On Saturday, I went hiking at Lake Awosting with my friends, Dan and Matt. Lake Awosting is another mountain lake on the Shawangunk Ridge, along with Lake Minnewaska, which I wrote about in a previous Jamberoo (The Fading of the Ancient Screams http://wp.me/p2O8u6-5E). Awosting’s at a lower altitude than the other lakes, and due to a recent snowstorm, the only lake open for hiking. So, easy decision. Lake Awosting it was.
Dan was tasked with making the decisions for the trip – it was his idea in the first place. His wife, Wren, was out of town and he wanted to get out of the city. Matt’s girlfriend, Molly, went with Wren, so he was free to come along, too. Dan rented a Zipcar, printed out the directions, plugged in the ipod. Then we set out for the Great White North, into the clean air for a day of hiking and good old-fashioned gettin’ back to the land, man-in-the-wild kinda stuff. Maybe even wrestle a bear.
I looked forward to the trip all week. I’m at the point of jumping on any opportunity I can to break free of the gravity of New York City, which has such an affect on a person that it – should one embed themselves in its caverns long enough – compresses them to a size so tiny where the only perspective attainable is: everything’s close to me and closing in on me, everything’s fast and faster than me, everything revolves around me and I am the center of the Universe, where are my pills? Being on a mountain – or anywhere out in the open – gives me the understanding that I’m but a tiny piece in a puzzle of incomprehensible proportions. Not a border or corner piece or a piece with any wierd curvature, just a piece that looks like most of the others.
But I wasn’t thinking of any of that, however, in the days leading up to the hike. I was thinking about a fellow named Oscar Koch. I met Oscar in 2010. He was in his 60’s. When he was younger he wrote a little, did some acting. Then somewhere along the way, he suffered a sever injury, leaving him partially disabled. Sometime after that, he became morbidly obese. Then he was homeless. Fortunately, he ended up in supportive housing through Housing Services Inc, where Matt worked. Matt had read a few plays of Oscar’s and asked me if I would direct a reading of one of them – one he’d been working on since 1979 – and said it would be a big deal to the big guy to see his play on the stage, even if it was just a reading. I said yes. I figured it would be a nice way to sweeten my karma, no big deal. But of course, it turned out to be bigger deal than I could imagine…
All I could think about was Oscar one the way to Lake Awosting, with Matt right behind me in the backseat. But we didn’t talk about Oscar, and after we parked the car and began our ascent to the lake on the snow covered trail, the beautiful scenery – along with my mental preparations for a bear attack – pushed the thoughts of Oscar further from my mind. Onward we marched, playing the role of Man as the trail narrowed and the parking lot and civilization disappeared. It was a grand time. But the snow on the trail got deeper and deeper as we forged on – knee deep in some places. Soon the hike had become a genuine bitch of a thing. But we weren’t about to turn back. Dan, Matt and I grew silent as the time between the slushing of our got longer and longer. Sometime around then Oscar came back to my mind with gusto…
His play was about a community theatre troup rehearsing a play about life in the great depression. It was one of those plays where the line between reality and make-believe gets blurry and before you know it, the actors believe they are the characters. A young engenue really thinks she is the young sickly girl she is portraying. A young shy actor really believes he can take her away, heal her and make her happy. The actress playing the engenue’s wilder, older sister really believes she can run off to the city and become a star. And an old over-acting actor really believes he is the drunk tortured Everyman of the play, the symbol of the decline of the country, a martyr. Things get whacky and the director hopelessly tries to hold onto his sanity. Oscar’s play wasn’t an untold story, but certain lines grabbed me, like this one from the older sister:
“It’s a great big world out there! I can’t wait to go out in it and make myself sick.”
This wasn’t a play written by a 25 year-old ivy league graduate student at a series of cushy writer’s retreats on the shores of various lakes throughout New England over the period of two years. What made Oscar’s play great was that it was written by a man who ventured out into that great big world, then before he knew it he was crippled, fat, homeless, and later spending his life in a tiny room in a big city solving crossword puzzles and rewriting a play he’d begun as a young man, before any of it happened to him. What made his play better than anything a trained writer could think up and write it down to create an intellectual statement was the fact that it was exactly not that. It wasn’t trained writing, it wasn’t thought up, it wasn’t intellectual – it was simply lived life.
