There is a lot more to tell about that Sunday.
The regular edition of the Mirror is hitting the streets by 5 a.m. and George wants his pics in by 10 p.m. the night before, to get a rough on the space, but in this case there was likely to be a need for added info because of Tommy, so I decided to write up the basics I had in my head first thing when I got home—only after I got down a few cups of coffee and something to eat.
When I can, I like to sleep late on Sundays and then go over to Morgy’s for the full breakfast. This Sunday, it already being ten o’clock and plenty late enough, and given that I’d been up since it was dark, I went directly to Morgy’s from the hotel, a brisk little walk of twenty blocks or so, and sat right down to eat.
Doc had a mug full of black on the counter as I settled on the stool and propped the bag safely between my feet. Then I dumped enough sugar in the cup to raise Doc’s left eyebrow and pulled my notebook out of the bag to start writing things up there before anything gets too vague. Got two words out of the pencil: ‘black hair.’
Doc says, “Early call?”
I say, “Yeah. Up at the Hotel Penn.”
Doc threw a few pieces of half-cooked bacon on the griddle.
“Say. You seen Benny Goodman up there yet?”
I lied a little, “Yeah.”
“How was it?”
“He was polite.”
“What’d ya mean?”
“He was in the elevator.”
Doc bowed his head over like he was going to fall asleep on account of my snoozer. So I added, “Yeah. But I really gotta get up there to see him play before he quits town again.”
Doc leaned in on his elbows while my eggs sizzled. “My daughter went up to the Paramount to see them. Only cost her two bits. Got up early for the morning show and skipped school. She went nuts. Dancing in the aisles, she says.”
“They play loud. Kids like that. That’s probably the new guy, Ziggy Elman.”
“Him and Krupa and James too. They’ve all picked it up I hear. My daughter thinks that Harry James is just swell. Southern drawl and all. Plays smooth AND loud. Can’t beat that.”
“Those Southern boys have an unfair advantage. They don’t speak regular American. It’s as bad as having a Ronald Colman around.”
There is an old fellow in a Greek cap and a navy blue wool peacoat that he has buttoned up even in the warmth of the diner. He’s often in the booth at the near corner, and he looks up from his usual study on a mug of coffee and says, “Not the way it used to be. When I was young, the English girls always took a fancy to the Yanks.”
By the time that chitchat was done, my eggs and hash were in front of me and I never got the chance to write anything else down.
My apartment on Perry Street is basically two rooms on the third floor front of a narrowish building near 7th. You can tell by the look of it, the real estate there was once an empty backyard to the bigger building around the corner on Seventh that somebody decided to squeeze a little more rent from. But it’s cheap. And I like being close to the Village. The subway is a couple blocks away, one way or the other. And so is Morgy’s. And Vito’s shoe shop. (Vito puts new soles on my Florsheims every few months. With all the walking I do I get an extra year out of them that way). Sal’s Produce Market is around the corner on 8th. And Mary’s New Laundry. (Don’t know where the old one was but I don’t think Mary is there anyway. An elderly Chinese woman named Mrs. Lee takes your duds and gives you a tag and in twenty-four hours you have it all back clean and pressed. Pay a dollar extra and you can get them express in four hours or less. Can’t beat that.) It’s like living in a hotel, but with a little rain between things on some days.
More like a hotel with a hole in the roof.
My bedroom does have a bed. But most of that space is taken up with tables and equipment. The foot of the bed goes right under where the drying rack is. I’ve blackened the window and use it as my darkroom. Better not to wait in line down at the Mirror. True, it stinks like stale vinegar with developing fluid if I haven’t washed things down enough, and that happens a lot. So, I tend to sleep in the front room on the couch instead, except when I have to sleep in the daytime and the dark is just what I need. The couch is a fold-up and works just fine. The kitchenette is at the side there. It’s good for making coffee and a little oatmeal but that’s it. There are only two burners for the gas. The icebox won’t freeze anything even if I remember to buy the ice at the corner market on my way in. So I eat out a lot. The toilet works just fine as well, if I don’t yank the chain too hard. The tub is good for showers and I have a curtain up in there and use a rubber hose thingamajig for that. The bathroom sink is so small it barely holds my spit when I brush my teeth so I usually wash my face in the kitchen. And that’s the picture for that.
