It will be 100 degrees in New York today.

Living in this city, I do feel occasionally that I’m inside a 1940s black and white Hollywood studio film, especially in the neighborhood where I currently live.  Games of stickball on the street are not uncommon, and last fall a game of touch football happened just below my window on the corner of 162nd and Riverside.  I was always a bit incredulous when watching films where this happens, but I can now honestly say that it does.  When you live in an apartment building in Manhattan, the street becomes your back yard.  In the summer, people bring out lawn chairs, drink beer, and barbecue on the sidewalk.  The detail that seemed the most unlikely while I was growing up in the Midwest, however, was the open fire hydrant with kids running through it.  In the last week I have walked past at least three open hydrants, with kids running through the spray of water just like I ran through the sprinkler in my Michigan backyard twenty-five years ago.

(An open hydrant, which apparently really happens in New York, ©2008 Miller)

I walked up to Gretchen and Freddy’s apartment last night, and met Mike at the A train to help him carry the film equipment and tripod.  Yesterday it was in the 90s, and we began to sweat on our way to their place.  As we walked up the stairs, I thought to myself that I would now be sweating my way through their entire interview.  But when Gretchen opened the door a blast of cold air came from inside.  I forget sometimes that other people in the city have air conditioning.  They were our last interview, and we talked for maybe forty-five minutes in the welcome cold of their living room (though we did eventually turn off the air conditioning for sound).  During their interview, Gretchen mentioned my Universe Project, something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  Zelda Fichandler ran NYU Grad Acting while the three of us were there, and she taught a class in your first year.  Each person had to create a Universe Project, a thirty minute performance piece about your universe, whatever that might mean to you.  The only guidelines were the time limit (30 minutes), and a requirement to use a visual work of art as inspiration.  The performances were all remarkably different, some linear and some abstract, with some people telling their life story in chronological order and others offering more oblique glimpses into their lives.  Regardless of the style or format, by the end of that semester with Zelda, you knew your classmates very well.

(Freddy, Gretchen, and I at their apartment pre-interview, ©2010 Michael Heck)

The universe I shared was perhaps a bit more abstract than most.  I had created a soundscape of music to which I set a series of vignettes.  As people walked into the room, each chair had an index card with the name of a person in my life and the number of miles they lived from me.  The work of art was a Robert Rauschenberg collage that prominently features JFK and an astronaut, and at the beginning of the piece I created a collage of myself out of photocopied sections of a photograph.  A series of vignettes followed, which included a minute or so of washing my hands, a mime piece about a man with an umbrella who gets blown into the sky, and at least 30 seconds of me on a pogo stick.  I also read portions of American Pastoral and The Little Prince.  At the end, I sat down at the piano and sang a song by Death Cab for Cutie called “Transatlanticism,” the chorus of which repeats the following lyric: “I need you so much closer.”  I meant for that lyric to return attention to the index cards, my friends who are scattered across the country.

We filmed a number of shots last night for the projections that will accompany their song  (“Gretchen and Freddy Get Married Today”), and I’ll probably spend most of this incredibly hot New York day editing the footage.  Listening to Gretchen talk about my Universe Project, it took me by surprise again to see the through line that runs through what I create, the themes of distance and friendship.  And I see now that Gretchen and Freddy have been added to that stack of index cards.

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