First published in the
New York Times Magazine
March 21, 2004
Still Seeking Spalding
By Hugo Perez
If you read enough detective fiction, you are repeatedly
told that people often return to the scene of the crime. I
am not a criminal but guilt did compel me to return to the
Staten Island ferry. I felt that I should have sensed that
something was off on the night I met Spalding Gray, the
night he disappeared. When I heard three days later that he
was missing, I had called the police; I had done the things
one should do, but it did not seem like enough. I knew that
nothing would come of riding the ferry again but in some
small, deluded way, I thought there was a chance I would
find him still riding the ferry back and forth, riding and
waiting for someone to recognize him and take him home. In
the little fantasy that was running through my head, I
would find him standing at the back of the ferry and this
time I would say, ''Spalding, let me take you home.''
As the sun was setting, I hopped the subway down to Bowling
Green. At the ferry terminal, I scanned the gathered
commuters for that distinct mane of silver hair. Nothing. I
boarded the ferry and walked back and forth on all three
decks as the ferry pulled away from Manhattan. No Spalding.
It was another cold night and I was alone on the back deck
as the city receded. It felt as if the darkness were
swallowing the world bit by bit. The constellation of
Manhattan lights became denser and denser. It was a lovely
view and it was easy to imagine how he could have stepped
over the back railing and into the welcoming darkness.
On that other evening, the bitterly cold evening that Gray
went missing, my girlfriend Betsy and I rode the 7 p.m.
ferry with a group of expatriate German filmmakers to a
documentary screening at the Staten Island Institute for
Arts and Sciences. Halfway through the ride, after risking
frostbite on the forward bow, I walked hand in hand with
Betsy down the length of the center deck. Betsy tugged my
sleeve and said, ''That man that walked by us. . . . I
think it's Spalding Gray.'' I turned and looked over my
shoulder at the tall slouching figure walking away from us
and replied, ''Yeah. That is absolutely Spalding Gray. It's
cool that he rides the ferry, huh?'' And I thought to
myself, this is why I live in New York, to cross paths with
A little while later Betsy and I stood just inside the
doors that led outside to the railing. A rope stretched
across the doors to keep us from walking onto the back
deck. We stared out at the city receding into the distance,
our faces almost pressed up against the glass. We noticed a
familiar stooped figure by the other end of the doors. I
can't be sure that Gray saw us looking at him or suspected
that we recognized him, but he walked over to us. There was
a dazed look in his eyes, or in retrospect maybe it was a
questioning look. When he walked up to us, maybe he wanted
to be recognized. Maybe he wanted to hear his name.
He pointed at the rope that stretched across the back doors
of the ferry, the rope meant to keep people from walking
perilously close to the back railing of the boat, and
asked, ''Do you know why they put that rope there? It
wasn't there when I rode the ferry earlier.'' An odd
question, but then I thought, he's Spalding Gray.
''I'm not sure,'' I answered.
''Why? Is the view better out there?'' Betsy asked.
''There's a great view of the city from out there,'' he
At this point, I was tempted to confess that we had
recognized him and to say that “Swimming to
Cambodia” was brilliant, that it couldn’t be
more relevant today, and to ask what he was working on.
Something kept me from playing the part of the fan. This
was a man who thought about the details of the world, who
created works wonderful and moving and strange out of his
every day experiences. I didn't want to intrude upon his
journey. I didn't want to be like the unwanted visitor who
disrupted Coleridge 37 lines in writing ''Kublai
Khan” and prevented it from being finished.
But that is precisely what I did. ''The Staten Island Ferry
is the best deal in town,'' I said. Pretty banal but that's
what came out. Sometimes you say things to fill the
silence. A moment later he walked away without word.
I grew up watching movies that taught you to believe that
if you tried hard enough everyone could be saved. I grew up
reading books that told you that you would be able to
understand why people acted the way they did. I wanted this
to be the kind of story where everyone is saved, or at the
very least where I understood the why.
Spalding Gray's body was found in the East River yesterday
after two months. I know how the story ends now, but not
the why. I had hoped that Spalding would reappear at some
point to tell the story of his disappearance on stage, even
though in my heart I knew that would not happen. The look
in his eyes that night was not the look of someone who was
on the verge of taking a header off the back of the ferry,
but the look of someone on a journey to find an answer.
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