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BRUNO'S BIG BREAK (working title)

CHAPTER 22

 

Alice was no less worldly than any other college graduate, but what she knew of the underworld consisted entirely of the fictionalized crap she read in the papers or saw in the movies. So when Annie made her proposal, Alice thought it would be a fun little adventure. The cab driver—I’ve forgotten his name so let’s call him “Delaney”—was holed up in a hotel in South Philly with one of Lippy’s lieutenants as his bodyguard. While neither was very happy about it, they managed to pass the time listening to the radio, playing cards, and sampling delicacies from the Italian market.

The hotel was frequented mostly by streetwalkers and their johns, so a few extra hoods hanging around the place didn’t seem suspicious. And nobody batted an eye the day Lippy entered with Alice, except a couple of hookers who accused her of encroaching on their territory (though the word “encroach” probably wasn’t part of their vocabulary). Alice said afterward that those girls were way scarier than Lippy and his boys.

Alice’s illustration skills combined with Delaney’s eye for detail resulted in a disturbing revelation.

“Fred Fuckin’ Stack!” That was all Lippy said when I answered the phone.

Annie took it pretty hard at first, but after a few minutes, she said, “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Whaddya mean? From everything you told me about Fred, he sounds capable of murder.”

“Oh, he is. What I don’t get is why he would risk coming back to Philly.”

“To finish off his ex-wife…?”

“He’s had more than enough chances. And how could he stay hidden for so long? The way he drinks, some bartender would’ve told Leo by now.” 

I thought maybe somebody was hiding him, but I was apparently wrong. Within a couple days, some of Lippy’s boys pulled Fred out of a speakeasy near 13th and South. They gave him the third degree, but he didn’t seem to know anything about Adele, or any of the other victims, even when they held a knife to his balls.  Lippy wanted to be sure so he sent for Jimmy McFadden, figuring Fred wouldn’t lie in the face of excruciating death. The minute Jimmy came through the door, Fred started screaming about how “they” promised nothing would happen to him. Lippy decided to keep Fred alive so he could find out who “they” were. I was betting whoever it was might be even scarier than Jimmy McFadden. 

*   *   *

“Maybe I should talk to Fred.” I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. The guy almost killed Annie.

“What are you worried about? Leo wouldn’t leave me alone with him. If Fred lays a finger on me, there’ll be some goon there to cut it off. We’ve known each other since the tenth grade—Fred might open up to me. Besides, it’d be fun to see him squirm. “

So off she went to wherever Fred was being held. Annie said they blindfolded her going and coming, but she knew the place was somewhere near the Schuykill River. The smell is unmistakable. Annie told her father and me the whole story when she got home. 

            “They led me into what looked like a basement, with a guard outside the door, and there’s Fred, looking about ten years older and a few marbles short. ‘Hey, baby,’ he says—always hated it when he called me that. ‘Hey, baby, great to see ya. How ya been?’ I tell him I’m still alive, no thanks to him. ‘Huh? Oh, yeah….’ Unbelievable. Then he asks if I can get him a bottle of hooch ’cause “Lippy’ won’t let him have any. I tell him to watch his mouth if he wants to keep breathing. So finally, I ask Fred why he cut Adele’s throat, and he goes, ‘I didn’t cut anybody’s throat! I don’t know any Adele!’ I remind him he was right there when it happened, but all he remembers is somebody giving him a ride and letting him off near the alley. He claims he was pretty loaded.

            Mr. Myers asked, “Do you believe him?”

            “I could always tell when Fred was lying, and as much as I hate him, I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth. So I told him that I think he’s a patsy, and gets real mad and says, ‘Where do you get off calling me a pansy?!’ This from the guy who called me ‘nigger’ and nearly beat me to death. I’ll call him whatever the hell I want. Anyhow, I explain to him what a patsy is, and he says, ‘Speaking of pansies, my friends did a nice job getting rid of your football player.’ I was about to be sick, thinking Alvin might be dead. But then he goes, ‘They told that faggot to get outta town or everybody’s gonna know he likes boys.’ Well, I was relieved to know that Alvin’s still alive, but then I had to explain to Fred that those same ‘friends’ set him up so Pinkowitz would think he tried to kill Adele. He thought I was crazy, until I told him, ‘Look where you are, dimbulb!’ You could almost hear the gears grinding in his skull while he tried to figure it out. If Fred had anything else to say, he wasn’t saying it to me so I asked the driver to take me home.”

            The phone rang in the living room and Mr. Myers answered it. A few seconds later, he came back and told us, “That was Leo. Fred got away.”

 

CHAPTER 21

 

I told Ernie about my conversation with Gina, and he asked me to explain the plan to Pinkowitz. Afterward, Lippy said, “You’re a good kid, Nicky. I ain’t forgettin’ dis.

            “You don’t owe me a thing. If anything, I owe you!”

            Lippy smirked and chucked me on the chin, though it felt more like I’d been hit with a Polish ham. It was all I could do to stay upright. He stationed a couple of his “boys” at the hospital, prompting regular phone calls from Gina, who regaled me with stories of the two illiterate thugs trying to pass for doctors.

 

*   *   *

Adele’s recovery was slow. The fact that she couldn’t have visitors probably didn’t help, but it was Uncle Leo’s orders. And since the reports from her bodyguards tended to be short on pertinent details, it fell to me to pass along Gina’s updates to the Pinkowitz family. The news was generally good, until I had the unpleasant duty of informing Lippy that Adele would never sing again. Her larynx had been badly slashed, and even though she would regain the ability to talk, that sweet, girlish voice would likely be replaced by a gravelly croak.

            This turned out to be pretty bad news for the band as well. Our agent broke the news to Vocalion, who broke the news to Vitaphone, who shelved our movie debut “indefinitely”. Vocalion had similar plans for our record.

 

*   *   *

 

            “Can things get any worse?” I asked, pacing Annie’s living-room floor.

            Her father was out for the evening and we ordered Chinese for dinner.

“Come off it, Nick. Of course they can. Adele could be dead, for one thing. And I could be next.” Annie was on the couch polishing off the last of the Moo Goo Gai Pan, while some band or another was playing on the radio.

“That reminds me, what happened to your bodyguard? I haven’t seen Alvin since the night Adele….”

“Oh, Christ!”

Annie ran to the phone and dialed a number. “This is Annie Myers. Is Alvin there?” After a long pause, she said, “Really?! Okay…thanks.” She hung up the phone distractedly.

“What’s the matter?”

“Alvin’s gone. His roommate said nobody’s seen him all week. His bed hasn’t been slept in, either.”

I immediately imagined the worst: “You don’t think Alvin did that to Adele—”

“Absolutely not. At least I hope not….”

“Should we call the cops?”

“Geez, I don’t know…what good would it do?”

“Whaddya mean?! They’re the police!”

“Sorry, pal. I’ve never been white enough or rich enough to merit police protection. They didn’t do shit for me when I was in trouble. So even if Alvin is guilty—which he isn’t—I wouldn’t send the cops after him. They never gave two farts for all those poor colored girls.”

“What about Adele? They questioned everybody in the band and everybody at Palumbo’s….”

“They like her uncle’s money. If you ask me, the only law in this town is Boo Boo Hoff.”

Her cynicism surprised me a little, and I guess it showed. I don’t hide my emotions very well.

“Don’t look so shocked. My town’s run by corrupt Republicans, yours by corrupt Democrats, and the cops work for the highest bidder.”

            “You musta been a riot in high school civics.”

            “Hardly. If you wanna pass, you don’t draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself. I was a good little ‘A’ student, always told the teachers what they wanted to hear. And God, how I wanted to believe it. But the more I saw, the more I knew it was the bunk.”

            “So you married Freddy Wonderbread.”

            “My disastrous attempt at ‘normalcy’…I hope Alvin’s okay….”

            “I’m sure he can take care of himself.” I had absolutely no idea. “Maybe he’s visiting his family.”

            “Without telling anybody? Even me?! It doesn’t make sense.”

            I was at a loss. Alvin just seemed too big to disappear. Not the tiniest bit logical, of course, so I choose to blame it on all the dope I was smoking to calm my nerves.

            Annie’s eyes started to tear up and she slammed her fist into the couch. “Dammit!” 

            I pulled Annie close to me and she let out a loud belch that got her laughing, even though her face was streaked with tears. Just when things were getting romantic, the phone rang. Eddie was on the other end with the news that one of Hoff’s boys located the cabbie who took Adele to the hospital. He got a good look at a guy walking away from the alley, but when he went to the cops, they called him a crank and refused to take his statement.

            When I told Annie the news, she said, “And you wanted to call the cops…too bad he can’t draw us a picture.”

            “Maybe somebody else could. The only artist I know is Mimi, but she couldn’t keep a secret with a gun to her head.”

            “Screw Mimi.”

            “If you say so….”

            “Remember what happened last time. Say, I know a girl who’s a really good portrait artist. We graduated together, but she went to college, like I shoulda done.”

            “Recriminations aside, is she somebody we can trust? She won’t go blabbing to anybody….”

            “Nah, Alice is the cat’s peejays. We’ve been friends since the eighth grade. You know who I mean, that red-haired girl I was dancing with Saturday before last?”

            “She was a redhead? I couldn’t tell for that beaded thing on her head.”

“Well now you know. Gee, I hope she doesn’t hate me for throwing her in with gangsters.”

CHAPTER 20

 

Our wet Philadelphia winter turned out to be a little wetter than usual. A late winter thaw at the end of February caused the Schuykill River, that icon of industrial pollution, to rise fourteen feet and overflow its banks. The resulting floods made roads impassible, forced people from their homes, and even submerged several houses in nearby Montgomery County. The wet weather would continue through April, further compounding the misery. For thousands of years, we humans have been trying to show Mother Nature who’s boss, and she usually shows us.

             I’m not at all proud to admit that this disaster didn’t concern me very much at the time. I was young, successful, in love, and oblivious. Meanwhile, reality was laying in wait, ready to bite me on the ass.

           

*   *   *

 

March was entering like the proverbial lion, signaling the last gasp of winter and the final four weeks of our Philadelphia residency. The previous six had certainly been eventful, and while I had no plans to stay in Philly, I wasn’t all that excited about returning to my old life, either. As was the case with Jack, Eddie, Sammy and Matt, my contract with Phil was up for renewal. It was assumed by all parties that we’d sign on for another two years when the hiatus was over. The Carlisle band was a pretty soft gig: It kept me in a higher income bracket than the average working stiff, but it felt like a dead end at the same time. This little taste of autonomy made me restless, and being a published songwriter only intensified the feeling. It turns out I wasn’t alone. Eddie was itching for a change of scenery as well, a fact he admitted to on the walk home from Palumbo’s one night.

            “It’s like we’re performing seals. And it’d be the same way with any other outfit.”

            “I’ve been thinking the same thing. Hell, we make the same money either way—more if we keep writing songs.”

            “That’s the racket to be in. You think Annie’s gonna stick with it?”

            “Annie’s got the bug. She’ll stick with it, alright. The issue is whether or not she sticks with me.”

            “I thought you two were all goofy for each other….”

            “Yeah, and in a few weeks I’ll be back in New York and it’s long-distance from then on…until we either get married or somebody gives up.”

            “So move her up to New York.”

            “Her old man’ll like that! You’re obviously not Catholic.”

            “Lutherans aren’t much different. What I meant was, find her a room in one of those women’s hotels. Her father couldn’t possibly disapprove. She can get work as a seamstress or…hey, maybe she could work for Cooper!”

            “She already does.”

            “I mean as a clerk or something.”

            “Then her father’s gonna be shorthanded at the store…Jesus, this is complicated!”

            “Instead of working yourself into a lather, it might be a good idea to talk it out with Annie and her father.”

            “Yeah, I know. No matter what, though, it ain’t gonna be simple. I never got serious with a girl before.”

            “You think I don’t know? I’m just trying to help you get your big moment and keep the team together. There’s plenty of girls who can work a sewing machine—don’t worry about the old man.”

            Eddie made sense, but that didn’t exactly put my mind at ease. Then it hit me that we hadn’t decided what to do about Adele. After the Vitaphone short, everybody pretty much took if for granted that Adele would continue as a feature with our outfit when we returned to New York, but none of us had ever bothered to ask her or her uncle.

            Which is why I blurted out, “What are we gonna do about Adele?”

            “What?”

            “Adele! Is she coming to New York with us?”

            “Geez, calm down.”

            When we got back to the house, Eddie took a wad of tin foil containing a half-dozen reefers from inside the piano. He lit one up and passed it to me.

            “You need to take it easy, kid. You’re gonna give yourself agita.”

            “Where’d you learn to speak Italian?” I asked while exhaling a cloud of smoke.

            “From you and all the other wops I know. Just like the Jews dropping their Yiddish at every opportunity. I can’t remember a single word of German but I can talk my way through South Philly. When the hell did all you swarthy peasants take over? We were here first….”

            This was Eddie’s nativist routine, a mockery of his backward cousin who couldn’t imagine why someone of pure “Aryan” stock would spend so much time in the company of “coons, dagos and kikes”. Lovely man.

            I countered with, “Unlike your highly civilized ‘heiny’ compatriots in the boondocks who think electricity is witchcraft.”

            “But you have to admit, they are snappy dressers,” a reference to the austere black-and-white attire of the Amish and Mennonites.

            We both laughed hysterically, much more than the joke deserved, but that’s what folks in our condition often do. Of course, if you’re not familiar with the Amish style of dress, this exchange is completely lost on you. I suggest a visit to your neighborhood library.

Self-induced idiocy aside, I was much more at peace with the world, except for maybe Eddie’s asshole cousin. I started to believe everything would come up roses. If only I could’ve gotten myself to the bathroom in time. See, we were laughing pretty hard and…well, I needed to pay Annie a visit regardless.

 

*   *   *

 

“Hey, sweetie! How’s my hirsute Romeo?”

            “In a quandary.”

            “And I thought this was a dry cleaner. My whole life is a lie.” Annie spoke distractedly as she tagged my laundry.

“Crack wise all you want, but this is your problem as much as it is mine. You know we’re only in town ’til the end of the month, right?”

“Of course I do. Why, are you gonna give me the air?” she asked sarcastically.

“Worse. I want you to move to New York.”

Annie looked at me suspiciously. “Is this your idea of a proposal?”

“More like a proposition….”

“A shack-up? Not while my father’s alive!” she interrupted, waving her right forefinger in the air in mock outrage.

“Why do I even bother?”

“Aw, come off it, Nick. You got your undies in a twist over nothing.”

 I responded with a look of surprise and curiosity.

“Daddy got a call from Pinkowitz last night,” she continued. “He rented an apartment for Adele in New York, and he’d like me to go along to look after her. I get my own bedroom and the rent’s free. We move in the middle of next month.”

I was speechless.

“Something wrong?”

“Nothing…um…you’re father’s okay with this?”

“He’s not exactly doing somersaults, but he’s not surprised either. Daddy knew this would happen sooner or later. He was just hoping for later. How soon do you need these back?”

“What?” I’d forgotten that I was dropping off my laundry. “Oh! Tomorrow. Is that too soon?”

“Of course not. Here’s your ticket…are you alright?”

“I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”

“Why? Don’t you want me in New York?”

“Yeah…I just didn’t think it would really happen.”

“You’re not the only one, kiddo,” Annie said with a reassuring smile. “We oughta build Lippy a statue in Rittenhouse Square.”

“Sure. No pigeon would dare shit on it.”

 

*   *   *

 

I was floating on a cloud all the way back to the house. This was just too perfect! And it was. When I got back to the house, Eddie and Jack were sitting in the living room looking sullen.

            “We got a call from Ernie,” Eddie began. “Lippy told him Adele didn’t come home last night. His sister’s hysterical, and Lippy isn’t much better.”

            “Did anybody see her leave? What about Matt or Sammy?”

            “They know as much as we do,” Jack replied. “Hoff’s got a bunch of guys checking all the hospitals and morgues between Bucks County and Delaware.”

            We were all silent for a minute. Then Eddie suggested we run down a few tunes. He sat down at the piano and started playing. Both Jack and I sat on the sofa, just staring at the floor. Eddie continued playing at a feverish pace. I gave Jack a look of horror-struck curiosity. He answered by shrugging his shoulders. We both turned toward Eddie, whose playing had transitioned from high-speed stride to outright piano abuse. Suddenly he slammed the lid over the keys, knocked over the bench and stormed up the stairs.

            This didn’t bode well. Eddie usually kept his head in the face of disaster. I resumed staring at the floor while expressing this idea to Jack.

            “Hope it’s not raining dog shit outside,” he answered.

            “Speaking of dog shit, I haven’t seen Junior for a few days. Did Adele finally give him the brush-off?”

            “Nah, he still comes around. Only he leaves the boyfriend home now.” That was a reference to Reese.

            “You think maybe they eloped?” The thought suddenly occurred to me, even though it made me slightly nauseous.

            “Could be. She’s over 18. Besides, he’s loaded. Not only that, he’s got money.”

            “Oh Jack, you are a caution,” I said without a hint of laughter, even though I thought his little quip deserved it. I just wasn’t in the mood. “Marrying Junior is preferable, I suppose…somebody should talk to Eddie, don’t ya think?

            “What for? He’ll get over it?”

            “If you want me to do it, just say so.”

            “Say, Nick, maybe you should go talk to Eddie.”

            “Go fuck yourself, Jack.”

            “Good idea! I’ll be in the can.”

            “Selfish asshole,” I muttered as I walked up the stairs.

            “Eddie! You okay?” I asked while knocking on his bedroom door.

            “Sure. I’ll be down in a while.”

