David Rackoff on Rent

Thursday, November 01, 2012

David later wrote about this for a show that we performed at Town Hall in New York City for the fifth anniversary of our program. He said assistants like him did the same work as the professional secretaries but got paid a lot less, with the thought that they were climbing the ladder to real publishing jobs. He said they were miserable. They hated the work. They resented the menial tasks they had to do. And they drank-- a lot.

Our drunkenness was two-fold. First, there was the liquor. But there was also the intoxication brought on by the self-aggrandizing conviction that we happy few, we cheery booze hounds, were the new incarnations of that most mythic bunch of souses, the Algonquin Round Table. This pipe dream sustained not just us, but I suspect countless other tables of publishing menials all over town.

So desperate were we to assume the mantles of Parker, Benchley, and their ilk, that we weren't going to let some silly thing like a dearth of wit or the complete absence of a body of work on any of our parts deter us. With enough four dollar drinks sloshing through our veins, even the most dunder-headed schoolyard japery qualified as coruscating repartee. "What do you want," a riposte might begin, "a medal or a chest to pin it on? Oh, touche," we cried merrily as we clutched our martinis.


Paying the bill, we stumbled out into the street and back to our apartments, where we spent the rest of the night jealously reading the manuscripts of those who actually wrote and didn't just drink about it.

This period in David's life pops up in other things that he wrote. For years, I've had this recording of him on my computer at work reading another essay on stage about his 20s. And now and then, we've actually considered it for this theme or that theme on the radio show. And it's one of those stories that never ended up on the air, I think, mostly because the beginning of the essay is about the Broadway musical Rent. You remember Rent?


OK, so Rent closed years ago, right? And so it was hard to put on the air this piece, because it just seemed weird to pick a fight with a hit Broadway show that had closed and nobody was talking about anymore anyway. But it's this great piece of writing, and one of my favorite recordings of David.

A warning to our podcast and streaming audiences-- on the radio, we beep a few words and actually eliminate a sentence or two that here on the internet, we are not going to beep and that we are going to restore, so some of this might be the kind of thing you don't want your children to hear.

David Rakoff
There are 525,600 minutes in a year.


I learned that from watching Rent.


From watching Rent, I also learned that the best way to mark the passing of these 525,600 minutes would be to measure them out into something Jonathan Larson, the writer of the musical, called seasons of love. What does that even mean, seasons of love? In Rent, the characters live out their seasons of love in huge lofts. Some of them have AIDS, which is, coincidentally, also the name of the dreaded global pandemic that is still raging and has killed millions of people worldwide. In Rent, however, AIDS seems to be a disease that renders one cuter and cuter.


The characters are artists, creative types. They have tattered a million clothes. Some of them are homosexual, and the ones who aren't homosexual don't even seem to mind. They screen their calls, and when it is their parents, they roll their eyes. They hate their parents. They're never going back to Larchmont, no way. They will stay here, living in their 2,000 square feet of picturesque poverty, being sexually free and creative.

Here's some ways to broadcast creativity in a movie. Start plinking out a tune on a piano, scratch a few notes on some music paper, plink some more, suddenly crash both hands down on the keyboard then bring them quickly up to your head and grab the hair at your temples, screaming, "It won't work!" Or sit at a typewriter, reading the page you've just written, realize that it's s***, and tear it from the platen and toss it behind you. Cut to waste paper basket overflowing with crumpled paper.

Here's what they do in Rent to show that they are creative-- nothing! They do nothing!


They hang out. And hanging out can be marvelous, but hanging out does not make you an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make you an artist. Neither do a hair trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV. I hate to say it. None of these can make you an artist. They can help. But just as being gay does not make one witty, -- it does not make you Oscar Wilde. Believe me, I know. I've tried.


The only thing that makes you an artist is making art, and that takes the opposite of hanging out. So when they sing the anthem of the show, that's a lie, really. Every song in the show is an anthem delivered with adolescent earnestness. It's like being trapped in the pages of a teenager's diary. So when they think the title anthem of the show, "We're Not Going to Pay This Year's Rent," followed by a kind of barked cheer of "rent, rent, rent, rent, rent, rent, rent," my only question is, well, why aren't you going to pay this year's rent?

It seems that they're not going to pay this year's rent, because rent is for losers and non-creative types. Rent is for suits. By contrast, they are the last bastion of artistic purity. They have not sold out. And yet their brilliance goes unacknowledged, so f you, yuppie scum.

I know what it's like to feel angry and ignored. I lived in Brooklyn a long time ago about a block away from a prison. During the day, the neighborhood bustled with lawyers, judges, criminals, bail bondsman, private detectives. I lived on a block in a little two-story building that once been a couch house in the 19th century. And the basement had a red dirt floor. On the ground floor below me was an office that did-- what, exactly, resumes? I can't remember.

What I do remember is the man whose office it was. Raul was knee-bucklingly handsome. If my life had been different, like-- I don't know-- if I were a hot girl with a driver's license, I could have put on a tube top and gone outside to wash my car in slow motion or something. But, alas.

Once during the day-- it must've been the weekend, because I was at home-- I could hear Raul having sex in the office downstairs. I skittered around my apartment like a cockroach on a frying pan trying not to make any noise while desperately looking for a knot hole in the crappy floorboards. Eventually, I just lay down flat against the tile of the kitchen floor, listening.

Lying flat against the tile of my kitchen floor, listening to someone else have sex is essentially my 20s in a nutshell. I was robbed in that neighborhood twice. And there were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here's something that I did do. I paid my f****** rent.
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