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.

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