Saint Mazie By Jami Attenberg: Book Review
Jami Attenberg’s follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, The Middlesteins (not read it? It’s a gem), is a bold departure into historical fiction – but with a difference.
This is history told through people, not prose, meaning character comes first – always Attenberg’s strong point.
Mazie Gordon-Phillips ran The Venice movie theatre in the rundown Bowery district of New York City, and was famed for her brassy looks and boozing, but also her big heart: she spent her nights dishing out soap and dimes to drunks and down-and-outs.
Attenberg employs her signature wit through imagined diary excerpts, interviews and reportage, vividly bringing to life 1920s/30s New York. Attenberg’s Mazie is brazen and funny, and could give Mae West a run for her money.
Saint Mazie By Jami Attenberg: Book Extract
Mazie’s Diary, March 9, 1939
Fannie brought one of her fancy friends down to the theater last night. First she handed me a beer then she had me shake his hand. Bribery. He gave me a cigarette, the first one I’ve had in weeks. It tasted as good as I remembered. All of these things I’m not supposed to be having and there I was, having them. Rosie would kill me. We smoked for a minute, shooting the breeze. Then the fella told me he was there on a mission and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He wanted me to write a book about my life.
I said: Who cares about my life? I just sit in this ticket booth all day.
And he said: Plenty of people care, you run these streets.
Fannie stood back, quiet, unlike usual. She was watching the both of us, or maybe it was only him. She likes these young boys around, and I guess I can’t blame her. I’ll hand this one a few points for his looks. He was real slick, tan, a Mediterranean fella in a bespoke suit. He’s twenty-five if a day, but it didn’t matter, he carried himself like he’d known everything about life since birth. It must be so easy to have all the answers already. It must be so easy to think you know the truth.
I said: I’m not so interesting. It’s the bums that have the real story.
And he said: No, the bums are interesting because of you.
If he can’t see why they’re worth talking about, then what kind of story would he want me to tell? Ten years of my life I’ve been helping those bums, I couldn’t ignore them. And this guy, with his suit and his hair and his eyes, he wants me to forget their names. I started closing up shop. Counting the change I’d already counted, just so he’d get the hint.
Fannie said: I’m sorry I brought him here.
I said: Everyone’s welcome at the Venice Theater, even the snobs.
He said: You have a story to tell.I’m never wrong about these things. You’re the queen, so tell the story of your kingdom.
That cigarette was perched on his lips like it was part of his flesh. I wanted a hundred more of them but the doc says no. He slid his hand through the slot of the cage before he left. We shook, but then we still kept holding hands, and it made me feel young again under my skin, like I was a piece of ice melting in the sun. Just a pool of me left behind. We stood there like that. He held my hand, I held his.
I’m a sucker. An old lady. A fool.
He said: Think about it.
Then this morning I dug you out of the closet and dusted you off. So all right, I’m thinking about it.
P A R T ONE
EXCERPT FROM THE UNPUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MAZIE PHILLIPS-GORDON
People ask me why I spend so much time on the streets. I tell them it’s where I grew up. These streets are dirty, but they’re home, and they’re beautiful to me. The bums know about the beauty of it. The bums love it like it’s their own skin. The ruddy dust from the streets, the mud in the parks where they sleep, sunk deep in the lines in their foreheads, jammed up under their fingernails. The sun and the dirt mixed up with their sweat and the booze. All the dirt. It’s the earth. If you can’t see the beauty in the dirt then I feel sorry for you. And if you can’t see why these streets are special, then just go home already.
George Flicker, Mazie’s neighbor, 285 Grand Street
Before she was the Queen of the Bowery, walking around in those brilliantly colored dresses, with her floppy felt hat and dangling bracelets and walking stick, helping all those homeless men for years and years, and before people started writing about her in magazines and newspapers, calling her an important New Yorker, a hero is what they said, before all that, she was just Mazie Phillips, the girl who lived upstairs from me who maybe I had a little crush on but wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Mazie’s Diary, November 1, 1907
Today is my birthday. I am ten. You are my present.
I am the daughter of Ada and Horvath Phillips. But they live in Boston, far away. I never see them anymore. So are they still my parents? I don’t care. My father is a rat and my mother is a simp.
I live in New York now. Rosie says I am a New Yorker. You are my New York diary.
First it was just Louis Gordon in the one big apartment on the third floor, alone for a long time, I remember. He was a giant man, filled with red meat. You could smell it in the hallway. Him cooking it, I mean. And he was a sweaty man, too. Dead of winter, he’d be sweat-stained before noon. He always wore this brown fedora with a blue feather in it—that was the flashiest thing about him, that feather. He was not a man who liked to draw attention to himself, but that feather let you know there was a little something going on there. So there was Louis, the big man, all alone, right above us.
Now there were five of us in our family, my mother, my father, my aunt, my uncle, all crammed into one small room. Plus another uncle, Al, my mother’s brother, he lived under the staircase and he was always up in our apartment, taking up more of what little space we had. I see your face, but those days we really packed them in there. And actually Mazie was of great service to my uncle Al later on, so he’s important to this story. He’s not just my crazy uncle Al who lived under the stairs.
Okay, so sometimes there were six of us in this one room, but Louis, he had two rooms to himself. It’s oppressive, living in a small space like that. On the one hand, we were used to it. I never knew anything else but that room; I had been born into it. And we had our small joys. We all had food. No one got sick, no one died. All around us tenements were soiled and reeking. But we got lucky with this one building. Even if we were crammed together we were still safe and clean. The family remained intact. But we envied those with more room.
So there was a little jealousy, but still, he was our neighbor. Be nice to your neighbors was what we were taught. My mother used to call him “The Quiet Giant” on account of him being so tall but never making a noise. You never heard the floor creak once, and this is one creaky building we’re talking about. Every ache and pain you could hear. Sometimes she’d go upstairs and knock on his door just to make sure he was still alive. She was worried about him being single; she worried about that all the time.
Then he marries Rosie. The story goes he met her at the track, out of town, in Boston. Oh, let me think ...the track was called Readville, which was a big deal at the time, but it hasn’t been around for many years. It’s not much of a story is it? [Laughs.] So he marries her and brings her to New York. And Rosie’s a real knockout when she shows up, this fine, dark hair wrapped around her head, her eyes are lined with kohl, her lips are dark red. She looks exotic, like a gypsy, but she’s a Jew, of course. And she smiles at everyone, because everyone’s smiling at her. She’s just a good-looking girl.
