Sometimes in a self-improvement class, you realize you're not as nuts as you think you are.
New York is a city of self-improvement. No matter how much you’ve mucked things up in the past, in New York you can make it right again, and sometimes in spades.
How can you do this, you ask? How can you straighten out your finances, find a new girlfriend and maybe get a book deal while you’re at it? The answer, my friend, is classes. New York has seminars and workshops and retreats that can make all your dreams a reality, provided you pay online and in advance.
Last night I went to such a class. It was a screenwriting seminar, one that offered tips in turning life experiences into script fodder. I paid my $50 and was pleased to see that only 15 people were in the class. At the beginning of class the instructor asked everyone to introduce themselves and talk a little about the projects they were working on.
What was bizarre was how person after person seemed to interpret the simple introduction as an open introduction to air their personal business. Are New Yorkers so lonely that they'll pay money just to spill the beans for a room full of strangers? Almost everyone started talking about how they wanted to write about their dysfunctional families, because their parents were adulterous bohemians or their aunt ended up in jail. For a minute I wasn’t sure if I was in a screenwriting class or group therapy. Did I walk into the wrong room? My favorite was the woman simply shouted “I’m Brazilian!” and then babbled on for five minutes in broken English about some saint that apparently watches over your love life. If only you believe!
Then there was Gladys, or at least that’s what I’m calling her because she introduced me to a level of crazy I wasn’t aware existed outside of medical journals. On the surface she seemed like a sweet, older woman, maybe 65 years old or so. She was clean, had short hair and was dressed like a hip Midwestern housewife.
“Back in the 1970s I was the victim of a civil rights violation,” she said, with the conviction of someone who was possibly wrongfully jailed. “I’ve spent years trying to bring this to the attention of the popular media, and I would like to write a screenplay about it.”
The instructor nodded. “Sounds good. What happened to you?”
She took a deep breath and began to recount a story about how when she was living in Berlin she was, unbeknownst to her, used as a conduit by the U.S. government. This was juicy, like something out of John Le Carre novel. Then things got weird.
“The U.S. government implanted radio and television chips into my brain and used them to transmit messages to agent,” she said, with a straight face and the seriousness of a nun at a funeral.
That’s when the other 14 people in the class got really quiet started looking around at each other, as if trying to validate that they had just heard what they thought they had. As we looked around, this woman kept talking about how she’s written letters to the FBI, the CIA, and countless attorneys and, strangely, no one would listen to her. She was amazed at how cowardly the American people could be, and how they would protect their government even when the government was abusing its citizens with brain sensors.
But the silly instructor, instead of moving on to the next student, actually engaged her and wanted to know more.
“Why haven’t you talked to the press?” He asked, also with a straight face. I was beginning to wonder who was crazier in this equation, Gladys or the instructor. “Why haven’t you contacted Carl Bernstein?”
Gladys looked at him quizzically. “Who’s Carl Bernstein?”
And that’s when together, the rest of the class exhaled deeply. Even though we lived in New York City, a bastion of nuttiness as there could ever be, we realized we were in the presence of true insanity. It was pure. And totally worth the $50 entrance fee.
Dispatches from NYC is a bi-weekly commentary on America's largest city and its impact on the wider world.