February 2nd, 2014
“If you bring someone out of a traumatic event, back to the present time, no matter how carefully you do that … if you have not gone over the memory …”
– Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster, in The Master
I hear it from a friend. We are standing next to one another in China Town, witnessing the beginning of the Chinese New Year parade. His girlfriend sends him a text asking if he’s heard yet: Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his West Village apartment this morning.
It’s Groundhog Day, the day of the Super Bowl, the day where the day is no longer a day but everything that came before us, everything that could lead to Hoffman being gone. It feels fine outside, warm even. I see about me the lengthening shadows of the day rowed back into slant. I have a strange ounce or two of some Chinese alcohol in me. A concoction. When I took it down so did five others in a tiny apartment on Henry Street. Took it down. It had a tropical fruit glam to it, funked with a dust-like aftertaste, like the underside of a used sofa cushion lodged in the mouth. It returns in small unappealing burps.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. Is it that we don’t believe it, that we can’t fathom it, the truth of the something that alters us? Does it hurt us? Is it all just shock? What happens inside of shock?
Last week my Future Wife and I took a taxi from the neighborhood of Greenpoint to Boerum Hill. We were cruising fast in the middle lane of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when the hood of the cab flung back and cracked the entire windshield. The glass spidered out in all directions but didn’t give in, didn’t shatter. We watched and felt cars to our left and right bolt and swoosh and bonk on by, their horns stringing our peripherals in harsh bleep. Somehow we made it to the shoulder. Somehow a car wasn’t right behind us, positioned to end our lives. Shock. It was hours before I could hold what had happened in my head, in my hands.
I’m carrying rolls of black and white film with me to capture parading miscellany. The second I hear news of Hoffman’s death I start walking deeper into the crowd. I see a little girl on her father’s shoulders and I want to secure the unfiltered joy of her gaze, to hold in a frame what she is here to celebrate. I realize I am not here to celebrate. I am here to partake, to partly take in, to take from the world in parts. I am passerby, bystander, voyeur. I see a dragon float slink in and the head of the dragon wisps over the crowd and almost brushes the lens of my camera. I turn to see the little girl make of joy in small but pure applause. I take out my phone to see the incoming texts begin:
a huge loss …
no no no …
please no why …
son of a bitch …
so very fucking sad …
my goodness, what a gutting loss …
they go on and on.
My phone rings and it’s an old friend and I know that this conversation cannot happen so I do not pick up. I think about how the friend and I used to quote lines from Magnolia and then I picture Hoffman as Phil Parma, gentle at the bedside of the dying, a voice like a whispering upright bass. I walk back to my friends, bundled behind the front lines where the parade has been roped off, and they’re adorned in the flatness that creeps from disbelief into grief. I watch a yellow balloon lose air and fall atop a street lamp. Confetti flitters between bodies, music clinks in, dozens of kids throw whipper snappers on the ground. My phone buzzes and I come close to throwing it in the alley. It’s another friend, drowning in distant disbelief. I can see the way my phone would crash and spangle the street and, strewn with confetti and the sparkling viscera of the parade, flatten beneath our soles into hollow frequencies. I mutter the word synecdoche. I imagine what he looks like as if I know him. Eyes, skin, voice, death.
My friend and I leave our other friends and walk away. We are at a loss in the loss in the loss. The parade has barely begun. Thousands of people wrap their anticipation around the rails, gripping the edge. We move north and then jaunt right, into the Lower East Side. The instruments disappear. We’re hungry and I fill my mouth with why, how come, what is. I want a drink and then I want to not want a drink and then I want nothing. We veer toward Orchard Street and then to a taco joint. I can tell that the silence between us is the loudness of dealing with death. I feel like crying because I recently learned how to do so again. A mentor died weeks ago and for once, in a very long time of not being able to cry, I broke down; so here I’m thinking there’s still some tears in those sockets, Man, let the fucking tears out. I do not let the tears out. I cannot let the tears out.
In the restaurant we talk very little about Hoffman. I keep choke-whispering under my breath: damnit, Philip; oh Philip; wondering if my friend can hear me. He says something and then something again and I say I can’t hear you. I can hear very little.
On Instagram a friend posts a photograph of nine DVD’s of movies Hoffman has acted in stacked atop one another. I read the names of them and a splurge of Hoffman’s come rumbling at me: Dusty, Scotty J., Brandt, Allen, Lester, Phil, Freddie, Dean, Truman, Andy, Jon, Caden (remember Caden?!), Lancaster! We’re fans, all of us, turning, in circles turning and turning, and I turn away from the restaurant to Broome Street for an espresso and pastry and think about how hunger is as much a presence as it is an absence and then I trudge farther north past Delancey and past Houston where we take a shot of bourbon in remembrance of Hoffman and my friend stops to buy chicken and carrots at a market and leaves me in an embrace and salute, off to the train, and I think of walking over to the West Village, to where I used to live on Jane street, down the street from where I’d often see Hoffman, where he died this morning, but the nearness of nearing in on the source keeps me east of the Bowery, bunched up.