            “Tell him I got some happy dust!” Jack yelled up the stairs.

            “Tell Jack to shut the fuck up!” Eddie shouted from behind his bedroom door.

            “Jack, Eddie says ‘shut the fuck up!’ Seriously, Ed, I was going to heat up some of my mom’s minestrone….”

            The door swung open and out stepped Eddie, accompanied by a large cloud of acrid smoke. “Sounds good.”

            I had been making regular visits to my family, sometimes with Annie, sometimes alone. In either case, I never returned to Kater Street empty-handed. Mom took a considerable amount of pride in her culinary skills, and insisted that I share the leftovers with my housemates. Annie, however, had been sent home on one occasion with a freshly-made batch of spinach ravioli, and on another with an entire lasagna. Mom had decided that Annie should be her daughter-in-law and gifts of food was her way of ensuring that Mr. Myers would be in agreement. Annie had no interest in marriage, but when food was involved, she never argued the point.

            In times of strife and uncertainty, there’s nothing like Italian food to take the edge off. The three of us were able to weather the initial shock of Adele’s disappearance with the help of Mom’s minestrone and the Indian hemp plant. Not that we were any less sad about it, but we were expected to give a performance that night, so a bit of euphoria was very much in order.

            Matt and Sammy joined our vigil during the course of the afternoon. It felt like a wake, except there was a chance that the deceased might still be alive. We distracted ourselves with musical interludes, reefers and conversation, but the uncertainty over Adele haunted us every minute.

            Around nightfall we heard a knock on the front door. We all looked at each other, wondering if it was safe to answer. A muffled voice shouted from the other side: “Eddie! Nicky! Jack! It’s Ernie! I got news!” Matt was closest and opened the door.

            “Oh, you’re all here…listen, I got news from Leo.”

            Ernie proceeded to explain how a cab driver happened to notice a stream of blood flowing from an alleyway on 8th Street, just south of Locust. He found Adele alive, but with her throat cut. The cold weather probably saved her life by slowing down her circulation. Of course, it also helped that her assailant failed to sever any major blood vessels. She had been raped several times—and apparently in several ways—probably the cause for her catatonic state. Because she was found with no identification and very little clothing, the hospital listed her as a Jane Doe. This is why it took an army of hoods fifteen hours to find her.

            While we were all relieved that Adele was still alive, her survival was hardly a foregone conclusion. And her chances might diminish once word got out, which it would, no matter how many people were sworn to secrecy. She’d have to be moved to another location without anybody knowing. Whoever this rapist-murderer was, it was a safe bet he’d make every effort to silence his one surviving victim.

            “C’mon over to the club, boys. My chef’ll cook you a nice dinner. I’ll make an announcement about Adele so the audience won’t know anything’s the matter.” It seemed like the only thing to do, so that’s what we did.

            “You guys go ahead,” I told Ernie and the others. “I’ll be over right after I make a phone call.” When they were gone I dialed up Gina. After seeing what she’d done for Annie, I knew she was Adele’s best hope. Gina could transfer Adele to Penn, but Pinkowitz would have to keep his distance to ensure his niece’s anonymity.

“Great,” Gina said, “I’m in league with the mob. Before long I’ll be entertaining bootleggers and hooligans in my parlor.”

            “Just think of them as politicians who do their own killing.”

            “What a jolly thought. Okay, little brother, I’ll take care of your friend. Now we can both be on Lippy’s payroll.”

            “Don’t forget your Hippocratic oath,” I admonished. “Besides, Adele can’t help who her relations are. Listen, I have to get to work. We’ll talk tomorrow. Thanks again!”

So I’m a great friend and a rotten brother. I helped out Adele while involving my straight-laced sister with the criminal element. I thought maybe the experience would make her a little less judgmental about my underworld affiliations, but it didn’t have much of an impact. Good thing I never told her I smoke dope.

CHAPTER 19

 

Annie needed to catch a train from Penn Station at the ungodly hour of 9:00 a.m., so she could attend to a pile of alterations waiting for her at the shop. While being awake at that hour feels like medieval torture, I had no business complaining. Annie showed me a better time than I felt I had shown her, and waking up before noon was the least I could do.

Anyhow, our record date was at 11:00. Not that it would take very long. Vocalion scheduled us to cut two sides but only allowed three takes for each. These were the days before recording tape; editing wasn’t an option so whatever went on the disc remained for posterity. That meant we’d have to adhere to charts and not stretch out too far on the solos. It would also be Adele’s first time in a recording studio. All she had to do was sing one chorus on one side, not a huge deal, but maybe something of a challenge for a first-timer. The whole business would be wrapped up in two or three hours. My only concern was coming away with a first record we could be proud of.

            As it turned out, we had one side on the second take and the other on the third. That’s not to say the other takes weren’t good, or even better in some ways. The chosen takes just felt better. Adele didn’t exactly love the way her voice recorded, and the rest of us conceded that we sounded a bit rigid, but that’s the nature of recording. Jack probably complained the most, saying he would’ve played better if the engineer had let him smoke a reefer. In all fairness, the guy wouldn’t let us smoke anything—allergies, he said. Jack, however, tends to believe that he is the only person who should never be inconvenienced, fragile creature that he is.

            As much as I enjoyed listening to Jack whine, the clock on the wall said 1:30 or thereabouts, and we needed to get back to the City of Brotherly Corruption. That entailed returning the Guarneri to storage, catching the next train for Philly, followed by an eastbound subway ride and a short walk south to Kater Street. With the clear skies over Manhattan giving way to dense clouds, I started worrying that my three-hour trip would be extended on account of bad weather. So much for napping on the train.

I tried to distract myself with a newspaper, but I kept looking at my watch. By the time the train reached Trenton, it was obvious that the weather was holding and we’d arrive on schedule. All that worry for nothing, as usual. My mind drifted toward my impending St. Valentine’s Day obligation. This would be maybe the second time in my entire life when I’d had a date for February 14. The first was with a Moldavian contortionist whose troupe was playing the Trocadero. I was 19, she was at least 27, and I’m sure she made a much bigger impression on me than I did on her. Her flexibility defied logic.

I was hoping this Valentine’s Day was going to be even more special, and a lot less sordid. Besides, I had a big surprise for Annie. We passed a shop window on Market Street a couple weeks earlier and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. So rather than insult her with anything as trite as cut flowers and Schrafft’s chocolates, I spent fifty bucks on something she really wanted. If it sounds extravagant, it’s nothing compared to having that publishing contract, which I wouldn’t have had if Annie didn’t come to the rescue.

 

*   *   *

 

At a quarter to five, I was back at Eddie’s, desperately in need of a bath, a meal, and the toilet. The first snowflakes were just starting to fall outside, which led me to wonder if it would affect the turnout that night. Not that I had any need to worry. The temperature had hardly risen above freezing the entire four weeks we had been in town, highlighted by some form of precipitation, none of which kept people away.

Eddie and Jack had arrived maybe half an hour earlier and were in their respective rooms getting ready for work, which also meant that the bathroom was unoccupied, lucky for me. The three of us got to the club less than an hour later. I got a chance to call Annie during our dinner break, just to see if she got back alright.

“Oh, hi! How’d your record turn out?”

“Not bad. They’ll send us copies in a month or so. No problems getting home?”

“Not really, except for some bozo on the train who kept blowing cigar smoke in my direction. I asked him to please stop and he ignored me so I puked on his shoes. Not intentionally, of course, but its might as well have been. It really stank up the car—that was the embarrassing part—that and the porter having to mop it up. It was worth it, though, just to hear that big lummox cry over his ruined Florsheims…. You’re awfully quiet. Anything wrong?”

“Nothing at all. Just having my dinner.”

“Oops.”

“After ten years of playing for drunks and three years of living downstairs from Jack, the thought of vomit has no effect on me.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Good thing this isn’t lasagna….”

“Fuck you.”

“Is that an offer?”

“Depends on how Thursday night goes—assuming we have a date.”

“Of course. I guess it means a lot to you.”

“It never did until after I got married. Fred always forgot, along with my birthday and our anniversary. The only occasions he approved of were Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and especially St. Patrick’s Day. Any excuse to get plastered….”

“Well, you know I have to work that night, but if you don’t mind an early dinner…it doesn’t have to be at Palumbo’s, either.”

“I accept! And Palumbo’s is fine.”

That was easy.

 

*   *   *

 

St. Valentine’s Day got off to a promising start with a wire from Vocalion saying they approved the two sides we delivered. Not a surprise but something of a relief, especially for Eddie, Annie and me. This meant that the sheet and the record would be in stores around the same time, which might improve our sales. Songwriting had turned me into a mercenary capitalist pig-dog, or so it would appear.

The truth is that after being on this treadmill for ten years, I was desperate to jump off for a while. I’d been making a decent living, but between paying half my parents’ mortgage, business expenses like clothes and instrument maintenance, and putting 25% into an annuity for my old age, there wasn’t much left over. My life since the age of 16 had been a blur of theaters, nightclubs, ballrooms and record dates. What I’d seen of America was only through the window of a passenger train. Even my friendships were mostly work-related. The income from a hit song would give me the chance to be a real person, not just a working stiff. It could also buy Annie her journalism degree and build Eddie his own recording studio. This one little song was carrying a lot of weight on its shoulders.

Not everyone was having such a promising day, particularly the seven guys massacred in a Chicago garage that morning, a sobering reminder of how dangerous my line of work can be. One of the victims was a mechanic and another was an optometrist, making me think that could be me someday. And not just because of my association with Pinkowitz. My chance encounters with the likes of Owney Madden, Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano were way too frequent.

As much as I like New York, I was developing a powerful urge to visit the West Coast, where the air wasn’t so infested with stray bullets.

            But that’s a whole other story. I had a heavy date that night and a big surprise for Annie. My fingers, toes and eyes were crossed in hopes that I didn’t make a $50 error in judgment. As it turned out, I didn’t. When I got to her place, she came to the door all dressed and ready to go. Shocking! I thought I’d have at least a ten-minute wait.

            “What’s in the box?”

            “It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told.”

            “It’s for me?”

            “Actually, it’s for your father,” I responded facetiously. “I’ve just been using you to get closer to him.”

            “Put a sock in it.” She looked at the package like it was an ice cream sundae. “Let’s go upstairs and open my present!”

Which we did. The squeal she let out could be heard across the river. Mr. Myers came running into the living room, thinking that some disaster had befallen his daughter.

“Oh my God! It’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“What is it?” her father asked.

“A new typewriter!”

To be exact, a Remington #3 portable typewriter in two-tone purple. Annie had an ancient Densmore her father picked up at a church rummage sale when she was in high school. The heavy action had built up her hands to the point that she could crack walnuts, a skill that got her invited to a lot of parties.

Which brings me back to our little party. Annie, as usual, was hardly able to contain herself. “Come to me, my furry little greaseball!” she exclaimed. She leaped forward, wrapped her arms and legs around me, and forced me backward onto the floor. Had her father not been there, things might’ve gotten interesting.

“Geez, Ann Marie, couldn’t you at least wait ’til you’re in the cab?”

“Party pooper!” Annie replied in mock petulance. After her father helped us up, I thanked him and we ran downstairs to the waiting taxi. The driver allowed us our privacy.

 

CHAPTER 18

A leisurely stroll through Manhattan, with the help of a cab ride, eventually landed us in Harlem, the Mecca of jazz in those days.

            “Where’re we going? The Plantation Club? Connie’s Inn?”

            “Nope.”

            “What!? Why not?”

            “For one thing, they’re restricted, and I know how you feel about passing. For another, they’d never let us in the door the way we’re dressed. How about Jungle Alley?”

            Jungle Alley was the nickname given to the block of 133rd Street between Lennox and Seventh Avenues, a veritable smorgasbord of Harlem nightlife. It was still early, and we had been walking for quite a while, so of course Annie was hungry—again—which prompted a visit to Tillie’s Chicken Shack. This was Annie’s introduction to southern cooking and she adored it. “Chicken is the universal language,” she declared. I looked at her askance and she responded by showing me her tongue, along with everything else in her mouth. Ours was a storybook romance, as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft.

An hour later we were at Pod’s and Jerry’s, the musicians’ hangout where I first met Willie the Lion. He still appeared there on occasion, and that night happened to be one of those occasions. The Lion hadn’t arrived yet, but Hoagy Carmichael was at the piano, playing one of his own compositions and singing in that soul-stirring, off-key, nasal voice of his. Willie finally appeared and took over from Hoagy, who had since been joined by several of the best players in town, none of whom was Joe Venuti. Good for me. Best not to have any serious competition when trying to impress one’s date. Though as much of a showoff as I am, it wasn’t entirely my idea to bring the fiddle along; Annie wanted to see me in my “natural habitat”..

I wasn’t quick to jump in. Sometimes it’s more fun to just listen, especially when the group was as exceptional as this one. Annie eventually excused herself, as if she was going to the ladies room. Instead she marched up to Willie, informed him of my presence, then marched right back to me and said, “You’re on, bub.”

Willie squinted into the audience, gesturing for me to come forward. When I was in sight, he asked in his brassy North Jersey accent, “Since when are you so bashful, Mr. Bruno?” The formality was anything but genuine. “Unlike that little yella gal. Is she your new manager?”

            “Adorable, isn’t she?” I could be ironic, too. “Gimme an A.” He played middle A on the piano, I tuned up and we got down to business.

Halfway through the first number I realized that playing with the same four guys for a solid month had made me complacent. It was like I had been sleepwalking. Sitting in with Willie and the others had suddenly become comparable to running laps around the block, and I had the soggy armpits to prove it.

We finally took a break after about an hour. A good thing because I was exhausted.

“That Philly gig must be pretty soft,” Willie said with a smile.

“Too soft. But the band’s good, the money’s great and, as you can see, I’m making new friends.”

“Cute kid. Zaftig!” (Told you so.)

“She’s a good lyricist, too. Cooper just published a song we wrote together.”

“You might want to keep this one….” He paused. “Uh, how’d you explain her to the folks?”

“I didn’t have to. They could give a shit.”

“Most people aren’t so open-minded. Whaddya plan to do about the rest of the world?”

“Tell ’em the truth. Annie’s half Puerto Rican, and she knows enough Spanish to prove it.”

“You’ve got chutzpah. Almost as much as your lady friend.”

“Trust me, she’s not as tough as she acts. Beneath that hard exterior is a pile of mush.”

“Oh yeah? Well this pile of mush can take you, little man.” Annie was sneaking up on me again.

“Oh Christ,” I said, rolling my eyes. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close.

“You’ve got your hands full, Bruno,” Willie laughed.

“I’ve also got a record date in the morning. We oughta get going.”

“Stick around, it’s early,” Willie replied. But I was all in. Besides, I had already packed up my fiddle, and Annie seemed to be in an amorous mood, something I didn’t want to squander. As we headed toward the door, Annie announced, “That was lovely, boys, but I’ve got to give Nicky his bath.” She got a big laugh. I got a red face.

*   *   *

It was a few minutes short of 11 o’clock when we got back to my place. My first night alone with Annie, and it was all I could do to contain my excitement. She was affectionate, but also a bit distracted.

“Is it okay if I call my father? I can reverse the charges….”

“Don’t worry about the charges.”

“Thanks. I promised I’d call if him if I planned to spend the night.”

A pall was draping itself over my loins. Annie was being a dutiful daughter, which I respect, rather than a modern woman, which I also respect but in an entirely different way.

“Daddy? Hi…yeah, we just got back to the apartment…. Oh, it was great! I saw Red Nichols and some guys from the Ellington band…. No, I only had one beer…. Yeah, he’s here.” She held the phone out to me.

“Hi…. No, I have a record date. I’ll drop Annie at the station on the way…. Uh huh…okay…I understand…sure. Do you want to talk to Annie? Okay, I’ll see you soon. Good night.”

“I already know what he said. Do you mind too much?”

“Of course I mind, but you promised. The bed’s yours. If you need pajamas, there should be a pair in the dresser….”

“For God’s sake, Nick, don’t be such a martyr! I promised him we wouldn’t sleep together. I didn’t say anything about not having a little fun before bedtime.” She broke into her hotfoot smile. My mood quickly elevated, among other things.

“Didn’t you say something about giving me a bath?”

“Why yes, I believe I did….”

CHAPTER 17

 

On February 10, I took an afternoon train to Manhattan. Alone. Annie had to finish some work so she planned to meet me the next day at Vitaphone, where a pass would be waiting for her. Sammy, Suzy and Adele were traveling together, and the others hired a car, with either Matt or Eddie at the wheel. It couldn’t have been Jack because they made it to New York alive and no pedestrians were killed along the way. Mimi, in case you’re wondering, didn’t follow us to New York as she had classes the next day. Her grades weren’t so good, and Old Man Cooper threatened to cut her off if he didn’t see some improvement. That kept her out of circulation until spring break. He got a birthday card from me that year.

            Everybody arrived at the studio within a few minutes of each other. The director, whose name I’ve forgotten, pointed us to the dressing rooms to change into our evening clothes, followed by a trip to the makeup department. This is where we discovered that, regardless of gender, everybody in the movies wore the same makeup: powder, eye shadow, mascara, rouge, lipstick. With the exception of Adele, we all looked like we’d escaped from a drag show. When either Jack or Sammy explained this to the director. He assured us that we’d look perfectly normal on film. Before anybody could challenge him, I spoke up: “That’s good enough for me. I feel just as ridiculous as you do, but this is a big break for us. We don’t wanna queer the deal, do we?” I didn’t get any laughs, but I didn’t get any arguments either.

