San Francisco Stories

I love a used book store. I love uncovering a treasure, a biography of an actor that I never knew existed or a great novel by an author I’ve never heard of. But also, I love that every book tells a story, many tell more than one.

I am on the plane back from New York as I type. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I’ll be blogging about the trip for days to come, but this is not necessarily a New York story. Yet, New York plays her role here, too.

I was browsing in Mid-town along 8th avenue and popped into a thrift store that I like to visit when I’m in NY. I found a book, San Francisco Stories, a collection of pieces written by famous writers about San Francisco, a city I love and a city where I once lived. I vacillated about buying it until I saw the inscription inside the jacket:

Michael-
Here’s thanks for your many kindnesses. I had some fun with this book. I hope you will, too.

10/26/92

Steve K******

It’s a simple inscription, clearly Steve was thanking Michael for something. He actually wrote his own short story in a collection of short stories and in some ways, so far anyway, it’s the most captivating. I want to know who Steve is. Will I learn more about him by reading this book? Maybe. Steve thought enough of it to buy it and gift it.

And then there is the mystery of Michael, did he hate it or perhaps even hate Steve and that’s why it ended up in a thrift store? Did he deposit it here because he moved away? And because I am gay man living in a certain time in history, I do wonder if Michael, or Steve for that matter are even still with us. I hope so.

Also, it occurred to me that since I lived in Manhattan in 1992, I might have known them or passed by them on the street. Maybe we frequented Splash or Uncle Charlie’s on the same nights or shared a lane at the Carmine Street Pool or ate at cramped nearby tables at MaryAnn’s. Maybe we auditioned for the same plays or NYU student films? Who knows?

It’s humbling and comforting that a book can live on after we lose interest or even perhaps pass on from this earthly plane. It can travel from hand to hand and touch soul after soul. Obviously, all art is like that.

So, I don’t really know how many of these San Francisco stories I will read, but I’m glad I bought the book. It seems like it’s already brought me $4 worth of joy. And maybe some day it will find it’s way into the hands of another, and I hope that person will appreciates it, too.

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Undiscovered New York

35mm_10292_061cLast night I dreamed I was walking around on the Upper East Side and I remembered that I wanted to find Sutton Place. It’s a neighborhood where William Inge lived and I’ve added it to my list of places I want to visit when I go to New York in a couple of weeks. Anyway, as I was looking around, trying to get my bearings, I noticed an escalator leading up to something. I didn’t know where I was headed, but thought to myself, hey, I’m on vacation, let’s see where this goes. It carried me up several stories where I found myself in a waiting room of sorts. I talked to the other people there for a while. I texted my friend Eboni seeing what her schedule was so we could get together. I found in my pocket the deposit I needed to deposit to a Chase Bank from the new job on the Upper West Side that I’d just started earlier in the dream. As I sat wondering where I was going to find a Chase, one of the people in the room with me told me that we were actually on a tram car and at that moment, I realized we had departed Manhattan and we were traveling to an island, in a thunderstorm, I might add. “Are we going to Roosevelt Island?” I queried. “Not Roosevelt Island, but similar,” someone answered. The tram deposited us in a desolate area that consisted of 2 Holiday Inn Expresses and 2 gas stations and nothing more than wide open parking lots. This doesn’t look like Roosevelt Island to me, I thought. I asked the cashier at one of the gas stations where the nearest Chase was, he told me it was 10 minutes away. If he meant by car or by foot, I never learned. The next thing I knew I was walking the halls of an apartment complex or perhaps one of the Holiday Inn Expresses and I came across Eboni. She lived there. We laughed and hugged and that’s all of the dream I remember.

I dream about New York frequently. And though different things happen, there is usually a recurring theme: the dream begins with something familiar, like the Upper East Side and then I turn a corner (or get on an escalator) and discover something new, some place that had been there all along and I didn’t know about it. In my dreams I’ve uncovered New York watering holes and mansions and swimming pools and hotels and other secrets. Just last week, I discovered an entire enclave of beautiful, palatial homes, also on the Upper East Side, the most notable being one shaped like a giant skull. (What does that mean?)

