Oh my. There’s a woman at the bus stop in baggy nylons, apparently wearing someone else’s clothing, asking me for money to get a half pint of vodka. That’s literally what she asks of me. She says a few stiff ones before work gets her in the mood to panhandle. Hilarious. The line seems incredibly honest. Even better, maybe she uses that clever line to get money for food. I can’t resist. I give her a few dollars. It really is a well-oiled line, if I can use that pun.
For the past two days, which feel every bit like a full week, I’ve been cornered in the hotel or fussing about at the rehearsal hall. It’s been exhausting. My mouth literally hurts from smiling for strangers, tea with strangers, cheese and crackers with strangers, lunch with strangers. And oh! The mid-western interviews – please! Well meaning, but I may as well have been speaking German to that kid from the paper.
Absolutely smothered with attention, is what I jot in my journal. I’m loath to ever again meet anyone proper, or acting proper, or otherwise haughty because it’s the proper thing to do in these circles. We’re just performing Tosca, after all – bread-and-butter material.
I elude the scheduled early meeting with the cast, and slip away to hide in the anonymity of a city bus ride. The orchestra conductor, soft-spoken as he is, was incredibly unhappy with my decision but what can I say? I’m done with endless rehearsals. I’ve done more than my contract required. Sant’Andrea Della Valle in act one, the apartment scene in act two, they’ll be just fine.
Finally, the city bus swaggers to my corner and bobbles to a stop. Its robotic door swings open to an appoggiatura of compressed air, and I pull my considerable weight aboard. The door swings closed behind me and the driver, a thin muscular man with a moustache, intent on looking out of his left window into the rear view mirror, has us underway before I can drop money into his toll box. I take, or should I say spill, into my seat.
Thank God for a wide bench, or whatever it’s called. It runs lengthwise against the windows here at the front of a bus, directly behind the driver. I don’t see buses with seats like this these days, but this one has them and I just may stay here instead of moving to another farther back. The rest of the bus is virtually empty.
“You just feeling sorry today, Stephan,” the driver says to the man directly across from me. Stephan calls the driver Rashad. I imagine Stephan to be a regular and I’m delighted to have stumbled immediately into something of interest.
Years ago, first days at Juilliard, I rode a city bus like this all the time, pocketful of change, big ideas, head in the clouds. I had nothing then. Those were the days of socialist student movements and the like. Busses were filled with long hair, sideburns, and the possibility of stumbling into romance.
That was forty years ago? My God.
Stephan is a heavy man like me. I guess him to weigh 280 pounds, which is not impossible to wear, but he’s also short. Perhaps he is balding beneath that cap with the snap in front. He has a funny grin too, happy guy, genuine. I like him.
“It’s going to be divorce,” Stephan says.
The driver studies his passenger in the mirror, occasionally glancing directly at him. “You just saying that.”
Rashad’s voice is the combination of baritone and bartender. It’s the voice one hears backstage often, rich melodic tones. But there is more. There’s character in his eyes and a manner about him; one who cleans up after others, and hauls privileged folk around, and takes care of things at home. He’s a patient man I suspect.
For a moment I entertain myself thinking how Stephan is asking Rashad for a divorce, and how fortunate I am to have plunked down in the middle of something this odd, but of course Stephan is talking about his wife. He never does describe her and it’s not the kind of thing one wrests from the lips of a perfect stranger.
“Beefcake,” Stephan says, seemingly out of nowhere. “Who can blame her? Go beefcake and the sex runs right out the door. One day it’s crêpe, the next oh crap, and before you know it years have gone by. They’re just gone.”
“You gonna eat after the divorce too, is what I’m saying,” Rashad says to him. “You gonna get a divorce and eat on after that, too.”
“No. It’s the marriage. It’s what marriage does,” Stephan says directly to me. “I’m too damn fat. She doesn’t want sex with a fat man. She doesn’t want sex with me, which is damn depressing. I eat. It’s a vicious cycle. ”
“This may not be marriage, my friend” I say. Tapping my unweildly girth. I don’t know why I’m compelled to clarify this kind of thing for people. “It’s age if anything. I’ve never been married and look — beefcake.”
“Get you a little,” Rashad says into the mirror. “Get you a little and that weight come right off. Get a little and you’ll clear up your mind. Your minds messed up, man. See what I’m saying? Look at me. I gets it whenever I want.”
“We know better. Am I right?” Stephan says, directly to me. “There’s more to life than just sex, Rashad.”
“No they ain’t,” Rashad says. “And yes I am.”
Stephen laughs. “Whatever. Nothing wrong with a good steak now and then. Buy it, cook it, eat a good meal with friends, maybe a little barbecue or whatever, glass of wine. Sex is over rated and over in like, two minutes. Then what? You have the whole evening left.”
This guy is making a lot of sense. There’s music of course, but in the main he’s on point. Either way, I’m thinking about one or the other all the time, going to bed earlier all the time, too.
