Seedy

Elizabeth Logan Harris recalls an incident in ’70s-era Radio City Music Hall when unwanted attention to her teenage body put her in league with her father.

Elizabeth Logan Harris | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,123 words)

Weeks before my 14th birthday, 1976: my parents, my two younger sisters and I were piled in our station wagon, rumbling home to Virginia from a ski trip to New Hampshire, when my father veered toward an exit for the George Washington Bridge. “How ‘bout a weekend in New York?”

“New York City?!” we sisters chimed from the backseat.

It went without saying that my mother, who leapt at any chance for adventure, was in favor. She did, however, prefer to plan ahead. “If only we’d been prepared.”

Gunning for the exit, Dad took his foot off the pedal. “Do you want to go or not?”

“Yes! Yes!” we screamed.

Mom’s face broke open, a wide grin. “I suppose so.”

I was eager to return to the big city where I’d been only once before, but the swell I felt was owing to more than a destination. It was the sudden uptick in Dad’s mood that made the car feel like a buoy as we crested the bridge that day.

***

After the bellhop showed us to adjoining rooms, Mom explained what seedy meant. “Rundown. Worn out. Gone to pieces. Look at this bedspread!”

“So seedy means old?” asked 8-year-old Lyall.

“Not exactly.”

“Old and dirty?” wondered Frankie, 11.

“Well it’s certainly not young and clean,” Mom said.

“Seedy means it’s not up to your mother’s standards,” called Dad from the bathroom. He argued that the old hotel still had a lot of character, which was what he said in defense of his favorite houndstooth jacket with the elbow patches, lately re-lined in a psychedelic paisley by a daring, if undiscerning, hometown tailor. He was taking that very jacket out of his suitcase as my mother looked askance.

Unpacking herself, Mom grumbled again about her lack of city clothes. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her from planning the day ahead. “Let’s give Ruthie a call,” she said.

Ruthie had been our babysitter while a student at a college near us back home. After graduating some five years earlier in childhood education, she’d surprised everyone by becoming a success on Wall Street. I knew my father considered Ruthie “damn good-looking” and my mother thought she was “smart.” I noticed how they both came to attention when she entered the diner next morning.

Over breakfast, Mom and Ruthie decided we would head uptown for the Roosevelt Island tram, followed by Bloomingdales and Central Park. I was the last one in the ladies room before we set out. I dawdled before the mirror, wondering at Ruthie’s mysterious, womanly composure. People often called my dark-haired, petite mother a “beauty,” but she didn’t have Ruthie’s statuesque sophistication, her effortless poise.

From where I stood, or swam rather, treading water in the savage stream of female biology, Ruthie floated serenely. I marveled at the ease with which her body lived inside its clothes: no unsightly tugs, no asymmetrical puckers, no bulges. Her plaid skirt, crisp white blouse, cardigan and patent leather loafers contained her leaning and bending and shifting so discreetly, so damn correctly and unobtrusively they might as well have been a second skin. My bell-bottom corduroys hung too far down my hips and bunched around my crotch so that I had to keep yanking at them as I walked. The sleeves of my blazer were too short, shooting up my forearms whenever I reached out. My yellow turtleneck, spotted with hot chocolate, pulled across my chest in stretchy creases. Underneath my clothes, the situation was graver yet. I was already four inches taller and three dress sizes larger than my mother. In a single year, I’d outgrown all but one boy in my ballroom dance class. My long thin legs (my father’s) were my body’s only concession to shapely proportion, but even they looked spindly, awkwardly delicate, in contrast to the veritable explosion happening at chest level. Wearing a bra since the fifth grade, I’d recently swelled into a C cup (and counting).

Outside, Dad paced the sidewalk. “I thought you had fallen in!” He wasn’t really mad, but he didn’t hide his impatience. “Come on,” he said, waving, “they’re blocks ahead!” I kept a close eye on his back, weaving through the sidewalk crowd. I longed for him to slow down and walk with me. I longed to talk with him, to exchange a few easy words, but we pressed toward the rest of the group in our usual silence.

A tall, agile man with large green eyes and a widow’s peak on the slope of his balding white forehead, Dad was a trial attorney by profession and a performer by instinct. He often got a rise out of folks with a quick joke or, if they had a minute, he’d pull a length of rope from his pocket or fan out a deck of cards, wowing them with a trick cribbed from the amateur magic routines he’d been practicing since his teens. Whenever I ran errands with Dad — to the hardware store, the dry cleaners — we inevitably left behind a cluster of laughing people. This made the strained silence we descended into once we were alone again all the more painful and mystifying. A natural ham myself, I recognized Dad’s compulsion to find an audience wherever he went and entertain them. I never tired of hearing his courtroom stories. We shared a sense of humor and a fascination with the “characters” he represented in his practice.

