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Artist, composer/playwright Marc McBarron Kessler was born in New Jersey but is “reborn daily in New York City”, where he creates postcards, zines and musical plays. He shares his West Side Story
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born in New Jersey but I am reborn daily in New York City and I’m always just arriving here. I’m an artist so, every day feels like I just got off the boat. There’s always something new to see in New York if your eyes and heart are open. Even though I technically come from New Jersey, I always dreamed of running away to New York as a little boy and I think a place you go to can be more important than the place you come from. Now I just dream of running away to different streets in the city. Sometimes running away means visiting the pier. The great thing about New York City is that you don’t have to leave it in order to run away. And you can come from anywhere and be a New Yorker. New York City accepts you as you are. As I say on one of my postcards, “I didn’t know I was lost until I found myself in New York City.”
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I wrote about Hell’s Kitchen before I fully lived here. The best way to make something real is to write about it. I was always rehearsing and performing my musical plays in Hell’s Kitchen and my friend Johnny has had his Hell’s Kitchen apartment since 1992. We used his place as our rehearsal space and then suddenly I lived here full time. (His original building was vacated but I live with him now in a neighboring building.) The characters of my plays moved here first and then I followed them.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
My favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen are the living things: The people. You can walk down the street wearing or not wearing whatever you want and no one judges you. You see drag queens in full attire, you see guys in skimpy shorts without underwear, you see older people with young smiles and a lot of life left to live, and you might even see me in my toga passing out zines to strangers. Strangers are future friends. There are a lot of future friends in this neighborhood.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Bad landlords that are permitted to cast shadows upon a neighborhood they don’t even live in by maintaining ownership of properties they don’t maintain. You can’t have a healthy, functioning city without healthy housing. Empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings set the tone for the streets. And you can’t go home without walking the streets.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
Artists always find escapes for some of the time. I never stay put. My life didn’t change very much due to the pandemic because most of the creating I do happens in solitude. That’s where I cultivate my dreams and find new songs to write. Sometimes I visit my parents in New Jersey, but once you’ve lived in New York, you live to return to it. You can never fully break up with New York. It stalks your heart. It was interesting not having to cut through the chaos of Times Square to get to my favorite discount store at 46th and 5th in the middle of the pandemic. And wearing masks made you search for smiles in people’s eyes.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I’m an artist (composer/playwright). I’m always out of work and I’m always hard at work. Artists never stop. I can write my way out of every dark hole. Artists are warriors.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The thing I always knew: Without dreams, we are without hope. Dreams see us through every catastrophe. And every catastrophe brings us back to our dreams.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
Art. Art survives and sees us through plagues and wars. Art is the flashlight that leads us out of the darkest days and the longest nights. And Hell’s Kitchen is full of artists, so it never goes fully dark.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
This past Saturday night, after I debuted my new show at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row, a bearded, long-haired guy, not dissimilar from myself in appearance, called out my name near the bar entrance and followed me out onto the sidewalk. I held his hands in mine as he spoke to me. He said that he was the creator of the visual artwork (zines and postcards) I share with the neighborhood. On some cosmic level, I believed him. He asked for a cigarette and my phone number. I don’t smoke and I don’t randomly give out my phone number, but we continued to hold hands and I realized that maybe this man was somehow suffering or in need. As I continued to listen to him, I decided that he was a wandering extension of myself and maybe he felt the same about me. In a way, when you live in New York City, you are your neighbors and vice versa. I watched this man disappear down the street and felt a tremendous sense of sadness that overshadowed my show. But, my show was about the people of this neighborhood, including people of the street, and I was merely being introduced to a new character I had never met before and yet always have known.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I was bullied daily in school and never didn’t stand out and there were constant rumors about me flying everywhere and one day a friend said, “At least they’re talking about you.” Even being the target of other people’s hatred or prejudice can feel like a twisted form of celebrity. Childhood taught me everything I needed to know about adulthood and I am now an adult having a happy childhood in the playground of New York City, where every person walking these streets is a star of sorts. That’s what makes the city so bright. Everyone here shines, regardless of age. Fame means nothing if you’re not making other people happy and the world better.
What’s your superpower?
Like the little boy of my new show, my imagination is my superpower. Imagination is a candle that never burns down and never needs relighting once it is set aflame. Imagination can see you through every war or pandemic. The world can never have enough lit candles.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
No One Ever Said New York Was Easy — a song I just wrote for my new musical STRANGERS OF 46th STREET.
Which people inspire you the most?
Fellow writers (especially dead ones), anyone who loves, my parents, and people who smile even though they have missing teeth.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Don’t follow your dreams, lead them.” I’m a writer, so I come up with my own sayings. Sometimes I post them on the bulletin board near the HK Free Store on W45th and 9th.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
It’s hard to love places that are always changing and don’t inspire roots. I love the ghosts of Times Square, the myths, its seedy yesterdays. Times Square isn’t a neighborhood, it’s a place to pose for pictures and shop for things you don’t need. You can’t build a garden in Times Square. It’s a place you pass through on your way to places where things grow, real neighborhoods.
