Jonathan Larson's characters, a panoply of impoverished young artists, punk rockers and videographers, eerily evoked the people I knew during my own young days in New York City. The strange sensation of seeing my own reality on stage reminded me of a rueful story my father used to tell: He had often seen the real-life streetcar named Desire in New Orleans during the war, he would say, but it took a Tennessee Williams to turn that trolley into metaphor. And it took a Larson to transpose the lives of New York's perennial stream of arty refugees from convention into a Broadway musical. The young composer even gave the story elegant shape by modeling it on the opera La Bohème, converting Puccini's arias into rock anthems. A traveling company reprises Rent this week at Centennial Hall, opening Tuesday, January 16, and running through Sunday, January 21.
Larson drew his millennial artists from the people he himself knew in New York, where he worked as a waiter for a decade and a half while trying to change American musical theatre. He arrived in the city in the early '80s, around the time I left, but we knew the same kinds of East Village people.
His Mark, Rent's video artist and narrator, is a dead ringer for my old friend Jack Jonka, a preternaturally verbal young man who in those days was writing what we all hoped would be, if not the great American novel, then at least a very good one. (Most names in this story have been changed to protect their owners' privacy.) Jack worked in a film library by day, but by night his electric typewriter regularly spewed out great sheaves of paper filled with his energetic verbiage, wonderful words that spun a fictionalized version of his childhood among Irish nuns in West Texas, among American oil engineers in Venezuela.
Eugene Flemish, my punk-rocker friend, was the art director at my first New York job, an eccentric publishing house near Washington Square where the elderly publisher routinely fired the entire staff every six months. After his daytime work hours, Eugene played screeching guitar by night and pursued so many sexual adventures that it's only by the grace of God that he never contracted AIDS, unlike the doomed punk rocker Roger in Larson's play.
A sweet couple I knew named Keith and John, a painter and an airline steward, could sub for Rent's gay lovers Angel and Tom Collins. Crazy Rita, another pyrotechnician of conversation, longed to do performance art, but she was more Rent's tragic Mimi than its self-satisfied Maureen.
At the center of this interesting group were the Pied sisters. I met Helen Pied after she used an NYU bulletin board to advertise a room in her tiny two-bedroom on St. Mark's Place, a tree-lined street filled with oversized townhouses. A bit bigger than a single bed, the room had been temporarily vacated by her sister Joan, an abstract painter who was off to Rome for a semester. I moved in, and visiting friends from Philadelphia quickly dubbed the apartment "Margaret's two-closet cave." Helen was a lifeguard with aspirations toward poetry, but it was her steadfastness that attracted the volatile Jack to her. I can still see him as a young man in love, skipping down the stairs from her apartment one evening like a joyous Gene Kelly, dancing into St. Mark's pools of lamplight.
Life in arty New York, then as now, was as much about the desperate search for apartments as it was about getting a publisher or gallery, hence Larson's title. When Joan Pied returned from Rome, energized by a great review of her paintings in the International Herald-Tribune, I decamped to a crumbling tenement on the Polish block of East Seventh Street, right next to St. Stan's church. East Seventh was the borderline between the semi-respectable boho East Village and the pure destitution of Alphabet City. Its apartment buildings were bad when they were thrown up around the turn of the last century to absorb Europe's tempest-tossed, and they're bad buildings still.
Mine was split almost in half by a deep airshaft, an architectural disaster that guaranteed darkness, no privacy and ungodly noise. (My residence there unfortunately coincided with the salsa craze, and the disco-ized Latin rhythms cascaded through the airshaft night and day). A permanent urine puddle in the cage-like elevator was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and generations of rotting linoleum covered the apartment floors.
A sour super from Serbia by the name of Saban presided over the place, which was inhabited by an eclectic mix of Puerto Rican families and white 20-somethings. When I moved in, with a friend of a friend named Karen, Saban held an ear to our dormant refrigerator, and insisted that he could hear the hum of electricity. He was wrong. The stove didn't work either, and a drip in the bathroom ceiling occasionally required anyone making use of the toilet to put up an umbrella for protection.
