CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT
“It all started when Seth went to college at Eastman,” Sandy said. “You probably remember but Seth was ten years old when he went.”
Aden nodded. He sat down on the end of the bed to be near where she was seated in an armchair by the window. She looked at him and smiled.
“He had this roommate named ‘Glint Fielding,’” Sandy said.
“The hunky one who is much less hunky, now, and our insurance agent,” Aden said with a nod.
Sandy nodded in agreement.
“Glint sowed some serious oats at college,” Sandy said with a nod. Aden grinned. “He spent many nights and most weekends with a variety of female lovers.”
“Seth was on his own,” Aden said.
“Seth was ten years old and a train ride away from New York City,” Sandy said. “He’d grown up in Denver, which was much, much smaller than it is even now. New York City was big, beautiful, and exciting for a boy with money in his pocket and no supervision.”
“Why didn’t he hang out with his mother’s family?” Aden asked.
“He didn’t know about them,” Sandy said. “In fact, it wasn’t until his mother died that he knew anything about her or her family. O’Malley Sr. wouldn’t allow her to speak of her life before him.”
“Probably afraid for her to talk about Bernie,” Aden said.
“Probably,” Sandy said with a nod.
Thinking about what he’d said, she fell silent for a moment.
“We were talking about Big Daddy,” Aden said.
“Right,” Sandy said. “Seth was on his own during the weekends. He decided to explore the city, burrow by burrow. Well, what he says is that he was exploring music in the city, but he got into a lot of other things.”
“Drugs?” Aden asked.
“He won’t say,” Sandy said. “But Dad thought he started using drugs in New York. He definitely drank and probably used prostitutes, and …”
“It was the sixties,” Sandy said. “He had money, no supervision, and a curiosity about life.”
“He met Big Daddy when he went to Harlem looking for Jazz,” Sandy said.
“Wait, what?” Aden asked.
“Seth was going borough to borough …” Sandy repeated. “He got to Harlem and …”
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” Aden asked.
“The whole thing was dangerous,” Sandy said. “Really dangerous. No child should have been allowed to roam New York City by himself, regardless of how randy his roommate was!”
Aden scowled in agreement.
“You’re sure this happened,” Aden said.
“I only know what he told Dad,” Sandy said. “I’m sure of it’s not the whole truth.”
“What is the whole truth?” Aden asked.
“Right,” Sandy nodded and then shook her head.
“I’ve asked Seth about it, but he won’t talk about it, at least to me,” Sandy said. “He says he doesn’t remember. We just know what he told Dad. Even Maresol only knows the barest details and she got those from Mitch, my dad.”
Sandy gave a sad shake of her head.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Sandy said. “This is the story I heard from Dad. Whatever is truer is known only by Seth and Big Daddy’s henchmen. Maybe Claire, knows. She told Jill that she met Seth when he was ten.”
“Sorry, I got stuck on henchmen?” Aden’s scowl deepened. “Henchmen?”
“I don’t like this already,” Aden said.
Sandy snorted and nodded. She opened her mouth to speak, but Aden raised his hand. She looked at him.
“Wasn’t Malcolm X killed in Harlem in 1965?” Aden asked. “Seth was ten in 1965, right?”
“Malcolm X was killed on February 21, 1965,” Sandy said with a nod. “Auburn Ballroom in Washington Heights, just outside of Harlem. And, anyway, Seth didn’t get there until the Fall.”
“This is what I know …”
A long time ago
New York City, New York
As had become his weekly habit, Seth had hopped a train right after his last class on Friday afternoon. He’d arrived in New York City almost ten hours later. Arriving after two in the morning, he headed to his favorite twenty-four hour diner in Hell’s Kitchen. It was owned and run by the nicest people Seth had met. The wait staff and the owner treated him like family right off the bat. He’d even rented a small room in the diner owner’s apartment upstairs. His best friend was the daughter of one of the server’s, a girl named Claire. She was just a few years older than he was, and his adventure loving guide to all things New York City.
