Sunday, September 18, 2005

A landmark decision

Overheard lately on the train:

(On a cell phone) “You two belong together. I always, always, thought that. I never told anybody, but I always thought it.”

(On a cell phone) “If you go to Delaware, you are going to get pregnant.”

(Man, to female companion) “I brought my favorite Star Trek episode to show you.” “Tribbles?” “No, no, this is Next Generation. It’s 'The Naked Now.'”

When I’m not eavesdropping on people’s conversations, it’s likely that I’m waiting for my train to arrive. In Baltimore, this is easy: there are really only two platforms – one for the commuter train, and one for Amtrak, a track going in each direction. In Penn Station, you have to be on your toes; they very craftily do not tell you what track your train is boarding at until it’s time to board, causing the crowd to rush for the escalators like a horde of wildebeest.

Last night, Saturday night, I was waiting to catch the last train from New York to Baltimore. The station was not as crowded as on Friday nights, but the last train is always packed. There’s one more train that goes as far as Philadelphia, but for anyone going further, this was it.

A woman was staring at the giant board hanging in the middle of the boarding area. She caught my eye and came over to me. “Can I ask you a stupid question?” she asked. She seemed nice, with smartly short-trimmed grey hair and blue eyes.

What she didn’t know was, I live to be asked stupid questions. Yes, please ask.

“I see the train listed there ... but no track. How do you know where to go?” I immediately launched into Helper Mode, telling her about how the track numbers are posted about five minutes before the train leaves, blah blah blah. I had noticed some people coming up the escalator from track 12 East, so my hunch was we would be boarding on 12 West. We kept chatting – she said she was up from Washington for a conference, something about educating people about historical landmarks. She asked if the MARC train came up to New York – the MARC train is the commuter train that runs between Baltimore and D.C. Sadly, it doesn’t run any farther than that. The trains are nice – doubledecker, plush seats. Much better than the Long Island Rail Road commuter trains. If I ever get appointed High Commissioner of Musical Theater and have to work in D.C., I will enjoy the commute.

She said she would be coming up several more times and was having a hard time finding places to stay for ten days at a time. I gave her some websites that might help her (oh, yes, I was helping ... helping! Delicious, delicious helping) and she dutifully scribbled them down. She asked what I do, and I told her. I asked her what sort of educational program she was working with. Then she told me. Not historical landmarks – she was involved in Landmark Education. “You’re probably too young to remember EST” “Oh, no, I know what that is...” “So this is more or less what EST has turned into.”

She went on. “It’s amazing – in the room there are all kinds of people – regular folks and CEOs. People from all over the world. I've never seen so many different people, I'm from Virginia. And they’re all in different places in their personal transformation.”

I had some friends that did “The Forum” about twelve or fifteen years ago. I’m all for personal development, and have read plenty of New-Age-y books which I have found helpful – which other people might find ludicrous or worthy of mockery. I’ve had many conversations with different friends about esoteric spiritual-development, so I’m no stranger to the whole thing. But suddenly, I got a bit nervous. My friends who had done “The Forum” – frankly, while they were involved with it, they were obnoxious. I mean, good for you, develop your self confidence, go! But do you have to play on other people’s politeness and desire to avoid confrontation?

So, suddenly they announced the track, and I was right – we were boarding on 12 West. A crowd materialized from nowhere and we were separated in the crush. I was a bit relieved. Once at the bottom of the escalator, I headed for the front of the train. Because I’d had to buy my ticket just a half hour before, all that was left was business class, and I was dying to get home to Baltimore that night – I was exhausted from producing a show, I had just gotten over a cold, but mostly I was missing David intensely. I trotted briskly along the track, past the coach cars, past the cafe car, up to business class. There was the usual Amtrak conductor there, helpfully booming out “Business class!” as I entered the car.

I went halfway down the car and found an empty seat. I discovered then that my new acquaintance was right behind me. “Oh, this looks good!” she said, settling into the seat behind me. I was struck by a strange combination of impulses – surely she must have heard the guy announcing that this was business class? So, she must have a business class ticket. If she didn’t, and had to move, she was unlikely to find a good seat once the rest of the train filled up. But it would be rude of me to ask her about it, wouldn’t it ... ? I decided that I had to do my best not to worry about it. I plugged in my laptop, grateful at least that she hadn’t decided we should be seatmates, too. I began reading. (This is when I heard the “This is my favorite Star Trek episode” comment noted above.)

