Like We Left and Didn't

When I moved to the east coast from the central time zone, it took awhile for me to accept that 10pm was prime time. The news was on at 10pm in Minnesota: 11pm is so late. You have to stay up until 11:30 to watch Letterman or The Daily Show? I remember my head nodding.

Like We Left and Didn't


in gated chambers they did meet with cardboard stockings upon their feet

When I moved to the east coast from the central time zone, it took awhile for me to accept that 10pm was prime time. The news was on at 10pm in Minnesota: 11pm is so late. You have to stay up until 11:30 to watch Letterman or The Daily Show? This must be what they mean by the city never sleeping, right?

I had a room in the second floor of a house, separate entrance in the back on Stillwell Avenue off Mile Square Road just south of the Cross County Shopping Mall. A twenty-five minute walk along Kimball Avenue to the Sarah Lawrence campus where I would be starting as a graduate student in the writing program. I had two roommates, an undergraduate dance major (I can't remember her name, and this pains me) and a former theater student (Eric) who had graduated in the years previous but stuck around Yonkers because he had friends at the school and liked our landlord Ritchie. Eric had a welcoming smile, and a couple of strange tics. He'd form his left hand into a cup around the left side of his nose, and point into the cup with his right hand's index finger in three jabbing motions when something excited him. I wondered how that translated to the stage but never asked.

It was one of those endearing, strange things that people do. Like the time he decided he wasn't going to say anything for a day and carried around a chalk board. We decided to get some booze and it was raining out, and I drove his little white tempo with red interior and manual transmission: I hadn't turned the wipers on and it was drizzling, and he kept motioning his hands from the left of his bucket seat to the door on the right, swiping back and forth.

"I don't know what you mean!" I said, exasperated. And he said, "Wipers!" It was the only thing he said that day. The woman at the liquor store was amused by his little chalk board. I felt guilty for ruining day. "Why are you doing this?" I asked him later, and he scrawled words onto his chalkboard.

It's an exercise. I'm listening for my voice.

I took a yellow post-it and wrote it down. There were post-its and small papers taped to the campus path lamps with song lyrics and phrases on them. "I'm listening for my voice."  We were quietly pretentious, our exhortations for small and exclusive audiences unknown to us.

He directed things, though, that I knew. He breathlessly told me about one night of a production at Sarah Lawrence he and his friends put on, how I should definitely check out the wild theater those kids were doing if they did anything like he did. His eyes gleamed, his smile an open, inviting smile that made this Old Town's adventures seem a lot more familiar to me. When you direct, he said, you stay in the off wing of your choice. People are coming and going via all stage exits, you can be in the back but I like to see how people are reacting, engaging, living the play. "I pick the off left wing," he said, tapping an imaginary pencil to an imaginary clipboard, ticking a box next to line so precisely I could hear the graphite draw against the paper. "My pencil is lined up with the audience, my line of sight is trained between the actors and the folks out there. Everyone's out there. They know everything." He made the gesture with his his hand cupped, the pointing at his nose. Quiet praise for the actor that is seen.

It was 2003, the fourth season of The West Wing on television, the one where John Goodman comes in at the end because the president's daughter has been kidnapped. He admired the theatricality of the show, the sharpness of the writing. He'd tell me how impressive it was to make Matthew from Friends a compelling actor. I'd never watched Friends.

I went to the campus in the evening to get some books at the library. Outside, on the main path up to Westlands - the large central admissions building, I took the post-it and pressed it against the lamppost. I took some shipping tape out of my bag and wrapped it around quickly, securing it in place. I'm listening for my voice, it said.


the pretense of their awful gardens monuments the mess they've made

I knew what he meant: in undergrad, I once took on the exercise of speaking in cliche for an entire day. I walked along Garfield Ave up the hill to where the dorms were at on the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire campus. I spoke effusively of the exercise to my friends: would people notice my performance?

The idea graduated to Sarah Lawrence, too: I'd go to the Yonkers Diner and just sit in a booth with a blueberry muffin and tea with a tape recorder, surreptitiously recording the patrons. I'd form a play out of it, responding to regular folk in nothing but cliche and this seemed radical: of course they had stories, I insisted. I was in the off right wing of the theater, like Eric taught me, pencil facing the audience, eating my muffin, and they were all my actors living their lives in the play area of the stage. Like we left and didn't.

