Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brunch: Giving You The Best That I Got

Brunch is controversial.

If you ever worked it, you will never enjoy it. Inadequately cleaned venues (quick turnaround from Saturday night) and exhausted low-man-on-the-totem-pole servers. Too bright light. Variations on Eggs Benedict, which is already perfect, but better at 2:00 a.m. than noon.

In the summer of 1988 I was 25, had been in New York for four years, found no path. I was about to go to Columbia, to film school. Which should have made me happy. Instead, I was a crazy runner. I'd run from my apartment on 10th Street down to the World Trade Center, touch it and run back. It was super-hot that year, breaking all kinds of records, and there were syringes washing up onto the shore at Jones Beach.

I got a job as a bartender at Cafe Luxembourg, one of the few indisputably cool places in town. I didn't know how to make a drink; I bought a book. You're not allowed to dislike me for this, but I was hired because I was good looking. I didn't have a resume. Cafe Lux was a thing back in the 80s, and all of the celebrities came there. Also, the restaurant ingeniously made every customer sit at the bar before being seated, even with a reservation, so I made mad money. Except for the fact that I lobbied to leave early every night.

In this 90s (temperature) in the 80s (decade), I'd get up every day and write, then go running at noon (the perfectly imprudent hour), then shower and take the hot subway up to West 72nd Street. I'd get myself together in the tiny bathroom, put an Oxford on, tie my tie, and go to work. The cast of Thirtysomething would come in, the night would progress... I figured out that I didn't like to talk to customers, so ran the service bar. Problem with the service bar is that you have to make cappuccinos. Fuck me.

There were three other bartenders. Rod, Phillipino-American, totally on top of it. Mike, handome-ish fellow from some damn suburb of some damn state... not so educated. And Mercedes, one of the most beautiful women I've ever encountered, gorgeous brown skin and gorgeous red hair. She hung with Lauren Hutton. Mean as hell, but liked me.

Anyway, since I was low man on the totem pole I had to handle brunch.

I'm 25, I'm going out, I don't particularly care about this bartending job that I'm quite bad at.... But I showed up every Sunday at ten and restocked the bar for service. Cafe Lux had a small footprint, so the wine cellar was next door, in the basement of a residential apartment house building, to which I had keys. Rod and Mike would leave me notes about what needed to be restocked and I'd go over there, no one awake, and fill up boxes.

There was a clock radio tuned to KISS or BLS. The big song of that summer, after Off On Your Own Girl, was Giving You The Best That I Got. I was tired, man. I'd done something fun the night before, and it was so hot outside. But this song kind of moved me. I was looking forward to Columbia, a good-looking guy in a tie, but I had a dim view of my prospects. Love, certainly, had played a very small role in my life.

Patience was the manager on Sundays, and she rode me. Patience was an objectively good-looking girl from London with a textbook accent and a great short Afro. And, it doesn't need to be added, zero patience. She didn't like my swoopy bangs ("Don't you get spots?), didn't care for my lack of knowledge of French wines, didn't appreciate my cappuccino skills. One time I didn't have a clean white shirt so wore a clean blue shirt -- anyone who knows me knows that I have very nice shirts -- and she tried to get me fired.

Everyone else, more or less, was fine. At about 1:00 on Sunday afternoon, the friends I'd been with the night before would roll in and I'd sneak them free drinks, tricky with that damn Patience and her eagle eye. I had a fraught relationship with one of the crowd, a guy named Mark who was also headed to grad school at Columbia in the fall, and would often make plans to meet him come four. James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, just down the street, came in every Sunday with some young boy, drinking Kir Royales with Chambord. Many, many Chambord Kir Royales.

Towards the end of the shift, the gay waiters would ask me if I wanted to go with them to the Upper West Side bars. But I was always going to meet Mark, or friends, or... Well, I had a crush on a waitress with two names. Not like a hybrid name, but two distinct names. She'd been born Bonnie and then had changed her name to Erin. Now you'd think you might cast a wider net for the purpose, gone with Consuela or Elizabeth or Odile, but I never really got into that with her. She was pale and an eccentric dresser and encouraging of my advances, but never actually did go to that movie with me. Perhaps comprehending the ambivalence of my affections.

It was the longest hottest summer ever, the length in my mind but the heat statistically confirmed. By late August, I'd get to work and find myself tearing up as I tried to tie my tie. Face to face with the mirror in the impeccably clean small bathroom. And I am not a cryer.

Then school started and I was distracted. My life was at Columbia, and I got happier and happier and happier and happier.

The way that I got into Cafe Luxembourg was through a friend named Mark. (A different Mark; 90% of the people I know are named Mark.) Mark was a beautiful All-American fellow with blonde hair and a big white smile, and liked me, and helped me out with the likes of Patience and the gay-guy waiters. He thought I was funny even when I didn't and had a great low laugh.

