Wednesday, November 28, 2007

October 11, 1931

The day was brisk. A good one to stay in and read, but not for pleasure I'm afraid. I have a term paper due on the Russian Revolution and am knee-deep in Marxism, which, after awhile is a little like plainsong; it's all one note. Socialism and Communism do not sit well with me. The ideas look very nice on paper, but I do not trust even the most idealistic of leaders to carry them out properly. There are quite a few people on our brother campus who believe it's the only way civilization will be able to survive the reminder of the century. Excuse me for sounding pessimistic but I find the whole idea bull roar. Socially responsible democracy is the order of the day. I'm not exactly sure what that makes me politically. Although I do not consider myself a political person.

Now the evening has settled in, some of the girls are returning from their weekends away. Dottie was in the room all day yesterday held up with a paralyzing headache. I assume this is from the drink. She did not say much, but Abby has not called on her for two days. This has raised an eyebrow since they have hardly spent a day apart in the last two weeks. She woke this morning and told me she was headed home for dinner and would return Monday morning.

I did receive a letter Friday from mother. She said that conditions in Saratoga were grim. The tracks are now overrun with bookies and undesirables who are betting on horses as a means of income. She said they are single-handedly bringing down the caliber of the entire town. The Depression is now affecting everyone and everything. She says my father has no opinion on this matter since money is being laid down and his horses are being used. She also confided in me, that Henry is engaging in some of this gambling as a means of recreation. I fear he'll never further his education and leave Saratoga. He is very content being one of dad's stable hands. I assume he hopes to take over the family business.

Sarah has invited me to her home for dinner with her father this coming Thursday night. She will escort me down via the IRT after her class. It will be my first ride on a city train. And it will my first time on the Lower East Side. For both of these events I am excited. I only have to get through my Tuesday night meeting with Professor Loockersmans. I'm still very much on edge.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

October 8, 1931

Besides being extremely nervous about Professor Loockersmans's proposition, the past two days have been uneventful. I have walked in on Dottie and Abby having hushed conversations. When I come through the door, they politely excuse themselves and leave. I have not had the courage to ask Dottie why there is so much secrecy to their friendship. I know the curiosity is eating at the other ladies in the Hall and now it's doing the same to me.

Although I have not mentioned her yet, I have befriended a very agreeable girl by the name of Sarah Shimberg. She is from New York City and was raised on, what she frequently calls, the Lower East Side. She is here on partial scholarship because Mr. Schimberg, her father, is the owner of a kosher Jewish deli that has thrived despite the Depression. Sarah does not have the benefit of living on campus, she goes home every night on the IRT. She says that this saves her father the expense of board and she can still help in the deli, all of which I find very admirable of her.

We came to know each other over a study session in our Modern American Literature class. There was a small, but detailed paper due on Thomas Stearns Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." We were to discuss the significance of Eliot's use of the epigraph from Dante's Inferno and how it related to the content of the poem. It was a dense topic largely because we had to translate the Italian first. We safely saw each other through it. On more than a couple of occasions since, we have shared a lunch or two finding we have many common interests. She is also an avid reader and a lover of language. She is fluent is English, Yiddish, and German. She says you have to be to live on the Lower East Side.

I've noticed that some of the other girls from other areas of the country do not know how to handle someone of the Jewish faith. Of course, I have never had a Jewish friend being from Saratoga, but she is no different from anyone else. It's the same way they look at Dottie, but with almost more reservation. I guess I'm immune to their judgements because I am Protestant like them. Honestly, I am not religious. Although I strongly doubt most of these girls are either. I have a stronger feeling that it has to do with wealth. Growing up in Saratoga I saw this type of behavior at the spas and at the racetrack. It is a sad state of affairs when people are judged not on their character but on the size of their wallets. I'm happy to have no part of that. Some day education will be the great equalizer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

October 6, 1931

The strangest turn of events happened today. I woke and went to class nearly forgetting that Professor Loockersmans would be back from his language symposium. When I arrived he was standing at the door looming over everyone entering. I nervously passed by him and he placed his hand on my shoulder.

