Here bully, bully…

20 Aug

So, I’m sitting in  a west village* theatre foyer with Leah,  drinking a coffee as big as my head, when she suddenly grabs my arm in that primal tiger-behind-you way.


“It’s her” she whispers. Or at least thinks she whispers. It came out loud enough for the barista to think there was something wrong with my jug of caffeine.


Some background.

In April, I was present for the mounting of an adaptation  I had written of  The Lower Depths. It’s a  Gorky play. It’s a tough play.  (Gorky literally means “bitter.”) A kind of spiteful optimism co-exists with the squalor and misery in the text, as its seventeen or so characters try to figure out which way to step to flee their endless poverty, or indeed, if a step is even worth it.  “Die here. Die there,” mutters Bubnoff. ‘What’s the difference?”
After the opening, I was sitting quietly in the corner of the after party, trying to snatch some clarity or two, when this woman approaches me,  friendly as a smurf and asks, ” Are you the playwright?”
A small alarm bell rings, but I put that down to my natural introversion and reticence to talk about something while it’s still fresh. If you want to know how I’m feeling today, ask me in a week. Anyway, she asks about Australia, did I travel to NYC just for this, what my intentions were with the adaptation?
“Placid. Yes. To translate Gorky into an American narrative and explore the myth of the American dream.”
Then she asks, so you have Russian in you?  Uh oh. That’s nearly always a tell.
And it is.
She immediately slides into a monologue, that by the time I catch the first actively cruel words, “stupid mess”, I realize she has me cornered me and is eviscerating me with a one to one, face to face, breathless review of my work. Sure, there’s the usual no-one knows Russian plays like I know Russian plays gear, which you can safely ignore unless you’re speaking to, oh I don’t know, a Russian playwright – but mostly it’s a deeply personal attack, peppered with bitter reminisces of the theatre to heighten her point.
And it is pointy. Stick-in-your-eye pointy.
Anyway, the situation is recognized from across the foyer and Leah rescues me by calling me over, and I gladly scuttle away. It turns out this woman is well-known in NYC theatre. In fact, she is actively banned from a good number of venues  for being, well, her charming self.
Oddly. This information makes it hurt more. A serial sniper banned from theatres for picking fights with box office staff, other punters, general poor form, well, I can’t help but think upon the satisfaction  such a person would gain from being able to corner a playwright and give him what-for.  A snark’s coup de grâce. . I feel like she’s taken something personal from me.
Anyway, she’s asked to leave and I give her a manly serve on the way out. Something along the lines of,” you are!”
And that, is that.
And now, here she is, sitting behind me in a foyer and a realization, not large, wobbles in. She’s a bully, and bullies cannot function without the element of surprise. That’s their trump card. To ask you a question so they can turn on the response. To feign intrigue so your own can be exposed. They need the fuel of your vulnerability because they need distraction from their own. Great teachers expose weakness as an opportunity to grow. Bullies expose it as pure shame to be buried.
And for all the infantile fantasies I had nurtured about the next time we’d meet and the Wilde’an zingers I would reign on her head like a post a-popcorn-ictic missile parade, the truth was, her having previously exposed her venom, shown herself, I felt a most unusual emotion for me.
Calm indifference.
Sometimes, my sense of cosmic reciprocity is empowering. Maybe even noble here and there. But,  a lot of the time it’s really just vanity with a droopy lip looking to tip some tables over.
I thought about the other bullies I had met in my life. Steven Miles in grade two who for some reason would find a reason to punch me in the nose at lunchtime. I met him twenty years later at The Melbourne Cup and he still intimidated me with his uncontrolled need to fill space and strange desire to prove himself my ally.
Simon Pollaq at Tech School who took an instant dislike to my skinny frame and general Timness.  He’d aggressively disagree with anything I’d say in that efficiently crude but menacing way only teenage boys can muster, till the day I came to school with my arm in a sling and he thought spending lunchtime kicking me in the knee was the thing to do.  Rob Gow, another stand-over teen, saw this and apparently offended by the aesthetic, stepped in and sent him scurrying with such calm efficiency that I almost cheered. Rob was true alpha. Pollaq was frightened Beta. He never bothered me after that day and Rob and I, in a sort of dog and duck as best friends news story kinda way, became mates.
Rob was tough. That is nations away from being a bully. Even a frightened thirteen year old boy knows that.
And there are other bullies, from the petty to the morally treasonous,and  I’ suppose, I’d be on a few lists as well.
it was nice to feel calm indifference to the crazy women who detested my lack of Russianess and to accept, that even within her spinning vitriol, she did have a point or two, although not the point she was intervening to make.  I felt grown up. Maybe that’s a weird thing to acknowledge in your forties. Lessons come when they come I guess. Or maybe they’re always coming and it takes coincidence to notice them.
Cosmic reciprocity. I owe.
* changed from “lower west-side.” Leah read that description of  place and politely requested change.

