so I didn’t see her unless I made an effort to, which I didn’t. She was temporarily living with friends. I couldn’t so much as sleep on her couch. It was a sad, empty home without her there. I wanted to be anywhere but there, but instead of finding an escape, I burrowed in. And my poor dad had no idea what to do with me.

I brooded on my inability to complete what in my mind was a simple goal. Why had everything fallen apart? I’d planned the trip well with one exception. I couldn’t find anyone to go with. I wasn’t bothered by this. I didn’t really try that hard. I was actually perfectly confident going it alone. I’d meet people along the way and that would be part of the adventure. Anyway, I was looking forward to time on my own to sort out my future. Perhaps by the time I’d reached Seattle American itself would crystallize my soft mind and everything would have become clear. Instead of living that dream, my mother freaked out and convinced my brother to join me on my rite of passage.

My brother was not a cyclist. Didn’t own a bike. Had never toured. He was a black belt in karate, but that means nothing when you’re attacking a mountain with a 5% grade, uphill for 7 miles without a break, while carrying fifty pounds of gear in your panniers. There’s also a vital knowledge of the road, he lacked which was physically dangerous. Things you don’t read in books – like when you’re passed by two cars, never pull back out into the road thinking the coast is clear. There is always a third car you neither see nor hear and if you go back to center, he’ll nail you before you can say “I never even made out a will.”

So for seven days, during one of the worst heat waves on record, we pedaled easy jaunts. Forty to sixty miles a day. And starting on Day 1, his borrowed bike started breaking down. Three out of seven days, he had to hitchhike to our final destination. He was a weight around my neck like I’d never imagined. I didn’t realize it’d be this bad. I wish he’d never had come. I wish I’d been able to stand up to my mother when she ‘suggested’ he join me. We weren’t close and after this trip I would hardly want to speak with him for the next five years. I blamed myself for agreeing to let him join me. I blamed myself for not innately loving my brother and finding this a trip of a lifetime because we could reconnect after years separated by college. And I blamed myself for not continuing on after he destroyed his bike on Day 7.
That afternoon, he’d pulled off the road because his rear wheel was making strange noises. He started removing the rear hub. I warned him to wait until we got to a shop because if so much as a speck of dirt got into the bearings it wouldn’t stop working completely. As I finished my sentence and he succeeded in opening the hub and a hundred bearing flew out over the shoulder of the road. We stared at the carnage. The rear wheel was now useless.

But instead of buying a new wheel and forging on, or telling him to go home because he should have never come along in the first place, I just gave up. I had a vision of how this trip was supposed to go and there was no fixing it in my mind. It had been ruined from the start.

In terms of the planning, I made one vital miscalculation. I insisted on going East to West - directly into 10 mph headwinds. Every group cross-country tour goes West to East to make the journey much easier with a tailwind. I just couldn’t end up back in Connecticut. I had to finish my trek where I was going to start my new life. And I was willing to put up with the extra hardship in order to do that. But I didn’t realize just how much more difficult it would make everything. Seven hour days became nine hour days just to make the same mileage. And in 95 degree heat, those extra two hours made things brutal. I knew that wasn’t going to change if I continued on without him.

But emotionally I had an even bigger issue. The day I left my childhood home on this journey, my brother and I were packed and ready to go. My mother had come over to say goodbye. Since she had recently moved out, it was awkward at best. We all stood some distance from one another. My father stood helplessly in the driveway as we mounted our bikes. I started crying. Not because I was leaving my childhood behind. Not because I was giving up security and everything familiar to me. I fought back tears because all I wanted to do was escape my family, and here was my brother, uninvited, about to drag me down as a constant reminder of that from which I was running. And this, on a trip I’d dreamed of for seven magical years. I wept because as fast as I pedaled I couldn’t outrun them. And that was all I wanted. Complete separation from my past. A glorious infinity of possibilities before me. So even if I sent my brother home after Gettysburg, the trip had been irrevocably sullied in my mind. I decided it would be better to scrap this attempt and try again some other time.

I never tried again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

There’s Only One Way To Get It

As I settled into my first deep depression, friends were reveling in summer-long European backpack parties, having sex with legions of hot, loose girls and doing drugs of only the most pleasurable kind with no side effects. I was sure of it. All this before they started their important, well-paid jobs or law school or whatever plan to success they’d set up.

Meanwhile, I felt like my future had been covered with white linens like the furniture in the house of a dead man. Daily, my dad left articles at the breakfast table snipped from the business section of the New York Times in support of his suggestion that I go into finance. Finance? I didn’t even know what that meant. I had friends who claimed they were becoming investment bankers, but when they said the word “banker”, I could only visualize a bank teller, standing behind brass bars in a mausoleum of marble, waiting to count out crisp twenties with mechanical precision and hand them to businessmen with briefcases. I couldn’t even respond to my father when he suggested going down that path. I’d just take another sip from my 32-ounce clear blue, plastic cup filled with Lipton’s instant iced tea, bite into another Snyder’s hard pretzel and turn back to the TV playing Time Bandits for the hundredth time, as I prayed that a group of midgets would burst through MY bedroom wall and steal me on an adventure to foreign lands since I’d proven myself incapable of such a feat.

