Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Where Jake Danced

I walk through the glass doors just like I own the place. This is the Fontainebleau, the monument to class, pharaohs, Sinatra, real chandeliers, important swimming pools and the deserved life, back when every story had a happy ending and all your dreams came true. This is where Jake left fame for success. I’ve come to see the Grand Ballroom where Jake danced. I want to feel what the magic must have been for Jake. I want to go back to that innocent time. I realize it might be hard to capture, because I see they’re redecorating the hotel.

First, I check out Poodles Lounge and the Steak House, an Art Deco room with shiny black furniture and red flashy stripes. The club kicks back to bluesy, smoke filled rooms with jazzy torch singers to fall in love with. Back where the buzz worked and the world was smooth and timeless. Or there’s your $13.50 Stars Show of Shows in the Club Tropigala. “All your favorite names of the silver screen of today and yester-year, together for the first time on stage through the magic of special live and audio-visual effect.”

If you prefer the pool, the brochure says, “A symphony of graceful curves, exotic greens, deep blues and glittering whites await you. Cool Atlantic breezes and warming rays of sun. Today it’s almost too cold.

The pool fits the brochure’s description except for the plastic rocks that make up the waterfall. Nearby, two young men with no tans fidget in their lounge chairs. They try not to stare. They try to gloss their eyes with laid back film. They want a tan. They want the girl in the string bikini. Like Bay Watch. Like Acapulco Heat. But there’s no sun. The rest of the sunbathers lie under blankets with their sunglasses on. They’ll lie there blank-faced even if it snows. They’ll wait out this flat afternoon. From time to time, they may wiggle out to eat. Or take up the vigil around the tiki hut, or the Saloon Lagoon and drink margaritas, rum cokes or beer. They don’t seem innocent or full of wonder or lolling in tropical splendor. I mean this is, “Begin the Beguine” Land isn’t it? This is supposed to be the sweet curl at the end of the highway, the seat at the bar, the chair you asked for, and the rest one deserves. Not today. This pool crowd just lies numb, waiting for sun, rain, food, sex or something.

And, yes, here comes the six foot model wearing a breezy red dress. The hot camera clicks her every pose. Two high-heeled Cuban women strut toward the boardwalk in 1950s shorts. The oyster eaters languish at the tables in front of Coconut Willy’s. I’m partial to raw oysters, so I can just taste all that salty oyster juice dripping from their chins, their sunburned cheeks, their wonderfully lipstick lips. Piles of oyster shells mount before them. The health spa crowd, from across the way, amble around the pool. In sharp contrast to the regular tourists, they’re tanned to stop the gods. I try to imagine Jake sitting up there on his life guard perch holding court.

He waits. He watches. He grins. I can’t see his eyes behind his cool sunglasses. Back from Korea, a mere twenty-one, a muscular Irishman with a big grin for just about everything and everyone, Jake’s a hunk, a bone, a kick, a black-haired Adonis with good teeth and brains. Jake entered the Jesuit Seminary right out of High School. He didn’t last. Too much fire, not enough cool. Now Jake sits on that life guard chair, tanned black, his slick black hair smoothed back, not a hair out of place. Is he cool? Is he afraid? Does it matter? It’s the Fifties at the Fontainebleau Hotel. And right here by the Fontainebleau pool, Jake gets discovered.

The Fontainebleau needs a male ballroom dancer. Jake is handsome. Jake has the body, the moves. He can be trained. He’s hired on the spot. Jake wears a tuxedo. She wears a sleek, silver white gown. They’re tops! They dance the Great Ballroom. Its magnificent crystal chandeliers shine. The exquisite orchestra plays. The starry waxed floor stretches to infinity. Oh these beautiful people. Oh yes! The tide rolls in. The tide rolls out under smooth swept breezes. Oh, how they dance.

But Jake is not a great dancer, at least not as talented as his partner. He knows it. They’re supposed to go on a U.S. tour, but Jake abandons the blue spotlight on the Grand Ballroom floor and moves back to Syracuse, New York to work for his brother’s insurance firm. He wears a dark suit and slicked back hair.

When I met him, he was just about to leave his brother’s business. The suit fit perfectly, but Jake couldn’t wait to get out of it. Times were changing. Jake was changing. Jake’s brothers were dentists, doctors and lawyers. Jake tried the priesthood. Jake even tried professional dancing. Now we were all trying on new clothes. America was changing. We were a long way from the Fontainebleau.

