Back into the world of Howard Barker’s writing with PTPNYC. This play is so great, and such a challenge. The role of Hamlet that I’ve taken on is quite unlike that of Mr. Shakespeare’s. We run July 5th – August 5th at Atlantic Stage 2 in NYC. Go to ptpnyc.org for more info!
I’m honored to be nominated for the 2014 Outstanding Solo Performance Drama Desk Award for THIS IS MY OFFICE. Learning and performing the piece was the biggest challenge of my career, and one that had me grow in so many ways. I am all gratitude to writer Andy Bragen, director Davis McCallum, and producer Kate Loewald, and everyone else at the Play Company who worked so hard to create this experience. Also I am grateful to the people who came to see the show–you all taught me so much about relating from a simple place of truth. My continual practice was to talk to you with ease and patience, and aim for an unforced connection. Sometimes I was more successful than others. When I got in my head, I felt you far away, and everything about me would begin to unravel, but when our eyes relaxed, and we allowed each other in, you gave me the courage to speak more from my heart, to honor the vulnerability of Andy’s story, and then we all got to be carried along. Thank you.
When I was performing Pericles at Berkeley Rep last Spring, I borrowed a cast mate’s ukulele, and my interest in the little four stringed devil has continued. Click on the “Notebook” tab above to play a song I just recorded using my phone, from Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ Raising Sand. It plays from the Notebook page (which you may already be on). And thanks for listening to this not-quite-so-young-anymore dog learning a new trick!
CLICK HERE to see the terrific promo they made for THIS IS MY OFFICE. It has been a tremendous experience so far!
I am excited to perform my first one man show: THIS IS MY OFFICE, by Andy Bragen, directed by Davis McCallum. It has been a rigorous process so far, and I know that we’re up to something unique and special. I perform Nov 11 – Dac 8 in a beautiful raw space at 210 East 43rd St. For more info and tickets click HERE.
Howard Barker in his own words best conveys the context from which his extraordinary plays—or what he has dubbed the Theater Of Catastrophe—are written. His manifesto Arguments For A Theater is as unflinching an examination of contemporary theater as any I’m aware of (including the writing of Polish director Tadeusz Kantor), making his essays vital reading for anyone in the profession. Here is an excerpt from Barker’s essay The Theater Lies Under A Shroud:
The Political Theater remains what it always was—what it must be, since politics is the art of simplification—psychologically shallow and a trumpet call to actions no one will perform, a dutiful raising of conscience (if not consciousness) that elevates the dramatist to the preposterous position of The One Who Knows.
Many modern playwrights tend to focus on myopic issues that appease a liberal conscience such that people—those wealthy enough to afford it—can consume their morsel of reassurance, and go home with their expectations gratified. Barker writes, “The theater of humanism seeks a single end, the satisfaction of the bargain struck between the purchasers of comfort and the suppliers of delight.” Somehow, two parents grappling over how they’ll deal with the fact that their six year-old may be gay is seen as boundary shifting, and in the brochure of a major NYC theater I am now reading of a new play that’s touted as a “thoughtful comedy and sweet polemic.” In my opinion, Television is far more daring now than the conventional theater, and a documentary such as Josh Oppenheimer’s recent The Act Of Killing more mercilessly penetrating and rattling than anything I’ve ever seen. There are of course many outstanding theater artists alive and well—Daniel Kitson, Caryl Churchill, Ivo Van Hove (to name a very few), but let’s not overlook the rarely produced Howard Barker, whose work is so uncompromising and Shakespearian in scope that it stands alone in so far as he’s willing to bite off more than anyone else will chew. He writes:
In mass society, great art is never socially desired, for it declines the offer of instant gratification, it defies the ordinance to entertain, and repudiates the collective will. Modern tragedy, which I have elsewhere described as Catastrophist, sins against the suffocating burden of the Brechtian and Stanislavskian method, with their narrowly conceived objectives and repressive pursuits of clarities. It celebrates the complexity of motivation, it enhances contradiction and extols the beauty of language against the naturalistic, populist and mechanistic meters of the street. It proclaims the theater as the natural resort of poetry and therefore insists on a new acting. The political dramatist is above all concerned with the narrow goal of communication – the tragic dramatist with complication; the political dramatist begins from the assumption that the audience shares beliefs, the tragic dramatist from the desire to break the solidarity of his audience into atoms.
