Peter, Paul, Mary and Carla in Concert

When I pick up Carla for our blind date to see Peter, Paul and Mary in concert, I’m pleasantly surprised. Okay, she’s a little on the husky side and the blond hair is several watts brighter than normal. But she’s neatly groomed and has a pleasant face and the gold lamé jumpsuit and white jacket seem right for the occasion. Besides, she’s doing me a favor; it was only nine o’clock this morning that the tickets landed in my lap. So I’m not looking for a hot date, just some congenial female company to enjoy one of my all-time favorite musical groups. Whatever Carla’s interests, I’m a lawyer, I can talk, and by the time we reach the theater and take our seats, I’ve learned she’s a financial analyst with Dean Witter, and her dogs, all three rescues, are Brandy, Merlot and Chardonnay.

“Great song,” breathes Carla, leaning forward and shifting her shoulders in time to the stirring beat of the first number, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

“It sure is.” I mean, I love Peter, Paul and Mary. Even though I was only seven or eight when they cut their first albums, my two older sisters kept me fully briefed on the music scene. And it’s clear from the mature crowd around us that these people are no Johnny-come-lately fans, though none of them quite matches Carla’s level of animation. First her right shoulder thrusts forward, then the left, then the right again as if she’s on a mechanical pivot somewhere around her waist. Her fists go along in dainty matching jabs—right, left, right—as if she’s shadow boxing.

“What a song!” she says, clapping vigorously as the number concludes. She tosses her head happily toward me, and I smile, glad she’s enjoying herself. These are great seats, front row, and the theater is a small circular venue with a balcony and a revolving stage that makes for an intimate atmosphere. No backup musicians, no big amps, just Peter, Paul and Mary and their bass player on stage, not fifteen feet away. The mood is mellow, and Peter’s talking about how the times really have changed since they first sang that song. They move into a beautifully harmonized rendition of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” full of tenderness and regret. Lost in the music, I almost forget anyone’s with me. Then Carla’s shoulder brushes mine.

“Oh, excuse me,” I say, in case I’ve accidently invaded her space.

“No problem,” she replies, and a second later she brushes me again. I turn to see what’s happening. Sway right, sway left—this time Carla is on a lateral course, clocking from side to side like a metronome. I shift to the right to avoid the next encounter as her sweeps gather momentum with each chorus. Luckily, I’m on the aisle, but the elderly couple on Carla’s left are leaning as far away as they can go.

“Oh, they are so fantastic,” Carla sighs, adding a burst of applause to the clapping around us. “Look, here they come!”

The stage revolves a quarter turn toward us. I mean, this is terrific, face to face with Peter, Paul and Mary. Okay, so the guys are half bald these days and Mary’s a grandmother. Who cares? These people have heart, they have soul. Peter and Paul are into a routine about being kids and believing in the Tooth Fairy, and Mary’s pretending to be the mother. It just has to be…it is!—the lead-in to “Puff The Magic Dragon.” Man, this is the song I first latched onto, a wonderful song about the loss of innocence. I never believed it was about drugs.

“Ohhhh.” Beside me, a nostalgic bellows is blowing in and out, in and out, to the music. “Ohhhh.” Carla’s eyes are misty, and her shoulders have added yet another motion to their repertoire. Heave up, “Ohhhh,” heave down, “Ohhhh. Heave up, “Ohhhh.” By the time the trio reaches the line about Little Jackie Paper coming no more, tears are streaming down Carla’s cheeks. I pat frantically in my pockets. I never carry tissues or a handkerchief, but maybe by some miracle…From the row behind, a hand shoots over my shoulder and drops a wad of Kleenex in my lap. I press it into Carla’s hands, but she just balls it in her fingers as the bellows take on fresh wind. Heave up, “Ohhhh,” heave down “Ohhhh.” Even Mary glances down with a startled look, then fixes her eyes resolutely on the last row.

“I love that song.  It’s so beautiful,” says Carla, dabbing her eyes after the final chorus.

