A couple of weeks ago, while lolling in bed on a late morning with our dog Sally, I heard a soft, hollow plonking sound. Looking out the window, I saw a robin standing on a tin pipe that attaches to the roof’s gutter. The pipe is under the eaves, and drains the water from the gutters off and down to the side of the house. The bird’s orange breast was bright in the shade of the eave.
Sally paid it no mind. Birds aren’t really her thing. She’s a rat terrier, so rats are supposed to be her thing, but I don’t think she would pay much attention to a rat. Chipmunks occasionally grab her attention but it is bugs that drive her into a frenzy. If there’s a flying bug in the bedroom at night before going to sleep, she cannot be calmed until the bug is removed.
Watching the robin, I realized I had seen it or its mate or a member of its family, sitting there a few days before. Maybe more than once. You know how when you see something clearly, really notice it, you then realize you’ve seen it before?
The bird hopped along the pipe away from the eave until only its tail feathers remained in view. From the movement of its back end it was clear the bird was busy with something.
A nest, I thought, I bet there’s a nest just out of view, where the pipe meets the side of the house, under the eaves, a place of protection where they could start a family.
It’s said that spying a robin is good luck, they’re a symbol of happiness or freedom, of new adventures.
Scientists found that birds are singing more softly at this time, as the world has been quieted by the covid shutown. Imagine how loud they must have gotten, just to be heard over the airplanes and the oil wells and all of the people everywhere endlessly talking.
I can’t even hear myself, the Robin would sigh at the end of a long day of singing that felt more like screaming, and flying that felt more like battle.
Birds and crocodiles are the only remaining dinosaurs. Birds are species miniraptora which have adapted over millions and millions of years, their wings originally were legs and it is believed that becoming flying creatures enabled them to survive when nearly all other dinosaur life perished.
It’s understandable, then, that throughout human civilization we have worshipped them, turning them into gods or messengers of the gods. The Aztecs and Egyptians; Greek and Hindu mythology all have revered birds or looked to birds for answers. Think of the totem poles of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The Old Testament warns of partridges and ravens, the New Testament has its dove.
Birds are the animals closest to the heavens, capable of mimicking many other animals, they symbolize magic. Through the mystery of migration, they have the ability to survive seasonal change—disappearing for months at a time until conditions are right for them to return. But it is their ability to fly that captivates us.
When did I stop having flying dreams? Are flying dreams for the young? When we dream of leaving the nest, breaking free, entering the wider world. I had a flying dream last year, the first in a very long time and when I woke up I was so happy to have experienced that delicious surprising feeling, that my body could lift and lift and lift and then move through the skies, powerful yet light. And then I was sad when I realized I hadn’t had that sensation for a long time. No matter our age, we all hunger for freedom, look at all the millions of people in the streets right now.
The day Bobby and I got married it rained. We had planned our wedding to take place in a beautiful old apple orchard on friends’ property near us. We imagined guests entering the orchard, taking their seats between the rows of trees, we would walk down the aisle of trees. Watching the weather obsessively for weeks, the forecast began to change, the little sunshine icon started to have little clouds over it. Then the sunny icon disappeared altogether, replaced by the fluffy cloud icon. Soon the fluffy cloud icon had little blue lines coming out of its bottom. And our dream of the orchard wedding became a dream of a wedding under a tent. We had the tent rented already for the reception; we’d just have to do the ceremony and beneath it, too.
As often happens with significant days—like weddings, and opening nights—we were lucky and everyone agreed that having the ceremony beneath the tent made it more intimate than it would have been out in the orchard.
The ceremony was filled with magic and love. It wasn’t a torrential rain but you could hear the drops falling on the tent during our vows. After the ceremony, Bobby and I walked up the aisle and out of the tent, the rain had stopped and as all of the wedding party and then the guests began to pour out from the tent, someone said, “Look!” And we all looked up. A beautiful white heron appeared, swooping low over the gathering crowd. We cheered, and I cried, even more than I had during the ceremony, knowing we had been doubly blessed.
I moved to New York City at thirty-eight to pursue my acting career. Then, when I turned forty, I stopped acting and started The Secret City. Then in 2010, I won an Obie Award. For The Secret City. The irony of giving up acting to start a community arts organization and winning an Obie Award for it is not lost on me.
Bobby and I almost didn’t go the ceremony. The Ace Hotel was the new hip hotel in our neighborhood and they were celebrating their first anniversary, so they had a Mr. Softee truck out front and gave away free ice cream. Bobby and I caught wind of this, and at about six-thirty, we strolled over and found the truck. We joined the crowd of happy ice cream–eating people. We each got vanilla with chocolate syrup.
It was seven by the time we got home. The Obies were at eight. I said to Bobby, “I wish we didn’t have to go..”
But I had RSVP’d and didn’t want the Obie people to think I was rude. The invitation had come two weeks earlier: asking if I would be their guest.