I didn’t do drugs, so I anesthetized myself with TV and movies. I hadn’t watched the tube for years and found myself was mesmerized by MTV. Both cinematically for the videos and culturally for the rest of the programming. The first season of The Real World had come out and I couldn’t quite believe those people were my peers. I also watched “Beavis and Butthead” for the first time, like an anthropologist, trying to figure out who watched it and why anyone found it amusing. Presumably it was meant for my cohort, but I felt no connection to it. Soon I felt like I was poisoning my veins, and went for the VHS tapes we had. But once I’d nearly worn through the old copy of Time Bandits we had, I headed down to the video store to flip through obscure movies that might stimulate my atrophying mind.

And that’s when I saw the title.

Swimming to Cambodia.

It sounded like an even greater trek than my aborted journey. And perhaps this guy had actually done it. I flipped over the cassette and saw the music was by Laurie Anderson, the high priestess of multimedia my artistic heart had just fallen for two years earlier. That was it. I had to take it home and see who this Spalding guy was.

It was love at first sight. As he sat there, never so much as standing, telling a story for ninety minutes straight, it was like he wasn’t even speaking. The whole thing came out in one long breath right into my brain, the way music does. It was like an unexpected, expansive, euphoric aria.

It wasn’t just that the story was of operatic proportions. It was how he said it. The over-arching narrative was about his acting a small role in the movie The Killing Fields. I'd seen the film in high school and I thought it was amazing. I was furious no one had ever told me the story of what our government did in Cambodia, nor of the auto-genocide there which took the lives of a million Cambodians. We’d been focused on Vietnam. I had to write a paper about Platoon, starring Willem DaFoe – another co-founder of the Wooster Group. I knew nothing about Cambodia except for a few veiled references in an old collection of Doonesbury cartoons.

For many, Swimming to Cambodia revealed those horrors for the first time. Spalding’s tale is really about discovering the story for the first time himself. But this was no mere history lesson. Spalding used the depth of that tragedy as a way to ground his larger narrative and juxtapose it with his own pathetic foibles. While others might have come across petty navel-gazers, when he exposed his idiocy, fears and neuroses in the shadow of that holocaust it seemed like an act of unspeakably courage. His poetic nature elevated his stature from small-minded narcissist to archetypal wise-fool. He transformed himself into Lear’s companion, which meant he cast each of us as his Lear. Or for me back then, perhaps he was Falstaff and I, Prince Hal. And in displaying his buffoonery before me, he woke me from my slumber. It was time to unyoke the humour of my idleness and declare heretofore “will I imitate the sun.” By listening to his call, I saw that I myself had created and permitted “the base contagious clouds” to smother up my beauty from the world.

In the next entry is the text of his opening to Swimming to Cambodia. This is what captured me. Like an alligator wrestler, he grabbed me by the nape of the neck, putting me into a hypnotic trance. You have to hear it to understand, and you can’t get a sense of it by just reading it in your head.

So you have to do something for me now. You have to speak the following text aloud. No matter where you are; at work, on the train, in a café, or sitting in bed with your spouse, you have to speak these words so you can feel them in your ear. It is a sensual experience. You must to speak these words because every person you meet who’s read this book will have done the same and it will be as a bond between you. When you ask someone if they’ve read this and they answer yes, you will be able to look into their eyes and know. If they did read this aloud, they will nod your head with the most imperceptible bow. They need not speak. You will know.

You have to read these words aloud and for a moment understand what it means to be Spalding, to have this rapid-fire storyteller within your soul. You have to speak them quickly, with the urgency of a street busker who’s afraid his crowd might leave if they grow tired of your tale. And you have to speak them now.

Ready? You’re about to become Spalding. Here we go. Take a deep breath. Scroll down and...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Read Out Loud

