Sunday, October 19, 2014

Girls - Beautiful - Girls by Arthur Davis

A New York City journalist reluctantly takes up a story about a seedy old dance hall and its nubile dancing girls; by Arthur Davis.

The Broadway bus pulled up at 48th Street across from the blinking yellow sign announcing, "Girls - Beautiful - Girls." I got off.

The Tango Palace, in the heart of a Times Square, swarming with platform-heeled hookers, Three-card Monty sharks, drug dealers hawking salvation on every corner and police who were often too willing to look the other way, was the oldest dance hall in New York City.

It was 1988. A leap year. Urban blight was still a national issue.

A tired black and white photo of a girl in her early twenties wearing black panties and bra filled the weathered display case. I pulled open the door and was greeted with an endless slide of stairs. I made my way down with characteristic hesitation.

"Twenty dollars," the cashier announced. An empty coffee cup overflowing with crushed cigarette butts sat precariously at her elbow.

The unkempt, dissipated woman had to be in her late forties. Everything sagged about her. Tired eyes, puffy cheeks, flesh hung absently from her arms. I slid two ten-dollar bills under the glass partition and received ten dance tickets in one long purple ribbon. I palmed one ticket into my pocked, a souvenir I might confess to my grandchildren, if I ever first got a date.

The Palace was a stale-smelling cavern filled with a haze of cigarette smoke streaked by low lights and unrecognizable music. Dozens of small wooden tables snaked around the walls. The ceiling was low, painted black and covered in a coating of dust and ancient tinsel. Tired red curtains clung to the walls, punctuated by small display cases housing eight by ten glossies of taxi dancers dating back to the Palace's 1948 birth.

Teenage girls to women in their forties walked about in patient pairs. They were wearing a variety of unremittingly tight and revealing, tasteless outfits.

Couples on the dance floor ground out a step that made the most out of the women's hips and breasts. Skin-tight cutoff jeans or short skirts were as accommodating as any man might desire.

This was erotica, low tech, up-close and private. The Palace was a hideout, a sanctuary, a place to go when all else failed and you could no longer live with the unbearable refrain of your own longing.

Trained as a drama critic, I was asked to develop a story with the tentative title of, "Life and Love at The Tango Palace." My editor's most recent effort to inspire a flagging readership. The fact that I couldn't dance didn't interest him.

"Hi. My name is Alexandra." Her blouse was open down to her belt.

"Hi."

"Want to dance?"

I was suddenly conscious of my thirty-four year old studiously hunched six-foot frame and dwindling hairline. "Why not?"

She reached for the string of tickets in my hand. I pulled away and handed her one. She set her hands on my shoulders. My hands clung to her hips.

"Have you been here before?"

Several of the girls sitting in the corner were staring in our direction. They looked bored. They had to notice I was staring at Alexandra's breasts. They foamed out of her blouse and moved side to side as we danced. And they were real. "No."

"It's okay," she instructed, "they're pretty good about letting the men get up close."

The music played through the lifeless void. I felt as though I was necking in the back of a car or feeling up my high school girlfriend. It felt illicit, and very real.

"Have you been here long?" I asked.

"A few months."

"And before?"

"Other clubs, around," she said staring out over my shoulder, probably keeping an eye on the entrance in case I turned out to be less than she hoped.

"Do guys always ask you how you got here?"

"Pretty much. They can't understand why a pretty girl like me would be working in a place like this."

"Why do they ask that?"

Alexandra pulled back and looked up at me. "Because they would rather think they're dancing with a princess rather than a strange woman they want to fuck."

Alexandra had long, wavy blonde hair and a plain face heavily painted to highlight her cheeks and lips. "What do you think?"

"I think I'm trying to make a living like everyone else."

How many men questioned her, confessed their sins, and then sought refuge in her arms? How many simply asked how much for a blowjob? The music stopped. "Well, thank you."

"For what?"

"For the dance."

"Hey, where are you going?" she asked.

"To dance with another girl."

"You can't do that," she said, again reaching for the tickets.

The closer I looked at her the more I realized I should have been more particular. "I can dance with anyone I want."

"You can, but only with one girl for the twenty dollars."

"It doesn't say that anywhere."

"Look mister, those are the rules."

