Phil Robertson is an old fart I'd never heard of on a show I never watched ...

... but I think it's a shame that he was removed from the popular "Duck Dynasty" for his homophobic comments. Yes, they were idiotic things to say. And no, I'm not arguing that we should live with it. Quite the opposite: I find the pushback fierce and often funny. But I draw short of celebrating when a homophobic offender is punished by removing them from the conversation.

The removal of Mr. Robertson is a disservice to the cause of gay equality. It's minor, but a disservice. 

For a ripping argument we must allow the opposing view. If the opposing view is removed, we are denied the ability to fight. We're put in the winner's seat too early. This allows conservatives to wail about oppressive "elites" (because after all, their monkey brains can only understand status).

Let me note that I don't give a shit about Fox News (and their ilk) calling us the "thought police." They're so entry-level human it's not worth lowering my standards to engage. If my side is tweaking reactionaries, hooray! Watch them go!

But I do care about the conversation.

I believe homophobia should be aired and examined, not given a showy, corporate-inspired "time out." To punish people for expressing strikes me as very right-wing. We are the side of self-expression. Self-expression includes being a homophobic dick -- as well as protest, parody, and, if it comes to it, boycotts. The power to remove Mr. Robertson should come from a groundswell of public antipathy leading to the devaluing of his product. Instead the gays were saved by a cautious corporate conflict-avoider from above. We're letting ourselves be put in protective custody. Return us to the general population, please. 

Having an enemy is indeed unpleasant. But our faithful enemies often prove our friends in the long run. I'm grateful to the "God Hates Fags" Phelps clan for being so HONEST all these years. They expose a bigotry that straight culture would keep hidden. They're a homophobic Dorian Gray painting pulled from the attic and given access to a Kinko's. 2008's Prop 8 in California encouraged a national conversation about gay marriage -- without it, where would gay marriage be now? (And word to Anita Bryant: if I sent out Holiday Cards I'd send one to you every year. Thank you, dear.)

By letting them speak freely, our enemies never fail us. They provide the argument on which a gay rights platform can be built. We know we're right. So leave the bigot mike on. Bring back the old fart I'd never heard of on the show I'll never watch. Sit him by me.

The Vidon: My First NYC Apartment

My first NYC apartment rented for $472 a month in 1993. It was 7'10" by 28' in a Chelsea building called The Vidon. "This'll do for a year," I thought as I signed the lease. I moved out 13 years later and I'm glad the walls can't talk. I could never have built my career without such affordable housing. Most of my work on "Avenue Q" was written here, as well as all of my early plays.

I just located its most recent listing.


It's renovated nicely. The flagstone patio I built in the garden is still evident, though untended and thick with growth.


It didn't always look like that. When I moved in, it was a giant patch of dirt surrounded by a useless flagstone walkway. I moved the stones to the center with the aid of my friend Charles.

Patio Under Construction, Summer 2001.

Patio Under Construction, Summer 2001.

The Finished Product, 2001.

The Finished Product, 2001.

I gasped at the memories, and even more at the price they're asking for my shoebox now-- $1780 per month. Mind you, the apartment is TINY -- the pics are artfully angled.

How do fledgling artists move to New York City? What happens to a city when it can only import the arts from elsewhere?

Footprints In The Sand

Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to me, the other to the Lord.  

After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. 

I took a picture with my iPhone as proof.

I took a picture with my iPhone as proof.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. "Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, You would walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."

The Lord replied, "My son, my precious child, I felt like you needed a little pick-me-up. So I went to buy you a Slushee from the vendor on the boardwalk. But I came back. I mean, look further down the beach -- there are two sets of footprints."

I hate to say it, but I didn't buy it.  Something about the way the Lord spoke -- a certain shiftiness in His gaze -- made me suspicious.  

And besides, as I told him, "I don't remember any Slushee."

"Or I got you an ice cream bar, or something," He said, hurriedly.  

"But if you keep following the footprints," I said, "down there, past the jetty, there’s only one set of footprints again."

"Where?" the Lord said -- to buy time, I think.

"Down by that woman in the red bathing suit.  Eating the sandwich."

"That looks like a good sandwich," said the Lord.

 "There’s no ice cream vendor down there.  So where did You go?  I remember feeling especially bummed at that point in the journey of my life.  Why is there only one set of footprints?"

"I was -- I was levitating," said the Lord. "I was floating beside you."  

I looked at the pathetic set of footprints. "Sorry, Lord, I don’t remember that, either."

The Lord took a deep breath. "Okay, to be honest, you can be a real drag sometimes. And you tend to store up these little slights, and harbor them like some squirrel with his nuts -- and when you don't get your way you dig up these slights and bombard people with them. Me, your various boyfriends, your family. It's a tendency with you I’ve noticed for a long time, and I need to call you on it. I clearly remember the day we walked past that woman in the red bathing suit, and I wasn't having it. You were ranting about how you didn't get mentioned in some review of a production of Avenue Q: School Edition in Nebraska and there was a hurricane-ravaged coastal city suffering at the same time, and I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time to be there walking beside you. I was tired of feeding your narcissism, frankly, and I needed some time for Me."

I was ashamed. "Forgive me, Lord."

"But look further, my son," He said, "I walked beside you when your family dog Drummond died."

I scanned the beach.  "Where was that, Lord, in the journey of my life?"

"Down by the guy with the cooler, selling the beer."

Now I remembered.  The Lord was especially comforting that day.

"And when you broke into your ex's Gmail account to read his emails and he was making fun of your receding hairline -- see? My footprints are right there," said the Lord. "And I was there when you had that corn on your foot, remember?"

"That was a bad corn. I almost needed surgery for that."

"My blessed, precious child, when you had that corn, if you look, you can see only one set of footprints.  For it was then that I carried you."

Never Wipe Tears Without Gloves

I highly recommend the recent Swedish miniseries "Torka Aldrig Tårar Utan Handskar (Never Wipe Tears Without Gloves)." I watched it last night with my sister-in-law Tess Whitty and brother Kevin. A three-hour epic about a circle of gay friends in Stockholm in the 1980's, it shows that while homophobia is universal across our cultures, so are gay wit, resilience, and the importance of one's "logical family" (h/t Armistead). Its depiction of the AIDS crisis opened many eyes in Sweden, where the series was a massive hit. Follow the YouTube links for an English-subtitled version -- while the subtitles aren't quite professional they're perfectly clear (though note: in part three, when they say "40 miles" they mean "400 kilometers.") It's simply excellent television, foreign or no. I'm adding this miniseries to my Required Media Immersion For Fledgling Gays. Do check it out.

