This was in the 80’s when I lived uptown, in the 70’s – West 72nd Street, in fact, the front apartment just above Mrs J’s Sacred Cow. It was early spring. I’d been taking an acting class downtown that went very late. I was on the uptown side of the IRT at 18th Street, well after midnight – and I was alone. Very alone – not a soul on the downtown side, and just me on the uptown platform – actually seated on one of those benches that was made of wood back then, with those wood slats for backing.
I sat there and waited. No train in sight. Nobody, in fact – until about 10 minutes into my late night solstice when two young men appeared. The lead guy wore a knit cap, his sidekick was that kind of bald that looks like a skin-head. They shuffled on, spotted me, then stopped, mumbled some words to each other and then, in a well defined change of pace, headed in my direction, cold eyes zeroing in.
Oh shit. Oh no. Oh dear Christ.
I was young, too, early forties, a husky six-footer but I was an actor who could now and then impersonate a thug – I wasn’t one. Plus, there was two of them, hard-edged and eager and one of me, just wanting to get home and go to bed. I could get angry, fly off the handle, sure, and maybe even let ‘er rip — on stage. In life? I was all smiles, charm, and ‘a good guy’. That evening I was tired, lonely – and right then it’s the kind of fear where your bowels begin to gurgle, your knees begin to shake, and your mouth starts to dry up.
Now they were close, ten feet away, hunched, hands in pockets, both of them ready to rumble. Knives in pockets? Fists at the ready? Oh shit.
This is the one thing I began to learn early during my life in the Big City. When danger is imminent, do not cross to the other side of the street. A guy comes near, don’t back off, don’t walk away – instead, counter-intuitively – walk toward the danger. Ergo, I caught the lead guy’s eyes and said, very slowly, carefully, these words to him:
“ Hey – you know what? If I could’ve been born anybody – my pick of a Kennedy or a Frank Sinatra or Henry Ford – or, um – even the King of Greece? Out of that whole hat of births, I still would’ve picked to be an Etruscan…you know?”
I said this in a kind of slurred New York accent, but cheerily.
The lead guy stopped. His buddy bumped into him. They both watched me. I went on:
“Really. Nobody knows where the Etruscans came from…the archaeologists guess maybe they were one of the first tribes of Rome about a million years ago – you know?”
The lead guy nodded, “ Yeah?”
“…When Romulus and Remus were posing for that statue of them – that baby picture – of them suckling life from a wolf, right?”
“Okay”, the lead guy says, “Sure.”
“… Well, Romulus and ol Uncle Remus must’ve hoarded all the wolf milk because the Etruscans vanished without a trace. Like a high curved wave that breaks on the sand and retreats right back into the sea. Vanished. Poof…Splash!”
That’s about as far as I got. They both looked at each other, nodded and then very quickly – it was kind of remarkable – retreated back down the platform, now and then looking back. But. They – vanished. Poof. Um – splash!
I’ve always wanted to thank the playwright John Guare. So now, my life in hand, belatedly, I will. Thank you, Mr. Guare. Have to say it was one of my most riveting and life-threatened performances of that speech — Jack Argue’s – from Mr Guare’s one-act play, MUZEEKA. There was no round of applause, no standing ovation, but the clatter of uptown train pulling in and my quickened breath was more than enough.