How To Find Community ... with John Wilson
Trying to find your people, pop-ups, Deadhead subculture, and John Wilson on HBO.
A couple of weeks ago, friends invited me and Ben to join them for a pop-up dinner and “listening party” held in a vintage furniture exhibit in an Oakland warehouse and catered by a chef of local Instagram fame. This was an unusually cool activity for us, and the prospect of sharing a four-course dinner paired with natural wines among tattooed Oakland strangers was more than slightly outside my comfort zone. But we acquiesced, the novelty of the experience being too intriguing to pass up. What ensued was just as about as cool as I expected—a hypercurated space on an otherwise empty block, eclectic fashion, orange wine, spinning records. But it was also far warmer, with genuinely welcoming hosts and 15 or so attendees who were all open to this social experiment of sharing a family-style dinner with strangers. And though it was a hot night and the space lacked any ventilation, we lingered at the table with our three new tablemate friends after our dessert plates were cleared.
Getting to know strangers was exhilarating. While I spent my early 20s in bars in New York talking to strangers (often men, but not always—it wasn’t uncommon to find ourselves swept up into someone’s birthday party), I can’t remember the last time I interacted with new people at a bar in California. This isn’t just a factor of the pandemic or being in a committed relationship - I can count on one hand the times a night out intersected with strangers at a bar in the Bay Area or Los Angeles.
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I don’t think I can adequately explain why HBO docuseries How To With John Wilson is one of the best things I’ve watched in the last year. You might just have to take my word for it (or Alexandra Schwartz’s). Each episode takes the form of a half hour personal essay narrated by Wilson, set against the scores of b-roll the 35-year-old filmmaker has accumulated by moving through New York City behind the lens of a camera for years. Each of these essays loosely masquerades as a tutorial in adulthood, with the episodes titled things like “How To Make Small Talk,” or “How To Appreciate Wine.” Wilson’s anxiety—social and otherwise—is a driving force of the show, and it’s safe to say without a Psy.D. that the camera functions as a sort of security blanket, mediating his experience of the world and its inhabitants.
Despite Wilson’s seeming discomfort in the body of a human, his obsession with the breadth and depth of the human experience—especially as showcased by a city like New York—is what gives the show its undeniable heart. With each shot, Wilson juxtaposes tenderness with absurdity, bringing wistfulness, compassion, and curiosity to each “slice of life” story he tells. In this way, the finished product becomes a three-dimension essay, rife with double entendres and humor.
The show is not for everyone. I remember sharing it with my parents when I was home for Christmas last year and nervously gauging their confused reactions to the show’s unconventional…narratives. Executive produced by comedian Nathan Fielder, of Nathan For You fame, How To doesn’t shy away from cringe—though it doesn’t linger on cringe to the same extent as Fielder’s own shows. The weird, more than the cringe, is what interests Wilson. As described in the New Yorker:
A pair of aging men carry a nude plastic mannequin down the street, its splayed feet dragging on the sidewalk. A woman in Penn Station covers a vast coffee spill with two sheets of newspaper. The actor Kyle MacLachlan, calm and well coiffed, runs his MetroCard through a turnstile ten times before giving up. A construction worker dances on a pile of rubble. Two men bite into the same hot dog and hold the pose, a beat longer than they’d like, for a photograph. A middle-aged woman in a striped hat eases a live pigeon into a Duane Reade bag and walks off with it. A skunk waddles past the A.T.M. in a bank vestibule. Someone on the curb pours a box of Cocoa Krispies into his mouth with abandon.
I watched both seasons of How To in quick succession last winter and felt moved to write about it—about my envy of Wilson’s ability to weave the written word with the visual to create layered meanings, about the tenderness with which he interacts with his elderly landlord, about whether the show could exist anywhere other than New York, And then I kind of forgot about it, until Ben and I started watching the (much weirder, not for the faint of heart) Nathan Fielder show The Rehearsal this month, and I remembered how much I missed How To.
