Associate Provost, Southampton Graduate Arts campus
On a Saturday morning in mid-July, 1998, as I waited at the Omni for a westbound Jitney, here’s how my life looked. On the bright side, I had what was for me, a writer and teacher, a dream assignment: I’d been asked to direct the Southampton Writers Conference, a significant East End institution, and the goal was to elevate it to national prominence – think Breadloaf.
The less promising circumstance was this: I was mid-forties, freshly divorced, a bit back on my heels, and for the duration of the Conference, I was staying on the campus of Southampton College – think dorm room.
So I boarded the Jitney for a quick roundtrip to my longtime neighborhood on the Upper West Side, no doubt still getting my bearings in the present, still orienting myself to my future. And that is when my Jitney Story happened. Two-and-a-half hours and eighty-five miles later, when I stepped off at 39th Street, my life had been transformed.
As most any visitor to the Hamptons will tell you, the Jitney is not a likely venue for transformative experience. Mostly the hope is to get from one place to another without anything horrible happening, which is not as easy as it sounds. In high season the Jitney is packed with extremely ambitious people who for the moment become preoccupied with a singularly modest ambition: to prevent anyone from occupying the seat next to them. In this little drama of feral territoriality, sleep is feigned, work is feigned, mental or physical illness is feigned – anything to avoid the eyes of newly-boarded pilgrims, who might misconstrue eye contact as an invitation to inquire, ”Is that seat taken?” What this question really means, of course, “Is that seat taken by something other than a laptop, pretzels, and a NY Times?”
And on that summer morning fourteen years ago, the stars aligned, the gods smiled, the tumblers fell into place, take your pick of metaphors for that rare moment when the indifferent world suddenly cooperates with you. A mere three rows down the aisle, on the right, was a woman sleeping, turned toward the window. Miraculously, the seat next to her was unprotected, unencumbered, and . . . free? Joy! Oh bliss! And so I took my place next to Beth, my wife-to-be, who soon became to me Bethie and, as we cycle over the years through our terms of endearment, Bethie-kins, Bethie-presh (short for precious), Lovie-preesh, and recently, Tooney (short for sweet petunia).
Here is the public story of this random Jitney encounter, which Beth and I have told many times over the years. Beth had visited the Hamptons to attend a literary awards dinner, now defunct. She’d been set up on a blind date, courtesy of her aunt, and although the wine flowed, the date had been an amicable failure. Beth wanted to hurry back to her Tribeca neighborhood to salvage the weekend – hence the Saturday morning Jitney and the mild hangover. She slept for a third of the trip, and the next third we didn’t speak, but the final third we began a conversation and immediately hit it off. I had spotted among her things a program from the previous evening, and when I realized the awards were for writers, I began shamelessly and relentlessly name-dropping, beginning with writers who were actually friends of mine, then those who were acquaintances, and finally those I simply admired. In this preening state, I never doubted that this roster would impress her, although she told me later that what she found touching, what drew her to me, was how I spoke about my son. Oh, and did I mention that she, hung over and disheveled, was absolutely gorgeous?
As we entered the Midtown Tunnel, it was Beth, not I, who made the first move. In writing, as in many things, I needed the pressure of a deadline and for me the deadline wasn’t until the Jitney pulled to the curb at 39th Street. She handed me her business card, Senior VP at some la-ti-da sounding group I’d never heard of, and she suggested getting together for a drink. And here we near the punch line of the public story: I didn’t have a business card, so I tore off a quarter of hers and jotted down my name and the telephone number for my temporary abode – ba-da-boom – my Southampton College dorm room. What a catch! A mid-forties, divorced, balding smoker living in a college dorm room!
And following these guffaws, the public story then takes a poignant turn. Although Beth and I differ on the timing of my first call to her, anywhere from three to five days later, what I said to her isn’t in dispute. “I can’t stop thinking about you.” This detail never fails to bring an “awww” from our auditors. And it was absolutely true, both that I said this, but also that I had not been able to stop thinking about her. And it is as true today as it was then.
And here a final crucial detail that I leave out of the public story, but that deserves a place here, in the narrative of how love happens. When I first sat beside the sleeping, mildly hung over stranger on the Jitney, before we had exchanged a word, a moment transpired that sealed my fate. Before she awakened, restlessly adjusting her position, she turned away from the window and toward me. And suddenly that face unknown to me, in quiet repose, was mere inches from my own. In that undeniably voyeuristic moment, there was something that took my breath away, something profoundly intimate, and yes, with a whisper of the erotic. Do not doubt that there is something chemical in love, that our beings communicate quickly and efficiently beneath the level of words, in the blood as desire, and in the mind as dreams. And truth be told, the same unconscious force that draws us to the love of our life can also lead us to our worst nightmare. But do not dwell on that sad corollary now. This is a happy story. And for me, on that luckiest of days it was love that drew me in. The rest, as they say, is history. Let the public stories begin.