Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Are the Chances?

I never cease to marvel at how innocuous little events can have major consequences. They don’t have to be as Earth-shattering as having to run back in to grab your passport from the hall table and thereby missing the plane that crashes into the ocean. They can be subtle, yet still momentous. Or they can have a cumulative effect that is only visible over time. (That last is a major theme in the Canned Ham script.)

Recently I ran across three friends (two of whom I had not seen in years) simply due to tiny, random occurrences.

The first friend was Donna. We know each other from when we both worked at the Pizza Hut in my hometown the summer before I moved to New York City to attend NYU. (It would be more accurate to say I attended NYU to move to New York City.) Donna was the coolest thing that had ever crossed my path. She was older (she had to have been at least 22 at the time,) drove a very cool Opel GT with headlights you had to flip open with a hand crank, and most of all, she actually subscribed to the Village Voice.

We became great friends and even lived together most of my first year in the city. (12th Street between Avenues A/B. $150/month.) She dragged me to Max’s Kansas City and the Mud Club and I dragged her to Broadway shows. It’s probably meaningless to her that she got to see Ballroom, but see it she did.

Then we got separate apartments and, as friends do, lost touch. She got married… I got married… I’ve been trying to find her for years but couldn’t remember her husband's last name to save my life. A couple of weeks ago I was putting stuff back on the shelves after returning from Saba and found, among a box of letters, a birthday card from Donna signed with her married name. I headed straight to Facebook and there she was. We have a lunch date coming up in the next few weeks and I can’t wait to see her.

Next: I was joining a friend at a birthday party in the city a couple of weeks ago and, not sure that there would be food, thought it wise to catch a late-afternoon bite. I decided to head three blocks over to Hudson Street to a café but because it was so hot I thought, no, I’ll just jump in to the good old Manatus Diner which was right in front of me on Bleecker Street. I was sitting at a table memorizing my script when I looked up to spot Charles Busch striding past the window. I raced outside and got him to abandon his power walk and join me for a diet Coke.

Now, I see Charles fairly regularly, but it’s always a pleasure. We got to talking about this and that and, as we invariably do, got on the topic of old movies. “Do you know who I’m becoming obsessed with?” Charles asked. “Dame May Whitty.” He then proceeded to recount the entire plot of Lassie Come Home and at the final scene, when Lassie, weary and broken, drags herself down the high street to meet little Roddy McDowall after school, we were both in tears. In the Manatus Diner. On Bleecker Street.

But the most surprising and random encounter happened earlier that day. It was a scorcher and I was parched. I was aiming for the Starbuck’s in Sheridan Square when I passed a phone booth (there are still phone booths!) with an advertisement for Dunkin’ Donuts coconut iced coffee. That sounds good, thought I, and continued toward the Starbucks. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw that familiar orange and purple right there on Christopher Street, and there, where I do not recall there being one before, was a Dunkin’ Donuts. What the hell, I’ll get a coconut iced coffee. I opened the door to the shop and there at the last table in the back was none other than Whit Stillman, the director of Metropolitan, for which I composed the music score.

Whit and I have a unique relationship in that we get along great personally, but never could really manage to work together very well. It’s usually the other way ‘round, yeah? We struggled through Metropolitan, made an abortive attempt to collaborate on Barcelona and then looked at each other, wrinkled our noses and shook our heads when The Last Days of Disco came around. The last time I had seen Whit was on University Place in September, 2000. I remember the date because I had just returned from the Cabaret tour. After that I completely lost track of him.

“Whit Goddam Stillman! You have no idea how hard I have tried to locate you.”

“I’m in the phone book.”

Dry as ever, that Whit. Of course, I had never tried looking in the phone book. It's so last millennium. Also, he's lived out of the country for most of this time, so I had good reason not to think of the obvious. He was working on something... I was running late... so we exchanged contact info and said goodbye. This tune was written for, but cut from, Metropolitan.

Those three “meaningless” things--opening a box of letters, the day being too hot to walk an extra block and an ad on a phone booth—all led to unexpected encounters with good friends. I’m sure there’s a moral there somewhere. Be sure to send it in if you can think of one.

My new Canned Ham column on

Canned Ham September 23/24 at Dixon Place in NYC.


  1. You mean to tell me, Tom Judson, after all these years with the Birnbaums you don't know from the word "beshert"? What freaks me out is how much I can relate with thses episodes. I have spent quite a few apres-midis at that very same Duncan Donuts sipping ice coffee watching the passerbys (my favorite was the guy who stopped in front of that huge window, back to the sidewalk, so he could adjust himself. Hello! There are people on the other side of that window!) Manatus is where I met the legendary H.M. Koutoukas of Ridiculous Theatre fame. Lastly, and most bizarre, is that I have a friend who told me that when he was stumped by a reference to a sex act mentioned in Metropolitan he found Whit's number in the phone book and called him to ask about it. Happening upon 2, count 'em 2 anecdotes concerning Whit's phone listing is beyond serendipity. It's supercalifragilisticexpiali-freaking-docious!

    The moral? Never do anything you'd be ashamed of in NYC (or anywhere else). Someone you know is bound to run into you. Are you rolling on the floor yet?

  2. I remember when that Dunkin' Donuts first opened. I was appalled. A Dunkin' Donuts on Christopher Street? The area had been chain-free for so long. It made me feel dirty to even walk by it. Now the whole area is like an Asbury Park boardwalk. Oh well.

  3. Kruzpup - Tom is a guy whose buff, bronzed nakedness is never more than a short Google away. How many things do you think there are that he could be ashamed of?

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  5. Hi Tom, I'm looking forward to a new column of yours in The Advocate!