“Me, too.” I shift gingerly, praying for a quiet number to come up next. With Peter, Paul and Mary facing us, every eye is turned in our direction, and the spill from the spotlights overhead illuminates Carla’s gold lamé outfit and sends blinding flashes off the crystal earrings. I mean, I can see the couples opposite us in the semi-darkness well enough to count the buttons on the guy’s shirt, so you know we must stand out like an airport beacon. The Kleenex bombing into my lap like an emergency airlift proves the neighboring rows are already well aware of us. And to think I brought a blind date because I didn’t want to be conspicuous.

“Wow, this is terrific, Mike,” I said this morning when my colleague stopped by my office with the tickets. “This concert’s been sold out for a month. How come you and Laura aren’t going?”

“She’s covering pre-trials for two other attorneys, and I have to fly to Cleveland tonight for a deposition. So enjoy. Why don’t you ask Allyson in the D.A.’s office?”

“Gee, I don’t know, Mike. Maybe because I managed one date with her and spent the entire evening tongue tied? I haven’t had the nerve to call her since.”

“But tonight you have tickets to the best show in town. Go on, pick up the phone.”

Mary is introducing the next song, a serious piece Paul wrote about U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the audience listens intently. After all, this is the generation that marched in protest against Vietnam and voted for McGovern. And the song is just what you’d expect from Peter, Paul and Mary, powerful, truthful, poignant. The Latin rhythm makes the message even stronger, a forceful reminder of our intrusion into lives we barely understand. The maracas in the background add a gentle “Ch-chh, ch-chh.” Wait a minute. Peter, Paul and Mary aren’t using any maracas…My eyes travel from the stage to the seat beside me where Carla is swishing imaginary gourds swish through the air. “Ch-chh, ch-chh” comes from between her teeth.

“Down with U.S. imperialism!” she cries. “Let my people go!”

The elderly couple on Carla’s left sit with rigid jaws and faces turned stoically to the stage. If only I’d taken that place and given Carla my aisle seat I could at least minimize the damage. If only Allyson had let me get past “I know it’s short notice but…”

“So is Allyson available?” Mike asked at noon.

“No. I didn’t even get a chance to mention Peter, Paul and Mary. As soon as I asked if she was free this evening, she said she was booked.”

“For a good-looking lawyer, you sure have trouble with women. Well, go by yourself. There’s no law that says you have to have a date.”

“But it’ll be so obvious, sitting there in the front row with an empty seat beside me.”

“Then ask the secretaries. Get them to fix you up. Somebody must know a loose female.”

A loose female. That’s what the secretaries found for me all right. Carla’s shoulders are loose, her elbows are loose, her wrists are loose, and if her head gets any looser her chandelier earrings will go flying. At least she doesn’t seem loose in the other sense. No coy looks, no putting her hand on my leg.  I hate it when a woman comes on to you on the first date. If we can just get through this concert without being lynched I’ll put her in the car and take her home. But I sure do wish I was here with Allyson. Now there is a lady—knockout looks, great mind, strong but feminine. No wonder her date book is full.

“Oh, they’re moving away,” Carla mourns as the stage executes another quarter revolution.

I breathe a sigh of relief. We’re out of the spotlight now, the worst is over. The next two songs involve audience participation—clapping and chorus singing—and while Carla launches herself into it with the energy level of a seismic reactor, at least the rest of the crowd is in motion as well. If we can only make it to the intermission…

“We’d like to do a song,” Peter begins, but already the audience has recognized the opening chords of “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and sets up a round of applause.

“Seems no further introduction is needed,” Paul quips, and the trio nods to each other and moves up to the mikes. “All my bags are packed…”

Carla sighs, and I steel myself for a replay of the heave up, “Ohhhh,” heave down, “Ohhhh,” that accompanied poor Puff. But no, Carla has decided to conduct. Fingers positioned as if holding a baton, she gently exhorts Peter, Paul and Mary to crescendo, decrescendo, draw out a soulful note. From the corner of his eye, Paul catches her urgings and a twitch crosses his face. I slump in my seat. Mary has already registered Carla’s antics, now Paul, and if Peter hasn’t seen them his partners are sure to fill him in in their dressing room. Carla and I are going down in their personal scrapbook as winners of the “Most Bizarre Performance By A Member Of The Audience” award. In desperation I grab Carla’s waving right hand, lock my fingers into hers, and pull her forearm down to the armrest with a foolish grin that says I’ve been wanting to hold hands with her all evening. For a second she looks surprised, then her eyes begin to glow.

