Read City of Girls Online

Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls (4 page)

I walked behind her obediently—a baby duck following a mama duck.

I made no flimflam about it.

I thought to myself,
“A small fire?”
—but I did not have the courage
to ask.

THREE

A person only gets to move to New York City for the first time in her life
once,
Angela, and it’s a pretty big deal.

Perhaps this idea doesn’t hold any romance for you, since you are a born New Yorker. Maybe you take this splendid city of ours for granted. Or maybe you love it more than I do, in your own unimaginably intimate way. Without a doubt, you were lucky to be raised here. But
you never got to
move
here—and for that, I am sorry for you. You missed one of life’s great experiences.

New York City in 1940!

There will never be another New York like that one. I’m not defaming all the New Yorks that came before 1940, or all the New Yorks that came after 1940. They all have their importance. But this is a city that gets born anew in the fresh eyes of every young person who
arrives here for the first time. So
that
city,
that
place—newly created for my eyes only—will never exist again. It is preserved forever in my memory like an orchid trapped in a paperweight. That city will always be my perfect New York.

You can have your perfect New York, and other people can have theirs—but that one will always be mine.

It wasn’t a long ride from Grand Central to the Lily Playhouse—we
just cut straight across town—but our taxi took us through the heart of Manhattan, and that’s always the best way for a newcomer to feel the muscle of New York. I was all atingle to be in the city and I wanted to look at everything at once. But then I remembered my manners and tried for a spell to make conversation with Olive. Olive, however, wasn’t the sort of person who seemed to feel
that the air needed to be constantly filled up with words, and her peculiar answers only brought me more questions—questions that I sensed she would be unwilling to further discuss.

“How long have you worked for my aunt?” I asked her.

“Since Moses was in nappies.”

I pondered that for a bit. “And what are your duties at the theater?”

“To catch things that are falling through midair, right before
they hit the ground and shatter.”

We drove on for a while in silence, and I let
that
sink in.

I tried one more time: “What sort of show is playing at the theater tonight?”

“It’s a musical. It’s called
Life with Mother
.”

“Oh! I’ve heard of it.”

“No, you haven’t. You’re thinking of
Life with Father
. That was a play on Broadway last year. Ours is called
Life with Mother
. And ours is a musical.”

I wondered:
Is that legal?
Can you just take a title of a major Broadway hit like that, change a single word, and make it your own? (The answer to that question—at least in 1940, at the Lily Playhouse—was: sure.)

I asked, “But what if people buy tickets to your show by mistake, thinking that they’re going to see
Life with Father
?”

Olive, flatly: “Yes. Wouldn’t that be unfortunate.”

I was starting
to feel young and stupid and annoying, so I stopped talking. For the rest of the taxi ride, I got to just look out the window. It was plenty entertaining to watch the city go by. There were glories to see in all directions. It was late in the evening in midtown Manhattan on a fine summer night, so nothing can be better than that. It had just rained. The sky was purple and dramatic. I saw glimpses
of mirrored skyscrapers, neon signs, and shining wet streets. People sprinted, bolted, strolled, and stumbled down the sidewalks. As we passed through Times Square, mountains of artificial lights spewed out their lava of white-hot news and instant advertising. Arcades and taxi-dance halls and movie palaces and cafeterias and theaters flashed by, bewitching my eyes.

We turned onto Forty-first
Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. This was not a beautiful street back then, and it still isn’t beautiful today. At that time, it was mostly a tangle of fire escapes for the more important buildings that faced Fortieth and Forty-second Streets. But there in the middle of that unlovely block was the Lily Playhouse, my Aunt Peg’s theater—all lit up with a billboard that read
Life with Mother
.

