~ Blues Diva ~
Crazy for Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway musicals, blues were Bayla’s favorite, though she could never say where she first heard them. Perhaps the sounds escaped through skinny walls in her tenement building. Or maybe during August’s stifling heat, they oozed from a record player or radio out an open window. Their wail and whine grabbed her, held on and took her to where she longed to be: easy over, breathy and center stage.
When she was nine years old, Bayla memorized words to blues songs she found in books at the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library. Then she’d head to a dimly-lit music store tucked under the Second Avenue El, select an Okeh, Decca, Black Swan, Paramount or Document label, place it on the wind-up Victrola, ease the silver horn-shaped arm onto the spinning turntable, lean back against the floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with 78’s in dusty brown paper covers, close her eyes, and let the songs slip into her soul. By the time she was twelve, without notes on a page or instructions, she could imitate them all, their tone, phrasing, and timing ─ Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Bessie Smith. One day she too would preside over a kingdom where people paid money to hear her sing, like Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues.
“Who sings such music?” her mother would ask when Bayla practiced at home.
“Colored women. From down south.”
“Thanks be to God, to Aschem, who welcomes strangers to this country.”
“Yes, Mama. Like you and Papa. Everyone together. A regular melting pot.”
That’s what she remembered as she crouched over her machine at Goldmacher’s and sewed with girls of immigrant parents who, like her own, arrived in shiploads to the land of milk and honey. Polish, Russians, Hungarians, Germans, and Irish. She sewed when her feet burned as she worked the machine’s black iron pedal. She sewed when the flames grabbed her ankles, and the heat rose to her thighs. She sewed when newspapers proclaimed “Unemployment Passes 4 Million.” Four years of her life already in that place while Mamie Smith and Ida Cox toured the South, Alberta Hunter appeared in Show Boat, and Bessie Smith had bottom billing at the Apollo. Like them, she too started out poor, young, and alone. Like them, her turn would come.
By December 1933, with Prohibition over, liquor flowed from every spigot and open bottle in New York City’s bars, restaurants, and cocktail lounges. On her way home from work one evening, when the cross-town bus paused at Tenth Avenue and 48th Street, “Performer Wanted” the sign said on the double doors at the Saloon. While most New Yorkers, shielding themselves from wind that blew off the river missed those words entirely, those big black letters lit up for Bayla like the Loews 96th Street marquee. She was who they wanted.
Where would she find the courage to walk into that God-forsaken place, a world filled with men? Her mother would pray for her Shabbat morning at Tikvah Shalom, the Orthodox synagogue for committing such a shandeh, and at her age, only 18. Not that Bayla had any idea of the consequences. The little she knew about how men and women interacted, she learned from library romance novels ─ Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Heiress, Ethan Frome ─ and at the Loews, when she had money for a Garbo, Dietrich or Mae West movie.
The next nights, Bayla stole time from cooking dinner and caring for her mother to walk up and down the side streets surrounding the Saloon to familiarize herself with the goings-on in the part of town called Hell’s Kitchen. She watched who entered, guessing at dock workers, garment center people, laborers, or mobsters, not that she knew what they looked like. She pictured herself pushing through the doors, as they did. On a Saturday morning, like stacks of newspapers tied together at New York’s corner newsstands, she had bundled enough courage inside herself to do what was needed. She was born in turbulent times, her mother always said. Risks had to be taken.
Refusing a turn of her head, or a furtive glance, she walked directly to the man behind the bar, who had few to serve at that hour.
“Ya’ want Mr. Grady, the owner? He’s a powerful gadabout. ” He nodded toward the far end, and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “There he is.”
He was stout and broad, his face red, a dark suit tight over his middle. Of course. Irish. Shikers. Lovers of drink. Her mother had taught her about people ─ Italian and Jewish girls were zoftig. Polish and Hungarians were good cooks. German women had strong arms. Jewish men made good husbands.
“With me on stage, you’ll make money,” she pushed herself to tell him, her eyes burning into his. “They’ll come running,” and she broke into St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, stole that man of mine, by her apron strings.
“You wear something besides this?” Mr. Grady asked, reaching with his chubby fingers toward her worn navy ankle-length skirt and shabby brown coat.
“I have a beautiful costume.” She had sewn it by hand using pennies saved for a yard of black sateen, an old blouse remade, a bauble, a strip of fringe, snipped or found, kept the outfit hidden at home inside a dresser drawer.
“And on stage, you know what you gotta do? You have experience?
“I’ve known since I was a child.”
