Saturday, October 17, 2009

DBTL 38: The Artist

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The largest state in Central Europe is the Polish Commonwealth, which includes the historical Second Polish Republic, eastern Germany, and the former Soviet republics of Byelorussia and Ukraine. Following victory in the Second Soviet War of 1944 - 45, the Commonwealth is experiencing a cultural renaissance, typified by a fast-paced mix of klezmer and jazz called klezmerol . . .

New York City, USA
9 September 1946

Shlomo Kaminsky had decided that New York City was almost as wonderful as Warsaw.

It would be just as wonderful if only all the signs weren't in English. Shlomo could speak English with moderate fluency, but the spelling left him totally baffled. Why couldn't English be spelled in a sensible fashion, the way Polish was? It amazed him that the Americans ever managed to spell anything correctly.

It felt good to be in New York, though. There wasn't a village in Europe, it seemed, that hadn't seen at least one family emigrate there. Shlomo himself had relatives in Brooklyn, and he meant to take the opportunity to stop in and see them. First, though, he had had to get outside of his hotel.

The reaction to their arrival in the country two days before had been overwhelming. Apparently, every young girl in New York had decided to stand outside their hotel and scream at the top of her lungs. It had taken some deft maneuverings on the part of their manager Leonid to sneak them out of their hotel on Sunday for their gig at the CBS network. And who would have guessed that the television variety show they were booked on would be hosted by Ed Murrow?

Shlomo had vivid memories of the days ten years before when the Brownshirts had come swarming across the German border, leaving a trail of murdered Jews and burned synagogues behind them. The Brownshirts had never reached Białystok, thank God, or the other eastern cities, but they had been terrifying enough. And from embattled Warsaw, Ed Murrow had made his weekly radio broadcasts to America, sharing with his countrymen the experience of being besieged by a horde of brutal fanatics. Radio Poland had rebroadcast Murrow's reports, accompanied by Polish translations. Shlomo had been too young - just - to join the army, but hearing the Murrow reports made him feel like he was in the capital itself. And like everyone else his age, the first English words he had ever learned had been "this is Warsaw".

Murrow's Polish had been rusty at first, but it wasn't long before he was in full flow, sharing stories of the Siege of Warsaw and General Skwarczyński's Christmas Offensive. It had been like something from a dream to hear the famous voice intoning, "Now, yesterday and today our theater has been jammed with newspapermen and photographers from all over the nation. And these veterans agree with me that the city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Bialystok who call themselves the Vontzim. Now tonight you're going to twice be entertained by them, right now and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, the Vontzim!" Then the American audience roared, the curtain rose, and Shlomo and the boys had played.

This morning, the screaming girls had continued their vigil around the hotel. After breakfast, Shlomo had borrowed a uniform topcoat from one of the bellhops and snuck out of a side entrance, passing undetected by the mob until he managed to grab a taxi. He told the driver he wanted to drive around Manhattan for a while, and had tipped the man too much because he had forgotten that a dollar was worth four złotys.

As it happened, the taxi driver spoke Yiddish (his family was from Łódź, though he himself had been born in New York six months after they emigrated), and he proved to be a knowledgeable tour guide. He had a hundred stories about the city, about speakeasies and gangsters, showgirls and political bosses. He cursed the Isolationists for keeping America out of the Danzig War (as they called it here), and praised Franklin Roosevelt to the skies, pointing out the townhouse where the former president stayed when he was in the city.

To Shlomo's way of thinking, the most sensible thing about New York City was the way the streets were laid out, in a nice regular rectangular grid with the streets numbered from south to north. His first few months spent trying to navigate around Warsaw had cured him of the idea that twisted, winding streets were quaint or romantic. He knew they were on 53rd Street when the driver pointed out a building to their right and mentioned that it was the current location of the Museum of Modern Art.

"Stop here," Shlomo told him. The driver did, and Shlomo picked up the bellhop's greatcoat and got out. He tipped the driver too much money again, and went through a set of broad glass doors. If there was one place in the city where the screaming young girls would never think to look for him, this was it.

