A man goes to the coast of Miami and falls in love with the ocean front. He falls in love with the sunrises and sunsets. He takes a picture of the spot and posts it on Facebook. it sits among the hopeful quotes and sayings he has on his digital wall: “TAKE RISKS — if you win you will be happy, if you lose you will be wise,” “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up,” “Fall down seven times, get up eight”.
This man has had failures in his life but nothing big and because of that he feels like he can not actually fail in a big way. Because he believes, he decides to put all he has into building a house, right on the beach. He builds, if not a perfect home, as close to perfect as he can envision.
In July 2000 I signed a lease on a commercial building. It was a theater. After paying the initial deposit, I had $18.00 left in the checking account, major renovations to do and needed to generate $3,0000 a month to keep the building open, not to mention money to keep the lights on, the place heated (in the winter), and try to squeeze out enough to market the shows we would embark upon.
With a company of ten, I leaped in with abandon — I took out a $20,000 loan from my parents, bought a sound system, paint, tools. A member found that a local movie theater was closing it’s doors and we snagged 80 theater seats for free — seats with cup holders no less.
I can recall tearing up the floor with crowbars and a sledgehammer; painting the entire front of the building a gunmetal grey on a ladder; painting the inside a midnight blue. My girlfriend (and future ex-wife) and I moved into an apartment directly across the street.
It wasn’t perfect but it was as close to perfect as a nomad theater company could hope for. It was ours. Our clubhouse. Our stage. Our theatrical home.
And because we had a home, the ranks of the gypsy actors grew. As we produced shows that allowed us to stretch our imaginations, the open doors of our tiny home beckoned. Inside of a year, we had swelled from our original ten to 48 members and artistic associates and were regularly producing ten separate shows and twelve performances per week. We never went dark. It felt like we could not fail. There were so many creative minds at play and both the time and energy bursting forth from our tiny clubhouse that other theaters thought we were flush with cash.
In our first Spring, the three restaurants attached to the building fumigated for rodents. We didn’t have the money and our landlord refused to pay for an exterminator for the theater and all of the rats decided to join us for shows. I recall watching one of our plays and seeing in the corner of my eye a rat the size of a chihuahua run along the side of the stage and I prayed that no one in the audience saw it as well. Not having the dough to deal with them, I went and got bags of rat poison. And it worked. It killed the rats. But they crawled into the walls to die. And thus came the flies. Flies everywhere. I installed long strips of flypaper over the audience area. And then came the fleas — in the seats — as actors found themselves with bug bites after every rehearsal. I finally bought two flea bombs and closed the theater for a week as the bombs killed the fleas and I cut holes in the walls to personally extricate the rat carcasses.
In our second Winter, our HVAC unit died. It was the coldest February I can recall and actors and audience were freezing. The landlord refused to pay for a new one or even for repairs. So I bought ten electric heaters and surrounded the space with them — they hummed like short, electric monks throughout every performance. Eventually, I found the Chicago version of Harry Tuttle to replace the unit and then I haggled with one of the landlords until he agreed to pay half of the $10,000 bill. I cashed in my teacher’s pension to pay for our half.
It was a labor of love that soon took over everything else I did. I was enslaved by a building. I took no salary. Living across the street, I was on call constantly, often being required downstairs to go bounce a drunk patron during a midnight show or mop the stage because no one else would. I was just barely an artist anymore. I was a building manager keeping things functioning with nothing more than the promise that I had made to 48 people that the theater would be there for them when they showed up to create and built in inability to quit. For three years, it went this way.
The man on the beach didn’t see the storm but it came anyway. As he watched his dream house get torn apart by the overwhelming rage of nature unleashed he stood in the wind and the rain and silently watched, helplessly watched his home erased in less time than it took to fall in love with the sunset.
At this moment, the man took little comfort in his Facebook sayings. The tattoos on his body were also inspiring affirmations — “The Road is Life,” “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” At this moment, even his ink made him feel bitter and alone. He had never really failed before so how could he be to blame?
I was upstairs when I got the call. The DoR was downstairs. They wanted to see our Public Place of Amusement license. “It’s on the wall. In the nice frame.” Three minutes later, the phone rang again. There was a problem. I threw on my pants and came downstairs.
The next morning, the Sun-Times ran a short story about the DoR sweep of six or seven small, Off Loop theaters that had been shut down due to licensing violations. We were among the list. Adding insult to injury, our theater was saddled with the only full paragraph and quote, saying that our license had been forged. I called to see what they were talking about. I called my landlords who didn’t return my calls. I called the League of Chicago Theaters and was told they couldn’t help us because it was reported that we — I — had forged the license.
Outside, there was a huge red sticker on our place — CEASE AND DESIST. We were being shuttered. I spoke to an attorney and was cautioned about what I might say to the press. “Don’t piss these people off. Play nice.” I was told. So when I was interviewed for the Reader, I played nice. When I was interviewed on WBEZ, I played nice. I’m not particularly good at playing nice, at watching what I say. And it made me seem guilty. The expectation of those around me was that I wouldn’t sit still for this. That, if I were in the right, I would tear off my shirt, march down to City Hall and raise bloody fucking hell. A natural born brawler, I tried to dance the political Foxtrot.