“Saturday June 18, 1983. Wahine. Gulf of Siam, Thailand…

It was the first day off in a long time and about 130 of us were trying to get a little rest and relaxation out by this pool at this very modern hotel that looked something like a, uh, a very modern prison, something like the private prisons people are investing in these days in the United States instead of hotels, something like a, uh, pleasure prison, the kind of place that say if you were taking a trip to, um, Bancock and you took a side trip down to Wahine, you might come and stay at this hotel, but you probably wouldn't even go out the grounds because of the high barbed wire fence around the hotel to keep you in and the bandits out, you probably wouldn't go down to the Gulf of Siam because of the dogs, some of them rabid (they tend to intimidate you and drive you up against a wall, until you pick up a piece of seaweed,shake it in their face and everything is hunky dory)…

and it was the first day off in a long time and the Thai waiters are running and smiling and bringing us more “Kloster! Kooster! Kloster Beer!”, everyone is ordering the Kloster no one is drinking the local beer which is exported to the US because they say there's formaldehyde in it, and the Thai waiters are running and jump and and smiling and they can't get to us fast enough. And there's a saying that says The Thai's are the nicest people can buy, and it's not a silly smile, it's a deep smile because they have a philosophy, sanug, which loosely translated means, fun, pleasure, and they don't do anything that isn't sanug, and ask you first, and if it isn't sanug they won't touch it with a ten foot pole, also another idea that may have to do with a radical Thai Buddhism, after they have the sanug they don't have to suffer for it afterwards…

And it was the first day off in a long time and some of the British crew had the good sense, or bad sense, depending on how you look at it, to buy women as soon as they arrived in Bangkok. I heard each man bought two, so they wouldn't risk falling in love when it came time to leave. And there the crew were like these 250 lb. beached whales, out by the swimming pool, just lying there with these skinny little chickadees, 90 lb. in from the country in two piece bathing suits, walking up and down on them, giving them shiatsu…

It was the first day off in a long time and the Thai waiter is running to jump over hedges to bring us more Kloster beer, and all of a sudden, the waiter, trips, falls, the Kloster beers fall and explode on the cement by the pool and the waiter looks up and says, “Sorry, sir, we've just run out of Kloster!”

And for those who want to see how Spalding did it, he starts speaking at 1:40. Enjoy:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

First Contact

After watching Swimming to Cambodia, I got out of my house and went to New York where I landed my first internship - at the Wooster Group, the company Spalding co-founded. The universe threw me a curveball, however, because it turned out he was almost never around back then. Even when we were putting together a big benefit, he couldn’t be reached. Folks were panicking because advertisements promised he’d be there and absolutely no one – not even his agent – knew where he was. He’d gone into hiding just as I’d come out. I later discovered this was during one of the most traumatic periods of his life. He was leaving his artistic and personal partner of more than a decade in order to be with... well, we’ll get into that soon enough.

I bumped into Spalding just once my entire six months at the Wooster Group. It was the last day of my internship and as I was heading down the very long, extremely narrow stairway that lead from the offices down to the street, I saw him coming up the stairs. He was wearing a black and red checked hunting jacket in the middle of May. I still have no idea why. It looked like far too sturdy a covering for this balmy weather. He also had a sheepskin hat on – the kind with the flaps over the ears. His flaps were up, but I couldn’t help thinking I wasn’t sure if that was Spalding or some backwoods deer hunter from Krumville before me.

But there he was. After waiting for months, hoping he’d walk in the door, I so wanted to welcome him home, give him a big hug and tell him we all missed him so. But as we got to the place where we’d have to pass each other, I turned sideways so we’d both fit and as I brushed against him, I grunted an eloquent,

“hi”

I continued past him, trying not to make too much eye contact – as though he were Idi Amin and I’d been told not to look directly at him or risk summary execution. Why didn’t I say anything more? I always screw up when I’m talking with someone I admire. I don’t just stumble on my words, I do something grotesquely inappropriate in my attempt to distinguish myself in their memory. So I restrained myself. I thought somewhere, somehow I’d have another chance to see him. And even if I could muster something approaching a normal human conversation, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I felt I knew him. But he didn’t know me at all. I hated that imbalance. I didn’t want to be a fawning fan. I wanted to be a peer.

And ten years later, as I sat in that circle listening to him explain how he’d just been sprung from a Boston jail, I felt I’d finally taken a big step closer to that.

Monday, March 22, 2010

This Godless Town

In addition to the music of his speech, I loved Spalding for his fantastic disregard for compact story telling. There is a nearly fascist attitude toward “Story” in Hollywood which says if you can tell a narrative in a tighter, shorter manner, always do it, because it will be better. If you set something up, you must pay it off. Otherwise cut it. Start the scene as late as possible and cut cut cut out everything that isn’t absolutely vital.

Fucking mindless stormtroopers.

If you sent Spalding through that grinder, you know what you’d get? Instead of a three-minute elegiac entré to the world of bemused delight inside a wicked mind full of desperation and longing for a world he yearns to understand, you’d get this:

“So I was in Thailand at this shitty resort when they ran out of beer.”

And that takes the God right out of it.

Do we need to know how to get rid of rabid dogs in the Gulf of Siam? No. Does it come up anywhere else in his yarn? Of course not. Is it vital that we hear about how private prisons in the US are a new investment opportunity and sense in Spalding’s tone his disdain for that entire enterprise? No. It has nothing to do with ‘Story’ as screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines it. There’s no payoff with the private prison line? He never mentions it again? Cut it!

