Tuesday, January 25, 2005
The Girl With the Razzle-Dazzle Eyes
by Milton Trachtenburg
Nostalgia just isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, there's nothing much worth remembering, let alone missing. Everything is the same - generic hamburgers in plastic restaurants, talking heads on television - they could get actors to play the roles - dead bodies (supposedly) in black, plastic body bags, three cops standing around, neighbors wringing their unwashed hands - who cares any more.
Anyway, I was talking about nostalgia, wasn't I? You get old, you start to ramble. Maybe it's just you know nobody connects with you anymore. You talk about things that no longer exist - restaurants, actors, newspapers, and you can see the looks - you know the ones - "Why don't you be here no more, too!"
Maybe my memory is like a lot of the good things in this town - faded away with time - it's hard to say - it's so long ago, but I'll tell it to you just as I remember it. You can decide for yourself, okay?
Every neighborhood in Philly had its legends in the fifties and early sixties. In some neighborhoods, it was macho legends about some ox who could beat up a squadron of cops who try to take him out of his favorite bar. The cops were called supposedly because he put three guys in the hospital. One of them asked him what time it was, the story goes, and he had a thing about time. In another neighborhood, it is the woman of less than sparkling repute who has performed deliciously erotic acts with everyone. Everyone except the person telling the story, of course. It's funny, no one I ever knew actually met any of the legends, but that didn't stop the stories from becoming part of the fabric of neighborhood life. Yeah, that's another thing that isn't there anymore - neighborhoods - or fabrics, for that matter - everything is plastic. Maybe that's why there's no more legends - or much of anything else worthwhile.
My neighborhood had a legend, too. It was the legend of the blond in the cherry-red '57 Corvette convertible. You may have read about it in the Evening Bulletin - which no longer exists.
Every guy in the neighborhood knew about the blond. Some say she was a rich kid who came down from the Main Line to slum with the city kids. Others say she was a high-class call girl who liked to tease the boys when she wasn't working. The stories all had common elements: someone would see her driving by when he was getting into his car. Or, her car would be at the drive-in restaurant on Broad Street - The Hotte Shoppe it was called - that place isn't there any more either. I used to hang out there. It was just like the place in Happy Days. There were stalls with menus and microphones. Waitresses would bring out your order on trays which hooked on to the window of your car. There was also a legend about one guy who would take the tray and drive off without paying. I never saw it happen, nor did anyone else I know.
From the time I was old enough to hang out at the Hotte Shoppe I had fantasies of meeting the blond in the cherry-red 57 Corvette. I'd picture her pulling into the spot right next to me and she'd smile - her blue eyes lighting up my car - and my life. Her blond hair would reach all the way to the bottom of her as-tonishingly beautiful back. Her voice would be like honey...
Every Friday it was the same thing. All the lonely guys who didn't have girlfriends - hanging out - talking about - what else? - girls. The stories about Corvette sightings were frequent and intense. It was always somebody else who saw it. One time, we did see a blond in a 57 cherry-red Corvette fly by and we followed her for miles. When she got out of the car, she turned out to be somebody's mother - not mine. No, it had to be the wrong Corvette. My blond was still on the east side of twenty - not the west side of forty.
Years passed. The crowd thinned out. Some of the guys gave up on waiting for the blond and married the brunette from the neighborhood - you know the one - terminally cute but you look at her you know by the time she is 23 - 24, her vocabulary will lead with `buy me' and end with `headache'.
Maybe I'm kidding myself when I tell myself I waited for something better. I had ideals. Maybe it was simply that I had a pedestrian body and a face that at best was called interesting - by my cousin. Maybe even the terminally cute "buy me/headache girls" weren't interested in me.
It was New Year's Eve, 1962, and as usual, I had no plans. I figured if I took a drive, it would be better than sitting around the house. The streets were deserted. The party-ers were all at their parties. It was quiet, and so cold that even the sound of the tires froze before it could rise to ear level. Occasionally, there was the mournful sound of one of those little party horns that people blow on New Year's eve. I never did.
Without planning it, I found myself approaching the Hotte Shoppe. The lights were on but there were few cars in the parking lot. As I pulled in, I saw it. No doubt about it - a cherry-red, 1957, mint-condition Corvette - with the top down, no less - with the temperature outside about 15 degrees. I parked next to it. I fantasized about letting all the air out of the tires so I could be a knight in shining armor and rescue her, but I lost my nerve as quickly as the idea took shape.
I walked into the restaurant carefully, as if the floor was mined. There was a grizzled couple of indeterminate sexes huddled in a back booth who appeared to be sharing a cup of coffee, and there was a pair of young lovers groping each other in the most conspicuous booth in the place. I guessed that was what they called attesting to their undying love. She was terminally cute . . .
"She's not here." Everybody turned to stare at me. All of a sudden, I felt very conspicuous - and very lonely. "Christ, even the grizzes have each other," I thought. It hit me - "maybe she's in the bathroom. Right!" I waited almost five minutes - nothing.
I walked out to the parking lot and it was gone - just like that. The space next to my 10-year-old Buick slushmobile looked like the grand canyon. "No!" I screamed to the unsympathetic night.
