This Is Not Who I Am | Mary E. Mitchell
We were the Other Club, mentioned in the same breath as Chicago's Playboy Club. Any Gaslight Girl, and a whole lot of keyholders, will tell you that we were better – much better – than the bunnies. The bunnies had their tails and their ears and their trays of drinks. Gaslight Girls sang. Really, really well.
Bunnies were eye candy in bowties. We were vocalists. We wore French-cut velvet corsets, modeled after the original nineteenth-century Victorian undergarments, trimmed in sequins. The bunnies had their famous club with the Playboy icon, crowning the head of Michigan Avenue. We were on Huron Street in a more subdued setting. In a stone mansion steps away from Rush Street and the Magnificent Mile, we'd been entertaining Chicago's alpha males for nearly half a century. We had two more clubs in town – one at the historic Palmer House hotel, another at the O'Hare Hilton. We had a club in New York and a mansion in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The story goes that Hugh Hefner sat among us, long before the Playboy Club was a twinkle in his libido. He drank our liquor from crystal glasses in the Paris Room and from coffee cups in the Speakeasy, and then one day he ripped us off.
He stole our keyholder concept. He stole our costumes, keeping the French-cut leg holes, eliminating the sequins and fringe. He added the tails and the ears.
Hugh Hefner didn't ask his bunnies to sing. The bunnies' only job was to flash their impressive cleavage and smile their innocent smiles while serving keyholders their drinks. We, too, were hired to tease as we leaned across the small round tables delivering drinks. But when a Gaslight Girl stood beside the Baby Grand, leaning seductively into its polished curves while singing All The Way, there was more than lust in a keyholder's eyes. There was admiration. There was appreciation. Sometimes there was even amazement. Who would think the young woman in the fishnets and sequins could sing so well?
We were more than women in fishnets. We were teachers and divorcees and young mothers and medical school students. We were contortionists and improv actors and one of us was the former Chip of the Chip and Dale dance team in the Marriott's Great America floorshow. Tuesday Weld was among our number, long before I got there. We auditioned for our jobs with a single pianist on a big empty stage, and if we sang well enough we were asked to try on a costume. If the costume looked good we were hired. Then we were sent to a room on a high floor of the Palmer House, accessible only by the freight elevator. There an old seamstress with the face of a gnome sang in Polish beneath her breath as she took our measurements and stuck pins in the velvet around our hips. “Paris Room or Speakeasy?” she asked, and according to our answer, she pulled either sequins or fringe from huge rolls mounted behind her ancient sewing machine. “On de bust or de leg holes?” she'd ask, and we would decide, and then she'd send us away for a week. She'd tuck and pull and stitch with scarred nimble fingers, and despite our flaws or deficits or overabundances, when she was done, we looked like goddesses.
The clubs were beautiful, in a gilded whorehouse sort of way, with long handsome bars and carved polished woodwork of dark mahogany. There was a plush cigar den and a wood-paneled dining room called The Library. Portraits hung in heavy gold frames on the red-flocked wallpapered walls.
We learned our vocal styles and phrasing from the best musicians in Chicago. Ancient Southside blues men taught us to seduce with our love songs and swing with our upbeat tunes. They tinkled their piano keys, waiting until the floor managers left, then asked us for some white sugar at the end of our shifts. We only laughed and kissed their black cheeks and hugged them and went home. Like our keyholders, they were held to the No Touching, No Dating, No Nasty Talk policy they'd pledged to in writing and then tried to get around. We bent the rules only when we wanted to, as when I dated a handsome Yugoslavian keyholder named Milan who took me to dinner at the Ambassador Hotel's Pump Room. Our piano bar manager was also Yugoslavian and therefore approved. There was a second time I broke the rules, accepting an eighteen carat gold necklace studded with diamond chips from an old man with raised blue veins on his hands. “It's the scales of Libra,” the keyholder told me. He was a widowed Scorpio who knew my birthday. He had no expectation that I would sleep with him, nor did I. He just wanted to hear me sing in my costume and heels.
