It seems distant because it was before social distancing, but it was only a few weeks ago. I arrived ten minutes before the play was to begin at the 100-seat, historic theater in Greenwich Village. I had to crawl over four or five people to get to my seat. I sat down, but I could feel the eyes of the woman on my left glued to me. Soon, she spoke, starting to ask if I was in show business. I interrupted before she went further. I anticipated that she was going to ask what I have been asked several times—was I certain famous actor. Even though I have encountered this question several times, including being asked by a Brooklyn dentist and a waiter in a Sarasota restaurant, I am nonplussed by it because I don’t see any resemblance between that person and me. And I wonder what the question means about how I appear to others. The actor asked about is not of the Brad Pitt or George Clooney type, but one best known for many for his portrayals of creepy people.
I smilingly told the woman on my left, “My only connection to the theater or the movies is to be in the audience.” I settled down and picked up the one-paged credits and realized that I had misspoken. I thought that the only thing I knew about the cast of the play, The Confession of Lily Dare, was that it starred the marvelous Charles Busch, who had also written the play. But then I saw that another actor in the play was HM. I had a connection to him that was more than just being an audience member. I had met him and been in his house.
When in the first or second grade, the child (the NBP) had play dates with HM’s son at HM’s home. I had met him there. I remembered that going home after one such time I had asked the NBP what Chris’s father did, and I got the response, “Maybe he is an actor or something.” I put it out of my mind—many people in New York want to be actors—until a month or two later the spouse and I went to a highly successful musical at Lincoln Center and discovered that HM was the male lead. He was more than a maybe-actor, but a leading New York theater person. And years later, I heard Jonathan Schwartz playing a song sung by that same man that had been recorded at a cabaret performance. I mentioned some of this to my left-side companion, and when I stumbled a bit on the Lincoln Center production, she immediately furnished the title and mentioned the co-star. My guess is that she knew a lot more about theater than I do.
It was still a few minutes to the performance. I opened the book that I carried. I read a paragraph or two, and the woman on my right, who was also reading, laughed out loud. I smiled and continued reading. She laughed again, and I asked, “What are you reading that’s so funny.” She held up the cover of the book, but I did not register it for the theater went dark, and the play began.
At intermission, the woman was again engrossed in her book. When it did not seem too intrusive, I again asked what she was reading. She held it up again, and I saw it was the intriguingly named My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The author, Fredrick Backman, initially meant nothing to me, but then I saw on the cover that he was the author of A Man Called Ove, a novel I had found charming as I had the movie made from it. My theater neighbor told me how much she was enjoying My Grandmother Asked. . . and how funny parts of it were. (She did ask me about the book I was reading, which was one I picked up on a lark in an upstate junk shop in the fall—Lincoln McKeever. To my surprise, it was pretty good.)
I thought a book that might make me laugh would be an especially good tonic. The next day I went to Greenlight, my neighborhood bookstore. They had novels by Backman but not My Grandmother. . . . I had liked Ove and the woman in the theater was truly enjoying Grandmother, so I thought I might as well try one of Backman’s books that Greenlight had.
I bought Beartown and have now read it. It is filled with insights about childhood and parenthood and about individuals and community. It starts out amusing but turns horrifying. And yet it remains insightful and touching. It made me want to cry. It presents the dangers and vulnerabilities of loving and that you can never love enough. It was marvelous. I am glad that I have read it.
I don’t know your name, but to the woman-who-sat-next-to-me-at-the-theater-and-laughed-out-loud, thank you. Because of you I read Beartown. And I do plan to read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. And the sequel to Beartown.