The Crouches Next Door

Bristol Borough, PA (Not my house, but I did take the photo, so…)

(6-minute read or listen to me read it HERE)

BRISTOL, PA is a nice little river town. I like to photograph it. It’s got a history and a character.

It’s got beauty and sadness and conflict and triumph and regret and ghosts, too.

It’s kind of like any place, I guess. It’s like any person, really. It’s a bit like me.

We live in a row house, right in the middle of the block. We share our northern-most wall with a family I’ll call the Crouches.

That’s not their name. The father’s name is Bart, so Sarah, Watson, and I refer to him as Barty Crouch Jr. He’s more sad than mean, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had the Dark Mark on his arm. He’s kind of hairy, so I’ve never actually seen it.

Barty and I might be around the same age, I would think. I’m finding it harder to determine how old someone is these days. His beard’s got grey in it, like mine. He’s a four-sport Philly Phan, which is virtually a requirement in this town. He also has a MAGA bumper sticker on his 2003 Ford Explorer. We’re unlikely to see eye to eye on political issues, is what I’m saying. 

Mrs. Barty Crouch Jr. is cordial to me, always says hello. I get the feeling she doesn’t know what to make of me, and I don’t blame her. I don’t know what to make of me either. 

Not my house either. Pic: Me

The Crouches don’t talk very nicely to each other. I’m not sure if he works some kind of night shift or what, but he’s not around much during the day. He is, however, frequently up at two-thirty in the morning. 

I know this because our bed is up against the northern-most wall, and Barty Crouch Jr. has no concept of the fact that there is also life on the south side of his wall, even at two-thirty-four.

When I hear words like, “Well, you should stop being such a stupid bitch!” being screamed from the north wall at two-thirty-seven in the morning, I want to scream back, “SOCIAL CONTRACT!!!” 

But I don’t.

Several months ago, I saw someone pull up in their car. A woman got out, came around to the passenger side, opened the door, and helped Mrs. Barty Crouch Jr. out of the Honda and up onto the curb where she could get her footing. They walked slowly together up the sidewalk, up the porch stairs, and into the house. 

I remember saying to Watson, “I hope she’s okay.”

Bristol in the light. Picture: Moi

Every once in a while, I would see a similar scene. Then, one day, I saw her wearing a wig. It was obvious to me because I had seen her real hair plenty of times. 

“I think Mrs. Barty Crouch Jr. might have cancer,” I said to Sarah.

We began to hear different noises coming from the north after that. Her treatment was making her very sick. Her hair had fallen out, and she had lost some weight. 

Whenever I’d see her in passing, I’d want to ask her how her treatment was going, but I guess I thought we were somehow supposed to pretend I don’t know.  

It became even more obvious she was ill when she’d go out with just a scarf on her head, abandoning the wig altogether. I didn’t know what to do. 

I don’t think Barty Crouch Jr. knew what to do either. Do any of us really know what to do when we first come face to face with that kind of hardship?

Each of us on the block has our own little bit of a backyard. Each one is fenced off, of course. The Crouches have a deck as their back garden. Our sliding glass door opens to the east and when you open it and step out back, you have to go down three steps. At the Crouch’s, you just step right out onto the deck. 

Jefferson Ave. Biggest sidewalk this side of the Delaware. Photo: You Know

Yesterday, we had a beautiful spring evening. The temperature was up, and the sun, when it touched my face, made me feel like I wanted to be hopeful. I wanted to be.

At five-thirty, I was doing some dishes at the kitchen sink in front of the window which I had open, and I started to smell some smoke. It was coming from the Crouch’s deck. Mrs. Barty Crouch Jr. was starting a fire in their metal fire pit. 

I walked over to get a closer look through the sliding glass door, and as I made my way from sink to door, I heard the music playing. It had probably been playing all along, but she must have turned it up at the chorus so she could sing along because that’s what she did. For one beautiful moment, Mrs. Barty Crouch Jr. and Elvis were coming to me LIVE from Madison Square Garden, 1972!

BOTH:  We can’t go on together

               With suspicious minds 

HER:      (suspicious minds)

BOTH:   And we can’t build our dreams

              On suspicious minds

I just stood there and listened to her sing and watched her straighten up the deck while the fire warmed her body and The King warmed her soul.