A long black corridor at the end of the piano bar led to the Speakeasy, where keyholders were required to knock on a door and to tell a Gaslight Girl that Joe had sent them. Dixieland jazz musicians performed in there, and we danced on stage to Ballin' the Jack and the Varsity Drag and other tunes that evoked lawless times of Prohibition. A choreographer was flown in from New York to teach us our routines. In the Speakeasy, you could be carrying a tray of ten drinks when the band burst into the opening chords of the Charleston and you would quickly lower your tray to the bar and leap onto the stage, singing and dancing for the men at the round tables. We Gaslight Girls swung our long strings of pearls round and round our necks, then slipped the beads down over our shoulders, over our waists, over our thighs, until the necklace rested in a crumpled circle around our silver pumps. Then, with a drum roll behind us, we would lift the beads with the tip of our shoes, fling them in the air and catch them again around our necks. The bartenders refilled the coffee mugs with overpriced alcohol. The Speakeasy crowd was mesmerized, captured, ours.
At the end of the evening, one of us would lure an unsuspecting keyholder, someone with lust in his eyes and gin in his belly, onto the stage to try the stunt himself. Most of us could find in a single glance the one who would follow us. When it was my turn, I'd take my man by the hand and lead him to the stage. I'd remove his white shirt and tie and put it on over my own costume. I'd drape the beads over his neck. A drumroll announced the bare-chested keyholder's turn to swing the beads round and round, drop them, and attempt to fling them over his head. Sometimes he succeeded, but mostly not. Sometimes we brought up special guests. We invited Evel Knevil onto the stage the night he came in, but he declined, probably knowing he couldn't do it. It was something you had to practice at home.
I practiced at home on weekends while my three-year-old son watched Sesame Street and played Hungry Hungry Hippos. Then I went over lesson plans for my second grade class. Then I took my son to the park. Then we went home to our three-family apartment building, filled with cousins who took care of each other's children. I was young, divorced, in love with being a mother, a teacher, a Gaslight Girl. Sometimes it felt as though all the pieces of life had fallen into place at once. My school may have been in the worst neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, but my students were beautiful and needy and accepted my love. My son's father may have run off with my bridesmaid, but other men propositioned me nightly. My old friends might have been left behind in New York, but I had new friends in Chicago. I had Gaslight Girl friends.
Gaslight Girl friends were no different than any other friends I'd had before. Some were vain and insecure. Some were wonderful and generous and wise. Many were talented and beautiful. We helped each other learn the Speakeasy dances. We sometimes babysat each other's children. We critiqued each other's performances and tried to find other gigs in town. One Gaslight friend got me a gig at the Ramada in a lounge called Bottoms Up where, ironically, I got to wear a dress. Another tipped me off about a Sunday evening variety show at the Playboy Club. I'd raced to that addition after work in my schoolteacher's skirt, flushed and sweating and carrying my music in my school bag. But then a wonderful thing happened and I was in the show.
Imagine how this felt: A Gaslight Girl in a little black dress, served complimentary cocktails by a Playboy Bunny. I was the guest vocalist. The bunnies were my waitresses.
Guests of the Hilton Hotels were issued special passes to the Palmer House Gaslight Club, and conventioneers flowed in regularly, enjoying the floorshows, the steamy ambience and the teeny tiny costumes we wore. We took their orders, stashing our pens up our leg holes when we were through writing. Pediatricians from Peoria left Enfamil samples on our tables in lieu of tips, but once a dentist from Houston handed me a hundred dollar bill, just for singing Misty. Mickey Mantle showed up at the club one night in a very bad mood, toting a pretty blonde half his age. Another night, Barbara Eden came with her mother and her husband, who was then publisher of the Chicago Sun Times. They sat at my table in the Paris Room. I sang The Nearness of You for Miss Eden, at her request. She took my hand afterwards, after I'd placed another seltzer and lime in front of her. She smiled her genie smile and said, “You are a beautiful vocalist,” and in that moment, I was no longer a waitress in corset.
