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Land of the Lost

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-03-23


Whenever I am at a loss for inspiration, I try to remember that great stories can be fashioned from the most unlikely news sources. My favorite movie of the 90's, Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation, was famously based on a curious, true-life story that happened in the early 80's. Apparently, a young hustler in New York City had managed to swindle a group of sophisticated, upper-class Manhattanites by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. The playwright, John Guare, who had been friends with two of the victims, took the bare bones of the story as inspiration and created a fascinating, vibrant play that meditated on the modern-day complexities of identity and alienation.

The subsequent work became a huge success, eventually moving to Broadway, where it was nominated for a number of Tony Awards. The film version came out two years later, and though it was a critical favorite, it was never as popular as the cultural phenomenon that it gave a name to the "Six Degrees" theory, which states that any two random people can be connected by a series of acquaintances. (A knows B, B knows C, etc, until eventually A will know F.)

I watched the film recently and was astonished to find that it is still as smart and confounding as it was in 1993. It featured a surprisingly deep cast, a mix of accomplished heavy-hitters (Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellan) and relative unknowns (Heather Graham, Will Smith, Lost creator J.J. Abrams.) The script, also by Guare, is almost a veritable transcription of the play, and I can't help thinking that this wordy movie of ideas is probably unfilmable in today's marketplace.

Six Degrees of Separation taught me, though, to dig for source material in obscure news stories, and, as an eager young writer, I found a beauty in the News-Sentinel in 1987. The story: a group of teenagers, drinking, decided to attack a gay bar in Fort Wayne. They piled into a van, grabbed some Chinese throwing stars (!), and set aim for Pearl Street, targeting the (now long forgotten) dance club The Forge. According to the news report, the youths stormed in, assaulted a bartender, threw some Chinese stars into the wood paneling, and then fled into the night. The precise, blitzkrieg attack was marred slightly by the less-than-precise getaway, when one of the attackers fell out of the back of the van and got run over by the vehicle. The attacker survived (with only a few injuries), and the police were able to arrest the entire lot.

This seemed to me perfect fodder for a play, a grotesque, black comedy about aggressive dummies, yet the play I made out of the material is all but unreadable. Maybe I was trying too hard, maybe I was too young to sift through the facts and say something profound, but the fact is, the play lies moldering in my writer's trunk, and even at my most masochistic I'm never tempted to drag it out. I realized that I was missing something, that the story didn't trigger something personal in me that would make me write forcefully.
Complicating matters for me was that I had experienced something at The Forge that I couldn't shake, and the memory of it kept encroaching on my consciousness. I used to go dancing at The Forge a lot then, in the 80's, and one night I friend and I found a couple of girls to pair off with. There was a lot of spastic dancing, a lot of harmless flirting that didn't culminate in anything, and at the end of the night we hugged and laughed and went our separate ways. Typical night for 20 year olds, nothing memorable.

Two days later, though, I ran into one of the girls at Henry's, and she told me (in a hushed voice) that the girl I had been dancing with killed herself, the day after our playful night at The Forge. It had been wholly unsuspected, shocking to everyone who knew her, and the friend was fighting to stay calm as she told me. I'm not sure why she did tell me, but I was absolutely devastated by the news. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but it is true. I couldn't explain it then, I can't explain it now. Hearing the story kicked off tons of disturbing, threatened feelings in me, like the world as I knew it was suddenly out of whack. 20 years later and I probably don't go a month without thinking of her, this person I never knew. Sometimes when I'm out on the town, enjoying frivolities, the memory comes creeping back and I'll have to end the night, right then.

Outside of this column, I never intend to fashion a story about that girl, lost in the city. But she's always on my mind. I winced when I read about David Foster Wallace last year, this great writer with all that promise. And then, gone, lost for all time. Some stories are just too sad to contemplate. The tragedy at the end of Six Degrees of Separation happens when the hustler gets lost, swallowed whole by the city he felt so comfortable in.

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