5 min

Long, blue twilight of summer

Novelist Shyam Selvadurai is seduced by New York's manic languor

Credit: Tucker Doherty

New York is not a city I could live in. Its frantic energy does not allow for the long-term contemplation that I require to write novels. Yet, when it comes to vacations, the manic pace of New York is just what I need. For me, the mark of a good holiday is time spent out of that inner creative space from which I work. And there is no better place for getting out of your head than New York.

From the moment my partner Andrew and I stepped out of the airport, we were caught up in the wonderful craziness of New York. The local bus we took from the airport to our friend’s apartment was jam-packed. We had barely been on it five minutes when the bus was stalled by two young men who would not step off the footboard, refusing to accept there was no room for them. As if on cue, all the passengers rose to their feet and began to scream abuse at the two young men. An old black woman shook her umbrella, a bunch of teenagers yelled at them in Spanish, a group of men berated them in a foreign language. Andrew and I looked at each other and smiled. Yes, we were definitely not in polite Toronto where the passengers would have muttered under their breath and left the problem to the driver.

I have been to New York many times and on each visit, there is one aspect of the city that stays with me when I leave. This time it was New York caught in the long, blue twilight of summer. There is an odd languor to the city on this trip which reminds me of one of those slow-motion martial arts sequences in a film, where frantic action presents itself with ballet-like grace.

Perhaps it was going to the theatre in the evenings that contributed to my seeing New York in this way. After a hectic day of gallery viewings and sightseeing in the sweltering heat, I would sink into my plush seat with a sigh of relief and pleasure, relinquishing myself to the air-conditioned darkness, handing over the reins of my mind to the stage for a few hours.

The first show we saw was the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, a sort of irreverent Sesame Street for adults. Yet, unlike Sesame Street where the characters might sing about everyone being special, on Avenue Q both puppets and humans sing delightfully subversive songs like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is For Porn.”

Avenue Q, like Sesame Street, takes place in a neighbourhood where life is a series of problems from which the residents learn lessons. On this block, however, the problems are coming to terms with being gay, unemployment, racism, depression and homelessness.

Instead of Cookie Monster there is Trekkie Monster who lusts, not for cookies, but for porn. Instead of Ernie and Bert, Avenue Q has Rod, a stuffy Republican stockbroker who is closeted (beautifully realized by openly gay actor John Tartaglia) and his straight roommate Nicky, whose sloppy ways drive Rod crazy, though he is also secretly in love with Nicky.

The lovable Nicky, in one of the show’s most charming songs, tries to make Rod come out to him. “If you were gay/ I’d shout ‘hooray’/ And here I’d stay/ But I wouldn’t get in your way.” But Rod will admit to no such thing. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse when Rod chances upon Nicky discussing his possible gayness with the other occupants of Avenue Q. Put on the spot, a flustered Rod tries to convince everyone he is straight by bursting into the song, “My Girlfriend Lives In Canada.” (Her name is Alberta and she lives in Vancouver). Rod kicks Nicky out of the apartment but, by the end of the show, the two roommates are reconciled.

By the time we left the theatre that evening, I was on a high from the catchy melodies and sheer charm of Avenue Q. I was in the mood for some fun. Our New York friends, with whom we had gone to the theatre, suggested Therapy, a bar not far from 42nd St. It was more a lounge than a bar with plenty of places to sit and the music not too loud. The perfect place to have an after-theatre drink and discuss the play.

Our second night at the theatre was equally enchanting. I Am My Own Wife is based on the true-life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), an East German transsexual. From the moment the lights went down and the 65-year-old Charlotte (played by Jefferson Mays) walked out onto the stage and surveyed the audience with a gaze that was shy and yet intense, austere and lady-like, I was transfixed. There is nothing flamboyant about Charlotte. She wears a nun-like black dress, a string of pearls, a black headscarf and orthopedic shoes. No make-up, as she says she doesn’t need it yet.

The next two hours passed swiftly as I found myself transported through Charlotte’s life – her realization about her trans-sexuality inspired by a lesbian aunt; her murder with a rolling pin of her brutal wife-beating father; her close encounter with death during the Nazi regime; and finally her years of harassment by East Germany’s dreaded Stasi secret police. She not only survived all this in a dress and a pair of heels, but also cultivated her great passion – collecting furniture and other bric-a-brac from the 1890s. Her house became a museum for her collection.

There are 40-odd characters in the play all portrayed by Mays, whose Tony-winning performance is mesmerizing to watch. With a slight change of posture or facial expression, with a single gesture, he slides from one character into another. The stage, within half an hour, felt more populated than Avenue Q.

Charlotte’s life comes to us through interviews she does with the playwright Doug Wright who is, himself, a character in the play. Wright, who is gay, travels from New York to Berlin in the mid-1970s to interview Charlotte. By now, Charlotte is already something of a celebrity. She has received the Medal Of Honour by the new German state, has written her own memoir and a documentary film has been made about her. Yet, not long after Wright begins his interviews with her, reports start to surface in the press that Charlotte might have been an informant for the Stasi police and betrayed a close friend, who ended up in prison and later died. Wright finds his idealized portrait of Charlotte under duress.

Some reviewers have complained about the presence of Wright as a character, but I actually found the naïve Wright a perfect foil to the complex, inscrutable Charlotte. Their personalities stand as poignant symbols for the difference between new-world privilege and idealism and old-world survival in the face of great horrors. And certainly, as gay people, we understand the price of survival (shunning the school fag or colluding in his harassment) and the guilt of it too (living through AIDS when so many of our friends and lovers have not).

The play had put me in a thoughtful mood and, afterwards, Andrew and I headed to a little park we had discovered just south of 42nd St, behind the Public Library. In Toronto, by 10pm most parks are deserted. But in New York, space is at a premium and, in the absence of gardens or even balconies, people cool off on a summer evening in the squares and parks that dot this city. We took our place among these New Yorkers and sat in contemplative silence, gazing up at the magnificent, gigantic building that hemmed in the park on all sides. The wind sifted through the sycamore trees of the park; we were lost in the magic that is New York.

*Toronto writer Shyam Selvadurai has edited the anthology Story-Wallah: A Celebration Of South Asian Fiction due out in September from Thomas Allen And Son.