‘Not from around Here, Are You?’

One of the unique things common to most people is a stated belief that their hometown is no place special. This often masks a fierce inner secret belief that their hometown is the best place to be from and (insert name of higher power believed in here) please help those who chose to be born somewhere else, especially those unlucky ones from the nearest next town. Those people are the unluckiest of all, perhaps because they were born so near to greatness, but were not, rendering the failure all the more dramatic.

By the oldest of old-fashioned reckoning, counting on my fingers, I have resided in more than 20 homes in six counties across three states in two time zones. This is not any sort of record-setting achievement, but it has given me a lot of hometowns. Poughkeepsie, New York, population not me, is my birth hometown and I lived there every day and night past age 21, which must be some sort of international record.

Poughkeepsie is known for a few things, most of them to do with it not being worth knowing about, much less reside in or be from. It is one of the nation’s minor punchline cities, partly because the name is longish and amusing to say and hear and partly because it is Poughkeepsie. (See what I did there? It is sometimes too easy. The word is a punchline by itself.) Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a city that I came t-h-i-s c-l-o-s-e to residing in, ranks one place ahead of Poughkeepsie in the list of punchline American cities, according to international surveys of What I Am Thinking Now.

Something that I noticed early on was the city’s fascination with itself. Its media outlets love to recount every punchline, every occasion in which our jewel on the Hudson has been ridiculed. It is perverse. Because there are so few mentions of Poughkeepsie in the national or international media, those examples, those few mentions are treated as precious, are subjected to a sort of Sportscenter slo-mo instant replay.

Any Poughkeepsian can recount some of them. There was a “Friends” episode. There was a vaudeville song, “I’m a Gypsy from Poughkeepsie.” Now you know how to pronounce it. Jimmy Fallon is from near here, so the name probably appears as a punchline in his monologues.

It is either a perverse civic pride in being a small joke or we have professionalized the art of setting expectations low for the entire planet, just in case someone might visit and report that they were pleasantly surprised. (“You know something? Those people in Poughkeepsie eat food! They walk with both of their feet!”)

Any attention is better than no attention, someone, probably from Poughkeepsie, once said. And woe will befall anyone from Wappingers Falls, the next nearest town, since they are unlucky enough to be from a place near to such famous not-greatness yet reside in a place that is not-so not-great itself.

But ask me where I am from and sometimes I can sound like I am applying for a job with the Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce and begin to rattle off sights and sounds and memories. (“Halloween in Poughkeepsie.”) The man who invented Scrabble was from here. Smith Brothers Cough Drops were invented here. IBM’s history here. The colleges. It is perverse.

* * * *

[…] And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack

Everything’s the same
Back in my little town
My little town, my little town

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town.
—”My Little Town,” Paul Simon

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 5 asks, “Think about the town where you currently live: its local customs, traditions, and hangouts, its slang. What would be the strangest thing about this place for a first-time visitor?”

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Daily Prompt: Thank You, Spalding

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 26 asks, “What’s the best (or rather, worst) backhanded compliment you’ve ever received? If you can’t think of any—when’s the last time someone paid you a compliment you didn’t actually deserve?”
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Spalding Gray, 1941-2004

Spalding Gray, 1941-2004

It is one of my favorite star-crush stories, the time I met Spalding Gray. Two friends and I started a theater company in the summer of 1990. Perhaps you have not heard about it; it was kind of not-big deal in Poughkeepsie for almost two weeks in a row. Our endeavor yielded one sell-out performance in the open-air back porch of a bar, a bad review, yet one more (mostly unattended) performance, and a bunch of t-shirts. With grad school beckoning we shut it down, and with time and many residences I lost my only t-shirt and even eventually forgot the name of the “company” we had started.

I found our one playbill at my parents’ house recently. We called ourselves “Fading Gentility,” which is a name some group really ought to be using, as it is a great one; our one play (a one-act that was written by one of us not named me) was titled “The Smoking Car.” Ah, well. Our best work was actually our group-written press release announcing our imminent debut production (the owner of our favorite bar had decided to allow us to try and earn our drinks, which lit a fuse under us)—the three of us took turns writing each sentence under the guidance of a copy of the “I Ching,” just so you know—and that press release got us an interview with our city paper’s entertainment maven. Being featured in the Poughkeepsie Journal’s “Enjoy!” section meant we were either going places, had arrived, or they needed space-filler.

