War Correspondence from the Present Tense. an interview with Timothy "Speed" Levitch
By Evan Dashevsky
There's a great battle raging on for the souls of young and aspiring writers-a complicated struggle that can be metaphorized (perhaps not a word, but I like it) as Henry Miller vs. health insurance. Henry Miller, the godfather of hippies, hipsters, and all sorts of super-cool latte-sucking-types promises nothing less than boundless possibility and the adventure of living by one's wits. Health insurance promises you don't have to be as nervous crossing a busy intersection. Sooner or later, most cultural soldiers enlist with the health insurance marines and face duty in their cubical with modesty and silent vigilance. However, there have always been the few who have heeded the call of Mr. Miller and go AWOL on society, so that they can seek out and experience this life thing.
In 1997 Timothy "Speed" (you'll see why) Levitch was without a mattress to call his own, and making his "living" in Manhattan giving tours of the city for visitors from around the globe. His tours were less historical anecdotes of the city, than sermons, diatribes, and philosophy dissertation rolled into one. A friend thought the life of Speed would make a good documentary-and it did. The result was The Cruise, which won Best Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film festival and was released internationally by Artisan. Since then, Speed has become somewhat of an underground literary hero. He was featured in Richard Linklater's Waking Life and recently published a collection of his "quips," Speedology. After many missed encounters and more than a month of trying to track Speed down, I was able to catch up with him in Little Italy as he made a day layover in New York. The following may sound like he had hours to weave anecdotes and lyrical metaphors into each answer, but he didn't.
Evan: You're a bit of a vagabond in that you don't live in a house but go from friend's house to friend's house. Can you explain a bit more about your how your daily life works?
Speed: The gypsies are a tradition of proud nomadic pastoralism and adrenal intercourse with reality that predates this beleaguered experiment called civilization. And certainly one of the major occurrences of the modern world is that the gypsies have become extinct. I want to remind you, Evan that one of the major ingredients of civilization is standing still. You can't build fences and take all this property value seriously if you're on the move all the time. The last 15 thousand years of neurotic disequilibrium is the story of people standing still harassing and persecuting those who are always on the move. I consider myself to be kind of an urban gypsy upholding in my own eccentric way an ancient tradition. And the Jewish Diaspora continues-in my blood.
Evan: Well, let's talk about words in motion. Your book, , is a pastiche of lot of different wacky fonts-what's with all those wacky fonts? Speedology Speed:Speedology is alive. It's a shaman in your hands. It's an acrobat performing for every single person honoring it with individualistic conversation. The words are literally freaking out with life and are experiencing the very tantrum that the book is. I also think of it as very musical. The smaller words are the parts where the fingers are rolling evenly over the piano, and then when the fonts get bigger, you're hitting the piano harder. There's a musicality to the way the fonts and the words are moving across the page. And most of all, I think the words are performing.
Evan: In your book, you talk about different classical and jazz musicians, but also throw in the occasional quote from someone like Ice Cube. What are you listening to these days and what are your biggest musical influences?
Speed: I'm pretty fickle. That's because I'm always trying to dance to my own rhythm which is just as much a rock and roll anthem and a punk mosh pit and a dexterous symphony as anything the Sex Pistols, Mozart, or the Beatles ever wrote. And when I keep up with my own rhythm every day is truly a new day. Things come at me as pure curiosity. The whole music of the world comes at me. On the best days, the world seems like a giant dance floor, and the whole city like a symphony that is being co-collaborated by millions of souls totally unaware that they are maestros composing this masterpiece together.
Evan: Do you have a favorite album?
Speed: Well, some of my specific musical influences lately-I still listen to a lot of Elvis Costello. I've been listening to a lot of Gustav Mahler. And I've been listening to a lot of tibetan bells.
Evan: What's the Shakespeare Delivery Troupe?
