I keep thinking about Spalding Gray, heartfelt banalities that actually lapse into the embarrassing: I want to see “Swimming to Cambodia” again, and maybe buy it, and I keep thinking of the horror and tragedy of his body drifting cold and alone in the East River for two months, and I think endlessly to myself, “What a waste, what a waste,” and I imagine him making that last phone call home, already on the way to his death, already dead in his own mind, and I fantasize that it is me talking him down from the bridge in Long Island during a prior suicide attempt, and that somehow I keep him safe.
But the ludicrously personal nature of my feelings about Gray are natural in that he spent much of his life telling me -- and undoubtedly millions of others -- things about himself he surely would only tell someone he trusted implicitly. Someone who wouldn’t tell anyone else. Very personal things.
This is why we pick up People magazine, and why we stalk celebrities, because it’s difficult to remember that the intimate connection celebrities create with us only go one way. I remember at Emerson College, also Gray’s college, seeing a fellow student in a play on Saturday and seeing them in the dining hall on Monday and having to remind myself that I couldn’t just go over and sit down with them to eat. I didn’t know them. I’d just sat in a room while they performed a scripted role, and that created the illusion of a connection.
I knew Gray, though, to the extent that I met him and shared a meal with him. Him and me. My one, true celebrity experience.
As a freshman working for the school newspaper, I went to the theater shortly before Gray was to perform “Monster in a Box,” I believe, and arrogantly asked for and miraculously got an interview with him. We went to get Chinese food around the corner at a restaurant where management crammed us in the back next to the kitchen and the clangs and clanks of pots and swinging doors. We smiled over it. At first I think it made him anxious, but I also remember his sly, aggrieved smile, a relief because I was underprepared and he seemed a bit serious.
I interviewed him as he ate -- I ate very little -- and at the end, tried to pay. He refused, pointing out that he surely made far more money than I did. I relented.
I don’t remember a single thing we spoke about. I don’t even remember where the tape of that interview is. I probably recorded over it immediately because I needed it for other interviews and this one was, after all, unintelligible over kitchen noise, in that frustrating way microcassette recorders have of capturing incidental noise better than the noise you want.
Gray got me in to his show that night, in the front row, where I could look up at him and watch the spit fly as he spoke with his classic reserved passion: that trick of holding everyone’s attention while sitting behind a desk talking for an hour and a half.
I would go on reading and watching and exalting Gray over the years, picking up a copy of his novel, “Endless Vacation” and rewatching “Swimming to Cambodia” and “The Paper” occasionally and contemplating going to New York to see him in “Our Town” and relishing, especially, when my parents would send me books of his latest monologues.
The last one was “Morning, Noon and Night,” a glorious ode to domesticity, a life in a day, like the early work of Nicholson Baker, but with all the action implied by being a husband, father, stepfather, nanny and chauffeur. Still acerbic and clever, but so warm and charming. Gray was, of all things, happy.
It promised a long life into gentle patriarchy, Gray the grandfather, Gray the great-grandfather, Gray the eminence grise. For everyone who’d been told by their friend of his mother’s suicide at 52 and his own terrors, “Morning, Noon and Night” meant knowing that everything would be okay.
But we didn’t really know that. We didn’t know Spalding Gray. We knew a lot about him, and not enough.