Lunch with August Wilson
The news of playwright August Wilson’s death on October 2nd was in the newspaper the following day. He never wrote a play set in Seattle, but since 1990 this is the city where he lived and wrote. His ten-play cycle of the black experience in Seattle were set mostly in Pittsburgh, his hometown. I had read that he favored a few cafés to do his writing, and used to see him occasionally, headed from the bus stop to the Mecca Café on Queen Anne. The Mecca is a still a haven for smokers.
Last July I was having lunch at the Whole Foods Market on Roosevelt, having gotten too hungry at the U-District Farmer’s Market to make it home. Although I love to browse at Whole Foods and admire vegetables as art, I don’t like to shop there because it costs so much. It was Saturday and crowded where there are tables. My friend said, "isn’t that August Wilson just sitting down?" He looked just like every photo that I had ever seen of him, sports coat and distinctive hat.
The mushroom bisque soup was not only pricey; it was bland. I checked for condiments by the utensils. None. Then I noticed salt and pepper shakers on just one table. I approached the playwright and said, "excuse me, are you using your pepper?" He shook his head and gestured to it. I took his pepper.
My friend and I ate our lunch. Some innocent question caused me to start crying, which is a family trait that not everyone finds charming. Even I as I wiped my tears with a Whole Foods napkin, other people hovered by the table hoping that we were done. I looked around and thought about all of the different life stories of the 30 or so people perched on stools by the window and seated around tables, most oblivious to the man who would soon be memorialized as the "most important dramatist of the late 20th century."
I read a month later that August Wilson had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June, and only had few months to live. He was quoted as saying that he was ready; he had finished his life’s work. When I read about his death at Swedish Medical Center I realized that he already knew his diagnosis on that day that he was having lunch at Whole Foods. Far from his usual, smokier haunts. I’m glad that I wept in his presence, no matter what the reasons, and I’m glad that I asked him for his pepper.