I have acted in four Barker plays—A Hard Heart, Scenes From An Execution, Victory, and The Castle, and they have all provided me with extremely fertile ground to grow as an artist. Acting in his plays is eventually wicked fun, but not before passing through the requisite stages of despondency (“I should just hang it up”), frustration (“I’m working too hard!”), and fear (“How can I live up to this?”). Playing the bawdy, deranged King Charles in Victory is the most electric I’ve felt on stage, but it is playing Stucley in The Castle that has been the most rewarding, in terms of just plain learning to be a better actor. It was not really until the last two performances at Atlantic Stage 2 that I allowed myself the courage to trust coming from a place of ease and simplicity in delivering what is the densest text I’ve ever had to perform. And what I found is that after wrestling with the material so long to make it lucid for the audience, surrendering to its mess of contradictions finally offered me and the audience a far greater world of surprise, danger, and truth. There are so many contradictions for the actor playing Stucley to invest in—he is a brave knight and wounded child, he is a poetic dreamer and petty tyrant, he is a charismatic leader and lost soul, etc…, and ultimately it is in existing (and reveling) in these contradictions, whilst avoiding the need to provide precise explanations of motivation, that sets the actor loose to explore Barker’s huge imagined universes. And as in all theater, after the actor has done all the work, he must commit himself to the Art of Unknowing. It takes great confidence and vulnerability not to know, and it takes a bold assurance to throw oneself headlong into theater that has no “message.” Barker’s form of tragedy has you leave your morals at the door, for to him the actor’s greatest crime is his urge to educate, elucidate, or edify, to “serve an age obsessed with accessibility.”
Stucley is besieged by calamity at every turn—he returns home from seven years of fighting the Crusades to find his territory has been turned into a raggedy matriarchal commune, his adored wife and mother figure Ann (for whom he has remained chaste) no longer loves him and has copulated with interlopers, he has been betrayed by the very God he yearned to serve, the massive castle he builds is outdone by a neighboring kingdom, he is betrayed by his Arab architect/father figure Krak, pregnant Ann commits suicide before his very eyes, as do many other townswomen who jump off the high walls he has erected. It’s a lot. So it could be seductive to play him as always sardonic, angry, and cold. But director Richard Romagnoli guided me to play him as a man who celebrated his pain, and who invited the audience into his suffering with open arms. Often I spoke directly to the audience, and this in turn propelled the action of the play. It was a great training ground for me to essentially play the positive choice. Our attack may even have run against Barker’s intentions, as he wishes his audiences to face their own pain remotely, not as a collective. But it was this very link with the audience that I think kept the work from ever becoming “too important” or sanctimonious.
Another lesson came from the long scene I had with the terrific actor Brent Langdon, in which Stucley creates with the priest Nailor the new church of Christ The Lover (“I am of the opinion Christ slagged Magdalene”). Half way through the run we fell into the trap of knowing that the scene was funny, which of course made it less and less funny. It always “worked,” but it was feeling forced. With only a couple shows left in the run I asked Richard, “What’s missing in that scene?” and he replied, “Just play it straight, and let us discover it’s funny.” What a relief it was then to stop driving the humor of the scene down the audience’s throats and allow them to find it funny (or not!) as Brent and I simply engaged with each other and told the story, which indeed came back to life. I find that at some point in every process I run up against a tendency–or urge–to do too much, to “sell the scene” (as if sheer effort could ever mask an actor’s insecurities). I can over-employ certain natural gifts I have–be they my verbal dexterity, or movement, or ability to energetically fill large spaces–to essentially fool people, to impress them. I’m not trusting in those moments that I, in all of my imperfection, am enough. That that is what people actually come to the theater to witness. But when I catch myself in labor, or when someone I trust spots it for me, I remember the counseling of my NYU Grad Acting teacher Ron Van Lieu: “You have to tolerate yourself. You have to tolerate yourself.” You do, in acting, and in life, you must tolerate yourself, for if in the midst of such uncertainty (or self loathing even) you give yourself that space, you will be giving yourself a space to simply be. And then anything is possible.
