On a Monday afternoon things are quiet outside New York’s Broadhurst Theater. One taxi zips by, a couple of pigeons mosey around a dirty puddle, and the double stage doors, painted mud-beige, are nothing much to notice. I stand behind my son, Savino, who rings the stage-door bell. He shifts his weight from one Nike to the other, and in his hand he holds a large, bright yellow envelope. It is a letter for Tom Hanks. Enclosed in Savino’s letter is another letter, one Hanks wrote my son 15 years ago.
“Ma, do you think he’ll remember?” Savino asks. At age 15, five-foot-ten, dressed in khakis and a collared shirt, he looks like a man but speaks like a child. “Do you? Huh?”
In three short years, my boy wants to join the army; his favorite movie is Saving Private Ryan. In the film, Hanks portrays Captain Miller, who leads his men to Omaha Beach, where most of them die. That doesn't stop Miller from regrouping the survivors and pressing on into Normandy. "He has a mission to complete," I once heard my son explain to a friend, a boy who said he'd just go AWOL in that situation. "It's his duty, man." Savino sat on the arm of my couch, a hand over his heart, his feet twirling in their sockets. The line from the film that excites my son most is the one that terrifies me: “We all have orders, and we have to follow 'em,” Captain Miller tells his men. “That supersedes everything, including your mothers.”
When the stage door swings open, my son takes two steps back, bumping into me, and we stumble, the yellow envelope falling onto the concrete. A stagehand appears, with a scruffy beard and an important-looking badge. He holds the door like a shield from us, looking from my son to me to the envelope on the ground. “Can I help?”
Savino picks it up, and I gesture for him to talk, but he shakes his head. “You, you.” He puts the letter in my hand.
The scruffy-bearded guy looks past us, down the street. I hold up the bright yellow envelope and point to a photocopied newspaper clipping Savino has pasted on the front. It’s from the New York Post of March 4, 1998 -- 15 years ago to the day. The photo shows Tom Hanks holding a chubby baby, so fat his pants ride up his thighs. “That baby,” I point to the plump infant in the photo, and then to my tall, lanky son, “is him.”
When Mr. Hanks was filming You’ve Got Mail in our neighborhood 15 years ago, he became friendly with the locals and took a photo with my child, even though his bodyguard on the street advised against it, tapping his watch, “Tom, we don’t have time. We don’t have time.”
“C’mon. C’mon. Look at this fella,” Hanks said, lifting Savino from my arms. Days later, on the same street, Hanks stopped me to ask about my baby. “How’s the little fella?” I sent a letter to his trailer, which sat outside my apartment building, thanking him for bringing excitement to the neighborhood and wishing him success on the movie. In return, he wrote my son.
You never know who you’ll meet on the Upper West Side. Now, eat your vegetables!
I framed the newspaper clipping and the letter and hung it in my son’s room. As he got older, Savino loved showing people how Woody, and Josh Baskin, and Jimmy Dugan, and Forrest Gump had held him.
“Cool,” the scruffy-bearded guy says. “I’ll make sure he gets it.” He explains that Lucky Guy rehearsals are in session, and that Mr. Hanks won’t be available to come out, and then he closes the door. I hear the click of the lock.
“Mr. Hanks is working. This is his job,” I explain to my son as we walk away from the theater. “And to be honest, he’s probably not going to remember you.”
Savino puts his hands in his pocket and looks back at the stage door. “I know, Ma,” he says.
In my son’s letter to Tom Hanks, he explained that he had always been a fan and how he is working to become an Eagle Scout in Bronxville Troop 5, hoping the training will help him become an officer in the U.S. Army, possibly reaching the same rank as Captain Miller. He wrote that the old newspaper clipping, hanging in his room, made him happy and that he would bring it wherever he was stationed, for good luck. He ended the letter: My mom and I have front row seats for tonight (AA 109/ 110) and I am totally psyched. All the best, Mr. Hanks, Your biggest fan, Savino.
That evening, Savino and I walk into the theater shoulder-to-shoulder with throngs of people. My son, who is accustomed to sitting in the balcony and using mini binoculars, is thrilled to be in the first row. “Look. I’m lounging,” he says, putting his feet on the stage, his hands behind his head. “Wow.” It feels like yesterday that he was six, when his chubby cheeks were the last of his baby fat, when he wore his Cub Scout uniform for the first time. The navy button-down shirt and yellow neckerchief made him proud, made him salute himself in a mirror, made him recite the scout motto over and over: “I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, and my country, to help other people, and to obey the law of the pack.” Now, my son’s big feet flop from the stage to the floor and, with both hands, he touches the stage’s thick black edge. “Just wow,” he says again.
