I must’ve been an archaeologist in a previous life. If not, then certainly I studied history in some form. Like an archaeologist I find myself in constant reflection and examination of the past. Dwelling on interactions, conversations, and moments which flicker by like strips of magnetic film on an old Steenbeck. I can control the speed, but I can’t filter the image. This is the past; I cannot change it.
The relics I unearth haunt and humor me like the ashes of a loved one yet un-scattered; out of sight but never out of mind. Imagine walking through a great antiques warehouse. Soft light illuminates dust floating on invisible currents, moving excitedly in some areas and coming to rest in other deep places less frequented. It is a labyrinthine place filled with file cabinets and bookshelves, boxes and chests. They are each unique in association, referring to specific decades, dates; becoming smaller the more specific you become, like a Matryoshka doll which at its center holds one perfect second. The floor crumbles in some areas, unsafe. Here it is wooden, sighing as you explore. In others there is carpet, linoleum, grass, concrete. But what happens when you close your eyes? There is only the sound of your pulse, your lungs. The automatic responses of an inhabited body. You are alone, but you are not lonely.
In the center of this warehouse is a safe, which you dare not open. Atop it, a projector.
What triggers this unearthing, this journey, varies: the smell of ChapStick; the taste of ninety-nine cent ramen; a home movie seen through intoxicated eyes. Or maybe it’s far more tangible than that: a shared kiss, reckless and passionate, forbidden; the nighttime wind howling and pulling you toward the scenic view hundreds of feet below; a newly made bed upon which sit dozens of photos in neat rows, threatening to pull you into their welcoming escape. And then there’s the deja vu, which strikes with the unpredictable force of an aneurism, freezing you where you stand as if all of this has happened before and is happening again: the receding daylight piercing through an airport hundreds of miles away; the beehive chaos of a foreign train station.
In the aftermath of loss, we retreat to those things which can reliably be counted on for happiness, for support. Old friends; like well worn books we’ve neglected and sit gathering dust, yet greet us as if no time has passed at all. Our favorite chapters are marked, easily identified, recollected upon together. A forgotten hobby, reignited, and a new one made.
But another place exists, far easier to envelop in. The inability to move past pain, past regret, breeding something dark, cancerous, a shroud of assumption masked in concern. Jealousy. Desire. The line between rationalized judgement and overt cynicism intersect and form a knot, then a noose. The cord is copper and titanium, beautiful and indestructible, hoisting you up and imploring you to support yourself while at once whispering to acquiesce. It’s someone you want to save who denies saving. You see the potential within them as something just out of reach, existing in the peripheral of your vision. Fluid and fickle, difficult to define and even harder to deny. But they are not yours to save.
The projector, once running, is difficult to stop. One reel ends, and another begins, a seamless transition with no period, no end point. It is a world of commas and semi-colons; one great run on sentence that is beautiful and malnourishing. We cannot survive alone on what The Warehouse has to offer. There is no future here. And what lies in the safe is to each their own mystery. Inscribed in stone at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi is the maxim, “Know Thyself,” and this same thing is emblazoned on the safe. Know Thyself. Is that not ultimately the same ideal of archaeology? You switch the projector off, feeling it’s warmth once last time like that of a lover. There are still empty places within The Warehouse, and you must leave to fill them in.
Josh and I wait with jittery anticipation outside the Belasco Theater in the cool of a New York evening, as joyous bulbs dance around the outline of Broadway’s sign for ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’, and an experience that will prove to be one of a kind. We’ve been huge fans of the film for years, and the fact that we happened to be in New York at exactly this time when this show was playing feels almost fated. If Heaven is a place of reliving chosen memories, I’d relive this one. The line begins to shuffle forward, and I reflect on what the film means to me and what this show might have in store. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask wrote something which speaks to everyone differently, and personally resonates within me and the idea of an identity crisis. I hand my ticket to the usher, thank her, and move to find my seat.
