Almost all the kids at my grammar school, Washington Irving, are Chinese kids, children of immigrants who live in Chinatown and the International Section along Kearney Street up to Broadway Street.
One day, Mrs. Stevenson asks me to tutor a new boy in American. His name is Johnny and he speaks Spanish, so I am told. But Johnny actually knows American well. It’s just that he’s shy, and doesn’t like to talk. So, our tutoring doesn’t last long and we end up playing a lot together during recess, especially basketball.
Another day, Mrs. Stevenson asks me to tutor Jacque, a French boy who’s spending a year in America. His relatives run the corner grocery store where we buy lunch: hot-dogs with mustard and relish, salami on white bread with mayonnaise, or tuna sandwich with extra mayonnaise. Also, a soda pop, a bag of potato chips, and sometimes candy. Mrs. Stevenson tells me that Jacque is a Franco-German from a place called Alsace-Lorraine, which is near the French border with Germany.
Jacque doesn’t look like the French boys in the World War II movies. Those movie French kids have kind, boyish faces, big blue eyeballs, blonde bangs over their foreheads, and slender bodies that hunch over slightly when they dash to and fro. Jacque looks more like a movie German boy to me. He’s tall, stocky, big chested, straight-backed, with a strong jaw line, and although blonde, he wears a crew cut. Jacque doesn’t talk a lot, but makes grunt-like sounds when he speaks. When he walks, he looks like he’s marching.
His two girl cousins, who are kids of the owner of the corner grocery store, look like French girls though. They wear their blonde hair long and in bangs like the Dutch Paint girl, have blue eyes, and walk and run sprightly like movie French kids. They’re more like Tom Boys than pretty girls, but they speak perfect American, just like on TV, and so they don’t need any tutoring.
Unlike Johnny, Jacque really doesn’t know American and so I tutor him a lot. So, every day, for about a half-an-hour, we sit at the Science table and I listen to him read about Dick and Jane and Rex and Skippy and their parents. Often, I’ll read a sentence to him several times as he tries to pronounce everything perfectly. He speaks very slowly and it takes him awhile to say the words the way you’re suppose to make American words sound. I guess it’s hard for Jacque because American isn’t his first language and even though it isn’t my first tongue, I grew up with it all around me and besides, my Dad speaks it. But I’m thinking that Jacque has always only heard and spoken French. Although he looks tough and considering how bigger than all of us and how strong Jacque is, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. He never picks on anyone, and is a good sport when we play together. Later that school year, we learn that Jacque is returning to France. A couple of days before his last day, he thanks me in that slow, halting way of his for helping him.Later, in third grade, in Mrs. Mohler’s class, Shannon is the only American Caucasian. I don’t know a lot of American Caucasians and so I don’t know if Shannon is cute or average or ugly. She is blonde, wears her hair in a ponytail, dresses nice, and to me, she is beautiful. Yes, I’m attracted to her, but for the oddest of reasons.
Anyway, Shannon doesn’t need any tutoring in American because she’s born in America, just like me. So, that’s not how I get to know her. Or why she interests me so specially.
Once a week, teacher leads the class in folk dancing, European folk-dances and cowboy barnyard dances with words like do-see-do, honor your side, honor your partner, and the like.
Some of the dances start off as line-up dances, the boys’ line faces the girl’s line before the music starts, and then we end partner dancing. Anyway, after awhile, I recognize the different songs, and so I can usually manage to arrange for Shannon to end up as my dance partner. This isn’t as easy as it’s sounds, because we line up by chance. I have to guess and place myself so that when the boys line and girls line meet, she and I end up face to face.
Other dances start as partner dances, so I move fast to ask Shannon to be my partner. Usually, the start of the music tips me off if it’s a partner dance. Unless the teacher says dance with the person next to you. Then I have no choice.
Shannon isn’t a particularly good dancer, compared to some of the other girls. But that doesn’t matter to me. Nor am I attracted to Shannon because she’s different, that is to say, not Chinese....or gasp, Caucasian!
I’m not actually attracted to Shannon, at all. You see, I have a crush on her mother, whom I have never met.
I know Shannon’s mom from her black and white photos. To get from our apartment to Washington Irving Grammar School, I sometimes walk on Broadway Street, and there, the storefront windows of bars and cafes post up photos of their entertainers. That’s also true for the bars along the Barbary Coast, the strip joints all along Pacific Street. But the new Beatnik coffeehouses are mostly along Broadway Street.
