Not everyone here in Atlanta is pleased with the weather--which is cold, grey, and windy--not very Hotlanta at all. But after two days in muggy New Orleans, I am finding it rather refreshing. It took me a whole day to drive across Texas, but less than seven hours to traverse Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, into Georgia. I wish I had had more time to stop at some of the places that were beckoning to me--the Tuskegee Airmen Museum in particular--but I had a dinner date with an old friend on Monday night that I wasn't about to miss.
A few hours after I arrived that evening--miraculously avoiding any rush hour traffic--I met Mitchell Anderson at his wonderful Atlanta restaurant, Metrofresh. Mitchell and I have known each other since my freshman year at college--over 33 years. We acted together in many plays and took our fair share of theatre classes together. Mitchell even kept his canoe in the old chicken coop I called my home during my last two years of college--the same canoe that we used for an incredibly misguided production of The Frogs in the Williams swimming pool. Here we both are in a wonderful production of Twelfth Night with costumes inspired by cinematic icons. Mitchell (on the divan) played a Valentino-esque Orsino, and I (on top of the box) played both Feste and Fabian (a puppet that I spoke) as an androgynous Humphrey Bogart.
One of the things I loved most about Mitchell in college was that he seemed to have avoided all of the deadly earnest theatrical pretentiousness that the rest of us (me in particular) were trying so hard to exude. While we were all smoking too many cigarettes and deconstructing Brecht, Mitchell just kept getting cast in plays, creating deep and lasting friendships with genuinely nice people, and enjoying life to the fullest. I wanted to believe that to be an "actor", you had to move through the world like an Expressionist painting--dark and full of jagged edges and torment--because that meant your life had meaning and substance. But really, I was just masking my massive insecurities. I wanted to believe that Mitchell's joy-filled approach to life couldn't possibly succeed, and yet I loved it and him right away--because who, even the most angst-driven college students, isn't amazed by joy?
After college, Mitchell went on to study at Julliard and then to have a successful stage, film, and television career in New York and LA--which is where our paths crossed after college when we ran into one another standing in line for a movie. For the next five years, we were like family--to the point that Mitchell was one of the men Roddy McDowall came to call "The Angels", who helped take care of my dad at the end of his life. Mitchell came over once or twice a week to cook my dad dinner, help him to bed, and spend time with him. Last night he told me that one of his most cherished memories was watching Auntie Mame on TV with my dad. Picturing the two of them laughing through the gorgeously designed and perfectly portrayed high camp of Auntie Mame (starring Rosalind Russell and my stepmother, Coral Browne, as her best friend Vera Charles) makes me grin!
One of my most cherished memories is captured in the photograph below, which was taken on my dad's 82nd (and last) birthday. The picture was taken by Paul Brown, another of The Angels, whom my dad had insisted should capture the moment because of Paul's dubious photographic abilities--which he discovered when Paul brought over some photographs he had taken of his Standard Poodle. Since we had raised Standard Poodles, my dad was eager to see Paul's. What he saw instead was an out-of-focus brown curly mop of hair in the foreground and a bookshelf far in the distance in which every spine of every book was completely legible. My father found this hilarious, and thought that Paul should take his birthday picture. The prospect of all of us showing up as blurred blobs while the Sioux teepee liner behind us gleamed in perfect relief seemed so hilarious to us that we all burst out laughing. Meanwhile Paul, as it all turned out, managed to take one of my favorite photographs in the world.
The people in this picture were my family during my late twenties and early thirties, but except for Paul (the photographer), Mitchell, and I, none of them are still alive. One of the gifts of our evening together was that Mitchell and I were able to talk about them (their beauty, humor and their demons), remembering them in all their complexity--really feeling the sadness of what they were not able to be or become as well as the joy at having known them.
I told Mitchell a story he had never heard--a story that I shared at Cyn's memorial service four years ago. Cyn, Jim (both in the white tshirts) and I worked together in a job that allowed us to make good money in the mornings so we could have our afternoons to do our creative work--writing for Jim and me, and acting for Cyn. There was a point in my life when Jim and Cyn probably knew me better than anyone in the world. And one of the things they knew was how much I hated to be the center of attention in public. I was the kind of self-consciously shy person who wanted to crawl under the table when someone sang me Happy Birthday at a restaurant, let alone if a violinist came over to serenade me. But instead of that knowledge prompting sympathy or support, they used to take the piss every chance they could.
One day, the three of us went to get a pita sandwich at a Lebanese deli on Ventura. Some song came on the radio, I canʼt even remember what it was now, and Cyn and Jim looked at one another, looked at me. . .stepped into each others' arms and started to dance. At first, mortifying me in front of a restaurant of strangers was their whole purpose. I stood, glued to the wall wishing I could disappear, while the two of them waltzed away while grinning wickedly at me. But as the music went on, something happened, and the two of them forgot about me, forgot that they were in a fluorescent-lit deli, and they just danced and danced. . . for the whole song. And despite my HUGE embarrassment, I knew it was one of those perfect moments. And now that theyʼre both gone, thatʼs what I picture--Cyn and Jim dancing away somewhere transported by the perfect joy of a perfect moment--loving life to the fullest.