I can still see it in my mind today. The Lily was a great big lump of a thing, crafted in a style that I know now is Art Nouveau, but which I recognized then only as
heavy duty
. And boy howdy, did that lobby go out of its way to prove to you that you’d arrived somewhere important. It was all gravity and darkness—rich woodwork, carved ceiling panels, bloodred ceramic tiles, and serious old Tiffany
light fixtures. All over the walls were tobacco-stained paintings of bare-breasted nymphs cavorting with gangs of satyrs—and it sure looked like one of those nymphs was about to get herself in trouble in the family way, if she
wasn’t careful. Other murals showed muscular men with heroic calves wrestling with sea monsters in a manner that looked more erotic than violent. (You got the sense that
the muscular men didn’t
want
to win the battle, if you see my point.) Still other murals showed dryads struggling their way out of trees, tits first, while naiads splashed about in a river nearby, throwing water on each other’s naked torsos in a spirit that was very much
whoopee!
Thickly carved vines of grapes and wisteria (and lilies, of course!) climbed up every column. The effect was quite
bordello. I loved it.

“I’ll take you straight to the show,” Olive said, checking her watch, “which is nearly over, thank God.”

She pushed open the big doors that led into the playhouse itself. I’m sorry to report that Olive Thompson entered her place of work with the demeanor of one who might rather not
touch
anything within it, but I myself was dazzled. The interior of the theater was really
something quite stunning—a huge, golden-lit, fading old jewel box of a place. I took it all in—the sagging stage, the bad sight lines, the hefty crimson curtains, the cramped orchestra pit, the overgilded ceiling, the menacingly glittery chandelier that you could not look at without thinking, “Now, what if that thing should fall down . . . ?”

It was all grandiose, it was all crumbling. The Lily
reminded me of Grandmother Morris—not only because my grandmother had loved gawdy old playhouses like this, but also because my grandmother had
looked
like this: old, overdone, and proud, and decked to the nines in out-of-date velvet.

We stood against the back wall, although there were plenty of seats to be had. In fact, there were not many more people in the audience than onstage, it appeared.
I was not the only one who noticed this fact. Olive took a quick head count, wrote the number in a small notebook which she had pulled out of her pocket, and sighed.

As for what was going on up there on the stage, it was dizzying.
This, indeed, had to be the end of the show, because there was a
lot
happening at once. At the back of the stage there was a kick line of about a dozen dancers—girls
and boys—grinning madly as they flung their limbs up toward the dusty heavens. At center stage, a good-looking young man and a spirited young woman were tap-dancing as though to save their lives, while singing at full bellow about how everything was going to be just fine from now on, my baby, because you and me are in
love
! On the left side of the stage was to be found a phalanx of showgirls,
whose costumes and movements kept them just on the correct side of moral permissibility, but whose contribution to the story—whatever that story may have been—was unclear. Their task seemed to be to stand with their arms outstretched, slowly turning, so that you could take in the full Amazonian qualities of their figures from every angle, at your leisure. On the other side of the stage, a man dressed
as a hobo was juggling bowling pins.

Even for a finale, it went on for an awfully long time. The orchestra banged forth, the kick line pounded away, the happy and breathless couple couldn’t believe how
terrific
their lives were about to get, the showgirls slowly displayed their figures, the juggler sweated and hurled—until suddenly, with a crash of every instrument at once, and a swirl of spotlights,
and wild flinging up of everyone’s arms in the air at the same time, it ended!

Applause.

Not thunderous applause. More like a light drizzle of applause.

Olive didn’t clap. I clapped politely, though my clapping sounded lonely there at the back of the hall. The applause didn’t last long. The performers had to exit the stage in semisilence, which is never good. The audience filed past us dutifully,
like workers heading home for the day—which is exactly what they were.

“Do you think they liked it?” I asked Olive.

“Who?”

“The audience.”

“The
audience
?” Olive blinked, as though it had never occurred to her to wonder what an audience thought of a show. After a bit of consideration, she said, “You must understand, Vivian, that our audiences are neither full of excitement when they arrive
at the Lily, nor overwhelmed with elation when they leave.”

From the way she said this, it sounded as though she approved of the arrangement, or at least had accepted it.

“Come,” she said. “Your aunt will be backstage.”

So backstage we went—straight into the busy, wanton clamor that always erupts in the wings at the end of a show. Everyone moving, everyone yelling, everyone smoking, everyone
undressing. The dancers were lighting cigarettes for each other, and the showgirls were removing their headdresses. A few men in overalls were shuffling props around, but not in any way that would cause them to break a sweat. There was a lot of loud, overripe laughter, but that’s not because anything was particularly funny; it’s just because these were show-business people, and that’s how they always
are.

