What's Your Sign?

I don’t usually travel on the subway with a white plastic Venetian face mask, but that’s what I was doing last Monday night.

I wasn’t wearing the mask, I was merely holding it in my lap. And yet, almost immediately after the train left the station at 23rd Street, a cute guy with super-chic eyeglasses got up from where he was sitting across from me and approached. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” he smiled, “but didn’t you just LOVE it?” He wiggled his eyebrows in a conspiratorial fashion, nodding at the mask.

The “it” he was referring to was Sleep No More, the experimental piece from London theater group Punchdrunk, which I had just had the good fortune to experience—hence the mask (every audience member must wear one during the show.) Avant-garde and utterly unique, Sleep No More is part theater, part haunted house and part art installation held in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Chelsea. It’s hard to get tickets. After you have seen it, you definitely feel as though you have been initiated into a special, elite club.

It was not premeditated on my part, but by carrying the mask, I was advertising the fact that I had just come from this play. The mask would mean nothing to those who were not in the know. But for anyone who had “checked in” to the McKittrick Hotel on 27th Street (the setting for Sleep No More), it was like having a secret banner, a sign that read: “I’ve just been to the coolest thing in New York.” I proceeded to have a truly fun chat with the cute guy about the show.

This kind of recognition and subsequent bonding frequently happens when you are carrying theater programs. After I saw The Normal Heart, I sought out other people who were holding the program after I got on the subway at 42nd Street; I had been so moved by the performance that I was looking for people to talk to who were in the same emotional place I was. (They were not hard to find; besides the programs, they had the same stricken looks on their faces as me.)

Whether it’s a public television tote bag, an admission sticker from the race track or an ink mark on your hand from the hottest New York nightclub, this kind of visible “prop” can identify you and attract like-minded people. It’s a sign that tells someone he probably has more in common with you than he might normally have with a stranger. That the two of you have shared an experience, whether it be an art exhibit, a concert or a political demonstration. He has found someone who is in his “club.”

Even a Mets cap, to another Mets fan, can provide an opening for conversation, though that’s not exactly a small club. A souvenir from the World Series would be better. Like the Sleep No More mask, a souvenir from the World Series illustrates that you are in an exclusive club.

It’s the exclusivity, as well as the shared experience, that engenders a great conversation. There’s nothing like that “We’ve got a secret” feeling you get when you run into a stranger who is carrying something that only a few people have or would recognize. The smaller the club, the more excited you are to run into someone who is a member.

New York is one of those places where, on any given subway car or street corner, there are probably people with your sensibility or life experiences hidden among the crowd. You can’t tell much by clothing (though if someone is wearing a nun’s habit, you might surmise they are religious), but if someone is draped with a New York City Marathon warming blanket on the day of the race, you know they have just completed a 26.2-mile run. And if you yourself have ever run a marathon, both you and the runner are going to be more than delighted to engage in conversation. You are practically meeting up with a soul mate.

For me, in the case of my Sleep No More compadre, it was like discovering a stranger who had had the same vivid, beautiful, disturbing dream I had. When my fellow theatergoer got off before me, at 50th Street, I felt almost sad. Some other people who got on to the train cast odds looks my way, as if they were expecting me to subject them all to some kind of unwelcome dramatic presentation. But I just smiled and held proudly onto the mask, my secret emblem of the evening.

(Originally published in the West Side Spirit, January12, 2012)

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