Archive | March, 2012

Settling scores.

29 Mar

Four words into my audition song for My Favorite Year, I asked, “May I start again?” to which the casting director replied, “No” and I slunked out of the room backwards grasping for the door handle. The New York Times’s Frank Rich called the show “a missed opportunity, a too frequently flat musical that suffers from another vogue of the 1950s, an identity crisis,” while Time magazine condemned it as a “barren Broadway musical.”

In 1983, I was a rookie lifeguard at the beach down the block from my parents’ home in New Jersey. I was bullied relentlessly, verbally abused, the butt of hundreds of practical jokes. That summer, the Lifeguard Squad pulled a total of three people, children struggling to breathe, out of the surf. And the lifeguard? Yes. All three.

In the fifth grade, I was given the role of the Marquis de Lafayette, apparently because I could flourish my tri-corn like a Frenchman, so I went home and memorized the entire Declaration of Independence and was upgraded to Thomas Jefferson.

My Sophomore year in high school, I inadvertently threw away my tickets to On The Twentieth Century in the cafeteria and had to hunt through the garbage for them. Greg Wallace called out, “Too poor for lunch?” and Brother Richard drafted him to dig through the trash with me.

Last month, a student from one of my tours wrote unkind things all over my public Facebook Page. In a three-minute Google search, I hunted him down, wrote his principal, and after a series of e-mails in which the student lied and further implicated himself, was later told he was given three days of detention. On the first day of his sentence, at 2:45 PM, I went across the street and bought myself a cupcake.

During the 2004 Republican National Convention, I refused to give tours and when asked how to get to Central Park from Times Square, sent delegates south on a wild goose chase.

In the middle of my guitar lesson at the age of eight, Mr. Costello stopped me and said, “Do you ever practice?” Three decades later I taught myself the piano and play better than I ever played guitar. One is often only as good as their teacher, you know.

In 1977, the neighborhood librarian wouldn’t let me check out Death of a Salesman as it was “too mature” for me. I went on to meet Arthur Miller.

Having won my butterfly event at the Fireman’s Swim-meet, morbidly obese Boy Scout Troop 149 Leader Moe Downs handed me my medal with this condescension: “Well, looks like we finally found a sport for you.” He’s dead.

Tommy McGregor once laughed at me for slipping on the greasy filthy kitchen floor of a rat-trap restaurant in 1982. He still works there.

In Second Grade, the line for dismissal snaked through the classroom and I found myself in front of Mrs. Janus’ disgracefully messy desk. I looked down at it, and in an uncharacteristic moment of observation, Mrs. Janus noticed my wayward eye, took me by the hand, paraded me in front of my classmates and said: “This is a nosey-parker.” I should have replied, “And from what I saw, this is a crashing bore.”

When I was five years old, I went to my friend Philip’s’s house to play and entered as I always did through the open side door. I called for Philip who didn’t answer, so I went up to his room and startled Mrs. Schwarz who was taking a bath. “You don’t just walk into someone’s house!” she screamed at me. Thanks for the ethics lesson, but you weren’t all that.

Mary of Camelot.

27 Mar

Mary is an older woman of indiscriminate age who parks herself in the lobby daily for hours at a time out of boredom or loneliness while providing a running commentary on the lives of those of us who live in Camelot. She is short and plump with yellowed white hair and beefy forearms. I suspect she has always looked anywhere between fifty-five and seventy, even as a teenager. Her voice is legendary, and I’ve developed a nodule on my vocal chord thanks to my vivid and oft-requested impersonation. It is the sound I imagine the SS Stockholm made as it slammed into the Andrea Doria, steel-on-steel, in an agonizingly slow, measured, articulated, ineffable cadence, pitched at an ear-shattering wavelength and capable of smothering the screams of anyone being tossed out of a bunk and into the deadly briny sea.

Mary is, I believe, the longest-running resident at Camelot. I believe she was standing on the corner in 1963 and they just built the building around her. I believe she claims legal occupancy rights to the sofa near the doorman.

Mary used to own a novelty shop just off Times Square in the days when Times Square was authentic and gritty and the playground of New Yorkers with adult intentions and lusts, and not some recreation of itself by the good people who brought you Mary Poppins and populated by Texans looking for an Applebees. Mary sold poo. Fake poo and plastic vomit and disappearing ink and chewing gum that turned one’s teeth black. And t-shirts and goofy sunglasses and velvet paintings and lava lamps. Her voice is most likely the product of shooing local hooligans and petty thieves away from her paltry treasures. That store is gone now, and with it went her raison d’etre. So to the throne room she has retired to hold mild court and seek attendance from those of us scurrying to our apartments before being blasted by her vocal buckshot.

