I am lying on the landing of the stairs of the Galaxie beneath a skylight covered with fake stained glass, mid-day light casting rainbow patches on the walls above me. Through those walls seeps “Just My Imagination,” the Temptations version. I lie supine on purple carpet, pleasantly tired, perfectly relaxed.
I wear a silky black dress over silky black bell-bottom slacks; my feet are bare in open sandals. My hair, still the extraordinary dark red of my youth, has stopped growing an inch short of my waist. I am twenty-three years old.
And, for the first time in years, I haven’t had a migraine for months. A few minutes ago, this continuing absence of pain thrilled me into spending a dime on the Galaxie phone to call the man who’d consigned me to the dole.
Dr. Luckner, the neurologist Felicity’s brother had paid for me to consult because he was afraid I might have a tumor. Dr. Luckner, who’d told me to forget looking for work. As long as I looked for work, said Dr. Luckner, I would have headaches.
“Forget about getting a job,” said he, “Forget about saving to go to graduate school. You’ll never become a college professor. Just apply for what’s-its-name, that total disability thing?” He gestured impatiently at the woman doctor he’d called in on my case. I never knew why she was there. She had masses of curly hair and a hard, white face. I hadn’t caught her name. “ATD?” she suggested. (I knew what that stood for because Felicity had joked about it. Aid to the Totally Despondent, she called it.)
Perhaps Dr. Luckner had just been talking up the efficacy of Elavil in cases of my type. “So,” he’d addressed me cheerfully, “Feeling much better, aren’t we?”
I hadn’t been able to notice any effect at all from the little yellow pills except that they made my mouth dry. Now my head rarely stopped hurting and my mouth was dry. Dr. Luckner asked me again to describe my pain.
A crown of thorns around which a band of steel continually tightened, perhaps? Only metaphors came to mind, and – as I thought metaphors too rich for science – words failed me and I started to cry.
Since I had nothing he could operate on, Dr. Luckner got bored. “You talk to her,” he told the woman, leaving her with me in the tiny office. She continued to encourage me to apply for a pittance from ATD for my psychological problems that would always prevent me from finding work. She said I was disabled but couldn’t meet my eyes.
In his letter of diagnosis, Dr. Luckner wrote, “Her headaches are associated with moderate depression with occasional tearfulness, and underlying hostility and anger.”
Just now I’d told Dr. Luckner on the Galaxie pay phone, “I’ve found a job I really like and I haven’t had a migraine in three months! In fact my head doesn’t hurt at all these days!” I was surprised he took my call; maybe it had to do with the letter I had written refusing to pay the $15 he’d charged for blaming me because his medication didn’t work and for calling in another doctor without my permission. Dr. Luckner seemed to think my dancing naked for a living was amusing. Perhaps he thought my new profession was an expression of my underlying hostility and anger. He didn’t mention the bill.
As I lie on the purple carpet, I feel the Galaxie breathing with my lungs. This nightclub, though it is owned by men, belongs to women – it is itself a woman, a purple temple in the shape of a womb, a place where men come to worship, not to dictate.
Dictation! That’s what the agencies wanted. If not shorthand, then at least speed writing. I bought a book but could not bring myself to study it. To learn a whole new way of writing in order to write down what men had to say!
My mother, Louise, knew shorthand. “Not that you’ll need to use it much,” she explained. “Bosses don’t know what they have to say; they just tell you what they want and you write the letters for them. But you need the shorthand to get the jobs.” Louise thought the relationship of a secretary to her boss could be more fulfilling than the relationship of a wife to her husband. This told me a lot about my parents’ brief marriage. Louise had typed 80 words per minute on a manual typewriter.
A woman at an agency on Columbus told me that my BA should qualify me to train as a legal secretary. Then she clucked her tongue, “But with this typing I can’t even show you to a lawyer.” Seventy words per minute was the lower limit for legal, she said. For publishing and advertising, it was 90. The more educated you were the faster your typing must be.
I tried to tell her that the usage error in the typing test threw me off this time. “You are using ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply,’ perhaps you might want to correct the text of the typing test” – but she wasn’t listening. Words didn’t matter; all that mattered here was how fast you could get them onto paper.
