Friday, September 30, 2011

The Interview, Part 2

TQ: So you went back home ...

ME: That's right.

TQ: And "home" is ... ?

ME: Crowley, a rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana, near Lafayette. If I don't say "Lafayette," no one has any idea where it might be.

TQ: Did Crowley have a theatre scene?

ME: [Laughing] A "rice-farming town in Southwest Louisiana?" No. Not then. Not ever in my consciousness - although I do seem to remember hearing something sometime about a Little Theatre group existing there when I was a small child, but that wouldn't have meant anything to me then. I was too young. I didn't have a concept of theatre. All I did back then was play. That was all I wanted to do. I was a kid.

TQ: So what happened?

ME: Television. I must have been about five or six when my dad came home with our first television set. This would have been in the early 1950's when television and television sets were still new and uncommon; when they were pieces of furniture; substantial pieces of furniture; pieces of furniture that required a room to themselves with all the other furniture in the room arranged in such a way as to face them head-on. Proscenium family rooms. And out of that box came Howdy Doody, Mighty Mouse, I Love Lucy, and Playhouse 90. If my poor folks had only realized the power that box would have over me, they'd have burned it in the backyard; but I was the third of three sons, and by the time I came along, my parents figured the best way to raise a kid, a boy, was to let him go and figure it all out for himself. I might break a bone or two, but that was to be expected.

TQ: Television was your "Rosebud."

ME: "Rosebud." I like that. Yeah, television played a big part in my development, but so did Sunday Masses at St Michael's down on Avenue F and East 5th Street. While television may have grounded me in formalized traditions of performance and presentation ... Look at it this way. Consider the programs I just mentioned: What did they have to offer? Mighty Mouse introduced little children all across America to musical theatre as it was when it began to morph from operetta into the "musical play." I Love Lucy gave you farce and vaudeville. Playhouse 90 was an introduction to "kitchen-sink" drama. Howdy Doody could be positively Brechtian. They were secret passageways that led me into astonishing lands I'd never heard of.

TQ: And those Sunday Masses?

ME: Shakespeare and the Greeks. I'm beginning to sound punchy, and this is all getting silly. What I'm trying to say is, those things opened my eyes to something unusual and out of my "ordinary." I was in the right place at the right time and in the right frame of mind to be seduced. I was starting school. I was learning to read. I was learning to look up things I didn't understand. My turning point was when I stumbled onto an old movie called Svengali. This was an early John Barrymore talkie, a florid melodrama (I don't know if I could even watch it today) that swept me out of myself and left me hanging in the air. I decided I needed to know something - more, anything - about this Barrymore man, so on my next trip to the public library, I looked him up. Surprisingly, my little library had books about him, and I started to read them. They led me to other books about his brother Lionel and his sister Ethel. These books led to others in turn that caused the road to widen. By the time I was nine, I could have told you who Sarah Bernhardt was; by ten, Eleonora Duse; eleven, Irving and Terry and the Booths. I don't know why, but the history enchanted me. It led me deeper and deeper into the woods. And I've never found my way out since. I was an odd child in Crowley.

TQ: It seems to me then that it would be even odder to decide to be a priest.

ME: Not at all. I'd become an altar boy when the time was right, so I was on a stage by then, the only stage in Crowley that I knew of, the sanctuary at St. Michael's. Why shouldn't I audition for the lead when I figured I was ready for it? And it would be no ordinary black cassock for me. I would become a Franciscan. (How that ever got into my head is another story altogether. One, in fact, that involved another movie that was even more piss-poor than Svengali was. I must have been highly susceptible to trash.) I loved the Franciscan ideal; but I really dug the Franciscan habit, brown and wasted by a rope cincture tied with the three knots signifying poverty, chastity, and obedience. And the cowl. I'm still partial to hoodies. God bless Irving Berlin and his "costumes ... scenery ... makeup ... props." I entered the seminary for all the wrong reasons, certainly, that can't be denied; but it was there I came to comprehend my theatre dreams, what they meant, and what they'd need from me. I'd misunderstood the language of my vocation. It wasn't at the altar that I wanted to stand and kneel, it was rather at center stage, declaiming different texts than the words of the Mass. I left the seminary in my third year of high school, went back home (I'm always going home), and decided to major in theatre in college.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Interview, Part 1

The Questioner: You often tell a story about your time in summer stock some years back ...

