Love in a time of Nutcracker: a night at the ballet

First Person: A stressed-out usher shares a moment of kindness and connection at the San Francisco Opera House.|

Yesterday was not a great day for me.

The last couple of weeks I've been stressed about money, again, after some unexpected twists meant that I went from having achieved something like an uneasy comfort at the end of November, to running to the bank before it closed because my rent check bounced and I needed to transfer funds out of a savings account I specifically set up so I would always have to transfer the funds in person, thus preventing me from spending it, and into which I had managed in the last month to squirrel away ... exactly one month's rent.

And so while I am okay, for the moment, I walked out of the bank with that heavy feeling which I progressively find I have to combat almost once a day now – the sense that I am trapped in a cycle which I will never be able to break, except when it finally kills me.

Which is a lot to carry on your back as you go from working at a Food Bank, to working at “The Nutcracker,” at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

I work the back balcony, which at around $65 a seat (and worth every penny, this production is excellent) is sort of evenly divided between middle income families with kids old enough to no longer need booster chairs, and packs of middle aged women in tight dresses and statement necklaces. Rich folks get boxes or the dress circle, young professionals and families with toddlers tend to go for the orchestra (booster chairs can only be used in the orchestra), and folks on dates fill the front balcony, where the tickets are less pricey but the view is still good.

If you and I cross paths these days, it's because I am up where they keep me and God, and thus you’re there by accident or default. Recently, the ushers have stopped wearing formal attire in an experiment to see if it makes us less intimidating, so now we have t-shirts that say “welcome,” and while I get the idea, there is a part of me which preferred the suits because the t-shirts feel like a uniform, reinforcing the idea that we are cogs in a machine. While I happen to quite love the machine, and it’s actually been pretty good to me, the t-shirt work-wear does little to abate my ever-increasing fear that I am sliding into the very same impoverished obscurity that I spend 40+ hours a week at my other job trying to make some kind of headway against.

It is hard to brood on all that though once the doors open because people need you. I may be a cog, but I’m a cog who knows where your seat is, not to mention how long the first act is, where the bars and snacks are located, how long the intermission is, where the bathrooms and the bathrooms with the shorter lines are, how long the second act is, and if there is a program with pictures and the story which there is, it’s over here, and by the way it is BEAUTIFUL this year – welcome back paper programs, I missed you, you ARE magic.

On the night in question The Couple are the first (maybe second?) people to wander in, and in their defense, I did do something unintentionally invitational like say, “May I help you find your seat?” which then unlocked, from Her, a gush of “Oh My God It’s So High Up Here! We have no idea where we’re going! It’s our first time! Can you tell? We just came on a whim! The tickets were $65! Did you know that? We were like, YES! LET’S DO IT! I suppose you get free tickets? Can you show us to our seats! It’s our first time! Oh My God It’s So High Up Here!”

Through all of this I am getting them to their seats and then He is asking me if they have time for him to get a drink and I indicate the largely empty auditorium and he, probably on autopilot, asks me if I would like one, to which I reply that I MUST decline, and he’s off and I feel, well, obligated to stay. Partly because She keeps talking, asking me rapid-fire questions, one right after another.

But mostly I stay because I feel sad. And I don’t want to feel sad. Or really, anything.

Which is right when another couple in the section opposite mine has a meltdown and the guy is running to the door screaming, “Enjoy the ballet!” and the woman is following, sobbing, “Please don’t leave me!” and I am suddenly flashing back to one of the last performances my ex and I attended as a couple and thinking how sitting there I could feel him pulling away from me even if he didn’t run out the door.

She, the woman I’m waiting with, suddenly calm, says, “Oh, girlfriend is gonna regret those heels.”

I look at her. She smiles and asks, “So what are you watching on TV? ‘White Lotus?’”

“I’m trying to get through the fifth season of ‘The Crown,’ but I haven’t had much down time.”

