Bayla could never say when she first heard the blues. Perhaps their wail and words penetrated thin apartment walls in her tenement building overrun with German and Hungarian immigrants. Or maybe during Augusts’ stifling heat, the deep soulful sounds of the blues oozed from a radio or a record player out an opened window. Blues came to her gentle and easy with a certainty in their lingering, and a mounting up that spoke to her the more she heard them. Blues spoke to her about need, needing love, someone who loved her, someone she could love back. They spoke to her about want. She never learned about want. She just always did.
At nine years old, she’d memorize words to blues songs she found in books at the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library. Then she’d head to a dimly-lit music store tucked under the Second Avenue El, select a 78 rpm Okeh, Decca, Black Swan, or Paramount label, place it on the wind-up Victrola, ease the silver horn-shaped arm onto the spinning turntable, lean back against the floor-to-ceiling shelves jammed with records in dusty brown paper sleeves, close her eyes, and let the songs slip into her soul. Victoria Spivey. Ma Rainey. Bertha “Chippie” Hill. By the time she was twelve, without notes on a page or music instructions, she could imitate them all, their tone, phrasing, and timing. Like Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, one day she too would preside over a kingdom where people would pay money to hear her sing.
“Who sings such music?” her mother asked when Bayla practiced at home.
“Colored women, Mama. From down south.”
“Thanks be to God, to H’a Schem, who welcomes strangers to this country.”
“Yes, Mama. Everyone together. A regular melting pot.”
That’s what she remembered as she crouched over her machine at Goldmacher’s and sewed with girls whose parents, like her own, arrived in shiploads to the land of milk and honey. She sewed when her feet burned as she pressed the machine’s black iron pedal. She sewed when the flames grabbed her ankles, and the heat rose to her thighs. She sewed when newspapers proclaimed “Unemployment Passes 4 Million.” Four years of her life already in that place she sewed while Mamie Smith and Ida Cox toured the South, Alberta Hunter appeared in Show Boat, Victoria Spivey was in movies, and Bessie Smith had bottom billing at the Apollo. Like them, she too started out poor, young, and alone. Like them, her turn would come.
By December 1933, with the end of Prohibition, liquor flowed from every spigot and open bottle in New York City’s bars, restaurants, and cocktail lounges. On her way home from work one evening, peering from the window of the cross-town bus that stopped at Tenth Avenue and 48th Street, she spotted a sign on the double doors at the Saloon. “Performer Wanted.” New Yorkers shielding themselves from wind that blew off the river missed those two words entirely, but for Bayla they were as lit up as the Loews 96th Street marquee. She was who they wanted. But where would she find the courage to walk into such a God-forsaken place filled with men? And at her age, only 18.
If her mother knew, and if she still could, she would walk to Tikvah Shalom, the Orthodox synagogue on East 91st Street on Shabbos morning and pray for a daughter who would even consider committing such a shandeh. Not that Bayla had any idea of the consequences. The little she knew about how men and women interacted came from the library’s romance novels ─ Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Heiress, Ethan Frome ─ and at the Loews, when she had money for a Garbo, Dietrich or Mae West movie.
The next few nights Bayla borrowed time from cooking dinner and caring for her mother to walk up and down the streets surrounding the Saloon to familiarize herself with the goings-on in the part of town: Hell’s Kitchen. She watched who entered, guessing at dock workers, Irish gangs, laborers, mobsters. She pictured walking through the same doors as they did until on a Saturday morning, like stacks of newspapers tied together at New York’s newsstands, she had bundled together enough courage to do what was needed. She was born in turbulent times, her mother always said. Risks had to be taken.
Refusing a turn of her head, or a sideways glance, she walked straight to the man behind the bar, who had few to serve at that early hour.
“Mr. Grady, the owner, he’s over there. ” He nodded toward the far end, and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “He’s a powerful gadabout, that man. Watch yourself.”
He was stout and broad, his face red, a dark suit tight over his middle. Of course. Irish. Shikers. Lovers of drink. Her mother had taught her about people ─ Italian and Jewish girls were zaftig. Polish and Hungarians were good cooks. German women had strong arms. Jewish men made good husbands.
“With me on stage, you’ll make money,” she pushed herself to tell Mr. Grady, her eyes burning into his. “They’ll come running,” and she broke into St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, stole that man of mine, by her apron strings.
“You wear something besides this?” Mr. Grady asked and pinched her buttocks beneath her worn navy ankle-length skirt, gripping enough of her behind so that she had to restrain herself from jumping away from him. If pinching would get her the job, let him suit himself.
“I have a beautiful costume,” she told him. She kept it hidden at home inside a dresser drawer, God forbid her mother should find out. She sewed it herself, remade an old blouse, saved pennies for a yard of black sateen, a strip of fringe, a feather.
“And on stage, you know what you gotta do? You have experience?
“I’ve known since I was a child.”