Another song bled from the degraded speakers. Couples on the dance floor remained in their partner's grasp. Several walked over to the privacy of tables. A large man stood sentry in front of the two padded doors leading back up to fresh air and reason.

"I can only dance with you?"

"Unless you pony up another twenty."

"Nice try," I said and walked over to the squat, barrel-chested gatekeeper. Black pants, black turtleneck sweater, and cheesy Eastern Europe black leather jacket. A shower would have helped.

"Are you the manager?"

"That's me. What can I do for you?"

"What you can do is explain why one of your girls thinks that I have to spend all my tickets on her?"

"Because those are the rules. Another girl, another twenty."

Clever scam. "And where are those rules posted?"

"They're not."

"That's convenient."

"That's the way it is," he shrugged, taking no offense to my inquiry or attitude.

A striking brunette slipped from behind the curtain and crossed the dance floor. "Well, we seem to have two choices. I can ask you for my money back and if you don't give it to me, register a complaint with the Times Square Business Association, or you can let me choose another girl and I will dance with just her."

Shifting his 250-plus pound bulk. "Yeah, I can't do that mister. Wouldn't be fair to Alexandra."

"Are you always this accommodating?"

He thought for a while. "You got me on a good night."

"Are you going to be here for a while?"

"It's my living, mister. I'm always here."

"Then after I file a complaint the police will know exactly where to find you," I said pushing open the padded doors at his side. I was halfway up the stairs when the manager stepped into the stairwell below.

"One more girl with your twenty?"

I turned back at him. "That's it."

"And when you come back, you'll play by house rules?"

"What makes you think I'll be back?"

"Mister, once they get a taste of fresh titty they always come back. That's why we're here. Nothing beats up-close and personal."

The sexy cashier ignored the exchange. I knew I needed to interview her. She was the first to see men march down the stairs and the last to see them leave. She saw the fears, the curiosity, but mostly the doubt and guilt.

I returned to the dance floor and walked over to the brunette who had caught my attention. "I just found out I only get to dance with one girl."

She laughed. "Most men would have accepted Tony's bullshit," she said walking me to the dance floor. "My name is Tina."

"It pissed me off."

"Alexandra wasn't happy either."

"It's my money. That means it's more important to make me happy than Alexandra."

"The customer is always right," she said tightening her arm around my waist. The moment she touched me I felt different. Special.

"And the manager?"

"Tony's an okay guy. He does a little junk but as long as his wife doesn't get on him, everything runs pretty well around here."

I had visions of a hysterical shrew tearing down the stairs with a knife in one hand and a meat cleaver in the other, angry foam flying from her lips as she screamed obscenities and accusations. "His wife checks up on him?"

"If she can put down the crap she reads she does."

"The cashier is his wife?"

"Pretty horrible. I know."

Frightening. "He's not the type you usually feel sorry for."

"No need, he does pretty well with his cut from some of the girls."

"For what?"

"For protection, but mostly for pointing customers in their direction."

Tina was different from her lifeless predecessor. She was pretty, with high cheekbones, a clear complexion, and beautifully fine dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was leggy, with the kind of curvaceous figure that belonged more on a runway in an expensive men's club. She didn't look like she'd given up hope.

Most dancers, especially lap dancers in upscale city men's clubs, could take down several thousand a week, mostly in unreported tips. Taxi dancers at The Tango Palace, with their ordinary looks and imperfect figures, were at the other end of the Times Square entertainment scale, and an uncertain step above hookers.

Tina was wearing a red leather mini-skirt and tight red jersey that was slit open up the middle. She had on black fishnet stockings and black high-heels. After each song, I peeled off a ticket and handed it to her. This was a truly beautiful woman, who never once asked me about who I was or why I had come to The Tango Palace.

"Do you want to sit down?"

Every girl in the hall, in any dance hall, would rather sit down than spend the night on their feet with strange men with bad breath, body odor, or both. "Do any of the men ever ask you to have sex with them?"

"Every man who wants to have sex with me asks me that question."

"Do you think I'm one of those men?"

"It doesn't matter. I don't have sex with the customers."

We drifted about the dance floor engaged in a string of indifferent one-liners. Two other men had come in separately. Both were in their late forties. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to know how they had gotten here. And, I wanted to feel Tina's body in my hands, her flesh in my mouth. Apparently, I was like all the rest. I wanted to fuck her.