Three of my best friends — who had stood up with me at my wedding — became convinced that I had, indeed, forged the license. That, while they were performing shows, I was out in a back alley, selling forged documents to strangers using Photoshop and a color printer so kids could get into bars and underage girls could get abortions. They started working with the landlords to transfer the lease to a member of our Board who was ALSO a member of a theater company that had also been shut down.
My books were audited. Every dime, every receipt. It was concluded that everything was kosher — that there was no malfeasance. In fact, it was this audit that uncovered the fact that I had “donated” over $35,000 of my own money over three years to keep the place afloat. But, said my friends, I was pretty clever and could have figured out how to cook the books ahead of time. In the span of a month, I had gone from the guy who made sure the stage was painted and the lights worked to a criminal mastermind. It was like Kafka.
At a meeting of the majority of the 48 members and associates of the theater, I broke down in tears. I felt trapped and maligned. The tears were hot and angry and impotent. I was failing on an epic scale and could not find a way to make things right. The Three Groomsmen had successfully negotiated the transfer of the lease to the other theater behind my back; it was up to us whether or not we wanted to try to fight it out. We didn’t because I didn’t.
The bank finally sent me a copy of the cashed check I had sent in to the landlords to pay for the license. It was proof that I had paid for the license and had no motivation to forge anything. And no one cared. “If you can forge a license, you can forge a check.” The 48 rapidly became 32. Then 24. Then 11. I was so angry and hurt that I didn’t even bother to be grateful for those who stuck by my side.
Two months later, I had to go to court to represent the company. I asked if anyone else wanted to come with me — you know — for moral support. No one did. So I sat in a court room, alone. The complaint declared that, if the judge felt compelled, the city could fine our company up to $10,000. So, I sat and waited. Watching the judge fine plaintiff after plaintiff. Child support. Unpaid parking tickets. No one ever had anyone there as witnesses against them. And then, for the first time in three hours of waiting, the right side of the room was populated. It was the five DoR agents who busted our place. I waved — figured it couldn’t hurt to be friendly. They wouldn’t even look at me. The judge called my name. I rose and heard a voice from behind me.
“Your honor. I represent the City of Chicago in this case. I’d like to have a conference with the accused if I might.”
I was escorted into a room; the five agents followed. It was explained to me that they understood that I hadn’t forged the license. That they had a copy of the check. They had established that the landlords (who owned multiple properties in Chicago) were to blame for the license. They couldn’t confirm that the license had even been forged, just that it was invalid. “So it wasn’t forged,” I pressed. “The license was not a valid license.” was all I could get out of any of them.
And they still fined us $200.00 because, according to them, we were operating our theater without a valid license. And I was required to sign a gag order preventing me from disclosing this to the press. And I fucking signed it, paid the fine, ready to trumpet to the people who had been so ready to abandon me that I was vindicated.
No one really gave a shit. The moment had been played out. The gag order was pointless because the press had moved on. The other theater took possession of the building, the landlords worked out a deal with the City, and life went on.
A decade later, I realize that I have never really told this story to almost anyone who wasn’t there. I no longer hold any animosity toward the Three Groomsmen nor any who had found such contempt for me at the time. But it still has weighed on me. I stuffed it down deep where it could taint everything else — my joy of theater, my friendships, my relationships, my approach toward any sort of social life. Every time I walk by the building, it galls me that audiences are seeing shows there in MY fucking seats and using MY cup holders.
The writing and telling of it was incredibly difficult at first — it brought up a lot of toxic memories — but it feels better getting rid of it. It was the source of so much distrust and I hadn’t really parsed out what the lessons were because “Most of your friends suck” and “You can’t fight City Hall” are lousy lessons and don’t really play well on the Facebook wall.
The lessons? Take Risks but be prepared that if it’s a big one and you lose, you might be wiser but you also might just be fucking bitter. Certainly follow your dreams, but be aware that reality sometimes decides to plant a firm kick right in your dream’s gentle testicles. And, yeah — I fell down and I’ll get up the eighth time but can I get a fucking minute, here? Each time you fall, it is actually harder to get up.
And yet I still believe in risks, in dreams, and in getting back up.
After surveying the wreckage, the man on his beach looks for a reason for his misfortune. He wants to be angry with God, but he doesn’t really believe in a God that affects the individual lives of humans. He wants to be angry at the storm, but that’s just impractical. It never occurs to him that building a house on the coast of Miami is sort of stupid to begin with, like running on a Democratic ticket in Kansas or expecting anything purchased with an 800 number is going to not suck.
He reads his Facebook sayings, he reads his body art. He failed — BIG — for the first time in his life. And he continues to breathe and move through the world and have birthdays. He gets a new tattoo every birthday. This year it will be right above the crack of his ass. It will say, in bold cursive letters “Shit Happens But HOPE Floats.”