I had a premonition that at an recent anniversary event we would be asked to tell a story about meeting David and Doug, friends for close to 20 years, so I wrote mine down which centered around a crude borsch belt type joke. There is nothing as hazardous as trying to tell a funny story and I struggled with the first disastrous draft for some time before realizing the outcome was not entirely a laughing matter. Beginning to doubt who it was written it for, I had to step outside of myself for a moment, not quite recognizing the author and eventually concluding that it was best not to read it at the event and to this day there is a mild regret. The hesitation was that the anecdote, funny as I still find it to be, was the wrong way to characterize the generosity of a friendship; should this be my singular contribution about a someone who is obviously remarkable in many ways? It’s just one story, trying to convince myself, that illustrates something about the instincts of a documentary film maker with an urgency for finding the core of a person.
Mary had been working for an important art gallery, and then suddenly she wasn’t, and was scraping for odd jobs that would bring some money in. By chance Paul put her in touch with David, who with his partner Doug, had what is known in the art world as a “good” art collection and who were looking for someone to help organize and archive it. Not only were they known for their collection, they were also outliers in the art world by being nice people, not the type of collectors where acquisitions were made based on which artist is hot at the moment and where whispered conversations at A list parties inform every decision.
We were due to meet on a Saturday morning, in a dark bar in Little Italy, and Mary was at once both in a state of excitement and in an uncharacteristic state of anxiety. Her messaging to me came in the form of an arc that started the week with “try to be nice” but by Wednesday had turned into “don’t use any of your stupid English humor” up until the actual day of when it became, “perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all”. Her concerns were contagious and by the day of the meeting I too was full of doubt.
We showed up a little late, walking hurriedly through the tight, vital streets of little Italy which in the mid 1990’s still revealed plenty of vestiges of Italian American life. There were shop windows stacked with dried goods, improbably giant cans of tomato’s and boxes of pasta with images that had remained unchanged since the 1930’s, egg shell blue with illustrations of rosy cheeked children or large women in aprons. Scents drifted promiscuously from the doorways, roasted coffee, freshly baked pizza and hints of Oregano, Basil and Rosemary which followed us as we weaved in and out to avoid the gentler pace of older residents.
I remember a shoe lace being undone the need to make quick decision, to stop and lace it? Risking losing Mary to the crowd? or to carry on behind her with an undone shoe and arrive at the bar with a cartoonish limp which turned out to be both literal and metaphorical. And that’s how we met; David, tall and conventionally handsome in a distinguished, professorial way, and then there was Doug.
There was a real intensity in him and it was clear that within five minutes of talking, he was already lost to me, judiciously leaning back to listen into Mary and David’s conversation. In need of inspiration Doug turned to me and whispered in a conspiratorial way “If you had to fuck me or David, who would it be?”.
I tried glancing off the comment, laughing and attempting to change the subject, I looked in vain to Mary for help but she and David were animated in conversation, for a fleeting moment I considered setting off the fire alarm, all of these I learned quickly were futile. The question was repeated with added urgency….”I mean I really need to know, and don’t saying anything cute like you would want a ménage a trois….”.
I was at the losing end of a conversation in which the inequality was self-evident. Doug is liberal and intellectual, an activist of every social justice cause in the last thirty years. When I wrote the draft of this story I had made the following observation which I now know is untrue. I said that Doug had at this point placed me in a box, a box containing an uptight, frustrated and repressed Englishman and then didn’t let me out adding my occasional rant that Hollywood is at fault for perpetuating this cliché. I also remembered that years later, a friend said Doug thinks everyone is Jewish and Gay, and that in his eyes I was a failure on both counts. Angry words that shocked me in that first draft and the reason why it remained crumpled and cowardly in my coat pocket during the event and they are worth a minute or two, or perhaps years, of analysis.
But I knew I had to gamely move on and in a quiet voice that sounded pathetic I said “David I guess” at which Doug slammed his hand down on the counter and in a theatrical voice delivered his punch line that no one in the restaurant could miss “I’ve known you five minutes and already you are telling me to want to fuck my husband!”.
When Mary tells this story she adds a flourish that has her spraying her drink across the counter but my memory doesn’t let in this detail, that Buster Keaton gesture, a comedic device that could alleviate my own situation and a typical act of generosity. If it happened, I don’t recall a fine mist of tomato juice and vodka stealing the scene, instead the silence in the restaurant and all eyes on me. David looking in alarm, concern and perhaps a little resignation as he turned to Doug. And Mary’s gaze had turned to disappointment and confusion, but Doug, utterly satisfied, mission accomplished, achieving the greatest level of discomfort in the shortest possible time, was a deeply contented man.
Over the years Doug has occasionally taken opportunities to chip off little bits of my armor like sculptor mishandling a hammer and chisel. I don’t blame him, I’m equally curious about the finished result. Years ago; on a humid and sweltering Friday night ferry to Fire Island, an exclusively male cargo, testosterone in the air, the sky vast and luminous, a confusion of gulls shrieking overhead their voices diminishing as they rode the warm thermals upwards; it could have been the Mediterranean except for the distant smell of barbecues and gentle sound of New England laughter. I was a lightheaded from a cocktail gulped too quickly and felt concern about the rocking of the boat. Doug would turn to me with a grin and say to anyone within ear shot, which was most of the boat, see that guy over there? (inevitably pointing to the largest and most leather clad passenger) he’s cruising you! – but I had been an attentive student, nodding towards an even more intimidating guy I would smile back at him and casually say – actually this one is more my type, and another small piece of rock would fall to the ground, or at least that’s what he will claim. I remember a lethargic weekend, excellent food and good wine, a walk on the beach where we stumbled across an amateur porn shoot and promptly walked in the opposite direction towards the Pines where we then came across a completely naked guy, Mary and Doug spent the rest of the weekend outdoing each other in describing his anatomy with hysterically competitive levels of hyperbole and of course, as always, we had a great time.