Feb 14 2014 10:00am
Nebula Award-nominated author Maria Dahvana Headley has always loved Damon Runyon's stylized faux-reporting on New York City. This is her version of a Runyon tale—this one dealing with the architectural guys and dolls of New York City—and a valentine to all the beautiful buildings she knows.
It's Valentine's Day, 1938, and the Chrysler Building's tired of waiting on the corner of Forty-second and Lex for a certain edifice to notice her. Here's the story of what might happen if two of New York's greatest creations met on a day built for romance.
This short story was acquired and edited by editor Liz Gorinsky.
On a particular snowy Monday in February, at 5:02 p.m., I’m sixty-six flights above the corner of Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street, looking down at streets swarming with hats and jackets. All the guys who work in midtown are spit into the frozen city, hunting sugar for the dolls they’re trying to muddle from sour into sweet.
From up here I can see Lex fogged with cheap cologne, every citizen clutching his heart-shaped box wrapped in cellophane, red as the devil’s drawers.
If you happen to be a waiter at the Cloud Club, you know five’s the hour when a guy’s nerves start to fray. This calendar square’s worse than most. Every man on our member list is suffering the Saint Valentine’s Cramp, and me and the crew up here are ready with a stocked bar. I’m in my Cloud Club uniform, the pocket embroidered with my name in the Chrysler’s trademark typeface, swooping like a skid mark on a lonely road in Montana. Over my arm I’ve got a clean towel, and in my vest I have an assortment of aspirins and plasters in case a citizen shows up already bleeding or broken-nosed from an encounter with a lady lovenot.
Later tonight, it’ll be the members’ doll dinner, the one night a year we allow women into the private dining room. Valorous Victor, captain of the wait, pours us each a preparatory coupe. There are ice-cream sculptures shaped like Cupid in the walk-in. Each gal gets a corsage the moment she enters, the roses from Valorous Victor’s brother’s hothouse in Jersey. At least two dolls are in line for wife, and we’ve got their guy’s rings here ready and waiting, to drop into champagne in one case and wedge into an oyster in another. Odds in the kitchen have the diamond in that particular ring consisting of a pretty piece of paste.
Down below, it’s 1938, and things are not as prime as they are up here. Our members are the richest men left standing; their wives at home in Greenwich, their mistresses movie starlets with porcelain teeth. Me, I’m single. I’ve got a mother with rules strict as Sing Sing, and a sister with a face pretty as the Sistine’s ceiling. My sister needs protecting from all the guys in the world, and so I live in Brooklyn, man of my mother’s house, until I can find a wife or die waiting.
The members start coming in, and each guy gets led to his locker. Our members are the rulers of the world. They make automobiles and build skyscrapers, but none as tall as the one we’re standing in right now. The Cloud Club’s open since before the building got her spire, and the waitstaff in a Member’s Own knows things even a man’s miss doesn’t. Back during Prohibition, we install each of the carved wood lockers at the Cloud Club with a hieroglyphic identification code straight out of ancient Egypt, so our members can keep their bottles safe and sound. Valorous Victor dazzles the police more than once with his rambling explanation of cryptographic complexities, and finally the blue boys just take a drink and call it done. No copper’s going to Rosetta our rigmarole.
I’m at the bar mixing a Horse’s Neck for Mr. Condé Nast, but I’ve got my eye on the mass of members staggering out of the elevators with fur coats, necklaces, and parcels of cling & linger, when, at 5:28p.m. precisely, the Chrysler Building steps off her foundation and goes for a walk.
There is no warning.
She just shakes the snow and pigeons loose from her spire and takes off, sashaying southwest. This is something even we waiters haven’t experienced before. The Chrysler is 1,046 feet tall, and, until now, she’s seemed stationary. She’s stood motionless on this corner for seven years so far, the gleamiest gal in a million miles.
None of the waitstaff lose their cool. When things go wrong, waiters, the good ones, adjust to the needs of both customers and clubs. In 1932, for example, Valorous himself commences to travel from midtown to Ellis Island in order to deliver a pistol to one of our members, a guy who happens to have a grievance against a brand new American in line for a name. Two slugs and a snick later, Victor’s in surgery beneath the gaze of the Verdigris Virgin. Still, he returns to Manhattan in time for the evening napkin twist.
“The Chrysler’s just taking a little stroll, sirs,” Valorous announces from the stage. “No need to panic. This round is on me and the waiters of the Cloud Club.”
Foreseeably, there is, in fact, some panic. To some of our members, this event appears to be more horrifying than Black Tuesday.
