Man's Best Friend
From Tom of Finland to Big Penises, Dian Hanson is on a mission to rehabilitate old-school masuclinity.
Man's Best Friend
From Tom of Finland to Big Penises, Dian Hanson is on a mission to rehabilitate old-school masuclinity.
Arena’s been at it for three years. It’s nearly midnight on a frigid Thursday in January. She looks like someone’s daughter awaiting a ride to the mall...
A Writing Class Focused on Goodbyes
"The suicide note — and I’m being deadly earnest — is moving, strange, harrowing and peculiar literature," said Simon Critchley...
No Judging About Gay Players on Basketball Courts
The West Fourth Street basketball courts in Greenwich Village, known far and wide as the Cage...
Ready for the Big Storm (the One from Last August)
When Amy Sedaris sees the X, she becomes sad. "I just imagine what their apartments must look like," she said...
In North Brooklyn, Another Gay Bar Closes
One Wednesday in February at Veronica’s, the boss lined up shot glasses on the bar, opened a bottle of tequila and passed it down...
The news went viral on Facebook. Then it made Towleroad. Stalwarts of the chattering class jammed news feeds with sad-face emoticons and R.I.P.s...
In the East Village a Poetic Mentor Minces Few Words
The woman climbs the stairs in the shabby East Village tenement and enters while Larry Fagin is finishing a call...
Horror on the L Train, and the Rest of the Story
On a recent Monday during the evening rush on a Brooklyn-bound L train, a dozen or so people boarding the train at Union Square shuffled into the rear of the carriage...
Catching Up with Michael Cunningham
When Michael Cunningham and I first met, I knew him simply as Michael: that tall, handsome, charming man with whom I'd have the most delightful conversations...
Dian Hanson, a 6-foot-tall hay-bale blonde with a buoyant, purposeful stride, bellies up to the bar of a quiet saloon on a chalky yellow afternoon in Hollywood and touches my forearm to emphasize a point.
“It should give you a boner,” says Hanson, 61, who exudes a particularly cerebral brand of warmth, between bites of a goat cheese salad. “Walking down the street and a skateboard kid goes by and you smell his fragrant perspiration, you should be able to get it up over a whiff.”
On the saloon’s numerous very large televisions, Tiger Woods (an example, perhaps, of an exemption from the whiff decree) flubs a putt on the Golf Channel, causing the bartender—a blocky, rugby-like specimen with sweaty auburn locks (certainly not exempt)—to resume his casual eavesdropping on our conversation.
“People today want perfection,” Hanson continues. “They’re demanding in a way that negates that strong, powerful gift of sex drive you have when you are young. It’s not very masculine.”
Today Hanson is immersed in a simpler era of masculinity—one before the politics of the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond flushed questions of sexual identity into the mainstream.
As “sexy books editor” at Taschen, she has been responsible for, among other titles, Bob’s World, a collection of the work of homoerotic, mid-century male physique photographer Bob Mizer; Naked as a Jaybird, after the 1960s nudist magazine; The Big Penis Book; Tom of Finland XXL; The Big Book of Breasts; The Big Book of Pussy; and Dian Hanson’s History of Pin-Up Magazines.
Her latest project is a collection of 450 candid photographs of nude soldiers taken during World War II, titled My Buddy. The book’s namesake, a popular song of the time that symbolized the uncommon closeness between men during the horror of war, was actually a love song to a woman written two decades earlier
“They are everything, probably, but gay,” she says of the soldiers in the book. “They do prefer the company of men. They do feel uncomfortable around women. And that’s the allure. Let’s not take it the extra step. Let’s just say, ‘We like straight guys. Straight guys turn us on.’ ”
As Hanson sees it, the strong sense of male sexual identity during World War II, before it was commonplace to question identity, made men freer in their behavior because they felt so completely secure
“It made it easier,” she says, “so that when they got blown by a gay guy while on furlough in Hawaii, it didn’t necessarily make them feel like they had to beat the guy up because something good had happened. It wasn’t a bad thing that threatened them and made them scared about themselves.
The images, obtained from a private collection, are bizarre by today’s compartmentalized standard of male sexuality; there’s the one of a bullheaded, stark-naked German officer being ferried across a stream on the shoulders of a young enlistee (the Germans seemed particularly willing to get naked and display an inclination to photograph one another urinating).
There are also plenty of nude Allies in combat boots and helmets (the enemy might have been near), a few dicks pushed back between the legs to mimic vaginas, and lots of naked buddies horsing around on the beach, building shelters, or flashing big grins while they shit.
“I think it’s going to be one of the great World War II photo books of all time,” Hanson says.
There is also a series of penis inspection shots, in which young enlistees, before debarking to any number of U.S. government–funded whore houses, were required to milk down their cocks in front of an inspector, who’d check for discharge indicating venereal disease.
“When you look at these World War II guys, their lack of consciousness about their appearance, about their beautiful young bodies, is very splendid,”Hanson says, ladling that last word up as though from the bottom of a cauldron.
She takes a sip from her beer. “America is going sissy,” she says. “There are too many straight guys now who are looking in fashion magazines and are concerned about getting everything perfect. On the other hand, this is probably a necessary stage to bring about the cultural revolution that’s going on now, with people accepting gay marriage. We are absolutely on our way to having countrywide legalized gay marriage, and it requires the straight world to have some kinship. And maybe the sissyfication of straight guys is helping that kinship along.”
Hanson rose to pornography superstardom in the late 1980s, when she took over the magazine Leg Show as readership was faltering. Under her leadership, Leg Show became the top-selling fetish magazine in the world (it went out of print in August 2012, 10 years after Hanson left for Taschen). Hanson’s other editorial credits include the magazines Juggs and Puritan. She appeared in the documentary Crumb, about her former boyfriend, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and is currently married to British novelist Geoff Nicholson
Through her years in the sex industry, Hanson has learned a thing or two: Men are not evil; women love showing off their breasts, but when it’s time for the pussy spread the mood always changes; the only time anyone ever looked truly happy in porn was in the 1970s, when, newly freed from obscenity laws, it was revolutionary; and the 2000s, with the industry frantic over the rise of online video streaming and Viagra bursting onto the scene, was a very rough period.
“That was the point where the guys were just trying to kill their partner with their dick, because they could,” she says.
The last 10 years at Taschen have been a period of introspective gratification for Hanson, quite different from the fast-paced, perpetually redeeming, fan mail–littered world of magazines. These days, she also takes care of her friend David Hurles, now in a nursing home, known in the industry as “Old Reliable,” the photographer with a cult following who made a career, of sorts, of his desire to fuck and photograph only straight criminals and psychopaths.
Back at Hanson’s office inside the Crossroads of the World, a former mall built in 1936 with the Tomorrowland whimsy that still peppers much of Los Angeles, she clicks through slide sets of another project, a photographic retrospective of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Everyone’s going to buy this book,” she says with an image on her computer screen of a shirtless Schwarzenegger in the late ’70s standing in a doorway, resting his elbows against the frame.
She circles the cursor around his sweaty gym shorts. “You can see it totally outlined here. He’s uncut.”
Hanson is in talks with the Governator to include at least one nude, of which there are many in circulation, in the book, scheduled for release in 2014.
“Everyone wants to think that with guys like this it’s small. But that’s not true,” she sighs, in defense of Schwarzenegger’s penis. “Arnold was so beautiful.”
Arena’s been at it for three years. It’s nearly midnight on a frigid Thursday in January. She looks like someone’s daughter awaiting a ride to the mall, sitting perpendicularly on her twin-size bed with her back against the wall and her size 11 feet dangling over the edge. Her pink sheets are patterned with Betty Boop lip prints. In about four hours Arena will hit the streets, which she hates doing. It’s dangerous and lowly, but no clients have called today.
Arena is Spanish for “sand.” Tonight she’s nostalgic. "I was in Indiana when I began the transition with hormones," she says. The change occurred quickly and caught her off-guard. One afternoon she passed a mirror and became tearful. "I thought, Oh my god, I look just like my mother." It was the happiest moment of her life.
Arena’s V-neck shirt betrays a rash spreading over her torso -- large, red abscesses that look concerning -- but she likes this shirt because it buoys her modest cleavage. And this cleavage is what brought Arena to Queens and funneled her into the sex trade. Once she makes enough money for breast implants, she’s out of here. She’s not built for city life -- she downright hates it.
It’s apparent in her hypnotic gentleness. She moves like a shy teenage girl adjusting to a sudden growth spurt. Her face is soft and round, her gaze thoughtful and submissive, and small patches of acne kiss each cheek. Her eyes periodically meet mine, and I wonder how much of her coquettish innocence is calculated.
The basement apartment where she lives with Marcia and another girl is off 109th Street in Corona. It’s heated but has no windows and comprises two small adjoining rooms without doors. There is no kitchen. The walls are mostly exposed plaster, and the floor is bare white linoleum. There are no rugs, but the apartment is tidy, modest, and sparse.
In Marcia’s bedroom, posters depicting the Chicago skyline, the St. Louis Arch, and the Golden Gate Bridge pepper her walls alongside garments hanging from nails—a sequined top hat, a fur-lined gown, a sparkling leotard—all left over from her days as a performer in gay bars. She talks about the garments with reverence like an old Hollywood actress tiptoeing through past glory. Along one wall, to conceal some of the plaster, hangs a fuzzy pink blanket depicting Disney princesses.
Up the L-shaped staircase is a small living room used for entertaining clients. An old mattress takes up most of the floor. The room looks like a museum diorama of a crack house. The white walls are bare, there are no bulbs in the ceiling fixture, and the floor is a torrent of condom wrappers, ransacked issues of El Diario, mangy blankets, plastic soda bottles, empty chip bags, and energy drink cans. Considering the charity-shop coziness of the rooms downstairs, the mess seems suspiciously intentional, as if to discourage overstaying.
The makeshift kitchen is in Marcia’s room: a mini-fridge and a hot plate, some plastic cutlery, a box of Frosted Flakes, a carton of Cup Noodles, and a stack of recycled take-out containers.