            An assistant led us to a set that looked like a miniature version of one of those ritzy ballrooms we used to play in the Hamptons, decked out with Art Nouveau furnishings and brightly colored drapes and wallpaper. Seemed like a wasted effort since they were filming in black and white. Over the years I’ve learned never to question the logic, such as it is, of people in the picture business.

Which brings me to the movie itself. This little ten-minute opus took hours to make. Lighting tests, sound tests, equipment failures, and God knows what else. After a half-dozen false starts, they were finally ready to shoot. We aced it on the first take—all four songs came off without a hitch. The director made us do some retakes because he wanted to add a few shots from different angles.

“How does that work if you have the sound on a big record?” I asked.

“We’ll just cut all the shots together and synchronize the finished picture to the sound recording from the first take.”

 I tried to follow his detailed explanation of how it was done, but I didn’t really have the patience. It ran out shortly after Jack moved into my building.

            Filming ended sometime around two o’clock. Annie, who had been waiting out in the lobby for at least an hour, got one look at me in full makeup and her jaw dropped.

            “Okay, have a good laugh and get it out of your system.”

            She was silent.

            “What’s wrong?”

            She grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hall toward the washrooms.

            “Don’t worry, I was planning to wash it off!”

            Without saying a word, Annie flung open a door and pulled me in.

            “This is the ladies’ room…!”

“Let’s do it…now!” she said while locking the door.

            I was confused at first. Then I wasn’t.

           

*   *   *

 

Some day that was. Never thought I’d find ecstasy in a ladies’ toilet. And with a girl who was living out a Sapphic fantasy. Ironically, that might’ve been the best part—the thought of Annie with another girl only enhanced the experience. We were going for thirds when we heard a fist banging on the door, accompanied by an irate female voice. She apparently had no tolerance for people who have sex in public toilets, and the sound of us making whoopee carried into the hallway.

            Imagine the sight of two disheveled kids, their faces smeared with makeup, clothes partially buttoned and zipped, and a musky fragrance in their wake. Not the sort of thing this particular secretary wanted to see right after lunch. I don’t quite remember what she looked like but I do remember the judgmental expression on her face, and how ashamed we pretended to look. We made our way to the dressing room, and the second the door closed behind us, we busted out laughing. Eddie and Matt, who were half-dressed, stared at us for a few seconds and then joined in. Matt suddenly stopped and asked, “What so funny?” followed by Eddie, who said, “Yeah, what’re we laughing about?”

            The answer was likely to be found in the cloud of smoke hovering over the room. “You guys are pretty high,” I suggested.

            Matt, who was staring intently at his fingernails, looked up at me and said, “Yeah. We’d probably bust a gut at the sight of a wet dishrag.”

After a brief pause, Eddie exclaimed, “Wet dishrag!” followed by another round of laughter.

Annie looked at the two of them in disbelief and then back at me. “Do you smoke that stuff?”

“Now and then.”

“Good. I’ll keep some handy in case I ever need to borrow money. Hurry up and change so we can get out of here.”

“Wash your face while you’re at it, Nick. You, too, Annie. You look like a couple of clowns,” Eddie interjected.

Annie and I had to take a cab to Manhattan because Eddie and Matt were too loaded to drive. They were also ravenous (can’t imagine why) and needed to get to the nearest eatery. I had to drop my tux off at the apartment before we went to lunch, which became an urgent matter thanks to Annie’s persistent appetite.

As we entered the cab, Annie started to ask where we were headed.

“Lindy’s. It’s the deli where all the stars hang out.”

“Wow! Maybe Winchell will mention us in his column…?”

“I could carve my initials into Winchell’s forehead and he still wouldn’t notice me.”

“Now you tell me! All this time I thought I was in the presence of celebrity. You’re through, buster. I’m setting my sights on bigger fish!”

“Y-you really mean that?”

“Christ almighty, Nick, you are so gullible! You think I give a shit if you’re famous? Good thing I’m as nice as I am. I could really take advantage of you.”

“Like you haven’t already….”

“Is that a reference to our little adventure in the toilet?”

“Well after all, it wasn’t my idea. I was saving myself for marriage…or maybe one of those orgies in the East Village.”

“Blow your marihuana smoke up somebody else’s ass, Mr. Agnostic-Socialist-Hophead. Next time you’re in the toilet you can screw yourself. I’m sure you’re an expert at it by now.”

“So this is the thanks I get. After I pulled you out of the gutter, explained the finer points of personal hygiene, taught you how to eat with a fork….”

“You lying bastard! You know damn well I’ve been using a fork since the seventh grade.”

“Yes, dear, but I showed you how the wide part with the tines goes in your mouth.”

Annie held up her fist saying, “The wide part with the clenched fingers goes in yours!”

“Hey, lovebirds!” It was the cab driver. We had arrived at my building, but were too caught up in our mock brouhaha to notice. Annie stepped out while I paid the fair.

“You got yourself a real pip there, fella.”

“That’s what her old man told me, but I wouldn’t listen. Keep the change.”

Annie was excited to see my apartment. She couldn’t have cared less about visiting a movie studio, but my parlor, bedroom and bath got her all lathered up. I can almost imagine her shoving Mary Pickford out of the way to get Rin Tin Tin’s paw print.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry! I have to use the bathroom!” she insisted as I struggled with the lock.

“How do you mean that?”

“I have to pee. What else would I…oh God, just open the damn door!”

Which is what I did. While Annie relieved herself, I pulled the covers off the living room furniture so we’d have a place to sit…or whatever.

“Nice bathroom. I like the clawfoot tub. Let’s see the rest of the place.”

“This, if you hadn’t guessed, is the living room. Thrilling, isn’t it.”

“Where’d you get the furniture, Sears and Roebuck?”

“Well, yeah….”

“I recognized it from the Wish Book. Nice stuff.”

The tour continued into the kitchen and breakfast nook. Annie was impressed with the Frigidaire; she and her father still had an icebox. Then on to the bedroom. She sat down on my bed, bounced on it a couple of times and said, “Cute place.” Here comes the good part, I thought. But the next thing out of her mouth was, “Let’s get lunch.” If I wasn’t so hungry I might have been disappointed.

 

*   *   *

 

The lunch crowd at Lindy’s was mostly gone and the dinner crowd was still hours away. Not quite the star-studded experience I had promised, but there were a few famous faces scattered around the dining room.

            “Where is everybody? This place is like a ghost town—with herring!”

            “We’re not the only people here….”

            “Like those two guys at the corner table? Big deal.”

            “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? They’re two of the biggest stars on Broadw ay!”

            “It’s not like they’re Gus Visser and his singing duck.”

            She was right. Who the hell were James Cagney and Spencer Tracy in comparison? If only the Great Regurgitator or the Happy Hottentots had been there. Instead, poor little Annie had to settle for a parade of nobodies that included the aforementioned Cagney and Tracy, Bob Hope, Lyda Roberti, Silvia Sydney and Oscar Hammerstein II.

            After fifty-five minutes of disappointment, Annie was ready to leave, so I went to the counter to pay the check. When I came back to the table, she seemed to be in a state of elation.

            “What’s the matter?”

            “Not a thing.” She held up a paper napkin with a signature hastily scrawled on it.

            “Zeppo Marx?”

            “I know!” she squealed.

            That cab driver was right. I had myself a real pip.

 

CHAPTER 16

 

Cooper liked the song. We got a nice advance, joined ASCAP, and had a little celebration—sandwiches and beer, followed by work on a follow-up. It was a swell time…for us, anyway. Just a few blocks away, the body of a 17 years old Negro girl was discovered in the back seat of an abandoned car. Like the others, she worked at a nightclub, but in the coat check room, not as a chorus girl. The killer was expanding his repertoire.

            The cops hadn’t made much progress tracking him down, maybe because the victims all came from poor families, and probably because most of them weren’t white. Frustrated with the police, the girls’ families turned to the Hoff organization for help. Don’t get the wrong idea about Hoff—he and his goons could be never be mistaken for champions of justice, but they understood which side their bread was buttered on. Bootlegging and prostitution were the cornerstones of the Hoff empire, and nightclubs were a big part of their distribution system. The club owners were already experiencing a drop-off in business, thanks to the shaky economy (yep, things weren’t so hot before the Crash, either), and a killer on the loose only made things worse. The streets had to be made safe so law-abiding citizens could once again indulge their vices without fear.

            What confused me, along with a lot of other people, was why the cops showed so little interest in the case, even though they were on Hoff’s payroll. It’s as if they were trying to distance themselves from him by ignoring public safety, even if they were still taking his money. I assumed it was because “brotherly love” doesn’t extend beyond racial lines, even in Philadelphia.

            Which brings me to Annie’s reaction. We had dinner plans the next evening, but she refused to leave the house, so I brought over some Chinese food. Her father had an engagement of his own so we had the place to ourselves. When I arrived, Annie was curled up on the sofa in a combined state of terror and guilt. At one point she was nearly inconsolable, alternately fretting over whether she’d be the next victim, and hating herself for passing.

            “That’s all beside the point. You don’t work in a nightclub!”

            “I’m a colored girl who goes to nightclubs. Close enough!”

            “Nobody knows you’re colored except me, your father and your pastor.”

            “You left out my ex-husband.”

            “That asshole’s a thousand miles away.”

            “Great! So every other colored girl in town is in danger while I get a pass…aw geez—see what I mean?”

            “Based on that logic, you’d be in just as much danger if you were white. Remember, there was that Polish girl from Fishtown and the other one….”

“From Puerto Rico—not very reassuring, Nick!”

“Look, you have me, Alvin and Pinkowitz watching out for you. With that last murder practically in Lippy’s backyard, whoever did it won’t be around much longer.”

By this time tears were streaming down Annie’s face. I put my left arm around her in an attempt to make her feel safe, pulled out a hanky with my right hand and placed it over her nose.

            “Gimme that!” she said between sobs and sniffles. “I can blow my own goddamn nose.” She certainly could. It made a sound like a car horn, which really cracked her up. I’ve never met a woman before or since who found herself so amusing. Or could do so much damage to a handkerchief.

 

*   *   *

Annie’s attempts at setting Alvin up with Adele didn’t go as well as expected. They got along alright, but Junior Vanderslice was a relentless suitor. I was sure Lippy would intervene, but he never said a word. Alvin’s rapport with Adele wasn’t what it had been with Annie, so their “couple” charade wasn’t very convincing. Adele, bright as she might’ve been, was a pretty naïve kid and an easy target for playboy types.

Over the next few days, however, I started to think Junior was relatively harmless. I’d been playing for society dimwits like him my entire adult life, and Junior’s behavior at Bookbinder’s was some of the worst I’ve ever seen, but I was shocked at how well-behaved he was around Adele. Even better, Jolly Cholly wasn’t hanging around so much anymore. That guy gave me the willies.

Annie and Alvin remained a pseudo-couple outside of Pagano’s, which was a nice arrangement for me, because Alvin could keep the sheiks away. Yep, even after three blissful weeks with Annie, I was still feeling insecure. Knowing that she liked me for myself, rather than my occupation, was both a boost and a blow to my self-confidence. According to some of my previous lady friends, I wasn’t always the easiest person to be around. Something to do with my temperament, I suppose.

There was also the specter of Annie’s disastrous marriage looming in the background. Behind her brash façade was a girl who lived in a latent state of terror. Once in a while she’d have these spells, as if she left the room while her body stayed behind. It was spooky at first, until her father explained that she had something resembling shell shock. For a girl who had narrowly cheated death, Annie seemed to be handling it pretty well, so whatever triggered these episodes was beyond me. All I could do was hold her hand and wait it out. After about three or four minutes, she’d come out of it. Annie was probably the first person whose wellbeing I had to put ahead of my own. I guess this is what it’s like to be a grownup.

CHAPTER 15

 

Nineteen twenty-nine was only a few weeks old and it was already looking like a banner year. Events in the ensuing months would ultimately prove me wrong, but October was still a long way off, so my blissful ignorance is forgivable.

Capping off this rare moment of personal optimism was a telegram informing the band that Vitaphone wanted us for a one-reeler. I can’t remember if it was our agent, Pinkowitz or Vocalion, though I suspect the latter since they wanted us to do a record date the same week. The band, including Adele, was to report to the Vitaphone’s studio in Brooklyn on Monday, February 11. The five of us were excited, but hardly nervous; we had appeared in a talkie for DeForest a few years earlier with Phil and the orchestra. I think it ended up in a vault somewhere because nobody, including us, ever saw it.

Adele, as you might expect, was ecstatic. Her first professional job gets her on records and in the movies. Lippy didn’t want it to get out that Adele’s uncle was in the rackets so he distanced himself from the whole business. I don’t know what difference it would’ve made. We all knew about Ruth Etting and she was still on top. In any case, I wasn’t about to argue the point. Lippy was trying to be a mensch.

Eddie and I were hell bent on getting our tune in shape for the occasion. We cut a disc for Mimi’s father, and though he liked it, he didn’t want to publish it without a decent lyric. I was at a loss. Eddie made a few attempts but wasn’t happy with any of them. At one point, Jack thought he had come to the rescue. We all agreed that it was a great lyric, which is why it had been such a big hit for Gus Kahn two years earlier.

Regardless, we introduced the tune on a Friday, so I’m guessing it was the first of February. We were encouraged by the number of people dancing to it, two of whom were Annie and Alvin.

“Is that the song you were telling me about?”

“How’d you like it?” I asked with just a bit of trepidation.

“It was nice. I’d buy it.”

If she was lying to spare my feelings, I didn’t want to know.

“Well, you may never get the chance. The publisher won’t take it without lyrics.”

Her face suddenly went blank, followed by a look of urgency.

“I need to get home. We’ll talk later.”

“Wh-what’s wrong?”

“Not a thing. Bye!”

She made a quick exit.

 

*   *   *

 

I didn’t get much sleep that night, wondering what had gotten into Annie. I surprised her by appearing in the shop at 10:30 the next morning.

“Since when are you up this early?”

“Since I couldn’t figure out why you were in such a hurry to leave last night.”

She pinched my unshaven cheek, saying, “You’re cute, puffy eyes and all.” Then she leaned across the counter and kissed me. “Good thing you remembered to brush your teeth. Soooo, Nicky, I got somethin’ for ya….”

She handed me a piece of paper with the heading “If This Is Love, I Hate It”. I looked back at her quizzically.

            “It’s a lyric…for your song!”

            Annie watched anxiously as I read through her words.

            “Well?”

            “I gotta show this to Eddie,” was my reply. Then I ran out the door.         

As it closed behind me I heard Annie shouting, “You’re welcome, ya dumb wop!”

 

*   *   *

 

Eddie was just waking up when I got back to the house. I waved the lyric sheet in front of him before he reached the bottom of the stairs. He took it, gave it a quick glance and looked back at me.

“What’s the gag?”

“I told Annie we needed lyrics and she wrote ’em for us!”

“You mean that little brown girl from Pagano’s?” He slapped me on the back. “You sure hit the jackpot, palsy. Let me get some coffee and we’ll hammer this thing out.”

By 2:00 p.m. we had ourselves a song. It still needed a verse, but the chorus was solid, and that’s what puts a song over. Eddie was feeling confident enough to sing it that night. I put a hand on his shoulder saying, “Knock ‘em dead, buddy boy,” then retired to my room with the idea of getting some shut-eye before show time. With Eddie rehearsing downstairs, and Jack and Mimi alternately fighting and fornicating upstairs, I didn’t get much.

After a fitful two-hour nap, I rang up Annie.

“Sorry I ran out so fast.”

“Sorry I called you a dumb wop.”

“Are you coming to the club tonight?”

“Can I bring a friend?”

“Alvin?”

“Yep.”

“I’ll send around a cab for you at 8:00.”

“The butter and egg man strikes again! Okay, Professor, see you tonight.”

 

*   *   *

 

I’m pretty sure Annie expected to hear her lyrics sung that night. The fact that I bought her a cab must have tipped her off. Still, the intellect and the emotions aren’t always in synchronization. Sometime during our third set, we kicked off the new song. Annie and Alvin, the oddest-looking couple on the dance floor, were fox-trotting contently until Eddie started singing. I looked up from my chart to see Annie’s reaction, and there stood Alvin surrounded by dancing couples and no Annie in sight. I gave him an inquisitive look and he motioned with his head toward the ladies’ room.

She reappeared during our break while I was cleaning rosin dust off my violin. I was startled, as always, by the sound of her voice.

“You owe me a pair of undies!” There she stood at the edge of the bandstand looking more than a bit self-conscious.

“What…?”

“The second I heard my lyrics…well, I guess I lost control….”

I stood up, put my arms around her and said, “I always knew you were a regular gal.”

She slugged me in the shoulder, leaving a bruise. The girl was in great shape.

“Stop it! I’m embarrassed enough as it is. And it’s getting drafty underneath this skirt.”

I made a Herculean effort to not let images of Annie’s naked nether region distract me from her plight.

“Why don’t you run home to get a clean pair? I’ll pay for the cab….”

            “Aw, that’s okay. It’s late and I’ve got church tomorrow. Alvin can take me home…. Geez, this should’ve been the happiest moment of my life. Some way to celebrate.“

            “Buck up, tootsie. You’re a songwriter now, maybe the next Dorothy Fields!”

            “Swell! I’ll be able to hire somebody to change my diapers. And I’d rather be Dorothy Parker.”

            “No you wouldn’t,” I said with a shiver.

            “Another golden idol tarnished,” she responded with mock wistfulness.

            She turned toward Alvin, motioning for him to get their coats, then turned back to me.

“I’m also a little rattled from the chat I had with the ladies’ room attendant. She accused me of passing. Ever hear that expression?”