I took a shower first when I got home from Morgy’s. That washes away a lot more than the grime.
It was not even noon before I was in the dark again, playing with the pictures I’d taken at the hotel. By one o’clock I know I have a few that George would want, but there are a couple that puzzled me and I went back in the room and blew those up to get a better look.
Like I said before, you can see some things in black and white that you don’t in living color. It simplifies the contrasts. Then too, when you frame something, it focuses your attention.
Let me make a list.
There was only one pillow on the bed. It was a big bed. A pillow might be good for knocking the sound down on a gun. (Maybe the medical examiner took the other one?)
There was what looked like makeup on the top sheet the cops used to cover the body. I know the difference between makeup and dirt and blood, even in black and white.
There was blood on the bed, right about at the center, and not a splatter. But the guy had fallen over to the floor and bled out there on the carpet.
There were bruises on his body. Like he had been punched in the mid-section. Those marks were very light because the lividity had gathered all the blood that was left at his back, but the hits still showed in the gray.
The guy had a big shvantz. And he was circumcised.
I skipped the subway and walked uptown again, back to the hotel to check with the maid who’d brought the shined shoes to the room the evening before. She was on duty from 2 to 10. I caught her hanging up her coat in the employee room in the basement. She was polite but clearly did not want to talk. She said the police had already spoken to her several times. She didn’t know a thing other than that the guy was cheap. I had a buck left in my pocket from breakfast and thought it might help the cause, but she gave me a look like I was a creep for that (though I had the passing thought then that if it were a sawbuck she might have acted differently).
She said, “I just don’t know anything.”
I said, “I understand. But sometimes people see things they don’t know they’re seeing.”
She says, “Really?”
A hand went to her hip. She was not buying.
I flicked my photographer’s press badge on my hat. “Geez. How do you think I make a living? If people saw everything on the first go, I’d be out of a job.”
“Why are YOU asking so many questions then? I thought that was a reporter’s job?”
“So I’ll know what to take a picture of. What do you think?”
Right then I woke up. It already felt like a long day and that was my ready excuse, but a guy ought to notice if he is talking to a good-looking girl. She is an Irish brunette and I have a liking in that category.
I said, “When do you get a break? Maybe we can have a cup of coffee and talk things over then.”
She bolted upright with indignation.
“No! All you want is information and I’m not your pigeon!”
She left me after that knockdown. But it was just as well. I had to get out to Brooklyn later for Sunday dinner and I don’t need the squeeze on time.
I went up from there to the Bell Captain’s stand in the lobby. Best to start at the top, I figure. I asked him if I could get back in the room because I might have left something in there earlier.
He looks at me for the jerk I am.
“What? Your pictures didn’t come out?”
“Something like that.”
I take the dollar out of my pocket again as a last ditch effort and he raises one eyebrow on me.
He says, “I’m busy,” but then takes the dollar with his left hand, steps away behind the front desk and comes back with the key. He does this very surreptitiously. Then says “Don’t look for me when you’ve finished. Just leave the key here on the stand.”
My first thought is to question his motives. Looking a gift horse in the mouth is getting to be a habit for me lately. I don’t think I am going to last a long time in this business. But a buck doesn’t usually buy you diddly-squat in New York and the Bell Captain knew the value of a buck.
Guess who it is in the elevator again. He dips his head a little but there is suspicion in his eyes. There is no dame with him this time.
I say ‘Hello’ again, and try to sound like an old friend.
In the room, the sheets were off the bed, and the one pillow lay naked on top. Oddly, the room still had the string from side to side between the doorknobs to the adjacent suites at either side. So I duck under that, step over the bloodstain and peek into the bathroom. It looked clean. But there was a faint ring of something dark around the drain in the sink. My thumbnail picks it right up. I could not get a good shot on it though, with the camera, not with all the white porcelain, so I went on to the next thing.
