He wasn’t alone; one of his two friends reached out to slap me. I surprised everybody, including myself, by grabbing the Windex and aiming it straight for the guy’s face. A lobby fight ensued, and Dean called the precinct.
The cops warned us when they arrived, “...you call the precinct once and the word is out on the street; we can only come so many times.” What if there had been a gun?
As it turned out, nobody was killed, allowing me to safely visit my memories of running the St. George Theatre in 1976. The present and the past often converge in my memory. Some of what I write about was once dangerous, but I view it from a safe distance, like watching Knife in the Water through the glass that separated the movie screen from the theater lobby. Occasionally that remembered danger intrudes on the present.
Last night I stopped at a favorite local wine shop. It was dark on the street, and, as is periodically true in St. George, teenagers — a large crowd — were milling around. They happened to be doing this directly in front of the store. Their milling seemed a little threatening; a woman in the shop observed that most seemed to be wearing red — hoodies, ballcaps, etc. — a cluster of gang members? We were waiting for the street to clear, but instead the kids — there were about six — all got into a sedan parked at the curb.
“I’ll lock the shop door,” the proprietor offered. I was relieved, then sickened, ashamed of being relieved. It had been a long time since I’d had that siege feeling. It’s one thing to write about confrontations at the concession stand, quite another to feel the ancient adrenal rush. I glanced at my car, parked just to the right of the store’s entrance and thought about my exit, carrying two heavy bags of wine. I’m well past defending myself, with or without Windex.
And my feelings were more complicated: I hated the them/us thing.
At the theater, we would never have locked our doors. First of all, we couldn’t afford to: those kids were our public, then, in a larger sense, they were our community.
My wine was packed and paid for, so I made a break for it, strode to the car, stashed my bags in the backseat and hit the door locks. Deep breath. In my rear-vision mirror I could see the boys in the car behind me. I can’t say “clearly,” because the smoke inside that car was so thick, it was hard to make much out — except that, like teenagers everywhere, like myself when I was their age, these kids were completely self-absorbed. They were likely stoned out of their wits, the way kids who came to our theater thirty-nine years before (grandfathers now?) had been.
I feed on nostalgia. A friend who loves old theaters too thinks it’s part of the bargain we make with ourselves: all that brocade and great arching space is part of my longing to return to something that may never have been, exactly as I imagine it. Nostalgia’s roots — from the Greek, nostos (to return home), and algos (ache) — are honorable, but you have to be careful. Who hasn’t ached at the thought of returning home?
Go back, I tell myself, just don’t get too comfortable. Remember that you have read ahead in the text of your life, and so far it has all more or less worked out. The person you’re visiting back there feels like someone locked, not in a wine shop, but in time. The kid who wanted the Snickers — and his friend, the guy you Windexed — are locked in there too. Perhaps they came back another night, it’s not entirely unlikely. Were they down front the Saturday we packed the place for The Exorcist? I think of them eating a Snickers, one they paid for.
P.S. When Do the Right Thing came out in 1989, I thought about the theater, fondly, bitterly.