In my conscious moments, I love reading about New York history or watching Naked City, filmed on location in NY neighborhoods in the 50’s and 60’s or traveling about on Google Earth, so it only makes sense that I should investigate the same territory in my dreams.

Why New York? I don’t know. Would I dream about LA in the same way if I lived in New York? I doubt it. And I do love LA. Perhaps it’s just that New York will always be my first love. The escape I dreamed of when I was growing up in Kansas. Who knows really, though.

I do know that while there is something vexing about these recurring dreams, I’m comforted too. It’s a shame we don’t accrue frequent flier miles for all the distance we travel in our dreams. We could take a trip around the world.

I Can Catch the Moon in My Hand

FAMEJust a few minutes ago, I finished watching a French movie called Beau Travail that I’d dvr’d on Turner Classic Movies, it is a movie about, wait, never mind, there is no need for me to tell you what the movie is about, there is no reason for you to watch it.  It’s boring and it’s not even long.  For 90 minutes, I sat on my couch, sipping a little whiskey and eating cheese and crackers, wondering why I was watching this movie.  My answer came at the end, or rather, after the end, when after the credits, TCM played a mini-documentary about the making of my favorite movie (one of my favorites, anyway) Fame.

I remember when I saw Fame for the first time.  It was the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year, in the living room of my childhood home (imagine that!) and I watched it on HBO with my cousins Tracey and Stacey who were visiting from Colorado.  I already loved anything theatrical (I was just coming off of that Charlie Brown high from 5th grade) and something about the movie: the songs, the dancing, the acting, hooked into something inside of me, something at my core.  I remember how nervous the Montgomery character made me.  Gosh, I thought, I wouldn’t want to end up like that guy!

And even though I was a land-locked Kansas boy, I dreamed that one day, I would attend the High School for the Performing Arts.  Alas, that did not happen, but I did make my way to New York eventually, and from the minute I stepped off that Greyhound bus, I did feel like I’d entered a city that pulsated like the choreographed, gritty, magical, mercurial 1980 New York that Alan Parker gave me (ME!) in that movie.  And if you’ve been reading this blog, even just a little, you could understand how this movie might have resonated with me through the last 35 years, through every phase of my life.

Which brings me back to tonight, those few minutes ago, when this documentary came on my television.  And I loved watching these young actors, kids at the time, talk about the characters they were playing.  I always think of those actors, Irene Cara, Maureen Teefy, Paul McCrane, Barry Miller and the rest, in this revered way, the way a freshman looks up to the seniors at his high school, but I was struck by the fact that these actors were probably 16 to 20 at the time, just babies.  The documentary showed behind the scenes of filming many musical scenes, including Hot Lunch Jam, I Sing the Body Electric and of course, Fame, where the entire cast is dancing in the street, on car roof tops and such.  Perhaps it was the whiskey, perhaps it was something purer, but I felt the need to rise up and dance along with these teenagers, my idols, as they danced through the streets of Manhattan.

Where am I going with all this?  Well, I’m not completely sure.  I will say that one thing I love about art, be it paintings or music or movies, is it’s propensity to incite time travel.  As I watched this documentary, I was every age I’ve ever been since I first saw the movie.  I was 12 and 17 and 24 and 34 and 39 and 45.  And then I thought how wonderful it is that a movie or anything, really, could make this 45-year-old get up off his couch on a Tuesday night at 10 pm and dance without abandon.  It makes one think that they could live forever.

Guest Blogger, Michele Medlin Laikowski: Mr. Blue Sky

3451142218_b62b4a8380_zWhen I was at the William Inge Festival last Spring, I attended a symposium where the topic of 9/11 came up. A Kansas playwright posed the question, “Did 9/11 personally affect you?” Perhaps because I once lived in New York and have friends that still live there, I was shocked by the question initially, I believed that 9/11 affected everyone. But as the people in the room weighed in, I realized many felt that 9/11 was something very sad, a tragedy to be sure, but not something that affected their day to day lives.