And her hair is back. 

She must have just gotten out of the shower because it was still wet. She was letting it dry in the sun by the fire. 

It was a wonderful moment. 

I’m hopeful, again.

Merlin Street

Merlin in Camelot. Act 2 Playhouse 2018

SOMETHING I’M FINDING interesting is how much like my normal, everyday life this quarantine-like existence has been so far. I never realized how much time I actually spend by myself. Turns out, I spend a great deal of time working alone, hardly seeing anyone but Watson and my wife (whenever she’s home from work) for semi-long stretches at a time. 

I’m certain this isn’t true of all introverts, but maybe some feel, as I do, that they wish they weren’t so introverted. I know I don’t want the anxiety and worry that comes with feeling perpetually out of place. I want to be comfortable around people. I want to strike up a conversation without feeling like Super Dork (one of the less well-known members of the Marvel Universe). 

I think I’ve actually become more introverted as I’ve gotten older, to tell you the truth. I also think I might understand people a little differently now than I did half my life ago. 

I bet a lot of people can say they understand people differently when they get to the point where they have more years behind them than in front of them. Because math.  

Because of experience, too. There’s just no substitute for it. You live, you learn, you grow. That’s how I understand the game to be played. 

The most anxiety-ridden moments of my life involve interacting with strangers. And yet, I crave human connection. I need it like I need air and water. I desire it. I long for it. I don’t know how I would live in a world where we don’t touch each other anymore. I don’t like to think about things like that. I’d rather be working.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I usually just say “I’m an actor” (sometimes I throw *writer* in there, too. It depends on what type of project I’m working on at the time).  The conversation usually goes in a different direction after that. 

“Do you know anyone famous?”

“I met Kevin Hart once.’”

“That’s so cool! What’s he like?”

“He’s really nice. He took selfies with everyone.”

“Did you get a picture with him?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

That’s about the gist of it. My point is, nobody’s ever really asked me to explain what I actually do in my job. 

“Oh, you’re an actor? So, what do you DO, exactly?”

“Well, I try my best to become somebody else who’s going through something significant in his life while a bunch of people watch…I see you’re confused…Let me put it this way: To the best of my ability, I practice being someone else until I’m prepared to go in front of a group of strangers and be that person instead of the one you see before you. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

That’s basically how it goes. Not those exact words, though. People usually aren’t that interested in me, if I’m honest. They’re just interested in their idea of what I do. 

I spend a good portion of my working life trying to be someone I’m not, and while that all might have started out years and years ago as a means of escape for a boy with an imagination and a love for stories, it has become an indispensable practice for a middle-aged man trying to figure out who he is and how he might belong in the world.  

With the absolutely wonderful Iman Aaliyah as Nimue. Act 2 Playhouse 2018

I work in “Make Believe,” and in the acting of another person’s life—no matter how small or large the role— I have learned more and more about what it means to be human.  

The theater is where we plant seeds in the garden that is the hearts of every human being. Those seeds are ideas and questions about who we are and who we want to be.

When the seeds take (and you can feel it happen; sometimes you can even see it and hear it happening), it is a miracle to be a part of. 

It is in this very ground, the soil where we plant for others to experience, that I continue to learn about the human I want to become. 

I’ve learned that listening is often more important than talking; that taking chances is imperative and requires guts; that failing isn’t just a part of the process, it IS the process. You absolutely cannot succeed without failing first. 

Nothing is ever perfect, but at some point, it has to be finished (I definitely have more to learn when it comes to knowing when something is finished). 

In the midst of this disruption we’re all experiencing (because we’re all in this together, if I’m picking up the subtle social media messages correctly), I’ve still been driving for Lyft. 

Not much. Just some in the afternoon/early evenings. I feel like it’s something I have to do; I don’t know why. I’m only out a couple of hours a day, but I somehow feel compelled to be available.  

I take a lot of folks to work or to the grocery store or home from work after restocking everyone else’s essentials.

I dropped a young man off at his home after a long shift as a nurse at a local hospital yesterday afternoon. He lived on Merlin Street. We could use some magic right about now, I thought, as I pulled up to the curb in front of his house. 