And now there’s two people in two rooms, and now the floor is creaking. Every night! Now he’s not so quiet, and my mother never knocks on his door. This goes on for, I don’t know, a year? But then the creaking, we start to not hear it so often anymore, and Rosie, who had been so happy, now we see her around the neighborhood, and she’s never smiling. She’s shopping, and she’s sad. She’s taking a stroll with Louis, and she’s sad. You say hi to her in the hallway, and she is joyless in her greeting. I remember my mother saying, “The Quiet Giant and The Royal Sourpuss.”
Once I was in their apartment. Only once though. I was running down the stairs in our apartment building and I tripped and fell, skinned my knee right open. Kids do this kind of stuff all the time. Well Rosie was walking up the stairs with groceries and saw me fall. So she hauled me into her apartment to tend to me. The thing I really remember was this giant wooden table with all these chairs around it, this beautiful shiny wood. When Rosie was in the bathroom finding a bandage for my knee, I walked around the table, counting the steps, sliding my hand against it. What did they need that big of a table for?
Anyway, Rosie took good care of me. She cooed over me, took me into her arms, pressed me against her chest. She held me so tight, and then she very suddenly let me go, sent me downstairs to my mother. I remember it very distinctly. She said, “You belong with your mother.”
After that, I don’t know, a month or two maybe, Louis and Rosie leave town for a week. They ask my mother to keep an eye on the place. They say they’re going on the honeymoon they never had. My mother thought he had money buried in the floorboards. “Ill-gotten gains.” She joked about pulling up the floors while he was gone, but she wasn’t kidding. She thought he was pretending to be something he wasn’t so that no one would suspect him. She never thought they were ill-gotten before Rosie got there. Look, I liked Louis. He had legitimate business too. He owned the movie theater, he owned the candy shop. He invested in the community. And he was always giving everyone a nickel. Ill-gotten, who is anyone to talk?
Then when Louis and Rosie come back to town, they have two girls with them, Rosie’s little sisters. This is when I meet Mazie and Jeanie, the Phillips girls. About six months after the girls arrived, the whole family, Louis and Rosie and Mazie and Jeanie, moved across the street to a bigger apartment, a whole floor, five rooms I heard, but never saw. And then you should have heard my mother.
Mazie’s Diary, December 3, 1907
I lost you! And now I found you. But I don’t have anything to say.
Mazie’s Diary, March 13, 1908
I’m no good at this. Remembering to write in you.
Mazie’s Diary, June 3, 1908
I ain’t no liar, I don’t care what anyone says.
When they first got to town, Mazie was probably ten years old, Jeanie’s four or five years old. I must have been nearly seven by then. The two girls were always very nice to look at, although they weren’t necessarily prettier than anyone else. They looked not so different than the rest of the curly-haired, dark-eyed Jewesses on the Lower East Side.
But Rosie bought them beautiful dresses, and bows for their hair, and they were well fed. So they were not sick or sallow like those who could not get enough to eat, which was more than a few people on the streets those days. And Jeanie took ballet classes when she was very young, which seemed crazy to my whole family when there were no extras for the Flickers, and Uncle Al was sleeping under the staircase. But there she was walking around dressed up like a tiny ballerina, which we could all admit was at least nice for us to see, a little girl looking pretty.
Mazie had no use for me. I bored her. She always was looking for excitement, looking ten feet behind you like there was something better out there. And she seemed so much older than me. I guess there’s a big difference between seven and ten, but now I think it was just that she had been through more than the rest of us. Mazie was very smart. It wasn’t like she was book smart, none of us were. And she was street smart, but all of us were that, being city kids. It just seemed like she knew more about the world, and always did. She ran with the older kids on the rooftops of the tenements. They were a tough gang. Of course, my mother wouldn’t let me anywhere near them.
So no, I didn’t play with the Phillips girls. I just admired them from afar. Or from across the street, anyway.
Mazie’s Diary, July 8, 1909
I can run faster than any of those boys from the block. I told them I would prove it and I did. I raced them all tonight on the roof and won. I beat Abe and Gussy and Jacob and Hyman and not a one of them were even close. They were all spitting in my dust. Even in my dress I can beat those boys. Gussy said I cheated but how could I cheat? He’s a cheater for even saying that. He’s a crummy lying jerk. After, Rosie yelled at me for getting dirty but I told her I didn’t care. It was only a dress.
Louis told her to leave me alone, it’s what kids do, they get dirty. Rosie told him not to say another word about children, not one more word. That clammed him up. Then she started crying. Jeanie was hugging her, begging her not to cry. I started yelling that it was just a stinking dress. I ran outside, they couldn’t catch me. I ran a block, I ran another. I ran as fast as I could. It was just a dress. Why did she have to cry?
Mazie’s Diary, August 8, 1909
Gussy got a piece of my fist tonight. Call me a cheater one more time, I told him. Just one more time. Well he did and now he’s sorry.
She drew blood more than once. This scared us, and it impressed us. She was beyond being a boy or a girl.
Mazie’s Diary, January 4, 1911
You’re where the secrets go. I mean to write in you all this time. I mean to tell you everything. I mean to tell someone everything about my life but I forgot until now. I got all these secrets inside me. Only I just forget to let them out.
Mazie’s Diary, February 3, 1913
I wouldn’t let Rosie throw you away. She’s got nothing better to do than go through my personal private things all day. But you’re mine.
Mazie’s Diary, November 1, 1913
I turned sixteen today, and I’ve already fought with Rosie twice. I can’t listen to her another minute. She’s always yelling and screaming when I come home late. Treating me like I’m a brat. I’m not a brat! She’s an old cow. And I’ve been good for weeks. I’ve been doing everything she’s asked for days and days and weeks and weeks and years and years. One night I go out, and it’s my birthday. One night I come home late. One night!
Of course then she grew those bosoms of hers and everything changed.Next chapter
Mazie’s Diary, May 12, 1916
I dug you out of my closet so I could scream at the top of my lungs without anyone hearing.
Rosie doesn’t understand what it’s like to love the streets. She doesn’t see the shimmering cobblestones in the moonlight, she just wonders why the city won’t put in another street lamp already. She doesn’t see floozies trying to sweettalk their customers, earning every nickel they get, working as hard as the rest of us. She just sees crime. She doesn’t see the nuns and the Chinamen and the sailors and barkeeps—the whole world full of such different people. It’s just crowds to her, blocking her way. She sees a taxi whisking by and she thinks, what’s the hurry? And I think, where’s the party?
This is what I want to tell her! There’s a party.
Mazie’s Diary, June1, 1916
All the girls I know have a fella except for me. But why would I want just one person loving me when I can have three?
Was she any wilder than the rest of us? She was wilder than me, I can tell you that much. But that wasn’t hard. I was a good boy, and she was a good-time girl. You see the difference. She was very . . .touchy-feely. What does that mean? You seem like a smart person. You know what it means.
