MS. SMITH AND ME

A long, long time ago, when there were wolves in Wales, and I was very young, I took a foolish, foolish job.

I was in theater, working in Philadelphia. Acting, directing, anything I could get.

Philly is so close to New York -- a hundred-plus miles -- that all those with bright hope and talent eventually get from Market or South Streets up to Broadway or Bleeker. What stays behind -- or comes back -- are the sad failures or the passionate and utterly uninitiated.

...Okay, Andre Gregory was there, but that's another story...

Of course well-heeled theater-going audiences pretty much ignored the local efforts and hopped on the Jersey Turnpike or Amtrak'd up to NYC to ease their showbiz joneses.

I had just graduated from Temple University's theater school and was considering my next step. Steps. I was married and had commitments to family and city and friends.

That's what we were telling ourselves, Ernestine and I.

Directing was the only thing I wanted. If not that, then, nothing! Problem was, as an unknown in Philly, you were an actor. That was it. When people got to know you, then you got to direct. The ancillary problem to that was that anybody who had theater gigs to hand out and who didn't know you assumed you were either one or other of the abovementioned -- sad failure or hopeless naïf.

One could always start a company of course. That meant devoting yourself to fundraising, handshaking, butt-kissing, record keeping, the thankless pointlessness of audience building, and its sister shame, press relations/marketing...all that and more.

I had no urge to start a company. No, no. I was a director, not a businessdude.

Understand: I was not kid. I was young, but was not a child; I was just out of school, but had knocked around in professional and were-professional theater for more than a dozen years on three continents. I had some recognizable talents and some talents that had already been recognized. Just not so anybody'd noticed in Philly.

An old chum from Temple HAD started a company. Fritz was his name, Etage was the company. French for "stage" -- that was Fritz.

Fritz was producing a play from a new script by another Temple chum, a guy named Ivan. I was asked by both producer and writer to play the lead in what was to be Etage's first effort, "Terminal."

Fritz was living and working in a vast, dark, ratty warehouse space. The building was probably from the middle of the 19th century and butted its tail, literally, to the docks; in the shadow of the Ben Franklin bridge. The show would be rehearsed, built and performed in Fritz's living room. Said room being some 150 feet long, by about 40 wide and 20 or so tall. It was big, dirty, echoic and open. Not bad, actually, as rough theater spaces went in those days. Brick, nitre and hoarfrost; tiny little feet when the lights went out.

Ivan, our writer/money guy, had been around. He had just graduated from Temple, and, like I was, he was older and more experienced than most of the students in the department. Ivan, in fact, had quite a few chops as a record producer and rock'n'roll promoter.

At this time in his life, however, Ivan was seeking the respectability he assumed the mantle of "playwright" would bestow upon him. Toward that end, he had written "Terminal" and was using his rock and roll bucks to finance the effort.

Trouble was, "Terminal" sucked. Cavernously.

The first read-through showed the script needed not only an act III gut rehab, but an new act II, and an actual act I to get it rolling. That was it. Not re-writes. Needed were Acts I, II, and III. AND it needed a reason to exist. It was the worst sort of absurdist masturbation: Intellectual and passionate while being neither intelligent nor heartfelt.

It did provide opportunities for boy and girl actors to do a lot of screaming, crying, fighting, swearing, agonizing, head-bashing, breast beating (of self and of others), it allowed for perversions real and imagined and accepted a full range of options for making faces, doing funny walks and uttering extreme gutteralizations of the English language.

The cast was mostly kids; kids just starting at Temple or elsewhere. Or they were street kids who'd done a few garage band rock and roll chords or had had a couple community theater licks, then got disgusted because their parents actually LIKED the shows they were in and who, now, had drifted down to the docks under the big suspension bridge to and from Camden, New Jersey, to do something real, something meaningful, something that reeked of sweat and tasted of guts, something that explored meaninglessness and showed how tough they were, alone, and in the face of it all. Kids. Like we all were, once.

I was assured. The script would be fixed. This was just a starting point. This was just the framework. Ivan was there. Fritz and he, with the help of the cast would put it all together, we would be okay, really.

It never happened. I rode through five weeks of rehearsal. Sometimes enduring the passion, the sweat, the committed angry faces of the young, needy actors, sometimes not. All the while working against my deeply dismal realization that this play had begun life as a piece of shit, it remained a piece of shit, and would for all time and forever be a reminder, imbedded in my recollection and in the memories of all who would gauge my work from this monument from this time forth, that I, too, had the potential to be a piece of shit.

To my credit I only walked out once. To my discredit, I came back.

The play was set in a deserted and, perhaps, devastated airport terminal. Was the devastation because of a war, social upheaval, some apocalyptic event? I don't know. Fritz didn't know. Ivan didn't know but was certain it didn't matter.

I was playing "The General." The guy who ran things, the guy who had to keep it all going. I had at my behest a sexy blonde babe and her pal a hunchbacked circus dwarf/baggage handler The actor, while somewhat short, stood well within "normal" height range. He didn't believe in "faking" anything on stage and the huched-back part of his performance would have to come out of his intense "search" for his character in the rehearsal process.

A few other human oddities worked for me in this place. I've forgotten them, now.

T here were also few travelers, people who "suddenly find themselves in this terminal. They are waiting... Waiting for what? I don't know...for a plane...a journey someplace, someplace, I don't know where..."

Like that.

Maybe they're dead! Ivan told us. Maybe they're not. Great, huh?

It was like a lot of Hollywood movies from the 30s, 40s and some early live television that had been lifted from Hollywood scripts of the 30s and 40s.