"Ms. Graydon?"

I stopped and turned like a little child caught by father, "Yes, Professor?"

"Come to seem me after class in my office."

It was all I could to look him in the eye, "Yes, sir."

The class itself seemed to drone on for hours. The Professor offered no explanation as to why he was absent the last two weeks, which I found unprofessional. He went right into the text speaking of negation. All I kept hearing was "neit," "neit," "neit." I was not paying attention at all. Suddenly, Professor Loockersmans barked at me, "Mw. Graydon, luister u?"

I jumped out of my daze and quickly replied, "Ja, Professor." I noticed the students looking around at each other in amazement. It just came out of me and I'm not quite sure from where. We really had not started conversing in class since it was a introductory course. I saw a slight smirk come across his face.

After class, the Professor asked me to walk with him to his office. We crossed over Broadway to Columbia's campus. He did not say a word the entire way and neither did I. It felt like a death march honestly. I pictured a scaffold and hooded executioner waiting for me.

We took the stairs to the third floor of one of the smaller nondescript building facing Barnard's campus. His office was ample, centered around a large mahogany desk and a wall that was covered, floor-to-ceiling with massive old tomes. His window looked out onto Barnard. I noticed a lantern sitting on his desk, which struck me as immediately odd.

He asked me to sit at one of the two chairs opposite his desk. I thanked him. He sat and said, "You are disappointed in me for running a speakeasy?"

I couldn't open my mouth. There was something about his demeanor. I was completely unsettled by him.

"I understand. You're idealistic. But I know for a fact, in time, Prohibition will be over and sooner than you think."

"But it's illegal at the moment," I couldn't believe I said it.

"Charming, Ms. Graydon. Really."

I couldn't find anything to say and become nervous with the silence. "Professor, why am I here?"

"I assume you wanted to tell me you were dropping my class because I am a criminal." He smirked and what a cold one it is.

How did he know? My next thought was that Dottie told him. "I was seriously considering it," I mumbled. I was more frightened than I wanted to be. I wanted to fearless.

"What if I told you my establishment was run in cooperation with the City of New York?"

I didn't speak.

"Ms. Graydon, there are many forces at work, in these times. The world is in grave danger and we are coming upon greater troubles. People are starving, governments all over the world are falling and rising, and there are people with dangerous ideas taking advantage of this."

I still had nothing intelligent to say.

"So, you see. Consumption of alcohol is the least of our problems."

Harold barged in through the door. "Ohhh, Professor, I didn't realize you were back."

"Yes Harold, the door being shut, should have been an indication."

He looked down at the floor. What an awkward thing. "Yes, Professor."

"No matter, Harold, you know Ms. Graydon?"


"Nice seeing you again, Harold," I said.

He smiled not saying anything to me. "Professor, Mr. Rapalje telephoned. He said if you could ring him as soon as possible."

"Thank you, Harold. I will."

Harold shut the door and the Professor rolled his eyes, "He's really quite intelligent. I know it doesn't show." He looked at me frozen still with fear. "Ms. Graydon, you are here for another reason. To put it bluntly, I need you."

My heart lept up to my throat. "Whatever for?"

"Believe it or not, not only are you a gifted linguist, but you are also a keen observer. And I have a job for you that will require all of your skills."

"I don't understand. I just arrived last month. How ever can I help?"

"Tell me, Ms. Graydon, what was the color of the first door of the speakeasy?"


"And the second?"


He smirked again, like he did after I answered him in him in class, "Now if I asked my two doormen, they would not have a clue, neither would any of the other patrons for that matter."

"I still don't understand how I can be of service to you."

"If interested, and I know you are, I will explain it all to you. Meet me next Tuesday night at my establishment. Ask for Rick to take you to my office. And I assure you, I'm not asking you to bootleg alcohol."

He stood up from behind his desk and went to his door. I stood with what seemed like my knees knocking. "Thank you, Professor," was all I could utter.

