Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The El up 9th Avenue

The challenge set by Patti, over at Pattinase, was to write a short story, no more than a 1,000 words long, inspired by the art of Reginald Marsh.

The picture my story relates to is "Why not use the L" (1930) which is held in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

All the other stories are listed over on Patti's site, with some great contributors. Check them out.

Marian folded over The New York Post and peeked round the corner, swaying with the rhythm of the railcar. ‘How you doing, sugar?’

‘What?’ Elsie turned her head, her eyes blinking behind round glasses like a mole trying to adapt to sunlight. She’d been staring out the grimy window opposite. Perched thirty feet up on a steel frame, as the train passed the side streets she could catch glimpses of the dark waters of the Hudson River speckled with reflecting, fractured lights, and the flat expanse of New Jersey.

‘Are you doing okay, petal?’

Elsie nodded her head shyly, trying to block out the acrid, cloying smell of the bum next to her. Or perhaps he worked a manual job; something that built up a heat. Maybe he laboured at the docks or one of the waterfront factories. Regardless, his thick woollen coat was stained with oil and god knows what and reeked of wet dog and cheap liquor.

‘You want to take in a movie?’ Marian asked. ‘There’s a Gary Cooper talkie at Loew’s. Morocco. A romance about a legionnaire and a cabaret singer who meet in the desert. The canary’s that blond kraut with the bedroom eyes.’ Marian tapped the advert in the paper with a manicured nail. ‘Marlene Dietrich.’

‘I ... I’m not so taken with Gary Cooper,’ Elsie admitted.

The bum snorted a laugh without opening his eyes. ‘Honey, all you white broads love Gary Cooper.’

Elsie looked at Marian, but her companion’s amused smile offered little support.

‘Well ... well, I don’t.’ She preferred Clark Gable. He seemed more ... dashing.

‘Maybe you need to get those glasses checked, lady?’

‘And maybe you’d better mind your own business.’ She couldn’t quite believe she’d said it. Six months previously, when they’d first moved to the city seeking work and a little adventure, she wouldn’t have said boo to a goose. Marian had instantly slid into the bustle, noise, dirt and language of the city. Elsie still felt like she was living in an alien world.

The bum opened one eye, stared at her for a second, then closed it again.

‘Forget the movie palace, sisters,’ he mumbled. ‘The only place to be is Connie’s up on Seventh and 131st.’

The train pulled to a halt, passengers stepping out onto the platform.

Marian took a seat opposite Elsie. ‘That’s up in Harlem,’ she said.

‘Uh-huh.’ His eyes were still closed, his oversized cap pulled down low.

The train set off again, rocking and clunking to a rising beat.

‘Connie’s is a theater?’

‘Jazz club, honey. Satchmo hisself will be playing there tonight.’




‘Where you been at, Sister? Louie Armstrong. The top cat. Everyone knows Pops.’

‘It’s a ... black club?’

‘Only on the stage. White only out front. You’d fit right in, like snowflakes at the North Pole.’

‘So how do you know about it, if it’s a white’s only joint?’

‘I’s the best axe man from here to Chicago, kitten. Play there off and on.’

‘You’re in a band?’

‘Well ... I’ve played with them all. Fats, Duke, Ella, Cab, Dizzy. I set their rhythm rocking.’

The women stared across at one another, trying to decide if the bum was telling the truth.

‘I’s just ... I’s just between bands right now,’ he continued. ‘But I’ll be playing with Pops tonight. Pops always done right by Paws Jackson.’


He held up his massive hands, their palms pale, the fingertips calloused. He cracked open an eye to watch their reaction.

Marian’s eyes widened. She’d never seen fingers so thick and long. They were like something you’d see in a comic. Like giant octopi.

‘I could help get you muffins in, if you wanted. I know the doorman pretty good. He lets me store my fresh togs there, so I can make a bee-line straight from the front line.’

‘I ... I don’t ... I don’t think so,’ Elsie said, unable to believe that the ruffled man next to them was anything more than a bum or labourer; that they were even talking to him.

‘We’d need to get changed; if we’re going on the hop,’ Marian said.


‘You ladies look just fine. Workin’ girls are always welcome at Connie’s.’

‘We ain’t no working girls, Mister,’ Elsie said.

‘Sure you ain’t. I never said you were.’ Paws pulled a sly grin, closing his eyes again.

The train started to slow to a halt. Elsie rose to her feet and shuffled to the door, unable to hide her relief. ‘This is our stop, Marian.’

‘How about we head up to Harlem,’ her friend replied, not moving, ‘listen to some jazz?’

‘I don’t ... I don’t know.’ The Gary Cooper movie now sounded swell. They could watch the feature, grab a coffee and a bite to eat in Sammy’s before heading back to their cramped apartment.

‘You need to live a little, Sister,’ Paws said. ‘Let your hair down. Nobody going to put the drop on you less you want them to.’

‘I ...’

The train lurched, pulling out of the station, gaining speed.

Paws cracked open one eye and laughed. He could already feel the bass pounding, Pops’ trumpet blasting over the top, hitting sugary high notes.

There’d be some sweet music tonight.

Some info on Connie's Inn, Harlem (1923-33) can be found here.

A useful site for 1930s American slang can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Rob - What a fine story! You do a really effective job here of catching the cadence of jazz music and of the train car setting. I like Elsie and Marian, too. And you've done Pops just beautifully. Thanks for sharing!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I could really feel that train rocking along, Rob. Great story and the mood perfectly captures the painting. Thanks for the support.

J F Norris said...

I really enjoyed this one, Rob. Made me smile. Paws reminds me of a couple of people from my theater days. Also liked that feeling of you never know who is sitting next to you on the train. I think a lot of city dwellers like me who take trains do a lot of imaginary bio sketching in our heads about our fellow passengers. And something about Marsh evoking old movies is cropping up a lot in these flash stories, too.

Marylinn Kelly said...

What an affectionate, true sense of time and place - I love the Louis Armstrong poster included - and how life is made of the small moments, the encounters, our evolution.

sandra seamans said...

What a wonderful slice of the past, Rob. Great story!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Very nice -- an ending that's really a beginning.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

And nice illustrations, too!

Rob Kitchin said...

Hey, everybody, thanks for the positive feedback and glad you enjoyed. Fun to write this one. Drafted it in one sitting (writing and reading the Internet to get the historical stuff right) and it just slotted into place. Shame the El disappeared - would be a great way to see New York.

kathy d. said...

What a great story!

You told about New York,the mood of the El trains, three interesting people, jazz at that time -- even Louie Armstrong.

The story brought me to that scene, that time, and wondering what would happen next at the club.