When Savino was little he always had green plastic soldiers near him. I bought them by the bucket at Big Top Toys. When the tiny troops weren't lined up for battle, hiding behind trenches of wooden blocks and knotted socks, they were in his pockets, under his pillow, or rolling around the bottom of his book bag. Many times, I pried them from his fist when he was asleep. He held onto his dream of joining the Army just as tightly. "One day, I'll be a soldier, Ma," he would say. "One day I'll be a hero." I blame myself for buying the bucket, for having him pose for a photo every time he earned a new badge from scouts. I thought his passion for military life would fade; but instead it became more intense as he grew. In middle school, American history was his favorite subject, especially the Civil War. He and his fellow scouts once re-enacted Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on a trip to the battlefield.
"Get over it," I told him yesterday at dinner. "It's dangerous."
"Ma," he tilted his head as if I didn't know anything. "It's not forever. It's just a few years. And then I'll be a teacher or a dentist or a dad. Whatever you want." He held my gaze, his fork stabbing meat.
I wanted to scream that I know more than he knows, that he is young and naive and should listen to me, his superior, his captain, his mother.
I wanted to unleash a maternal blitz on my son, mortifying him by revealing what he thinks I don't know: that underneath his tough-guy shell hides a sweet boy. A boy whose bedroom is festooned with Army-Strong posters; yet in the back of his second desk drawer, behind last year's yearbook and a half-eaten pack of Wrigley's, he hides a small blue book, a Disney souvenir. Many years ago, he held that book with chubby, sweaty hands, waiting for an hour in hundred-degree weather to get Woody's signature. "You're just a kid!" I wanted to humiliate him. "You save autographs!"
But I didn't say anything. I aborted the operation. At ease woman, I thought. With teenagers, I've learned the more you talk about things, the worse it is.
I mockingly saluted his chewing smirk, agreed to disagree, and asked him to pass the potatoes.
Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy is about the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mike McAlary, who was a New York City cop reporter in the '80s and '90s. The play begins with journalists reciting quick facts, establishing the 1980s setting, when “it was a grand and glorious time for the tabloid business.”
Enter Tom Hanks, with graying hair and moustache, clad in a light gray blazer and tie. I join the audience, applauding his arrival. “Oh-my-God,” says Savino, so thrilled he forgets to clap. “We-are-so-close.”
Despite his older appearance, Mr. Hanks is an athlete on stage, scampering from desk to desk, handing out deli soup and baked goods to fellow journalists. We are so close we see his spit fly, watch his moustache hairs brush his bottom lip, and behold the half moons of his fingernails as he aims both index fingers up -- a signature McAlary move.
I ask an usher during intermission about the stage door, if people can see Mr. Hanks when he exits. “Oh, people see him all right, just a glimpse. A crowd is already lining up.” Savino and I discuss whether we should leave before the final bow, to get a glimpse too; but we are too close to the stage, too eager to clap for Mr. Hanks. “Ma, waiting at the stage door would be awesome,” Savino says,” but this is enough. This is totally enough.”
Later in Act II, a revelation comes to me. It happens during a scene where McAlary, having undergone chemo treatments, goes to Coney Island Hospital to interview Abner Louima, a victim of tortuous abuse by Brooklyn cops. By the end of the powerful scene, tears pool in the deep folds near Mr. Hanks’s mouth. Savino is also upset. His hands press against his lips.
Mike McAlary’s heartbreaking coverage of Abner Louima’s story earned him a Pulitzer Prize, and today, sitting in the Broadhurst Theater, I remember the precise day this interview was published: August 14, 1997. A Thursday.
I know this because I bought the Daily News that day and have kept my copy all these years. It was the day I gave birth to Savino .
Now, sitting in the theater, I begin to see connections between McAlary, Hanks, Savino, even Nora Ephron. It was she who wrote You’ve Got Mail, where Savino met Mr. Hanks, and it was she who wrote Lucky Guy, starring Hanks as McAlary. I tell Savino all of this -- the serendipitous overlapping of names and dates -- during an interim blackout. “No way,” he says.
At the end of the play, the crowd roars, an instant standing ovation. We jump from our seats when Mr. Hanks bows, and in that moment when he is bent in half, he lifts his chin, looks directly at my son, and says, “I remember you.”