“You guys both ain’t getting any? Damn.”
Stephan and I nod in unison. Of course not. Look at us.
Stephan reaches into the grocery bag to his left and withdraws a beautiful piece of fruit.
“Orange?” A grin forms on his otherwise vacant lips. “You’re most kind.”
Rashad shakes his head and bops the steering wheel with his hand. Stephan gingerly tosses the orange as if it were a frail Gypsy’s last egg. The orange is chilled. It is in fact cold, fantastic, meaty, and perfectly ripe.
“You just got this,” I say.
The bus starts through another stoplight and Stephan withdraws a second orange. I watch him pierce the flesh of it with his thumb. A soft spray of orange scent, like mist from an atomizer, drifts gently through a shaft of light.
Rashad connects with us, when he can, in the mirror. He watches me peal my orange. The smell is inviting for all of us. That’s what I love most about citrus. I love the fresh smells. When I look at an orange, especially one as cold, juicy and ripe as this one, my mouth waters. That flirtatious bright color and the zest and oils a simple scratch can produce, make each bite all the more delicious.
“Wait,” Stephan laughs excitedly. He reaches into his bag and pulls out what looks like Marzipan bars. I haven’t had Marzipan for years. Just seeing them, and Stephan’s grin, has me laughing and off guard.
“Are those actually … ?” It’s true. Stephan is handing me one of my favorite desserts — cherry flavored Marzipan coated with German milk chocolate and loaded with pistachio paste. There’s more. As we ride, he produces a veritable deli — croissants and brie, green grapes, a small jar of Koops’ mustard, roast turkey breast and what looks like a pound of smoked ham shaved paper thin, not prosciutto or parma, but close enough.
“My treat,” Stephan says. He produces napkins.
“This is too much, I protest mildly, still laughing.” But Stephan waves me off with a free hand and continues with an amazing culinary ritual.
I open the Marzipan bar. The aromatic blend of cherry and vanilla is freed from the wrapper. The scented air, from Europe as I think of it, graciously lingers. Stephan unwraps his smoked ham and Brie. As he works, Rashad watches, one eye on the road and one on the delights.
“Sensational,” I announce. “Marvelous!” It’s true. The aroma of shaved ham alone, at this moment on the bus, with the sun coming through our windows, this heavenly rocking, the hum of our engines and the grin on our faces — perfect.
“Better than sex,” I say.
“See,” Stephan laughs. He lightly slaps his heavy thigh. “Hear that Rashad? Did you hear this man? This is a smart man. This right here is a wise man.”
“It’s true, Rashad,” I say. “Try this.” I offer him a good size piece of Marzipan. He smells it warily and then it’s gone.
“Like a macaroon.”
“Marzipan,” Stephan says. He holds out a slice of orange wrapped in a sleeve of smoked ham, but can’t reach Rashad. He doesn’t dare, or can’t get up for fear of loosing the deli. I pass the morsel to Rashad and sit back.
Rashad says, “Is we talking about better than sex in the daylight or anytime? Cause this right here? That’s some good shit right there. Never would have thought of that orange and ham like that.”
Stephan gives me orange wrapped in ham as well, and I savor the smell for a long time before nibbling. The juice of Florida bursts into vibrant chills in my mouth as the two flavors, smoked ham and orange, sweet and salty, fight for dominion over my soul. I can’t resist. Look how weak I’ve become.
Stephan stares pensively. “Good?”
I nod. Some of my other friends are so like Stephan. My simple expression of joy becomes his public and unabashed ecstasy.
The bus stops here and there. People come and go. We pay little attention to any of it even though Rashad seems to know many passengers.
An hour has passed when we complete a second giant loop – Ft. Ben Harrison Finance Center South, Community Hospital North, Arlington High School, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Children’s Museum, Ivy Tech Downtown, Cultural Trail, & Monon Trail. It’s nearly midday, there are still very few passengers, the deli is open, we head out for a third lap.
Stephan shares a recipe for fettuccine, this one smothered with roasted corn, pine nuts, red bell pepper, snipped chives, whipping cream and strips of sautéed Quail. He says he uses chicken, found it online. For a few minutes we talk about the Food Network, Chopped, MasterChef.
As we savor green grapes I tell these men about the most fabulous dinner of my life — dinner at Creighton’s in Toronto — which I enjoyed one evening many years ago as a young man.
I spent everything to be treated like a king. The entrée was scampi, Mediterranean mussels, and Matane shrimp. The mussels were absolute perfection. I have never seen mussels debearded so cleanly.
I don’t remember if there had been quartered scallops. Scallops come to mind. No matter. I recall peeled roasted garlic, a first for me, and a sauce of avocado and ginger as far as I could tell. Exquisite whatever it was.
I’d chosen a moderate light white, expecting nothing special — a bottle of wine for $40 in Toronto should not be expected to excite, and I told that to Stephan. But to my surprise, one sip of that wine and I was transported. Wonderful!
