“Hey, old man,” Frankie called out from across the street. “Got any money for me,” he continued, provoking laughter from his two brutish companions.
I didn’t turn to look. I knew who it was. I knew his father and his father’s father.
“Don’t let him bother you,” Carlos advised as I picked up juice and fruit at his bodega. Like everybody on the block, Carlos paid Frankie money—a tribute to protect him from the man who he pays to protect him. A hundred and ten years after Abraham Lincoln, whites don’t prey on us anywhere near as savagely as our own kind. “He is not worth thinking about,” Carlos said, slowly making my change.
“I don’t think about him, Carlos. He thinks about me and what he believes I did to his grandfather.”
Carlos reflected a moment, rubbing the grain of his uneven gray whiskers as though that might help him conjure up the voice of wisdom. “I remember.”
Carlos made me a sandwich and I walked over to the neighborhood park—at least what remained of the park—on the corner of Vestry and Dyson; a little pocket of green life on the upper west side of Manhattan.
A dozen years ago, this was a thriving part of the Harlem community. Storefronts were polished bright and fresh produce and ripe fruit were tumbling out of their street stalls. People had a sense of optimism and opportunity. Today the police patrol more diligently since the neighborhood flare-up last summer that almost incinerated my world forever.
My turkey, cheese, and tomato sandwich didn’t taste fresh. Carlos does his best to buy good produce, though it was clearly a losing effort. The rents go up. The kids steal from him at every opportunity. The days of confident fervor are behind us. I am the community, the community is me. We both had a chance long ago to make something out of our lives.
“Terrible.” I finish the stale remains of my sandwich as an argument erupts in the schoolyard a block away.
Jimmy, Frankie’s grandfather, was once my best friend. Our parents were friends for many years too. The older we grew, the more it was obvious that Jimmy would not be able to cast his evil saddle from his back. He cursed those he once loved, including friends and family. By the time he was in his early twenties he had been in jail for a series of aggravated misdemeanors, fathered an illegitimate child and, it was said, nearly beat a man to death across the river in New Jersey over an ounce of crack.
“May I sit here?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
“Do you feed the pigeons too,” she asked, comparing the crumpled bag in her hand with the one in mine. She took a few crumbs, rolled them between her fingers, and cast them out, much further than you would imagine for such a slight effort.
Their number had grown, and everyone from Carlos to the lazy superintendent in my building cursed their existence. The streets were dirtier because of their pestilential presence. Carlos called them flying rats.
“I hate pigeons.” I could see that my words alarmed the woman.
“They’re God’s creatures.”
“So are we.”
The woman turned from me. She kept a tight rein around the neck of her brown bag. “Have you ever had a pet?”
“A cat or a dog?”
I couldn’t, for the life of me, think that was any of her business. “A dog.”
“And you fed it and played with it and made sure it was safe?”
“A dog is not a bird that relieves itself on cars and awnings and stairs and people standing on street corners and spreads its filth from rooftop to rooftop.”
“I know it’s not the same thing.”
“His name was Rusty.” I hadn’t thought about him in years.
“Mine was Benny.”
“He was a Cocker Spaniel.”
“Benny was a mutt. A cross between a Shepherd, Collie, and everything else.”
“I wouldn’t keep a dog in the city anymore.”
“That’s why I have Felix.”
I hoped she was talking about a cat. “I’m allergic to cats.”
“Oh, that is too bad.”
I could see she was genuinely disappointed. “I’d rather live alone anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
I had been saying that for so long I couldn’t recall my rationale anymore. After my second marriage, it just didn’t seem to matter. I would move through the days and weeks and years with whatever purpose I picked up along the way. “I don’t know.”
“My name is Betty.”
“Robert. Robert Hall.”
I hadn’t spoken to a strange woman in so long I wasn’t certain I was even pronouncing my name right. I hadn’t spoken to a white woman in twice as long. Slowly the pigeons congregated in small groups nearby. Then a few waddled over to her side of the bench. They knew better than to come looking to me for nourishment.
“There used to be a clothing store with that name.”
“I’ve heard of it. I’m no relation.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that.”