No, Shannon’s mom isn’t a stripper. Strippers are those women in the photos on the Barbary Coast billboards. They don’t have a lot of clothes on, have big busts coming out of tight, shiny clothing, wear fishnet stockings, and pose in high heels.
Shannon’s mom is a Beatnik dancer. Her 8” x 10” Black and White glossies look out at me from the storefront coffeehouse where she performs every night. Shannon’s mom has this penetrating look, a very serious – well, artistic air about her. She doesn’t smile. Shannon’s mom wears a dark body leotard, and her long hair is pulled into a skinny ponytail. She’s slender, a Beatnik dancer who moves strangely, barefooted, to the music of a saxophone and the spoken words of a poet. In fact, she looks a lot like that dancer in Jules Fieffer’s cartoons we see in the Sunday morning newspaper comics, you know the one who dances to the different seasons – A Dance to Spring, or Summer, or Autumn or Winter.
Everyday as I walk to school, I pause in front of the windows of Shannon’s mom’s cafe. Dickie never says anything, doesn’t even to seem to notice that I’m always stopping there. It ‘s always then, for Beatnik joints are nightspots. I look at her pictures and her poses: arms stretched and leaping towards the heavens; or standing on her toes, hands held in prayer, eyes looking to the floor; arabesque; or all twisted sitting in a strange pose, her left thigh crossing the front of her right leg, her left cheek pressing against the side of the knee; or simply standing, arms to her side, hands slightly outward.
But always, she looks at you with those penetrating eyes, with the artistic air. I’m in third grade. But yes, something stirs in me. I am under a spell over Shannon’s mom.
Or I should say, over photos of Shannon’s mom. Whom I have never ever actually met...in person.
But Shannon, her daughter, is in the same class with me from 8:30AM to 2:30PM, Monday through Friday. When I’m with Shannon, I pretend I’m with her mom. Shannon, who I scheme to sit next to in reading group circle, if I can accidentally place my chair next to hers. But I’m a Group I reader, the top reading group, and Shannon, who is not as good a reader, is usually in Group 2 or even Group 3. So, I play with her at recess, especially tag-you’re-it, because then I can chase her and touch her. Shannon giggles, then chases me and I allow her to “catch” me and tag me, as she laughs. And then, I chase her right back, as she shrieks and twists away.
I like folk dancing with Shannon the best since Shannon’s mom is a dancer. With every do-see-do, every honor your partner, every bow, and every cross- over hands-hold, as we scamper across the floor, or skip to my loo, or spin backwards together to make an arch, or waltz and whirl around, I am dancing with Shannon’s mom. When I look into Shannon’s eyes, I am gazing back into her mother’s penetrating eyes. When I see Shannon’s smile, her mother is smiling at me. When I take Shannon’s hand, I am leading her mother.
One day, during morning recess, Shannon and I are playing hopscotch in the play yard. Hopscotch courts are near the chain-link entrance gate to Broadway Street. Shannon keeps looking up at the gate, as if she is expecting someone. “Shannon, why do you keep looking outside?” I ask just before I jump over squares 1 and 2 to land on 3. “My mom’s coming by...to talk to Teacher.”
Shannon’s Mom! Is coming by! My heart leaps into my head. I land wrong on the third square, stepping on a line, keeling over, and finally fall off the square entirely.
“Yayy, my turn.” Says Shannon.
So, I finally, I get to meet her. In person. I am nervous. What do I say? Will Shannon introduce me, because I’m her good friend? Will Shannon’s mom know me because Shannon told her we dance together all the time? “Oh, you must be Billy. Shannon has told me all about you. So pleased to meet you.” As she reaches out to shake my hand, perhaps squeezing a shoulder, and dare I hope, brush her hand through my hair and saying something like “Gosh, you’re a handsome young man. No wonder Shannon talks about you.”
Then, maybe Shannon’s Mom will invite me to their house after school to study together with Shannon. Maybe she’ll cook dinner for us and then walk me home before she has to go dance at the Beatnik cafe. Just me and Shannon’s Mom walking together because Shannon has to wash up and go to sleep. Walking me home to 638 Kearny Street, perhaps hand in hand, like moms will do with other moms’ little kids. Maybe she might even give me a kiss on the cheek good night. I know from TV that Caucasian American moms do that to kids all the time.