The faster I tried to force my fingers, the more they fumbled, stumbled, lost their rhythm. The harder I tried not to read the text of the corporate fairy tale, the more its insipid phrases haunted the part of my mind that wanted to revise them. My pinkie fingers were weak, they were tiny – they struggled to reach their “p”s and their “q”s. All around me women rattled inexorably on. Another typo! I wasn’t breathing; I didn’t have time to breathe. Then “ding!” And I’d typed 43 words per minute, but it came out to 33 words per minute once I’d factored in the typos.
Most agencies were downtown near the Wall Street of the West. This one was on Columbus, an exciting diagonal running north to City Lights Bookstore. When I came out, having failed again to impress, I walked north, past the place where the smell of Chinese food suddenly changed to Italian.
Fog galloped over the hills toward Grant Street on little antelope hooves. I gulped its rich, cool damp and pulled off my beret, trying to pry loose the hot wire tightening around my temples. Coffee had been known to help, so I drank an Americano (the cheapest) at Vesuvio’s. The waiter behind the espresso machine was so handsome he scared me. I lowered my eyes to Colette’s La Vagabonde.
Here I was where I’d longed to be, but could I make it here in the real world? No one would pay for the opinions on the history of English literature, Shakespeare, the romantic poets, 19th-century novels, etc. I had so carefully honed for the last four years. The Phi Beta Kappa key Louise had purchased for me was worth no more than its gold. Louise was still sending me $125 a month to live on and I’d graduated months ago. Louise, in her weekly call, was now wishing she’d made me work as a clerk typist all of my summers in high school, instead of indulging my desire to become a writer. “Surely, by now, you’d have your typing speed up.”
Felicity and I were sitting at the kitchen table at 404C Oak Street reading The Chronicle’s HELP WNTD.WOMEN. “In one of those big buildings downtown, I saw a woman who had a job as a flower arrangement. She was a receptionist, I guess, but all she had to do was to look pretty and greet men as they waited for the elevators. No typing, no phones. She just sat there safe in a little alcove off the marble lobby. I want a job like that,” I said bitterly, “but I’m not pretty enough and I can’t afford the clothes.”
“Here’s one for you,” said Felicity and read, “Receptionist. Cutie pie. Will train.”
“Do you think I’m a cutie pie?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Too tall. Too smart.”
All that summer, Felicity had helped me look for work. She’d even gotten me an interview with a publisher. He was gay and from Virginia. He seemed to like me; in fact he’d given me the opportunity to edit a book. It was called Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel. “Take this manuscript and look it over for a while and then give me an estimate of how long it will take you to edit it.” I examined it for an hour, come back to him, and said, “Two weeks.”
“Two weeks! We need it day after tomorrow!”
“But, Brett, there are star charts in here. In chapter 3 she gives instructions for building a working oil stove out of an old oil can and then tells you how to have a baby at home. People could die!”
He laughed. “No, no, no, darling child. We’re just publishing it because we think it’s funny. Just give it a polish, clean up some of her worst run-ons. She wrote it on speed, you know.”
I worked about eight hours. There was a very funny sentence that had to do with happy hens running free in the sun. Brett said I’d done a terrific job cleaning up Alicia, but had explained that they’d have to give the job to Merry because she could both edit and type 90 WPM.
“No typing,” I suggested to Felicity. “No typing at all.”
She thought for a while as I pondered the WNTD. MEN, WOMEN section. There weren’t many listings. One called for 200 men for executive sales management training. “How about sales?” suggested Felicity.
“What? In a store? Making people spend money on things they don’t need? I couldn’t do it. Besides I don’t have the clothes to do it. Besides, Louise would die if I went into commerce; she prays I won’t have to become a sales girl.”
“Okay, waitress. People need to eat.”
“People don’t need to eat out. Let them cook at home and bring it from the stove to the table themselves.” Every time Felicity mentioned waitressing, I told her my story about the cook in Berkeley who’d made me clean out the sink trap with my hand at the end of the night. I needed only to say, “With my hand,” to get Felicity off that train. I might be too smart to be a cutie pie, but I wasn’t practical enough to be a waitress. I shuddered, thinking of the time on a ten-hour shift I’d spent five minutes in the walk-in refrigerator looking for the cream and my table had walked out without paying and their bill came out of my pay.