ME: [Interrupting, laughing] Oh, many years back. Many, many years. All the stories I tell now happened "Once upon a time."

TQ: Be that as it may, you claim the director of that program told some of your co-actors you would never amount to anything because you weren't enough of a bastard to succeed.

ME: Well, there are some who would disagree with him today, but, yes, that's what he said back then.

TQ: What did he mean by that?

ME: He meant I wasn't ruthless, didn't have murder in my heart toward other actors I shared the stage with. In fact, I believe I was quite competitive - oh, I know I was, I  still am. But I'm competitive in the way a player is competitive within the company of his own team mates. You try to do better than you think you can because you believe it will draw out a better performance from your cohorts. He didn't see that. He was French. From France. With a self-proclaimed pedigree I never quite believed.

TQ: Yet you played lead roles in your summer stock years.

ME: But I was a replacement each time. I wasn't originally cast in some of those roles. I was hired as a utility player, a supporting actor. In fact, I was hired out of the blue, sight unseen. The director was looking to fill out his roster and came across an application I had made to a graduate school - I guess he knew people - and he telephoned me at my home and made me an offer I chose not to refuse. Anyway, that's all I was supposed to be; and, in fact, in the first production we did that first year, My Three Angels, he cast me as the naval officer who appears at the end of the play, has a couple of lines, then falls asleep. Curtain. The audience loved the character (his ultimate appearance is set up early in the play), and I loved that the audience loved me in the role. I could have played that part for years.

TQ: But that wasn't in the cards.

ME: No, of course not. We were doing repertory. There were other plays to get ready.

TQ: And you went out there a chorus boy and came back a star ...

ME: That only happens in the movies, the old movies, except for maybe Shirley MacLaine and Sutton Foster. Anyway, the director had scheduled a production of Cyrano de Bergerac. After a few rehearsals, he decided he didn't like the actor he had cast as Christian. I don't know why. I seem to remember thinking at the time that the guy looked too mature for the part, too worldly-wise. Next thing I know, I'm learning the role.

TQ: And then there was The Threepenny Opera.

ME: You say that like it was something special. There again, I was a last-minute replacement, very last-minute. It turns out the actor the director had originally cast in the role of MacHeath couldn't sing the part. He didn't have the range. So the music director gathered all the males together and had us sing. He was the one who went to the director and told him I was the one suitable for the part. The trouble was we were supposed to open in a few days. They sent me away to a private hotel room with nothing but a toothbrush and the script. I managed to learn the lines, and we finished the season. I don't remember the next year much at all. That was when I found out what he had said about me, and I figured, the hell with him, he can't even cast. Let's get this over with and go back home.

TQ: But you didn't go back home, did you? You took your earnings and went to New York.

GM: I was never frugal.

TQ: And what did you find there?

GM: Theatre, museums, dance, all of it world class. Times Square before it got cleaned up. This was 1971, '72. I remember one night, a guy came up to me right there on the street and offered to sell me a television set, real cheap. He was carrying this television set - and this was back in the days when television sets had heft and breadth - and he was going to part with it real cheap. I apologized and explained I had no place to put it. I got hustled by hookers. That made me feel oddly cosmopolitan and attractive.

TQ: But what about the theatre you found there?

GM: You don't call that theatre? Okay, let me try to remember. I was there for two weeks, and I went to the theatre nearly every afternoon or evening. I saw performances by Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg (I even met her; she was wonderful), Alec McCowen, Julie Harris and Rex Harrison, Anthony Hopkins in Equus. I can't remember everything I saw. I saw The Wiz! Our summer-stock director used to sit us down and proselytize to us. I remember him once telling us, "Kids, you must never put the color green on the stage. Green is the one color you must never allow on the stage. It is evil. It will kill whatever production it is used in." But there I was in New York, watching the original cast performing in The Wiz. And everything up there was g-r-e-e-n. I've loved the color green ever since.

TQ: But you didn't stay.