Mary has some mental issues that the Miracles of Merck seem to hold in abeyance. But several years ago, she titrated down a few too many milligrams and was a weepy fixture in the lobby, never ever retiring to her chambers above anymore but spending twenty-four hours a day, inconsolable, on the couch. For those of you that don’t know, Camelot is actually part of an Evil Empire called Mallon Properties who run the kingdom with an iron fist. Seeing an opportunity to remove this benign presence from their population and raise a 1963 rent to current market values, Mallon deemed Mary a “health risk” to the environment, went through the necessary steps of litigation to have her exiled, and without her knowledge, went upstairs, packed up her things like thugs and gave her the boot. Mary didn’t even know she didn’t live here anymore until The Knights of The White Coats arrived two days later to cart her off to The Softer Walls of Bellevue.

No shy violet she, Mary regained her meds and her mind, sued the Lord of the Land, and was back in her apartment, back on the couch in the lobby within a month. I was relieved. I’ve always rooted for Mary who calls everyone else in the building by their Christian name, but just calls me “Dear” with all the affection she can muster given the wreckage of her box vox.

Mary had one more challenge to her reign recently. After an awful make-over to the decor in the public spaces of Camelot (“The lobby now looks like a funeral parlor, or an Italian bordello.” “The color on the chair railing brings to mind an infant’s diarrhea.”), someone at Mallon, or perhaps one if the beleaguered doormen who are forced to listen to Mary ad nauseum, decided to remove the furniture from the lobby. Mary had no place to sit. For a while, Mary just stood in the lobby as if her mere presence would make the sofa magically reappear under her formidable bottom. Then she took to leaning on the doorman’s counter for a week, but I think they finally told her that would not do. She was blocking their view of anyone entering the building. Or leaving it with a flat-screen TV in tow.

Some people took pity on Mary. Others were just pissed off that their waiting guests had no place to wait any longer while they held them up with one last primp at the mirror. Some people in Camelot actually used to like to sit in the lobby as well, those few moments Mary had to relieve herself or grab a bagel where her poo store used to be. So a petition went up: Bring back the sofa.

This petition was so public, and so humiliating, that anyone less than Mary would have leapt out one of the the windows on the higher floors of the building. It read like a blind item column in the Daily News. “Just because management doesn’t want one particular person sitting in the lobby all day, shouldn’t mean we all have to suffer.” “I don’t mind having someone sit in the lobby all day, and if it bothers the doormen, well, tough, that is part of their job.” “Perhaps we can get the sofa back if we ask certain people to limit the amount of time they sit in the lobby.” On and on and on. You’d have to be an imbecile or heavily medicated or one tough cookie not to take that shit personally. And I think Mary had two out of those three cookies in her jar. She’s nobody’s fool.

The couch came home to roost, as did Mary, without any loss of pride or prejudice. Mary continues to sit in my lobby. If you come to visit me, listen closely, which one can do from a third of a mile away, and you may hear of the newest best place for frozen yogurt, or what building is slated for demolition next, or who used to live in 1407 and whatever happened to that so-and-so and so on. I’m heading out now. As I hit the elevator, if I’m lucky and time it right, her voice should come into focus on the 7th Floor going down. Going down to see Mary for one brief shining moment. I hope to never not find her there.

First lines of novels I’ll never write.

25 Mar

It was him, just him, and a city of eight million, so he stood there, alone, terrified, but armed with an accurate slingshot.

This is a love story at whose end someone dies expectedly.

He stood against the pole as though Donatello himself had carved him from the crude metal of the E-train revealing the full flower of his Quattrocento beauty, his arms behind his back, at ease, but ill at ease his eyes, locked on the nothing ahead of him and belying a sadness that was so full and furious it was untouchable, when his mother called out “Rodrigo” and through the train doors he went, he and his universe of gravity.

Having never particularly distinguished himself, this dull but dedicated man purchased a small patch of land, farmed it meticulously, and spent the dusk of his days out standing in his field.

To pass him on the street you might think to yourself, “That is someone I passed on the street,” had you been paying that much attention.

Flying pigs waged a snowball fight in hell, that week of three Thursdays when toothed chickens saw the sun rise in the West, hairy frogs ate grapes from the willow tree and crows were spotted and spotted flying upside down in the Year of Never and the Month of When that particular Week and Month and Year an endlessly enigmatic Teresa Taurus opened her home to a cat.

