The Land of Sweets
The Nutcracker, Disneyland, and the Better World
For a couple of years when I was in my mid-twenties, I was the one you called if you wanted to see the San Francisco Ballet perform The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker was the company’s annual cash cow. It’s a cash cow for ballet companies all over America, because of its whimsical and family-friendly character. (Unlike The Dying Swan, which recreates the last moments in the life of a swan—a spectacle no family wants to behold during the holidays.) In the phone room at the San Francisco Ballet during Nutcracker season, the lines rang all day long. A flashing red light on the telephone let clerks like myself know that even after we’d finished soothing one frantic mother, another frantic mother awaited.
“What am I going to tell my kids?” a mother once said to me, in the tone she probably used when arguing with her husband. She had five kids, and would not accept the idea that I could not seat them all together. Given the scant number of remaining tickets, I would have to scatter them around the highest balcony.
“Some people say you can hear the music better there,” I said.
She scoffed. “Who wants to hear The Nutcracker?” I wish she had added, “The Nutcracker should be seen, not heard,” but it would have called for too ready a wit on her part. “We’ve gone to The Nutcracker every year,” she said. “It’s a Christmas tradition. What am I going to tell them? Sorry kids, no Nutcracker this year? No Christmas?”
I needed one of those signs in my cubicle that read failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part, or one that read stop. just stop. If this frantic mother had really been bringing her children to see The Nutcracker for years, she would have known that after the subscribers had their pick of seats, the public rushed in like ants over a hillock of sugar. But one learns patience working any job that depends upon the hysteria of crowds for its existence. This patience stopped me from saying, “Oh, come on, let your kids sit by themselves. Sitting apart from you could be a whole new Christmas tradition.”
My coworker David, a large, soft-spoken black guy with one glittering stud earring, would sometimes intone one of the ballet’s iconic refrains between calls. “Duhn duh-duh-duh duhn duhn duhn duhn duhhhhh . . . ” We would all moan and writhe in our cubicles; since we also heard this melody every time we put someone on hold, it had become, to us, Tchaikovsky’s most tormenting musical snippet, a kind of hell keen. The devil would undoubtedly hum it while flaying us alive in our eternal damnation.
The phone room could be divided into two groups: the irreverent young and the old-timers. All of us young still had doe-eyed hope to spare—dreams of becoming envied fashion designers, respected writers, virtuous social workers. I often worked alongside an optimistic young black woman named Katrina. Katrina had her sights set on a different career too, but it was something so practical, reasonable, and without glamour that the particulars escape me—nursing, maybe, or accounting. Whatever it was held no candle to her more immediate and urgent desire to visit Disneyland. She adored the songs and characters of Disney, and would, after she found out I was gay, sometimes ask me questions like, “Evan, which Disney princess is your favorite?”
“You are, Katrina,” I would say. “You’re my favorite Disney princess.”
“Correct answer,” she would say, and then we’d laugh and laugh. Until, that is, I recovered myself and said, “Did you know that Walt Disney suffered from debilitating panic attacks?”
“It must have been hard work being Walt Disney,” she said. “Stressful.”
“He was consumed by fear and anxiety,” I said. For some reason I wanted to persuade her that the Disney universe rose from a storm of strange human passion: gleeful invention, premonitions of doom, crazed and febrile watchfulness. “A workaholic, obsessively constructing a fantasy world in order to mask his all-consuming dread.”
“Poor Walt,” said Katrina. Then she began to sing a hopeful song from The Little Mermaid.
It strained belief that every year more people wanted to see The Nutcracker than were actually able to. There were dozens of performances. The War Memorial Opera House seated three thousand. But toward the end of Nutcracker season, my job consisted simply of denying my callers anything they asked for. No tickets remained. Changing from one performance to another was impossible. I would sit in a small room off one of the somber hallways in the opera house—often it was just me and Katrina during the evening shift—saying, “No,” “I’m afraid not,” “I’m sorry, but,” and “No.”
That may have been the highlight of my not-inconsiderable time in the service industry. There’s something satisfying, for a short while at least, about making a living by being unable to help anyone at all.
