Dispatches from NYC: Bad Change
January 19, 2019, New York City
It’s January in New York and there has been no snow. There is hardly snow anymore—hasn’t been for years now. When I first moved here, the snow started in December and there was snowpack until March. Walls of the stuff along Queens Boulevard; icy slush puddles of it at every Midtown intersection; banks of it along sidewalks on every side street. Arctic temperatures through it all. Now, in 2019, it rarely dips into the 20s let alone teens, and snow is limited to one storm that melts the next day. In the past few years we might have one or two nights in the single digits; no single-digit days, though. I like battling the winter elements and I miss this, since I moved to New York City to get away from the mildness of Virginia, in both weather elements and, by extension, intellectual life. Climate change of every kind.
Last night, another fairly mild winter night, being around 40 degrees, I walked down 7th Avenue after work with a friend whom I’ll call Betts. We walked under masses of scaffolding, nearly every other block; we passed loads of 20-somethings on their phones, sidestepped trash, passed somber slow people, and all the while Betts discoursed on his latest obsession, famed acting teacher Stella Adler. Betts has, in essence, created a Stella Adler character to tell these theater stories, including a way of enunciating and inflecting every word to become this woman, a New York Jew who made herself into an almost British grand dame, an invented woman who made a living teaching other actors to make truth in their art. “And do you know WHY you failed?” Betts says at one point, as Stella. “NO ONE would use his OWN HANDKERCHIEF to wipe a counter!”
As Betts spoke about truth in art, about his sorrow that Stella, the creator of Brando, had not been his acting teacher, I told him that just the other week I’d had the first serious discussion about art I’d had in years. I’d just read a piece by critic-at-large Louis Menand in The New Yorker, the title of which I couldn’t recall (but it’s called “Faking It: Literary hoaxes and the ethics of authorship”), in which Menand explores the current hot-button issue in art, which amounts to a directive, not only for writers of nonfiction but also of fiction and drama: No one may write about something that he or she has not actually lived or experienced. The. End.
I told Betts that a playwright friend whom I’ll call Parker (Lola Parker Jones, who dropped the “Lola” when she figured out years ago that theaters are more likely to read your script and decide to produce it when they think you are a man; she says this remains true for her today: when they contact “him” and find out it’s a “her,” she can hear, following their initial enthusiasm, a hesitation, Hashtag Me Too) had a play recently produced at an esteemed NYC arts space, only to find that actors kept quitting over her reference to Islam in part of her fantastical play. She could just as easily have invented a religion, say Panoply, or something, but there wasn’t anything she said about misogyny inherent in Islam that was particularly controversial—no more so than discussing misogyny in Christianity should be controversial, and she herself was raised Catholic. The problem for the (nearly all non-Middle Eastern/nontraditional) cast was that they themselves were not Islamic, and therefore in those scenes felt they had no business pretending to be Islamic—this would amount to sacrilege for Muslims, they said, and just plain offensive to an audience. One by one, they quit, were replaced by others who quit, but finally Parker had a cast—though quite frankly, when I saw it, no one beyond the Arab actress in the lead seemed totally committed. It was a miserable experience for Parker. “When did this happen?” she asked me, and our friend Jessica, when we went to dinner after the final performance. “When did it become wrong to write from your imagination?” At this point I had not read the Menand piece, but as soon as I had, I sent it to Parker.
On the walk to the snowless Village, I recounted this to Betts; as we paused in the dusk of a noisy 14th Street I said, “Can you imagine Stella Adler trying to teach actors today?” Betts sighed, glancing over at the collection of knit hat-covered heads bent over phone screens. Betts told me about Miss Adler’s work with Marlon Brando. When preparing for A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando decided on a certain pair of work boots to find Stanley Kowalski’s character—a working class Polish-American alpha male from New Orleans who had exactly zero in common with the sensitive, almost effeminate Native American Midwesterner Brando—and when Stella asked, “And how will you use these boots, Marlon?” Brando, feeling the boots and weight of the work Stanley did in those boots, slumped, and began walking with what would become the famous Stanley Kowalski slouch. A legend was born. And it got me thinking: As per this new fascism, er, fashion, in art in America today, Brando would be out. And presumably in 2019 Lin-Manuel Miranda would have to shelve Hamilton, as he himself was not a founding father or an Englishman, and, obvs (as the kids say), the “rap” angle would have to go. (But I don’t think the art world or the literary world cares much about musicals, and I suspect it’s because musicals are always and ever works of an imaginative mind. No one watches Anchors Aweigh! or Meet Me in St. Louis and asks, “But did that REALLY happen?” At my office, a few days before this walk and soon after reading the Menand piece, a group of fellow editors and I began chatting and then debating this very subject. I asked Mort, who is Jewish, “So should non-Jews play Jews?” Mort smiled his wry smile and said, “If they didn’t, you’d never be able to produce Fiddler on the Roof in Wisconsin.”)