She was still a brunette then, and she wore her hair in waves. Sometimes she pinned it up, but most of the time it was loose, though still tidy. Her eyebrows were plucked thin, and she powdered her cheeks white. She wore bright pink and red dresses, the brighter the better—she’d have liked to burn your eyes when you looked at her, I think. New dresses all the time. She was always swirling them around, flirting with her body. Day or night you couldn’t miss her. She wouldn’t let you.
She did a little of this, a little of that. Once in a while she worked in this candy shop Louis owned during the day, but not anything you could count on if you were trying to find her.
But mostly you’d see her on the streets, looking for fun. She went to all the bars on the Bowery, even the bars where the girls weren’t allowed. My mother used to say she had no sense of propriety, but I’ve always thought propriety’s for people who need rules. And Mazie had been making her own rules for too long.
Lots of times she’d come home right when my father was leaving for work in the morning. I should explain that my other uncle, my uncle Barney, had a terrible back and he’d get laid up from time to time, so eventually my father had to take on a second job, this one at a pickle factory. I didn’t get to see him that much after that, so I’d started watching him leave from the window. I wanted to see him every last possible second. Isn’t that crazy? All of us were packed together in that apartment, one bed next to another, no privacy, no quiet. Half the time you’d wake up in the morning under someone else’s covers. And still the minute he left I was missing him. But he was a good man, of course I missed him. He liked his pipes, he had a nice set, and I would watch him pack the tobacco in there. He’d let me pack it too, and then my fingers would smell like tobacco. I loved that smell. I smoked a pipe well into my eighties. I thought about him every time I smoked. He was a workingman—life was work to him—but he had his small joys.
Anyway, he’d be walking down the steps when Mazie’d be walking up hers. She’d wave, he’d nod. Now she was an adult, so all the grown men were scared of her too. No men in the neighborhood would be caught dead talking to her while she roamed the streets like she did. The mothers didn’t like her, the fathers didn’t want to talk to her. But once upon a time she used to be a little girl they all loved. It was not hypocrisy, but it felt something like it.
Mazie’s Diary, June14, 1916
I sat on the front stairs before I went home. I knew what was coming. Oh boy did I know. I could be standing across the East River and know when that woman opens her mouth. So I waited for a minute. I wanted to see the daylight hit the stairs. I like watching it spread across the street and then the sidewalk. I smoked. I closed my eyes. I let the sun hit me. The sun’s some kind of gift. Another day we’re all alive. I wish she could understand. I’m just happy to be alive.
She was asleep on the couch when I came in, tucked into a quilt. When she’s quiet, she looks like a girl again, with that pudge around her chin. Louis was in the kitchen like always. He had a plate of hot eggs and leftover steak in front of him. He was peppering the steak. He just gave me a nod. He wants nothing to do with the arguing. Poor Louis. He’d give us every cent he has just to keep the peace.
I stumbled into my room. I knocked into a wall. All right I was drunk I guess. So it was my fault I woke her up. My fault, my fault. Everything’s my fault. A minute passed, then there’s Rosie in my room. Didn’t even knock! Just walked right in. Started talking about the neighbors knowing too much, worrying about them being in Louis’s business. Nobody wants anybody’s nose in anything. I couldn’t argue so I didn’t. I just shushed her for Jeanie’s sake.
But then Jeanie was up. She had slept in one of her ballerina outfits again. No one could sleep then so it was into the kitchen with all of us. Rosie got back on the couch, stuffed in her quilt. I braided Jeanie’s hair while Louis made us eggs. Jeanie told us jokes and made us laugh. Louis went to work and I did the dishes while Rosie stared at me from the couch. She looked mean.
Rosie said: One day that door won’t be open.
I told her I’d crawl through the window. I told her she’d never ever get rid of me.
Jeanie danced in circles around the room. Fast, spinning. Jeanie’s braids came out. Rosie was wishing ill on me. I wasn’t going to change a thing.
Rosie said: Enough, Jeanie.
But you can’t stop that girl from dancing.
Lydia Wallach,great-granddaughter of Rudy Wallach, manager of the Venice Theater (1916–1938)
First of all, obviously this is all secondhand information. I’m certainly fine with speaking on the record, but most of this was told to me by my mother and by my grandmother, and a lot of this information came, I believe, from my greatgrandmother, whom in fact I never met, or if I did I don’t recall it. There’s a chance she held me when I was just a baby. I vaguely recall having heard that she did once from my mother.
But anyway, essentially, this is all rumor and gossip, family lore, I suppose you could call it, although I don’t know how interesting any of it is. I guess we take what we can get for family lore. And Mazie was the closest thing to a celebrity any of them knew. She was a celebrity because she was written about, and was sort of known about town as this downtown fixture, but beyond that she was a celebrity in my family because she was charismatic and generous, and led a very big life for someone who barely left a twenty-block radius.
One little thing I can tell you for a fact is that Louis Gordon bought the Venice Theater in 1915, and my great-grandfather became the manager of it the following year. For the first few years Louis’s wife, Rosie, worked the ticket booth. There were some other employees here and there, but Rosie was the one who ran the show.
After Louis bought the movie theater, the girls really started running around on the streets. Rosie was too busy working the ticket booth to keep an eye on them. Always Jeanie had been a good girl. But then she became a handful too, in her own way. Sometimes you’d see her dancing on the streets, hustling for change. Bella Barker sang, Jeanie danced. We all clapped and threw a penny or two at them.
And what a pair they were. Jeanie had a smile as long as Broadway. And Bella, even when she was a little girl, had these dark, heavy, sexy eyes that made her look older than she was, and of course that wise woman’s voice. She was born ready for something big. Her voice made everyone stop and listen to her.
Of course Bella was always more of a solo act. She left the neighborhood for a while when she was a teenager. She was off to Pennsylvania for a year or two, working the vaudeville circuit out there. When she came back she was married to a man named Lew, her manager, who seemed like an old man next to her. And she has a new name, a grown-up name. So she’s Belle Baker now, and that’s when she started to get famous. But Jeanie was still just playing at dancing. Nobody believed for a second she had the same hunger in her as Belle did.
Mazie’s Diary, September 12, 1916
On the way home from work who did I see but our little Jeanie twirling around on a street corner. I stood off to the side and watched her for a while in her candy-colored tutu. Our little sweetheart. Her cheeks were flushed pink from the sun. Our father loved to dance, is what I was thinking. You can’t dance on the street forever, is also what I was thinking. But I want her to anyway.
Mazie’s Diary, September 23, 1916
Tonight I met two sailors from California. San Francisco seems so far away, how can it even be real? One was tall and one was short and that’s all I can remember. Names, I don’t know. I got so many names in my head all the time.