I pulled the desk chair over and stood on that to get an angle down from where the bullet went into the wall. The cops had already reamed the lead out of the hole, but I thought the spatter had an interesting aspect to it. It looked more like it had been tossed up on there than blasted. I took a shot of that. Looking back down at the bed, I could see the chalk and tape on the carpet where someone had roughly tried to mark the position of the body. But that was all wrong too. The guy was supposedly on his back when he was found. Just like we saw him. If he was shot in the face where he supposedly stood by the bed, he would have belly-flopped. And sure, he might have made an involuntary pirouette, or bounced off the mattress. That would account for the blood on the sheets, maybe. But he was likely dead when he hit the floor. He didn’t roll over on his own.
Of course, the medical examiner might have moved the body a little. But I figured that someone had pulled the feet around. That would account for the space, about six inches, between where his body had been when I was there before and the leak of blood out the back of his head. The blood looked dull and black now on that brown carpet. I made a bet to myself that he had just come out of the bathroom when he was shot. I took another pic of the area for good measure, so to speak.
And then, in walks Detective Barnes.
Of course, the Bell Captain had already given me my excuse.
The detective says, “What are you doing here?”
I say, “I was a little rushed before, because I got here late. I had my settings wrong. Nothing came out.”
He’s not buying that either.
“Right. How did you get the key?”
“I asked for it.”
He rolls his eyes like a girl. “Jesus Christ. They were told not to give that out.”
I shrugged. “Change of shifts. New guy probably didn’t even know.”
I kept my own counsel concerning the discrepancies. Jack Barnes wasn’t necessarily the one to know about those in any case and he wouldn’t be telling me his secrets.
But I had one last thing on my agenda before I left, so I held my camera up like I was going to take another picture from the other wall and instead I opened the window. It came right up with one hand. Good hotels are like that.
Barnes says, “What are you doing?”
I say, “I needed some air. Sorry.”
What I saw was only about a seven or eight-foot drop to the inner roof that covered part of the main floor of what they call the ‘Madhattan Room,’ just below. I figured Benny and his boys would have been pretty damn loud from there. Like a private concert.
I don’t think it’s pride that makes me say my mom and dad are an unlikely couple. Just the facts of the matter.
Before she was a wife, and a mother, and a cook, Dorothy Ellen Dean was a graduate of Mills College, in Oakland, California, and the daughter of a professor and lawyer who’d been a judge. She’s quick tempered and opinionated. She is tall, at least six feet, but so was her mother, and her father was taller still. And because she is not a small woman, when her temper flares, there is an immediate sense of danger. Her hand on my backside is well and fairly remembered. Her voice can go stone cold as easily as it sings a song. She can divide and multiply numbers in her head faster than I can calculate on paper, and a common sound in our house when I was growing up was something like my dad’s recent plaintive request, ‘Dory. They sell those pens by the gross. They weigh about an ounce apiece. What’ll it cost us if they want fourteen cents each and the freight is three cents to the pound.’
Daniel James McNeill is a sailor. He has always billed himself that way. My mom says ‘He only calls me Dory because it reminds him of a little boat.’ He’s the second son of a failed New Hampshire apple farmer and went to sea at an early age, only to come ashore again for good cause. While on leave, he’d met a young girl in Oakland, California, that he could not get out of his mind. He is not six feet tall, but what there is of him is mostly brawn. And this appearance has always been at odds to the fact that for many years now he has sold stationery in a little shop in Manhattan and contented himself with that, though he’s never looked the part.
Mom always has Sunday dinner ready at four o’clock. It’s up to me these days to make it home to Sterling Place, and I wasn’t going to be late for it.
My older sister Kate is married and living in Chicago. My younger sister Esther is away at school in Boston. My older brother Ben is a wholesale buyer for Dad and about a dozen other shops and spends most of his time in Europe (though I suspect that has something more to do with a girl). Ben even has a flat in London, and if I can save a couple hundred bucks, I’ll catch a freighter and get over there to stay with him someday, sooner than later. My little brother, Erik, is in the Merchant Marine like my dad once was. He’s on a ship somewhere in the Pacific, and he’s not good about writing.
I’m home just in time. This is the way that looks.
The table is a long one. It’s called a ‘trestle’ type and it is fairly battered from surviving our childhood, so mom always has it covered with tablecloths. It seats twelve; fourteen in a pinch when Kate and her husband come to visit with their kids, Dorothy and Dan. Right now several chairs are pulled back so we can all breathe easier.