Bobby and I decided to get it together. And we walked to Webster Hall; entering the building, we met up with Liz Levy, an early supporter of The Secret City.
“Hey,” she asked, “Are you up for an Obie?”
I laughed. “No.”
For a moment I had a tiny fantasy: Wouldn’t it be great if I were here to accept an award for this strange work I made for myself? But, I’m not even acting anymore so… Then I caught myself: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
We walked in just as everybody was asked to move upstairs. We got swept up in the crowd, which felt like one of those historic moments when a city is evacuated — the Saigon airlift, the fall of Havana, the village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. You know what I mean: people moving en masse, with a level of panic rippling through the multitude. But this was the Obies, so instead of frenzied families bearing furniture and candlesticks with tied-together bundles of clothes, it was drunken actors clutching $14 cocktails and iPhones.
I looked at our tickets, we had assigned seats on the main floor, really close to the stage, fancy, I thought.
I turned to Bobby, and said, “I’m happy we came.”
As the show unfolded, I sensed that something might be going down. The Obie committee was introduced, and three of the names were people who had been to The Secret City in previous months. And I thought, Maybe I’m going to get an Obie tonight. That quickly turned into: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this. Stop fantasizing!
A few minutes into the show, an actor was given an Obie for sustained achievement. He got up and said, “First, I want to say hello to the balcony because that’s where I usually sit, so I knew when they asked me to sit on the floor that something was up.”
Oh god, I thought, I’m going to get an Obie Award and I am not well groomed; I needed a haircut; my pants were kind of tight.
However — here’s how the mind works — I talked myself out of what I knew to be true: Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
The next presenter walked up to the mike, and said, “It’s a salon, it’s a sanctuary,” and something in my stomach went knock. I started to cry. I turned to Bobby, who was totally checked out. “Bobby,” I said, but he seemed fixated by the molding in the ceiling and the architectural details of the room.
The presenter continued: “It’s part ceremony, part community gathering . . .”
“Bobby,” I repeated — this time he turned to me — “they’re about to give me an Obie Award.”
“What?” he mumbled as I said, “They’re about to give me . . .”
And when the presenter announced, “For The Secret City, Chris Wells,” Bobby’s mouth fell open. I know that’s a cliché, but his mouth actually did fall open. Like, it was closed one second, and then the next it was wide open.
I stood and hitched up my pants, but I was convulsing with sudden emotion. And this was causing my belly to jiggle. I walked to the end of the aisle and bumped into the wall all the while making whimpering sounds. I thought, I have got to access some dignity before arriving at the podium. I thought of Cicely Tyson and took long, slow strides to the stage.
In the emotions of the moment, I forgot to say that Bobby Lucy is the reason all of this has happened. It took true love entering my life to remind me what my values were, that I’m here to do something specific, maybe even special.
The Secret City is devoted to this pursuit: the quest to remember who we are and what we’re here to do. Creativity is the work of everyone whether we identify as artists or not: we’re here to create and to re-create, and in so doing, we make the world over and over again. And when your people help you do your work, that is the very best of all. It’s like great sex with Nutella added in.
Good morning. What a night. The terrible unrest continues. And the woeful lack of leadershjp makes us all vunerable.
And today is blackouttuesday, which began as a music industry initiative encouraging white folks to stay off of social media and allow other voices to be heard.
It began last night on instagram and by this morning my entire feed was little black squares. And I thought, should I not do the show today? Would it be inappropriate to be online, here, doing this? On several of the posts I saw, the call to action was to stop business as usual and focus on community.
But what if your business is community? And what if your job is to speak to your community about what’s happening? Right now? That’s been my aim with these daily shows from the beginning. Not as an expert, but as an artist, or an art leader, sharing experience, providing insight, or maybe just reflecting what everyone is going through. And what if you announced yesterday that the word of the day would be protest?
I decided it was better to gather with you all and to address what is happening, and hope to be of service to the community—that’s all of you—and to be of use to the movement, the moment. So here I am to talk about protest.
Protests scare me—wait, that’s not entirely true. I love the idea of protests, I dream of revolution, riots, the overthrow of power structures. But, the reality, the on-the-ground reality scares me. What if someone gets hurt? What if I get hurt? I’m a big guy but I’m also a reactive personality. I find it hard to let things go, as I’ve mentioned before, I have zero chill. I get in squabbles at the grocery store, the gas station, I work on this, try to not respond to every little thing. And, what is happening right now is not every little thing—it’s every BIG thing.
I still lived in New York City when the Occupy Wall Street actions were happening in downtown Manhattan and I so wanted to support those peaceful and hopeful gatherings but I knew I would get into it with a cop and something bad would happen. Some people aren’t meant for the front lines. Some are better sending letters, writing postcards, calling our congressperson…
I think it’s safe to say that we all want to be on the right side of history. And if this isn’t a historic moment, then, well…
I guess my invitation to all of you here today is to find the way of protesting that works for you. Not something that let’s you off the hook, “I’m protesting by taking a nap!,” but something effective that suits you, your talents, your nature.