They said New York reminded them of home, it being so close to the water. But in San Francisco the mist and the fog come off the ocean so thick you can’t see one foot in front of you, that’s what they told me.
I said they were lying, and they laughed.
I said: What’s so funny?
But then they never answered.
I danced with the tall one while the short one watched us, smiling hard. He looked like he was burning up. When the tall one dipped me, the tie from his uniform tickled my face. I love a man in uniform. Any kind. I think they walk taller when they got something formal to wear. When they got a place to go. The tall one asked me how old I was.
I said: Old enough.
He said: Old enough for what?
Then they both laughed at me some more. But I’m old enough for anything. They don’t know but I know.
The tall one tasted salty when I kissed him but later I saw him holding hands with the short one. They were so slim and pretty in their uniforms. Sometimes I just want a uniform of my own.Next chapter
She was unapologetic about who she was and haughty to those who questioned her, even if they didn’t say anything out loud. Like my mother for example. The two of them did not like each other at all. People sometimes think “chutzpah” is a compliment but not the way my mother said it. Sometimes she would cross to the other side of the street when she saw Mazie coming, and she did not do it quietly. She coughed and she stomped. My mother was a tremendous noisemaker. If Mazie cared she didn’t show it. Once I heard her shout, “More room for me,” after my mother had sashayed her way across the street.
Mazie’s Diary, November 1, 1916
Jeanie bought me a birthday present, a pretty dark purple bow, nearly the color of the night sky. I asked her where she got the money, and she told me she saved every penny from dancing next to Bella.
She said: She lets me keep a penny for every ten we make.
I said: That doesn’t seem fair.
She said: It was her idea to have the show in the first place.
Bella says people with the brains make the money.
I said: You got brains.
She said: I just love to dance.
I asked her how much change she had and she told me it was a lot. I told her I’d show her where I hid you if she’d show me where she hid her change.
I said: We could trade secrets.
Jeanie showed me all the change she had, a few bills at least. Hidden in her suitcase in the closet, the same suitcase we used when we came to town from Boston. I asked her if she was saving for anything. She didn’t say anything. I told her she could tell me anything, that she was my sweetheart, my little girl. Finally she got very close to my ear.
She said: I wouldn’t want to go forever, but I’d like to join the circus.
I told her I’d come with. I’d ride on top of a horse with a crown on my head and she’d be an acrobat and fly high up above me. The Phillips Sisters, the stars of the show. All the men would swoon at our feet. That part I liked the best but I didn’t tell her that.
Jeanie said: But what would Rosie say?
I said: She wouldn’t say anything. She’d just be in the audience clapping like everyone else.
Jeanie said: Do you think that’s true? Wouldn’t she miss us?
I said: We’re just daydreaming here, Jeanie. Don’t ruin it.
Jeanie said: All right. I guess she’d be in the front row then.
I said: She’d be our biggest fan.
Mazie’s Diary, November 7, 1916
I have to work in the candy shop again today. Boring. Only little kids coming in there all day long, dirty change, sticky paws. The bell rings on the front door and I look up and it’s the same thing over and over. I feel like a dog when that bell rings. Waiting for someone to feed me with something interesting to look at.
I’d rather be running errands for Louis at the track. I like the track. There’s grass and trees, blue sky cracking above us, but then everyone’s smoking cigars, too. I like the way it smells clean and dirty at the same time. Plus everyone’s having a nip of something. The flasks those men have, jewels crusted in them. Whatever it takes to hide the money. But they’re generous though with sharing what they got. Makes it so I don’t even mind the horseshit.
But Louis doesn’t like it when I come. The track’s no place for a woman, that’s what Louis says. Of course he says that. He doesn’t like the way the men there look at me. I thought he wanted me to get married, but Louis doesn’t trust any of those men, at least not with me. But he’s one of those men. I like to kid him.
I said: Rosie found you at the track. How’d she find you?
I poke him with my finger.
I said: Is it cause you’re so tall, Louis?
He doesn’t answer me.
I said: Cause you stick out like a giraffe?
Nothing. Louis keeps his cards so close it’s like there’s no deck at all.
I think I’ll eat all the chocolates in the shop today. All the chocolate kisses, all the chocolate bars. I’m going to tear off their wrapper with my teeth. And I’ll eat all the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Tootsie Rolls. Chew till my jaw hurts. And all the caramel creams and butterscotch twists and peanut butter nuggets and those sweetie almond treats. I’ll suck on all the hard candies, cherry, strawberry, grape, orange mint. Lick all the lollies till they’re gone.
I’ll eat and I’ll eat and I’ll eat just so I never have to look at any of those stinking candies ever again.
Mazie’s Diary, January 3, 1917
Last night Rosie and I split a bottle of whiskey. This was after I came home, on time for once. I came in to say good night and the bottle was next to her in bed. I couldn’t tell how long she’d been drinking. All I knew was she was already knee-deep in it. She was mourning something, I didn’t know what. Louis was nowhere. Jeanie was sleeping. I got under the covers with Rosie, and she handed me the bottle.
I said: What are you thinking about?
She said: Our parents.
I said: Well that’ll do it.
She said: Do you remember what happened in Topsfield?
That story again. She and I had talked about it before, when Jeanie wasn’t around. Topsfield, that was right before she left us behind.
We were all out together, a real, happy family for the day. Papa holding me with one hand, Jeanie in his other arm, Rosie wedged between him and Mama. Papa was not handsome. His eyes drooped, and his skin was the color of cold, watery soup. And those lines around his mouth and eyes made him always look furious, which he was. Lines don’t lie. But he was tall and young and had so much hair, and I remember him as strong. That day, out in the world, he was our father.
We walked together like that. A ruddy-cheeked barker called us close and bragged about the world’s skinniest man and his wife, the world’s fattest woman. There was the darkskinned rubber man, skinny as stretched taffy. His face was so calm, like turning himself inside and out was nothing to him. He was born to bend. I remember the sun was bright, and it was nearly fall, but it was still warm. I was squinting, seeing the world between tiny slits in my eyes. Men with low-slung hats waved hello to Papa. Everyone knew Horvath Phillips, for better or for worse.
But to Rosie I said: I remember that he left us that day.
Because I knew that she wanted that to be my only memory.
He told us to stay put, said he’d be back, sliding that flask from his pocket as he walked away. There were men in white face paint pretending to tug on an imaginary rope. The sun began to set. Jeanie was tired and we found a bench and Mama took her in her lap. My skin stung from the sun, my stomach was sick from sweets.
Mama said: Should we try to find him? I don’t know.