The buffet is set out with a lamb roast, carrots and potatoes, a boatload of gravy, and a fresh loaf of bread. Mr. Oliphant is piling it up on his plate like it’s his last meal. He’s only a bank teller at Brooklyn Savings and Loan, but he’s fatter than a bank president and has the neat little mustache to match.
Stacy White, who is contradictorily very black, and her son Gary, have already served themselves and are sitting down at the other end of the table from Dad and Mom. Stacy helps mom and several others in the neighborhood with the housekeeping. Her chair is next to Mr. Oliphant’s at that end and because she’s a very thin woman, the contrast with Mr. Oliphant when he finally sits down is more dramatic than a matter of skin color. Her boy, Gary, is a husky lad, just turned nine now and has grown several inches in the past week.
Mrs. Tisdale, sits next to Gary. She is a remarkably petite woman, and an assistant in the children’s section at the Brooklyn Public Library. I wonder how often she’s mistaken for one of her customers. I calculate that by next week, Gary will be just about as tall as she is.
Across from Mrs. Tisdale would be Norman Jenks, but he is absent—perhaps because he is late again with his rent. Mr. Jenks is an unpleasant man, large headed, but narrow faced, who is often between jobs but never lacking an opinion about work.
Donald Clurman sits in the open chair between Mom and Mrs. Tisdale. He is also not there this day, but when he is, he’s generally wearing the same dark blue conductor’s jacket he wears at work. He’d wear his cap to the table if he could. He is very bald. He is employed by the Long Island Railroad and his schedule changes week to week, which is the reason for his divorce, as he’ll readily say. But there may be other reasons. He’s a very picky fellow. And his favorite target at dinner is usually Mr. Oliphant, who sits across from him.
Mrs. Tisdale has finished serving herself, and is very enthusiastically talking to my dad about the drummer Chick Webb and his band when I come in the door. Dad is already at the table because Mom always gives him his plate first, but everyone else serves themselves from the buffet.
Dad just nods at Mrs. Tisdale. He looks more depressed than I can remember. He perked up a little when I came in, but he and Mom and I had all been over to Jerry’s funeral on Staten Island the day before and Dad doesn’t look much better than he did then. When I got back in the room from washing up, I figured I should try to keep on the lighter subject.
“I saw Benny Goodman today.”
He says, “Yeah?” His voice is totally flat.
Dad likes Benny Goodman. He’s liked him since the days of Red Nichols and the Five Pennies. I think Dad’s one of the few guys his age who really appreciates the music.
Mrs. Tisdale immediately says, “Oh, I think Chick Webb is much better.”
And I have an instant memory of my mom saying that Mrs. Tisdale’s husband divorced her because she liked to argue more than do anything else. I can believe it. Mom once hoped something might get started between Mr. Jenks and Mrs. Tisdale, but I’m pretty sure those thoughts are over. That would be two cats in a bag, as they say.
Stacy chips in, “Mr. Ellington has always been more to my taste. I met their singer, Ivie Anderson, once. She was very kind.”
Stacy has a Southern lilt to her voice and speaks in such a soft manner that it’s hard to believe she is disagreeing.
Mrs. Tisdale insists, “But Chick is the best,” just before filling her small mouth with several large pieces of carrot.
I say to Dad, “Doc, over at Morgy’s, says that what you read in the paper about Goodman at the Paramount is true. Doc’s own daughter was there. They were dancing in the aisles.”
Dad says, “Probably were.”
Mrs. Tisdale says, “I danced nearly non-stop at the Savoy the other night. My boyfriend, Jack, just loves to dance. That’s why we went. Chick Webb is just the best.”
Mom rolls her eyes. She is tougher than Dad is, and has less patience. Dad is more the deliberate type. Mom sits next to him at that end and is generally better at conducting the table conversation in friendly channels. But I think she has tired of Mrs. Tisdale over the past year.
Mom says, “Mr. Goodman isn’t married, is he?”
Dad says, “No, Dory, I don’t think so.”
She asks, “Who’s the woman that sings with him on the radio?”
He says, “That would be Helen Ward.”
“In the paper, didn’t they say he was going to marry her?”
Dad doesn’t answer. He probably hadn’t heard. To his mind, the papers are good for the sports pages and the comics.