Not to be overshadowed by a covetous general public, our subscribers developed baroque needs and complaints. Some were fine people. Some were Machiavellian, like the hill-dwelling dowagers who elbowed one another trying to get the best seats in Dress Circle, the second balcony.
“I know Ruth is too unwell to continue attending, because Celia told me at our weekly book club that they were canceling their subscription,” one might say.
Almost everyone wanted seats closer to the center, the aisle, and the front. “They have a system,” I would say, disassociating myself from the company. I hoped that no one would ask me to explain the system, which favored subscribers on the basis of seniority and donation. Time and money, in other words. If I was feeling especially besieged, I would pretend that the system ran on an unfathomable algorithm, a mathematical wonder of such complexity that I, the simpleminded young telephone clerk, could not grasp it.
Occasionally I would receive a call from either half of a particular couple in the middle of a nasty divorce. They had purchased a season subscription together and neither, it seemed, were willing to part with it.
“What do you mean she moved the dates for Giselle?” the angry husband might say. “I’m going to Giselle with a friend. She gets to see Don Quixote.” Sometimes they would call on the same day, undermining each other, through me, with their changes of schedule. I imagined that they had both started seeing new people, and wanted to impress their dates by taking them to see the ballet in an enviably expensive section of the opera house. This circumstance in itself could have made a nice setup for a second-rate comic opera. I hoped they had no children.
One day, a longtime subscriber called me. Her voice sounded reasonable and calm. She had just seen one of the performances in her season package—something by Mark Morris, maybe Joyride—and had called to praise the choreography and the elegant dancers in a calm and reasonable voice, to laud the loveliness of the dancers and their dancing. Before long, however, she changed the subject in a way that had just enough of a trace of nonchalant random association that I should have suspected imminent madness. The formerly calm and reasonable woman wanted to discuss with me the prerecorded voice that came on in the War Memorial Opera House before each performance—another calm and reasonable woman’s voice—that reminded ballet patrons to turn off their cell phones and to avoid making excess noise during the performance. As she described this other voice, her own began to tighten and gain in speed.
“That woman should also say something about people covering their mouths when they cough,” said the woman. Her voice cracked, grew urgent. “I enjoyed last night’s performance, except for the man a few rows in front of me who coughed repeatedly, and who each time failed to cover his mouth. Is there anyone I can speak to about adding something to the announcement that woman makes? I just wish they would consider adding something about people covering their mouths.” She began to weep. “You know, there has been a spike in tuberculosis diagnoses recently, and some people in the audience have weakened immune systems.”
I remained silent while the woman repeated her fears of contracting tuberculosis during a performance of Joyride or The Nutcracker or, in the coming year, Swan Lake. (What is it with swans, by the way? Something about them seems to provoke romantic madness, or a fear of uncontrollable changeability tinged with the threat of death, as with The Dying Swan, or the Greek god Zeus, who transformed himself into a swan to rape Leda. Picasso once folded a piece of paper on which he had drawn a swan in ink, and the inverted image appeared scorpion-like, the elegant face of the swan transformed into a venomous stinger. Or so I read somewhere.) She seemed like she needed someone to talk to, so I chimed in now and then with a sympathetic mm hmm or that’s terrible.
As clerks we often found ourselves having to listen as a caller delivered a tirade born of anger or envy. The old-timers handled these with jaded efficiency. (One might occasionally mute her phone to say “God, this bitch”; Patti, whose poise and speech called to mind a teacher of elocution or etiquette, might mute hers to mask a sigh, which was about as vocally fed up as she got.) But to me these calls were like short, sudden nightmares, the kind of thing from which one woke disoriented, heart pounding. A woman whose complaint I don’t even remember once screamed at me nonstop for nearly ten minutes. My coworkers watched as I stood and paced my cubicle with a beleaguered look, occasionally shouting “Ma’am!” to no avail, frantically searching for someone lost in the forest of her own fury. “Ma’am!”
I felt no sympathy for those who used the ticketing hotline as an outlet for blind rage. But I felt for the tuberculosis woman. She was not rude; in fact, she sounded fragile and vulnerable. I could imagine myself in her position. I too feared many things, like deep water, and accidentally ingesting poison, and working at the San Francisco Ballet for the rest of my life.
While my job at the San Francisco Ballet paid surprisingly well, provided enviable union benefits, and included perks like discounted tickets to the ballet, the opera, and the symphony, it also filled me with status anxiety and fear. Nobody dreams of being an adequately compensated phone clerk of the Theatrical Stage Employees union, not if he’s young and lives in America. I thought of the San Francisco Ballet—not to say my apartment, my clothes, or even the occasional boyfriend—as something I had to endure on my way to a superior life. What a restless way to live; I really thought I deserved better than whatever I had, and could barely enjoy anything due to the contrast between my actual circumstances and the vision I had of myself through the fisheye lens of ambition.
Not once during those years did I take the opportunity to see The Nutcracker. I’ve still never seen it.
What do we deserve? Who decides, and how? Who deserves the life they imagine, and by whom are they owed such a life? These are questions I might have asked myself while, on my way to work in the morning, I carefully stepped over the bedraggled guy who sometimes slept on the doorstep of my apartment building. Or when I took the elevator down from the phone room to smoke a Nat Sherman—I had started smoking, I told myself, to cope with the stress of The Nutcracker.
My coworker Katrina, meanwhile, wanted to visit Disneyland more than ever. A concrete and achievable goal, unlike any of mine. She had developed a close friendship with Patti, and the two of them began hatching a plan to visit Disneyland together. “You know I’m going to get my picture taken with Mickey,” Katrina would say.
Then Patti might say, “What fun it will be!”
Imagine planning to do something for pleasure, and not for self-improvement or advancement! A trip to an amusement park purely for amusement—that would have never occurred to me. I was more like Jay Gatsby with his little lists: “Practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it”; “Read one improving book or magazine per week”; “Be better to parents.” (Though this last item would have never appeared on my list, since it concerned someone other than myself.) I, ever unsatisfied, applied for other jobs. I fantasized that I was only a stroke of luck away from finding work at a glossy magazine, from becoming part of that glittering, trendsetting world, a world in which one deserves whatever one desires.
When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are . . .
I secured a job interview with the publisher of the design and lifestyle magazine Wallpaper*, whose in-title asterisk led to the tagline The stuff that surrounds you. That stuff being Italian leather portfolios for one’s architectural blueprints, or English bicycles made from Japanese steel tubing, or four-hundred-dollar headphones from Paris. I used a credit card to buy a thousand-dollar fitted suit—a suit significantly beyond my means but which I hoped would serve me well in my feverish commitment to upward mobility. “Always leave the bottom button of your suit unbuttoned,” a man in another workplace had once advised me. I remembered this in preparation for my interview, for which I had taken the day off.
I studied my face in the mirror. On the one hand, shaving seemed imperative—the smooth, glossy pages of Wallpaper* demanded smoothness. On the other, perhaps an affected nonchalance, the combination of thousand-dollar suit and stubble would win me more favor. Considering my uncertainty over this small decision, I began to fear that I didn’t understand the brand identity of Wallpaper* at all. The stuff that surrounded me at that moment included a lot of fear and trembling but few applicable skills. I didn’t own a good razor, either. I decided I would stop in at the barber for a shave on my way.
I have, maybe unsurprisingly, sensitive skin. I often walk away from a shave with terrible razor burn, especially on my neck, which is why I wear a full beard. At that time I still believed, or hoped, that the next shave would be different, and that one day my skin would adapt to the demands of the civilized, well-shorn workplace. Or maybe some part of me knew that to submit myself to the barber’s straight razor meant disaster, that this was an act of rank self-sabotage. So of course, in spite of the barber’s careful application of hot washcloth and manly-smelling lather, his sharpening the razor against the strop, the delicate movements of his blade, I felt immediately an unpleasant scraping along my neck. It would soon be red and irritated.
The barber began apologizing before he even elevated my chair to let me see my own face. “I’m sorry, you have very sensitive skin. You should have told me.” He looked horrified. The other barbers in the shop looked over in tense silence as I examined myself in the mirror, perhaps wondering if I would throw a tantrum. I looked like I had been attacked by a wild bobcat. But I understood that I was what was wrong with the situation—and I would not be like the harpy who had called the ballet to berate me while I shouted “Ma’am!” I pulled out my wallet and paid up.
