21 questions

Writer and Artist Philip Smith Only Likes Plays in Which the Actors Forget Their Lines

Name: Philip Smith
Job: Author of the memoir Walking Through Walls, out next week from Atria; painter.
Age: “Together, the numbers in my current age add up to 11. This will be a very auspicious year.”
Neighborhood: Downtown

Who’s your favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional?
When I was younger I spent a lot of time with Andy Warhol. I used to write for Interview magazine. One day we were talking about Diana Vreeland and he said, “Um, she’s in the phone book, why don’t you call her up?” Now, that’s a New Yorker.

What’s the best meal you’ve eaten in New York?
My dear friends from Japan always take me downstairs to a private room in a midtown sushi restaurant. We don’t order. We just sit down and the food just appears. Done with great simplicity, the meal is one of subtle sensory overload. After the meal these boxes arrive for me to take home, which is a duplicate of the meal we just enjoyed so I can have it all over again. But, since I don’t have that kind of clout and I like to keep everything as simple as possible, I would definitely say the branzino and grilled squid cooked with real heart and soul at Basso 56. It’s always perfect and fresh. The chef, Paolo, picks out every piece of fish and every piece of lettuce himself. And it shows.

In one sentence, what do you actually do all day in your job?
Be truthful in whatever I’m doing.

Would you still live here on a $35,000 salary?
I’ve done it in the past, I could probably do it again. It’s just a state of mind.

What’s the last thing you saw on Broadway?
I don’t particularly enjoy theater unless it’s a high school production where people forget their lines. I’ve noticed that in general painters have a hard time with the theater. I don’t know why, but they do.

Do you give money to panhandlers?
I can’t help it when I see an elderly woman going through the garbage looking for food. I always talk to them and give them enough money for a full meal. In this country (or any country for that matter), people should not be hungry. There really is enough money in the world so that people don’t have to be without food.

What’s your drink?
Ice water. I love ice water. It makes me feel like a kid when I was growing up in the South without air conditioning. So refreshing. However, if you are asking about alcoholic beverages, I enjoy dark rum and tonic during the summer, especially when I’m hanging with my Cubano posse. Otherwise I’ll just take a glass of gin. When I was in India for the first time in my twenties, I didn’t feel well and the guy from the government who read my palm said that I needed to drink some gin because it has a lot of herbs in it to cool the body. I believed him and it worked. So I drink gin strictly for medicinal reasons.

How often do you prepare your own meals?
As much as possible, usually almost every day. First of all, except for Paolo and the Japanese, I don’t trust someone else touching my food when I’m not looking. But there are practical reasons too. I figure by the time you get dressed, go out, stand in line, sit down, order drinks, wait for your food to come, and then wait again for the check, you could have cooked ten meals at home. As you can tell, time is fairly valuable to me.

What’s your favorite medication?
Aspirin. It makes me happy, eases depression, helps me train harder, reduces my risk of heart attack. What more do you want from a drug?

What’s hanging above your sofa?
Air — it’s in the middle of the room.

How much is too much to spend on a haircut?
Sometimes I like to see how little I can pay for a haircut without looking like a nutjob. I like to try barbershops that everyone else would be terrified to go into. It’s an experiment of mine. However, the Dominican guy who regularly cuts my hair tells me that he loves cutting hair more than anything in the world and he would be happy doing it for free, but he has to eat so he charges. When his clients are tight on money he tells them to come in and get their hair cut without paying him. So, I think no matter what I pay him, I’m paying too much. He doesn’t seem to need a lot of money as he finds all his furniture on the street and every time I get my hair cut, his apartment is furnished totally differently. This guy’s a genius.

When’s bedtime?
It depends. I wish I didn’t have to sleep — it takes up too much time.

Which do you prefer, the old Times Square or the new Times Square?
Gosh, I remember GG Barnum’s and Esqualita, all those ratty clubs around Times Square that made life a lot more interesting. Years ago, an art dealer friend of mine took me to some place upstairs where all kinds of things were going on, and I had just never seen anything like that, but that place is gone — as are those days. I used to be a firm believer that everything old was better than anything new but I’m softening my position on that … except Times Square.

What do you think of Donald Trump?
I don’t think I can accurately comment on people I don’t know. So I’ll pass. However, from a purely objective viewpoint, I’d love him to pay a visit to the guy who cuts my hair. I’m sure he’d cut his hair for free. I just don’t understand that hair. Every time I see a picture of him I just stare and stare at his hair trying to figure out how he gets it like that and what he could possibly do to have it not look like that. It’s weird, I don’t know if it’s parted in the wrong place or combed the wrong way but it bothers me. One of his goals in this lifetime should be the resolution of his hair. I think he’d feel better and have more fun even if he remains a blond — well, a better shade of blond.

What do you dislike most about living in New York?
Those new buildings. Living in New York should be hard, tough, gritty — it toughens you up. All these big glass buildings like the one on Astor Place make me feel like I’m living in Atlanta. I get confused as to where I am. And that Whole Foods on the Bowery. What’s that about? I lived on the Bowery in a condemned building without heat, so this Whole Foods thing doesn’t sit too well with me. Don’t get me started on Orchard Street…

Who is your mortal enemy?
Is there such a thing? I don’t think so.

When’s the last time you drove a car?
Pretty recently.

Who should be the next president?
My mother. She’s really smart, doesn’t lie, a lot tougher than Hillary. Her entire life has been guided by character AND style. What a great combination. We need more people like this. She’d have no problem going mano-a-mano with anyone from Al Queda. In addition, she doesn’t tolerate any fiddle-faddle and knows how to pick people. We would have great teachers, there wouldn’t be such a thing as a “failing school” or those showers that we specially build in Iraq to electrocute our own soldiers. She’d have the brass from the Pentagon on the carpet so fast their eggs would scramble.

Times, Post, or Daily News?
Post for hard news, Times for entertainment.

Where do you go to be alone?
The dojo. Even in a class with 100 people, I am perfectly alone in the best possible way.

What makes someone a New Yorker?
Wanting things done right the first time, being spoiled by great service and great quality, and having your money out before you even reach the cashier in the grocery store. That New York accent thing doesn’t count because people talk funny everywhere.

Writer and Artist Philip Smith Only Likes Plays in Which the Actors Forget Their Lines