I say, “I guess, he’s a busy guy.”
Dad finally adds, “Why is he going to marry her when he can have his pick on any other day?”
My mom stares at him. This is clearly a set-up. She only raised the subject because she knows he’ll likely have a thought about it. It might get him talking.
I say, “He was with a very good looking young woman this morning when I saw him at the hotel. But it wasn’t Helen Ward.”
Mom clucks her tongue. Mrs. Tisdale smiles.
Dad says, “See. What did I tell you?” But Dad’s no fool, and knows when he’s being manipulated. He always strikes back. He turns to me to say, “See, the problem is, your Mr. Goodman just hasn’t found the right one yet. When he finds her, it’ll be like it was when I first saw your mother. There won’t be any other girl that’ll do after that.”
He gave Mom only the slightest glance over his next bite of lamb.
She rolled her eyes again. I thought of Detective Barnes doing the same thing. Mom is more convincing at it. But she was not going to best Dad for blarney. She knows that. She just blows him a kiss across the palm of her hand instead, and went back to eating.
Stacy had just instructed her son again about switching hands when he uses his knife and fork. She watched him now as he practiced with a deliberate clumsiness. He knows that eyes are on him. The temporary quiet however must have brought other thoughts to Mom’s mind. She asked, “So how is your star reporter?”
There is no question who she was talking about. Dad’s eye came up over his next forkful again in expectation of my answer. This caught Mrs. Tisdale’s attention too. Mr. Oliphant was busy eating. Gary was fumbling and Stacy demonstrated once more, but I had the sense that she was listening as well.
I said, “She’s fine.”
Dad says, “You ask her out yet?”
“I will. At least, I’ll ask. She might have other things going.”
Mom chips in, “YOU have other things going. You better get going or else someone else will.”
She picks up on everything. I guess they both do, but Dad keeps most of his observations to himself. Mom is not so shy. Then again, that’s probably how she got Dad.
But Stacy chimes in, “And that’s the truth!”
I’d spent most of a Wednesday trailing behind Cass back in January and when I came over for dinner the Sunday after, I said a little too much about her. I was rather smitten, you might say. But I really didn’t know anything about Cass then. She was new. Someone in the Hearst organization had spotted her over at the Daily News and thought her talents were being wasted. We were in need of another sob sister on our side. They can get away with things a guy can’t.
That had been a big week for me. Seeing that I was full of the moment then, Dad had what he thought was a good remedy. “Write it up,” he said. But he was not one to talk. He had never written down any of his own adventures. He was right, though. I’d figured before then that it was all in the pictures, but I was beginning to see that it wasn’t. So that was the first assignment I tried writing anything about. And most of that was about Cass.
After dinner I took my bag and the latest haul of accumulated pics downstairs to the ‘dark room’ in the cellar. Why I was keeping them is the question. Even for me. But I have some ideas in the back of my head.
Funny thing about that, even with a few years of accumulated negatives and prints filed away on the narrow shelves that my dad has built down there in his spare time, that one corner still looks bigger than my entire bedroom at Perry Street.
Dad had set me up in the cellar there when I was twelve years old, shortly after I came home from the movies one day gushing over the short travelogue they had shown along with a Douglas Fairbanks feature. That was one of the very first ‘Osa and Johnson’ adventures to Africa, I think. What inspired Dad to believe I would be happy then with the output of a Kodak 3-A ‘Autographic folding pocket camera with range finder’ is known only to him. I suspect he wanted one himself. Maybe wished he had one in the old days, just like he regrets he never wrote anything down. The empty box for the camera is still on top of the shelves down there where I threw it in my excitement many years ago and the yellow catches the light first thing when you flick the switch at the top of the stairs. The camera itself is still hanging from the strap over above the table and trays.
I glanced up toward the box and caught a pair of eyes looking down at me through the banister on the stair.
Gary is shy. His mother keeps him indoors too much. But she’s worried about what can happen to him on the street, I think. And she’s right enough about that. There aren’t many negro children in the neighborhood. A few more beyond Atlantic Avenue.
I say, “What’s up?”
He says, “Nothin’”
Just about what I would have said at his age.
