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9/20/09

New York, 1957




I arrived at Idlewild (now JFK) on October 17, 1957, a day before my 26th birthday. I had but $75 to my name, but I was full of optimism, so I hailed a cab, asking the driver to take me to a decent but inexpensive midtown hotel. He took me to the Dixie Hotel on the most notorious block of 42nd Street, not exactly a classy place, but it looked clean, and it had a TV, which I promptly turned on. What I saw was a dance floor filled with blurry white teenagers, none of whom seemed to have the slightest sense of rhythm. I thought it was a scene from a movie, but I had actually tuned in to American Bandstand. Only in America, and here I was, at last! I had longed for this moment for so long that even the blandest of TV fare looked good. It was hard to believe that I really was here to stay.

Within a day or two, I found my way to a more reasonably priced rooming house, a small one that occupied the third floor of a five-story building on 36th Street, right off Sixth Avenue. It had its own street entrance, with two contiguous, L-shaped flights of stairs, and it was directly across the street from Keen’s Chop House. The little building has long since been replaced by a much larger one, but Keen’s is still there.

It was here, at the top of the stairs, that I met my first real New York character, Mrs. Canada. She was a woman of about fifty, with a body poised for obesity, but not quite there yet, and she wore a print dress that even in 1957 looked out of era. Framed by hair that the folks at Alberto-Culver would have considered a challenge, Mrs. Canada’s ruddy, slightly puffy countenance bore the marks of a dreary past that obviously had not seen much change. Yet the spirit was not quite gone, she could still produce a winning smile, which is what she did when she opened the door to show me a vacant room. We did not step inside, for obvious reasons—it was too small. A slightly larger bed would have precluded any entry at all, for this one left only a narrow passage between it and the wall. At the far end of this passage, a tiny sink hugged the corner and next to it a small window faced the street. “Southern exposure,” said Mrs. Canada, “eight dollars a week.” She had a sense of humor.
This Samsonite suitcase and a PanAm bag was all I carried when I
came to the U.S. as an immigrant.

I walked in, placed my little Samsonite suitcase on the bed, and gave her two week’s rent—she was impressed.


Amazingly, I still have that suitcase. A click on the photo will reveal that even the PanAm tag from my original flight to Idlewild has survived the years.


I started a pen and ink drawing of my "southern exposure", but this is as far as I got. If you click on it to enlarge it, you will see that it is Macy's, Herald Square, at Christmas time.










I miss the Horn & Hardart Automats—their coffee was great, inexpensive
 and unpretentious.
My $75 was all but gone, so I took my meals at a Horn & Hardart opposite Bryant Park.There, gratis, I could get a cup of hot water and ketchup to make a semblance of tomato soup. It wasn’t wonderful, but it helped to keep me going as I looked for a job as an artist. Mrs. Canada was also helpful in that respect, for she loved to cook and gave me the occasional bowl of something.


One day, she returned all excited from one of her frequent grocery shopping trips. “You can’t image who I ran into at the supermarked,” she said. That was true, I couldn’t, so I asked. “The Queen of Roumania,” she almost yelled it out. “That pretty lady came over to me, gently touched my face and said, ‘My dear, I can tell by your face that you are one of the Bourbons—what are you doing in a supermarket?’”

I wanted to ask what the Queen was doing there, but Mrs. Canada continued. “The Queen was right, you know. My real name is Maria de Bourbon, and isn’t it wonderful that she recognized me? I nodded and managed a subtle smile.

Mrs. Canada was a scrounger. We were in the garment district, so she regularly made the rounds to collected fabric remnants, which she sorted according to color and stored in large cardboard boxes. There was one under each bed. She also dipped into waste baskets for the day’s newspapers and began bringing me the NY Times to help in my job search. I had brought with me a small portfolio of artwork and letters of recommendation, but I foolishly submitted the originals to anonymous hirers with box office numbers, naïvely expecting to get them back. When I no longer had any proof of my past work, my career as a commercial artist came to an end. My search became less focused and I was now ready for any kind of employment. With Christmas approaching, I found a temporary job in the record department of a Fifth Avenue Doubleday book store. It wasn’t much money, but enough for me to pay my rent, buy real soup, and hear some jazz.

In 1956, when Hanne and I briefly visited New York on tourist visas, Timme Rosenkrantz pointed us to The Metropole Café, a lively spot where the music was hot and often swinging. Henry Red Allen was a regular there, as were a veritable who’s who of pre-boppers. Roy Eldridge was appearing at the Metropole when I dropped by in November. With a bit of prompting, he recalled Timme having introduced us at Copenhagen’s KB Hall when he visited with JATP. To refresh Roy's memory, I mentioned that it almost came to blows backstage that night, when Timme and Granz got into a heated argument and began a shoving match. Roy put an end to it by stepping in between the two rather large men and yelling for them to stop. Perhaps more interesting than the fight were the reactions of Flip Philips and Ella Fitzgerald—she was seated at a small card table, playing solitaire, and she neither hesitated nor batted an an eye; he was equally nonchalant, pacing back and forth, tossing a coin in the air, and neatly catching it each time. Throughout all this, Oscar Peterson was on stage, mesmerizing a capacity audience.