But for Arena, this apartment is a step toward the good life. Like many of her peers here, she was homeless after arriving to Queens three years ago. Her boyfriend Pablo gave her money, but it was never enough. So she paid her street dues: bathed at Starbucks, pinched naps at clients’ houses, in shelters, or on the floors of other girls’ apartments. Those were among the worst years of this period that she believes will end soon.
"I don’t care if I only make $100 a night," she says. She’s not like the Frankenstein’s monsters who pull over at Lucho’s, the $1,500-a-night girls with the $15,000 hourglass figures. Maybe when the other girls see her they think she’s naïve. "I know all the girls have HIV, and I’m going to protect myself," she says.
Marcia looms in the doorway with a pale gaze over Arena. She’s not quite old enough to mother Arena, but she’s a sort of big sister, and she keeps her mouth shut because she remembers being 26 and new to the game. It’s not a bad thing to have morals, if you can keep them. And she’s watched plenty of Arenas move through the scene since arriving here from El Salvador 15 years ago.
Forty blocks west down Roosevelt Avenue is a good place to start, where a lipstick-red crucifix blazes above a fenced-in overpass traversing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This marks the way to Lucho’s Place. Just after 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, an armada of cabs and limousines bottlenecks onto 69th Street, clamoring like piranhas for the business pumping in and out of the bar.
The new girls trickle in on foot, risky with the patrol cops running thick in this part of Queens. The new girls are foolish, but they are just starting out, like everyone once did. Skinny, drab, razor-burned crystallizations of their future selves. Sneakers with boot-cut jeans, men’s shirts, and drugstore makeup applied conservatively, because of the cost, and inexpertly.
No matter where in Latin America they originate or how they entered the United States, at some point all the girls heard about Queens and booked it here the first chance they got. The nonprofits give out free hormones, the people are nonchalant, and social services abound ("benny queen" is what those on the dole are called, "benny" being short for benefits). They never plan to become prostitutes, all thinking they’ll carve a different path. And yet most become prostitutes. And if you can manage to stay away from the drugs, you’ve got a chance of making it out, although that chance is not very great if your immigration status is undocumented.
Forty-eight percent of Queens’s 2.2 million residents are foreign-born, half of them from Latin America, according to a recent census analysis. With nearly 300 languages spoken here, it is the most ethnically diverse county in America. There is no data on the number of sex workers operating in New York City, but Queens is the highest-ranking borough in prostitution-related arrests -- about 1,500 cases in 2010. The 115th Precinct, which covers Jackson Heights and Corona, made up the bulk of those arrests. It is also the area with the city’s highest rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections. According to a 2010 surveillance by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 26% of all new HIV cases citywide were in Jackson Heights and its environs (the number of new cases was rivaled only by that of the jail at Rikers Island).
Among foreign-born New Yorkers, people from Latin America make up 83% of all new HIV diagnoses. Ninety percent of newly diagnosed HIV-positive male-to-female transgenders are black or Latino, and half of those are in their 20s, which puts Arena in the highest risk group.
Latino transgender women are among the most visible population of western Queens. They aren’t performers putting on acts for audiences of gay professionals. They aren’t concerned with pronouns or gender politics. Most of them would rather be anywhere other than New York, and with each day comes threat and struggle.
At nightfall, Roosevelt Avenue swells with ghosts and drunks, saints and fast talkers, hustlers, whores, and bible-thumpers. New Orleans’s French Quarter comes to mind: a mini empire of vice churning against a molasses of voodoo and apathetic deities. Roosevelt is sometimes called the new Times Square, a reference to the seedier days of that neighborhood. But here, even with the spire of the Empire State Building peeking over the tottering roofline, Manhattan exists as a vague place in the mind, an aspiration, another foreign country.
At 50, Sasha no longer walks the avenue. "I have too much personality for that," she says. "Those girls who work the streets are dumb."
She’s a shop girl now at a fashionable boutique in Manhattan and leaves the house most days without makeup, layered in swooping black textiles, flats, and spritzes of Wonderwood by Comme des Garçons. "I was never a good whore," she says. "The other girls always said, ‘Sash, you talk too damn much.’ "
Sasha has an aristocrat’s sense of irreverence and pals around nicely with American wit and the English language. She never comes to Lucho’s, but tonight she needed to drink through some woes. Earlier, in a much-hyped meeting with an immigration attorney, she learned she has no case to get legal status. "Stay put and keep doing what you’re doing," he said.
Sasha pays taxes and has a bank account. She’s done everything right. After 25 years of living undocumented in America, she’d like to return to Mexico to visit her ailing mother. But it’s not going to happen. In order to get asylum status in the United States -- and transgenders from Latin America are good candidates -- Sasha needed to apply within her first year of entering the country. "It’s always the same response," she says. "It’s just a reminder of the way things are."
After her fourth Corona, things seem less dire. "Holy shit! That bitch is a money machine!" Sasha shouts over the music. The tune is "Te Burlaste de Mi" by El Chaval de la Bachata, a boozy steel guitar number, and a handful of gay couples rush the floor to dance merengue in the colored lights.
The money machine is a stunning, Kardashian-like beast of superhuman femininity who spends the night admiring her reflection, stomping a makeshift runway, oscillating her ass to the music, and sliding her hands over her Jessica Rabbit hips. She’s got a somewhat demonic face, both scheming and flawless.
The crowd parts when she walks. She can’t be more than 24; she reigns tonight, but there’s always another star on the rise, and the scene is littered with once-great beauties. One of them is a few feet away, fat rolls spilling over her backless dress, her surgeries heading south. She has an exaggerated laugh and she caresses the men in an exaggerated way—she’s working twice as hard for her old reliables.
The money machine gets a text message. She bounds out the door, her stride as gallant as an athlete’s wife on a shopping spree. A black Cadillac Escalade waits in the parking lot behind the church across the street and she gets into the backseat, reappearing 10 minutes later, adjusting her little purple dress. Back inside Lucho’s she approaches me and grabs my crotch.
"You want foursome? You gay, bi, straight, what?" She indicates two friends waiting in the wings. I’m coy and she loses interest. She checks her phone; another message has come down the wire. She slips out the door, trailing the scent of synthetic lavender.
She’s one of many who’ve learned the fast track into Dr. Patel’s office, a plastic surgeon in Brooklyn who attracts all the girls by word of mouth. She must have dropped nearly $10,000 in that office. Cheek, hip, and breast implants, a nose job, collagen injections. Once you’re bringing in a couple thousand dollars a night, the drugs aren’t far behind.
Sasha has seen the devastation this can cause. Lives getting ruined. She’s seen men end up on the street, bankrupt. Savings accounts, houses, cars, families all gone up the noses or into the tits of a trans hustler.
"If you like transgenders, you have to be cautious because it can very easily become an obsession -- a lot of them are cautious because of that," Sasha says. "Some of them will give all of their money to trannies. They spend their entire salaries and savings. And the girls just take and take. The thing about the third world, honey, is that the concept of morality doesn’t exist. It’s about survival."
The clients almost always identify as straight men and come to Lucho’s or troll the avenue looking for one thing -- to get fucked bareback by a chick with a dick—and they’ll pay upwards of a grand a pop. If a girl insists on using a condom, the price -- or rather, her earnings -- drops to about $100.
The most handsome men tend to wait in the shadows by the door at Lucho’s. They arrive at 3 a.m. They don’t order drinks. They wait to be approached and they leave as quietly as they arrived, escorting little dresses into the black cabs and Escalades parked out front. Sharp, cocky finance guys in nice trench coats, a dashingly handsome cowboy -- perhaps from out of state -- in a tidy down vest and flannel, a dark-haired waiter with a face sculpted from marble still in his white shirt and black bow tie.
On the other end, which might be a sort of looking-glass, are the spooks, the blank-eyed gray men who’ve been at this for years, who sit and lust and swell, red-faced, sodden, too hungry to be ashamed of how they present themselves. Ravaged by lust. Some are very fat and some are wasting away, and the girls treat them all with the same cunning indifference.
It’s another Saturday and the apartment off 109th Street is shaken. The other girl, the third roommate, has been arrested. The police stopped her on the street, searched her purse, found a stash of condoms, and booked her on a prostitution charge. This, for some, is another rationale for not using condoms. If the police find more than one and you’re transgender, then you’re a prostitute and they haul you in. The previous night, Arena was working the street, too, when a young man pulled up, very handsome and muscular. She asked one of the other girls if she knew him. "Yeah," the girl said, "he’s had us all. He’s OK."
They went back to his place and he gave Arena $200 for a blowjob. When she got out a condom he demanded $150 of it back. She refused. He grew violent and raised his voice. "You’re pretty, but you’re a whore," he shouted. He lifted his hand to strike her and she fled. Lost, she wandered for 45 minutes until spotting Roosevelt Avenue.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Arena back in Virginia, where she lived for several years after leaving Honduras. She worked construction, installing air conditioners in residential units, until she lost her job when the economy collapsed in 2008. Even after the recovery, jobs remained scarce for undocumented workers and Arena bounced around the Eastern United States -- Kentucky, Florida -- before settling in rural Indiana. She liked it there: the friendliness of the people, the vastness of the horizon, and the snow. That’s where she met Pablo, and that’s where she began the process of becoming a woman.
A soccer game plays on her television, a bulky set that lumbers atop a five-gallon drum of plaster in her bedroom. The room is only large enough for this TV and her twin bed, with a narrow walkway to the bathroom. Along one wall, a few articles of clothing hang on nails: jeans and T-shirts, some evening gowns in case she ever decides to perform in a bar. Arena recedes from the spotlight even in conversation; she has a personality ill suited for the stage, but still, the gig would be preferable to her current one, if it was feasible -- which it is not.
There are only mattresses in the apartment, no chairs. Marcia says if they have chairs around, the clients will linger and smoke cigarettes. Arena says it’s so Pablo won’t stay. He visits two days a week from New Jersey, where he works in a factory. He can’t find out that she’s a prostitute. Although he may suspect it, he pretends he doesn’t know. He’s eager for Arena to get her breasts any way she has to and he doesn’t ask many questions.
"I don’t believe in love. I believe in clients," Marcia says. She’s middle-aged with an indigenous-looking face. She and Arena wear the same bottle-job highlights streaked through their hair.