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

Before watching the series, Tess and Kevin took me to Stockholm's Grand Central Station and showed me the "gay circle," a cruising area that existed well before Stockholm had an above-ground gay culture. 


"Is it still active?" Tess asked.

"Let me see," I said. I did a slow solo circle around it -- after first having to shake off the nephew nipping at my heels (chatty 14-year-olds are anathema to a successful cruise). Halfway around the circle, a man eating an ice cream gave me The Glance.

Yes, I reported back, the Gay Circle was still active after all these years.

Note: in the photo, if one looks carefully, said nephew is attempting a photo-bomb in the background.

Tonight, Havoc on the 4 Train

I noticed the man -- as most people on the 4 train did -- when he asked a woman for her seat. I was leaning on a door nearby. 

The woman stood her ground a moment: "Why you gotta pick me out when I'm surrounded by all these men?" She had a point -- there were men seated on both sides and on the bench across from her. Clucking in disapproval, she got up anyway.

The man heard the shaming, accepted it -- and took her seat. I realized then how fucked up he was. The woman came over and stood next to me, shaking her head with amazed disapproval.

New Yorkers maintain each other's privacy even in the closest quarters. We respect each other's walls in order to maintain our own. But I decided to break the agreement for a second. I leaned to the woman and said, "He only picked you out because you looked the youngest."

I made her laugh and her eyes twinkled. She was about fifty-odd, coming home from work, maybe. My gesture offered, my gesture accepted the way I intended. A little joke, something to ease the odd tension. Quiet descended for a few seconds and we returned to our urban, private headspace.

But not the man. "You shut the fuck up," he slurred from his seat down the train.

Me? "Sir, I wasn't even talking about you," I white-lied. The woman backed me up.

He continued: "No you be getting in all my business. You shut your fucking mouth. Or I'm gonna beat your fucking ass."

Awkward eye-rolling silence. The scene he created began to dissipate and the train resumed its hum. "Do you think he's been drinking?" I whispered to the woman, making her laugh again.

"You get outta my fucking business," said the man, suddenly alert. He got up from the seat and moved toward me, staggering a bit. He was a big guy -- but drunk. People parted. Was this happening?

"I wouldn't fuck with me, Sir," I said.

I write comedy because I sit on a lot of suppressed rage that has no other healthy outlet. I make a deal with myself when I write that I'll bare my teeth but never bite. It's the baring of teeth that's funny because it can still be generous. The biting is never funny. It's the difference between the comic viewpoint of a humanist and a misanthrope. I've always felt that misanthropy is for the weak. I can't stand it as I hate that which makes me bored.

My rage rarely finds another outlet beyond humor. But when the man's fist connected with my nose there on the 4 train I suddenly became one of those other people. The kind of people who fight. And suddenly everything became a Tilt-A-Whirl moving very, very fast.


I wasn't kidding when I said, "Don't fuck with me." I felt not a shred of fear. I'm stronger than I've ever been. I'm ripped at 41, cheerily going balls-to-the-wall into midlife. He was wasted. He might have been my age -- I couldn't tell beneath the years of alcohol. We grappled. People were scattering all around us, bailing to the other side of the train. I spun him around and body-slammed him into a newly-vacant seat. He was winded. I pinned his arms to his stomach.

And the situation could go several ways. I was in a great position to lay down some hurt. Nobody on the train could dispute my right to do so.

I put my face really close to his. "Sir, I'd fucking CALM DOWN if I were you. You're a fucking drunk. You're fucking wasted. Do you hear me? You need to CALM THE FUCK DOWN."

Our eyes were locked. After a moment I looked around. Every single person on the crowded train was staring. The man slurred something I didn't understand. 

A young guy approached and stopped a few feet away. "Let him go. It'll be all right." Defusing a situation already defused. Well -- not quite.

I said firmly, "I'm not letting him go until he stops coming at me. You gonna get between us, or what?" I turned to the man. Eye-to-eye. "You gonna fucking cut it out?"

"Let me go," said the drunk man, weakly. Submissively. I noticed that the sleeve of my jacket was somehow caught on his wrist. I looked him hard in the eyes and yanked my arms away. He slurred some bravado as I moved to the middle of the train. People pretended to return to their bubbles of privacy but I caught their glances.

There was respect in their eyes. And maybe disappointment -- the guy deserved to get the shit beaten out of him. I hadn't held up my end. And in the averted glance, a mutual acknowledgment of the weirdness of it all. 

I thought:

-- How's my nose?
-- How odd that sixty seconds ago I had no idea this would happen.
-- I'm so glad I gave up drinking.
-- I'm glad I'm leaving New York.
-- I stood up for myself.
-- My nose feels tender but fine. Fucked up my fingernail, though.
-- Is there anything funny here? I don't know what it is yet.

"You did the right thing, man." It was the intervening young guy who broke my bubble, speaking across several other commuters.

"You did the right thing," he repeated.

I patted at my heart and gave a nod of appreciation. Bare your teeth. Never bite.

My Broadway Musical Closes in a Few Hours. Why Am I Grateful?


CAMPBELL: Why didn’t someone tell me that seventeen years ago?
RANDALL: You had a lot on your plate. Babies usually do.

This scene (continued below) is from "Bring It On: The Musical," which ends its Broadway run in a few hours. I rewrote that scene several dozen times over about three and-a-half years. The scene is pivotal in Act Two, taking place at a point when our lead character Campbell makes a major mistake: her ambition leads to a near-unforgivable betrayal of the people closest to her. And the only friend left to listen is her buddy Randall.

The scene as it exists in the Broadway version is brand-new to the production. After a premiere run in Atlanta, "Bring It On" launched a national tour in the Fall of 2011 -- and still the show wasn't finished. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to feel effortless, and some of the effort still showed.