The Mighty Moor

8 Apr

“I will a round,  unvarnished tale deliver…”

That’s my favourite Shakespeare quote. Sometimes it is usurped by Cry “havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war, – but there you go.

It’s from Othello, when the Moor, in a  delicious bit of irony, is attempting to perform an act of civil nobility to his white bride Desdemona and her disapproving father. The act of performance varnishes his very words.

Which brings me to Harlem. Harlem NYC. An iconic neighborhood to an Aussie. It is, after-all, where “Good Times” was set.

I was there, heading out to La Guardia Airport on the M60 bus. Buses, like trams, attract nut-jobs. There must be just something about standing on a corner, barking at the sky and suddenly having a giant metal box pull up before you, like you conjured it, that wings the feet of lunacy. Just a step up and topple, and whadyaknow, a literally captive audience awaits.

The bus is crowded, and I’m clutching my giant man-bag as best I can. Three stops in and a gentleman who shall here-on-in be known as “CrazyJew” gets on. I know he’s Jewish because he wears the yarmulke. I’m guessing he’s crazy, well, just because.

The only vacant seat is next to me, but that’s okay. NYC teaches you active insulation very quickly. In a city where there’s almost always thirty people within ten feet, learning to live and let live is downright Darwinien.

He kicks my bag and chips something-or-other. I give him my best ‘so-bad-I-bore-myself’ look and he seems satisfied there’s not much game to be had with the man with the girly hair.

There are two boys sitting opposite us. About twelve years old, but I’m terrible with ages and even worse with black kids , who seem to go in appearance from nine to nineteen in a gesture. These two, they’re polite kids. Just sitting there having a quiet chat.

CrazyJew hones in and interrupts their conversation, re-quoting them in that “So you think” way only the truly hostile employ. He starts asking them about their schooling. Why are they on this bus? Where are they headed during school hours? Don’t raise your voice to me! The usual social tropes of the adult bully, whose only difference from a child bully is the camouflage.

Then he shifts to religion and the cruelty in his timbre turns me rigid. I suddenly become very aware of my every body part. A quick check of the cabin shows all in ear-shot developing a keen interest in their phones.

“Does God visit you?” Silence.  He stands, pulls of his shawl and tries to wrap it around one of the kids. Their faces flushed with shame, they do the best they politely can to ward it off. “Do you know what this is?” he bellows. “Do you?!”

Standard public transport harassment has become focused molestation. I check in with my bus-mates to see if they think this is as bat-shit crazy as I do?

They do.

So what do i do?

Nothing. I do nothing. I bury my head and close my shoulders and leave these kids to fend for themselves in the face of whatever psychic brutality this cock-sucker can conjure.

But then, this guy- just a regular guy, a tired thirty-two in regular guy depot work-wear with its regular logo, he gets up out of his seat and calmly sits himself next to the kids and across from CJ.

No fuss. No rush. He sits down and listens to the mania for another beat, then begins to engage him. He agrees, yes, kids these days lack for faith, yes, it is a strange time for them to be on the M60, yes, it is important to believe in something larger than yourself…really, is that silk, how wonderful.

Three stops later, flushed with the thrill of an ally elder, the kids alight the bus. CJ does not notice. Two stops after that, the silk shawl and its toxic owner get off also.

The guy? He looks around at those of us who have not moved away, and he smiles. There is no judgment in his smile. It’s just a smile. He stands up, puts his headphones back on and returns to his seat.

No fanfare. No coda. No public validation. Just a man who moved to a moment with unvarnished nobility.

The Moor in all of us would do well to learn.

It’s 3am somewhere.

17 Mar

I’m guessing all taxi drivers are Indian at 3.30am. Not that drivers spontaneously trans-nationalate come the hour of the wolf, just that hard-work gets done by hard-workers.  I guess there are worse jobs, and traveling exposes you to a fair few nominations. Anyone who works in the travel industry is basically dealing with people at their most fatigued, expectant and stupid on a daily basis.

If you step back, amid the buzzing blue carpet sameness of airports, there’s a chance to see the world how a lion might.  The migration of the mumbling many. The food chain is clear, from the seasoned suits who can seemingly simultaneously shave, i-jack and eat economy scrambled eggs with a pin, to the blinky shufflers who wander to the airport help desk and ask,

“Which way to the airport?”

On this food chain, I’m the equivalent of a mid-sized zebra. Happily mid-pack and hidden. Average smart but have seen enough maulings to know you don’t argue with LAX security about taking your shoes off, bag-size or favourite flavour of chewing-gum

Mass travel, for all its indulgent gadgetry reduces us to base pack animals –  jostling  our way to the best feed and hoping it’s the other guy who gets it.

A lion or two wandering airports, literally, now there’s an idea! I’m gonna mention it to LAX security next time I pass through.