Are Our Best Days Behind Us?

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I’m reading the short stories of John Cheever right now. Something about his characters and themes taps into traits and inclinations that are at the core of who I am. Cheever had/has a fixation on loss, lost youth, lost money, lost hope.  Yesterday, as I was reading one of his short stories, about a character described, at 40, as a middle aged man, I remembered something I had forgotten.  I am middle aged.  And unless I live to be 95, I am on the downward slope of middle age.  But whenever I get worried about my age, I always think of Sarah Jessica Parker who is three years older than me.  At every age, she is beautiful and fashionable and smart and relevant and the thought of her comforts me.

This morning, I read Cheever’s O Youth and Beauty, about a former star athlete who in middle age has money problems and drinks too much. Again, as I drank my morning coffee and sat on the couch reading, I wondered, are my best days behind me?

I remember that hope we had, I had, in our youth that our adult lives would be filled with an abundance of riches. Not just monetary riches, but certainly including those. We would have many friends, many children, many vacations, many pets, many accolades, many successes.

When I was in high school, I was in forensics, and I was sometimes asked to do monologues or scenes at various womens’ clubs in Independence. A small group of us would assemble in a church fellowship hall and entertain the ladies. My piece was always from God’s Favorite by Neil Simon, always a crowd favorite. Even at 16, I could tap into the Charles Nelson Reilly that was gesticulating within me. We’d put on our little show, they’d feed us cookies and tea and sometimes give us a small honorarium, and then we’d be on our way. I’d drive off in my ratty ’65 Mustang and think this was just the beginning of a rich life. Unlimited promise.

Are all of my best days behind me?

As I walked the dogs a few minutes ago, I asked myself that question. How far back in my memory reserve would I have to go to access a really great day, not just a good day, but a special, think of it for years to come day. Maybe even a remember it on your deathbead, a la Claire Fisher from series finale of Six Feet Under, kind of day.

You can imagine my relief when a fairly recent memory popped into my head, from a mere two months ago. Not surprisingly, I was on vacation. Also, not surprisingly, I was in New York.

Eric and I were in New York but during the day he attended a trade show at the Javits Center. I decided that was the day I would go to Governors Island. I’d never been to Governors Island, when I lived in New York, I do not think it was open to the public.

I took the train to the tip of Manhattan and walked to the Ferry terminal, then took the Ferry to Governors Island. I walked around the island, took pictures, posted pictures to Instagram. I boarded the ferry to return to Manhattan. Took more pictures of both islands. Docked in Manhattan and went to Starbucks and bought a water with a gift card my Mom sent me. I visited a gift store I like where I bought vintage looking dog stickers.

I pondered the possibility of taking the subway back to midtown where we were staying, especially since it was 90 degrees, and also, I developed a stomachache from drinking that water so fast. But I decided I would walk until I got tired and then take the subway the rest of the way. I walked from South Street Seaport through Tribeca and Soho into Greenwich Village then by my old apartment on 15th street. I walked up 8th until about 30th and then I jogged over to 9th Avenue. Somewhere around 23rd, the thought of a flower topped chocolate cupcake from Cupcake Cafe popped into my head. How long it had been since I’d had one of those cupcakes? Ten years? Fifteen? When I got to 9th Avenue, the bakery was not where I remembered it but across the street. Had they moved or had I remembered it incorrectly? I bought my cupcake. I considered eating it at one of the handful of dusty tables, but decided I would take it back to the hotel and eat it there in the blasting air conditioning. I walked up 9th Avenue with the intent to also buy a sandwich at Amy’s Breads but at Amy’s Breads, at 2:30 p.m., the sandwich pickings were slim. So I ambled up and got a turkey sandwich at the French bistro near our hotel. I ate my feast in our room, half interested in an episode of Catfish playing on MTV. I took a shower and Eric texted me to say we would meet for drinks at Soho Grand before our dinner at Balthazar. I had a few hours to kill so I decided to visit a museum on the Upper West Side where an Al Hirschfeld exhibit was ongoing. I walked from our hotel, around Columbus Circle then up Central Park West. I took pictures of some of the more stately apartment building along the avenue. I’d walked by them a hundred times before but I hoped that because I was taking pictures of them now, I would remember the names and the details. Was the Dakota above or below the San Remo?

