|STOMPIN' AT THE SAVOY|
STORY by Willard Manus
She was the only girl I'd ever picked up on the subway. I'd never even thought such a thing were possible. Sure, there had been plenty of times when I'd made eye contact with a girl, exchanged looks of admiration, curiosity or lust, but to go and actually strike up a conversation with a stranger and end up getting off the train with her--that belonged to the world of fantasy.
The one time it did happen, though, was when I was on my way home, riding the White Plains Road train late at night, well after midnight. I was coming back from a jazz club where I'd gone to catch Eddie Condon's dixieland band. I'd drunk numerous beers and was pleasantly numbed by alcohol and fatigue, so much so that I didn't even notice the girl staring at me from across the aisle, not until we had come out of the tunnel at l38th Street and were rumbling down the elevated tracks that slashed through the heart of the Bronx.
She was black, small and demure-looking, a young girl with a shy but flirty smile that suggested innocent yet interested sexuality. From the way her eyes were fixed on me, I had the feeling she'd been looking me over for some time.
The feeling was reinforced when I gazed back at her, taking her in. She didn't drop her eyes or turn away. She was on the sleek, supple side, with very little chest showing under her peach- colored summer dress, though her legs were slim and shapely and her silky-black hair was beautifully shaped around an open, smiling face. Her eyes were dark as her hair, her skin a soft, glowing ebony. She gave off a sweet, warm quality that was as appealing as her smile.
Jackson Avenue went by, then Prospect and Intervale. The train stopped at all local stations at this hour, accompanied by the usual IRT ound effects--grinding brakes, hissing doors, hiccuping air-conditioning. Onward and northward the train went, with the two of us the only passengers in the gently-rocking compartment. She never took her eyes off me.
It was disconcerting to be examined like this, so openly and boldly. This was the way men were supposed to look at women, not the other way around.
It was time to make a move. Fully expecting to be rejected, I got up and moved across the aisle and sat by her side.
"Hi," I said. "My name is Eric. How far are you going on this train?"
"I get off at Freeman," she said in a soft, girlish voice that had a southern lilt to it.
"You coming back from work?"
She nodded and confided that she was a trainee nurse at Bellevue Hospital. Her name was Abigail. I asked her about her work, whether she liked it or not, banal things like that. She gave me brief, tentative answers and I realized how unsure of herself she was, even a little apprehensive. Surprisingly, though, she did not attempt to discourage or rebuff me, not even when our thighs accidentally brushed and we felt each other's body heat.
She did not recoil, either, when I suggested, with skipping heart, that we get off at Freeman and go somewhere together.
All she did was lower her eyes and stare at her shoes.
We got off the train and walked the length of the platform. The July night was corrosive with heat and it smelled of the South Bronx-- tenements, tar roofs, Puerto Rican food. In the vacuum of silence left by the departing train, a woman's voice could be heard. It came from one of the buildings backdropping the station, an open-window cry that was throaty and passionate, the cry of a woman being satisfied in bed. Abigail listened to the unmistakable night-music and glanced sideways at me, smiling a little.
As we descended the stairs and came out on Freeman Avenue, I learned that she was from Georgia and had been in New York for just six months. She came from a family of farmers, followers of the revivalist Daddy Grace.
I was hoping that she had her own place as I was back living with my parents, having just returned from six months of bumming around in Mexico. I'd given up my Greenwich Village pad before leaving and hadn't had time to find another one. Bad news. She was staying with family as well-- her brother Hiram. We'd have to find a hotel. Flagging a cab, I asked the driver if he knew of one around here. A burly black guy, he gave Abigail a withering, whatchu-doin'-with-this-honky? kind of look, and set off for the Hunts Point section. As we drove, I put my arm around Abigail and kissed her. Her mouth was soft and yielding, but when I slipped a hand down her dress I discovered a flat, hard surface.
"Wait a minute," I said, sitting back, " what is this?
I studied her closely.
"You're not a boy, are you?"
"How could you say an awful thing like that?"
"You've got nothing there, nothing at all! Is that why you picked me up, because you're a boy?"
Her eyes flashed with rage as she matched my outburst with one of her own.
"What in hell are you talkin' about?" she cried. "I'm a girl, dammit--I'm a girl!"
