It was late in the afternoon on December 31st; I’d dared to hope that, with midnight on the horizon, I might be able to escape 2020 without having to bear witness to any further tragedy. Sadly, the terrible year just past had one final bit of awful news for me before it slithered off into oblivion. I received word that an old friend of mine, Anton Strout, had passed away the night before. He was only fifty – exactly a year and a day older than me.
Anton was primarily known as a writer of urban fantasy – he wrote the Simon Canderous serious of books, along with the Spellmason Chronicles. (You can learn more about these at his website, here.) I met him a good ten years before his first novel was published, however, before he was active as a writer at all. I worked with him as an actor in at 1998 production of As You Like It in New York, the sort of hole-in-the-wall non-union Shakespeare production that all of us are practically required to do at some point. He was capable and good-hearted; I remember him as Corin the Shepherd, strumming his guitar throughout (which, again, we were all but required by law to do back in the 90s).
If I’m being completely honest, it wasn’t the greatest production. It wasn’t bad at all; I definitely had a lot of fun with my bits, and most of us did as well. But it was mediocre – the sort of unpolished, haphazard sort of production that gets put up by kids with more enthusiasm than anything else. There are a LOT of such productions in this world – or at least there were in the world before the Quarantimes, and certainly in the world of the late 90s. And as such, there was something fundamentally unfair about the productions – I’ve seen equally haphazard Shakespeare productions in parks and regional houses, and by virtue of their having a built-in audience tbat was sufficiently large and friendly, those productions were enthusiastically received, where the same production in a dark 50-seat house would be met with stony silence.
It’s not as unfair as leaving this world at the age of 50, with only a day before you’d see the new year rung it, but still.
The strange and awful thing is, this isn’t the first tragedy to visit this particular production. Our director passed away from cancer nine years ago, at the obscenely young age of 37. The venue where we performed, CHARAS on the Lower East Side, was demolished for redevelopment years ago. And a year after our production, the man who ran that institution, Armando Perez, was killed under mysterious circumstances that have still never been solved. (You can read Playbill’s coverage of the incident from that time here.) Because of the city’s interest in that property, it’s long been alleged that they dragged their feet on the investigation into his death to avoid finding anything that might jeopardize their plans – which is the sort of insinuation that sounds inflammatory and preposterous until you remember this was New York City under Rudolph Giuliani, and somewhere in the past twenty two years he seems to have turned into Nosferatu.
Twenty-two years. While the tragedies I describe above should sound preposterous, when you consider that this was an entire generation ago…heck, an entire century ago…in a New York City that hadn’t yet known the terror attacks of 2001, or any of the subsequent catastrophes…then it isn’t particularly strange, I guess. But it still hurts to consider.
I look forward to the year to come, and what is hopefully a better future. But the past still has weight and a terrible reach, and has a habit of finding the darkest and saddest ways of reminding you of what once was, at precisely the moment you thought the future had arrived.
(Note: Anton left behind two very young children – twins, as a matter of fact. A GoFundMe has been set up for their benefit; you can make a donation here if you’re so inclined.)