Miriam Gets a Taste
of New York
Miriam graduated from Latin School with honors. Of course, Ma would never say anything directly to her, but Miss Marbles said that Ma had been effusive about her daughter’s honors at graduation. That made Miriam feel more pride than any of the others’ praises.
Now, true to her promise, Minerva arranged a trip to New York to see theater. On the train to the big city, despite their elation about the coming excursion, they couldn’t help thinking about the war.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this, Minerva. Especially with the war effort. All the news from the front. But it’s helped our allies to have America there, right? It’ll be over soon, don’t you think?” Miriam asked.
“Edgar says now that Americans are there, it won’t be long. Still, he’s worried about our country, hate crimes against Germans, you know, even Germans who’ve been Americans for generations.”
Miriam recalled the horrible event in her neighborhood just two months ago. Before long, though, their thoughts shifted to the upcoming weekend.
“Pop worked extra time so I could have money for New York. His boss has gotten more work, with the war effort. Everybody’s working overtime, well into the evening some days. They’re sewing parts of the uniforms for soldiers—a big change from creating lovely gowns for rich ladies.” The scenery speeding by attracted her attention. “I’ve never been on a real train, have you, Minerva? Just a streetcar. What’ll we do when we get off? How will we know where to go?”
“I’ve looked at a map. I know exactly where we’re going. We’re staying at the Katharine House on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village. It’s a rooming house for young women, where they serve meals too. Very safe. And fits our budget. Once we check in, we’re going to get theater tickets. You can get them for only fifty cents in the upper tiers. We’re going to see oodles of shows. Just you wait. You’ll love it, Mim.”
“This has been my dream my whole life. What could be better? You’re my guardian angel to arrange all this.”
“It’s fun for me to do it. Maybe we can move to New York together, Miriam. You’ll go to theater school. I’ll get a job with a magazine. I just have a couple more classes to take before I get my degree. I’ve already written to some editors and one of them is interested. We’ll get a little apartment together—Hey, we’re almost there! Grand Central Station, coming up.”
As they disembarked, they entered the great hall of the Terminal. The whole block was re-built, Minerva told her, after a terrible accident that killed and injured a lot of people. It reopened only five years ago.
The girls were dazzled by the elegance of the lobby—the sheer size of it, with its huge arches at either end, each encasing three arched windows; the grand staircases going up to the mezzanine; the emerald green ceiling with stars painted on it. Even more extravagant than South Station in Boston.
“You know what? Let’s peek outside while we’re here. There’s supposed to be a famous statue,” Minerva said. “Yes, there it is. I read it’s Mercury, god of travel and business. And what do you know? There’s Minerva, lounging to his right. She’s supposed to be the goddess of wisdom. I should have gotten a little more of that myself.” She laughed.
“And look at that clock under the statue, Minerva. That’s something—Hey, you’re the wisest person I know. Who would do all this research before going to New York for a weekend?”
The big city was as enchanting as the two girls anticipated. They did a little people-watching.
“Look at that woman with the fur stole slung over her shoulders,” Miriam said. “Now she looks like a movie actress, don’t you think? Just the way she walks, moving her hips back and forth so seductively. And that wonderful little cloche hat. You could be one of these women, Minerva.”
“Honestly, I think she might be a ‘woman of the street,’ Mim. She has a lot of heavy makeup on. Don’t think I want to look quite like that. But I know you mean to compliment me, dear.”
Minerva’s subway map got them to Katharine House. Miss Dempsey, the resident mistress, was a middle-aged woman with thin, raccoon-colored hair pulled back into a bun, which was covered with a hairnet. She had a perpetual sour-lemon expression. She made it clear from the outset that the House, run by a Christian organization, was strict about curfew, so they had to be certain to get back before it locked up for the night.
The establishment strictly monitored the lives of their young women, only allowing male guests in the parlor between two and four p.m. exactly. During those two hours, Miss Dempsey chaperoned and served tea. And expected to be introduced to any visitor.
Well, they didn’t plan to bring anyone there, certainly not under those circumstances.
The rooms were spartan, no frills whatsoever. A tiny closet of a space with two cots, and a lavatory in the hallway. Familiar ugly, floral wallpaper adorned the room, but it was clean, not like Miriam’s walls at home, which were stained with street soot no matter how much Ma washed them. Breakfast was served in a small enclosure, adjacent to the parlor. There were three simple wooden tables, each seating four girls, with straight-back chairs. There was coffee, tea, and oatmeal on a worn buffet table. Sugar or jam was available, not the usual salt and butter that Ma served. It was not their dream hotel, but it would be serviceable for a couple of days.