Mr. Nast sprints to the men’s room with motion sickness, and The Soother, our man on staff for problems of the heart and guts, tails him with a tall glass of ginger ale. I decide to drink Nast’s Horse’s Neck myself. Nerves on the mend, I consider whether any our members on sixty-seven and sixty-eight might possibly need drinks, but I see Victor’s already sending an expedition to the stairs.
I take myself to the windows. In the streets, people gawp and yawp and holler, and taxis honk their horns. Gals pick their way through icy puddles, and guys stand in paralysis, looking up.
We joke about working in the body of the best broad in New York City, but no one on the waitstaff ever thinks that the Chrysler might have a will of her own. She’s beautiful, what with her multistory crown, her skin pale blue in daylight and rose-colored with city lights at night. Her gown’s printed with arcs and swoops, and beaded with tiny drops of General Electric.
We know her inside out, or we think we do. We go up and down her stairs when her elevators are broken, looking out her triangular windows on the hottest day of summer. The ones at the top don’t have panes, because the wind up there can kick up a field goal even when its breezeless down below, and the updrafts can grab a bird and fling it through the building like it’s nothing. The Chrysler’s officially seventy-seven floors, but she actually has eighty-four levels. They get smaller and smaller until, at eighty-three, there’s only a platform the size of a picnic table, surrounded by windows; and, above that, a trapdoor and a ladder into the spire, where the lightning rod is. The top floors are tempting. Me and The Soother take ourselves up to the very top one sultry August night, knees and ropes, and she sways beneath us, but holds steady. Inside the spire, there’s space for one guy to stand encased in metal, feeling the earth move.
The Chrysler is a devastating dame, and that’s nothing new. I could assess her for years and never be done. At night we turn her on, and she glows for miles.
I’m saying, the waiters of the Cloud Club should know what kind of doll she is. We work inside her brain.
Our members retreat to the private dining room, the one with the etched glass working class figures on the walls. There, they cower beneath the table, but the waitstaff hangs onto the velvet curtains and watches as the Chrysler walks to Thirty-fourth Street, clicking and jingling all the way.
“We shoulda predicted this, boss,” I say to Valorous.
“Ain’t that the truth,” he says, flicking a napkin over his forearm. “Dames! The Chrysler’s in love.”
For eleven months, from 1930 to 1931, the Chrysler’s the tallest doll in New York City. Then the Empire is spired to surpass her, and winds up taller still. She has a view straight at him, but he ignores her.
At last, it seems, she’s done with his silence. It’s Valentine’s Day.
I pass Victor a cigarette.
“He acts like a Potemkin village,” I say. “Like he’s got nothing inside him but empty floors. I get a chance at a doll like that, I give up everything, move to a two-bedroom. Or out of the city, even; just walk my way out. What’ve I got waiting for me at home? My mother and my sister. He’s got royalty.”
“No accounting for it,” says Valorous, and refills my coupe. “But I hear he doesn’t go in for company. He won’t even look at her.”
At Thirty-fourth and Fifth, the Chrysler stops, holds up the edge of her skirt, and taps her high heel. She waits for some time as sirens blare beneath her. Some of our fellow citizens, I am ashamed to report, don’t notice anything out of place at all. They just go around her, cussing and hissing at the traffic.
The Empire State Building stands on his corner, shaking in his boots. We can all see his spire trembling. Some of the waitstaff and members sympathize with his wobble, but not me. The Chrysler’s a class act, and he’s a shack of shamble if he doesn’t want to go out with her tonight.
At 6:03p.m., pedestrians on Fifth Avenue shriek in terror as the Chrysler gives up and taps the Empire hard on the shoulder.
“He’s gonna move,” Valorous says. “He’s got to! Move!”
“I don’t think he is,” says The Soother, back from comforting the members in the lounge. “I think he’s scared. Look at her.”
The Soother’s an expert in both Chinese herbal medicine and psychoanalysis. He makes our life as waiters easier. He can tell what everyone at a table’s waiting for with one quick look in their direction.
“She reflects everything. Poor guy sees all his flaws, done up shiny, for years now. He feels naked. It can’t be healthy to see all that reflected.”
The kitchen starts taking bets.
“She won’t wait for him for long,” I say. I have concerns for the big guy, in spite of myself. “She knows her worth, she heads uptown to the Metropolitan.”
“Or to the Library,” says The Soother. “I go there, if I’m her. The Chrysler’s not a doll to trifle with.”
“They’re a little short,” I venture, “those two. I think she’s more interested in something with a spire. Radio City?”
The Empire’s having a difficult time. His spire’s supposedly built for zeppelin docking, but then the Hindenberg explodes, and now no zeppelin will ever moor there. His purpose is moot. He slumps slightly.
