Five hours of opera, particularly five hours of Wagner, particularly with no legroom, would be enough to give anybody a headache, so it was not surprising that my mother, procurer of tickets to Lyric Opera’s production of Die Walkure, would send me off in search of aspirin during the second intermission.
One of the women at the coat-check counter was not particularly helpful:
“We have ’em, but we’re not allowed to give ’em,” she said.
In the lobby, as tuxedoed patrons downed the remains of box lunches and queued up for the rest rooms, I stumbled upon an instructor I’d had at the Goethe-Institut, a generously bearded opera fan.
“Herr Karotki,” I said. “How are you enjoying the opera?”
“It’s OK,” he frowned. “A little long.”
He rubbed his head.
“Do you have an aspirin?” I asked.
“I need some air and I need to stretch my legs,” he said as he disappeared into a thicket of black wool and gold lame.
On the lower level by the bar there was a group of women in their 50s and 60s with purses that looked as if, as Langston Hughes put it, they contained everything but a hammer and nails. Their faces looked red, probably because they had chosen not to leave their fur coats with the checkroom or in the auditorium. They stood there like sweaty Nanooks on an unseasonably warm Alaskan day.
“Excuse me, ladies,” I said. “I’m trying to find an aspirin. Would you know where I could get one?”
“I wish I did,” one of the ladies said and laughed. She gestured to a silver-haired patrician in a dark blue suit standing in line at the bar.
“That man over there might be able to help you.”
“Oh, do you know him?” I asked.
“Rather intimately; he’s my husband.”
“Excuse me, sir,” I said to the man. Dressed only in a pink shirt and Levi’s, I felt the need to be obsequious. “Your wife told me I might be able to get an aspirin from you.”
“You won’t get it from me,” he said. “But, I’ll tell you what you should do. On the upper level, on the Wacker side, there’s a place there called the Green Room. There’s a captain there. He has everything. And I know that he keeps a large supply of aspirin. Do me a favor so they let you in there. Tell them Jake McGee sent you.”
OK, his name wasn’t really Jake McGee, but it could have been; it sounded like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel.
Men in expensive-looking suits and bloodshot eyes were camped out in the Green Room with their evening-gowned companions drinking flutes of champagne. The place was lorded over by a bald-pated captain with a sleek tuxedo and an officious manner who seemed to take a snook at me when I dared enter the room reserved for the drinking pleasure of those willing to cough up somewhere in the low four figures in addition to their subscription money.
“May I help you, sir?” he asked, a sneer alighting on his puss.
“Jake McGee sent me,” I said. His manner changed suddenly.
“How’s Mr. McGee doing tonight?” he said.
“He told me I might be able to get some aspirin up here,” I said.
“Follow me,” he said, leading me into a side room where he knelt down at a small cupboard. “Tell Mr. McGee I’m sorry the opera has given him a headache.”
“It’s actually not for Mr. McGee,” I said. “He’s quite well actually.”
The captain was rummaging through a cupboard stocked with spare toothbrushes, toothpaste, and even Band-Aids. He extracted a large bottle of Bayer and poured a small quantity of tablets into my hand.
“Tell Mr. McGee I hope he feels better,” the captain said.
“I will,” I said. “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to have any Vivarin, would you?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said.
“Any other caffeine supplement?”
“Not even for Mr. McGee?” I asked.
“No,” he said and shook his head most solemnly. “Not even for Mr. McGee.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.