I call Future Wife to check in but don’t feel that I can tell her about Hoffman. I say his whole name under my breath. Those small six syllables. I keep walking, wondering where to place the placeless feelings. I picture feelings coming out of me as objects and being able to place them on the ground, in the garbage, near a plant, atop a moving cab. I run into a poet I know on First Avenue. I want to ask him what he’s up to, but we both know that nobody is up to anything other than feeling what has happened, in our own ways, to each of us our own weight—the way, the ways, the weight. I remember part of a long poem the poet wrote about universality and exploding as the self and I think he’s going to start talking like his poem but instead he tells me he is taking a train to Grand Central, to the suburbs to watch the Super Bowl with his brother-in-law. I picture getting on a train and riding it out of its tracks and realize the poet is looking at me and I’m lost in what I picture. The tracks. Riding. Frogs falling from the sky. My camera is still in my hand from hours ago. I have not taken a photograph yet.
The poet leaves and a stranger asks me to buy him a value meal. He uses the words value and meal distinctly. I instinctually say that I don’t have money and when I walk away I realize how kindly he asked me for help, specifically a meal, and how I couldn’t hear him at first, so I turn around to try and find him—I want to give him food, sustenance—but he’s nowhere near Avenue A, where I’m suddenly stationed, stunned, stumped, emotionally blotto. I stand in the middle of the avenue and a biker almost hits me. I feel as though he needled through me. I try and see if the people around me are seeing what I can’t see. My head is not moving with my hands. Philip.
I keep in the middle of the avenue. I think about P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, of Hoffman telling Adam Sandler to shut the fuck up. I think of Hoffman as Capote saying he did everything he could. I think of Hoffman as Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, chewing on a pencil. I think of Hoffman as Lancaster in The Master, talking about our spirits living on in the whole of time and that this is the vessel we’re existing in, the vessel from which another friend texts asking how it is we can feel so utterly, senselessly at loss for those we don’t know, and I want to tell him that those we’re inspired by have given themselves fully and freely to the point where we have nothing to do but experience their gift, and that when we touch back to the absence of the source of that gift we are touching where everything has been replaced by nothing, pressed into the vessel, and so I wrestle my feelings inside the vessel, looking around at everyone on the avenue, all of the faces depersonalized, Hoffman following Hoffman rehearsing Hoffman practicing Hoffman perfecting Hoffman losing Hoffman asking for more Hoffman, the whole of the city following itself around, rehearsing out of itself, playing at the perfecting of someone or something not one’s self, the little girl smiling through the speak and breeze into the dragon’s mouth, how I stand crooked, unable to move in the middle of the avenue, wanting to smash my phone but there are texts flooding in and they’re like magnets toward the sick undying truth, and I think of how I’d keep on or break down within this unshakably shook-up state if Future Wife didn’t just message me about Hoffman, asking me if I heard and now I know that we both know and that perhaps it’s better to not come into any of this alone—oh Philip!—and as I walk back to the sidewalk, the shoulder, I think about not going online, not reading the blurbs about the reasons and the reasoning and the ruin, and not watching football, and not giving in or shattering but sitting, riding it all out, avoiding my shadow, my reflection here in the vessel, in the ongoingness of a moment filled by the loss of what made the former moments full and oh my, what a huge loss … no no no, we say … please, no, why … son of a bitch … so very fucking sad … my goodness, oh Philip, what a gutting loss.
 A year has passed and I’ve found myself unable to watch a film with Hoffman in it. At first I thought I was just blocking out the peripheral grief, unable to separate the man from the men he played, unable to take in the absence, but I slowly realized that I could not see a performance of his without thinking about needles, and thus the proliferation of opiate addiction. With Hoffman’s death came a flurry of front page articles on the gravely damaging role heroine is playing in many lives. But as much as these quite haunting stories turn up again and again what is actually being done about it? What conversations do we need to be having to keep the issue pronounced? With known problems (specifically in places like Staten Island) there is also a continuance of discoveries being made about just how ingrained in our urban, rural, and suburban soil the epidemic really is. I do not have answers but I do have worries, the first of which is that if I can no longer watch Hoffman in a film then I should pay a hell of a lot more attention to the why.