Half an hour later I sat across from the bald-headed, harried publisher of Wallpaper* in my thousand-dollar suit, self-conscious about my red and irritated neck. I felt as though my neck could have been bleeding. It may actually have been bleeding. I felt as though someone had tried unsuccessfully, to saw my head off.
He asked a question I had not prepared for.
“I believe I could be a capable ambassador for the Wallpaper* brand,” I began.
“This is an assistant to the Publisher position,” he said, impatient.
“I know that,” I said, “but . . . I believe. . . the stuff that surrounds you . . . ”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Katrina. “Disney does not have its own legal system.”
I was back in the little room in the War Memorial Opera House with Katrina, on one of the quieter evening shifts toward the end of Nutcracker season. While I had no desire to visit Disneyland, I enjoyed chatting with her. On occasion I even semi-begrudgingly harmonized with her on “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” or “A Whole New World” or “Part of Your World” or some other song about waiting for another world, a better world. On this particular shift I had related to her a secondhand story about a young man who, while on one of the boats in Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, had decided to smoke a joint. At nearly the very moment his thumb had rolled the spark wheel on his lighter, a security guard had reached out from the shadows on the periphery of the ride and pulled him from the boat. Apprehended, the man was then tried according to a system of Disneyland-specific laws.
“I’m just telling you what I heard,” I said. “Someone is always watching you there.” I also enjoyed telling her something I’d heard from a friend who knew a Brazilian amateur porn actor who briefly worked at Disney World. According to him, then-new hiring practices specified that anyone working as a character or mascot had to have an American accent, even if their job required no speaking whatsoever.
During the next Nutcracker season, after Katrina and Patti had gone to Disneyland and showed us photos of their lawful visit, Katrina began getting sick and missing work. We soon discovered that she was suffering from a rare ailment that I was told disproportionately afflicts young black women. She was in the hospital, receiving special care or treatment, and we all hoped for the best—assumed the best, even.
One day, in the middle of what I remember as one of our busier shifts, we heard news that Katrina had died. She was in her twenties, like me. The queue of callers didn’t know, of course; life went on immediately, urgently, the red light blinking to let us know that frantic individuals remained eager to purchase Nutcracker tickets. I watched my coworkers barely holding back their tears as they struggled to complete a transaction, waiting to get off the phone so they could sob.
Once I was able to take a break, I rushed out of the office and down the hall, locking myself in the bathroom. I sat on the cool tiled floor. I held my face in my hands, pressing my palms to my eyes or rubbing my beard, which had grown back after my Wallpaper* interview. It seemed especially cruel to me that death should come for those who worked in the San Francisco Ballet phone room, that it should come for those who, in their promising youth, had not had enough time to pull themselves up and out of their menial positions into a more a glamorous destiny.
On my way back into the phone room, I overheard somebody, one of the old-timers, express surprise at my conspicuous flight from my post. “I didn’t know he knew her that well,” they said.
They were right to doubt me. I didn’t know her well. Patti, who had plummeted with Katrina down Magic Mountain at Disneyland, who had floated with her on one of the “It’s a Small World” boats without even thinking about getting high, knew her infinitely better. And she carried on with the most composure. I heard her apologize to a caller for the long wait, saying in a sad but steady voice, “You’ll have to excuse us, we’re short-staffed at the moment. We’ve just found out that one of our coworkers has passed away. Yes, yes. We’re doing the best we can. Anyway, how can I help you?”
I prepared to take another call. Though it seemed, yet again, that I couldn’t help anyone. Very few people die where they want to, I thought. Instead, they die exactly where they are. They’re pulled into the shadows, apprehended. Then we see that some other set of laws, forgotten till now, has surrounded them all this time.
Evan James has written personal essays for The New York Times, The Oxford American, The New York Observer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Paris Review Daily. He has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in The Sun. He has received fellowships from Yaddo and the Carson McCullers Center, and has taught writing at the University of Iowa and Victoria University of Wellington. He lives in Brooklyn.
More in this series
I wish I could tell my dad that I worked to recreate the newsroom. That people still think newspaper stories—and stories about newspapers—are worth telling.