"Everyone starts off thinking they can make money as a performer, but no one tips. Eventually you have to take on clients," she says. Many of the bars where Marcia performed have closed or changed names. Her happiest days were at Music Box, where her favorite song to lip-sync on stage was "Infiel"—"Unfaithful"—by Karlos Rose, a song her boyfriend, who tended bar, had forbidden her to perform but she’d bribe the DJ to play anyway. After six years together, that boyfriend came out as gay and left her.
She keeps a small shrine in her bedroom to Santa Marta, the Dominator, a mighty, black-skinned saint depicted with a python around her shoulders. Marta is both saint and demon who governs love and ushers in death. Marcia says she always uses protection with clients, but the question makes her nervous. She says she’s HIV-negative, but "is at high risk because of another STD I have."
Marcia has taken the day off and Arena is waiting for calls.
"Pablo treats me like a heterosexual woman," she says. "We’re going to get married."
She stands in the bathroom and dabs concealer under her eyes. On the door frame above her head a bumper sticker reads obama cares. It’s the only decorative element in her room besides those Betty Boop sheets and I find it very charming at first, then somewhat morose. It occurs to me that her boyfriend Pablo perhaps doesn’t exist.
A text message comes through. It’s a regular client who passes through on his trucking route between Long Island and New Jersey. He stops by unannounced because he’s in love with Arena and he wants to catch her with other clients and size them up. When they fall in love, and they often do, Arena says, it’s important to draw boundaries or they’ll start skimping on the price.
Arena admits to thinking often about that day in Indiana, when she saw her mother in the mirror. Only a couple more years and she’ll go back to Indiana. She wants a house, a yard, and nice neighbors. She likes small towns. She’ll get a nice place. "Me and Pablo," she says.
She looks me dead on and gestures toward her penis with a karate chop motion. "I’m so confused by the clients. If you like women, why do you want that?" she says. "I have a lot of problems sometimes, because most of them want to be bottoms and it was very difficult when I came here because I didn’t understand the situation." A darkness settles across her sweet face. "I hate it. I hate topping them. But I have to survive."
Survival tonight arrives in the form of a truck driver. Arena will make $120.
A two-ounce menace is terrorizing Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
On Arthur Henry’s inaugural stroll through the recently opened Transmitter Park along the waterfront on a piercingly bright afternoon last week, he felt a slight tap on his head.
He reached up, touched blood, and then saw a mockingbird circling above.
Mr. Henry ran.
Two days later, on his next visit to the park, he heard "a wail, like a battle cry," emanating from what he believed was the same bird, as it plunged toward him once again.
"It’s so ridiculous," said Mr. Henry, 44, a children’s book author, as he showed a reporter the site of the attack last Thursday. "I’m scared of a bird." He had brought along Ray-Bans to protect his eyes should the bird come back for a third round.
Also last week, Pacifico Silano, an artist from Williamsburg, was sunbathing with a friend at the park (officially known as WNYC Transmitter Park because it was built on the former site of WNYC’s radio towers) when a frantic woman with two small dogs approached.
"She was like, ‘Be careful. There’s this bird hanging out over there and it’s attacking me,’" said Mr. Silano, 27. "I was like, ‘Are we really having this conversation?’"
Such aggressive behavior in mockingbirds result from perceived threats to their hatchlings, said Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. The incidents should stop any day now as nesting season ends, he said.
"Once the young fledge, they’ll settle down," Mr. Phillips said.
Mockingbirds have thrived in New York City since immigrating to the region in the 1960s, drawn by ornamental fruiting plants that provide a winter food source, Mr. Phillips said. They have a reputation for keeping New Yorkers up at night mimicking car alarms and for sporadically assaulting pedestrians.
Angela Golinvaux, a 30-year-old salesclerk from Bushwick, also felt the sting of a pointy black beak recently, near the Kent Street entrance to the park where she usually eats her lunch.
"I had my hair up in a bun and I felt something hit it and I was like, ‘What the heck?’" she said.
The next day, also on her lunch break, multiple mockingbirds greeted Ms. Golinvaux mid-trek to the waterfront. (Scientists have found that mockingbirds can recognize humans who have previously been identified as threats.)
"They were dive-bombing me, and flying at me, and perching and looking at me," she said, describing behavior known as mobbing that is not uncommon in small birds, according to Mr. Phillips.
She screamed expletives back at the birds and bolted toward West Street, shouting, "This isn’t your block!"
The birds, at least for the time being, may disagree.
"The suicide note — and I’m being deadly earnest — is moving, strange, harrowing and peculiar literature," said Simon Critchley, an author and philosophy professor at the New School. "People’s interest in them is almost pornographic."
Mr. Critchley was teaching a class billed as a "Suicide Note Writing Workshop," part of a monthlong series of performances, installations and lectures called the School of Death and sponsored by Cabinet Magazine and the Family Business exhibition space on West 21st Street. The glass doors to his storefront classroom were flung open to the chilly rain falling outside, inviting passers-by to stop, listen, and sometimes contribute to the discussion.
The pop-up school came about as a smart-alecky reaction to a program in London called the School of Life, which Mr. Critchley described as "a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help."
"It’s also a way of mocking creative-writing workshops," Mr. Critchley, 53, said. "We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death."
With Mr. Critchley kneeling before a blackboard on Saturday and his 15 attendees gathered tightly around, class began with a discussion of the shifting ethics of suicide, from antiquity to modern-day Christianity to right-to-die debates in the news media.
The suicide note, which he identified as a literary genre with a unique form, is a fairly recent invention coinciding with the rise of literacy and the press, he told the class.
"In antiquity, there was no need to leave a note," he said. "It would have been obvious why you killed yourself."
He then shared famous notes left by, among others, Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler and Kurt Cobain.
A student raised her hand to share a note she brought, a personal favorite found in an anthology.
"Dear Betty, I hate you. Love, George," she read. The class laughed but quickly began talking about the dichotomies in the letter — love and hate, humor and anger — and then moved on to the larger question of the purpose of a suicide note.
"To not die alone," said Sara Clugage, 33, an artist from Brooklyn. "To address someone."
"They’re filled with pathos," another student interjected. "They ultimately aren’t that interesting."
"They are a last, desperate attempt at communication," Mr. Critchley said. "They are failed communication, in a sense."
Students then were given 15 minutes to imagine their own suicide letters, which they composed on 4-by-6 note cards and shared aloud with the class.
A mother with glowing features and a gentle British accent elected to go first. She had addressed the letter to her children.
"When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality nor the magnitude of my love for you," she read.
The products of the exercise ranged from spiteful to existential to humorous.
"I am sorry, mostly to my dog. Love, Lauren. P.S. Please don’t bury me in Los Angeles,” one student read.
Nadja Argyropoulou, curator at Family Business, shared one of the afternoon’s more stark compositions, written by a classmate.
"I am so filled with love it is still all too much to bear," the note read. "I cannot find my way. The world is all wrong and although I withstood the worst of it, I lost out."
Andrew Riddles, 44, a Web developer visiting from Canada, read from a classmate’s note: "Offstage was always best." He found tenderness in the experience of attending the workshop. "It’s very embracing of life, the opposite of what you’d expect," he said.
The second half of the afternoon format focused on epitaph writing, led by Jeff Dolven, an English professor at Princeton University, who called the epitaph a "very different genre" from the suicide note. The students wrote their own epitaphs. Some were stoic, some self-aggrandizing, some humorous.
"An imprint light,/Or deeply pressed/She moved among us/Then she left," wrote Karen Houppert, a journalist.
"He was kind to all animals, except his family," Mr. Riddles wrote.
As evening approached Mr. Dolven dismissed class and left the students with a final epitaph from W.B. Yeats.
"Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by," he read, and a chilly quiet permeated the room.
"I’ll leave you with that enigmatic epitaph," Professor Dolven said. "Reconcilable, though not perfectly reconcilable."
The West Fourth Street basketball courts in Greenwich Village, known far and wide as the Cage, draw some of the toughest and best streetball players from across the city. And on Tuesday, as the sporting world absorbed the news that the journeymen N.B.A. center Jason Collins had come out as gay, the denizens of the Cage said, by and large, that it made no difference to them.
"His personal life is his own," said a 60-year-old man who goes by the name Coach and has been playing and coaching at West Fourth Street for 30 years. "Nobody can tell me who in the morning I’m going to get up and smell their breath. We’ve raised gay people here. No jokes, no discrimination. I’ll critique your game but not your personal life."
Across the East River at the Rodney Park North courts on the south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the reaction was much the same.
Here are some voices from the two courts:
From the Cage:
"There are a lot of gay players here but the only ones who admit it are the girls. But, still, today is better than yesterday for them." – Vince, a coach and player from Jersey City in his 50s.
"It’s a great start, but they need a bigger star who’s more relevant to come out to really make a difference." — Michael Watson, 23, who lives in Manhattan and works in a nightclub.
"I’d still play with him. I wouldn’t shower with him, though." — Joseph Washington, 24, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
"I just finished playing with a gay guy here. It doesn’t change anything. He’s not changing the United States anyway, because everybody is going to have different views." — Stephen Williams, 22, of the Bronx.
"He’s his own person. You got to be true to yourself sometimes. If he’s O.K. with it, everyone else should be," — Shariff Webb, 21, of Queens.
From the Rodney Park courts in Williamsburg:
"It’s just something he’s had throughout his childhood, I don’t see nothing wrong with that. This is what Hollywood, the media, celebrities, does. But really it’s no big deal." — Wady Capellan, 19.
"As long as he respects boundaries, it shouldn’t affect the basketball court." — Bill Baez, 19.
"This is the South Side. We see gay people walking around all the time. It’s normal. If you’re gay, you’re gay." — Ruder Perez, 17.
This sleepy, close-knit Jersey Shore hamlet has been a conservative Christian stronghold for 150 years. Until the 1980s, cars were not allowed on the streets on Sunday. Longtime residents recall moving their vehicles to neighboring Bradley Beach before midnight on Saturday. Today, the beaches stay closed on Sunday mornings.