She was talking to Rosie, who was the only one of us old enough to understand that the question was not a simple one. But I can’t remember her saying anything. She was just simmering.
Mama said: Yes, we’ll wait.
Then it was dark and the mimes were gone, most of the families too. Just young people floating around, also some lonely-looking men. Mama still kept turning her head around, thinking he’d come back.
Rosie said: If you don’t go find him, I will.
They argued about Rosie wandering around at night by herself. Rosie started fighting for us to just go home already. Mama didn’t want to walk the roads by herself. She was still scared of this country, had been since the day she got here. Found the most terrifying man in town to marry, that couldn’t have helped much either.
Mama finally gave in to Rosie, and agreed we should try to find him. I remember this sigh of her shoulder, and then Jeanie nearly rolled off her lap.
She wasn’t pretty anymore then, Mama. Her hair was thin. She pulled clumps of it out, and so did he, when he was mad. She still had the knockout hips though. I walked behind her as we went to find him and I remember those hips, because I have those hips too. A little girl with her arms around her mama, her face sunk in her hips.
Rosie had known where he was all night. Mama did, too. Those two had just been playing a game with each other for hours. Because back behind the big top was an open field lit up with lanterns and white candles, and filled with people dancing in a frenzy. There was a small stage in the middle of it, packed with men playing all kinds of instruments, accordians, fiddles, guitars, a washboard and spoons. A man sang in a deep growl, French, now I know, but I didn’t then. There was a sign at the front of the stage, the Cajun Dancers is what they were called.
The audience was so caught up in the moment, moving faster and faster, laughing and grinning, they were almost hysterical. I could feel the heat coming off their bodies, and then I was nearly hysterical too. The lust of those people is a lust that I hold in my heart. They were gorgeous and free.
Mama put Jeanie down next to me, and we held hands, and then we looked at each other. While Rosie and Mama scanned the crowd, we began to dance our own dance. We were never going to sit still, Jeanie and me. Not like good girls did. I twirled her around until she fell, dizzy, and then I fell, too. The grass tickled the backs of my legs.
I looked up and there was Rosie, pulling away from Mama, and working her way through the crowd. She had found Papa. He looked happy, is what I remember thinking. His eyes were closed, bliss, and his face was relaxed, the lines erased for the moment. He embraced a young, plump, black-haired woman in a long green gown. The dress rose and crashed while they danced. I don’t know if he knew the woman or not, if she was the reason why he was so content, or if it was just the dancing. Maybe he just loved the freedom. More than once I have wondered if it would have been easier to forgive him for all that he did if he had just up and left our home, rather than stayed put and laid his cruelty upon us.
I said: I remember you grabbing his arm, and I remember you pointing to us. You shamed him. You were so bold.
Papa bowed to the woman he had been dancing with, and then walked with Rosie back through the crowd, which somehow managed to keep moving and part for them at the same time. Or at least that’s how I remember it: Everything faded into the background except for Rosie and Papa.
I said: It was a long ride home.
Rosie said: I felt like I aged ten years in that time.
I said: She tucked us in so quietly that night. She kissed every part of our face.
Rosie said: I didn’t get to go to sleep. He took me out back.
I said: I know.
Rosie said: Until I passed out from the pain.
I said: Oh, Rosie.
Rosie said: Was I wrong that day? Did I deserve it?
She was too drunk. She sounded confused.
I said: You were right, and he was wrong.
Rosie said: I’m sorry I left you there.
I said: We didn’t blame you for leaving us. I didn’t, anyway. Jeanie didn’t even know what was happening.
Rosie said: And I came back for you didn’t I?
I said: You did.
Rosie said: I was always trying to do the right thing by us even if she wouldn’t.
I said: You did.
She said: I take care of you, right?
I said: Rosie, we love you. You know we love you.
Rosie said: I’m not bad, am I?
I said: You’re not. You’re a good girl.
We drank until we slept. Rosie more than me. When I woke, there was Jeanie, sleeping between us. I don’t know if she heard us. I wouldn’t want her to hear it. I wouldn’t want her to remember any of it.
Mazie’s Diary, March 1, 1917
The sun was rising when I took off my shoes this morning. Rosie stood at the door and stared me down. I turned my back on her and wrapped the covers around me, put my head on the pillow, and prayed for peace. God heard me.
I don’t know much about praying. It feels like you could be trading on one thing for another, and maybe the thing you’re trading isn’t really yours in the first place.
Rosie just crawled into bed with me. No yelling. We started whispering to each other.
We curled our hands together. They were cold like always. I remember when Jeanie and I were little we used to crawl into bed with her and Louis and rub her blue-tinted fingers and toes, breathing on them with our hot breath. All I wanted was to be warm and close like that forever.
She said: What if you get a baby in there?
She rubbed my stomach. When she touched it I felt ill. The last thing I wanted was a baby to lug around all day. And I’d never fit into my pretty dresses again.
She said: Then no respectable man will ever want to marry you.
I didn’t want nothing to do with marriage with a respectable man or any other kind of man. Not once in my life did I ever dream of my wedding day, no white dresses, no goddamn diamond rings. I only ever dreamed of freedom. The love I have is with the streets of this city.Next chapter
Mazie’s Diary, March 20, 1917
Oh, Rosie. My poor, dear Rosie.
This morning she took us girls to a dusty little gypsy parlor on Essex, empty except for a few plants and a folding table and chairs and a vase with a peacock feather in it. I didn’t want to be there, and neither did Jeanie. Golly, Jeanie’s so pretty now, skinny and pretty, with her pale skin and puffy lips and moony eyes. I swear she floats when she walks. Still she had a sour face, just like I did. After being sweet for so long, turns out she’s a Phillips girl, after all.
The gypsy pushed aside some curtains and came in from the back room. She was wearing a chain of thick gold coins around her neck, and the coins clinked together as she moved. Dark hair, dark skin, her skirts flowing around her. Some people find that glamorous. To me it’s just another gypsy, but Rosie has always had a thing for them.
At first she acted like we weren’t there. We could have been ghosts. She lit some incense on the table in front of us, watered some plants in the front window. Then I noticed the plants were dead, gray leaves, stems tipped over. I felt like I was nowhere all of a sudden.
The gypsy sat down at the table with us, told us her name was Gabriela. She smiled at Rosie, and Rosie smiled at her. There was a love there. She looked into my eyes and held them there. The long stare. Searching for something, but I didn’t give her a damn thing. Then she looked at Jeanie’s eyes, and then back into Rosie’s eyes. We were just sitting there waiting, all of us. All right already, is what I was thinking. We get it. You know how to hold a room.
She told us we were there for our sister, like I needed to be reminded Rosie existed. How can I forget?