The conductor came along, moving from the rear of the car to the front. He came to my new acquaintance’s seat.

“This is business class. You don’t have a business class ticket.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Yes. Coach cars are behind the cafe car.”

“Oh. I was following my travel buddy. I guess he misled me.”

“Coach cars are that way.”

“Can’t I stay here?”

“Not unless you want to pay extra.”

“Oh.” Pause. “I was just following my travel buddy.”

He then took my ticket. I could feel her gaze burning through the seat as she very, very, slowly began gathering her things. She spoke to me.

“Well, I guess I have to move.”

“Sorry about that, I, uh ... “

“Do you think I really have to move? Will he come back and make me move?”

“Well, yes, unfortunately he probably will.”


She had that weird expression and tone of voice that my Forum-going friends had once upon a time – like I was somehow responsible and should do something. She was pleasant on the surface, but she was beginning to freak me out.

I muttered something else about how business class was all that was left when I got my ticket and I didn’t know she was following me and uh and uh .... all that I could do was apologize. I felt badly but now all I wanted was for her to get the hell out of there. I mean, "my travel buddy misled me?"

I went back to the laptop. She finally had her things together, and stood next to my seat for a long, long time, looking at me. Then, she began to move down the aisle.

A few minutes later, the guy in the seat across from me got up and leaned over me. “What were you apologizing to that lady for?” I hesitated, trying to figure out how to explain it all briefly. I said that she asked me a question in the waiting area, and that she just followed me up here and I assumed she must have had a business class ticket, but she didn't. He nodded, “Okay.”

I looked down the car to see if she was gone. “You know what, this sounds terrible, but I’m glad. She was a little freaky.”

He nodded again. “Yeah. She was.”

Oh yeah. She was.

Monday, September 05, 2005


I got to see my friend Matt the other day; we’ve been friends literally since the day he got to New York, something like fifteen years ago. I used to hang out at a piano bar called Brandy’s, because I lived around the corner. (It’s still there and going strong, and I once again live around the corner.) The tiny space with its exposed brick wall and pressed tin ceiling was everything that an Arizona boy would think a Manhattan hole in the wall should be. I met my friend Natalie Douglas there (she still sings there, and you should all buy her CDs, because she’s amazing.) I even once got up to the open mike and sang. There are many stories there ... but that’s for another time.

Matt somehow wandered in just after he had moved to New York from Los Angeles. He probably got up and sang something; he’s got an amazing voice – bright and smooth and never forced. We became friends.

He had been working on Murphy Brown when he lived in Los Angeles; he still has a snapshot of himself with Candice Bergen on the fridge. If you listen closely, you can hear his distinctive laugh on some Murphy Brown episodes.

Back when I met Matt, his roommate had a big apartment up on Central Park West in the 100s – he used to throw elaborate holiday dinners and sometimes teas. I got to meet some very interesting people here – including the woman who had been on All My Children playing Helga (if you watched the show in the early 90s, you know who she is.) I met her just before she plummeted to her death (on the show.) She had been in show business for years – she had been a replacement in the original productions of Cabaret and Oliver! She had some stories.

Anyway, back to Matt. I was putting together a demo recording of a show I’d written before I went to NYU. This show will never see the light of day – thankfully – but it was a learning experience. I had done some studio recording, but this was the first time I had been in a New York recording studio. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to try and record 22 songs in one gigantic 11-hour session.


For those of you who are wondering, that is a very bad and stupid thing to do. Yes, yes, they record Broadway shows in marathon sessions like this, but only because they have to pay the performers a week’s salary for every day of recording. Everyone on this recording was doing it for free. They were as insane as I was. Natalie was in on this, and so was my friend Michael at the piano. Friends had flown in to sing – it was crazy. One guy – a friend of my collaborator’s, not a friend of mine – had not actually bothered to learn his part. Halfway through the day, we fired him. If you can be fired from a volunteer job, that is ... I stepped in – luckily his part was one I knew. I sang with Matt, and we blended amazingly.