When I got to the museum, I found that they were closing in less than an hour and admission was almost $20, so I decided not to go in. I’ll never know how many Ninas I might have discovered inside the New York Historical Society. On 81st, I turned to walk west, inspired by the thought that it had been many years since my last visit to Riverside Park. On 81st and West End, I happened upon The Calhoun School, famous because the building itself looks like a giant television. I took a picture and sent it to friends via Facebook. On Sundays, when I lived in New York, I attended a church that had services there. I tagged Yvonne and Tania and Sarah in the picture I posted, I would have tagged Dana but she isn’t on Facebook.

From there I kept walking and as I crossed Riverside Drive, I remembered an episode of Naked City that was filmed there. How could the street look almost the same 50 years later? Has there ever been a city as unmoved yet everchanging as New York? I walked into the park. It’s no Central Park, I thought to myself. But I walked south until I discovered the Seventyninth Street Boat Basin. I considered stopping for a glass of wine. I remembered that I’d actually woke up a little hungover that morning. Too much bourbon at Bemelman’s and Robert and the Ritz-Carlton the night before. So I kept walking. I walked down the parkway along the Hudson River, marvelling at the stunning views of the water and the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey. I thought about how growing up (in Kansas) I always pictured New Jersey as an ugly, undesirable state and obviously, now I knew how wrong I was. I grew to love New Jersey decades ago.

I walked south to a new park with a fancy, sophisticated walkway and then I headed back to Columbus Circle. It was 5:30 and after my industrious walk, I was sweaty again. I decided to go back to the hotel to take another shower.

I was a little late to the Soho Grand, but Eric and our friend were enjoying cocktails and Sriracha-coated peas when I joined them. Believe it or not, I did not order a cocktail.

From there we had dinner at Balthazar, which was good. And then I can’t remember what else we did. Did we walk around Rockefeller Center and then up 5th Avenue? Did we go for drinks at the Ritz-Carlton again, then along Central Park South back to our hotel? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Years from now, I might remember it incorrectly, that we hopped into a cab and sang songs around the piano at Marie’s Crisis or that we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight. And if that’s the way I remember it, that’s okay. No reason to getted bogged down by the facts.

Besided the hangover, the stomach ache, the pervasive heat, the not getting to see the Hirschfeld exhibit, I also had to contend with moments of melancholy and anxiety throughout this special day. Like a Cheever protagonist, melancholy and anxiety, and self-absorption for that matter, are part of who I am in my core. And yet, I will always remember this day fondly, importantly.

I walked 23.58 miles that day. I know that because I tweeted it that night when I got back to the hotel. I was proud of what I accomplished. I take my visits to New York very seriously, but you already know that.

Already, Eric and I are planning our next visit. I have to wrap this post up in a speedy manner or else I will be late to work. Forgive any mispelled words or dangling modifiers, maybe I’ll go back to fix my errors when I have time.

So off to work, I’ll go. Sometime during my day, I’ll check Kayak for flight and hotel deals. I’ll remember a museum that I wanted to make it to in August and I’ll go to their website and see what exhibits they’ll be showing at the end of January, beginning of February. Maybe I’ll finally make a reservation for us to eat lunch at The Four Seasons or Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court. Still planning a bright future.

We must do what we can to prove that our best days are before us.

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SJP and Me

HT_sjp_vogue_interview_ml_130212_16x9_992If you’re one of those types who enjoys reading about the times I have embarrassed myself, you’re in luck. There is a little bit of that in this story. If you love reading about celebrities and how they behave in public, you’re also in luck. This story is about a famous person.