For many reasons I was at a personal low point when the creative team launched into revisions for the Broadway run. A crisis of confidence, for starters. And the Act Two scene between Campbell and Randall wasn't working yet -- it still felt sentimental. Obvious. It was a lull, and didn't match the beautiful song it accompanied. So I rewrote the scene top-to-bottom. It became a conversation with myself to get out of my depression. I brought the new scene in during a creative meeting at director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's dance studio. We all read it aloud, and it worked. It barely got a rewrite.

In the scene, I removed any specifics so it could read cleanly, out of context, and be about anybody.

CAMPBELL: This may sound dumb: but my whole life I felt like I had this one shot. One lifetime as me. And I see so many people wasting all their potential. Just letting life go by. You know?


CAMPBELL: -- and I don’t want to be them. I don’t want to look back and feel sorry when I’m old. So I fought it, I worked so hard, but my life just crumbled anyway.
RANDALL: And then you got all crazy.
CAMPBELL: I so did.
(A moment.)

RANDALL: You know, I think life is way longer than it may feel right now.
CAMPBELL: That’s scary.
RANDALL Be grateful.
CAMPBELL: I don’t know how to fix all this.
RANDALL: Maybe you’ll figure it out tomorrow. And for now, just take a look at that view. Just -- look. Take a breath. And --
(He gestures at the vista. Campbell takes it in, realizing --)

CAMPBELL: It’s -- spectacular.

RANDALL: Despite any evidence to the contrary: so are you. Know that.

CAMPBELL: And you.

RANDALL (offering his hand): Take a breath.

CAMPBELL (taking it): Take a breath.
(They take a breath together.) 

"Be grateful."

This is an intentional quote of a gospel song whose message says everything. (DJ Tex Sage ended a small dance party with it on May 1, 2012, and it brought me to tears of the "Oh my God, exactly" variety.) Give a listen -- it starts small and then, well, Lynette Hawkins takes it home.

Do I wish "Bring It On" ran now and forever? Of course I do. So I am sad -- but I am grateful.

I am grateful for the geniuses I got to work with. My love begins with the core group who sat in our hundreds and hundreds of hours of creative meetings -- Andy Blankenbuehler, Alex Lacamoire, Amanda Green, Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda -- and extends undiminished to our incredible cast, our brilliant designers and associates and assistants, our amazing and generous producers, our musicians, our backstage crew, and the staffs of the many theaters who hosted us along the way.

And I am grateful that finally, on Broadway, the show found an effortless and invisible groove. To make the show consistently entertaining -- surprising and bouncy and unobvious -- nearly killed us all. But the show at last said something with a quiet force. From the start, I wanted "Bring It On" to be about the discovery of a Bohemian sensibility. Self-expression above all. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times enjoyed bandying about the word "featherweight" when describing the show. I dismiss that outright. The show is about dreams not coming true. It's about disappointment. It's about how fucked up people get and how they can recover. It has an ethical spine. I'm one of the writers, but I consider it a parable of weight. It's just told with cheerleaders.

Isherwood also found fault with the fact that La Cienega, our transgender high school student, is simply accepted and her trans status is never directly addressed. (I should also mention that in both reviews he called her a "drag queen.") But in our Bohemian world of Jackson High School, there's no other choice. And the audience loved the lack of attention paid to her supposed "outsider" status. It created a degree of  suspense that was only relieved by a wordless moment in Act Two that I don't have the ability to describe. But it provoked a guaranteed scream of delight from the audience, every time. Is the American public ready to accept a transgender person as a friend? The curtain call for Gregory Haney said everything, night after night.

I leave for the closing performance in 45 minutes and then bolt for a plane to Tennessee. I have to figure out what to wear, now, and stop my reflecting for a bit.

CAMPBELL: I think about myself then, and it’s like looking back at a whole other person. I kinda feel bad for her.
DANIELLE What do you mean?
CAMPBELL: I woke up this morning and that ambition -- it wasn’t in me any more. For that trophy. I’m not sure I recognize myself now. And it’s kind of okay. Scary. But okay.

Now and forever? Bah. I'm grateful. Yes I am. Thanks to everybody on this journey.

When I Was A Manhattan Public Access Star

In the 80's and 90's, Manhattan public-access TV was like the Wild West.

Anyone could get 28 minutes to do whatever the hell they wanted. And this material aired on channels that everyone seemed to watch.

Public-access began as a mandate of the FCC in 1972. Cable companies were required to give up a portion of bandwidth for "public, educational and local government use." In most towns this led to dull and earnest viewing: county commission meetings, say, or a performance by the Senior Swingers at the local library.

But my story takes place in Manhattan -- Manhattan back then, mind you, which was an eccentric and lively borough. In an age when everybody didn't feel entitled to be as noisy as they do nowthe rowdy public access children turned it out.

I was one of them.

In 1994, when my story begins, Time Warner offered about twenty channels in its basic package. Four of those were reserved for local public access. 

I first experienced the magic of public-access on my first night in New York City: July 26, 1993 (I moved to New York sight unseen and still haven't left.) My brother George showed me channel 35, the working-girl sister to the four nonprofit channels. 

Channel 35 -- aka "Paid Public Access" -- most famously featured "The Robin Byrd Show." Every week on her eponymous show, the omnisexual Byrd presided over all sorts of raunchy goings-on. She seemed always stoned and cheerful, but shrewder than she let on. Strippers of varying savoriness shook their wares between hilariously blunt commercials advertising phone sex and escort services. For a sizable number of New Yorkers those commercials became a common reference point:

"Call Asian Escorts now. You do not have to be Asian to call."

"Welcome to the Dungeon. Let's go down."

"Call 970-P-E-E-E. The Extra E is for Extra Pee."

The show ended in the same fashion every week. To the strains of "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" (vocals: Robin Byrd), the evening's ensemble would assemble onstage. It was similar to the closing credits of "Saturday Night Live" -- except that on Robin's show the hostess would bury her face in the Volkswagen-sized breast implants of the women and mime fellatio on the dangly cocks of the guys.

When I saw Robin Byrd for the first time, I knew New York was my home. In this city, anything was possible.

