~ Blues Diva ~
Crazy for Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway musicals, Bayla’s favorite were blues, though she could never say where she first heard them. Maybe the wail and words penetrated thin walls of tiny apartments in her tenement building. Or maybe during August’s stifling heat, the sounds oozed out of an open window from a record player, or a radio beckoning, awakening something inside her. Or maybe they were there, before she knew what they were. Blues got inside her, and stayed.
By the time she was nine years old, on a Shabbat morning with her mother in synogogue, she’d memorized words to blues songs she found in books in the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library on East 75th Street. Then it was a dimly-lit music store on East 98th Street tucked under the Second Avenue El. She’d choose records labeled Okeh, Decca, Black Swan, Paramount or Document, set one onto the 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 blues slip into her soul. Wherever they took her was where she belonged.Victoria Spivey. Ma Rainey. Bertha “Chippie” Hill. Bessie Smith. By the time she was twelve, without notes on a page or instructions, she could imitate them all―their tone, their phrasing, their timing. She was building her stairway to the stars.
That’s how she remembered it as she crouched over her machine at Goldmacher’s, and sewed. She sewed when the soles of her feet seemed to burn each time her shoes touched 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.” She sewed for four years. Four years of her life already in that place when Mamie Smith and Ida Cox toured the South, when Alberta Hunter appeared in Show Boat, and Bessie Smith had bottom billing at the Apollo. Like them, she had started out poor, young, and alone. Like them, her turn would come.
In December 1933, Prohibition ended and liquor flowed from every spigot and open bottle in New York City’s bars, restaurants, and cocktail lounges. One evening on her way home after work, crossing Eleventh Avenue and 47th Street, Bayla noticed a sign inside one of the double doors at The Saloon. “Performer Wanted,” it said in large black letters. While most New Yorkers, shielding themselves from winds that blew off the river, missed the sign entirely, those words lit up for her like the lights on the Loews 96th Street marquee. She was the performer they wanted.
Where would she find the courage to walk into The Saloon, a world filled with men? A shandeh, her mother would say, to enter such a place, and at her age, only 18. Not that Bayla had any idea what consequences would await her. The little she knew about what men and women did together she learned from romance novels at the library—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 few nights, instead of going straight home after work as always, Bayla stole minutes from cooking dinner and caring for her mother to familiarize herself with what went on in front of The Saloon, and up and down its side streets. People were well-dressed, well-behaved, nothing unseemly. She watched the men who entered through the double doors, imagined herself doing the same. One Saturday morning, like stacks of newspapers tied together at her corner newsstand, she had bundled enough courage inside herself to what was necessary. She was born in turbulent times, her mother always said, risks had to be taken. She approached the man behind the bar who had few to serve at that early hour.
“He’s a powerful gadabout, that Mr. Grady,” he told her when she asked for the owner. He nodded toward the far end, and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “There he is.”
He was stout and broad with a red face, his dark suit tight over his middle. Of course, she thought. 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, pointing a chubby finger toward her worn navy skirt down to her ankles and shabby blue coat.
“Of course. I have a beautiful costume.” She had sewn it in secrecy from cheap used clothing, a bauble here, a strip of fringe there, something snipped or found, the outfit kept hidden at home under 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.” She took a step back, thinking he was about to touch her. “And I like that you’re tall, not overblown, but meaty, a damn sight better than the handful of made-up, middle-aged floozies who’ve shown up. And I like your singing.” The Saloon was a respectable drinking establishment, he said, not a dive like the other dirty, stinking, roach-and rat-infested Irish pubs on the East Side. He gestured with his arm for her to take in the mirrored wall that reflected a dark, highly polished wooden bar, and the white dome lamps that hung from the high ceiling, their romantic glow embracing every open space. “Come back next Friday and Saturday. Eight o’clock. Two twenty-minute sets each night. We’ll see how you do.”
Her first audition, a success.
She knew this day would come. She was pleased that she had planned, using drips and drabs of time away from her mother, an early morning here, minutes after work there. On the empty boarded-up lots on 57th Street, she perused newsprint advertisements of female performers in the Apollo Theatre. In the library she studied photographs of women blues singers. In Woolworths’ Five and Dime, she thumbed through racks of the latest song sheets. On Saturdays she walked to 142nd Street in Harlem to study the billboards in front of the Cotton Club. At home she imitated the stance of Bessie Smith, hands on hips, legs apart, and Ma Raney, bending over the stage messing about with the audience. There was the sultry Lena Horne, seductive, lady-like Adelaide Hall, chubby and charming Ella Fitzgerald, enticing Dorothy Dandridge. With music, song and her voice, she knew who she needed to become on stage—her first live performance.