After working in restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for over 20 years, I sometimes feel that I have seen it all. Nearly every famous person I have wanted to see, I have seen, usually in a restaurant setting. Also, many famous people I have no desire to see in person I have seen. I’ve become fans of people who I knew little about simply on the basis of the kindness they offered me or my co-workers. (Maxwell, are you reading this?) I have also stopped liking people, stopped going to their movies or watching their tv shows or downloading their music, in part, because of the way a particular interaction went. I don’t need to name names, I’ll wait until the next time I’m a little drunk or hopped up on Ambien to do that.

It was a Sunday morning, a couple of years ago. Fall of 2012, to be exact. I looked up from the host stand to see Sarah Jessica Parker, SJP herself, approaching me with a smile. Standing beside her friend, she asked if they could have a table outside, even though they were only planning to have coffees. I told her it was absolutely fine to just have drinks and I grabbed two menus and we headed to the patio, which I’ve mentioned before, is one of the most stunning views in Beverly Hills. It looks out on the Hollywood Hills and it is a beacon of possibility for anyone who has ever dined, or perhaps, more importantly, worked there. I don’t know how many times I looked up while taking a complicated order on Table 47 to see the vista, on a clear day it includes the Hollywood Sign, and think, there is always HOPE that this could one day be mine too.

On this Sunday morning, as we were walking to the table, SJP asked me, “You look very familiar, do we know each other?” “No, we’ve never met.” She told me that I had a particular look on my face when she approached and she wondered how she knew me. I told her that my look was, now, I can finally check her off my list of stars I’ve always wanted to see, but haven’t seen yet. (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd.) She told me that I reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t figure it out. To my minor credit, I refrained from telling her that sometimes, some people, tell me I remind them of her BFF Andy Cohen.

They landed at the table, I asked if they knew what they’d like to drink, and one of them ordered an iced tea, the other an iced latte.
I went into the waiter’s station, even though I was not waiting tables and started making the drinks. My good friend Kristin, whose table it was, told me she could make the drinks, since it was her table. I shooed her away with an unnecessarily terse, “I GOT it!” “But it’s my table!” (Kristin is one of those dramatic types.) I can’t remember how it went down, but I think I let her bring the drinks to the table. But there is a chance I did not let her.

In my 15 years that I worked at Barney Greengrass, there were certain stars that when they came in, it shifted the dynamic of the entire day. Everyone was suddenly a little happier because of their brush with something that felt magical. It could be said that it’s about fame, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I think it’s about seeing a person who on screen or in music or on stage or on paper has somehow lived your story or the story you wish you were living. And let’s be honest, they probably did it better and prettier and more stylishly dressed than you.

I checked in on SJP and her friend a little later. She asked if there was a possibility I could do something to get them into the women’s shoe department before the store itself opened. I told her I would see what I could do. When I returned to tell her my manager was working on it, she again, asked me why I looked familiar to her. And in my defense, this WAS September or October of 2012. “Well, I have a Subway commercial running right now, maybe that’s it.” SJP paused. I looked at her friend who, understandably, rolled her eyes, un peu. Oh, God, Ray, you are an idiot, I thought. To make it worse, I mimed my action in the commercial, doing the $5 sub hand wave. “No, I don’t think that’s it.” Awkward moment. “But that’s great that you’re in a commercial.” It seemed like in that moment she was truly happy for me that I was in a (national, I might add) commercial, that she understood how hard of an industry this was. But still, I felt stupid, I should have played my cards a little closer to the vest. I should have just said, “I really don’t know why I look familiar, but I will definitely take it as a compliment.” My manager saved the day by coming to the table to tell the ladies that someone was waiting for them in women’s shoes. The ladies thanked both of us profusely. Not much later, they left, graciously thanking and saying good-bye to my manager and me, addressing us by our names. And though it’s a little indelicate to discuss such matters, they left their waitress Kristin a very generous tip.