Especially on the non-commercial channels. Channel 35 had a capitalist raison d'etre -- somebody wanted money from you in the end. But the other four "community service" channels were a giddy grab bag of unrestrained self-expression. 

"Mrs. Mouth" was one of the most popular shows in the 80's and 90's. The depiction of the "hostess" was crude but effective: a man's face shot upside-down, with facial features drawn on his chin and a wig around his neck. Mrs. Mouth offered hilarious commentary and swallowed strange substances fed to her by her assistants. Bonus features included soap-opera dramas portrayed by down-and-out Barbie dolls.

Another show called "The Church of Shooting Yourself" featured a manic guy pacing the streets of Manhattan, ranting nonstop into his video camera. "On Patrol" featured Brandy Wine and Brenda-a-Go-Go, two clown-drag personalities who interviewed downtown celebrities.

I was a huge fan of New Age healer Linda Pendergraft, who offered a 28-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue every week. She was beautiful and talked in a breathy baby-doll voice. She always gazed into the camera with longing. Linda could jump topics acrobatically and return to an abandoned train of thought many minutes later. If you smoked a joint while watching, the sudden return to logic could seem downright Olympian.

Another show featured a guy who basically sat there, cock-and-balls naked, not doing much of anything. He was pretty easy on the eyes. I liked that show too.

There was an old woman whose name I can't remember who'd interview rich people at their various rich people functions. Did any of the rich people realize they'd be sandwiched between, say, the naked guy and those "White man are the devil!" preachers?

These public-access shows, the best of them, weren't culty pleasures for a hip few. Back then, everybody watched public access. There just wasn't that much TV to watch back then. The "World Wide Web" was a few years from global domination. One could either watch television or, God forbid, read. And in Manhattan, which was then stacked so thickly with creative nutjobs, public-access TV was often the best thing on.


In October of 1994 I began my first year of grad school at NYU. I found myself with a lot of free time at night. I spent much of that time watching public access TV.

On a whim, I decided to see what it would take to get a public-access show of my own. I sent the network a simple letter: "I'd like to produce a public-access television show. Please send any relevant information."

A week later, I got a two-page letter back. The second page was the application form.  It asked for preferred time-slots, the title of my proposed show and a brief description.

Having no idea what my show might be, I chose an abstract name: "Spew." I described it as "a media collage." I asked for a prime time-slot and stuck the form in the mail. The process took about a minute.

The reply came a month later. "Starting January 4th, SPEW will air on Channel 17 every Tuesday at 10:30 PM."

For a minute of effort -- hardly time enough to pleasure myself to climax -- I was set to broadcast to the artistic and financial center of the universe in a great time slot on a highly-trafficked channel. I only needed to handle a few details:

I needed a show.

And I had to rustle up some video production technology.

This was 1994, remember, when the technology we take for granted on our smartphones would have reached the budgetary scale of a space shuttle.

I already had a VCR and a TV, but I needed a camera. I got a store credit card at a now-defunct electronics retailer, "Nobody Beats the Wiz." 800 bucks got me a camera that could manage primitive, two-color titling effects. 800 bucks. Hm. I'd be a hugely successful actor soon, I reminded myself.

The deadline for each week's videotape was 10AM every Saturday, to be hand-delivered by me. So I developed a routine over the next few months: every Friday I'd arrive at my eight-foot by twenty-two-foot apartment and set up my ramshackle editing equipment. Then I'd smoke a joint and edit into the wee hours. Sometimes I'd get to the public access office in the Flatiron District only seconds before 10.

"Spew" did become a media collage of sorts. Lacking a decent microphone, I decided to use that limitation as a gift. I never once synced my audio and video. My onscreen appearances were brief: the viewer saw some dude lit only by the unseen TV he was watching. I dubbed snatches of found audio over that. I never looked into the camera once.

The first episode of Spew was a wash. But one two-minute segment at least captured a spirit that would define the show:

I still had technical issues to handle. But I liked the grainy, washed-out effect of filming the television (note: I was miles ahead of the "vintage" photo filters that are now all the rage). You can see the dust on the TV screen and, in some shots, you may spy the reflection of That Black Halogen Torch Lamp That Everybody Had in Their First Apartment.

"Spew" hit its stride about six episodes into its run. I mastered my primitive technology. My editing became more fluid and fast-paced. I found that I could tell stories by layering tonal opposites. A children's show with a slasher film -- why not? Oh, and layer on a soundtrack by Enya. 

When I inserted phrases amidst the chaos, stories assembled and random moments gained significance. And it never hurt to flash a millisecond of porn every now and then. Or more.

(Warning: said porn, though rather light. appears in the following clip. I remember recording it off of Channel 35. As I recall, one had to opt OUT of Channel 35 as it was automatically included in the cable package!)

I got a ten-dollar voicemail and ran the number on each show so viewers could respond. This was mind-blowing back then. The death threats grew dull after awhile but I loved the drunk, debauched people who rambled for minutes at a time. I was invited to a gallery opening, and went! A hospital employee left a message from an operating room. I felt triumph when a viewer complained that I'd put up a rerun -- someone was watching "Spew" more than once!

I heard from a one-night-stand-gone-bad. He recognized me and asked for another date. Another lonely guy called in almost every week. I called him "The Gland." His high-pitched voice oozed with eroticism: "Spewie Spewie Spew -- your name rolls off my lips like buttah ..."

Another public access show existed to aggregate the best of the other shows. It was called "Channel Surfing USA" and they declared me among the ten best shows of the year. I became friendly with the show's producers and met other members of the public access circus. It was a preposterous, fun hobby, launching your 28 minutes into the void and discovering that people were watching. Across the isolating city, the voicemail messages felt like a connection of fucked-up urban hearts.

Such communication is cheaply accessed now. The magic and longing are gone. An orange was a rare delicacy for the Elizabethans, but nowadays it's just an orange.


Because "Spew" was a media collage, I spent every week harvesting compelling material. I found some amazing footage of late 60's hippies tripping their balls off in a hospital emergency room. I lifted the clip from its original home, "The Twentieth Century with Mike Wallace" and spruced it up in my way: I interspersed single frames of porn now and then and ran a completely different soundtrack.

