JimSoft Insanitarium -> Insane Stories -> A Story
Some Person May Tell You While You're Sitting In Front Of A Fire
Mum had met Dad during the First World War. She was a munitions handler at a factory and when a handsome NCO walked up to her and asked where he and his band were doing Worker's Playtime she fell in love straight away. Dad took a little more convincing. She was a big woman, three hundred pounds in the old measurements. The only daughter of Russian immigrants who could not speak a word of English they relied on her to put food on the table and keep Grandpa's mug full of pernod. Mum's parents had escaped Russia during the revolution. Why? I don't know. They were peasants. It was a confusing time. Fires and much yelling. They left Minsk one morning and never returned. A kindly man with a boat took them through the Urals. They almost froze to death. They took little with them. Some food, Grandpa's ventriloquist dummy and Nanna's prized harp.
When they sailed into New York Harbour in those desperate days before the Great War how could they have known the fate that awaited them on Ellis Island. Corralled behind a rope and covered in lice they waited to have their family name changed from Willahorski to the anglicised and apparently more acceptable "Coconut". And then onto a small hovel on West 133rd St above a pawn shop and Chinese laundry. Ah - those smells! For years Grandpa would regale us with tales of how he and Nana reeled with nausea around their garret for weeks on end until finally he would have to go downstairs and confront both Mr Saul and Mr Lim. "Must you boil those old trumpets?", he would ask the pawnbroker. "Aren't those trousers done yet?", he would screech at Mr Lim. It did no good. The police were summoned. Then the Fire Brigade. The Department of Works. And finally the guy with the sand that covers the sick in the streets. No-one could get those two old men to stop preparing what must have been a thoroughly unpalatable meal of antique wind instruments and wedding suits. Eventually the Mayor himself, Fiorello LeGuardia appeared on my grandfather's door stoop. It was election time and New York's favourite son upheld the promise to himself made the day before to visit every home in New York and present a cigar to anyone who undertook to vote for him. My Nanna, having agreed to vote twelve times for the Mayor, lay unconscious on the landing, her hair still smouldering, belching out palls of black smoke with each shallow and fading breath. Grandfather took the opportunity to bend the ear of the father of the city and sat with the great man himself in their cheaply furnished salon. Grandfather luxuriating on an orange crate, LeGuardia preferring to lean on the vaulting horse near the chalk drawing of the body.
"Mr Coconut", spoke the voice that millions would recognise as having a New York accent, "This great city of ours has two things which our constitution says is immutable in terms of rights. First of all and most importantly, second only to the next thing I'm going to say - people in my town, be they black, Hispanic, green, mulatto, red Indian, Italian, fags, Jews or whatever are free to offend whoever they want, whenever they want, and whoever they want."
My grandfather puffed on his wet cheroot, blowing grey circles into the Priest's Hole in the wall. The great man took a swig of the ancient coffee that filled to brimming meniscus the gum boot he had been offered when dragged in from the street.
"Further more", he continued, "I don't care what law they break - the smells of this city are the smells of a mass o' humanity; a crush, if you will. A huge pineapple goddamn crush!!!!".
With that several of New York's finest arrived and ushered the Mayor from the building and into the rear of a quaint horse drawn police wagon. Within weeks he was re-elected for a fourth term.
One of the few ways available for my grandparents to escape the suffocating stench of the neighbours was to take a leisurely stroll a few miles up Broadway to catch a show. Jolson was my Grandfather's favourite. He loved him in "Bomba", and "Sinbad". He thought "Quick! My Legs Are Paralysed." was appalling but was prepared to forgive such was his regard for the singer many called "The World's Greatest Entertainer". Quite what the Jewish minstrel singer had that appealed to a 75 year old Russian immigrant I did not understand. "Jolie", as my Grandfather referred him, had a voice so rich and resonant that when he sang at the Wintergarden you could feel the vibrations through the wall at the back of the theatre. These were the days before microphones. Rudy Vallee sang through a loudhailer but Jolie sang au naturale. Grandpa would rise from his seat two bars into "April Showers" and run to the rear of the theatre and put his hands up on the red velveteen wallpaper. The profoundly deaf could also enjoy Jolson in this manner. Swaying away with their arms outstretched and their backs to the stage they hummed tunelessly to Jolson's greatest hits. It was all the craze during "Broadway Melanin of 1922". Aisle upon aisle of seats going begging but the back wall completely booked out for months. You couldn't get a hand-space for love or money.
"Jolie sings like a beautiful girl", my Grandpa would often say. And he did. Shrill and demented, like a descending missile he captivated millions. In later years, after he lost his lung in the war, his voice went down a few octaves. Larry Parks was heard to comment 'Jeez that's low - how the hell am I suppose to mime that?' Sound engineers at Warner worked for weeks to raise the pitch of the voice so that it matched Parks' lip-syncing. It's what made "The Jolson Story" and it's sequel "Mighty Joe Young" the staggering successes they were. A lot of people forget about the technical wizardry of those early days. Spielberg and his dinosaurs had nothing on the old masters.
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