“Thank you, so much, my friend,” I said. “Be well.”

“Thank you. Have a good night! Be safe!” he answered, closing the door and stepping onto the sidewalk. 

I watched him walk up to his front door. He put the key in and walked right in like it was any old Saturday. 

But, it wasn’t.

The Mortal Enemy

The Black Sheep Pub, Philadelphia, PA February 2020

WHEN I WAS A KID in the mid-seventies, my parents used to take my brothers and me to the drive-in movies.

I think it was the summer of 1976 when we pulled the car up in the parking spot, attached the speaker onto the slightly rolled-down driver’s side window, and settled in for a double feature of some kind. 

I don’t know what the first movie was. It could have easily been one of the “Herbie the Lovebug” films, but I couldn’t swear to it in court. It was definitely geared toward children, whatever it was. 

The second picture was always for the adults. My brothers were usually asleep in the backseat by the time the late movie began, but I would only pretend to sleep. On this night, the late show was a Richard Lester gem, “Robin and Marian.”

It starred Sean Connery as Robin Hood, Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, and Robert Shaw as the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was much more of a complex story than I could keep up with at the age of seven, but I remember the last twenty minutes or so pretty well. 

Whatever the main conflict was, it had escalated to a certain point. At this point, we had two armies on opposite sides, and, if I remember correctly, Robin and the Sheriff decide to meet on the battlefield with broad swords and armor, one-on-one, to hash things out for good and all. Whoever won would be the champion, and the other side would have to accept defeat.

These two mortal enemies went head to head so that no one else would have to get hurt. That was what was agreed upon, anyway. Of course I rooted for Sean Connery! Robert Shaw just deserved to get his smug sheriff face broad sworded, or whatever. 

It was a pretty intense fight scene. I remember they looked larger than any two people I had ever seen. The outdoor screen made them giants. Good and Evil, battling it out right in front of me like these Greek gods. 

I’ve begun to see Depression as my mortal enemy. To my knowledge, I’ve never had a mortal enemy. Maybe an arch enemy or two but never a mortal enemy. With mortal enemies you really have to hate the person, really want to see their demise. I don’t think I’ve ever really, truly hated anyone. 

I screamed “I HATE YOU!!” at someone I loved more than anything in the world one time. I remember feeling like a light inside me had gone out, like the wind made by the uttering of such terrible words blew out the pilot light in one of the rooms of my soul. I’m darker inside because I did that. 

I didn’t mean it when I said it, of course. There’s no way I could have. I could never hate anyone, especially that someone. It’s not possible. I was just so sad and angry with myself that I had no idea how to live. Nothing made any sense. 

Black Sheep Pub Feb. 2020

I never thought I had a mortal enemy. Then Depression just showed up on set without even auditioning, demanded the lead role, and informed us all he was also directing.

“Excuse me! Who are you, exactly?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” answered Depression. “You just do what I say and everyone gets hurt. Got me? Comprende?”

“That doesn’t make any sense, actually. So, no…I don’t think I comprende. Why would I want anyone…everyone to get hurt? Why would I do what you say if that’s what’s going to happen?”

“That’s how it works. I don’t write the script.”

“You know, you’re right. You don’t write the script. You just improv your way through a day and expect me to know how to keep up. You just expect me to say, ‘Yes, and…’ to everything. Well, I’m sick of it, honestly. It’s time for me to be the lead writer for a season.”

 We have these kinds of talks sometimes. I feel like if I can get him in a one on one type situation, we might be able to battle things out between us without anymore casualties.

With age and experience I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty good idea of when my Depression is coming. It’s gotten predictable. It’s showing up in the same old places again and again trying to pass itself off as something new. 

“Hello,” I say to it. “I can see you.”

“Do you know what I could do to you?” it asks, with a touch of charm that seems strangely pacifying.  

“Yes, I do,” I answer. “And as long as I think I’m alone, you will continue to have power over me. But I don’t think that anymore. We might have to battle it out every once in a while, but I am the hero of my story. You’re my mortal enemy. I have enormous respect for you, but whenever you try to take me on I will smash your face in!”