"I have to go," Tina said, suddenly pulling away from me.

"Why? Where?"

"Tony wants to talk to me," she said.

"But I already paid." What was so fucking urgent? Tony stood waiting for Tina, an envelope clutched in his right hand. His body language had gone from indifferent to impatient.

"Hi, my name is Carrie, and you've just won yourself another ten tickets," she announced, dropping the purple ribbon into my hand.

What now? The title of my story was going from, 'Life and Love at The Tango Palace.' to 'Bait 'n'Switch, A Tango Palace Special.' Carrie took my hand and stepped into me.

"I want to sit down," I said. "Sure. Whatever you want," she answered, crestfallen, and followed me to a corner table.

I was still stinging from what I thought was payback from Tony. It took me a minute to take her in. "Ok."

"Are you disappointed?"

"No. Not at all." And it was true. Tina's sexuality was larger than life - Carrie's seemed more manageable. More hometown cute.

"Tina's a real beauty. A kind of queen around here."

"You're beautiful, too," I said.

"You really think so?"

"I do."

"But Tina is prettier, and she really does have an amazing body. And those big brown eyes."

I would remember more about Tina than her beautiful brown eyes.

"Do you live around here?"

"I live up on Broadway near Columbia University." Third in my class at their school of journalism and ten years later, look at me now.

"I live with Danni, the redhead over there. We share a small one bedroom in Chelsea. It's nothing special, but when you work the hours we do, all you get to do at home is sleep and, if you're lucky, your laundry."

"I've never been to a club like this before."

"They all operate the same way. Twenty dollars for ten tickets for one girl."

I was going to have to visit other dance halls in order to put The Tango Palace in logical and historic perspective. I knew there were two dance halls left in Brooklyn. There must be a half dozen more spread throughout the other boroughs.

"I'm a real dancer, you know. See," she said, straightening out her left leg and resting her shoe on my knee. "I take classes three times a week. I've been taking ballet and modern jazz for years."

"You sound like you're ready to retire."

She let her leg drop away. Her hands collapsed into her lap. "God, you know, that's how I feel sometimes."

"It's that bad?"

"This place has a way of getting to you," she said, "Hey, do you want to go into one of the rooms?"

"To do?"

"Talk. Whatever you want. It's more private. A lot of the customers like that."

Carrie was sweetly beautiful with a quiet, vulnerable quality that I found immediately endearing. "Talk?"

"I haven't had any good company in a long time."

I was flattered, and slightly confused. "Tell me about the rooms?"

"Really, nothing special. They're small and you can take a customer back there. I didn't mean we had to do anything," she said.

"Carrie, why did you come over to me?"

"The truth?"

"That's usually the best way to go."

"Well, I noticed you when you came in. I thought you were very, well, cute and

when Tony called Tina I saw a way to be with you and use some old tickets I had."

"That's one of the most romantic things anybody has ever done for me."

Her eyes clouded. "No. It was stupid. Tony is going to be really pissed. I know the guy. Tina too, but she'll understand once I tell her why."

I had work to do, a job to keep. Just get the details, and hammer out a draft, I counseled myself. "It will be ok."

"You're different than most of the men we get in here. Some are really horrible."

Tina returned to the clutch of women. They barraged her with questions. She shook her head and sipped a soda. Her expression was drawn and indecipherable. My instincts were vibrating with suspicion. Carrie was so open she quickly struck a chord with me, or was that part of the con? I knew I had gone just about as far as I wanted.

"Are you going to be here tomorrow?"

"I work every day. All the girls do," she answered, surprised, as though I were about to abandon her.

"Seven days a week?"

"It's a good living."

"Without a life."

"Will you come back tomorrow?"

I got up, handed her the few remaining tickets and a twenty from my pocket. "Same time and same place. Only tomorrow."

She stroked tenderly at my jacket. "Button up," she said, "it's cold out there."

I gave her shoulder a quick squeeze, caught the last of her smile, crossed the dance floor, walked through the padded doors, mounted the three flights of stairs and heaved myself into the cold New York morning. It was just past one o'clock. I was starved.

