A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.

Conversation at Sardi’s

June 18, 1975

Anthony Hopkins was in “Equus” at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, New York City

Wednesday afternoon.

In Shubert Alley, Tony Hopkins asked, “Would you like to have a drink with me?”

“Yes,” I answered politely and quietly. I thought he heard me, but a few steps on, he asked again, looking over at me, his hands held in front of his waist. “Would you?”

“Yes,” I said more loudly. I punched my right fist into my left palm and kicked out my right leg.

He grinned.

“I’m not going to drink,” he said.

“That’s good.”

“But I am going to smoke.”

“Oh!” I reacted partly in disgust, partly in pleasure he remembered my concern.

I stopped a big black car on 44th Street and he followed me across. I opened the door to Sardi’s, he held it and we went in. Sardi and he talked about someone who had bothered him and he made dinner reservations for 5:30, and I looked at a caricature of him on the wall.

Upstairs we went into the alcove next to the bar and after some musical chairs sat down at a corner table. He ordered two Tabs and one for me. He was still very excited from the show. When he poured his drink into the glass, he poured until it overflowed and then sat and stared at it. He put a paper napkin on the spill, and began to fold each corner into the middle, then took another and did the same thing. Later I offered him another napkin and he laughed and stopped playing with them.

When we sat down, I asked him about Saturday’s show – did he think it went well?

“Afternoon or evening?”

“Night.”

“Who’s your friend?”

“My psychologist and some of his friends.”

“Oh, what did he think of it?”

“He didn’t like it.”

“What didn’t he like?”

“He said the stuff about taking away people’s passion was stupid – foolish. And about everything being a trick and a catch.”

“Yes. Well, I’m reserving judgment about the play until after I’ve finished it.”

A little later he said, “I’m reading The Politics of Experience. I’ve read it three times.” [book by R. D. Laing]

“Don’t you think that’s a little obsessive?”

“I think he’s crazy.” He went on to say he doesn’t help people deal with society.

“He is kind of strange.”

“Doesn’t he live in this country now – in California?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I would have heard about it. He visited here. I think he still lives in England. They had a press conference when he came to New York – last fall, I think.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

He seemed amused and/or amazed. I said The Divided Self [also by R. D. Laing] was a better book.

“I’m just coming down now,” he said at one point, exhaling and staring ahead of him at his drink.

I asked him about the After Dark interview, and he said he hadn’t read it, and he vaguely remembered Norma McLain Stoop, the interviewer. I told him she said he was a Welsh “volcano.”

“What do you think about being called a ‘volcano’?”

“Am I a volcano? People have called me a lot of things – vulgar, emotional, aggressive, violent.”

We talked about the effect success was having on him. He hated the star syndrome – some people go for that – the limousines and all that. Being a star doesn’t mean money, he said, then withdrew a little, “well . . .” [He talked about a star who came to work in a limousine, late and didn’t know her lines.] “One day, I had to have an argument with her. I told her she was going to have to settle down and work.”

“What’s it like to be a big star?”

“Am I a star?” he asked. After a moment, he said, “I’m going to be a big star…”

“You’re a big star.”

“Do you think so?”

“I know so.”

He was silent.

I asked him if he didn’t worry about losing his voice from smoking.

“Don’t say that!” He jumped up. “I have to knock on wood.” He hit his knuckles on nearly every piece of furniture in the vicinity, saying, “I’m so superstitious,” then sat down. “It hasn’t happened with this play.” And later: “It usually happens with those long Shakespearean parts.”

He said about leaving “Equus” that these last weeks were very hard.

“I thought these last two weeks would be easier,” I said in surprise.

“I thought so, too.” He said, “The play’s gotten too big. I don’t think I can finish it when I start. Every night before I go on, I take a deep breath and plunge on. It’s like taking a parachute jump.” A pause. “I do everything through fear. I know – I’m a masochist.

“You look so confident on stage.”

“I’m not. I feel naked every time I go in the stage door.”