This morning, Claire was waiting for him in a quiet booth near the back.
“You’re late,” Claire said.
“The train was slow tonight,” Seth said with a yawn. “End of the World’s Fair, I guess.”
“Do you want to go to the fair?” Claire asked.
“Again?” Seth asked.
Claire grinned at him. Seth hadn’t loved their trip to the World’s Fair. Even at ten years old, Seth was one part child and another part old man.
“Do you need to sleep?” Claire asked with her usual mix of caretaking and intensity.
“Slept on the train,” Seth said, stifling another yawn.
Claire scowled. She didn’t say anything else because her mother had arrived at the end of the booth.
“Coffee?” Claire’s mother had asked.
“Thanks,” Seth said.
“I don’t like it that you drink so much coffee,” Claire’s mother said.
“I know,” Seth said. “But I have to be a man, now.”
Seth repeated the last thing O’Malley had said to him when he’d put Seth on the bus. Claire’s mom ruffled his short hair. Seth liberally doctored his coffee.
“Your mother must miss you,” Claire’s mother repeated what she always said.
“You know what happened the last time we called,” Seth said with a shrug.
In an attempt to reach Seth’s mother, Claire’s mother had called the O’Malley household during the day. For her efforts, she received an earful of “mind your own business” from O’Malley. Claire had secretly told Seth that her mother had cried after the call. Claire’s mother had never mentioned it to Seth.
“How you doing, son?” the diner owner asked as he walked by the table.
Instead of waiting for an answer, the diner owner walked on by. He found a booth near the front and plopped down. The diner owner opened a few books and took out a nub of a pencil. He scribbled something and then pounded his fist on the table.
“He seems mad,” Seth said.
“Mr. Trench died last summer,” Claire said with a nod.
Not knowing what that meant, Seth shook his head and shrugged.
“He was the owner of this building.” Claire leaned forward to whisper. “The building is going up for sale next week. Mom says Mr. Trench’s kids are greedy and want more than the building is worth.”
Still not sure what that meant, Seth shrugged.
“That means the rents with go up. Or, worse, we’ll all be evicted.” Claire nodded. In her “I’m so much older than you voice,” she added something she’d heard the diner owner say, “You know, regular people get screwed all the time.”
Seth blinked at Claire.
“I can buy it,” Seth said. “Schmidty I-V — you know my manager — he’s been bugging me about investing. A building is an investment. I’ll call him.”
Unsure how to respond, Claire blinked at Seth and leaned back. She leaned forward again.
“Really?” Claire asked.
“I don’t know,” Seth said. “I have to call.”
“You could do that?” Claire asked.
“I don’t know why not?” Seth shrugged again.
As if she understood, Claire nodded. Claire had never known anyone with money. Then again, she’d never met anyone like Seth. He was her little brother and best friend. She put her hand to her heart with the hope that would never change.
“Let’s not tell anyone,” Seth said. “Just in case it’s impossible.”
Claire nodded vigorously. Her mother stopped by with a stack of pancakes and a refill on Seth’s coffee. Seth waited for Claire’s mother to leave before pushing the plate in the middle of the table. Claire started doctoring the pancakes with butter and syrup.
“Did you get it?” Seth asked.
Her mouth full, Claire nodded. She reached into the pocket of her dress and took out a map. Seth spread it out onto the table. He was looking at a map of the New York City Subway system. Claire had marked the current and past jazz venues.
“Are any of these still open?” Seth asked.
Claire pointed her knife toward 149th Street and St. Nicholas. Her mother started in their direction and Claire pushed the plate back to Seth. He got busy eating his side so her mother wouldn’t know that he got these for Claire. Claire’s family didn’t have a lot of money, which meant that they didn’t have a lot of food. Claire wouldn’t take money from Seth, but she would let him feed her in exchange for her help in discovering New York City. She worked really hard during the weeks so that she had information when he arrived. Of course, she didn’t have to do any of it. Seth was happy just to have a friend.
