The year was 1990. The place: New York City. The scene: a movie theater just off Union Square, for a screening – it almost goes without saying – of Robocop 2.
I settled into my seat with my then-girlfriend-now-wife Hallie, and there was a commotion several rows back from us. Not a ruckus, exactly, but a sudden uptick in murmurs and the kind of excitation one might expect to hear if a moose walked onstage at the symphony – there was a giddy quality to the hubbub, a buzzing, expectant babble.
The large group of African American teens that occupied the last couple rows called out:
"What up, Spike?"
Because Spike Lee had just walked in with his date.
The ringleader of the teens in back shut them down:
By which he seemed to mean something like: “We have great respect for your work, AND we have no intention of interrupting your date with this radiantly attractive young woman, or compromising your enjoyment of Robocop 2.” Whatever his intention, this silenced all the other teens in his party – or at least contained them to urgent whispering.
Then, though – THEN: Spike Lee and his date sat RIGHT NEXT TO US.
Now. You gotta understand. This is New York City. And this is 1990 Spike Lee – the Spike Lee of Do the Right Thing, not the subsequent Spike Lee of Girl 6. So this is big. This is like coming across DeNiro lounging in a kiddie pool, or something – I mean, SPIKE LEE is RIGHT THERE. It goes me, Hallie, his date, him – if we wanted to, we could have held hands along the backs of the seats.
So we settle in to enjoy Robocop 2’s dystopian vision of New Detroit – which, given, its apparent population density and ready supply of private capital is a whole hell of a lot better than present day Detroit – and then comes the moment when Spike and I forge our connection.
You fans of cinema will recall that there is a grisly surgery scene in Robocop 2, a scene where the spinal column and brain of the psychopathic villain Kane are removed and inserted into a next generation robot intended to defeat officer Murphy, who has retained too much free will as Robocop to be of use to OCP’s ruthless bid to privatize law enforcement in New Detroit by deploying an all-robot police force. Naturally enough, Kane’s addiction to the narcotic Nuke – intended by the evil Dr. Faxx to be her means of controlling him – proves to be the undoing of the entire scheme, prompting the kind of ham-handed anti-corporate propaganda that you would never in a million years see in a Hollywood movie made today.
No reason to review any of this, obviously, as you are a fan of the cinema.
But the scene in question is admittedly quite gruesome. There’s a fair bit of slurping type sound effects, and the whine of a bone saw, and all the blood spatter and flaying one would expect from the removal of a spinal column and brain from out the back of a human body.
This. This was my moment of connection with Spike. And I don’t mind telling you:
It. Was. Electric.
Here’s how it went down: at an especially sickening moment of the surgery, BOTH Hallie and his date reflexively bowed down, covering their eyes and moaning softly in distress – as they did so, Spike met my gaze. We gave each other a knowing nod. We could take it. We could hang with whatever ghastly business Robocop 2 threw at us. Not like the women folk between us. We were made, said the gaze we shared, of sterner stuff.
Now, then. If this electric moment had been the end of things between Spike and me, then I would have just been relegated this to the litany of such serendipitous little episodes New York serves up with dizzying regularity. I could just toss it on the pile with the time I collided with Christopher Plummer as he came barreling out a revolving door on the Upper West Side, or the time I saw Matt Dillon at that bookshop on Spring Street. Or Hulk Hogan at MOMA.
But. It didn’t end there. Because as the credits were rolling, and we gathered our stuff to leave, Spike and I shared a little laugh about our moment, and he gave me his card. Then he locks eyes with me, peering over the rims of his round granny spectacles, and said – quietly but firmly: “You call me.”
I was still an actor back then. So I of course had visions of Spike launching my film career with a series of small but memorable roles where I play the dickish white guy. I have long since abandoned acting. Having settled into this single role. Of dickish white guy.
So, couple days later, with palms damp and mouth dry, I called Spike Lee’s office. I left a sort of garbled message with his assistant, over-explaining who I was and assuring her repeatedly that he had asked me to call.
A few days pass. Nothing.
Then I arrive home one night, pretty drunk, to a blinking light on my answering machine. Because land line.
“Yo, Ian. It’s Spike. I got tickets to the dog show in a couple weeks and wanted to know if you wanted to come. Call me.”
So as you can imagine, I am THRILLED. I don’t know if the Dog Show is a band, or a club, or what, but I am stoked to go hang out with my new pal Spike, so I call him back and we arrange to meet. HE SAYS HE’LL SEND A CAR FOR ME. Which, if you’re an artsy and desperately poor 20-something in New York City in 1990, is a form of luxury you can barely grasp.
So the day arrives, and I. Am. A wreck. I’ve cycled through like twenty-three outfits, none of which is satisfactory. And I STILL have like an hour and a half to wait. So I drink a pot of coffee and chain smoke. And I’m pretty wild-eyed when this town car slides up in front of my shitbox apartment. I casual-walk out of my building toward the car, so the driver won’t be able to tell how much my mind is blown.
“Where we headed?” I ask him.
He shoots me a look in the rearview, and shrugs, like “dumb ass.”
“Dog show,” he says.
Turns out, Dog Show is not a club. Or a band. Dog show is a fucking dog show.
As in, like, the American Kennel Club. Purebred. Dog show.
So I meet Spike in the lobby – he’s in a Knicks jersey and a sweet Kangol. And we go inside. To the fucking dog show. And he, apparently, is a HUGE FAN. Because he is storming around along the sidelines yelling at the judges the whole time, just like he does at Knicks games. In particular, he seemed totally rip-shit about how well this one Afghan was doing. And he is just SEETHING about how dogs shows have gotten too political, and how the Springer Spaniel should be taking this. I don’t remember much of what he’s yelling, but I do recall he kept referring to this Afghan as “that Barry Manilow-looking motherfucker.”
And as he’s stalking the sidelines, hurling abuse at these judges, he knows they’re not gonna eject him because he’s Spike Lee, and they will look super-racist.
Which turns out to have been my problem over the next seven weeks or so. Because I mean, when Spike Lee shows up in a track suit and takes you to the Russian Tea Room, or jingling the bell on a tandem bike, with – I shit you not – a basket filled with fresh-cut tulips. What are you supposed to do?
Because part of you is like “Man, I don’t really want to be doing this.” But you go along, cause you don’t wanna end up on Page Six of the Daily News as the racist who spurned Spike Lee’s offers of platonic and wholesome good times. And I gotta confess – I’m pretty taken with all this.
So we hang out. A lot. We log lots of time at cafés, and on roller blades.
It was like the montage in a Hugh Grant movie, you guys. Some say it was a bromance for the ages.
We confide in each other. I tell him my dad committed suicide near an Indian reservation, and Spike takes to calling me Johnny Wigwam. Or J-Wig. Or J-Dubs.
So anyhow, this one dazzling afternoon in May, as Spike and I are nibbling cucumber sandwiches by the duck pond in Central Park, I set down the crown of daisies I was braiding. The daisy crown’s not FOR him, you understand. But if he felt like putting it on, then OK, so be it.
I said: “Spike. What is this, man? What are we even doing?”
He puts down his glass of Prosecco, and stares for a long time at a swan turning lazy circles on the pond.
“Yeah, J-Wig,” he said, finally. “We kinda let this get away from us.”
We did some guy stuff a couple times after that. He took me to a couple Knicks games. We went to a steak house. Did some skeet shooting.
But it was never the same.
We could never recapture that dog show magic. We drifted apart. Lost touch.
You know those fruit bouquets from Edible Arrangements, though? Spike still has one of his people send me one on my birthday each year.
Which is nice. Makes a guy feel wistful, you know?