Speed: It's a work in process. It was actually an instillation I bought out to burning man in 1999. The idea was that I would set up a table and people could make delivery orders and I had a group of thespian friends and we would go and deliver the scenes. And when I came back to New York it occurred to me that that instillation could exist in New York oxygen, especially because this is a town that speaks the language of delivery. For years now, it's been one of my goals to create new possibilities around the idea of delivery. This is very important for me because I feel that this is the only time that this city exists is when human intercourse is happening-when people are flesh upon flesh, mind to mind, gyrating, dancing, dealing living together! When there's a real moment of sharing or gregariousness, this is when the city is actually happening. Nights of cold alienation, people sitting alone in their apartments watching television is the city not happening. The city is a dream, it's a theory, but it doesn't actually exist. The city is simply vitality and only when vitality is happening does the city happen. So, even with the coldest most two-second transition of a pizza delivery there is some sort of New York city happening, It is glamorous! It is amazing! that you can deliver-you can walk into this part of people's lives and deliver something. People get pizza, they get Chinese food, they get marijuana-why not a dispatch from the master? A fresh Shakespearean moment from the oven of the master-Fresh! There's going to be a night when a guy on the upper west side in despair because of unrequited love and we're going to send in Puck because Puck is going to find the love potion underneath that guy's couch. And he's gonna know that the love potion was sitting in his room all the time. There's going to be a gal on the lower east side one night who is going to be having trouble with her boss and we're going to help her kill Duncan, you know, MacBeth is gonna go in there and show her how to kill the king and take it for himself. We're going to deliver personal theatrical catharsis. We're going to have menus and slip them under doors just like the Chinese restaurants do and we're going to be in the Yellow Pages and we will be a valid delivery service that will simply fit into the ventilation of the city until it is an every day event and people will have Shakespeare delivered just like they would a pizza. I've already seen this. I don't know when. I don't know how. ... I just need fuel, that is, money. And artists that really want to live together and join a community a la The Ghostbusters.
Evan: What's the sexiest bridge in New York City?
Speed: I'm a little bit fickle. It matters where I'm at, how my hormones are doing, how I'm doing at that time. But I'll tell you there have been times where the Queensborough bridge has been the sexiest bridge in the city, when Robert Moses first laid his eyes on it he said it was a blacksmith's dream-and I always felt that he inferred a wet dream. I certainly have had cinematic moments on the Brooklyn Bridge. I've even had some beautiful freakouts with the Verrazano Bridge. It really does depend on where I'm standing, hence my effervescent homage to the present tense.
Evan: Not really owning anything or being in any place for too long, when and where do you write?
Speed: I consider myself to be a war correspondent in the present tense. I'm taking notes in the fox holes amongst the bedlam and the gunfire of the everyday. I'm an illuminator of the mundane. Mostly how I write is in the same small notebooks that a war correspondent would write in. Once I was an MC for this storytelling group in New York-they have these theme nights of storytelling. And this one night it was war stories and they had war correspondents of all sorts. They had people who had been in the Congo for the New York Times in the 1960's, people who had been in Afghanistan in 1980, this other guy who had most recently been part of the desert storm thing and I was sitting at a whole table of war correspondents getting ready for the evening and at one point an idea came to me and I pulled out a notebook and this guy sitting next to me pulled out the exact same notebook and he says "War Correspondent?" and I said "Uh... Yeah!" That's the moment I realized that I write like a war correspondent and I really am. Speedology was mostly written in quips and notes on the present tense as I was living out the frontier of my life in the streets of the city.
Evan: What do you think about the new WTC plans?