GM: No. I wonder why. It was all too big for me back then. It still is; that hasn't changed. As young as I was, I 'd already begun to lose the overriding selfishness that is such an important part of youth, that willingness to abandon friends and family - even conscience - to achieve a goal. That should have clued me in to the fact that I wasn't destined to remain an actor. (Don't quote me on that; it'll get my eyes scratched out.) I knew I had to find a way to make it all fit together without throwing away what I already had. And another thing. I could see, even then, that the theatre in New York was already first and foremost a business, a machine without a soul (don't quote me on that either; it's pretentious). There was no place in it for "the moment," for that old barnstorming "flash of lightning," for epiphanies. It was like watching a movie, only with real bodies up there instead of pictures being projected onto a screen. Nothing was left to chance. There was no room in it for whatever might have happened that day or that night on the way to the theatre, or for anyone's momentary mood or crisis to insinuate itself into the proceedings and color it in any way. It wasn't for me. I didn't know what was for me, but I knew that wasn't it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Confessions of an Anhedoniac

According to certain television sitcoms and Jennifer Anniston movies at the multiplex, I am given to understand there are people in the world who derive great pleasure in dimming the light fixtures in their bathrooms and burning a chapel's worth of candles as they lower themselves into over-sized bathtubs filled with oil-treated water and mountains of glistening bubble bath. As their bodies' pores open to the wet heat like rosebuds in the dewy dawn of a summer's morning, they lean back and sip bottomless glasses of wine while generic jazz insinuates itself into the room.

For me, a bath is a squat, a scrub, and a swab; and a quick shower's better.

I have also heard of people who like nothing better than to experience the rush of chemicals flooding their brains as they settle down to expensive meals of rare delicacies, savoring each precious morsel for its flavors, juices, and seasonings. Wine - no, wines go well with this scenario, too.

I'm okay with whatever Mrs. Kim from across the street has decided to cook for today's lunch special.

I don't believe this next thing for a minute, but my friends tell me that it's true, that people exist who can create in life romantic, sensual fantasies never conceived by any of history's great imaginists.

I'm pretty well satisfied with a quick ... well, never mind.

I don't do pleasure.

I have nothing against those of you who do. It's just not a part of my makeup. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for your pity or concern. It's not like I miss it, pleasure. You can't miss something you've never had or ever longed for. I don't believe I'm sad or miserable in this life I have.

I am detached.

But I have my moments, things I do enjoy, like looking and listening; although I don't believe my looking or my listening are necessarily like yours. When I am looking at or listening to something, really looking or listening, I disappear. The only thing there is is the thing that I am looking at or listening to, and that is all there is until it's done with me and goes away and sets me back in the room or on the park bench where I was to begin with.

I wonder. What would you call that?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On Dealing with Life's Losses

They're wonderful when you first meet them, enchanting - seductive even. They fill the hollow spaces in you, so you take them in. You nurture them, encourage them, enable them to prosper.

It's obvious they're your BFFs until that dark day when you come to see that what they're really doing is they're weighing you down, holding you back, slowing your journey, smothering you. You realize with a wrench in your gut that you must let them go. You'll have to cut them out of your life with the pragmatic efficiency of a slaughterhouse butcher, chopping, slicing, and tossing the superfluous away until what remains is the essence of the entree.

There are tears to be shed, so you shed them. There is mourning to be done, so you mourn; but you have mourned before and will again. You take the steps you've taken in times past, avoiding those places where you're likely to run into them, refusing to discuss your grieving process with those people who only wish to gloat and gorge on gossip. You do your best to maintain a sense of decorum and struggle to abstain from laying blame. What good is that?

You go your lonely way, lessening your load, discarding this, abjuring that, until the day a new you can emerge into the light.

Fourteen pounds and counting, y'all!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hire a Hooker

The crime thing down here is getting out of hand. Again. Apparently, all one has to do is walk down any of our city's streets to insure the loss of life or limb or property.

Bobby caught the news late yesterday afternoon and insisted on a "talk" about my safety during my occasional excursions out of the home.

"You have to be careful," he said. "They're jumping people everywhere. There's nowhere safe. I guess you're going out tonight?"

I hadn't planned on doing that, but since he was "opening the door," so to speak, I decided it might be nice to get out for a little bit. I wasn't unduly worried. I would be stepping out in the daylight hours and returning home before it became truly dark.

Yet he had a point, and it was driven home to me when I read a report just this morning about Monday's holdup of the Frenchmen Grocery and Deli in the Faurbourg Marigny. This followed hot on the heels of an earlier holdup at the Candy Bar on Bourbon Street.