But this connection felt fleeting at best. For all his comic timing, Dad was subject to unpredictable mood swings. When he shifted downward, when his temper flared, I was often the target: the eldest, the one who knew better. This had long been the case, but in recent years, my back-talk had grown bolder and we often ended up in a screaming match.

***

Everybody shed their jackets and sweaters as we walked toward Central Park after lunch. When the wind whipped through the tall buildings, my fine brown hair flew around like a wild bird with its nesting in tow. Ruthie’s long chestnut curls floated at her shoulders as though she were in the opening montage of her own television show.

I was eager to return to the big city where I’d been only once before, but the swell I felt was owing to more than a destination. It was the sudden uptick in Dad’s mood that made the car feel like a buoy as we crested the bridge that day.

“Ruthie’s never seen the Rockettes!” Frankie reported. I was pleased that there was something Ruthie hadn’t seen or done. Though we sisters had not seen them on our previous trip to New York, I assumed nearly everyone else had — as far as I was concerned the Rockettes were synonymous with the city. Countless times, my sisters and I had crossed our living room floor in an imitation lineup. I tried to affect an air of nonchalance as I overheard Mom and Ruthie agreeing that we should see The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall that night.


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Back at the hotel, Ruthie waited in the lobby while we went upstairs to change into what my mother called “the best we could do,” considering our suitcases were mostly filled with ski togs and long underwear. A shirt bought that morning and still creased with its retail fold, a rumpled blue jean skirt and a pair of tights with a run turned out to be the best I could do. At the last minute, in honor of the Rockettes and the relatively warm weather, I decided to forgo the raggedy tights. I pretended not to notice my mother’s censorious look as I crossed the lobby barelegged to join the others. They were watching Dad pull a quarter from a bellhop’s ear.

On our way to Radio City, we walked through Times Square and my mother used that word again. She pronounced the whole area “seedy” as we passed go-go clubs and triple X-rated theaters. My sisters and I tromped along, our heads turning in three, six, nine directions, dazzled by the lights and the motley throng.

The show opened with a movie, a comedy about cops on the trail of a kidnapped man with a million-dollar ransom. The courtroom scenes drew murmurs and knowing gasps from our row. Dad had educated us in the importance of jury selection; we sisters knew the often-muddy distinction between guilt and innocence. But my eyes wandered from the screen to the extravagantly appointed auditorium. The great hall had a hollow, shabby splendor. The walls, rounding upward, gave me the impression of being inside a gigantic egg. The attendance was sparse. Small clusters of folk, mostly families, a few blue-rinsed heads scattered among large sections of empty seats. The six of us were stretched across a center row with my father on the far end and me on the other extreme, two seats away from a stranger on the aisle.

An intermission followed the movie. After a trip to the ladies room, my mother and sisters got in line for sodas. As they were heading back to their seats, I decided I wanted a soda after all. “All right, but hurry,” Mom said. The large soda was much larger than I expected. I held the sweaty wax cup with both hands to keep the flimsy top from popping off on my way down the aisle. I reached our row just as the house lights lowered. I pressed against the backs of the seats in front of me and squeezed by the person seated on the aisle. I felt something. It moved under my skirt. It shot right up the back of my leg.

It grabbed at the top of my leg, held on to the inside of my left thigh. Millimeters from my…!

It happened so fast; my mind couldn’t arrange thoughts. But my body responded immediately. Intruder: Alarm!

Before the hand could grope any higher, I propelled myself sideways across the narrow row and let out some strange kind of squeal I didn’t know I could make. Still clutching the cup, I landed a few seats away, splayed out backwards on top of someone. A dribble of soda wet the front of my shirt; somehow, I’d managed not to spill the whole thing.

“What happened?” asked a voice from my landing pad. Thank goodness, I recognized it as my mother’s. “What happened? Sweetheart, what is it?”

In my panic I had forgotten I was not alone. Accustomed to keeping all things related to my body to myself, I’d forgotten people were with me, people who could, who would, come to the rescue.

“Elizabeth, what–”

“He, he, he, he grabbed me. That — man —” I tried to see the person I’d passed on my way down the row. It was a man, wasn’t it? “Up my skirt. He put his hand there. Up MY SKIRT!

My accusation passed quickly down the row over my sisters’ heads. From Mom to Ruthie to Dad, like a game of telephone the crime was communicated and before I could fully right myself, Dad had bolted out of his seat and darted across an empty row. He lifted the culprit by the collar: “You’re coming with me.”

I watched my six-foot-two father haul the small man out of his seat. From where I stood, the man appeared half that size. In fact, he looked more like an empty suit of clothes than a man. Mom wanted to be sure I was all right. I told her I was. I was shaken up, but I was all right. My sisters were whispering, wanting to know what was going on. My mother stood up, said she would come too.