“I’m Robert Hall of Brooklyn and New York. One of the less fortunate Halls.”
“Are you going to feed them?”
“Not now,” she said, clasping the bag to her side like she did her purse. “I think it would upset you.”
I’ve always believed you make your own path, you pray to your own God and you’re responsible for your success and failures. I respect the luck of the draw and accept the lack of fairness in the world. I liked the fact that at seventy-three I still have the curiosity to inquire and the ability to remember. And I just couldn’t recall the last time anyone was so concerned about my welfare. “What happened to your dog?”
“Benny? What a rascal. He would sneak up behind you and bark. He wouldn’t give you any warning and he was so cunning you could never hear him coming. So if you had a glass of water in your hand or piece of clothing or were on the phone, he would scare the daylights out of you.”
“He sounds like a character.”
“He was my best friend.”
I wanted to make a comment about the value of friendship. I wanted to say something insightful. I had never had a white woman as a friend, and this one seemed particularly at ease. Instead, I spoke about what was really troubling me to a complete stranger. “You see those three boys over there.”
Betty squinted from behind her black glasses. “Yes.”
“The three of them? All wearing fake gold chains and fake gold rings?”
“It’s really too bad that kids these days put so much value in the flashiest clothing, or the newest sneakers and haircut and fake gold. A waste of life.”
“The one in the middle waving his hands in the air wants to kill me.”
Her reaction was immediate. It was as though she had been burned, her soul singed, by my comment. “Did you call the police?”
“I’m a black man. We don’t call the police.”
“Of course you do.”
“We come from a world of different experiences.” I was instantly pleased with myself for spelling out the boundaries that separated us.
“So, Robert Hall, you think I come up to this neighborhood for my health? For the mineral water or the sandy white beaches? You think I live downtown in some swanky duplex and my chauffeur drives me up here so I can hobnob with the common folk and feed the pigeons?”
“I don’t know any such thing about you, Betty.”
“Then you’re not a very good judge of character.”
“I suppose not,” I said, not quite convincing enough. “I just don’t expect much from people.”
“Unfortunately, something we both share. But I know quality when I see it. I can tell. And you want me to accept that prancing clown is going to take your life?”
“It’s all he knows. It’s all his father and grandfather knew.”
“Well, we’ll have to do something about that.”
“What? Throw bread crumbs at him?”
“Now, you’re making fun of me.”
“I didn’t mean to,” I said thinking how easy it was to talk to this woman who I judged was not five years younger and sounded so much more alive. It had been too long since I felt the satisfaction of an honest, open exchange. The men I knew from the local social club were a mournful, grousing lot of bitter old fools. They were either married and angry or widowed and angry or, like me, single and disillusioned.
Maybe none of them were really angry, but rather the reflection of what I saw in myself, a man who had not achieved any of his dreams, or in fact had too few dreams from which to realize a full life.
“Will you tell me about it?”
“About why he wants to take your life. You don’t have to, you know, though it might make you feel better. I know it would make me feel a world better,” she said clasping her hand over her chest as though she had to see if her heart was still beating. “Please.”
I rarely told anyone the story. The anger in Frankie’s eyes was something that he came of age with, like a social disease he wore as a badge of courage. In the end, the tale only took a few minutes to relate. And it did make me feel better, though only slightly.
“How can you live like that?”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“I don’t think he will do anything. Really. What’s in it for his reputation to kill an old man?”
“If his bitterness is as great as your cynicism, he wouldn’t need an excuse to settle an old score.”
“You can’t live your life in fear,” which was a lie or else why would I ever confess such a thing to a stranger?
After tucking the half-filled brown bag into her purse, she asked, “Would you like to go dancing with me?”
I was looking at Frankie when I heard the question. I just couldn’t bring myself to answer truthfully. “I don’t think so.”
“Why? Because I’m white and you’re black?”
“Well, now that you mentioned it, that’s as good a reason as any.”
“My husband would have been very hurt to hear you say that.”
“I think he would be more hurt to know that his wife was going around asking strange men to go out dancing.”
