Late at night, I pulled into my driveway and saw that somebody was standing out on my landlord’s side porch, working the grill. I had just gotten back from a three-week sojourn in my favorite city. Sigh. “Hey,” I called out. I didn’t usually talk to this guy much. He worked for my landlord, handyman stuff. He knew my name, and I had forgotten his, which made me feel like an ass. He also rings my bell when I left the top down on my convertible, which never fails to awaken me from a sound sleep.
“Lizbeth!” he-whose-name-I’d-forgotten called back. “How you doin?” “Good,” I said. “You want a drink?” I shook my head. “No, thanks, I’m done for the night.” Mr. Someone and my landlord were celebrating Someone’s birthday, he told me. He revealed his age, and I reacted with honest surprise. “No way!”
“Yeah. And guess what, you wouldn’t believe who I met tonight!” “Who?” I said. I was feeling a bit better, getting interested in someone else’s story. “Emmanuel Cleaver! You know, the mayor, our guy in Congress now.” “Wow!” I said. “I had had a few drinks, but I think I presented myself well, and he was so kind. I even asked him if he knew my dad—my dad’s been gone two years, but I thought they might have known each other, and he did! I was so honored.” “That’s really cool,” I said. I haven’t run into Cleaver before, except at a political rally where I expected he would be perched on the dais. We do have a street named after the man, though, and I drive down it almost every day.
On my recent trip, I was six feet from Bernadette Peters, Stockard Channing, and Elaine Stritch. They were walking the gauntlet outside the theater and slipping into large black cars. Bernadette Peters was the amazing one for me—I was one degree from Sondheim!
More thrilling, though, were the stories I heard from the leader of a writing program I love, and a former violinist for the Metropolitan Opera. A guy who sat in the pit, making the show start, right below where I’d squeezed my friend’s hand seeing “La Boheme” for the first time. And a woman who wound up the gears for a wonderfully reasonable way of improving the teaching of writing, which relies on the wisdom of individuals and dialogue, rather than programs and formulas. It still ticks.
I got to talk to each of these people over meals, over wine and emptying dishes. “How did it start?” I asked. “How did you get funding?” “What’s your favorite opera to play?” I asked. “Did you play at the old opera house?” I realized only afterward that I have spent a lot of time in the company of history, but not much of it was living. On a sailboat, just off Manhattan, I had imagined Melville. The Brooklyn Bridge reminds me of Whitman on a ferry. In art museums, I imagine Rothko’s brushstrokes.
The violinist told me he met Rothko and had a drink with him. Sitting with these stories, across tables with wine and food, asking more questions and begging more life from the anecdotes, was the heart of what people want, celebrity seeking. History, connections to beauty, emotion, glow. That’s real glamour, not the cut and pasted cool of the autograph seeker or the dreams of ghosts, lovely though they are.
Here’s the blog of my violinist friend who has, to my great jealousy, had several letters printed in the New York Times: http://lesliedreyer.blogspot.com/