She didn’t have an accent, like other Roma I’d met. She had thick eyebrows, and they made her look serious. She could have been old, she could have been young, I couldn’t tell.
She said: I needed to meet you in order to help your sister. You are all in the same home. You are living one life together. You are family. You are sisters. You are connected in this life, and the last one, and the next one, too.
A scam if I ever saw one, I thought. I couldn’t wait to tell Louis when I got home. I looked at Jeanie, thinking she’d be on my side. But she was drooling over everything the gypsy said. What a sucker.
Then she held out both of her hands toward me. I sighed and I groused, but finally I put my hand in hers. With her index finger, she traced a few lines on my hand.
She said: Life, money, good.
She was nodding her head.
She said: Well, money will come and go. Mostly come though.
Her hands were cool and soft. Her nails were clean. I admire a well-kept hand. She rubbed a thumb along a line across the top of my hand, and then a line beneath that.
She said: But this is no good.
She squeezed my hand tightly and released it.
She said: No love for you. You will spend your life alone.
I pulled my hands back.
I said: I got company whenever I like.
Rosie shushed me. I don’t care, I don’t need anyone telling me about my life.
Jeanie said: Now me.
She shoved her hands in the gypsy’s. Gabriela smiled at Jeanie like she loved her. The warm glow of a con artist. She told her she had a strong love line, and she pointed to something on her head. She told her she will marry well. A rich man. She asked if she liked rich men. As if she wouldn’t want a rich man! I watched Jeanie’s face. She was considering it, though she didn’t answer. But she smiled. Maybe she smiled like it was funny. I would have said, Who cares? But nobody was asking me. Nobody was telling me I was going to marry someone special.
Gabriela turned to Rosie, and Rosie slid her hand in hers so easily it was like they were husband and wife.
Rosie said: You already know what it says.
Gabriela said she did. Rosie asked her to look again. I didn’t know why it was so serious.
Rosie said: Now that you’ve met them, look again.
Gabriela said: They are strong these two, as you said, but who they are will not change what will happen to you. They love you. I don’t need to look at their palms to see that. They’re going to be who they’re going to be.
Then she brought Rosie’s hand to her lips and kissed it. It was a sweet vision.
She said: I still think it can happen, Rosie.
Rosie started crying and then Gabriela swept herself up into the back room, and came back with a handful of bottles. She smacked each bottle down in front of Rosie.
She said: I’ve asked everyone I know, and they’ve asked everyone they know too. I went uptown, I went downtown, I went across the river, and I gathered these for you.
She handed Rosie a piece of paper.
She said: I wrote down instructions. How much, how often. And there’s an address on there, a Chinaman. He sticks needles in you and they say it lights a fire within your womb.
She held Rosie’s hand again.
She said: I lit candles for you, my friend.
Now Rosie was sobbing, and then we held her. So our poor Rosie can’t have babies. I never knew, but how could I? We were her babies all along, I thought we were enough for her. I didn’t know she wanted anyone but us. She watched over us better than our own mother ever did. She’s our sister and our mother. Oh, all this time her heart was breaking and we didn’t even know.
Oh you want to know about the gypsies? What do you think you know about the gypsies? That they’re a bunch of criminals, probably. That’s what people always thought about them. My mother swore they spoke the truth. My friends from Little Italy, they wouldn’t go anywhere near them.
They’re superstitious, and they were afraid of the curses. I have only ever been afraid of what I could see right in front of my face. Because I have seen enough. I don’t need to imagine anything worse.
But the gypsies were just the same as you and me. They lived here just like everyone else. They walked the same streets. It’s true that some of them were criminals. But you can’t judge a whole people by the actions of just a few. But that’s what we do here in this country. We do it in this world.I’ve lived such a long life. I thought things would be better by now. Every day I still watch the news. I listen to people talk. Things are not as bad as they once were, but not as good as I had hoped they would be someday. It’s the year 2000 already, and there’s still all kinds of messes in this country.I had higher hopes for this world. Eh, but what are you going to do about it anyway?
Mazie’s Diary, June 16, 1917
Rosie’s sick on the couch again. Hands on her belly. She swings from happy to sad in a heartbeat. We wrapped her up in blankets. I told her to stop taking whatever the gypsy gave her. Rosie, please stop, I was begging her.
She told me I was a fool and didn’t know what I was talking about, that things take time, life takes time. But it doesn’t seem right, this much pain.
What would anyone do to hold on to a dream for a little longer? Gypsy con or not, it doesn’t change Rosie’s dream.
I can’t blame her for having one, though. I would never blame anyone for wishing for something more from this life.
Then I was old enough to go to war, or at least I told them I was. I was a few months shy of legal but they didn’t check too hard. I would have said anything though to get out of that cramped apartment! The taller I got, the smaller it seemed. And I wanted to see the world. That I would be fighting in a war didn’t scare me for some reason. Maybe I wasn’t so brave, maybe I was just stupid instead. I won’t talk about what happened though, what I saw there. You know, we’re not like your generation where we need to talk about every little thing. Sometimes a bad thing happens and then you’re done with it.
But anyway I didn’t see Mazie again for five years, so I can’t help you out during that particular time period. Because I went to France and then I stayed there when the war was over and lived there and worked there and had a life there. I lived with a French girl for a year even. And she was really something, I’ll tell you. Ooh-la-la, I know. [Laughs.] I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my fun. Eventually I had to come back though. My mother got sick, and of course, there was all that trouble with Uncle Al.
Mazie’s Diary, November 1, 1917
Twenty years old. I’m sure I should be having more fun.
What is this pull in me that makes me want trouble? Months I’ve been quiet and good, even though the heat on the streets was making me feel sexy, wanting to dance and drink. To kiss someone. Passing by alleys at night and seeing girls and boys playing. Fingers on lips, fingers on tits, I miss it. It’s been so long since I’ve lain down with someone. Most nights are with Rosie now. I lost this summer to her belly.
Mazie’s Diary, December 13, 1917
Rosie lost another baby. This time it felt like she was pregnant for only a minute.
Now she’s flat on her back again in the living room. Weeks and weeks of it, and there’s a dent in the couch now, I can see the mattress sagging beneath her. I swear the springs will sink straight through the floor.
She grabs my hand but squeezes too hard and it hurts but I try not to make a noise. She asks me to stroke her head but shifts her head, squirms beneath my fingers. Rub my feet, she tells me.
But then she says: No, you’re doing it wrong. No, don’t touch me.
Watches me with her eagle eye, thinking I’ll leave her.
Louis sits in the kitchen, head down, in the food. He closed the theater for a few days this week. Jeanie’s nowhere I can see, smart girl.
