Brother Theodore is Dead

by

01/20/2002

140 w 13th Street 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

Brother Theodore astonishes David Letterman

Brother Theodore was always a ghost to me. When I returned to Manhattan in the early 1990s, Theodore was a specter haunting downtown. His one-man show, terrible and comic all at once, was still running on 13th Street, and posters boosting the show were everywhere. I saw them at the buildings at the New School For Social Research (dead, reborn as New School University), fluttering on lamp posts like wounded birds, shoved into Learning Annex and New York Press newsboxes, and slid under the door of my creaky railroad apartment on West 12th Street. He looked young in the posters, or the cartoonish profile of him did – he was half Charles Addams’ Lurch, half Hanna Barbara’s Magilla Gorilla. He was firmament and ephemera both, like the old dead bastards named Astor and Varick and Stuyvesant who pollute this city, like the vanished Indian trials that still make us veer west off Broadway. Everyone knew the Brother Theodore phenomenon, but nobody spoke about it, much the same way nobody spoke of Peter Stuyvesant even as they trampled upon and puked on the boundary of his old farm – The Bowery.

I finally saw the show, one of the final performances. Theodore was shorter than I expected, and much older too. I hadn’t realized that the Holocaust survivor thing wasn’t a gimmick, I hadn’t realized that Theodore wasn’t a character playing by some pot-bellied trustfundian with a day job busing tables at Time Cafe. I was too young for Mike Douglas, and could never bear to sit through Letterman. I saw The ‘Burbs and even the animated The Last Unicorn, but never connected name to voice or to face.

Theodore was dead then too, when he had his show. He was animated by cthonic forces, by the black ooze under Manhattan that takes care of its own. But he was damn funny, and he challenged the audience constantly. How dare we laugh at his pain, at all our pain, but we sure as hell shouldn’t cry of whimper. My laughter was the nervous titter of someone absolutely sure that cemeteries aren’t haunted or scary or dangerous. But Theodore led us out of the darkness again, by the end, and left to think about life and death. Dance till your legs rot off.

I wanted to see the show again, but nobody would come with me, and I didn’t want to be one of those weirdoes who attended the show alone, over and over. Eventually, it closed, and Theodore faded into history. He was dead I thought, as dead as the mice I trapped with glue and flung against walls in my Rivington Street slum, as dead as my friend Jay (from smack), as dead as my career plans to take the world of independent motion pictures by storm. I found myself on Long Island, writing term papers for wealthy, but stupid college students, and then in Jersey City, doing the same.

Richard Metzger reintroduced me to Theodore. I had just volunteered myself as a writer for Disinfo.com, and Richard invited me to cross the Hudson (but not in the form of a beautiful swan, the way Theodore himself did, every day, at 2PM) and come out to lunch. He was a friend of Theodore’s, who was inexplicably still alive, but in constant pain and unable to leave his apartment. I could interview him, Richard said, and give the old man a little company to break up the monotony of his life. Theodore was going deaf, he couldn’t watch television. He couldn’t visit with his friends, who were all much younger than him (even his girlfriend was half his age, in her 40s), and he couldn’t even fall asleep without pain.

So I went. Theodore was hilarious as long as I sat on his right side, where he could still hear me. Sharp as a whip. Strong as a suspension bridge, even in his 90s. His arms were like tensile steel wrapped in a netting of pork fat. Whatever dark trades he had made earlier in his life offered him some vitality to go along with the imprisonment and pain of his final days. I couldn’t interview him with Richard there though, he said, I’d have to come back. He’d get another evening of company out of me that way, but I was glad to do it, deadlines be damned.

So I went back. It took him two minutes to walk across his efficiency apartment to answer the door. He smiled a crooked, gaping head wound smile, and invited me in. He told me everything. How Einstein visited him home as a child, and how the scientist answered profound dinnertime questions about God and the nature of the cosmos with “How the hell would I know?” Young Theodore played chess with Einstein during that time. “He was a very mediocre chess player,” Theodore told me, “much like yourself.”