On the morning of 9/11, my Mother woke me up with the phone call telling me that the twin towers had already fallen and that the Pentagon had been attacked. I remember my sleepy brain trying to process what she was saying, it was unreal. And one of my Mother’s most pressing concerns was whether I had talked to my good friend Michele, who at one time had worked at the World Trade Center. This is something my Mother reminded me of on Monday when we were talking about 9/11. So, prompted by the conversation with my Mother and remembering the discussion at the Inge Festival, I asked Michele if she would share on my blog, her memories of that day. Whether you were on Manhattan or 1190 or 2451 or any other number of miles away from that island, I still believe 9/11 affected all of us.

Mr. Blue Sky

On September 11th, 2001, I was early for work. Not particularly unheard of at the time but of note because otherwise, I’d have missed seeing the events come to fruition as they unfolded. I worked at JP Morgan. We had news on 24/7 because the bankers needed to see what the money would do that day. So, coming in, a little early – changing from my sneakers to my heels – sitting in my cube, I heard the panic first in the news reporters voices and then I heard it in the voices of the other employees who were watching and then, I went to the little screen and heard it from the voice in my head. You’ve all seen it, I’m assuming, so you know that feeling of horror and disbelief I experienced. Still to this day, I find it hard to believe. That kind of horror belongs in a picture show and it should have a giant monster behind it – not misguided men who have hate like a tidal wave, flowing out of them. No one should have that much hate. It’s ironic then that what they did that day while hateful bred love that is what I remember most from that period.

Anyway, the day went on and it became apparent that this wasn’t a mistake and the panic in my head made its way out to voicing my concerns to my boss that perhaps, staying put in midtown Manhattan, was possibly not the best option. He tried for business as usual for several hours until he realized that the trains were stopping to run out of Grand Central and he’d be stuck, like the rest of us, on this island. So he hoofed it to the train to his lovely home in Westchester. We got to leave around 10:30/11, my friend, Leigh, who was a temp for some clothing company was forced to stay until something insane like 2 … BECAUSE WHAT IF SOMEONE CALLED THERE. Her location was right next to the Empire State building. We were on the phone for hours until you couldn’t get a signal any more. In retrospect, it may not have been hours. Having a clear view of that day, years later is fraught with half-truths, I’m sure, it’s so hard to know a timeframe beyond once the towers were hit. She was also my neighbor so as soon as she got off, we got together and smoked a ton of cigarettes and drank beer and if it weren’t so awful, it would have been an amazing day. The weather was absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a cloud up in the sky. Well, except for the clouds of smoke that billowed towards us from downtown, the clouds of people grey people making their way home and the clouds of war eminent on the horizon. But, those clouds, were dissipated by the amount of pure love that we all felt for each other that day. I have never in my life seen or felt anything like it. It started on September 11th and it lasted for a month, 2 months – just this feeling of kindness flooding the streets. I don’t wish for this to happen again, it goes without saying, but I would adore to feel that love once more. This will be the 12th year since it happened and for the most part, the majority of NY’ers have moved on and brushed passed it but every year at 8:46 AM, a shiver runs through all of us.

Aspirational Lifestyle

IMG_7180In the mornings that I am not rushed to get out the door, I like to sit at my computer with a cup of coffee and peruse my favorite websites, especially New York Social Diary. It touts itself as my link to society and indeed it is.  I look at the pictures of charity balls and book signings and equestrian events and it’s not hard to imagine that if I’d just stayed in Manhattan a few years more, I would have easily turned into this girl.  My favorite part of the website, however, is the section called Big Old Houses, by John Foreman.  In Big Old Houses, Mr. Foreman will visit mansions, castles, and apartments.  Most of the estates he profiles are in the New York area, but he also visits other places throughout the country.  I love it on every level.  First of all, he does a great job of researching the history of the property and the people who built it and lived there.  He also posts lots of pictures showing what the properties look like now.  Some are fabulously maintained, others less so.  Some are still owned by the family, others are owned by the state or private institutions.  I also like it because as you read more of his posts, he reveals more about himself and he’s a prettty interesting character himself.  I won’t give away all his secrets here, but he does love a kitchen and a bathroom.  And he’s got a soft spot for cats, too.  The first time I heard the term aspirational lifestyle was in reference to the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo.  Ultimately, we watch the show because these women live lives that we aspire to, at least on some level.  We also watch it because they are usually egotistical, alcoholic trainwrecks and we get to feel superior about ourselves for not having their problems.  And if you’ve read just a little bit of Big Old Houses, you know that egotistical, alcoholic trainwrecks have long been part of the fabric of American culture.  But I digress.  The post that warmed my heart the most was the one where Mr. Foreman profiled his own house which I believe is in upstate New York.  He offers a bit of the property’s history and shows a copious amount of pictures and, as he does in all his posts, paints a portrait of the person who lives there.  It is not the most opulent property, some of the furniture should be replaced and it looks like the wallpaper is deteriorating in spots.  He confides that he has rented it for 31 years.  He is an aging homosexual living with antiques and pets and friends and lots of pictures of loved ones.  I can’t help but see a bit of myself in him.  And while I get the sense that his life has not amounted to all that he aspired to, he has riches:  a family that loves him, a few valuable collectible pieces, a great bathroom, a fireplace to keep him warm on a blistery winter night.  One could do worse.