What would the next hours portend, he wondered, weary and at dawn, having just decided that this would indeed be the day when he least expected it.

Dressed in New Yorker blacks, he waited for his friend in the Galaxy Diner beneath a photograph of Jupiter, hoping that the juxtaposition of his frame against the gas giant might have a further slimming effect.

Remind me someday, should I complain, that this moment, the air thick with impending storm, is as quiet as I’ve ever not heard, here in my little apartment above the corner of the center of the world.


24 Mar

As I was walking west on 46th Street I realized I was one of three lined up and thus: Me, a stranger, and Dan Rather, who by the way is 6’17” tall. Who knew?

The stranger in the middle and I were both stealing glances at Dan Rather. I was thinking, “This is the man who broke the Kennedy Assassination for heaven’s sake. An eyewitness to much of the history of the second half of the 20th Century is currently to my right.” I don’t know what the stranger was thinking, but he was clearly as fascinated as I.

We reached Sixth Avenue. Mr. Rather stepped into the street and hailed a cab. One stopped immediately. Apparently saddened that his brush with stardom was about to end, the stranger put all pretense aside and was openly gawking now, poised to approach Mr. Rather for an autograph or a piece of his mind. Then, out of nowhere, a bicyclist came whizzing between the three of us like a magic bullet, clipped me in the shoulder and crashed into the otherwise engaged stranger. They both fell onto the street, cursing and screaming in anger and in pain. There was blood. It was awful. I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing when it happened.

Dan Rather paused and looked at the mighty fighting fallen entangled in one another’s limbs and spokes and then looked to me as if to see if I was alright, the rather innocent vision in pink. And in that instant I saw a knowing look in his eyes, that he understood he was at the root of the situation but that the entire debacle was out of his hands. Reporters do not intervene. History rights itself. So he entered a cab that headed north so quickly it seemed hell-bent for Parkland. The carnage disappeared in the choking fumes of the taxi’s exhaust.

The rest of the way home, I wondered if he thought about it. I wondered if he took out his reporter’s pad and jotted the incident down. I wondered if I figured into his notes: “A polite, well-appointed man managed to stay above the fracas. Courage.”


23 Mar

At a pre-performance lecture about the two pieces we would be hearing in twenty minutes, Thomas Adès’ Polaris and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, we were given a demonstration of resolution in Western tonality. The speaker played three chords, knowing we would hear the fourth and final chord clearly in our heads. Except for the woman four rows back who heard it outside her head when, compelled by narcissism or stupidity, she sung it out loud. I turned to see a large-framed woman with jet-black hair in a white gown riddled with thick black graphic lines as though she had shaken the stained glass pieces out of her attire with a voice that could call a ship in during a squall. Next up on the menu, the lecturer went to play a piece of the Mahler Fourth Movement on a DVD player that would not work. As I was against the wall, I traced the electrical chord to my feet and convinced myself I had kicked it out of the socket. This would prove to be an omen.

I settled into my seat in the orchestra. Behind me, a man in a wig, carrying an oversized Louis Vuitton man-purse, crawled over patrons to his seat repeating an admonition the entire journey: “Don’t get up. Do not get up. Do not stand up. Don’t get up.” Having crippled everyone he had screamed at, he crouched into his seat next to his date, a woman so garishly attired I imagined she had been passing the QVC studios when they exploded all over her. She was tanner than his purse. At the conclusion of the thirteen-minute long Adès piece, the man said to anyone who would listen, which was compulsory given his diaphragmatic prowess, “That was horrible. An embarrassment,” then proceeded to the men’s room, I supposed to check the alignment of his rug or in search of a more suitable life-partner.

I remained in the Hall, eagerly anticipating what is arguably the finest symphony ever written, ever heard, the latter a pleasure denied Gustav Mahler who died the year before its premier exactly one hundred years ago.

Alan Gilbert took to the podium again, and the pulses of Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, the achingly beautiful motifs of the First Movement filled Avery Fisher. It is quite an honor to hear the New York Philharmonic play Mahler, as the composer spent his last years at the beginning of the last century conducting this orchestra. And it was one of the orchestra’s more beloved conductors, Leonard Bernstein, who re-introduced the rather forgotten Mahler masterpieces to late 20th-Century audiences. Mahler’s obsession with Death, with loss, with adieus to the glory of Nature run sorrowfully through all his pieces, but he seems to have poured the better part of his grief into his Ninth. Bernstein, who musically suggested we were living in an Age of Anxiety, believed Mahler heralded in the Century of Death, the world wars and atrocities he somehow scored without ever living through them.