Mark probably had to deliver all of those Chambord Kir Royales. Levine would have demanded him.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Avenue B

This was the building I lived in on Avenue B for a couple of years in the mid-eighties. It was a two-story loft, and I loved it. My bedroom was a drywall situation, with the walls not reaching the ceiling. So kind of like a bad hostel. It had astroturf carpeting. Apparently privacy and cleanliness were not my priorities back then. Downstairs was one big room with a raised kitchen in the back and a raised bathroom on the other side.

My initial roommates were Michael, who was musical, and Tony, who had once been an understudy in Balm in Gilead. Michael worked for Leonard Bernstein, who used to leave the craziest drunken and LONG speeches on our answering machine. Those were entertaining. Tony worked as a private detective (nobody had normal jobs at the time) but his cases all seemed to be about adultery, staking out cheaters, so he had no good stories. It sounded very boring, this kind of private detection.

Over time, they both moved out, and then I lived with Pete, a lighting designer (nobody had normal jobs at the time), and then a guy from Australia and a lovely girl from Liverpool named Nadia Nightingale. They worked in SoHo boutiques.

Here are my memories of Avenue B:
  • My friend Daniel was institutionalized for manic depression, and when he came out of the loony bin (his term) he slept on the floor of my bedroom for several months. He was taking Lithium, which is apparently not pleasant, and would go off it and swim in the Tompkins Square pool in the middle of the night.
  • The Mets won the World Series and my friend Geoff came over every night to watch and I've rarely been so excited in my life.
  • I used to go to this place called King Tut's Wah Wah Hut with considerable frequency. I started seeing the bartender, and he outed me to my roommates, which I didn't appreciate.
  •  The people downstairs played Secret by OMD all of the time. I loved it. 
  • Tony had a very odd way of making dinner. He always had three courses, and he cooked and ate each one in turn. Broccoli, then eating it. Chicken, then eating it. It drove me crazy.
  • One time -- I have no idea what I was thinking, I wasn't a cook -- I made black eyed peas. And burnt the shit out of them. I just stuck the pan on the fire escape. That did not turn out well.
  • Nadia and the Aussie and I had a Christmas party. We had a decorated tree. It was an insane debauch, a hundred people. Friends of mine from Kenyon and Georgetown. And some guys trashed my room. I actually cried about it. Wine may have played a part.
  • My father convinced me to sign up for the LSAT. But because I signed up late, I could only get a gig in Staten Island. He got out maps and determined a route for me. I was going to take it, but I came home the night before and there was a rogue dance party in the basement, so loud, and I couldn't sleep. So I passed. Otherwise you'd be calling me Esquire right now. (I should remind you that nobody had normal jobs at the time.)
  • I tacked things to the drywall that I liked: Concert flyers, weird-ass magazine ads, Thomas Hardy quotes that I TYPED UP... 
  • My brothers stayed with me and coming home from somewhere after midnight (King Tut's Wah Wah Hut?) Chris stepped on a live rat in the park. It was scary.
  •  My friend Doug stayed with me. Doug was a football player with a very broken nose who was also an a Capella singer. He found a VHS tape of The Sound of Music by the TV and insisted that we watch it all the way through.
My room looked out on the roof of a pretty church. I tanned on the fire escape. The vestibule of the building was always cool and smelled good. Earthy. I can still smell it. I was so focused on the future that I didn't really take it in, but in retrospect it was a lucky place to be.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Not Leather Motorcycle Jacket

This is a story about happiness.

But in order to get there, some background. When I was 18, the summer after my Freshman year of college, I got a terrible case of mono (how I got it is another story). I ended up in the hospital, spent a few days there while Charles and Di got married, and convalesced through the next year. But the thing was that I never fully recovered. I'd have these relapses, which all doctors assured me were just in my mind, when I'd have crazy swollen glands and be fatigued to the point of tears.

Then I'd be fine. But back and forth, a seesaw between health and not-health.

After moving to New York and failing to find a career for several years, I applied to the film school at Columbia University. And got in. My father and my brothers moved to Brussels and I considered going with them, but chose film school instead. The first year was good, I made friends and discovered that I was far more prolific than my classmates. I read great books on the subway and wrote some things that I am still proud of. I learned "film grammar" -- how shots work.

The summer after, I spent a month in Europe with the family and then went down to Washington to write scripts for a lovely nutty woman, catering on the side.

But the second year!

When I got back to New York I crashed with Kenyon boys in Brooklyn. Kevin (modeling) and Dave (doing his thing) were chain smokers, and I was a runner, but all went well. I was probably the most accomplished couch sleeper in America at the time (I'd spent the summer on a couch in Mount Pleasant anyway). I hunted for an apartment through the Village Voice (natch) and ended up subletting a place on 106th Street, Duke Ellington Boulevard, from the boyfriend of a close high school friend (Kismet).