“Sit tight, sit tight,” Dad said. “You and Ruthie stay with the girls. I’m going to take care of this, right now.” He nodded toward me. “Elizabeth, you better come with me.”

Reluctantly, Mom agreed to stay back. “I’ll be right here. Please, come get me if you need me.”

I followed Dad and his captive briskly up the aisle.

The drums rolled. Just as we rounded the corner into the foyer, I heard the announcer say, “Ladies and Gentlemen! The World Famous Rockettes!”

In the manager’s office, Dad delivered the man into a chair. The man crumpled. He seemed to grow even smaller before my eyes. He looked genuinely confused.

The manager wanted to know what was going on. My father did not hesitate. “The guy grabbed my daughter. Molested her.”

On our way to Radio City, we walked through Times Square and my mother used that word again. She pronounced the whole area ‘seedy’ as we passed go-go clubs and triple X-rated theaters.

With a skid, the manager pushed back from his desk and stood over the crumpled man. “What did you do to her?”

The perpetrator stood up. He had large square glasses and worn-out grayish skin. Polyester checked jacket, flakes of dandruff on his shoulder, yellow shirt, striped tie with stains on it. Picturing him now, years later, I am struck by how much the man looked as one might have expected him to look: seedy. I was, indeed, accosted by a cliché. At the time, though, I was mostly surprised by how slight, how weak he appeared. He couldn’t have weighed much more than I did. I couldn’t quite believe this person had mustered the force to grab me so firmly, so definitely. Perhaps he had been steadying himself, as though he had imagined himself to be falling down some lonely stair somewhere and clutched wildly at the banister. His hand around the banister, my banister, my spindle-leg, me.

“I didn’t do anything to her.” The man was looking right at me. “What did I do to her?”

For a second, I reconsidered. I thought, he’s right. I made it up. He didn’t do that. Why, he wouldn’t do that — would he? And I wasn’t traumatized, not really. I hadn’t even been afraid for very long. A lawyer-magician in a houndstooth blazer and a brand new bowtie had come to my rescue. But had it really happened? My body insisted it had. It was a deft sleight of hand, but that’s how tricks work. My upper thigh knew with certainty just how close his thumb had been to my underwear — that thin cotton barrier, so naively counted upon, so preposterously unreliable — to my —.

There was a sudden commotion behind me. Startled, I turned. An enormous man with shining black hair quaked in the doorway. Blue jean jumpsuit, unzipped to his sternum, a swag of gold chains in a thicket of chest hair, swarthy, pockmarked face. His biceps bulged to the size of my head. He terrified me.

The big man pushed his way into the office and growled. “I saw what you did. And I don’t like it. You a pig!”

The big man hauled off and popped his fist into the small man’s face. The small man fell backwards against the manager’s desk with his cheek in his hand. I thought for a moment we were all on TV. The manager pulled the big man away, but he continued in a faint Spanish accent: “I come here wit ma family. I bring ma kids, ma wife. I have a family and chou come here wit chou sick ways. Chou a pig!”

The small man leaned on the desk with one hand. “You can’t do that.” He looked around. “He can’t hit me. I didn’t do nothing.”

“You lucky that’s all I did to you, you sick bastard.”

“I didn’t do nothing. What did I do?” The small man looked directly at me again. Nobody said a word. Then I heard what sounded like my own voice. It seemed to come through the speaker on the wall along with the jaunty Rockettes number that was playing softly.

“You know what you did.” Slow and definite. I was speaking. My most grownup voice was pushing through the air. “You put your hand up my skirt and you, you — grabbed me.”

The big man lunged forward again. The manager held him off. The manager asked my father if he wanted to contact the police. My father said he did.

“I thought there was something funny when he come to sit down right near us,” a short, dark-haired woman with heavy eye makeup spoke from the doorway. “We was sitting behind you. I mean, he had the whole place he coulda sat, and he come over right by us. Right by you.”

Dad told me it would be best if I waited outside the office. The big man stayed.

The woman took me by the hand and drew me out of the room. “Come on out here and wait with me, honey.” We stopped just at the top of the aisle in an alcove of blue light. “Had he done it to me, I woulda smacked the shit outta him, but he done it to you, a young girl, a young — how old are you, honey?”

“Thirteen.”

Visibly surprised, the woman stepped back and took a good look at me. I stood at least a head taller than she. “Only 13! Madre dios! A young girl. He done it to a young kid. Pervert. If he’da done it to me, jeeze —” The woman shook her head and stroked her long cherry nails as though she were coaxing them to grow longer.