Thank God Spalding indulges us in every last diversion. I love him for his tangents, his unending superfluous descriptions of seemingly insignificant details. Because eventually they do add up, even if they don’t “pay off”. They adorn the tree he grows right before us and with the dazzling intricacy of overlapping roads leading nowhere, he makes a thing of beauty instead of a leafless skeleton. He paints every single leaf onto the branches and builds the effect of dappled light on your mind’s eye as you stare through the tree toward his glorious setting sun. Then in a moment of reflection he causes you to look back and see the shadow - the interference pattern of all those extraneous pieces have generated behind you when you weren’t looking. The only thing you can’t see is how he’s lit you up by his invention. God-like, he breathes color and light into what this despicable town in which I now live would shave down to one ugly little sentence.

“So I was in Thailand at this shitty resort when they ran out of beer.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reviving Swimming

Though I’d seen the video in 1992, I didn’t see Swimming to Cambodia live for another ten years. Since then, Spalding had retired the piece and created an abundance of new work, but the year before we all gathered in Florida, he’d been asked by a consortium of theatres to revive one of his old monologues. Any one. In typical Spalding fashion, he couldn’t decide which to do, but when they gave him that always necessary deadline, he finally chose Swimming… After all, it was the show that made him famous, for what little fame he had. He wasn’t a paragon of beauty like Willem who had taken up with his former lover after Spalding left her. It was an incestuous little world in downtown New York back then. And Swimming… was his first real escape from that world since it was his first monologue that was turned into a film (directed by Jonathan Demme).

I never knew what kind of competition Spalding felt with Willem. I never saw them in the same room. Spalding was the master and Willem the apprentice when they formed the Wooster Group in the early 70s. But Platoon came out three months before Swimming to Cambodia did (in March of 1987) and it grossed $139 million, to Swimming’s paltry $1 million. Back them a million dollars for an independent film made with an unknown single performer, doing nothing but sitting and telling a story was an unprecedented phenomenon – until placed side by side with Platoon which won the Oscar for Best Picture and catapulted Willem to international stardom*. In comparison, Spalding became a cult figure. But by 2001 Swimming… was still his unequivocal masterpiece – tying together the personal and political into an intimate, powerful statement about the world in a way he’d never done before or since.

I went to see the revival two months before I left for the Atlantic Center. I didn’t yet know whether I’d gotten in, so I was trying to decide whether or not to introduce myself afterwards and make a personal plea to go to Florida with him. I hesitated because when I meet famous people, I always get nervous and screw things up. So I decided I’d watch the show and then see if I felt inspired enough to take the risk.

The venue was The Performing Garage in New York City – Spalding’s theatrical home since 1969 – before even the founding of The Wooster Group which took up residence there a few years later. While the area had become somewhat domesticated from the wilderness it was in the 70s, this was still the cobblestone SoHo that had yet to become just another a high-end, outdoor mall. It was a chilly November night, but the high-ceilinged 99-seater was packed and toasty hot.

As he walked on stage with his trusty notebook in hand, I noticed he had a little limp. He was wearing his usual costume - a plaid flannel shirt and jeans. And as he did in every performance he’d given for almost thirty years, he sat down at a little desk, looked at the audience and slowly took a measured sip from the ever-present glass of water on the right side of his desk. He then opened the journal, meditated briefly on words we’d never see, and...

“It was the first day off in a long time and...”

It was a wonder hearing him speak this live. I felt like I did seeing Paul Simon in Central Park in 1990 after listening to his music since I was a kid. I may have missed him in his heyday, but I was there to see the flame resurrected while still in top form.

But something was off. Spalding was telling the familiar old story - nearly word for word - but he’d created it over fifteen years earlier and things had changed. Just as the song “Old Friends” means something completely different performed without Garfunkel present, time had recontextualized Swimming… as well. It wasn’t just that Spalding was competing with the younger, larger than life, better edited film version of himself. It was that the world had changed around him. By recreating this piece, he was unearthing a time capsule. And not everything had remained intact when he exposed it to the atmosphere.

Most people probably couldn’t tell anything was wrong at first, but in the middle of a raucous part about the sex shows in Thailand, his brain slipped, sputtered and stopped. This story telling machine just grew silent. He looked out at us, looked down at his notebook and shook his head. He took a sip of water. Consulted the notebook. Took another sip of water. Breathed deeply and then soldiered on about the Red Light District, Pat Pong. Like a horse approaching a jump after balking at it once before, it looked like he was going to make it over the hurdle this time. But just before he got to the hysterically funny bit about watching in bemused amazement as a woman shoots a banana out of her cooch, he looked out at us blankly. It was like a cog in his brain had gotten stuck and simply refused to turn. Everything came to a standstill. He looked to the audience, helpless. We looked back in wordless terror. What was happening?