Hedwig is a pop-rock diva and lyrical genius at war with the world, and within herself. Originally Hansel, an effeminate boy from East Berlin, a botched sex operation leaves Hedwig with neither male nor female genitals, rather an “angry inch” that places her in neither category and leaves her in constant sexual frustration. The operation allows Hedwig to marry Sgt. Luther, a true sugar daddy, and move to America, but their relationship ends as quickly as it began. Hedwig’s primary motivation is to find her other half, her soul mate, and perhaps finally be at peace. From under an immense golden wig does she recollect her past through her lyrics, opening with grand indifference to the judging of others, moving into the depths of despair, and finally to an acceptance of her somewhat ambiguous identity. This is a story which resonates within those who have ever felt lost within themselves, or who don’t belong. Outcasts, odd balls, and freaks.
The first time Josh and I saw the Broadway performance, we were sitting in the balcony cheap seats. Even from there we were utterly moved and astonished by the seamless adaptation of film to stage. Other than Yitzhak, played by the phenomenal and unforgettable Lena Hall, and the band members, there are no other characters. No Tommy Gnosis, no Sgt. Luther, no major or minor characters who in the film help drive the story of Hedwig forward. There is only Neil Patrick Harris, and we, the audience.
But as it turns out, we’re key players. Hedwig addresses us as if she were playing this particular venue (the Belasco Theater) for the first time; a fusion of theatre and concert. But the script and dialogue have been altered to fit with this contemporary audience: jokes are hilarious because they’ve been tuned to a 2014 audience, not 2001 when the film debuted. Harris plays not only Hedwig, but Tommy Gnosis, Sgt. Luther, and Hedwig’s mother, doing so by first “acting” out their interactions. I won’t spoil what happens in the end with the reprise of “Wicked Little Town”, but in my opinion, it is easily a performance worthy of a Tony nomination, if not win.
Hedwig uses music to characterize the traumatic events of her stony East Berlin past, with each one playing a key role in her characters progression. “Angry Inch” chronicles the ill-fated sex operation; “Wicked Little Town” sees her first meeting Tommy Gnosis. But with “The Long Grift” we’re suddenly brought into the present, and as we move into “Hedwig’s Lament” and “Exquisite Corpse” Hedwig’s story is no longer a recollection: it’s happening before us.
“Long Grift” was my favorite song of the show, occurring as Hedwig’s on stage rivalry with the equally ambiguous Yitzhak (Lena Hall) reaches a boiling point. I’m moved as Hedwig attempts to sing “Long Grift”, only to break down and move away further down stage, allowing Yitzhak to take the helm. This song particularly struck me due to it’s female vocalization (as opposed to the male Tommy Gnosis of the film) and the emotion within Lena Hall’s voice. They are both lost and wounded creatures merely looking to find their true selves, and the hurt at having been betrayed by a loved one is palpable.
Elements of the film are tied in as well in wonderfully cinematic ways. As Hedwig leads into “The Origin of Love”, a semi-translucent screen lowers and fills the stage. We can still make out Hedwig and the band in detail, the screen adding only a slight haziness. But as the song begins, like in the movie, animation is projected that mirrors the lyrics. “When the earth was still flat, and the clouds made of fire, and the mountains stretched up to the sky, sometimes higher…” Fiery clouds expand in a giant half halo around Hedwig, morphing into different creatures and scenes as the song continues. It’s a truly magical experience, and I find words don’t do it justice. They didn’t merely adapt the story for the stage, they re-invigorated what worked and made it relevant to today’s audience, rather than completely re-imagine it into something unrecognizable.
Neil Patrick Harris is on par with John Cameron Mitchell in the role, though both experiences and iterations are different. It’s impossible to call one better than the other — both bring elements to the character of Hedwig that inspire in their own right. Harris’s is far more sexual and domineering, while Mitchell’s is believably human. Part of the fun of seeing the Broadway show twice, however, was the ad-libbing done by Harris on the fly. Jokes were adapted to fit that particular night’s audience, random errors and happenings on stage, and Harris’s own mood.
The second time through, Josh and I sat in the second row, and the experience was very different from sitting in the balcony.