Inside was a wide two-story atrium with galleries leading off from either side. Entering one brought Shlomo into a world where shapes and colors existed independently of the objects they formed. Impressionists and Cubists, Pointillists and Postmoderns, pixillated Picassos, disturbing Dalis, as well (Shlomo was pleased to note) as the occasional work by Zygmunt Menkes and
Henryk Epstein.

One section of the gallery, he found, was given over to an exhibition of works by someone he had never heard of. Since many of the works were self-portraits, he had no difficulty recognizing the artist when he spotted her talking to a reporter.

The reporter, unfortunately, had no difficulty recognizing Shlomo, either. "Ah, Mister, ah Kaminsky, right?" he said to Shlomo in English. "I wasn't expecting to find you here. I thought you'd be out getting chased around by bobbysoxers."

Shlomo had no trouble deducing the meaning of "bobbysoxers" from the context; it obviously referred to the screaming girls. In the same language, he answered, "We are very cultured people in Commonwealth. Even popular musicians go to art museums." Then, because he really didn't feel like talking to a reporter, especially one who was supposed to be interviewing someone else, he winked at the artist and walked away.

He was pondering a sculpture by Katherine Lane when he heard a woman say in English, "You are a musician." He turned and saw that it was the artist, whose name momentarily eluded him.

Shlomo wasn't quite sure whether her comment was a question or a statement, so he settled for saying, "I am."

"What music do you play?"

"Klezmerol," he explained. "It is Jewish music with good solid beat, four four time." He sang a few lines in English of Herschel's "In the Ghetto".

Down in the ghetto, out in the sun
Down in the ghetto, we'll be having some fun
Down in the ghetto, sure as heaven above
Down in the ghetto, we'll be falling in love
Down in the ghetto, in the ghetto
Then, using a phrase he had read in one of the American newspaper stories about the band, he added, "It is crazy hepcat music."

That made her laugh, he was pleased to note, then was less pleased to further note a pained expression on her face.

"You are hurt?" he asked, concerned.

"Only an old injury," she said.

"Injury how?" he inquired.

He had trouble at first understanding her explanation, since his English vocabulary didn't include "impaled". Eventually, though, to his horror, he got it.

"You should come to Warsaw," he stated. "Best doctors in whole world, they can cure rainy day. They can fix you up."

"No," she insisted, "no more doctors, no more surgery."

Shlomo shrugged. "If you say so."

The artist gestured at the greatcoat and asked, "Is that how musicians dress in Warsaw?"

He had forgotten he was wearing the bellhop's greatcoat, which bore a strong resemblance to a Napoleon-era military uniform. A sudden inspiration led him to say, "We dress like marching band. Is irony." None of the bands in the Commonwealth dressed in old military uniforms, of course, but it would make for an interesting motif. They were supposed to go into the studio and record another long-playing record after the American tour. Perhaps they could use old uniforms for the cover photo?

The artist smiled and said, "That sounds like fun."

Even as he smiled back, Shlomo found himself wondering what it was about this woman that he found so fascinating. She had to be at least ten years his senior, and her eyebrows could have given Leonid's a run for their money. Was it simple shikse appeal? By now he ought to be immune to that sort of thing.

"Would you like to come and see show?" he asked. "We play tonight at Madison Square Garden. Here." Reaching into his shirt pocket, be brought out a backstage pass. He had meant to give it to his cousin Melvin, but he could always get another pass from Leonid. Holding the pass out to her, he said, "You will come?"

Taking the pass, the artist said, "I will come. I want to see you all in your ironic uniforms."

Oy. Oh well, he supposed he could get more bellhop uniforms from the hotel. The hard part would be talking Herschel and the others into wearing them, but he thought he could bring them around. They were always looking for new gimmicks, and this certainly qualified.

"I must go to hotel now," he told her. "Madison Square Garden, eight o'clock." Waving goodbye, he turned and made his way back outside.

As he scanned 53rd Street for another taxi, Shlomo found himself thinking that maybe New York City was just as wonderful as Warsaw after all.

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