StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Life to Write About

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 18, 2014

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“If you do too much, I can pull you back,

but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.”

–       An Acting Teacher

By Kyle Thomas Smith

So Michael Alig is due for release from prison on May 5 after serving 17 years for the murder of his friend and fellow club kid, Andre “Angel” Melendez, the subject of the 2003 movie “Party Monster.” I didn’t know them. It happened years before I moved to New York, and I was never a club kid. I knew some club kids, but not well, just from around, you know. To hear them talk about their lives, though, always left you wondering if they’d be dead by tomorrow—the 24-hour clubbing, the designer drugs gatewaying into much harder stuff, the pasquinade drag crossing over into daytime ensembles that made you wonder how they kept their day jobs dressed like that, unless of course they got by as dealers and hustlers.

Before he’s even made his grand reentrance into society, Alig already has a book deal and is already passing drafts on to his Madison Avenue editor from behind bars. No doubt the memoir will fly off the shelves. Readers will return to the office red-eyed from all the adrenaline coursing vicariously through their veins as they make every phantasmagoric local from the front to back cover. All the while, the reader’s life will seem drab contrast to Alig and his unalloyed debauches. His wildly tossed salad days might be painful to write about but I doubt he’s at any loss for material—loss of memory, maybe, but as far as material goes, he’s a Velvet Goldmine.

Like I said, I was not a club kid. I was a reader. I was a cogitator. Even in college, in the 90s, I stayed in a lot and read classics and watched fine-arts and foreign films so I could be a writer when I got out of school. I strove to be an intellectual. This was no mean feat. By the time I graduated high school, I think I’d managed to squeak by with a cumulative D average. No-one knew better than I that I had a lot of catch-up ball to play if I was ever going to make it as a man of letters, so I got cracking while everyone else was out clubbing.

I’d done the club thing in early high school. Even back then, it was the same old story. You had to know how to dress. It was clear to anyone with eyes who the beautiful people were but it was never clear what secret DNA you had to have to walk among them—at least it was never clear to me, so after some failed attempts at fitting in, I just went along cultivating an outsider kind of cool and never looked back. And I gave up on those places early. The music was always the same—even when I’d drop back in from time to time, ten or so years later, even in the hottest places, they were still just spinning out the same ragbag.

It wasn’t going to clubs that got me bad grades in high school. As mentioned above, the club thing for me was short-lived. The reason I got bad grades was I went to an elite school I had no business going to: I only got in as a legacy (a legacy many times over); I had dyslexia, severe ADD (which they didn’t test for back then) and was enduring a lot of physical and emotional abuse at home and in my neighborhood. I got my IQ tested and the score came back average. But I wanted to be smart, so I took the fake-it-’til-you-make-it approach to intellectualism: I used ten-dollar words (cf., Sarah Palin), dressed in great coats, hung out in cafes, smoked European cigarettes and bored into dusty tomes.

Bored being the operative word. It was only in recent years that I even started letting myself watch TV. Last night, my husband Julius and I watched an episode of The Sopranos, a show I never saw while it was on the air but which I just started watching after reading that The Guardian ranked it Number One of the 100 Best-Written Shows of All Time, and I respect The Guardian and like well-written scripts, so I bought the box set on sale. It’s a good thing I never did drugs, considering how hooked I’ve gotten on The Sopranos since then. Seriously, even as I write this post from the azure coast and lucullan gardens of Mevagissey, England, Julius has had to swipe the Season 2 and 3 DVDs out of my laptop to get me to enjoy any of our actual vacation. But I can’t help it! I can’t get enough of Tony Soprano’s no-bullshit. On the one we watched last night, his psychiatrist (such a nice lady, I feel so bad for her, her mousiness is heartrending) recommended a book to him. In seven words, Tony summed up my guiltiest secret: “No. I read, I go right out.” I confess that’s true of me too. But I’ve forced myself all these years to chug coffee and read constantly just so I don’t end up a total dumb-ass (you can draw your own conclusions about to what extent I’ve succeeded in not becoming one, but I think I can safely say I’ve managed to stay out of “total” territory) since everyone who knows me would agree that, for whatever my failures have been in conventional life, I don’t have it in me to set up a career in organized crime.

