One for the fans of the quirky, nostalgic charm that was once Baltimore's Block:
Chapter 12: The Top-Hat Bar and Grill
Lenny loved a good burger. The very best came hot off his backyard grill in the summer, but there was a place near his new building that finished a close second, he said, as the Cadillac bounded over potholes on its way into downtown. They stopped at a light. The number 10 belched into a stop half-a-block ahead and Becky took a look around, at tall featureless buildings she knew she’d seen before. Yes; it was when her dad brought her downtown to see Guys and Dolls.
At a street called Calvert, they turned right. Unlike the newer buildings on Lombard Street, the buildings here were old and gritty, with dirty concrete wreaths and lion’s heads adorning high-arched windows and doors. They turned right again. Lenny nudged the car leftward through a line of honking cars then maneuvered it neatly into a vacant space in front of a sooty brick building with a half-round window and brightly-lit sign: “Top-Hat Bar and Grill,” it read, in yellow neon letters on a big black hat.
“This your building?” Becky asked, peering up through the windshield.
“No. This is where you’ll find the best damned burger in all of downtown, and I could eat a horse. You hungry?”
“Yeah, but I have to go to work at six.”
“Unless you want to look like a twig, you have to eat, and those Greeks are too cheap to feed you.”
On the way over, she’d told him about her new job, and his response had been much like Carolyn’s, except that he’d added that she should walk out if they ever asked her to do anything that didn’t start with please and end with thank you. She didn’t mention Mr. Cosmakos barking that he didn’t pay her for sitting around. She didn’t mention George’s long eyelashes, either because, until that moment, she’d all but forgotten them.
She reached for the door handle, and he reached for her hand, pulling it back and stretching his lean body across hers to peer into the side-view mirror. Inhaling his cigarettes and after-shave scent, she watched the slight rise and fall of his cheek as he breathed, watching traffic. She wanted to touch it but didn’t dare, even as his hand remained firmly on hers, in her lap, mere inches from the part of her she’d dreamed of giving him for the past half-year.
“I wouldn’t want you to get run over before I take you out for lamb chops,” he said, winking as he released her. With trembling fingers, she pulled the handle.
Joining him on the sidewalk, she gazed toward a hulking building on the next corner. A fancy theater, it seemed, with a massive marquee that advertised “Big Screen Adult Movies;” and comic/tragic masks, like the ones that hung in the lobby of the Dinner Theater, adorning the high-arched windows. Squinting toward the largest window, directly over the marquee, Becky giggled. Two perfectly-round, concrete breasts popped startlingly out of the brick façade on either side.
“Welcome to The World-famous Block,” Lenny said, studying her with amused eyes. “Ever been here?”
She shook her head. In her whole life, Becky had been downtown only once. “Heard of it?” No, again.
“It’s the red-light district,” he whispered, an arm around her waist pulling her toward the recessed doorway of the Top-Hat Grill.
The room was deep and dark, the walls half-paneled with wood the color of her father’s stereo. Above the paneling, dingy, over-painted walls sported photos of street scenes from an earlier day: The elaborate theater she’d seen outside, where a larger-than-life neon showgirl stood guard over a marquee hawking “Burlesk” instead of “Big Screen Adult Movies;” plus a host of smaller buildings, their signs and marquees all clamoring for attention. There was the “Gayety Musical Bar” and the “Gayety Nite Club;” the “Club Troc,” and the “408 Show Bar,” which featured its own neon show girl, her neon leg flashing continuously upward in a glorious eye-high kick. There was a neon-rimmed clock with naked-lady hands and neon letters above and below it that spelled “2 o’clock” and “Club.” And there was the “Villa Nova Show Bar,” where a simple, painted sign hanging beneath the larger, neon one listed its entertainers: “Al ‘Madman’ Baitch and his Band;” and “Ronnie Bell and her twin Liberty Bells.”
A hefty voice called, “Afternoon, Lenny,” and Becky followed it to the bald man behind the bar, a soiled apron tied high on his large belly. Lenny glided toward him with an open hand and they shook once, firm and quick, like men in bars do. He then turned to Becky and opened his arm; and she rushed over, ready to be swept into it. But just as she reached him he let his hand fall to his hip, and she stopped just short of running into him.
“This is Rudy Stefano, Becky. He’s had the Top-Hat twenty years. His father had it before him. Rudy’s the man to know on this block. Ain’t that right, Rudy?”
The man smiled slowly, nodded once. He didn’t offer his hand, so Becky kept hers wrapped around her purse and just said “Hi.”
“How ‘bout a couple burgers,” Lenny said, stretching, patting his flat stomach.
A blond in a black mini-skirt and white apron appeared from behind. Hanging a hand on his shoulder, she asked how he wanted ‘em.
“Sweet and pretty, with nice, round hips,” he laughed, his arm encircling Becky’s waist at last. Feeling like just what he’d ordered, she rested her fingertips on his other shoulder and glanced away from the blond. At the bar, two thick-necked businessmen chomped burgers; while a group of boisterous young women chattered over each other at one of the wooden booths along the wall.
