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Abdel at the Gym

Ask anyone: Socially, I’m not at my best when I’m taking a shower.  This is mostly because I can’t see anything with my glasses off.  But I do think a lot.  And a couple days ago, while showering at the gym, I was thinking about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which originally commissioned my piece Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Some of my favorite people there have been the guards — and my favorite guard was a guy named Abdel.  He’s from Algeria, and is pretty much always smiling; when I ran into him while working on the Warhol piece — typically he stood in front of the gift shop — he invariably eased my worries.  One time I did a photo shoot at the museum in which I ran around with a Warhol wig on my head; that’s when he started calling me “Andy.”  Subsequently, he’d say stuff like, “Andy, why have you come back from the dead?”  I’d reply with something like, “I missed all you living people.”  And he would nod in agreement: that made sense to him.

I ended up putting Abdel in my piece, but wasn’t able to invite him to see it — as by the time I was performing the (relatively) finished show at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, he had left the CJM.  I heard from my pal Dan Schifrin at the CJM (another “character” in the monologue) that Abdel was now working as a guard at Alcatraz — which struck me as containing just the right amount of irony for this playful spirit.  And then, shortly before the TJT run, I actually ran into Abdel in downtown Berkeley.  He told me that he’d moved on from Alcatraz (not always easy to do!) and now had a nice desk job with Social Security (I think).  I invited him to my show, but he explained that he was about to travel back to Algeria for a few months.

So here I was, taking a shower at the Y the other day, and I heard a voice: “Josh!”  I tried peering across at the swim-trunked figure across the shower room, but he was too blurry to make out.  “It’s Abdel!” he explained.  And I thought — well, I thought a couple of things.  One is that I definitely wasn’t wearing that Warhol wig.  And the other is that is was so good to hear a friendly — and totally unexpected — voice.  (I had no idea he went to my gym.)  And, as it had generally been at the museum, the timing of my encounter with Abdel was especially welcome — in this case, because my thoughts at the gym that day had been unusually morbid, even for me.  Earlier I’d heard that someone (a woman, apparently) had committed suicide at the gym, in one of the bathrooms; she had hanged herself.  And without meaning to, during my subsequent liftings and groanings and sweatings I’d found myself thinking dark thoughts of mortality.  While stretching in front of a mirror, I had one of those occasional moments when the finiteness of my life, and of my loved ones’, vibrated out of the background blur and snapped firmly into position before my eyes.  And all those things I haven’t done that I should do, they relaxed for a while, knowing that I’d taken one of my rare breaks from my preoccupation with them to attend to other matters.

By the time I was showering, I probably had things pretty much under control — it’s helpful not to be able to see the world, for a while — but when Abdel spoke, he made a connection.  And this connection instantly pulled me out of myself — well, at least part-way.  He told me he was back from Algeria; and I told him the run had gone well.  And the morbid beast who’d been stretching a few minutes earlier was now merely a blind and clumsy animal with a nice little story to tell when he got home.