“It’s good you’re young and attractive, your skin smooth and fresh. And I like that you’re tall, not overblown, but meaty enough. A damn sight better than the middle-aged floozies with painted faces who’ve shown up. And I like your singing.”
The Saloon was a respectable drinking establishment, he said, not a dive like those other dirty, stinking, roach-and rat-infested Irish pubs on the East Side. He gestured with a slowly outstretched arm to the long mirrored wall that reflected the dark, highly polished wooden bar, the square black and white floor tiles, the white dome lamps that hung from the high ceiling casting “a romantic glow,” he said with a sneer, his eyes narrowing to indicate something she couldn’t comprehend.
“Come back Friday and Saturday. Eight o’clock. I’ll give ya’ two twenty-minute sets each night. We’ll see how you do.”
Her first audition, a success. And why not? She had studied enough female performers in newsprint advertisements for the Apollo Theatre on empty boarded-up lots on 57th Street. And from the billboards outside the Cotton Club on 142nd Street in Harlem, she had learned from the best of them: Bessie Smith, hands on hips, legs apart; Ma Raney bending over the stage messing with the audience; sultry Lena Horne; lady-like Adelaide Hall; charming Ella Fitzgerald. Mr. Grady need not worry. On stage, Bayla knew exactly how she had to be.
Word spread fast. Having left the ranks of speakeasy, rugged longshoremen, recently-arrived immigrants, and foreign seamen jammed the Saloon, pushing their way inside with cops on the take and union organizers. Glasses clinked, barstools screeched, chairs echoed off the tiled floor while men guzzled beer, and whiskey, and signaled for more as they edged into tight spaces around the stage, nervous, impatient. When the piano man in a blue vest and rolled shirt sleeves struck a few bluesy refrains on the upright, the stomping, whistling and clapping began.
“Are you ready, gentlemen?” Mr. Grady shouted into the microphone above the ruckus. “Here she is. Our blues diva.” She liked that. Blues Diva.
“Bring her out, for Christ’s sake.” “Where is she, ‘ya bum?” “Sing it for this!” a husky sailor shouted and grabbed his crotch.
One spotlight snapped on. Silence struck. With one foot on a chair, her elbow on her thigh, her body slightly forward, her expression provocative, a gold scoop-necked blouse held her copious breasts. Black fringe along a tight black satin skirt with a slit up the side revealed lacy garters hooked to seamed stockings exposing her fleshy thighs. Gold pumps cradled her pudgy feet and like Bessie Smith, a gold lamé band circled her head, a feather to one side.
Bayla eased her foot off the chair, then sashayed towards the edge of the stage with a sway, a dip, a hike in her hips as the applause, the shouting, the ruckus started up again. She inhaled, her bosom expanded, the noise simmered, and her rich, soulful tones drifted across the room like cigarette smoke, soothing longings, caressing desires.
When I was young, nothing but a child, You men tried to drive me wild.
My Mama says I’m reckless, my Daddy says I’m wild,
I ain’t good lookin’ but I’m somebody’s angel child.
She heated up the room provoking the audience to let loose spare change, a sailor’s cap, carnal appetites.
Daaaaaaaaaaaaaady, Mamma wants some huggin.’
Hi ‘ya, Pretty Papa, Mama wants some lovin’ right now.
During the day, sewing in a sweatshop, life’s burdens weighed her down. Who did she have to share them with? No one at all. But at night in front of a live audience, the stage with its restorative powers, freed her from the grip that held her in check. She clasped her rich auburn hair, or swished it around her neck and shoulders, moved her body to the rhythms, allowing her heartaches and longings to run rampant. No matter how little her audience had, or where they were born, or how hard they worked, Bayla opened them up to possibilities ─ dreams and fantasies were within reach. That was her gift, and she gave it without knowing.
Though she had never been on a date with a man, much less had anyone offer himself as a suitor, she favored sexually-charged numbers: Anybody Want To Eat My Cabbage?, Call Me When Your Drawers Are Down, or My Hard, Straight Handy Man. It didn’t matter that she didn’t fully understand the inferences embodied in the lyrics. On stage, in the spotlight, Bayla Szabo, the innocent factory girl became what every man in the audience wanted her to be.
“Again you’re going out? Oi gotteniu. Again by myself? My daughter, the runaround.” From her rickety wooden wheelchair her mother spouted her usual lament. They had finished supper ─ sauerkraut soup with potatoes and caraway seeds, and a thick bean cholent. On the chipped, white metal table where they ate, the cigar box Bayla had long ago plucked from a street-side garbage pail was already in place. Filled with makeup paid for by pinching pennies, she withdrew from it a small, hand-held mirror, twirled an edge of tissue, and dabbed green powder on her lids to enhance her blue eyes. With her index finger she spread Princess Pat rouge on her high cheekbones. At the almost straight lines of her lips, she reworked Tangee’s Theatrical Strawberry lipstick, securing a delicate pout.
Her mother watched every move, her eyes darting, her face expressionless, as if Bayla didn’t know that her mother’s thoughts were darker than usual.