For dessert, Salzburg nockerln soufflés — two of them.
“It’s funny what a man recalls, Stephan,” I say. “I am spoiled forevermore.”
Stephan offers bottles of kiwi juice. Rashad declines. Says he would have to piss all the time.
“Tonight sir,” I announce, sipping juice, “dinner is on me.” I invite Rashad too, but neither of the men accepts. I’m momentarily insulted but what should I have expected?
Well into the third loop, Stephan produces a walnut layer cake. It’s been lavishly decked with buttery sweet frosting; layered with nuts, creams, caramel, custard, and raspberries. It’s been protected in a plastic shell at the bottom of a bag. Half of it has been cut into gigantic wedges. He offers a piece to me on a napkin. I feign resistance, patting my stomach, but there is no way I’ll turn down this cake. It’s the richest, best looking cake I’ve seen in months.
“You’ll have to eat with your fingers,” Stephan says, and we are off. Like school children we skewer our digits into the frosting, caramel wrapping around our knuckles in Moorish swirls. We have custard up to our palms before we know it. The bus jerks. Rashad eats and drives at the same time. He may be steering with his knees, I don’t know. I don’t care to look. Stephan has frosting on one cheek.
A few blocks into the cake, Rashad pulls to the curb and a young woman boards, late twenties or early thirties, tight black leggings and a shimmering floral patterned silk blouse made of a subtle, nearly translucent twill. We ogle. It’s so inappropriate to gaze but we are powerless, old and apparently libidinous.
Our fingers and faces are besmirched with frosting, grown men in a clutter of wrappers for God’s sake, overweight. She is amused, I believe, as she walks past us – hard to tell — hint of perfume. Her gaze is fixed on the back of the bus, and why not? What have we to offer, cake? Juice?
There is something profound and devastating in the moment. I can’t find the words except to say believe that youth trumps all. Is that it? To have dinner and sex with such a creature could not possibly satisfy. Youth itself is the thing I crave, or thoughts to that effect. And then the thought is gone.
The bus rocks forward. Rashad can drive, it seems, while gazing into his mirror.
Stephan and I trade glances. He’s got a bit of something an inch from his mouth. I flick the side of my face to let on, but he doesn’t make the connection. He smiles. I smile. We sit with cake crumbs on our laps.
The bus soon slows in front of my hotel. Rashad stops and opens the door.
“I’ve had a wonderful time, Stephan,” I say, as I pull this carcass to its feet. “How can I repay you?”
“Forget it,” Stephan says, waving his hand in the air. “This has been my pleasure, sir.”
“Does this shit all the time,” Rashad interjects.
“For the road,” Stephan says and extends another marzipan bar in my direction. Aghast at myself I almost take it. Then, I want to touch him on the head, like you would a dear sick friend, but how can one share that on a bus with a stranger.
“Thank you, no,” I say. “But here. If you change your mind, dinner is on me right after the concert, or drinks, or dessert. We can make a night of it. Bring your wife.”
I pull tickets from my pocket, prime seats, and hand them over, one pair each, to Rashad and Stephan. There are three other passengers on the bus including the young woman. “Opera anyone?” I say, waving tickets in the air, lecherous old man.
“For real?” the young woman at the back of the bus asks. “Tosca?” I nod, surprised, and take one step in her direction but she bounds forward quickly and takes the tickets, nearly gushing there in front of me. I’m in shock. “Anyone else?” I ask, but there are no more takers.
When she sits again, and our attention returns to the moment at hand, Stephan says, “I’ve never been. Maybe I’ll take the wife after all. Good for us.”
“I hope to see you,” I say and step from the bus, turn and place my hand at the frame of the open door. “Rashad?”
“What the hell,” he says. “I never been either. Where we gonna eat at?”
I have messages waiting for me in the hotel. I also scroll through my tablet and gaze out the window. The woman who hit me up earlier is still panhandling, probably using the same line. She makes me smile. A few stiff ones before work, indeed.
I call room service and order lobster chowder, rolls, and a small salad. I ask if they have marzipan but they do not.
“To go, actually,” I tell room service. “Hand delivered to an individual across the street – red hair, frumpy green dress, woman wears boots and nylons. Whatever it costs just put it on my tab.”
Twenty minutes later I am filled with irony and happiness, gazing down, a drink of my own in hand. The waiter, in his perfectly pressed white shirt and tie, scurries across the street to the panhandler and surprises her with something she would otherwise never encounter out there on the streets, hustling for dollars.
She rests against the side of a building eating the rolls, which she dips in the chowder. That’s one of my favorite things to do, actually. And as I watch she is paired, ironically, with the young beauty from the bus. Though out of context, and not one of my parts in the production at all, I give voice to lines from Vissi d’arte:
“Nell’ora del dolore, perché, perché, Signore, ah, perché me ne rimuneri così?” I sing, pianissimo, and with rising emotion. “In this hour of grief, why, why, Lord, do you reward me thus.”