Best Seat in the House

Posted on September 7, 2010

2


He was buffeted on either side by benches full of neighbors. To his left were two middle-aged men he mentally referred to as Frasier and Niles since they both seemed to be of the academic sort, fussy and in-depthly studied in the art of opera. It wasn’t a claim he could make; he had mainly come to Lincoln Center that night to enjoy the beautiful weather and the last of the city’s free summer events. He had also once heard the main character of this evening’s piece, Carmen, being referred to as a “Gypsy whore” and this was an appellation that could not help but to provoke interest on his part. After arriving and spreading out the seat cushions they’d brought with them, Frasier turned to the young man and with a wink cried, “Best seats in the house, you know!”

To his right, just past the large garbage container, across which skidded and landed in his lap all too frequently the errant misfires of passersby, sat Florence and Betty Boop. This duo had arrived about fifteen minutes or so after Niles and Frasier. At some point during this fifteen minutes, Niles had decided he was going to “hunt for a Starbucks somewhere.” Seeing that there were easily half a dozen of said coffee houses within a stone’s throw they both laughed heartily at their droll sarcasm. His friend gone, Frasier had decided to make a phone call.

As he talked away on his cell phone, loudly and obviously engaged, up strolled Florence and Betty Boop. Both ancient and wizened, Florence led the way, her gait slightly more spry as she was not encumbered by the walker contraption that Betty pushed, a thing decorated by hanging plastic bags of all the colors one could imagine and topped with two plastic little girls’ purses offering the shiny black and white graphic of Betty Boop’s coy expression. Throughout the evening the woman pushing the walker would cut the air with her strident “Florence!” so he indeed knew the lead woman’s name, but as Florence rarely ever answered with more than a nod or grunt he was forced to name her companion Betty.

Flo eyed Frasier’s half-empty bench and, deciding that his girth would not allow her the comfort so promised by a park bench, moved on silently. This lack of space, however, did not deter good ole Bets.

“Is this seat taken?” she asked.
Frasier continued his chat.
“Is this seat taken?” she repeated with more volume.
Frasier held up his hand slightly as he was in the midst of “quite a funny story” and continued to gurgle along. His gesture went unnoticed by Betty, who parked her walker decidedly in front of him and screamed,
“HELLO?! IS THIS SEAT TAKEN?!”
His face turning several different shades of crimson, Frasier snatched the phone away from his head and roared,
“I. AM. ON. THE. GODDAMN. PHONE!”

“Well, screw you!” Betty answered in an equal tone and she puttered off muttering a string of insults that the young man missed as he quickly buried his face in a book so as to avoid being caught staring at the hair combs threatening at any second to lose their hold from her peroxided head which wagged and dipped in anger.

A few minutes later Niles returned, laden with espresso, in time to hear Frasier relate his triumphant battle in colorful, if exaggerated, terms.

“She picked the wrong one this evening and she knows it now!”

When the onscreen fanfare swelled to announce the beginning of the show, everyone had calmly settled into their seats. The young man chuckled and began to search in his bag for the stashed beverage. Pleased with himself for having chosen such an unwanted place to sit and happy in the fact that he would not have to share his bench, he smiled broadly.

“Is this seat taken?”

He looked up.

Before him stood a benevolent looking older woman. In a loose sweater, tapered jeans, and what appeared to be dance slippers, she reminded him of one of his favorite college professors. In response to her query, he attempted to level her with one of his silent-yet-withering stares that, most often at the cinema, cowed people into seeking other accommodation. But the fondly nostalgic attachment made him falter and he quietly moved his belongings into his lap to allow her in.

As she sat the young man saw over her shoulder a determined Betty pushing her walker with one hand and grasping two hot dogs in the other. She had managed to secure her hair accoutrement, reapply her garishly red lips and fetch dinner for Flo and herself. She slowed as she moved in front of her opponents bench. Jerking her head at the newly returned Niles, she asked mockingly, “So, is this ya boyfriiiind?”

Rolling his eyes grandly, Niles responded with a pity-soaked “Oh, honey” and began to sip his coffee. Miss Boop sniffed and wheeled on by.

Watching her churn in front of them, the slippered seatmate looked up at the young man and exclaimed, “Looks like we have the best seat in the house!”

“So they say,” he murmured.

***

Few have the wherewithal to sit through too much opera at one time thus by the end of the second act Frasier and Niles had departed – “a school night, you know” – as had the young man’s professorial companion. Niles and Frasier had been replaced by a jovial couple, the husband of which had a propensity for wild and enthusiastic “air conducting” at his favorite moments in the score.

