To try and catch up from yesterday, I’m sitting on the floor against an out-of-the-way pillar in the conference hotel, writing this over a tiny, cold, and weirdly tasteless portabella mushroom sandwich that cost $7.50. Anywhere else, this sandwich would have come from a vending machine and cost $1.25, but this is New York. When I called Isaac, my director friend, last night to arrange our evening plans, he asked if I had any place in mind. I said, “You tell me — you live here. I’m just looking for a beer cheaper than eight dollars.” He said, “Oh, then you might be out of luck. This is New York, man.” (Isaac, a born-again New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn and works in midtown Manhattan, spends a lot of his time in between, hanging out in The Village. He took me to his favorite bar, the Four Faced Liar, where he found me beer for only four dollars. What a great friend!)
Among the events of yesterday — the conference panels I attended, including some ideas for teaching creative writing to children and teenagers and a discussion of the difficult transition from writing short stories to writing a novel — three stand out.
The first, and most absurd, of the three was the fire alarm.
It happened during a reading for my current favorite literary magazine, One Story, a brilliant little publication that takes the unusual approach of publishing and distributing only one story at a time, which you can then collect into “box sets” — they even sell a box to put them in. It’s a tiresome, hectic, and largely selfless endeavor — they’re actually a non-profit now — that I appreciate more for its ambition than for its novelty. The editors also have remarkable taste in short fiction (which may be why they keep politely rejecting me); the fiction they’ve published has gone on to appear in every major anthology and prize series available to short fiction, and the magazine has gotten mention in New York magazine and in O, Oprah’s magazine. Also, I love Hannah Tinti, one of the cofounders, who is always polite and chatty at these conferences and who does an amazing job representing the magazine and nurturing their writers.
Anyway, aside from its purpose of commemorating One Story‘s 100th issue, the set-up of the panel was a typical reading, in which various writers who’ve appeared in the magazine stood to read their fiction aloud. (For my students: this is exactly what I’ll be doing at my Pop Culture conference in March.) The authors were terrific, a little funny without being goofy or loosing the seriousness of their work, and clearly practiced in performance reading (though one reader was awfully quiet at first). The second reader, Nicole Kelby, was particularly hilarious, giving a bombastic and rich delivery of her story about two hapless middle-agers, both unattractive, both married to different spouses, about to fumble their way through their first experiment with adultery. And then, as though ignited by the sexual friction of those two characters rubbing desperately on each other, a blaring fire alarm erupted throughout the hotel. Everyone turned momentarily in our seats, but — lovers of fiction that we all were — no one got up and, perturbed but undaunted, the author just read louder.
After a few moments of brilliant fiction out-voicing the grating whine of the alarm, the tone and pitch changed to a low grit like the wrong-answer buzz from a game show cranked up to maximum volume. Nicole Kelby paused, we all chuckled nervously, and then Kelby shouted at the alarm on the back wall, “Shut up! We’re trying to talk about sex in here!” When several people impulsively grabbed their bags and headed for the door (some claimed they were only going to check the situation, though I admit, even I stood up, just in case we all needed to run), the author shouted again: “Come back! We have sex!” Now everyone looked torn, anxious about the situation out in the hotel but also caught up in the inferno of sex and now enjoying the jokes Kelby was making on the fire’s behalf.
Then an announcer came over a loud speaker (loud speaker may be giving it too much credit; it sounded more like an amplified drive-thru speaker at Wendy’s) and told us all what we already knew: “An alarm has been received.”
He went on to explain the hotel’s heroic response to this potential disaster: “We are trying to determine the cause of the alarm.”
And then, as though to put our minds at ease, he said, “As soon as a cause is know we will inform you of the cause.”
He would not, apparently, tell us what to do if the cause was a fire.
Still, this seemed to settle the matter for those in the room — we wanted to get back to the sex, and now that the alarm had ceased, leaving us only the lasciviously winking strobe of the emergency light, Kelby raised her voice and plunged us all back into bed. But — appropriately for a story about the awkwardness of illicit sex — she kept getting interrupted. The inane announcer, whom Kelby later dubbed “Inspector Clouseau,” returned again and again to repeat his message about investigating the alarm. Finally, after Kelby had made several comical attempts to get the story back on track, Inspector Clouseau gave us an update: “The cause of the alarm has been determined. The alarm is determined to have been false. Thank you for your patience.”
“You’re welcome!” Kelby shouted.
And then, because the people in the Starbucks one storey down and across the four-lane street hadn’t heard him the first time, Inspector Clouseau returned: “The cause of the alarm has been determined.”
“Oh God,” Kelby said, and I couldn’t tell if she had given up making jokes about her frustration, or if one of the characters in the story had just orgasmed.
