Every few years my parents treated us to a cultural week-end in NYC. We drove four hours through vineyards and rolling acres of farmland to the heart of a cosmopolitan environment that was as different from our barefoot childhood as I could imagine.
We stayed at the Hotel Astor, which in 1955 was the finest hotel in the city. The Astor embodied old world elegance, sat in the heart of the theater district and towered over Time Square. The Brooklyn Dodgers had just won their first world series and the city was alive with excitement. Cab Calloway and Fats Waller were hot stuff and the Cotton Club was birthing a new musical sound. But it was the Broadway shows that interested my folks.
Evenings found us in our finest clothes with fresh gardenias from a street vendor pinned to our coats. The smell of that delicate white flower can still bring back vivid memories of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, sinking into red velvet theater seats, watching chandeliers dim against a ceiling of gold and holding our breath as plush curtains whooshed back to reveal a magical world of song and dance. We sat spellbound by every theatrical gesture and perfected vocal score. Those performances began my admiration and love for the theater, and also spoiled me for anything less professional.
I was ten years old when I watched long rows of women called the Rockettes, high kick in unison at Radio City Music Hall. They were wholesome family entertainment, while a trip to the Latin Quarter opened our eyes to the exotic. Women on flower-covered trapezes, descended from the ceiling wearing high heeled shoes, seamed stockings and little else. The undeniable points of attention were their breasts, where long tassels adhered to each nipple, leaving their fullness bare and exposed. The tassels were smaller versions of the fabric ends that held back the drapes in our living room. I was stunned! I could not take my young eyes off them – grown women who amused themselves by swinging naked from the ceiling of a darkened theater. Was that really okay? Was that what women did when they got older? Apparently it was not only approved of but applause worthy. I began to wonder about stringing ropes in the hayloft and doing some undercover surgery on my mother’s drapes.
When the performance finished, my sister Kristen and I had to use the bathroom, but the lines were too long, so mother encouraged us to wait. We’ll be home soon, she promised. We hopped in a taxi, which vigorously whisked us through busy streets and hairpin corners. When we screeched to a halt, my father’s angry face matched the burgundy coat worn by the doorman. He was complaining about the driver as my sister and I pushed through revolving glass doors, past walls of glossy walnut, expensive paintings and potted palms. We jumped up and down in the elevator in our urgent need, reaching our fourth floor room before the white gloves of the elevator man disappeared behind us. Doors were never bolted at home, so we were stunned to find we’d been locked out.
I’m peeing my pants, Kristen told me. What should we do?
I had pushed my winter coat aside and was dancing up and down in a desperate attempt to wait.
We can’t pee right here, I said, it will make wet puddles right outside our door. We’ll surely get caught and get in big trouble. I have an idea. You run that way, and pee as you go. Run all the way to the window drapes. I’ll run to the marble statue. We’ll spread it out in long lines, that way nobody will be able to figure out what we did.
And so, on that eventful Saturday night, in one of the cities grand hotels, two little girls were pushing aside their fancy lace dresses to leave a bit of themselves in the lavish carpet at the Hotel Astor.