“My Alex has been dead for six years. He loved to dance. He would always take me to Roseland. I haven’t been there in years,” she said, pausing to reconsider her own words, “I don’t know why I thought about that now. Thinking it over, it might not have been the right thing to ask a stranger. Black or white.”
“And, he was as black as you are, Robert, only a lot more outgoing. A lovely man, whom I so adored and respected. He was a pharmacist. He learned it in the Navy.”
Frankie had no business even being near the playground. He had been thrown out of school along with his two friends years ago. The three of them spent their days roaming the streets, selling drugs, making collections from the weary storeowners, and running numbers for the more powerful neighborhood gangs. Doing anything they could to scrape up enough money to sniff themselves into a stupor, and then going out at night to get drunk.
Jimmy Williams used to be my best friend before he started stealing and taking the easy way out of life. When he was finally caught and interrogated by the police, he quickly mentioned my name, not as an accomplice, but as whom he was with when the robbery had occurred.
When the police came to question me, I was immediately compromised. I instinctively acknowledged that I had been with Jimmy all night. The police took down my statement. They returned the next day and arrested me for bearing false witness. They had found out that I was with my second wife Jean, dancing at, of all places, Roseland.
There were witnesses to my spending the evening dancing with Jean. It didn’t matter. Jimmy believed, in his drunken state, that friends do whatever it takes to protect friends. He didn’t see anything wrong with implicating me. Because of his extensive rap sheet, Jimmy went away for five years for that one felony conviction.
A week after he was released, he tried to rob a gas station in Westchester. The owner was an ex-Marine and skilled with a 9mm pistol and in the shootout, Jimmy was killed. The owner escaped with a broken rib and a permanent limp.
I got 18 months probation. And I now had a police record.
“When would you like to go?” I asked.
“Tomorrow is fine, if you’re up to it.”
Of course, I was up to it. What could she have meant by that? “What time would you like to go?”
“How about eight.”
“Do you want me to pick you up?”
“That would be nice, but I would understand why you might feel uncomfortable with that.”
“Maybe we could just meet there?”
“I’d like that too.”
We parted company after discussing Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and of course, Cole Porter. And we both made it clear that we would probably make fools of ourselves on the dance floor.
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.
“That was wonderful,” Betty exclaimed, only releasing her hand from mine in order to applaud.
“I think it’s getting late,” I said after we spent some time together on the sidelines cooling off with refreshments. We stood close to each other, with the physical ease of lovers who knew the borders of their partner’s body. It was instinctive. It was comforting. It was, for both of us, a moment to be cherished.
“I think you’re right. There’s always another day.”
“And night,” I added guiding Betty carefully through the crowd and back out to the street.
Betty took a long, deep breath of the cool evening air. “Such a beautiful evening.”
I enjoyed dancing and, though I would never be what I once was, just the idea of being with a beautiful woman on a dance floor, moving her about in my arms, made me feel young and hopeful.
We started moving along the street back toward Broadway when a voice came up from behind. “Hey, old man.”
I recognized the predatory tone. It was the voice of a man reaching out from the grave. It was the voice of a violent malcontent. It was Frankie Williams, the voice of a failed society.
“I didn’t know you could dance.”
“And I didn’t know you could dance.”
“It’s in my blood old man,” Frankie announced throwing out his chest and stroking the narrow lapels of his purple satin jacket.
“It was in your grandfather’s blood, too. Jimmy came to Roseland with me many times. Now there was a hell of a dancer.”
Fire welled up in Frankie’s already unattractive face. “You should be more careful what you say, old man.”
“It’s Robert Hall. You know that Frankie.”
“I know what it is.”
“Then if you know his name,” Betty interjected, “you might be respectful enough to use it.”
“Who are you?”
“I am his date. And he told me all about you.”
Frankie nodded confidently, as would a matador who came into a swarm of admirers who were discussing his prodigious talent. “What did he tell you?”
“That you’re a plague on the neighborhood and that you have nothing better to do with your life than taunt your grandfather’s best friend.”
“Really? He said that?”
“He did, Mister Williams,” she answered, this time addressing the other couple standing off to the side.
