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.

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