It’s a team game, this life. 

I’ll gladly be on your team if you need another. If not, I can cheer from the sidelines.

Either way, I’m for you.

Peace.

The Ben and Me

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Philadelphia, PA. March 15, 2020. For a very brief moment, we were alone together.

(5-minute read or listen to me read it HERE)

A FEW YEARS AGO, I had a bit of a stay in the hospital. The doctor who did my intake interview was very kind and patient with me. He asked me a series of questions. They started off deceptively easy.

“What’s your full name?”

“Robert Scott Langdon.”

“Your date of birth?”

“February 4, 1969.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m an actor and a writer.”

“Really?”

That’s the reaction I usually get. My interpretation of that response used to always be, “Well, that’s awfully irresponsible of you. Do you do anything for actual money? How do you live?”

I don’t think that very often anymore, but that’s what I thought then.

“Yes,” was all I said at the time.

He wrote some things down on what I assume was the beginning of my chart. Then, he just casually threw out the question, as if it were simply the next logical one to ask.

“Do you ever think about suicide?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

There it was again. I looked around to see if anyone else was offering strange answers in addition to mine that were confusing him somehow.

“How often do you think about it?”

It felt like a loaded question to me because I thought I had the universal answer.

“Every day,” I answered. “Doesn’t everybody?”

“Uh, no.”

“I don’t mean I have a plan for it every day or anything,” I justified. “I just think about it. Like, how someone might do it.”

“What do you think about, specifically?”

I pondered some of the thoughts that had gone through my mind. One idea was a recurring thought.

“Well,” I started, rather matter-of-factly. “Take the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, for example. People can walk across that bridge almost any day. Whenever I drive over it, I think about how easy it would be to just pull the car over, get out, and jump off. I mean, the barriers are virtually non-existent. Anyone could just jump right off. I don’t have a plan to do that. I’m just saying, anyone could do it.”

Evidently, there’s this scale, and I was closer to the one end than I ever thought I could be.

The Ben looking out toward Camden, NJ. March 15, 2020

On Sunday afternoon, I walked across that bridge, taking pictures of what I could see. One thing I saw but didn’t take a picture of was a sign that read, “Suicide Prevention Hotline” and it gave a number to call. I saw that sign on the way up and another one just like it at the apex.

Going up, when I saw the first sign, it barely registered. But when I got to the top and saw a second sign, it hit me. I thought two things:

One—That sign is not meant for me, Mr. Benjamin Franklin Bridge. I haven’t thought about you that way in years.

Two—There are many out there for whom it is meant. I pray they can somehow know, there is so much to live for.

I’ve always been interested in photography. I could literally spend hours with photo books from the great photographers when I was a kid. They were basically all I took out of the library during grade school. I’m fascinated with what it means to capture a moment in time.

Recently—since June 2019—I’ve been taking my photography more seriously. I wanted to make a habit of seeking out and capturing interesting and beautiful things. I wanted to make a habit of seeing moments, of seeing differently in the world, of seeing the world differently. I wanted to notice intentionally.

The Ben looking south down the Delaware toward his younger brother-in-suspension, the Walt Whitman Bridge. March 15, 2020

On Sunday, I stood at the top of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in these crazy, uncertain times and looked outward. I could see as far as my lens could see and it was beautiful. I didn’t look down. The sky was endless.

I was hopeful.

Yesterday, I lost my job. “The Bodyguard: the Musical” was cancelled. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, as well. Not just this show, but shows-even seasons-at theaters everywhere around the world. There are so many affected by our current times, some in ways the rest of us might never imagine.

I’m still hopeful.

I’m hopeful that this experience of *Social Distancing* will—in a strange kind of way—show us how we are all without a doubt fantastically, inextricably connected to one another.

I wish I could tell you Depression will never try to smash your face in if only you would believe a certain way. I can’t. Honestly, I don’t want to tell you that because it’s not true.

Depression is a bastard and cheat and a thief who always lies. That’s the truth.

This is also true: You are never alone, you are loved beyond your understanding, and you matter.

Today, I love. It’s what I’ve chosen for today.

Tomorrow has enough trouble of its own.