An Excerpt From
Rules of Civility
It was the last night of 1937.
With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.
From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.
The spare clientele were almost as downbeat as the band. No one was in their finery. There were a few couples here and there, but no romance. Anyone in love or money was around the corner at Café Society dancing to swing. In another twenty years all the world would be sitting in basement clubs like this one, listening to antisocial soloists explore their inner malaise; but on the last night of 1937, if you were watching a quartet it was because you couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble, or because you had no good reason to ring in the new year.
We found it all very comforting.
We didn’t really understand what we were listening to, but we could tell that it had its advantages. It wasn’t going to raise our hopes or spoil them. It had a semblance of rhythm and a surfeit of sincerity; it was just enough of an excuse to get us out of our room and we treated it accordingly, both of us wearing comfortable flats and a simple black dress. Though under her little number, I noted that Eve was wearing the best of her stolen lingerie.
Eve Ross . . .
Eve was one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest.
In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city’s most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they’re just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I—like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs. Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan—this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size.
One of the great advantages that the midwestern girls had was that you couldn’t tell them apart. You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for. But to the native New Yorker, the midwestern girls all looked and sounded the same. Sure, the girls from the various classes were raised in different houses and went to different schools, but they shared enough midwestern humility that the gradations of their wealth and privilege were obscure to us. Or maybe their differences (readily apparent in Des Moines) were just dwarfed by the scale of our socioeconomic strata—that thousand-layered glacial formation that spans from an ashcan on the Bowery to a penthouse in paradise. Either way, to us they all looked like hayseeds: unblemished, wide-eyed, and God-fearing, if not exactly free of sin.
Hailing from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana’s economic scale, Eve was indisputably a natural blonde. Her shoulder-length hair, which was sandy in summer, turned golden in the fall as if in sympathy with the wheat fields back home. She had fine features and blue eyes and pinpoint dimples so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek which grew taut when she smiled. True, she was only five foot six, but she knew how to dance in two-inch heels—and she knew how to kick them off as soon as she sat in your lap.
That New Year’s, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren’t going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn’t be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late-night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.
But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.
Eve was busy making eyes at the bass player. It was a hobby of hers. She liked to bat her lashes at the musicians while they performed and ask them for cigarettes in between sets. This bass player was certainly attractive in an unusual way, as most Creoles are, but he was so enraptured by his own music that he was making eyes at the tin ceiling. It was going to take an act of God for Eve to get his attention. I tried to get her to make eyes at the bartender, but she wasn’t in a mood to reason. She just lit a cigarette and threw the match over her left shoulder for good luck. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, we were going to have to find ourselves a Good Samaritan or we’d be staring at the tin ceiling too.
And that’s when he came into the club.
Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair.
He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forebear at the helm of a schooner—his gaze trained brightly on the horizon and his hair a little curly from the salt sea air.
—Dibs, said Eve.