“I just knew any guy who cared enough to get front-row seats to Peter, Paul and Mary would be a romantic like me,” she says, laying her head on my shoulder with a happy sigh. And there it stays, while her left hand continues its orchestral instructions. At the song’s end Peter, Paul and Mary leave the stage to a round of applause, and the house lights come on for intermission. The loudspeakers announce that snacks, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages are for sale in the lobby, and people rise and begin to exit. The gray-haired couple on Carla’s left stand, looking grim. When I turn in my seat, the stony stare from the woman behind us makes me cringe into my chair.

“It’s warm in here, isn’t it?” says Carla, squiggling and adjusting her white jacket to let in some air. She blows up into her bangs, lifts her hair from her nape and fans with her program behind her neck. If she makes one more move…

“I’ll get you something to drink,” I say, leaping to my feet before the urge to strangle her becomes overwhelming.

The lobby is crowded, but anything is better than another minute beside Carla. I consider my options: duck out and leave her, wait in the men’s room till the concert is over and claim I got sick, offer my seat to some unsuspecting teenager. Maybe if I get her a nice stiff drink she’ll settle into a stupor. But wait—what if she passes out and starts to snore? What if she gets even more excited when she’s drunk? It’s Coke for Carla. I’m the one who needs a drink.

“Give me a vodka—straight,” I say thirstily to the concession clerk as someone taps my shoulder.

“Well,” says a gravelly voice I’d know anywhere, “so this is how my junior associates spend their evenings.”

“Mr. Randall, how nice to see you, sir.” Coke in one hand, vodka in the other, I snap a smile across my face. Arrgh. The senior partner of my law firm, Ramrod Randall, in the audience all this time. If only he hasn’t seen…

“Your young lady certainly seems to be enjoying the show,” he says, raising his bristling eyebrows in inquisition.

“Well, uh, I actually hardly know her, sir.”

“Must admit I’m enjoying this concert myself. Of course, that could be because this evening I also have some rather attractive female company.”

He gives me a nudge and a wink, a startling gesture from a man who inspires terror throughout the legal profession, but I play along. If he and the equally iron-jawed Mrs. Randall want to pretend they’re still in the throes of passion, then go for it, Ramrod. I hope you get some when you get home.

“That’s wonderful, sir. Glad to hear it.”

“Just be careful you don’t develop a drinking problem,” he says, frowning at my vodka.

“No, sir, I—”

But Randall is already gone, bearing with him who knows what impression of my after-work lifestyle. I trudge back into the theater just as the lights dim to signal Peter, Paul and Mary’s return. The elderly couple who endured the first half of the concert on Carla’s left have departed, and two young woman have moved down in their place. I decide not to switch seats after all. Maybe the rest of the audience will think Carla is there with two girlfriends and I just happen to be by myself in the seat next to them.

Peter comes out on stage alone; it seems the second set begins with each member of the trio doing a solo turn. During Peter’s first number, Carla is occupied sipping her Coke and only a slight foot tapping gives us away. The second song, “No Easy Walk To Freedom,” calls for more clapping and chorus singing, so we’re covered there, too. I begin to relax and enjoy myself. Then Paul comes out and does a love song followed by a goofy rap number accompanied by a boom box. It’s so loud and active even Carla’s shimmying and shaking get lost in the din. Next, Mary. Her back is to us, the lights are low. Carla seems worn out from her gyrations. This is going to be all right. We’re going to make it after all. I’m going to survive this concert with my dignity and my career intact. Mary finishes, and Peter and Paul rejoin her from the wings. The stage rotates a quarter turn.

