A Memory of Coffee and Sweeney Todd

This is what I remember. We were on our way to visit Sarah Lawrence College. Not Lucy. Flannery. I was taking Flannery to see Sarah Lawrence in 2006. Kiffen stayed home in Los Angeles with the girls. Lucy was fifteen and Norah was seven.

Flannery had applied to Sarah Lawrence, Bard, Emerson, NYU. He also had an audition for a play in New York. This required an East Coast trip.

Besides college visits, I took him to see Sweeney Todd with Patti LuPone, but my most vivid memory of that trip is waking up late, getting out of the brownstone in Brooklyn where we were staying at my sister-in-law’s house.

We had just enough time to buy coffee – two grande lattes or something at Starbucks on 7th Avenue before catching the train. We had two schools to visit, an audition, and a play, so the day required  a lot of caffeine.

The tour at Sarah Lawrence began at 11:00.

This is what I remember. I’d been snapping at him to hurry – oh the crazy stress of it all because we’re going to miss the campus tour.

Hurry hurry hurry!

Boring mother blah blah blah.

Charlie Brown Adultspeak.

We make it on the subway. There are no seats. We are standing. I am livid with rage and I can’t remember why – maybe because it had been an hour of browbeating him.

Wake up wake up wake up.

Take a shower take a shower taker a shower

You will visit the school

I will take you to the audition.

We will visit another school.

We are in New York, mother and son, so it’s by-GOD going to be SPECIAL.

He’s a senior in high school.

I love him so much but he drives me crazy.

La de da.

We get coffees and get on the train. It jerks forward and I hear it.


Yes, he drops his full latte. Had he even take a single sip? Who knows, but he drops it in the middle of the subway.


It is a brown river flowing down the center aisle between feet. It is so much coffee, I am reminded of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Roald Dahl’s river of chocolate. Only this is Starbucks coffee and it’s expensive but I splurged and he has dropped it and made the subway car a running river of milky coffee.

What to do?

It has happened.

The deed is done.

It’s around 9:30 so the train is not packed but all the seats are taken, so everyone gets a great view of the coffee river rushing by their feet.

People are staring at him.

No one says a word.

He looks at me in desperation.

A kind of – Do something, Mom! – look.

But what can I do? I gaze back at him, but I say nothing.

I’ve been nagging/school-marming him for an hour prior to this. I have no words left. There is nothing to say. It’s done. So I look away. I pretend I don’t know him. I become another New Yorker just taking the train standing next to a kid who has dropped his coffee.

I step away from this boy and the river.

A few old ladies drop tissues to dam the stream. Eventually it slows to trickle. I find a seat and keep my distance until we arrive at Grand Central to change trains to Bronxville. But I’m not speaking to him. It’s not the coffee. It’s everything I’m trying to make happen for him, and he’s thwarting me, no cooperating.

Imagine! This seventeen-year-old is not cooperating in his future, which I know best.

He must go to college!

I also want him to go away from California. I want him to experience something different and see the world.

Don’t you know how much I’m doing for you???? 

How obnoxious.

But I wanted him to have choices – more than I had. I didn’t know to even try for other colleges besides the University of Tennessee or Alabama. (My dad wanted me to play on the women’s golf team at Alabama.)

Anyway, that’s another essay. It was a different time.

Without speaking to my son, I buy tickets to Bronxville at Grand Central.

Flannery disappears and reappears beside me as I wait near the platform exhausted.

He says, “I bought you a New York Times and another coffee. I’m sorry.”

He hands me the New York Times and a fresh coffee.

I thank him and I start to breathe. We’re going to miss the first tour, so we’ll take the second tour. Who cares? I’m in New York with my son.

When we get to campus he looks around and he says, “This is Lucy’s school, Mom. She would love this school.”


It’s true. He didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence but three years later Lucy entered in the fall of 2009, the same year I moved to Alabama. He went to UC Santa Barbara – UCSB. His first dorm room was on the ocean.


But that night in 2006 we saw Patti LuPone playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

I don’t think I took one picture that trip. If I did I don’t remember. I don’t ever remember seeing anyway. I didn’t have a phone that took pictures. Or maybe it did but it was a flip-phone with fuzzy picture capabilities. I had a digital camera that did take pictures. Did I take any? Where are they?

He didn’t get the part in the play. That was okay. It was a play by Mary Willard, Fred Willard’s wife, who is lovely.

If I could play with time, I would have slowed down a little in New York.  I would have taken pictures. I remember he read The Adventures of Cavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I don’t remember what I read.

I remember we didn’t love Sweeney Todd. We were more old-school Angela Lansbury Sweeney Todd. This was a colder production although fascinating.

Did we meet our friend, Roetta, at Sweeney Todd? I think  we did. Roetta and Flannery had a special friendship. She took him to see the Phantom of the Opera when he was six in New York. They had third row seats if I remember correctly.

As a little boy, Flannery used to sing all the words to Sweeney Todd and offer free shaves. He’d wear a white button shirt like Sweeney and carry around a butter knife for a razor, singing “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

To reenact the Phantom, he took my lipstick and smeared it on one side of his face to portray where the acid hit him. He also wore a cape and a half-phantom mask and sang about Christine. He made Lucy play Christine sometimes and he’d capture her.

He loved Sweeney, the Phantom, John Merrick – the Elephant Man.

He named our goldfish  John Merrick, and poor John Merrick, the fish, died in the Northridge earthquake when everything fell off our shelves.

Lucy threw up in terror after the earthquake and begged me, “No more AFTER-TOCKS!” (aftershocks)

A brown river of coffee.

College visits.

More than ten years ago now.





Lucy graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 2013 and now lives in Chicago.

Norah is applying to colleges now in the fall of 2016.

She’ll be eighteen in four days.

Flannery lives in Los Angeles and knows it so well he could give ghost tours of downtown and Hollywood.

Time, time, time.

Another year.



The two Sweeney Todds




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