“Sure. Did you tell her she was full of shit?”

“Not the best choice of words.”

“Well, you know what I mean.”

“Maybe she’s right. I’m the only colored girl in this joint that’s allowed through the front door.”

“This isn’t Mississippi. Puerto Rican and Irish don’t add up to “Negro” around here. And even if they did, you got Pinkowitz on your side.”

“That doesn’t explain any of the other places I go to. What about Bookbinders? The only other dark faces I saw there were the help.”

“Look, you got nothing to feel guilty about. You’re an American citizen and you should be allowed to go wherever the hell you want. It stinks that this county’s stuck in the 19th century, but it won’t be that way forever. Segregation’s on the way out. (A lot I knew.) You come with me to New York in a couple of weeks and I’ll show you what I mean.”

Her eyes widened. “New York?! Can we go to Harlem??!!!”

“You have to ask?”

Alvin appeared on the dance floor with their coats. Annie acknowledged him, then leaped onto me, wrapping her arms and legs around me with her bare bottom poised right over my crotch. She gave me a big, wet, passionate kiss, said “See ya”, and joined Alvin. I removed the lipstick from my face with a hankie, put on my best poker face, and approached the bar.

            “What’ll ya have?”

            “A couple of ice cubes, please.”

            I gave the bartender a fifty-cent tip. You can guess where I put the ice.

 

CHAPTER 14

The cab ride to my parents’ house was a quiet one. Both of us were exhausted from the previous night and we were struggling to stay awake. Annie had about given up. Because she usually stayed out late on Saturdays and went to church with her father in the morning, Annie was in the habit of taking a midday nap on Sunday. And she was taking it, curled up against me in the back seat of a Checker cab. I looked at her snoozing peacefully with my arm around her, and started to wonder if it was real.

            “Did you just pinch yourself?”

            “I thought you were asleep.”

            “You did pinch yourself!”

            “I wasn’t sure which one of us was awake.”

            “Geez, didn’t you ever have a girl before?”

            “More like they had me.”

            “So much for the myth of the worldly jazz musician.”

            The driver pulled up to the front of Pop’s grocery store.

            “Aw, do we have to get out? It’s nice and cozy in here. Can’t we go around the block a few times?”

            Sounded nice, only Mom got real pissy if anybody was late for dinner. “C’mon, tootsy, there’s a whole lotta food waiting for us.”

            “Ooh, me likey!”

            It was cold outside, maybe twenty degrees. Annie grabbed my right arm and wrapped it around herself with her body pressed against me while we waited for somebody to answer the doorbell. The door swung open and there stood Gina. Like the rest of our family, she was one of the wee folk. Even shorter than Annie. She had gained weight since I’d last seen her, which made sense since she’d just had a daughter, who, incidentally, I’d be seeing for the first time that day. Gina must’ve been around 32; she dressed in a more mature fashion than most of the women I knew. Not frumpy, just more grown up. She never went through a flapper stage, just straight from adolescence into adulthood. This always made the age gap between us seem greater than it was.

            “Wow, get a load of the bohemian—and you have a little friend!”

            She had a lot of nerve calling anybody little. As we stepped inside the vestibule, Annie stared intently at Gina.

            “Dr. Ludwig?”

            “Mrs. Stack?”

            I stood there dumbfounded, waiting for an explanation.

            “You’re Nick’s sister? Small goddamn world!” Turning to me, she continued, “She put me back together after my big snit with the s.o.b.”

            The three of us started up the stairs.

            “I take it you’re divorced...?”

            “Annulled, though ‘widowed’ would be more desirable.”

            Gina smirked at Annie’s candor. “Should I ask how you know my brother?”

            We had reached the top of the stairs and Gina was hanging up our coats and hats in the hall closet.

            “I do his laundry.”

            “Before you get any ideas, Gina, she works at her father’s dry cleaning store.”

            “Good thing you told me, Nicky. Otherwise I’d have assumed a squad of devoted females follows you around day and night seeing to your every need.”

            Annie nudged my elbow. “She’s kidding, right?”

            “Don’t be too sure. I may be quite the sheik.”

            “You’re kidding, right?”

            “She’s got your number, Nicky. So Mrs. Stack—”

            “You can call me Annie.”

            “I’m Gina. Anyway, how have you been? You look like you’ve recovered nicely.”

            Annie smiled. “Thank you! I don’t get the headaches like I used to. Practically never, really.”

            “How about the cigarette burns?”

            “Barely noticeable.” Annie pulled up her left sleeve to make her point.

            “All your hair grew back, too. And…the other business?”

            “It’s okay. Nick already knows. Well, not about the bleeding—my ‘lady doctor’ got that straightened out, by the way.”

            This pleasant doctor-patient exchange gave me a horrifyingly clear picture of what Annie had endured. I was also shocked at her nonchalant attitude. So was Gina, but she hid it behind her bedside manner. The girl had barely survived a brutal beating, but talked about her recovery as if she were getting over a cold. Over time, I came to realize that this was one of Annie’s characteristic acts of defiance. Her middle finger got a lot of exercise.

            Annie continued, “Talk about paying for your mistakes.”

            “Looks like you’re making up for it now. Nicky…?” Gina snapped her fingers in my face, “I just paid you a compliment.”

            “Huh? Oh. Thanks. I hope.”

            “Please, I’m not that big of a bitch.” She turned to Annie: “You could do a lot worse than the kid brother here. Besides, he probably makes more money than the mayor.”

            “Except I come by it honestly.”

            “I hear Lippy Pinkowitz is paying your salary. That’s not what I call clean money.”

            “Now, now, that’s no way to talk about Uncle Leo,” Annie interjected with a smile.

            Gina turned to me with a bemused expression.

            “I’ll explain over dinner.”

           

 

*   *   *

           

The house smelled like an Italian restaurant, and the aroma reminded Annie that she hadn’t had any breakfast. She practically dragged me toward the dining room. Pop was already seated at the table. He produced the gallon jug of red wine that was permanently parked by his seat, offering to fill our glasses. The three of us consented. The bathroom door opened and out stepped Bill, Gina’s husband. I started to introduce Annie to my father and brother-in-law only to be interrupted by Gina, who explained how our guest was her patient before she was my friend. Pop’s English was never very good, and Gina had to supplement her story with a brief Italian version for his benefit.

            Mom stuck her head out of the kitchen. “You here—good! I hope-a you hungry.” Mom had only two passions in life: the opera and cooking. The woman was a culinary genius and the kitchen was her sanctum sanctorum. Neither Gina nor I have ever been able to duplicate any of Mom’s creations, and she made no effort to enlighten us. She did, however, expect our help when we came over for dinner.

            “Gina! Nicola!” Mom trained us well. No matter how old we were, Gina and I always ran to the kitchen at the sound of her voice. Minutes later, dinner was on the table and Pop was saying Grace. Annie’s appetite trumped any pretensions of piety. While the rest of us were pretending to be devout Catholics, she was eyeing the spread. I wish I could remember precisely what we had that day, but it was probably a lasagna, or something of equal magnificence, accompanied by an antipasto of roasted vegetables, authentic Italian bread made by an authentic Italian bakery, and I’m going to stop there because I’m getting hungry.

            To this day, I still don’t know if I had gotten to Annie’s heart through her stomach, or entirely on my own merits, such as they were. Either way, as we recounted the events of the previous week, including our revelations on the saintliness of Lippy Pinkowitz, it sounded as if we were announcing our engagement, like we’d been together for ages and finally decided to tie the knot. I was suddenly the leading man in a romantic saga. Weird!

            I had no precedent with this sort of thing. My experience was limited to mostly brief, tawdry flings with women of the world. Then there was that marriage-obsessed virgin on the prowl for a meal ticket. I pretended to like her so Jack would try to steal her from me. He succeeded, and it almost got him killed. Tough shit for both of them. Any girl that handy with her fists should be able to support herself.

            I was never the type to tolerate being led around by the nose—or do it to somebody else, for that matter—but here I was, right at home with the idea of Annie having a claim on me. Which is exactly what I wanted. I just didn’t expect it to happen.

           

*   *   *

 

After dinner, both Bill and Pop needed to indulge their nicotine habits. Mom was not shy in her disapproval. Bill offered Annie a cigarette, which she immediately declined.

            “You don’t smoke?” I asked.

            “Have you seen me with a cigarette once in the last week?”

            “Now that you mention it, no. I guess I just assumed everybody was a smoker except me.”

            “Oh, I used to be, but after that little tiff with my darling husband, I couldn’t stand to have them in the house. My father had to quit because every time he’d light one up I’d go into a panic.”

            Bill reached for the ashtray to put his cigarette out.

            “Oh, please, don’t do that on my account.”

            He leaned over to Annie, “You didn’t see the look I just got from my mother-in-law.” Pop continued smoking his cigar, defiantly happy.

            A baby’s cry emanated from the back bedroom, to which Gina responded, “Somebody’s hungry. C’mon, Nicky, meet your niece.”

            Annie came along, and boy, did she make a fuss over that kid.

            “What’s her name?”

            “Marlene, named after Bill’s great aunt.”

            “Gee, she’s just too cute for words, ain’t she, Nick?”

            I agreed, but honestly, all babies look the same to me. Once Marlene started walking and talking and developed a personality, we got along great. Three-week-old babies just don’t get me very excited, but I did my best to convince Gina otherwise. Best not to antagonize her. She’s her mother’s daughter.

 

*   *   *

 

It was dark outside when we left. Annie appeared to be in a good mood when we were getting into the cab, but I couldn’t be sure. After seeing the fuss she made over Marlene, I was afraid that the memory of her miscarriage might start to eat her up. That’s why she really threw me for a loop when she said, “I’m almost glad I can’t have kids.”

            I was silent, which Annie correctly perceived as a surprised reaction. “Sure I regret losing the baby. Doesn’t mean I had any business having one. My father thinks I should go to journalism school. And he’s right. I can’t spend the rest of my life behind a sewing machine.”

She went on to tell me how she used to write stories and poems for the school newspaper, about her dream of writing for Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, or maybe even The New Yorker.

            This was all news to me, but I could hardly argue with it. At the same time, this kind of talk made me wonder if there was any room for me in her plans. While I was trying to figure out how to ask her, she gave me the answer.

            “We’re having a swell time right now, but what happens when you go back to New York? We both have to work, so the most we can see each other is once or twice a month, if that. I’ll be 23 by the time the fall semester starts, and I’ve been putting it off too long as it is. You understand, don’t you?”

            I sure did. That was the trouble. She was absolutely right. Once I was back in New York, we wouldn’t have time for each other. She’d be working full-time and going to school. My job kept me busy six days a week minimum. The way she laid it out, we didn’t have a prayer. What she wasn’t considering was the fact that I’d be in town until the end of March. In that time we could get completely fed up with each other or completely attached. Either way, it was a bit soon to throw in the towel.

            “Listen, you got a right to a life of your own, but before you show me the door, keep in mind that I’m here for two more months. Or were you just planning to eat and run?”

            “Oh, sweetie, that wasn’t supposed to be a kiss-off! I just got to thinking about my future…and we hardly know each other…geez, I shoulda kept my mouth shut.”

            “It’s okay,” I said, putting my arm around her.

God, was I relieved! Not that I was about to let her get away without a fight, but there was no guarantee I’d win. Though I felt like I was scoring a few points. I pulled Annie close to me and she made herself comfortable.

“When we get back to the house, I’ll show you my scrapbook. Daddy saved everything I wrote in high school. He thinks I’m pretty good. I’d like to know what you think.”

“Please tell me you’re not basing your future on what I think….”

“Oh, hell, no! I’m just a show-off. You, of all people, can appreciate that.”

I flipped Annie the bird. She grabbed my finger and made like she intended to bite it off.

“Careful with the choppers,” I said, pulling my finger away, “I’m still traumatized from the last time I got bitten.”

“Don’t worry, I’d never do that to you. Not when I have a perfectly good pair of pinking shears.”

“What did I ever do to deserve an angel like you?”

“You accepted money from a gangster.”

It was an unusually short ride back to Annie’s place, one of the few advantages of Philly’s Sunday blue laws. Mr. Myers was unlocking the front door just as we arrived. Seems he’d been having dinner with a widow he met at church. Good for him!

            “How was dinner?”  

“Sorry, Daddy, but you have some serious competition from Mrs. Bruno. I may not be able to eat for a couple of days.”

            “The woman’s a miracle worker! I thought your stomach was a bottomless pit.”

            “You’ll get yours, old man. Anybody want tea?”

            “Sure you can handle it?”

            Annie stuck her tongue out at her father. “Tea, Professor?”

            “Sure. Thanks.”

            “Tell my father what we were talking about.”

            Annie retreated to the kitchen while I recounted our discussion in the cab. Mr. Myers excused himself for a moment, returning a minute later with Annie’s scrapbook. He flipped it open to a 1924 opinion piece endorsing Robert La Follette for president. For those who don’t remember, “Fighting Bob” was the Bull Moose candidate—friend of the downtrodden, scourge of the powerful, the ultimate populist. I’d have voted for him myself if I ever bothered to vote. Of course, he died a few months after the election, so my apathy didn’t make much of a difference. Though after reading Annie’s piece, I was ready to dig him up and run him against Hoover in ’32. Then it dawned on me that I had spent the previous week in the presence of greatness.

As I looked up from the page, there stood Annie Myers, girl genius, attempting to pour tea into a cup and missing about half the time. I pinched myself again.

CHAPTER 13

I got Annie home sometime around 4:00. Her father had already closed up shop an hour earlier, but she was still responsible for a pile of alterations that had to be done by Monday. We stood outside the store trying to say goodbye.

            “Will you be able to make it to the club tonight?”

            “Sure, if Alvin is still on. You know the rules.”

            “Tell him the evening’s on me.”

            Annie gave me a wry smile and said, “Get a load of the big butter-and-egg man!” Then she grabbed the lapel of my overcoat and pulled me into the vestibule. I have nothing more to say on the subject.

 

*   *   *

 

We had a good crowd that night—the best yet, actually. Adele was developing a following of her own, and we considered ourselves pretty lucky to have gotten stuck with her. Of course, our luck wasn’t bulletproof, and the person holding the gun was none other than Mimi. She was feeling more than a bit threatened by Adele, or more accurately, by the possibility that Jack might make a play for her. Mimi’s plan was to find Adele a society boyfriend, somebody rich enough so she’d never give Jack a tumble. Brilliant, right? I didn’t think so either. If Mimi had been anything approaching sane, she would’ve realized that Uncle Leo was deterrent enough. Not even someone as reckless as Jack wanted to get on Lippy’s bad side.

             I found out about her plan from Annie, of all people. She and Alvin finally turned up during our second set, and it’s a good thing they did. Until then, I was more concerned with who was coming through the door than what I was playing. They were shown to the table I reserved for them, and both waved to me after they were seated. Mimi must’ve been watching because the next time I looked, she was at their table jabbering away. I could only imagine what she was spouting off about, and the thought of it was making me nervous. Her one-sided conversation went on for a good 20 minutes, yet she kept the volume of her voice under control so that, for once, she couldn’t be heard by everyone in the room. As soon as we got a break, I made a beeline to the table. There was likely some damage control to be done.

            The moment I reached the table, Annie proclaimed, “I feel, and I’m sure Alvin concurs, that we’ve reached a higher plane of enlightenment upon learning the dimensions of Jack’s penis.”

            I reached over to Alvin to shake his hand. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Nick. Sorry about the ambush.”

            “Think nothing of it. Listening to Mimi was like watching a Lon Chaney movie—terrifying yet enjoyable.”     

            “Lon Chaney is Felix the Cat compared to her. She talked for quite a while. How long can a person go on about a schlong?”

            “Oh, but there was so much more,” Annie continued, pseudo-enthusiastically. “She wanted to compare notes on menstrual cycles, listed every member of the band she had been...ahem...‘intimate’ with, and then she told us of her clever plan for fixing your singer up with some high society sheik, because Adele, like so many women, has eyes for Jack.”

            “What!? Okay, it’s official. Mimi is out of her goddamn mind. Adele shows more interest in the busboy, and he’s a 60-year-old hunchback.” I was hoping to steer the subject away from myself.

            Unfortunately for me, Annie was on the ball: “We have another matter to discuss, mister.”

            Not exactly the ideal moment for my past to catch up with me, but it had to happen sometime. I looked back at her wearily and asked, “Can we talk about this later? Please?”

            “Of course we can. And we will,” she answered, without the slightest hint of jest.

            Great! I thought, now I’m in Dutch. In retrospect, I should have ordered Mimi up another knuckle sandwich from Suzy Tom.

            The tension was interrupted (hallelujah!) by what sounded like a commotion at the entrance. The exchange was difficult to make out, but I’m pretty sure I heard the terms “greaseball” and “dago”. I craned my neck trying to see who my new object of abhorrence might be.

            Then I heard Alvin say sarcastically, “Oh, swell. Junior’s here.”

            “That worm,” Annie replied, “and I bet he’s got Cholly along to wipe his ass.”

            “Yep. He can wipe a lot of ass with that wad.”

            The “wad” Alvin referred to was a roll of bills, several of which Cholly was passing to the bouncer to smooth over Junior’s latest indiscretion. Alvin had no trouble seeing over all the other rubbernecks in the joint, and he was kind enough to keep us apprised of the situation as it developed. Alvin was alright.

