I moved along the street without looking back. It was not that I didn’t want to—she was pretty enough and she had an engaging smile that I couldn’t help but warm to. It was only because I noticed Frankie turn towards me when we got up from the bench and did not want to draw attention to her.
I got home and stood in the middle of my apartment. Nothing felt the same. It was as if I was suddenly a stranger in my own home. True, I hadn’t paid much attention to it in years. It was my home, my apartment. Nothing more.
I had some money from the forty-one years I served as a sorter and carrier in the post office, so fixing it up wasn’t an issue. I just felt different about where I lived after spending time with Betty.
And she knew about King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band that produced the first recordings by a black musician. She knew about Honore Dutrey, Johnny and “Baby” Dodds, and naturally Louis Armstrong. If the date worked out, I decided to ask her about Bix Beiderbecke and Dixieland, and “Jelly Roll” Morton.
I dug through my closet to find some of the old records Jean and I danced to. I couldn’t recall which closet they were in, and then remembered that I had thrown out the entire collection years ago.
I felt I had betrayed myself and, oddly enough, Betty too. She would have loved my collection. I had a slew of Fletcher Henderson records. Henderson was mainly responsible for developing the performance style that became known as Swing.
Betty would have loved to listen to those old tunes. And I could have used the dance practice, that is, if I had something on which to play them.
There was the fox trot, the Lindy, the Tango. I heard the music clearly, as if I were in the Roseland Ballroom with Jean. She moved so gracefully in my arms.
I missed Jean. I missed being with a woman like Betty. It might have been easier if she were black. That would’ve made a difference. She had character. That was important.
The next day I called Roseland, twice; the first time just to make sure the place was still standing and the second to find out their hours. I was struck with how energized I had become since talking with Betty. And the pigeons! God, what an awful habit. However, on Betty that seemed almost forgivable.
I dressed in a suit I hadn’t worn in years. It still fit, thanks mostly to all those years of physical exertion in the post office. I patted my flat stomach proudly, closed the door, and walked out into the cool night. I felt the spring of youth in my step. A good woman could do that to a man, even the rankest of cynics.
I got off the bus at 63rd Street and Broadway and walked the dozen blocks down to Roseland. By the time I got there, I knew my impromptu excursion was a mistake. I was tired. I cursed myself. How stupid could I be, I asked over and over as I approached Roseland and the light that poured out of the four-story club and set the night in a sea of gold and glitter.
Roseland Ballroom opened on the first day of 1919 as a ‘whites only’ dance club and over time became a prominent nightspot for jazz bands including McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and the bands of Sam Lanin, Fletcher Henderson, A. J. Piron, Earl Hines, and Ella Fitzgerald.
The four-story hall was spacious and elegant and lavished with ornate decorations. It was the site of national radio broadcasts that made it especially noteworthy. The building that housed the ballroom was demolished in 1956 and Roseland Dance City was erected in 1957, with ballroom dancing on weeknights and rock and Latin entertainment on weekends.
There must have been fifty or more people milling about on the sidewalk in front of the entrance—some were smoking idly, others talking in small collectives, many demonstrating part of their dance routines to lovers and friends while a few lingered in corners and shadows in various states of embrace.
I wished I were younger and better looking.
Betty was a very attractive woman. For a moment, I wondered if she would show up. Then I saw her standing in front of the cashier’s booth, her hands clinging together across her midsection and I suddenly regretted not picking her up. She was wearing a dark brown cotton dress with pretty yellow flowering fringes. It was a dress right out of the 1940s swing era. I guessed it looked as beautiful now as the day she first wore it.
How difficult it must have been for her and her husband, Alex. How impossible convention and society must have made their lives. This must have been where she forged her strength, her courage, and realized the depth of her values. When she turned and noticed me, whatever doubts I might have had were washed away by that wonderful smile.
“You look very pretty,” I said coming to her side.
“Well, Robert Hall, of the Brooklyn and New York Halls, if you ever want to make a woman feel good about herself, that’s the first thing you should say.”
“I said it because it’s true.”
She gave me an obvious once over. “And I’m a fortunate girl to have such a handsome date. And will you look at all these people? I didn’t know they were having a dance contest tonight. Did you?”
Thirty years ago, I would have been holding hands with Jean. We would have been the first on line to enter the dance contest. Jean’s mother had been a dance instructor in Georgia, her father a musician. They never won, though they always had the spirit and talent to make an impression.
“I think we should go in and make every minute of this night count.”
She looked up at me joyously “Why Robert Hall, you might just be the most romantic man I’ve met in a long, long time,” she said taking my hand and walked beside me and into the torrent of swirling, clinging souls.
We took a few tentative turns on the dance floor, always staying by the fringes of the smooth wooden surface, both continuously making comments to explain our awkwardness and nervousness. We were eager to impress the other, to make our partner feel comfortable with whatever remained of our long diminished skills.
We swung and clung to each other and when the dance floor was cleared to make room for the contest, we were relieved and completely exhausted and drained of the tension that had plagued us for the last day and a half. For the next two hours, we stood captivated while some of the best Swing and Tango dancers in the city paraded across the ballroom.