Miss Dempsey cast reproving glances at Miriam and Minerva as they exited each day, gaily dressed in loose-fitting, short garments, with beads and big earrings.
In the three days they spent in New York, they saw eight different shows. Sometimes they stayed for a second performance at the same theater. They never stopped talking and laughing, except when they were watching a performance.
On Sunday, before going to their last show, they wandered into the new Greenwich Village Theater, right in the neighborhood of the Katharine House. A man introducing himself as Frank Shay sauntered up to them as soon as the play finished. He seemed to know everyone in the small crowd filling the front rows. Is he the playwright?
“Welcome, ladies. Haven’t seen you here before. We’re trying out one of O’Neil’s small pieces for a select few, like we always did in Provincetown,” he told them. “So, how did you find out about Moon of the Caribbees?”
“We were passing the theater and decided to peek inside. Know nothing about it. But my friend, Miriam here, is a budding actress. We’re exploring the Village as a possible place to live so that she can go to acting school. Right, Mim?”
Miriam was flabbergasted, but she did not contradict. She let herself slide into the childish fantasy—to live in New York and perform.
“Well, you should both stop by my place for drinks, girls. I’m right down the street.”
Minerva explained that they were all booked up with theater tickets. Maybe next time.
Miriam and Minerva wondered whether they should forego the next event in favor of seeing Frank Shay, but decided to proceed as planned. They thoroughly enjoyed the musical comedy at the Knickerbocker.
On the train back to Boston, they reviewed all that they’d done.
“What a stupendous trip, Minerva. And all due to you and your wonderful planning. My dream—to see the Ziegfeld girls—gorgeous as I’d imagined, long legs all moving in synchrony. But you know, I was honestly more intrigued with the serious plays we saw. Queen of Sheba and Moon of the Caribbees. The O’Neill play, that made me think. It’s not merely entertainment.”
“Yeah, it conveyed such strong feelings, but subtly. Didn’t really spell out everything. Not like that Yiddish play your pop took us to. I could see you playing a character in an O’Neill play, Mim.”
“Oh, you exaggerate my talents. You always do. But I love you for it. You’re my greatest fan.”
“You don’t see yourself the way I do. In The Wizard, you were extraordinary. I’m going to do some legwork to find out about acting schools you could apply to. Maybe there’s some scholarship for girls from impoverished circumstances—like I’ve had for college. They exist. You just have to be lucky to find one. And I’ll bet if we strike up a friendship with that Frank Shay, he might help us out. He was so forward in approaching us and inviting us for drinks.”
“I bet he won’t even remember us, Minerva. Don’t count on that. There are hundreds of star-struck girls like us wanting to make a start in New York. But I do wish I could live here, truly. Maybe one day . . .”
Miriam felt more than ever that this was the life for her. She could hardly contain her emotions. But she didn’t want to get her hopes up, even though she always listened to Minerva. She wanted to believe that she had talent. But The Wizard performance was the only professional role she’d ever had. Maybe her performance was just a fluke. Maybe people praised her because they knew her. Or because she was pretty.
Nothing about New York felt wrong to Miriam or Minerva. The crowded streets, people shoving and pushing, the skyscrapers they hurt their necks craning to see. People from all over the world speaking their own languages. Street vendors selling any manner of food from many nations. It was a little bit like the West End, but multiplied by a million.
“Minerva, do you think I could get a job in New York?”
“I bet you could. We’d live together. We’ll have the best time. You’ll see. I’m going to get right on it the moment we’re back.”
The two girls discussed how they’d live—how they would run into famous artists and writers and actors, who congregated in Greenwich Village from all over the country and even from Europe.
“I should hear soon from that editor. It’d be the chance of a lifetime for me. The woman at McCall’s Magazine assures me I’m just the person she’s looking for in the fashion department, but not until I finish my studies. Of course, then I’ll have to convince my family they can live without me.”
“You’ve been so much to your parents, working in the restaurant, taking care of everyone. But they can’t get in the way of your dream.”
“We’ll see about that. They don’t know about dreaming. They just work hard to keep a roof over our heads.”
“Yeah, well, Ma is that way too. But Pop, he believes in dreams. Dreams about how the world should be, about people living better. He’s even coming around about me being an actress. But to move to New York—I don’t know if he’d go for that.”
Miriam snoozed a little, then, daydreaming about the stage in New York City—the lights, the adoring gazes.
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