“Whew, it’s warm in here,” says Carla, blowing into her bangs. She leans forward, twitching and jerking, and off comes the white jacket to reveal bare shoulders and an elastic halter string barely holding the gold jumpsuit in place above an Earth Mother bosom. Up on stage, the answer is blowing in the wind. Here in the first row a hurricane has arisen. Waves of bosom rise and fall, blond hair tosses side to side, and oh no, here goes the head, bobbing and popping like a balloon on a string. I sink as low as possible in my seat, wishing with all my heart I wasn’t six-foot-four. I’d give anything to be in Cleveland taking a deposition.

“Look, here they come again!” squeals Carla as the stage rotates toward us. The spotlights blaze on our seats, Carla’s jumpsuit gleams like Fort Knox, and her earrings shoot sparks of light like a New Age glassworks.

No, no please, don’t let it be…

“If I had a hammer,” sings the full-throated trio. Carla swings her hammer like John Henry pounding the final spike into the transcontinental railroad. She rings her bell like the Sons of Liberty tolling freedom to patriots across the land. She sings her song more magnificently than Julie Andrews on a mountaintop in Austria. And when it’s over she raises her hands above her head, stamps her feet, and claps with all her might, crying “Bravo!  Bravo!”

“Give me that!” I snatch her right hand and pin it to the armrest in a wrestler’s grip. Stunned by my obvious passion, Carla curls her fingers into mine and lays her head dreamily on my shoulder. Fine. I’ll do anything to get through this last number.

“Grand finale!” calls Mary. “Sing with us.  This land is your land…”

“…this land is my land,” I mumble, hanging my head as Peter, Paul and Mary stare with true professionalism over our heads. As this night goes down in infamy, I know I’ll be banned from ever entering this theater again.

Suddenly, Carla leaps to her feet. My hand still caught in hers, my body jerks out of the chair. And there I am, all six-foot-four of me, standing like an idiot in the front row of a concert by one of my all-time favorite musical groups. Carla claps, smacking her free left hand against my knuckles, the halter top slipping ever lower on her bosom. Peter, Paul and Mary close their eyes. Somewhere in the audience, Ramrod Randall is watching.

“This land is your land,” belts Carla, “this land is my land. Come on, everybody!” She swoops up her arms in a gesture for the crowd to rise. “Come on, sing!” My trapped hand goes up with hers, and suddenly I find myself crying, “Come on, everybody! Come on!” urging them all to rise, too. Anything so I won’t be standing up here with Carla alone.

But not one single person in that entire theater gets to their feet. They sit, pointing, giggling, some of them actually doubled over with laughter. It’s clear they’re enjoying every minute of my downfall. Finally, finally, the ordeal is over, and Peter, Paul and Mary exit to tremendous applause.

“Let’s go,” I say weakly.

We make our way with the crowd into the open air, and I hear people chuckling as they pass us en route to the parking lot.

“Quite a show, wasn’t it?” says a gravelly voice.

“Mr. Randall…Allyson!”

“Oh, you two know each other,” says Randall, bringing forward the woman on his arm. “I expect you’ve crossed paths at the D.A.’s office.”

“Once or twice,” says Allyson, extending her hand. Her face bears a pained look, as if imploring me not to mention any further acquaintance. What is she doing with Ramrod? He’s married, he’s old enough to be her father, surely they’re not—

“And I’m Carla,” says Carla, thrusting her hand at Allyson and Randall and pumping vigorously. “I just love Peter, Paul and Mary.”

“Who doesn’t?” says Randall jovially, guiding Allyson away.

“Bye-bye!” Carla sings after them.

I sigh. The parking lot is beginning to clear. “I’ll drive you home.”

“Home?” Carla give me a teasing look. “Surely you don’t think I’m going to let this wonderful evening come to an end?” She takes my hand and dance-steps toward the car, pulling me along and humming. With sinking heart, I recognize the tune.

“The song is love, the song is luh-uh-uh-uve…”

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1991)

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