It seems to me we live in deeply warped and troubling times: on the one hand, we seem to be demanding facts from our artists while expecting lies and hyperbole from our politicians; on the other hand, no one is supposed to be imaginative. And we have no public intellectuals to rally around. When I feel starved for intelligent and challenging discourse out loud, I Google “James Baldwin” and watch all the videos I can find—there was and is no one like him. Oh, what he would have done with Trump. Oh!
Greenwich Village, as Betts and I strolled in around 5 PM, was all but deserted, only a half dozen people at most wandering along any stretch of block. “Remember when this place used to be mobbed on Friday night?” Betts said, astonished at the bleakness. He pointed to one of Bloomberg’s friend’s luxury condo buildings, the one that replaced St. Vincent’s Charity Hospital, where AIDS patients sought treatment, and where many died, and where poet Dylan Thomas died after drinking a dozen whiskeys at The White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street. Listen to the silence: Other than Monster and the Duplex, there are no real clubs anymore; little to no live music (and what there is will cost $50 in cover and drinks, for an hour-fifteen, and time to go because there’s another set, here’s your coat), no hot spots, no dives (Cafe Riviera is closed now; every block has an empty space for (unaffordable) rent). All the art in New York, for that matter, feels “precious,” carefully curated, expensive, and timed-entry. Does anyone really care about new art? Even Parker’s play was only controversial among the newly arrived white young actors from hinterland college theater programs; the critics didn’t even come.
A certain laziness of mind, of spirit, I’ve said a thousand times, can be traced to Reagan, to the 1980s, where everyone began exercising to death, and added phones/screens to their lives, and where is the wild joy in that? We are so bored. We are so boring.
Bad Metaphor, with Pit Bull
Back around 1988 or so, I was teaching in a rural school district and a friend since high school came down to hold my hand while I tried to finish grading exams and finish averaging all the grades for the first semester of my life as a high school English teacher. On a visit to my crummy little apartment above a beauty shop in a downtown—and I use that term “downtown” denotatively only, this being a little Southern town—my old high school friend, whom I’ll call Keith (painter and founder of a college band called Bad Ego), brought me a sculpture—and I use that term denotatively only—he’d made. He was very excited to give it to me.
It was the laziness of it that struck me, even more than the ugliness: a 18″ x 48″ quarter ply board on a 2″ x 4″ frame, which he’d found at a construction site where he’d worked for about a month, half spray-painted blue, onto which he’d glued a Xerox of a pit bull from an encyclopedia page where he’d looked up something else. He drilled a couple of holes and shoved through some leftover copper pipe he picked up out of a dumpster on a job. I’m all for repurposing, but he held the pipe in place with brown plastic packing tape; the pipe fell a lot. Keith was wildly proud of this “art.” He was pumped to give it to me. I could only laugh. I hurt his feelings. Below is my collage interpretation of it, understanding that I sound like a judgmental dick:
I left Keith’s “sculpture” behind when I moved away, a few years later, it being the last item, for which I literally had no room after four trips up and back in my pick-up truck to my new home; and Keith was devastated. Seriously never forgave me. And quite frankly, though I found his “sculpture” revolting, I still remember it all too vividly despite my rejection of it. Like trying to deny truth. The piece, as I see it now, was a metaphor for our friendship: it was something we never worked on, something we were lazy about, and which was often ugly. Similarly, he threw ugly things at me in terms of my intellect—I was not properly in thrall to his Marxism, I was a fool to think democratic government could ever matter, for example—and I sent the ugliness back at him in a letter that I knew would mean a permanent rift, us being too lazy to talk about it like adults, years later.
This is laziness built on boredom, on not listening, not engaging, not looking up and out and inward. Whatevs. Maybe Stella Adler could have coached us out of it.
Greenwich Village in New York City is apparently dead, for chrissakes. So what hope is there? New York City in 2019: Dinner at Elephant and Castle and strolling the aisles of Bigelow’s Pharmacy as the high points? Stella Adler would be bored stiff. Brando would never have come here. I don’t know how to energize this place anymore, or myself in it. It’s my latest challenge.
Where is art? What is truth? They’re as rare as snow in winter in New York City. Who’d have thought?