“I had this dream last night,” he went on. “I went to the theater as usual and it wasn’t there. I went right to where the door is supposed to be and it was gone. There was just a wall there. There I was on 45th Street and I knew it was the right street and I was walking up and down it, but the theater wasn’t there. I asked a man and he said, ‘Oh, they’ve moved it.’ It was five minutes before I had to be on stage and I couldn’t find the theater.”

He asked if I had ever been to California and I answered no. He was thinking of living there, and of getting permanent visas to stay in this country. I said, you don’t want to be part of this country. We discussed England’s versus America’s corruption. I told him when I was in college, I marched and demonstrated against the [Vietnam] war.

He insisted English society – “high society” – was more corrupt. He said he felt useless being an actor. He should be saving the starving people of the world.

Later in the diary I wrote:

I was attracted to him at first because he is professional, because he works hard and I know that often “the muse doesn’t just descend” and you become inspired. I’m trying to learn how to write; when I am inspired, I am clawed up in the trying. I do apply myself to writing. People’s responses are so confusing – different. When I write it’s both serious, for an audience and publication, and as an exercise, because I’ve never done that particular thing before. Sometimes I just give up because I think I can’t do it and who needs quality? I am interested in how he remains sane and open under pressure to create, as an artist.

(This is for David Selzer.)

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker – Broadway 1975

“Equus” was on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, starring Peter Firth and Anthony Hopkins, Frances Sternhagen and Marian Seldes

Broadway 1974

March 29 (circa the 29th)

Anthony Hopkins bowed with the others, one foot on end, and turned and bowed to the stage-seat audience. He seemed embarrassed or mad as he went off-stage, from the angle of his head with his hair flopping over his forehead. After the applause ended, I went in the stage entrance. There was another young woman there waiting for another of the actors and a security guard wearing a Scottish-clan type hat. He asked who we were waiting for. After a while, the woman sat down on the bench and I leaned against the wall with one shoulder against the radiator. The man said that you could always tell a Shubert theater because they turned the heat off before noon even on the coldest days.

Hopkins came downstairs alone, pulling on his coat, took the step from the landing heavily and too fast.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

He turned by the door to sign an autograph for a man who had come in, and faced me. He signed his name silently; he looked pale, almost grey, and his clothes were disheveled, but not good-naturedly and charmingly as usual. He had on tan slacks, a yellow shirt and a brown knit tie that was spread suggestively over his shirt, and a coat and winter coat. The public display of unhappiness was mesmerizing and I stared at him unabashedly, which annoyed him more.

He did not want to talk and ran off, and I followed him past the Booth Theatre and through Shubert Alley, he on one side near the theaters, cutting through a crowd outside the Shubert Theatre, and I on the other side.

On Monday, I read the Tony Awards nominations. He was not nominated for best actor for his role in “Equus.” I think he knew last Saturday. [He should have been nominated.]

May 31

I waited outside the theater. I was wearing my black velvet jacket and blue bells. I met him just inside the stage entrance. He came up to me as I stood by the door so fast that I was startled, but there was no place to step back. His eyes were light grey-blue, so was his voice, but forceful, when he said hello. He wore a blue denim jean suit and a pink shirt. There was a little bit of shaving cream or cold cream at one corner of his mouth and by the opposite ear.

I followed him outside. A woman had photos of herself taken standing with him and some young woman joked that they would meet him at Sardi’s. He came toward me and put out his arm to sweep me along with him as he went down the street.

“I have nothing to say to you today. I’m just hanging around.”

He smiled at me, indicating that it was all right. Two other people, a young man and woman started walking and talking with him and by the Booth Theatre, he stopped momentarily to talk to someone else and we three went ahead slowly.

Rejoining us, I walked beside him. They asked about a letter and he said he wasn’t sure, then reached into his coat pocket, “Oh, I’ve been carrying this around all day.”

The young couple left us. He asked me to have a drink with him.

I said no. “I can’t drink.”

He said that he was going to have a Coke.

“Oh? Can I have a Coke too?”

“Yes. I’m meeting some people. I don’t know what they’re up to.”

“I’ll just have one drink and leave,” I said, thinking he was meeting business people.

“No –”

At the curb of 44th Street, I said, “Maybe they won’t let me in.” I looked down at my blue bells, pull-over shirt and sneakers. “I got my sneakers on.”