We stood for long shifts in very uncomfortable shoes. Sometimes when I drove home at two in the morning, disappointed by a slow night's tips or the lewd comments of a Motorola salesman, my heart ached along with my feet. Yet as my car descended the ramp onto Lake Shore Drive, the lanes deserted, the lake glowing effervescent, the city's skyline sparkling against the night's waning darkness, I would breath in deep, the music still in my ears, and know in my heart that it was all worth it. This club was my home. I'd watched the blizzard of '78, the snowstorm that shut down the city of Chicago and lost the mayor any chance of re-election, gearing up in the Palmer House windows. I'd felt cozy and safe at the club that night, surrounded by cigar smoke and fabulous music and softly glowing lights.
I work for nuns now, in a town west of Boston. The sisters converted one of their own novitiates, a beautiful brick building with gleaming marble floors, into low income housing and temporary shelters for the homeless. They call it “Educational Housing,” which means that every tenant must sign a contract to live there, promising to make progress toward their personal educational goals. For some, this means learning to cook. For others, it means college and a professional career. Our parents attend workshops. They sip their coffee and stare at their feet while a social worker explains the connection between setting limits in the home and discovering that your child has been arrested for illegal gun possession at thirteen. Children meet weekly in a youth group, where meetings start off with a few verses of Let There Be Peace on Earth . An AIDS recovery program occupies much of an upper floor. Twelve HIV-positive adults are supported there by a staff of four addiction counselors. I work among the Sisters, tutoring some residents for GED exams, teaching poetry classes to former addicts, hosting a Not-Quite-Oprah book club for adults with fifth grade reading levels. Calling on my Gaslight skills, I direct a children's singing group, comprised of six African-American schoolgirls belting out their favorite tunes and creating the choreography to go along with them. Our lead vocalist's little brother is our DJ. He presses 11 on our rickety karaoke system, his pants slung low on his teeny-tiny butt, and the girls burst into dance to Stevie Wonder's Positivity. Bodies spin like tops. Lenni's arms pump in front of her like she's mowing the lawn. Kenneth presses 14 next and Chanda bursts into soulful Alicia Keyes.
Some people WANT IT ALL
I don't want NOTHING AT ALL!
If I ain't got YOU, babe!
I buy the girls matching outfits with little sexy jackets that end high above their flat perfect tummies, black Chinese slippers and leggings that fit like a second skin. They are sweating when the rehearsal ends and I whip out the Cheese-its and the apple juice. We watch a video of our performances during snack time. Lenni teases her sister about spinning her Chinese umbrella the wrong way during her dance. Our DJ spots his mother in the video audience and waves at the television screen.
I love my work and the nuns love me, though I sometimes wonder what they would think if they knew I was a former Gaslight Girl. They probably wouldn't care much. I personally see my harmless cock-teasing-of-the-past as comparable to Lizzy Bennet's flirting in Pride and Prejudice. Only our outfits are different. The sisters are the kind of women who change the Hes to Shes in their prayers. They go to the same movies as I, where the actors we respect and admire all have simulated sex on the large screen. Their Housing Office is staffed by a lesbian and a Jew. Former pimps and prostitutes live peacefully among them. Sister Patsy passes out lollipop-colored condoms to the residents in AIDS recovery. They can handle a former Gaslight Girl helping to run things downstairs.
These Sisters are friends of mine, much as Gaslights Girls once were. Like my velvet-clad friends before them, some are insecure. Many are generous and wise. A few of them are beautiful. We share our resources and use our talents, just as my friends and I did at the club. We encourage one another when we're feeling challenged. During the clergy sexual abuse scandal that shook my nun friends to the bottoms of their souls, I one day put an arm around Sister Michelle, my strong and wounded boss, and told her that it didn't matter what the priests or Cardinal Bernard Law or the pope did or didn't do. “ You are my spiritual leader,” I told her, and Sister MIchelle looked at me that way she does when wants to say something important and true. “And you are mine,” she replied.
It was an uncomfortable, though not un-beautiful, moment. I struggled with the need to tell Sister MIchelle she was wrong. This is not who I am, I wanted to tell her.