Cars, buses, trucks, and delivery vans were stacked up at the traffic lights on Broadway. People clutched their coats against the wind and danced through the swirling litter underfoot.

I walked into The Beacon, an all-night coffee shop directly across from The Tango Palace, ordered a coffee black and glazed donut. I was living out the fantasy of the fantasy. I imagined I had made contact. I cursed Carrie's sweetness and curves, and doubted the warmth of her tears.

I fell asleep with the image of Carrie in my arms. It wasn't an erotic dream. There were no available breasts or rounded buttocks. It was merely a man clinging to a woman he greatly desired.

I woke the next day as though I had been drinking heavily the night before. I asked a friend in the Department of Records to get some financial information. I planned to go back, this time a little earlier and speak with a few of the girls before I owned up to Tony. That will probably curl his wife's frosted hair with misgivings. I could write the story with or without their help, a point I would mention at the beginning of the conversation. I also needed to find out if they were the owners, or if the palace was owned by a sweet old couple who had long ago retired to Florida.

By the time I jumped off the bus on 48th I was wracked with anticipation. It was a mild evening. A few customers were milling about the sports store next to The Tango Palace. The small stationery store on the other side of the Palace looked deserted.

When the light turned I bolted across the street, my pocket stuffed with twenty-dollar bills. I marched up to the door and gave it a hard pull.

It didn't move. I tried again, and stepped back. The black and white photo within the small glass display case was strangely less familiar. I moved closer. I had seen this woman before. Her face was now ravaged by the sun, temperature, and time. But there was a calling presence that I recognized.

From the curb, I could see the small yellow bulbs that bordered the sign were not blinking. The border of small electric lights that had flickered on and off earlier this morning were dark. Many were broken.

I walked into the stationery store. An old man was sitting behind the counter making notations in a green ledger book. He had to be seventy-five or eighty.

"Hi," I said. He looked up immediately with a polite and welcoming smile. Surely a relic from a generation past. "Maybe you can help me."

"I will if I can," he said.

"The Tango Palace next door. When does it open?"

"Open? I don't know that it will."

"Is there a problem?"

He put the ledger aside. "There is if they owe you money."

"I don't understand."

"They're closed. Out of business. Have been for some time. Just shut the doors one day."

"The Tango Palace?"

"Yeah. I know. The place was here when my father opened this store. It's part of Times Square. At least the old Times Square."

"It's closed?" I asked in disbelief.

"A long time now. The guy who owns many of the buildings on the block is waiting for my lease to expire next summer and he's going to sell out to a developer. The Tango Palace went first. I'm next. Maybe he already made the deal. Those real estate people, they're all crooks."

An electric ripple of fear swept through me. I could barely hear my own voice. "When did it close?"

He got up. A twist of his arched frame later he added, "It was last year. About this time of December too."

"Is there any way you can be sure?"

"It's that important, is it?"

"Yes. Yes it is," I said anxiously. "If you can."

He pulled another ledger from under the counter and flipped to the back of the book. "Yes. Here it is. I made a note of it. December 9th. Right there." He held out the book to me, but I couldn't take it. "Yesterday was exactly a year and a day. Old things die hard."

"I guess."

"Are you from out of town?"

"No. No, I'm from around here," I said, unable to quickly trace exactly where that was.

"Were you a regular?"

"Not exactly." But now I wish I had been.

"I miss them too. Especially the girls."

"You knew them?"

"A few. Laura, Beverly, Candice, Tina, Sharon. They came in, sometimes to buy, sometimes to talk before they went to work. It's a hard life."

It had to be the same Tina. "You must have heard some interesting stories."

"A few. Mostly sad. It's not the kind of life you want for your daughter."

I worked myself back in time to yesterday, to the cashier with her hair bound up in a disheveled nest, to Tony who never took his eye off me. The tickets in my hand last night. The one I held tightly in my hand a day later. I can still feel my hand graze Carrie's leg. "Do you remember a young girl named Carrie?"

He grinned. "The sweet one. Sure. She came in a couple of times a month just to see how I was, especially after my Nell passed away."

"She was about up to here on me. Thick, wavy brunette hair down to her shoulders. Great big green eyes."

"That's Carrie. She went home after the place closed. Said she had lost too much of her life down there."