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. While the clink of glasses and screeching barstools and chairs set around an array of tables echoed off black and white floor tiles, men gulped beers and whiskies, signaled for more, and edged sideways into tight spaces around the stage, waiting, nervous, impatient. When the piano man in blue vest and rolled shirt sleeves sat at the upright and struck a few notes, 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!” one husky sailor shouted and grabbed his crotch.
Suddenly two spotlights snapped on. In the momentary hush, nothing moved. One foot on a chair, elbow resting on her thigh, body slightly forward, her expression aloof, tantalizing, provocative, their Blues Diva was dressed in a tight black satin skirt decked with rows of black fringe. A slit, open on one side, revealed lacy garters hooked to seamed stockings that exposed a fleshy thigh. A gold scoop-necked blouse held her copious breasts as a demitasse might hold an exuberant cappuccino, gold pumps cradled her broad, pudgy feet, and same as Bessie Smith, a gold lamé band circled her head, a matching feather to one side.
When she sensed the right moment, she eased her foot off the chair and sashayed towards the edge of the stage, a sway, a dip, a hike in her hips, attentive to when the applause and shouting which had started up again would peak and once again simmer. It was then that she paused, inhaled, expanded her bosom and at last allowed her thick, rich, soulful tones to drift across the room like cigarette smoke.
When I was young, nothing but a child, You men tried to drive me wild.
She soothed their longings and caressed their desires.
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 coins, 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 weighted down by life’s burdens. Who did she have to share them with? But at night in front of a live audience, as if the stage had restorative powers, she felt freed from the grip that held her in check. As she clasped her rich auburn hair, or swished it around her neck and shoulders, moving her body to each bluesy tone, her heartaches and emotions ran rampant. No matter what 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 she did.
Though she had never been on a date with a man, much less had anyone offer himself as a suitor, she was drawn to emotionally charged titles. Without understanding every naughty inference embodied in the lyrics, she enjoyed numbers like Anybody Want To Buy My Cabbage?, Call Me When Your Drawers Are Down, or My Hard, Straight Handy Man.
On stage, in the spotlight, Bayla the factory girl became what every man in the audience wanted her to be.
“Again you 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—cabbage soup with 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 without expression as if Bayla couldn’t interpret her dark thoughts, darker than usual—prettying yourself as if you’re important. Leaving me behind again, in this wheelchair, every weekend, alone.
“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,” her mother shouted. “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,” she said, as she powder puffed her face with Max Factor’s Creamy Ivory. “I’ll get us out of here. You’ll see. First chance I get, I’ll get us out.”
Without warning, 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 cracked 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 body trembling as she gripped the edge of the kitchen table, an effort to control herself from her mother’s outburst. 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. Even when I’m not listening, I hear them. You think I won’t end up with more than this? I’ll get 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. She knew about the watered-down milk that made her bones weak, the lack of an orange that left her teeth rotten. She knew about the poverty, and not enough to eat, 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 over from the Old Country. Bayla had heard her mother’s coming-to-America story so often she could repeat it verbatim, imitating precisely her mother’s 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. His leaving was her fault, her childish disobedience: 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 boarding house, slept in the same bed used by night workers after I woke up. For that I came? And for this─a 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. And Mrs. Silverman, across the hall, she’ll stop by. You forget, she has our key. She’ll visit you. ”
“She calls me her friend.”
“Yes, Mama. A good friend. Come. It’s Friday night, sundown already. You’ll light the candle.”
Bayla took the plain white Shabbos candle from a small box on a kitchen shelf, lit a match, melted the bottom, and melded it onto the inside of a can. Her mother covered her head with a small white cloth, closed her eyes and circled her hands three times over the flame.
“Baruh atah adonay, eloheynu meleh ha’olam…”
” Now I’ll put you to bed. Look how tired you are. Come, give me your hands.”
“My dear child. My sheinah kinder. Yes. Put me to bed and go where you go. Maybe one day, by a miracle, a rich man will find you. A choshever mensch. And we’ll have money enough to light two Shabbos candles, as it should be.”
“Yes, Mama. Someone to take care of us.”
“Oi gottenu. I shouldn’t say such things aloud. The fates—”
“Again, the fates? Always the fates?” If you were too happy, you would attract an einhoreh; if you tried to better yourself, the fates were watching. With so much that could never be spoken, so much that could never be asked, there was little left of life to know or enjoy. Even thoughts had to be censored. The fates could divine those as well.
With her mother settled for the night, Bayla got on her hands and knees and gathered from the kitchen floor her makeup and hand mirror. A final glimpse convinced her she was more striking than beautiful—less a Harlow, more a Mae West. She smiled back at herself, satisfied she had done everything to prepare. Like Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, one day she too would preside over a kingdom where people would pay money to hear her sing.
“One day my mother will know what her daughter is made of,” Bayla said aloud inside the dank-smelling stairwell on her way out over the sound of an infant’s cry.