I was rushed so I took the lot of loose pics I’d accumulated over the past week out from my bag in a heap and didn’t file anything away. And the latest of those were copies of the pictures I’d taken just that morning at the Hotel Penn. They were on top so they wouldn’t get pressed together and I laid those aside loose then on the rack just in case they needed a little more time to dry.
Gary says, “Is that a dead man?”
I say, “Yes sir. Someone I had to take a picture of today.”
Below the counter where my old developing trays are stacked, there are four or five boxes of the National Geographic magazine. They are always butting at my knees when I work there. So I get a bright idea.
“You had a birthday on Wednesday, right?”
I kicked at the boxes.
“I was thinking, these are going to waste under here. Your mother says it would be fine if I gave them to you. They’re yours if you want them. And if not, you can just leave them back under here.”
He is off the stairs and pulling at the boxes before I can bend over to help.
I was on the subway home when I got to thinking about all of that part again.
Some guys think they grow up the day they seduce some foolish lass for the first time. Others think it’s simply when they leave home for good. I even knew of a couple of fellows who used to believe they really became men the day they killed some other poor schlub—though they didn’t get to enjoy the matter of their supposed manhood for long. They both got the benefit of four-bits of Con Edison’s best, up at Sing Sing shortly thereafter.
But for myself, I think I grew up a whole lot just this past January. Better late than never. Starting around that January 13th. Which was a Wednesday.
That’s the morning I was up and over on the piers at 32nd Street on the West Side taking pictures for Cass. I figured I had outdone myself with those. In the background, one behemoth of an ocean liner, the Warren G. Harding, was just sitting there waiting to leave for the warmer waters of the Bahamas. On our left, the shadow of the new elevated highway laid down some nice contrast.
Sadly, that job was another suicide too, but the light that day was nearly perfect and I hadn’t used a flash, even for fill. A risky thing. A matter of judgment. You just have to keep the camera steady for long enough and make a good guess. There was not going to be any posing for the press there. Those guys doing the wet work were already cold enough. And the body came up in the net with the blue evening dress wrapped tight around her legs and the top of it down around her waist, her loose hair had spread across her face and bare chest, and she looked every bit like a Hollywood mermaid, only stiff.
I took half a dozen sides by hanging out over one of the pilings away from the other guys and planting the camera down hard in a fresh deposit of seagull mush. I was very proud of myself over that. I got all those layers into the shot. The hard edge of black from the shadow of the highway—like a knife. For a little subtlety, the dead President’s name right there over the girl’s tilted head was even offering the warm contrast of imagined Caribbean waters for those who follow the comings and goings of the steam ships and can read between the lines.
I figure I’m the genius now. Gershwin is a genius. Wilder is a genius. Welles is a genius. If everybody else can be a genius, why can’t I be one too. Orson Welles isn’t any older than me and the paper gave whole pages to him just because he did Shakespeare in blackface. (If I was Paul Robeson I wouldn’t be particularly happy with that, mind you). Besides, Eddie Cantor does just about anything in blackface and they don’t call him a genius—just a comedian.
So I open the Mirror the next day, hoping to see my best shots, and first thing I see instead is that Martin Johnson is dead. His plane crashed in California. And Osa was in the hospital.
To me, this was like a member of the family had died. I was even doing the work I was because of them. I’d been following their careers ever since that first short movie I’d seen as a kid. They were heroes to me, more than Lindbergh or Post, or Hughes. Martin Johnson might be criticized for being a promoter, which he was, but he had something to promote. He had the goods. And he was a great cameraman. People don’t understand the difficulty of the shots he got under the worst conditions. And Osa was with him all the way, though she did most the writing. If he hadn’t had the sense to make the most out of what he did, I might still be sitting on my thumbs at home. Likely. Or working in a stationery shop on Sixth Avenue. It put things in perspective.
Now, to be fair, my dad had done his own adventures when he was young. He’d been around the world a dozen times in the Merchant Marine. Killed pirates. Picked coconuts out of a tree with a shotgun. And plenty he wouldn’t talk about.
But the thing of it was, I’d taken those pictures without the flash that day for another reason. I was showing off. Of course. That was the day I first got to work with Cass Green.
And she’d stood right there on the pier that January day in a stiff wind and watched me and said, “If this doesn’t work, you better know how to swim.”
And she meant it.