For 'Hedwig' director-star, city a tonic for stasis, atrophy
You know when you buy a record like “John Cage’s Greatest Hits” or “Edgar Bergen Jr. Reads Beckett” and you don’t like it, but you know you will in about 10 years? That’s how I felt about New York when I was looking for a place to go to college. So I went to Northwestern.
Senior year, I got a job in a Broadway musical. I moved to New York to be an understudy in “Big River.” I found a sublet on West 14th. It was 1985. What do the italicized words have in common? They’re temporary.
I was in New York before my time. Just walking down 7th Avenue was alarming. Meeting the eyes of a pedestrian was a provocative act. It meant you wanted something. Once, I looked at the wrong person and got sucker-punched by a Puerto Rican thug. It was a lawless town.
I discovered that the only law on which New Yorkers can agree is the law of perpetual motion. The worst crime was stopping, because if you stopped, you’d invariably stop someone else. In New York, it’s more acceptable to club someone than to stop them in their progress, because at least they’re still moving after you hit them. I quickly learned how to walk across town without ever stopping at an intersection by moving in a continuous zigzag pattern (which only works if you’re traveling up or down as well as across town — I’m always tense walking from West 11th to East 11th).
I discovered that this law of motion is not as solipsistic as it sounds. It often involves random encounters and communication. An example is when someone is walking too slowly in front of you and they’re weaving back and forth so you can’t pass and they don’t know you’re behind. All you have to do is make a sound. Scrape your shoe and they’ll realize you’re there and let you pass. The law is also a right and a privilege. It creates a sense of community.
I remember a cab viciously cutting me off somewhere around Times Square. I kicked the fender as it sped by. The driver stopped and got out with a menacing expression. I held my ground, terrified. Suddenly, every nearby pedestrian started kicking the cab. An old lady whacked the hood with her walker. Not only had their progress been altered but they had all witnessed a fellow pedestrian even more egregiously hindered. The cabbie shrank into his car like an airbag after an accident and everyone continued on his own personal vector. One pedestrian and I allowed our eyes to meet. We smiled briefly, without wanting anything else from each other.
It was all a bit too much for me at the time. I got a nice part in a Hollywood action movie, bought a car, moved to L.A. and remained absolutely motionless for four years. Soon, the city began to unnerve me.
At auditions, I would get: “You’re the best person we’ve seen, but we gotta cast the cutie.” Gay actor friends tippled together in beautifully appointed closets. Unplanned encounters were rare. There was a shortage of sidewalks. I found myself desperately scraping my shoe on gym treadmills, but no one would let me pass.
I went to L.A. to get into film, but many of my idols — John Cassavetes, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Elaine May, Bob Fosse, Todd Haynes — were all native or naturalized New Yorkers, as were the brave, unlovely writers and actors who thrived under their protection. Encountering their work was like being cut off by cabs, sharing smiles with strangers. Their decisions didn’t seemed dictated by fear. If they were, the fears were of stereotype, stasis, boredom, atrophy, madness.
In 1990, 10 years after running away from New York, I got a part in a new play by John Guare. I flew to JFK and took a cab into town. I told the driver to let me off a few streets short of my destination. “I’ll walk from here.”