Archive for February, 2013

Homeless Forum

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Photo by Kate Greenstreet

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

Unable to attend the forum on the homeless that was held in Mendocino near the end of January, I did read the three articles in the Mendocino Beacon that reported in some detail and with a certain us-against-them slant on the gathering attended by Sheriff Allman and Supervisor Hamburg and members of the community, including innkeepers, restaurateurs, business people, residents of Mendocino, and even a few homeless people.

The upshot of these three articles as I read them (and I admit to reading things differently than other people read things) is that one: the Mendocino Headlands need to be cleared of blackberry bushes so the homeless will have no place to hide or camp or ambush each other and hapless tourists, two: some people are afraid to walk alone at night in Mendocino for fear of being attacked by homeless people, and three: we need more posters telling people not to give money to homeless people because homeless people just use the money for drugs and then defecate in inappropriate places.

Now why would someone, even a drug-crazed homeless person, defecate in a planter box or in the grass adjacent to the sidewalk or even right on the sidewalk instead of, say, in a toilet in a public restroom? Oh. There are no public restrooms open at night in Mendocino. Could that be the reason the crazed homeless person chose to poop in a planter and thereby deeply offend the discoverer of the homeless poop? For the record, I am a tax-paying resident of Mendocino, a year-round resident, mind you, and I’d like to know why we don’t have a decent public bathroom in our village? Is there one mentioned in the new general plan? No? Why not? And why is the one hideous bathroom we do have now locked at night? To keep the crazed homeless people from taking shelter there, of course.

Speaking of defecating, how about the hundreds of dogs that our upstanding non-homeless residents and out-of-town visitors illegally let off their leashes to shit all over the headlands and Big River Beach? Where do innkeepers and law enforcement stand on the dog shit issue? As one who steps in shit all too frequently in our lovely coastal hamlet, I can tell you that the Mendocino shit I step in is always dog shit, not human feces. And don’t tell me the bad canines belong to homeless people and the good canines belong to the homeowners, because I know that’s not true. I have been much more intimidated by big aggressive dogs owned by people driving cars that would make very nice homes than by the few scruffy trios and quartets of homeless people, mostly guys, who are now resident in and around Mendocino.

And why are these guys homeless? How many of them are mentally ill? How many of them are not welcome at Hospitality House in Fort Bragg? Why don’t we have a homeless shelter in Mendocino? Has anyone noticed the economy, the actual one, not the fantasy one, is falling apart and the number of homeless people in our society is increasing by leaps and bounds? Did we expect the homeless people to all stay in Oakland or Oklahoma or Peoria? If you were homeless, would you rather be in Mendocino or Oakland? Oh, but of course you would never be homeless. Why is that? Luck or skill?

I, too, occasionally feel intimidated by homeless guys, though not because they do anything except look kind of scary to me, and not as often as I am intimidated by aggressive dogs and people driving while talking on their cell phones or butting in front of me at the bakery. And I can see how homeless people are problematic for businesses in Mendocino. Who wants a surly non-conformist vagabond in frayed clothing and a scraggly beard posing in front of his or her tourist trap?

However, not giving homeless people money and mowing the blackberry bushes on the headlands and tearing down the brand new bus stop won’t solve the homeless problem. There will be more and more homeless as our economy continues to collapse and as our schools continue to fail to educate our children and as we continue to spend most of our public money on war and subsidizing oil companies instead of on our communities.

The Beacon articles did not, I hope, intend to make the homeless sound and feel like the enemy, but that’s what bad reporting will do. So we’ve got this problem, these faceless, intimidating, lurking-in-the-blackberry-brambles people without homes daring to come into our community and hang around near people who have homes and so much more. Why can’t the homeless just go somewhere else? Or why don’t they stop being homeless? Would these people like to have jobs? Find decent places to live? These are good questions, none of which was answered at the forum.

So what would I do to address the so-called homeless problem in Mendocino? First, I would make it a number one priority to build a state-of-the-art public restroom and bathhouse and safe napping facility in Mendocino with on-site attendants named Pierre and Celeste, large lockers, a really great community bulletin board, and regular visits from job and housing and mental health counselors dedicated to helping the homeless become unhomeless. Oh, sure, Todd. How will you pay for that? Easy. A tax on coffee drinks.

