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Lunch With Spalding Gray

The Monologuist/Actor Returns to the City of '35-mph Consciousness,' Glad for the Sunlight but Anxious About Its Toll on His Psyche.

June 09, 2002|E.D. MAYTUM

Spalding Gray feels regret.

He says this on a breezy spring afternoon while having lunch outside Figtree's Cafe at Venice Beach. Gray, the 61-year-old actor and monologuist, has come to Los Angeles to perform and, as always, he is drawn to the sea because it relaxes him and provides an opportunity to walk rather than drive. He prefers a pedestrian perspective. In Los Angeles, he once said, the mind-set is a "35-mph consciousness," meaning that Angelenos couldn't properly register anything not moving that fast. He voiced this observation a dozen years ago in his "Monster in a Box" monologue while artist-in-residence at the Mark Taper Forum.

Many of the performers providing the backdrop to our conversation on the Venice boardwalk have been here for years, he notes. Hari, the Kundalini yogi-attired, guitar-playing roller-blader, remains a moving fixture on this concrete. The boardwalk reminds Gray of his beloved Washington Square Park in New York City. In a strange bicoastal exchange, he recounts how he was surprised to discover that a flame-swallowing performer, appropriately called The Fireman, disappeared from the Village for months only to resurface on the Venice boardwalk during Gray's residence in Southern California in the late 1980s.

Gray grew up in coastal Rhode Island and now lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island, so it comes as little surprise that the sand and waves provide an antidote to the anxiety that runs through his life and work. This anxiety seems particularly acute since last summer, when he was involved in a near-fatal car crash in Ireland. Gray's wife, Kathie, was driving him and a group of friends home after dinner when their car was struck by a veterinarian assistant's van in the rural area of Westmeath, west of Dublin. Gray suffered a fractured skull, broken hip and nerve damage to his leg. While he usually has difficulty offering anyone advice, he would recommend that people always wear their seat belts.

"It's strange, but this one time I didn't use it," he says. "I always use the seat belt in the back of taxis in New York." Gray was riding in the back seat and received injuries far more severe than the other occupants. "I'm going through this strong period of regret now. I'm worried that some unconscious part is doing it to myself, is demolishing my happiness. And the accident was something that was on some level carelessness in the sense of me not wearing my seat belt. So I regret that. I can't get to a place where I'm angry at the man who hit me because I'm still blaming myself."

Gray was taken to a country hospital. "Where were all the Irish doctors?" he wondered as his Pakistani doctors suggested that he remain in traction for six weeks and administered morphine. As the drugs waned and the intense pain returned, Gray agonized over the right word for what he might be feeling. Depression seemed too run-of-the-mill, so he mentioned to the nurse that he might be feeling, using a polite Yankee term, "a bit blue."

"Why would you be blue, Mr. Gray?" the nurse replied. "You Americans are too health conscious. An Irishman wouldn't give it a second thought that he's had this accident."

Gray remembers the hospital being full of Irishmen who seemed to have been in car accidents. He also recalls that they were fond of talking on their cellular phones all day long. It was not an easy place to rest and recuperate. His attempts at getting some healthier food than the institutional fare proved too much for the nurse. One day she walked in while Gray was having some greens that someone had brought him as a snack.

"Eating spinach out of a bag?" she exclaimed. "Now I've really seen it all!"

"My other bit of advice," Gray confides, "is that you should travel with an American Express Platinum Card that pays for you to medevac out of a foreign country if you're injured."

No doubt culture shock is a strange sensation for a man who has traveled to the ends of the earth to discover who he is and where he's from. When Gray first managed a proper vacation, his mother committed suicide. While she permeates much of his work, and often informs his sense of regret, the master of primal narcissistic nonfiction tried to write a novel from the most painful part of his origins. Published in 1992, it is called "Impossible Vacation."

"Steven Soderbergh said my character in his film ['Gray's Anatomy,' 1996] was ruled by regret. It's frightening because he had read 'Impossible Vacation' and said that the character in that was ruled by regret.

"The problem with regret is that it keeps you from living in the present."

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