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A New York Story

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A New York story? Sure; those, I got; I'm a New York boy. Uptown, downtown, all the boroughs; tales of taxis, restaurants, holiday parties seen through windows on snowy West Tenth Street nights.

The particular New York story I want to tell you now is my favorite kind: I was there at the time. Come with me, three or four weeks back. I'm in town, I'm home, in a place where I hadn't actually lived since '77, but who, as they say, is counting? Not a day has passed since the day I left that I haven't wondered: should I move back? Recently, instead of hiring movers, I wrote a book about New York, or at least how I like to think of it, and that brought me in for signings, readings, talking it up on the subway. The book is set in the theatre district, which works out nicely as this story is set there, too, in the mezzanine of the Belasco Theatre on 44th Street between sixth and seventh, where I'm one of a thousand come in from the cold to see Clifford Odets's 1937 Golden Boy. And, as I take my tiny seat, tight as a Temple Grandin squeeze box, I've got a problem.

No glasses. I brought them, as I've learned to; I need them, for distance, I need them tonight. But as I was shrugging off my coat, they flew from my hand and tumbled down somewhere in the rows ahead of me. Without them -- the actors on stage could be anyone, doing anything -- it would be like hearing Golden Boy on the radio. Now, they're down there, I'm sure of it. I just need to ask the people in front of me help me look, stand up, even. But they're old. They're really old. They're so old I worry that if I ask them to rise they may never be able to sit again. I'd feel terrible asking them to do that, anyway, so I drop down and feel along the floor, coming up with a quarter, a lime-green Lifesaver, a pill.

But no glasses. Shit. I swear, politely. The young couple in the seats next to me (just married, I'd learn) ask what I'm looking for. I tell them, and sigh theatrically (we are in a mezzanine) at the sight of my half-dozen obstacles in the row below.

"They're just so old," I whisper. "And it's wonderful that they're old, and still going to plays, and everything. I love old people! But --"

"But they're like really old," the young wife whispers back. "What do you want to do?"

What can I do? Squint? That can help. I could rent opera glasses, I tell them, or close my eyes and imagine Golden Boy is on the radio. We all laugh, a nice little "This is so New York" laugh. Something happens, some inconvenience large or small (lost glasses, Hurricane Sandy) and you don't let it stop you, because New Yorkers are tough.

"I'll be fine," I say.

Then a woman, one row down, turns around. She's old, sure, but tonight she's strong -- a woman with tickets -- and she wants to help.

"You've lost your glasses," she says. She turns to the friends who flank her. "He's lost his glasses," she tells them, which sets off a chorus of whispers. Glasses... glasses... glasses...

An old man two seats down from her turns around. "Distance?" he demands. "Or reading?"

I now tell them -- there are six wise, gray heads turned now, watching me -- that I'll be fine, but the head lady just laughs. "Fine? How?" she wants to know. "This is the theatre. You need to see! And besides -- it's Odets!" Another hushed chorus. Odets... Odets... Odets... "We're going to look," she says, "all of us."

And they do, each switching on a tiny flash light, the kind a detective might use who was, also, Tinker Belle. No luck, though. I thank them for trying. But, once again, the force of will that emanates from the line-up of alter kockers below me is just too strong.

"My name," the woman tells me now, "is Joan Kaplan. I am a subscriber. And I'm here to help."

"I really don't want to put you out," I tell her.

She laughs; it's as if she knows this New York story has begun, cannot be derailed, and she knows her place in it. There's being put out, and there's doing what you need to do, to keep the island floating. She wipes my protest away, like a teacher at a blackboard.

"You're not. And this is an important play," she says, then. "Its themes are timeless. Does one pursue art? Or money? Is the purest spirit corruptible? It's a conundrum."

The old man next to her, whom I assume is her husband, says "Joan. Sit. Save the master's thesis."

"My husband," Mrs. Kaplan says. "He's retired. He was a highly respected tax attorney."

"That depends on who you ask," says Mr. Kaplan.

"My point," his wife says, "is a simple one: the man can find anything. Ben? Help this young man."

Mr. Kaplan sighs. The other members of the group rise. Slowly, but they rise. They step into the aisle to give Ben Kaplan the room he needs. Within seconds he has found my glasses. The Kaplan's friends (it turns out they have been going to the theatre as a group, every two weeks, since 1952, the year I was born) applaud, along with other onlookers.

"Enjoy the show," Mr. Kaplan says.

Now, because this is a New York story, there's still a bit more to come. As the first act ends both Kaplans turn to me.

"Tell us," she says. "Do you find it dated? Be honest."

I tell her I do. I'm enjoying the evening -- the stage filled with dozens of people, three fat acts, the glazed and basted dialogue no one can write anymore with a straight face but that retains a surprising kick -- but yes, it's dated. In a good way. But dated? Yes.

"As do we," says Mr. K., now, taking charge. "But it has significance." Mr. Kaplan explains himself, and that leads, as such things do, to other subjects, especially in a group whose fingers have grown too stiff to text. The Depression, which ruined both their fathers ("But we always felt loved!"); the actors, for whom we share mixed feelings ("The girl mumbles!"); the re-election of President Obama, for whom we all voted ("To think! In our lifetime!") We just talk, and talk, strangers in a mezzanine, between the acts and at the end of the show, too, logged in to the constant conversation the password for which is -- New York. Then, stepping into the surprisingly cold night, we say goodbye and go our separate ways, into whatever New York story is waiting to happen next.