By Nancy Levinson
I am sitting on a front seat reserved for the elderly trying to catch a read of a few paragraphs at the red lights. At Wilshire and Greenley a man boards, and although he’s not elderly, sits across from me and right away asks, “What are you reading?” He has pleasant brown eyes crinkling at the edges as he smiles beneath his mask and doesn’t appear to be an unfortunate down-and-out fellow like some who ride the LA bus.
So I hold up the cover, smiling beneath my mask because it happens to be a high-falutin,’ impressive-looking book (and challenging) by a fine poet and writer, Kevin Stein, “Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age.”
Up rise the eyebrows of the man. “I just finished reading Hamnet, an ambitious Shakespearean historical fiction,” he dives into an adjacent topic. “Have you read it?” “I have and loved it,” I share. We two gregarious, loquacious ones dip into literary talk, but only for a mile plus, as coincidentally we both reach for the stop-request-cord to exit at Santa Monica Blvd.
At the corner we exchange destinations. Mine across the street for an ophthalmology appointment. His to meet Barbara Rush at Whole Foods. Do I know her, he wonders. “Of course, a lovely movie star of yesteryear,” I reply. It turns out that Hank, his name as he has told me, has known her since his days working as a Hollywood agent, and now in her nineties she is just as lovely as ever.
“Hey,” his eyes light up. “It happens that tonight we’re going to a Hammer Museum showing of an old TV production, CBS Playhouse 90. Barbara starred in it with a slew of other well-knowns in the cast. Come join us. Tickets are free.”
At home I google Hank. He is sixteen years younger than I, and way younger than Barbara, who is in her mid-nineties. Hank seems to be a solo guy who befriends older women, no doubt among any number of other people who appear interesting to him.
Barbara is not able to make it, as it turns out, but Hank and I enter the museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, and he sits in the Billy Wilder ‘memorial seat,’ so marked on a small bronze plaque, then mentions that Wilder once kindly helped him write a movie script.
The film opens on the large screen, presented exactly as it was shown on TV in 1960, program sponsors, station identification and all. “Alas, Babylon,” is the title, purportedly adapted from a book somewhat as a civil defense guide. In a small Florida town life is fine for a bevy of characters until a massive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Mushroom clouds everywhere. We witness destruction, death, radiation burns, blindness, violence, starvation. . . all the aftermath horror that the United States of America hopes to prevent in reality.
The tense drama (dated as it is) is broken by a sponsor, Camel Cigarettes. Hank and I totally remember that spokes/ad man, James Daley, who narrates. An esteemed pilot lands his plane, and upon stepping onto the field, the first thing he does is light up . . . ah that good taste. “Are you smoking more and enjoying it less?” We film goers peppered throughout the theater laugh, an OMG laugh. Really? Then Hank whispers that Daley was the father of Tyne Daley, the TV actress. Hank is a font of inside Hollywood industry asides.
He walks me the few blocks back to my apartment, as we talk further about the production (it was broadcast live!) and the current national and world scenes . . . imminent dangers and threats we live with right now.
What a super evening! I smile beneath my mask and thank him ever so much. As he turns to leave he simply suggests meeting for another show or a new art exhibit one of these days, and we exchange phone numbers.
I have not related this day’s story to anyone yet. Imagine the dropped jaws when I tell my sons and friends that I spent an evening with a man I’d just met on a city bus.
© 2022 Nancy Smiler Levinson
Nancy is the author of MOMENTS OF DAWN: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation, as well as work that has appeared in Poetica, Voice of Eve, Panoplyzine, Rat’s Ass Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Constellations, Jewish Literary Journal, Sledgehammer, and elsewhere. In past chapters of her life, she published thirty books for young readers.