I describe it to Josh later that night, walking in the glow of Times Square, under more cinematic terms: sitting in the balcony was like watching a film at normal 24 fps, with a certain motion blur that requires your brain to fill in the blanks through imagination. In that way, the first show seemed more powerful emotionally (perhaps, because it was the first time we were seeing it) as I attributed details that may or may not have been there. Sitting in the second row, on the other hand, was like seeing a film in 48 fps — there’s a whole lot of clarity, but part of the illusion is lost as well. I admire the details of Hedwig’s costume while at once noticing the fatigue on Harris’s face following certain songs. He’s sweating profusely; there’s his mic; I hear him stumble over a line. But I also catch more of the subtle acting: the static between Hedwig and Yitzhak; the wry smiles during “Sugar Daddy”; the tear that leaves a glittering streak down his face during “Hedwig’s Lament”. Hedwig looks me in the eye and winks during a song, and my heart skips a beat.
The lighting and stage design were incredible in their own right. Flashing images of giant gummy bears are projected in different hues during “Sugar Daddy”, while a single green spotlight slowly envelopes Hedwig during “Hedwig’s Lament”. Body parts rotate in three sections while being projected onto the back wall during “Exquisite Corpse”, and the destroyed car lying center stage becomes more than a mere set piece, as Hedwig stands atop it, lays over it, and descends into the hood for an invisible costume change during “Wig in a Box”.
Everything is so well executed that it becomes cinematic in its own right: light cues and set changes never allow an air of comfortability (and thus, boredom) to set in. Rather they evolve along with Hedwig, finally climaxing in a heavenly glow as Lena Hall and Harris implore the audience to, “Life up your hands!” during the finale of “Midnight Radio”.
We all raise our hands and sway with the song, and the audience erupts into a standing ovation.
Neon lines trace the overhang inside Stardust Diner as we sit down for a late night dessert (having just seen Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’) at a glittery red booth. A small part of me feels like Vincent Vega in ‘Pulp Fiction’, minus the cocaine but with the same glamorous atmosphere of Golden Era Hollywood show biz when he and Mrs. Mia Wallace sit inside the now iconic Jack Rabbit Slims. I smile at this cinematic sensation when suddenly a waitress across the room takes center stage and begins to belt out a show tune. She’s quite good actually, and as she mounts one booth and serenades the audience, I wonder whether she’s an aspiring Broadway performer. But that’s ridiculous, of course she is. They all are. She isn’t the last waitress or waiter to perform, auditioning for that potential producer that might happen to stumble in just like I have. She crosses toward us and raises her hand to Josh, singing to him. He laughs that infectious laugh and they take a photo together. The song ends, the dancing lights cease, and the mumbled conversations begin once more.
What I’ve had of New York food hasn’t been life-changing or particularly inspiring in and of itself, but it’s atmosphere of each that keep it memorable. The silver haired waiter who takes our breakfast order with the kind of harsh kindness that New Yorkers have seems straight out of a Scorcese movie. The lamb gyro from a street-cart isn’t any better than the ones I’ve had in Portland, but is wonderfully spicy against the chill of the light rain.
One night, after seeing James Franco in the Broadway production ‘Of Mice and Men’, Josh and I hunt for somewhere to eat. A young man with a reddish beard stands smoking a cigarette and checking his phone at the crosswalk we both wait at.
“Hey man, do you live here? New York I mean.” I ask.
“Yeah, I do. What’s up?” He says, flicking ash onto the pavement and turning toward me.
“Know any good burger places to eat around here? We’re starving.” I say.
“Hmm, not really around here. There is a place up a ways that I’ve heard is incredible.”
“Cool, thanks!” I say, and we continue on.
There is more to that conversation which I’ve chosen to leave out, the specifics of which include the name of the restaurant. Not because I don’t want you to find it, but because finding it is part of the fun. The first step seems to be asking a local; they’ll point you in the right direction. With any smart phone you can find the name of this hidden gem, but even still once you make it to the correct street, actually finding it is another matter. You have to go in the right building, through glass doors, a lobby, and past a large velvet red curtain. We walk up and down 56th street, searching. It’s late and steam rises from the sewer grates in an atmospheric miasma, the streets strangely (and welcomingly) devoid of tourists. Finally, we find the curtain, and a large African American man standing with arms folded asks us what we’re looking for. We say the name as if it were a password. Silently, he nods us in the right direction, into a narrow hallway with nothing but a small neon sign at the end in the shape of a burger. I feel like Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, who in Japan is taken to a nondescript neon sign of a fish only to indulge in one of the most memorable seafood meals of his life. Upon entering, the stark contrast is dramatic. Am I in the right place? Handwritten graffiti of customers who have come before covers nearly every inch of the walls, and the noise and conversations within seem to transport you to a different place in New York, as if that neon burger was actually a portal from the silent area you just came from. A grill sizzles with hot oil and raw meat, steam rising from behind the dilapidated counter, next to which sits a handwritten menu. It’s just long enough to give you some options, but short enough to imply confidence in what they offer.
