Thursday, April 27, 2017

Please, Tell Me About Spalding Gray

Saturday, two weeks ago, I found myself in Albany, to see, for the last time, the minor league hockey team I grew up with. After 24 years they finally folded, taking with them one of the predominant pastimes of my child and adult life. It was an emotional day, full of vivid memories and odd outbursts of emotion.

I was there with a friend, and as we walked downtown, she noted the odd shape of The Egg, which I explained was a performing arts center. I looked at it, got lost for a moment, then told her that when I was in high school, my best friend saw Spalding Gray perform a monologue there. At the time, I had no idea who Spalding Gray was, and thus, I had skipped the show.

Gray’s art is difficult to define or describe: it’s a blend of public speaking and performance art, “Autobiographical Monologues” – a brainy and seamless mix of history and personal anecdote that gets viewers engaged, entertained, and leaves them better informed about the world. Much of his art had to do not just with his words, but with how he delivered them – a particular brand of neurosis that is impossible to transcribe to the page.

Given that the performances are largely him sitting at table speaking, they’re not the easiest thing to transcribe to film either, but a genius auteur found a way to capture his mannerisms on film in a way that was, like Gray’s performances, both engaging and entertaining. Many years ago I had read the manuscript of his most famous monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia,” and was largely unimpressed. Years later, I saw the film Swimming to Cambodia and Gray instantly became a hero of mine.

Yet, before I could ever see him perform, he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry, ending his life.

Reflecting in front of the venue where I could have seen him in life, I told my friend, “Never getting to see Spalding Gray will forever be one of the great regrets in my life.”


The weekend after my trip home, again on a Saturday, I found myself on the campus of my alma matter, another place I hadn't been in years. This time the cause was an all-day poetry festival.  

Somewhere in the sea of nine hours of readings, the words of Jeffrey Harrison, a poet I had never heard before, shook my brain awake:

Normally, I don’t believe in pestering celebrities,
but there are exceptions: if Spalding Gray
walked in right now, I would definitely talk to him—

but that’s impossible, since he, like my brother,
though under very different circumstances,
killed himself.

It was so random and odd, and for the second week in a row, I had Spalding Gray on the mind.


Every Sunday, I hang out at my favorite restaurant in town; I spend hours there, drinking tea and reading and talking to another friend while she bartends. 

About half the time, maybe less, there would be this little old man who would come in. He’d largely order the same thing: same drink, one of two appetizers. He always dressed casually; sat alone. He always seemed quiet at the bar, but I always got the feeling there was something lurking under that unassuming surface – laid back enough to let you know he could straddle that front line between hippies and Hells Angels; as if Hunter Thompson had lived past the age of 67 and finally cooled down to the point of just wanting a plate of oysters and a martini on a lazy Sunday.

When I encountered him that first Sunday afternoon, I had an inkling of who he was, but it wasn’t until he left that my friend told me.

And I just sat there.

Every time I saw him at the bar, I would think of all the things I always wanted to ask him, but I always got nervous and came up with some excuse to deflect: I didn’t want to interrupt his meal; I didn’t want to be “that guy.”  Thinking back on it, I’d seen him once at the same bar some months before I ever saw him in Sunday daylight.  On a crowded Friday night: two bros at the bar trying to pick his brain about cinema and throwing around obscure French titles, peacocking about how much they knew about film, while he just sat there, answering when asked, vaguely interested but too nice to walk away. 

The scene turned me off to the idea of ever saying anything to him. 

So, every time he left the bar, I’d console myself by saying, “next time.” Instead of talking, I would imagine the conversations we’d have, how they might play out. I always wanted to ask him about the man I would never meet - Spalding Gray’s been dead thirteen years - and besides, I always thought it a better approach to seem less interested in him and more interested in some tangential subject.

For the third week in a row, Spalding Gray is on my mind, though now I am thinking about Spalding Gray and Jonathan Demme.

Because now there is no “next time;” I will never get to ask him anything.


It wasn’t until Demme’s passing Wednesday morning that it really dawned on me, the impact of his art. And at first, I was struck anew by those deep pangs of regret and missed opportunity.

I knew, by and large, that my heartache was a trivial one. I never even met man; what’s more, I have friends who knew and loved him, who worked with him, who did amusing things with his Oscar, and my heart is saddened for all of them.

Trivial, perhaps, but nevertheless, it’s a heartache that I need to express, because of where it took me.

I tried to explain all of this to a friend in Colorado, how distraught it all made me, to see my life repeating the same bad pattern of missed chances and regret.

Her words to me were this:

“Imagine how lovely it is that you got to experience a little piece of his life though. Part of his routine, something almost no one else saw.”

It’s a weirdly circuitous route, but just like everything else in my life, there was a strong message hidden somewhere in the tea leaves, and with her words it all began to fall together, that the grief  gave way to an underlying gratitude that I probably wouldn’t have realized otherwise.

Quite simply: If it wasn’t for Jonathan Demme, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Years ago, I put down the paper version of “Swimming to Cambodia,” and it would have stayed down, had I not rediscovered Gray via Demme. In that rediscovery I found an answer to the question that had always been plaguing me. I’d always been a kind of mendicant, blindly wandering in the dark, forever wanting to be a writer, but never knowing what kind of writer. Then Demme made me take another hard look at Spalding Gray, showed me what was going on beyond the mere words, and I’ve been trying to emulate him ever since.

Until I saw that film, I always actively fought to keep myself out of my words, to focus on telling the stories of others; I never would have infused myself into the history I was trying to capture, were it not for these two artists. Gray showed me it was okay to be insecure and neurotic, to turn it all around and use it as a means to an ends – somehow his quest for a perfect moment on a beach in Thailand ties in with Richard Nixon and the Kent State Massacre and a British Documentary filmmaker and the Cambodian genocide and Crumbville, New York and Bob Dylan’s “Sara” and even poet Wallace Stevens is in there for good measure.

It’s a jumbled mess that somehow makes sense, in the way that the death of an Oscar-winning director can lead to my writing a lengthy, coherent essay for the first time in six months that brings together my childhood, friends from three different states, minor league hockey, I even managed to work a poet in there for good measure, and an old man eating oysters at a bar in Nyack, New York.


To this day, I’ve only ever read “Swimming to Cambodia” twice. Yet tonight, I pulled it off the shelf, ready sit with it at the bar where I will never see Jonathan Demme again. And as sit now, watching Swimming to Cambodia, for what feels like the thousandth time, I reflect on the kind of writer I always wanted to be - the kind of writer that Demme showed me I wanted to be.

And in the end, my friend was right, not just about Demme, but about Gray. I’d never met Spalding Gray, and I never got to ask Jonathan Demme about him. But at the end of his life, Demme showed me that I never needed to talk to him - he had already told me all I needed to know about Gray, and he showed me that one, all-important missing piece that I had overlooked this entire time: Myself.

And for that, I will forever be in his debt.  

Normally, I don’t believe in pestering celebrities,
but there are exceptions...

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