Our Chrysler taps him again, and holds out her steel glove. Beside me, Valorous pours another round of champagne. I hear money changing hands all over the club.
Slowly, slowly, the Empire edges off his corner.
The floor sixty-six waitstaff cheers for the other building, though I hear Mr. Nast commencing to groan again, this time for his lost bet.
Both buildings allow their elevators to resume operations, spilling torrents of shouters from the lobbies and into the street. By the time the Chrysler and the Empire start walking east, most of the members are gone, and I’m drinking a bottle of bourbon with Valorous and the Soother.
We’ve got no dolls on the premises, and the members still here declare formal dinner dead and done until the Chrysler decides to walk back to Lex. There is palpable relief. The citizens of the Cloud Club avoid their responsibilities for the evening.
As the Empire wades into the East River hand in hand with the Chrysler, other lovestruck structures begin to talk. We’re watching from the windows as apartment towers lean in to gossip, stretching laundry lines finger to finger. Grand Central Station, as stout and elegant as a survivor of the Titanic, stands up, shakes her skirts, and pays a visit to Pennsylvania Station, that Beaux-Arts bangle. The Flatiron and Cleopatra’s Needle shiver with sudden proximity, and within moments they’re all over one another.
Between Fifty-Ninth Street and the Williamsburg Bridge, the Empire and the Chrysler trip shyly through the surf. We can see New Yorkers, tumbling out of their taxicabs and buses, staring up at the sunset reflecting in our doll’s eyes.
The Empire has an awkward heart-shaped light appended to his skull, which Valorous and I do some snickering over. The Chrysler glitters in her dignified silver spangles. Her windows shimmy.
As the pedestrians of three boroughs watch, the two tallest buildings in New York City press against one another, window to window, and waltz in ankle-deep water.
I look over at the Empire’s windows, where I can see a girl standing, quite close now, and looking back at me.
“Victor,” I say.
“Yes?” he replies. He’s eating vichyssoise beside a green-gilled tycoon, and the boxer Gene Tunney is opposite him smoking a cigar. I press a cool cloth to the tycoon’s temples, and accept the fighter’s offer of a Montecristo.
“Do you see that doll?” I ask them.
“I do, yes,” Victor replies, and Tunney nods. “There’s a definite dolly bird over there,” he says.
The girl in the left eye of the Empire State, a good thirty feet above where we sit, is wearing red sequins, and a magnolia in her hair. She sidles up to the microphone. One of her backup boys has a horn, and I hear him start to play.
Our buildings sway, tight against each other, as the band in the Empire’s eye plays “In the Still of the Night.”
I watch her, that doll, that dazzling doll, as the Chrysler and the Empire kiss for the first time, at 9:16p.m. I watch her for hours as the Chrysler blushes and the Empire whispers, as the Chrysler coos and the Empire laughs.
The riverboats circle in shock, as, at 11:34p.m., the two at last walk south toward the harbor, stepping over bridges into deeper water, her eagle ornaments laced together with his girders. The Chrysler steps delicately over the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, and he leans down and plucks it up for her. We watch it pass our windows as she inhales its electric fragrance.
“Only one way to get to her,” Valorous tells me, passing me a rope made of tablecloths. All the waitstaff of the Cloud Club nod at me.
“You’re a champ,” I tell them. “You’re all champs.”
“I am too,” says Tunney, drunk as a knockout punch. He’s sitting in a heap of roses and negligees, eating bonbons.
The doll sings only to me as I climb up through the tiny ladders and trapdoors to the eighty-third, where the temperature drops below ice-cream Cupid. I inch out the window and onto the ledge, my rope gathered in my arms. As the Chrysler lays her gleaming cheek against the Empire’s shoulder, as he runs his hand up her beaded knee, as the two tallest buildings in New York City begin to make love in the Atlantic, I fling my rope across the divide, and the doll in the Empire’s eye ties it to her grand piano.
At 11:57 p.m., I walk out across the tightrope, and at 12:00 a.m., I hold her in my arms.
I’m still hearing the applause from the Cloud Club, all of them raising their coupes to the windows, their bourbons and their soup spoons, as, through the Chrysler’s eye, I see the boxer plant his lips on Valorous Victor. Out the windows of the Empire State, the Cyclone wraps herself up in the Brooklyn Bridge. The Staten Island Ferry rises up and dances for Lady Liberty.
At 12:16 a.m., the Chrysler and the Empire call down the lightning into their spires, and all of us, dolls and guys, waiters and chanteuses, buildings and citizens, kiss like fools in the icy ocean off the amusement park, in the pale orange dark of New York City.
“The Tallest Doll in New York City” copyright © 2014 by Maria Dahvana Headley
Art copyright © 2014 by Lars Leetaru