Second, I would annex Heritage House, and with grants from various liberal foundations, turn the place into a Life Rejuvenation Center housing two hundred formerly homeless people enrolled in rigorous spiritual warrior training and comprehensive classes in solar technology, organic horticulture, gluten-free baking, and animal husbandry. We will unleash a torrent of born again housed people on the world, solarize California, and reverse carbon emissions pronto. Oh, sure, Todd. Easy to say, but you’re talking mighty big grants to pay for that many people enrolled in spiritual warrior training. I know, but we’re just talking here, right?

By the way, the notion that homeless people spend most or all of the money we give them on drugs is nothing but dog shit propaganda. As a year-round resident of Mendocino, I watch homeless guys and girls buying food with their money every day. Yep. Bananas, potato chips, pizza, sushi, beer, carrots, refried beans, coffee, scones, almonds, chocolate. Actual food. Same kind you and I eat. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

Telling people not to give homeless people money is pure self-righteous selfishness and mean and cruel. If we actually had good places where all the homeless could go and relax and eat well and sleep safely, then there might be something to the idea of giving money to such places and urging homeless people to go to those places, but that is not the case, and wishing it were the case doesn’t make it so.

Thus I think we need posters that say, “Hey, you just spent nine bucks on a gluten-free scone and a large latte, how about giving that totally hungry dude over there a few bucks?” Or “So you just spent more than a thousand dollars for a romantic weekend in a luxurious inn, wine tasting and eating gourmet Mendocino cuisine, why not give a homeless person fifty bucks for a night of snooze and a shower in a decent motel?” Posters like that.

Seriously, folks, we’ve got to do better than removing hiding places on the headlands and not giving people money. The homeless in Mendocino illuminate what we’re all missing: decent public facilities, free community meals and socializing, a local solar-electric power company, a gigantic community garden where the homeless and the housed can work together and help each other, a commodious community hostel, and several excellent community camping places.

Oh, sure, Todd, how are you going to pay for that? Well, we probably won’t pay for any of it. We probably won’t do anything except mow the blackberry bushes and make a bunch of useless posters that won’t do anybody any good. And the dogs will continue to shit profusely on the beach and in the town, and the tourists will continue to come here and have their fun because they don’t mind homeless people because homeless people are everywhere now because our society has been taken over by the psychotically selfish. And as long as we delude ourselves that we are superior to homeless people and therefore deserve more and better than they, we are permanently screwed.

By the way, I have often used the cover of the blackberry bushes on the headlands for the purpose of pissing when I’m in town because I cannot stand the stench and slimy slipperiness of that hideous bunker that is the pathetic best this affluent community provides for us. So what will I do in the absence of the blackberries? What would you do?

Muse Rides Again

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Max Greenstreet in Ireland (self-portrait)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” Socrates

From the age of twenty-one until I was fifty, with only a few brief respites, I wrote many novels, most of them never published. The first dozen or so novels I wrote were related to the kind of poetry Socrates is describing when he says, “…who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” I wrote in a state of enchantment without knowing in the least what I had written until I came out of my writing trance, gathered up the pages, and read the words that had spilled from my pen. By the age of thirty-five, I had managed to publish four of those inspired novels, and then for reasons known and unknown to me, I was unable to convince publishers to take any more chances with my books; and shortly thereafter those marvelous states of enchantment ceased entirely to take me over.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

As Van Gogh warned, I then became a slave to my model, which is to say I feverishly tried to think of what would make saleable novels, and I slaved away for years writing dozens of half-baked uninspired works that literally made me sick. Yet I continued to compulsively work at novel writing because I defined myself as a man who writes novels, which self-definition was how I knew, sort of, what I was or thought I was; and I desperately wanted to sell another book because I thought such a sale might save my marriage and cause my friends and family to like me again.

But my marriage collapsed before cosmic largesse might have prolonged the inevitable, and in that state of collapse and emotional free fall, the muse suddenly dropped in on me for the first time in many years and gave me Ruby & Spear, which, despite my not having published anything in a decade, was quickly bought by Bantam and brought me sufficient bread to move from the rubble of my marriage to my next camping spot, Berkeley, where I once again fell prey to trying to think up my next saleable opus, which behavior inspired my muse, the bringer of enchantment, to disappear once more.

So at the age of fifty I had a real humdinger of a breakdown accompanied by a severe depression that brought me face to face with the question: what’s with the compulsive novel writing, buster? And in the throes of my misery, I spotted a book I had been schlepping around for fifteen years but had never opened (the only such book I have ever owned) entitled Severe and Mild Depression by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad, two erudite psychotherapists, their tome full of case studies of depression.

