New York City, May 1933
Lois felt surprisingly invincible upon her arrival in New York City. She'd always been too much for the provincial attitudes of Glascow, Montana. Too inquisitive as a child, too tall as a school girl, and too strong willed as a young woman. She was the child who always wanted to know why and the teenage hellion who gave up on getting the straight scoop from authority figures and instead went looking for her own answers. The answers she found in the dark corners of the little town only ignited more questions. So she set out to find the truth about men and music, about drink and art. About life.
Her skin tingled when she got off the train in Grand Central. As the crowd surged around her, Lois was carried along to the street, squinting into the sunlight after the cool dark of the cathedral-like station. The sounds and smells hit her in one big punch. Roasting meat, fresh yeast breads, sweat, the stench of animals and the smell of mechanical exhaust. She detected each scent, distinct and curious as her senses jumped in time with the clanging, honking music of the city. Streetcars rumbled by and voices shouted in languages Lois had never before heard. She looked about in wonder, holding tight to her purse while her packed bag banged against her left shin.
"Zowie sista, ya gotta move it or you'll end up flat, splat face down in the gutter! Would you move it along?" The owner of the gravelly voice gave Lois a shove that sent her sideways against a street vendor’s cart. She whirled back around to confront the cretin and stood mouth agape when she spied her assailant. Tommy Ryan couldn't have been more than eleven years old. He barely reached four feet in height but made up for it with the force of that deep raspy voice and a tough guy attitude. Recovering quickly, Lois leaned over Tommy.
"Watch it buddy or I'll give you what for!" She had faced down toughs more fierce than this kid back in Montana!
"Hey, hey, I didn't mean nuthin. Ya just gotta watch it, that's all. Ya act like ya don't have anywheres ta go, that's all. Ya do know where ya going, dontcha?" Tommy watched Lois with an eye to picking up some spare change. "Cus I could be persuaded to be your guide, for a small price."
"Oh yeah? What's a small price?"
"Jus depends where ya wanna go. If ya gotta place, I can getcha there in the blink of an eye. If ya don't gotta place, I can still getcha there in the blink of an eye. I know some good places to bunk down. Swanky or cheap. Ya jus gotta specify." Tommy spat in the gutter and wiped his dirty cotton sleeve across his mouth.
"Mrs. Pillman's home for young ladies. It's on 65th Street. How do we get there and how much will it cost?" Lois held Tommy's gaze, her spine straight, determined to have the upper hand while getting what she wanted, which was to quickly get her things settled at the boardinghouse so that she could get back out into the provocative noise and energy that defined the this city.
"I'll getcha there on the streetcar for a dime and we'll be there in a flash."
"You'll carry my bag and get me there in a flash for a nickel, not a penny more."
"All right, but ya gotta keep up, I ain't no babysitter." Tommy grinned with his back to Lois, thinking about little Joey who'd a done it for three cents.
Mrs. Pillman had the face of a sphinx and a list of rules a yard long, but she also had a room with clean sheets on the bed and a hot cooked meal each night. The situation suited Lois, who didn't intend to spend any time over a hot stove. She found Tommy loitering by the front stoop when she set out to look for a job.
"Well, if it isn't my own pint sized escort. What are you doing hanging around anyway?"
"It jus seemed to me ya might need some more help, thas all. Where ya goin? I could be a escort, or I could be yer own personal flunky. Tommy Ryan, at yer service." With a small flourish, Tommy performed an exaggerated bow while keeping an eye an Lois to gage her reaction. Maybe he could make another nickel before heading back to the tenement he shared with his mother and siblings. A ten member household needed all the dough a fella could make.
"I don't have another nickel for you, I need to find work myself. Got any lines on work a girl could pick up?"
"Sure, sure . . . jus let me think a minit. Why sure, ya could check in at the laundry on the east side, but I see ya more as the type who'd a wanna try the department stores downtown and be a shop girl. Yeah, that's the ticket. Ya could sell specialty items to the swells down off Fifth Avenue with ya charmin poisonality."
"All right Tommy boy, you lead me to the stores on Fifth and I'll give you a penny as soon as someone hires me on."
Tommy thought about it for just a second before nodding and sticking out his hand for a shake. "Ya gotta deal. How's about a name?"
Lois O'Brien. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Lois pumped Tommy's small grimy hand without hesitation and sealed their pact. The kid might be alright after all.
Lois loved the noisy and hurried ride back uptown. She craned her neck to view the tops of the towering buildings that lined the paved streets. Street lights blinked and horns honked as crowds surged across busy streets. The air pulsed with the energy of a shared ambition. These folks were en route to something; they had things to do, money to make and no time to waste. Lois and Tommy reached the edge of the retail district and continued on foot.
A crowd had gathered just outside the entrance to Gimbels. The buzzing excitement was punctuated with laughter and cheering male voices. Lois and Tommy pushed to the edge of the group.
“Hey Sally, how about a demonstration? I sure would like to see your dance!” A deeply masculine voice rumbled just to Lois’ left. The mostly male crowd chuckled their agreement, elbows jutting into their neighbor’s sides.
“Now boys, you know my manager wouldn’t allow me to do my act for free. Come on down to the theater tonight and you won’t be sorry! Come early and sit in the front row. I’ll make sure you have a view worth waiting for.” The well coiffed blonde winked and offered a dazzling smile before her burly escort swept her through the throng. Lois was dazzled by the swirl of white satin as the woman whirled through the crowd and into the chauffeured car. The gleaming vehicle pulled away from the crowd of smitten men.
“Ya wanna know who that was? Miss Sally Rand, that’s who. Now she’s rakin in the dough. I know a guy who runs errands for her and makes five smackers a week! She keeps him plenty busy!”
“Is she a star Tommy?”
“Ya might say. She dances with ostrich fans and nuthin else, if ya know whut I mean.” Tommy snickered. “My buddy seen her when he snuck in the side door at the Paramount. He says her skin glows behind those fans, like she’s all lit up when the music starts. Zowie, whut a gal.”
A calculating look came into Lois’ eyes. “Could you get me in to see her act?”
“Is my name Tommy Ryan?”
Stay tuned for another installment.