Homeowners in Ocean Grove, an unincorporated community in Neptune Township, sign perpetually recurring 99-year leases from the sole landowner, a Methodist ministry called the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. But in recent years, tensions have flared as gay residents and vacationers have flocked to Ocean Grove, which is next door to Asbury Park, a city that has evolved into a thriving gay travel destination.
Harriet Bernstein, 70, a retired schoolteacher and longtime Ocean Grove resident, has been at the center of a continuing debate between the community’s Christian leadership and its expanding gay population. Four years ago, Ms. Bernstein and her partner, Luisa Paster, 64, a retired librarian, set off a legal fight that has yet to be resolved when the Camp Meeting Association rejected their request to use a pavilion for their same-sex civil union.
"What’s going on here is like a microcosm for the rest of the country," she said.
The leaders of the Camp Meeting Association said that they did not discriminate against any group, but that they had a right to hold on to their beliefs.
"We’re committed to our mission, which is spiritual growth, birth and renewal, and to reaching out," said Ralph delCampo, the association’s chief operating officer and a minister. "Certainly to share the gospel, but not to judge everyone."
"We live in the greatest country in the world, and we are so blessed to know that people will respect our position."
The latest skirmish erupted last weekend when Kirk Cameron, a former sitcom actor who is now a conservative Christian activist, gave a lecture here on strengthening marriages, over the objection of gay groups who had wanted the town’s leadership to cancel the event. Mr. Cameron came under fire this year by gay-rights groups after an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN in which he described homosexuality as "unnatural" and "destructive."
Several dozen protesters demonstrated outside the auditorium where Mr. Cameron was appearing. "I can’t understand why Ocean Grove is actually having that man in this town," said Jim Powers-Hill, 52, a church administrator from Asbury Park.
But while Mr. Cameron’s talk generated anger, another episode last weekend showed that those on different sides of the issue of gay rights were trying to reach some understanding.
After Mr. Cameron’s appearance was announced, a lunch was arranged last Saturday at the home of Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Paster among members of the Camp Meeting Association and several gay-rights advocates.
Sitting in a circle in the living room around bowls of chips and pretzels, the visitors balanced plates of food on their knees as they listened to one another’s points of view. Dr. Dale C. Whilden, the president of the Camp Meeting Association and a dentist, was one of the first to arrive. "This is an opportunity to show that we respect them," Dr. Whilden said of Ocean Grove’s gay community.
Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat and a supporter of gay rights, sat near Mr. Whilden.
"Some of you said, ‘We’re not going to agree,’ " Mr. Pallone said. "I think at some point we will agree."
Steven Goldstein, the founder of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group, spoke of a deep love for the Methodist Church. "We may not agree on everything, but we are, today, starting to see each other as human beings," said Mr. Goldstein, who is studying to be a rabbi.
By the time the dessert emerged, the discussion turned to more neighborly matters: the hot summer, the economy, family concerns. A member of the Christian leadership took a seat next to Corey Bernstein, a gay 17-year-old from Millburn, N.J., who had addressed the group earlier about bullying issues. "So, where are you going to college next year?" she asked Corey, between bites of cake.
Tom Caruso, a 62-year-old retiree from Manhattan, bought a second home in Ocean Grove last year after he and his husband were married in New York State. Mr. Caruso, who was not at the lunch, said, "The town itself is very welcoming, very accepting, very nice place to be." As for the Camp Meeting Association, he said he believed many members were welcoming to gays and lesbians as well, "but not all of them, obviously."
When Amy Sedaris sees the X, she becomes sad.
“I just imagine what their apartments must look like,” she said.
Ms. Sedaris, the comedian, actress, West Village resident and self-styled Martha Stewart of the harried and downtrodden, was talking about a citywide scourge that has lingered in plain sight for nearly a year: X’s and asterisks of tape affixed to windows as Hurricane Irene bore down on New York City last August.
While Irene petered out to a tropical storm by the time it made landfall in the city — the National Weather Service does not have a single report on file of a window blown out — the X’s endure, in Williamsburg and Jackson Heights, on the Lower East Side and in Bushwick and elsewhere, a stirring testament to the forces of civil preparedness and inertia.
Strolls through 11 neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens in recent weeks turned up scores of windows similarly decorated, and in every case where a resident or neighbor was interviewed, that person said the tape had been placed in anticipation of the storm.
Not that it made a bit of difference. “It is a waste of effort, time and tape,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers in answer to the frequently asked question, “Should I tape my windows when a hurricane threatens?”
“It offers little strength to the glass and NO protection against flying debris,” the weather agency writes, adding, somewhat presciently, “After the storm passes, you will spend many a hot summer afternoon trying to scrape the old, baked-on tape off your windows (assuming they weren’t shattered).”
Unless, of course, you cannot be bothered.
“I’m just lazy,” said Christopher, 27, an actor who shares a chaotic one-bedroom railroad apartment with two roommates on Meserole Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In his bedroom, where a full-size mattress takes up most of the floor and mountains of laundry might be mistaken for furniture, an X of blue painter’s tape blocks the view out of his only window.
Christopher, who would not give his last name, said last week that while his roommates had removed the tape from the apartment’s five other windows the morning after Irene went through the area on Aug. 28, he passed. Besides, he said, the windows seemed so flimsy, “I figured they could fall apart at any minute and I might as well just leave it on.”
Flimsy window or fancy, a wide X of tape adds a hard-to-miss accent. In an 1830s town house on Second Avenue in the East Village, in a room used by the Women’s Prison Association to house former inmates, panes of glass in a pair of original six-over-six double-hung windows were also marked with X’s in painter’s tape.
Alexandra Villano, director of strategic operations for the organization, said, “The tape was just never taken down.”
In Williamsburg, Robert Hildalgo, 40, was leaving his apartment on Grand Street dressed to the nines with his mother and school-age daughter on a recent Sunday morning. He was asked about his building, where all three floors have their windows taped, giving the appearance of a game of tick-tack-toe where O never got a chance.
“It’s not like we’re waiting around for another one,” Mr. Hidalgo said as he gazed up at the white tape across his living room and bedroom windows. “We used that really strong tape, and it’s been really difficult to get off.”
Sheila Delson, a professional organizer with nearly 20 years’ experience in New York, said she believed that increased stress in day-to-day living and time-wasters, like Facebook, begot during the digital revolution distracted people from basic principles of home maintenance.
“Taking care of the cave, so to speak, although it’s important, just pales,” she said, “as opposed to everything else about survival.”
But New Yorkers say they are getting around to it. Really. On Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, a barista who out of embarrassment would not give her name told a reporter in March that the three white X’s on her windows were not long for this world.
“I finally pulled out my Goo-Be-Gone this week and I’m going to be Gooin’ and Be-Gonin’,” she said.
A walk by her apartment last week showed the X’s still intact.
Note to her and the others: The Atlantic hurricane season begins Friday.
One Wednesday in February at Veronica’s, the boss lined up shot glasses on the bar, opened a bottle of tequila and passed it down the line to her 14 employees.
The news was not going to be good. Because of mounting health department fines and a pending lawsuit from neighbors, the owners of Veronica People’s Club, a gay bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, told the staff that the bar would stop serving alcohol after 8 p.m.
A bar that stops serving at 8 is not a bar with a future. On St. Patrick’s Day, the other shoe dropped, and Veronica’s, which had flourished – sometimes too noisily for its neighbors’ liking — since opening in 2010, shut its doors after one last tearful party.
It has been a rough spell for gay bars in North Brooklyn: Blackout, a block down Greenpoint Avenue from Veronica’s, closed in November. And last month, the local community board voted to ask the state not to renew the license of the area’s most popular gay bar, Metropolitan in Williamsburg, after complaints that it regularly kept its outdoor patio open later than the law allowed. (The vote is unlikely to lead to any action because Metropolitan has had a relatively clean record, the state liquor authority said.)
While the reasons for the bars’ problems vary, and while many bars in the city, gay and straight alike, draw complaints from neighbors, some owners and patrons say they think anti-gay sentiments are a factor in neighborhoods with a conservative core of longtime residents.
Kelly Gorman, a promoter who hosted a weekly party at Blackout and started a Friday night party, Kielbasa, at Veronica’s, said many longtime Greenpointers “don’t necessarily want us there” and do not want their neighborhood to change, “especially when it comes to gay events.”
Though Blackout closed over an internal dispute, Louis Terline, who was one of the owners, said he sometimes felt harassed by his neighbors.
“All it takes is one crazy person to call 20 times a night until the police just don’t want to be bothered anymore,” Mr. Terline said.
A woman who would give her name only as Yvette and for more than 10 years has managed a deli on Franklin Street, on the block where Veronica’s is located, said, “I haven’t seen, personally, any real discrimination against gay people.” She said the neighborhood had welcomed a highly visible gay influx in recent years. “Of course,” she added, “people aren’t going to do it in public and let people know how they really feel.”
In Veronica’s case, the owners of the building next door charged in a lawsuit filed in December that “unreasonably loud music and noises of all sorts are emitted” from the bar at all hours and that the music sent vibrations through their apartment, causing them “to become nervous, anxious and agitated.”
The neighbors, Lena and Peter Jou, who bought their building 10 years ago, seek millions of dollars in damages and compensation for loss of property value.
None of the parties directly involved with the case would comment, citing the pending litigation. But Chris Barry, 29, who had been a bartender at Veronica’s, said the bar’s closing was a result of accumulating health department fines, which he said had doubled since the dispute with the neighbors began last year.
At its last graded inspection, in November, Veronica’s received a C and was cited for flies, having cold food stored at high temperatures, and not taking adequate steps against vermin. An inspection in January put the bar on track to receiving a B, with one “critical” sanitary violation for improperly using or storing a food utensil.
Veronica’s has paid $5,335 in fines to the Health Department on its violations and still owes another $300, according to the city.
Veronica’s, which opened in July 2010, regularly drew crowds to its Friday night dance parties and Monday evening viewings of the reality television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
But Saturday’s crowd might have been the biggest ever. In the waning afternoon light, with most of the booze in the house consumed, one of the owners, Heather Millstone, climbed atop the bar to give a speech.
“Greenpoint’s a very special place,” she said through tears. “Thank you, guys.”