Last week, I started making phone calls to people of color who are my friends, and who are members of this community. I don’t tell you this to virtue signal, as they say, but rather to tell you that for me, someone who never wants to talk on the phone, these efforts were intentional and they took me out of my comfort zone and they were wildly moving, powerful, great exchanges. Exchange. They changed me. The task I set for myself was to ask the person, “How are you?” And then, to the best of my ability, to listen. Now, those of you who know me know that I like to talk. I mean, I’m a great listener, it’s what makes me a good teacher and a crucial aspect of writing is to listen to words, how they sound, how they ring—but, I’m also a big talker.
Shortly after moving to New York City I was working with a counselor at the Actors’ Fund, her name was Patch and I loved her. I was new to the city and broke and underemployed and afraid all the time, and worried that I had made a terrible decision by uprooting myself from my sweet art life in Los Angeles.
One day, in the midst of a session about my qualifications and my skills Patch said, “Well, you’re a verbal processor,” as if it was something I already knew. But, I hadn’t ever named it. And yet, yes, I always have needed to talk to figure out how I feel and think.
This past Saturday afternoon, after getting off one of those calls I thought, listening, really listening to someone, might be the most generous thing one can do. And, maybe it’s even a sort of protest. In a world where we are surrounded by screaming and shouting and advertising and TV and all the noise around us all the time, what if we all just listened.
On one of those calls, my friend said, “If every white person would pick up the phone and call someone they know, a person of color, and just ask them how they’re doing, it would change everything.”
I thought today’s show would be worth if I could give a call to action. So, how’s that? The call to action is to white folks to call—ask someone in your life, a black people who are dealing with the ongoing violence in our country, Asian Americans who have been targeted because of the covid/china ridiculousness, Latinx who are suffering in far greater numbers than their white counterparts and often working in conditions that are unsafe and unhealthy, Muslim Americans who are always under threat, Native Americans whose communities are being ravaged by the virus--all of these people who are far more vulnerable than whites. Ring ring, hello? I’m calling to ask how you are? How is all of this affecting you? And then—with love—shut up.
In my late twenties, I was living in LA, living in a group house, doing theater and scraping together a living at my part time job at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. All four of us living in that house worked together, too. It was a fun time. Three fabulous young women—a poet, a singer songwriter, a writer/actor--
One day, Jamye said someone had come into the store asking for help on behalf of a friend, an elderly woman, who was legally blind. She needed someone to help out with bills, reading, correspondence. Jamye had been going for a few weeks but didn’t have as much time as the woman required so she asked if any of us in the house wanted to take a day.
I was always broke—where did all the money go?—so I said yes.
We drove from our house in Elysian Park on the east side of town, into Hollywood. She lived at the Alto Nido, an old school Hollywood apartment building from the 1930s, designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Originally an apartment hotel, for years it had housed actors who arrived by bus to the greyhound station down just a few blocks away on Cahuenga; kids from Iowa and Kentucky, Florida and Ohio—all in search of stardom. Over the decades, residents included Fatty Arbuckle, Claudette Colbert and George Cukor. The building’s greatest claim to fame was when Billy Wilder used it for its interiors; William Holden’s Joe Gillis was living there at the start of the movie, before he moves into Gloria Swanson’s mansion on, yes, Sunset Boulevard.
Alto Nido means High Nest in Spanish, and the 5 story buiding sits at the top of a hill above the flats of Hollywood. When it was originally built, the Hollywood freeway would not have been right next to it and its prominence would have been greater.
By the time of my visit, although the place had exchange its glamour for something closer to seedy, I still thrilled to walk up the street to the famed stucco building, rich in history and ghosts.
Terra cotta tiles in the lobby, a wrought iron sconce and hanging lamp, all alluded to the bygone days—the hallways were carpeted in what might have once been a low, red pile but by then were darkened with years of high heels, spilled drinks and gum shoes.
I wish I could remember the woman’s name. But the years have wiped that away, along with so many other details. Now when I dive into the past, I often enter vague, waters. I do know that as we waited for her to answer the door, Jamye said, pointing to an apartment door just a few feet away, “That’s the door of the apartment in Sunset Boulevard.”
The door opened and a tall woman with short white hair stood before us. Jamye and she were friendly with each other, she was so happy we had come. Introductions were made as we entered. It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but also not surprising that a person who could barely see lived here. And, the place was small, a studio. Thankfully there were large windows on two sides, it was a corner unit, and one window looked out over the freeway, across which I could see the Vedanta Center. Home to many of Hollywood’s greatest spiritual seekers.
We sat, or tried to. Jamye over there, I took an old leather club chair which had pamphlets on the wide armrests. The woman sat on the edge of her bed and, to give you an idea of the cramped quarters, by leaning forward she easily handed me a pamphlet.
“Here,” she said, “This is what I’m working on.”
I opened the tri-fold pamphlet to find a painting of Christ on the cross at Mt. Calvary.