I had a lot of speeches. Long speeches. I got to roam the playing area -- climbing to the rafters on scaffolding, chasing my dwarf, crawling the floors like an agonized serpent, oozing up from trapdoors with the rats. I wandered through the audience making people nervous that I was going to make them do something silly (assaulting the audience was big in those days).

I got to deliver one very gentle, very soft speech while standing over our sleek slender blonde flight attendant...Lisa was heroin-chic before there was a Calvin Klein...while slowly slipping my hands, both of them, down the front of her dress, finishing the thing while kneading her exceptionally chic-to-imaginary breasts. You had to have been there.

all right? I was embarrassed by almost everything I had to do in this show. I had, however, committed to doing it. Oh well.

Opening night. Of all things, we had a full house. Packed. Mostly paper, but it was full of Fritz's family, chums, the cast's pals, guys from Temple, former teachers. The range. I told my wife to wait, wait until it settles in...

Uniquely, I was not nervous. I usually suffer horribly from stage fright. When I care.

About this... Well, I was not nervous. The rest of the cast was going through the usual backstage verbal, physical and psychological hoop-jumps that always make being backstage early in the run of anything like being in the waiting room at a veterinarian's office.

Ivan had pulled strings. He'd gotten a whole mob of his old rock'n'roll pals and associates to Philly and to this thing.

Most disturbing, the press was there -- the Daily News, Inquirer, Daily Planet, all the local and out of town papers covering this little event!

Shit. I was finished.

I did the show all stops pulled. Balls out. Hannibal Lector on a mixed-buzz trip, bennies, downers, uppers, screamers. Shameless. Shameless.

Somewhere in there, I lost myself. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I dropped off the face of friggin' Philadelphia and into some other place. I don't know if it was Ivan's Terminal, but it wasn't Etage under the Ben Franklin bridge.

Then the thing was over. We took our bows and got ready to party.

I came up for air, changed out of the costume -- my old Air Force officer's uniform (I say it was my old "officer's uniform" because, while I was but a Sergeant in the USAF in Europe, my officially designated work uniform was that of an Air Force Captain. I'll explain at another time) -- shoved my hair back, slipped upstairs from the basement green room and joined the party. Maybe nobody'd notice.

Live band. Lotsa booze. Catered. Good grub. Well-dressed audients and class-act dishes. Mainline slinks and uptown slipperies.

I avoided my fellow actors. By this time, I didn't much like them, and they were, mostly, afraid of me.

I grabbed a dozen 7-oz Rolling Rock ponies, and slipped into the front lobby.

Sulking.

Quiet.

The party was a muffled headache away. I snuggled over by the window that looked over the street, the dirty street, and sucked down a couple beers.

Ahhh. Good.

I had no idea she had arrived. I turned and there she was, funny looking, angular, bony. She did a kind of combination hip-hop, shimmy shammy, snuggle-up twitchy thing to me. Stood inches from my face and gushed. Her head wig-wagged back and forth as she oozed profundities about my...my performance....one foot, other foot. I was really, oh man you gotta know but probably don't know because you were so far in it there, but you really gotta know what you did there and I want to tell you you were just mind-blowing, man, fucking great. Like fucking THAT great.

Her eyes gripped mine and held on through all her twitchings, rockings and bobbings. Somehow her eyes...her eyes locked onto mine...her eyes never moved, lidded, sexy, sensual...despite it all...they hung on...she vibrated...here eyes were quiet, waiting...that was it...then she waited with...waited with...waited...with her eyes.

"Thank you," I said.

I thought that was appropriate. Thought that was about right.

"Uh-huh...thanks. Glad you enjoyed."

No. I didn't think, "enjoyed" was the word, not the kind of thing "Terminal" was about... Enjoy? No.


Then she slipped away.

I was flattered.

A bit confused. I was taken by this funny person's ability to flow in and out, go with the mood and be gone with the music beating at the walls from inside the theater.

"Well, okay," I said to myself, "how bad could I have been?"

How bad could I have been?

Fluffed up with myself, I went back in to the party.

When I got back, my dwarf and chic Lisa, who, from the first week of rehearsals seemed to have joined each other at the groin, snatched me into a corner.

Asked what she had said, what had she said...?


Who?

Patti for Christ-sake.

Who Patti? Patti who?

Patti Smith, Christ! What had she said?

Uh...she liked it.

I had no idea. At the time (and to this day deep inside my soul of souls) I consider any music written after, say, 1850, to be the spiritual precursor to the fall of civilization, Armageddon's marching tunes.

At this time, Patti Smith was only a step beyond being a proto-punk poet and crypto-neuve-wavo journalist cum Sam Shepard fuckee from deepest New Jork City.

She had, however, just cut her first record. She was now a growing legend. Noted. Known. And (for the best) known in only the hippest circles. Which, of course, did most certainly not include me.

My "Terminal" colleagues -- in the hippest of circles -- could scarcely believe that I didn't know who she was, proclaiming me to be feigning a greater ignorance than that which I possessed.

Not their words, but that was the idea.

Terminal got lousy reviews.

I got a few good ones -- of the "one bright-spot-in-this-dark-and-dismal-night" variety.

...and that was that.

I watched Patti Smith with some interest after that. Then I forgot her.

In recent years, I've listened. I've come to appreciate her. To like her work. To like thinking about her. I've seen her, since. Actually gotten her autograph -- been that close. I never said what I wanted to say: "Hi. I'm Larry Santoro. You're a big fan of mine." I'm glad I didn't.

But.

I wish her enthusiasm had given me an appreciation of me.

It did not do that.

Alas.


Copyright 2000 Lawrence Santoro