Betty, having just returned from another jaunt to the Mister Softee cart for Strawberry Shortcakes, was dozing placidly in the seat of her walker which she had pushed up to the curb “to hear better!” while Flo gnawed contentedly on a stained pink sundae stick.

The universe itself must have known that Bizet’s third act does little to sustain one’s attention so it proffered instead Lucia y Estela. When he first saw them, the young man was glancing up from his phone where he had resorted to surfing the web in hopes of calculating when his evening might end. His earlier text to the all-knowing ChaCha Mobile Search of “What is the approximate running time of Bizet’s Carmen?” had returned, “Georges Bizet was born in France on October 25, 1838.”

Lucia y Estela first seemed the perfect counterpoint to Boop and Flo. A sweet faced elderly duo of Hispanic women who spent most of their walk up the sidewalk  whispering conspiratorially and giggling in a way that reminded the young man of Lucille Ball and her TV sidekick Ethel. Seeing no seats together, they quietly and politely insinuated themselves beside the young man and beside Florence, in Betty’s recently vacated spot. Ducking under one of the husband’s instructional arm jabs to the woodwinds section, Lucia smiled broadly at the young man and settled in to sip on her Cherry Pepsi.

Later on as one of the evening’s many Megabuses pulled into place in the stoplighted alley between the park benches and the plaza, a dinner patron of PJ Clarke’s halted his stroll. Glancing first at the bus, then back at the motley crew craning their necks around it, he exclaimed,

“Wow! You guys really must have the —-”

“The best seat in the house!” they all grumblingly finished for him.

“Guess they heard that before,” he said to his girlfriend as they both chuckled in their supercilious Upper Westside manner and trotted out of the way while the bus finally relinquished the view.

“What he say?” Lucia asked the young man.

“Nothing at all,” he reassured her. She nodded and smiled.

Gauging this momentary group incantation as an invitation to voice her discontent, Estela, in sharp and loud bursts, began to yell to Lucia from two seats away. This opera, she informed her, was quite boring and she was ready to go. Why didn’t she take a nap then, Lucia suggested. She couldn’t with all the noise, apparently. Well, they would have to wait until ten at least because la niña wouldn’t be nearby until then. And so on, for several cacophonous minutes. Finally, the young man broke in with his schoolroom Spanish and informed the ladies that this was his favorite song in the piece (a blatant lie as he had no idea if the faces on screen were singing Beethoven or the Beatles at that moment) and would they mind not gritando at each other quite so loudly. A shocked silence ensued, whose inspiration was due either to their surprise at his stilted castellano or his gall at interrupting them; the young man couldn’t be sure which. At any rate, they complied.

At some point during the interminable penultimate act, Estela was able to move over and join Lucia next to the young man, the husband of the couple apparently having conducted himself into a state of near exhaustion thereby causing their exit. During the final act, the young man felt himself moved by the music or, most likely, subdued by his second wine spritzer. At any rate, he seemed to be getting swept up in the scene when a bag-laden intruder suddenly stepped into his line of vision.  She was facing him directly but he ignored this fact and in dramatic fashion, twisted and turned to indicate that her father was very much indeed not a glassmaker.

Dramatics, it seemed, did not move her.

“Can I take a picture of you?” she asked the young man.
“I’m sorry; what?”
“Can I take a picture of you?”
“Of me? Sitting on a bench?”
“Yeah. With the opera playing behind you.”
“No,” he said as flatly as he could.
“Huh?”
“No. No, you can’t take my picture.”
“What? But….. Well, I mean……”
“Sorry, nothing personal. I just don’t like having my picture taken.”
“Oh! But it’s just for, like, a memento! You know. Like, a candid moment with an actual New Yorker.”
“Yeah. I appreciate that but no.”
“Really?” She affected studied hurt.
“Sorry to upset you, but no.”
She crossed her arms and sputtered, “Wow. Just wow.”
“Look. You are aware there are quite literally millions of other “actual” New Yorkers, right? I’m sure one of them is photogenic and more than willing to oblige.”

Estela, patiently observing the exchange, decided that the sword the young man denied was one upon which she would gladly throw herself. And, besides, it had to at least be more interesting than the caterwauling onscreen, she thought. She raised her arm and waved it animatedly.

“Oh! Foto? Foto? Take me! Yes, take me,” she cried.
“There, you see,” he offered.

The woman stared at him in angry disbelief for a moment. Then, after huffing loudly, she spat out a curt “No thank you” to Estela and stalked off. The young man shrugged and made to give his attention once again to the screen as Lucia’s small hand rested lightly on his arm. He turned towards her.

“Tourists,” she said, shaking her head. “So rude.”

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