(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