Smoky View from the Promenadeby Michael Wiener
Wherein we follow the whitherings and wanderings of one Michael Wiener as he unearths the bittersweet truths and fecund chestnuts of life in the People’s Borough.
The woman in my life and I emerge onto still somewhat industrial Fourth Avenue, looking out on the Ninth Street overpass after a patient, intimate morning inside discussing our life together. The cable guy had paid a visit, ferreting around the bedroom while I slumbered. Now, we stroll up Seventh Street under a gentle, downy rain, another clammy day seeping into the bones. Slight, scrubby trees bloom with vigor. Is that an oak or a maple? A woman with blonde dreads rises cheerily from a car. A man and his son hose down the sidewalk, the boy with a blue punk rock dye job. They pause to let us pass.
Buncha middle schoolers hangin’ out on the stoop, playin’ stickball, sassin’, darin’ each other (they are still there, interred, when we return later). Fifth Avenue: the signs of mercantile life, a quiet bustle. The weather has kept people in. We ascend the hill past the Park Slope Senior Citizens Center, take a right by All Saints’ Episcopal. The trees get lusher. Some hang like weeping willows. Seventh Avenue is more of an urban thoroughfare. New York Methodist Hospital, Barnes & Noble. The neighborhood crowd remains appealingly diverse. Slope gentrification has not fractured community.
Sotto Voce, our brunch choice this Sunday, is, indeed, envelopingly muted, even hushed. A regular reading series occurs in the back lounge, we hear. A couple of women drift by, pushing a stroller. Theirs? Meanwhile, I wonder at the origins of the old-timey black-and-white photos on the restaurant’s walls. Authentic or stock agency? Child iconography reigns, but they’re not necessarily wholly Italian. American Southern seems also represented. In one shot, a kid and his mom perch on chairs. She holds a guitar, he a mandolin. These chairs appear battered, situated in front of a craggy tree and the gaping shack the family calls home, apparently.
Another picture frames three kids on a scooter, a Vespa, I think. They’re lighter skinned. Does this make them northern Italian? I need to travel more, obviously. The boy in the driver’s seat has a cocky, patriarchal, upright air, or should I say “heir,” to the throne. Poverty is being romanticized here. Restaurant walls are a smudgy, patchy orange, spreading a certain goofy warmth. The waiter is nice, and solicitous, if a little slow on the uptake. He keeps refilling our brunch cocktails, a mimosa for her, Bloody mary for me. Our salmon benedicts and roasted pepper home fries are just fine. Lilt of folksy Italian ballads in the background. Lucy Sexton, of downtown dance notability, pads past the window, waves.
Inside the pet toy store, the Middle Eastern clerk is sulky. A “doggy dress n’ drag doll” hangs on the wall. Only in the Slope, kids. My girl strokes the stomach of the oversize, overfed pigeon white housecat lounging along the wall. He/she (can’t immediately tell) purrs petulantly, wagging his/her tail. Outside, gospel pours resoundingly out of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Shortly thereafter, we pass the brick warehouse on Fourth Avenue, home to Pep Boys and Staples, among other businesses. The building spans a couple blocks. Window frames rust. We’re heading to the Brooklyn Lyceum for Breeding Ground’s Spring Fever Festival, where, today, High Life, an ensemble film I co-star in, is screening. It’s already started. Squinting, we creep into the theater and settle into chairs. The space has a beguiling ramshackle quality. It’s like watching a film in a hangar. Afterwards, easygoing gladhanding and congratulations from unexpectedly present castmates I haven’t seen in awhile. My lady has gone ahead to do some errands. On the way back, a couple Puerto Rican girls look me up and down, calling, “Holla (as in the hip-hop)!” Another block, and a bedraggled white guy is conferring regarding a matter of obvious significance with a Latina, but his attention is momentarily diverted to smirkily observe my typically flamboyant outfit, left over from the night before. “Como estas?” he taunts cartoonishly.
I head to DUMBO to rehearse a piece I’m doing with the GAle GAtes et al., in fact, their farewell show after eight years of concocting mythical theater installations. The show will be at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria. As often occurs on the way into Brooklyn from Manhattan, there’s a previously unannounced change in service, which results in York being skipped. Catch a quick train back from Jay and get to the space on time. Director Michael Counts has planned for me to reprise an Athena character from an early GAtes show, in flowing white dress and ostentatious wig. Stage manager Heidi ushers me in. Mike is engaged at the moment in popping a wheelie in a wheelchair. “We used to race,” he explains with just a hint of nostalgia. “I was a daredevil.” I tell him he resembles Kurt Cobain, in the chair.
Michael positions me on a makeshift platform, where I run through my monologue, articulating over my own, currently playing, voiceover, an intrinsic GAtes convention. By the time we’re done exploring the role, Michael’s made some adjustments to the part. Rather than being a goddess, I’m now a lonely urban guy hanging around his apartment solitarily, drinking beer, glazedly peering at the goddesses who “inhabit” his television. This idea begins to grow on me, even though I did look forward to being fantastically attired. I’m let out earlier than expected.