So I suppose the show was on my mind the last few weeks, as conversations with friends and strangers about “how to build community” overlapped with my own snapshots of the weird and mundane while I flitted around the Bay Area and the country trying to fill the negative space left by an absence of wedding planning. Last weekend that void led me and Ben to the final concert of the summer at the Stern Grove Music Festival in San Francisco. “Do you want to go see a jazz guitarist at Stern Grove?” I asked Ben on Sunday morning, scrolling through my phone on the hunt for something to do that day besides another hike in Marin. “Sure,” he said, game for anything that involves music and being under a tree canopy. A few minutes later, Ben informed me that the artist Eventbrite described as a “jazz guitarist” was, in fact, the co-founder of the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh. This name had meant nothing to me when I saw it on the Stern Grove roster. My interest flickered. I asked him if he still wanted to go, seeing as I didn’t quite envision us spending the afternoon in a sea of Deadheads. “Yesssss,” he said, his interest in people-watching now outweighing his interest in the music. But how many Deadheads could there be in the Bay? (Answer: Thousands, apparently. Perhaps tens of thousands.)
As we rolled our orange cooler into the park, I realized the error of my assumption that there would be a sizeable number of non-Deadheads ready to turn out on a beautiful summer Sunday for a jazz guitar concert. This crowd was here for Phil Lesh & Friends. The level of adherence to the Dead aesthetic evinced the sensation that we were were walking into a sort of alternative Comic Con, where everyone was engaging in cosplay. Even the children (there were a lot of families) were dressed the part in tiedye leggings and flower crowns. (This photo essay of fashion at a Dead & Co. concert at the Gorge in Washington - which apparently John Mayer is a part of? - gives you an idea.)
As I took in how comfortable the concert attendees around me seemed in this sea of nostalgia, I wished I had John Wilson’s camera to help me feel at ease in the role as outsider. Even without a bra in an Earth-toned maxi dress and Birkenstocks, and even before fans started twirling in the sun, I felt like a rigidly sober outsider, not only because of how I was dressed, but because Phil Lesh & Friends noodling on the guitar does absolutely nothing for me. In fact, there was something lonely about being in a sea of people having an ecstatic reaction to something that was lulling you to sleep, and I felt on edge that Ben and I would be found out—that we knew none of these songs and that I was taking videos of the crowd to capture outfits, not the music. These people were among their people, but they were not my people. I found myself feeling envious of jamband fans and how seemingly simple it must be to find your community waiting for you at a jamband concert. Or for rockclimbing enthusiasts to find their people at the climbing gym, or for skaters to find their people in the Rockridge BART parking lot.
Where were my people? Perhaps the closest I’ve felt to being a Deadhead at a Dead concert was when I attended a Leslie Jamison and Maggie Nelson conversation at Skylight Books in Los Feliz and found myself in a sea of canvas tote bags and Everlane high-waisted wide-legged pants. I could be friends with these people, I remembered feeling. Knowing that they too were willing to traipse across Los Angeles and wait on line to hear these two writers speak—writers whose words on the page had resonated with all of us—was all I needed to know. But a bunch of introverts in folding chairs do not create the same sense of community or offer the kind of generosity that you will find at a concert or that I imagine you find at a climbing gym. There is no passing of joints, no public expression of awe or ecstacy to be shared, and so the literary subculture, obvious and tangible as it may be in that moment, ceases to exist in a physical form as soon as the event ends, its members fading back into the general population of the city without a tiedye shirt to identify them.
I’m sure I’m oversimplifying. I know making new friends is not as easy as lacing up your rollerblades and joining a crowd of rollerbladers. But I imagine it can instill a sense of belonging to a community or a culture—a sensation I haven’t really felt since book events have moved to Zoom. I’m coming up on two years in the Bay Area and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever feel like I belong here, and whether I will ever make new friends. I’ve found myself wishing I had a passion besides reading or even a passing interest in a niche-enough activity that would pull me out out of the house and into a subculture of people doing the same. Many of my friends seem to be turning to pottery! I know I’m not alone in feeling like I lack opportunities to mix socially in the world. That is why a dozen or so millennials were willing to pay $90 for a pop-up dinner that guaranteed at least one thing in common: following Sfiziopasta on Instagram. Perhaps that is a subculture.
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Maybe I just wasn’t doing enough drugs or staying out late enough.
I think I'll give John Wilson another try! Great visuals of that deadhead gathering. Community is hard to find especially since we're still in Covid! Keep trying...