When Felicity got really discouraged helping me look for work, she introduced me to her brother. He was in his 40s and divorced. She claimed I would be able to understand his genius. To understand Steve’s genius I had to take the bus to visit him in Palo Alto. It took forever along El Camino Real. He would give me a ride back to San Francisco, but wouldn’t pick me up. He lived in a stark, modern apartment, all beige wood and carpets and cream-colored walls. Part of Steve’s genius was his ability to read Henry James aloud. I enjoyed Henry James, but got tired of hearing Steve read him. I wanted to try out some of those magnificently meandering sentences myself, so I offered to read aloud to Steve. He wouldn’t let me. “No one can read Henry James aloud as well as I do,” he said firmly. I didn’t argue. Felicity’s brother collected guns.
It began to appear that every possible way of surviving without Louise’s money involved some impossible compromise. I told Felicity’s brother about my migraines and he sent me to Dr. Luckner, the neurologist.
During this time, I didn’t know how close I was to a peaceful purple haven, my Galaxie, my niche. The bliss of moving at my own speed is what’s so perfect about this job. I’ve just been moving fast, now I can lie down and rest for a couple of minutes at least, before climbing, at whatever speed I like, the nightclub’s purple stairs. I’ve always wanted a job that would leave me in peace.
And this Galaxie is but one among hundreds of Galaxies: my new security, my new profession. There’ll always be another Galaxie. I’m filling a need as essential as hunger, a need that is eternal.
The afternoon I sat in Vesuvio’s with my Colette and brooded on my fate, I was still miles away in time. The coffee helped my headache some, so I decided to hang out at City Lights. When I came to San Francisco for the first time in 1965, Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood behind the counter while young men came up and shook him by the hand and told him how much they admired him. Ferlinghetti had long ago gotten sick of this and departed, but the atmosphere of hero worship still clung. I knelt on rough wood to browse, embarrassed to be there because I couldn’t afford to buy a book. Besides, I was getting hungry.
Outside, Broadway was filling up. A few straight couples – men in suits and women in hats and gloves – plus crowds of enlisted boys, in uniform and out, and bunches of guys in cars cruising by. The lights on the tall signs flashed, loud soul music blew out into the streets, and in the door of each club stood a man offering free peeks at what lay within.
In high school I’d joked about topless pizza waitresses, picturing a pair of legs proffering a pizza on its truncated torso. But when Felicity wrote me that she was going topless, I’d bragged about “my friend in San Francisco, the topless dancer.” I wished Felicity would go back to dancing, at least so I could get a peek, but she claimed to hate dancing now that it was both topless and bottomless. This meant, according to my high school notion, that these women were invisible. And so they remained.
When Lance, my landlord at the flat on Oak Street, brought me by here a few weeks ago I’d begged for a free peek, but he’d hustled me along, annoyed at my curiosity. And I could hardly walk away from him and ask for a free peek myself.
What would a barker think of the girl who asked to look, I wondered. Not one barker addressed me as I walked past the Condor, Big Al’s, Lucky Pierre’s, Gigi Port Said. Gigi Port Said advertised “totally nude college coeds.” I tried to mention to the barker that I was a nude college coed, but he didn’t seem to hear me and didn’t offer me a free peek. Perhaps it was because I still dressed as I had when I’d paid my living expenses at UW by modeling for life drawing classes in the Art Department. I was wearing a black beret, a shabby green car coat, a blue knit wool dress, wooden clogs, and black tights with a darn on the thigh.
The invisible women hidden behind the flashing lights made me feel acutely aware of my light-lashed eyes, my lips innocent of all but Tangee lipstick, my long red hair parted – standard hippie style – down the middle.
I was getting hungrier. If I can’t find something to eat for under a dollar, I told myself, I’ll get the bus back to the kitchen on Oak Street and eat my leftover brown rice.
But first I had to explore the narrow courtyard leading to Spec’s, and inside Spec’s I found a wheel of cheddar on the bar. The bartender cut a generous wedge onto a paper plate, threw on a handful of soda crackers, poured me a tomato juice, and charged me 75 cents. I tipped him a dime and still had bus fare. Spec’s was adorned with numberless signs, license plates, harpoons, funny stories inside frames. I sat at the bar and read the walls while I ate. The bar was quiet, the night was young.
