Saturday, December 27, 2014

Street theater

When I led drama workshops for a couple of years at a recurring “Children’s Day of Art” in Morristown, N.J., I would ask the kids, “what’s the difference between theater and drama?”

The simple answer is that theater usually takes place on a stage while drama is all around us. Today, however, I saw the drama of the streets create a unique form of theater, improvised, spontaneous, rapidly shifting and gone in an instant.

I walked down Lexington Ave. in Manhattan from 61st St. to 43rd St. at about 3:30 pm, when the late December sun was already beginning to head for its rest and twilight – the “blue hour” – began to shade the sky.

I walked with purpose toward the trains at Grand Central Terminal but at a medium pace, a little slower than usual. I gazed at the urban landscape with wondering eyes, open to whatever scenes might occur.

The "set" whispered its own stories - a banner from Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm that suffered terrible losses on 9/11, proclaiming New York "financial capital of the world;" Torino Jewelers' glistening show and a colorful truck proclaiming its allegiance to Turkey and the U.S., but overlaid with a graffiti artist's work.

Outside a hair/cosmetics salon, a tall, dark engaging young man was handing out samples of a face cream. 

His patter was so expert that I entered the store with him and found myself seated on a stool while he applied a little of the cream to the, um, laugh lines around my eyes. 

"My name is Leo," he said, asking for mine. He said that the first part of my name, "sol," is a musical note and that he was part Israeli. 

I glanced at the jar of cream he was using. It had a price tag of $450. 

"Leo," I said, smiling, "you are very charming and I'm sure the cream is wonderful. But I am putting my daughter though college and I will say good night." He smiled. I got up and left.

I passed Bloomingdale's and entered, not having been there for many years. Now, the department store's main floor is a series of brand boutiques - Coach, Gucci, Vuitton - each in an enclosed space, like a mall or a stage.

I found it odd and wandered, as did most of the other shoppers, in post-holiday stupor. I thought I might find a sweater on sale and traveled on the escalator up one floor, but only found $80 shirts. 

Back on the street, I gazed at stores whose purpose and merchandise I could not fathom - Superdry?

Twice on my walk, giant limousines - one black, one white - cruised down Lexington, headed for Saturday night revelry. In one, a passenger hung out an open window, videotaping the ride. 

As I approached Grand Central, I passed a middle-aged man holding out a paper cup, shaking the coins in it. I took out my wallet, circled back and put money in the cup. "What is your name?" "Mike."

I wanted to wish Mike well but my inner playwright failed me and came up with possibly the most inane line ever, under the circumstances: "Happy holidays, Mike."

I arrived at Grand Central, where the glittering railway house was inhaling travelers to the suburbs and exhaling the night's city explorers. 

As I headed home, where a vivid sunset greeted me, I realized that another difference between theater and drama is that a performance has an ending but the stories of the streets flow like an endless river.    

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