“But I’ve never really been depressed,” I said, as I leafed through the book. “Until now. Well…maybe for those little whiles between writing novels, but that was just post-partum blues. All the great writers talk about their little depressions between novels and plays.”

Then I happened upon Arieti’s case study of a compulsive novel writer, a summing up of that writer’s life that might as well have been my biography, including precise and detailed descriptions of my unhappy and unhealthy relationships with my parents, my failed marriage and failed relationships, and my decades-long compulsive attempt to try to write a successful novel. There was even mention of this writer’s early spontaneous and inspired works giving way to intellectually constructed imitative dribble. And, as was true of me, this man had not previously exhibited any outward signs of being depressed.

I read this case study as if watching a time-lapse movie of my life. I was fascinated and horrified and excited to find out what this guy/me was doing in a book about depression. Well, according to Arieti, this guy/me had been running ahead of a murderous depression for his entire life, and the source of this killing depression was his parents lifelong withholding of love from him while simultaneously denigrating his creative impulses and his desire to be an artist. And in order to cope with this painful lack of love and support and the resultant feelings of worthlessness, this writer came to believe that if he could only write a massively successful novel, he would be lifted out of his hellacious life of failure into a new reality in which he would finally be happy and his parents would love him.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso

So I decided to see what would happen if I stopped writing novels. I had long known that whenever a play or screenplay or short story began to write itself through me, if, in my compulsive way, I tried to force that inspiration into the form of a novel, my state of enchantment would vanish. Which told me it was not writing I needed to quit, but the writing of novels.

And for the first year or so of not writing a novel, I was, indeed, very confused about who I was and why I was alive because I no longer possessed the identity that had been my mask and shield and raison d’etre for the previous thirty years. Eventually I embraced a more complicated and satisfying identity; and one day when I was fifty-four, I found myself writing something without thinking about what words I might write next, but rather seeing the story unfolding and writing down what I was seeing, knowing only that I’d been grabbed by something good and I wanted to read whatever that something turned out to be. So I hung onto the pen for twenty pages, then made a cup of tea and sat down to see what I’d written.

“Uh oh,” I said, speaking to the invisible ones, “this quite obviously wants to be a novel and I don’t write novels anymore. Remember? I’m okay without them now.”

“Oh, but this is a great story, Todd,” said the muse in her gorgeously non-verbal way, “and we’d really like you to write it, but not compulsively. Just as it comes to you.”

Which is what I did. And though that novel Bender’s Lover was never published, it pleased a good many of my friends and ushered in a new era in my life in which I might write anything in any form because I am no longer constrained by thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Here for your enjoyment is how Bender’s Lover begins.

Four months ago—the ides of June—I was in Lorna’s wildflower shop ogling a maroon Sierra Shooting Star while awaiting my haircut, when I fell into conversation with an intoxicating woman who said she was looking for something to cheer her up. This woman, small and lovely and full of purpose, was torn between an Azure Penstemon and a California Harebell, and it was over this Harebell—the brightest blue I’ve ever seen—that we found ourselves marveling at the mood-enhancing qualities of flowers in general, Harebells in particular.

As her initial suspicion of me, based, I believe, on my unruly hair, gave way to a noticeable appreciation of me, based, I think, on my ability to speak in complete sentences, I was on the verge of inviting her to partake of further investigations, when she reared back and asked, “So what do you do?”

I almost replied, “Well, this morning I woke from a wildly erotic dream, masturbated, showered, had two cups of a fabulous black tea, petted my cats, played the piano for the better part of an hour, talked on the phone to a whiny friend for ten minutes and then lied about someone being at the door so I could hang up, gave a piano lesson to Ethel Zawarski, an accomplished atonalist, and then I called my whiny friend back and confessed I’d lied to her about someone being at the door. Why did I feel compelled to confess? Because I hoped to forestall the unseen powers from rioting against me.”

Instead I said, “I’m a piano player.”

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” William Shakespeare

As it happens, I have not written or been writing a novel for several years now, and I had begun to think I would never write another novel, which would have been fine with me. I no longer define myself as a novelist, though writing is still a big part of my life. I think of myself as a person, husband, friend, gardener, cook, self-certified prunologist (pruner of fruit trees, Japanese maples, and the like) writer, musician, artist, and earthling.