That was enough for one night. It was almost midnight. At least if it had been a normal Friday night instead of New Year's Eve, I would've had somebody to tell. For the first time in my life, I made an official sighting of a legend - and the blond in the cherry-red '57 Corvette, at that. I felt better and worse at the same time.
It seems whenever I get good news there's no one to tell.
I breathed the cold air - allowing it to burn my nostrils and lungs. Any sensation was better than the dead feeling inside me at that moment. Then I saw it - tooling up Broad Street - high beams on, the radio blasting The Geator with the Heater - he's gone somewhere else, too - top down, and the driver's long, blond hair streaming out behind her like a signal flag on a speed boat.
I exploded into my car, praying the old engine would start and that I'd have enough speed to catch her. I saw that the traffic signal a couple of blocks up the street had turned red. "Thank you, God!" I almost screamed. The old Buick reacted like a champion - it started in one quick burst - it'd never done that before - at least not in the five years since my family adopted it from a used car lot. Old faithful accelerated like it knew. It took me about three lights to catch up to her, but finally, I reached her just after the light turned red. I knew I had about 25 seconds to change my life.
She nudged the accelerator and the powerful engine thrummed. "When that light turns, she's out of here and gone forever," I thought.
I rolled down the passenger-side window. "Gorgeous car you got there," I said. She looked over at me. ("Thank heaven for power windows," I thought).
Her eyes - not blue at all - more like a kaleidoscope - green and gold and gray - almost seemed to flicker. She smiled, and her teeth were like polished ivory. She brushed the hair back from her face; it was like a curtain being lifted from a new work of art. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, but it didn't seem to be bothering her.
"You have an interesting face," she said.
"You're beautiful," I said.
She said, I said, she said, I....
We were sitting in my car in a deserted lover's lane. The heater worked - Probably for the first time since John Kennedy became president, I thought. She was holding my hand - tracing the lines on my palm.
"Long, long life line," she said. "That's good."
I took her hand in mine. "How about yours?"
"Mine is like a cul-de-sac - short, sweet, and curves back into itself."
"You believe in that stuff?"
"I never thought about it."
"You're lucky." She took my hand and brushed the back of it softly against her cheek. I jolted from the shock. It was like touching silk - warm, soft and electric. "Something the matter?"
"No. It's just your skin - it's so soft and delicate." I turned my hand over so that I could touch her face with my fingers. She took my hand and kissed my fingers - one at a time. She turned so that more of her was touching me.
"It's okay," she said.
We kissed, we touched, we discovered.
Afterward, she lay with her head in my lap, holding my hand to her breast, joyfully spent.
"I'll remember tonight forever," she said. You're my....
"First?" I finished the thought for her. "Me too, if that means anything to you."
"It means everything to me. You're my first love and my last love."
"Shhhh, just be with me. Tonight is so perfect I want to etch it in my brain and remember it for all eternity."
"For all eternity...."
I felt the soft touch of her delicate hands on my face, tracing the pattern of my `interesting' visage. I bit her finger gently as she traced the pattern of my lips. I guess I fell asleep. The sounds of horns blaring woke me with a jolt. "Happy New... echoed in the distance. It kept up for a good two minutes. I reached out for the reassuring touch of my love and - there was no one there!
She was gone - the cherry-red, '57 Corvette was gone. No name, no number - just gone.
Time heals some wounds. I never told anyone about that night. They'd have thought I was crazy. Anyway, I never was the kiss and tell kind of guy - even later when the liberated sixties was in full swing - and even if the girl did a disappearing act on me.
It was five years later. I decided to become a `regular' person after attempting to lose myself in a series of communes and meaningless liaisons with terminally cute women. At least I came to believe I did have an interesting face and other attributes that women like, I thought. I had decided to be a writer because it was something I did well and could make a living at without having to get up early or shave regularly. I was doing research for an article on the Eisenhower years for a freelance piece for "New Yorker" when I saw it in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page of the dog-eared copy of a January 1, 1958 bound copy of The Evening Bulletin:
EXECUTIVE'S DAUGHTER KILLED
IN FREAK COLLISION
"Ellen Warren, 16, daughter of William and Frances Warren of Bryn Mawr, Pa., was killed in a one-car accident on Broad St. at approximately midnight last night.
Police on the scene stated that Ms. Warren had apparently attempted to turn into the Hotte Shoppe parking lot when her car skidded on a patch of ice. She was thrown from the car and died instantly, according to the report.
"Mr. Warren stated that he had given his daughter the car as a Christmas present. He further stated that she was a cautious driver and could not have contributed to the accident. He said that he had bought her the car so that she wouldn't spend so much of her time in the house."
I read the article over and over. I began crying and couldn't stop. "That's why she never came back," I snuffled. It was not until a few minutes passed that the full impact of what I had been reading penetrated the waves of pain sweeping over me. I read the dateline again. "January 1, 1958." Ellen Warren died five years before I met her.
I don't go back to the old neighborhood anymore. Nothing there is the same anyway. There's been no reports of sightings of the beautiful blond in the cherry-red '57 Corvette since New Year's Eve, 1962. I can engage in self-flattery by trying to convince myself she is spending eternity remembering that one special night with me.
Old legends die hard. Maybe there is some truth to some of them. I guess I'll never know for certain what happened that night - and I sure can't tell anyone else, can I?