Talking about Cyn and Jim and the course of our lives the other night with Mitchell turned out to be one of my life's perfect moments. We talked about everything--life, death, addiction, relationships, fear, love--taking stock of how we both gotten to exactly where we are now. When Mitchell left LA to move to Atlanta, he left behind a very successful acting career and became a restauranteur. I knew he could cook--he had prepared wonderful meals on his evenings with my dad--but I hadn't known it was such a passion. Mitchell spoke so movingly about his love of cooking--and how, for him, it is a way of connecting with people in a simple and meaningful way. To him, his restaurant is his stage--and just as in college, that stage is not about ego, but rather about communication and connection. What Mitchell did so well back then (loving the theatre as a means of connecting with an audience through song, language, emotion), he is doing in exactly the same way at Metrofresh.
His food is simple, fresh and delicious. Having eaten at Metrofresh on my last trip to Atlanta, I can't tell you how eager I was to eat there after the pure debauchery of NOLA cuisine. A simple salad of greens, goat cheese and strawberries, followed by a perfectly-cooked piece of salmon with asparagus was pure heaven!
Mitchell has expanded Metrofresh by taking over the space next door, and the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His patrons have been loyal to him for eight years, and he has watched kids grow up and couples grow older. He knows them by name, knows what they love to eat, and connects with them very personally through his food, his blog, and his joy-filled presence at the restaurant. Just as he has done in college, in New York, and in LA, Mitchell has found his place and a way to share his passion for living here in Atlanta at Metrofresh.
As our evening drew to a close, we made plans to collaborate on a fun event together here in Atlanta in the fall. My business partners and I will be launching a Vincent Price wine collection, and Mitchell and I began scheming to have a wine tasting and give a talk together at Metrofresh--as well as to hold a Vincent Price screening at the indie theatre next door. But the real fun of it was the idea of "being on stage" again together--just this time not as actors, rather as two people dedicated to creating joy-filled lives and giving back to our communities.
After my evening with Mitchell, I woke up Tuesday morning completely energized for my day with the Interior Design department at Atlanta campus of SCAD--the Savannah College of Art and Design. I have had a wonderful relationship with SCAD over the years, and I was looking forward to an infusion of creative passion that I always experience at SCAD. I was not disappointed. My day was spent with students of all ages, levels, and nationalities. I visited six classes and shared two meals with students--and I enjoyed every minute of it.
SCAD does a wonderful job of giving their students real-life experience. In one of the classes, they were working on the renovation of the backstage areas for the historic Fox Theatre here in Atlanta. Listening to their creative approaches to reflect the architectural history (wonderfully ornate late 1920s Moorish design) and the theatrical history (entertainers from Bob Hope to Chelsea Handler (wow! there's a comedic continuum), Lynard Skynard to Liberace (another good one!). Incorporating vintage elements such as the mahogany star's vanity (signed by countless celebrities over the decades) and upgrading the rooms to reflect a modern elegance, these students had come up with amazingly creative ideas for their project.
My favorite part of visiting SCAD is always the students. They are eager, excited, creative, and joy-filled, clearly enjoying their education process. Our evening ended with a dinner with some of the more advanced students--hailing from India, China, Saudi Arabia, the Caribbean, and the United States--and their questions and observations were incredible. They made me think and they inspired me. One student, who was in many of the classes I visited, responded to a question I always ask with a question of her own. In all the years I have asked this question, no one had ever thought of this.
The question is: If you were allowed only four senses instead of five to live with, which one would you choose to give up? I love asking that question, because people's answers tell me a great deal about who they are and what they value in the world. This student named Xing wouldn't answer until I clarified the question. "Are we born with five senses and have to give one up, or do we only get four at birth?" Good question! In my game, you have to give one up. I loved her answer. "Well," she said, "then I would give up sight." At which point, everyone exclaimed at the foolishness of a designer giving up their sense of sight. "But," she replied, "what if I've relied on sight too much--and by giving it up the rest of my senses became heightened. What if they made me a better designer, a different kind of designer? I think I'd like to try that." It was a brave answer, and one that gave me a lot of hope for the generation to come--which is usually what I leave feeling after a visit to SCAD.
Today I leave for the Northeast. I'm not sure where I'll end up tonight, but I hope that for some of my journey I venture off the path more traveled and have a few adventures! In the meantime, I can reflect with gratitude on all of the opportunities this trip is bringing--to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, to reflect on the education of my life and to participate in the education of others, and mostly--as has become my theme--to do what I always do when I travel: To remember to live my life with joy, generosity, and an open heart and mind.
See you down the road!