"Don't be nervous, Velma. The world is opening wide to you now."

Harold came to the door and showed me out of the office. I was in such a state I was nearly hit by a checker cab crossing on Broadway. My stomach is still in knots and the world has completely turned upside down.

Friday, November 16, 2007

October 4, 1931

The tops of the trees are turning bright yellows and reds. Thinking of it, the colors must be brilliant at home. The first weekend in October is always best for foliage in Saratoga. There's nothing like riding one of dad's horses through the fields in the fall.

When I woke, I found Hewitt Hall completely quiet. Dottie came home as day was breaking. She washed herself up and by 8 was heading for the train home. I'm not sure if Abby accompanied her or not. She doesn't share this kind of information with me lately. Since our night out a few weeks ago, I think Dottie looks at me as an embarrassment. She's distant and I have a feeling the story of my fainting spell has traveled, especially at the hand of Abby who is a vicious gossip. I can't help but think all of these girls see me as awkward and stuck-up.

I'm afraid this all amounted to terrible homesickness and an awful case of self-pity. So I took a walk this afternoon as a remedy. I wandered north on Broadway. I found myself in a patchwork of tenement neighborhoods with a variety of languages being spoken on the streets. They were Italian and German mostly. It was a thrill to see this people side-by-side peppered with the brogues of Irishmen. The more I thought I should turn around and head back to campus, the further north I walked. To my delight the terrain became varied. There were steep hills abutting the neighborhoods and rock formations like I’d never seen. Almost like buildings themselves.

I made my way up a street called Fort Washington Avenue which ran along a series of steep cliffs that looked out on the Hudson. At its zenith was a high-walled park. A plaque commemorates the spot as Fort Washington where Revolutionary troops where defeated by Hessians in November, 1776. It says years later, Washington and his army marched back to the fort triumphantly and reclaimed it when the war was won. How I would have loved to have been there. To fight for that incredibly noble cause. How thrilling to think of the history that drenches this island. There is so much hope in history.

I turned south and slowly walked back to campus, new, hoping for my noble cause.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

October 1, 1931

September seemed to race right by me what with all my academic responsibilities. I still have not had the chance to properly explore the city and it is my biggest regret to date. Most of my days are spent writing papers or working out mundane Dutch translations. In regards to that, I have a firm grasp of the basic written language, but speaking is a bear and understanding someone speaking is far worse. I have to remind myself that I've only been working at it for three weeks. I must not get discouraged, although my professor is a potential criminal and that is discouragement enough. Harold says he will be back to conduct class on Tuesday. I am interested to hear of his travels.

Dottie is never in our room. She is constantly with Abby who is rumored to be visiting the bakery speakeasy on a nightly basis. The girls are still all aflutter about this friendship especially with the newest scuttlebutt that Abby may accompany Dottie home this weekend for Sunday dinner. The society girls say it is virtually unheard of for a girl to go any further south than the Heights nowadays. This of course means nothing to me, but apparently it speaks volumes to them.

Although I would rather die than admit it. I am jealous. There is a part of me that wants nothing more than to be invited to the Cento home in Brooklyn. It seems like an adventure I would enjoy. Honestly I would cherish the opportunity to take the BMT or the IRT for that matter. With this new month, I’ll make it a point to spread my wings and explore. They say the new Empire State Building is a marvel. Perhaps that will be first on my agenda.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On the Phone with Velma #2

This is a transcript of a phone conversation with Velma that took place on Sunday, November 11 at 2:32 PM.

VELMA: Hallo!

JUSTIN: Velma?

V: Yeah?

J: It's Justin.

V: Yep. (She sounds like she's not sure.)

J: I'm blogging the journals.

V: Yeah sweetheart, I know who you are.

J: Oh cause I wasn't--

V: -I'm not senile yet, dear. And I can hear, so don't talk loud. No need for it.

J: Was I talking loud?

V: No, but I'm just sayin' cause it drives me crazy when people assume I can't hear.

J: Got it.

V: So what can I do ya for?

J: I was calling to see if you were interested in my readership knowing more about you?