Coming out of a toilet cubicle in the restroom, I encountered a girl fixing her eye makeup and wearing a black satin slip. We glanced at each other surreptitiously in the mirror as I washed my hands. She didn’t smile. Her eyes were lined like a raccoon’s and she wore false lashes. I hadn’t seen her in the bar, I was sure of that. She would’ve stood out.
Later I would learn that Spec’s and a nightclub then called Francesco’s shared a restroom. Had I followed the girl in black satin up the stairs she climbed that evening I would have gotten a free peek at one of those invisible women. Instead I took the bus home so I could get up early the next day and go to another secretarial agency.
Mary Adams at the Drummer Agency sent me out on a job interview at the Bemus Bag Company. She assured me that my typing would be adequate. The job was called Sales Correspondent. I thought I could do it, but when my interviewer saw me sitting in the waiting room reading Colette with my hand hiding the darn in my tights, he stood over me and said, “Young lady, you’re not going to want to spend 20 years with Bemus Bags.”
“No, sir,” I admitted, closing my book, his directness shocking me into honesty.
“Shall we just skip the interview?” he suggested. I agreed.
Mary Adams of the Drummer Agency was still sympathetic. She said I could come into the agency and practice my typing any evening after four. She said she would like to give me some of her daughter’s cast-off clothes because her daughter was just my size.
For some reason, Mary Adams’ kindness was the last straw. The next day I couldn’t make myself go back to the Drummer Agency to practice my typing and perhaps accept Mary’s largess. I didn’t want to get my typing speed past 40. I didn’t want her daughter’s damn clothes. I didn’t know what I did want except for my head to stop hurting all the time.
This was the day I gave away my wallet at Safeway. That’s what Felicity insisted on calling it because Felicity believed in free will. Consequently, she said, I ached my own head and gave away my wallet. She said I wanted to get my wallet stolen or I would never have laid it down in my Safeway cart while I went to get tomatoes. Maybe she was right, maybe it was all my fault, but now my last $50 was gone and I still didn’t have a job.
At last Felicity said, “Well, you’ll hate dancing bottomless. But you can work for just a few days and you’ll make back what was in your wallet. I’ll help you; I might just as well do it too just to help you get started.”
As I lie here on the stairs of the Galaxie, the last bars of “Just My Imagination” play. It’s time for me to get up off the purple carpet and go back to work. I’ve been off stage for twenty minutes but I can still feel the exhilaration of that last show. Today is a good dancing day. I’ve been in a slump for the last few, but today, again, I’ve pulled out of it onto a higher level of dance. From now on I’ll endure bad dancing days, knowing that they could lead to breakthroughs like this. I danced to Joe Cocker entirely on my toes this time the way Pattie does. It’s more spiritual – harder too.
I remember that during the third show I ever danced, a man in the audience asked me, “Do you like your job?” And I said, “Yes, I do. Do you like yours?” He answered, “No.”
“Mama, I’m a dancer!” I’d told Louise on the phone, the thrill of telling her what she’d always longed to hear making me slip and call her by her real name.
Louise first took me to the abandoned church where Madame Zhavadski had her ballet studio when I was five. “On, et deux, et troi, et quatre,” counted Madame Zhavadski, punctuating the count with a cane on the church’s’ hollow wooden floor. Laboriously, through class after class, Madame Zhavadski tried to imprint Louise’s dreams on my trembling flesh. After each class, the muscles of my legs shuddered uncontrollably.
A couple of years of this later, I remember Madame Zhavadski putting her hand on my head and turning her aged but still balletic form toward my mother. “I think, Madame,” she said, “that our little Nancy is the fragile type.” She pronounced “fragile” with a long “i.”
Oh, how Louise loved that! She used to repeat it over and over, imitating the way Madame Zhavadski had said it, “Fragile, fragile!” Louise took “fragile” as a compliment. Perhaps I remember the event because my mother so often reverted to it. But, if I remembered it only through Louise’s eyes, I wouldn’t remember so distinctly that Madame Zhavadski must have meant her remark as a warning. Ballerinas are strong and sturdy as ponies – they look fragile through their art – they aren’t actually fragile. I never could have been one, as I realized at fifteen when I fainted while trying to do 50 entrechats and gave up ballet. Louise never said a word to dissuade me from quitting. But I knew she’d always remember the vow she’d made when she saw Anna Pavlova dance in 1929: “If I ever have a daughter, I will make it possible for her to be a dancer like you.”