Naturally, some material challenges the actor more than other material. Acting Barker requires a tremendous muscularity and epic sense of passion, but as I’ve stated above it also requires the actor to dance with a light touch. Jan Maxwell, who has headlined three of the Barker plays I’ve done with PTPNYC, has a stunning gift for delivering barrages of language with easy fluidity, deft humor, and raw, vicious power. Her most recent performance as Skinner in The Castle was titanic. She gets it somewhere deep within: Barker’s language begs to be spoken. The British actor Ian McDiarmid said in the 80’s, “He writes what I want to say,” and I hope that 100 years from now, actors and directors will be saying the same, for his writing will certainly be as prescient tomorrow as it is today. The plays are a gorgeous and necessary wound gashed into the landscape of both tradition and popular culture, or as Barker puts it, “The Theater of Catastrophe is not the comfort of a cruel world, but the cruelty of the world made manifest and found to be – beautiful.”
Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of THE CASTLE is great for the PTPNYC company. I am so proud to be a part of this production. Click HERE to read it.
Below is a link to San Francisco’s public radio KALW interview with me about Pericles:
The play is a fun project to discuss.
We are about midway through the run of Pericles at Berkeley Rep, and now the play and role live in my bones enough to where I may speak about them with a modicum of authority. Firstly, it is a great pleasure to be a part of this production, and for that matter any production directed by Mark Wing-Davey. He prizes a kind of spontaneity and invention that keeps everyone on their toes, and if you’re game enough to live in a constant state of not knowing, then creating with him is terrific fun. He is one of several directors I have worked with who are passionately lead by their own curiosity, a curiosity that trumps their need for final Results, and I believe this in turn often produces more interesting results than the conventional kind of theater that dominates most stages. Mark enjoys making art in the moment, and on the day it’s your turn to develop a scene with him, you better be ready to make lots of offers, even if they’re terrible. Otherwise the train will leave the station without you. He’s not interested in someone safely sitting back and waiting to be told what to do–that’s boring; he wants his actors to be brave and “front foot”. Apologetic acting, or in other words the kind of acting where people are more consumed by a desire to get something right than their drive to explore, cuts off any kind of dialogue with a director like Mark. In his rehearsal hall, the goal is to inspire the unearthing of as many unexpected gems as possible. And I think we have found many of those in Pericles. There is a moment in the show, for example, when I come onstage with my baby daughter Marina in order to hand her over to Queen Dionyza for safe keeping while I make a long sea journey back to Tyre to rule my neglected city. In rehearsals, we were using bundles of cloth to represent the child, but something was missing. So I grabbed a somewhat life-like doll that the props department had provided, and I said to Mark, “I know we don’t want to be too on the nose here, but let’s work with the doll a bit.” Then his face lit up, and he said, “Oh I know! You should change her nappy!” He had suddenly recalled the immediacy and intimacy of changing his own daughter’s diaper when she was a baby, and he went on to say, “Anita will show you how to fold a nappy out of cloth.” A couple minutes later Mark’s wife (who plays Gower in the production) was instructing me on a sweet little act of diaper origami that now is my physical action in the scene as I say goodbye to my baby girl for what may be many years. And we use (and bring to life) the doll. This action roots Shakespeare in a quotidian reality that anyone can recognize, and that oddly lends the scene more pathos. Plus it’s funny–baby made a poo poo, oh and make sure to wipe the little vagina, but with the clean corner of the cloth! Mark’s direction is that of intelligent irreverence.