One day, Oscar tried to tell me about his life and how things ended up the way they did. But as he tried he became inarticulate, as if everything about his life was foggy except the present moment. Finally, he gave up trying and shrugged his shoulders – which were permanently lospided due to the injury he suffered years ago – and smiled. Of course he smiled, he had every reason to. His play was going to be read in New York City. I didn’t need to know the details of Oscar’s life, anyway. I knew who he was through his play.
Toward the end of the play, the drunk father storms onto the stage and rambles out a monologue about his broken manhood in a broken country and that death is the only choice for him now. His sweet, sickly daughter cries at his feet, begging him to stop speaking of such things. Then suddenly, the drunk father morphs back into the actor – confusing the sick daughter. He tells her the rehearsal is over. She doesn’t understand and grows distressed. Then he smiles, empathetically, and tells her it’ll all be ok – that life blows around like a storm with great triumphs and deep lows and more losses than wins, but at the end, you’re gonna look at the few people around you and tell them, you know, it wasn’t all that bad. Then he leaves the stage, not the tragic alcoholic father caught in a social whirlwind, just the tired actor who has to get up early the next morning and go to work. However, the young actress remains convinced she is really the sick daughter. As the lights begin to go down, she asks where everybody is, that she’s scared and lonely. Gradually, she grows more distressed, and panics.
“Keep the lights on! I am not ready yet! I’m young! I still have so much more to do!”
Lights down, the play ends.
I cast some of my fellow actor friends in the roles and we did the reading at a theatre on 42nd street – my friend, Erika, ran the theatre and let us do the whole thing for free. We invited some people to come and most of them did. Just before we began, Oscar was very nervous. He was also a bit embarrassed because he was so large he had to sit on two chairs on the edge of the stage, where the audience could see him. But I’m sure that was fate. I’m sure all of us in that theatre were meant to see Oscar clearly as we listened to the words of his life’s masterpiece. The man was the play, the play was the man. We were meant to see that the only training for storytelling is living, and writing without living is nothing more than hollow intellectualism, i.e. lies.
After the reading, Matt, Oscar and I talked in the lobby about what parts of the play could be worked on. We made plans to meet in two weeks.
“Well, I guess I got work to do,” he said, very happily.
Matt called me two days later to tell me that Oscar was dead. It was apparently a peaceful passing. Matt found him in his room sitting on his bed – a crossword puzzle on his chest, pencil in his hand, as if the next word could only be found in a dream. Don’t tell, Matt, but I could hear him crying over the phone.
“The last thing Oscar said to me,” Matt said, “was, ‘Gee, I guess I’m a playwright now.'”
Then that was it. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Matt until this past Saturday. Almost 3 years. Just like that.
It was very good to see Matt again. It was good to see Dan, too. It’s good to see friends, anytime. Our hike was like most hikes I’ve done. It was hard going up, easy going down, and reaching the destination didn’t feel like the big deal I thought It’d be – just three friends sitting by a frozen lake, eating snow, speaking every now and then. Towards the end of the hike the three of us goofed off like kids, chased each other, stumbled, laughed at ourselves. We made it back from the wild in one piece – lived to tell the tale. Turns out the bears were still hibernating.
We huffed and puffed in the parking lot, which lead to more laughter over the fact that damn, we’re are getting older. We were so tired we had to drink coffee to stay awake on the way home. But we made in to the city without passing out or slipping into dimentia. No, we are alive and healthy, each of us possessing an abundant potential to thrive. As Dan drove me to my place, I stared into the dashboard light, bewildered over the richness of memory – how real my memory of a guy named Oscar Koch was – sewed into my life, my story. I was also a bit ashamed to realize that I’d forgotten about him until now.