On the Tuesday of that show's debut I was hanging out with my friend Brendan at The Break, a bar on 20th and 8th. After 11PM, I checked the show's voicemail.

The rest of the story is in the video below, which I made for "Channel Surfing USA." I didn't air it myself for reasons that will be evident.


What are the chances that the producer of the stuffy, distinguished show that I stole footage from would be watching my smutty, amateurish public access show? Was he scrolling by on his way to "Robin Byrd"? Doesn't he sound like he's coked up? 

I still want to know that fuckwit's name. I hope he's lonely.

If for some reason, Sir, you Google yourself with the search term of, say, "mike wallace producer," and come across this writing, please email me. I'd love to chat with you.  Or, say, "mike wallace producer fuckwit" -- yes, I'm talking to you, douche.

In any case, that incident spelled curtains for "Spew." The legwork required to mend my relationship with Manhattan Neighborhood Network was too onerous. And I was frankly getting a bit tired of the grind.

It takes rafts of people to make 22 minutes of subpar network television a week, and I was doing 28 mostly-subpar minutes alone with one VCR and one video camera.

I wanted my Friday nights back.

So I set "Spew" free.

"Mee-Leck Come!" or: Humiliation is Learning

My idea of hell is audience participation. Even when I'm among an audience that's clapping along with a song I get self-conscious.

"Look at him," I imagine people behind me whispering. "He's just going through the motions. What a very sad life."

But I can't help it. I felt that forcing the audience to become part of a show suggests a lack of faith in the imaginative powers of the creators. I prefer my fourth wall to be firmly in place. My idea of hell is a Renaissance Faire.

The second-to-last time I was in the World Trade Center, I wore culottes, knee-high socks and a paperboy's cap. It was July of 1997. A month before, I'd completed three years at NYU's Graduate Acting Program and I was dead broke. I'd never been so poor. One scorching, humid summer day  I had an interview with a highly-regarded agent. I walked to her office rather than pay the buck-fifty to take the subway. I walked from 14th to 57th Street and arrived at my meeting having sweated through my clothes. The agent took one look at me, rushed through the meeting and dumped me on the sidewalk in three minutes flat.

I wasn't eating well. I was behind in rent. My vague plans to become an overnight sensation were not working out. The breaking point was coming. It was only a matter of when.

Then one of the head administrators from my old alma mater rang me up. "Jeff, a woman from Windows on the World called, and they need somebody to play a turn-of-the-century street vendor at a banquet next week. Are you interested?"

I put the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth and began a reflexive, "Nnnn," when I heard,

"They'll give you a thousand bucks."

"Nyesofcourse," I said.

Pam from Windows on the World called me later that day.

"So you like engaging with people? Like, improvising, you know, playing around, immersing them in the world of turn-of-the-century New York?"

"Oh yes," I lied. "I love interacting that way with strangers."

After all, the job was only three hours. No matter the humiliation, I could survive three hours. Three hundred and thirty-three bucks an hour? I'd do three hours in an Iron Maiden for that kind of cash.

In the years previous I cater-waitered for a twentieth of that rate. For one catering gig, the company told me to show up at Grand Central Station. But instead of working in that beautiful space, the night's catering staff was rushed by train to a McMansion in upstate Connecticut. It was built with the construction values of a movie set to be torn down when shooting was over. The home included one special feature: a gigantic ballroom constructed to hold their annual party. That year's party was set in the times of ancient Rome as well as ancient Greece.

After a three-hour setup the event began its lurch into full partyhood. I got what everyone agreed was the best position: I stood in the entryway offering champagne to the arriving guests. Among the straight women and gay men who comprised that night's work crew, it was considered the best position because the hostess had hired six bodybuilders to carry the arrivals (on a litter) the thirty feet from the driveway to the entrance where I stood. The bodybuilders were from a nearby Gold's Gym and none of them stood above five feet six. They wore scanty Greekish Romanish-style man-skirts and little else. When the guests disembarked from the litter it fell to me to turn my eyes from the retreating glutes of the bodybuilders and offer my tray of champagne.

Behind me in the foyer stood some actors playing Greek statues. Unlike those foolish bodybuilders who put effort into making their bodies ripped, the clever actor-statues wore foam-rubber muscle suits. Their job was to stand frozen in athletic positions. Another actor roamed around in a lion suit, growling. A performer down the hall portrayed a talking bush. For the guests' sake I wished I could offer hallucinogenic mushrooms but all I had was a bottomless supply of champagne.

"Jeff." I heard a voice behind me. I turned and saw nothing but the guys in the foam muscle suits. I turned back to the glutes -- or rather, the guests.

"Jeff." I turned again, and noticed that the statue with the discus was looking at me through the corner of his eye, his face otherwise frozen.

"Do I know you?" I mouthed. The party's fearsome hostess was only a few feet away.

"It's Christopher," whispered the statue.

Christopher! We'd dated briefly a few months before. He was perfectly handsome and a fun guy to boot. One quirk: he and his friends were unapologetic in their quest for cosmetic surgery. He'd already had his nose reduced, and new cheekbones were on the way. I liked him quite a bit -- but too much time together made me question the sleekness of my own nose and we drifted apart.

But it was good to see him. During a break, we laughed at the preposterousness of the party. My laugh became a spit-take when he told me he was making a hundred bucks an hour. I was getting sixteen bucks an hour for three hours of backbreaking setup – hauling tables, chairs, and cooking equipment – plus another four hours of tending to the guests, followed by the equally strenuous breakdown. All Christopher had to do was wear a foam-rubber suit and hold a discus.

I wanted a job like that.

And Pam from Windows on the World seemed to offer the perfect street vendor gig.

"We love actors here. When we click with an actor, we use them again and again." Though it was hardly Broadway or a TV series, I sensed a reversal of fortune. A couple of street vendor gigs a month could save my life.

Three days later I was up on the banquet level for a costume fitting. I donned my culottes, my loose shirt of rough cotton, my vest and newsboy cap.

Pam gazed at me searchingly. "So you like interacting with people in character?"

"Oh, definitely," I lied lied lied. "To be honest, I think it's the greatest form of acting." To be honest, my ideal acting job at the time was a nice suffocating Ibsen play.

But the lie worked. Pam smiled. "So show up at six tomorrow for the sound check."