Which brings me back to Michael Alig. I am probably the blogger least qualified to write about him. I know nothing about his life—though I am looking forward to reading his memoir—but having heard the hearsay and seen a couple Youtube clips, he strikes me as the sort who, for all his theatrics, had a secret stash of savvy that kept him afloat where others would have gone down long before the underground pulled him under. One knows this kind of person where I live in New York City. I’ve known people who were total junkies who managed to pull 4.0’s in Ivy League schools and become bestselling authors, full professors or senior partners in top law firms (some are probably all three in one).

Me? I had to keep my head down all these years and, now that I’m within striking distance of 40, I’m wondering if that was the best policy for me as a writer. Since I underperformed so spectacularly in high school, I had to do a year at a little college I hated before I transferred to University of Illinois at Chicago, which wasn’t considered the crème de la crème and it was just down the street from where I’d gone to high school but I liked it there and the people were by and large hard-working and intellectually curious. Most of us lived off campus and worked while we went to school. I worked as the assistant to the assistant in a Claims Management office, which paid my rent and bills and I liked my coworkers and could leave work at work when I’d go home after five o’clock to do my homework and all the many hours of extracurricular reading and studying I felt I had to do to become the writer I was so bent on becoming. I sported a bohemian look but I didn’t drink much or stay out too late on weekends.

When college was over, I did more of the same, just worked on becoming a better writer. I never went for an MFA since I was never one for groupthink, so I just wrote on my own, filling up notebooks Natalie Goldberg-style and like her, I’d also combine my creative aspirations with a regular Buddhist meditation practice. I travelled far and wide to exotic lands and always kept a notebook with me and later moved to New York, where rent was high and the jobs were so much more demanding, so you had to be alert and sober every hour on the clock, unless you have an exceedingly high IQ, which I don’t. And one day, I looked up and the rules changed. To be a writer, you had to stand on the brink of death, joining street gangs or being in and out of rehab or catching VD and spreading it to as many people as possible before you could make a mint off a tell-all about how that-was-my-past-but-boy-do-I-have-stories-now. And if you have to put some made-up shit in your books, big deal, you’ve done enough in life to make your spiel convincing.

I look back now and sometimes I despair over how I spent so much time thinking and reading books rather than, oh, drinking absinthe (oh, God, even that’s a dorky thing to do by now!). It kept me out of trouble but did it also keep me from living? Maybe not. I mean, I’ve done things. I published a novel and it won many awards. I’m married—in fact, gay-married, how cool is that? I know what it is to love and be loved. I’ve seen both my parents die. I’ve experienced the death of close friends. I’ve been to Bhutan, Botswana, Argentina, Cracow, South Africa, Nepal, Thailand and many, many other places. Still and all, Julius and I are in bed before midnight on weeknights and not long into the twilight on weekends. I wake up early to write and I also meditate twice a day, which some might consider cool, but I also pray and believe in God, which many would consider uncool and I don’t like to talk about it, not because it’s too Melvin or whatever but just because it’s a matter so intricate and ineffable, I prefer to keep it private. And, you know what, I’m fine with my life being this way—until I get to worrying that my writing will become too prosaic.

I could always write fiction, and I do write fiction, it’s just that fiction for me has to have some grounding in real life, and my real life is one that I prefer to keep out of danger.

Yet I keep coming back to something I once heard someone say about an acting teacher they once had. The teacher told his students, “If you do too much, I can pull you back, but if you don’t do enough, I can’t pull it out of you.” Michael Alig did too much. He even killed someone. Now the world awaits his memoir. Would you await the story of, say, the person standing next to you on the subway—if they’re not an addict or a recovering addict or a prostitute or a recovering prostitute, if they’ve never killed somebody? No matter how well they might tell their timeworn tale, would you long to hear it if they’re good and upstanding and just trying to get on with things same as you are?

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(Julius in sunglasses, Kyle in hoody, by the Godrevy Lighthouse, inspiration for Woolf’s To The Lighthouse) 

These are my koans for the day as I turn off The Sopranos and venture out to take in the beauty of Cornwall. This is after all, the place that inspired so many of Virginia Woolf’s stories—stories in which not a hell of a lot happens.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his illustrious felines Marquez and Giuseppe.