'Plaint of the Playwright

'Plaint of the Playwright

[ Sunday, June 26, 2005 ]

I'm talking for about a minute before I realize that no one is listening.

I've managed to make it onto the Stephanie Miller show, and I'm telling her about some right-wing blog's opinion, and going on about things that I define as facism, and I ask her for her opinion, and realize that there's no sound coming out of the phone.

I look at the clock. It's 11:02. Her show ends at 11.

I ran out of time.

I hang up, and go back to making pancakes, when the phone rings again.

"Dude, what the FUCK?!?"

It's my friend Seth.

I guess you listen to the Stephanie Miller show, huh?

"Dude! I like, almost never listen, but I just turned it on and--"

Yeah, I got squeezed on in the end, there.

We chatter about politics and talk radio, and we hang up.

I go back to my pancakes.

The phone rings. I'm guessing it's another friend of mine who listens to Stephanie Miller.

It's Tara.

Hey, Tara.

"Hi, Rob. So...have you heard?"

Heard what?

"I...guess you haven't. Joel passed away last night."




"Joel passed away."






Oh, God.

Oh, man. I...


I...don't, I...oh, man.


Was it his heart?

"We don't know. Callen talked to Geri, and she told him."

I call Callen.

Callen tells me that I've caught him between crying fits. It sounds like another one's coming.

I tell Callen that I always thought Joel would outlive all of us, just for spite.

Callen laughs.

I tell Callen I feel bad because I always thought he would have made up with my friend Bob before he...


I think they would have.

"Does Bob know?"

I don't know, I just found out myself.

"Maybe you should call him."

I call Bob.

I get voicemail, so I leave a message.

I'm not leaving a "Joel is dead" message on Bob's voicemail, so I just tell him to call me back.

I don't say why.

I call Tracy.

I tell her. She sounds like she's holding it together. There's no tears yet, but they're in the mail, that's for sure. She tells me she has to call Matt.

The phone rings again.

"Rob, this is Aaron."

Oh, Hi, Aaron.

"Rob, I'm actually calling as a reporter, just so you know."

This is about Joel, right?

"Yeah. So you know?"

Yeah. He passed away last night.

"And you can confirm this?"

Well, I mean, I haven't even left the apartment. I'm still in what I slept in. Callen actually talked to Geri, and he knows more than I do. But no one really knows anything, yet.


But, I mean, it's not a joke, if that's what you're wondering.


Hey, how did you hear?

"I heard it from Debra."

And how did she hear?

"She heard it from Tracy."

Heh. That's Broom Street for you.

We talk for a little bit, we hang up, and he calls me back again:

"I'm sorry if I seemed, y'know, callous."

No, no, not at all. We're all just still in shock, and I know what deadlines are like.

I feel the back of my neck pinch as I say the word "deadline."

Aaron tells me that chances are good someone will call me for a formal interview, regarding Joel, for a larger story.

"It won't be me...I'm, uh, not comfortable interviewing friends."


The phone rings again.

It's Matt.

"Hey, what's up--I just talked to Tracy."



We joke around and talk about the one subject we know we can't talk about and the one thing everyone is thinking: What happens to Broom Street now?

The reason we can't talk about it is because it would seem ghoulish.

The reason we have to talk about it is because we just don't know.

For years, Joel always said that if he died, the theater would die with him.

Well, I tell Matt, I guess we're gonna find out.

Matt seems to be taking it well. Better than I am. Already I'm retconning my entire relationship with Joel--I'm painting his behaviour in a more positive light.

"Well," Matt says, "that's natural."

It's like, when someone dies, I guess it puts everything else they did into perspective, because when it comes down to it, the one thing someone can do to you that pisses you off the most is die on you. And most people only do that once.

Matt laughs, and then realizes he's laughing, and then admits, "I haven't accepted it yet. I know it's coming. When it does, I'm sure it's gonna hit me like a ton of bricks."

I take a shower, and the phone rings again.

It's Tara, again.

"Callen wanted to know if you had Joe's number."

I have it. I don't know if he and Jhen are back from their honeymoon.

"Did you want to call him?"

Yeah. I do.

"Callen figured he'd want to hear it from you."

Who else knows?

"Pretty much everyone."

