Bambi and the Ziegfeld girl
Below the reflective eyes of Manhatten’s skyscrapers people scuttle about their business in an ordinary way - most of the time. However, in odd corners here and there, some unusual occurrences do take place, and always have, even under the never ending viewing of those skyscrapers, secrets abound.
In so many cities small areas automatically become villages, with territorial loyalties and dependencies. Joys and sorrows are shared, and although loneliness occurs, friendliness is there if you reach out for it. I loved our street, it started on 5th Avenue with an old and oppressively black church on one side of the road, and the opulent St Regis Hotel, with its highly polished brass stair-rails, complete with red carpet right down to the pavement, on the other, bordered by tubs of crimson flowers that exactly matched the carpet. The Doorman wore gold braid, and a peaked cap tipping at such an angle he had to peer down his nose to see anything at all. The St Regis Doorman was not a friendly man. I got no welcoming smile as I passed each morning on my way to school.
Towards 6th Avenue our pavements eased themselves towards shops and housed built back from the general building line by way of three long, low, broad steps. This was 55th street - one of New York’s little streets. No lordly skyscrapers, just a hugger-mugger of random buildings and styles. There were shrubs in tubs, wispy trees and - in summer - brightly coloured tables and chairs outside the Hungarian Restaurant. They served plum soup from deep bowls; a perfect foil for the aromatic stews to follow.
Across the street from the restaurant we could see a dark, dusty window filled with black velvet boxes showing tired pieces of second-hand Victorian jewellery. The interior of the shop was so dark that you had to peer through your own reflection to see anything inside. In a far corner, behind the glass counter, sat an old Italian watch-mender, a magnifying glass firmly wedged into one eye; his exaggerated life-etched face falling into weary hollows under a single, cruel bulb. He was old and slow. Mother said he was so old and slow that he couldn’t live off mending watches, which is why he sold the second-hand jewellery. His fingers belied their gnarled width with the delicacy of their touch. He could mend any clock or watch that came his way as he sat in that harsh light, in his shop of personal night.
Also across the road was our deli - always a blaze of light. Even on a dark winter morning before the world awakened, you could enter this bustle of aromatic activity to buy crullers, bagels and strong, hot coffee, and watch the voluptuous lady who made their cakes pipe thick cream onto the six inch high magnificence of a newly-made Devils-food cake. This shop was full of laughter and noisy argument. No-one was thin here, what would be the point. They were fit and cheerful, and their cole-slaw and potato salad were out of this world! The Greengrocer’s wares cascaded in orchestrated abandon onto the pavement. Zucchinis, peppers, apples, oranges and silk-spilling ears of golden corn. The colours sang.
On our side we had a bijou dress shop. I longed to enter its blue and gold interior and buy a sophisticated little number - all on my own. I had been in there with Mother and emerged, sulkily, with floral pink, though I had yearned for black with sequins. Mara, the owner of this establishment, had ultra-blonde hair swept up with impressive tortoiseshell combs, caught at the sides then falling in a curly little cloud over her forehead. She wore thin nylons, new on the market and a rare thing in those days, with a provocative gold anklet encircling one trim ankle. She would stand in the doorway, leaning on gold paint-work, smoking an exotic black cigarette, blowing seductive smoke-rings into the street, eye-lids lowered but not missing s thing.
We used our Chemist as a doctor. We all did. He bandaged cuts and grazes, had iced water ready for Alka-Seltzer, kept smelling salts ’just in case’, and took temperatures and blood pressures. he was everyone’s friend and made time to listen to all our ailments. After the Chemist the pavement dropped down two more long, low steps, leading our eyes to the bright, interestingly wide window that filled the whole of the front of Beth Pitt’s basement apartment.
The window was occupied, but not by the chairs and ornaments of ordinary folk. Instead you were confronted by a picket fenced enclosure lavishly filled with straw. Settled serenely in the centre sat a gazelle called Bambi. Behind her, at the back of the room, Beth could be seen, listening to her little radio. Across 6th Avenue, just a few yards away, stood the imposing Ziegfeld Theatre. Twenty years before Beth had been the young and beautiful star of many a Ziegfeld show; one of the toasts of New York. They had sipped Champagne from her slipper, and she had danced down a stair-way of stars to the music of a hundred violins. Her picture had been in every paper. What must the adulation have been like when “You stepped out of a dream” and “A pretty girl is like a melody” were her theme-songs.