"Do you know where she came from?"

"No. They don't tell you things like that. I think it's too painful for them," he said and locked the register. "Each one had a story. Each one had a past that they were trying mostly to forget until they could create a new one for themselves."

"You were a friend to them, then?"

"I learned it from Nell. She was like a mother to some of the girls. Talked them through bad boyfriends, good boyfriends, abusive fathers, drugs, and the pressure of the city." The old man reached down under the counter, pulled out a cigar box, and handed it to me. "Go ahead, open it up."

"I don't smoke."

"Didn't think you did."

The inside was thick with little purple dance tickets from The Tango Palace, admitting the bearer to, "One Dance. Girls - Beautiful - Girls."

"The girls would give me a ticket from time to time. Usually on my birthday. I never used any. Couldn't bring myself to go down there, when Nell was alive or after I lost her. Just didn't want to see the girls that way."

The old man took back the box, held it for a moment, then put it back under the counter. He pulled a key ring from his pocket.

"Are you closing up?"

"Not much business these days anyway." He organized the counter, carried a box of letterheads into the back, and came out with a heavy coat and woolen cap and locked the door behind us.

I thanked him for his time and help and walked down Broadway to my office. There was no Tango Palace. There was no Carrie. There was no story. I was never going to find out why Tony needed to speak with Tina.

The next day I told my editor the Palace recently folded. He told me I should have checked before I wasted my time, and his money. Even though I called the other two dancehalls, it never occurred to me that The Palace would be closed, or ever close.

There was no reason to mention the moment in time that I had somehow breached, and which closed just as quickly behind me leaving me with a notepad full of observations and ideas on how to develop the story.



By the time the old man got home he recalled that Carrie had come to him the day after The Tango Palace closed and asked him if he had seen a young man, kind of like the one that had stopped by earlier, who might have been standing around, looking like he was waiting for one of the girls.

The old man made himself of a cup of Nell's favorite tea. He remembered Carrie's distraught face that day, her painful sense of loss, as though her life suddenly had less meaning, and even less hope.

He told her he hadn't noticed. It was the truth. Old men don't notice much, he explained gently to her, if only as a way to ease her sorrow.

8 comments:

  1. I felt initial resistance, partly expecting a apologia for male self-indulgence, at the expense of women who are exploited. However the story flourished in the telling, and I was drawn into the several emotional strata that were woven through the narrative. Deftly drawn characters, skillful and economical use of language cleverly keeping the narrative moving. It is a sad tale on so many levels, and a worthwhile read,
    hank you,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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  2. Much like Ceinwen, I was very hesitant at digging into this story, for many of the same reasons. Yet I kept reading, the writing pulling you in, tugging at your emotions as the reporter learns the story of stories too often played out, lives wasted away on hopes never realized. Once again I'll refer to Ceinwen as I, too, found the tale sad, yet such a worthwhile read. Nicely done.

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  3. You captured the mood and essence of the Tango Dance Palace beautifully. Your descriptions were all pertinent to the storyline or the characters, contributing authenticity. Well done!
    Beryl

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  4. I expected Rod Serling to come out any second and deliver his succinct monologue. The story dances around (pun intended) a lot of issues and delivers a time-warp punch to the feeling of deja vu. One day a man descends into the dank cavern of a vintage Time Square dance hall. The next day, it's only a memory. Space and time are no longer parallel. The past and the future are one...

    James Shaffer

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  5. There's more than a touch of Brigadoon about this tale. There's spurnings, the hint of nuptials (but in this case 'foaming breasts'...and 'music bleeding from degenerating speakers'). It's fishnets instead of tartan, Times Sq instead of the Scottish Highlands. I loved it in a fearful sort of way. If only 'I' could live long enough and could visit the Tango Palace in exactly 100 years to the very hour...I think he just might find Carrie!
    Brooke

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  6. Intriguing story. Nothing quite turned out the way I expected. It kept tugging me along, like one of the dance hall girls, to see what would happen next. Good work, and nicely written.

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  7. Beautifully melancholy.

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  8. I love stories and writers who are story-tellers , a rare gift today.
    Thank you for a story with grit and soul. How wonderful to enter your world, a world of lost characters who seem more alive than many of the people I pass on the street everyday!

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