The day I moved into my pristine sixth floor walk-up, Kevin and Dave huffing and puffing up the stairs with my meager possessions (for Chinese food, what great guys), I bought a pack of cigarettes and some beer and sat on the fire escape and listened to this on my boom box. A switch was flicked.

I'd been fine. But suddenly I was the most energetic man in New York. I didn't need sleep. It didn't matter if I drank or smoke or stayed up late; I jumped out of bed with the sun and made good coffee and wrote pages and pages and pages. Then showered and walked up 106th to Amsterdam, bought a croissant at the bakery, passed St. John the Divine, then plunged into epochal days. If class was over at five, I'd buy a beer and smoke some cigarettes on the Low Library steps, then go to the gym for an hour or more. I'd play tennis on the terrible Columbia courts.

There was a "booze cruise" outing on the Hudson to welcome us back, and I spent it with Gretchen H., with whom I'd been mildly friendly the year before. On the boat, she told me that she'd thought I was an entitled preppy asshole (no news to me) but we discovered that we shared all of the same opinions, about film, literature, life, and music. One of those great nights when you make a new friend and then become inseparable.

We were both writers, but also aspiring filmmakers. To Columbia's credit, the projects were shot on video cameras they supplied (cheap and easy), and then you transferred your VHS tape onto larger tape and edited that in video carrels. Gretchen and I shot our projects together, intensely, little laughter, then edited late into the night. We used my friends (Daniel and his boyfriend Dave) and her friends (Brian and Allen) and made some not bad stuff. I remember that I tried to keep dialog out of things because nobody could really act, so all my films were very artsy.

We'd go out afterwards for drinks and cigarettes. Amaretto and soda was something we invented. There was jazz. And so much talking. On the weekends, we'd go downtown to drink at Downtown Beirut, then WALK BACK to Morningside Heights. We are talking more than a hundred New York blocks. There was so much endless energy it makes me almost cry to think about it.

Gretchen was very into Halloween, and we had a mutual friend in SoHo who hosted a big annual party. I went to her teeny-tiny apartment in the nineties (with roof access that doubled the size) and she died my hair black and gave me the famous not leather motorcycle jacket. We had good fake fangs and got on the subway and went to the party as punk vampires. Long before that was a thing.

We made a proper Thanksgiving dinner at my house, for the usual gang and her friend from Colorado and mine from Georgetown. I'm sure it was terrible. I had a very small galley kitchen, but there was copious wine. The night before we'd gone to Central Park West to watch the balloons being inflated, then down to the horseshoe bar in the East Village. Snow flurries, fun.

The rest of the year is a blur. I just remember being certain that I was going to wake up one morning with swollen glands and exhaustion and its attendant depression. And I didn't. I woke up happy. I woke up writing. I woke up with ideas about what I wanted to film that day. I woke up superhuman. I ran past crack houses to get to school and didn't come back until midnight.

What I didn't do, much, was "date." Completely uninteresting. If I wasn't outlining an idea for a screenplay to Gretchen, or shooting her in Central Park, or doing this insane analog editing thing that was so very time-consuming, I would have been bored. (You had to build every shot on the shot before, in linear progression, and backtrack when something went wrong; I can't imagine where my patience came from. Except that Gretchen was in the next carrel.)

I will never have an explanation for that year, but I will always have deep gratitude.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Equally Probable

So hard to come out. I was moved in high school, found some buddies in college, but never really admitted the nature of my love until grad school.

The Return of the Native.

Initially I was captivated, but didn't finish. There were too many books, and I was taking AP exams, man.  But I had this image of Egdon Heath imprinted on my odd brain. Then, at Columbia, I'd take the subway up from the Village (I know this sounds very name-droppy but tant pis, it happened.) and read with such great concentration that I always missed the stop.  Harlem. Pre-gentrification. Eliot, Trollope, and Hardy. And I realized somewhere (on the 2 and the 1) that The Return of the Native was MY book.

When I write my novel, it's doubtful you'll get much about nature. Let alone an opening chapter. But my god the nature in this is glorious. And Hardy is all large personalities and melodrama.

As a gay boy, I like these things.

Look, the language is astonishing. And the battles are epochal. And fate is a goddamned bitch. (And by fate, of course, I mean character.)

At Kenyon, I brought up Eustacia Vye without much hope of return. But all of my smart handsome friends sparked to it. There was a girl on campus, older than us, who fit the bill. We called her Eustacia all Freshman year. Has there ever been a better written female character than Eustacia? Only Emma Bovary, who caused unnecessary surgery.

As far as the men, Clem was a prig and a bit of a noodle, but tragic nonetheless. I always wanted to be Diggory Venn, the reddleman. Who didn't?

But here are some lovely lines about Clem that make it clear who I truly am:

He had been a lad of whom something was expected.
Beyond this all had been chaos.

That he would be successful in an original way,
or that he would go to the dogs in an original way,
seemed equally probable.

The only absolute certainty about him was
that he would not stand still
in the circumstances amid which he was born.