Now this slim, pale lady lived on memories. Other Ziegfeld girls had married well, or been comfortably ‘settled’. Beth had not been so lucky and her life had been a lonely one. Then, somehow, she had acquired a small, frightened gazelle - with long golden eye-lashes and dainty feet. Beth’s life changed. Her loving nature had found an unexpected outlet.
Bambi wore a red embroidered collar with a trim leather lead. Every day the two of them would walk the few blocks to Central Park for Bambi to munch the stunted city grass and bask in the attention of countless children. Beth would stand shivering in her inadequate coat; her pale face testament to the money she spent on Bambi and the nothing she spent on herself. Bambi wore quilted velvet when the weather was cold.
Many times Beth would tell people how she dreamt of living in the country, with a garden of fresh green grass for Bambi and a log fire for herself. Her face would light up and everyone felt sad at this impossibility.
For all its concrete, tight-knit buildings, New York is beautiful in the Spring. Central Park bursts into green; blue sky mirrored in a million windows. Faces tilt up instead of burrowing deep into scarves and turned-up collars. Snow scenes turn to beach umbrellas in the shop windows and there is the Easter Parade to look forward to - new clothes for all the ladies and cigars for all the men. People were smiling.
One particular day of one particular year I wasn’t. As a moody sixteen year old I was in the middle of an adolescent bout of petulance. It was all so long ago that I cannot remember what it was all about, yet I remember what I was wearing. A little grey suit with silver buttons. Mother, coping with my emotional excesses with sarcastic fortitude, wore a beautiful raspberry-pink linen coat. it was what was called a duster-coat, full-backed, loose and flowing, even I had to admit she looked a million dollars.
Clothes meant a lot to Mother, and she had, with incredible good fortune, discovered an accomplished Polish lady over on the West side of Central Park who had magic fingers and a delightful nature. Visits were always a success. She kept Mother happy with cups of ‘real tea’, and I was given lots of support when it came to teen-age fashions, something not exactly understood by my very English Mother. On that particular day Mother stood in her raspberry pink, tapping an elegant toe impatiently, awaiting her sulky daughter, anxious to be out in the sunshine and wanting to take her parcel of lettuce and cabbage leaves to Beth for Bambi before they set out for their daily trip to the park.
We met them in the street just in front of their apartment, beside one of the newly green wispy trees. It seemed that Spring fever had touched Bambi as well as everyone else. She was very coquettish and frisked at the end of her long lead in a most abandoned fashion, batting her beautiful eye-lashes and leaping into the air with all four legs at once. Mother and Beth were soon deep in conversation. I stood stroking Bambi who suddenly noticed the raspberry pink coat. I think in her memories scenes of woodlands and wild berries must have surfaced and in her inner longings replaced Manhattan’s concrete. She approached Mother’s back with her velvet nostrils quivering in anticipation of a fruity meal. Memories must have clouded her judgement. Her dainty top lip spread itself longingly over her sharp little teeth as she took a bite out of the floating linen.
“Mum!” I cried.
“I’ve heard enough of you for one day!” came the crisp reply, and Mother returned to her conversation with Beth.
I was ignored and Bambi continued eating. She closed her eyes as she ate, and the lovely lashes lay, lightly quivering, on her fragile face as she munched her way through about fifty dollars of haute couture. I leant, with as much aggrieved nonchalance as I could muster, on the little wispy tree, with a certain amount of smug, adolescent satisfaction.
Fortunately the lovely Polish eventually managed to insert a godet of raspberry linen into the back of Mother’s coat. Soon after that we left New York, and in the excitement of a new life forgot Beth and Bambi.
Years later I returned. There had been many changes on 55th Street. But the Deli was much the same. They told me about the people I used to know, especially Beth and Bambi. It seems that a little fairy dust had blown through the stern sky-scrapers and landed on the bed of a very sick old man, who, before he closed his eyes forever, remembered a beautiful girl with legs like a gazelle, and a smile that had melted his heart.
I would love to have seen Beth’s face when the letter arrived. But perhaps such happiness shouldn’t be seen. They told me her cottage is in New Jersey, and Bambi has a field of fresh country grass, and real raspberries to nibble. Beth has a log fire and a carpet. This is a fairy tale that came true, and to just the right people.
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