People flowed into and out of the dance hall and moved past and around them on the street. Frankie was initially delighted to see the old man. It presented an opportunity, slight as it might be, to demonstrate his influence to his new girlfriend’s sister and her boyfriend. “He should watch what he says.”
“Why? Or you will kill him?”
The other couple looked questioningly at Frankie. “People who talk too much always learn too late what not to say.”
Betty’s body stiffened. “People who threaten and torment people for a living always learn too late. Period.”
I was startled. I wanted to drag Betty away from this menace. This was no time to test my luck, and certainly not here, in front of others where, even if I wanted to, Frankie would not be able to back off and save face.
“We should be going,” I said. taking Betty’s arm.
“No,” she said firmly and pulled away. “This is as good a time to have this out. I’m not leaving here until I’ve said my piece.”
“This is none of your business, lady.”
“You think you’re pretty tough, picking on school children and men fifty years older than you? Well, let me tell you something sonny, courage comes from sacrifice and from building a life, not by taking it away from others.”
“Lady, you’ve got me all wrong.”
“You’re a dime-a-dozen street predator Mr. Williams. Nothing more.”
“Really? Well, your boyfriend here got my grandfather killed. Or didn’t he tell you that?”
“That’s nonsense you hold on to, to feed your hate. Robert was your grandfather’s best friend and best friends do not try to destroy their friend’s lives to save their own. That’s what we have enemies for Mr. Williams. You are that man’s grandson and from what little I know about him you are sure to follow in his footsteps. And if you ever threaten my Robert again I will come after you.”
“And what will you do?” he asked through his typical sneer. But he was shaken by the confrontation and embarrassed in front of his friends and those milling about the quartet. “Gun me down?”
Betty reached into her purse and pulled out a small brown bag and flung its contents into his face. People stopped moving along the street to watch the confrontation between the heavy young man in the flashy clothes and the enraged old woman.
“I will follow you through the streets, to your house and to your friends’ and families’ houses and plague you with these bread crumbs which I use to feed the pigeons in the park, every remaining day of my life. The streets will be littered with my breadcrumbs so that everybody knows the trail of violence you have left behind. The streets are full of cowards like you, as are the cemeteries.”
“Let’s go,” I said, noticing how many others had turned toward us and were now completely caught up in the confrontation.
“My son was murdered by a bully like you, Mr. Williams. Murdered on a night just like this. He was my only son and he was fourteen years old when a misfit just like you cut him down. I will not let anything happen to Robert here. You take that thought home with you tonight. Because if you harm him or have him hurt in any way, you will have to deal with my anger and probably have to kill me just to give yourself some peace, but it will have been worth every breath in my body to do it.”
For the first time in a long time, Frankie felt uncertain and threatened. The sting of the breadcrumbs that had been flung in face was more painful than any humiliation he had ever endured. And the fact that it came from a woman, a white woman, only made it more unbearable. If he could, he would have ripped her head from her neck and thrown it into the street. He brushed the remaining crumbs from his jacket.
“You have a woman do your fighting now, Robert?”
“She speaks her mind as do I.”
“A last warning. Mr. Williams. Stick to dealing drugs and robbing liquor stores.”
She finally relented and we moved slowly down the block together. It was not until we had turned the corner and walked another block north along Broadway in silence that we stopped.
I wanted to know more about her than any woman I had ever met. I wanted to know about her husband, Alex, and the terrible tragedy of how she survived losing her son. Maybe someday she would trust me enough to confide in me. Maybe she would even introduce me to Felix.
“I will not let that man do you any harm, Robert. I’m sorry,” she said through the tears. “I have lived with brutes like them all my life.”
“I think you’re wonderful.”
Betty was as startled as she could be. “You do?”
“Well then, I’m glad I said what I said.”
“So am I.”
She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I think we should go have a soda. Something sinful. Something neither of us should have.”
“I know just the place.”
“Don’t tell me. Let it be a surprise.”
“I wouldn’t tell you. But I think we’ve both had enough surprises for one evening.”
She wrapped herself around my arm and tugged me to her side. “Then let’s make a night of it Robert Hall of Brooklyn and, thankfully, New York.”
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business. He has appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Over 50 stories have been published including “Conversation in Black,” which was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize.