With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Ever since I turned sixty, my fame has grown — slightly. I became the visiting writer at a college in Albany, New York. An article about me appeared in Metroland, the hip Albany weekly. One of my poems was published in the prestigious American Poetry Review. And a young man named Miles Joris-Peyrafitte asked me to star in a rock video.
Miles was twenty-two, had just graduated from Bard College, and was my daughter’s former boyfriend.
I told him I had no acting talent.
“That’s fine,” he assured me. “All you have to do is take a bath and stand on a tugboat.” Miles explained that a young woman would bathe me (as part of the video) and that I’d receive a hundred dollars a day.
I said yes.
A couple of days later I had the screenplay. The video was for two songs, “Bottle” and “Say You’re Gone,” by the Seattle band My Goodness. Here’s the plot: An aging widower lives a solitary life on a tugboat on the Hudson River, with occasional spectral visitations from his dead spouse, who comforts him like a guardian angel. One afternoon the hermit takes a bath on the deck of his boat and is magically transformed into his young self: He’s sixteen again. He sees his wife and gives chase, off the boat, down narrow streets, and into a forest — until he collapses. When he opens his eyes, he’s old again. His wife appears, hands him a flower, and kisses his forehead. The hermit falls backward in ecstasy.
Miles’s girlfriend, Zia, was the producer of the video and master of miscellaneous logistics, including my transport. Each morning she picked me up and drove me to the set. (I don’t drive.) Five minutes after I met Zia, I felt as if I’d known her for years, possibly because she’d grown up around communes near Ithaca, New York. I had flunked out of Cornell University in Ithaca in 1973, so I knew some of those same communards.
Zia also took care of my food. I’d explained my diet to Miles: no onions, garlic, mushrooms, meat, fish, or eggs. Also I don’t eat white sugar. I’d told him I like spicy Asian entrees, granola, and lightly salted potato chips.
We shot the first half of the video at a dock in Kingston, New York. For most shots we used an antique red tugboat, the Cornell, with a claw-foot bathtub on its deck. Some exterior shots were filmed a few hundred yards down the dock on a second, smaller, tug called the Spooky Boat.
How strange that I was being paid to enact my own fantasy: living on a ship. I fell in love with boats in the spring of 1987, sailing from Athens, Greece, to Haifa, Israel. For three days I gazed out at the blue of the Mediterranean — a blue so deep it seemed unreal. It looked like National Geographic had photographed the water, digitally enhanced the pictures, and hung them around the boat. This was the same sea where Odysseus had lost his way, only Odysseus was mythical and I was real. Or was I? Standing on a wooden floor mysteriously floating on an ancient sea, I felt like a myth myself.
When I met my costar, Anna, who was still in college, I asked if she was a theater major.
“No, I have a double major: dance and music,” she explained. Her instrument was the harp.
Then I asked Anna a question I’ve always yearned to ask a harpist: “Was Harpo Marx a good musician?”
“Yes, he was,” she replied with a smile. “And he was entirely self-taught!” But classical harpists are trained never to use their pinkie, and Harpo used his, she remarked.
The more I spoke to Anna, the more she reminded me of Patti, my girlfriend in sixth grade. There was a physical resemblance, but also a psychic one. Anna was patient and introspective — as you might expect of someone who spends hours a day practicing the harp. She looked like the angelic ghost of someone’s beloved wife, just as I happen to resemble a mildly embittered maritime recluse.
My first scene was in the bathtub. I hopped from the dock onto the boat, where a film crew of bearded young men was setting up. A guy named Madison approached with my costume — a flannel shirt, teal sweater, black rubber boots, and denim pants — then led me to the bunk room to get dressed.
The inside of a tugboat, I discovered to my dismay, smells like motor oil. I sat on the mattress, which was surrounded by wood paneling on three sides, like an open coffin, and changed into my hermit costume. Then I walked onto the deck, stripped, and stepped into the bathtub.
Miles had kindly arranged for two propane heaters under the tub, so the water was hot. My job was to lie back and let Anna, portraying the apparition of my dead wife, wash me. I reclined in a warm bath on the deck of a vintage tugboat in autumn, as geese flew overhead and a lovely young woman washed my arms. My contented smile was not acting.
Then the bath was over, and suddenly I was standing in the biting late-October air. Even with two towels and a down coat, I was shivering. Madison led me to a car that had been idling near the dock with the heat on. I continued drying off in the car as Zia rushed over with a bowl of miso soup. Call me a macrobiotic mystic, but as I ate that soup, I knew I wouldn’t catch cold.
Fifteen minutes later Jackson, the black-haired, energetic sixteen-year-old who played my younger self, joined me in the car. His bathtub scene had been filmed right after mine.
“How did you like the bathtub?” I asked.
“It was so cool! Instead of sitting in some boring English class, I’m taking a bath on a tugboat!” He smiled a wild, sixteen-year-old smile.
The most difficult scene to shoot was of me awakening in the morning in the bunk room. By then it was dusk. No sunlight came in the porthole beside my bunk, which presented a challenge for the cinematographer, James — the crew member with the longest beard.
“What’s the matter?” I asked James, after he’d spent fifteen minutes adjusting the klieg light and reflector.
“It’s hard to make it look real and also not totally dark,” he tersely replied.
What followed was my big disaster: I missed the boat, literally.
As the light was fading, the crew needed a last shot of me at the bow of the Spooky Boat. We raced down the dock, and I tried to leap aboard but didn’t jump high enough. I fell and became wedged between boat and dock.
As Zia hauled me up, she and Jackson couldn’t stop laughing. “You were clinging to the side of the boat like a monkey!” she gasped. Soon I was laughing, too.
Miraculously unhurt, I stood on the deck while the crew filmed me contemplating the Great River of Eternity (played by the Hudson). Then the sun set, and Miles and Zia drove me home.
The next morning Zia arrived in her pickup truck and brought me to a large house near Catskill, New York. Around it was the forest in which my younger self would chase my dead wife.
While I waited for my scene, I sat in the dining room gorging on the snacks Zia had provided: a natural candy bar, gluten-free pretzels, and granola. Outside, it rained, at first lightly, then more intensely.
Madison brought my wardrobe: the same clothes from yesterday, now damp. (My younger self had already been wearing them in the rain.) I went into the bathroom to transform into my alter ego.
When I emerged, it was my turn to run through the trees after the apparition of my wife.
“Are you ready for the SnorriCam?” Miles asked.
“Sure, what’s that?” I replied, noticing Miles and his gang exchanging secret smiles.
Miles produced a camera mounted on a long metal arm. This bizarre appendage could be strapped to an actor to steadily film his or her face. Miles and James lowered it onto me, then tightened the straps — two around my back and two over my shoulders.
James led me into the woods. The rain was falling harder. I asked if the storm would show up on the video.
“No,” James replied. “It’s very hard to make rain visible.”
“How do they show rain in Hollywood movies?” I asked.
“They often use milk.”
Thirty yards from the house, we stopped. “Now chase me,” James commanded.
Over rocks and fallen branches he ran, darting from side to side and spinning unpredictably. Here I was racing through the woods after a bearded youth in the pouring rain, a camera on a large metal beam protruding from my torso. Following James’s lead, I spun to the left; I spun to the right. Would I twist my ankle?
Abruptly James announced, “That’s enough.” I was disappointed. I was just starting to enjoy it. Being an actor is like being paid to be insane.
The last scene to be filmed was the final image of the video. I’d been sixteen years old, chasing my elusive love, and now I was on my knees, aware that I was actually old. My task was to feel my face in horror, then look at my hands — my weathered hands! Frantically I’d try to “pull the age” off my hands.
Miles had assured me I wouldn’t have to act, but now he was asking me to show more emotions in forty seconds than I’d felt in the last two years.
After the first take Miles and the bearded youths looked quietly discouraged. “Try to be more extreme,” Miles suggested.
As Miles began shooting take two, I knelt in the forest, touched my face, and realized — it’s true! Age is a curse that falls upon us unawares. It feels like twenty minutes ago that I was sixteen years old, standing with my friends on a street corner in northern Manhattan, discussing the new Jefferson Airplane album. Now I’m an old man with white hair and a long white beard. My knees hurt. I am easily winded. Soon I will die. How did this happen? I would have happily remained sixteen forever.
The camera stopped rolling. “That was good,” Miles said.
“Thanks,” I replied, shattered.
Our shoot finished, Zia and Miles drove me home. We took the back roads, passing through a string of aging upstate towns. When we reached my house, Miles wrote me a check for two hundred dollars. “Don’t cash this till Monday,” he advised.
Awakening the next morning, I wondered: Was that all a dream? Did I really live on a tugboat where I was bathed by my beautiful ghost-wife? I felt like a Tibetan lama dimly recalling a past life.