But a few weeks ago, I woke to a charming voice in my head telling a story I very much liked the sound of. So I gave myself to the tale, and ere long it became clear the story being told to me was not a short story, nor was it a novella. I am now a hundred pages into whatever this opus turns out to be, and I remind myself on a daily basis that if I never finish writing this tale, life will still be worth living, the earth will continue spinning around the sun, and the countless miracles composing this astonishing reality will go right on composing. And I also remind myself that if I do finish this tale, it will be my great pleasure to read the whole thing and share it with my friends.

Pass the Ball, Kobe

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi

When I lived in Seattle in 1977, I played basketball almost every day in a gym at Seattle University, the alma mater of the great Lakers star Elgin Baylor who took the Seattle Chieftains (now the Redhawks) all the way to the NCAA championship game in 1958 before turning pro that same year. As a resident of Seattle, I was invited to use the gym and swimming pool of that esteemed university for a small annual fee, which made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

I usually played my two hours of basketball in the afternoon, mostly half-court games, but some full court, too, the players coming in all sizes and shapes and ages and colors, some quite good, many mediocre, a few dreadful. It didn’t take me long to get to know the excellent passers and the ball hogs, and whenever I assembled a team to challenge the winners of the game in progress, I picked good passers over great but selfish shooters every time. And when my team of passers played any team led by a ball hog, no matter how good that hog was, we almost always won. The winning formula was simple. Double-team the ball hog, fight hard to garner his misses, make good passes, and make open shots.

I bring this up because much is being written these days about the terrible season the Los Angeles Lakers have had so far, and how Kobe Bryant, one of the supreme ball hogs in the NBA, has actually started passing the ball to his teammates, and lo a miracle has occurred and the Lakers are winning again. What I find amusing about this startling development is that most of the so-called basketball experts continue to blame the coaches and other players on the team for the Lakers lack of success, when Kobe has clearly demonstrated that it was Kobe who was keeping the team from succeeding.

Anyone who has watched the Lakers play this year knows how deadly dull it can be, as it was in that Seattle gym, to watch one guy work so very hard to get a shot off over two or three defenders while his talented teammates stand around stifling their yawns and waiting to see if the ball hog’s shot will go in or not. And because Kobe is a super superstar, no commentator has ever dared shout, “Oh come on, Kobe. Pass the ball to that guy standing unguarded under the basket or to that guy standing alone at the three-point line. What? Are you blind?”

No, he is not blind. He is arrogant and out of touch with reality and told day and night that he is a living god, a brand name, a basketball genius, and superior to any but a few other humans who have ever lived.

What I especially like about this latest development in the storied history of the Lakers—the ball hog finally starting to pass the ball to his teammates—is that millions of people, mostly men, in America and around the world, are witnessing the repeated verification of an important truth about basketball and life, which is that when we share the ball (wealth) and the opportunities to score (thrive), then the team (everyone) wins.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth

Another sharing-versus-hogging basketball drama that unfolded last year was the storybook emergence of Jeremy Lin from the ranks of the unknowns into the bright lights of Madison Square Garden where he took over at point guard and led a moribund Knicks team to seven straight victories, and only got his chance to play because the Knicks’ superstar ball hog Carmelo Anthony and the hogacious Amare Stoudemire and two supposedly better point guards were injured. Lin won those seven games and many more by involving all his teammates in the scoring and by following two of the fundamental rules of good basketball: pass to the open man and don’t pass up an open shot. Now that the ball hogs have recovered from their injuries and resumed control of the Knicks, their new coach is urging his gunners to share the ball and play some defense, and so far they seem to be following those dictates to good effect.

Meanwhile, Lin, a threat to ball hogs everywhere, is now playing for the Houston Rockets and playing second fiddle to James Harden. Lin’s down-to-earth statistics in Houston seem to confirm the opinions of many basketball pundits who were skeptical of the phenomenal success of this untried unknown nobody in New York. “See,” the pundits crow, “Lin’s superstar performance for the Knicks was a cosmic fluke.” But Lin was no fluke. The fluke was that Lin was able to expose the NBA system of building teams around a few superstars for what it is: an inferior brand of basketball and a reflection of what is so deeply wrong with the American pyramidal way: a relatively few people hogging most of the money and resources to the detriment of everybody else, and ultimately to the detriment of themselves.

“Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our careers.” Pat Riley

As it happens, a growing number of NBA teams are abandoning the build-it-around-a-couple-of-superstars strategy for the socialist game of spreading the wealth among all the players on the team, with the so-called bench players (the non-starters) becoming more and more important to teams’ short and long term success.