At one point, we were hours behind, but magically we caught up as everyone turned into one-take wonders. We finished within a minute of the deadline. It was a miracle.

Not long after that, I convinced Matt to step into the corporate job I was leaving in order to go to Montana and do summer stock. This was International BrandCorp, and I’m sure he found it just as strange and yet welcoming as I did.

For a while we drifted apart, but in recent years have caught up with one another again. Matt had long since moved out of the Central Park West apartment with the roommate, and was busy building his own tradition of a Christmas eve dinner party. I think I went to this party five years in a row, maybe six. Maybe four. Matt has a collection of Christmas albums that numbers into the hundreds. Every year he puts together a CD of bizarre Christmas songs that include things like Walter Brennan intoning a strange, sad monologue about being alone and abandoned by his family at the holidays.

Matt was also directly responsible for a song of mine turning up in Carnegie Hall last Christmas – he is a mover and shaker in the Gay Men’s Chorus, and he took a liking to a song that was in a Christmas-themed show I’d written. Matt sang on the demo for the show, and was convinced that the finale would work as a number for the chorus. He kept pushing the idea forward over months and months, which was amazing.

He’s a great cabaret performer himself – his shows turn up on a regular basis, always witty, always musically interesting. I’m not actually a huge cabaret fan, but I do love Matt’s shows.

What’s this post about? Nothing much other than to recognize how rare it is when you are able to remain friends with someone for such a long time in a city like New York. Matt makes things happen for so many people – at his Christmas party, he is the one giving gifts to everyone else. He’s given a gift to me – I hope he knows.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Corndogs and tuna surprise

The other night, while I was up in New York dealing with the start of school, and missing David, and trying not to go crazy from reading about the criminal incompetence of our government, I had a thought: what I need is some comfort food.

I went to the Food Emporium, and along with the fresh fruit and soy milk, I got the stuff to make one of my college-age treats: boxed macaroni and cheese made with yogurt instead of milk and butter, with tuna mixed in. I used to eat this by the potful in college, and ate it many times in my last apartment – the one with the stove in the corner, the refrigerator in the living room, and no counter. It’s even better spooned up with crinkle potato chips.

I’m a comfort food kind of guy: I used to live for mashed potatoes (until I figured out their high glycemic index rating was the reason I passed out after indulging in a bowl of spuds.) I still love meatloaf, fried chicken, roast turkey, stuffing ... all the basic stick-to-your-ribs food. Mac and cheese is high on the list. When I wasn’t eating breakfast at midnight in diners, I was having one-pot dinners in my apartment at two a.m. This was all before David came along, and I had someone to cook for.

I boiled up the macaroni – I had gotten Kraft, because the generic stuff just doesn’t do it. I mixed in the nuclear orange cheese powder. Added the plain yogurt (makes it taste like sharp cheddar, and has less fat) and then the tuna. I was anticipating the taste of this comfort treat that I hadn’t had in, oh, a few years at least. I had made macaroni and cheese once or twice when autumn rolled around, but a real version made with four cheeses, baked twice with crumbs on top. This was going to be the cheap-and-easy comfort treat that I had been missing for years.

I took a bowlful and got a DVD of “A Wrinkle In Time” booted up on the TV. Comfort bliss, here I come.

I couldn’t eat it. It was disgusting. I’d made it correctly ... it just was ... inedible. And I used to practically live on this stuff. What happened?

Damn you, healthy eating! You’ve changed my tastebuds!

I set about rectifying this situation immediately by dragging David to the Maryland State Fair the minute I got back to Baltimore. I had fond memories of state and county fairs back in Arizona. Unfortunately for David, the Maryland fair was found lacking by comparison. “This is only as big as the county fair was, back in Arizona. The state fair was four times this size! There were cows, and sheep, and goats, and pigs, and bunnies!” David, who was suffering from low blood sugar because he wisely did not want to eat any deep fried crap on a stick, just nodded and said he was glad I was having a good time. All he wanted was some kettle corn. None was to be had.

“And they had whole buildings full of stuff! And bunnies!”

We visited our friend Kelly’s non-ribbon-winning pie in the Home Arts building. I wanted to steal a ribbon from another pie and award it to her, but I did not.

