Matinee

  Once or twice a year Dad took the family to New York for a weekend matinee. He would wake Richard and me up early (for a weekend) and we’d scramble to wash, dress, and eat breakfast so we could be on the road by 9 or 9:30. 

We took the Merritt Parkway, a scenic two-lane highway that cuts through southwest Connecticut to the New York State line. It was, and still is, one of the prettiest highways I know. Opened in 1938, the parkway winds beneath a thick canopy of oak, maple, and birch trees, traverses rivers, ponds, and tidal marshes, and passes under a series of graceful stone overpasses. 

Driving on the Merritt felt like entering a magical kingdom, especially in autumn, when the trees blossomed into a dazzling bouquet of red, yellow, and orange leaves.

Driving on the Merritt felt like entering a magical kingdom, especially in autumn, when the trees blossomed into a dazzling bouquet of red, yellow, and orange leaves, and in winter, when the snow-shrouded branches transformed the narrow highway into a ghostly corridor. We clattered over the long iron bridge spanning the Housatonic River between Milford and Stratford, past the sprawling Sikorsky Aircraft plant that manufactured many of the helicopters used in the Vietnam War.

As we approached New York the landscape grew darker and grittier. Trees and neat suburban houses gave way to rusted bridges and water tanks, brick tenements scrawled with graffiti, and empty lots strewn with dismembered cars and abandoned appliances. Tires and hubcaps littered the roadside.

Even from the safety and comfort of our blue Impala, the harshness and scarcity of their lives was palpable.

             The people changed, too. Pink and white faces were replaced by brown and black ones. They sat on fire escapes and stoops, smoking cigarettes and drinking out of brown paper bags, or peered out from behind barred windows. Even from the safety and comfort of our blue Impala, the harshness and scarcity of their lives was palpable. For a cosseted middle-class boy from the pale white suburbs, these scenes were both fascinating and a little frightening. 

  “Fiddler on the Roof,” with Herschel Bernardi playing the role of the pious milkman Tevye, was one of our favorites. On the drive home after that show, Dad, Richard, and I sang the songs one after the other — “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Tradition,” “Anatevka.” The next morning, as Mom was preparing breakfast, Dad waltzed around the kitchen singing, If I were a rich man …. Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum, as hetwisted his hands in the air and pirouetted. Richard and I laughed and clapped, but when he tried to get Mom to join him on the dance floor, she smiled and shook her head. I wonder if that song had a special resonance for him because he had been a rich man once — but that was a long time ago.

I was so immersed in his imaginary universe that when the house lights came on at intermission it was the theater itself that seemed unreal.

The show that made the deepest impression on me had no words at all. It was a performance by the French mime Marcel Marceau. From the moment he shuffled onto the stage in his signature striped French sailor shirt, tight-fitting black vest with oversized buttons, and white bell-bottom trousers, I was completely in his thrall. With his white face accented by black eyeliner and lipstick and his frizzy hair protruding from a floppy hat topped by a droopy red flower, Marceau conjured entire worlds out of thin air. One moment he was a fearful lion tamer, the next a petrified tightrope walker or an enchanted birdkeeper. I was so immersed in his imaginary universe that when the house lights came on at intermission it was the theater itself that seemed unreal.

Marceau publicity photo, 1974.