V: They're reading my journals, how much more do they need to know?

J: I mean a profile.

V: I hate my profile. I got a nose like a coat hook.

J: (Here we go) No, Velma it's not a picture.

V: Oh a photograph?

J: No. A short description of your interests. Words.

V: Wait! (Pause) Are people reading these conversations? You're not writing these out are you?

J: Ummm--

V: Cause I don't think like I speak.

J: Velma, they can't hear you.

V: I know the difference between a phone and a computer screen. If I had you in front of me, I'd clock you square in the nose.

J: (I don't doubt she would) The website just wants to know the kind of books you read. The type of music you listen to. Ya know, your interests. (That was me changing the subject)

V: (Pause) This isn't for a dating site is it? I'm not looking for that right now.

J: (I chuckle) No, it's a blog, not Match.

V: Yeah, alright, when I have a minute I'll write you a letter with some things you can include.

J: No email huh? It would be so much quicker.

V: My assistant has one. My eyes are awful, I can't stare at that damn screen. You'll get a letter.

J: Okay, good enough.

V: What date you up to?

J: Ahh, I just did September 27.

V: What year?

J: 1931.

V: For the love of God, you're delicate.

J: Completely.

V: I shoulda gave them to some dame at Katherine Gibbs. Alright, get lost and get typin'. And don't waste your time typing out these conversations.

J: I won't.

V: I don't believe you.

J: Have a good one, Velma.

V: Yeah, okay. Bye.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

September 27, 1931

There is still no sign of Professor Loockersmans. His nasally assistant, Harold said that he was attending a language symposium held by the Dutch government in Amsterdam. I wonder.

I've come to the conclusion that Dottie has an incredible ability to be a social chameleon. Thinking back to her rough and tumble ways last week at the bakery, I realize she is a bit more refined now on campus. I put great stress on "a bit." I would love to study how her language pattern changes in different social situations. I can only imagine how she is with her mother and dad back in Brooklyn. And I wonder all this only because I've noticed she has taken up with this high society girl by the name of Abigail Putnam. To her friends she is known simply as Abby. Word around campus is that Dottie and she have become fast friends. This has been puzzling the other girls here in Hewitt Hall since Abby vowed she would never associate with anyone on full scholarship.

Abby is Boston money if you couldn't tell by the staunch New England name. Her father owns a large shipping business. Dottie's father is in bricklaying. It just does not make sense to me. Regardless, Dottie does not speak the same with Abigail as she does with her associates at the speakeasy or even with me. It's fascinating.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

September 21, 1931

When I came to, I found myself in a small room. Mick or Rick was sitting at a table playing cards with himself; presumably solitaire. I was laying on a old, moldy sofa. Mick or Rick immediately heard me rustle then moan as my cottony mouthed sounded for water.

"How ya feelin'?" He said not looking up from his game.

"Thirsty," I said.

"Ya went down like a tonna bricks Dottie says." No offer of water.

"I felt like a ton of bricks," I assured.

He looked at me while I struggled to pick my body up off the sofa. "I'm Rick by the way. I know you was thinkin' it. Our own mudda couldn't tell us apart."

"Where am I?" I asked.

"You're in the kitchen. Well, the side room off the kitchen. This is a bakery see."

"Yes, I got that." I was irritable I admit.

"We always gotta clear out of here by 4 bells so they can start bakin'."

That made me think of it. "What time is it?"

He looked at his watch. "'Bout midnight. I was asked to watcha till you came to."

"By whom," I asked.

"The boss," he said.

Then I remembered my whole reason for coming to this Godforsaken place. "Who's your boss?" The reinstatement of my mission gave me energy.

"He says he knows you."

My heart began racing. "How?"

"He's a professor at your fancy pants school."


"Das his square name. Round here we call him Mr. Look, cause he sees all."

"Really?" Now I started feeling slightly ridiculous for this poor soul. Obviously he was conned by a criminal into thinking he was more powerful than he really was.

"Yeah I don't know how he does it."

