Summer in NYC: the Shakespeare’s Free, the Wait’s Priceless

People ask me all the time if I miss living in New York. And 75% of the time, my answer is a startlingly quick “no.” But the other 25% of the time? Well, the other 25% of the time, it’s summer. And summer in New York exists to be taken advantage of by people like me. See, this is a city where money can famously buy you just about anything if you’ve got enough of it. But for those three summer months, New York suddenly becomes almost giddy with egalitarianism. Seemingly every day, there are endless concerts, shows, and activities — wildly popular ones, I might add — that you can’t just waltz up and buy tickets for. Instead of cash, you spend your time and effort. You show up early, wait in line, and reap the rewards.

And me? I’m very, very good at waiting. It’s a skill I actually developed over the course of many an NYC summer. So last month, when I told my sister, Tori, that I’d bought a  ticket to New York and would be crashing with her in Brooklyn for two weeks, she matter-of-factly replied, “Good. You can earn your keep by waiting in line for Shakespeare in the Park.”

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Tori’s always loved attending Shakespeare in the Park performances on summer nights, so long as it was with one of the two tickets I picked up each year by waiting in line for them. But the line itself? She wasn’t going near that sucker. See, Shakespeare in the Park has the mother of all NYC summer lines because, in the opinion of so many locals, it’s the jackpot of all the free summer events. Each year, the New York Public Theater stages two productions (usually, but not exclusively, Shakespearean) in an outdoor theater in the middle of Central Park. The stars are almost always big names from TV, film, or stage, and the productions have a reputation for being extremely well done. But to get tickets, you can’t just step up to a box office window and pull out your Visa: you have to show up the day of a show and wait in line. An epic, storied line that doesn’t officially open until 6:00 a.m., but often starts forming outside the walls of Central Park the night before a show; a line that snakes through the park for blocks and has its own security guards patrolling, ousting cutters and late-comers. Tickets are first come, first served, and the earlier in the morning you get in line, the closer your seats will be that night. The whole system is based on desire, effort, and endurance.

OK, no, this isn't the Delacorte Theater. Instead, it's Belvedere Castle, also known as "geographically the closest picture I have to the actual Delacorte."

OK, no, this isn’t the Delacorte Theater. Instead, it’s Belvedere Castle, also known as “geographically the closest picture I have to the actual Delacorte.”

I love this concept. I love that it requires the dedication to call in sick to work or sacrifice a lie-in on a weekend. I love that it’s a throw-back to a time before Ticketmaster. And I love that New York is a city in which a thousand people each day will forfeit convenience, comfort, and common sense, all simply in order to see a Shakespeare play.

But I guess it’s understandable that most people are skeptical whenever I tell them “Shakespeare Day” is my favorite day of the summer. “So you get up in the middle of the night, take the subway uptown, hope you don’t get attacked sitting outside Central Park in the dark, and then sit in the dirt for nine hours doing nothing — and that’s your favorite day of the summer?” is how Tori likes to put it.

This always gets me a little defensive. “Well, it’s not exactly like that. It’s a lot more fun than you’re making it sound.”

Possibly hoping to prove me wrong, and admittedly because she was concerned about my camping out at 79th and Central Park West on my own before dawn, Tori made a spur-of-the-moment decision to wait in line with me this year. “But we’re not taking the subway into Manhattan at 4:00 a.m.,” she reasoned. “I don’t take the subway home at that time; we’re certainly not taking it out at that time.” I reluctantly agreed to take a cab, and she agreed to sit with me just until the sun came up . Then, she promised, she’d at least go fetch me a coffee before high-tailing it back to her bed in Brooklyn.

Here’s how it actually went down.

4:40 a.m.: The alarm on my iPhone goes off.

“Are you sure we need to be going this early?” Tori asks. She offers to call the cab company and switch our pick-up to a more civilized time, like 6:00 a.m.

“I told you,” I remind her, “When Anne Hathaway was in Twelfth Night, I showed up at six and ended up waiting in line for seven hours and still didn’t get tickets. When I saw Pacino in Merchant, I showed up at 4:30 and the line was already like six blocks long. On a weekday! And I was the last person in line to get tickets!”