We are invited backstage. A policeman escorts us from 44th street to the stage door, passing swarms of people waiting for a glimpse of Mr. Hanks.
The scruffy-bearded guy we met earlier greets us, this time pulling the door wide open. He pats my son’s back, and smiles. “The baby's here!” he announces. "Guys! The baby's here!” A few stagehands emerge from a dark hallway, laughing, reiterating, “The baby’s here! The baby’s here!” They lead us up a small staircase but before we reach the top, we stop.
Mr. Hanks is standing at the highest step, looking down at us.
He is much younger than he appeared on stage: looking fit, having reverted to blacker hair, and wearing black retro eyeglasses with a black V-neck sweater.
“Get! Out!” he says with hilarity, his jaw dropping. “Fifteen years? Just get! Out!”
He motions for Savino and me to follow him, and we do -- up two more steps and to the right, into his dressing room. A red sign hangs near the door, bold black letters spelling: TOM HANKS.
“So, you’re the baby.” He pulls off his glasses, and shakes Savino’s hand, laughing heartily. “Look at you.” Savino is speechless, one big smile says it all: Oh my God Tom Hanks is shaking my hand.
The dressing room is modest: a simple Formica counter and wall-to-wall mirror lined with white round bulbs. The counter is cluttered with piles of crumpled clothes and papers, but above it all, standing upright against the mirror, is the large bright yellow envelope. “You got it,” Savino says, pointing.
“Yep,” says Mr. Hanks. The dressing room is so small, the three of us pretty much fill the entire space, but Mr. Hanks makes us feel at home, like old friends, especially when he leans into my son. “Here, let me see if I can still hold you?”
We talk about how Savino got his name. “Sounds like an espresso coffee? Is it?” Mr. Hanks asks, making us laugh; but he grows sincere when we tell him that Savino is named after a very special person, his grandfather, who had four daughters, no son. “Oh. I get it. First boy. Niiice.”
He shows us a photo of his granddaughter in a sun hat, and tells us he’s excited about another grandchild coming in June. He explains that it’s a busy time, with his 17-year-old son looking at colleges. He asks Savino about his interests and about his school -- football, Boy Scouts, and Fordham Prep -- and when he is reminded that my son is interested in the Army, his eyes light up. “Great choice,” he says, “That’s great.” He recommends a book for my son, Absolutely American. “It’s about West Point. You gotta read it.”
There is electricity between Mr. Hanks and my Savino, but I am not a part of it. I am not even warm. When he was a small boy, my son’s yearning to “do his duty to serve his country” was charming. I’d clap extra-hard when the scout leader called him to the podium to receive recognition. But today, with wars erupting all over the globe, with Mr. Hanks excited for my son's future as a soldier, the vision of my boy serving his country, doing his duty, frightens me. I pat Savino's back as if to comfort him as he speaks quickly and excitedly with Mr. Hanks about different famous soldiers.
The Hollywood star's eyes light up a second time when I tell him that McAlary’s article was published on Savino’s birthday. “No way,” he says, shaking his hands, palms facing me. “So many connections here.”
We end our visit with photos and some autographs, and we thank him again. But to my surprise, Mr. Hanks thanks us. He asks his assistant to take a photo of us from his personal camera. “There’s a story here. We gotta send this somewhere,” he says as we pose for the picture.
Savino and I can't believe we have a bond, however slight, with Mr. Hanks.
“See you in another 15 years,” the actor says as we descend the stairs. “There’s a story here.“
He’s right. There is. And I hope these odd serendipitous events, this luck, will follow my son, especially when he is a soldier, fighting overseas for a story larger than any of us. It may sound absurd to anyone who is not Savino’s mother, but I find some comfort in Mr. Hanks’ assurance that he will meet my son again in 15 years. Savino will be 30 when they reunite, which means he will already have become a soldier, already completed whatever mission he was assigned.
Maybe whatever it is that connects Nora Ephron, McAlary, and Savino today will continue. Maybe these writers will somehow help my son to pen his own story, one with a happy ending, one that brings him safely back home to me.
We leave backstage. Behind us, the double doors close, the shaft of the lock clicks. In front of us cops secure a crowd, phones held high, ready to shoot.
Enter Savino. He does his best impersonation of Mr. Hanks as McAlary, aiming two index fingers up. A few random people clap, one cop smirks. We walk away from the theater. “I’m lucky,” my son says, his arm around my shoulder. I put my arm around him, too. I hope he’s right. Meeting Mr. Hanks makes us believe it’s so.