My eyes widened.

"You'll be on a cordless mike. And here." She handed me several sheets of paper. "I found these actual street vendor cries from the turn of the century. They're really fun."

"I don't think I'll need a mike," I said. "I studied voice for three years with some of the best teachers in the country."

"Trust me," Pam said. "In that room, you'll need a mike."

On the subway home I looked over the papers. Pam had Xeroxed them from a book.






What could I do? I sat in my little apartment that night memorizing them, working to make the street cries roll effortlessly off of my tongue.

"Meeeee-leck come."

"M-llleeeecckk come."

"Meee-ye-llleccck come."

The next day I reminded myself of the paycheck. And I took further comfort knowing I wouldn't be alone – Pam hired four other street-vendor types who'd carry props and act as my mute underlings.

When I arrived at the banquet hall for the big night, hope began its decline. I imagined Pam and company had constructed an entire eighteenth-century neighborhood on the hundred and ninth floor. That assumption had lived in my head the entire time but I realized then that nobody but me had put it there. Instead I gazed into a carpeted, dated banquet hall, indistinguishable from any other anywhere in the US except for the views. 

I braved on. A sound guy handed me my mike which, to my disappointment, worked. Pam gave me my props – a basket of empty milk jugs, with white paint inside to depict milk. A tray of wax vegetables. A small bag filled with charcoal briquettes.

I tried to establish a jovial relationship with a fellow street vendor who wore a butcher's apron. Before I could speak a word he said, "I heard they're giving you a thousand bucks."

I nodded.

"What a rip," he scowled. "They're only giving us three hundred." He turned on his heel and marched over to the other three vendors. They whispered amongst themselves and glared at me.

Then a strange foursome walked by. One couple was dressed in giant black foam outfits that were designed to resemble those figures on "pedestrian crossing" signs. The other couple was equally bizarre: the man wore a suit made of plastic champagne glasses and the woman had a dress made of champagne corks. Meanwhile it was my job to conjure for a hundred people a one-man diorama of 1900's lower Manhattan -- and these freaks made absolutely no sense at all in any context anywhere. 

I found Pam. "Who are they?"

"Aren't they outrageous?" she beamed. "I found them through this talent agent and couldn't resist!"

My breathing became difficult. "But – is there any clue to let the guests know that we're in Manhattan in 1900?"

Pam's face froze and she stared hard into my eyes. 

"Yes. It's you."

The guests began to trickle in. The men wore tuxedos and the women wore expensive-looking evening gowns. The banquet was for a society of lower-Manhattan property owners. I was going to vend to some of the wealthiest people in the country.

Pam handed me my fake milk jugs. "Now get out there and sell!"

I stepped into the developing crowd and turned on my mike.

"MEEELECK COME!" my voice boomed across the tinkling piano and light party chatter. I saw a woman jump. I tried lowering my voice. "Meeeleck come! Here's new milk from the cow! So sweet and so fine that doctors do say 'tis better than wine!"

I offered the startled woman my basket of painted, empty milk jugs. "Would you like some meeleck, milady?"

The woman recoiled as though I'd offered her a basket of venereal warts.

The pedestrian-crossing-sign couple walked by.

I veered in another direction. "Meeleck! Who'd like some meeleck?" The more I lowered my voice, the higher the sound operator turned the volume. My whisper sliced across the party in a manner better fit for a horror-film preview.

I thought another prop might work better. After all, the "meeleck" street cry was the hardest. I returned to Pam, who handed me the bag of charcoal without meeting my gaze.

I found one of my fellow vendors and tried to engage him. "Charcoal by the bushel! Charcoal by the peck!" I tried to make my whisper sound hearty and filled with fun. I was still by far the loudest thing in the room. "Charcoal by the frying pan or any way you lek! Wouldja like some charcoal?" I pointed my mike at the vendor, my only savior in a crowd of strangers.

"Man, I'm not talking into that," he said, and walked away. I hate to say it but I'd've done the same thing.

The next two hours took a month to unfold as I veered and blushed madly amongst the hideously wealthy people, all of whom turned away as though I were a drunk bum on the subway. A drunk bum on a cordless mike. "Please, God," I could imagine them thinking. "Don't let him come near me."

The preposterousness of the scenario only struck me then: I was vending artificial foodstuffs to people in tuxedos. Nobody would ever buy any. They all probably had servants who could buy real food. Even if I were the best actor in the world I was set for a night of failure. And I was doing terribly, which made it so much worse.

At one point Pam removed the tray of wax vegetables from my sweaty blushing person. "I have an idea," she grinned forcefully. She was really trying. "Why don't you get up on that little stage and sing that song from 'Oliver,' you know, 'Who will buy this wonderful morning'?"

Though my knowledge of musical theater approached 'nil' at the time, I'd done a production of "Oliver" at my hometown community theater several years before. I probably could even remember some of the choreography.

"Never heard of it," I said.

Pam's face fell, and she handed my vegetables back.

And I went into a deep, soul-searching funk.

What was wrong with me? In the past I'd come across these people, these audience-participation people, and they filled me with revulsion. They seemed so happy and carefree and, well, GOOD at what they did – they approached strangers with a sparkle in their eye, a smile that hinted at fun to come, and even if the fun wasn't as promised at least they offered the hint. These people, these clowns, these Renaissance Fairegoers, they suggested a universal joke that strangers wanted to be in on.

And then it occurred to me: maybe I just don't like people very much. I couldn't give a stranger the benefit of the doubt and on some level the people at the banquet sensed that. Even if I was carrying a basket of free gold ingots I was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Maybe I was in my heart a misanthrope.

After an eternity the guests ate dinner and left. I hung up my culottes and said goodbye to Pam and she smiled at me. I think that smile was the kindest thing anyone had ever done in my twenty-five years of life. "You were great!" she said. "We'll be sure and use you again!"   

Two weeks later the check arrived. For six hundred dollars. A year before, or a year later, I'd've swallowed the loss. But I was so desperately poor, I had to call Pam.

"Pam? I got the check, and thanks so much. But it was for six hundred dollars, and I thought you said it would be for a thousand." My voice was quavery.

A moment. "Six hundred?" she said. "There must have been a mistake."