The waitress swatted his arm with a menu. “The burgers, not the women.”
He turned to Becky. “Medium okay with you?”
She nodded, shrinking into his arm when the waitress stepped back to give her a gum-cracking once-over. He whispered in her ear that there was nothing to be afraid of.
Becky shrugged. If he wasn’t beside her, she’d be afraid, the sneer on the face of the brash waitress reminding her a bit too much of Sandy Venesic. But his arm around her waist made her feel secure, and the glances the businessmen snuck at her in the wide bar mirror made her know he wouldn’t let go; not now, anyway. She liked the theater down the street, too, even as she sensed something naughty about “Big Screen Adult Movies,” and feared asking what a “red-light district” was. And the posters of the old buildings made her feel as though she’d tumbled back in time, to the days when there was plenty of work for men like Al ‘Madman’ Baitch: Men like her father.
She glanced at her reflection in the wide bar mirror; approved the way she looked in the dim light. In the whole long room, there were just two modest brass chandeliers. The only other light in the place came from fluorescent tubes hung beneath the bar shelves and low lights over framed photographs that were centered on the wall over each of the booths.
Empty plastic tumblers cluttered the table where the chatty women smoked, their faces pressed into mirrored compacts. The waitress glided toward them with a plastic tub and Mr. Rudy dropped a heavy hand on the bar. It was time to go. They’d occupied his booth long enough for a few free cokes, he said. Lipsticks and cigarette-packs got dropped into purses; hair tossed over shoulders; curse words mumbled; cigarettes stamped half-out in a dented aluminum ashtray. Light flared across the entrance as they swung the door wide and disappeared into the street; and the waitress swept cups and ashtrays and all into the plastic tub.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Lenny said.
Leaning seductively across the table to wipe it, she winked over her shoulder then slapped down two napkins. Lenny took Becky’s arm and led her to the booth.
“Bourbon on the rocks?” the waitress asked. Lenny nodded; then ordered a Brandy Alexander for Becky. The waitress asked if she was eighteen.
“Of course she is. What do you take me for?” he said.
The waitress just laughed.
Settling into her seat, Becky noticed that the low lights over the photographs illuminated black-and-white glamour shots of beautiful women, all soft and gray and silvery, like old movie stills. The booth where they sat was presided over by a blonde in a sequined bikini, feathers draping her shoulders and trailing down one leg all the way to the floor. Leaning heavily, she rested a hand on her hip, gathering some feathers into a pile there. The other hand she held open toward the viewer, as though she expected something to be placed in it. She didn’t smile, but her look was in no way uninviting. On the contrary, it seemed to beckon the viewer closer, as if to tell a long-awaited secret.
“That’s Pearl Diamond,” Lenny said, startling Becky out of her reverie. “One of The Block’s finest. Danced at the 408 in the old days.”
“She looks like a movie star,” Becky said.
“My thought exactly. The women back then, they had that look. You know, pure Hollywood. It didn’t matter to them if the world disapproved. They had class. That’s how The Block was in those days. Times have changed, honey, but if I have my way, they’ll change back.”
“Why did the world disapprove?” Becky asked.
“Let’s just say there are some who don’t understand,” he said, and Becky smiled, slowly nodding.
The waitress brought their drinks, and she leaned into hers to take a long, satisfying sip.
“I can relate to that,” she said, her chest warming. “Ever since I was little I dreamed of being a star, in movies, or on Broadway. Off-Broadway, even, like my boss at the dinner theater. Nobody understood. They didn’t dream; my sister, the girls at school. All they wanted was husbands and babies.”
Lenny pushed his drink aside and trained his eyes on her. He understood, smiling at “Broadway;” nodding at “Off-Broadway.” Years of having her dream belittled faded, and she felt her story grow, filling the space between them; bringing them closer.
“My step-mother made fun of me,” she continued. “She hated her life. Hated my dad, too. I loved him more than anything. He was a musician; led a band in a downtown club.”
“Yes, I remember you said so,” Lenny said.
She beamed. “You remembered. That; and the lamb chops, too.”
The waitress reappeared and he ordered her another drink. “Light on the brandy,” he said. “She has to work.”
His eyes on Becky, he waited for the waitress to leave. “I get to know people by remembering what they say. Take my business: Insurance. It’s a product, like any other. To sell a product you have to know your customer. To know your customer you listen to what they say; remember what matters to them. Then you figure out how to give them just that. Show business isn’t so different, honey. It’s all about giving people what they want.” He paused, leaning closer. His jacket sleeves tugged upward, revealing swirly gold L’s on his shirt cuffs. “But you want to know what I can’t figure?”“What?”“Why a knock-out like you doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
She glanced down at her hands. She was wearing the ring Grandma Evie had given her for her tenth birthday: a round amethyst, her birthstone, surrounded by tiny diamond chips.“My grandma gave me this,” she said, fluttering her hand like a princess waiting to have it kissed.
“Nice,” he said, caressing her fingertips. He laid her hand back on the table but kept his wrapped around it.
