A Day at the Ballet
“What do you feel like doing today?” Jim smiles, bright and sunny, as I stagger through breakfast.
“I don't know.”
“I was thinking the City Ballet at 2:00 o'clock. It’s past the rush… We drive in, we’ll be there in no time.”
I don’t love driving in New York, but for Jim it’s like a competitive sport; he comes alive behind the wheel.
“Sure, that sounds cool.”
“Let’s get going” he says, as he munches my last piece of bacon…
And we’re off.
We chat easily through local streets and hop on the Long Island Expressway, headed into Manhattan. The traffic ratchets up a notch.
Jim has three catch phrases that explain every traveling possibility: a complete circus, a total zoo and a complete catastrophe.
Today, the choice is between the total zoo and the complete catastrophe.
As we approach the exit, he coaches me.
“When I say now, grab the wheel. We only have about ten seconds where I can see the traffic on the bridge and to the tunnel at the same time. Ready?”
I'm never ready, and I wonder why I’m grabbing the wheel, but it hardly matters.
“OK, now! ” he shouts, and keeping his right foot planted on the accelerator, he half leans, half stands out the window, careening his neck over the car roof, peering at the traffic in both directions.
“It's the tunnel!” he shouts, “make a right. The bridge is a complete catastrophe!” he adds, as he comes hurtling back into the car, grabs the wheel with both hands and makes a hard turn, just in time to catch the exit.
Jim settles back in his seat.
“If you go the wrong way, you can get stuck for hours. The tunnel doesn't look too bad.”
I’m already shaking, and we haven’t left Queens yet.
As we approach the Midtown tunnel, the city looks grand - the UN building along the water, the Chrysler Building with its fan shaped façade gleaming in the sun, the twin towers off in the distance.
Out of the tunnel, we pull a hard right and a left and go careening onto 1st Ave.
Jim scatters horn blasts as we fly past the cross streets, hurtling up the Avenue, grumbling and cursing and laughing.
Along about 48th St, we sideswipe a cab.
Jim and the cab driver are out at once. Around us, 1st Ave. traffic is whizzing by.
“Jeeze, you pulled out right in front of me,” Jim says. “Didn't you see me coming?”
The cab driver’s eyes dart around nervously. We can tell right away; he can't speak much English.
As grandchildren of immigrants this is not a problem for us, but Jim also sees an opportunity to make short order of the situation.
No one says anything while he eyes his side door and glances at the man.
“It looks OK from my end,” he offers a shrug.
“OK, OK,” the man stutters. Jim smiles, closes with another shrug and a wave, and he's back behind the wheel.
“These things are like tanks” he grins, patting the dashboard of his 12 year old Dodge Dart. Solid steel.”
“In the hands of a maniac,” I think. “I didn’t realize we needed a tank flying down 1st Ave, to get to the City Ballet.”
Jim is back full throttle, cutting off delivery trucks, scattering his trademark horn shots, pedestrians scrambling for their lives. We hang a left on 59th St, speeding past the luxury hotels across from Central Park. The upper echelon goes by in a blur; I barely see the well-appointed doormen, the gold fixtures and the carriages waiting to give monied tourists a ride. We fly around Columbus Circle, and we’re headed up the West Side.
“I know a good parking spot” Jim says with confidence, as he steers with one hand and reaches across to check the glove compartment.
“But you've got to be careful. The last time I parked on Amsterdam Avenue, they stole the car.”
The car sputters and collapses to a halt, exhausted by the ride. I take a deep breath.
“Make sure we lock the doors” Jim says, as if it will make a difference.
We enter Lincoln Center Plaza from the West Side. In front of us, the central fountain is spraying great gasps of water that cut the sunlight, on this beautiful sunny day. The hiss is quietly reassuring-single people are having lunch, couples holding hands, a stray pigeon flaps up from the sidewalk. We turn and face the great glass facade of the Metropolitan Opera House. Through the cathedral like windows, we can see the two Mark Chagall murals.