I vividly remember the last time the Golden State Warriors won an NBA Championship way back in 1975, the year I wrote the first drafts of my novel Inside Moves which celebrates a mythic version of that fabulous squad. Despite the presence of perennial all-star Rick Barry, the 1975 Warriors may have been the most egalitarian team the NBA has ever seen, a team virtually no one expected to make the playoffs, let alone annihilate the mighty Washington Bullets in a four-game sweep of the championship series. But the Warriors of that year were the kind of team that many general managers and coaches are trying to build today—multiple platoons of excellent players taking turns playing great defense and pass-it-around offense for the entire game, with the very best players taking the court for the waning minutes of close games.

Part of the reason for this change in design is that many of the smaller market teams simply cannot compete with the big money teams by imitating the star-centric game plan because they cannot afford to get and keep the premiere superstars in their no-big-television-deal markets, and so to survive in the league they must play a more egalitarian brand of ball. And another reason for this strategic change is that basketball has reached a point, after a hundred years of evolution, where the average NBA players of today, culled from the ranks of tens of thousands of very good American college players and hundreds of international professionals, are among the best basketball players to have ever played the game whether they attain superstar status or not. To relegate players of such enormous talent to standing around while the anointed ones strive to pump up their point totals is both absurd and counter-productive, and the better coaches will have none of that stupid old way.

This year’s Chicago Bulls, for example, deprived of their superstar ball hog Derrick Rose due to injury, are playing fantastic ball by sharing the wealth among ten players and kicking the butts of star-based teams while they await Rose’s return. At the beginning of the year, many pundits doubted the Bulls could make the playoffs without Rose coming back for the second half of the season to save the team, but the Bulls are doing just fine without him. If Rose does come back and can share the rock, so-called, with his comrades, the Bulls could go very far, indeed. But if Rose comes back and tries to play his redundant watch-me-drive-the-lane-and-try-to-score-over-three-defenders brand of ball, the Bulls will fall in the first round of the playoffs.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anaïs Nin

One of my most cherished basketball experiences took place in 1969 in my final year of college at UC Santa Cruz where I was something of a gym rat and played on an eccentric university team that included two professors, one of whom had played on a very good Duke team in the early 1960’s and had a long range bank shot (25-30 feet) that he almost never missed. Why were we allowed to have professors on our team? Because we competed in the local industrial league, not against other colleges, hence our team featured students, professors, and a maintenance man named Tony who was so tall he could dunk the ball standing on his tiptoes.

I was nineteen and loved basketball almost as much as I loved girls. I fancied myself to be one of the better players on campus, which was not saying much, but it was saying something. So one day I was shooting around with my friend Scooter when these two guys we’d never seen before came into our gym and challenged us to a game. I was as tall then as I am now, a shade under five-foot-ten, and Scooter was five-eight on a good day, and he, too, thought he was a pretty good player. The shorter of our two challengers was six-two and had amazingly long arms, while his pal was six-five and built like Hercules. Despite the physical mismatch, and knowing nothing about these strangers, Scooter and I agreed to play them.

“You want to warm up?” I asked, passing the ball to Hercules.

“No need,” he said, sneering sardonically.

“Yeah,” said his long-armed partner, snorting imperiously. “We’re good to go.”

And I thought to myself You arrogant assholes. We are going to kick your snooty asses.

Which is exactly what we did. We passed brilliantly, shot flawlessly, and beat them by plenty the first game and barely beat them the second game. And what made our victories especially delightful was that as we played, it became obvious that these guys were both really good; yet we had magic momentum and the gods were kind to us and we played out of our minds, and somehow we beat them.

Come to find out these guys were newly enrolled freshmen at UCSC, the big guy a high school phenom from South Lake Tahoe where he averaged forty-plus points a game his senior year and turned down a scholarship to Stanford, while his partner had been a star at a big Catholic high school in San Francisco. They both thought (rightly it turned out) that they would soon become kingpins of the UCSC gym, but they weren’t so sure after Scooter and I defeated them.

I played with and against those two guys many times over the next nine months, and every now and then Hercules would say to me, “I still can’t believe you and Scooter beat us. It just…it doesn’t make any sense. We are so much better than you.”

“But we didn’t know that then,” I would reply, smiling at memories of our great triumph. “And by the time we knew, the deed was done, and you had lost, and we had won.”

My Big Trip, Part Three

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

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