New York City was changing; but it was changing for the better. The air was all smoky from the new T’s and the old El on Ninth, but that was just the city’s breath of freedom. Sidewalks were covered in people from somewhere else all with somewhere to be. Horns honking in all that fast moving, shiny bumper-to-bumper. No more horse carts; all Checkered Cabs now. Neon signs lighting up the day just as much as the night and jazz drifting down Tin Pan Alley.
People danced then. Really danced. And, could they. Men and women swung around parquet floors going wild for the Charleston and Lindy. The nights seemed longer then so you got the feeling of eternally young. How could you possible grow old when the clubs were full of music and hooch? Sure the killjoys banned it, but everyone had a neighborhood bootlegger.
Harlem was home for Joanie, Bess, and I. Near Strivers Row. My sisters and I were the highlight of our street. Three young southern girls living for ourselves and each other. Laughing and making our way.
Bess was my eldest sister and a big girl. I would tease that I couldn’t get my arms around her. She’d swat me hard for that one. Too much mother in her for our own good sometimes. She was our alarm clock, cook, and, at times, warden. My favorite side of her was as dance teacher. That girl could move.
We travelled up from Beaufort during what they now call the Great Migration. Black folk from all over the south moving north to find a better way to live. Our daddy died when we were young and momma wasn’t around much. So, there wasn’t really anyone to tell us not to go. We scraped up a few dollars and took a Greyhound up. Joanie had a friend who had moved to New York about a year before us and let us stay with her until we got ourselves settled.
What a playground Harlem was. There was no need to leave the area to get the fix you needed. We were surrounded by good times. The Cotton Club was to our north and the Apollo Theater the south. Countless other clubs and dives, from east to west, were opening and closing all the time.
It was at one of these clubs that I met Mac.
My sisters and I were dancing to a trio who were hitting on all sixes. They had the legs moving all over that joint. Not that there was much room, but that made it all the better. Nice excuse to get close in that dark hole in the wall gin mill. Even with as dark as it was, he wasn’t hard to spot. Blonde hair and blue eyes stuck out in a place like that. Especially when he’s carrying a trumpet. One of his friends caught me looking and slapped him on the arm. Next thing you know, they’re making their way through the dancers.
“Evening ladies. “
“Evening,” Joanie smiled.
“Any of you dolls want some giggle water?”
“Who’s asking?” Bess went all fire extinguisher on us.
“My name’s Charlie Beck and, this here, is my friend Peter ‘Mac’ Mackenzie.” Mac held out his hand to each of us, but gave me a devil of a smile.
“I’ll take a hooch and hoof, if you’re up for it.”
“Your on, Daddy. Let’s go.”