It could easily be explained that Look was easier for his thug cronies to say than Loockersmans.

"Maybe it's cause he's from anudder country."

I rolled my eyes at his pathetic comment. "Can I see him?"

"He just left. Had business elsewhere," he said.

I felt my shoulders slump. I wasn't sure if I was disappointed or relieved in not having to face him. "Will he be back tonight?"

"I dink he left the country. Took an aeroplane or something," he said.

"Impossible, I have class with him tomorrow," I said sternly.

He threw down his cards in a huff, "Hey, dollface, I only know what I hear outta da horse's mouth and now that you're up, I gotta go back to the door." He stood up leaving the cards strewn on the table which I found terribly irresponsible. "Let's go."

I followed him out into the kitchen past the ovens and into a slim dark stairwell. I heard the noises of people as we descended. He pushed open what seemed to be a wall and out we came into the speakeasy. I was still woozy from the drink and the combination of smoke and heat hit me once again. "I need to leave," I said to Rick.

"Then follow me," he said.

I looked over and saw Dottie shooting pool with Howie behind her counting a stack of bills.

Rick said, "Shame ya gonna miss Dottie beat the pants off those fellas."

I'm sure I'll hear all about," I said.

Rick was right. The class I was supposed to have yesterday with Professor Loockersmans was led by his assistant, a mousy young man by the name of Henry. Rest assured when he returns I will find him... during his office hours.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The past two entries have been dialogue heavy and what I have transcribed is exactly what is written on the pages of her journal. I have in no way altered the dialogue phonetically. Velma, fascinated by spoken and written language, tried her best to capture the vernacular of the Broadway speakeasy culture. For a period it almost became an obsession. Also, since Velma fancied herself more of writer than a diarist, some of her entries read almost like narrative. She assured me that her memory is phonographic and the dialogue was true almost to the word.

Monday, November 5, 2007

September 20, 1931

As I’m sitting here in the library, I am desperately trying to piece together what happened the night before.

At 9:30 PM when I am usually tucked away in bed with a book, Dottie told me it was time to get ready. She ran down to the showers and washed herself. She flew back into the room in a terry robe and quickly threw on a slim black dress with white trim. Although Dottie has a pale complexion for someone of the Italian persuasion, I still think black washes her out. Of course she feels she can rectify this by over roughing her cheeks and painting her lips cherry red to match her finger nails.

I put on a simple blue dress and over it a trench coat. Of course Dottie had something to say about this. “What are you some shamus or something? You’re going out, not solving a crime.”

“I’m investigating.” Was my retort to her.

Her face grew stern. “Listen to me and listen good, I swear to the good Lord if you rat on this joint I’ll bust your nose in.” She made a fist to enforce her claim.

“Dottie, I’m only curious to see if my professor is there. I’m not out to ruin anyone’s fun."

She unclenched her fist. “As long as we’re clear. Just cause you’re whacky doesn’t mean the rest of us need to be.”

I kept the trench on since the evening was moist. We walked over to Broadway and traveled a few blocks south from campus. The restaurants and coffee shops were full of life, which amazed me. I would have been asleep for at least an hour on any other night, but here a whole other world went on right outside my door.

Dottie stopped in front of a dark bakery. She looked both ways. In the dark sliver of space between the bakery and the building next to it was a red metal door with high grate climbing above it. She tapped on the door lightly and whispered, “Sticky buns.” With that the door opened to a crack and we were permitted to enter. Behind the door was a slim dark-haired gentlemen who whispered, “Hiya Dottie.” He looked over me. “This a friend?”

“My roommate, Velma. Don’t mind the jacket. This is her first time out.”

He tipped his black hat, “Nice makin’ your acquaintance, Velma.”

I cracked a smile through my fear, “You as well.”

“Howie’s inside waitin’ for ya,” he said to Dottie.

“Thanks Rick. Come on, Velma.” She took me by the arm and led me through the alley. “That’s Rick. Sweet kid.”

