Stanley Harris was born during that brief period when American folk music was hitting the top of the popular music charts. After a year or so, the rest of the country moved on to Motown and the Beatles, but Stan’s parents stayed loyal to folk music. Consequently, Stan grew up hearing the music of Harry Belafonte, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and other folk singers. Stan knew all the words to “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Stan’s parents also kept alive their love for the Big Band hits of the 1940s; Stan can still hear his mother chirping, “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket.” Broadway musicals were also favored in the family. Every year Stan and his parents sat down and watched the classics on network television: The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, West Side Story. Next to the folk records and the Big Band records in the family collection were cast recordings from Music Man, My Fair Lady¸ and other Broadway shows.
On the weekends the family radio was tuned to the classical music station. Stan took piano lessons as a boy, and in the fifth grade he joined the school band. From Bach and Beethoven to Strauss and Sousa, Stan had a wide musical education. Then, when he entered high school, Stan found his classmates evenly and fiercely divided between fans of disco music and fans of heavy metal. Stan joined the minority of high school students who considered the Beatles vastly superior than anything newer, and finally, a decade late, the Harris house was filled with the sounds of “Hey, Jude,” and Abbey Road.
Jump ahead forty years, and Stan’s music tastes remain eclectic. His children, now grown, are also Beatle fans, with fond memories of sitting on their father’s lap as little children while he sang “Hey, Jude” to them, or, “The Long and Winding Road.” When a professional production of My Fair Lady came to town, Stan bought two tickets and took his youngest daughter to the show. This was the night that changed Stan’s summer.
The actor who portrayed Alfred Doolittle was very strong, dominating the stage and capturing the audience’s attention, as the role requires. The actors playing Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering were also quite adept and talented. At first Stan feared that he was going to be disappointed by the actress playing Eliza Doolittle. She did not show the same strength in the early scenes. Only as the show progressed did Stan realize that she was deliberately taking a subtle and nuanced approach to the part. Her Cockney accent was not exaggerated in the way most actresses portray Eliza. Her character was vulnerable in the first act, contrasting effectively with the inner strength Eliza acquires in the second act. The actress beautifully performed Eliza’s first public appearance, at the horse race, showing Eliza tottering on her high heels and overdoing the cultured manners that Higgins has taught her. For the ball at the end of act one, Eliza emerged truly elegant, even regal.
One brief instant lingered in Stan’s mind after the show. Midway through the second act, the actress allowed herself one brief facial expression and wave of the hand that belonged to the twenty-first century and not to the Victorian era. That brief grimace that young ladies use today to express, “What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?” fit the occasion in the script, if not the setting, and it ingrained the actress in Stan’s mind. It may have been a mistake on the part of the actress, but Stan took it as a sign that the actress was not merely playing a part: she had become Eliza Doolittle, and Eliza had become her. For the three hours of the show, they were one and the same person.
At his age, Stan did not need to be enraptured with a starlet no older than his oldest children. But the Internet was not his friend. Though he left his program behind at the theater, he was easily able to retrieve the name that he had forgotten and to find the starlet’s web site. There he could learn more about her professional career, watch video clips of her acting and singing and dancing, and download photographs of her onto his computer. Had he wanted, Stan could even have written a fan letter to her. He stopped short of that extreme, but when driving in the car he found himself studying the letters in the license plates of other cars, seeing if he could spell her entire first and last name from them before he reached his destination.
All this would have passed in three or four weeks if not for Irene. Irene was a newly hired member of Stan’s department, transferred from another department in the company. At first their paths rarely crossed, while she was being oriented to her new position. But one evening Stan stayed late at the public service desk, filling in for an employee on vacation, and Stan and Irene had their first conversation.
Irene, Stan noticed, strongly resembled the starlet who had played Eliza in My Fair Lady. Irene was a few years older and wore glasses, but she had a similar face, similar hair, and was of a similar build. Both Irene and the starlet brought to Stan’s mind a song he had heard many times in his childhood: “She had a dark and a roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringlets. She was a nice girl, a proper girl….” Irene was friendly, and she was interesting as well. Already obsessing himself over the actress, Stan began to mingle the two women in his mind.
The next time Stan was at the public service desk on his regular schedule, Irene came downstairs to use the copier by that desk. Stan didn’t know if someone else was using the copier upstairs, and he didn’t ask. They struck up a conversation, and Stan allowed himself to believe what he knew was probably untrue—he allowed himself to believe that Irene had chosen to use that copier at that time only because she wanted to talk again with him.
It was a standard Monday conversation—how was your weekend, what weather we are having, and the like. Stan commented that he had met his daughter’s kitten for the first time, and Irene said that she liked cats but her husband didn’t. The moment was soon over; she was done with the copier and returned upstairs. Stan’s time at the public service desk ended, and he returned to his regular desk. But all day long the song continued to echo in his head: “She had a dark and a roving eye, and her hair hung down in ringlets.”
That ringlets song, by the way, does not have a happy ending. It is sung as a warning to avoid that kind of girl. But Stan has not been particularly good about heeding warnings, not even when they have been part of his life for fifty years. Stan was smart enough to know that he should say goodnight to any thought of Irene, but he also knew what followed: “I’ll see you in my dreams.”