There are so many other discoveries I could discuss–the massive amount of water in the storm scene that’s sprayed by Gower on our boat made out of a wooden plank atop exposed springs, the fishermen repairing a real outboard motor that flies in like a deus ex machina, or the most fun sex scene I’ve ever done (how many have you done David?) in which my legs and bare ass are flopping high in the air as I bang away at my new bride Thaisa before we both share a ridiculous orgasm (Mark’s collaborator Jim Calder and the very game actress Jessica Kitchens were instrumental in developing this sequence). All of these gestures among many more fit the hodgepodge of multiple times and places in this play. And while the direction is not constrained by any formality of how Shakespeare should be done, it is rigorous in its demand for truth, as opposed to what Steven Colbert has coined as the pitfalls of “Truthiness”. Mark talks of the “thingness of the thing,” which is to say not the illusion of something, but the actual thing itself. And so to go back to the boat for a moment, no one is trying to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes by constructing something that looks like a real boat; rather we endow the plank on four exposed springs with “boatness” while we literally struggle to maintain balance in our rain gear as we get sprayed to hell with water. The action aims to involve elements that are irrefutably based in Fact. There are more extreme examples of this out there, like someone onstage getting a buzz cut, or a tattoo, or preparing a casserole–I love to be in an audience for stuff like that, the space is awake because you know that what’s happening is actually happening. For a great example of this, check out this VIDEO of the work of director Romeo Castellucci that one of my favorite directors Phil Soltanoff turned me on to.
This demand for “truth” of course extends to how we are asked to act as well. During the first week of rehearsals for Pericles, we meticulously actioned our scenes with transitive verbs–for example with any given line the character boosts the other, or provokes her, or cudgels him, etc… By coupling specific verbs to every sentence the actor speaks, the dialogue is steered away from general lyricism or beauty for its own sake, and grounded in real human interaction. Mark also advises his actors to resist playing the emotion of a scene by in effect “delaying the event,” which is his way of saying yes I know you’ve read the play, but make sure you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next, or where you’re going, or how you’ll get there! This is hardly an earth shattering new revelation, but I admire anyone who is a real stickler for calling actors out on their bullshit, mine especially. Mark is one of the least judgmental people I’ve ever known, and yet a real straight shooter. So when he calls you out on your crap–”David your habit is to collapse in on yourself or become very arch when your choices are not active or specific”–it’s not too different than if he were observing, “The ceiling is high in this room,” or “That rug is red”. He’s not interested in shaming actors into submission; he is unreservedly sharing observations that ideally will heighten an actor’s awareness. He assumes your ego can take it, because after all making theater is not about ego, it’s about what serves or doesn’t serve the art.
Taking on this role has posed an interesting challenge. Shakespeare is in essence the inventor of psychological drama; no playwright before him delved so deeply and brilliantly into the human psyche. With characters such as Hamlet, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff, Juliet, Richard III, and many more, the audience enters into the rich psychology of these people. Not necessarily so with Pericles. He is written much more two dimensionally as an archetypical hero of decency who suffers a string of calamities before experiencing the mercy of the gods. Shakespeare (and whoever else may have written the play with him) present the equivalent of a good old campfire yarn told by the reincarnated Gower. So for me in this process, I had to work at embodying an innocence and youthful naivete not encumbered by my own tendency to analyze and self reflect. Whereas I was guided to flesh out a real man from the text, and allowed great latitude to come up with my own quirky choices with a very playful ensemble, pursuing a complexity of thought as the Prince Of Tyre was never what we were after. Maintaining his bright eyed innocence properly sets up his later fall from grace, and ultimate restitution of faith.
Finally, where the play asks us to be simple, I think we keep it so. The final reuniting scene of father and daughter in Pericles is an exquisite piece of writing, and a real privilege to perform. I remind myself that my job is mostly to get out of the way of the writing, and simply open myself to however it passes through me and my acting partner Annapurna. Some nights it drops in more than others, but regardless what I think is so powerfully moving about the scene is how it speaks to the bond between all fathers and daughters, all parents and children, and the possibility for redemption in the face of tremendous loss. And it is a part of the play that asks me to simply connect to my own humanity in a way I’m not sure I ever have before on stage. It has had me grow. And for that I’m grateful.
Patrick Weishampel is a terrific photographer who took all the photos of the production of Venus In Fur that I recently performed in Portland, OR. Aside from helping theaters document their shows, he engages in his own compelling art. Check out his website: blankeyestudios.com
We are midway through rehearsals for PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE at Berkeley Rep, and I am thoroughly enjoying this process with director Mark Wing-Davey and my grad school teacher Jim Calder. What a gift it is to work on a style of theater making this imaginative, this generous, this unapologetic, this human… It is my first time as an actor playing the whole scope of a man’s life, from his boisterous youth to his broken, embittered, and finally beatific old age. A challenge and a privilege.
