It was Friday night, and the curtain was scheduled to go up at 8.
From years of weekends with friends, I was acquainted with the feel of pre-theatre conversations, the customary alert given a waiter of a curtain to make, the advantage of a restaurant where the offerings are familiar and the ordering a comfortable routine. Sometimes there is a fellow playgoer’s story about parking to entertain the table. What others have read about the show becomes a convenient lead if there is a lull in talk in the group.
From years of weekends with friends, I was acquainted with the debate on how to divide the check, the nagging awareness that sometimes a number of people are paying for the extra drink that one or two people ordered. The exit from the restaurant is a bit of a bustle with restroom stops before the walk to the theatre.
In my experience, one rarely emerges from that pre-theatre experience with a quiet sense of gratitude for the conversation. One rarely emerges having been heard and affirmed and encouraged to keep talking about what is important in life. Well, there’s a show to get to!
Last week I had managed to get a single ticket for an opening night performance on Friday. I was going to be free, therefore, of most of the distractions of pre-theatre conversations, except those I might witness or overhear. At the table nearest mine, one older woman was talking with a friend, swearing by the Asian pesto sauce she had selected “once again” for her Shanghai whole wheat noodles with mixed vegetables and beef.
My dinner at the familiar restaurant lasted barely an hour. At meal’s end I walked down the street where the theatre was located. I knew there were benches a few blocks away on the edge of a university campus, and it was there I intended to spend the half hour or so before I took my seat in Row F.
When I have attended productions in this neighborhood in the past, I have seldom given myself permission simply to observe what was around me. If I got to these benches, it was to wait with others, and the social instinct took over. Instead of tuning one another to the surroundings, our talk became itself the diversion or – at times – a distraction from the waiting.
This past Friday it took me awhile to be aware that I was not initially at ease. Sitting on the bench, I was looking every which way until I caught myself. It was that familiar feeling of not wanting to wait. Or maybe this evening it was more not wanting to be waiting by myself.
Past experience had almost convinced me that there was nothing worth looking at or noticing or observing in these few blocks of city neighborhood. In getting attuned to how I was feeling, however, I became attuned as well to the landscape before me.
If I had seen it in a movie set in New York City, I would have thought it intriguing and distinctive. I would have woven stories about the people who lived in these old apartment buildings, ridden this trolley, walked to class under the branches of these city trees. I would have paid attention to what I was seeing and how I was responding to it. I would scarcely have been able to wait till the end of the film to turn to someone and say, “Look – over there – that set of windows! What would it be like to look out of them every morning and see a city before you?”
I woke up in that half hour before curtain.
Just before I got up from my bench to head to the theatre, I saw the older woman from the restaurant – the one who loved the Asian pesto sauce. She was smiling as she and her friend walked down the sidewalk in front of me, smiling as they talked, smiling as they talked. They knew, I was immediately convinced, what this neighborhood looked like.
My next theatre night I will order the Shanghai whole wheat noodles with mixed vegetables and beef and Asian pesto sauce.