The crowd whooped and cheered once more.
Michael Shannon did it for love.
Mr. Shannon, a 40-year-old tea merchant from Queens, stood on a mostly empty platform in the Nassau Avenue subway station in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, one recent Friday night, a black fox fur stole draped over his shoulders and a black felt fedora atop his great mane of hair.
He tossed pennies, 11 of them in succession, into a litter-strewn pool of water snaking through the track bed.
“Love, true love. Meeting a beautiful man. Having a beautiful life,” Mr. Shannon said of his wishes. “It’s worth 11 times.”
Every day, millions of gallons of groundwater are pumped through New York City’s subway network. The water enters the system through underground aquifers, bound for the city’s storm sewage system.
At some stations, the water table is relatively high. Rivulets form along the track beds. In at least two stations in Brooklyn, riders like Mr. Shannon use these urban springs as places to cast their desires, hopes and dreams.
“I’ve always wondered about that,” said a woman carrying a yoga mat the other morning while waiting for a train at the Broadway station in Williamsburg, two stops south of the Nassau station on the G line. “It’s like some sort of New York wishing well. And it’s only here. I’ve never seen it in the city or anywhere else.”
At the Broadway station, hundreds of coins lie beneath the water on the track bed. One commuter likened the station to “the log ride at Disney World” because of its cavelike appearance, which includes stalagmites growing from fixtures and hundreds of stalactites, some a foot long, hanging from the ceiling.
Subways, interrupting as they do the natural flow of water underground, are built to move water just as they are to move people. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority built depressions between the rails of its underground track beds to guide water leaching from the ground toward the nearest drain, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the agency. The drains direct the water to pumping stations that send it into the storm sewers.
The water’s journey can be a long one. In Williamsburg and its environs, said Andrew Kozlowski, a hydrologist for the state, the water visible in the subway fell as rain six months to two years ago and has since been migrating through aquifers toward the East River.
Asked what the transit agency thought about the coin-tossing, Mr. Ortiz offered only a reference to a section of the transit Rules of Conduct that bars throwing items onto track beds. But where people, water and time to contemplate all intersect (the interval between G trains can seem eternal), coins will be tossed.
Fred Bryant, a professor of social psychology at Loyola University in Chicago who studies superstitions, said such rituals gave people an illusion of control over their desires.
“What we know to be true from past research is that when economic times are tough, when people feel a threat in any way, either from military threat or economic, financial threat, superstitions increase,” Professor Bryant said. “In the trying to exert control, we are tricked into believing we have it.”
Brittawnee Enos, 27, of Greenpoint, tossed a penny in the water on a recent weekday as she waited for a G train at Broadway.
“I’ve just been struggling for my goals lately, so I wished to be a little more focused in accomplishing them,” she said. “I’m a dancer, and I haven’t even been going to class for some time because, you know, distractions and injuries, that sort of thing. I just want to get back into it.”
Emily Hexe, 22, tossed a coin into the pool at the Nassau station on a recent Saturday night, without a specific hope in mind.
“It’s almost just in the motion of doing it,” she said. “Having a wild hope for something, anything — just remembering the child that’s inside myself.”
On one afternoon, the Broadway station platform was abuzz with students from a middle school. Some passed the time by tossing coins onto the track bed.
Daniel Maslowski, a seventh grader, said he wished to win the lottery.
A classmate, Rafal Wadolowski, traveling with a younger cousin, said he wished that his cousin “would get to the top 10 next year in grades.”
Rafal’s cousin wished for the same thing, though she expanded a bit. “I wished that I would do good in school,” she said, “for all the people to do good in school.”
The news went viral on Facebook. Then it made Towleroad. Stalwarts of the chattering class jammed news feeds with sad-face emoticons and R.I.P.s for the death of a beloved personality. It got so bad that on Februrary 21, Tom Yaz, a video jockey, made the 50-mile drive to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis Port, walked up to his friend and said, "Ellie, the rumor is you're dead."
Ellie Castillo, the 80-year-old trans street performer (and little-known father of five) looked up from her hospital bed, smiled, and said, "Oh?"
Yaz, who produced the album Ellie in High Fidelity and two music videos (the latest of which was shot on a frigid beach in January, featuring Ellie in bra and panties, lip-syncing to Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen"), persuaded her to post a video announcing that she was, in fact, alive. In the seven-minute film, a smiling Ellie, clad in a leopard-print Snuggie, tells her fans she's been hospitalized for digestive problems and that she will be back to P-town in no time. The video got 2,000 hits in the first hour of being posted on Ellie's YouTube page while Facebook messages flowed in from fans and neighbors with posts such as "Oops! Get well soon, Ellie!" Towleroad took down its story.
Ellie had been a Luddite. But within 36 hours of her death being reported, her number of Facebook friends quadrupled. And as Ellie's modest electronic footprint continued to expand during the 56 days she spent in the hospital, something beautiful happened. Thousands of people who had known Ellie as the elderly male-to-female street performer with a gruff New England accent, long wispy hair, and an affinity for scanty clothing were now--thanks to diligent management of Ellie's online profile by Yaz and by her oldest daughter, Andree Clearwater--getting profoundly intimate glimpses into Ellie's hitherto-mysterious personal life.
In 2001, Elliot "Ellie" Castillo, at the age of 70, brought a microphone and a wig to Provincetown. A Baptist minister working in the Boston area for more than 40 years and a four-time divorcee, Ellie became the village mascot of P-town and the most visible embodiment of how many the rte like to see their community: as a place of refuge, exhibitionism, nonconformity, and acceptance.
"When Ellie was in the hospital, we had middle-aged straight women from upstate New York posting how they can't wait to drive over to Provincetown just to hear Ellie sing," says Yaz. "His rent for $840 a month, and, after bills, I think he had $60 to his name before he hit the streets. Ellie quite literally sang for his supper." (As for the pronoun issue, family members use male pronouns and close friends flip-flop between the two. Ellie's Facebook gender is listed as male and Ellie has never identified as straight or gay, transsexual or transgender. in her words, "i'm just a human being.")
Photos of Ellie's Provincetown apartment posted to her Facebook page revealed a cluttered home awash in soft pinks, flora patterns, and religious iconography (despite leaving the clergy, she still identified as a Christian). The vibe was somewhere between frazzled twentysomething and spinster. The world also learned that Ellie had five children--all of them stand-up, red-blooded Americans--and 12 grandchildren. Photos were posted of the family visiting Ellie (the boys doused her hospice room in Red Sox paraphernalia). Photos of Ellie taken 10 years ago in Hyannis Port Harbor on a boat owned by the late senator Ted Kennedy (Ellie was doing carpentry work on it that summer) were perhaps the most arresting. The male Ellie--Yaz described both male and female Ellie as being incurable womanizers--cut the look of an off-the-rack, middle-class New England seafarer: handsome and broad-cheeked with a salt-and-pepper beard and J. Crew-catalogue tidiness.
On April 2, nearly two months after the false alarm, Ellie gave an impromptu concert from her hospital bed for the nurses and patients on her floor. As it turns out, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" would be the last song Ellie ever sang. She died five days later of pancreatic cancer. Her daughter, Andree, a nursing student and artist from western Massachusetts, was by her bed. She reported that in Ellie's last moments her skin looked suddenly flawless, "almost like porcelain." And that she was smiling.
The woman climbs the stairs in the shabby East Village tenement and enters while Larry Fagin is finishing a call with another poetry student.
“How’s Aiden? Is he old enough to go to college yet?” Mr. Fagin asks the man on the phone, making small talk. He motions for the woman to take a seat at the dining table, where her most recent poem is up on his computer screen. “O.K. Send money,” he barks and hangs up.
Mr. Fagin turns his attention to the woman, Jennifer Kietzman, 40, a due-diligence investigator from Borough Park, Brooklyn, with a full head of wild red curls. She leans over his shoulder as he dives into a wham-bam frenzy of changing word tenses, deleting entire lines and replacing words with synonyms.
He stops at the second line of her lengthy prose poem. “No, horrible. Bad poetry. That’s the worst line you’ve ever written.” He highlights the line and slams the delete key. “Goodbye!”
“I liked it,” Ms. Kietzman says in a shrinking voice and leans back in her chair. “Well, that’s O.K.,” she says. Mr. Fagin is not done. The stuff about Ms. Kietzman’s family, he says, “has got to stop. They’re cows. They’re furniture.” Highlight, slam delete key. “Goodbye!”
Four stories above East 12th Street, down the hall from Allen Ginsberg’s old apartment, one of the East Village’s last standing bohemians soldiers on.
Mr. Fagin, 74 years old, second-generation beat, New York School veteran, friend of Ted Berrigan, publisher of Ashbery, lives with his wife, Susan Noel, also a writer, in adjoining rent-controlled apartments in the building near Avenue A.
Although Mr. Fagin — a handsome, T-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy with a square build, tousled silver hair and a cheerful air of insubordination — now collects Social Security, his chief source of income for decades has been giving private creative-writing lessons and editing and producing small magazines and chapbooks from the work of students and friends.
He reports that despite former teaching gigs at the New School and St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, neither he nor his wife have held anything resembling a straight job for any substantial period of time, though he has worked, he says, as a librarian, a reader to the blind and a “black marketer.”
“I try to be disaffiliated from bourgeois society,” Mr. Fagin said the other day, “like most good people. Because all we have are these very few, precious days.”
Mr. Fagin’s precious days typically begin with two hours of writing poetry, breakfast at the Neptune diner around the corner on First Avenue and a quick return to what he calls his “wonderland”: the two-bedroom walk-up (bathtub under the kitchen counter) lined with books, art, movies and music that he rented in 1968 for $58.50 a month with an old girlfriend.
He now pays about $150 a month for his warren in what he calls the “Chelsea Hotel of the East Village.” Ginsberg lived there for more than 20 years.
“Allen made the best chicken soup,” said Ms. Noel, a platinum blonde with black-rimmed cat-eye glasses, apple red lipstick and a strong residue of punk rock vitriol.
“He really energized the building,” Mr. Fagin said.
“Like a battery,” Ms. Noel added.