I climb the purple stairs and push open the heavy swinging door to the club. Compared to the sky lit stairway, the great womb of the Galaxie is dark. Below the half circle of the wooden stage curves the bar, stretching off into darkness. Light comes from the stage, from the cash register, and from the glowing dome of the jukebox where Chris is punching her music. As I stand in the door, Pattie emerges from behind the stage curtains in silky black pants and a paisley blouse tied under her breasts. Her long, flat stomach is bare and she’s wearing silver high-heeled sandals. Gracefully Pattie steps across the moat of the bar and sinks into a seat next to Old Paul. It’s early in the day and the women of the Galaxie outnumber the men three to two.
As “Mister Big Stuff” blasts forth, Chris crosses the moat of the bar onto the stage, idly shaking her ass for Old Paul. Paul, who’s a veteran of World War I, is always here for a couple of hours on Thursdays when there are three big butt women at the Galaxie: Pattie and Chris and I are all ample in Old Paul’s favored area. Chris may be his favorite because her figure is so Victorian and she will dance her whole set with her ample ass toward him when he’s our only customer. Pattie and I get bored with Paul’s preferences and tend to dance away.
I take my tray off the top of the glowing, blasting jukebox and stroll smiling toward Maxie. He stands beneath Chris in the moat of the bar, resting his lower back against her stage. “Jackin’ off, Colette, jackin’ off,” he remarks, as I lean over the bar and draw myself a glass of water. Maxie is commenting on my absence for the last 20 minutes. Silently, he raises a pudgy finger and points toward the door of the Galaxie, indicating that my job for the next 20 minutes is to wait alertly for customers. Since I don’t see any customers except Old Paul, and Pattie and Chris are taking care of him, I lay down my tray at a back table and go out to visit Hippie Bill the barker.
It’s a day of brilliant sun and cool wind; Broadway is almost deserted. Now and then an aged Chinese woman creeps past carrying two heavy shopping bags.
Bill is a hippie only in the sense that his lank, black hair has grown far past his collar, but Maxie’s names have a way of sticking. It was Maxie who gave me my stage name because I talked to Chris so much about the French writer and her book about touring music halls. So, even though I don’t think of Bill as a hippie, I think of him as Hippie Bill.
“Look at this, Colette.” Hippie Bill curves his long fingers in toward his palm, one at a time – then suddenly flings them outward with a snap of his angular wrist. A proud grin illuminates his cadaverous face like a candle inside a jack-o’-lantern. “See? It’s my natural rasgueada. My flamenco teacher says I have a natural rasgueada.” Hippie Bill the barker looks happier than I’ve ever seen him. He does his air rasgueada again.
I place my palms against one of the purple pillars of the Galaxie, step with one leg backwards onto the sidewalk and stretch my Achilles tendon. “Nothing like finding a talent for something you love,” I remark. “Have you seen me dancing on my toes like Pattie yet?”
“No chance. Nobody’s had a free peek in the last hour.”
After stretching my other tendon while Bill tells me more about flamenco, I realize that Chris is on her last song and that it’s “Green Onions,” which is short. I’m almost due on stage.
Inside the Galaxie, Chris sits on the stage chair reading the paper, while Pattie guides Old Paul back toward his seat. Paul is too old to walk and watch at the same time, so Chris is catching up on Herb Caen.
At the jukebox I work out my next set. Joe Cocker is surprisingly good to dance to, but Van is my man. I want to dance to “Come Running” followed by “Crazy Love,” but can I do it, since they are flip sides of the same 45?
Pattie joins me at the jukebox and shows me a five dollar bill. “Look what I just made from Old Paul! It’s easy, Colette, you should try it. His spanking doesn’t hurt at all – it’s just a couple of pats.”
“I’ll think about it.” I said this last week, too. “Listen, Pattie, can I follow ‘Come Running’ with ‘Crazy Love’?”
