Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.

Hell Hath No Fury

Yesterday I walked into two conversations about Hell.  First I was sitting eating my lunch in an empty classroom when a couple of students wandered in.  I was doing my best to ignore them, but one was saying, “I have a King James translation and I just don’t understand it with all those wherefores and thous.”  And then, later, “I mean, she needs to know that stuff, or she might end up in Hell.”

We’re reading The Crucible, and my students are a pretty religious bunch anyway, but it still freaked me out.  Was all this talk about witches and Satan inspiring them to fret about their eternal souls?  I was hoping it would make them think, but the trouble with encouraging free thought is that it can go in directions you don’t like.

When I walked in to teach my next class, another kid stopped me and asked, “Hey, if you kill someone in a war, will you go to hell?”

It was an especially strange question for the Christian who doesn’t believe in Hell.  I’ve never understood why people were so eager to construct a place of ultimate suffering that is separate from good old planet Earth.

Hell is digging through the rubble of your house, looking for your wife and children, who are probably dead.  Hell is bone cancer.  Hell is a foreclosure notice on your front door.  Hell is people from the next village raping and torturing your neighbors in front of you.  That’s enough hell for me.

I don’t mean that I think hell is limited to the extreme outliers of suffering.  Hell is also being too scattered to enjoy your life.  Hell is twisted, recurring dreams about your ex.  Hell is seeing no options.  Hell is worrying all the time if you are “good” or “bad.”  Hell is believing in a God who is punitive and must send people to a hell after death in the interest of “fairness.”  (Hey, guys, you coulda prayed the right prayer if ya wanted toSo sorry!)

At least I got to answer the war/hell question by planting a seed for further thought.  ” I can’t answer that,” I said.  “But I can tell you different Christians would have different ideas about it.  You know, there isn’t one person who tells all Christians what to believe.”

Of course, you could jump in there like a good Sunday school student and say, “Yes there is, spineless liberal!  Jesus!”  Unfortunately, I don’t recall him saying a thing about Hell.  If it was such an important, straightforward religious concept, I think he would have been a lot clearer about it.  What I do believe is he was a stand-up guy who wasn’t trying to trick people or hint about an afterlife, and that every time he saw someone in a hell, he tried to help them out of it.

Aside: yes, I’ve read the Bible.  Yes, with the guidance of historical and critical research, because I believe in that stuff.  The Hebrew idea of what happened after you die was not a heaven/hell thing.  It was sheol, land of the dead.  Jesus talking about people burning up or being kicked out of somewhere doesn’t say “Hell” to me.  Vague, allegorical, certainly confusing.  That’s just where I’m at, and perhaps I am all wrong about this, in which case– I’ll see you in heaven.