“It’s the largest painting in the world, it’s at Forest Lawn, and I’m helping to get it restored.”
I was silent, looked at Jamye who nodded slowly. I gathered she knew about the painting.
“I’ve never seen it,” the woman said, “but this is my work, I want to help.”
A woman who could no longer see wanting to help restore a painting she had never seen, at a place she couldn’t see even if she could get someone to drive her there.
The job was helping with her correspondence, sending out fundraising letters, petitions of support.
I never went back—I was torn, she was a dear person, and it was the kind of strange, wonderful thing I would be drawn to. But admin’s not my strong suit, and I don’t think she was paying.
I’m not a religious person, but I long for that kind of faith. To work for something so meaningful to me, something so beautiful that, even if I never see it, I’ll keep the vision alive.
I come from a long line of flower lovers. My grandmothers were both gardeners—Nana, who lived in Fresno, had a beautiful lilac bush in her yard, and hibiscus growing on the side of the duplex she moved into after she sold the small house where my dad was raised.
Gaga, my mom’s mom, always had a vegetable and flower garden. We visited her once in Colorado where she lived with her sister, my great aunt Ruby, this was before she moved to California to live near us—the entire back yard was a garden. Huge fat shining red tomatoes, rows of squash and peppers, cosmos and sunflowers.
My mom’s a great gardener, too, she has an array of roses that she planted over twenty, thirty years ago—with names such as Whiskey Mack, Bourbon and Chantilly Lace. She has climbing roses and miniature roses, all in her yard in the house where I grew up in the Antelope Valley, about an hour and twenty minutes north of LA.
The Antelope Valley is where those beautiful fields of poppies grow. The other day, a friend of mine, knowing my connection to the place, sent me a satellite photo taken this spring. Patches of bright orange could be seen from space, spreading over acres and miles of open desert.
I order my mom flowers pretty often—I live three thousand miles away from her so it’s good to find ways to be present in her life. Whenever I call the florist I ask them what they have in that’s fresh. They’re used to me now but at first they were exasperated. “I don’t want a plain mixed bouquet,” I’d say, “I want to pick the flowers and have you wrap and deliver them.”
I guess most men ordering flowers don’t know the difference between a chrysanthemum and a gerber daisy, but I want to know if they’ve got French tulips and what color roses, what do they have that’s scented—tuberose, maybe, or lilies? Thank you, and oh, please no baby’s breath.
Tropical flowers don’t grow in the desert, so I didn’t know about ginger and bromeliad, fuchsia and orchids until I moved to LA I came to discover those wild, exotic flowers, especially in gardens out by the sea.
Moving to the northeast, I discovered the flowers that don’t grow in the dry heat, they need a real cold snap, and lots of water. The first time I saw a peony I was visiting Vermont for my cousin’s wedding. Heading into town we drove through a neighborhood, it had recently rained, and the lawns had these massive clumps of huge flowering bushes. “What are those?” I asked. “Peonies.” My cousin was using them in her bouquet so a day later I got to smell one for the first time and felt a little bit like after downing a glass of champagne.
Here in Woodstock, forsythia grows in nearly every yard. And every April for two weeks the violent, electric yellow blooms line the road, screaming about the arrival of spring. Daffodils come up in our yard from old bulbs planted by someone years ago, croci, too.
My first boyfriend got me my first bouquet of flowers, I was in my early 20s, and back living at my parent’s house after being in LA for a few years then having my life fall apart. I had lost my job, lost my apartment. There I was back in my hometown trying to negotiate a life that was stretched bigger than it was before I left, but now crimped in certain ways upon my return. A halfway in the closet life.
I got a house sitting gig over Christmas, so I could spend holiday time with my boyfriend. He’d visit and spend the night, sometime two--and for a few days, it felt like a life that might someday happen. It would take me years to have that life for real and fulltime, but I had a taste of it that Christmas season.
I would be celebrating Christmas Day with my family, so he and I decided to have our own early Christmas. I made dinner, got him a few presents, set the table and lit candles. He arrived with a huge bouquet of flowers—massive, they towered over the place settings once I placed them in a vase at the center of the table. The smell of them filled the room.
I haven’t thought about that time in years. How young I was, how naïve and hungry, for a life, for freedom, for things I didn’t even know about. What would you call that, the longing for something you don’t even know is out there? To grow and, yes, blossom into life.
There’s a lone iris growing in a bed out behind our house, we don’t get enough sun for them to do well, but the other day one of the small buds bloomed, reminding me of the sweetness of our days, the tenderness we all desire, the smell and touch of a beautiful life.
When I was still living in Silverlake, there was a church I used to go to. Someone once said that telling people in LA that you go to church is far more dangerous than admitting you do hard drugs or any other shameful vices.
I was first exposed to this church by my neighbor Christine Berry, who made wonderful site-specific performances and she had found this church basement in Los Feliz, at the border between Hollywood and Silverlake. She asked if I wanted to see the space, it might be a good place to do something.