“I can’t do this part, can I?” he muttered aloud. No one answered. We thought he was asking rhetorically.

“I mean AIDS has taken its toll and ravaged Thailand and their sex industry. This isn’t funny any more. How can I do this?” No one knew what to say. Spalding stood up. Walked toward the wings, then back to his desk. He was alone up there. And there was no where to run to.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

we have to remember that it is getting constantly brighter

He didn’t talk about this that night, but AIDS had also hit close to home for Spalding. And I had to believe that wasn’t far from his mind. Before that night, I was last in The Performing Garage when I was a intern there in 1993. Back then I watched the Wooster Group (sans Spalding) weave their web of theatrical insanity around one of the only pieces they’ve never revived. I think they were all too devastated by what happened to ever bring it back.

The show was “FISH STORY”, an epilogue to their piece “BRACE UP!” which deconstructed the text of first half of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters”. FISH STORY used the rest of the play as fodder for invention. The show ended with the character Vershinin giving a speech about his belief that things will be better in the future even as he prepares his battalion to go to war. Vershinin is speaking to Olga, who at the age of thirty is considered an old maid. She will never marry. Worse, she loves Vershinin, but Vershinin is in love with her younger sister Masha with whom he’s had an affair. Vershinin, meanwhile, is married to a woman who knows he no longer loves her and who tries to kill herself repeatedly in her despair. No one is able to be with the person they love. Each is miserable.

The monologue is a heartfelt, nearly sentimental bit of philosophizing – an indulgence which Vershinin is prone to. The Wooster Group used a beautiful translation by Paul Schmidt which I had the honor of picking up whenever a new draft was finished. I’d show up at Paul’s doorstep in The Village, ready to take the still warm pages back to The Garage. He’d shuffle to the door in his sweat pants and T-shirt; smelly, stubbled and uncombed and I’d think to myself, “Now that’s a REAL New York playwright!” He died a real New York playwright six years later from complications due to the AIDS virus.

And this poetic speech of Vershinin’s came out of the mouth of the actor Ron Vawter. In 1993, Ron was dying of AIDS too and everyone knew it - even most of our audience. The Wooster Group had been a pioneer in the integration of video in live performance in the U.S., so it was nothing out of the ordinary, to put Ron’s parts on video, but I couldn’t wonder if that choice was partially to ensure that the group could perform the show in the future, even though they never did.

Since Ron was performing only onscreen, they decided to play with the medium. To counteract the sentimentality of the speech, Liz LeCompte directed Ron to deliver it with a quiet seriousness. Chris, our video man, then put it through a filter that made it look like an old black and white film. After all the live action had stopped, the lights went down and a lone TV monitor lit up. While we knew Ron was saying a fictional character’s words, we also knew he was simultaneously speaking for himself.
“I have to go. (Pause) I wish you all the best, the very best. Where’s Maria Sergeyevna?... (Irina and Anfisa go off into the garden calling [for her, leaving him alone with Olga.])... Well, everything comes to an end. Not it’s time to say goodbye. (Looks at his watch) The town gave us a sort of farewell lunch, champagne, the mayor made a speech, and I ate and listened, but my heart was here, I kept thinking of you. (Looks around the garden) I’m going to miss this place... Well... Thank you for everything. Forgive me if things were... I talked a lot – too much, I know. Forgive me for that too, and don't think badly of me.
In the script it says Olga wipes her eyes as she says “Why doesn’t Masha hurry up?” But this is the Wooster Group. In their production, suddenly, Ron stops speaking and breaks character. The video turns to color, and Ron asks for glycerin because he, playing an “actor”, just wasn’t able to get the waterworks to flow. He puts in the drops, first used by Hollywood actors lacking the craft to generate real tears. Once he’s put in the drops, we go back to scratchy black and white.

He continues, earnest as can be, but we can’t take him seriously in the same way. We know it’s fake. “He” is a fake. But simultaneously it was more real than any of us there could handle. Because we knew in the near future, Ron would be dead and this would be his true farewell.
What else can I tell you by way of farewell? Shall we talk a little more? (Laughs) Life isn’t easy. Sometimes it must be stupid and hopeless, but we have to remember that it is getting constantly brighter and better, and I don’t think the time is far off when it will be completely bright. (Looks at his watch) I’ve really got to go!”
But he doesn’t move to leave. And now Ron’s eyes are pouring with tears. The flood is of absurd proportions and like some lost Python sketch becomes increasingly hysterical as he turns from the camera and asks for a towel and things shift to color. He’s handed a brown paper towel that sounds like it’s made of sandpaper when he scrapes it across his face. It’s brutal. It’s real. It’s not acting. Nor was this, when we slide to black and white and he once again stares through the lens directly at us.:
“Mankind is passionately seeking something, and eventually well find it. I just hope we find it soon. (Pause) We must find a way to join love of work to love of higher things, mustn’t we? (Looks at his watch) Well. Now I must go.”
And then he faded from the screen.