I walked on cloud nine for the rest of the day. Kristin told me that I was in the wrong to not let her go to her table, I agreed. But nobody’s perfect. “Even Carrie and Miranda fought sometimes,” I told Kristin.

I’ve told the story of SJP and me probably over 100 times now, to anyone who will listen. If Eric had a dollar for every time he’s had to sit through one of my spirited retellings, we could buy a brownstone in Greenwich Village. It’s a story that stuck.

All my life, people have asked me why I work in restaurants. When are you going to grow up and get a real job? I don’t know. There are perks, for sure, I love food and love working in proximity to it. I love people who work in restaurants, those band of minstrels types. But, honestly, there is just something about that brush, since my second day of work at Popover Cafe, a handful of days after getting off a Greyhound from Kansas at Port Authority, when I waited on Andre Gregory and the person training me asked, “Do you know who that is? That’s the guy from My Dinner with Andre.” And I did know who it was, I had seen My Dinner with Andre on HBO.

Everyone is a commodity, especially in this social media culture. As I said earlier, there are actors and singers and writers that I will never want to personally make richer solely based on the treatment I received in the few minutes or, in some cases, hours, I spent with them. But as with SJP, there are those days, when you meet someone whose work you’ve always loved and they treat you like they are really taking you in, maybe complimenting the shirt you got from Land’s End or your Warby Parker glasses or the smile you got from your parents, and maybe you talk a little about plays or books or the best place in LA to get a mai-tai. Those days are the days. The brush. And it’s not about celebrity, not in any TMZ sort of way, anyway. It’s about one person saying to another person, “I see you.”

Cream Pies and Such

52162Last night, I did a storytelling show.  It went “okay.”  I’m not going to exaggerate, it wasn’t horrible.  But I will say, it didn’t turn out the way I’d envisioned.  When I was writing it, and practicing it, I had a feeling it was going to be something jubilatory.  I thought it was going to be like the end of Lucas where Corey Haim goes to his locker, finds the letter jacket and everyone does the slow clap and chants “Lucas, Lucas, Lucas,” until he puts it on and triumphantly lifts his arms in the air (roll credits).  My night was decidedly less than that.  I got a few “that was sweet”s and that was pretty much it.

Today, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why last night bothered me so much.  It wasn’t an all-out failure, and goodness knows, I’ve seen my share of all-out failures.  Still, I felt confident about what I wrote, I thought it was craftily woven together.  There was a Fred Gwynne reference that I didn’t explain and I arrogantly thought to myself, if they don’t know who Fred Gwynne is, I don’t want their (blank)-ing laughs.  As it turned out, I did not get them.

Me being me, I stewed about it all day and then tonight, I had a little a-ha moment.  It’s possible that everything really does begin and end with Sex and the City because I remembered Michael Patrick King talking in an interview about the cream pie, how whenever any of the girls thought they had something figured out, they got a cream pie in the face.  And on some level, that’s why we loved the show and them.  

I remember many years ago, I was in Miami doing a play and had met a guy and we’d had a few dates.  And at the play’s opening night party, he was there.  Also in attendance was (surprise!) my on again, off again (his choice) boyfriend from LA.  I felt like Archie Andrews having to juggle Betty and Veronica.  And of course, it all backfired.  It was the last I saw of either one of them.  And I thought then, just like I thought last night, will it ever be my turn to just be the king?  When will it ever be my turn to be Charlie Sheen back when he was cute?  I was Lucas at 16 and Lucas at 26 and guess what, I’m still Lucas.  Would it have killed the universe for me to have sauntered onto that stage, brimming with hubris and unapologetically kicked ass?  Just once?

So now, I sit at my computer, a little buzzed from all the Maker’s Mark I drank while watching Burt Lancaster wear a Speedo for 97 minutes in the The Swimmer.  He was 53 years old when he made the movie and my body has never looked like that. HE was the king.  I, on the other hand, write about kings, dreaming that still someday, somehow, I will be one.