“He seems it.” I was trying to mask my throbbing nerves but the shady alley lit by one light bulb and the secret passwords were not helping.

She stopped in front of a smaller green door and tapped again four times. The door opened cautiously and we entered. The man behind this door looked exactly like Rick at the first door. “Hey, Dottie.”

“Hiya Mick.” She looked at me. “They’re twins.”

“Oh,” I said. Mick and Rick sounded like the Vaudeville.

“This ya friend?” He asked.

“My roommate, Velma. Don’t mind the jacket. This is her first time out.”

“Nice to meet ya, Velma,” he said tipping his black hat.

“And you as well,” I said nodding my head.

Dottie rolled her eyes at me. “She’s from upstate so that’s why she’s all formal-like.”

Mick smiled, “A formal dame ain’t something I’m used to here…. Howie’s inside.”

“Got it. Thanks, Mick.” Dottie put her arm out and with her hand clutched the air and drew it to the side not only to reveal a room spotted with candles and hanging lanterns, but the noise of the seventy or so patrons drinking and conversing. The black velvet curtain blocked out all sound and light from escaping.

We stepped down a short staircase into the main room. “We call it the Bakery seeing as it’s behind a bakery.”

“Very clever,” I said; my heart racing. The smell of cheap liquor and the clouds of cigarette smoke made me immediately faint.

“The air’s not so great. You might want to lose the jacket.”

She was right I was beginning to sweat. “No I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself, honey.”

Out of thin air a man in a cheap blue suit came from behind Dottie, wrapped his arms around her waist and swung her off the ground. She yelped out with a smile, “HOWIE!”

I was frozen with fear.

He turned her around and kissed her on the lips. “Your sucha nut,” she said laughing.

“I know it, but I’m your nut, doll face.” His eyes were light with an angular creamy face and the distinct trace of freckles on his cheeks.

“Howie, this is Velma.”

“Nice to meet ya. Dottie says awful things about ya,” he starts laughing. I hoped he was joking.

She slapped him across the cheek playfully, “Howie’s an idiot who says the first thing that comes across his pea brain, but we keep him around for fun.”

“And Dottie’s the dame who can hustle any of these guys at pool,” he said proudly.

“And Velma’s the one who can speak eight languages. Now that we know each other’s talents, let’s get a drink,” Dottie heading toward the back of the establishment.

“Nice meeting you Howie,” I said. “But I can only speak three languages although I can understand five.”

“Alright, enough,” Dottie said as the three of us walked over to the long wooden bar. “What ya got tonight, Fox?”

Fox seemed to be the short older gentlemen with absolutely not a trace of hair on his head and a round pug face. His white apron was impressively spotless. He replied tersely, “Gin or whiskey.”

“What’s homemade?” Dottie asked.

Howie chimed in, “The gin and you can taste it.”

“Ok, three whiskies and put ‘em on the rocks in honor of our new friend, Velma.”

“Dottie, I’m not drinking,” I urgently reminded her.

The man called Fox poured the drinks into ice-filled glasses. “Yeah you are. It’s on me.”

“No, I’m not,” I insisted.

Dottie pushed Howie out of the way and put my arm into a vice grip. “Listen sister if you walk around in a joint like this in a jacket like that and you don’t drink, kids are gonna start thinking you’re the fuzz and it won’t be pretty for any of us—”

“Ladies, ladies,” Howie started seeing the fear in my eyes, I’m sure.

“—so drink the damn drink.” She let my arm go and smiled. “Besides, you might like it.”

“You're a beast,” Howie said to Dottie with wild excitement in his eyes.

“Remember that when some pretty dame walks in front of ya.”

“I will,” Howie said with a grin. Dottie picked up a glass and handed it to me. Then one to Howie and she took the last for herself. She raised her glass, “To breaking the law,” she took a large sip and placed the glass on the bar. Howie took a reasonable sip.

I looked at the full glass and just wanting to be done with the whole thing, I took a breath and drank the entirety of the amber liquid. In an instant the combination of heat, smoke, body stench, and poison hit me and all went black.