Spalding Gray hunches around his beer. His body looks thin inside his padded gray winter jacket, a wintering seabird. He’s been perched on the bar stool since early evening, drinking slowly. It’s a raucous Thursday night at Seattle’s venerable Comet Tavern. To Gray’s left, there is an open space at the bar, drawing patrons to and fro in search of drink. The bar is full of young people, wearing leather and flannel, unshaven and long-haired. “Back in Black” plays loudly in the high-ceilinged, smoky rooms, making conversation difficult.
Yes, I’m set loose
from the noose
that’s kept me hanging around.
I’m just, uh, livin’ on the side
’cause it’s gettin’ me high,
forget the hearse cause I never die.
I got nine lives, cat’s eyes,
each and ev’ry one of them is wondrin’ why,
cause I’m back!
Yes, I’m back!
Mama, I’m back!
Yes, I’m back!
Well, I’m back, back.
Well, I’m back in black, yes I’m back in black!
In the back of the bar, two pool tables see a lively trade. Throughout the rest of the tavern’s brick-walled, graffiti-insulated rooms, smoke roils above the chattering din. Glowing cigarettes jab, arms wave. Laughter and shouts wrestle Australian guitars. A young man rises from the ancient maritime cable spool reincarnated as the far corner table. Lunging unsteadily for the empty pitcher, he draws back with it in hand and turns in the direction of the bar. He weaves his way over the threshold of the corner room and dodges traffic by the entrance before berthing near the taps.
The bartender, a young woman whose dark waist-length hair is braided down her back, is busy. Seeing this, the young man hunches forward, standing. He clasps his hands together in a way that conveys anxiety and patience. Idly he looks to his left and right up and down the bar. As he looks to his right, the motion catches the corner of Spalding Gray’s eye, who turns to face the young man. He looks at the young man for a long moment.
The idea of young people’s music and Seattle is in the media’s air this season, and Gray, who has come to town to workshop one of his monologues, is curious. He’s looking for a way to talk about music in his life. He thinks perhaps this location, this person, may provide an insight or hook. It will tie his specific musical interests to the interests of the larger American audience.
The young man is skinny, nondescript. He wears a torn and paint spattered T-shirt, once black, now faded to grey. The shirt’s stitched-on pocket is coming loose, flapping. The faded shirtback advertises Marlboro cigarettes. His hair is unkempt but short, and his eyes are wide, set in a perpetual expression of slight confusion. Gray leans toward him.
“Excuse me,” Gray says. “But do you like classical music?”
The young man is puzzled, and his brows knit. He’s clearly uncertain that he heard the question correctly above “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” Before he can say “What?” Gray repeats the question.
“Do you like classical music?”
The young man does not recognize the gray-haired actor. He finds the query offputting. He shrugs, non-committal, wondering if the slender figure is a chicken hawk. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don’t think I ever really thought of it before. I mean, I dunno. Like, I don’t hate it or anything.”
As he says this, he can see Gray losing interest. This eases his concern about the stranger’s motivations. The two nod, a fresh pitcher of beer arrives, and the young man makes his way back to the spool. As he sits down, he mutters quietly to his nearest tablemate about the strange interaction at the bar. The rest of the table is busy making short work of the beer and the incident is forgot.
A few minutes later, another denizen of the spool stands to fetch another round. His bright red hair falls to his shoulders, and he wears a loose-fitting black leather jacket. Upon reaching the bar, he recalls his tablemate’s anecdote, and looks, curiously, at the slight gray-clad figure. As if on cue, the actor turns.
He says, of course, “Do you like classical music?”
The red headed boy enthusiastically says that he does. Gray presses him, asking for more information. What kind of classical music? Opera? Chamber music? The baroque? Perhaps he prefers Philip Glass, or Stravinsky?
This barrage undermines the self-confidence of the redhead, who admits his uncertainty. As before, Gray turns away. The redhead looks closely for a long moment before his fresh pitcher arrives. He returns to his party.
As he takes his seat, he asks the wide-eyed youth for more information about his encounter at the bar. As they compare stories, and the similarity becomes clear there is interest at the table. Their consensus: harmless but eccentric, an ancillary benefit to this time well spent. The redhead has held something back, however. He asks around the table if those in attendance have ever seen Spalding Gray’s film, Swimming to Cambodia.
At least one person has. The redhead explains the film, over the music, and then gesturing, asserts that the evening’s eccentric is none other than Spalding Gray. Opinion around the table is split. One of the participants in the debate who has seen the film disputes the possibility.
He ventures to the taps, and touches the grey-coated figure’s shoulder to draw him out of conversation.
The actor turns.
“Are you Spalding Gray?” asks the disputant.
For a moment, they look into one another’s eyes.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s not who I am.”