It’s 1999. I’m in New York for a ten-day business trip and my wallet is stolen two days into the trip—all my ID, the receipts for the first three days, and about $20. Luckily my hotel and theatre tickets are prepaid and my return ticket and travellers’ cheques are all safely back in my room.
But how do I get back over the border without identification? I go to the 13th precinct, report the robbery, and ask for a letter or document of some kind that I can show Canada Customs. They give me one and I leave, but I’m still bummed out, because I can’t really use my travellers’ cheques without ID, the hotel will only cash one $20 cheque per day, and there’s not much you can do in NY on only $20. So I take a stroll down 2nd Avenue and after a while I sit down on the steps of this Russian restaurant in the East Village. I put my head in my hands and start sobbing.
After a minute some bum comes up to me and says, “Why so glum, chum?” I think, “Oh, god, a panhandler now…” I look up to tell him I don’t have any money for him, and under the three days’ growth and wool hat, it’s Spalding Gray, whose work I just love. So I tell him what happened.
“Come on, you hungry?” he says, and he leads me into the Russian place where we have this awesome supper, and he says, “I want to try out some material I’m working up.” So for the next two hours, over Russian food and lots of vodka, he performs a monologue about depression that I don’t think ever got produced, after which he sends me on my way with a “Cheer up now.”
Fast forward a year, and Gray is on Broadway in The Best Man. After the show, he’s taking collections for Broadway Cares in the lobby, so I go up to him to see if he remembers me. “Sure I do,” he says, “You were in rough shape.” I thank him for his kindness the year before, and he says, “No, no, thank you! You were a good audience.” He signs my souvenir poster and I leave him to the others. “Cheer up!” he yells after me.
And when they fished his body out of the water a few years later after he killed himself, I reckoned that if Spalding Gray thought I seemed depressed, I must have looked really wretched.