“How many burgers you gettin’? Yo we closin’ soon so hurry up.”
It’s 11:20, ten minutes before they close, and it’s cash only tonight so we scrounge together just enough to each get a burger (With everything? Yessir, thank you) and fries. The seeming rudeness at telling us to hurry up doesn’t offend me. They’ve got lives to get to, and I find out later it’s that guys birthday. Plus we’re hungry so we want em’ quick anyway. This is New York, after all. Without a certain thickness of skin you might assume the entire city to be snobbish and rude. In a way its refreshing to the sometimes passive aggressive nature of Portland’s food service. They call it like it is here, no bullshit. I can dig that.
We sit down at one of the distressed booths, and my meal is preceded by the words of a wise man who once ate in this very spot, etched into the table and which confirm what I know instinctually: I came here. I ate here. I left here. But I’ll be back.
Something else happens after you’ve eaten there, something better even than the meal (which, I have to say, was pretty damn good). Like a mecca of the city, the journey and experience are a gateway to befriending the locals. A passerby on the street hears our post-meal conversation. “Oh man, dat place is where it’s at!” While buying wine in a liquor store, the cashier finds out as well. He says the simple name of the restaurant, then, “Oh hell yeah! Give it to me right here. Good choice, good choice.” Nodding his head in approval and fist bumping all of us. I feel a certain swell of pride within having been the one to find it. Would Anthony Bourdain be proud? I like to think so. And I now have an invaluable conversation tool at my disposal for any other locals I may happen to meet or cross paths with.
That kind of unifying thread only locals can see is a precious thing not found by taking one of millions of identical photos of Times Square, nor through a selfie or opting for the recognizable and reliably mediocre places like Olive Garden, TGIF, or McDonalds. You find it by not being afraid to look a stranger in the eye, even in an intimidating place like New York, and ask for help.
There is much to see of New York City outside my single window. The Empire Hotel sits adjacent to Central Park, and from my vantage point I can see part of the legendarily exclusive and difficult school called Julliard. Casting a shadow over the passerby is Dante Alighieri, who stands immortally cast in dark metal, unblinkingly watching this circle of Earth. Further still, a golden saint proclaims for the Church of Latter Day Saints from atop a spire.
A tiger print armchair sits in front of our comfortably firm bed, and it’s there I listen to the sound of the city: the high pitched squeak of car brakes; the low rumble of a garbage truck; horns, some quick and others sustained, assert their insistence of an ever quickening pace. New York is a fast city, with the pulse of a great river funneled by networks of old stone; a far cry from the leisurely nature of Portland. Unlike the Rose city, there don’t seem to be enough hours in a day for this concrete jungle, nor minutes in an hour. There is always movement, always another horn, someone is always awake. From my short time here I’ve experienced three kinds of people. The first are those always in a rush, power walking across streets even as the little red blinking hand demands they halt. I’m reminded of Italy, where in order to avert being struck, you must omit a certain air of confidence as you stride in front of taxi’s traveling at 30+ mph.
The second are those who take a more casual pace; older New Yorkers who’ve seen it all and need not hurry. As I stand at a crosswalk, I witness two old women with an over abundance of make up be shouldered past by a woman in her mid 30’s as she crosses (again, despite that well-meaning blinking red hand). “Did you see that woman?!” They exclaim, appalled by such behavior. She doesn’t look back.