Manhattan, When I was Young

1333647646_real-housewives-of-nyc-zoomThey say that anything is possible.  An example of this is that one of Bravo’s Real Housewives led me to one of my favorite authors.  In early 2012, when I read that someone named Carole Radziwill was going to be one of the new Real Housewives of New York, I picked up her book, What Remains, a New York Times bestseller about her husband and their friendship with his cousin, JFK Jr. and JFK Jr’s wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.  I was moved by her well-written account of love and loss. She wrote in the book about another book Manhattan, When I was Young and how it was a comfort to her during a troubling time.  Talking me into reading a book about New York City is about as difficult as talking me into eating chocolate cake for breakfast.  So, I read it.  The author, Mary Cantwell, broke the book into five different parts, the five different apartments she lived in when she first moved to Manhattan in the 1950’s, first as an unmarried college graduate with a new job into her first years of marriage and early motherhood in the 1960’s.  The book is about her husband and children and jobs, but centrally it’s about a stranger coming to New York and finding their place.  I loved it.  And then I read her other books, American Girl: Scenes from a Small-Town Childhood and Speaking with Strangers: A Memoir.  All three are currently available as a trilogy called Manhattan Memoir.  I read all three in the span of a few days and they are wonderful.  The first is about her childhood, the third is largely about her daughters and travels writing for Mademoiselle and Vogue.  But her second is the one that touched me most.  While I was reading it, I google earthed every address she talked about in the book.  Of course, every building is still there.  And it wasn’t hard to imagine a twenty-something moving to New York, a heart full of dreams, making their way with successes and failures in the big city.  She reminded me of Peggy from Mad Men, but she also reminded me of someone else I know even better.  

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From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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Many times in my adulthood, I have thought about this book I read in my youth where two kids run away to New York and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For whatever reason, I could never remember the name of it. Recently, I was reading the New York Times online and I saw an obituary for an author named E.L. Konigsburg who wrote a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I realized that was the book I remembered, so I ordered it on Amazon and now I am rereading it. It’s a fun read about a twelve year old girl named Claudia who is cautious (about everything but money) and here nine year old brother who is adventurous (about everything but money). I had clearly forgotten much of the story, but reading it now, I have a sense memory of being this small town, Midwestern boy and the book being my window into a new exciting, adventurous world. From the time I was 12 or so, I knew I wanted to live in New York. I didn’t even know why, but I think it was books like this and The Westing Game (and maybe watching Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons and I Love Lucy) that beckoned me softly, “Come, come to Manhattan…” In Konigburg’s book, she describes Claudia and Jamie walking from Grand Central Station to The Met via Madison Avenue. Written in the mid-60’s, it could be my walk today or it could also be a walk I took a hundred times when I lived there in the 90’s. I only lived in New York for three years, and now I visit the city about once a year. I aways feel at home there, yet I also always feel like a 12 year old boy discovering the city for the first time. I’ve now lived in Los Angeles nearly 20 years. And as much as I love LA and my life here, I always get wistful when I think about New York. And just like when From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler took me on a trip there 35 years ago, it’s nice to know I can take the journey again anytime I pick up the right book.