Speed: I've been working to promote my idea for Ground Zero that's imbedded in the new short documentary we've been taking around to film festivals called Live from Sheeba's Dance Floor. It's called "The Buffalo Idea." It's an idea that came about from a whole conversation of artists. And we'd like to use the land currently called Ground Zero and turn it into a Joy Park and grazing land for American Bison. The idea is that the central monument should not be an inanimate piece of stone but it should be something that's alive, that has a heartbeat and that propagates. I think that a lot of what was felt by the people who came up with the idea is that the American Bison represents and indigenous American community that has been experiencing September 11th for 400 years. According to different statistics I've heard, there was something like 75 million Buffalo on the continent when the first Europeans arrived and by the 1890's there was about 200 left. Definitely a tribe of holocaust survivors. A tribe that knows the suffering of September 11th, and the healing. I myself have had the opportunity to stand with free roaming Buffalo in the wild-a great feeling. An amazing experience, almost cosmopolitan. You'd be surprised to see how much cosmopolitanism exist within the average bison and I'm sure the average bison would be surprised to see how much wild exist in the average cosmopolitan. I think they have a lot to learn from each other. On the topic of the current plans for Ground Zero, I think it's time for everybody to remember Cat Gilbert, the great New York Architect who designed the Woolworth building and the George Washington bridge- his definition of sky scraper was a machine that makes the land pay. I don't think that the land should have to pay any more. I don't think we should have to pay. I don't think anyone should have to pay-I'm not sure what we owe. I think we're all miraculously and unexplainably born into this and then suddenly everything has to pay. Everyone is debating over these plans, but they're all the same to me, they're all making the land pay.
Evan: Were you in New York on 9/11?
Speed: No, I was in San Francisco.
Evan: What did you think was happening to your city while watching it on TV?
Speed: Well, it's not my city. I think that anybody who gets nationalistic about New York is really losing the point. It's an island of refugees. There's 115 different foreign languages spoken on the streets everyday. What New York City really is is more analogous to the bar scene in the original Star Wars movie. It's a bar in the middle of a desert planet filled with pilot of different species from all over the universe. Each pilot with his own contraband and his own mission and the only thing that loosely binds these alien pilots in the bar at the end of the universe is that they're all secretly opposed to the Empire, and how they're trying to find their way around the Empire. It's actually a wonderful opportunity to transcend the boundaries that have bound people for 15,000 years-things like religion, nationality. This place is a lesson plan on how to live without these silly things.
Evan: Are you part of the New York literary elite now that your a big star. Do you, like, go to wine and cheese soirees at David Mamet's house?
Speed: I've never been to David Mamet's house. I do like wine and cheese.
Evan: So, you would go if the opportunity presented itself?
Speed: I am a vivacious chameleon. I love to taste the different flavors of this Baskin Robbins of reality. It is amazing how many different worlds co-exist in this metropolis and how you can truly have a different Star Trek adventure every night beaming down to different planets, seeing totally different worlds. People habitating on the same island in so many different ways. I do think of myself as an earthbound astronaut on many New York nights.
Evan: Where'd you grow up?
Speed: Mostly in the Bronx, in Riverdale. But also in Kansas City. I would spend my summers in Kansas City and go to school in the falls and winters in the Bronx. And then when I was twelve, I became a suburbanite when my parents got a house up in Westchester. And I was still bouncing back and forth between Kansas City and New York life but at that time I was in the suburbs.
Evan: What do you think of the Suburbs?
Speed: Well, the suburbs are a very precautionary attitude and a very careful filtering of reality. It's a place of spacious living rooms where people are fluffing up pillows to make their fears comfortable.
Evan: Your quote: "Historical Inaccuracy is a lot of fun". Please elaborate.
Speed: I think a lot of the historical accuracy that people get caught up with is just more repression. For instance one of the most successful books about New York over the last years is the Encyclopedia of New York, which was written by historians who are really good about historical accuracy and knowing about what's considered to be historically accurate. Napoleon said that history is an agreed upon fiction and Malcolm McClaren said that history is getting the last word. One man ruled a country, the other perverted a country. But both men were aware that they were part of historical anecdotes as they were happening. I think they both had a very clear view of what history really is. In my mind history is the on-going attempt to convince ourselves that the past tense is more important than the present tense. So, historical inaccuracy can be a lot of fun because it's happening in the present tense. The most fun I've ever had has been in the present tense. And the only time I've actually shared with someone it's been in the present tense-that's the night club where it happened. It didn't happen in the past or in the future, the actual sharing of my life is taking place in this very special night club, a really fun place called the present tense.
Evan Dashevsky is fucking awesome. He has like nine Pulitzer-prizes. Send him a note and maybe he'll give you one - firstname.lastname@example.org