The news gave my heart a little shudder. I go to the Frenchmen Grocery. That's where I buy my Community Coffee. I can't always find the Dark Roast or the In-Between Roast any closer to home, and those are the two I like. Hell, if I think about it early enough in the month when my pension check has just hit the bank, I might go coffee-wild and buy a pound of each. I like to mix them up every now and then.

So this robbery hit me where it hurt, or, at least, in a spot that would hold a slight bruise. I could have been there when it all went down.

It got me to thinking, wondering what we, as business people and citizens, can do to protect ourselves in these difficult times. What can we do to assure a police presence in these crime-ridden areas of New Orleans?

Then it came to me.

Hire a hooker!

Now, before you go all freaky on me and start screaming that you don't want to plant such a person at your cash register, hear me out. My suggestion is this: pay a lady of the night to work outside your establishment during your hours of operation. Prop her up outside your door and encourage her to peddle her wares like a hungry whore - pardon my French.

That simple move alone will bring down the full oversight of the NOPD upon your establishment, which, in turn, will deter those people with guns or knives from entering your shop.

At least, consider it. For your own peace of mind.

As for me, I'm taking my own advice to heart. A lovely neighbor of mine here on Decatur Street, Miss Tia Ta'nisha Tenille, has kindly consented to escort me any and everywhere I care to go for the duration of this reign of terror; and all she wants from me in return is a bottomless cup of that Dark Roast she knows I keep in my pantry.

Well, anyway, that's our story.

You're free to come up with your own.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Take Nothing for Granted

Tonight, while playing stat whore once again,  I discovered someone out of the ordinary had found me here, someone from Andover, Hampshire in the UK.

Now, of course, I don't mean me, the portly, unimportant man I have become while living in New Orleans. I mean Bigezbear. And they found this place by Googling, "schwegmann's supermarket on st. claude."

This strikes me as a most amazing thing. Someone far away, in the middle of the North Atlantic, knows of our old grocery-store chain and took a hankering to recollect the old store that had once stood on the corner of Elysian Fields and St. Claude Avenues.

Before Katrina came six years ago, the son of old John Schwegmann sold the stores. They all took on new names, Robert's Supermarkets, each and every one of them. The transfer of ownership, though, did not change much. They were still the stores of choice for the natives here, your mommas and your aunties, your neighbors.

Dear voyager, it's gone, that grimy monolith on St. Claude - reduced to a carcass by Katrina herself. The others, too, are gone, either wiped away by wind and water or by a resulting economy that had little cash at hand to restore and reopen them.

That's all of little matter to the new population, intent as it is on re-coloring our town inside the lines of the blueprint sketched by the new architects of the new creative class. After the waters receded, these new folks flooded the city, bearing with them the will and the funding to create a new space where the well-to-do can live comfortably in the trappings which once belonged to the poor.

If it is to be, so be it.

It seems to me, however, we need to remember that nothing in our lives, our world, is insignificant, that everything we encounter - in whatever way we encounter it - has meaning and metaphor.

Respect is due those ghosts who remain and still pass up and down the vacant aisles in that old carcass of a building on the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields. Respect and recollection.

Take nothing for granted, else we all will be sooner or later.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sloppy Weather

Waking up hours before dawn and visiting the Internet for a while, you become vaguely conscious of strange noises outside: the occasional pop, the creak of hanging plant baskets being swung from side to side, the groaning of the balcony floorboards, and the soft crooning of the wind as it crescendos through its melody.

Tropical Storm Lee is padding ashore and into New Orleans like an over-sized, incontinent puppy.

He left his mark early in the living room downstairs.

When I'd finally decided to make my way down there, I quickly glimpsed the sheen of a pond puddling near the front door. Our right-hand shutter had been flung open during the night, and the rain, propelled by the wind, had seeped under the door and settled inside.

I grabbed our feeble sponge mop from out back and pushed as much of the water as I could back outside. I ran upstairs for a towel to lay against the threshold. Within half-an-hour, more were needed. There are now four of them carpeting the entryway.

It has only just begun, and I stand guard.

Update, 2:55 PM:

I remained vigilant throughout the morning and kept watch for the return of the slashing sheets of rain, but Lee held back.

I tempted his ire by sneaking the four towels out to the laundry room and running them through the clothes dryer. Twice. When they were done, I lay one across the door sill and waited for the next wave, and then ...

Dear reader, I fell asleep.

I've only just now re-awakened. The towel is still dry, the sun still shining.

Tonight's gonna be a bitch.
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