Monday, September 10, 2018

From the Big Top to the Big Apple

From the Big Top to the Big Apple  

Some dates just stick in the mind. It’s rare for me, but I do remember a few. September 5, 1969 is one. The day I moved to New York. Only five years before I'd left the foot hills of Appalachia for college and an imagined life in academia. That's not how it turned out. It would be disingenuous to claim to be some kind of hillbilly or southern bumpkin. I never was. What I was, was so smart and sophisticated that I knocked up the first girl I ever slept with, flunked out of college, got married and started working whatever jobs I could bullshit my way into in show business at nineteen. From a little distance now at twenty-two, I might have been able to see that reading too much science fiction and Playboy in adolescence inclines one to have an inflated sense of one’s own intelligence and capabilities, in spite of ever-growing experiential evidence to the contrary. I was nowhere near that yet. There was far more that I could recklessly, fecklessly, impulsively fuck up ahead.

I had just spent the winter in Buffalo, NY (who does that?) stage managing a children's theater company. I was mostly driving through blinding snow in a VW bus with a bunch of actors in furry animal costumes going to parochial schools.  On our spring break, a few of the company had gone to New York to find summer work. I snagged a job stage managing a summer stock tour of “Mame” staring Elaine Stritch in three theaters on the coast of Massachusetts.. We would rotate every 2 weeks between Hyannis, Cohasset and Beverly, Mass. At twenty-two, I had no idea how ill-equipped I was to do this, but then neither did the fine folks who hired me. Ignorance was my sword, over-confidence my shield.

My first brief marriage crumbled to bits over that bleak Buffalo winter as it was destined to do. My Wife, Judy, decided to try her luck in New York and I had this tour.  I drove our 3 year old daughter down to my mother in North Carolina for the summer, which they both enjoyed immensely, thank God.  Then I turned around and headed up to the Cape for rehearsals in Hyannis. I was truly “on the road” and totally free for the first time in my life. Summer stock is just about the most potentially hedonistic experience that could ever happen to anyone, straight or gay, other that Rock and Roll, especially in the ‘60s.  The gay male population was at least equal to the straight and the high school and college co-ed apprentice girls and boys were adventurous, courageous, and glistening with beauty and youth. It was 1969! Men would walk on the moon, there would be Woodstock. There would be sex, drugs and rock and roll! It was glorious. It was what I love most about show business. There, the truth is out. Show business is so gay that even a skinny, red-haired imposter's chances are much improved with the ladies. Just a fact. Of course it's all better for gay people too, so, it's a pretty happy place to be in the romance department, sans fidelity, of course.

Stage Manager is a legit, hard job with real responsibilities. I fell into it completely by accident at the behest of a producer I was working for as a lighting designer. He needed one quickly to meet Equity rules and I was already there on salary. To say that I was not quite there yet in the maturity and experience department, would be, well, a huge understatement, but I had the basics down. I knew how to write stage blocking and had a few shows under my belt including the cute animals in Buffalo. In Hyannis, I quickly learned that if our star was chugging whiskey from a twelve-ounce water glass in the quick-change booths between scenes it was “none of my fucking business!”  OK, got it. Welcome to the big time. Elaine was famous and became even more famous for being just about the toughest broad in show business. Actually, in my opinion, she was the toughest broad in the history of the human race. She ground me to dust, but I was having too much fun to care.  I watched from a bar in Hyannis as Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon two days after Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge a few miles away from were I was sitting.  I learned to sail in Gloucester, I hob-nobbed with famous stars and was in beautiful Yankee resorts and I had at least one girlfriend in each theater. I was moving to New York in the fall and show business was my business. Anything was possible. I may even have improved a bit as a stage manager.

The Cape Code Melody Tent in Hyannis and the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset are real circus tents. Chipmunks live under the seats and seagulls fly in and out unexpectedly. The North Shore Music Theater is a hardtop; looks like a tent but it ain’t. There was a big-bellied Paul Bunyan kinda guy, named Chappy who took care of the two tents and he kinda looked like one himself. They were really cool and he was the guru of big tents. I learned about the big tops from Chappy. I loved the way they worked, the poles, ropes, canvas. The canvas was attached to a big iron ring around each of the two tent poles and was raised and tied off like a sail, then chained into place for the season. The pizza slice canvas sections were zipped together with giant zippers. 

When my tour ended, the producer in Cohasset asked me to stay on and stage manage and design lights for the last few productions there. On the last day of the season, for the sheer thrill of it, I was the nimble young fool who climbed up on top of the huge tent, unclipped the safety chains on the tent rings and rode it down to the ground like a giant balloon. I was a roustabout, a pirate, and life was good.  My summer in the circus was over.

I left for New York City the next day in my crummy Opal Kadet, with my adorable Cohasset apprentice girlfriend. She wanted to visit her brother in the city for a few days before she went back to college so she was down for the road trip.  I really thought we’d keep in touch and I’d see her again, but I lost my little black address book as I shifted from couch to couch in New York and I never did. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Go figure.