The second, and bravest, event yesterday was my trip on the New York subway. Though the complexity of the routes and the stations was a bit intimidating (this is the largest subway system in the world), the subway itself wasn’t nearly as frightening as popular conception has built it up to be. True, the cars were older, dirtier, and less recently maintained than the trains I’ve ridden in Atlanta or Chicago. And the stations are quite murky, the walls brushed dark gray in dust and grime like shavings from a wet pencil lead. Staring into the black, tarry-floored rails between platforms, and then up and the dim tiled platforms themselves, I couldn’t help but think of the movies and TV shows and novels in which some unfortunate character trips, or jumps, or gets pushed into the train as it comes marauding into the station. For the first time in my limited metro-rail experience, I got the definite impression that I wouldn’t come away from a late-night excursion unscathed. Still, the cars weren’t nearly as crowded as I’d expected, and though one frightened girl seemed to think I was following her and kept inching away from me (how did I become the scary one?), everyone else was quite polite. The rail rode fast, the tide of passengers ebbed and flowed smoothly, and in just a few short moments, I’d made it from midtown to the Village, where I embarked on the third, and best, of the events yesterday.
When Isaac Byrne and I were in college together, he was probably the strongest actor on our small campus. I saw him in almost every play he did those few years, and I even went to some of his community-theater shows. Then, because that college’s theater department was extremely supportive despite how absurdly tiny and underfunded it was, Isaac managed to direct a few plays, and he proved at least as good in the chair as he was on the stage. He not only had an actor’s understanding of the performance process, and therefore was able to coax impressive performances from even unskilled actors, but he also had a fantastic eye for scene-setting and lighting — even in a theater the size of our living room, he managed to create an immediate mood and invested the audience easily in the reality of the play. He may not know this, but excepting my then-fiancee/now-wife, he and our playwright/screenwriter pal Justin Cooper were among my strongest friends back then. (And given the knack I had for stirring up trouble through our school newspaper, of which I was editor, I needed all the friends I could get.)
Now Isaac is living in New York, where he has worked his way up from acting in small parts on stage and in indie films to co-founding a production company and directing critically acclaimed and award-winning off-off Broadway theatre (Isaac won the 2006 Innovative Theater award for Best Director, and his company’s productions picked up five other IT awards; IT is like the Tonys for off-off Broadway theatre).
He met me just to grab a few beers on his way to the theater (I drank; Isaac is getting over a cold and stuck to water). He’s working as assistant director for an off-Broadway play called Hunting and Gathering. (For those of you who don’t know, off-off Broadway and off-Broadway are technical distinctions in the theatre industry, and they form a ranking of prestige leading up to, of course, Broadway. This gig Isaac has now, though thankless and only a small-print item in the playbill, is actually an important step up for Isaac.) Because Isaac is cool as hell, he invited me to join him, and when we got to the theater, he managed to get me in for free.
The play details the migratory apartment-hunting that consumes so many New Yorkers’ lives and, blended into that structure, the interwoven narratives of four people: A divorced English professor and his seductive, predatory student (played by Meryl Streep’s daughter!), the professor’s ex-girlfriend (whom he had an affair with while still married), and the professor’s nomadic, neo-hippy Buddhist half-brother (who is best friends with — but also in love with — the professor’s ex-girlfriend).
The script feels short, though the production comes in at 90 minutes, and the text is still a bit rough in a few places (it developed in a workshop not unlike the workshops I lead my students through, though of course professional and much more intense), but the writing is witty, efficient, and surprisingly complex, dropping innocent lines that turn out to be important set-ups for more revealing scenes later and pulling the characters apart and remixing them in new relationships in such an organic flow it was like dropping liquid mercury on the floor watching it break into little silver balls and run around on its own until reforming into new shapes.
The production was also impressive; I especially liked the city skyline created, symbolically, out of blank brown moving boxes and which opened in various places to reveal refrigerators, linen closets, and couches as we shifted from one apartment to another. The actors, too, were terrific; I loved Ruth, the ex-girlfriend (she had both an honesty and an intensity that projected her character all the way up into the last row of seats, where I sat even though I felt like I was on stage with her), and Astor, the Buddhist couch-surfer, who reminded me of a blend of Jack Black in School of Rock and “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski and who delivered his comedic lines with a pitch-perfect high-on-meditation drawl while also demonstrating an explosive emotional range during serious scenes.
But regardless how much I enjoyed the play, it wasn’t really the highlight of the evening. The best part was simply seeing an old friend, chatting and hanging out and running around the city together. It made the city seem smaller, if you could imagine that of Manhattan, much less of New York. It made it seem familiar, more livable, less a metropolis and more a home.