(Blogger’s note: Before I dive into this, I want to mention that my mri came back clear — no strokes, no tumors, just a nice, healthy brain, evidently. Who knows why I have a slight tremor in my left hand? I’m greatly relieved and appreciate your concern.)
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I may be prejudiced, but I think my Cousin Maria is one of the most fascinating people on earth.
Things happen when Maria shows up in town (like New York is boring to begin with). Total strangers pour out their life stories. We get befriended by the owner of a famous restaurant who is pleased we’re going to see “Our Town” since it was written by Oscar Wilde. Plays and musicals, already riveting, become emotional catharses. The weather — formerly benign and springlike — becomes violent and wind-shorn and you have to fight off Mary Poppins levitation moments with your umbrella. Things like that.
Time is short, so we see four plays in four days. First, the wonderful revival of “Our Town” in the Village. I’ve already seen it several months ago when we first got to New York and, I swear, I’d see it again. It’s spare and eloquent and lovely, a performance that casts a haunting spell on the audience.
The next day, we go to one of my favorite places in New York, the Tenement Museum. Maria, who’s of Mediterranean descent, gets to tell the story of how two of her family members pushed a couple of Irish cops out of a window on a high floor about a century ago, which is why her family had to leave New York rather suddenly. Nobody else on the tour can match that story, believe me.
Then, we go to see “West Side Story,” which is wonderful and tragic and leaves us with melodies I’m still humming today. Maria waits in line to meet “Tony” after the performance so she can tell him how gifted he is and also because she’s developed a big crush on him. “I think I got it across,” she says later. I’m pretty sure she’s talking about the actor’s giftedness, but who knows?
The third night, we’re sitting in still another theater, waiting to see a preview of “Looped,” a play about Tallulah Bankhead, with Valerie Harper in the lead role. I am sitting there next to an empty seat, minding my own business, as Maria becomes best friends with the couple next to us. All of a sudden, a man sweeps in and seats himself next to me. He has dark hair and glasses. He looks … familiar.
“Look at him,” I hiss to Maria. I am trying, as always, not to make a complete fool of myself. “Is it Stephen Colbert?”
Maria discreetly cranes her neck. “It’s him,” she confirms, digging an elbow into my side.
Time passes. The play is good. I think. But how can I tell when I’m sitting a couple of inches away from Stephen Colbert? Concentration is difficult.
At the intermission, Stephen takes off his glasses and kind of obscures his face and talks to the people he’s with. I discuss the situation with Maria. “I want to say something,” I say, “but I don’t want to bother him.”
“You won’t bother him,” Maria says. “You’re very respectful. If you’re not going to talk to him, do you want to trade places with me?”
Hell, no. I’m not going anywhere. Just because Maria is practically engaged to “Tony,” doesn’t mean I am about to give up what’s become the hottest seat in the house. Any army couldn’t extract me.
Finally, I get my moment. I tell him how much I admire his work. He thanks me, introduces himself and shakes my hand. He asks what I think of the play. I say I like it, but Tallulah reminds me a little too much of a deceased family member. I ask whether he minds being famous, noticed by everyone. He says it’s all right — except when his kids are around.
The curtain comes up and cuts Stephen’s and my personal relationship short. All I can think is, at last I’ve finally done something that will impress my son.
All of which might have been the end of the story, except we have another show to see, Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” We sit there, watching it, with Maria in the row ahead of me. I haven’t seen the play in years and am shocked how much it has changed on me — or, clearly, I’ve changed on it. Once, when I was young, I saw the mother, Amanda Wingfield, only as a monster — rapacious, deluded, controlling. Now, I see her differently. She’s a mother who’s fighting for her daughter’s survival. She’s as deluded and controlling as I once thought. But the play doesn’t have a true villain, unless it’s the cruel capriciousness of life.
Watching, thinking, listening. A cellphone in a nearby coat pocket goes off. It plays a loud, jaunty merry-go-round song that goes on and on and on. The coat and cellphone are next to Maria, but their owner is not. The phone continues to chirp. People crane necks and begin to whisper. I watch Maria as she grabs the coat, then the phone, and hunches over it. It continues its loud warbling. The play goes on. The phone is now beeping loudly. People are furious. Maria hands the phone to the young couple next to her. Finally, they silence it. Glares and whispers all around. The play moves forward.
Maria wanders off during the intermission. I stay behind. The people behind me are blaming Maria. “Could you believe she didn’t turn it off?” they murmur. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I swivel around in my seat. “It wasn’t her phone,” I announce. “She was just trying to help.”