So Karen and I staged an aborted rent slowdown--we deducted $40 from the $200 rent and politely explained the reasons in a letter to Slumlord Weissner and his enforcer John DiBari. Our rent action lasted maybe two weeks. Lacking the bravado of Larson's rent strikers, we caved when this weasely pair summoned us to their cushy uptown offices and threatened us with eviction.
But the best thing about New York apartments is that you don't spend much time in them. The East Village was cooking then. Little storefronts were metamorphosing into galleries and cafés and clubs, cheerfully cohabiting the old blocks with Jewish bakeries and Ukrainian restaurants and Korean fruit stands. Larson's song "La Vie Bohème" gets the mix exactly right, offering an homage to "yogurt, to yoga, to rice and beans and cheese." Everybody lived for the nights. Just as in the Rent song "Out Tonight," anything could happen, any night at all. CBGBs and the Mudd Club were pioneering New Wave rock; everybody was joining bands. Joan Pied even picked up her childhood accordion to play with some punky painter pals.
If Joan was an abstract purist, other young artists were turning toward Bad Painting and cartoon art. Keith Haring was entertaining the masses with volunteer paintings on sidewalks and subway walls. Off-off Broadway theater was thriving. Future stars Willem Dafoe and Spaulding Gray performed regularly in The Kitchen in Soho; La Mama Theatre over on Fourth Street was doing outrageous plays in Greek. A merry gay scene percolated in joyous promiscuity, these being the days of post-liberation and pre-AIDS consciousness.
Joan was friends with David Wojnarowicz, an up-and-coming gay artist who would later have a noisy confrontation with John Cardinal O'Connor over public funding for a show of AIDS art. One time Wojnarowicz was making a movie that called for dead bodies. In her search for a set, Joan hit on Helen and Jack, who by this time had moved into a basement apartment on the Hell's Angels block of East Third Street. It was a gloomy affair, up the street from a homeless shelter, but it was in a well-kept 18th-century townhouse, and it boasted a back patio--a tiny outdoor cement floor hemmed in by six-story buildings and a patch of sky high above. A gang of us volunteered to be Wojnarowicz's corpses, and we all lay earnestly on the floor while he careened around with a camera. Nobody had yet heard of AIDS, but in hindsight his movie's body count seems a prescient omen of the carnage to come.
So how did I get from there to here, driving around a desert city in a station wagon with a daughter and a son who are already clamoring to take over the wheel? Life changes, that's all. I got married and moved away. Helen and Jack got married too--on James Joyce's birthday--had a baby boy and moved to the Midwest. The plan was that Helen would work at a small press and they would give their son an all-American childhood. But the marriage broke up out there on the frozen Plains. I suspect the loss of New York was simply too much for Jack to bear.
Last I heard he had found a great apartment in the West Village; he does a little film editing and bicycles around delivering Fed Ex packages. The novel remains unpublished.
Helen's a stalwart single mom and publishing exec in a small New Jersey town, where she moved so her son can see his dad regularly. Joan's still in New York, and though she never hit the big time I get the occasional card announcing her exhibitions. Crazy Rita is in a mental institution. Eugene lives in New York, too, a happy husband and father who evidently sublimated his appetites into his new career as a food critic.
The miracle at the end of Rent notwithstanding, real life has no angels to rescue the dying. The Village of those years yielded up untold numbers of dead young men. The two painters named Keith, one unknown and beloved of John, the other the internationally famous Keith Haring, both are dead of AIDS. So, for that matter, is John. And so is David Wojnarowicz.
Jonathan Larson himself never lived to see his play's success: He died of an aneurysm at 36 just before opening night. But the New York he chronicled with such authenticity is still there, beguiling a whole new generation of young art pioneers.