Dude, I told, like, one person, and--"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. People are meeting here at Callen and Brian's, if you want to come over."

I tell her yeah.

I hang up.

I call.

No fanfare, no nothing, I just tell him flat out: I have bad news. Joel passed away.

There's a silence that just isn't.

Joe tells me he'll tell Jhen. We both predict that she's going to take it hard. They were very close, Joel and Jhen. Joel always liked her.

For Joel to like somebody, that meant they were better than the bestest angel. Joel thought Mother Theresa was a fucking cunt loser.

I go to Callen and Brian's.

I see all the other directors at Broom Street. We talk a little shop, we trade Joel stories, and I admit that I feel a little bad that the last thing I posted on my weblog was Joel's insane phone call to me about taking out the garbage.

"But that's JOEL," nearly everyone says.

Someone tells me to leave it up.

I have to, I tell them. That's the last message he ever left me.

Telling me to take out the trash, nagging at me.


Joel would have loved that.

Kevin Lynch from the paper calls and talks to various people, asking them for their experiences regarding Joel.

Matt's there, so he talks to him.

And, as predicted, it hits him like a ton of bricks. He shuts the door to the room he's in, it happens so fast.

Callen tells me that he finally got ahold of Bob. Bob, he tells me, is also taking it hard.

He and Joel had unfinished business, I say. It's understandable.

People talk about going to the theater and seeing the show. We all seem certain that if there isn't a show tonight, Joel would find a way to get us.

I have to go to work and can't get out of it.

I drive to work.

At work, I tell people, but no one knows Joel, and it's impossible to explain what my relationship with this man has been.

Joel Gersmann. A name often followed by the phrase "that fucker."

Joel Gersmann. A man who I strove so hard to impress once in my life.

A man who, that same year, enraged me to the point that I not only hung up on him, but slammed the phone down repeatedly on the hook until one of my roommates had to stop me.

Joel Gersmann, who directed the first play I ever see at Broom Street. A comedy called "Sexy Priests," about Catholic priests who molest children. I see it with three members of my family who happen to to be born-again Christians, and we all leave a little shell-shocked.

Joel Gersmann, whose house I used to hang out at during a time I was unemployed. We'd order pizza and watch Charlie Chan movies. Joel wants to write a play with me starring in it as Charlie Chan taking on the Japanese.

It will be called "Charlie Chan And The Rape Of Nanking."

He tries to talk me into doing it in blackface.

I don't want to do it in blackface, Joel.

"You don't want to do it in blackface? Why?"

Because I'll be killed, Joel.

"Would you rather do it in half blackface?

What does that mean?

"You know. Half your face would be blacken, and the other half would be--"

No. No. No. I don't want to do blackface, Joel.

"Okay, half-blackface it is."


Different directors deal with Joel in different ways. Joel deal with each director differently.

After a while, he and I just end up screaming at each other.

It's around here that I end up leaving the theater.

Joel calls me up one day, asking if I was planning on doing a show next year.

I tell him, honestly, no. I don't say why.

He doesn't ask and hangs up.

As I look around the video store, I realize that this is where I got the phone call from Matt that Joel wanted me to come back.


Joel Gersmann.

Right now, in the here and now, at my job at the video store, I see that it's raining.

I just got this car, and was warned that it needs a lot of work, and whatever I do, "I shouldn't drive it in the rain."

I'm sure someone tells me why.

It seemed important at the time.

But I can't remember now.

There is a break in the rain, and I race home.

Trying to beat the rain.

I have to get to the theater before everyone leaves.

Everyone's there because...well, everyone feels they should.

There are people to catch up with.

There are people who I ended things with, badly.

There are people who I lost contact with entirely.

It's important that I get there.

So important, that I decide to skip going home and go right to the theater.

So important, that when I run a red light, and hit the brakes, my car leaves the road.

My car, my body, my life, crashes through the fence and I'm in the air.

I can see the pavement rushing up to me.

Then darkness.



A light.

It gets brighter.

I walk towards it.

As I get closer, I can see that the light is coming from some object in front of me.

A white desk telephone.

I look around. Only darkness, except from this phone.

It rings.

I look around.

It rings again.

I stare at the phone.

It rings again.