I indulged my crap-tooth by having a jumbo corndog (this had to be fourteen inches long), fried dough, chicken nuggets, and frozen cheesecake on a stick. David managed to choke down an extruded nugget or two, and had a small ice cream cone as well to keep from fainting.

Mac-and-cheese-with-tuna may be lost to me now as a comfort food, but corndogs don’t disappoint. My stomach hurts now – only partially from my rage at the sociopaths in our government who spend all their time thinking up lame excuses and ways to blame others when their negligence is laid bare for all to see.

Partly it’s my rage at them, and partly, it’s the corndog.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The 18-wheeler in the rear-view mirror

I feel as if I will go mad.

I was glued to the reports online about Katrina’s approach, and went to bed Sunday night distraught, worrying about what would happen when it hit. Then, Monday, we all thought New Orleans had narrowly escaped disaster. Now, of course, we see what the real disaster is: the vast incompetence of our government. The callous, cruel indifference. The unspeakable evil. The stupidity. I don’t have enough synonyms for “incompetent,” so I’ll repeat it: FUCKING incompetent.

I have tried not to become obsessed with this, and go about the tasks of my daily life. School has begun. There are student proposals to read. I have writing and composing and producing to do. But still I read, and I try not to go mad.

Today I met with an ex-student of mine, a woman from South Africa. We exchanged news: her children’s book is being published in South Africa. Her other projects are going well. But walking down the street, the conversation turned to New Orleans, and I thought I would scream out loud in public. How in God’s name will we survive if, God forbid, there is another disaster, or an attack on a major city? Who are these numbnuts who have been placed in charge? Every day I am shocked and surprised and disheartened by the latest atrocity committed by the government, yet I know I shouldn’t be. They stole their way into power, and have spent every waking moment looting and pillaging our country (when they aren’t shopping for shoes or eating birthday cake while on vacation.)

The latest thing I’ve read was an account written by a worker at the aquarium in New Orleans. They tried to keep their generator running as long as possible, but finally it failed. They had no choice but to leave, after days of no food and no sleep. The penguins live in 56 degree water, and they knew they would be dead soon. When the man left, the sharks were attacking other fish in their tank. He witnessed four murders from the roof of the aquarium building as looters attacked one another and police looked on, powerless.

It’s probably stupid to cry over the loss of penguins when there are bodies lying on sidewalks and floating in gutters. But just the efforts of this man and his co-workers to save animals, working around the clock for three days, was heartbreaking. They tried to hold on as long as they could, working for what they believe in. And no one came to help.

The boy who was not permitted to take his dog, who he saved from the flood, when he boarded the bus for the Astrodome – that was another story that struck me in the heart. Again, a small, perhaps insignificant tragedy when compared to the death of people trapped in their attics – but after he had done so much, and saved his friend, to be parted for no good reason – it’s maddening and infuriating and makes me feel absolutely powerless.

I’ve never even really been to New Orleans, except passing through while driving to Florida. We took one trip when I was around nine – I think in 1975. My mother packed us all into our huge white Thunderbird with the license plate “JACKAL” (my father’s Air Force nickname.) We drove from Arizona along I-10, headed for my grandparents’ house in Florida. CB radios were big then, and my mother communicated with the truckers using the handle “Lady Jackal.” They looked out for us. We drove endlessly through Texas (“the sun has riz/the sun has set/and we ain’t out of Texas yet.”) We stopped in Fort Stockton for the worst bowl of tinny chicken soup I have ever eaten. We stopped in New Orleans, where the humid air felt like tomato soup in my lungs.

We were driving over a huge bridge – I imagine the bridge over the Mississippi, although I don’t know the name of it – and the car stalled. My mother managed to get it started again, and on we went. Many years later, my mother told me that when the car stalled, she could see an 18-wheeler barreling up behind us. If she didn’t get the car started again, we would be crushed when the truck hit us, because there was nowhere else for the truck to go. She said she stayed calm because she didn’t want to frighten us – but she knew this was life or death. And the car started.

The people in New Orleans saw disaster looming behind them in their rear-view mirrors. Some were able to outrun it. So many were not. The crash happened; a city has been destroyed. And the vile idiots who are sucking our country dry and killing our soldiers stand by and claim that “no one could have predicted” what happened.

I will go mad.

I must not go mad.

What’s in the rear-view mirror now?