“It’s good you’re young and attractive, your skin smooth and fresh. I like that you’re tall, not overblown, but meaty, a damn sight better than the middle-aged floozies with painted faces who’ve shown up. And I like your singing.” The Saloon was a respectable drinking establishment, he said, not a dive like those other dirty, stinking, roach-and rat-infested Irish pubs on the East Side. He gestured to the large mirrored wall that reflected the dark, highly polished wooden bar, and pointed to the black and white tiled floor and the white dome lamps that hung from the high ceiling casting “a romantic glow,” he said. He reached toward her with chubby fingers and pinched her check. “Come back Friday and Saturday. Eight o’clock. Two twenty-minute sets each night. We’ll see how you do.”
Her first audition, a success, and why not? She had done everything to prepare. She had perused newsprint advertisements of female performers at the Apollo Theatre on empty boarded-up lots on 57th Street; thumbed through racks of the latest song sheets in Woolworths’ Five and Dime; walked to 142nd Street in Harlem on Saturdays to study billboards outside the Cotton Club. She imitated the stance of Bessie Smith, hands on hips, legs apart, and Ma Raney, bending over the stage messing about with the audience, sultry Lena Horne, seductive, lady-like Adelaide Hall, charming Ella Fitzgerald, enticing Dorothy Dandridge. Mr. Grady had no cause to worry. She knew exactly who she needed to be on stage.
Word spread fast. Having left the ranks of speakeasy, rugged longshoremen, recently-arrived immigrants, and foreign seamen jammed the Saloon, pushing their way inside along with cops on the take and union organizers. Glasses clinked, barstools schreeched, chairs set around an array of tables echoed off the tiled floor as men gulped beers, whiskies, signaled for more, and edged sideways into tight spaces around the stage, waiting, nervous, impatient. When the piano man in a blue vest and rolled shirt sleeves struck a few bluesy refrains on the upright, the stomping, whistling and clapping began. Above the ruckus ─“Are you ready, gentlemen? Here she is. The star of the Saloon. Our blues diva.” Mr. Grady called her that ─ Blues Diva.
“Bring her out, for Christ’s sake.” “Where is she, ‘ya bum?” “Sing it for this!” a husky sailor shouted and grabbed his crotch.
Two spotlights suddenly snapped on, Bayla inside them. Nothing moved. With one foot on a chair, her elbow rested on her thigh, her body slightly forward, her expression tantalizing, provocative. A gold-colored scoop-necked blouse held her copious breasts as a demitasse might hold an exuberant cappuccino. Rows of black fringe decked a tight black satin skirt slit on one side revealing lacy garters hooked to seamed stockings exposing a fleshy thigh. Gold pumps cradled her broad, pudgy feet, a gold lamé band circled her head, a matching feather to one side, like Bessie Smith.
When the moment seemed right, Bayla eased her foot off the chair and sashayed towards the edge of the stage, a sway, a dip, a hike in her hips. When the applause and shouting started up, peaked then simmered again, she paused, inhaled, expanded her bosom and at last allowed her thick, rich, soulful tones to drift across the room like cigarette smoke, soothing longings, caressing desires.
When I was young, nothing but a child, You men tried to drive me wild.
My Mama says I’m reckless, my Daddy says I’m wild,
I ain’t good lookin’ but I’m somebody’s angel child.
She heated up the room provoking the audience to let loose all sorts of things: spare change, a sailor’s cap, carnal appetites.
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaady, Mamma wants some huggin.’
Hi ‘ya, Pretty Papa, Mama wants some lovin’ right now.
During the day, sewing in a sweatshop, Bayla was weighed down by life’s burdens. Who did she have to share them with? But at night in front of a live audience, the stage with its restorative powers, freed her from the grip that held her in check. She clasped her rich auburn hair, or swished it around her neck and shoulders, moved her body to the blues rhythms, allowing her heartaches and pent-up longings to run rampant. No matter how little her audience had, or where they were born, or how hard they worked, Bayla opened them up to possibilities ─ life went beyond troubles and heartaches. Dreams and fantasies were within reach. Such was her gift, and she gave it without knowing.
Though she had never been on a date with a man, much less had anyone offer himself as a suitor, she was drawn to sexually-charged songs whose inferences embodied in the lyrics, she didn’t completely understand. Numbers like Anybody Want To Eat My Cabbage?, Call Me When Your Drawers Are Down, or My Hard, Straight Handy Man. No matter. On stage, in the spotlight, Bayla the factory girl became what every man in the audience wanted her to be.
“Again you’re going out? Oi gotteniu. Again by myself? My daughter, the runaround.” From her rickety wooden wheelchair her mother spouted her usual lament.