My character in Venus In Fur often waxes poetic, so for opening night I thought it only appropriate to acknowledge my co-star in verse:
My Madam my Mistress my Master my God
It’s really no wonder they laugh and applaud
For your passion, your prowess, and powers that please
There go I again with those beautiful P’s
And though many a time I can act like a knave
It’s been my true honor to be your poor slave
You’re giving, you’re fierce, you’re fun, you’re my muse
Goddamn how I love to smell your rank shoes
And as if all of that weren’t more than enough
You’ve got what it takes to act in the buff!
HAIL APHRODITE! I’m the luckiest Tom
To have you as my Vanda and you as my domme
From St Louis to Singapore I think you must know
That regardless of where all you goddesses go
There’s only one Venus curled up like a cat
Who can spring into brilliance, wit, grace, and who that
From her lavender eyes to her perfect sized breast
Is heads hearts and tails above all the rest
It’s you dearest Ginny, you sweet southern belle
Who lights up the stage and who does it so well
That the gods of Olympus have come from afar
I saw one today on a PDX streetcar!
They’re filling the lobby, buying tickets in droves
They’re coming downstairs, how many who knows
So now from these heights I too must descend
To simply say thank you, my partner and friend.
David Ives’ VENUS IN FUR, directed by Nancy Keystone, will run January 29th – March 10th 2013 at Portland Center Stage. My sparring partner is the lovely Ginny Myers Lee. We are having a blast, and so will the audience. Visit the theater’s website for DETAILS.
When the lights went out at 9:20pm on October 30th, I was at my computer. I figured the electricity would be restored by morning. I had no idea that a giant green fireball had ignited the sky above Con Edison’s 14th St. power plant, and that everywhere below 39th St. would remain dark for nearly six days.
I live on 35th St. and Third Avenue, so it was an easy shot for me to walk into the light and ordinary hum of Midtown Manhattan. But I spent the first two days post “Super Storm” Sandy holed up at home with no cell service or internet, eating all my perishable food. Then on the third night, I walked three miles to my friend Arthur’s place on the Upper East Side to make some calls, check email, and watch the news. Apart from the gridlock clogging Third Avenue as thousands of cars made their exodus from downtown, nothing up there had changed. It was Halloween, and revelers passed me in ghoulish costumes, while people half an island away worried about the very real specters of looters trying to bust into buildings and stores. They were quietly cooped in dark apartments, bundled up, eating out of cans if they didn’t have gas stoves to heat their food. And of course beyond in Staten Island, Long Beach, the Rockaways, Hoboken, and the entire Jersey Shore, many people fared far worse. Fifteen minutes of CNN was enough to know that the aftermath of Sandy’s terrible force was very bad. “Let’s get you a good meal,” Arthur said. “And a drink.”
Restaurants uptown were booming, with long lines outside Arthur’s favorite haunts, so we settled for a Mexican joint on 80th and Lex – got a corner spot with a good view of everyone out on the town. I caught the eye of a woman in a black cloak, her face painted like a skull – and instantly I pictured the two little boys from the news. They’d been ripped from their mother’s arms by the sea after her SUV stalled in Staten Island. Their bodies were found 100 yards apart from each other at the end of a dead-end street. Inside the restaurant, everyone was eager to carouse. To our left, a table of four “Pharoahs” ate, wearing golden cloaks and headpieces, leaving me half wondering if their costumes were ironic allusions to the biblical flood some historians say drowned much of ancient Egypt.
By midnight, I’d crossed back over the border that separated the flashing lights and packed bars of “civilization” from the no man’s land of lower Manhattan. Except for the recurring wail of emergency vehicles, our side of the city had the same hush as after a blizzard. Alone in bed, I pictured hundreds of couples around me getting it on. Work was suspended, and there wasn’t much else (or better) to do in the pitch dark but fuck. I had plumbing, a gas stove, flashlights, batteries, candles, a down comforter, and more than enough rice, beans, and soup – everything necessary to settle in for a long tryst. But instead I slept and slept, for once obeying that long neglected diurnal urge of our biology: when there is no light, go to sleep.