I take nips in the bedroom. I can’t go to the whiskey, but the whiskey can come to me.
Mazie’s Diary, December 16, 1917
Something’s going to break soon. I got no control over myself and I like it.
Mazie’s Diary, January 4, 1918
I wasn’t ready to go home yet but there was nobody left in the bar worth talking to. Talked to a bum on the street instead, an old fella. We split whatever was in his bottle and I gave him a smoke. I was feeling tough. I asked him how long he’d been on the streets.
He said: Longer than you’ve been alive, girlie. You gotta be tough to last that long.
He beat his chest.
I said: I could survive out here.
He said: You don’t want to try.
I said: I could do it. You wanna see me?
He said: You got a home, you’re lucky.
I said: Why don’t I feel that way?
Then he got gentle with me.
He said: If someone loves you, go home to them.
A bad wind blew in and I grew suddenly, terribly cold. I couldn’t bear the night for another minute. I handed him the rest of my smokes and wandered home.
Mazie’s Diary, January 5, 1918
Rosie was trying to sweet-talk me early this morning. A nice change from yelling I guess.
She said: Don’t you want a sweetheart?
I said: The whole world’s my sweetheart.
Mazie’s Diary, January 18, 1918
Now she’s sharp and angry. She told Jeanie the dancing was done. No more classes, she said. And she told me I’d be on the streets if I came home late one more time. A month ago she didn’t want to lose me, now she’ll throw me on the streets?
I said: I know the streets. I’ve been there before.
She said: You can’t take those dresses of yours on the street.
I said: I don’t need none of it.
She said: You’d be nowhere without me.
Jeanie and I looked at Louis but there was nothing, no help. His heart is broken too, I think. His giant heart, exploded.
Mazie’s Diary, January 21, 1918
Took a few turns at the snuffbox of some rich man slumming downtown tonight. I can’t say I didn’t like it. Slapped his hand away from my tit though—he didn’t earn nothing just by sharing. He’s no hero like the sailors. Just a spoiled rich prick.
Everything started tumbling around me. I left when the fistfights started. I couldn’t help but laugh even as I lifted my skirts over the drunks bloody on the floor. That was not the right bar for a girl like me, though I couldn’t say it was the wrong one either.
But then I was walking down the streets and the moon was judging me, it was staring at me and judging me, I swear it was. I stood on the corner, and I let it judge me. I’ll judge you back, too, moon. What do you know? Stupid moon. Horrible moon.
I came home and got down on my hands and my knees in front of Rosie, still on the couch. She put her hands in my hair.
She said: Why can’t I have a baby?
I said: I don’t know.
She said: Why won’t you be a good girl?
I said: I don’t know.
We stayed like that until I came in here to write this down.
She clawed at my neck when I walked away.
It’s her pain, not mine.Next chapter
Mazie’s Diary, January 22, 1918
I was gone all day and all night. No candy shop, no track. Just the streets and the bars and the men and the women and the whiskey and the beer and the smokes and the snuff. Nothing but these things, and then more of these things, and then bed.
Mazie’s Diary, January 24, 1918
When I woke up this afternoon I went into the kitchen and Rosie was sitting at the table with Louis. Maybe the fever broke, I was thinking. I looked in her eyes and they seemed clear. But my eyes were hazy, so what did I know? I couldn’t trust what I saw for nothing.
She sounded clear though.
She said: I’ve tried everything with you. Louis, you know I’m right.
He didn’t want no part of it, I thought, but he nodded. He was pressing his fork against his eggs.
She said: Something’s gotta change. You know I’m right too, Mazie.
I felt bad about interrupting his eggs. Louis loves his eggs.
He said: Here’s the thing.
At last! The big man speaks.
He said: It’s a favor more than anything else.
Favor’s a word I can’t refuse when it comes to Louis, and he knows it. He’s taken care of us forever and he didn’t have to. He waited to say that word. He waited till he couldn’t wait anymore. Kept the favor in his pocket. Bet he’s got more than a few in there.
He said: Rosie’s been sick and I’ve been needing help down at the theater.
He put down his fork and then he took Rosie’s hand. Or did she take his? I couldn’t tell. They were propping each other up now. That’s what it meant. That’s how that works when you’re together with someone. I get it, even if I don’t have it.
He told me he wanted me to work the ticket booth, that it was true that the hours were long but it was important work to him. He had put a lot of money into the theater.
He said: You’re good with numbers. There’s money coming in and out all day. And I need someone I can trust there. There’s sticky fingers all over this city, you know that.
He told me it would just be for a little while and when I asked how long he told me he didn’t know, and I don’t think he was lying, it wasn’t exactly a lie.
I said: It’s a cage and you know it. You’re putting me in prison.
He said: Tell me what I ever ask you for.
Rosie said: He gives you everything!
I could not argue with either of them about anything. I know they were right. They had me cornered. Finally, Rosie had me.
I said: Death is upon me.
They laughed at me like chickens.
Rosie: It’s good that you’re funny. It’s good that you find things so funny. You’ll be needing that sense of humor.
But I wasn’t kidding around. That ticket booth! All day, hours and hours, the whole world going on around me. I’m going to miss everything. The world will pass me by. I will grow old and then die in that cage.
EXCERPT FROM THE UNPUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MAZIE PHILLIPS-GORDON
I chose only to help the men, not the children. Men, I can help. I can give them some change, a place to sleep. I can call an ambulance. Their needs are simpler. And if they still fail, there’s no one they can blame but themselves. But the kids I steer clear of. There’s people better at it than me, who have the time to give. I’ve got a jar full of lollies for them, and that’ll do. I got nothing to say to them. Every kid on the Bowery knows they can come to me and I’ll give them a treat, and that’s all. Give them a treat and then shoo them away.
So she and my great-grandfather Rudy Wallach worked together for two decades at the Venice Theater. I have seen pictures of the theater, both the interior and the exterior, but none of these pictures are in particularly good condition. I know that the theater was beneath the tracks of the Second Avenue elevated train line, which I imagine made it quite noisy. I can also tell you the theater was in the style of the era, which is to say it was a classical-style movie palace, with European design influences. There were velvet seats—I presume they were red, though it was obviously impossible to tell from the photos I saw—and high ceilings with some ornate decor. The theater seated approximately six hundred people, and there was a ground floor as well as a balcony level. In its initial conception, it was, for lack of a better description, a very classy joint.
Mazie’s Diary, February 1, 1918
Today was my first day at the ticket booth in the theater. Glass cage is more like it. Prisoners would complain if it were their cell, that’s how small it is. A chicken would squawk if it were his coop.
I said: A dead man would complain if he knew this was his coffin.