Back in ’93 the entire cast came out to watch the video with the audience. They stood around the stage, like mourners looking down into a grave. The truly bizarre part was when Ron was with us in rehearsal watching his own farewell. If I believe he meant the words he mouthed, he seemed selflessly hopeful. It was as though Ron knew there would be a cure for AIDS someday even if the AZT cocktails weren’t working yet for him. But watching a dying man say goodbye to you before he’d actually left the Earth was a disturbing experience. It wasn’t theatre. It was real. It was dangerous. It’s what I’ve sought to create on stage ever since that moment.

But sitting in that same theatre eight years later, watching Spalding falter, I had a bad feeling I was once again witnessing a man struggle against his own death sentence.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Black Spot

After stumbling forward and nearing the end of his monologue, Spalding just stopped, got up and began to leave the stage. The confused Gen-Y crowd started clapping wildly for his disjointed performance. This was the first time I was aware that I really was a Gen X-er. I was on the very tail end of that demographic, but I just made it. Sure I was living in Seattle when Kurt Cobain shot himself (Yes I did eventually get there), but you don’t realize what that means at the time. I got a sense of my age by being with these kids. They were so bright and shiny. Many were actually NYU students. I was a decade older than some. And in a certain way, I was closer in experience to Spalding than I was to them.

Their applause attracted Spalding back to the stage. He limped into the light, gave a hint of a bow and with great hesitation, started talking. At first, it seemed he was speaking to himself. He then spent an hour wondering out loud if he should still do the show. Was it relevant? Was it offensive? He began to let us in on bits and pieces of why he was really so troubled. It wasn’t so much about how Swimming… no longer worked. It was that he couldn’t finish the new show he was working on.

That was when I first heard him tell of his travails in Ireland. Within minutes I realized we were witnessing the birth of a new monologue. And now that he was closer to us and moving around, the light hit his head differently and I couldn’t take my eyes off the huge square scar on his forehead. Perhaps Spalding felt me staring, maybe he felt everyone’s eyes on it all the time. So he explained what had happened.

Spalding’s wife, Kathie, took him to Ireland for his 60th birthday. And Spalding loved Ireland. It suited him well. The beautiful cliffs, the beautiful women and the melancholy writers from Beckett to Joyce, wrestling dark nights of the soul. Being there made him feel very much at home. On that fateful trip, someone asked Spalding if he was working on anything new. For the first time in his life he said, “No.” It was such a novel experience to just be happy and grateful and in the present that he was relishing every moment. But then it dawned on him that perhaps he needed crisis in his life to inspire new work. It seemed as a newly happy person he had nothing to write about after his monologue about discovering the joy of learning to be a father in his monologue “Morning, Noon and Night”. He was now crisis free. And it occurred to him that because of this, he might never make another monologue. Worse, he might create a crisis just to have something to talk about. And he didn’t want to do that.

Then, after a birthday dinner on his second night in the Irish countryside, he’s heading to the house he’s staying at with Kathie and two friends. Kathie’s driving and Spalding’s in the back seat as they wind around the treacherous back roads. They’re almost home when, with no warning at all they hit a black spot - a place on the road where the turn is so blind, people get into accidents there on a regular basis. Locals know it’s dangerous, but no one else does.

That night, there was a drunk driver weaving his truck in the other direction. And Spalding wasn’t wearing a seat belt because he was in the back - and who wears seat belts in back? And WHAM! The truck swerves right into their lane and hits them head on. And Spalding is catapulted into the front. There’s blood and screaming. He can’t move and he can’t find Kathie. He thinks he’s dying, except the pain in his leg is so great that he knows he’s alive and he wants to be furious at the guy who ran into them, but the whole time he’s just feeling so guilty for not wearing his seat belt because in his mind, clearly that meant the whole thing was his fault.

I listened, entranced, and I remembered why I loved Spalding. I also never wear a seat belt when I sit in back, but after seeing that square titanium plate in his skull, I started thinking, maybe it’s not a bad idea.

That night in The Performing Garage, Spalding told us that the story of the accident and the subsequent hospitalization in Ireland was to be the first part of his next monologue. Part Two concerned his decision to move into a bigger house and the profound regret he later felt after he’d done so. And then Part Three... (and now he choked up). The perfect ending for his monologue arrived at his doorstep…

And he missed it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

9/11

September 11th came and he wasn’t there for it. For thirty years, Spalding had a loft just a few blocks from Ground Zero. But on the morning in question, he wasn’t there. He was convalescing out on Long Island at his big, new, hateful home in Sag Harbor. He went on and on about how he missed the biggest event in his lifetime and how profoundly depressed he was about it. He never mentioned being disturbed about the destruction of life or the ensuring wars that were brewing. It was all about his next monologue and how he couldn’t finish it now. The kids in the audience were toddlers when he first did Swimming to Cambodia, but their resilient optimism hadn’t been damped by the annihilation of The Towers. They yelled out to him like they were parents at some little league game cheering on their kids with a solid “You can do it, buckaroo!” He shook his head and wailed, “No, I can’t. I wasn’t there.” And they called back:

“Spalding, what you have to say about NOT being there is as important, if not more important, than if you were there. Talk about that. Anyway, you’re lucky. We were here and we didn’t even want to be.”