The congregation of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church was founded in 1904. The sanctuary, where the basement was, was built in the early 1920s. The basement was sweet: pale green linoleum floors, diffused light from the small windows up at the ceiling, a small stage at the far end of the room.
Christine and I decided to attend a service to see what the place was all about. This was not a simple decision—Christine had grown up in a difficult religious family and I was a certified and happy heathen, non-religious but seeking. But we got up on a Sunday morning and headed over.
The sanctuary was gracious but not formal, cream walls and tall stained glass windows. The pastor was a doughy-faced fellow who referred to his husband during his sermon, the choir was comprised of mostly old people. But it was the congregation, not very large, that struck me. The pews were filled pretty evenly with black and white people.
The service was sweet, almost non religious, but so deep and meaningful. I sat there crying at the end, moved by the space, more than the content. I think Buddhists would call this equanimity.
The church was the first integrated church in Los Angeles, meaning it was ok for black and white people to worship together. Many of the people present were descended from those early members. In the 1940s, the congregation offered care for the property of Japanese Americans whose homes and businesses were being taken from them when they were being sent off to internment camps. When the war was over, their properties were returned to them. The cross above the altar was made from camphor wood taken from a tree in the yard of a church that had been bombed during Hiroshima. Every pastor the church has ever had has been a pacifist. I attended services there often until I moved away from LA and every month they had a food drive for a different food item—March was peanut butter, September was canned tuna—these foods were donated to the LA food pantry.
On top of all of the amazing social justice and the community history of the place, what struck me most is that I could sit there and think about anything I wanted. I’m not a Christian but I could sit in that Christian space and think about whatever is holy to me, I could look within for what I find sacred, without being told what that should be. This is what made me cry.
That church inspired much of what I wanted to achieve when I founded The Secret City, worship without dogma. Providing people, in our case, artists, art lovers, those who look to art for inspiration, a place to gather, providing solace, connection, community and inspiration.
Over the years of running The Secret City, I’ve never quite managed to successfully address social justice causes. We did do a food drive for several years and donated a lot of food to the food bank of New York City. Partly this is because I want to remember at all times that we are an arts organization, art is where we find meaning. And yet, in my experiences, art spaces have a tendency to be quite segregated. The theater companies I’ve belonged to always had one or two people of color in predominantly white companies. And The Secret City audience, in spite of good intentions and dedication to representation, our community has always been predominantly white.
The word of the day is RACE. Because even in the midst of a global pandemic and all that it has brought, some white cop has managed to murder a black man in broad daylight in view of bystanders. And three other cops stood there and helped it to happen. At this point it’s got to dawn on us that some part of our nation likes its racism.
We are capable of creating a new world and for those of us who are artists, or conscious, creative people—we have an even greater ability to influence the thing being made.
I’m scared of talking about race, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, offend someone, turn someone off--but as the leader of this community, I invite us all to engage with this messy, scary challenge. I invite all of us, whatever your platform or influence, to address the racism at the heart of our country and, if you’re white, like me, at the heart of ourselves, too.
Race is a construct. Created by people to make distinctions between those who look different from one another usually for purposes of gaining or maintaining power. There is no biological basis for these differences. And yet, for something so shifting and changeable, race is not an illusion. It has a real impact on human bodies, especially those with less power than the dominant folks.
In all of my years of making things, books, plays, songs, dances, bands, communities, I have learned that there is nothing better than to just dive in. If we want to create a new idea of race, let us, the creators, dive in to the mess, begin. Scared of what we’re doing, at least we’ll be on our way
I’ve always loved music but my real musical education kicked in in my early thirties. Many of my greatest teachers were friends like Paul and Brian who turned me onto Carmen MacRae and Cesaria Evora. Sheila and Mario, who took me to see Jimmy Scott at Catelinas in Hollywood. I saw Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl. Nancy Wilson also at the bowl, Shirley Horn at Catalina Bar and Grill. Anita O’Day at the Atlas-- so many incredible singers and musicians.
I also got to see Abbey Lincoln at the Jazz Bakery in Venice, California. It had become a popular jazz spot and drawing big names and when Abbey Lincoln was announced it was an opportunity not to be missed.
The venue was inside the old Helm’s Bakery building on Venice boulevard, a block long building from the 1920s which used to house the company that made bread for much of Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century.
I knew the building from when it was called the Antique Guild. When I was a teenager, my mom would take me with her on antique finding missions. It was a massive, open space with endless rows of stuff from all over—and the best kind of antiquing, not all cleaned up, or well arranged, or presented, but clumped together for you to climb through and discover.
By the 90s the building had been cleaned up. Gentrification. The club was a small part of a large complex of offices and studios and showrooms.
I’d never been there before so was excited to see what the buzz was all about. It was surprisingly mundane inside. I was used to old-school clubs with dark corners and small tables squeezed in front of a small stage. A bar over to the side where regulars would nurse dark brown cocktails in tumblers.