And there was my Aunt Peg, so tall and sturdy, clipboard in hand. Her chestnut-and-gray hair was cut in an ill-considered short style that made her look somewhat like Eleanor Roosevelt, but with a better chin. Peg was wearing a long, salmon-colored twill skirt and what could have been a man’s oxford shirt. She also wore tall blue knee socks and beige moccasins. If that sounds like an unfashionable
combination, it was. It was unfashionable then, it would be unfashionable today, and it will remain unfashionable until the sun explodes. Nobody has ever looked good in a salmon-colored twill skirt, a blue oxford shirt, knee socks, and moccasins.

Her frumpy look was only thrown into starker relief by the fact that
she was talking to two of the ravishingly beautiful showgirls from the play. Their
stage makeup gave them a look of otherworldly glamour, and their hair was piled in glossy coils on the tops of their heads. They were wearing pink silk dressing gowns over their costumes, and they were the most overtly sexual visions of womanhood I had ever seen. One of the showgirls was a blonde—a
platinum,
actually—with a figure that would’ve made Jean Harlow gnash her teeth in jealous despair.
The other was a sultry brunette whose exceptional beauty I’d noticed earlier, from the back of the theater. (Though I should not get any special credit for noticing how stunning this particular woman was; a Martian could have noticed it . . .
from Mars
.)

“Vivvie!” Peg shouted, and her grin lit up my world. “You made it, kiddo!”

Kiddo!

Nobody had ever called me kiddo, and for some reason it
made me want to run into her arms and cry. It was also so encouraging to be told that I had
made it—
as though I’d accomplished something! In truth, I’d accomplished nothing more impressive than first getting kicked out of school, and then getting kicked out of my parents’ house, and finally getting lost in Grand Central Station. But her delight in seeing me was a balm. I felt so welcome. Not only
welcome, but
wanted
.

“You’ve already met Olive, our resident zookeeper,” Peg said. “And this is Gladys, our dance captain—”

The platinum-haired girl grinned, snapped her gum at me, and said, “Howyadoin?”

“—and this is Celia Ray, one of our showgirls.”

Celia extended her sylphlike arm and said in a low voice, “A pleasure. Charmed to meet you.”

Celia’s voice was incredible. It wasn’t just the
thick New York accent; it was the deep gravelly tone. She was a showgirl with the voice of Lucky Luciano.

“Have you eaten?” Peg asked me. “Are you starved?”

“No,” I said. “Not
starved,
I wouldn’t say. But I haven’t had proper dinner.”

“We’ll go out, then. Let’s go have a few gallons of drinks and catch up.”

Olive interjected, “Vivian’s luggage hasn’t been brought upstairs yet, Peg. Her suitcases
are still in the lobby. She’s had a long day, and she’ll want to freshen up. What’s more, we should give notes to the cast.”

“The boys can bring her things upstairs,” Peg said. “She looks fresh enough to me. And the cast doesn’t need notes.”

“The cast always needs notes.”

“Tomorrow we can fix it” was Peg’s vague answer, which seemed to satisfy Olive not at all. “I don’t want to talk about business
just now. I could
murder
a meal, and what’s worse I have a powerful thirst. Let’s just go out, can’t we?”

By now, it sounded like Peg was begging for Olive’s permission.

“Not tonight, Peg,” said Olive firmly. “It’s been too long a day. The girl needs to rest and settle in. Bernadette left a meat loaf upstairs. I can make sandwiches.”

Peg looked a little deflated, but cheered up again within
the next minute.

“Upstairs, then!” she said. “Come, Vivvie! Let’s go!”

Here’s something I learned over time about my aunt: whenever she said “Let’s go!” she meant that whoever was in earshot was also invited. Peg always moved in a crowd, and she wasn’t picky about who was in the crowd, either.

So that’s why our gathering that night—held upstairs, in the living quarters of the Lily Playhouse—included
not only me and Aunt Peg and her secretary, Olive, but also Gladys and Celia, the showgirls. A
last-minute addition was a fey young man whom Peg collared as he was heading toward the stage door. I recognized him as a dancer in the show. Once I got up close to him, I could see that he looked about fourteen years old, and he also looked as if he could use a meal.

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