And then I could visit them on Saturdays and Sundays, too. I wonder does Shannon’s mom wear perfume, like my Mom? Does she ever put on lipstick? How red? As red as Molly’s? Maybe she’ll dance for us in her living room.
Shannon is already to the 3rd square. She throws her key-chain, but misses. So, it’s my turn again. I land solid onto the now empty second square, hop to the end and turn around. As I’m leaning over to pick up my key chain, Shannon screams “Mommy! Mommy!”
Shannon’s mom is here! She looks like her photographs. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, like her photographs. And yes, her eyes are intense. And yes, she’s not smiling. Just like her photographs.
She wears a tight fitting long-sleeve top, yellowish in color and tight fitting black pants which disappear into her flat black, leather shoes. Well, almost like her photographs.
Shannon’s mom bends over to hug Shannon. “Hi, Baby.” How are you? Shannon’s mom seems a bit tired. Maybe she danced late last night, I think.
Teacher comes over and introduces herself. Shannon’s mom looks at her, nods a few times. Say words I can’t hear. She doesn’t smile.
I walk over to stand by Shannon – and Shannon’s mom. Maybe she’ll notice me.
Teacher is talking about Shannon’s grades and how she’s doing. Shannon’s mom just sort of nods up and down, says “Uh, huh. Uh, huh!” She never asks Teacher anything. She doesn’t smile at Teacher. She doesn’t look very comfortable even. She looks like she wants to go.
Shannon is holding her Mom’s hand the whole time. At one point, Shannon’s Mom removes her hand, crosses both arms over her chest, and stares off into the distance. Her eyes don’t always look at Mrs. Molher, but kind of wanders, looking here, looking there, and sometimes at Shannon. Her eyes aren’t so intense now. Still she doesn’t smile.
And even though I’m standing right next to her and Shannon’s talking to me, and even though she just saw me, just me, playing hopscotch with Shannon, and even though, I’m looking right up at her, smiling a big smile, Shannon’s mom never looks at me, never says hello to me, and never, even smiles back at me. It’s like I’m the invisible boy! I’m sad.
Teacher is still doing all the talking. Shannon’s mom is still “Uh- huhing” away, her head moving back and forth and around as her eyes dart here and there. “Well, thanks.” She finally says to Teacher. “I have to go now.” Shannon’s Mom bends over and gives Shannon a quick hug. I’m still standing
next to them. Shannon’s Mom goes through the gate, and walks fast up Broadway Street. Shannon’s Mom never looks back at Shannon or Teacher.
Shannon’s mom isn’t very nice. She didn’t even say “Hello” to me. She seems like the nervous type. I’m not so sure I like her anymore.
So Shannon and I finish jumping hopscotch. She wants to play tag with me. So, she tags me “It” and runs off squealing in her high voice, as she always does. We chase each other around the yard until the bell rings.
I don’t like Shannon’s Mom anymore and I stop looking at her photos in the morning. But Shannon and I stay really great pals. We still play together after school: four-square, hopscotch (I’m obviously better than she is even though it’s a girl’s game), dodge ball, marbles, tag, and even basketball. Shannon is really gracious and good-tempered, unlike her mom. We still dance together on folkdance day. Only I see Shannon now and not her mother. Shannon isn’t spoiled and enjoys everything - reading, crafts, recess, dancing, and most of all, playing with me. She’s always smiling – unlike her Mom. I guess I really do like Shannon.
Anyway, we look for each other after school every day and play together until it’s time to go home.
One day, Shannon isn’t in class. I think she’s out sick, and should return in a few days with a note from her Mom, like we have to have, to prove that we’ve been sick. But day after day, she still stays out. I begin to miss Shannon. I begin to wonder if maybe she has something serious like the measles or chicken pox. Two weeks pass, and no one is ever out more than two weeks, even with something really bad like measles or the chicken pox.
Then, one day, walking along Broadway Street, I notice the shiny photos of Shannon’s Mom have been removed from that beatnik coffeehouse’s windows.
Teacher said Shannon had “transferred.
PORTSMOUTH SQUARE STORIES
IS A BEATNIK DANCER