This was more like a room where you’d see a powerpoint presentation. Sensible plastic chairs in rows, the walls covered by those heavy curtains that slide on a runner at the ceiling in an attempt to add warmth to a conference room. The place filled up. It wasn’t a big room, maybe 200 hundred seats, maybe? On the stage was a baby grand piano, drum kit and set up for several musicians. The lights dimmed and the band entered—young guys, in suits. Nice—serious like. They jammed for a bit and then over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jazz Bakery is proud to present, Abbey Lincoln.”
I first heard Abbey Lincoln on a CD that I stole from the Brand Library in Glendale. I’m not proud of this, the stealing, but I am glad that I got to know her music. It was a rough time for me. I was living in a small forest service cabin on the side of a hill in Echo Park. I was a terrible drunk and was having a lot of anonymous sex. I was a mess. Anyway, one day I drove out to the library for some music I was trying to find for my day job. The Brand library is an incredible place, the collection focuses on visual art and music. It’s in a former private home built in 1904 and resembling a combination of Indian Palace and Spanish Villa. My tale of stealing gets worse, I checked out 12 CDs that day and never took them back. It wasn’t my intention to keep them but somehow it was just too much for me to figure out how to drive the 25 minutes to another part of town and get them back to the library where they belonged.
I had a little boom box in my cabin and in the afternoon with the parrots of LA flying between palm trees, I’d open all the windows and the front door, put on a Betty Carter CD and transport myself to another place, a better version of the life I was living, a life rich with music. I’m telling you this to explain that the music, those singers and those songs, they’re a major part of what got me through.
Abbey Lincoln entered, all in black, characteristic black hat on her head. And she began to sing. The kind of singing that feels like dance, or love or a Sunday afternoon on a boat. Sometimes the singing felt scary like it might lose its way, but it was her playing with the melody, the phrasing, the song. At one point she said, “We’re now going do The Windmills of Your Mind.” A song I love, originally sung by Dusty Springfield for the film The Thomas Crown Affair, Ms. Lincoln was known for hiring your musicians, just out of school, giving them an incredible education in performance and the life of a jazz musician. They began to play.
“Stop, stop.” The band stopped and she had some words with them. They started up again. “Stop stop,” she said again, they stopped and more words, “Let’s take it from the top again.” She said. And the band started up again. This time she started slapping her open palm on the lid of the piano. Was it the rhythm? Was it anger? Was it both? “No, no, no.” she said as she slapped the lid, the band stopped once more.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Abbey Lincoln said, “It’s a very difficult song and we just don’t have it tonight, so we will move on to the next song.”
I’d never seen any performer take such control of a performance, of a room, of a stage full of musicians. I often say in my workshops that, when making something, the artist must think of themself as god. Responsible for the creation of a new world within their song or book or play. And, let’s face it, musicians are perhaps the greatest of all the art gods, creating the invisible, life sustaining magic of music. Imagine the past several months without it. Or, no, don’t. Life would be too terrible to imagine.
A short postscript to this story: I found some of the cds years later in storage and mailed them back to the library with a note of apology. It doesn’t make it right, but I wanted someone else to have the chance to hear what I heard. For someone else to have a chance to be pulled through
I take Sally for a walk most days, at the nature preserve which was a farm, the meadow has been returned to grassland with wide mown paths. Because there are no trees in the grassland, you can see where everybody is which makes walking and social distancing much easier.
One day last week, we pulled into the parking lot and I after getting everything together. Mask, poop bags, Sally on the leash, we got out.
From the small hill overlooking the entrance to the paths, you can go right or left. Below was an older couple, they must have gotten here just ahead of me. They had two large dogs, on leashes. The woman was having a terrible time with a chocolate standard poodle. Snapping at the dog, and yanking his leash; the dog lunged at something and nearly pulled her off balance. She snapped at him in a chirpy way, yanked him back on the path. “That lady does not know how to control her dog,” I thought and led Sally the other direction.
The day was glorious and once we were in the open, the big long path before us, I took Sally off her leash and she tore off.
You can take the walk as a loop. But several paths cut across the middle making it possible to turn off if you see someone coming, or walk around someone if they’re going slow, or lolling about. Standers, I call them. They only become a problem if they’re on the path ahead of you and you’ve got to negotiate how best to get past.
I had made my way half way around when I noticed a young girl squatting next to the path, looking at some bright yellow flowers. She was 3 or 4, just ahead were two young women walking slowly. From their posture they were clearly looking down at their phones.
I was barreling forward, Sally up ahead of me. You should know that the preserve asks dogs are to be kept on leash, which no one really observes. But if your dog needs to be on a leash, put him on a leash.
One of the young woman heard Sally’s collar and turned around, “Oh hi!” Sally stopped. “She’s skittish,” I said. Sally has the desire to connect, but she’s too afraid. One of the reasons I let her off leash is so she can skirt around everything and everyone. I like to say, “Speed is her superpower.”