More West Side Stories
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
At first I resented it, but New York is an ocean of change. One wave erases the next. And you can be a “starving artist” and still visit places where you can’t afford to live. It doesn’t cost anything to be a tourist in your own city. I have no desire to live in a high-rise, which is why I love the historic buildings of Hell’s Kitchen. A fifth-floor walk-up is a high enough nest for me.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
My friend Johnny talks about some of the naughty places that no longer exist in the neighborhood. I don’t think New York City should be afraid of its adult side or providing places you can’t find anywhere else in the country. It’s probably not the most popular thing to admit, but I think it would be really cool to walk into an adult cinema in the middle of the day.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
I am an artist. I am not ashamed to say that it is people like me that make other people want to visit or live in New York City. And yet, I can hardly afford to live here, because if you don’t have a show running on Broadway, you’re not considered a real composer or a success. It’s important to remember the unity in the word community. And that means coming out on a rainy night to support a new show that isn’t on Broadway, doesn’t cost five hundred dollars to see, and doesn’t have a waiting list. People shouldn’t be afraid to experience new things. It’s the new that keeps New York running and adds to its reservoir of history. Our next performance of STRANGERS OF 46th STREET happens on Saturday, July 23, 7pm at Michiko Studios in Times Square. And look for my zines and postcards on the W45th Street bulletin board. Feel free to take what you see.
Anything we missed?
If you don’t want to live in a garbage dump, don’t litter. If you don’t want to live in an unhappy world, smile at everyone. If you don’t want to be hopeless, offer hope to a neighbor. Hell’s Kitchen is the entrance to New York City. Every entranceway should be as beautiful as it can possibly be. I am a proud supporter of beauty. And I freely contribute to New York City’s future on a daily basis, for free. So at least say “hi” to me if you see me on the street sharing my art. Sometimes a “hello” is the greatest payment an artist can receive.
Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
El Mil Sabores on 9th Ave. — I love small businesses that allow you to linger over coffee after you’ve finished your huevos rancheros (served with kindness) or cookies from the bakery case. Some of my greatest dreams are born over coffee.
The community garden on W48th (Clinton Community Garden) — It’s magical having a key to a place other than your apartment. Outdoor space is precious in New York City. This little park has a Buddha sitting before a cozy park bench, a bee condominium, a round yew bush where birds hide or fly from, and sundry flowers to keep you quiet company.
Pier 84 (“The Pier” to me) — It’s one of the places I run away to. The smell of the Hudson reminds me of growing up on the Jersey Shore. I have an imaginary mermaid that lives in the water near the Intrepid. Even in winter, I walk to the end of the pier to watch the boats go quietly by and feel I’ve gone as far as I can go to the edge of the city without leaving it.
The W46th Street playground (Mathews-Palmer Playground) — I love the mural, I loved the old jungle-gym train that no longer exists. I love filming videos there or stopping off at the bathroom instead of climbing all the stairs to my apartment. A true New Yorker knows where the public bathrooms are.
The bulletin board next to the HK Free Store on W45th. — I enjoy posting my zines and postcards on the bulletin board to inspire happiness in the neighborhood during troubled times and watching people make decisions as to what they should take from the free store. The bulletin board is a great place to have random conversations and hear about people’s lives.
The benches outside the Food Emporium and the Plaza on W43rd — People-watching is like visiting a free museum of moving art. Sometimes I pause on one of these benches to allow my heart to catch its breath as I sip coffee and watch owners parade their dogs up and down the sidewalk. This spot is a great way to remind yourself that we live in a neighborhood where people actually know each other’s names, as well as the names of each other’s dogs. I don’t have pets but I have plants.
Don’t Tell Mama — Sydney Meyer, the booking agent, has invited me to perform my original work here and it is important to remember the theatre part of cabaret theatre. Sometimes this place scares me more than it makes me happy because it represents potential failure — but where there is potential failure there is potential success.
The Salvation Army on W46th — I call it Sally’s and for a while I stopped shopping here because of their views on gay and trans rights, which have since changed (as far as I know). It’s nice to visit a place where I can pretty much afford everything that’s in the store. Also, if you take advantage of their colored tag sales, you get even greater discounts. And even though they have a new elevator, I still take the metal stairs and listen to the echoes of my footsteps. And they have fun gumball machines in the old entranceway.
Sitting outside Galaxy Diner on the corner of W46th and 9th — Mandy the waitress knows all of our names and when you sit outside eating angel hair margherita pasta you get to see all of the street activity that makes Hell’s Kitchen the most amazing neighborhood in New York City.
My bedroom windows — I begin and end every day with the view from my bedroom windows. There’s nothing more magical than watching the sun setting and seeing the eyes of distant skyscrapers come alive. If you have a view, you have everything.