Back in the Arms of an Old Friend … The Clock Watcher

Back in the Arms of an Old Friend

Girlfriend , the 1991 album by Matthew Sweet, is considered by many people to be one of the most memorable pop records of the past decade: a simple, earnest, yet occasionally gorgeous collection of hook-laden songs about over-the-moon love and bittersweet heartache. Also known for its photograph of fur-wrapped Tuesday Weld on its cover, Girlfriend was the pretty record that everyone played when they were pretending to be listening to Nirvana–and its success immediately made Mr. Sweet, an apple-cheeked Nebraskan, a most unlikely rock star.

New York playwright Todd Almond was one of the many angst-ridden teens and twentysomethings bowled over by Girlfriend . “I’ve been obsessed with that album for about 10 years now,” Mr. Almond, 24, said recently. “I was in high school when it came out, and I listened to it over and over and kind of constructed a narrative in my head around it. It occurred to me that it would be a good challenge to make a musical out of it.”

And that was precisely what Mr. Almond did, taking some minor artistic liberties. He joined up with director Patrick Trettenero, an old friend from summer stock, and together the two men fleshed out a storyline. They contacted Mr. Sweet’s management company and received permission to use his songs. They assembled a band and a cast, and hung up flyers downtown. And then, on the first Monday of last month, in the Duplex, a 70-seat cabaret room in the West Village, Girlfriend made its New York theatrical debut–as a coming-of-age gay musical.

In Mr. Almond and Mr. Trettenero’s production, Girlfriend serves as the melodic backdrop for a budding romance between Mike and Will, two teenage boys living in the Nebraska plains (Mr. Almond, who is, like Mr. Sweet, from the Cornhusker State, plays Will). While the musical puts a clever new spin on the object of Mr. Sweet’s affections–the chorus to Girlfriend’ s title track, “I need to get back in the arms of a girlfriend,” gets a nice twist, for example–the emotional spirit of the original album is faithfully maintained.

“It was quite charming,” said Julie Stepanek, one of the many fans of Mr. Sweet’s who was in the audience at the Duplex last month. Ms. Stepanek said that she had fallen for Girlfriend after an old boyfriend gave her the record years ago, and she felt a little flutter when she saw an ad on the street for Mr. Almond and Mr. Trettenero’s musical. “That flyer kind of took me back,” she said.

Reached in Los Angeles, where he lives, Mr. Sweet said he hadn’t seen Girlfriend: A New Musical , but he sounded thrilled about its existence. “If people ever do anything relating to stuff I’ve done, I’m flattered and amazed that anyone cares that much,” he said. “I’m really curious to see it, because somebody took it and made something very creative of their own out of it.”

Mr. Sweet had, in fact, planned to come see the show one night in early March, when the production coincided with a concert he was performing at Bowery Ballroom. “He actually phoned and said he was going to come,” Mr. Almond recalled. Understandably, a bit of Waiting for Guffman -like frenzy ensued among the cast and crew–but alas, Mr. Sweet did not show up. “It was the night of that big storm,” Mr. Almond explained. “But he did call and apologize for not making it.”

There was a second chance, at the close of Girlfriend ‘s run at the end of March, when Mr. Sweet had to return to New York for a tribute to one of his idols, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson. A few days before the tribute concert, Mr. Sweet was unsure but hopeful–”I’ll probably be in rehearsals pretty late, but you never know,” he said. He speculated that if he could make it to the Duplex, he’d probably just show up and pay the $12 cover with a two-drink minimum. “I might end up singing along,” he said.

Alas, it was not meant to be– Girlfriend ‘ s West Village run ended without an appearance by its inspiration. But hope was on the horizon: A theater in Nebraska had contacted Mr. Almond and asked if he would be interested in taking his show back to his home state. Suddenly anything felt possible again, like it did in those days when you bounced around your bedroom in headphones, listening to Matthew Sweet.

–Pauline O’Connor

The Clock Watcher

Stewart Davis, a dapper man partial to double-breasted suits and deco-patterned ties, is the undisputed clock-watcher of New York basketball. If you’ve ever gazed at the little red numbers ticking down at Madison Square Garden or other city basketball dens, you’ve undoubtedly seen his work.

Over the past decade, Mr. Davis, 36, has controlled either the 24-second shot clock or the scoreboard for some 500 New York Knicks home games–as well as contests involving Hunter College, CUNY, the WNBA and the Public Schools Athletic League, and the summer games he organizes for kids at Brookville Park in Queens. “Everybody says Spike Lee has the best seat in the house,” said Mr. Davis on a recent afternoon. “But I might beg to differ.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Davis is something of a basketball junkie. A nerf hoop hangs in his home in Jamaica, Queens, but he also played Mr. Naismith’s game for real. Mr. Davis, who grew up dreaming of playing for John Wooden at UCLA, played forward for his high school J.V. at August Martin High School, and then played for Queens College’s J.V. in the early 1980’s.

But it was later that Mr. Davis found his true hoops calling. After his college career ended, Mr. Davis was hanging out at the scrimmages at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park when someone asked him to man a stopwatch. It wasn’t quite like the genesis of Pearl Washington, Stephon Marbury or Booger Smith, but another star was born on the playgrounds of New York.

More than 10 years later, Mr. Davis, who also holds down a full-time job at the Social Security Administration, is the city’s basketball timekeeper of choice. On March 15, he was specifically requested to clock-watch for the 12-hour, four-game marathon that was the first day of the NCAA tournament at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. “They wanted our staff,” Mr. Davis said, because the non-stop pace of March Madness means “a hell of a day.” (He routinely works with a partner, Roger (Rock) Murray, alternating between shot-clock and scoreboard duties.)

It takes a certain kind of person to do Mr. Davis’ job. You have to be alert, but not too alert. You don’t want to get an itchy trigger finger–hitting that button and stopping time too quickly–or hesitate and miss a stoppage of play. Though in today’s shoot-first, ask-questions-later N.B.A. game, the 24-second shot clock is rarely an issue, it can still be trouble if it’s reset at the wrong moment. For clocksmiths like Mr. Davis, patience is a virtue. “We were taught by the N.B.A., ‘Be slow,'” Mr. Davis said.

The college game is slightly slower, with a 35-second clock. The time-keeping device is a square, putty-colored metal box, roughly the size of an airplane pillow. During the course of a typical college-basketball game, the shot-clock operator hits the clock around 150 times. It is hardly as repetitive and dull as it sounds. “As a kid, you want to grow up and play in the N.B.A., but that doesn’t work out,” Mr. Davis said. “Now I have a chance to see every game. I wouldn’t miss that.”

Between first-round NCAA games at the Nassau Coliseum, Davis wandered around the arena with the elder of his two sons, 9-year-old Stewart Jr. Stewart Jr. had gotten out of school early that day, on the condition that he record the event in his journal. “This is an experience, so I might as well try to turn it into something for him,” Mr. Davis said. “Besides, his journal writing has been eh .”

Later in the day, Mr. Davis sat in a folding chair on the lip of the court. Around him, a handful of crew members readied for that evening’s games, which included Boston College versus Southern Utah and Southern California versus Oklahoma State. A young-looking fellow with a Mohawk climbed a ladder and placed a level across an orange rim. “My skills didn’t let me get there,” Mr. Davis said, nodding towards the court. “But now I’ll have a longer career anyway.”

–Mac Montandon