The first twenty-four hours. I stepped out of the cab and into the froth of a seasonally warm Saturday night Halloween crowd. The Chelsea Hotel Bell Captain trotted over to greet me.
“I’ll get those.” He grabbed the bag.
“You go inside.”
The pathway to the lobby entrance was red carpeted; a very old skeletal one that had been stepped on by plaque famous artists, writers, and bohemian debutantes. The Chelsea was built in 1883 as an apartment house. The neighborhood of 7th and 23rd Street used to be the theatre district. The theatre crowd was replaced by the literati, and more recently by film and television celebrity. The hotel is crumbling with novelettes. Even though it has recently been restored, it has the feel of a craggy lady of the street.
The lobby was crusading with costumed ready to party extras. My traveling ensemble and exhausted expression didn’t fit into the scene. I needed to eat, drink, and take off my coat. The desk clerk was very young,
“Your in Room 624–you’ll like the room, it’s a really nice one. Here’s the key.” When I opened the door, my vision parachuted as if the room was expanding the closer I got. It looked staged rather than decorated: minimal pieces, colors that drew the eye in, and nothing to get in the way of feeling insignificant. The walls were bare and the drapes partially opened. I pulled them back to see the city; a jagged puzzle of gray brick buildings staring back at me. I watched the faint silhouette of people moving behind the glass and suddenly felt very alone and uncertain. In haste I added a smudge of lipstick and left the room. The clerk looked up as I came out of the elevator,
“You like the room?” I nodded a bit falsely, because I wasn’t sure I really liked it. The room had more to say to me.
“Where is the closest Bistro?”
I stepped across the red carpet and into the restaurant. At that moment I landed in Manhattan; the gravity sucked me down into a red leather cushioned booth. Then I remembered why I was here, the next day was the Copa reunion.
Twenty-four hours later Room 624 was mine. Victor, one of three Chelsea staff doorman who zapped formality with the grace of a king met me at the entrance. He had time to wave to half a dozen people passing by, hail a taxi from the middle of 23rd street, open the door for a guest, and still talk to me.
“Hey! How you doing today?”
” I’m rested and on my way now.” A young girl stepped out of the lobby.
“Hi honey,” Victor said,” Where areyou going? I worry about you.”
“Shopping,” she answered unconvincingly. “I like your outfit,” she said to me.
“Thank you. I’m going to an event I’ve waited for a very long time.”
“Oh yea, where to?” she asked.
“Have you heard of the Copa?”
”Sure, the Copacabana.” Victor started to hum the lyrics from the song and I dug out the book from my purse.
“I’m going to a Copa reunion–my mother danced there in the 40s.”
They looked at the photographs of the original Copa for the first time. New Yorkers will stop anything for New York anecdotes, especially history. Moments later the cab pulled up and I waved good-bye. I sat in the taxi and thought about my mother. She was seated next to me; an imaginary yet distinct vision that kept returning.
The moment I walked into the Copafest reception room a voice called out, “Louellen!” It was Kris, the author of the book. We embraced as our first meeting converged with written correspondence over the last year. The Copa dancers inched closer and I was anointed with their acceptance and love.
“This is them–they met at the Copa,” I said and showed them the photograph I had brought. One woman examined the photo and turned to me, I recognize him,” and she pointed to my father.
“And I recognize the man next to him.” It was someone I’d never been able to identify.
“Yep, I knew them. Your mother was beautiful, she was here before me.” Terri Stevens took my hand in hers and led me to the place where she was seated.
“What did you say your mother’s name was?”
“Girls-girls! Come over here and meet Lucille Casey’s daughter.” Engulfed in their presence for the next five hours, I had time to talk with each one. I’d written about these women in fictional detail eighteen years ago. Now it was there turn to talk.