“If ‘Come Running’ is the ‘B’ side, you’ll have to come off the stage to punch your other numbers if you want ‘Crazy Love’ to come up right after ‘Come Running.’ See, it has to make a complete revolution to get around to the ‘A’ side. If you punch ‘em now, it’s going to play your other numbers in between.”
Pattie can’t spell half the words on her grocery list, but she understands the jukebox better than I do.
“Come Running” begins and the stage is mine again. I slip off my sandals to feel the smooth wood under my bare feet. The Galaxie is the best club on the Street because the stage is made of real wood, not the slippery red linoleum that predominates in clubs on the other side of Broadway that belong to the Corporation. The Galaxie is the biggest club on Broadway – with a stage to match. Room to move, to turn, to spin, even to run! Up on the balls of my feet, I work on a step for “Come Running” that incorporates fragments of running. I show respect for Old Paul’s buttocks obsession by facing the back of the stage as much as possible as I contrive my running-dance, but I’m concentrating on getting Van’s every riff to shiver through my body, on finding the place where the song and I are one.
When “Come Running” ends and I turn around, Old Paul is already making his tentative way toward the door, guided by Chris this time. My next song is the Stones’ “Sway.” “It’s just that evil eye that’s got me in its sway…” I don’t stop dancing just because my meager audience is leaving. Like the Rolling Stones, I believe in my own sway. I will create a force field with my body that will draw an audience to me. Outside on Broadway, they will feel my sway. Even now they are slowing their walks. They listen to Hippie Bill’s blandishments, they follow his crooked finger down the long passageway from the street and all the time, unbeknownst to them, they are under my sway.
Because my need for an audience is so great, because my eye is not evil but good, because my breasts, though small, are perfect, because “Sway” is a wonderful song, because I will not stop dancing even when the only man in the place leans beside the cash register and thinks only about making money.
It works. Here’s Hippie Bill in the doorway with a couple, a man and woman, and Pattie is leading them across the twilit room toward a table. Following them a minute later comes Maxie’s friend Joe straight to the bar to shake dice in a leather cup with Maxie for the price of his drink. I have my audience and I give them love, love, crazy love, whether they deserve it or not.
Probably not, I decide later. Once they’ve been served their drinks there’s nothing to do with a couple except tolerate the way they act. Often the wife or date starts to show signs of feeling threatened and wants to leave; this couple is coping with that pretty well. Chris is sitting with Joe having a drink and Pattie’s now on stage, moving languidly, fluttering her chiffon scarf. I love to watch Pattie dance, but she’s conserving energy right now, so I go out to visit Hippie Bill again.
Bill’s talking to three G.I. boys who seem very glad to see me. One of them is on crutches, his right trouser leg is machine-stitched flat just below his knee. Their faces are young and haggard, their manner a blend of eager and bitter. They really want to come in; they don’t want just a free look, they want to come into the embrace of the Galaxie and live here for at least twelve hours.
“I really hate to do this to you, men,” Bill tries to break it gently. “But… I’m gonna have to ask you to show me some ID.”
The boys gaze at Hippie Bill, as if dreaming bad dreams. “ID, man? We just got back from ’Nam! What do you mean, ID? You can’t card us!” Reluctantly, angrily, but still with lingering hope, they pull out their military IDs. Two are nineteen, the one on crutches is eighteen. Not old enough to see me dance.
We five stand around in the glittering sunlight staring at each other with stinging eyes. I like these G.I.s; I want to dance for them; I want to dance especially for the boy whose dancing days are over.
Desperation inspires Hippie Bill. “Listen, I tell you what, men. You guys go buy yourself a bottle and she’ll dance for you right here in the hallway!” While Pattie dances on stage to “Black Magic Woman,” in the entrance to the Galaxie I kick off my sandals and dance too, giving the three soldiers the best smile I can.
But nothing can soften the blow for them. Now bitterness defeats eagerness. They don’t believe that I really was planning to drop my top for them. In fact they have to leave right now to keep from punching Hippie Bill out for his, “Sorry, guys, really. But it could mean my job!”
“I hate this society,” I say to Bill.
“I do too.” We stare out at the quiet Street, watching two of the soldiers slowing their pace to accommodate the one on crutches. We watch until the three turn the corner out of sight.