It wasn't the first time people saw me as someone I thought I wasn't. At the Gaslight Club, in the glare of the dressing room lights, I used to walk around in my French-cut corset and my silver stilettos thinking some kind of mistake had been made, that I wasn't meant to be among the statuesque blondes, the sexy brunettes, the smart singing med school student. Why had it been so hard to imagine I was beautiful and worthy of Gaslight status, especially when I could sing well enough, and an ancient seamstress with magic fingers had made my body a perfect hourglass? In that same dressing room I eventually realized that all of us – the Gaslight Girl with the sexy modeling headshots, the one who had dated Dan Ackroyd, the one who appeared in furniture store television commercials – walked around feeling the same way. No matter how loud the applause, what we could do on a stage, what we could do to a grown man, we all felt we were posturing. The truth eluded us, that we all belonged at the Gaslight Club or none of us did.
When Sister Michelle looked me in the eye that day and told me that I was her spiritual leader, I was uncomfortable at first. But then I thought about my Barbara Eden moment, and how I'd accepted her assessment of my talents so readily. Perhaps the truth is, I am an excellent vocalist and a nun's spiritual leader.
We either all belong or none of us do. So it is in our community. Now I tell the residents how beautiful they are, the young bi-polar woman in apartment 502, her thick hair gleaming like silk, her skin flawless. I tell Audrey, whose father shot her mother in front of her when she was six, that she is perfect just the way she is, her nose pierced, her arm tattooed like Popeye's, her mouth pretty, with or without her teeth in it. “I am a poet,” she declares unabashedly, this woman who once lived on the streets of Boston. And she is right. Her poems, creatively rewritten bromides from the AA handbook, are published quarterly in our building's newsletter. The residents love them. Her poems inspire them.
The nuns listen to me complain at lunch about my weight – I've gained a pound here, an inch there, my pants fit too tight at the waist. They shake their heads and dismiss me, even the beautiful young nun, the one my husband is in love with. But my club days have instilled in me the importance of appearance. Now and then I hold out my costume at arm's length, a woman in menopause examining the difference between the waist of a worn velvet corset and her own. I don't consider this a bad thing. I am watching over the one body Sister Michelle's God has given me.
Last Wednesday morning, two pick-up trucks climbed the long hilly path to our community laden with Easter hams and potatoes and cupcakes and coffee and canned goods from the Saint Tarcisius Food Drive. When the trucks pulled up to the back doors, Sister Michelle, Sister Patsy and I were ready. We'd rolled out the three large shopping carts stolen by our residents. Two men jumped out of each truck and began loading them up. They unpacked the hams first and insisted on pushing these inside themselves. The lighter items they let us haul away, but not without fawning over our efforts as though we were invalids. Doors were opened, carts were unloaded by them inside, all responses to our queries began with Yes, Sister, No, Sister and Of course, Sister . The men respected us on a sacred level. It was inconceivable to them that we could dismantle hundred-pound conference tables, snapping the legs like twigs back into their fittings. To the men in the trucks, the nuns were spiritual, delicate, chosen by God. To the men in the trucks, I was one of them.
I was the first time in my life I had ever been mistaken for a nun. One of the men, the kind a Gaslight Girl might have hit on in an instant, pushed my cart reverently down the hallway toward our program room, following me like a grateful page. “Sister,” he cried, as I attempted to open the door ahead of him. “Please! Let me get that.” "Sister,” he said, once we were inside. “Where would you like me to put the canned goods?” “Sister,” he said, clasping my hand when he was leaving. “God bless you for the work you do.”
I did not correct him. The reverence felt too familiar. I recognized it immediately. I was a middle-aged woman in a gray pants suit with a conservative string of beads (much shorter than the beads I'd swung round and round on the stage) around my neck. But to the man from Saint Tarcisius, I was clearly beautiful.
“God bless you, too,” I told my admirer. And there was my tiny moment of illumination, my understanding of how we all belong or none of us do: A man from Saint Tarcisius who believed that a former Gaslight Girl was a nun. And a fifty-four year old woman, reveling in being both.