Rosie was moving things around lightning quick, a lockbox, a roll of tickets, a tin can full of sharpened pencils. She slapped a notebook on the counter.
She said: Then I guess you’d better rest in peace.
She stepped outside of it and ushered me inside. I bruised my hip on the countertop squeezing in there. That countertop had already marked me for life.
I flopped down on the swivel chair and spun myself slowly around. There was just enough room for that. There was a heater in one corner, already blowing like it had been waiting for me all along. A clock ticking off the minutes before nine in the morning. A calendar on the wall. One month gone, February lay blank. Life was going to happen all around me. The truth of the moment struck me. I started to tear up like a stupid baby girl.
Rosie said: Oh, you poor thing, putting in a hard day’s work.
I said: It ain’t that. I’m not afraid of work.
She knew I was telling the truth. I’d always done what Louis had asked me to do.
I said: It’s just that I’ll be all alone in here, and everyone else will be out there.
I suppose I was being a little dramatic and I flung my arms out. Of course they bumped right up against the window, only proving my point further.
Rosie started laughing at me, and it just sounded so good, to hear her laughing. I almost didn’t care what she was going to say. Even if she was teasing me, I was happy to hear her laugh.
She said: Mazie, there’s one thing you’ll never feel in this job, and that’s alone.
She squeezed in next to me, and showed me my tasks. How I’d keep track of how many tickets I started with in the morning, and how many I ended with in the evening. She taught me the combination to the lock. She slid open a small drawer underneath the countertop. Inside was a flask. She looked at me and shrugged.
She said: It does help move the day along.
I said: Well, well.
Then it was ten all of a sudden and there was a line of people building up in front of the theater.
She said: Don’t let anyone give you any trouble.
She left me with a small paper sack, lunch for the day. I settled myself. My hips and chest and belly all shifted into some kind of position and I tried to sit up straight but I knew I’d be slouching by the end of the day. The train rumbled on by over my head again, a thundercloud rolling through. I couldn’t even hear myself think but what was there to think about anyway? It was just me and the line. Rosie was still standing there, off to the side, watching everything. She was smiling so hard I thought her face would split in two, straight down the middle, two cheeks floating off in the sky. She had rearranged me. I was a movable part to her. And now I was in this cage.
I slid aside the front guard to the cage and slotted it into place. The whole of the line took a step forward all at once, like they were taking one big breath together. I looked at them all. Women holding hands with their little ones, a few sailors and soldiers, more than a few men in suits looking like they might be trying to sleep off their night out on the Bowery.
Then I got a little dizzy for a second. It’s just a job, is what I was thinking.
Finally, Rosie spoke.
She said: This is Mazie, and she’s in charge now.
And damn if they didn’t all wave at me and say hello.
My great-grandfather was responsible for the movie selection, staff management, concessions, and the care of the theater itself. Basically anything that was contained within the doors of the theater, he managed. And Mazie sold the tickets and handled the money, and if anyone got out of line, she also ran security. Rudy was a tiny, gentle man. I have seen pictures of him and he looks much shorter than everyone else around him. He had immaculate skin and hands, as did my mother, and I do, too. Look at my hands. Look at how tiny they are. [Holds up hands.] Those are the Wallach hands. So Rudy wasn’t in any place to be roughing up any of the bums. Also he was the child of intellectuals. That’s right, I always forget that part. My great-great-grandparents were Russian intellectuals escaping some sort of persecution I never quite understood, and they moved to New York when he was just a baby. He was just this fine, sensitive man, fair to everyone, and he wasn’t interested in any of that rough-and-tumble business. So I guess it happened quite naturally that it fell to Mazie.
Mazie’s Diary, February 5, 1918
The movies make me sick in my gut.
I knew this before and then I forgot but now I remember, oh buddy do I remember.
I shut down the cage last night early. All day long I’m sitting there, wondering what’s going on inside. So I wandered through the theater. The high ceilings made the place feel like a castle out of a storybook, somewhere far away. Europe is what I was thinking, although what do I know of Europe?
I wanted to watch the last show of Tarzan. I slipped into the theater, onto those bruised red velour seat cushions, soft under my fingertips. There was a romance to it, I could see it. All those rows of big, beautiful, round bulbs that lined the walls. Rosie shows up once a week and tells the ushers to dust the lights. Sweep and dust, dust and sweep, she repeats it. She should ask that gypsy of hers if she were a general in a past life.
The movie was just starting, and everyone hushed up. At first I liked seeing all the animals, the giraffes and the lions and the snakes and the alligators. They looked like trouble. It was dreamy, watching something wild and alive and different than my own life, up high, so much bigger than anything I know.
But it only took a minute till I started to feel wobbly. The animals on the screen swelled up, then they floated and waved around in front of my eyes. Something gooey started to boil in my stomach. I turned my head away from the screen but it was too late. I was retching in the aisle like a bum on the corner after the bars closed for the night. Someone shushed me, but then there was someone else by my side, a small hand holding my hair. Some lady, I figured. When I stopped retching I looked up and there was Rudy.
I said: I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
He said: Let’s get you outside, Miss Mazie. Get some air in you.
I put my arm around his neck and we stumbled together through the lobby and out the front door, and then he leaned me up against the cage.
He asked me if I was sick and I said no. He asked me if anyone in my house was sick and I said no.
He said: Sometimes one of the boys gets sick, and then we all do. Just out of nowhere.
I said: It’s not that, I’m fit as a fiddle. It’s looking up at the movies. I don’t know what to tell you. All that jumping around.
He said: No more movies for you.
I said: Who needs to go to the movies anyway? Real life’s more interesting. Flesh and blood.
I was getting my spunk back in the cold air. I was feeling a little humiliated too. Bending over that like that, him seeing me weak, I didn’t like any of it.
I said: It’s just a movie, who cares.
He said: So you stick to tickets and I’ll stick to the movies. Front of the house, back of the house, that kind of thing.
I said: It seems fair.
We shook on it and it was like his hand nearly disappeared in mine. He’s a strange little doll of a man, that Rudy.
Mazie’s Diary, February 8, 1918
It’s one thing to walk the streets, and it’s another thing to watch them. I used to be just one of the crowd, stretching my legs, mixing with the rest of those lugs. But now I’m sitting still while the world moves on around me, and I’m seeing things a little differently through the bars of this cage. Hustlers and cons I knew here and there but not so much. Now I watch them every day and I’m learning. They don’t care where they land as long as they get what they’re looking for. Maybe they never hit me up before because I was always on the run on the streets, but now I’m a sitting duck and they won’t leave me alone. I must have a bright red target on my forehead that says Easy Mark. But that sign would be wrong. I’ll teach them soon enough not to mess with me.