Unwriting My Story

Debbie Hemley
Feb 4, 2015 · 8 min read

A few weeks ago I re-watched “Made in America” the final episode of The Sopranos, a TV show I hadn’t seen during the six year run, but managed to view in entirety during the winter of 2011. The first time I saw the episode, I was left hanging, not sure how to interpret the ending, and hoped for a Sopranos reunion or full-length movie to continue the story that felt incomplete. When actor, James Gandolfini, who so masterfully played the role of Mafia crime boss, Tony Soprano, passed away in June 2013, I mourned the loss of the actor, his character and any chance that the story would live on.

It was while watching the episode a second time that I was swept-up by an old favorite Dylan song that plays as foreground music in a scene with Tony’s son, AJ, and his girlfriend. I couldn’t remember the song’s title and did what I often do in those situations — reached for my iPhone and tapped on the app, Shazam. In seconds the words, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” appeared on the phone’s screen.

In the following days I listened to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” over and over again. The seven minute and thirty second song multiplied by so many times that I lost count, equals a whole lot of time. There was something about the tone of Dylan’s voice, the imagery and rhymes in the lyrics combined with a tune that made the song stick. Ultimately, the music triggered a memory. Something I hadn’t thought of since the mid-1960s, when I was a kid growing up in New York.

It was a hot summer night, the kind where people mingle outside after dinner making idle conversation. In the huddle in front of my house — above the chirping of crickets, and the roar of planes taking off and landing at JFK Airport — neighborhood men strained their ears to hear every word our next-door neighbor said. He confided to as many who would gather ‘round that Bob Dylan and his girlfriend had shown up unexpectedly at the nearby synagogue asking to see the rabbi. The rabbi was said to have met with the couple for a few hours and already there were many rumored speculations flying around regarding the reason for the sudden visit: Dylan was in a spiritual crisis; he was strung-out on drugs; his girlfriend was pregnant. My dad proceeded to tell all this to my mom, my sister and then me. And like a good old-fashioned game of telephone, I imagine the story was whispered on to the next listeners, the ones after and then passed along to a line of countless people.

All these years later, I was curious about which one of the scenarios brought Dylan to reach-out to a rabbi, and what influence the meeting might have had on his life and music. With no information other than a sketchy memory, I started to plot out a short story I wanted to write about Dylan meeting with a rabbi in his study, and a female protagonist, a young receptionist named Maggie, the only person other than the rabbi, who would have been privy to information about the visit. Her life, along with Dylan’s, would be changed by the serendipitous encounter. In the story I started to write, Maggie was looking back and forth on her life.

As I tried to construct the character in her early years — I imagined a tall, blonde, politically active, literary woman — and realized I was picturing my eighth grade English teacher who introduced me to beat poetry and gave me a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghtetti. Her name completely escapes me but my memories of her, including that she had been fired for distributing leaflets about an anti-war march, helped provide a great composite sketch for developing the protagonist.

The thoughts energized me. I went to the library in pursuit of books about Dylan, of which there were many. I came home with a large pile under my arm. Over the next three days I devoured two books about the singer/songwriter and his early days in the Village, as well as a book written by Suze Rotolo, who had been Dylan’s girlfriend for four years before he allegedly left her for Joan Baez.

My fictional story was growing. My research seemed to be paying off. I had the names of clubs where they hung out and Dylan played music, Bob and Suze’s address, artist friends and wonderful rich details about books they were reading and people who inspired them. Encouraged I kept moving along. Until, a nagging feeling that something was amiss stopped me in my tracks.

Could I use Dylan’s name? Could I reveal his covert visit with a rabbi that was a topic of neighborhood gossip and took place over forty years ago? Is there a possibility that the story had been a figment of someone’s imagination back then? The conflict was growing. I could change the name but Dylan was what triggered the whole thing in the first place and it was much more interesting to me than coming up with a fictional name picked by combining first and last names from a page in today’s newspaper.

During my hours of ethical questioning, I received a text from my daughter, Emma. “Philip Seymour Hoffman died….”

I gasped as I read the words. “OMG how,” I texted back.

“I think drug overdose.”

I googled the actor’s name and opened the first article in the search results that stated, “Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose — with a needle still stuck in his arm.”

I texted, “Yes just looked it up. That’s what the report said. I’m stunned. ”

Weeks earlier my husband, daughter and I spent a few nights in Manhattan. My daughter studies theater in college and it was the first night of our three-night stint of play going. By chance we chose a different restaurant than the one we’ve been to before in the theatre district. Even though the restaurant was dead they seated each party next to one another. Getting my bearings, I looked around the room and then couldn’t help noticing a man sitting one table over.