            Once inside the club, Junior and Cholly worked their way through the room, backslapping and chatting up some of the more well-heeled patrons. As before, the two of them reminded me of a monkey and a pig, this time dressed up in evening clothes. Junior seriously resembled a monkey—not a chimp, but a monkey. He wore the same kind of mischievous expression a spider monkey has when it’s pitching a turd. He had a pair of elf-like ears that stuck out from his head at a 45-degree angle, slightly pointed at the top, making him look even less human than he already appeared. Reese didn’t look like a pig exactly, just puffy, flabby, maybe a bit sloppy. His face was devoid of any real detail, and his most distinguishing feature was his receding hairline. What was left of his sandy-colored hair was cropped close to his head. Otherwise, he could have been any other overfed white man. His cheerful countenance was, I’m sure, integral to his job rather than to his personality. Nobody could stay that cheerful when they’re constantly having to clean up after a shit-slinging simian.

            Break time was up. As I got up from the table, I put my hand on Annie’s shoulder, which she correctly read as a silent entreaty. She patted my hand and responded in a tone of mild exasperation, “I’m not going anywhere.”

            As I walked toward the stage, I noticed somebody with Mimi at her table. It was Junior; they were talking in a conspiratorial manner while watching the band assemble on the stage. When Adele appeared, Mimi pointed to her as Junior eyed her carefully. “God, no!” I thought. Mimi wants to subject Adele to that!? The got the idea of advising Lippy to have one of his boys take Mimi for a ride, but then she’d probably just give the guy a blow job and live to piss me off another day.

            Granted, I didn’t know Adele very well at all. Based on our working relationship, she seemed like a sweet kid. She never put us through any of the prima donna crap that we’d gotten from other singers, reason enough for me to feel protective toward her. Then it dawned on me that Lippy would nip this in the bud. He was way too devoted an uncle to let Adele get involved with a slug like Junior. Now I just had to get things straight with Annie. Mimi owed me, as if I ever expected to collect.

 

*   *   *

 

            I headed straight back to Annie as soon as our next break came around. Alvin immediately excused himself, leaving us alone for our “talk”. Please understand, my little indiscretion with Mimi was two years in the past and hardly worth mentioning...unless you’re Mimi, and then everything is worth mentioning, regardless of whom it might embarrass.

            Before Annie could say anything, I launched into my explanation, or rather my excuses—lines like “it didn’t mean anything” and “it was a long time ago”—none of which sounded very convincing, even if I did mean every word.

            Annie interrupted: “Look, I didn’t think you were living like a monk before you met me. And that’s not what I’m concerned about, anyway. Mimi told me that you have...a problem.”

            “Oh God. What did she say?”

            “‘I tried to give Nick head once and he couldn’t keep it up. Ya think he might be queer for boys?’” Annie was doing a caricature of Mimi’s foghorn-ish voice. Continuing in her normal voice she said, “The girl’s a shithead, but she’s a really gorgeous shithead. If you can’t do it with her.…”

            “Okay, you wanna know what happened? About two years ago I was at a party and this beautiful dame sits down next to me. A real bombshell. Of course, it’s Mimi. She lights up a reefer and offers it to me. After a while I’m pretty high. I think she already was. Before I know it we’re making out. Then she drags me into a closet and unzips my fly. I thought I was in for the thrill of a lifetime. But instead she starts in with the teeth and all of a sudden I’m not so excited anymore. I get out of there while I’m still in one piece and she yells, ‘You fag! You blew any chance you ever had with me!’ Then she starts laughing, so I turn around and ask what’s so goddamn funny. She goes, ‘I said blew.’ She laughed so hard, she puked.”

            Annie’s face registered mild disgust. “Geez, if you were living like a monk before you met me, I wouldn’t blame you.”

            This was getting uncomfortable. We barely knew each other, but here we were delving into my personal business. I felt exposed and wanted the subject dropped: “While I’m flattered that you’re interested in my virility, I’d rather not talk about it anymore.”

            She reacted with a sombre expression. “Sorry I embarrassed you, but I’m awful glad you told me. I’m still not able to trust my own instincts. Look, you’ve been pretty straight with me, so I’m gonna be straight with you. Last year, when I lost the baby? That wasn’t all I lost. I won’t ever be able to get pregnant again.” She acted ashamed, as if she owed me, or possibly the whole world, an apology.

            I put my arms around her, rested her head on my shoulder and stroked her hair. “It’s alright. We can adopt.”

            Oops, I thought. I might’ve just overstepped my bounds. Talking about sex is one thing, but talking about a family is something completely other, especially at this early stage.

            Annie must’ve thought so too, because she suddenly pulled away and stared back at me with her eyes and mouth wide open. I was sure the axe was about to fall. Instead she took my face in her hands, planted a big kiss on me and said with a smile, “I like you, too, sweetie.”

            A public display of affection was very much in order. Then I remembered Annie’s dinner companion. “Wait,” I said, “We’ll blow Alvin’s cover!”

“I’ll set him up with Adele.” She was in an amorous mood and wanted to get down to business.

            “Y’know, Mimi’s trying to push her off on Junior.”

                “Alvin’ll squash him like a bug,” she said distractedly, her face millimeters away from mine.

            Just as we got to the good part, Annie started snickering.

            "What's so funny?" I asked.

            “You said blow.

CHAPTER 12

As the end of the first act approached, I braced myself for our encounter with Mom. While I was still trying to figure out how I was going to present Annie, I heard my name in an all-too-familiar voice.

            "Nicola! What-a you doin’-a here? Who’s-a you friend? "

            My mother was a tiny woman, around 4’9”, who was at that time in her middle fifties. She stuck by her simple working-class wardrobe and wore no makeup, despite her modest affluence. Humble appearances aside, Mom had all of the delicacy of a jackhammer. It was through her that I learned to appreciate opera, or at least her take on it. She and her compatriots were able to turn even the most tedious Italian opera into the best show in town.

            “Uh, this is Annie Myers. Annie, this is my mother.”

            Annie smiled politely and shook Mom’s hand. “Glad to know you, Mrs. Bruno,” she said while giving me a sidelong glance, accompanied by a smirk.

            “Why you no tell me about-a her? She look-a like a nice-a gal.”

            “See, Mom, we just met a week ago and.…”

            "She look-a healthy," Mom said, giving the once-over as if she were a calf at the county fair. Then to Annie she said, "You like-a to eat? You come-a to my house tomorrow, I make-a you dinner."

            "Gee, Mom, I'm not sure if she's free tomorrow, and I have work to do. Can we get back to you on this?"

            "What-a you mean? Listen, Mr. Big-a Shot, there's-a no woik on-a Sunday! You come-a to dinner and bring-a you friend."

            I looked at Annie wearily and asked, "Got any plans for tomorrow?"

            "None at all, ‘Nicola’." She looked like she was about to explode in a fit of laughter.

            "Good!" Mom replied. "Two o'clock. And comb-a you hair! You look-a like a Bolshevik."

            The lights were flashing for the second act. I suddenly had no interest in sitting through two more acts, and Annie was starving. I made my excuses to Mom, who responded with, "I don't-a blame you. That tenor is a bum." We said goodbye and darted for the elevator.

            "Caught you off guard, did she?” Annie asked with a wicked smile. “Well, buck up, kiddo. Little Annie is eating well, and only good can come from that."

            "How nice for you."

            "Not too bad for you, either."

*  *  *

Bookbinder's, for the uninitiated, is what might be considered Philly's answer to Delmonico's in New York: an high-priced Victorian watering hole for the upper crust. It opened for business around the end of the Civil War and had since become something of a landmark. The food wasn't bad, but at those prices I was hoping for something spectacular. For Annie, who was unaccustomed to steak or lobster, let alone both at the same time, it was spectacular. If you ask me, a steak is a boring, indigestible slab of meat and a lobster is just a giant bug. But a promise is a promise, and Annie was allowed to order whatever overpriced crap she wanted. I had the grilled halibut. 

            She was pretty focused on her meal, only coming up for air after I commented on the noisy little group at the other end of the dining room. A young, well-dressed but inarticulate loudmouth with simian features was holding forth to his porcine sidekick and a pair of dull-witted society girls, belly-laughing at his banal attempts at humor. When I said something about money not buying class, Annie quipped, "You don't need class when you've got a whole city under your heel."

            I raised an eyebrow.

            "That's Junior Vanderslice, a real dewdropper. Never worked a day in his life. He's the son of George Vanderslice, a Republican big shot—‘the Big Cog in the Machine’, they call him. The other fella is Charles Reese, but everybody calls him 'Jolly Cholly' because he smiles so much. Too much, if you ask me. I have no idea who the two klucks are."

            "Does Reese have a function or is he just a hanger-on?"

            "I hear tell he works for the old man. Sonny Boy has a habit of making nasty little messes, so Daddykins pays Cholly to clean them up."

            While she was talking, all eyes in the restaurant turned toward Vanderslice as he insisted that his Negro waiter sing "Bile Dem Cabbage", accompanied by a buck-and-wing routine. The poor waiter tried to beg off, but Junior rose to his feet and demanded, "You better give us a show, boy, or you'll be cleaning toilets at  Reading Terminal!" The maitre d’ finally made an appearance and rescued the waiter. Reese stepped in, persuaded Junior to return to his seat, then slipped a couple of bills to the maitre d’. "See what I mean?" Annie asked as she nudged my arm.

             This was the end of my moral dilemma over working for Lippy Pinkowitz. Yes, I know I’m not the only musician who ever dealt with bootleggers. That doesn’t mean I was any more comfortable with the idea. But after witnessing Junior Vanderslice’s performance, it struck me that Lippy was never rude to anyone at Palumbo’s, not even the janitor. He looked out for Annie and her father, and he’d done me a couple of good turns. In a city full of crooks, I had definitely thrown in with the least of all evils. As a feeling of serenity swept over me, I gazed across the table at Annie, who was finishing off her lobster tail.

            ”Geez, that was good...what’re you staring at?”

            “The prettiest girl in the room.”

            “Well pay a little attention to me. I’m your date, after all.”

            And I wouldn’t change a thing about her.

 

CHAPTER 11

The five of us met the next day at one o’clock to run down the tunes we had promised Vocalion. For our first record date, they stuck us with a pair of songs by some new team from the Leo Feist stable. I’ve conveniently forgotten the names of both the songs and the writers. For our second, they let us pick the songs. Eddie and I seized the opportunity by offering a tune of our own. If it became a hit, we’d have some extra income; if it didn’t, at least our second record wouldn’t stink as bad as our first.

            The rehearsal went well enough that Eddie wanted to try making test recordings the next day. We adjourned a little after 4:00, and I high-tailed it to the cleaners to pick up my laundry.

            I came bolting through Myers’ front door fifteen minutes later. Annie, who was working at a sewing machine with her back to the counter, yelled, “Geez, don’t wreck the joint!” She turned around to see me smiling sheepishly and approached the counter. “Nothing subtle about you. How’s it goin’, toots?”

            “Sorry. I was afraid I wouldn’t get here before you closed.”

            “Don’t worry. We’re open till five. Admit it, you just wanted to see your wittle pooky.”

            Obnoxious as she could be, she certainly had my number. Still, I tried to project aloofness: “Well, there is the matter of my laundry.…”

            “Oh!” She apparently forgot that I was a customer. “Let me see your ticket.”

            Annie retrieved my clothes and charged me $3.50. Pretty reasonable for the load I brought in. As is often the case, my facial expression betrayed what I was thinking.

            “It’s the friend discount. So where are we going on our date?”

            “Where would you like to go?”

            “Scranton.”

            “How about the opera?”

            “Okay, I deserved that. Seriously, where are you taking me?”

            “I was being serious.”

            “Did I say $3.50? I meant $35. That’s for being a flat tire.”

            “If I’m a flat tire you’re a cultural snob. Have you ever even been to an opera?”

            Annie shook her head.

            “I didn’t think so. You have no idea what you’re missing.”

            “You mean besides overwrought melodrama sung in a language I don’t understand?”

            “Right. Besides that. Anyway, I’ll be there to translate.”

            “If I hate it, will you pay the extra $31.50?”

            “Better. I’ll take you to Scranton.”

            “Gee, the opera and Scranton. You sure know what women go for. Why hasn’t some lucky girl snapped you up by now?”

            “I was holding out for an undersized brat with a smart mouth.”

            “Hmm. Wonder if you’ll get her.”

            I was already halfway there.

 

*   *   *

 

The plan was to catch a Saturday matinee of La Traviata at the Academy of Music followed by dinner at Bookbinder’s, a Gilded Age eatery on Walnut Street near the Delaware River. I had originally planned on a more modest restaurant but Annie gave me an ultimatum: She’ll suffer through the opera if I take her to a fancy restaurant.

            I was so busy with work over the next three days that when Saturday noon came, I was laying in bed wondering if I could just stay there until I had to go to Palumbo’s. Then it hit me that I had a date in an hour. I jumped out of bed, threw on my robe and bolted for the bathroom to make myself presentable. As luck would have it, Mimi was inside doing something or other that she didn’t seem to be enjoying much. I knocked on the door politely saying, “Mimi, could you please make it quick? I have to be someplace in an hour.” I heard a groan and then silence. Another minute passed so I knocked on the door again: “Mimi? Can I at least get my toothbrush and razor? I’m in a really big hurry.”

            This time she responded verbally. “I don’t feel good,” she whined.

            I didn’t have time for this. “Mimi, get your ass out of the bathroom! Now!”

           Jack, in his characteristic bleary-eyed fashion, emerged from his bedroom upstairs. “What’s the matter with Mimi?”

            “I need the bathroom and she won’t get out.”

            Mimi’s muffled whine emanated from behind the bathroom door: “Jacky, make him go away. He’s being mean to me and my visitor is here.”

            Jack smiled in a way that’s hard to describe, but my guess is that it was an expression of relief. I almost hated to interrupt his moment of profound contentment (not really), but I was on the verge of having an actual romance, and I was not about to let a couple of hopheads interfere.

            “Jack!” I yelled up the stairs like I meant business. He got the message. After the longest three minutes of my life, I was in the john improving my appearance while Jack and Mimi were back upstairs having drunken intercourse. If I didn’t find them so disgusting, I’d have been envious.

            As soon as I was dressed, I ran over to South Street and hailed a cab, which got me to the Myers place with a few minutes to spare. After a valiant attempt to feign composure, I rang the doorbell.

            “I’m ready. Let’s go.” The voice came from behind me. I jumped, as usual. Annie was in the store when I arrived and came out to meet me. It was almost nice of her. She was wearing a dark wool overcoat that covered everything from her neck to her knees, a maroon tam, heavy black stockings and patent leather tap shoes minus the taps, I’m sorry to say.

            “C’mon, Professor, you can catch your breath in the cab.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me toward the waiting cab.

            “Where did all this enthusiasm come from?” I asked as we pulled away from the curb.

            “I’m finally going to Bookbinders." Then after an awkward pause she added, “And I’ve been feeling pretty bad about the way I acted. This is the first date I’ve been asked on in years and I acted like an ingrate. Fred never took me anywhere, the cheap s.o.b.”

            “What about your halfback?”

            “Alvin? I told you before, he’s just a friend. I met him when I was auditing a lit class at Penn. He’s the only reason I can go out at night. Daddy’s afraid that showgirl killer might want to expand his repertoire, and having a big muscle like Alvin as my escort puts both our minds at ease.”

            “But I don’t get it—doesn’t he like girls?”

            Annie leaned over to me and whispered, “He’s a different kind of boy.”

            I was confused for a moment...then I wasn’t.

            “We have a great arrangement,” she continued quietly, “I deflect suspicion from him and he deflects creeps from me. Please don’t repeat any of this. He’s got a bright future and I don’t want to see it ruined.”

            “Alvin’s got nothing to worry about from me,” was my immediate reaction, but then I followed up with, “I guess we’ll have to act like we’re ‘just friends’ at Palumbo’s to keep up the front.”

            “I don’t mind. Do you?”

            “Nah. I like my privacy.”

            The cab pulled up in front of the Academy.

            “Did you get us orchestra seats?” Annie asked as we entered the lobby.

            “Balcony. You can see the show better from up there.”

            “Oh, okay.…”

            To be precise, we were way up in the cheap seats, closer to low-flying planes and the occasional zeppelin than to the stage. I had my reasons.

            As the elevator rose, so did Annie’s suspicion. “Just how high up are these seats? I think I’m getting the bends.”

            “No you’re not. Believe me, there’s nothing like watching the opera from the upper balcony.”

            “You mean there’s nothing cheaper!”

            “Oh, knock it off. Remember, tootsie girl, I had to bribe you with an expensive meal.”

            “Then this is a ruse." She assumed her melodramatic voice and pressed the back of her right hand against her forehead. "You’re taking me to some remote corner of the theater to (gasp) have your way with me!”

            “Curses, foiled again,” I responded in a dry monotone.

            The elevator doors opened and we proceeded to our seats at the front of the balcony. Within seconds, the lights went down, the conductor struck up the orchestra, and Verdi’s immortal strains wafted toward us. Annie was uncharacteristically quiet. She leaned on the railing, hanging on every note. The girl knew good music when she heard it. She had class with a capital “k”.

            When the overture concluded, the curtain went up, the cast appeared, and the opera commenced. We shared the pair of opera glasses I had brought with me.

            “Wish we were closer. What are they singing about?”

            I gave her brief translations of the lyrics while waiting for the fun to begin. Lucky for me, it wasn’t a long wait. "Alfredo" and "Violetta" launched into a rendition of “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” that was not quite consistent with the original manuscript. At its conclusion, we could hear the obligatory applause from the orchestra seats and lower balconies. Not so from our lofty perch. We were surrounded by Italian immigrants, all rabid opera fans, who knew the complete score and libretto as written, and they were not pleased. “Alfredo” had the audacity to think he could improve upon the original.