Two weeks later, the remainder came. I really do think it was a mistake. But Pam never did call me again.

The last time I was in the World Trade Center was December 2000. I had Christmas Eve dinner with my boyfriend and my family. Life was looking up by then.

Less than a year later I watched the towers burn from my rooftop. And the months that followed were my favorite time in New York, because people were so good to each other, so gentle, before the tragedy of that day became something meaner.

During those months, strangers gave each other the benefit of the doubt. And even the gravest misanthrope would be a fool not to participate.

How I Became a Sorority Slut, Vintage 1980

Most of us are gentle creatures in our public lives.

But when some of us go online, alone, then all bets are off. A Shadow Self emerges and it ain't gonna be ignored, especially when that Self is fanatical or racist or sociopathically hostile. I don't mean anyone WE know, of course --

--  well, I'm not so sure. You know that sweet 9-to-5 administrative assistant? Who organizes the birthday parties in the office? The one who buys the cake and gets everyone to sign the card? She could very well be that psychotic Neo-Nazi you noticed in the YouTube comments section the other day, the one whose vile spewings made you wonder "Who on earth IS that person?"

Who is that person? It's Sharon from I.T., that's who.

My Shadow Self is a decent fellow, I think. He thrives most when doing online impersonations -- going to great lengths pretending to be someone else. Persuasively. The art lies in the tossed-off detail, the random specificity, the unveiling of persona -- little by little, mind you, not all at once.

It's a harmless pastime, mostly, except when I took on the task of defending a stranger named Maureen Karr.

By pretending to be her.

I heard about Maureen on a far-out Evangelical discussion board I was exploring one night. "Who on earth ARE these people?" I wondered, drinking in their horrible worldview. I clicked on a long message thread entitled: "POST A SIN."

"If you, or someone you know, has broken one of the Lord’s Commandments this week, you are encouraged to post the nature of the sin and the name of the sinner here, so that we may all join in prayer for their salvation."

I thought it might be a parody at first but the comments were fervent and pouring in fast. (Note: I'm changing the names a smidgen. I could very well get sued, so nasty are some of the posts. Second note: I started the process of writing "(sic)" after every language mistake but I became exhausted.)

Jennifer Grangel for lying to her mother about not having premarital sex. Thomas Schneiderman, for having premarital sex with Jennifer Grangel. Hilda Grangel for intentionally misleading her friends into thinking that her daughter was deserving of a $2,500 Christian Student college scholarship. My hairdresser, M,B. who is living in sin with her boyfriend.

T.S., B.W., P.B, and J.H., for continuing to live in the homosexual lifestyle. Kelly Landon for the sin of murder by abortion. Frank Bryan for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Rebecca Lynne Haines-Crockerton, for lying about getting caught cheating on an algebra exam.

Please pray for my boss, Dave Diaz. He is unfaithful to his wife when we go out of town on business. He hires women from the Internet to come to his hotel room.

Myself, for almost saying a curse word in traffic this morning. Thankfully, I caught myself before I said it. It is a sin nonetheless.

All of the sodomites, abortionists, Liberals, Atheists, Pseudo-Chrisitans who refuse to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

Again: who ARE these people, posting so nastily about their friends and neighbors? Am I so enclosed in my highfalutin' New York gay lifestyle that I'm clueless as to the way people behave outside my little bubble?

But I must remind myself to hold on -- for all I know, the person writing the posts could be my Grandma.

Shadow Selves, remember.

For some reason it was a post by a "Nancy Gamrick" that got me fired up:

Nancy Gamrick says: The worst sinner I know is Maureen Karr (class of 80).  I went to Duke with her. She allowed herself to be debased by many men. Even blacks. And in the rear. I’ve prayed for her ever since.  I don’t know if she wound up on the streets or a successful business woman, but she is a sinner. I only hope she repented.

People like Nancy Gamrick drive me insane. Self-satisfied, smug people who are clearly party-killers -- and racist to boot. And besides, that Maureen Karr sounds like a lot of fun. She resembles many of my friends, actually. Even me sometimes.

So I decided to post as Maureen Karr, in her defense:

Maureen Karr says:  Nancy, how dare you post these things about me? I have a “Google Alert” for my name, and lo and behold I got a message saying I had a new Internet entry — so here I am. Well, Nancy, let’s not begin to talk about your self-righteousness which is also, I believe, a sin. And as I recall, the 'black' that you refer to is one that YOU 'coveted' back in the day, and were insanely jealous about! I did not do it with him 'in the rear' as you declare, but I did all sorts of OTHER things with him in a manner I will be happy to describe to you if you ever dare to call me. Which I doubt will happen. You put the 'cow' in 'cowardly.'

I’ll give you, Nancy, exactly 24 hours to not only recant but apologize, or otherwise, I will blow your cover entirely. And you KNOW I have the goods on you, sister. You know I have the goods.

Sincerely, Maureen.

I felt so much better after that.

And then, thrillingly, Nancy replied!

Nancy Gamrick says:  Maureen, I am not surprised that you watch your reputation like hawk. If I had done the things you did, I would too! I just want you to know that I am not going to address your denials. Lies are your bread and butter. It is almost nostalgic to read them!

I will say, however, that you were very rude to a lot of us girls. You walked around like your shit didn’t stink! But I knew what a whore you were. AND SO DID A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE. How many guys in BOG did you blow — and they weren’t even a real frat! In fact, I am rather glad you saw my post. I want you to know that your snottiest hurt my feeling and a lot of other girls who were really great people.

I had hoped that you had repented, but it is clear from you post that you are still a slut in denial. I will pray for you! I mean that sincerely. I have gotten over my hatred of you. But I can’t say that other members of our class have. I doubt they have, but I will do the Christian thing and forgive you.

Now please let us regard this sentence: "I had hoped that you had repented, but it is clear from you post that you are still a slut in denial. I will pray for you! I mean that sincerely."

The more Nancy vents, the more I like Maureen. What a fun-loving minx she must have been, blowing countless guys at "BOG" -- which isn't even a real frat! How dare Nancy call her a snob!

All right, this was the time to go deep.