“Oh, it’s a slog too, and nothing will ever be season 4. Anderson as Thatcher? Mind. Blown,” says He, having returned, three sippy-cups of wine in his hand. I decline, again, but he cuts in with, “I’m not a pusher. She’s gonna need two.”

“It’s true,” She says, “I’m terrified of heights. This is like … I mean … Wow.” Indicating the rake of the seating, she adds, “You are UP HERE.”

I ask them if they need anything else, and then excuse myself as more people are coming in.

At intermission, during which I find the lost wallet of a woman who is there with her two sons, and whose eyes sparkle when she thanks me, The Couple find me again. They have discovered they love ballet and thus, by extension, me. They want to know everything about me. They are fascinated to find out that I also like ballet, that I have grown to like it much more working here, and that ballet has been here on the planet like ... this whole time. They are impressed to find out I have only started working for the ballet in the last year, that this is my first Nutcracker, and that I have another job, which I have come straight from.

“And what are you doing after this?” She asks, a little drunk, winking.

He, returning with more wine, gives me a “My Wife … right? She Means Well” roll of the head.

“Going home and going to sleep,” I tell her, and think, “So I can get up and do this all over again, pretty much six days a week for the next few months, so I can try to get ahead of the dominoes that keep falling just as I get to them, so I don’t end up in a tent like the ones I pass in the alleyway outside the fancy restaurant where the cooks take their cigarettes in the pool of light outside the back door. So I can make rent, and pay down debt with ever escalating interest on it, and try to keep my fridge full, and still put something away for retirement. So I can attempt to have some kind of future, which is what I’m basically living for since any thought of the present makes me unbearably sad and lonely and did you see? They now have computers who can write and so will there be anything left for me or any of the other humans to do? I mean Jesus, why do we even want computers to write? Whose life does that make better?"

“She makes friends wherever she goes,” He’s telling me, and snapping back into the conversation, I realize He’s apologizing and She’s embarrassed.

They go back to their seats, and They stand up for curtain call. I hate how easy it is to get a standing ovation in the Bay Area (partly because my work rarely seems to get one, even when critics are raving and tickets are selling) but I am so happy They are so happy. As They leave, They say goodnight, and She is Capital T Tipsy. Not abrasively so, like The Statement Necklaces, nor boisterously so, nor desperately so like the fathers who are trying to herd their kids out without passing a gift shop (good luck, gents, we got every door covered and there are stuffed animals). She is tipsy the way a person is vibrant after a short run in the cold, or an Austen heroine is from The Big Argument which is the turning point of EVERY AUSTEN NOVEL AND YOU ALL FALL FOR IT EVERY TIME.

She is, in other words, flushed, glowing.

“They made her a ballerina!” She tells me as they leave, referring to the character of Clara (I hope), and He asks, “May I shake your hand?” He may. “You have been so kind to us.”

As They begin the long walk down the stairs, She holds the rail, and He holds her arm, and their coats. Their love for one another is awkward and generous and radiates hope in a hopeless world. I notice They have cleared all their own garbage. Or maybe the entire aisle. It’s a lot of cups.

When is it going to stop hurting so much? This heart of mine.

As the doors close around the auditorium, I find an abandoned bow tie, child sized. I can hear the uproar of the lobby, all the way up here, where God and I get to watch the show, but in the silent slopes of chairs it’s just me and a few stragglers. One couple are still down center, at the front row of the front balcony. She has her head on his shoulder, and he’s leafing through the program.

On stage, the curtain has gone back up to reveal an empty place where there was all this abundance or at least the illusion of it. Now the crew is putting things away, sweeping up glitter and snow. Little people in black, like ants. Behind the lingering couple, I can see our head usher is quietly making her way over to gently tell them it’s time to go.

Stuart Bousel is a Bay Area-based playwright whose works include the award-winning “Everybody Here Says Hello!” and the less prestigious “The Death Of Ruby Slippers,” “Pastorella,” “The Exiled” and “The Edenites,” as well as the novel “Dry Country.” By day he works for the SF Food Bank, and moonlights at the San Francisco Opera and Ballet.

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