Having made contact with Roy, I finally had someone to talk to. When the band took a break, he came over and noticed that I had a beer in my hand. “Dig the music here, but drink over there,” he advised me, pointing across the street. Then he said, “come with me,” and I followed him over there, to the Copper Rail.


Today, should you find yourself in the Times Square area, lusting for a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, you would be out of luck. Not so in 1957, for then there was the Copper Rail, a small establishment the likes of which we will never see again. What made the place so unusual is that it was out of context, a typical Harlem haunt that somehow thrived in midtown Manhattan. This was not a place where you were likely to see tourists, but it was a hangout for some of the world’s greatest musicians. If memory serves me right (please correct me Dan Morgenstern), it had a food counter on the right and a bar on the left, as well as a jukebox. For little money, you could enjoy a generous portion of pigsfeet with collard greens, beans and rice, and wash it down with alcoholic twofers or an inexpensive glass of beer. Best of all, however, was the conversation and ambiance. Musicians came to the Copper Rail from all the nearby jazz joints, and in 1957 New York had quite a few such venues. Here they relaxed, exchanged stories, and had a good time among friends, Brill Building hucksters and old-timers who were legends, even then. Was I dreaming? I couldn’t be sure. It was not uncommon to see Coleman Hawkins seated in a phone booth at the far end of the room, or the likes of Gene Krupa and J. C. Higginbotham in heated discussion with Taps Miller—it was an extraordinary meeting ground for anyone who was into the music, and it was simply heaven to a newly transplanted, wide-eyed Euro like me

It was on a small black and white TV, suspended over the bar, that I watched the live broadcast of The Sound of Jazz, which still stands as one of the greatest television jazz events of all time. It was star-studded, but the people watching it at the Copper Rail reacted as one does when leafing through a family photo album. Nearly everyone on that little screen was someone you were likely to see at the Copper Rail—perhaps even after the show.


A few days later, on a cold December evening, I was standing at the Copper Rail's bar when a somewhat frantic Roy Eldridge entered with a stunning, glittery lady named Lois Dempsey. She was as tall as he was short and she was practically naked. A dancer from the Latin Quarter, around the corner, she had been struck by a severe earache while performing, and she had rushed into the street wearing only a scanty costume and pasties. “Chris, do me a big favor,” said Roy, “take Lois over to Polyclinic Hospital and have her fixed up.” There are situations when even the shyest of people have to shed their reserve, and this was one of them. I threw my coat over Lois’ shoulders and rushed her into a cab for the short ride to West 50th Street. Poor Lois, she cried all the way to the emergency room and we must have presented quite a sight for all heads turned when we entered. The nurse on duty was a butch, surly sort who eyeballed Lois with ill-disguised contempt. “You’ll have to fill out this form,” she said, holding out a sheet of paper. Lois, her pain unbearable, did not pay any attention to the woman, she just screamed until a nurse appeared and led her behind a screen. Miss Butch asked me questions about Lois, but I knew only her name, explaining that we had just met. As I said that, Lois yelled out, “Chris, baby, come hold my hand, please, please...” Miss Butch gave the ceiling a quick look, “So you two just met?”

My 1955 impression of the Metropole Café
Lois was no longer in pain when I took her back to The Latin Quarter, but I doubt if she did much dancing that night. For some reason, I never saw her again. Four years later, when Roy performed on a record date I was producing, I asked him if he ever saw Lois Dempsey. He had no idea who she was or what I was talking about.


3 comments:

  1. thanks for the metropole memories..................Cozy Cole, Buster Bailey, Red Allen, Conrad Janis
    and Knickerbocker beer

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even when one is broke, memories can be precious—some of my best ones were lived with empty pockets. Thanks for the visit.

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  2. Chris--
    Hopefully your memory is better than Roy's, as you and I met via WBAI in the early 60's. I was a jazz, R&B, and blues freak who harbored a dream of hosting a radio show as a DJ, having recently been discharged from the Navy (I had both a blues show and a jazz show while going to Harvard between 1958-60).
    You were extremely hospitable to a young guy who shared many of the same passions as you, and I remember us going to a couple of shows at the Apollo (one with BB King has stuck, as well as a stop at the Baby Grand where Nipsey Russell was playing).
    I've thought of you many times over the years, smiled when I saw your name in print, and did try to track you down a couple of years ago.
    Glad to see you're well (at least as of this past March), and would love to make contact some time.
    Dan Aron (dan@nosoap.net)

    ReplyDelete