“Yeah, but this isn’t Pacino.”

She’s right: it’s Jesse Tyler Furgeson and Hamish Linklater in The Comedy of Errors. But it got a rave review in the Times, and it’s closing night, and “Modern Family” is so hot right now, and I’m just not willing to risk it. I want to tell Tori I’m happy to take one for the team if she’d rather stay home and sleep in after all, but everything before 5:00 a.m. seems to come out in a tone that doesn’t exactly evoke sisterly love.

“Look, you don’t have to come! I’ll go by myself if I have to!”

Tori sighs and pulls on a pair of sweat pants, and we’re out the door.

5:00 a.m.: The cab pulls up to Tori’s building. A hipster stumbles in through the building’s front door as we’re exiting. “I bet he took the subway back into Williamsburg,” I think to myself.

5:27 a.m.: We hop out of the cab. And by “hop” I mean “stumble,” because it’s still dark out and we’re operating on two hours of sleep. (OK, Tori’s had two hours. This is me on the eve of Shakespeare Day). We see a few people approaching from the North, South, and West, and we know they’re headed for the line because they’re toting folding chairs, sleeping bags, picnic baskets. And because it’s too damn early for any sane person to be awake if there’s no Shakespeare to sweeten the deal.

“We’re gonna beat you,” I hear Tori almost sing, and suddenly she sounds clear-headed, the grogginess  overtaken by competitiveness. I know it won’t last, but I also know we’re getting to the line first.

5:30 a.m.: We’re already trying to get comfortable on the cracked pavement by the time the competition reaches the line. We see the morning light come up while sitting on the sidewalk along Central Park’s western wall at 79th Street. More people start to trickle into line behind us.

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5:45 a.m.: I open my new Gay Talese book to page 106 and read the lede paragraph through foggy contacts. A man in jeans and a baseball cap is standing in front of the line half a block down, yelling something unintelligible. He wanders down to our section and starts his rant over.

“There are too many gaps in this line! It doesn’t make logical sense! You people have got to fill in the gaps or the line will be up to a hundred and tenth Street by the time they hand out the tickets!”

I remind him the line hasn’t even reached 80th Street and that we’ll be moving inside the park in 15 minutes when it opens, anyway. But he doesn’t seem to care for my logic.

Tori nudges me with an elbow. “Does he work for the theater?”

“Nope.”

The man won’t leave, won’t stop hollering, and so, in a display of submissiveness I’ve never witnessed in this city during normal human waking hours, a hundred New Yorkers pick up their sleeping bags, their pillows, and shuffle forward in line.

OK, OK, so this picture is not from this exact day. But it I did take it on my way to the line one of the other half-dozen or so times I waited for Shakespeare tickets.

OK, OK, so this picture is not from this exact day. But it I did take it on my way to the line one of the other half-dozen or so times I waited for Shakespeare tickets.

6:00: The park officially opens, and a Public Theater employee shows up at the front of the line and leads us, in order, into the park, where we’ll set up our permanent line for the day.

But as we stream into the park, Tori notices something peculiar: a man camped out at the very front of the line is still in his sleeping bag, motionless, seemingly unaware of the people filing past him.

Tori is a good samaritan, and she starts to panic. “What if he got here in the middle of the night?” The people in front and in back of us murmur their own questions. The man had looked well prepared for the overnight stay: a heavy sleeping bag, an air mattress, a pair of headphones. Someone even thinks they saw a contact lens case. “Can you imagine if you went to all that trouble to be the first in line and then you slept through everything and lost your spot because you were so tired?” Tori’s really concerned now, and the girls in back of us agree to save our spot in line if we run back to wake up the World’s Most Dedicated Narcoleptic Shakespeare Fan.

And so we dash. We sprint halfway back across the park, out to the street, until we’re standing panting over the sleeping man. “Excuse me,” I gasp at him, “the line!”

Without sitting up, he waves his arm at me aggressively and grunts, “They already went inside!”