Sally and I left the path and made our way around them. I saw then there were two young men a short distance ahead, waiting for the women and the girl to catch up. I took these men to be their husbands. They were wearing masks, as was I. “She’s skittish,” I said again, as Sally stopped to look at them. “She wants to be close to people but she’s not really able.”
“Just like us,” said one of the guys and we all laughed.
“Yes,” I said, “Just like all of us.” And, making our way past them two guys I hollered, “Enjoy your walk!” “You, too!”
And then, here they came: the older couple I had spotted at the start of our walk. The man was walking a sweet old lab. The woman, in her 70s and very slight of frame, was still being dragged by that poodle. Sally and I were in the grass about ten feet off the path and as we passed each other, the poodle lunged off the path and started to go for Sally who darted away. I stopped, the leash was stretched taut, right in front of me, my kneecaps right against it. Woman to my right, dog to my left, making a sort of trip way in front of me
I said, “Could you call your dog, please?”
She yanked, the dog gagged. She was more like someone who couldn’t get a lid off a jar rather than someone who was inconveniencing someone else. The dog kept gagging. Finally she managed to pull the dog back. But nothing was said, not an I’m sorry, or he just wants to play, none of that. Sally and I called back to her, “Curb your dog.”
The woman yelled out to me over her shoulder, “Go home!”
Here in Woodstock that means: I live here and you need to go back to the city with your city ways.
“I live here,” I yelled back.
“So do I,” she yelled. Which seemed like an old comedy routine.
“Well, my dog didn’t go after your dog,” We were having a proper yelling volley now.
“Stop yelling at me,” she yelled back at me. “It’s making me upset.”
If I weren’t upset myself, I would have laughed at this. I stopped and turned back, “Did you not yell at me first?”
“I did not,” she yelled, a bit softer now.
Sally and I went on our way. Was I fuming? Hm, maybe. In my world, the way to respond to your dog lunging at my dog would be to acknowledge your part and apologize. She probably didn’t like me pointing out her inability to control her dog. People don’t like to have their weaknesses pointed out. I know I don’t.
This event with the dogs was a blip. But it made me think about how differently people think about what is proper behavior. And what if your idea of etiquette is based on feeling scared? “Wear your mask!” People are screaming at people in public. Or, “You can’t come in here with a mask!” Maybe we were raised differently. Or, our values are different. Proper etiquette dictates not drawing attention to someone’s poor etiquette. But what if someone not following protocol puts other people’s lives in danger? After writing all this, I realize it’s not a matter of etiquette at all. Maybe the word of the day should be compassion. Or maybe it should be care, as in caring for others, maybe the word should be love, or mutual respect—maybe we can look underneath the manners and behaviors in search for a better way to live together.
Several years ago when I was still living in New York City, a writer named Jeff Wise got in touch with me, I can’t remember how he got my name but he was writing a book about fear and wanted to talk to me. We set a time to speak on the phone. He called and I began telling him about my terrible stage fright. In the midst of our conversation, I remembered playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde’s comedy masterpiece. Lady Bracknell is often played by a man but in our production, every role was played by a gender for which it wasn’t originally intended.
Lady Bracknell is considered one of the great comedic roles in the English canon. With lines such as:
“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”
“Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
Our production was performed at a small space on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake, on the east side of Hollywood. Last time I was in the neighborhood, it was a fancy Indian restaurant. The entire neighborhood has changed dramatically since I lived there.
Our director was a bit of a mad genius, and was also the set designer and costumer. From the moment our show opened, it was a smash hit, packed houses, extensions, etc etc.
The theater finally had to close the run because they had another show scheduled so we moved the production to a theater on the West side of town called the Evidence Room. We put the show back up a month or so after our closing and our successful run continued.
As Lady Bracknell, I was a towering figure. I’m 6’2, and depending on the time, weigh in at 250 or more. Imagine me in full Victorian drag topped with a huge hat and large plumed feathers coming out the top.
Lady Bracknell has two major scenes, with some smaller business in a group scene. Her scene in the first act is the legendary interview where she asks Jack Worthing—who is interested in marrying her daughter Cecily—if he is in fact worthy of her. She asks everyone except for Jack to leave the room and the interview begins.
I was seated on a velvet settee at center stage, Cynthia Orthal, the actor playing Jack Worthing, was standing and we launched into the scene we had done hundreds of times.
I gravitated toward the theater when I was a kid for the structure it gave me and my life—walk over here, say these words, take these actions, enter now. Of course, flubbed a word here or there as actors will, and even occasionally dropped a line and had to cover for it somehow. But I was quick on my feet, able to be in the present and cover for those common errors.
In the theater, when an actor forgets a line, this is commonly called, “going up.” The origination of the phrase is believed to be because when you forget something you often look up, as if the thing you’ve forgotten is floating just above your head.
But there in the middle of the scene, I suddenly blanked. I was sitting there but entered a completely different reality. Some small part of my min knew I was onstage and that it was my turn to say something. But the larger part of me was elsewhere, or maybe it wasn’t elsewhere, maybe it was right there, next to the regular reality that we know.