Third are the tourists, who (and I’m guilty of this as well), are easy to spot — we all can’t help but crank our heads as far up as they’ll go, walking with naive unawareness to our surroundings. They stop in the middle of a stream of people moving with the current like salmon up a river to snap photos of the skyscrapers with their iPhones. Everyone is taking selfies. A group of Asians stand in Times Square, hands raised with peace signs fully extended, as if to justify the obstruction they’re causing to everyone around them. I force my neck down to a more reasonable and comfortable position, preferring to blend in than mark myself by sheer posture. But dammit, I’m going to far. Now I’m looking at the ground and can’t help but study it as I walk. Everything is concrete and asphalt, but there’s a skin covering it of grime, discarded trash, pamphlets to D-List comedy shows and strip clubs, and the infinitely varied droppings of people. A still burning cigarette, a well-worn penny, a child’s doll.
This observation is an incomplete one, I admit. I’m only here six days, and have barely covered a small fraction of this great city. Times Square is as bright and overwhelming as they all say; night turns to day as those enormous billboard ad’s, animated and ever changing, flash all the possibilities of the world and hoping to inspire specific thoughts. God I could use a Coke. Huh, I never really liked American Eagle but I like that. Hershey’s World? Yes please, I need chocolate. I enter and spend $20. It’s worth it, I tell myself, for the things I can only get here! Macadamia nut kisses and Reese’s peanut butter spread. Delicious. Screw my diet, I’m on vacation. Then the guilt: I shouldn’t be spending this much money even though I’m here. It’s Josh’s childlike unawareness of what Ray Ban’s are, despite my pointing out the ad which I’m admiring, that inspires hope in me for humanity once more. I’m under constant bombardment, mind, body, and soul. My senses heightened by the adrenaline of new sights and smells, like a cat venturing into an unknown territory, wide eyed and alert. I am also on the hunt, searching for a meal that I won’t soon forget.
Mr. Jones patters by as I sit outside in the shade of my Grandma Marilyn’s house. A dove coos that familiar sound that reminds me of swimming here as a child, and suddenly I’m struck with the knowledge that some things change and others remain the same. In truth, this phenomenon isn’t so existential or insightful as when it isn’t actively being experienced, and perhaps is better left for the bumper sticker I likely read it from. But it’s what I feel. So bear with me.
Despite the varied assortment of new furnishings, the backyard is still the same — the pool and jacuzzi still shine blue against the brown tile; the dove calls from its telephone wire post while a sea of cactus crash in agonizingly slow motion against the wall behind the house; three pairs of goggles (deep blue, lime green, creamsicle orange) sit gathering a film of dust and weathering that only comes from years of being unused and undisturbed.
The weather is beautiful, but of course it is March. Last time, and many times prior, we were here in June/July when it was scorching and dry. But there’s a breeze today that feels refreshing and warm as I sit here in my faded Lucky Brand jeans and tank top. I feel content to be here in this moment, filled with nostalgia and relief at being done with another school term. Later, i’ll hunt a blue-bellied lizard.
Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of childhood. Digging in that familiar spot under the stairs, I found the Lite-Brite which both I, my brother, cousins, and mother used to play with. Pulling it from its dilapidated, fading original box was like unearthing a treasure, and the joy felt at its still functioning state can’t be described; like finding a piece of yourself you thought gone, transporting back to a time before much worry or stress. There’s something about a potentially dangerous toy that’s wonderful to play with, especially years later. The absurdly hot bulb of this particular Lite-Brite, easily a fire and burn hazard, only adds to the allure. Toys today are far safer, but those aren’t the ones you remember.
CapriSun juice boxes still fill the fridge in the garage, one of which I’m drinking now. “The Saved Turtle”, basically the first thing I ever wrote, still sits framed upstairs, having been typed in my 4 year old syntax and loosely translated by my mother. I look at the jacuzzi where once I almost died, though I have no memory of that event. The scar on my chin is reminder enough. I woke this morning to the familiar smell of grandma’s coffee, the sound of the news and the folding of newspapers coming from her room.
But not everything is as I remember.