They had finished supper ─ sauerkraut soup with potatoes and caraway seeds, and a thick bean cholent. On the chipped, white metal table where they ate, the cigar box Bayla had long ago plucked from a street-side garbage pail was already in place. Filled with makeup paid for by pinching pennies, she withdrew from it a small, hand-held mirror, twirled an edge of tissue, and dabbed green powder on her lids to enhance her blue eyes. With her index finger she spread Princess Pat rouge on her high cheekbones, and at the almost straight lines of her lips, she reworked Tangee’s Theatrical Strawberry lipstick, securing a delicate pout.
Her mother watched every move, her eyes darting, her face expressionless, as if Bayla couldn’t interpret her dark thoughts.
“I know what you do,” her mother said.
“I sing, Mama, in a club frequented by gentlemen. It pays the rent. How many times do I tell you? I have a voice.”
“A voice! You parade yourself. In the streets. It’s a shandeh.”
The nonsense her mother dreamed up about her daughter’s nighttime excursions, Bayla had long ago taught herself to ignore. “It’s good I have ambition. That’s what will get us out of here. You’ll see.” She powder-puffed her face from her forehead to her chin with Max Factor’s Creamy Ivory. “First chance I get.”
At a speed Bayla never would have imagined, the woman swept her arms across the table, scattering her daughter’s bottles, creams and compacts on to the worn linoleum floor.
“Where you go these nights, someone could kill you, and I would be left here to rot. And you talk of ambition! Te, a gyerekeid, az unokaid, es minden leszarmazottad legyetek karhozottak az orokkevalosagig. You and your children and your children’s children will be doomed. Dest liggin in bluter. You’ll lay in the mud. And I have said it!”
Bayla rose from her chair, her entire body trembling. She gripped the edge of the kitchen table in an effort to control herself. Her mother. Wisps of gray hair dangled loosely from the bun her arthritic fingers still managed to arrange at the back of her head. Her blue-flowered housecoat, faded and stained, was one of two Bayla dressed her in each morning. Her pleasant memories ─ the blue Danube, the Statue of Liberty, the Travelers’ Aid lady who helped her through Ellis Island ─ had become threadbare.
“I left school at fourteen to support us by working on a factory floor and you curse me in two languages?” Her voice was deep and low. “You think a mother’s curses are easy to forget? They ring in my ears, wake me at night. You think I won’t end up with more than this? I’ll get us out despite your curses.”
“Do you know why they sent me from my home in Budapest to travel at 15 alone, two weeks in steerage, sick to my stomach, to come to America?”
Bayla knew about the watered-down milk that left her bones weak, the lack of oranges that rotted her teeth, the poverty, and no work, and the terrible treatment of Jews. She knew her mother had come to America to find a husband whose money would provide tickets to bring her family from the Old Country. Bayla had heard her mother’s coming-to-America story so often she could repeat it verbatim, imitating her mother’s precise accent and intonations.
“I came to marry a man who left us,” her mother said softly. “Who ran off to who knows where?”
Not even one with money, or a chance to beg him to stay, Bayla thought. She was to blame for his leaving. Her childish disobedience, her refusing to give in to his wishes, to let him dress her, put her to bed, the two of them alone in the room. Her strong will had sent him away.
“I lived in a room, slept in the same bed used by night workers after I awoke. For that I came? And for this wheelchair? To be a burden to myself and to you?” Her mother began to whimper, the sound that drew Bayla to her side.
“No need to cry. Who’s here for you? Your daughter, Bayeleh. Your only child. Mrs. Silverman, from across the hall, she’ll visit. You know she has the key. Come. It’s Friday night, sundown already. You’ll light the candle.”
Bayla took a white Shabbos candle from a small box on a kitchen shelf. Her mother struck a match, heated the bottom, and melded it onto the top of an empty jelly jar. She covered her head with a small white cloth, closed her eyes and circled her hands three times over the flame. “Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu meleh ha’olam…”
“Good Shabbos, Mama.”
“Good Shabbos, my child. Mine sheinah kinder. Now put me to bed and go where you go. Maybe by a miracle, a rich man will find you. A choshever mensch. And we’ll have money to light two Shabbos candles, as it should be so Aschem won’t pity us.”
“Yes, Mama. Someone to take care of us.”
“Oi gottenu. I shouldn’t say such things aloud. The fates—”
“Again, the fates?” If you were too happy, you would attract an einhoreh. If you tried to better yourself, the fates would find out. At the risk of attracting bad luck, so much could never be spoken, or questioned leaving little of life left to enjoy. Even thoughts had to be censored. The fates could divine those as well.
On her hands and knees, sorting among dirt and grime, Bayla gathered her makeup . A final glimpse into her mirror proved she was more striking than beautiful ─ less a Harlow, more a Mae West.
“One day my mother will know what her daughter is made of,” she said aloud inside the dank-smelling stairwell on her way out over the sound of an infant’s cry.