Time to return to Manhattan. On the way, I duck into the local 24-hour mart Peas & Pickles, to see if I can find some wine for a party my presence has been requested at back in my borough. Wine is not sold here. The congenial, middle aged Asian man behind the counter suggests the restaurant Rice. “But I’m looking for a bottle,” I say. “I think they have,” he effuses, “Try.” “No harm in that,” I concur as I make my way to the door, appreciating his good efforts. But I skip it. Cops inhabit the platform, as usual. Counterterrorism as an opportunity to exercise control.
Return to DUMBO for a full afternoon rehearsal. Most of the cast has gathered. We’re doing a casual run-through, situated on rudimentary cardboard versions of the dramatic, towering island structures we’ll be residing on at the Whitney. I’ve been placed next to storied downtown actor Tony Torn, son of Rip, an engrossingly clownishly featured, sleepy-eyed fellow. Tony has, if I recall correctly, recently broken his ankle. He limps gamely in on crutches, and receives lots of fawning attention, for whatever reason. His character is some sort of weathered sailor, ruminating on a storm wreck. I choose to remain clothed, rather than stripping down into my full costume, but by the second run-through, I’ve returned from Peas & Pickles, where I ran into much-lauded installation artist and Sundance filmmaker, Reynold Reynolds, a pleasingly sardonic Canadian chap, who may be contributing work to a couple different series I’m producing in D.C. and Manhattan. He describes a feature he’s preparing to direct with his collaborative partner Patrick Jolley, involving a man lurking under the floorboards of a woman’s apartment, basically a one-character piece, but probably of a different timbre than Eraserhead. Anyway, I return to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall-boy Ballantines (“We’ll use Bud for the show,” Michael informs me. “Classic.”), and proceed to down two during the course of the run-through, stealing time to stare, flirt with, and leer at women on several different islands around the room, including a trio of bikini-clad lovelies. Hey, I can’t help what my character’s inclined to do.
In Manhattan, I catch a play, an early evening buzz my body didn’t expect washing over me. After the play, my longtime partner, the aforementioned woman friend, and I lurch through the rain, dashing to catch the last seating for Monkey Town, a “dining installation” event that’s been getting fervent word of mouth, which a couple pals have been putting on. We have a romantic interlude amidst the crowd on the L train, but then somehow manage to derail and get at odds by the time we arrive, some misunderstood, presumed antithetical shit. By the time the show kicks in, we’ve worked it through. I’m nicely surprised. Looming screens have been erected in a serene loft space, we’re handed handy little modular menus on the way up the stairs, then hospitably prodded towards beds under the screens, where, initially, footage of an idling helicopter runs.
A couple friends I tipped off are already lounging, including my buddy Keith, who has lots of exuberant recounting to express regarding his recent month-long detox/spiritual quest. Wine is brought out by ebullient and congenial servers, also an "amuse" vegetable drink, a shot, really, of tomato, mint, and I forget what else is blended therein. Punchy tilapia ceviche, zesty eggplant empanadas. An odd but insouciantly sweet carrot ginger gelatin, refreshing potato fennel soup. The films playing on the four screens strike a scintillating balance between being disparate, obtuse in juxtaposition, and, gradually, interrelated, abruptly concordant, life’s fabric, from artful home video to pristinely photographed eco-odysseys. Free jazz saxes bleat strangled notes. An impressive roster of musicians has contributed to the soundtrack, Mat Manieri among them. We sink into pillows, wallow in the blissful tweaking of senses. It’s an adeptly orchestrated, and only occasionally, directionless sensual experience. I congratulate my buddies on a project well conceived, then emerge to find everyone outside.
Rain is deluging, torrential, saturating. We splinter into subgroups. Mine makes a beeline for Mighty Robot, which my dear friend Rebecca’s boyfriend, Eric, chiefly puts on, a, shall we say, art/rock party. My lady friend and I, long since made up, at least for now, venture onto the roof, spattered by rain, we grapple each other, sticking our hands down each other’s pants like we’re in our early 20s on the Lower East Side in the early ’90s again. It’s that kind of occasion, so maybe we are. Eventually, Keith converges and we quit it.
My pal Susan MacIntosh, longtime Billysburg mainstay, brilliantly inventive, off-kilteredly visionary, oft-misunderstood filmmaker, has recently undergone chemo and beaten Hodgkins, and has somehow managed to emerge looking better, more vital than before, her hair, as she proudly declaims, “gone kinky,” which certainly fits her personality. Maybe she had something to dispense with, to purge. We all dance together giddy, uninhibited, freewheelin’, loose-limbed, trading places, willy-nilly, no concerns, only the night, only the beatbeatbeat in our hearts, the burnburn in our eyes, Susan our designated phoenix, our unspoken muse. It’s a good time, but must at a certain point be superceded by the descent into the still drenching rain to cram into car services and stream back over the bridge.
Brief dress rehearsal at GAle GAtes, everyone a little more wired, self-conscious, nervous, undoubtedly. It goes well, though. I slam three Buds. Michael gives some rousing notes, and I feel the exhilaration of working amid an ensemble again roll over me like an embracing cloak. One of my castmates tells me I’m doing good work. I think it’s thoughtful when actors do that, a considerate gesture. A few of us head to the platform together.