Both of these recollections make me wince a little: my online LiveJournal(tm?) repeating phrases learned from Barry Lopez and David Brower by way of John McPhee: I've Made a Lot of Mistakes. Learning to See (#1). Inches of Material Grief. Enthusiastic in my whole-hearted embrace of a decaying world and a ten-foot ice-cold observer's astray aloofness dripping with empathy... I'm not here but I am learning to see everything. I was listening for my voice, and I didn't have any fear, which is quite an alchemical composition, I can tell you: you cannot really hear yourself when you can't see yourself, right? You're always here, you can't leave and listen to the aftermath.

When someone asked me what my favorite book was on our first day of orientation at Sarah Lawrence, I actually said Discipline & Punish. My reasoning was solid: I'd convinced myself the Midwest was a prison, and I was escaping it. The knowledge of the hero's journey belongs in any convict's utility belt. And if I was escaping prison, I must have been convicted of something (postscript: it was a superiority complex).

"It takes a certain amount of fearlessness," Eric said to me. "Being pretentious." I had tried to speak in cliches again in response to his quiet day. We were watching Tears of the Sun, which we had rented on DVD along with Collateral Damage. I had brought back The Wages of Fear from the campus library and he wanted something to balance it out. We were trying to decide which to watch first, and I'd snarked we could kill two birds with one stone and watch two at once. All for one, and one for all!

The take-aways: Why'd he drive off the road at the end (have no fear of protection, you can't afford it)? Did Arnold Schwarzenegger (as old as the hills) take acting lessons? Bruce Willis movies are getting samesy (all is fair in love and war).


if you could save me from the ranks of the freaks who say they could never love anyone

"John Spencer's death is going to change everything: I'm pretty sure they were going to make him president," Eric said to me on the phone. "Or Vinick, maybe. It's gotten good again, I know you aren't watching it. There aren't any more episodes about meteors coming for Earth, you know, that John Wells crap."

When I told him I was moving out of Yonkers to Astoria, Queens, he was happy for me. "It's great to be in the city," he told me. He had a job at an Applebees that's since been razed in favor of a parking lot next to the Macy's at Cross County I drive by with my partner on our trips to Stew Leonards and upstate.

I had overheard him talking to a potential roommate at the Yonkers place: "Yeah my current roommate, the guy that's moving out, plays music while he's writing: Stereolab, and I like to play The Smiths, of course you can play music."

He continued: "I was a theater major, he's in the writing program. We like to play games with language, like sometimes I won't talk all day and one time he tried to speak in cliches all day. It didn't work, for either of us. But we also just chill out, stretch our legs, watch The Sopranos and The West Wing. We're both observational: we watch from the wings."

Our relationship after school mostly centered around media and movies (when we were going to go see Once Upon a Time in Mexico he totaled his car crashing into one of those green steel pillars that hold up the N/W train in Astoria). Later, he moved to Inwood and we'd meet at the Angelika or Film Forum instead of Kaufmann.

He left New York in 2005 or 2006, moving to Hong Kong to teach English by way of theater games and forms. We kept in touch – he'd would reach out and tell me what he was watching, and ask for computer advice and issues with his MP3 player.

When he came back he settled in "The Left Wing" of the country teaching theater-- California.  According to the Peters Projection and more prominently Eric, California was the left wing he'd view his life from now. I imagined him on the other end of the email telling me this, cupping his nose at his cleverness and the callback to his theater and The West Wing – the pitter-patter motion as he pointed to that pocket of air he poked with his arched finger. The kudos, the appreciation to the players in silence.

a man of mystery formed by and no longer inchoate said: it's the voice j'ai trouvé ma voix (he knows everything now that he's gone)

A word to the wise, a man afraid of his own shadow is a loose Cannon, a chip off the old block. But if you need a badge of honor and your back's against the wall, you might want to keep your ear to the ground and not fan the flames. You're on thin ice with one foot in the grave, and opportunity won't knock twice. Don't be a fair-weather friend, these are the facts of life: keep your chin up and your fingers crossed, my friend; and, promise nothing but truth and only that you you should have no fear, you can't afford the protection.

What Goes around Comes around.  We left; I'll listen for you.