“Look,” Seth said. He wiggled his front tooth with his tongue. “It’s finally loose.”
“I lost mine ages ago,” Claire said with a nod.
“Just a late bloomer,” Seth said. “That’s what Glint says anyway.”
“He took time out from his busy schedule screwing girls to actually speak to you?” Claire asked with a sniff.
Seth smiled. Claire did not like Seth’s college roommate. Glint had come down a few weeks ago to see the World’s Fair. Glint had brought some girl and then dumped her at the fair for another girl. This was enough for Claire to dismiss Glint all together. Seth grinned at Claire in sheer delight that she was his friend.
“I’m older than you,” Claire said. “I know how those kind of guys turn out.”
His mouth full, Seth shook his head that Claire couldn’t know the future. He and Claire had had this conversation a few times.
“Saint Nick’s,” Claire said.
“Saint Nick’s?” Seth asked.
“That’s the only jazz club that’s still open in Harlem,” Claire said.
“We tried that last week,” Seth said. “They won’t let us in.”
“We can try again,” Claire said.
Seth nodded. Sighing, he drank his coffee and ate another bite of pancake. Truth was, he didn’t really like pancakes.
“I was thinking …” Claire said.
She looked up to see where her mother. Finding her mother on the other side of the diner, she started tucking in the pancakes. Seth waited until she’d finished them. When Claire’s mother came by with more coffee, Seth ordered sausages, eggs, toast, and a large cinnamon roll for Claire. If Claire’s mother knew that Claire was eating what Seth ordered, she made no indication. She took the plate and went to put the new order in.
“You seem really hungry,” Seth whispered so no one would hear.
“Mom’s not getting paid,” Claire said.
“Because of the building thing?” Seth asked.
“She’s trying to help keep the diner open,” Claire said. “If it closes, we’ll have to move.”
“And your dad?” Seth asked.
Claire never spoke about her father.
“Still missing from the war,” Claire said with a shrug.
Seth didn’t know what it meant to be missing. He just knew that was what Claire said about her father. Seth thought that Claire looked a lot like the diner owner. He’d never said anything because Claire might be offended. He would learn later that the diner owner was Claire’s uncle, her missing father’s brother, which is why she looked like him.
“Dad can’t help us or the diner,” Claire said.
Seth nodded and hoped he remembered to talk to Schmidty I-V.
“Now,” Claire said, smoothing the map out on the table. “We have to figure this out.”
“Unless you’ve changed your mind,” Claire said.
Seth was in the middle of taking a drink of coffee. He shook his head.
“Mom says that boys change their minds a lot,” Claire said. “My brother changes his mind a lot.”
Seth looked up to see Claire’s older brother set a dish of food on the ledge and ring the bell. He was two years older than Claire and almost ready to graduate. He gave Seth a big smiled and waved. Claire’s mother went to pick up the food.
“I want to learn how to play jazz piano,” Seth said. He put his hand on his heart. “I have to learn how.”
“It’s your destiny,” Claire said sincerely. “Otherwise, why would you have been sent to New York?”
“Exactly,” Seth said.
“Here’s what I think,” Claire said. “There was this great club called the ‘Cotton Club’ but it was whites only on the floor and black performers.”
“Ick,” Seth said with a shiver. “I had enough of racist jerks in Denver.”
“Exactly,” Claire said. “There was another place called the Savoy Ballroom which was mixed. Great jazz.”
Claire’s mother set the plate in front of Seth and poured more coffee for him. She said something to Claire and Claire smiled. Seth was so lost in thought about jazz and his destiny that he didn’t really hear them. When Claire’s mother wandered off, Claire rotated the plate so she was nearer the cinnamon roll. She speared a sausage and started eating the cinnamon roll. Seth ate a sausage or two and a piece of toast. He mostly ate to give himself some time to think. Claire’s mother cleared the table and wiped it down. The post bar crowd was filling the restaurant and they needed the table. Seth paid the bill and followed Claire upstairs to the apartment she shared with her mother and brother.