The attention from the local newspaper and our relentless 20-year-oldness landed us a sell-out performance. But one single one-act play that hardly lasts from twilight to night and no other material at all whatsoever will not lead to many drinks or dinners sold, which is the entire point of theater, so we saw few happy returns from the evening.

That same summer, 1990, Spalding Gray was due to appear down the street from our venue, at Poughkeepsie’s historic Bardavon 1869 Opera House. Here was one more opportunity to attract attention for ourselves. Or to speak with an idol. Or to “network” with a theater legend. Or to stare at an idol. His monologue was the first act of a multi-act fundraiser, so after his performance, he was supposed to continue to be available for audience hobnobbing in the lobby, where a temporary bar was set up (the three of us looked at each other and thought aloud, that’s how they do it—even the theaters sell drinks!). We could not, or dared not, get near him.

After the required 20 minutes or so, Gray and his companion, Renee, left the lobby and headed back into the theater. Sometimes one can tell, even in the moment, when something is about to be a memory of a missed opportunity or a genuine, fully realized, missed opportunity. A friend interrupted our gawping from a distance at the famous writer/performer and pushed us towards the door Gray had just walked through. Into the still dark theater we three plunged. I was the only one of us with a loud enough stage whisper: “Spalding!” For some reason, I was calling him quietly, as if he was a cat that had gone hiding. “Spalding? Spalding!”

Spalding Gray stopped and turned. We were all at the front of the house at this point, by the stage. Someone in a position of authority ought to have been there to chase us away, but no one was. “Hi. We’re big admirers and we just wanted to let you know we started a theater company here in Poughkeepsie recently and you are a big inspiration and we just wanted you to have one of our t-shirts.” That all came out as one word, and the way I remember it, each of the three of us contributed at least a couple of syllables to my nervous blast of a star-struck sentence.

Renee reached out a hand and my friend reached under his sweater to pull out the Fading Gentility t-shirt that he had waddled up and smuggled into the theater. She took it and handed it to Spalding. She asked us about the theater scene in Poughkeepsie, something we knew little about, although we were among the leaders of the theater scene in Poughkeepsie that summer. Thus it was a short chat.

Spalding Gray looked at the front of the shirt, the back, the front again, and spoke as if to himself, “I get a lot of t-shirts. People think I like t-shirts. I like t-shirts.” That was all he said to us, though he said it twice. “I get a lot of t-shirts.” Goodbyes were exchanged and we all shook hands.

Many backhanded compliments are statements of plain fact inserted into a conversation at the place where one thinks a reply is required but no compliment is truly possible. Whatever my friends and I desired or rather fantasized would happen from our moment with Spalding Gray—”I must get to know you three. Report to The Wooster Group next week!”—what we got was more valuable: a dose of beautiful reality. “I like t-shirts.”

The Mag. Glass Pelican & You

The Magnificent Glass Pelican (MGP) is a live half-hour radio comedy show that my friends and I have written, produced, and acted in for over two decades. Lately, it has been an improvised half-hour, produced by us and scripted live on-air.

It is broadcast from a college FM radio station during the school year, and even though none of us has had any connection with the school as an educational institution for many many years, no one seems to have noticed our graying hair and lack of school books, so the station keeps inviting us back. Or we bribed them when we could not help ourselves. This current season is our twenty-second.

That’s a lot of comedy.

Some of the members, “Pelicans” we call ourselves, have had long careers in the creative arts, some have gone on to careers in technical writing. Myself, I am retired. Among our influences are the usual suspects: Monty Python, Firesign Theater, Del Close. The late Matt Coleman, a beloved friend and eternally a Pelican, once declared to a newspaper interviewer that we “separate the wheat from the chaff and keep the chaff!”

Each Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. (tonight), the MGP half-hour is broadcast on 88.7 FM WFNP (“The Edge”) in the Rosendale-New Paltz, New York, area or is streaming live here at this link. This is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and the broadcasts are not archived, so if you can check us out live tonight, thank you.

Here are two samples of our work, via my friend John’s SoundCloud stream; he is a founder of the Magnificent Glass Pelican and of the great rock/pop group, the Sweet Clementines. The first skit, “My Mother,” was written for us by our friend Brian Scolaro, who once upon a time shared a studio with us. I play the jury foreman. “We find the defendant guilty.”

And “Radio Pirates” is a personal favorite.

Again and always, thank you for listening.