I haven’t been to a joint like this in years, but this is where Feldman is appearing.
The faded lobby is strangely over-lit, with the ghost of a popcorn stand. Like most strip joints, this used to be a movie theatre, and before that, maybe, vaudeville. Now it’s vaudeville again, in a way.
A blonde girl is on stage doing her best imitation of a strip-tease dancer. Maybe they have the less experienced talent early in the evening, I think, for she bears about the same resemblance to a professional stripper as a semipro ballplayer does to Mickey Mantle. She’s got the equipment, but it’s not at all clear she knows how to use it.
Theatre seats fill up the back half of the house; closer to the stage, there are tables and chairs. About twenty guys sit around, most of them in the seats; three Shriners slump at one of the tables, drinking watered-down booze. Paint’s peeling off the walls, but you can’t see it much because there’s almost no lighting in the house. A sleepy kid sits on a stool and runs a big pink spotlight with one hand, glancing down from time to time to a paperback he’s holding in the other. To top it all off, there’s no band, just a record that sounds like they recorded the Nelson Riddle Orchestra while dragging them behind a high-speed train.
A cocktail waitress comes up to me and asks me, in a thick Brooklyn accent, if I’d like to be seated and have a drink. “I’m here to meet a friend,” I say, looking her over. She’s a redhead, wearing a black leotard. I don’t know what that’s supposed to suggest, ballet dancer? Beatnik? She wouldn’t look half bad in a nice outfit.
The first girl finishes her dance and we give her a hand, a few of us do. Immediately, another record starts and another girl emerges, no better than the first. During her act, a troop of young men come in, evidently a bachelor party, crowding around a table near me. This livens things up considerably. The blonde girl who was dancing when I came in appears in a waitress outfit and comes to take their orders, and they spend several minutes, while strippers come and go on the stage, in a bawdy palaver. It quickly becomes clear that the girl’s real strength is as a waitress, because she gets them to order a collection of complicated, expensive drinks it would take an advanced degree from bartending school to prepare.
As they complete this negotiation, the dancer on stage finishes up to a burst of mad recorded trumpets. Enter Feldman. He’s wearing a tuxedo so worn it appears fragile and soft, like Abraham Lincoln’s coat in a historical exhibit. The spotlight operator appears in front of the stage and hoists a microphone stand onto it just as Feldman hits his mark, already carrying the microphone itself in his hand, its black cord trailing off into the wings.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, that was Kitty LaFarce. I think I got that right. Right, Kitty? Oh, it’s Latrice. A thousand apologies. Let’s give her a big hand, ladies and gentleman. You’ll notice I say ladies and gentlemen even though there are no ladies out there. Wait a minute, I better check. The last time I said that the pitcher from a ladies baseball team clocked me with an ice cube.” He shields his eyes from the spotlight, which has graciously turned from pink to white. “Just as I thought, no ladies. Except you, miss,” he says to the waitress taking care of the Shriners. “Please excuse me if I don’t include you as part of the audience. She’s heard my jokes so many times, she fills in for me when I’m sick. Puts on the tuxedo, the whole bit. When I come back, I have to serve drinks for a night to make it even. Yeah, I put on her outfit. It’s only fair. No one minds. Hey, we got a group here tonight. Welcome to the club, gentlemen. Where you boys from?”
“Jersey,” a couple of them blurt.
“Mississippi?” he says, cupping his ear.
“Jersey!” they all shout.
“Mississippi, a wonderful state. It’s wonderful of you to come all the way up here. We freed the slaves here a few years back, boys, so it may be a little strange for you. If you see a Negro driving a car, don’t chase him. He’s not an escaped slave. He’s a free man.”
By now Feldman has me dying. “See, this guy gets it,” he says, motioning to me.
“You’re killing me,” I laugh.
“Isn’t this a terrific audience?” he says. “You can all learn from this man. Actually he’s a friend of mine. Ladies and gentlemen, just back from the coast, where he shot a new movie with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin: Bobby Blaine. Stand up and take a bow, Bobby. Now sit down, this is my show. Where was I?
“Dean Martin, you know, he’s a lovely fella. He used to live in the neighborhood. As a young man he’d come in to help around the house. Hey, you don’t believe me, I can’t help it. We’d have him clean the tropical fish tank — we had a fish tank the size of a car. In fact, it was a car. When the old Mercury stopped running, we tore out the seats, locked the doors, pumped her full o’ water, and there you are. Dean would put on a snorkel and get in there and clean the butts out of the ashtrays. And while he’d clean it, he’d say, ‘That’s an angel fish, that’s a catfish, that’s a goldfish… that’s a moray.’ And the rest is history. Well, where do you think he got the idea?
“Frank Sinatra. A lovely man. He travels with a whole entourage, you know. He’s got a bodyguard and a guy drives his car. He’s got a couple of other guys just to keep him company, laugh at his jokes. It’s good to have a little backup, you know? Because Mr. Sinatra, he’s his own man, and sometimes people take things the wrong way, and an argument starts. And like I said, those other guys, they’re there strictly for backup. They let him take a few shots before they fight back. Oh, you thought they were there to protect him? No, they’re there for him to fight with. I don’t want to say he’s argumentative, but for a while he was getting in so many fights that the legal bills were killing him. So now he brings along his own combatants. It makes everybody much more comfortable. And finally there’s a guy with a checkbook in case they do any damage. You can’t be too careful.
“Where was I? We’ve got the most beautiful girls in the world here, fellas. Here in New York, I mean. They just don’t necessarily work here. But they do stop in for drinks once in a while. A few weeks ago a couple dames came in during one of the dance numbers. They sat back a while and watched and one said to the other, ‘It’s a shame they way they expose their bodies.’ And the other said, ‘Yes, and the songs are so short!’
“So…ahhhhhhh,” he lets out a breath in a ragged sigh as the joke dies. “Back on stage after her recent retirement during the Pleistocene Era, it’s the one, the only, let’s have a big hand for… What? Whattaya mean she’s not ready yet? I’m dying out here. Oh crimeny. Where was I?”
Feldman strokes his chin for a moment. The bags under his eyes are big enough to take on a week-long trip. He sighs. “You know, the Russians don’t have it so bad. They got Khrushchev. He’s not such a bad guy. One Russian’s talking to another and says, ‘Comrade, I know you’ve been a police informant for the last twenty years. You’ve reported on your boss, your co-workers, and your family. And you’ve been paid by the government. But now I hear you’re informing on me. Aren’t we best friends? How could you do such a thing?’ And his friend says, ‘But your wife pays better.’
“I mentioned Khrushchev. He’s a lot better than Stalin. With Stalin the only people who could get real coffee were the highest party members. Now anybody who’s a party member can get coffee. You just have to sign up to go pick it in Cuba. Sure, they grow it there. There and in Columbia. That’s Columbia in South America, not the District of Columbia. Not Columbia University. Not Columbia, South Carolina. Is she ready yet?
“All right, without further ado, the one, the only, Miss Pussy Willow!”
About the author:
Mark Pritchard is the author of two books of short stories, ‘How I Adore You’ and ‘Too Beautiful and Other Stories,’ both from San Francisco’s Cleis Press. His story ‘Instrument’ recently appeared in New Lit Salon Press’s ‘Southern Gothic’ anthology, and his story ‘Woebegone’ in Crony. He has lived in San Francisco since 1979.