At any given time, Mr. Fagin has 20 to 30 students as diverse as a middle-aged real estate lawyer in Denver, a Bard undergraduate and a 75-year-old retiree in Florida. He charges $75 an hour, whether in person or on the phone, and has taught students as far away as China. Ms. Kietzman recently paid him $600 to produce 150 copies of a chapbook of her poetry and send them to his mailing list of writers and editors.
Mr. Fagin’s teaching approach focuses on paring poems down to their essence.
“Deep down I don’t care about the writer; I only care about what’s written,” he said. “Everyone is a terrible judge of their own abilities, and it takes someone else to say, ‘Hey this is great, or this is crap.’ And to say ultimately: ‘Hey you don’t matter. What you’re making, the object, is the only thing that matters. Your ego is just an impediment.’”
Much of Mr. Fagin’s own poetry can be brutally economical. His poem “The Skeleton” goes like this:
The skeleton has his own
He enjoys swimming and being
in the world
The xylophones are playing
The skeleton is dancing
on the beach
We respect his frugality, neatness
He’s not just another
Mr. Fagin seems to exert a magnetic pull on his students.
"If you have any inclination to get in touch with the arts, to express yourself creatively, and you live in this century, and in this city, and you’re struggling to make ends meet —and I fall into this category — you’ll be enamored by Larry,” said Kate Thompson, 30, a former market researcher from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who has studied prose fiction with Mr. Fagin for a year. “You walk into his apartment and it’s just filled with all this stuff you recognize and don’t fully know but you want to.”
In a classroom setting, Mr. Fagin has had mixed success. For about five years, until 2007, he was an adjunct at the New School, where he rubbed many people the wrong way, said one former student, Kathleen Kyllo.
“By the time the last class rolled around attendance was significantly lower,” she said in an e-mail. “Where students had once sat closer to him near the front of the room we were hanging back in a defensive mass.” She recalled an incident where Mr. Fagin announced to the class that her poetry was “too vaginal.”
Mr. Fagin acknowledged that he got “really mean” in the classroom. “You walk in and all these faces are staring at you and you want some reaction from them but they really have nothing to offer you. It’s like, come on you jack wagons!”
All in all, Mr. Fagin takes a blighted view of the current generation of aspiring artists, whom he likened to “pod people.”
“They are so inundated by information, they have no way to sort all this stuff out — it’s like being perpetually electrocuted but not realizing it,” he said.
Nor does he have much good to say about what has come of his once-beloved downtown art world, which, by his reckoning, ended in February 1975 at a dinner party around the corner hosted by Claes and Patty Oldenburg.
Mr. Fagin, who went with his friend the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, recalled his excitement that the artist Robert Smithson was to be in attendance. “But when we got there, all anyone talked about was real estate,” he said. “They’d all just bought lofts in what was later to be called SoHo. We left and I said to Peter, ‘Well, that’s the end of civilization.’”
Still, somehow, he perseveres to connect, especially with his students.
“To teach literature or history is in a way a losing battle because you cannot cross that crevasse,” he said. “They can’t get to you and you can’t get to them. You can just call to each other across the crevasse.”
Around midnight, upstairs in a small club on Avenue of the Americas, the pitch-black dance floor resounded with the rapid stomps and warbling, high-energy cries of the dabke, an Arab folk dance performed at weddings and other celebrations.
When the strobe lights flashed, they revealed a sea of raised hands. A man in the crowd removed his kaffiyeh, the traditional headdress worn by some Arab and Kurdish men, and whipped it around in the air.
“I can understand so many conversations going on right now,” a Fashion Institute of Technology student shouted over the music, coiling his wrists and shaking his hips to the belly-dance beat. “But you wouldn’t want me to translate. It’s all dirty. Dirty Arabic.”
This was a recent Saturday night at Habibi, a floating monthly dance party of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Arabs in New York. In a city that seems to offer activities for every conceivable gay subculture — one 700-entry directory lists support groups for, among others, gay vegans, pilots and sailing enthusiasts, along with 62 religion-based groups — Habibi is perhaps the only opportunity in New York for gay people of Middle Eastern descent to interact openly in an organized setting.
“In New York there’s nowhere I can come to and cry, so to speak,” said Amir, 27, a registered nurse from Saudi Arabia who lives in Brooklyn and has been coming to the party for six years. “Habibi is a welcoming community.”
In its nomadic nine-year history, Habibi, which rests only during the holy month of Ramadan, has inhabited straight and gay clubs and hookah bars all over Manhattan — Flamingo, Boom, the China Club, Club Duvet, Moomia — and outlived many of them. Lately, Habibi has made its home at Club Rush in Chelsea. Its downstairs neighbor there is one of the city’s few “twink” parties; the word describes particularly boyish-looking men. Throughout the night, shy, lithe, silken-haired young men trickled upstairs to ogle the mob of Arab men dancing to Middle Eastern pop, spun by the party’s founder, a practicing Muslim named Abraham.
Habibi, the Arabic word for “my beloved”, is a sort of stepchild of a more serious-minded group called the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society. Abraham, a former accountant in his 40s with a shaved head, steady gaze and smoky accent, was one of the society’s co-founders. Through the 1990s, the group met at the LGBT Center in the West Village.
“It got big, which is not always a good thing, because you have all nationalities of the Middle East,” said Abraham, who is of Syrian and Palestinian descent, grew up in Kuwait and now lives in Astoria, Queens. Like others interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.
“The Egyptians want to hang out with the Egyptians, the Moroccans want to hang out with the Moroccans, et cetera,” he said. “This is always a problem you have with Arabs.”
The cookies-and-tea meetings, Abraham said, “got a little boring.” The first Habibi party, in early 2002, was a fund-raiser for the society, held in an Italian restaurant on the Lower East Side. “I thought what was natural was to do something fun, have people dance, have fun,” Abraham said.
Though the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society tended toward balkanization, Abraham said: “Habibi blends everybody. It breaks down as many walls as possible. You have everyone in the same room dancing.”
The society’s ranks, meanwhile, continued to thin. By the end, only a handful of people would show up for meetings.
“I think around 2004, it was the Internet that really did it,” said Nadeem, an Iraqi Christian who served as the society’s president from 2000 to 2004, when it stopped meeting — though its Web site remains active. “There wasn’t a need to go to meetings; people could just meet up online. Habibi is so successful, one, because it’s a business and Abraham really treats it like one, and two, the idea of a party entices people more.”
Gay Muslims, at least as much as adherents of other faiths, face hurdles reconciling their religion with their sexuality. At the city’s biggest mosque and one of its more progressive, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the imam, Mohammad Shamsi Ali, laid out what amounted to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“Homosexuality is grouped with adultery, fornication, all of them very severe sins, but you don’t need to talk about it,” Mr. Ali said. “It is between you and the creator.” He said gays and lesbians were welcome at his mosque, even to bring their partners. “But we don’t need to know about their sex lives,” he said.
As the only game in town, Habibi, which has attracted as many as 300 guests, brings together Arabs of all social stripes — at once a blessing and a source of its own brand of discrimination.
“In Dubai, everyone is bisexual,” a 22-year-old Columbia University accounting student said at the party in November. “But it’s such a different scene there.” Calling Habibi “kind of trashy compared to what most Arabs, at least in Dubai, are used to,” he said: “I mean, there are street vendors here.” Nodding in the direction of a man standing in the shadows nearby, the student said: “You can spot the ones who sell kebabs on the street. It’s not difficult.”
In the D.J.’s booth, Abraham kept the hits coming — mainly from Egypt and Lebanon, but also some South Asian and Indian pop. “Anything with a belly dance beat,” he said. “Keeping people on the dance floor is a natural high for me.”
The dancers included plenty of non-Arab men, many of whom Abraham said were regulars.
“Hummus queens,” a 24-year-old grocery clerk from Queens named Hilal joked at one of the parties. “That’s what you call white guys who go for Arabs.”
Some of the guests yearned for something more than just a good time. “There’s a lot of post-9/11 baggage that people want to deal with,” Hilal said during another party. “But the only option they have is to go out to a club and dance?”
Still, Hilal, wearing a “Hummus Is Yummus” T-shirt and a Mohawk haircut, took his place on the dance floor, too.
And around 1 a.m., three female belly dancers took to the stage, dressed in pink sequined burqas. The crowd tightly gathered around the dancers and cheered as the women, piece by piece, stripped their burqas to a crooning love song.
On a recent Monday during the evening rush on a Brooklyn-bound L train, a dozen or so people boarding the train at Union Square shuffled into the rear of the carriage where I was seated. The train was typically crowded, and there was a soberness in peoples’ faces that I took to be nothing more than usual rush-hour blankness. A man who got on, still with his iPod headphones in, began talking to those of us seated in front of him.
"This woman just died,” he said. “Just now. The train hit her. She fell in the tracks.” We were aware he was talking, and talking to us, but we pretended not to notice, as one sometimes does on the subway, until it became apparent that everyone who got on the train at Union Square was looking at us as the man spoke, and they were looking directly and gravely.
“Wait, what happened?” the man seated to my right asked. The man with the iPod repeated his story.
“You saw it happen?” I asked.
“Yes, she just fell, as the train was coming. About 30 seconds ago. Right there. We all saw it.” The two women standing to his left nodded solemnly. To his right stood another man holding on to the horizontal bar. He was tall, young and handsome, dressed tidily in a checkered shirt, and his face was turning red and agitated.
The man with the iPod repeated his story again as more passengers showed interest. The man in the checkered shirt then began to cry, slowly at first, then heavily, covering his face, and slightly convulsing with each breath.
And then the man with the iPod also began to cry.
We all fell silent for moment as the train pulled into the Third Avenue station. The doors opened and closed just as an announcement crackled over the speakers on the platform, “Due to an incident at Union Square, Eighth Avenue-bound L trains are suspended between Eighth Avenue and Bedford Avenue.”
I wondered why the people around me had got on the train at Union Square. More precisely, what it would feel like to see a train going in the other direction strike someone and then to have your train arrive a few seconds later and you board it. It seemed so terrifyingly cattle-like.