Out to the Slope again. My aforementioned significant other has decided to host a welcome back/rebirth dinner for my aforementioned pal Susan. I arrive early to help set up and prepare. After an initial flareup due to tensions in the kitchen, we quietly go about our tasks, I serving as something somewhere between sous chef and line cook, instrumental in the lemongrass mayonnaise sauce, a little overzealous in de-veining the shrimp, etc. Susan arrives, and I arrange for her wine and lead her to the cheese and olives table. First course includes crabcakes and a Vietnamese sort of shrimp salad. The main is a poached fish and scallops dish, served with leeks. It’s an opportunity for my other to get acquainted with Susan, a vivid, larger than life, occasionally self-indulgent character whose recent transcendence in health has made her a better, humbler person. Susan and I reminisce and gab about the entertainment industry. My gal talks about her sometimes stultifying work as an analyst at AMEX. Theories, impressions, explications, intentions for and of life are exchanged. We’re all pretty full by the time the cake comes around. Soon, it’s time for me to rush off to a play in Manhattan. Susan exits with me, on her way to Williamsburg.
Take a discreet detour on a night replete with Manhattan events out to DUMBO to catch Leigh Garrett and Katie Workum’s show, The Miami Project. Running last-minute as usual, I huff up the endless York Street platform and ascending tunnel then down the hill and through the ever more polishedly quaint, understatedly chic artist/industrial village that is DUMBO to the GAle GAtes space. GAle GAtes is hosting this final show before the company closes its doors forever. The striking, prim, pristine, quirky, fiery red ringlet-haired, porcelain-skinned actress Rebecca Wisocky is a couple seats over, we bid each other hello and catch up on news, it’s been awhile, what are you working on, that sort of thing. Award-winning doc filmmaker Pearl Gluck arrives with a characteristically oblivious outsized gesture, tossing her coat and knocking my red wine all over the floor to announce her arrival, S&M novelist Elissa Wald in tow. The show is a hilariously mocking, flingingly physical, kitschily costumed, relentless barrage of an affectionate satire of Miami society, the dynamic duo wildly kinetic, craftily transformative performers of boundless comic wit, with an estimable cast.
Afterwards, we sip wine at the impromptu bar upstairs, and talk theater briefly, then migrate over to the local hotspot Rice/Low Bar, whose playful, quite wide-ranging performances are curated by Miss Ariana Smart, where I join Pearl and Elissa, who’ve been waiting for me, upstairs for a snack. An unbalanced, sexually tense triangle develops, we’re not collectively conscious of it until it’s wreaked some ephemeral social damage, inflamed fleeting but visceral jealousies, the mingling of three Jewish egos feels more like a collision. Elissa is a provocative gal who occasionally muses over her eventual destination, home, where some fellow “visiting” her from Crown Heights, awaits. Apparently, he’s recently arrived from Canada, hence the qualifier. Pearl tells us about a fling with a bisexual guy that went awry when he began to show indifference, Elissa and I provide what consolation we can.
Onto more tangible topics: Pearl and I proceed to discuss the possibility of my programming her at a film festival I’m chairing in D.C. I borrow her cell to check my messages when our energies begin to diverge, and besides, I’m tardy in returning to Manhattan to pick someone up. I refuse to own a cell, yet I find myself using them when the need and the option present themselves, in close proximity. It’s a minor moral dilemma. Our curry dishes, meanwhile, are as reliably flavorful as ever. Lorca of the One Arm Red performance space, a striking, statuesque brunette with moon-y, enveloping eyes, sits nearby at a large, communal table full of people. In its own, DUMBO-style way, Rice is a homey, neighborhood restaurant, much like Superfine, yet more compact, for the extended family of artists that hold out in this ever more precious nabe. Lorca and I haven’t talked in awhile so we embrace, and she says I should visit the space.
Downstairs, Eric from the Radiohole theater company tells me outrageous young performer Linas Phillips and Radiohole’s Maggie think I’m a “demigod,” they want to be in the same room with me so they can scream my name. Embarrassed, sheepish, yet flattered, I of course graciously return the compliment, if that’s what it is, there’s no other reflex. I have to admit it feels nice to be appreciated by fellow performers, not something that occurs easily, it’s a competitive scene, altruism can be unexpected and overwhelming. Eric and I discuss grants and patronage for awhile, Ariana makes a request for her birthday in a couple weeks, bring guys to please her, she pleads. “What about these two guys right in front of you?” I goad. “You can come, too,” she offers unflappably. She brews us some special sorta shot. It’s sweet but packs a bracing kick, if I’m remembering with any sensual acuity. We verbally formalize the long-discussed idea of my doing a dance theater piece in the space, and then it’s upstairs with a slightly grumpy Pearl and Elissa for what seems like an interminable wait for a car service. A yellow cab arrives, people disembark, we seize the opportunity, hoping the car we called, now approaching behind us, will find someone else to pick up. Altruism may be overwhelming sometimes, but it’s absolutely vital. And it’s all good, as they say. Or used to.