I woke up. I was dreaming of music, and dreamin’ is free. I was going to get caught very soon and I could feel it. My nose was tingling. Things were on the decline. No, seriously. Only that very afternoon I contemplated selling my wine red Gibson Les Paul deluxe guitar in its silver padded bag in order to live.
That night, I met Paolo. I was twenty-three years old. I had twenty-four dollars left in my patent black clutch and some belladonna tabs. Four, if I remembered right. It was the freezing cold weather in Blondie’s Picture This. I had clouds on my lids and I’d be on the skids.
It was the fourth of November 1980. The streets were celebrating former Hollywood actor, republican Reagan beating democrat Carter in a landslide. TVs in bars were showing the firework displays. My throat was also on fire. Outside I was ice but inside I was baking. I was dying of thirst and I hadn’t eaten for three days. It took an hour to do my Maybelline makeup just to look like Debbie Harry. Dallas would be proud. I wore my red-framed plastic glasses. I was more Warhol than Debbie.
I headed straight for Drake Hotel, open every night since Prohibition era ended. I eyeballed a guy who was a little on the short side, perhaps five seven. He was at least forty. He looked smart, sexy if you were into that kind of guy, skinny. The three S. He had small neat hands, like those of a teacher. He was dressed immaculately in a sharkskin suit with an unbelievable collar and I assumed he was Italian. His face was tanned and chiselled like a doll. If I was speaking Dallese, I would call him an Italian pimp dog, a know-it-all émigré sonofabitch. After a couple of drinks at the bar, I asked him if I could have a cigarette. I only had six dollars left, after cabs, tips and so on.
‘Join us,’ he beckoned and called, ‘we’re celebrating.’ I assumed he meant the elections, but Dallas said to always answer with a straight question. This way you kept the conversation going. If you said, Yeah, how bout that huh?, then what would they or you be able to say next?
So I played the ingenue. ‘Really? What are you celebrating?’
‘We’re going into partnership to open the first and the best pizza restaurant in Asia – in Macau.’ He said McCow. Wow, I thought to myself, but I wasn’t going to act like some dumb broad.
‘If you are the first, then how can you be the best?’ I said. ‘Best means there are others, and you may or may not be the first.’
He squinted and looked at me. ‘Waiter, can we have another glass?’ He snapped his fingers real quick and twice. The waiter came back with a champagne flute. Paolo rolled his eyes and shut them, as if he had been sent a message from the Heavenly Father in Naples.
‘Gentlemen, this young lady is a mathematical genius,’ he said. ‘Dja think we oughta drink to dat? Huh?’
They each raised a glass and laughed. He poured me a glass of bubbly and I tentatively took a sip.
‘What are ya? A polla-tician?’
I shook my head. I put on a real serious look and quickly followed with ‘Yes.’ The three guys roared with laughter.
‘Italian?’ Said Paolo, when the laughter died down, only he said it more like Italyion.
‘Well, no, actually my mother is Chinese from Singapore and my father is from here, from Chicago. Irish.’
‘Bella,’ he said looking at me approvingly, ‘bella. That’s why I thought you were Italian.’ I didn’t know whether it was related to what I said. I kicked myself under the black shiny tablecloth with a real red rose on it, just lying around as if a gardener from a country mansion somewhere had just cut and left a single rose before running off. Why did I tell him the truth? I frightened myself. I feared the three things that all immigrants feared: buttons, hunger, truth. Something about him, his voice, his hands, made me tell him the truth. Dallas would kill me if she knew. The deal was a different story each night, we were the Queens of Magical Journeys into the Unknown, whatever that meant. I felt I was too old for this game and the stories had run out.