“You can call your agent,” Claire said and pointed to the phone.
Claire didn’t really believe that Seth would be able to buy the building. She only reminded him because she’d told him she would do so. She took her responsibilities as Seth’s helper very seriously.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Claire said.
Seth nodded and picked up the phone. He worried for a moment about the expensive of the call. When Claire closed the bathroom door, he slipped out to use the payphone on the sidewalk outside.
“Who is this?” Schmidty I-V gave his usual greeting.
“Seth,” Seth said.
“You’re lisping,” Schmidty I-V said, with a drunken slur.
“You’re one to talk,” Seth said.
Schmidty I-V laughed. There was a feminine giggle in the background.
“What can I do for you, Seth?” Schmidty I-V asked.
“I want to buy a building,” Seth said. He added a little too quickly, “You’re always bugging me about investing. This looks like a good one.”
“Where?” Schmidty I-V asked.
Seth gave him the address.
“I was looking at that for someone else,” Schmidty I-V said. His voice was distracted and the woman laughed again.
“I’d appreciate if you got it for me,” Seth said. “That is if I can afford it …”
“You most certainly can,” Schmidty I-V said. “It’s just that …”
“They’re going to throw my friends out on the street,” Seth said with a burst of emotion.“My only friends — the only people in this world who give a shit about me.”
Seth felt a tear run down his face. He was so desperately lonely that the thought of losing this paradise in the form of a diner destroyed him. He took a breath to try to persuade Schmidty I-V but the man spoke first.
“I’ll look at it today,” Schmidty I-V said. The background was silent and his agent’s voice was serious. “If it’s a good investment, I’ll get it.”
“Get it even if it isn’t,” Seth said.
“You could sue me if I don’t make good money for you,” Schmidty I-V said.
“You’re the only lawyer I know. The only person I know,” Seth said. “I don’t have any friends! I’m here in New York by myself and …”
Unable to continue talking, Seth began to weep.
“Please,” Seth begged.
“Don’t worry, son,” Schmidty I-V said. His voice clear and attentive. “I’ll take care of it. You want them to know?”
“No,” Seth said.
“Done,” Schmidty I-V said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
The line was silent for a moment as Seth attempted to catch his racing emotions.
“You going to be okay?” Schmidty I-V asked.
“No,” Seth said. “Of all of the things I’m going to be, I’m not going to be okay.”
“That’s a fact,” Schmidty I-V said. “Sorry, Seth.”
“Yeah,” Seth said.
Seth hung up the phone. He crept up the stairs and went back into Claire’s apartment. He was just settling in when Claire came out of the bathroom.
“Did you call?” Claire reminded.
To keep a vise grip on his emotions, Seth nodded.
“I didn’t hear you,” Claire said.
“I went downstairs to use the pay phone,” Seth said.
In what soon became a lifelong habit, Seth didn’t bother to lie. Claire nodded in thanks. She would never have said that Seth couldn’t use their phone. She appreciated him calling on the payphone.
“What’d he say?” Claire asked.
Seth shrugged. Assuming Seth’s shrug meant that he was exaggerating about solving their problem, Claire gave Seth a forgiving nod.
“You were talking about the Savoy Ballroom,” Seth said.
“It was torn down in 1958,” Claire said. “For a housing project. The Cotton Club, too. They were on the same street.”
She sat down on the couch next to Seth.
“Oh,” Seth said.
“I thought that if the clubs were right there, we could go there and find someone who could teach you jazz piano,” Claire said.
She smiled at her brilliant idea. Seth shook his head that he didn’t understand.
“The clubs in Greenwich don’t allow Negros,” Claire said.