“So, we just woke up an angry homeless guy for no reason, then,” I say to Tori as we jog back towards the line.

“Yep.”

6:03 a.m.: Back in line, the theater employee leading our little somnambulating parade arranges us in a new line along the path leading to the Delacorte Theater: the die-hards, the people who showed up on the sidewalk the night before with sleeping bags and air mattresses (and, presumably, homes to return to later) are seated at the theater entrance; the rest of us stream off from there and out into the park.

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6:05 a.m.: Our places for the day are now set in stone. The theater employee explains the rules of the line: at noon, the line will start moving forward, up towards the theater entrance. When we reach the entrance, if there are still tickets available, each person in our party will receive two tickets. Because availability is so limited and the demand so huge, policing of the line will be strict. “Look to your left. Look to your right,” he says. “These are your neighbors for the day. No one joins them, no one switches places with them. The only times you can leave the line are to use the bathroom or to buy food from the cafe at the front of the line.”

6:07 a.m.: Everyone’s brought books or iPods, blankets and pillows and foam sleeping pads, and they make little nests on the bit of pavement or grass they’ve been assigned. Tori looks over at me expectantly, waiting for me to go all Mary Poppins and pull an air mattress, a blanket, anything that might make the next six hours more comfortable, out of my purse. I, however, have brought the following items: a sarong, a fleece hoodie, an airplane neck pillow, and four used paperbacks of interest to absolutely no one but myself. I’d thought it would only be me waiting, and over the years my requirements for sitting in the Shakespeare line have grown increasingly ascetic. But as it turns out, the bum incident has ignited some spark of excitement in Tori, and suddenly she’s game to stay.

“We can get four tickets instead of just two if I stay, right?”

I confirm that we can.

“Well, I’m already up; I’m already here. I think I’ll just stay!”

I’m thrilled with the idea of company and excited that I’ll finally have the chance to prove to my sister that sitting in the dirt for seven hours is a good time. But I quickly realize I don’t have the supplies to make an ideal first impression. I spread out the sarong and offer her my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Her post-bum-incident adrenaline visibly vanishes. She lies down on half the sarong, rolls over, mutters something about ditching the line in an hour when Starbucks opens, and falls asleep.

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Exhausted and relieved to be off the street, the rest of the line seems to do the same, and the park is quiet, save for the singing of birds and the banter of the occasional joggers trotting past the line. This is one of my favorite times of the whole day. It’s the only time each summer I’ve found I can sit in the middle of the park and just enjoy the silence, the absence of traffic noise and boom-boxes and strangers complaining into cell phones. It’s the only two hours each year I can fall asleep in the park feeling completely safe and secure, knowing somehow that the type of people who will wake up at 4:00 in the morning to see some free Shakespeare are likely also the type of people who won’t nick your purse while you’re unconscious. I feel 100% at ease, at peace, surrounded by hundreds people and utter stillness.

8:00 a.m.: Upper West Side puppies arrive in the park to fetch frisbees with their owners before work; cyclists and runners come whirring past our line on the park’s outer loop track. I rub my eyes and realize I’ve been sleeping half on top of my neighbor’s ground pad, and we both laugh.

I reread page 106 of my Talese, but then Tori slips briefly back into consciousness and asks for the time. We talk to the sisters in back of us about what they’re studying in school; we chat with the girls in front of us about the other times they’ve waited in this same line. We compare seeing Jonathan Groff in The Bacchae in 2009 to seeing him in the vastly superior Hair in 2008. I suddenly remember how much I love the endless opportunities for nerding out in this town.

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8:10 a.m.: Large groups of people sitting on picnic blankets start pulling out board games and paper bags full of bagels and cream cheese. Being unprepared for company, I’ve brought one peanut butter sandwich, sans jelly, wrapped in a paper towel, and a bottle of water. Tori scowls at me, but I can tell she really wants to laugh. I offer her half the sandwich and tell her the cafe’s about to open anyway — I’ll get us coffee and muffins. With her money, of course, because I haven’t brought that, either.

