David Rakoff, the New York-based author, performer, This American Lifer and savvy essayist, died a year ago today at the age of 47 after a long battle with cancer. Rakoff didn’t live in Brooklyn at the time of his death, but he did spend some time here, which is good enough reason to bring attention back to one of Rakoff’s best performances. In this riff on Rent, Rakoff takes aim at the central pretense of the musical, which proffers that “hanging out” “second hand clothes” or a “melancholic nature,” somehow make you an artist. Get the full bit below:
This is Rakoff at his finest, mixing sentiment and humor, being self-deprecating while also proud of his own hard work. He’s dissecting the cultural bigness that was Rent while pointing out its inherent phoniness: Raging about being a bohemian while refusing to pay rent does not a bohemian make.
You see this a lot in New York City, sort of the two sides of world of people trying to “make it:” you’ve got your people who constantly pontificate about all the wonders they’re going to accomplish, without ever doing it (your Hannah Horvaths, your trust funders and whathaveyou); then you’ve got the ones who keep their heads down, slogging through the trenches of shitty jobs and non-paying gigs until something finally clicks, as it deservedly did for Rakoff late in life.
I know what it’s like to feel angry and ignored. I lived in Brooklyn a long time ago about a block away from a prison. During the day, the neighborhood bustled with lawyers, judges, criminals, bail bondsman, private detectives. I lived on a block in a little two-story building that once been a couch house in the 19th century. And the basement had a red dirt floor. On the ground floor below me was an office that did– what, exactly, resumes? I can’t remember.
What I do remember is the man whose office it was. Raul was knee-bucklingly handsome. If my life had been different, like– I don’t know– if I were a hot girl with a driver’s license, I could have put on a tube top and gone outside to wash my car in slow motion or something. But, alas.
Once during the day– it must’ve been the weekend, because I was at home– I could hear Raul having sex in the office downstairs. I skittered around my apartment like a cockroach on a frying pan trying not to make any noise while desperately looking for a knot hole in the crappy floorboards. Eventually, I just lay down flat against the tile of the kitchen floor, listening.
Lying flat against the tile of my kitchen floor, listening to someone else have sex is essentially my 20s in a nutshell. I was robbed in that neighborhood twice. And there were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.
We miss you, David. Rakoff’s posthumous, rhyming couplet novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, was published last month and is about as sweet a sendoff as you could ask for. You can find it at any of our fine local bookstores, who also need to pay their fucking rent.
Follow Tim: @timdonnelly.