“Blacks,” Seth corrected. “Remember ‘Black is Beautiful.’”
“Right,” Claire nodded at the new term. “They are still right there.”
“In the housing project,” Claire said.
Seth’s eyes lit up. He had the feeling that this might actually work. Claire grinned at her brilliance.
“Let’s go,” Seth said.
“It’s not even five yet,” Claire said. “I have to help Mom when she gets off work and do my chores and …”
“It’s okay,” Seth said. “I can go play until we’re ready to go.”
Claire gave him a relieved smile. He waved to her and used his key to get into the diner owner’s two bedroom apartment next door. Seth played on a small upright piano until he heard the diner owner come in from work. Not wanting to disturb the man, Seth lay down on his bed and read a mystery novel. The diner owner had stacks of mystery books around the apartment. A half hour later, he heard the diner owner go to the apartment door. Through his door, Seth heard Schmidty I-V asked the diner owner for a tour of the building and restaurant. An affable man, the diner owner was happy to oblige.
When they returned, Seth heard the diner owner say that the building had eight apartments that looked like this one, plus the diner and the tailor next door. Schmidty I-V asked what was the worst part of the building. The diner owner laughed. Seth didn’t hear what the diner owner said, but Schmidty I-V laughed. After a few minutes, Schmidty I-V left the apartment.
There was a tap on Seth’s door. Seth went to the door to find the diner owner standing on the other side.
“I know who that was,” the diner owner said.
“Who was it?” Seth asked.
“James Schmidt, IV,” the diner owner said. “He’s a talent agent. Very famous. If you know about that kind of thing.”
“And?” Seth asked.
Seth might have been young, but his older brother, Saul, had taught Seth a great poker face. Seth gave off no indication that he knew James Schmidty, IV. Undeterred, the diner owner grabbed Seth and held him tight.
“Thanks,” the diner owner said in his ear. “He gave me enough dough to keep the diner running. Said it was for taking care of you. He even wants Claire’s mom to be the landlady for the apartments. He’ll pay her to do it to boot.”
When the diner owner moved back, Seth could see that the man was crying.
“I …” the diner owner said. “He … Mr. Schmidt, I mean, remembered me from when I was a kid. My dad played trumpet and … That’s why I took you in, gave you the room. Not because I thought you’d fix everything; but because I know what it’s like to have music burn a hole right through you.”
The diner owner nodded. Seth mimicked his nod until he thought of something.
“Please don’t …” Seth said.
“I won’t tell a soul,” the diner owner said. “Especially not Claire or her mother.”
The diner owner nodded.
“I just wanted you to know that I know what you did,” the diner owner said. “It’s not going to happen for a few weeks. So we got to keep our hopes up. There’s going to be an auction and …”
The diner owner leaned in toward Seth again.
“What if the owner’s kids jack up the price?” the diner owner asked. “They are really greedy s.o.b.s.”
“Then I’ll hold onto the building forever,” Seth said. “I’m ten now. If I hold onto it for like twenty years, I’ll be ancient. The building’s bound to go up by then. Imagine how mad they’ll be that they didn’t keep it!”
The diner owner laughed. He rubbed his head and yawned. He raised a hand to Seth and walked toward the bathroom.
“I think I’ll have my first good sleep since Trench died,” the diner owner said.
He raised a hand to Seth. Seth nodded and closed his room door. Smiling to himself, Seth lay down on the bed to read some more. After a few hours, he got up and went to Claire’s apartment.
“Are you ready?” Seth asked.
Claire gave him a quick nod. She grabbed her small purse and followed him out of the apartment.
“Where to?” Seth asked.
“This way,” Claire said.
She hooked elbows with Seth and they set off toward the subway.
*Please note: We use the term “Negro” here for the singular reason that it was the term used at the time. Seth immediately corrects it to “black”. 1965 is considered to be the first year this term changed to “black.”
Denver Cereal continues next week…
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.