We visited my great grandma June’s house yesterday — my mother, aunt Linda, and I. It was strange walking alone inside the now empty house, reminding me of the impermanence of everything, even that which as a child you assume will always be there. Grandparents, despite their age, hold a certain air of immortality for the young, as if they were born that way just to fulfill that role. You don’t think too hard about where their “wisdom” comes from; as if it is an inherent trait and not something earned by experience. No shells, beach furnishings, or antiques which I loved examining are left inside, nor is the kitchen in use with ingredients well past expiration date. There’s nothing but me, the floral wallpaper, and the energy within a house which had seen so many years and people. Standing inside, I feel a buzzing sensation which may be no more than residual, historical energy that would take years and new memories made within to replace. Or it could be me trying to hold onto as much as I can before leaving.
The avocado trees stood with what is likely the last fruit i’ll ever gather from them, for which I’m grateful. They look to be dying, likely from the major lack of rain which California has seen recently, or perhaps from their own broken hearts. Once, my great grandpa Paul lifted me up effortlessly to peek inside a birds nest. I can still see the gaping orange mouths of the three chicks within. The guest house is silent, but I smile thinking of the old ViewMaster that used to be there with a black and white photo of a bare breasted pin-up girl, the first nude I can remember seeing.
The pool is beginning to turn an emerald green from lack of cleaning; the garage no longer has tools, rusting and well worn, lining the walls. Alone inside the house, I apologize for never calling to thank Grandma June for the $25 she sent me for Christmas, saying I meant to, I’d just gotten busy. We all get too busy, and then it’s too late isn’t it? People, loved ones, don’t die at our convenience. They go when they are called, and I thank my grandma and grandpa before exiting past the topaz windows framing the front door, locking it behind me. Their house is still furnished in my mind. I’ll visit again someday.
When I was 14 I had surgery to correct an inguinal hernia; a swollen area of skin above my groin and next to my right hip. Like most things, I let it lie, assuming that because there wasn’t any pain it would eventually correct itself. A month passed before I finally revealed the issue to my father, whose alarmed reaction did nothing to reinforce my mental mantra that everything was “fine.”
When they finally cut me open, it was worse than expected. It took two iron mesh plugs to mend my torn muscle and hold my intestines in place, and when I woke I could hardly stand or walk. That first week was misery, made tolerable thanks to the 2004 Olympics and double doses of Vicodin. After that first week I felt some of my strength beginning to return, inspiring within me a false sense of physical confidence that certainly didn’t help my healing.
But weeks passed, the Olympics ended and the red line on my stomach became a pale one where no hair would grow. I joked to my friends on how I had metal in me, inviting the girls to feel for themselves though they were hardly the ones I wanted doing so. The mesh plugs used in such surgeries are designed to fuse with the skin and muscle, in essence becoming part of ones body and thus minimizing the notion of such a foreign object being within. After a while, I forgot about them.
But like all old wounds, turn just the right way and they’ll remind you of their existence, whether that pain be sharp or ghost-like, whispering the moment of their creation. Despite the years I can still feel them from time to time. And of course, the scar is still there; a visual reminder of my utter mortality not unlike those wounds rendered invisible, yet nonetheless just as present.
I often find myself writing about the blessing and curse of having detailed memory, such as I do. I’ve read that memories are rather fickle things, that those our brain choose to keep are the ones we most often send electrical impulses through by thinking of them, thus forestalling their evanescent nature. In that way, those with sharp or even eidetic memory find a surplus of blessings and curses: moments we long to forget and others we wish to relive.
It’s a beautiful mixed bag: a snowy morning in a zoo, alone with nothing but stillness broken by the howling of wolves; the pure energy in the opening song of your favorite band, suspending you in that moment as if the lyrics were written for you; the intent of calling a loved one, only to have them die before you found the time to do so; the sudden, crushing realization of solitude within an airplane flying thousands of miles away from home; it’s laying in the grass with fireworks above your head on the fourth of July as “Stairway to Heaven” finishes the same time as the finale; it’s an army of tumbleweeds rolling across the freeway as you do 70, until you finally hit the big one in a burst of laughter and dust; it’s falling for someone you find can’t love you back, just when you thought you’d nearly made it.
Whether I intend to or not, I keep my curses, even the ones that leave scars. They juxtapose the blessings quite nicely I find, contrasting rather than canceling them.
The first week is always the hardest. After that it’s all scar tissue. But every now and then, with just the right movement, dream, or thought, they say hello and remind you that the past is just as prevalent as the present.