* * *
We never did find a place to shack up. Two of the flophouses the cabbie tried were locked up for the night and the other was fully booked. So in the end I took Abigail home. It was four in the morning before I finally flopped into my own bed.
I did call her the next day, though, if only to apologize for my insulting behavior. She accepted the apology begrudgingly, but lightened up after a while and even managed to joke about our frustrating and anti-climactic night together.
I asked her if she still wanted to go out. There was a pause, then a sound of assent. I picked her up that Saturday night in a car borrowed from my friend Sandy Gerber. He had also loaned me his apartment, his parents having just left for a week in the Catskills. I took Abigail to the Savoy Ballroom to catch the Count Basie band. I loved the Savoy but rarely visited it if only because most of my white friends were afraid to go to Harlem. It was Abigail's first time here and she loved the big, glittering club as much as I did. We ate ribs and drank beer for dinner and felt grown-up and sophisticated, part of a crowd of elegantly dressed people with diamonds on their fingers and slicked-back hair that reflected the red and blue lights bouncing off the revolving ball in the ceiling.
Abigail wore a purple velvet dress and had spent a lot of time on her face, which was smoothly beautiful with a heavily lipsticked mouth that brushed against mine when we took to the dance floor, dipping and swaying to the music of Basie's band. She had also done miraculous things with her hair, which had been separated into crisscrossed strands held together by four boomerang-shaped combs. "You look like an African princess," I told her. The remark made her giggle.
Soon the Savoy's house band took over. It was led by Al Cooper and began to outblow the Basie band, putting it to shame, really, with its ferocious ensemble playing and distinctive, top-register solos.
Abigail had grown up on church music and so all this raw, red- hot jazz seemed both sinful and exciting to her, doubly so in that she was one of the few women in the ballroom with a white boy in her arms. Her eyes glowed as we glided round the floor, goaded on by Rudy Williams' alto saxophone which sang urgently and bawdily of the pleasures of love.
When the Savoy Sultans switched to an uptempo number, Abigail wanted to quit the floor. "I don't know how to jitterbug," she admitted.
"Nothing to it," I said. "Just shake your money-maker."
My steps, learned from my three sisters, were reasonably nimble, but they paled in comparison to the footwork of most of the other dancers. Darting this way and that, executing turns and twirls and high-flying leaps that brought roars of approval from the onlookers, these dancers were phenomenal, the perfect complement to the Sultans' rapid-fire, wall-shaking musical virtuosity.
It didn't take Abigail long to learn how to jitterbug and once she got the technique down she began to throw her slim, supple body around, throwing her arms out and wriggling her hands, teasing a response out of me. I began to dance as I never had before.
When our breath and energy gave out, we joined the throng that had gathered at the bandstand to cheer the Sultans on.
"Go go go!" we shouted as Rudy Williams put his head back, closed his eyes and blew up a storm of rapidly ascending notes and phrases that never seemed to end or lose power. He kept pumping the dancers up, inspiring them to move even faster and harder. The men flung their women up in the air, over their backs, between their legs in dazzlingly complex, high-flying routines that sparked cheers and went on until their partners began to cry for mercy. Only then would Williams switch to a ballad, a tune with a heavy, funky beat that made me reach out for Abigail and press her tight against me. We danced as one, dry-humping away until neither of us could stand it any longer.
Back to the Bronx we went, to Sandy's place, where I led her straigh to the bedroom and sat her down. Her brown eyes had been shadowed and she wore false eyelashes that made her seem vaguely Oriental. I asked her if she were a virgin.
She said no, but admitted that I was her first white boy.
"We're even," I told her. "You're my first colored girl."
None of that mattered once we started to make love. Skin color wasn't important and neither was the fact that her chest was flat and smooth as marble, except of course for her brown nipples, which grew hard and pointy when she became aroused.
Abigail was a bewitching lover, a small, wriggling, hard- rocking girl who gave and gave of herself, moaning sweet, sassy things, kissing and tonguing incessantly, filling me with a deep- rooted, aching desire for her.
The desire deepened into love over the next few weeks, despite the fact that we didn't have much in common except for sex and the Savoy. Abigail had never read a book, knew nothing of politics or sports or the theatre. Her world was work and church; she went every Sunday with her brother to Daddy Grace's storefront chapel on 125th Street to sing and praise the Lord.