I suddenly realize that I'm unconsciously screening the call. For years, when I had a machine, people knew to get me to pick up the phone by saying "I'm not Joel."

I pick up the phone.

It's Joel.

"I'm calling for Rob Matsushita."


"Is this Rob?"

Is this Joel?

As if it's not an importent question, Joel says, "Yes," dismissively.

Wait...where am I?

"Did you rememebr to take the trash out?"

Oh, god, I'm in hell.

"Oh, please."

Joel, do you have any idea how many people are mourning you right now?

"Oh, no one cares."

What? Joel--

"No, they're all glad to see me gone."

How do you know that?

"Because I've been doing this for a lot longer than you have, and--"

Doing wh--

"--people wanted to see me die. They've been hoping for it."

What are you talking about?

"Don't play dumb. You once killed me in one of your plays."

Oh, that doesn't count. That was "Irish Lesbian Vampire 2," and that was based on a scene from "Irish Lesbian Vampire." Which you wrote!

"Look, I am not prepared for this attack, and if you don't--"

This is not an attack, it's a fact--and who the fuck are you to point the finger at assassinating someone's character?!?

"What's that supposed to mean?"

What the fuck do you think it means, Joel?!? You were one nasty son of a bitch to a great many people, and I was one of them.

"Who was I ever nasty to? Name one person."

Oh, that's it.

I hang up the phone, slamming it down.

Again and again and again.

I sit on the floor, fuming.


The phone rings.

And rings.

And rings.

I pick it up, say Fuck you, and hang up.

The phone rings again.

And again.

And again.

I pick it up:


"Listen, if you keep hanging up on me, I'm not going to be able to explain to what's going on."

What is going on, Joel?

"Well, for starters, you didn't survive the crash."

I hold the phone to my chest, covering the mouthpiece, and laugh hollowly.

No fucking shit, Joel. I totally figured that out on my own.

"Well, it's your own fault for driving the car in the rain."

Some joke, eh, Steve?

Joel cackles at our private joke. I guess if I want sympathy for being dead, I'm talking to the wrong guy.

So this is...where?

"Well, you're in the Afterlife. It's different for different people."

What's it like for you?

"Well, the clothes are very comfortable, but let's face it, Heaven's going to go bankrupt pretty soon. Within the year. Everyone knows it, they're just not saying."

Uh huh.

"I mean, it's all the same old crap. Harps and halos, I get it already--where is the relevence?"

Uh huh.

"There's talk of upping the budget there, but please, no one goes to Heaven anymore."

Uh huh.

Hey, wait a minute, where are you if you're not in Heaven? Are you in hell?

"NO, I'm not in HELL," Joel says, annoyed.

Then where are you?

"You don't have to know that. So don't worry about it."



Is it nice? Where you are?

"Why do you ask?"

I'd... well, I'd just like to think it's somewhere nice.

There is a pause on the other end of the phone.

"Its okaaaaay," he says, mock tentatively.

I laugh.

So, I say, is Theatre there?

"Rob, I've told you, Theatre is dead--"


"Oh, that is so infantile," he says, laughing.

I realise, all at one, that I've been crying.

Am I going where you are?

There is a pause.

"No," he says.

Then where am I going?

"Oh, you're going back, I mean, come on."

I am? Then I survived the crash?

"There isn't going to be any crash," he tells me, but he's more yelling it. Considering that this is good news, you'd think he'd be gentler about it.

Then what--

"I've worked out something so that you're going to go back to that red light you ran."

You have?

"Yeah, so don't fuck it up. How many second chances have I already given you?"


"First you'll go back. Then you need to go straight home.

But I wanted to go to the theater--

"You can take your bike if you want to, but leave the car home."


"Don't take the car."

Yes, Joel.

"Don't drive at all."

Yes, Joel.

"Go right home."

Joel, I gotta--

"If you have to, take your bike, but--"

Joel, I gotta go.

"Yes, yes, I know."


"And Rob?"

Yes, Joel?

"Remember to take out the trash."

Thank you, Joel--



HOOOOOOOOOOONK! The guy in the car is yelling at me. I've been waiting at a green light for God knows how long.

I take a right, and then I'm home.

I bike to the theater in the rain.