8:30 a.m.: I dig through Tori’s wallet and bring her back a muffin and an iced coffee from the cafe. After a few sips, her eyes suddenly look less murderous, and she stops threatening to leave.

9:00 a.m.: A man in khakis and a ball cap walks up to the front of the line — as he does every year — with a music stand and a flute. This year he’s also got a saxophone, and he plays Vivaldi and Beatles covers and asks for requests, making his way steadily down the length of the line as he does every day. I ask Tori for a dollar to tip him and she looks like she’s about to slap her palm to her forehead, but the saxophonist is playing Here Comes the Sun and I’m imperturbable. No matter — Tori’s fallen back asleep a few minutes later, curled up in the dirt clutching my horseshoe-shaped neck pillow under her head and dreaming, no doubt, of memory foam and jersey sheets.

9:05 a.m.: I get up to stretch my legs, to follow the line back, back, back into the park and marvel at the hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve shown up to get in line while I’ve been sleeping. I already feel a huge sense of accomplishment, even though I know I still have another three hours to wait.

And so I go back to my spot. I find the latest dog-ear in my book and reread page 106. Then I fall asleep again, because I’m in the shade and in the park with nothing pressing to do but relax and enjoy it.

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9:30 a.m.: I wake up and coo at the puppies trotting by, and they’re so cute I wake Tori up, too. We think one of them — a tiny, bouncing little guy who’s fox-red — is named Kyle. We cannot figure out why this would possibly be the case, but his owner keeps calling the name out and he keeps bounding over to her. In our half-conscious state, this is enough to keep us giggling for the next half an hour.

10:00 a.m.: I’ve been texting people out of boredom since 6:00 a.m., because in the warped reality of Shakespeare Day, any time after daylight feels like a civilized hour. But now I call a friend on the Outside, Ken, and ask him to come visit. Tori and I are getting restless and desperate for news of the world beyond the line.

10:30 a.m.: Ken shows up with bagels, a fruit salad, and another coffee for Tori. She instantly dusts off the neck pillow, offering it to him along with one of the two hard-earned tickets she’ll be receiving in an hour and a half. She’s saying stuff like “The wait has actually gone by pretty quickly!” and “This wasn’t so bad!” Let it be known that my sister can be systematically caffeinated into having fun, and I love her for it.

11:50: I can hear Coldplay on the upright bass. Like the flutist, like the man in the yellow Public Theater t-shirt making proclamations about the penalties for line-jumping, the bassists have become a regular feature of the line over the years. I’ve never been able to figure out why they only show up as the line’s about to start moving, as their audience is about to go from helplessly captive to eager-to-get-the-hell-outta-there. But I love them all the same. It’s live background music as you finally reach the end of the line and find out you’ve succeeded in getting tickets. They might as well be playing Pomp and Circumstance.

Everyone starts packing up their nests, their books, their empty coffee cups and egg-and-cheese-stained paper bags, getting ready to move.

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12:10: We shuffle forward. We reach the Delacorte. Tori proudly tells the woman in the Public Theater shirt, “Two people, four tickets!” And then we step aside, and Tori’s fanning the tickets out, admiring them, talking about the special section of her purse she’s going to put them in for safe keeping. She’s asking someone to take our picture and laughing while insisting we pose with the neck pillow. And I know she suddenly gets it: it’s not about entertaining yourself for six hours, or enduring hours of sitting in the dirt, or about just getting through the wait. It’s about appreciating where you are and what you’ve accomplished in the end.

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We saw the show at 8:00 p.m. that night, with two friends using those extra tickets Tori sat in the dirt and slept on a sarong for. We brought cheese and crackers and rosé and Modelo into the theater, and we laughed and danced in our seats and gave standing ovations under a clear, starless NYC night sky. Then we left the park and walked right past the subway station as we quoted our favorite lines endlessly.

Shakespeare Night is always an unqualified success. But I still think Shakespeare Day is just as good — especially when I get to prove my sister wrong.

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6 thoughts on “Summer in NYC: the Shakespeare’s Free, the Wait’s Priceless

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