“Now you’re just being paranoid.” He stood, looking over and down at me, putting his weight on his right foot.

Outside Sardi’s he mentioned the girls again. I still didn’t know who he was talking about, and then he said he didn’t know if they were going to show up but they’d said they were meeting him at Sardi’s. I suddenly realized who he meant.

“Oh, do you think they’ll show up,” I asked, as we walked into them. I didn’t know we were already in front of Sardi’s door. He rushed forward and gathered them in and we went inside.

He told Sardi he was going upstairs to have a drink.

“Just one?” said Sardi.

He turned as he started up the stairs and put up one finger. The five of us followed, with me last in line.

“Oh, I see,” said Sardi (or whoever he was).

I glanced back to see everyone in the restaurant looking up at us. Upstairs we went past the bar and he looked for places in a small area on the other side, but there weren’t enough. After hesitating, he went into the dining area and we sat at a table in the back.

I sat next to him. They ordered drinks, he ordered a Tab and I a Coke. When the drinks came, I stared at mine. He poured it for me. One of the women, sitting on his left, was talking about “Equus” and psychology. I couldn’t hear him well, but at one point, he said, “Oh, but he does help the boy.”

They discussed Nazi concentration camps and “QBVII.” He said he’d told his agent he didn’t want to do “QBVII” – Dr. Kelno, his part, was hateful. They had tried to make him a more sympathetic character.

They mentioned “War and Peace” and their favorite scenes. One woman told us how many times she saw it. But the book is unreadable, she said.

“I’ve read it five times,” he said.

He had another Tab and asked what I wanted. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

He said that he wanted to stop smoking, but that one could always find an excuse for everything. He lit up a cigarette after just finishing one and everyone commented.

“I have an excuse,” he said.

I asked one of the women if she was going to finish her drink and she said no, so I took it. “If he’s not going to have any control,” I said, “then neither will I.” Later, when we left, my legs shook and I had to hold onto the bannister.

Then he talked about “absolute truth,” a subject which clearly defeated us all.

I heard two of the people giggling self-consciously. I realized we would have to leave soon.

When he got up, he kissed several of them rather abruptly. I hung by my chair, having some trouble standing up. The woman next to me knocked her chair over and I helped pick it up. Just before they got up, they thanked him, said they hoped they hadn’t imposed on him. He said it was nice to have an audience. The most talkative woman said his talking to them was a “mitzvah” – a nice thing, a good deed.

June 18

I stood by the Tonight 8 P.M. sign just inside the door. Most of the people were gone when he came down.

“Just a minute. I have to make a phone call. I have to confirm an appointment.”

With one foot on the step where I’d been sitting, he talked to someone. “Hello, this is Tony Hopkins.”

I stopped listening to imitate him, putting my opposite foot on the same step. I felt like a mirror reflection.

One of the horses asked him something about the phone [or the phone call?] and Hopkins boxed at his shoulder.

I followed him outside. While he signed autographs, I turned in circles, and waited in front of the lobby. A few minutes later, he came by with a middle-aged woman who was wearing an overcoat in the 86 degree heat. I thought he would put out his arm to bring me in, but his gesture was minimal. I walked along, just a little behind him, wondering what to do. He glanced at me while he talked to the woman.

She thought the show last Thursday night was “uneven,” that it started out rough and never came together. What did he think?

Yes, yes, you’re right, he said. I remember it seemed to be out of rhythm. It was “jarred.” I realized that a few minutes into the play and “it’s my responsibility to establish the rhythm” of the play. I think we got it together by the end.

She went on when he stopped, “It started off slow” and didn’t seem to get going or come together.

“Oh?” he responded. “Did you think so? I didn’t think so.” Thursday, he asked himself, last Thursday? Oh, I know what it was. I had a blood test that day and didn’t feel well.

“It was much better today,” she said.

“Thank you.”

He dusted some talcum powder off one of his pants’ legs. “It wasn’t as bad as that woman said,” he muttered when he straightened up again.

Good night, New York!

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker

I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog. 

Broadway 1974

Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake

Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?

Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.

So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.

The Broadway Cat

raulcat

Forrest S. Clark

The Broadway Cat appears in Hell’s Kitchen Slices of Life, edited by Mary Clark, digital edition available on Scribd.com, and paperback on Lulu.com. Watercolor by Raúl Manzano.

Ferocious was an adventurous cat even when a sickly kitten. He loved people and was by nature playful, but living in Hell’s Kitchen, he had to act tough – and it turned out, acting was in his blood. He earned the name Ferocious and then slowly revealed his true nature to those he loved.

Everyone liked Ferocious upon first contact. He was an alley cat and liked to explore. Nevertheless, most of his life he was confined to a West Side apartment where Sally, his owner, did some writing and carried on an in-house business.

On very good days the cat was allowed to go up to the roof of the apartment building overlooking Ninth Avenue.

Then, one day, Fero, as he was now called, disappeared. Everyone in the neighborhood searched for him, but to no avail.

Several days and nights later at a Broadway play quite unexpectedly a cat appeared on the set and ran out of the wings onto the stage at a critical point in the drama. The audience after the initial shock broke into laughter.

After that incident the same cat was observed making entrances and exits at a number of Broadway shows. It seemed to prefer certain theaters more than others and serious drama rather than light comedies.

The play-going public became familiar with the cat. In many cases the audience came to expect the cat to appear about the second or third act at a point where the drama on stage was lagging. The cat had perfect timing.

The cat entered the theater through the stage door with the other actors, and from a central perch, was seen observing the stagehands preparing the sets, the costumers checking their wardrobes, and the ushers gathering their playbills.

Sometimes, at night after the show, he slept in Nicolina’s Boutique on a comfortable couch covered with little brown wool teddy bears.

One night the news reached Sally and she decided to check this stage-struck cat to see if it could indeed be the long lost Fero.

The cat had appeared a number of times at the Martin Beck Theater. Sally decided that if she was ever going to identify the cat she had to attend a play at the theater.

She went to the theater, to wait for that magical moment when the cat appeared on stage. She decided to get a seat in the front rows so she could make a positive identification of the mysterious cat that had become the talk of Broadway by this time.

Some Broadway wit named the cat “Miss Sarah” and devoted several columns to its stage appearances. One columnist suggested that the stage feline be given a Cat Award similar to a Tony Award.

Drama critics always included a bit about the cat in their reviews. They agreed that the cat had a reputation as a scene-stealer and in a few cases even saved a disastrous play from closing.

More than once the cat got a billing on the theater marquee, many times directly following the names of the leading actors.

When the night came for the show, Sally got to the theater early, determined to talk to some of the ushers or theater personnel. She found that the cat was surely a favorite among them.

One stagehand said, “That cat always takes curtain calls, and once or twice we had to raise the curtain for the cat to make one more appearance to the sound of applause.”

The play had gone well enough until the second act when Sally noticed there was some commotion on the set before the curtain. The setting was a typical New York street scene with an alley dominating the stage.

There, before the scene began, Sally saw the cat sitting atop a garbage tank at stage right. The cat appeared to be surveying the audience with a haughty manner as if to say, “What do you expect? Cats and alleys go together.” The cat remained in position on the lid for the entire scene.

As the stage lights came up, Sally got a better look at the cat.

Sure enough, it was Fero.

“Fero, come home,” she was about to whisper from her seat in the second row when she realized the cat had its role to play in the scene.

Unbeknown to her the press had picked up the story and was in the theater that night waiting to see if there would be a reunion of cat and human.

As soon as the final curtain came down, Sally ran to the stage door to coax Fero back to her. She waited with the press photographers. Finally, Fero appeared, ran out the door and leaped into her waiting arms. The photographers had their photo opportunity. It made a great front page story in the tabloids the next day and even got a few paragraphs in the New York Times.

One tabloid carried the headline, “Miss Sarah Comes Home. Concluding A Triumphant Season.”

Another read, “From Alleyways to Broadway.”

Fero’s acting career is over, but on dark nights not long after final curtain calls a cat is often seen prowling Shubert Alley, mixing with the late night theater crowds.