To listen to the Ninth Symphony, one can’t help but agree. Lush melodies give way to anguished harmonies, strings yield to ominous timpani, familiar forms become fractured, soothing winds become twisted, and time rushes towards nothing. It is nearly unbearable.

Nearly three-quarters into the relentlessly heartbreaking Fourth Movement, the unabashedly mournful movement, the hopelessness turns quiet and inevitable, the orchestra plays zurückhaltend, or very slowly and held back, with long breaths of silence. Time warps. Clocks stop. Except for the man’s, house left and towards the stage, who, despite every possible warning imaginable, in print, in spoken word, in projected slides, thrust himself into the score when his iPhone’s alarm sounded with the cheery, loopy, obnoxious “Marimba” warning that it was time to take his meds or put the cat out or check the broiler before bed. On and on it went and all eyes, thousands of them, thousands of angry, hopeless, death-stares descended in his direction.

Clearly paralyzed by his predicament, he chose to plead the fifth during the Ninth. “Not my phone. Nope. Not me.” So on it went, interminably as the ire throughout the Hall became measurable as the measures otherwise quietly ticked by. It was terrifying.

Finally, and mercifully, Alan Gilbert, in one of the most heroically composed gestures in the cavalcade of centuries of gaffes in the performing arts, stopped the orchestra. He laid his left hand upon the wooden support behind him on the podium, and turned to the offender. He stared for long graceful forgiving moments. And still the Marimba played. In a voice barely audible save for the acoustics of a symphony hall, Gilbert said to him sternly but flatly, “Acknowledge it is your phone and turn it off.”

In the age of anxiety, the man in the audience stuck to his guns and froze in his seat. The zippy little tune echoed throughout Avery Fisher Hall leaving me to wonder if one of the crackpot composers at Apple realizes he had his New York Philharmonic debut this evening. “Please, just turn it off before we continue,” pleaded the Maestro. Nothing.

There is a fine line between civilization and anarchy, and here, in the very heart of one of the world’s nexuses of civility, people began dancing all over the line. It is of note that these were New Yorkers who, despite having the resources to shell out a fortune for their seats, battled bosses and subways and traffic and shoving and bossy wigged men to get to them. One man stood up in a kind of silent protest of outrage. Further off, a more pragmatic woman stood up and looked poised to pounce in the direction of the noise. From the Upper Circles, where things are real, les miserables in the cheaper seats, a man bellowed, “Kick him out!” Someone more litigious answered, “Thousand dollar fine!” Everyone began talking now, nervous titters, scolding, animated, lost, rudderless, no one heeding Mr. Gilbert’s call to calm that was no longer audible. It seemed as though the world were going to end.

And then, it stopped.

Mr. Gilbert turned to the fractured audience and offered up this bit of reasoned eloquence: “Normally, when there is a disturbance in the Hall, it is best to ignore it to maintain the sense and emotional impact of the entire piece. But when faced with an incident so egregious, it is best to stop and re calibrate. I apologize.” The audience erupted in applause and five rows ahead of us, the woman in the broken stained-glass window dress from the lecture was on her feet, alone among thousands, as I imagine she lives a larger part of her life.

The New York Philharmonic rewound themselves several pages into the score, and plunged superbly, head-long into Death once more. And never has it been more clear to me. So must we all.

High up at Grant’s Tomb.

22 Mar

At Grant’s Tomb: “Union soldiers were given a large quantity of opiates in their mess kits to handle both the stress and pain of war.”

Wills (12-year old from the UK): “What are opiates?

“Opiate-derivatives like heroin, morphine and opiate synthetics like oxycodone are used as powerful analgesics and anesthetics.”

Wills: You’re suspiciously conversant.

Sebben, crudele.

19 Mar

One autumn in my youth, I needed a job and badly. I had squandered my summer doing awful summer stock on a postage-stamp stage and ended up with nothing to pay towards my half of a private high school education. So, I studied during the hour-and-a-half bus ride to and from school each day, then washed dishes, at night, in a restaurant run by a family that collectively had the brain of a large gnat or a very small chicken.

Locals, their previous family business endeavor I believe involved something in the roofing realm. Given the level of dysfunction to which I was privy five nights a week, I’m shocked there weren’t whole blocks and long avenues of exposed living rooms and lovers all over my neighborhood. These people couldn’t pick a single shingle, let alone plan a menu.

