When style and substance join
By Rev. Donna Schaper
March 17 - 23, 2010
H.M. "Harry" Koutoukas was as unlikely a person to have a pastor as
they come. He was a cigarette-smoking, former serious drinker and
drugger, who loved nothing more than a good A.A. meeting. He liked
nudity in the many plays he wrote and he made irreverence a steady
virtue. "Suck" appears to be one of his favorite words.
To say that Harry was a homosexual is to understate the obvious. He
called me "The Reverend Dr. Cupcake" and had a passion for giving
everybody a nickname, some more sweet than others. The week of his
death he asked me to come over and give him Communion. That was the
first serious signal that he knew the time had come. His twin brother
was high up in the Greek Orthodox Church and was forbade for years to
even talk to Harry. When the twin died last year, Harry began to go.
He loved his brother, in the same way he had of loving life; he knew
how mean it was but found a way to not notice. Wit was his way.
His voice mail said, "Leave a message, especially if you can say
something interesting." Needless to say, that message was
intimidating. Very few of us have the wit of Harry. Some people never
miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Harry was the opposite.
He never missed a chance to quip or quarrel or change your point of
view on what had just happened. In his corrections, he often had a
way of shoveling your sentimentality into a cutter bucket. His closer
friends love to say that he had the freedom to relax from his
opportunistic quipping: "I love being here at brunch with you where I
can just be and not also be entertaining." He had a way of keeping
you simultaneously intimidated and amused, inspired and appreciated,
sometimes with a quip that could bite your toes off.
Speaking of toes, Harry was a diabetic. His trick was that of the
clown who often shows us how happy we could be about how sad we are.
Harry said, "I can't even get a discount on a pedicure, even though I
only have eight toes." His fans ranged from the famous to the fallen,
from Yoko Ono, who was his neighbor when first he came to New York,
and continued as his patron, to the three kids from the pier who
created the shrine for Harry that adorned Christopher St. in the days
after he died. The kids reported that it was Harry who understood
them, even though their parents had thrown them out and the cops were
chasing them. What could they do? They put candles and flowers on the
altar of his "Glittermobile."
Which leads to the Glittermobile. Judson Church's relationship to
Harry was as parish to parishioner. He was one of those people who
showed up with vigor in the offering plate and in the pew, which is a
movable chair at Judson. Toward the end, our relationship to Harry
was primarily through his Glittermobile. When Harry could no longer
navigate standing up, we asked Yoko Ono to buy him a vehicle. She
did. Judson owns the vehicle, but Harry had lifetime use. Harry
nicknamed it the Glittermobile. He let its battery run down so many
successive times that we had to insist that he not by refusing to
get it recharged. The lack of attention to the Glittermobile's needs
(not to mention that he had to park it next door at the neighboring
church, where they should have but did not charge him for charging
it) resulted in fairly nonstop groans at the Judson office, where one
staff member after another said, "I am not doing it, whatever it is."
After a couple of years, the company from which we bought the
Glittermobile went out of business. That means that only bribery gets
us new parts. The Glittermobile (sort of) continues to function and
is looking for a new home as we speak. I am considering the
Smithsonian. Its latest role as shrine is going to make it very picky
about its new place.
A purple-haired, fur-coated, bird-on-shoulder man will no longer
cross the meeting room on Sunday mornings to go out for a smoke
during my sermons. I will miss these "interruptions" while knowing
that they were frequently the full message. It is rare we get such
good examples of shortcoming in the middle of a service.
"Smokers for Jesus" was a real organization at Judson; Harry was its
president. Judson is not very big on the short, and instead worships
the "loving God" whom Harry knew. Harry's drive of the Glittermobile
in front or behind the table always told us more about the loving God
than the cigarette. His theology was that of love, and he had more
ammunition for the punishmentalists than anyone I know. I so wish
Glenn Beck could have debated him.
Wit was the ammunition. H.M. Koutoukas won an Obie in 1965 for his
play "Assaulting Established Tradition." His behavior in worship did
the same, but never with scorn. That was another of Harry's tricks:
He could intimidate you by being so smart, so witty, so "on," then he
would make sure he sent you a Valentine's Day postcard. Harry had
little of the scorn the world had for him.
As Harry said, "You can pretend to be serious but you can't pretend
to be witty." He also had a joy that must have been difficult with
emphysema. The quote most people want to give you about Harry now
that we are deep in his quoting season is: "If you see a child go
by, be sure to tell them how beautiful they are."
One of those "children," Sarah Kornfeld, has posted a remarkable
piece from her history of growing up at Judson. Check out
www.WhatSarahSees. Her take on Harry is anti-style and pro-substance.
She argues that Harry was fundamentally smart and that his style
often distracted from our seeing his brilliance. She says he was the
"full integration of style and substance." We were so overwhelmed by
the wit and the style that we couldn't quite get to the ideas.
I agree with this child of Judson and want to take her comment one
step further. Harry only looked anti-religious. Religion or faith or
spirituality, pick your clunky word, was at the heart of this Greek
Orthodox man. It is not an accident that he wanted a full Greek
Eucharist at his final service. I couldn't get him to do a living
will, or assign a surrogate, or make any end-of-life plans. He joked
me along whenever I mentioned them. One day, though, he called up to
ask for the full Greek Eucharist, whatever that is.
Religion was so much against Harry but he was not against it. His big
ideas were love, joy, irony, paradox, sentimentality's hook pushed
all the way through your skin to the other side. My favorite song of
his, which we will also sing as part of the "full" Greek Eucharist,
is "The Rhinestone Crucifix."
Harry was often described as self-destructive or at best
self-limiting. He would announce plays that never happened (the Cino
schedule shows several of them), refer people who wanted to publish
or produce his work professionally to an unlocatable and possibly
nonexistent Swiss agent, and is the subject of several legends about
fantastic brawls and brannigans, one involving him throwing a famed
Off-Off producer down a flight of stairs. He encouraged such stories.
His response to my pushing on his archive and his will was to say
that several men in shiny suits were going to show up saying they
owned the archive and that I was to throw them down a flight of
stairs. He also constantly said, "Don't give it to N.Y.U., even over
my dead body."
As Off-Off Broadway expanded, he said he was going to make a fortune
with a bus that would take tourists from the 7 o'clock show at the
Cino to the 8 o'clock at La Mama, the 9 o'clock at Judson Poets'
Theater, the 10 o'clock at Theatre Genesis. If you don't believe me
about the love thing, and its penetrating ironies and the paradox of
Harry being its protégé, just take a look around at how many are on
the bus. We had to move in chairs for his first service last Thursday
night, giving yet more meaning to the movable feast that Harry was.
H.L. Mencken was another famous American humorist, who did not win
his battle with scorn as well as Harry did. He had the same
minimalism about his own mortality that Harry did. Apparently, he put
a hand-scribbled note in an envelope in a file labeled, "UPON MY
DEATH." The note read, "Don't overdo it."
One of the dozens of speakers at Harry's first service said, "Beware
of nostalgia." I think Harry would agree. The bus will make different
stops in this new century. Harry won't be on it. But his loving style
and loving substance will be.
Schaper is senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church.