 

The Family Stone

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So, I love this movie. Diane Keaton. Rachel McAdams. SJP. I have two favorite scenes, one I won’t talk about, because it’s at the end and I don’t want to ruin the ending if you haven’t seen it. This is the other one. I saw The Family Stone twice in the theatres and the third time I saw it was in 2006 in a hotel room in Pismo Beach. That fall, I won a significant amount of money on a game show, and that year, my Christmas present to my parents was a trip up the California coast, on me. As a person who has mostly worked in restaurants, up to that point in my life, I had had few opportunities to splurge on my parents. We went to Hearst castle, ate nice meals, walked on the beach, visited Mission San Luis Obispo. We brought my two dogs at the time, Lucy and Mandy, who loved running on the resort’s expansive grounds. One night, after dinner, we were in the room, I may or may not have been drinking a couple glasses of sauvignon blanc, The Family Stone came on tv. I’d seen it before, I can’t remember if my parents had seen it before, but we watched it together, The Family Barnhart. Whenever I watch gay things with my parents I notice things I didn’t notice before. I seriously didn’t know how ribald Will and Grace was until I watched an episode sitting beside my mother. When I was in my 20s, I was in a gay play where every character got naked, but it wasn’t until my parents were in the audience that I realized, hey, they talk a LOT about sex in this play! But I digress. It’s 2006 and we are in this somewhat luxurious hotel room in a resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean and we are watching The Family Stone and THIS scene starts. And I lose it. LOSE IT. Oprah’s Ugly Cry. My parents are sitting on their bed, my dogs and I are on my bed and tears are bursting out of my eyesockets and I’m trying not to shudder for fear they notice what’s going on. Why did I react this way? In as few words as possible? Maybe it’s a gay thing, maybe it’s a not so successful actor thing, maybe it’s a working 25 years in restaurants thing, but I’ve always felt like I’ve disappointed my parents a little. But here I was treating them to this wonderful vacation that they deserved, it was in fact, overdue. And suddenly, I was happy and sad and wistful and proud and ashamed and tipsy and silly and all the other things that make me me. I don’t know if they noticed my blubbering (how could they not?), but they’ve never mentioned it. And time has eased the embarrassment when I recall the evening, it’s actually turned it into a beautiful memory of time spent with my parents. Fortunately for me, one of many.

Where would you go?

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Sometimes when I am at Happy Hour with a group of friends or bored at work (which is never, because I always work very hard and the people I work with always work very hard) I like to play a little game called “Where would you go?” The rules are simple. When you get home tonight, you will find a bundle of cash ($25,000) that MUST be spent on a one week vacation and you have to leave first thing in the morning. You can’t save the money or give it away. You must spend the entire amount on your vacation. Where would you go? I love to hear people’s answers. Hawaii, New York, France, Vietnam, India, U.S. road trip, Machu Picchu. I believe the vacation we dream about says much about us. As for me, my answer is always the same, Paris. I’ve never been and have always dreamed of going. Like Carrie Bradshaw tells Aleksandr Petrovsky’s annoying daughter in the penultimate episode of Sex and the City, I’ve only been there in the movies. And television, and books, and Google Earth. I have ALMOST visited Paris a few times, but each time, a plan changes and I don’t go. It feels like I’ve been there. I’ve included the link to a movie called Paris Je T’aime. Twenty short films by twenty different directors make up the movie, my favorite being “14e Arrondissement” about a postal worker from Denver visiting Paris for the first time. It wouldn’t be the gem that it is without Margo Martindale’s performance. And every time I see it, her visit is my visit. We walk the streets, stare at the view from our hotel room, go to the Eiffel Tower, practice our French, and sit on a park bench and eat that really delicious looking sandwich. Watching the movie is a five minute vacation from my ordinary life. The reason I love my little game is it gives me a chance to close my eyes and, for a few moments, imagine myself in an exotic location. So, I’d go to Paris. But enough about me, where would YOU go?