We got tickets to see Don Reed at the Berkeley Marsh. The name of the show is “East 14th,” and every Oakland citizen should know a little something about that street, which is an important highway through the part of Oakland where black lives matter less than they should. People grow up there; Don Reed, a hugely successful African-American writer and performer, grew up there.
His father was a pimp; his mother was an addict. And yet his show is filled with love and humor. He sees East 14th for what it is: Home.
(East 14th is now officially called International Boulevard, one of those civic attempts to make flatlands streets seem more classy. I note that 6th Avenue in New York City officially became Avenue of the Americas in 1945, but that didn’t take either).
The show started at seven, and we were there in plenty of time. Left to my devices, I would (and occasionally have) showed up way early, even before the doors opened. Tracy hates that, but I have been known to pout if we leave late. Or “late,” as Tracy might say.
We got there at quarter of. The place was busier than usual for a Marsh Sunday show, which is a good thing. We had paid for our seats online. The person who was supposed to be at the ticket desk was somewhere else, but the Marsh often features one person doing the job of three, so I didn’t fret. We were paying customers; we were secure in our virtue.
It was festival seating, which is always such a pain. I found some vacant seats and inched over the assembled knees to get to them. I sat down, and the woman next to me said, “those seats are taken.” She wasn’t particularly friendly; you might even say that her voice dripped with disdain. But I rise to these occasions. I thought, but did not say, that polite people use a sweater or a scarf to mark a taken seat.
I stood up and looked around. “Trace, we could get those two seats.” I pointed. We scrunched our way back across the hazardous thighs. We entered the other row. “These seats are taken too,” said another woman. She was even less friendly than the first.
I rose to the occasion once again. I’m almost like a saint. “Oh,” I said cheerfully. I had a smile in my voice. I am not bothered by the trivial things in life. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. Unmarked chairs? I laugh at the rudeness of people.
“All the seats in this row are taken,” the less friendly woman said, although none of them were marked either. “You’ll have to go upstairs.” OK, fine. We found the stairs (behind a sign marked “Do Not Enter”) and went up. Every seat up there was taken —I mean, really taken, occupied by human bodies. Hey, I thought, we bought tickets; how can there not be seats for us? We walked around the balcony; no seats. I thought to myself: “Well, this blows.”
We were walking back down the stairs when a woman leaned over the rail. “You the people looking for seats?” We were. We went back up; she had found some folding chairs leaning against the wall. We took those and sat in the corner; the stage was an at extreme right angle to us. We were able to see a lot of Don Reed’s right ear.
We waited. We smiled to indicate that we did not mind being in the worst seats in the house even though we had bought tickets and gotten there early, dammit. Nothing was going to distract us from our theatrical enjoyment. A voice came over the loudspeaker:
“Thank you, and welcome back to the second act of East 14th!”
The second act? The second act? What?
Then it all clicked into place. We had gotten the time wrong. The ticket desk was unoccupied because it was the second act. The people downstairs had been unfriendly because we were apparently trying to move up and poach some worthy citizen’s seat. Maybe you can change seats halfway through a baseball game, but in a small, crowded theater, it’s just rude. And the woman who took pity on us was being extraordinarily kind despite our clear willful deviation from social norms.
I was grateful, however, that I had not given the unfriendly woman my lecture about the right way to save seats. I was even more grateful that I did not, at any time, say out loud: “Hey, we bought our damn tickets! A little respect here!”
I wanted to run downstairs and apologize to both unfriendly ladies, but the show had started. Don Reed was talking in an amusing manner. He was starting in the middle, it being the second act and all, but maybe we could pick it up. After a minute, I leaned over to Tracy and said:
“We’ve seen this.”
I showed Tracy a draft of the above. She read it, thought about it, and said, “you could include an amusing squabble.” We did indeed have a squabble, less than amusing, in which I noted mildly that it was all her fault. She protested, so in the middle of all this (perceived) humiliation, we were hissing at each other all the way out of the theater.
That’s OK; we’re both single children raised by parents who believed that we were golden entities destined to achieve, well, something good — and decent and kind and earth-shattering. Two results of that: (1) We are used to getting our own way, and (2) we came to rely on our own judgment about what was smart or appropriate or important. So we bicker. People who know us understand. Out friend Rachel once said, “we just enjoy watching you guys.” So, right: Think of it as a comedy routine. Which, upon reflection, it often is.
But still: I was interested that she was mining our personal life for things that might sex up the story a little bit. Conflict! People like conflict! So let’s do some self-intrusion; let’s be our own paparazzi. Of course, that’s what I’ve been doing for 45 years, and I always thought it was a creepy way to make a living. I hadn’t realized that my wife had developed the same habit. We really are doing this blog together.
Adair Lara , another practitioner of my-life-is-fodder journalism, had a great take on this. She wrote about her father a lot, and she was often asked how he was doing. “That was fine; I appreciated the interest. But when they started talking about their fathers, I knew I’d done my job.”
Processing family data is universal; that’s why people write about it, because universal = good. On the other hand, I think maybe it’s gotten out of hand. I read the four new columnists currently rotating on the back page of the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle — my former space — and I think: Could you maybe sometimes talk about something other than your families?
But here I am, writing about making mistakes and feeling shame and, potentially, about a little personal (you’d think) marriage dynamics. There’s nothing like internal contradictions to sex up a blog.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
General usefulness by Michelle Mizera