“Chagall,” Jim smiles in satisfaction. “Beautiful. What a genius.”
He eyes the gathering crowd, and spots his man- mid 30s, crooked glasses, short blonde hair, looking alarmed. Jim smiles, motioning with the flick of his eyebrows.
“Looking for two tickets” he calls, just loud enough to be heard.
“I have two tickets” the man answers unsteadily. “They are very good seats.”
Jim grabs the tickets and holds them up, as if he's inspecting them for a watermark.
“I don't know. How much do you want for them?”
“I bought them for $35 per tickets. I would sell them for $30.”
“Each?” Jim exclaims incredulously.
It's like watching Picasso paint.
“I don't know” the man says. “I guess I could go a little lower.”
Jim checks his watch-10 minutes to showtime, as the man looks around nervously.
“Thirty a ticket, that's way too much.”
Jim makes eye contact.
“You're not going to be able to sell these tickets. These seats are not that great.”
The man looks away, like he's been staring into the sun too long and singed his pupils.
He scans the crowd.
But Jim still has the tickets. He glances at his watch - five minutes to two. This time, he lets the man notice.
Now we are in a bit of a spot. If we miss the opening curtain, we'll miss half the performance. The snooty ushers will never let us in once the show starts.
But our adversary is no fool. Nervous, yes, outgunned, certainly, but foolish, no. He knows when the house lights go down, the value of his tickets plummet to nothing.
“I'll give you fifteen bucks for the pair,” Jim says.
“ Gosh fifteen dollars, that's not much.”
As Jim reaches for his wallet, the doors of the concert hall swing open and the reflecting sun off the glass catches our attention.
“Do you boys want two tickets for today's show ?” a noblesse oblige woman asks. Her goal is to provide a rich cultural experience for those less fortunate than herself.
That would be us.
Jim hands our first friend his tickets and doesn't look back.
“Yeah, gee, we'd love to see the ballet !”
The woman smiles kindly.
“Do you want anything for them?” Jim asks.
“No, I just want someone to enjoy the performance,” she says. "Like you two ragamuffins," she neglects to add.
“You better hurry” she hands us the tickets, like the nicest elementary school teacher in the world. “They are about to start.”
“Gee, Thanks” Jim says, as we race to the door, like we're trying to catch the first inning of a baseball game.
The ballet was amazing, like nothing I had ever seen - Jerome Robbins dancing to neoclassical Stravinsky.
On the ride home, we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and the great performance.
It was about dinnertime when we pulled in front of the house in Queens.
“Well, you're back” my mother said. “How did you do in the city?”
We told our tale, as my father listened on; she, proud and accepting of her educated, artistic sons, he, delighted that we got such a bargain.
As my mother served dinner, my brother asked, “what do you feel like doing tonight?”
Here we go again.
“I don't know.”
“Well…. “I've got this place in Brooklyn. It's a little late, but Stevie Wonder’s piano player is supposed to show up.”
I thought Stevie Wonder was a piano player.
“How late?” I ask.
“Well, they probably start about 2:00 AM. It's an afterhours place. But you've got to be careful. Last time I went, somebody tried to sneak in with a gun and set the metal detector off. All hell broke loose.”
My mother's lip starts to quiver, my father is squeezing his one furrowed eyebrow.
“I don't know, I'm feeling a little tired,” I say. “Maybe I'll just hang here.”
Jim glances at a paper. “Let’s see who's in town,”
Suddenly, compared to the afterhours club in Brooklyn, hanging out in a jazz club till 3:00 AM, sounds like the safest place in the world.
“There's a bunch of people around. Let’s take a little break and head in.”
We sit with our parents, until they look sleepy.
“Time to go” my brother announces.
“Don't be too late” my mother calls, as we slam the door and lock all three locks.
It's 10:30. We're back on the road. And once again, I have no idea what I’m in for.