I looked up at the stage lights, small dust mites floated there, a dim grey mist hung over the audience. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as if I had been walking along the street and suddenly was transported into space where I was floating.
Cynthia finally fed me my line and brought me back. How long was I gone? A few seconds? More? A minute?
This morning I woke up I was backstage in a large theater, in the green room. I was in costume, dressed sort of like a ghost in white shredded cotton. Intermission had just ended and the second act had just begun. I heard the performance through the monitor backstage and knew I had an entrance pretty soon but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
You could say this was the classic actors’ nightmare, only it wasn’t exactly scary, more like a great unknowing. What will the second act require of me? What will my role be? What will I say or do?
All of our attempts at remembrance keep us from floating away, into that twilight place that might be right beside us, all the time. What we remember—what came before, the people who’ve left, the ways of life that are no more—and trying to hold onto these things, anchors us. Staying just a bit in the past helps us live in the here and now.
In my late twenties I had my first band. I had been connected to a piano player, Fred Cassidy, if you’re here today, Hi Fred! We were asked to provide live music for a fundraiser for a theater company we were both working with.
The theme of the fundraiser was James Bond so we put together a set of covers from the 60s and 70s, Fred got a drummer and a bass player. I found a white dinner coat and an eye patch. Right before the gig I asked two of my girlfriends if they would be gogo dancers. The whole thing was thrown together but Fred and the band were electric, everyone there people danced for hours, the girls shook their money makers all night long and I found I had a front man inside of me, roaring to get out. Except for losing my balance from wearing an eye patch, and nearly falling off the stage, it was an excellent night.
Chris Wells and the Highballs, Featuring the International Kittens, was born.
We became the best party band of all time—our gigs were legendary. We got a monthly residency at The Atlas, a really swank nightclub inside the same deco building as the Wiltern Theater at Wilshire and Western, with the big gold sun on the wall behind the stage, and large gold sculptures of Atlas suspended from the ceiling.
From the James Bond look I moved onto wearing my dad’s pilot uniform, the dancers dressed like stewardesses. The gigs were more ecstatic rites than shows…one of things I’ve always wanted to bring people in my performances, ecstasy. A feeling of overwhelming happiness.
But while I was making these high octane performances my personal life was highly dysfunctional. I didn’t have my own place, I house sat for friends, a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. Kept my clothes and possessions in the trunk of my car.
My friend Bridget connected me to some friends of hers in Santa Monica. They were going out of town for a week and needed someone to dogsit.
One sunny weekday afternoon I visited them in their airy apartment on a shady side-street, Sarah made tea, Matt was funny in a pointy-headed way. They were smart and kind but reserved, not like theater people, more like academics.
While we talked, their bulldog sat on the couch like a chunky old man, trying to catch his breath. I wish I could remember his name—Mr. Pickles or Chauncy or Bill. Anyway, we agreed I would stay there while they went to visit Sarah’s mom back east.
The week was sweet, I dragged the dog around the block once or twice a day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of Santa Monica, happy for a respite from the drama of living out of the back of my car.
They came back and we had a little meeting where I gave back their keys, as well as their dog, their plants, their kitchen—everything that had been mine for one week, returned to the people they really belonged to.
“Thank you so much,” Sarah said, handing me a tissue wrapped package. A gift, for being able to stay in their home. So gracious.
I took the softly crinkly package, heavier than it appeared but limp, its edges flopped over the sides of my hands.
“My mother runs a fabric import business,” Sarah said, “specializing in Chinese silk.”
I slipped my hand under the scotch-taped flap and inside the tissue. My fingers met the smoothest, softest secret. Had I ever touched anything so soft?
Inside were two pairs of silk pajamas. One pair was deep purple with a subtle pattern of dark red watercolor smudges. The other was cheetah print. Even now, after decades of incredible costumes and outfits, beautiful things custom made for me, sequined capes and kimonos, rompers, jand dresses, these pajamas remain among the finest things I’ve ever worn.
I couldn’t tell if Sarah realized the magical power of her gift. She gave it so easily, no build up or fanfare. If I were giving someone a life-changing gift, I imagine I’d draw some attention to it.
I drove away, to my next house sitting gig, or rehearsal or whatever day job I had at the time. But as soon as I could, I stripped and tried on the pajamas. In many myths, the hero becomes the recipient of a transformative garment, so were these pajamas. They became my pre-show outfit for our nightclub shows, and I would mingle with the crowd before the show began, wearing them, exuding an air of cool control and swagger. Feeling ownership over something I didn’t yet possess.
It is said that only someone who hasn’t had a home can truly know what a home can mean. Only those who’ve felt the hardness of life—not just in its difficulty but its surfaces: plastic, glass, cement, the earth, tough against your bodies—can know what softness means. May you have ease today, may you slide our way through the hours, may the edges you meet feel soft to the touch.