Theodore used to hustle chess in the park. He was a member of a local club when in his prime, and regularly lost money to the Grandmasters when depressed (Grandmasters only play for money) but collected pieces and pawns like stamps otherwise. I am a good enough player to know how bad I am. The one-move-at-a-time ducks were easy pickins’, but anyone who thinks more than three moves ahead gets my queen in no time. Thus, I never played with anyone – there would be no point to it, since I would either win easily or lose utterly. I played the computer though, time and again, and erased my games afterwards, just in case Deep Blue gained sentience and hacked into my box for a larf. But I played Theodore, because there are things one does for old men that one does for nobody else.

Theodore was still an excellent chess player, but his brain was dying. He had a great number of opening moves, but senility and pain kept his head out of the game. We drew a few, he won a few, I won once. I think he let me, to keep me interested, to keep me coming back.

He asked me about me. I told him that I used to live with a woman who was also in constant pain, thanks to childhood sexual and physical abuse. He wept, saying that he couldn’t bear to feel sorry for himself and his situation when there are young people whose bodies were broken in the same way his was after nearly a century of living. This, from a man who faced Dachau. I wanted to hug him, but I felt I’d break him.

I visited him a couple of times after that as well, for chess and takeout food. He grew more distant, as his personality began to collapse into senility, senility exacerbated by constant agony (try to think and be witty with your limbs in thick vices) and near-complete deafness. He called me a few times, to ask about his appearance on Disinfo’s tv show. Was he still funny? Yes. Compelling? Yes. Did the audience at Disinfo Con like his little video? They loved it. Would he get his $800? Beats me, I told him, I just write about George W. Bush and people who like to fuck stuffed animals for Disinfo, I have nothing to do with the tv show or the money. He told me I speak too fast (I do) and that I shouldn’t torture him by rambling on the phone when he wants to speak with me (I’m sorry).

On my 28th birthday, which I spent alone in the former crackhouse I had recently bought, he called me again. He was very far gone. Theodore couldn’t remember my name, but he somehow remembered that February 20th was my birth date. He knew that I was a friend of Richard’s (sure) a playwright (not) and “devastatingly handsome” (…uhm). Would I come and see him again soon? Yes, maybe. Did we play chess once? We did, a number of times. Was I that terrible player he kept beating? Oh yes.

I never saw Theodore after that. I couldn’t bear it. My visits with him were draining, like watching 3000 thousand years worth of crumbling pyramids in an instant. I tried to keep track of him, from afar. He had an advice for the lovelorn column for Mean Magazine. That meant that somebody must be visiting him, to read him letters and record his responses, right? Good, good. I asked Richard for Theodore’s number again, in April of 2000, but never called it.

I even thought about writing this appreciation, even though I barely knew Theodore (and I thought about writing this parenthetical comment, to explain that I thought about writing that I thought about writing this appreciation (and this one as well (and this one, on and on, into the dark pit of nothingness at the center of existence))) and didn’t know much about his life, other than what he told me.

He told me that Gil Hodges’ widow often saw Gil’s ghost, and that he hoped people had breasts and buttocks and cocks in heaven. He distrusted his senses and their limitations, even before they began to betray them. Once, he saw Woody Allen on tv, in some film he couldn’t remember, and saw the most exquisite moment of acting at Allen’s character looked on at a wedding he wasn’t a part of. A look, not a pose or an expression, captured the essence of experience in a way that no other actor he could. Theodore didn’t like his role in The Last Unicorn, because he couldn’t be himself. He didn’t hope to die on stage, but he wouldn’t have minded if that’s how it happened. He never voted, except in Screen Actors’ Guild elections. He hoped that one day someone would do something with a short film in the German Expressionist style he had made 45 years ago, Midnight Café. And he was disappointed that I didn’t share his enthusiasm for dancing till one’s legs rotted off, for truly living only when one was mere steps from the mouth of the grave.

I was disappointed in myself too, I still am, for not seeing Theodore more often, for not wanting a larger share of the dead heat of his collapsing dwarf star, for not thinking and joking and firing my synapses till they collapsed into gray jelly in a cold skull. I deleted the chess game from my computer, and emptied the recycle bin tonight. I’ll never play chess again.

April 16th, 2001.

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