The Cineplex Odeon in Toronto was about 20% full on Sunday afternoon. Couples, friends, and small groups scattered throughout the theater, with most people concentrated in the middle section. It was my first time back in a movie theatre since February 2020. I was excited to see the iconic musical, West Side Story, with one of my favorite people. Robyn was one of my only friends in Toronto when I moved here over a year ago, in October 2020. She has helped me get settled into this new city in every way – with food, furniture, advice, arts and culture –  and most importantly  – compassion, acceptance, and friendship. We grew up together in Montreal, and Robyn also understands what it feels like to start over in a new city and build a new life.

West Side Story runs 2 hours and 36 minutes, packed with action and emotion. Almost two hours into the movie, two elderly people slowly stood up from their seats.They were front row, stage left, and it was impossible not to notice or hear them. They wore oversized parkas, winter hats, and face masks, and carried several shopping bags. Their whispering voices swept the theatre:  “Do you have the bags?” one asked, the other replied, and they mumbled back and forth to each other. Then they shuffled up the aisle to the exit in the back.

They returned during the climactic final scene. As they approached their seats, they whispered again, fussing with their bags, trying to get settled. They could not have chosen a more dramatic moment to disturb. The timing was so perfectly wrong, so absurdly in contrast to the gravity of the scene, that I giggled softly. Robyn giggled too. The pair continued whispering. A low but firm “shhhhhhhhhhhhhh” was heard from several people.

And then one asshole screamed out in a nasty tone, “Shut the F*ck Up!” This man’s angry, cursing outburst ruined the moment much more than the whispering couple.They were sweet and tender, doting on each other, caring for each other. They had each others’ backs. (and bags:) This jerk embodied the character of Riff, filled with a hatred and resentment that he couldn’t contain, and he didn’t care who he affected or hurt in the process.

Whether the elderly pair were a romantic couple, platonic friends, or blood relatives, I don’t know. What I do know is that they cared about, and for, each other. Why did they need to leave and return? Perhaps one needed to take critical medication, perhaps one needed to pee. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is that they are entitled to go through the world with the same respect as anyone else. Ageism, ableism, discrimination, and intolerance are cruel and destructive.

The final scene of West Side Story is heavy and emotional, and I was feeling all the feels. I processed the themes of love and hatred, hope and loss, desire, regret, and pain. Themes of family, friendship, identity, culture, community, and home –  and the complex history and allure of New York City. What it means to be displaced, to be an outsider, and to be discriminated against. What it feels like to be included and welcomed; and how we search for and hopefully find connection, meaning, acceptance, and love. It all felt eerily and deeply familiar. My giggles transformed into silent tears. I thought about my own life experiences, about the characters in the story, and about the people in the theatre.

I wonder what really provoked that man’s animosity, what made him overreact, and shriek at two frail strangers. Was he terrified of getting older? Did he have a bad relationship with his parents or grandparents? Is he a narcissist who cares only about his own comfort? Is he alone, without any friends to count on? The whispering pair were trying to be considerate to the people around them. This man did not care about anyone else’s comfort, or ear drums. Ironically, he embodied exactly what he seemed to be against – a lack of concern for other human beings. 

I feel sorry for that man who is so full of hate. I hope he finds a way to heal, and evolve, and be happy.

I admire those two people in a relationship filled with compassion and love – whether familial, friendship, or romantic. And I hope that they continue to live happily ever after.