The father was kind, but kind of whipped and distant, his eyes glazed over with “how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-running-a-restaurant” cataracts. The sons, and there’s always two in a dictatorship, were Officious and Useless, walking around with empty threatening clipboards all the time and using their lofty position to bang waitresses if the customers didn’t pan out. And then the mother. This mother was a hydra, a harridan, a harpy. So evil was she, were there sufficient materials on Earth, I’d have fashioned a voodoo doll of her and tossed it in a frying pan. Overweight and overbearing, she never shut the fuck up in a voice that could scrape polyps out of your colon. She rode those poor dingbat waitresses’ asses harder than her sons in the locked office and should one of them break a damn dish, she deducted it from their paltry paycheck. There were no tips to speak of. There were ten tables a night on a good one.

The chef was an Italian maniac midget of a man who had some type of laryngeal horror going on through the haze of the three cigarettes he had blazing at any one given time, ashes falling into entrees, making it impossible to understand him so he would hurl knives and pans at the incompetent staff who were bewildered by his incomprehensible rants. Think Jack Klugman if he were Sicilian. His signature dish was a crock of lasagna and he’d prepare them months in advance, freezing them in bulk in the summer like an ambitious squirrel and thawing them out once the winter clouds glowered. They were constantly sent back to the kitchen from customers who complained of frostbitten tongues. We’d all just stare as he’d stick his tarnished, nicotine-stained, fat little sausage finger straight through the dish to the bottom and scream, “She’s-a warm enough-achhhucurraphuch! Take it back echhrrech!” and off it would go untreated and out into the dining room again. I, slipping in my own little corner of putrid foul-smelling funk myself, was revolted.

Somehow he took a shining to me though, I think because it was usually just him and me in the kitchen and I never ratted him out about how much liquor he was guzzling on the job. More likely, it was because whenever he ordered me into the walk-in for some unintelligible request I just ran right in and stood there in the freezer watching my breath and scanning the shelves until my eyes fell on a box of fiddle-head ferns and it dawned on me that was what he so desperately needed but couldn’t communicate.

“You-a chhhhhrumph good-a boy.”

They hired a pianist late that October, another diva of a booze-hound never-was with delusions of grandeur. He had taken to telling tawdry, tasteless jokes as part of his spiel, and it seemed he was specifically employed to scare the customer away. He was, sadly, very talented, but forever drunk, and spoke in a flurry of dialects that I could never quite pinpoint. So I made up his story in my mind as I scraped burnt mozzarella and cigarette butts off of the chef’s station: He was schooled on a small ship, just him and his piano, that sailed up and down the Danube and into the Baltic, never resting in any one port long enough for him to settle on an accent. He was Scandislavian.

He played well at the start of the shift, though, and I would sneak out of the kitchen to hear his arpeggios; he introduced me to Listz. It actually made the horrible nasty nights a little happier. I would alarm myself when I discovered I’d be humming in the midst of what I thought had been my misery.

I was studying opera at the time, and singing one-word roles with a small opera company in New Jersey. One night, as I was collecting dishes in the dining room in my filthy greasy t-shirt and apron, he started playing Caro mio ben. I knew the words and started singing along. He heard me, swung around in his swiveled piano bench so fast the roof buckled, and clasped his hands together in the kind of joyful gesture one makes at having just discovered gin. I made a bee-line for the kitchen where I knew the chef would be coughing up phlegmatic orders for me, but was intercepted by Mother playing defense who could do anything she wanted with me and her other indentured minor-leaguers. I was made to stand there and sing Caro mio ben in front of a handful of confused but polite diners. The smattering of applause was not enough for the pianist’s protégé, so out of his mouth flew a few invectives in any number of languages until he was satisfied with the response. And off I went with a slimy tub of half eaten frozen food. I entered the kitchen to stare down a butcher’s knife and assaulted by something that sounded like, “You-a hrchhrumphh good-a boy achhleppp, but you no sing-a no more, you echhhhph-hechech wash-a my pans.”

But the Mother, that scrimy stingy shrike at the helm, she had other plans for my unpaid talents.

From that night on, every weeknight in the Winter of 1980-81, you could exchange your frozen food for theirs at a shitty restaurant on the Jersey Shore, courtesy of the Roofwrights, eat ashes even, and watch a plastered Victor Borge-belt accompany the grimy bony little dishwasher in an aria by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, or even a little Leoncavallo.

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