“I know where you’re going. What you do,” her mother said.
“I go to sing, Mama, in a club frequented by gentlemen. It helps pays the rent. You know this already. You know I have a voice.”
“A voice! It’s a shandeh to parade yourself the way you do. Through the streets”
Whatever nonsense her mother dreamed up about her daughter’s nighttime excursions, Bayla had to teach herself to ignore. “It’s good I have ambition,” she’d remind her mother. “It will get us out of here. First chance I get,” and she powder-puffed her face with Max Factor’s Creamy Ivory.
“Where you go these nights, someone could kill you, and I would be left alone. And you speak to me of ambition!” At a speed Bayla never would have imagined, her mother suddenly swept her arms across the table, scattering her daughter’s applied beauty to the worn linoleum floor. “Te, a gyerekeid, az unokaid, es minden leszarmazottad legyetek karhozottak az orokkevalosagig. You and your children and your children’s children will be doomed, she said in Hungarian. Dest liggin in bluter, she said in Yiddish. You’ll lay in the mud. And I have said it so!”
Bayla stood, her body trembling. She gripped the edge of the kitchen table for support, and stared at her mother. Wisps of gray hair dangled loose from the bun her arthritic fingers still managed to arrange at the back of her head. Her blue-flowered housecoat, faded and stained, one of two Bayla dressed her in each morning. Any pleasant memories ─ the blue Danube, the Statue of Liberty, the Travelers’ Aid lady who helped her through Ellis Island ─ had become threadbare. All this Bayla understood but occasionally the hurt inside her escaped.
“I left school at fourteen to support us by working on a factory floor and you curse me in two languages?” her voice was deep and low. “You think a mother’s curses are easy to forget? They ring in my ears, wake me at night. You think I won’t end up with more than this? I’ll get us out despite your curses.”
“Do you know why they sent me from my home in Budapest to travel at fifteen alone, two weeks in steerage, sick to my stomach, to come to America?”
Bayla knew about the watered-down milk that left her mother’s bones weak, the lack of oranges that rotted her teeth, the poverty, no work, and the terrible treatment of Jews. She knew her mother had come to America to find a husband whose money would provide tickets to bring here her family from the Old Country. Bayla had heard her mother’s coming-to-America story so often she could repeat every word, precisely imitating her mother’s accent and intonations.
“I came to marry a man who left us,” her mother said softly. “Who ran off to who knows where?”
Not even one with money, Bayla knew, or a chance to beg him to stay. It was her fault, his leaving. Her childish disobedience, her refusing to give in to his wishes, to let him dress her for bed, the two of them alone in the room. Her strong will had sent him away.
“I lived in a room, slept in the same bed used by night workers after I awoke. For that I came? And for this wheelchair? To be a burden to myself and to you?” Her mother began to whimper, the sounds that drew Bayla to her side.
“No need to cry. Who’s here for you? Your daughter, Bayeleh. Your only child. And from across the hall, your friend, Mrs. Silverman. You remember she has a key to visit. Come. It’s Friday night, sundown already. Time to light the candle.”
Bayla removed a white Shabbos candle from a small box on a kitchen shelf.
“Oi, gottenu. Shabbot already. Yes, yes.” Her mother struck a match, reached for the candle, heated the bottom, and melded it onto the top of an empty jelly jar. She covered her head with a small white cloth, closed her eyes and circled her hands three times over the flame. “Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu meleh ha’olam…”
“Good Shabbos, Mama.”
“Good Shabbos, my child. Mine sheinah kinder. My beautiful child. Now put me to bed.”
“Yes, Mama, to bed, with pleasant dreams.”
“Dreams, mein kind. You remember our Saturday mornings when I took you to Shabbat services at Tikvah Shalom? The Rabbi’s sermons.”
“Yes, Mama, I remember. And at Rosh Hashanah, the challah we would eat, wishing each other a zissen yur, a sweet year.”
“And for Yom Kipper, a prune humentasch to share before fasting for our year’s sins.”
“So go where you go already on a Shabbos. Go. Hashem will forgive us and maybe by a miracle, a rich man will find you. A choshever mensch. And we’ll have money to light two candles on Shabbos, as it should be.”
“Yes, Mama. Someone to take care of us.”
“I shouldn’t say such things aloud. Isht forgessen. The fates ─”
“Again, the fates?” If you were too happy, you would attract an einhoreh. An evil eye. If you tried to better yourself, the fates would know, and bad luck would follow. There was so little left to be spoken about, or questioned. So little left to enjoy. Even thoughts had to be censored. The fates could divine those as well.
With her mother bedded for the night, Bayla got down on her hands and knees and gathered among the grime on the kitchen floor her scattered bottles and creams, pencils and compacts. A final glimpse in her mirror showed her to be more striking than beautiful ─ less a Harlow, more a Mae West.
“One day my mother will know what her daughter is made of,” she said inside the dank-smelling stairwell on her way out over the sound of an infant’s cry.