By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Back when I was managing the Rives Theatre from 2007-2009, there were a number of interesting characters that would pop by the theater from time to time. There was one in particular whom I’ll never forget. We called her The Nice Lady.
The first time I met The Nice Lady, I was hauling a couple of bags of garbage to the dumpster in the alley. Suddenly, from up the street, I heard a horrible argument. Two people were angrily shouting at each other, and they were getting closer and closer.
“I can’t do that!” one voice screamed. “I can’t do it!”
“Like $%!& you can’t!” the second voice screamed back.
The two voices continued in this fashion, growing closer and closer, until a woman came into view. She was an older lady, perhaps in her 70s, wearing a long brown coat and walking with a cane. I waited for her angry interlocutor to appear.
“I can’t do it!” the woman said angrily, staring straight ahead. “I just can’t do it.”
Suddenly, she whipped her head around and looked at some invisible presence hovering over her shoulder.
“Like $%!& you can’t!” she yelled in a totally different voice.
And then her eyes met mine, and she stopped.
“Hello ma’am,” I said, “how are you today?”
Her face broke into a sweet smile.
“Why, I’m just fine, sugar, how are you?” she said, in a pleasant grandmotherly voice.
“Doing great,” I said. “I hope you have a nice day.”
“You too, honey,” she said. She looked ahead again, and just as she crossed to the other side of the mouth of the alley, I heard her furious debate fire back up as she began calling the invisible presence over her shoulder every name in the book.
I saw The Nice Lady many, many times over the next few years. In fact, I saw her just about every day. If I bumped into on the street, it was always the same thing: She would be having a horrible argument with herself, I would say hello, she would respond perfectly lucidly and pleasantly, and then she would start arguing with herself again.
Now obviously, there’s nothing funny about mental illness, and I have no doubt that this lady was mentally ill. What was remarkable was that she could seem to snap out of it so quickly, albeit briefly, and when she did, she was the nicest person you could ever hope to meet. All of her anger and venom was reserved for someone who didn’t exist in our conventional reality, which made her a much more pleasant person to talk to than several people I know.
There was only one time I ever saw her direct her anger at a real person.
One day, I arrived to work a little early and parked in front of the theater. I was in the middle of a phone call, so I figured I would just sit in my car until the call was finished.
I saw The Nice Lady walking down the street straight towards where I was sitting. She was about to cross Clay Street when she suddenly stopped and whipped her head around.
There was a car approaching, and it was slowing down so it could turn onto Clay Street.
I don’t know why The Nice Lady fixated on this car. I don’t know if she knew the driver. I don’t know if she had ever seen the car before in her life. What I do know for a certainty is that she HATED that car.
As the car slowed to make its turn, she began screaming obscenities at it. She shook her fists at it in a rage. I had never seen her so angry before.
And then, just as the car was making its turn, close enough to her that she could have almost reached out and touched it, she did something I had never seen her do before and never saw her do again.
She turned around. She hiked up the back of her long coat. She grabbed the waistband of her pants.
And she mooned the car.
The car zipped off, tires squealing, and The Nice Lady hiked up her pants and crossed the street. At about the same time, my phone call ended and I got out of my car.
As she slowly walked toward me, I offered her a friendly wave.
“Good morning!” I said.
The Nice Lady smiled.
“Well, good morning, sugar!” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m doing just fine,” I said. “I hope you have a nice day.”
“You do the same, honey!”