Right at the end of the summer, I had helped my friend, Ed get a job at St. John's University in Queens as Technical Director, because, me being a drop-out, I couldn't take it when the Producer in Cohasset, (who was theater professor at St. Johns) offered it to me. Ed had been my roommate in a cinderblock duplex in Chapel Hill my last year at UNC. He was older and had a master's degree and a few teaching jobs behind him. He'd just spent the summer at the prestigious summer theater in Williamstown, MA and was just the devil they needed. He and his wife, Nancy, the folk singer, drove to Cohasset, spent the night on a cot in my big closet and we all left for New York the next morning. They quickly found an apartment in Jamaica, Queens, home to St. Johns.

Meanwhile, over the summer, Judy, my dancer/costumer wife, had moved to the city, found a sublet, and a waitressing job and was being responsible. I spent the first night (after some begging) with her in the sublet. I remember straightening a picture on the wall. Cockroaches ran out from behind it in every direction. It was time for her to move anyway. I had arrived.  Judy's sublet ran out and we both crashed with Ed and Nancy in their new apartment. The first night we all slept sideways on a mattress on the floor. No one enjoyed that. 

Clearly this was not going to work for long.  Judy moved to a hotel overlooking Washington Square, same one in the Joan Baez song, if you know it. I stayed with her there a bit, but my welcome was wearing thin real quick, me being the bad guy and all.  I had to find something else quick.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A song is a river

A song is a river born of mist and rain 
and carried by the same 
to clouds, then down again as rain, 
to streams, to rivers, then again 
to mist and rain, then again, 
a little different each time it began
until the song is new again and again.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Thoughts on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and many another tortured, brilliant soul

What I think: AT LEAST, he had the opportunity, talent, determination, taste and self discipline to create an amazing body of brilliant work in his chosen field before sinking into the darkness. For that alone, he was lucky and so are we all. We have the work he left behind and will for a long, long, time. For that, I am grateful. How long should a life be? Of what should it consist? Does legacy trump longevity? I am 67. What have I done? My mother is 97. What has she done? My father died a drunk at 64 after combat in three wars and I'll never know what else.  What would a drug addict be addicted to without drugs, an alcoholic without alcohol, a suicide without death? There is a dark clock in the soul of some that ticks faster than real time and winds down sooner, much sooner that others. Some manage to struggle against all odds and leave a monument of creation behind, but most leave only dust. Thank you, Philip, for doing so much with the time you could manage to get through before giving in.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Snow, snow, there is no air only huge fat flakes of snow in the beams of the headlights as we pull into the small Bavarian town, windshield wipers laden and slow on the thick, quiet, darkening streets. We are lost. Truly strangers in a strange land in our '53 blue Ford that had been shipped over for us by the Army for our tour of duty. Now what? My dad in his vague German has us directed to the only place in town that can put us up for the night, my brother, my mother, my dad and me. We are ushered into the warm, wood paneled dining hall of a German Catholic girl's school to become objects of great curiosity at the long table of silent girls and nuns who study us in polite amazement. Later we are led up a winding stair to a high garret room with no heat but foot thick feather beds to which all future beds will forever be compared and found lacking.

Snow, sun, bright light so cold you can break it. Colorado Springs, winter of 1956. The hill in front of the school is so fine for sledding and learning to ski, then later we're being pulled in a long line of sleds tied together behind a station wagon with my dad sitting on the tailgate and holding the rope.  Not the sort of thing a parent would do today, but a rare fine memory to have on a sunny, snowy cold day decades beyond that one winter in the wild west.

Snow, a record snow, out of school for weeks it seemed, new kid in town, Rutherfordton, NC 1960. There is fine, fine, sledding on the golf course and a bonfire at night. A good place to make new friends in this new town. Mrs. Carson, who lives by the golf course, will later fail me in algebra and trigonometry but for now, makes us all hot chocolate and is kinder than she will ever seem to me thereafter in her disappointment with my meager efforts in higher mathematics. "But what is it for", I would ask, over and over. It would have helped me to know, really it would. "Just learn it" she said, but I didn't until I was writing algorithms as a computer programmer in my 40s. Oh, the irony!. I finally found out what algebra was for. And the sledding on the golf course was the finest I remember.

Snow, horizontal snow, ropes tied between the parking meters to hang on to. I in my woefully inadequate navy surplus pea coat and really wrong shoes. A southern boy in no way prepared for winter in Buffalo in 1968 or anything else with a baby, a wife and this unforeseen, unplanned life. Hunkering down in this land of winter, smoking pot, watching the Chicago Democratic convention, the election, the war and the Smothers Brothers on TV. I wore a Santa Suit for Sandy that Judy rented.  It was a long, long winter at the end of a short season before another short new season and moving on from everything there to a different where.