Jake became a roofer. Jake read poetry and roofed. Jake worked hard. Jake played hard. Jake laughed Irish. Then he met The Arabian Princess Forever. She was an art student, truly Arabian, third generation. They moved in together over a Laundromat on South Crouse Avenue in Syracuse when it was still considered a sin. Jake was a big time Irish Catholic. He tried to contain himself, but he escaped. He and the Arabian Princess Forever had Sunday dinners with musicians and poets, lunatics and painters, priests, lawyers, dreamers, college students and bums. They ate tons of tuna casserole.

I made a batch of tuna casserole with sage cheese that was terrible. Nobody would eat it. Jake ate a big plate and laughed all the way through it. One Christmas I invited him and the Arabian Princess Forever over for dinner. I bought chuck steak instead of sirloin. Jake sat at the table and ripped at the tough piece of meat like a caveman. He laughed, oh how he laughed. He ate the whole thing. The Arabian Princess Forever had a few bites. She smiled.

After graduation, The Arabian Princess Forever moved to New York. Jake roofed. Jake loved The Arabian Princess Forever. Then a real estate company bought the Laundromat, tore it down and put a Red Barn Chicken franchise in its place.

One Thursday, Jake walked into the Red Barn Chicken and asked for tuna casserole. They looked at him like he was crazy. He insisted. He demanded. “I want tuna casserole,” he said, accenting the T on wanT. He wanted to see the manager. The manager told him they didn’t have tuna casserole. Jake pounded on the counter with his big roofer fist. “You DON’T HAVE IT?” He shoved his mad Irish head in the manager’s face and bared his teeth. “What do you MEAN, you don’t have IT? I had it the last time I was here.”

Then a strange thing happened. Jake did a complete turnaround. One Friday noon, he climbed off the roof, took the three hundred mile bus ride to Manhattan. He met The Arabian Princess Forever at the Tavern on The Green wearing his roofing clothes and his tarred boots. He asked her to marry him.

The Arabian Princess Forever was a top of the line commercial artist.. Jake became her agent. He was good at it. They made money. They were in love. They were really, really, really in love. They had kids. I heard that they adopted a string of Vietnamese kids. They filled their house with kids and a god that worked for them. Jake was a long way from the Fontainebleau.

Someone said, “Fame is Madonna. Success is Mother Theresa.” I wonder if back then he already knew the difference. Maybe he saw the faces by the pool. Maybe he saw beyond the glitz. Maybe he felt he didn’t fit or perhaps he just knew he wasn’t that good a dancer.

I don’t care. I have to see the Grand Ballroom. I really want to dance in that room. I’m in awe of Jake for having had the chance. I’m such a hopeless romantic. I mean after all, weren’t you supposed to dance off down the ballroom floor with the girl of your dreams? Weren’t you supposed to dance with perfect steps and a marvelous swirl? I mean, sweep her off her feet! I mean, weren’t you suppose to dance off into never –never land, where everything comes up clean and peachy? Jake danced here. I’m thrilled to be walking here.

As I walk back by the pool crowd I feel the change of times. I think of Cobain’s lyrics, “I’m stupid and contagious. We’re here, so entertain us.” I really don’t want to feel that loss of innocence today.

I walk through the lobby and up a short staircase. A series of big brass doors stand to my right. I step inside. It’s enormous. What a place to dance. It’s big enough and long enough to dance forever. I look up at the row of crystal chandeliers. They need to be cleaned. One hangs slightly askew. But oh my, that ballroom. YES! It’s so, so big.

The waxed floor has been covered with carpet. I feel how quiet it has become. I try to imagine the floor without the rugs. I try to picture the flash, the lights, the sparkle, the smell of perfume and white shirts. Way, way down the way, I hear the echo of a vacuum cleaner. They’re putting up chairs and tables.

Magnificent brass-framed mirrors line the ballroom. I see the room fill with dancers dressed to the nines. Way, way, down at the end of the room the conductor raises his wand. I hear the laughter, the sudden hush just as the music starts. It’s magic. I imagine Jake, in his tuxedo and his dancing partner in her gown, swirling, swirling down the long sweet room under the sweeping blue spotlight; the music carrying them off to fame and forever.

I stand wistfully in the ballroom for such a long time dreaming, working the dark room for an inkling of that time, for something I can really touch, back before the crazy war, the assassinations and the up-side-downs of it all. I ache to be back there, for just a few moments, when life was a sure thing if you played straight and looked good. Back when you could be discovered in a soda fountain, by a pool, or in any old place at all. Back when Jake danced.

1 Comments:

At April 14, 2011 at 6:45 PM , Blogger a turtle speaks said...

Oh, such a fine dance in time, in place.

 

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