            A barrage of Italian insults and profanities rose up around us, accompanied by a large selection of appropriately inappropriate hand gestures. Annie’s mouth fell open. She looked at me in bewilderment. I shrugged my shoulders, explaining, “He didn't do it by the book.”

            Several seats to our left sat a diminutive middle-aged woman who chose to express her displeasure in heavily-accented English: “Sing it-a right, you god-a-damn son-a-ma-bitch!” Annie grabbed my arm, and with a big smile, exclaimed, “Holy crap! That’s one feisty broad.” She paused for a moment, looked at me and then at the woman. “Hey, Nick, she kinda looks like you.” We could only see her in silhouette, but her profile closely resembled my own.

            I shrank down in my seat. The Italians continued to shout, Annie giggled, and I tried not to be seen. She turned to me again, saying, “Ain’t she hard-boiled...something the matter?”

            “No, nothing at all. Having a good time?”

            “The best! Thank you, sweetie,” she said, followed by a kiss on the cheek. Our first date was a success. If only Mom hadn’t shown up.

 

CHAPTER 10

When I got back to the house, I found Jack in the living room listening to the radio and smoking a reefer.

            “Where’ve you been?” he asked.

            “Dinner.”

            “Italian?”

            “Excuse me, Canadian?”

            “Did you go out for Italian? Looks like you got tomato sauce on your face.”

            Great, Annie left me a little memento. Preferring to keep my personal business personal, I replied, “Oh! Uh, yeah...I found a place that makes decent scungilli.” Then I made a surreptitious attempt to remove the lipstick from my face.

            “You’ll have to give me the name of the place so I can avoid it.” Jack never liked seafood.

            I heard the toilet flush upstairs and Eddie emerged shortly after. He looked over the banister at me and asked, “Where’ve you been?”

            I answered, “No fair. Jack already asked me.”

            Jack interjected, “He was eating some kind of aquatic vermin in tomato sauce.”

            “Oh, yeah? I didn’t know tomato sauce came in that shade,” Eddie said with a knowing smirk.

            I gave him a look that was meant to be disdainful, but all it really did was reveal my embarrassment at being found out. I excused myself and headed up to the bathroom to wash away the evidence.

            “What’s with him?” I could hear Jack say.

            “He doesn’t want to bore us with the details. Gimme a drag off that.” I mentally thanked Eddie for changing the subject.

            Why the secrecy? I didn’t trust Jack. He had a competitive streak when it came to women, and even with Mimi in the picture, I was afraid he might make a play for Annie, which would compel me to break his jaw. The band needed Jack’s jaw to be intact, so my only option was to keep Annie a secret.

            When I came downstairs, Jack and Eddie were listening intently to a news report of another murdered showgirl. She was found with her throat cut behind some garbage cans near 20th and South, not far from the “black & tan” club where she had worked. The news brought all three of us down from our various states of euphoria.

            As I said before, I’ve known a lot of showgirls. Some were tramps and gold-diggers, but a lot of them came from poverty, especially the girls working in the Negro clubs. I can tell you for certain that the worst showgirl I ever knew didn’t deserve to be raped, murdered and dumped in the trash.

            I reached for Jack’s reefer, hoping it would relieve my sudden attack of nausea. Eddie put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We were havin’ a pretty good day up to now, huh, kid?”

            “Coulda been the best day ever,” I replied.

            Jack was partially slumped over in an armchair staring blankly at the floor, looking as terrified as I felt. After all, we were just fifteen blocks from the scene, and this wasn’t the gangland violence we’d gotten used to—it was Philadelphia’s answer to Jack the Ripper. If the cops had any leads, they weren’t telling the press. I assume they were trying, but who really knew? Hoff, City Hall, the Republican machine and the cops were all in the bootlegging business, so public safety didn’t seem to be a high priority.

             Eddie reached for the dial: “There’s gotta be some music on this thing.” He tuned the radio to some society band from a swanky hotel in Manhattan. I don’t remember who the band was, what they played or the name of the hotel. All that mattered was the music getting us out of our funk.

            After a few minutes, Eddie said, “Y’know, Vocalion wants four sides from us by the end of February. Might be a good time to try out my set-up in the basement.” This led to a discussion that lasted until midnight. We retired to our respective rooms, excited about the prospect of making our first record as a band. Good old Eddie got our minds off of that other business for a while. It wasn’t like we could do anything about it. But that’s what bothered me the most.

CHAPTER 9

 

Dinner was an enlightening experience. After that bit of comic drama with Annie, any formality would’ve seemed forced. Much to my relief, little of the dinner conversation focused on my life in the show business, the people I knew or the places I’ve been. I get self-conscious talking about that stuff. It’s like I’m describing how much better my life is than theirs. Maybe it is, and maybe I’ve been luckier than a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I like reminding them of it.

            Instead we talked about Mr. Myers’ youth in South Philly, which led to an explanation of his connection to Lippy Pinkowitz: “Leo moved onto the block when I was in the eleventh grade, so I must’ve been 16 or 17. He couldn’t-a been more than seven. Poor kid was homely as sin even then. His father was a ragman—a lot of the kids called him “the sheeny”. Not a nice name to call somebody. We were mostly Irish in that neighborhood, so a Jewish family stuck out, especially when they barely spoke English. His mother was dead, his sister Ruthy was barely out of diapers, and the old man worked all the time. Leo had no friends. Everybody, even then, called him “Lippy”. He was constantly getting picked on. My parents felt sorry for him, so they went to the father and offered to look after Leo and Ruthy. I did what I could to keep the bullies away. The old man died when Leo was 12 and the kids went to live with some relatives. I didn’t see him again until early last year, when he came into the store.”

            Annie and I looked at each other. Even she was dumbfounded. Lippy had suddenly become a three-dimensional human being. Then her eyes widened a little: “That’s right around the time I moved back home.” She looked at me and said, “I was getting over a bad case of marriage. We got married right outta high school. Biggest mistake of my life.”

            To which her father responded, “Well, you’re still young.”

            “Daddy likes to rub it in. Fred was my boyfriend all through senior year. Everybody else we knew was getting married and we joined in. In case you didn’t know, conformity is for suckers. It took three years married to an alcoholic bigot to figure that out. I coulda just read Babbitt. He said he could live with the fact that I’m ‘part spic’, but being ‘part spic and part nigger’ was beyond the pale…pardon the expression.”

            “Why didn’t you tell him up front?” I asked.

            “I wanted to, but I didn’t want to queer my big chance to get married. It was all downhill after the wedding anyhow, but I kept putting it off. Then I got pregnant. All I could imagine was presenting him with a brown, kinky-haired baby and watching his face drop. I did the good news/bad news routine. He didn’t seem overly thrilled about the pregnancy. Then I told him the rest. That was one of my more courageous moments.” The last sentence had a sardonic tone.

Mr. Myers broke in: “I got a call from U of P Hospital. The dirty s.o.b. beat her within an inch of her life, then went off to get drunk. The downstairs neighbor heard the commotion and called an ambulance. The baby didn’t make it. If it wasn’t for that neighbor, Ann Marie wouldn’t-a made it either. She was in the hospital for six whole weeks.

            “That’s when Leo Pinkowitz came into the store. The little bastard was shooting his mouth off at one of the speaks on South Street. Leo told me what he’d heard and wanted to know if it was my little girl that got beat up. I said yes, and he says he doesn’t forget who his friends are and he’s gonna fix it.”

            “How did he fix it?” I asked with some apprehension.

            “He told the bartender to keep an eye out for the kid. The next time he showed up, the bartender said ‘Mr. Pinkowitz don’t like you and you’ll be getting a visit from Jimmy McFadden.’”

            That sent a shudder through me. I’d heard about Jimmy McFadden. And he was always referred to by his full name, so there would be no mistake as to which Jimmy or which McFadden was being spoken of. Six foot five, stone-faced, socially retarded, apparently devoid of any emotion—everything you could ever want in a psychopath, and so much more. Jimmy was Pinkowitz’s secret weapon. When Lippy came up against a tough nut, Jimmy would crack it. Sometimes it meant roughing a guy up, or maybe breaking a leg or two, or even cutting him into pieces and scattering them around the Delaware Valley. Jimmy followed orders to the letter, which meant that they had to be spelled out very carefully, otherwise he might go too far. Usually, though, the threat of a visit from Jimmy McFadden was enough to produce the desired result. Such was the case with the ex-Mr. Annie. He high-tailed it out of town, probably ending up in one of those charming communities where white hoods and sheets are all the rage.

            “You’re not still married.…”

            “Ha! I signed the annulment papers while I was still in the hospital.” Annie turned to her father. “So that’s what brought Leo around?” She wore a surprisingly innocent smile, revealing how touched she was by Lippy’s concern. “How did such a nice man get mixed up with a crumb like Boo Boo Hoff?”

            “He was dirt poor and his parents were dead. Hoff gave him a job and treated him like a son.”

            Annie and I were both quiet for a few seconds. “That would do it,” I finally admitted.

            “No shit," Annie concurred in a sober monotone.

            “Ann Marie!”

            “Cut me some slack, Daddy. I think I just became an adult.” She reached for the wine bottle and emptied the last few drops into her glass. “Here’s to Lippy,” she announced before downing it in one gulp.

 

*   *   *

 

Nine o’clock rolled around and it seemed like a good time to make my exit. My hosts were early risers, after all. I thanked Mr. Myers for the swell dinner and the pleasant evening. And I meant it, too. The man’s one hell of a cook, and I felt like he and his daughter were my kind of people.

            Annie offered to walk me to the door. As we descended the stairs I commented, “That was an adventure....”

            “Bet you weren’t expecting a load of dirty laundry with dinner. Next time we’ll introduce you to the skeletons in our closet. So after all that, do you still want to ask me out?”

            I’m pretty sure I was blushing, but I managed to come back with, “You mean I passed the audition?”

            Annie gave me her signature smile and wrapped her arms around my neck. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

 

CHAPTER 8

The phrase “be careful what you wish for” kept repeating in my head for the rest of the afternoon. That and “calm the hell down”. I had a dinner invitation from my latest dream girl and her old man, though it was the first part that was making me jumpy. I was almost relieved to have her father there. And “dream girl” could’ve been a bit presumptuous; we’d only spoken for a few minutes and she proved herself to be a little screwy, not that I had any room to talk.

            That business aside, I still had to get out of my obligation for the evening. See, Jack had gotten some new tunes from Cooper Music, compliments of Mimi, and we had planned—at my insistence—to spend the evening working up arrangements. We could move it up to the afternoon, but that would require Jack to be awake before 3 p.m. and not too hung over from his drunken weekend orgy with Mimi. Hardly a possibility. What was a possibility, however, was getting into a big argument with Jack about how I can’t put off important band business for some girl that I’ll probably never see again (assuming I’d be stealing his act). Jack liked to pretend that only he had the right to preempt band business because he was the purported leader. In fact, the band was a co-operative with each member having an equal vote and getting equal pay. It was an argument I could easily win, but conflict often puts me in a foul mood, something I didn’t want to bring to the Myers house.

            As it turned out, I was just having a case of nerves. I calmed down after a while, realizing that all I had to do was to round up Eddie and Matt for an afternoon session. We’d get our work done before dinnertime while being spared the horrors of Jack’s hangover. That way, if dinner didn’t go well, the day wouldn’t be a total loss. Ain’t I the optimist.

            It was around 1:00 when I got back to the house and Eddie was already at the piano, so I called Matt and explained my situation. He showed up at 2:00 and we got to work. Nothing against Sammy, but the drums might’ve woken up Jack and it was best not to risk it.

            Three hours later, we had three new arrangements sketched out, Matt and his toolbox were heading out the door, I was wiping the rosin dust off my fiddle, and Eddie remained at the piano, having it out with Mozart. It was at this moment that a bleary-eyed Jack came staggering down the stairs in his bathrobe and slippers—and nothing else, I suspect—surveying the scene as if to say, “Did I miss something?” But before he had a chance to vocalize it, a gravelly version of Mimi’s voice emanated from the third story singing, “Daddeee, Mama’s horneee!” He resignedly turned around and dragged himself upstairs. As soon as I heard the door close, I went up to my room to dress for dinner, gloating over the fact that we had gotten one over on him. And if you think I was being a sneak or a backstabber, consider this equation: Jack + hangover = 1 unbearable pain in the ass. Bet you would’ve done the same thing.

 

*   *   *

 

I arrived at the Myers’ dry cleaning store at five minutes to six and rang the doorbell for the upstairs apartment. It was cold outside. Real cold. Around 15°F. I shivered nervously for about a minute before the door swung open and there was Raggedy Annie. Startled as usual, I asked, “How the hell do you do that?”

            “Ya got me. I must be part cat. That means somewhere there’s a cat that’s part me. Poor kitty. C’mon in.” We ascended the stairs to the second story.

            As we approached the top of the stairs, she asked, “Whatcha got there?”

            “Bardolino. It’s a type of red wine.”

            “How very Eye-talian”, she said facetiously. “Does it go with chicken?”

            “Sure. My chickens drink it all the time.”

            “That’s good enough for me. Father Darling, our guest has arrived.”

            Mr. Myers responded from the kitchen, “I’ll have dinner ready in a few minutes.”

            “Let me take those.” Annie hung up my coat and hat on a wall rack in the hallway. The apartment consisted of a small living room, a dining room and a large kitchen, a bedroom coming off the dining room, and another with a bathroom behind the kitchen. There were two more bedrooms and another bathroom on the third story, not unlike my parents’ place.

            The living room was a modest collection of department store furnishings, including a sofa, a coffee table, an armchair with a floor lamp next to it, a mock-Oriental area rug, a Philco radio atop a small table and a large acoustic phonograph with an adjacent record cabinet. On the coffee table were issues of The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The American Mercury. I smiled, thinking that I wasn’t as far from the Village as I had thought. There were a number of pictures on display around the room, mostly group photos that included younger versions of Gilbert and Annie. The other two recurring faces weren’t familiar, but I assumed that they were once part of the Myers family. One was a dark-complected teenaged boy with curly hair, the other was very pretty woman who appeared to be a mulatto. Annie caught me staring at them, and offered an explanation.

            “That was our family when we were all together. This is my brother, Gil, and this is my mother. They died from the influenza.”

            “What a shame! I’m so sorry.”

            “Thanks. At least we didn’t have to suffer alone. A lot of families we know lost somebody.”

            “Do you still miss them very much?”

            “Sometimes. It took a while to get used to the fact that they were gone for good. Daddy was a total wreck so I had to be the grownup until he could pull himself together. I did all the cooking and cleaning while trying to keep up in school. That’s a lot for a 12-year-old. I told Daddy I wanted to drop out and he threw a fit. He said girls these days need to be just as smart as boys, because someday they’ll be voting for president. Since then he’s done practically all the cooking.”

            “That’s unusual.”

            She smiled. “When your daughter’s the worst cook ever, it makes perfect sense. Having me in the kitchen put both our futures in jeopardy.”

            Annie suddenly turned deadly serious. She took a deep breath and said, “I guess I’d better tell you about Mother.”

            I knew what was coming. “She was colored...?”

            “Daddy was in the Navy. They met when he was stationed in Puerto Rico.”

            “How did he explain her to the folks back home?”

            “He told everybody she was Spanish, including Gil and me. Our pastor at St. Joe’s knew better, but he kept our secret. He even intervened for us with some of the church gossips. By the time Daddy told me the truth, I was used to being different so it didn’t seem like such a big deal. A lot I knew. Turns out that being a little bit black is too much for some people and not enough for others. If I’m doomed to be an outcast, so be it. I’m just sick of lying about it.”

            Annie got quiet for a few seconds and looked at me apprehensively, waiting for a reaction. “Nick...? Aren’t you going say anything?” she asked in an uncharacteristically timid voice.

            I blurted out, “It’s not possible!” She winced. I went for the jugular: “You can’t be colored! You just can’t be—I’ve seen you dance!”

            There was a pause. For the next five seconds Annie’s face registered a myriad of emotions, the last of which was outrage, which she expressed by thrusting a fist into my left arm and yelling, “You wop bastard!” We both started laughing hysterically—all that tension had to go somewhere. But the redness and tears in her eyes told me that I must’ve hit a nerve. She’d played this scene before and it didn’t end well.

            I was giving her the business, just like she gave it to me that morning. Only I forgot that women have the option of inflicting pain without too much fear of retribution. As for the matter at hand, yes, I am free thinker who believes in racial equality, intermarriage, and a host of other ideals that scare the average American half to death. Spend as much time in Harlem as I have and maybe you’d understand.

            Mr. Myers came running out of the kitchen, wearing a canvas apron over his work clothes, to find his dinner guest and his daughter laughing like a couple of hyenas.

            “Ann Marie! Watch your language! That’s no way to talk to a guest. What did you do to him?”

            Feigning indignation, she pointed at me and declared, “He said I dance like a white girl!” I was sitting on the sofa gasping for air and rubbing my bruised arm.

            “You are a white girl.”

            “Drop the pretense, Father.” Her voice turned melodramatic. “The professor here has learned our terrible secret. Your daughter is...A QUADROON!” She waved her right forefinger in the air, then collapsed in a fit of giggles.

            Mr. Myers rolled his eyes toward heaven, looked to me for support, noticed the bottle and asked, “Is that alcohol?” I managed a nod. He replied with, “Good. I could use a drink. If you and ‘Topsy’ can compose yourselves, dinner’s ready.”

