Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Janet Mason

Jazz (1929)
Joseph sat at a small table toward the back of the room at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and ordered another glass of gin.  Louis Armstrong had just moved back to New York.  All eyes were on the stage where Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra played.  The music poured out in notes, whole ones, halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-second notes, all swirling around the intermittent rests, the silence in the center of the music that poured out rapid fire from the saxophone, the slide trombone, the piano, the cello, the grand piano.  The notes circled around him and slowly faded.  Then, from the shadows, the great Satchmo himself stepped toward the microphone and began talking.  If all the gravel from thousands of years of flooding from the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers that settled onto the Mississippi Delta had a voice, then this would be it.  
The band played Dinah.  Satchmo crooned into the microphone.  Joseph tapped his foot in time to the beat.  Horns circled around and the notes marched on.  America’s progress marched through the room like a freight train in the dead of night, its single beam illuminating only what was in front of it. The patrons of Connie’s, all of them white, seemed to know each other – smiles were exchanged and well dressed waiters in white dinner jackets with napkins on their arms poured  champagne and rested the open bottles in silver Belgian champagne buckets with the deco knobs on the sides.  The women wore the latest styles from Paris, with fur collars draped around their necks and jewels nestled in the fur like permanently frozen ice cubes.   Joseph may have been down on his luck – working as a day laborer on the docks and living in a rooming house – but he was surrounded by opulence.  He knew that his time would come.  And when it did, he would buy another automobile -- one of the new Model A's.
Joseph took another few sips of his gin.  Then he closed his eyes and sat back in his chair, swaying a little.  He had seen a photograph in a magazine of the long, sleek Bugatti Royale and he wasn’t drunk enough yet to think he would ever own one.  There were only six in the world.  But Joseph sure would like to take a ride in one.   He pictured himself in the driver’s seat -- goggles around his head, a white driving scarf around his neck.  In front of him was the long majestic seven foot long hood and at the front the signature hood ornament of a sculpted silver elephant standing on the oversized radiator cap. 
Joseph kept his eyes closed as he listened to the music – the band was playing a prelude – and a dreamy smile played across hip lips.  His ship would come in.   Joseph was saving his money and he heard that the General Electric Building that was being built at 51st and Lexington would be hiring new construction workers soon.  It was August of 1929.   Anything was possible. 


The Bridge (1927)
The Bridge had just been completed the previous summer.  It was the longest suspension bridge in the world.  Joseph turned onto the incline of the bridge and looked up.  The moon was nearly full and its light shone on the cables and on the rise of the bridge towers.  Joseph kept driving, higher and then higher still. It felt like they were driving into the stars.  The bridge was so high and so long that they couldn’t see the other side.  It felt as if they could come down anywhere, as if the bridge might take them to the other side of the world.  Joseph pressed down on the gas pedal so the Model T would go as fast as it could –close to 45 miles per hour.  An unseasonably warm gust of November wind blew through the window and snatched Joseph’s Fedora.  He threw back his head and laughed.   
They started to descend to the other side of the river toward Camden.   Joseph had never been to Camden before but he thought he might go to the shipyard sometime to see if there was work.  Camden was famous for the RCA Factory Tower with its large glass panels depicting Nipper staring into the Victrola.  Joseph had seen the photographs in the Public Ledger.  He looked in the direction of the Factory Tower but there were sheets of metal between the girders on each side of the bridge blocking the view.  Joseph couldn’t see – but he knew what was there:  the dark folds of river churning under them; the lights from the two cities on the opposite sides of the river; the electric light shining from windows; the flicker of Model T headlamps bumping up and down on cobblestone streets. 
Suddenly, they had driven over the incline, past the horizon, and were heading down to the other side of the bridge, down to the ground.  Joseph had started laughing first and now he and Vince were both laughing – their mouths open wide and their heads thrown back. 


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