Paolo was with a couple of friends or distant relatives, I didn’t know yet, who ran Johnny’s pizzeria on West 35th. Originally it was Gianni’s but somebody, probably a Johnny, changed the name. It was Paolo’s family business, but he had a huge family. Johnny’s. Is famous. Is a block from the big Walgreens Drugstore? They were proud of their pizzeria. Never been there? I had heard of it though. I was not exactly a regular in the 60609 neighbourhood. Very long wait. Very good on the toppings. They were superselling it to me. Ya get a pizza, fries and two cans of coke for about 12 bucks? If they said anymore, I reckon I’d hit the floor. Pretty cheap date, huh? They had no idea. I was getting dizzy from starvation. I was given a not-so-top secret: the trick is that the pizzas here were baked. We know everythin’ there is t’know about pizzas and we ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Huge guffaws. I made sure I was listening. In Dallas’ rule book, listening was number one.
The conversation unavoidably drifted to ‘less regulation of business activity’, ‘direction of government policy’, ‘consumerism’… stay out of politics, said Dallas. You never heard nothin.
‘Can you play?’ Paolo asked, tossing his head towards the piano as only Italians could without looking like they were doing neck stretches. Wow, I never thought I’d be playing again. ‘Sure,’ I said.
I thought I wasn’t ever going to get an audience again.
I went to the piano when the pianist was on his break. I asked him if I could play. He balanced his unlit cigarette. He gestured with his palm as if to say be my guest, and just when I was about to sit down, he said, ‘You gotta coupla bucks?’
‘No,’ I said but I continued to sit down. ‘Jerk,’ I said under my breath. I played On the Sunny Side of the Street, Fats Waller-stride-style, big pouncy crab-like chords in one-two. Paolo came over bearing our drinks during the middle-eight, leaving the two guys behind at our table. Paolo started singing. He knew most of the words. But after the song was over, he wanted to sing about some shark having pearly teeth and I knew I wouldn’t get out of it. He was a big fan of Bobby Darin. I changed the mood and started playing something more apt: Dreamin’ by Blondiewith its wonderful descending scalic melody about meeting in a restaurant and that I wasn’t a debutante. Were truer words ever spoken? No. He shook his head. How could he not dig that tune?
At Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground with its pulsing ascending blues baseline, I lost my fan. At first he politely nodded his head in time but he didn’t know any of the words and wasn’t singing along with me. Then he was looking back at the guys. He jokingly mouthed to them ‘I’ll call ya,’ and made the universal gesture of the phone call, fist to the ear. It was just as well. The real pianist came back from his break, winked in that cocktail pianist way and said ‘Hey, thought that was neat.’ We headed back to our table but my legs folded over.
I passed out.
Dallas used to assign ‘jobs’ for me to do, but now she was in MMC prison in downtown Chicago. Not only did I want to quit my day job, I wanted out from the ‘night-time enterprise’ too, which was scoping. Sure, she recognized that I had my Catholic hang-ups. Scoping and teaching were the only options for me, she said. Scoping was spiking guys’s drinks with belladonna, our beautiful lady or scopolamine, and when they surrendered to the peaceful nightshade of twilight, she robbed them, or as she’d like to call it, ‘taxed them’. All the time I would be saying my Hail Marys. You’re a class act, she told me, at least you do good your wrongs.
Luck only gets better when it runs out. That was what my mom told me. And for all her Singaporean Chinese wisdomisms, she had not an ounce of luck in all her life. It was the early ‘Fifties when she married my Daddy, when mixed marriages were so rare in Singapore, people secretly took their wedding photos and sold them to the tabloids, as though it was the discovery of an illegal gambling den, so rare my mother was disowned, so rare she became a kind of local legend. Despite all this, she loved him but she didn’t trust him. It was a pretty kaboom combination. Actually, it was her mother, my Ah Ma, who told her not to trust him. The white man cannot be trusted. Ah Ma had more wisdomisms than teeth.
Dallas said there was no such thing as luck. It was just a feeling. If you feel lucky, then you are. Like feeling skinny, or feeling chubby. Dallas only said that because she was already in the can. I’d been in once and it was enough for me. She said I’d better get out of town fast.
Didn’t think it would be that fast. When I opened my eyes I thought I was in heaven. Dallas said that no way were the bouncers gonna turn us away from heaven’s door. We got into every club that ever was.