“I had a boyfriend,” she said. “He bought me a dress; then told people at school I did things for it.”
“Things a whore does.”
“What does a whore do?”
Shrugging, she looked away. He nestled his index finger into her palm until her eyes met his, then he slowly closed one, winking away all that had happened between she and Billy.
“The burgers will be a while,” he said. “Come. I want to show you something.”He led her to the back, where the room grew narrower and there were no booths, only small tables, suitable just for drinking. Here, the walls were lined with more photos of beautiful women, only larger. Gorgeous, full-hipped women – what Lenny called “voluptuous” – and slender ones, too, their hair in various styles and shades; dark and flipped; blond and long; auburn and curly, like Becky’s, shimmering as it tickled the ivory back of a woman wrapped entirely in fur.Moving closer, she studied the image. The woman appeared to wear nothing, but she’d wrapped herself so cleverly in a long fur stole that nothing, really, could be seen. Women in bathing suits at the Patterson Park pool showed more than she showed – their legs outstretched on the grass, the flabby whiteness of their inner thighs visible to everyone. This woman concealed even that. But what fascinated Becky was how much this made her want to see more.
“That’s Debi Lolita,” Lenny said. “A headliner at the old Paradise. A real crowd pleaser, she was.”
Becky glanced back, a dreamy haze filming her eyes. “She’s beautiful.”
The next photo showed a woman with long, honey-colored hair, cascading over both shoulders like twin waterfalls. Like the one wrapped in fur, this woman appeared to wear nothing, as well; but she held a large feather fan, flared across her upper half like the sunset over Canton Harbor. A smaller photo beside it showed the same woman from behind, the waterfall of hair tumbling to her hips, the fan covering her rear end as she glanced back, fingers gripping the stage curtain. A caption below it read: “Belle Legend, The Villa Nova, 1963.”
“Can you see yourself doing that?” Lenny asked, as she leaned forward to read the caption. She felt his breath in her ear, warm and moist, like light drizzle on a hot day. Shoulders straight, she turned and smiled. He smiled back as it was all she could see.
“You’d be great,” he whispered.
The photos at the end of the display were small, like those at the beginning: Beautiful women in bikinis and gowns; glamorous, but nothing special when compared with Belle Legend or Debi Lolita.“These are just the chorus,” Lenny said. “The headliners were shown poster-size at the door, to get the customers inside.”Still Becky lingered, her mind flipping through images of Rita Hayworth in a skimpy gown, swooning Amado Mio from the stage of a smoky Buenos Aires nightclub; Miss Adelaide and her Alley Kittens strutting in cat suits in Guys and Dolls. She even recalled Teri Canary, with her funny accent and flashy wardrobe, hips slamming across the stage of the dark and useless Casino, Becky’s dad urging her to “do it like you did it at the club.” She’d been hearing her father’s tales of the good old days for as long as she could remember; the dance halls, the orchestras, the bands in every bar. But none of this has prepared her for what she finds in the last photo, one Lenny didn’t attribute much to, its subject being one of the lesser known, an opening act whose job it was to gear-up the crowd for the headliner. The woman gazing back at her has shoulder-length dark hair, flipped and banged like Marlo Thomas. She has feathers, like most of the women, but she wears them around her hips, like a clumsy grass skirt. Her eyes invite, but in an accidental sort of way, not purposeful and seductive like the blond at their booth. All of a sudden, Becky’s memory flashes jerky, like a film that’s torn, flapping endlessly on the projector’s wheel. She sees a chrome ash-can, her father’s perfectly-pressed pants, his tapered musician’s fingers holding a paper cup, a dark-haired woman beside him; her lips pecking his as Becky exits the little girls’ room into a sea of well-dressed ladies and gents. It hits her like the ‘ah-ha’ feeling she got when, after days of racking her brain and pretending to understand, she finally ‘got’ an algebra problem. The woman staring back at her is the up-and-coming dancer who rode the bus with Becky and her dad that long-gone day when he took her to see Guys and Dolls. She knows this as sure as she knows she’s Becky Shelling and her father was the musician Ernie Shelling. It was somewhere around here, she knows this, too; and didn’t he introduce the woman to Becky as someone he worked with? Her lips move, as though to ask the question, when she feels Lenny’s hand on her elbow and returns to the present, to burgers and Brandy Alexanders, and a simple, painted sign in a poster over their booth.
“Al, ‘Madman’ Baitch,” she whispers. “I wonder what sort of music he played.”
“Jazz, darlin’,” Lenny said, sliding into the booth. “It was the thing back then. Some places, Kay’s Cabaret, for example, would hire a full orchestra, minimum of ten guys, all decked out in tuxes. Some of the smaller places had a combo – four or five guys – but good swinging music just the same. Tunes the girls could dance to. I tell you, honey, those sure were the days.”
“My father used to say that.”
“Oh, nothing.”The waitress was back, dropping their burgers onto the table and glancing from Lenny to Becky and back again with a mischievous smile. ......