But I'm too late. Everyone's gone home.

I open the theater door with my key, remembering what Joel once told me: "Remember, to unlock this door, you need a key."

Yes, he really said that.

I walk inside.

I sit on a bleacher.

Say what you will about Joel, the man was a uniter.

All of the directors may disagree on every other damn thing, but the one thing we all agreed on was that Joel was aggrivating.

Man, Joel, I say out loud, you had so many people in the world left to piss off.

I look around the empty theater, then at my watch.

The audience went home at eleven. It's now 11:32 pm.

I ran out of time.

I guess, sooner or later, we all do.

And it's up to the people left behind to figure out.

Fuck, I say to no one in particular.


I stare at the empty stage until I can't anymore, and then I go home.

posted by Rob on 2:21 AM | link



That was a very powerful post Rob. You just got me crying again! And that is absolutely a conversation that could totally take place with Joel.

Sometimes, I seriously expect my phone to ring, and for it to be Joel just one last time to spew his philosophies or remind me that, it doesn't matter that he's dead, we're still going to dinner at Three Brothers in Milwaukee (as we had planned). Because seriously, if anyone could figure out how to make a phone call from the grave, it would be Joel.

By Anonymous Tracy, at Sunday, June 26, 2005 10:33:00 AM  

that was extraordinary!...i never knew JOEL except from the phone message you posted...but you did a masterful job of taking me from there...to feeling as if i'd experienced the man myself...

By Blogger d. burr, at Sunday, June 26, 2005 7:28:00 PM  

I do have to say, it still hasn't really hit us yet. I can't stop thinking about him, and Dave and I are in kind of a depressed and zoned-out haze.

I got the call from Joe at 1:20 pm on Friday, and ironically we were on our way to Madison for Dave's folks' annual Solstice party. The whole weekend has been kind of a blur.

I met him 10 years ago next month. I did five of his shows. He always sent us obscure recordings of operas for our birthdays and anniversary. He STILL called us once a week when we moved up to Minneapolis. And one of the messages was still on the machine.

I wish I could have been at Callen and Brian's on Friday afternoon, but we did have a few minutes to stop by the theater, which I promptly had to leave because I didn't feel I could be around anyone at the time - I just couldn't bring myself to go inside.

Well, we are going to be waiting for any news of a gathering, memorial, etc., and will drive down again in a heartbeat. I'm sure someone will let us know as things come up. I'm still sitting here in a rather shady cloud of disbelief. I can't even keep track of all the people I've talked to already whose lives he touched in some way or another. It's mind-boggling.

By Anonymous Clare, at Sunday, June 26, 2005 11:28:00 PM  

Dude, I'd tell you how well written it is, but you know I love your mad pen skillz.

I'd tell you how you scared me for a second there with the car accident, but we'll call that a "Gotcha".

I'd tell you that I too though he was a cranky lout, but that'd be a lie.

I DO remember how you couldn't BELIEVE that I REALLY wanted to meet Joel on my trip to Madison. I wanted to meet this near mythic figure in the `Plaint of one playwrite.

I met Joel only once, but I wish I had known him as you all do. He was a bit odd, and his house smelled... Well, odd... But he seemed like a nice enough guy who was quite OBVIOUSLY well read.

I'm glad, Rob, that through you I had the chance to at least meet Joel.

I'm also glad you could put sometihng this powerful and poignant down on your laptop.


By Blogger Lee, at Monday, June 27, 2005 10:24:00 AM  

To say I ever "knew" Joel would be a falacy. To say I was once in awe of and terrified by him would be closer to the truth. A favorite memory was having met Joel possibly a week or two before, accompanying him, Joe et al to the White Horse Inn for cocktails 10 years ago in the midst of my extremely sheltered advance to adulthood. Conservatives in high-buttoned blouses and heavy coats, daintily munched away at their previously frozen seafood pasta entrees as Joel launched with gusto into a stomp-accompanied Nazi anthem, much to the dismay of said pasta munchers. I have deposited thoughts of the man in many places as I have grown, moved and remembered things from those formative years. Cheers to the unique and best wishes to all you old friends!!!

By Anonymous Heather Harris, at Saturday, July 02, 2005 1:29:00 AM  

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