With the return of daylight, I read and cleaned, actually washed the floors, brought order to my little world while the larger one was sorting through the wreckage. I was beginning to get used to my modest privations, and the simplicity of staying at home, but I also had the nagging sense I should see what was going on downtown. I scrounged my bike out of storage, filled the tires, oiled the chain, and headed first for the East River. The water had come in hard and fast, turning the deep pit of a construction site on 35th St. into a square block lake. Trees all along Stuyvesant Town were down, and the water line measured high up the concrete partition on the opposite side of the FDR Drive. Water was still being pumped out of basements and parking garages. Debris was everywhere, and some industrious citizens were out cleaning up the park by the Williamsburg Bridge. I turned into Alphabet City and Chinatown, and right away noticed how eerie things felt the further I rode south. I imagined how frayed people’s nerves must be climbing flights of dark stairs in the public housing projects – food spoiling in warm fridges, no water to flush festering toilets. Every few blocks they were huddled about generators to recharge their electronic devices, and a long line had formed along Grand Street to pick up rations supplied by the National Guard. Two large camouflage-patterned army trucks lumbered by me on Hester St, as a smiling woman pointed to where I could recharge my phone. I smiled back, and peddled over to a large assembly of Chinese people who were gathered in Roosevelt Park. An elderly group was talking animatedly and laughing, while children played nearby, obviously enjoying the novelty of so many days vacation from school.
I rode past City Hall and onto the Brooklyn Bridge where thousands of people were crossing in both directions. And then soon I was at my cousin’s home in Cobble Hill, drinking iced green tea, and checking my email on her computer. We met with my sister Lisa’s family for dinner in Park Slope, where I decided to spend the night. Before turning in, my brother-in-law Alan and I watched a documentary about a Japanese master chef, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Already the blacked out city across the river had begun to seem like a far away land. But of course even in the stretches of Brooklyn that had been spared from flooding and power outage, tragedy had still struck. My nephew Henry’s roommate is the brother of a young woman who was killed with her childhood friend in Ditmas Park when an uprooted tree fell on them. They had gone out to walk her dog, which was also hit, but survived, staying with the bodies until they were discovered in the morning. My friend Jeff told me that he and his wife had been out walking in that same area not long before. They were aware of some powerful wind gusts, but nothing too severe, when suddenly they heard a strange sucking noise and to their amazement saw a large tree launch from the earth as if it had been yanked out by a giant and tossed aside like a matchstick. It flew across the street and sheared off the side of a Victorian home. It happened so fast he said, that they had no time to react. Had they been ten yards closer, they would have been crushed.
The next morning I biked into Red Hook, where the Fairway supermarket my sister shops at had been swamped by the storm’s surge. The store was now gutted of registers, shelves, and freezers, which were being stacked in the parking lot outside. Lisa and Alan met me there, and we walked over to the pier by Coffey Park to look out at the Statue of Liberty, the distant Verrazano Bridge, and the Freedom Tower’s construction rising above the tip of Lower Manhattan. Somewhere out there was the Battery Tunnel, flooded from floor to ceiling. A strong wind still agitated the water, kicking up surf onto the broken spine of an upturned rowboat that had been cast ashore. We headed inland where scores of people were tending to Red Hook’s community garden, salvaging what produce they could. A man who worked for the MTA told me that Van Brunt St. had turned into a gushing river, flooding every basement, including that of a bar called Fort Defiance that serves the egg and bacon sandwiches I had enjoyed several times while dating a girl who lived nearby.
We stepped into the volunteer line outside a storefront that had been converted into a relief headquarters, and quickly realized that there were more of us than the organizers knew what to do with. So Lisa lead us to Ferdinando’s, an authentic Sicilian restaurant that’s only a few blocks from Red Hook in Brooklyn’s Waterfront District, but on high enough ground to be unscathed by the storm. It’s a family business, and our waitress told us how relieved they were to have been spared, and to have customers. We ordered coffee sodas, the arancina, a dish comprised of rice balls filled with chopped meat, peas, cheese and sauce; the panelle, which is deep fried chickpea flour; and the Pappardelle alla Boscaiola.