 

CHAPTER 7

Relevant or not, Lippy was right to send me to the cleaners on Monday. Even if it was January, you can still sweat like a pig during a performance, and that, combined with an endless barrage of cigarette smoke, makes for a fragrance rivaling any well-equipped polecat. Had Mom not indoctrinated us with the evils of tobacco, I might not have such an aversion to the smell. Either way, my clothes stank, and Myers, whoever he was, would have to rectify that.

            The brief walk to 4th & Pine turned out to be a strange little adventure. Every few seconds somebody would call out “Yo, Larry!” Then I’d turn around and hear, “Sorry, I thought you were somebody else”, or words to that effect. I was in Larry Fine’s old neighborhood and, as it often happened along Broadway in New York, I was being mistaken for him. After what seemed to be three-dozen false Larry sightings, I was at the door of Myers’ Reliable Dry Cleaning and Laundry, endorsed by Sir Lippy of Pinkowitz. 

            Nobody was at the counter when I walked in so I rang the bell. Just outside the door I heard a woman’s voice say, “Isn’t that the Feinbergs’ boy?” I looked out the window in hopes that she was talking about the real one when another female voice came from behind the counter: “Professor!”

            It was the girl from Saturday night. Wearing a plain dark dress, a light blue cardigan, minimal makeup, and flat shoes that reduced her height to an even 5’, she was transformed from an art-school flapper into a simple working girl. One thing hadn’t changed, though—she still didn’t have those tap shoes, and once again I just about jumped out of my own skin. Feigning composure, I responded with, “You’re the first person today who hasn’t called me Larry”. That got a laugh, even if it wasn’t intended as a joke.

            “I’m friends with his sister. If Larry was in town she’d tell me.”

            “How’d you know it was me?”

            “That mop on your head. All you need is a mustache and you’d be a dwarf Einstein.”

            “And here I was assuming you called all musicians ‘Professor’.”

            “Nope. You’re my first.”

            I should explain the hair. See, about a year and a half earlier I had gotten to know some of the long-haired artist types from Europe who moved into my part of the Village. Very strange guys, but interesting, different from anybody I’d ever met, native or immigrant. I got the idea to let my hair grow out like theirs, just as an experiment. Nobody seemed to have a problem with it, except for Phil, who just asked me to slick it down, so I kept it. It became a sort of trademark for me, like Ted Lewis’ battered top hat. Of course, when I discovered that no barber in Manhattan was willing to touch it, I had to learn how to trim it myself. As for the Larry Fine business, I don’t mind being mistaken for a famous comic, and I’ve certainly been called worse. We were easier to tell apart a few years later when Larry let his hair go frizzy. One of these days I’ve got to ask him if he was ever mistaken for me.

            Meanwhile, back at the dry cleaners...

            “I’m your first? I find that surprising.”

            “Just what are you gettin’ at, buster?!” She fixed me with an angry glare that told me I’d gone too far. Most of the girls I’d known in New York were either crazy bohemians or aspiring society vampires, some of the randiest women you’d ever want to meet. They used language that could make a sailor blush. Annie, however, was a “nice” girl, probably helping to support her family, and I had just insulted her honor.

            As the lump was rising in my throat, she blurted out, “God, how I wish I had a camera right now! The look on your face!” She was having a pretty good laugh at my expense, but it beat the hell out of getting shown the door. My complexion went from ghastly white to deep red, which left our little friend gasping for air.             

            After calming down she said, “Boy, I really had you scared! Take it easy, Professor, I was just giving you the business. Nice to know you have a conscience, though. Wish I could say the same about half the musicians that come through here.”

            “Well, anyway, sorry for talking out of turn.”

            “Hey, I’m not all that innocent either. I know what I sounded like. Too bad I queered the routine—we could’ve gone into burlesque. Now that we’re such good friends, I should introduce myself. Annie Myers, and this, this is my little empire.” She extended her hands outward.

            “You’re queen in these parts?”

            “More like princess. I work for my father. What’s your name?”

            “Nick Bruno.”

            “No! The Nick Bruno?!”

            “Are you being ironic again?”

            “Hardly! I’ve heard you on the radio with Phil Carlisle. He’s a bit corny for my taste, but Daddy’s a big fan. No offense, of course.”

            “None taken. Listen, Phil’s a great boss, but his music ain’t exactly my style either. I mean, it’s okay, just not my ideal. What we do at Palumbo’s is more like it.”

            “You ain’t kiddin’. Give me the hot stuff any day. So what can I do for you?”

            Naturally, I could’ve given several answers that would’ve earned me a slap in the face, but I wasn’t taking any more chances. I hoisted a bag of laundry onto the counter and asked, “Can you have these cleaned and pressed by tomorrow afternoon?”

            “Sure. Fill out this ticket. What brought you here, anyway? We’re not the only dry cleaner in the neighborhood.”

            “You came highly recommended by a Mr. Pinkowitz.”

            “Good ol’ Lippy,” she said absent-mindedly as she tagged my assorted garments. “I wonder sometimes if we could stay in business without him.” Suddenly she stopped herself and looked up at me. “Don’t get the wrong idea—we’re totally legit, but you’d never know it with all the mobsters who come in here.” She resumed working.

            “Why’s Lippy so hot on this place?”

            She continued tagging my clothes. “He and Daddy grew up on the same block. That’s all I know. We charge most of Lippy’s friends the same as everybody else. And I do the books so I’d know if any funny business was going on. He must have a soft spot for my father. There are worse people to have on your side, I suppose.”

            She could say that again. I was starting to perceive Lippy as a sort of guardian angel. A big, ugly, gun-toting guardian angel. “You know, he sponsored our gig at Palumbo’s. And that was his niece singing with us.”

            “How about that! She did a nice job. My friend really liked the way she handled his request.”

            “The linebacker?”

            “Close. He’s a halfback for Penn.”

            “You women sure do go for the athletic type.…”

            “Slow down, buddy boy. We’re just friends.”

            “Seriously?” Was I relieved!

            “Yes. And when I know you better, maybe I’ll fill in the rest. In the meantime, stay away from card games. You got the worst poker face I’ve ever seen.”

            So there I stood, hovering between chagrin and elation. While I was contemplating my next move (either ask her on a date or make a hasty retreat before I embarrassed myself further), a voice came from the back of the store.

            “Ann Marie! Who’re you talking to?” The voice grew louder as it neared the counter. It belonged to a 5-foot 7-inch medium built middle-aged man in shirtsleeves sans collar or tie. His hair was alternately light brown and gray, and he had the sort of boyish features often attributed to the Irish, but with a smattering of wrinkles and a furrowed brow.

            “Just a customer, Daddy,” his daughter answered.

            Then he focused on me, saying, “Anybody ever tell you that you look like...” Here it comes, I thought. “...that fiddle player from Phil Carlisle’s band?”

            I almost died of shock right then and there. Annie, meantime, was laughing like an idiot. “He thought you were gonna say ‘Larry Fine’”, she said while catching her breath.

            “He doesn’t look a thing like Larry. His nose is too small and he’s got all his hair. So are you gonna introduce me to our new customer?”

            “Sure,” she said, wearing that just-gave-somebody-a-hotfoot grin. “Daddy, this is that fiddle player from the Phil Carlisle band.”

            “Y’know, Ann Marie, not everybody finds you as hilarious as you do.” Then extending his hand toward me, he said, “Gilbert Myers. Glad to meet ya.”

            “Glad to me you. I’m that fiddle player from the Phil Carlisle band.”

            Annie let out a huge guffaw while her bemused father stood stiffly as if trying to resist the urge to smack her. Then he looked at me with a face that begged for sympathy, saying, “I’d disown her, but then I’d have to hire somebody.” Actively ignoring his giggling daughter, he continued, “So you’re Nick Bruno. I saw you play with the Carlisle band at the Ritz Carlton a couple years back. What brings you to Philly? Is the band back in town?”

            “Nah, Phil’s on a 3-month vacation, so a few of the other guys and myself took a job at Palumbo’s. Annie was there the other night, and she recognized me when I came through the door.”

            Annie chirpily interrupted with, “He was referred to us by Lippy.”

            “For chrissakes, how many times I gotta tell you not to call him that?! Leo’s been really good to us and never asked for a thing in return. You owe him some consideration.”

            She looked at me and said, “He’s right. I gotta break the habit before I get us in Dutch with Lip...Leo.” Suddenly her eyes widened and she blurted out, “Say, why don’t you come to dinner tonight? Palumbo’s is closed on Mondays. C’mon. You owe it to your public.”

            “Ann Marie! Maybe he’s already made plans for tonight. Ease up!”

            She leaned over the counter, lifted her eyebrows and asked at the bottom of her voice, “So, Mr. Bruno, would you like to join us, or do you have other plans?”

Not anymore, I didn’t.

CHAPTER 6

 

Our opening at Pagano’s was a mild success. Lippy packed the place with his “business associates” for Adele’s debut. They were enthusiastic enough, but I’ll never know if it was over anything coming from the bandstand. That crowd would’ve gone wild over a symphony of palm farts if Lippy told them to. Where we made our points was with a few college kids. They yelled for tunes like “Limehouse Blues”, “Shimmy She-Wobble”, “St. Louis Shuffle”, “Davenport Blues” and a bunch of other tunes we were more than happy to play. Adele put us over the rest of the way. They must’ve gotten the word out, because we had a full house by the following Friday.

            Sometime during that first week, we caught sight of one of our New York acquaintances in the audience. Miriam Cooper was the very attractive daughter of a big Tin Pan Alley music publisher. We all knew her as “Mimi”...and we all knew her. For an amateur, she had a lot of professional experience, and New York’s horny young musicians could always be counted on to help her get more. Mimi’s father sent her to the Philadelphia College of Art to keep her away from the New York nightlife and, ostensibly, out of trouble. I assume Old Man Cooper had a brain because he was such a big success, but you’d never guess it from the way he raised his kid. That girl could get into trouble in a convent.

            When I say Mimi was very attractive, I mean she was a knockout. She had the face of a Semitic Louise Brooks, the body of a Ziegfeld girl, big blue eyes, thick auburn hair with just the slightest hint of a wave, the best legs I’ve ever seen, a fashion sense that made Gloria Swanson look like a hausfrau, and she was known as a great lay. Beyond that, the news isn’t so good.

            Having Mimi around was both a blessing and a curse. I had sworn off crazies and hopheads by that time, and since Mimi was both, I was keeping my distance. Eddie refused to be in the same room with her because she talked non-stop, usually about herself. Sammy was married and Matt was practically engaged to a girl in New York, so neither wanted any reminder of past indiscretions popping up. Not that something like that would stop our Mimi—she’d been named in at least two divorce suits. Sammy knew how to cool her down, though. For whatever reason, she decided one night that he was the latest object of her passion. The next night, he invited his wife to the club. Mimi showed up, made a beeline for Sammy after the first set, and suddenly Suzy appeared. Suzy, who’s maybe half a foot shorter than Mimi, dragged her into the lady’s room. We didn’t see her for a couple of days afterward. Some kind of dental emergency, we were told. After that, Mimi played it safe and went for Jack, the hard-drinking womanizer. She had conveniently come to the “realization” that they were perfect for each other, which I took to mean they had similar vices. I don’t know if Jack liked her all that much, but he couldn’t resist an easy lay, so he had himself a girlfriend—a drug-crazed, weirdly possessive girlfriend—who would keep him out of circulation, at least while we were in town. Good for me, and possibly every other single male in the vicinity.

            Another advantage to having Mimi around was that she was able to get advance copies of the new tunes coming out of her father’s publishing house. That would’ve given us quite an edge if we’d had a live radio hook-up.

 

*   *   *

With Jack out of the way, I thought I might have a shot at finding a special friend of my own. And, sure enough, she came through Pagano’s door that Saturday. She looked to be around my height, a figure best described by the Yiddish word “zaftig”, with a tan complexion, dark brown eyes, an almost flat nose, a head of thick, shoulder-length, wavy black hair, and the smile of someone who’s just administered a hotfoot and was waiting for her victim’s reaction. There was something vaguely exotic about her, but not in a glamorous way. This girl was more Raggedy Ann than Pola Negri, sort of like the arty girls I’d see around the Village, just a little more done up, especially around the eyes. Her escort was your garden-variety football hero, 6’3”, 220 lbs., square jawed and snow white. He was probably her date, but I was hoping he was her bodyguard, both for my sake and for hers. That gorilla could’ve crushed her in the sack.

            Toward the end of our first break, just after I’d finished tuning, I heard out of nowhere, “Yo, Professor!” I jumped about six inches out of my seat. There she stood, wearing that wicked smile. I somehow expected her to have a helium voice like Helen Kane’s—hardly. It was more of an alto, and with only a mild Philly accent. If I hadn’t been living in New York for so long, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

“Sorry about that,” she continued, “I gotta start wearing tap shoes before I give somebody a heart attack. Do you guys know ‘Thinking of You’? My friend loves that song, but he’s too shy to ask you himself.” There’s a picture for you: The gargantuan all-American athlete who needs a little brown cherub to talk for him.

            “Sure.”

            “Thanks, Professor. You’re a peach.” She swung around and headed back to her table. I looked up toward the sky thinking, “If I’m real good, can I have this one?” So much for being an agnostic.

            I glanced to my right and saw Jack eyeing her as she crossed the room. After getting his attention, I motioned toward Mimi with my head, who was doodling on a napkin at a nearby table. Then I made a scissor gesture with my index and middle fingers. He got the message.

           

*   *   *

 

Around closing time, I saw Ernie having a laugh with Lippy. I was still getting used to the idea that a thug like Lippy was just as human as anyone else. Pagano’s was his favorite hangout, I soon learned, because he liked Ernie and he liked jazz. He also had a mistress living on Queen Street he’d visit while making his rounds for Hoff. I heard tell of a Mrs. Pinkowitz, but nobody I knew had ever seen her, though everyone seemed to know about their swanky townhouse in Rittenhouse Square.

            Ernie called me over and said, “I saw the way you looked at that little brunette. Why didn’t you go after her?”

            “That 200-pound linebacker was in the way.”

            “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Nicky. It wouldn’t hurt to try. He may be a big, strong, handsome athlete, but looks aren’t everything. You’re one hell of a musician, and she might go for the creative type.”

            “Gee, thanks, I think. Maybe if I could be sure that her date wouldn’t squash me.…"

            Then Lippy chimed in: “Say, you got somebody doin’ your laundry?” I shook my head. “You go to Myers’ at 4th and Pine. He takes real good care of my girlfriend. Even does alterations. Go Monday. You won’t be sorry.”

            “Okay. Thanks for the tip,” I said. Not exactly relevant to the conversation, but I wasn’t about to point that out.

 

CHAPTER 5

On January 2nd, Phil gave everybody in the band a handshake and a bonus check, telling us he’d see us in the spring. I used the extra money to get myself a Stroh violin, (basically a violin neck with a horn attached), and a National tenor guitar with a nickel-plated body. They project well, they’re sturdy, relatively weatherproof and, most important, they draw attention to the player. I was returning to the smaller pond of Philadelphia as a somewhat bigger fish, and I planned to work it for all I could.

            A few days later, Jack and I closed up our apartments and got on the train for Philly. Eddie had gotten there ahead of us, as did Sammy and Matt. When we showed up at Eddie’s door, he told us that Pagano wanted to see us as soon as we were settled in. This didn’t sound good. We met with Ernie that night, just as the dinner crowd was drifting in. It seemed there was a bit of string attached to this wonderful opportunity.

            We barely recognized Pagano’s as we walked through the door. Ernie had broken through the west wall and more than doubled the size of the place, transforming it from a saloon to a high-class nightspot. The bandstand was now about fifteen feet across and the room could accommodate maybe 250—more, if you count standing room—with a big dance floor. Our five-piece band would look downright puny.

            Ernie invited us into his office. He was in his early 40s by then, his hairline had crept back an inch or two, and he was spreading out in the middle. Made me realize how long we’d been away. He shook all of our hands, thanked us for coming, and got right down to business. “You guys ever hear of Leo Pinkowitz?” We had: Leopold “Lippy” Pinkowitz, an associate of Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, who ran the biggest racket in the city. Lippy got his nickname because of a grotesque, protruding lower lip. Nobody in their right mind ever called him that to his face. If he liked you, it was Leo, otherwise you called him Mr. Pinkowitz. But only if you wanted to live.

            Lippy had started out as a driver, delivering booze to Hoff’s customers in South Philly. He never carried a gun, or even took a swing at anybody, but he was a hard worker and a loyal member of the organization. In appreciation, Hoff invited him to a banquet in December of ’25. Some character took a shot at Boo Boo, and Lippy came to the rescue, breaking the attacker’s neck with his bare hands. Each of those hands is the size of my head. A week later he was overseeing operations for the entire south side.

            So when Ernie asked if we knew who Lippy was, we all said we did, then looked at each other apprehensively. Ernie came back with, “He supplies the liquor for this place”. Big surprise. “He knew I was anxious to have you play here. He said he’d double whatever my highest offer was if I’d do him a favor”. We braced ourselves. “Leo’s got a little niece named Adele Robbins. Cute kid, just outta school. She wants to be a singer, and he wants to help her out. He used to love your band and he’s crazy about his niece. He thinks you guys and Adele would sound good together.”

             Suddenly, we all wished we had taken that gig in the Village. This little scenario bore the odor of Moe “the Gimp” Snyder, the gangster husband of Ruth Etting. Snyder made sure his wife got to the top, and God help the poor slob who got in his way. In Ruth’s defense, she was a good singer, and people genuinely liked her. She would’ve made it without the Gimp. But not even Ernie knew if this Robbins girl was any good. If she wasn’t, she could ruin us. I don’t know about the others, but I didn’t get much sleep that night.