Another couple of people several feet away chime in with the same complaints. I try to set them straight. (A theater lynch mob seems to be forming.) An elderly woman casually comes up and claims the coat and the offending cellphone. I point to her. “She’s the one who owns the phone,” I announce.
Maria returns, having pled her case with some complainants in the lobby. Truth is, it was an impossible situation: A stranger’s cellphone next to you is going off at the worst possible moment. You do the best you can, trying to shut it down. But then, you get tagged as the phone’s owner, the perpetrator, the true villain of the play.
The winds and rain are tornadic as Maria and I make our way to the subway, battling other aggressive umbrella-wielders in Times Square. Maria leaves for the airport Sunday.
Monday morning, my husband and I wake up to the howl of sirens and flashing red lights and the smell of smoke. Outside our door, there are shouting and loud noises.
As it turns out, the top floor on the apartment next to us is on fire and they are hauling hose through our apartment’s windows. Oh, damn, I think. Maria, with her genius for drama, missed the whole spectacle.
But then, I realize, it might be for the better. If Maria had been here, the whole place might have burned down. Some people just attract action wherever they go.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about why take your kids to work day can be a disastrous idea
Fun post. I fixed on Our Town, since I saw it in the Village in 1959!!
Old lady that I am.
Loved this post. I am so envious that you met Stephen Colbert! Incredible! I stay up way too late to watch his show. Glad you held onto your seat and got to introduce yourself.
Oh my gosh. Please invite me the next time you two get together. First of all, Our Town is possibly my most favorite play in the world, so if you want to go see it a third time, call me. Seriously. When I was a junior in high school, for an English project, I rewrote it as a musical (a travesty, but it was fun). Oscar Wilde – ROFL. Secondly, West Side Story. OMG. I would love to see that. Thirdly – Stephen Colbert?!!?! I just hope you casually allowed your leg to brush his and then enshrined your pants. I adore him. My son does too. I would even put up with a burning apartment to do these things! And P.S. I’m glad your test results were good news. A real cause to celebrate. Almost as good as sitting next to Stephen Colbert.
I think asking him what he thought of being famous was such a GREAT question. One I would want to know and be too stuck in a loop of, “hi, you’re cool. hi, you’re cool” to come up with.. I LOVED the cell phone part of this story though. Oh! My! Gawd! Definitely the funniest thing is that you ratted out the perpetrator.
Ruth – Your story is like a play unto itself!
And with a name like Maria, couldn’t your cousin convince Tony to let her play his love interest?
I’m terribly jealous that you saw Looped. I’ve been following that play’s progress for months online. Fuddy-duddy that I am, I admit I had to look up Stephen Colbert online, but happy that you have met a celebrity in NYC other than “Lauren Bacall.” I would have had to answer that phone and quietly whispered, “Campbell’s Funeral Home, how can I help you.” Somehow your cousin reminded me of Tallulah– stormy excitement wherever she goes. The fire brought to mind a line from All About Eve— “she looks like she could burn down a plantation.” Too bad your cousin missed it– probably aftershocks of her visit.
See? The MRI results just point to what I said all along.
Talk about plays within plays. I don’t know which I had rather seen- the cell phone incident or the Glass Menagerie. Is your life this wacky in Austin?
Oh my god you spoke with Stephen Colbert. As if I could be any more jealous of your life. 🙂
Now I know what to see in NYC and how to behave if I ever meet Stephen Colbert or have to silence an abandoned cellphone. Thanks for another refreshing observation on life. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I always feel a little smarter and saner after reading your blog.
So jealous you got to chat with Stephen Colbert. We’re big fans at our house.
Oddly, I was just thinking this morning if there was anyone in the world I might consider leaving my husband for, and the answer was Stephen Colbert. If I had been you and found myself sitting there next to him, security would have needed to tackle me escort me from the theater.
That was lots of fun to read.
I wish I had a friend like Maria! How cool is meeting Colbert, seeing all those awesome plays, and having a bit of melodrama. I’m glad, too, that she wasn’t around for the fire though!!!
Wait ’til you meet the rest of the family!
I got distracted at the very beginning of this story on account of the “Oscar Wilde” loving restaurant owner. In my British way I have no way to express polite confusion except via inverted commas.
Maria sounds like good fun. I love people who attract drama, and I am impressed by the way you always seem to be a celebrity magnet. If I were less British I might venture chaos magnet instead.
I am also very, very glad that your MRI turned out to be boring.
Hi, Ruth. I’m so glad your MRI was clear! What wonderful news. I enjoyed this post very much. Your encounter with Stephen Colbert must have been great fun. In the long run, though, the people who have impressed me the most are the ones like Maria. She sounds like an awesome person, so full of life and ready to take on the world. I’m happy you were able to keep the mob at bay!