Maureen Karr says:  Oh spare me your Christianity, Nancy. As far as me being 'on the streets or a successful businesswoman' I’ll have you know that I am typing this in the hot tub in the Roman-style bathhouse on the 19-room plantation that I share with my husband, Giorgio, and our three children whose names I won’t mention lest you begin praying for them. Giorgio is in the other room. He's opening a bottle of Tête de Cuvée -- not the '02 vintage, of course, as that warm summer made for mediocre champagne all around. Wonderful weather for those moonlight dips in the Mediterranean, though -- oops! Speaking of dips, I hope I don’t get the laptop wet in this hot tub! Oh well, we can afford to buy another.

My life is filled with friends -- you might see them as celebrities, but in truth they're just people like you and me. Well -- like me, anyway. How sad for you that you’ve had to turn to God in order to justify your nastiness and soothe your moldy old 'hurt feelings.'

I won’t give into my threat to catalog what I know about you, Nancy, because I'm already processing past you, thanks to the guidance of my Shaman and spiritual healer Nit-Tuit Teung. 

Most sincerely yours — oh, thank you, Giorgio, honey — come on in, the water’s fine. Sorry, Nancy, what was I saying? Giorgio, don’t — that tickles!


When I hit "Post Comment" on that I could almost hear Nancy's shrieks, shrill and piercing like the Ringwraiths of "The Lord of the Rings."

But Nancy wasn't stripped of ammo. Not by a long shot:

Nancy Gamrick says: Maureen, my goodness, it certainly doesn’t surprise me to hear that you are in a 'hot tub.' Remember when they Delts had the ski party and you had a drunken little 'accident' in the hot tub at the hotel? I only wish I had been there to see it! I admit — I only heard about it the next morning. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still laugh thinking about it.

You think you are taunting me with you post, but it is doing just the opposite. But, as usual, you don’t realize it. You still sound smug and superficial — the two things that made everyone I knew at Duke hate you. I guess you are still hated by the people who come in contact with you. And, as usual, you are completely oblivious!

You can sneer all you like — it was what you were best at — but I’m laughing, too. And my laughs are genuine, not defensive shields because someone has seen through my shallowness!

Hope you finally find some real happiness.

What I find most frustrating about Nancy is the way she says something vile, only to follow it by a comment like "Hope you finally find some real happiness."

She continues:

Maybe you have changed. The Maureen I knew was all about marrying rich. Remember how you went after Robert when you heard about Food Lion? And now, here you are, happily married to a Mexican. I wish you both (and your children, who I am sure are beautiful) all the blessing that life can provide.

I must give Nancy a leg up for the honeyed "happily married to a Mexican" line.

At this point, the storyteller in me was getting tired of the back-and-forth bitchery. We were entering Act Three, and the audience needed a good shaking-up -- not merely a shift in tactic or circumstance, but a re-evaluation of the given reality.


Maureen Karr writes:  Well, I’ve had half a bottle of wine, so forgive me whatever Lord there is for what I’m about to post.

I am a liar. I am not married to a man named Giorgio. I do not have a happy life. Period. It’s a miserable existence. My excessive drinking has, at least I believe it has brought on diabetes and I suffer every day for it. I have no children, and am now  past the point when I will ever be able to have biological children at all. I do love children. Whatever you may remember about me, Nancy, there’s that fact.

I am twice divorced and very alone. I have a job in real estate, but I’m not even an agent — I just do the clerical work. I get by, enough to get a drink with my girlfriends every now and then, but that’s about it. I have nothing to look forward to, no savings, and I am in terror about getting any older.

Nancy, I hate to think that this will bring you satisfaction, but I know it will. And this makes me wonder about you and the God you worship. You strike me as even more selfish than I was as a younger person. You may work serving God and working in a Christian school, but your pettiness makes me feel terrible. It makes me feel terrible because I know that my suffering will bring you pleasure. I shouldn’t be writing this because I know it will give you a chance to pretend to be kind and forgiving, but all that you will be doing is making yourself feel superior. So spare me.

I don’t know what to say to people like you. That’s why I pretended like I was happy. But the fact of life is, I’m not. And if I die and go to the Pearly Gates, that’s what I’ll do my best to say — I was honest about my life considering what I was given. I hope, Nancy, that you will be able to do the same.

That’s all. I’m not interested in your reply. I pray to whatever god there is to give me the strength to not even check.  Maureen.

And: blackout.

End of play.

I don't know about anyone else, but I felt that was pretty devastating!

But that dad-blamed Nancy:

Nancy Gamrick writes:  Maureen. I was tearing up reading your post. I am so glad you have chosen to be honest. It is the only way to approach Him for forgiveness.

How hurtful that you think I would take pleasure in your horrible, sad life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m praying for you. And just got of the phone with your Kappa sister Margaret Mabood, telling her of your unhappiness, and she has promised to keep you in her prayers, too. No matter what you have done to people in the past, there are folks who are wishing you well. I know. I am one of them.

In His Name, Nancy.

First response: Oops! I didn't consider that Nancy might still be a degree of separation away from Maureen. Let's hope Margaret Mabood keeps her trap shut! Or maybe -- maybe it's better if Nancy realizes she was conned. What an evil woman, rushing to the phone in order to crow about my rendition of a crushed, joyless Maureen. I'd come to feel quite bad for poor Mo. They used to call her "Mo." No one has called her "Mo" in years.

I just made that up.

I felt trumped by Nancy's last post. There's a streak of Evangelical smugness and self-satisfaction that is impossible to penetrate because the Christian is forever a step closer to God than you are.  And because that's their trump card, their Death Star, they'll defend it at any cost.

I wanted TEARS from Nancy Gamrick! Instead, I think I made her day.

But Nancy seems she just might be, well, a suffering person (I will not add "I'll pray for her"). And reflecting further: Nancy was posting under her real name, while I was a well-adult male portraying an aging ex-sorority girl from Duke University.

But then again, who's to say, in this Internet world of Shadow Sides unearthed, that Nancy wasn't, say, some 26-year-old Filipino male, in reality? Or somebody else? Someone -- someone close to me, say?

Hold on a sec.  I'll be right back.

Grandma? Hey Grandma, is that you typing in the other room?

(The sound of typing stops.  A long moment passes.  Fade out.)