After resisting for a while, I finally went with her to the services at Daddy Grace's, which turned out to be every bit as exciting as our Saturday nights at the Savoy. The preacher was rabid with fire and brimstone, but the music made up for it with its driving beat and honking solos and hallelujahs to God. All that passion, that spirited call and response, that outpouring of emotion, got to me. I could see myself becoming a believer, giving myself over to this place of transcendental devotion, acceptance and thanksgiving.
The acceptance was all-important. Although mine was the only white face to be seen here, no one made me feel unwanted or ill at ease. On the contrary, the preacher and many of his followers embraced me after each ceremony, murmuring, "Welcome, welcome, brother, glad to have you aboard."
The same held true for Abigail's brother, Hiram. Although he knew we were sleeping together, he also knew I truly did love her. I can't say that he was wild about our affair, but there was no question that he tolerated it.
The black world had opened its doors to me, but the same could not be said about my world, the white world. I could just imagine the consternation, the outrage, the disapproval on the part of my parents if I'd let it drop that I was going steady with a black girl.
The same held true for my friends. I'd only confided in a few of them about Abigail; all but Sandy Gerber shook their heads or made some kind of racially snide joke. The prejudice was palpable, humbling, angering.
Abigail became my secret, my skeleton in the closet. I stopped talking about her, but continued to see her every weekend, shunting with her between the Savoy, Daddy Grace and Hiram's apartment. Now that I'd committed myself to Abigail--and, even more important, gone to church with her--Hiram had decided that it was all right for me to share her bedroom.
A couple of months later, though, he sat me down and asked me if I were planning on marrying Abigail. A deliberate, heavyset man who as a supervisor for the Park Department, he kept his voice low and calm. He wasn't trying to put pressure on me, he assured, just trying to ascertain my intentions.
I told him what I had already told Abigail: that marriage was out of the question right now. I didn't bring up the black-white issue; I merely pointed out the practical obstacles in our way: she was a student nurse, I was a poor, struggling writer still living at home in order to scrape by--though I did have a lead on a job at a public relations agency that might pay a living wage.
"If the job holds up, I'll be able to get my own place--and start thinking of the future," I told him.
He merely grunted at that. Despite his obvious displeasure at my response, he still continued to cut me a lot of slack as the weeks went by.
What worked in my favor was the way Abigail kept blossoming. She loved her studies and was held in high regard by her teachers. She was getting used to New York as well, shedding some of her country-girl innocence and timidity. Not that she lost any of her charms, though--the smile remained magnetic, flirty; the eyes still searched my face as I spoke, reacting to my every word. I'd never met anyone who was so easy to be with, so devoid of guile, meanness, hostility.
She was also becoming a fabulous dancer, much in demand at the Savoy. Her body moved effortlessly and lightly, as if she were hollow, gravity-free. She had also learned all kinds of new steps and moves which were beyond my capabilities, so I mostly watched while she danced, with one partner after another, always smiling, even laughing, as they tossed her over their shoulders and slung her between their legs, her skirt billowing up and revealing a glimpse of pink panties and black thighs.
"Go, girl, go," people would shout from the sidelines, "strut yo' stuff, child!"
And when she did just that, with the Savoy Sultans goading her on, I wanted the moment to last forever--the music, the dancers, Abigail flashing her smile as she jitterbugged away, a smile that lit up my heart. But of course nothing lasts forever, especially not the kind of false happiness I was feeling, a happiness based on secrets and evasion, a refusal to reckon up to my own shortcomings as a man.
I was spared that reckoning, that test of moral courage, though, when Abigail suddenly let it drop that she had to return to Georgia. Her mother, who'd been living alone on the family farm, had suffered a stroke and needed Abigail to take care of her, long term.
Since it would be impossible for a white and a black to live together in the rural south, going to Georgia with her was out of the question. What would I do there anyway?
Abigail knew it and I knew it: it was all over between us. We said or goodbyes and shed our tears and went our separate ways.
In the weeks that followed, though, I felt a guilty sense of relief along with the sadness. I'd dodged a tough test, a big battle, and while it made my life easier to live, it seemed to also shrivel my soul.
I never went back to the Savoy Ballroom--or even so much as looked at another black girl--after that.