By the time we got to First Avenue, the man in the checkered shirt was crying harder, his face turning a dangerous shade of red. I saw that everyone around him was watching and appeared to want to say or do something to comfort him but lacked the courage to stand out.
When the train pulled into First Avenue, someone sitting to my left stood to exit. He put his hand on the crying man’s shoulder and asked, “Are you all right?” The man smiled and let out an embarrassed laugh through his tears, “Yeah,” he said, “I am. Sorry.”
I, too, exited the train. I looked back as it pulled out of the station and saw the man still crying, shoulder to shoulder with strangers but perhaps not totally alone.
The next day I came across a small article in The New York Post about the episode. The woman who fell in the tracks that evening was 26 years old and was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center; she survived with only minor injuries. I hope some of those people on my train also saw the article.
When Michael Cunningham and I first met, I knew him simply as Michael: that tall, handsome, charming man with whom I'd have the most delightful conversations upon our chance encounters in a New York bar or on the streets of Provincetown. It wasn't until one day when I inquired of mutual friends what it was exactly Michael did for work that I realized he was the Pulitzer-prize winning author sitting on my bookshelf at home. It was a surprise, to say the least, but chimed of whatever trait it is aside from literary stardom that makes Michael so appealing to the people I know.
This month with the publication of his latest novel, By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham is still, despite his assertion that he's 'very old,' at the apex of his talents. We got together to talk about art, the present state of gayness, and idyllic dreams of chicken farming.
OUT: You went to the University of Iowa. I've been online reading some embittered sentiments lately toward M.F.A creative writing programs. Where does that attitude come from?
Michael Cunningham: I don't share the general resentment of MFA programs. I think MFA programs are great. OK, some are greater than others, but still. I notice that no one seems particularly outraged over the fact that young artists or dancers or musicians go to school to learn their craft, and I'm frankly not quite sure why we're so attached to the notion that writing, along among the art forms, must be sui generis -- that unlike other artists, the writer is supposed to be some sort of Bunyanesque figure who strides untutored into the mountains and comes back a year or more later with a brand new baby novel in his hands.
And sure, I know, people claim that writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald never went to writing school, but they lived in a community of writers. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein as a mentor, and Fitzgerald, in turn, had Hemingway. There's no contemporary Paris in the twenties. Most young writers today are trying to write in places like Dallas or Buffalo, where they probably not only don't know any other writers, but may be hard pressed to find many people who've even read a novel in the last ten years.
Do you believe there's a sort of homogenizing effect, a certain Iowa Writers Workshop style that has taken over the present-day literary industry?
An MFA program isn't singularly about teaching new writers the fundamentals of craft. It offers, probably more importantly, the chance to spend a couple of years in a community of other writers, the likes of which can't be found under just about any other circumstances. MFA programs are, if you will, mini Parises in the twenties. Writers in those programs do, in fact, go out to cafes and argue about the future of the novel, about character development and structure and, you know, the virtues versus the disadvantages of the semicolon. That's every bit as much a part of their training as what they receive in classes and workshops.
And how homogeneous can younger American writers be, when they include Jonathan Safron Foer, Nicole Krauss, Joshua Ferris, Adam Ross, Salvatore Scibona, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Nell Freudenberger, Gary Shteyngart, Wells Tower, and Z. Z. Packer? If MFA programs are trying to domesticate and "normalize" young writers, they're not doing a very good job, are they?
You've said in interviews before that you don't want to be seen as a "gay writer." No one would argue that you haven't been successful at this.
What I meant to say is that I don't want to be seen as only a gay writer. I've always been out, and most of my novels are concerned with the lives of gay people. I'm perfectly happy to be a gay writer, because, well, that's what I am. What I never wanted was to be pushed into a niche. I didn't want the gay aspects of my books to be perceived as their single, primary characteristic. Like any halfway serious writer, I'm trying to write about more than my characters' outward qualities, and focus on the depths of their beings, their fears and their devotions, which take place at a level deeper than sexual orientation. Gay people fall in and out of love, for instance, in ways that are not entirely foreign to the ways in which straight people do. There are of course some real differences in the ways gay people live and what we experience, but we're not from Mars.
But why do you think it is that so-called "gay-fiction" still exists? It seems this stigma, at least to me, isn't as prevalent in fiction that focuses on the experiences of other minorities in our society.
I think the word "stigma" may be a little harsh for 2010. Forster didn't publish Maurice, his gay novel, during his lifetime, and Proust portrayed himself as a heterosexual. I can't say I'm happy about that, but those guys were in fact dealing with a stigma, and they were writing at a time when it would have been hard to publish a novel with gay content, never mind finding anyone to read it.
I on the other hand have never experienced a moment's hesitation on the part of any editor about "cleaning up" the gay stuff in what I write. If anything, it may have been something of an advantage. After all, we've already got about a gazillion novels about love and rage among the straight population, whereas the gay books probably number in the dozens. The general reception has not been, "How are we going to talk this guy into cutting out the gay stuff?" but rather, "Hey, here are some versions of the ancient human story we haven't seen before."
We're at a funny period in the ongoing history of gayness, aren't we? On one hand, huge strides have been made -- imagine having been gay as recently as the fifties -- and on the other, reprehensible people are still trying to get elected to public office by promising to fuck around with the rights of gay people. I don't think there's any denying that being gay is less traumatic now than it's ever been, but it's not as if our troubles are over yet.
And what about in book publishing?
As far as that's concerned, the betwixt-and-between thing is still very much with us. It'd be easy, for instance, to insist that bookstores eliminate their Gay and Lesbian sections, and just put the gay books in with the rest of the books. But I always think of some hypothetical fifteen-year-old gay kid in some small town, and might have his life changed for the better if he was able to go to the Barnes & Noble in the local mall and find a book that reflected his own experience. Without a gay and lesbian section, is that kid going to be able to find the gay books among the general masses of them?
What I'm left with, for my own purposes, is something like this: I am a gay writer. I'm also a white male writer, an upper-middle-class writer, an American writer. All those qualities matter in some ways, and, in others, matter very little. In the final analysis, one is simply charged with writing the best goddamned novels one can write, using whatever the world has shown us, and the world does show itself in certain particular ways to people who are gay, white, male, middle-class, and American.
Still. I've always said that with The Hours, I finally wrote a book in which no one sucks dick, and presto, won the Pulitzer Prize.
[Laughs] Well, prior to that, your second novel, A Home at the End of the World, is one of my favorites. The three central characters' desire for a sort of nuclear family arrangement in their New York lives is, I think, very affective for many young urban orphans. Was this influenced by your own experiences of coming to the city?
Hm. You could probably say that Home the End of the World has something to do with my own conflict about urban versus rural life. We must remember that I am very old. I grew up in the '60s, and when I was in high school I imagined living in a big house somewhere on the Northern California coast with a half dozen or so of my best friends. We thought we'd open a little hippie cafe somewhere around Mendocino, undaunted by the fact that none of us could cook (we figured, how hard could it be to whip up a few homey dishes for the locals every night?).
And then of course the world changed, I changed, everything and everybody changed. By the time I graduated from college, in 1975, all the people I'd thought I'd move to Mendocino with were going to law school or med school, and even I, the artiest and dreamiest one, was less enchanted than I'd once been by the idea of living in a remote place with chickens pecking around in the yard.
Is that when you came to the big bad city?
No, it took me a few years to entirely abandon my sylvan fantasies. I moved for about a year to a little town outside of Boulder, Colorado, and then (this is a whole other story, for another time) to a farm in Nebraska. It will probably come as no surprise if I tell you I was a complete failure as a farmer.
I didn't get to New York until I was 30. And I instantly adored New York. I wondered why I'd spent my twenties in various and sundry boonies. I just hadn't imagined that I was a city boy at heart. It was a little like having dated nice, quiet boys for years, and then, a bit late in the game, discovering that the kind of guy you can really and truly fall in love with is tempestuous and volatile and difficult and wildly alive. I've lived in New York ever since.
But, clearly, a certain sense of yearning for a simpler and more manageable life, a life of gardening and feeding the chickens, never entirely left me. I guess you could say that I continue to yearn, periodically, not for actual country life, of which I had plenty, but for my old ideal of country life. And so I gave the characters in Home at the End of the World that same idealized, impossible yearning. In the course of the book, they discover how impossible that yearning really is. For them, at least. I know some people leave the city for a country life and never look back. But my people find the transition every bit as difficult as I did.
I guess this brings me to your most recent book, 20 years later, By Nightfall, which tells the story of an upper middle class Manhattan couple at the height of their careers in the arts. What experiences have you had recently with the art world that inspired the character Peter Harris, who works as a dealer?
I wanted to be a painter until I got about halfway through college, at which point... I don't know, my interest in it just seems to have dried up. Or, no, my obsession with it dried up, and dwindled to mere interest. I put off going to the studio. I started late, left early. As opposed to some of the other students, who stayed there all night and somehow managed to function on two or three hours of sleep per night. I was getting plenty of sleep, which is fine for most people but not such a good sign in a young, aspiring artist.
During my junior year I took a fiction writing class, and bang! I felt exactly the kind of endless, depthless fascination that was missing when I painted. I wasn't sure if I had enough talent as a writer, but it was immediately apparent that the fundamental problem of writing -- trying to produce something like life using only ink and paper -- was utterly compelling to me.
I've begun to suspect, over the years, that what we call "talent" is difficult to separate from some other quality, a mesmerized determination so fierce as to be almost unnatural. I wasn't the best writer in that initial class, but I was the one who would sit in the chair and sit in the chair and sit in the chair, writing the same sentence over and over and over again until it started to have rhythm, and spin, and spark. Suddenly, as a nascent writer, I was the one staying up all night, and getting by on the bare minimum of sleep. During the decades since, my conviction about my own abilities has come and gone, but that fundamental devotion to the process has never left me.
Although I have no particular regrets, painting is, for me, the most prominent road not taken. I'm still fascinated not only by visual art, but by the people who create it. There but for the grace of some god or goddess go I... Among my closest friends are visual artists, and people who deal in art. It's remained part of my life.
What about the choice of making Peter a dealer instead of an artist?
