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The Ghost Light

There’s this  great tradition in the theater of which you may have heard.

It’s called the Ghost Light.

After a performance, once the actors have left to go screw each others’ brains out, the lighting crew has gone off to do copious amounts of mind altering substances and the director has left to drink himself to death, someone, usually a lowly stage hand, has one final job to do.

That job is to put a light on the stage. It’s the last job done by the last person before the doors are locked. The light is there to keep the ghosts away. We’re a suspicious lot, theater types, and we’re haunted.

I always kinda loved it. In fact, I’d volunteer for the duty. There was something strangely electric about being the last human being left in a place that, only hours before, had been the site of something explosive, energetic, often completely fucked up, sometimes terrible, but always BIG. The house is quiet. The stage is empty. You’re alone, in a strange place that was built to seat hundreds, maybe thousands. For a few minutes it’s all yours. Yours alone. You’re the last one out. A sort of wonderful loneliness descends on you as you realize you’re one of a very small group of people that gets to ever experience this. The emotion cannot be shared.

Let me explain.

To be single as your friends slowly marry and have children is to have the subject of dinner conversations slowly change around you. You feel the ground slip under your feet, and one day you’re the only one still talking about the second season of The Wire. Everyone else is comparing baby strollers, or 401(k)s, or school options, or safety features on minivans.

“We told you about this, didn’t we?” he asks me. I shake my head. “Well you must’ve seen it coming.” He points to the kid. “Just too hard to raise him in the city.”

Just like that, four people I knew in New York are leaving by the end of the summer. I feel the same irrational rage as when the first person my own age told me they were pregnant. That was three years ago. We were having a going away party for yet another friend, who was leaving to run the New Hampshire office for Obama’s run in the primary. (“Good luck,” I’d snorted derisively. “The country’s never electing a black guy with the middle name ‘Hussein.’”)

My friend swaggers over to me with a lopsided grin and pats his wife’s belly. I do my best to smile and congratulate them. What I really want to do is grab him by the lapels and scream at the motherfucker “How dare you! You two are the first dominoes to fall! Soon you’ll all be baby-making and leaving for the suburbs!”

My friends always assure me that having a child isn’t going to change anything. Right. You’ll still be the same fun-loving couple as before. You won’t move away six months after he’s born. Of course you won’t.

And one by one, the do all fall: marriage, pregnancy (“don’t worry, we’ll still hang out”) and a cross-country move (“c’mon, we had to move away sometime.”)

When I was a kid, my family moved every two years as part of the U.S. Army’s ongoing effort to deny children a stable environment. It worked pretty well, creating an entire legion of kids who, as adults, are extremely shallow, charming, self-involved, and unable to have real relationships with other people because, hey, you’re likely not going to know them for very long anyway.

Despite a rigorous regimen of musical-chair school systems as a kid, my reaction to sudden separation from my friends never did get any tougher. I’d whine and cry and sulk in my room, and refuse to come down for supper. Which is the exact same thing I do now, only supplemented with whiskey, anonymous sex, and video games.

As a New York transplant, you slowly watch all the friends you made when you first came to the city disappear. The city, though always young, vital, and reinventing itself, is colder, emptier, less inviting. The new college grads are rolling in, the Class of 2010 hot off the higher education assembly line, moving in to disgusting hovels in Greenpoint or Clinton Hill or Washington Heights. They’ll make friends, swear they’ll always live next door to each other, then gradually take overseas assignments or move back to their hometowns.

Eight years ago I performed “As You Like It” in a park in the Lower East Side. My ex-girlfriend and I became extremely close to six members of the cast. We all moved close to each other, our own little version of Friends, except with significantly less sex, hijinks, or special guest stars. Three years ago, when one of them told me they were pregnant, I knew that was it. Our contract hadn’t been renewed. That would be the last season. The main stars were moving on. We’d replace them with Scott Baio, but the chemistry wouldn’t be the same, and eventually we’d all call it a day as ratings declined.

Now the last of that crew, the Original Six, are leaving. They’ve all married. They’re all pregnant. They’ll take jobs elsewhere. It’s the end. The credits are rolling.

I’m still here, though. New York feels a lot emptier to me now. If network TV has taught me anything, it’s that I’m now supposed to move to Seattle and star in my own spin-off. But for now I’m the last one left onstage. The set is empty.

Does this make me sad?

A little. But I’ve got the Ghost Light.

  1. June 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I’m still mulling over this quote from this most excellent post:

    To be single as your friends slowly marry and have children is to have the subject of dinner conversations slowly change around you.

    From the perspective of a married father, I thought “what, exactly, do I talk about with my single friends?”

    And the answer is, yeah, I talk about kid stuff and relationship stuff and, gads, even the job.

    But if you’re the friend who can still talk about season 2 of the wire – then I’m excited. Believe me, conversations with a 4 and 6 year old aren’t exactly riveting. And as much as we try and keep the conversation broad, the wife and I inevitably end up talking about the kids. So bring on the occasional Friday night whiskey binge.

    I suspect it’s good for fatherhood and marriage.

    • nycwastrel
      June 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm

      It’s no bad thing to talk to the kids. I’ve heard they usually get more interesting with age. Then they get resentful. Then they stop talking to you at all and leave in you peace for a change.

      In the meantime,
      No poems can please for long or live that are written by water-drinkers – Horace

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