Spalding countered: “But I’m a poetic journalist. And I missed the big story. I should have been here. I should have been going around and interviewing everyone. It would have been the perfect ending to my new monologue and I missed it.’

But these kids would not be deterred. Another voice shouted out, “But Spalding, most of the country wasn’t there and they’re going through feelings just like the one’s you’re having. You have to give that voice.”

But he didn’t want to. He was being a spoiled child about it. A crippled little brat. Spalding had talked about everything from masturbation to farting as a way of expressing his anger, and made it seem so important and funny that he inspired an entire generation of untalented, wannabe actors and actresses to take the stage from New York to LA and expose their dirtiest laundry in the hope that blathering on about their childhood embarrassments and professional struggles was somehow their ticket to success. [PR1] And now, when he was really needed to take the world by the hand and help us all through a real tragedy, he was bitching about how he’d missed it.

Hell, I was on 85th St. In a sense I missed it too. Did I need to have mask of gray soot on that beautiful day to have ’been there’. We could all still smell death wafting through The Performing Garage that night. You couldn’t escape it. When we went home that night, we’d all still walk to the Canal Street subway stop, look up and see that gaping, empty crevasse to the south. As I listened to Spalding’s bitching I grew furious. I actually felt that it was his artistic responsibility and civic duty to talk about what he was feeling. It would be as though Walter Cronkite refused to go on the air because he wasn’t in Dallas when JFK was murdered. But Spalding wouldn’t report his feelings, no matter how much these twenty-somethings begged him to believe what he said mattered. After all the words he’d thrown out there after pointless narcissistic bullshit. Now. NOW was the time he was most needed. And now he chose to be mute.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dramatis Personae

When I arrived in Florida I was expecting this wounded, recalcitrant, half-broken old man. The rest of these folks were not. I was hoping that night at the Performing Garage was an aberration, but it was soon clear it was not.

Spalding finished the story about his brief Boston incarceration, explaining he was able to get out on bail once his wife Kathie came to his aid, but it took longer than he’d expected. The thing is, this is the kind of thing that might have happened to Spalding even without the accident. But it would have happened in another country. Now we’d gone insane with fear right here in America and the result was Spalding’s eccentricities that were fodder for his work, became the very thing that sent him off to jail. I don’t think he ever donned an orange jump suit, but I could easily imagine him in one. I think he would have found it looked pleasingly dramatic. Perhaps it’d be the cover of his next published monologue; Spalding, hands on bars, looking out and into you with those devastated eyes, pleading for mercy from the world. Uncomprehending how he could have ended up there.

But he released us from his spell and asked us to go around in a circle and introduce ourselves. During this, one thing became clear, of the nine other “associate artists” in Spalding’s group, I was the only active solo performer there. Suddenly, I understood why Paul didn’t think I was in his group when I described it as the solo performance group. I was the only one there planning on “performing.” Everyone else there had come to learn how to tell their life story because they never had before.

But it made no sense. I knew Spalding had an autobiographical agenda, but I assumed he’d find a plethora of seasoned performers, put them in a room and watch the sparks fly. Instead, he’d chosen people who’d perhaps led different (and hopefully interesting) lives, but had little to no experience speaking in front of an audience. Paul was one of the few who’d done some work years ago, but he’d moved to upstate New York and was out of the scene these days he later told me.

The other reason Paul thought I was not with Spalding’s faction was because there were, in fact, two other groups there, musicians and visual artists, but we hadn’t met any of those folks yet.

And who comprised our posse, the little chicks Spalding was nurturing in our swampy nest for the next month?

Names have been changed to protect the innocent, though I'm sure with the way the internet works, they will all find themselves and be profoundly offended at my characterization of them and even the fact that I have chose to relate the memory of my experience. To them, I genuinely apologize for any hurt I may cause, though I have to tell you I'd love to read their take on our time in The Swamp. Go ahead. Publish that shit. And until then, here’s our cast:

Adam - bald, brainy, funny, 30s, attempted screenwriter turned professor.

Amy – mid-40s, fading blonde beauty and documentary filmmaker from Baltimore,

Becca – surprisingly funny, witty and well-adjusted, chubby, white trash, 30 year-old New Smyrna native, confined to an electric wheelchair with an illness/disability she never revealed.