I wanted a character who could question the relevance of art in general, as opposed to questioning his own abilities and output. An artist in crisis about his own work is certainly a story, but not the story I wanted to tell in By Nightfall. I wanted a character who could embark in a search for the beauty and transcendence he was looking for in all contemporary art, not just in what he was able to produce with his own hands. By the way, a gallery owner named Jack Shainman was beyond generous in showing me the ropes, and letting me hang around his gallery, asking 10,000 irritating questions for this book.
In the past decade you wrote the screenplay for the film Evening, as well as the screenplay for your novel Home at the End of the World and have worked on scripts for a couple of bio-pics. What gave way to this Hollywood component to your career?
Let's just say I love the movies, I wanted a change and needed the money.
This Freddie Mercury biopic starring Sacha Baron-Cohen that's coming out, is this the one you wrote that was lingering in Hollywood purgatory for a bit?
The Freddie Mercury movie that's currently going forward has nothing to do, sorry to say, with my own attempt several years ago. The surviving Queens and I couldn't agree on the best way to tell Freddie's story, and it seems they've found someone with whom they feel more simpatico. But that's show biz.
I'm guilty of sentimentality when I think about my friend Scott Matthew. When I met him a few years ago, despite a modest fan base emerging from his work on the 2006 John Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus, he was destitute and uncertain he’d see any money from the film, let alone attract a label to sign him. Scott writes ballads; his music is concerned with love and heartbreak. Upon meeting him, the vulnerability in those dark, unflinching eyes is striking and tells you you’re in the presence of a romantic.
This year with the release of his second album, There is an Ocean That Divides and With My Longing I Can Charge It With a Voltage That’s So Violent To Cross It Could Mean Death, Scott is, after nearly two decades of endeavor, living the life of a full-time musician. Last year Berlin’s top daily newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, named Scott Matthew alongside artists such as Grace Jones in their ranking of the best shows of 2009 and he just returned from his sixth tour of Europe (in addition to tours of Japan and his native Australia). We met over a couple pints of Molson Gold at a Canadian bar in Brooklyn, where he currently lives.
Chadwick: Are you reading anything interesting right now?
Scott: I’m reading An Underground Life by Gan Beck, a memoir about being a gay Jewish boy in Hitler’s Germany. He’s still alive, too, and lives in Berlin. And, well, you know how we’re all pedophilia-obsessed? You know how if a child has a sexual experience it’s immediately considered victimization? In this book he talks about sleeping with his uncle and his uncle getting hard-ons in the middle of the night–sleeping together, not having sex–and it wasn’t that he was taken advantage of. Totally the opposite. More so, this experience validated his feelings and helped him come out. Really beautiful the way the author describes it.
I think about that a lot. About the pedophilia obsession in our society.
Yeah, me too. and you have to be careful who you talk to about it. I mean it’s such a terrible thing in so many cases, just that idea of being an adult and taking advantage of a child, ruining someone’s entire life for your own sexual gain. But it’s not all black and white, either. In no way do I condone something like that, just I know there’s a massive grey area. It’s such a bizarre, complicated thing to try to discuss.
I love this Hunter S. Thompson line, from Hell’s Angels, where he says something like, ‘the American media has a curious rape mania that rides on its shoulder like a jeering, masturbating raven.’
It’s so true. Remember that show To Catch a Predator? it was so sexually charged it was disgusting. People are excited by that kind of stuff. People are excited to hear about sex with children in this country. It’s really fucked up. I don’t know, this is weird territory. What’s new with you?
Well, I saw the new video you put on YouTube. Why are you re-releasing the Elva Snow material you did with Spencer Cobrin?
Well, the album was self-released years ago and my label in Germany loves it and they’re right behind it. But I’ve made it clear to them that I’m not that person anymore.
And what person was that?
I was younger and wanted to be more in that traditional band set-up, guitarist, drummer. I don’t even have a drummer now. But that was a time and a place, ten years ago. Someone made a video for that single and we didn’t really feel it fully represented the song. So I figured, what the hell? I got some mates together in New York and had a party and we did our own. I’m viewing it as a back-catalog. I don’t really give a shit about it anymore. Except for my love of Spencer and our continued relationship. I still have that. I enjoy that this re-release is kind of paying homage to his friendship. And I am sentimental and it meant a lot to me back then. Still does. We’re still collaborators.
How did you meet Spencer?
I used to work at this cafe in the East Village and he’d come in every day and I used to think he was the surliest fucking bastard. And when you work a job like that, it can really get to you. He’d come in with his English accent, ‘give me a latte.’ No good morning, no please, no nothing. So after months of that, I had this friend who told me she knew this guy Spencer who was a musician and she thought we’d get on really well and that we ought to meet. And when I finally met him, I think it was after a show somewhere, I was like, ‘Oh god. it’s this fucking guy.’ But once we started talking I liked him immediately. And then I realized he was Spencer Cobrin and I was impressed by the fact that he worked with Morrissey for seven years.
Did you get to ever meet Morrissey through Spencer?
No, I mean, they’d been feuding for ages. Still are.
Do you have any good Morrissey stories?
(laughs) Yeah, I got one. I don’t know if I should be telling this. Well, O.K., so Spencer and I were writing together in his apartment in the East Village one afternoon–and Spencer spoke liberally to me about his experiences with Morrissey, that he’s kind of an intense, strange person, and there are rumors that he’s a racist–not that I really believe it, maybe he just uses racist remarks to shock or whatever. Or maybe I’m just still a fan and I’m creating excuses for him. Anyway, at that stage in Morrissey’s life–this was the late 90s–he was big into faxing. It’s very ominous, faxing. I mean, there’s this big, scary machine sitting there and suddenly it just beeps and the grr grr grr of the paper coming through, it’s really a little frightening! So Spencer and I are writing a song together and off goes the fax machine in the other room. And Spencer goes in there and it’s Morrissey faxing to see if he can use this song that he and Spencer wrote together. I think Morrissey owed Spencer money then and things were all out of sorts. So Spencer faxes him back and says, you know, sorry mate but I don’t think that’d be best until we’ve got all the rights sorted out, et cetera, et cetera. And he comes back into the living room and he and I are pling-plonging away on our guitars. Then, after a little while, we hear beep! grrrrr grrrrr grrrrr and we both look at each other and Spencer goes in to get the fax, and he comes back with this piece of paper in his hands and in big, black letters scrolled across the page it reads, ‘YOUR LOSS JEW BOY.’ It was like a death threat the way it looked! (laughs) Poor Spencer, he was just devastated. He’s very sensitive, too. I think after that he and I just went to a bar, did some drugs, drank beer for ten hours.
This is off subject, but I’ve always wondered why you’re so big in Japan. You were number one on Japanese iTunes for a bit, right?
Well, I’m not huge in Japan. They like me, I suppose. Europe is still really my base.
Why don’t you have that kind of success in America?
I don’t know, mate. I’m a bit disappointed by my lack of success here, but very grateful for what I have in Europe. I’ve been poor my whole life and now both my dreams have come to fruition at the same time. You know, my content is very personal, very emotional and the difference is [in America] I’m considered a ‘gay artist’ and over there I’m just considered an artist. My audience in Europe is mostly straight men (laughs) and I only got the ‘gay artist’ tag after Shortbus. And it doesn’t bother or offend me or anything, I just don’t think it describes me well. I guess I just think Europeans for some reason are more open to being emotionally available.
Perhaps because of their history. Perhaps because love is like a cultural pastime over there. You go to Spain and the passion and the–Well, here love could be called a cultural pastime. What’s the difference?It’s all homogenized here.
True. In a romantic comedy sort of way.
But it’s ironic because I have a lot of success in Germany and they aren’t viewed as the most emotional people. But even then, I do think the German people have a deep sensitivity to things. With any cultural clichés some things run true, but with Germans my experience has been they are a truly friendly people.
I used to work at a shop, and my boss and I would play a game called ‘gay or European?’ about swishy guys who walked in the door. We got a lot of Europeans.
Isn’t that so funny? There’s so many straight guys who come to our shows and you think they are all gay but turns out they are just sweet, loving, sensitive guys. Go to Spain, go to Mexico City, it’s even worse there.
Did you play Mexico City?
Yeah, when we screened Shortbus there. John Cameron Mitchell is a god over there. Mexico City gets a bad rap but it’s so fucking progressive. It’s like the coolest kids with zero attitude. They know all the hip, cool new things. And I slept with my driver while there which was quite nice.
Well, describe the driver!
He was Mexican, but lived in London for a while. He was cute. An aspiring filmmaker. Yeah, we had this really glamorous hotel. Apparently Paris Hilton had rented the whole thing out for her birthday or something repulsive like that. So I take him back to my room, well, it wasn’t love or anything, but it was fun.
Are you in a relationship now?
No, I’m very happy to be single. There are so many theories about how love works. Love at first sight, taking it slow, be friends first (laughs). But love is love. And the moment you step into desperation and longing, you lose. You have to be empowered to have a successful relationship. I’m plagued by insecurity. But the older I get, the less insecure I get. But now I’m the older man! And I keep dating all these 20-somethings.
Well, where are the older men? You think that makes a difference?
I don’t know. Thing is, when it comes to love, every theory is flawed. There’s no self help. It just happens, healthy or not.
Oh, I can see the BUTT headline now, ‘Scott Matthew Codependent Relationship Junkie Drunkenly Chats About Dating Philosophy’ or whatever. I haven’t had a relationship in three years. That’s not to say I haven’t been in love.
Oh, hell. I can’t take the train without falling in love.
Oh, that L train does it every time. Well, I just hope I don’t die before I fall in love again.
Die? Aren’t we jumping the gun?
Why do you say that?
Well, because all my subject matter is love. And it’s what I live for. I never want to be a cynic. I never want to lose hope in humanity, in people. I think love is amazing. It’s a pinnacle in people’s lives.
Chadwick Moore is a freelance reporter for The New York Times, OUT and other publications. He has a background in literary publishing in New York and London. Born in Tennessee, he currently lives in New York City.
Chadwick Moore is a freelance reporter for The New York Times, OUT and other publications. He has a background in literary publishing in New York and London. Born in Tennessee, he currently lives in New York City.