The man was sitting in the aisle seat, facing the mirror. Restlessly he stroked his scruffy beard like he was waiting for someone. He pulled a wool beanie off his head and using his hand as a comb tried to smooth his wispy blond hair into place. I knew if I said to Emma and Jon, “Don’t look now but do you think that man is…” that they’d look. Instead I said, “I’m going to ask you something. But I don’t want you to turn your head just yet. Understood?” They both answered, “yes,” although I could sense they were deciding at that very moment whether to turn left or right. “Do you think that man could be Philip Seymour Hoffman?”

Within seconds of each other they darted a glance at him. Yes, they agreed. Jon showed some restraint and turned back to his food. Emma looked away and then back again. Away and back again. “I think it might be,” she said a few times. We tried to go about our business, making small talk about the bus ride we’d already discussed. And, the cold and few inches of snow; weather’s always good to kill a few minutes.

Through the corner of my eye I saw a man walking towards might-be-Philip-Seymour-Hoffman’s table. The seated man rose. They hugged and as if they were communicating in a secret language, patted and gave a good whump below the other’s shoulder blades. The new man sat in the inside seat, across from might-be. As soon they exchanged hello’s I could hear the rich unmistakable voice. I’d know that voice anywhere. I’ve watched the movie Doubt multiple times, saw him in his role as Capote and was rooting for him the night he received the Oscar for Best Actor. I loved his lesser-profiled roles in Twister and The Talented Mr. Ripley and many more whose titles I’m forgetting.

Being in the presence of a movie star changed the mood. Suddenly no one else in the restaurant mattered to me. They dissolved into the background and all I could see or hear was Philip Seymour Hoffman. Respect his privacy, I thought. He’s a person like anyone else.

Our play was at eight p.m. It was time to leave the restaurant but not without having to pass their table. I did my best to look straight ahead as if I was looking for someone by the front door. Once outside the three of us ecstatically described the moment when we recognized the actor and his booming voice. We were exhilarated as we walked into the bright lights of Times Square to the theatre on 42nd Street to see Machinal, a remarkable play that hadn’t been performed on Broadway since 1929, when it starred leading man Clark Gable. The revival play came in second place during our telling and retellings of our trip to New York. Hoffman consistently came in first.

In the days following Hoffman’s death, the media was abuzz about his personal life. People everywhere were discussing whether his relationship had ended recently because of his drug addiction. There were details of the final hours of his life, lamentations over a career and life cut way too short.

I was suddenly reminded of the lines that Hoffman had recited in the movie adaptation of Doubt, a play by John Patrick Shanley, where he plays Father Flynn. I found the play tucked away neatly on my bookshelf where I hoped it would be.

I thumbed through the thin volume until I could find the scene I was looking for where Father Flynn gives a sermon to a packed congregation, after Sister Aloysius has confronted him with her suspicions that his relationship with a boy in the school was inappropriate.

“A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew — I know none of you have ever done this — and that night she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The woman goes to confession and asks the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke, ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ The old parish priest says, ‘Yes…you have borne false witness against your neighbor, and played fast and loose with his reputation, and should be heartily ashamed!’ The old parish priest instructs the woman to go home, take a pillow up on her roof, cut it open with a knife, and return to see him.

The woman takes the pillow up the fire escape and stabs the pillow. She returns to the parish priest who asks her, ‘What was the result?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers everywhere, Father!’ The parish priest tells her to go back and gather up every last feather that flew away. The woman says it can’t be done. ‘I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’

And that,’ said Father O’Rourke, ‘is gossip!’”

Reading these lines I remembered the forbidding admonishment in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s delivery of the word “gossip” and the flickering of anger in his eyes.
It’s curious how the mind works, scanning and searching for stories past, present, real and imagined. I have to admit that after going the distance from James Gandolfini to Bob Dylan, following the road with a detour to my former teacher and beat poetry, and onward to Philip Seymour Hoffman and the poignant scene about feathers in the wind, I wondered. What would have happened if I had stopped at his table that night in the restaurant?

Already I’m mercilessly writing in my head all the possible could-have-beens. Even with all the imagination I can muster-up, there aren’t any endings I can revise about how Hoffman’s story ends. But for now — the briefest illusions make me feel — powerfully, alive.

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