The days before Thanksgiving that year were particularly dreary.
Kicking through piles of crumbled ice at intersections, an angry white man was not sure if it was that dreary or felt that way because he was particularly so. He was caught up in decisions to quit his second marriage and smoking all the while suffering through a crunching hangover. And more.
He stalked down 7th Avenue from 42nd, crossed to 8th on 39th Street, and headed south until 34th. He shoved his headphones deep into his ear canals. The music was dark and loud.
At 41st and 7th, he pushed his hands deep into the liner of his peacoat. He had a habit of scratching out holes in pockets, allowing him to use liners of coats as safe, deep pouches. On cold days, the extra space allowed him to wrap his arms around his body.
He arrived at a 34th street theater 25 minutes before the start of the darkest film he could find. For 20 minutes, he paced the block in front the cinema, glaring at slow tourists and turning up his coat collar while tutting at inattentive New Yorkers. There were idiots already wearing red Christmas clothing. He focused particular disdain on them.
At 2:35, he walked inside the cinema, past the ticket woman, wearing a red and white Christmas hat and a retail smile. The angry man did not look at her. Music still loud. Up the escalators to the third level. Cinema number four. Even today, cinemas seem draped in red plush. A red-dotted electronic sign told him he found the right place. A black man, maybe 10 years his junior, sat on a red, overstuffed bench beneath upcoming attractions’ posters. The angry man wondered how he and the waiting man would view the film differently.
At 2:40, the rear door of the cinema opened and a couple walked out. One couple. No one else had seen the previous showing. He walked in and took the perfect seat: Half-way up, center row. The waiting man did not come in.
Slowly, through the previews and commercials, five others joined him. All men. The waiting man was the last to take a seat.
The men scattered themselves like constellations. One in a top left seat, one on bottom right, another top right, another bottom left. And the waiting man, bottom middle.
On screen life unfolded for a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 while working in Washington DC. The men watched him live as a slave for 12 years.
There were moments that required each man in the audience to rearrange themselves in their red-velvet chairs. Still, the men kept their cool.
About two-thirds of the way through however, the veneer cracked. The plantation owner ordered the man to whip a woman who served as his master’s concubine.
Gasps lodged in audience members throats as leather straps ripped away flesh from her back in a red mist.
Tears dripped down the angry man’s cheek when the man on the screen confided in a white man, a carpenter and abolitionist who would ultimately deliver a plea for help to his family and friends at home. (Earlier in the film, another white man had betrayed a similar trust.)
By the time a shopkeeper friend from New York showed up at the plantation to free him, all five men teetered. Two or three of them lost control when the now freed slave stopped before his departure to embrace the woman he had whipped.
And then he returned to his wife and grown children, as well as a stranger son-in-law. And he lifted his new-born grandson to his chest.
Sobs and groans filled the theater and bodies moaned. Angry man wouldn’t turn to look at anyone else. Waiting man’s shoulders shook and head bobbed. He pressed the balls of his palms into his eyes.
The angry man couldn’t see. His glasses were off and his nose was running. His shirt collar was wet with tears.
Everyone stayed in their chairs through the credits, staring ahead; unwilling to leave until the final letters scrolled off the screen. Waiting man was the first to leave.
Angry man took several very deep breaths, wiped his nose with an old cocktail napkin found in the liner of his coat, and hurried out, his reddened eyes cast down.
He was the last to leave, wandering around midtown until stumbling into a generic pub. His hand shook lifting a pint and then a whiskey to his lips.
The man breathed deep and turned on his phone. He shoved earbuds in place. His eyes dry and clear.
He walked into the dreary early evening and turned up the volume but not his collar.