David – 31 year-old, Avant-garde sentimentalist, writer, composer, performer, unwilling producer, idiot and egoist.

Frank – 50-something, former mobster and current Bowery poet with a Brooklyn accent you can drive a truck through,

Graciella – Mexican born, sorta cute, late 20-something local Floridian who was shyer by nature than me when asking for a replacement scoop of ice cream after mine fell off my cone when I was five.

Jerry – 6’4” strapping Australian Jew with manly scruff, glasses and an unhealthy reverence for our master, Spuddy.

Meryl – 50-ish mom and board member of a NY theatre company I’d love to be commissioned by, but now never will because I’m including her in this book.

Paul – Ripped, tatted, seemingly gay, but married 50 year-old former heroin addict and Vietnam Vet from Rhinebeck, NY who didn’t look a day over 40.

Ruby – a 79 year-old granny, obsessed with an affair she had in Italy with a young prince when she was just 19.


That’s the cast. Now, let the drama begin.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Stories Begin

The theatre that was ours for the month was a cavernous black box with 40-foot ceilings that was strangely reminiscent of The Performing Garage - if it were ever newly built instead of converted from an old auto-body shop. However in The Atlantic Center theatre, risers were set up along two of the walls like half a diamond. If you faced the center of the audience, it was like you're a baseball pitcher and the audience sat on either side of home plate as you faced a gaping ten-foot hole gap between the seats.

While this was a big space for just eleven people sitting around sharing stories, we were told that the evenings were open for all of us to share any of our older and completed work with the larger community. There was no sign-up. No moderator. No format. Participation as well as attendance was voluntary, but that first night, almost everyone showed up. Forty in total, including the administrators who were a silent part of our community there.

A composer got up played a recording of a section from a string quartet of his. I can’t say it was memorable or remarkable, but it was brave of him to start things off. There was no discussion afterwards.

Meryl from our group volunteered to go next. She was quiet and shy and looked like a suburban mom of teenagers - which she was. She had an astounding array of track suits she would soon trot out over the next few weeks in an attempt to camouflage her figure. She said she was an actor, when she first introduced herself, but she was as far from being a professional actor as I was from playing in the NFL.

She had a meek presence that pervaded the room like my grandma’s T-Rose perfume, the bane of all Boca restaurants. I’d never seen someone project ‘timid’ with such force. She gave the impression of being an older Marcie in search of her Peppermint Patty. You could almost see the nine year-old fat girl in her getting picked on by the cooler girls. Her aura had somehow been petrified in that era of her youth. As she wade her way to the stage, I wondered what people saw in me at a glance. I hoped they saw a beaming, toothless, black-eyed, baseball playing, Star Trek-loving eight year-old, but more likely they saw the cowardly five year-old who thinks it’s his fault the ice cream scoop fell right off his cone when he gave it that first lick even though it was the stupid teenager who should be blamed that for not packing the scoop well.

Meryl took the stage, and as though it was the first game of the season, I hooted my encouragement along with the rest of my group. We wanted to be better than the others. We wanted Meryl to be good. Great. Impressive! So Meryl took the stage, we were immediately disappointed in how nice she seemed. We didn’t want nice. We wanted killer. But her meek presence took a turn when she began a sad, small story about being an abused wife.

Oh, Lord. Is this what we’ve in for? A month of disturbing group therapy where no one can talk about the work presented in any kind of critical way in regard to the craft of the storytelling, because it’s so personal and traumatizing that any critique will reek of insensitivity and cause them to fall apart?

I should have had immediate compassion for what she’d been through, but something seemed off, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. Meryl nervously paced as she talked about being beaten by her ex-husband. She sat down and expressed her fear and cowering in bald, overly poetic phrasings. She stood back up and paced more. She had so little stage presence that her story was stripped of all its power. Or was it something else? How could I be so critical? This woman had suffered. Part of the problem was that she chose an awkward framing device by breaking the fourth wall and pretend she’s telling this story to an old friend at a coffee shop. We were supposed to be that old friend. But we weren’t. And I didn’t want to be. It all felt like were we witnessing a bad high school acting exercise. Worse, occasionally, with no warning, she’d jump into re-enacting the scenes of abuse – screaming and flailing about the stage as though she were being attacked by a ghost.

It was so embarrassing. For her. For us. For everyone. I tried to hold my criticism at bay as she was the first from our group to go and that took guts. Perhaps it was just too challenging for her to confront her own suffering so publicly. But the story was so intense it didn’t even seem real. And I felt guilty that it generated no empathy in me. Maybe I was protecting myself. Maybe my reaction was caused by my own inability to be with people who’d gone through something more cruel and vicious than I’d ever experienced. But it was hard to be handed such intimate knowledge of a near stranger’s traumas with no warning.

It reminded me of Ya’el.