            The next day we had our first rehearsal with Adele. We got to Pagano’s at 1:00 in the afternoon. I was so nervous I skipped both breakfast and lunch. Pinkowitz showed up with Adele about half an hour later. Ernie was right, she was cute. Adele was a slight girl, around 5’6”, with straight sandy brown hair bobbed at the collar, almond-shaped hazel eyes, and a wide mouth. Not a beauty queen, but easy enough to look at. Lippy was a bruiser, and a well-dressed one at that. Big, strong, pushing 40, and anything but handsome. But he was surprisingly cordial to us, even deferential. He took us aside while Adele was in the ladies’ room: “Listen, I know what yer probly thinkin’ right now, but Adele’s a good little singer, or I wouldn’t ’a’ brought her here. I just wanna help out my favorite niece and my favorite band at the same time.”

            Adele emerged from the john saying, “Okay, let’s get to work!” Nothing shy about this kid. “Do you know ‘Thinking of You’ in A flat?”

            It was a moderately popular show tune by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Not the kind of hot jazz that we had in mind, but a nice song nonetheless.

            “Sure. Start with the verse. We’ll vamp you in.”

 

*   *   *

 

Chalk one up for Lippy. The kid could really sell a tune. Plus her voice had a quality that was not all that common at the time. Most girl singers were either husky altos like Kate Smith and Ethel Waters, or baby-voiced comediennes like Helen Kane. Adele’s range was closer to Ruth Etting’s, but much more youthful.

Ernie turned to Lippy saying, “Christ, Leo! Why didn’t you bring her around sooner?” Lippy just smiled like a proud father. All of us in the band gave her a round of applause, to which Adele responded with a big smile and an affected curtsy. My appetite started to come back.

            We spent the rest of the afternoon getting familiar with Adele’s repertoire. The plan was that we’d feature her in a few numbers during each set. Any remaining vocal chores were handled by either Jack or Eddie. Eddie had a crooner voice, sort of like Russ Columbo, so he sang the sweet tunes, while Jack had a voice better suited to the blues. Our job was to keep the audience dancing and, more importantly, drinking, so most of our repertoire was instrumentals. 

            The addition of Adele presented us with a golden opportunity. The band had a record contract in the works, and Adele could really put it over for us. With the kind of pull her uncle had, he’d likely get every radio station in the region to play our records. Christmas came a few weeks late for our little group, but nobody was complaining.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

In the late summer of ’28, Phil booked us at the St. Regis Hotel from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. He said as soon as the gig was over, he was going to Florida with his family for the winter. This bit of news elicited an immediate reaction in Jack, Eddie, Matt, Sammy and me. We’d all been waiting for an opportunity to re-establish our band, but Phil’s weekly paychecks had made us complacent. Joe Venuti, Red Nichols and Louis Armstrong were all making great music with their small bands. We had all been dying for our chance, and the idea of three months away from Phil rekindled our ambition. We met with our contact at Vocalion and he offered us a record deal. Maybe we were finally coming into our own.

            What we ended up with was a sort of out-of-town opening. The best offer we got was from, of all people, Ernie Pagano. One of the guys was visiting Philly in September—I can’t remember which one—and he mentioned to Ernie that we’d be at liberty starting in January. Ernie told him, “Check with me before you accept anything”. Nobody took him very seriously since we were planning to stay in Manhattan. A place in the Village offered us $1000 a week for the month of February, but we called Ernie anyway, just because he was Ernie. He offered us ten weeks at $1500 a week, starting January 14 and ending Easter weekend. Nobody in their right mind would’ve turned him down.

           

*   *   *

 

Aside from the money, I wasn’t sure how I felt about spending two and a half months in Philadelphia. Not as if there were any problems with the family; I’d moved out so long ago, even Mom allowed me to run my own life. If you know anything about Italian mothers, that’s almost as miraculous as the loaves and fishes. One of my concerns was that I’d get homesick for New York—remember what I said about Philly on Sundays? The other was a news story that was all over the papers: The bodies of half a dozen missing showgirls had turned up around the city, all rape victims, all with their throats cut. When I thought about all the showgirls I’d worked with, or dated, over the previous ten years, hearing about these murders just made me sick and angry. But a contract is a contract.

             As January grew closer, I had to think about living arrangements. Sammy and Suzy had a standing offer from her family in Chinatown, and Matt’s brother in South Philly had a spare room. My situation wasn’t so simple. Storekeeper’s hours and musician’s hours don’t mix, so staying with my parents was out of the question, and Gina and Bill had a new baby. Jack had no place to stay since all of his family was in Quebec. But Eddie came through for both of us and invited Jack and me to stay with him. He owned a 3-bedroom trinity house on the 500 block of Kater Street that he used as a getaway when he needed a break from New York. For those of you who’ve never been to Philadelphia, a trinity (or Father, Son and Holy Ghost) house is a 3-story brick row-home built sometime between the Washington and Jefferson presidencies, found primarily in the eastern part of the city near the Delaware River, where the streets are still paved with the cobblestones once trod upon by our founding fathers. Are you impressed?

Eddie also used the house to work on his assorted projects. He was a nut for electronic gadgets, always tinkering with radios, microphones, amplifiers, anything with tubes and wires. Among his latest acquisitions were a record lathe and this bizarre musical instrument called a theremin that sounded like a cross between a musical saw and a cello. Just watching him play it made me feel like I was in an H.G. Wells novel.

            The house had three bedrooms, one bath, a full kitchen, a basement that Eddie was converting into a recording studio, and a small backyard paved with bricks. Best of all, it was only a couple blocks from Pagano’s. I’d save a fortune in carfare, and Jack wouldn’t have very far to stagger after a night of jazz and booze.

CHAPTER 3

 

The only regret I ever had about moving to New York is that I didn’t do it sooner. It seemed that all the great musicians and songwriters were there, and I’ve since had the opportunity to work with most of them. Not just the white ones, either. Skin color didn’t matter in a recording studio, so I played on any number of “race” records, and we could usually count on a couple of Harlem ringers to show up for of Phil’s sessions.

            The money was pretty nice, too. I got myself a great little place in the West Village on Varrick Street, an Epiphone De Luxe banjo and a Guarneri violin. The rest went into a savings account. Lucky for me, Wall Street didn’t get any of it. The stock market reminded me a little too much of a shell game. I offered to share my good fortune with my parents, which they refused. Same with Gina, but we found a way around them.

            Gina, by the way, might be the smartest person I’ve ever known. She had plans to go to business school until she took up with a college sophomore named Bill Ludwig. Bill was majoring in biology or biochemistry—something like that—and Gina used to help him study for his exams. One thing led to another, I suppose (I was thirteen at the time and much too self-involved), because suddenly she was going to University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship. Gina ended up marrying Bill and becoming a surgeon at U of P Hospital. Like I said, she’s really smart.

            Now that we were both making pretty good money, Gina and I bought the building our parents had been leasing for the last 25 years. Pop pretended to be too proud to accept our “charity”, but we knew better. Nobody’s tighter with a buck than my old man.

           

*  *  *

 

Jack, Eddie, Sammy, Matt and I still occasionally played together as Jack Speer’s Philly Five, but the Carlisle organization was our primary gig. Phil was a good boss, the pay was great, and he featured my violin on quite a few of his recordings. Life was good. Almost.

            You’d think that a successful young musician like myself would be up to his eyeballs in females, which I was, but not in the way I’d prefer. See, the kind of girls who hang around musicians are often what’s called “certifiable”. These lovelies manifest just about every mental aberration known to science, so I often found myself in the company of hopheads, maniacs, sex fiends, even a case of split personality. They were all a lot of fun at first (especially the sex fiends), but after a couple of weeks I’d be running for my life.

            Not that there weren’t a few nice, normal girls that came around, but they always gravitated toward Jack. Jack had a “helpless little boy” schtick that many women found irresistible. Sick-making is what I called it; he was as helpless as a charging rhino. If that wasn’t enough, he’d just turn on his Canadian French and have himself a new playmate. Each of these girls was devoted to Jack, sometimes for as long as six weeks, until she discovered at least one other member of his fan club. What generally followed was a tearful scene between the girl and Jack, with Jack making profuse apologies, followed by the occasional offer of abortion money. Jack lived upstairs from me, so I had the dubious honor of overhearing occasional episodes from this melodrama. As bad as I felt for those girls, I felt even worse for myself on one particular occasion.

            There was this girl I met when I was auditing an American History class at NYU during the spring of ’27. Let’s call her Mabel. She was from Ann Arbor, very bright, extremely charming, and considerably saner than almost all of the women I usually meet. I thought I had a pretty good chance with her, and I invited her to see the band one night, hoping to make an impression. That’s when Jack made his move. The next time I saw Mabel was about three weeks later, right after she got wise to Jack. She came to me in tears saying she was through with musicians and going back to Ann Arbor as soon as she could raise the fare. Jack had screwed me pretty nicely, and hadn’t done Mabel much good either, so I pawned his best horn and bought Mabel her train ticket.

            This didn’t go over well with Jack. After he got his cornet out of hock, he came to me all hurt and offended saying, “How could you do this to me? I thought you were my friend”, while giving me the patented Jack Speer sad puppy-dog face. All I could see was red. “Listen, stud”, I said, “If you EVER cut in on me again, you’ll be back in Vaudeville as a boy soprano.” I honestly don’t have a violent nature, but sometimes I feel like I need to convince people otherwise, just so they take me seriously. Probably has something to do with my height.

            Things were pretty chilly between us for the next few weeks, but Jack was too busy juggling girlfriends to stay mad. I guess I really was his friend, but I was keeping my eye on him. And Jack figured out a safer place to keep his horns.

CHAPTER 2

 

Over the next three years it seemed like we had played every speakeasy and nightspot between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Aside from Jack, Eddie and me, the band went through a lot of members, and we increased our core group over time.

            One guy we stuck with early on was a kid we met at the Troc named Sammy Tom. He was half Chinese—he never did tell us what the other half was—and the most inventive drummer we’d ever heard. Sammy was also a bit eccentric. He felt that his heritage didn’t supply him with adequate sex appeal, so he’d tell whatever girl he was trying to make that he was a Spanish aristocrat, or a full-blooded Lenape Indian, or anything else he deemed “exotic”. He even tried to pass himself off as an Arab once. That earned him a couple of shiners, and for the next week we were telling people that Sammy was part raccoon. He eventually married a girl from the old neighborhood named Suzy Ling. The irony. Until Sammy introduced me to her, I had been under the impression that Chinese girls were soft-spoken and submissive. Experience really is the best teacher.     

            Our other permanent member was our reedman, Matt MacFarlane, a bookish character who carried all his horns together in a plumber’s toolbox. When he came to audition, we assumed he was there to fix the toilet. Inside were two clarinets—soprano and bass—and a C melody sax, all broken down on metal trays lined with velvet-covered cork. As he assembled them and placed them on his homemade instrument stand, I was thinking how Pop would be in awe of this guy’s thriftiness and ingenuity. Matt passed the audition with flying colors: His tone was good, he soloed like a master and he could work out arrangements on the fly. If he’d been a little younger we would’ve adopted him.

            The bunch of us were feeling unstoppable until a tour of the Midwest during the summer of 1924. The musicians working around Chicago made us look like a spasm band in comparison. King Oliver and his protege, Louis Armstrong, were a good example of what we were up against. Even the white bands made us look bad, especially the Wolverines and the Jean Goldkette band. This was our hard lesson in hot jazz, but we learned.

            I personally made a point of catching Goldkette as often as I could, or more specifically, his violinist, Joe Venuti. We were both from Philly, both Italian, both 21, both violinists, except that he was reinventing the instrument with the hottest white band I’d ever seen, while I was languishing with a cut-rate outfit that seemed to be stuck in the teens.

            After Chicago, we revamped the band. The name was shortened to Jack Speer’s Philly 5, with the line-up reduced to the five key members. Our new arrangements were harder and leaner, with each instrument getting ample solo time. I was now doubling on banjo and fiddle (something I should’ve done from the beginning), and started to give Venuti a little competition. 

            The hard work really paid off. Ernie Pagano, owner of Ernie’s Inn on Bainbridge Street, booked us for Thanksgiving weekend and held us over through the end of the year. And that’s where we met Phil Carlisle.

            Phil Carlisle was a fellow Pennsylvanian, taking his stage name from his hometown, Carlisle, Pa. I am unable to spell, or even pronounce, his real surname, which is four or five syllables long, of Slavic origin, and lacking in vowels. Phil had done a brief hitch at the naval base in Bayonne, New Jersey, during the final days of the Great War. He decided to stay in New York after being discharged, where he found work as a saxophonist in dance bands. Phil started his own orchestra in 1921, playing some of the best places in New York. He soon became known as “the poor man’s Paul Whiteman”, a title that always gave him a laugh, considering the how much money he was making.           

            We were drawing some good crowds, and Phil was scouting for new band members while he was in town for Christmas. He must’ve been impressed, because he offered us each a contract at $200 a week playing at one of the big Manhattan hotels starting in February. He even had a record deal with Vocalion. We’d be free to work with other bands, including our own, and play any record dates we could pick up. It didn’t take us long to decide. Our lawyer gave the contract a thumbs-up and we all signed.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Winter in Philadelphia, if nothing else, can be a pretty wet affair—a climatic buffet of snow, rain, sleet, freezing rain or some combination thereof—not unlike winter in New York, except New York has a lot more to do, especially on Sundays. But Philly was where I spent the winter of 1929. It’s also the city I used to call home.

            My name is Nick Bruno, first violin for the Phil Carlisle Orchestra. Maybe you’ve heard of me...and maybe not. In case my name conjures the image of a rugged Latin lady’s man, picture instead an undersized wop who was often mistaken for Philly compatriot Larry Fine, but only from the back.

            My “wondrous” journey began in August of 1903, when I was born to Giuseppe and Olivia Bruno in the apartment above their grocery store on Calumet Street in East Falls, at the northwest end of the city. My sister Gina was born in 1896 on the ship that was bringing our parents to the States. I heard something about my mother being pregnant once or twice in that seven-year interim, but she never talks about it, so I don’t ask.

            Like any stereotypically proper Italian, my father played the mandolin and, eventually, so did I. When I was 10, my mother decided I should take up the violin. Her father, who died when she was young, left his prized violin to her, and since I was the kid with the musical aptitude, she signed me up for lessons at the Settlement Music School.

            This was something of a problem for Pop, and in retrospect, I couldn’t blame him. If you’ve ever been around a kid learning to play the violin, you know what I’m talking about. It’s like listening to a palsied Jack Benny. But I surprised the old man...and my mother...and myself! Turns out I was a natural. By the time I was 12, I was earning money playing parties and church events. The die was cast, my path was chosen, an artist was born, blah, blah, blah, etc., etc.     

            My school career didn’t go as smoothly. Not that I was stupid or anything, just impatient. All that routine and regimentation made me nervous. Besides, we had a free library in walking distance, and since I was lousy at sports, I spent a lot of time there. But just to make the folks happy, I stuck with school as best I could, though toward the end I was spending more time at gigs than I was in the classroom.

            The final straw came when I was finishing up the 11th grade. We had this teacher named Mr. Slopey, a defrocked Catholic priest. There were some rumors flying around as to what got him defrocked, but I tried to ignore them. One day he goes on a rant about Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian anarchists who had recently been arrested for murder. He starts talking like he knows they’re guilty, as if he witnessed the murder himself. Well, I had the audacity to interrupt his little speech and ask if the law doesn’t consider them innocent until proven guilty. He calls me a traitor, a fifth-columnist, living proof that immigration should be restricted. I didn’t take kindly to that kind of talk and responded with something like, “Go fuck yourself, you ass-reamin’ son-of-a-bitch!” I suppose even the best of us isn’t entirely immune to gossip. Anyhow, that little blow-up finished me at Roxborough High, so I got myself a steady job in the orchestra at the Trocadero Theater in Chinatown.

 

*  *  *

 

            Vaudeville was big business in 1920, with commercial radio and talking pictures still in the future; the money I made at the Troc really took the edge off Pop’s anger over my expulsion. Even though I was still living with my family, I felt like a grownup, being out of school, making my own way in the world.

            I became friendly with a couple of guys in the orchestra who were close to my age. One of them, Jack, talked a lot about the jazz musicians he had seen in Harlem, insisting that we go with him on his next trip. His real name was Jacques St. Pierre, a French Canadian who was fluent in both French and English, played the cornet, and was the type of guy you’d want to keep your sister away from. The other member of our trio was a piano player named Eddie Schmidt. On our first trip to Harlem, Eddie became a disciple of this exceptional stride player named Willie “The Lion” Smith. I mean Eddie wanted to be just like him, which, if you knew Eddie, is kinda funny. Imagine a slight, naive Lutheran kid, about as white as your average ghost, emulating the mannerisms of a strapping, worldly Jewish Negro. The Lion was a pretty generous guy, though, and whenever we were in Harlem, he’d give Eddie a few pointers. Eddie got so good that, for a couple of weeks anyway, we called him “The Cub”.

            After a few of these pilgrimages, when Jack was sure he had made converts of us, he announced that he was starting a jazz band, and he wanted Eddie and me to be in it. Inside of a month, we’d filled the band out with a clarinet, trombone, tuba and drums, while I took up the tenor banjo because the violin didn’t fit in with the Dixieland aesthetic. On New Year’s Eve 1920 we gave our first performance as Jack Speer and his Peerless Orchestra. I almost forgot how corny that name was.

LPQuicksite