Smile Politely

Buried world

I must be underground, he thought, buried someplace, perhaps under Manhattan in one of those abandoned subway stations where artists secretly submerge by night to create murals, sculptures, paintings, installations, art that no one would ever see, not even critics or buying patrons, art that would crumble over time. That was one possibility, he surmised, trying to spread his eyes wide enough to swallow in as much light as he possibly could. 

Above ground life must be going on as usual, people rushing down 14th Street, bumping into each other in clumps at Union Square next to the stands of tourist memorabilia and postcards and $1 pairs of socks in bins, bald men wearing “Bad Hair Day” t-shirts to announce their wit and with-it-ness, the entire 21st century discourse so far: a distillation of the ironic and the sarcastic into a hobbled haiku of three-word slogans.

Or maybe the irony was over, which might explain why nothing was visible around him, nothing recognizable, a blindness brought on by the blaring return of the sincere? Maybe the irony had ended abruptly when Conan O’Brien invited Sarah Palin on his talk show and underwent a Tea Party conversion, plunging his fans into such delusion or acceptance of such delusion that a shock wave of forgetfulness spread across America, a blackout of what life had been like before acceptance of the Great Simulation.

He felt his way forward some inches, shuffling his feet. Maybe he was locked inside some forgotten storage space in Westbeth, the largest housing space for artists in the world, a full city block of buildings that before the office spaces and labs were made into cheap rental spaces for artists housed the Bell Laboratories for a full century, the research center where the vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, a television and the transistor were invented. He could be the subject of a long forgotten or abandoned experiment or the outcome of some radical anarchist’s performance piece, either one.

It would not be the first time Geodee had contemplated that his life had been a  long-enduring performance of yet-to-be-determined genesis or revelation.

Thirty-eight blocks uptown, theater crowds from around the world jostled to see life relived in performance, studying American history as sexypants musical in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” an emo-rock rendition of the country’s first cowboy outback maverick who rose up from the sticks of Tennessee on a wave of superstardom (“Populism Yea Yea”), subsequently driving out with ultraviolence the outsider Aliens and insider Indians while wearing cowboy boots and Converse sneakers, echoing on the boards how much things stay the same century after century, never growing up, changing only costumes and catch-phrases.

Or they flocked to the inevitable re-creations and revivals and the strange turned familiar, “La Cage Aux Folles,” the French film reconfigured as Broadway musical converted to American movie and revisited in revival, a version of a version of a version of a version, the politics of repetition rendering what began as stereotypes of the despised class, what began as a minstrel version of gay life evolved into the post-liberation, gay marriage edition, with a six-foot transvestite in heels on 45th street, cajoling and teasing those waiting outside for the theater doors to open, taking the performance from the stage to the street, blurring the distinction further between audience and actor, male and female, night and day, until all the city reverberates in mosaic disco ball mirrors of facades.

A myriad epicenters of illusion issue waves of artifice from street to street, from the Longacre Theatre down Broadway, spilling over the rolling garment district racks, past the overdressed Chelsea development, cresting on an East Village street where a curtain opens to a ground-floor room just a step down from the sidewalk. 

A steady streaming group, one by one, lifts the curtain from the street to enter into the room where metal folding chairs have been loosely arranged in concentric semi-circles.  The players will be both performers and audience in this final refuge stage: the last authentic theater space in the city, the 12th Street Alcoholics Anonymous noon meeting, where broad-shouldered Joey with his once irresistibly handsome face and hard-wired Brooklyn brogue serves as the Master of Ceremonies, tapping his foot with kinetic memory of some sweet former addiction, introducing the matinee guest star Maheesha to the applause of the still-arriving crew/cast/crowd.

The lovely Maheesha sits upright and recounts the misery of her childhood, the junkie parents, the inevitable abuse, while a titanic black man listens head half-cocked, shaking slightly, his body a representation of intimidating power yet when his time to share arrives, he speaks with incoherent half-sentences, fearful, incongruously timorous. A quiet hippy in faux military garb remains silent, the frail older woman nods in agreement with each actor’s personal revelation, a first-timer in a business suit who may be a natty lesbian, the Asian 50-something guy tells of his near-miss suicide by spike in his arm, the rescue by his son, his sudden relapse last week after 20 years clean, one after another, the solo monologues proceed within the confines of 60 minutes, an inspirational community without bad theatrics, the group collectively rising for the end ovation, holding hands together, a choir reciting the creed to work the steps, no need to explain or understand this fine art of collective confession, work the steps, authentic theater, we laughed, we cried, the city plays itself.

He wasn’t sleeping.  Geodee’s right foot tapped against an obstacle.  A wall.  He wasn’t asleep, this was no dream, no imaginary fantasy.  This is really happening, he thought, recalling Mia Farrow sitting upright in bed, awakening from her satanic date rape, or Tom Yorke warbling in “Idioteque,” “This is really happening, this is really happening.”

The tune lodged itself in Geodee’s brain, nestling in for a spell. He was not dead, either. This was not the afterlife, not the gleam in Jack’s eye, the eternal minute before post-life predicament, no last gasp flashback of the life he had lived up to this moment, not the minute before the plane crashed, not the germ for a second series, Lost II.  Here I’m allowed everything all the time, here I’m allowed everything all the time, everything all the time, this is really happening.

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