After waiting at the bar for two hours for Linda to get off on New Year's Eve 1970 we finally walk out into a silent Sheridan Square into the sparkling new year's new snow about 2 or 3 AM. It was a magically beautiful night - the city at it's best, a new year, a new life, the snow swirling in halos around the street lights. There were virtually no footprints or tire tracks. Miraculously, a lone yellow cab crawls up 7th Avenue and for a king's ransom takes us off the meter from the West Village to the East Village. We were two souls warmed for only this one winter beginning on a fine, lovely, crystalline, new year's night. I had survived NYC now for 15 months, at first, homelessly couch surfing. I  even once stayed in a crummy hotel overlooking Washington Square, same hotel later mentioned in a Joan Baez song. Of course, she was there with Bob Dylan, not me. Nope, not me. I even stowing away in the light booth at the Equity Library Theater theater when I did a couple of shows there. I'd say goodnight to the cast and crew then sneak back in and curl up on the floor of the booth for the night. Finally, exactly one year before this night, on New Year's day, 1970, I'd moved into my little studio on 2nd street between Avenues B & C.  Then this one year later, Linda for the winter, warm, so warm.

The coldest winter of my life was Miami in 1974. Crazy, right? Who'd have thought? But it was the coldest winter in years. There were heaters roaring in the orange groves. I never thought to rent a house with heat. There were 4 of us and I was the smart one who selected the florida room for my bedroom. Well, turns out a Florida room has one or more walls of just screen wire.  So, so dumb, but then Sara showed up to be led astray and kept me warm there and was kind and loving and fine in every way and in the end, got not much for her troubles, I'm ashamed to say.  I had left the beautiful, delicate mad woman, Jeanne, whom I loved but couldn't care for to tarry in the coldest winter of the subtropics and found Sara, who deserved much better than me on the rebound. The guilt would trip me up in the end, only to leave me alone again for a while. I was not to be trusted in those days, (or for many days to come).  "Take warning, all ye fair and tender ladies, be careful how you court your men."  That was me the song warned against.  "They're like the stars on a summer's morning. They first appear, and then they're gone." I thought better of me than that, but had no cause to. Love always seemed so real. For awhile.

The whole Shenandoah valley all covered in snow is a sight to see. We drove in tandem, Reade and I in our two cars from Harrisonburg down I-81 to I-77 and Charlotte. I'd been dumped by Gayle. She needed a believer and I was certainly no believer in much of anything.  It's been good for a while though, driving around with her girls seeing all the lights at Christmas on the snowy houses, thinking guiltily about my own daughter away on the west coast. Gayle's ex, my dear friend, George, lived across the street with his next future ex-wife. We spent Thanksgiving together and watched the Redskins games. It was lovely and warm, really. Of course it never would have lasted with Gayle, but it kept us warm for most of that winter and because of Gayle I met Susi.

The Hollywood Christmas Parade seemed a violation, those palms against the sky all hung with twinkling lights. The snow was up in the Sierras, where we skied in shirtsleeves and hiked and climbed.  The winters were summers and the summer was hell below 6,000 feet. We stepped around suncups over rushing green streams on our way to Treasure lakes for the Fourth of July. Snow and stars and the milky way and lasting friendship and the mountains. Real mountains, not those eastern bumps. Camping on top of 17 feet of show and cross-country skiing in the San Jacinto Wilderness above Palm Springs. California has snow and everything, especially stars.

Many winters later now in upstate New York, my unexpected home, there and back again.  I'm alone this particular winter. Penny is doing a season of plays in Florida, the kids haven't been born yet. I'm working at Circle Rep in the city. The first snow is the best, soft, pure, clean and welcoming. Driving to the country house through a blinding blizzard, I'm the only car behind a plow that just happens to turn off the Taconic Parkway at my road. I park in a soft drift and slog my way up Snydertown Road to my little dead-end dirt road with a penlight in the dark, the crystalline trees arching about the road in a twinkling tunnel of snow. I actually miss my turn and have to backtrack.. I'm walking in over two feet of snow. Finally I make it to the house, pry open the front door and of course the power is out. I make a fire and stoke it good then burrow under the pile of down quilts on the bed. In the morning it's my private wonderland, acres of white fields and forests. I stoke up the fire. The power comes back on. I make coffee. I live in my own snow globe.

Years later, hating the cold, hating the gray piles of snow at the end of the drive, hating the weeks of gray skies and white lawns. Vowing to be gone, but still here. It's spring now, spring, that pale green of the new leaves, forsythia, quince, blue skies, perfect little clouds in a tremulous breeze. Oh, spring, what is winter now but a prelude to glory?  I'll worry about winter later, surely in autumn, I will start to worry some, but Autumn's fine as summer is. Three out of four ain't bad and:

A warm home in winter is a blessing to be counted. Like a loving wife and forgiveness and mending the error of one's ways.