I can’t believe it took a hurricane for me to discover the convenience of biking. In fifteen minutes I peddled up Union St. to Prospect Heights to have coffee with my friend Kelly. An hour and a half later I was back in Manhattan, where power had been restored to the entire island. Already, the sidewalks of the Bowery, Union Square, and Park Avenue South were bustling, and I followed the flow of regulated traffic back home.
Entering my building, I was met by a blast of noise coming down the stairwell. My neighbors upstairs were throwing a rager of a party. The ceiling creaked under the weight of thumping dancers’ feet—like hooves I thought—and my mattress vibrated with every bass note of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean…. I lay in bed listening to the booming music and drunken shouts of partygoers, and stared up at the ceiling. I should go up there, I thought, be the asshole, say what the hell are you thinking? I threw on a pair of sweats and put on my shoes, ready to storm upstairs. But then, too tired (or too much of a wuss really to bother), I undressed, went into the bathroom, fished some earplugs out of the medicine cabinet, and went back to bed.
Up until this point, I had seen little of the real devastation wrought by Sandy’s force. Then I got a call from a man whose son’s home was destroyed by the waves that raced across the Rockaways. Ten days after Sandy, he asked me and twenty other men to come dig out his son’s basement, hammer down the sheetrock, rip out the floors, and pitch everything—furniture, sinks, toilets, plaster, floorboards—out into a massive mile long mound of debris that lined Ocean Promenade. I spent half the day in the basement with five other guys sending up bucket after bucket of sand and sludge. It was shocking to see up close: what had been the family TV den was now a dank blackened cesspool of crap; and the sheer tonnage of beach that the ocean had deposited into this man’s home was remarkable. It took several hours to excavate the staircase alone, which had been entirely buried. And this was only one home among thousands that were just as ruined, or worse… The sheer force of nature, the speed at which that much earth is reconfigured by a hurricane in a single day, in minutes, has to give one—or it gave me anyway—a sense of how the ice and glacial deposits of 10,000 years ago formed the very barrier island we were now on, and of just how swiftly it could all be reclaimed by a rising sea.
I took a break from all the shoveling to empty the kitchen’s impressively large liquor supply, which we assumed was contaminated by mold. I jokingly likened myself to a 1930’s prohibition officer, as I poured out what must have been around $1,500 worth of booze onto the mound outside. This was for sure a household of serious drinkers, but the party was—at least for now—decidedly over.
It was good to be there, to do something, however small. And it was helpful to focus on one house, because trying to comprehend how to assist the whole area, including the burned out carnage of Breezy Point, was overwhelming. It looks like a war zone, and it’ll take years to rebuild. But then of course there’s the question: Should we? Unlike say the Dutch, who carefully manage their watery landscape with an expertly engineered system of dykes, we imprudently stake out our territory in floodplains and tornado alleys, while priding ourselves on how aggressively we can respond to crisis. In this case, there was even a militant air to the response. Two doors down from the house where we were working, I noticed that someone had draped a large American flag over the railing of a deck. Next to the flag hung a white towel spray-painted in black letters that read:
I’m sure if I had been born and raised there, I too would be insisting this is my home, I’m not leaving, we will rebuild, we’ll make it better than before… But everyone in the coming decades (or centuries certainly) will be retreating from the beach, whether they like it or not.
Compared to the Rockaways, most of us in New York were lucky. For six days I had merely lost the convenience of electricity. My home was otherwise intact. There was no sand for me to shovel out of the living room or waterlogged furniture to dump out onto the street. I’d even found the quietude of staying at home during the blackout kind of Zen. I was only a five minute walk to the Duane Reede on 42nd St. for supplies, or to the Chase Bank that allowed those of us with dying cell phones to recharge from a floor outlet by the ATM machines. I can’t say I’ve ever truly loved my neighborhood of Murray Hill, but now I appreciate that I do indeed live on a hill. One day when the East River is lapping up along the shores of Second Avenue, my building will have an interesting view of boaters meandering around the corners of buildings that rise out of the water. The UN might be such a building. Of course, if that happens to our city, it’ll be long after I’m gone.
Or will it…