Over her shoulder, I could see the Rockettes in full swing, kick-ball-changing across the stage. Then they broke into shorter lines, moving in and around each other like gears in a large clock, all legs and smiles and perfection.

Two policemen arrived. One to deal with the small man, the other to talk with Dad and me. The big man and his wife returned to their seats. In the manager’s office, the policeman apologized for having to ask me a few questions. It seemed important to him whether the small man’s hand had gone beneath my underwear. I said it hadn’t. Lawyer Harris — as the policeman had begun calling my father — said he wanted to press charges nevertheless, wanted the guy to face some consequences. The officer said in that case we would have to come down to the station. I could sense in Dad the same thing I was feeling: let’s don’t put an end to this adventure, not yet.

Applause broke out just as Dad and I followed the policeman into the lobby. The rest of our group arrived soon after. My mother came rushing up to me. “What’s going on? Are you all right?’ I nodded. Dad assured her that he had everything under control. “Ya’ll go ahead. We’ll meet you at Mama Leone’s. Shouldn’t take long.”

Ruthie came up to me. “A man grabbed me once in the aisle at the Winn Dixie. And my mother told me it was my imagination, if you can believe that! Put his hand right on my boob.”

“Sweetheart.” My mother stepped closer, her hand on my arm. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Now they were all looking at me.

I knew I had earned this attention somehow, but to dwell on the hand up my skirt cost me something shameful. Was I joining a club or being cast out of one? I couldn’t tell. “It was gross,” I said. “But I’m all right. Really, Mom.”

Before the policeman let us into his car, he opened his door slowly and pulled down the sun visor over the driver’s seat. “Gotta check,” he said. “Some jackass put acid under a visor, nearly blinded one of our guys.” From behind the wire grate in the backseat, I watched Dad expertly engage the cop. “‘Bout 60 percent of my practice is criminal defense work,” he said by way of an opener. His restrained tone succeeded in disguising the fact that he was Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, chewing the fat off his favorite subject. The two men quickly lapsed into shop talk: crime rate, murder rate, and then onto the culprit, who would be set free but have to come back for the hearing in six to eight months.

I felt something. It moved under my skirt. It shot right up the back of my leg. It grabbed at the top of my leg, held on to the inside of my left thigh. Millimeters from my…!

Eventually, as the hearing approached, Dad and I would decide to drop the charges, agreeing it wasn’t worth the trip back to New York and the ordeal of testifying, given the minor charge and the slim chances that the small man would be penalized. But for the moment, we shared a secret thrill: riding inside a genuine New York City patrol car, listening to the officer say the best they could do would be “attempted sexual assault,” but it wouldn’t look good for the small man who had a prior for possession of narcotics.

Drug addict, I thought. Pig, pervert, sick bastard, drug addict. I found myself wishing the small frail man wasn’t being hauled down to jail. He had done wrong, but the big man had administered punishment — swift, efficient justice. But as I sat in the back of the patrol car, I could hear Dad initiating the final step in the trick: the small man would be sentenced, a judgment pronounced upon him, heavy with the right lingo and all our connections. Dad, a former assistant DA himself, was already mentioning a friend who had worked in the Manhattan DA’s office. “He’ll tell us just how to handle this,” he was saying, glancing back at me. All of this, I thought, all of these men, they know how to handle it. Whatever it was, whatever I had, it must be damned extraordinary to make some men reach out in the dark for it, to set others rushing to protect it. But this knowledge was knit so far within me that it was barely knowledge at all. Just a faint pulse of knowing, a hint of the give and take to come.

As we pulled up to the station, I was excited by the prospect of going inside. I imagined a replica of the Barney Miller set: beat-up wooden desks, doors with cloudy panes, dingy walls with wanted posters and clackety old typewriters. But just inside the entrance, the officer pulled Dad aside and said, “Better your daughter waits down here. Booking some, you know, some girls up there. It can get kinda rough.”

So I had gone through all that only to miss the best part. Dad followed the cop up some steps through a door that shut behind him. I paced around the long empty foyer, reading memorial plaques to policemen killed in the line of duty and becoming ever more certain that what the small man did to me didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Twenty minutes later, my father and I left the precinct and walked the few blocks to the Italian restaurant where the others had agreed to meet us. It was then, alongside Dad on the street, that I wept. My tears confused us both. “Oh, now, don’t get upset,” he said. But at the corner, waiting to cross, I continued. “That’s enough, now,” he said, sounding impatient, even a little angry. I cried harder then. At the time, I knew I wasn’t exactly crying because of what the man had done, but I didn’t understand much more than that. I recall feeling vaguely confused and resentful at Dad’s reaction — at what I perceived as a lack of sympathy. Why shouldn’t I cry? I thought then. Now I can imagine how unprepared he must have been for my tears. Given how maturely I had handled myself, why should I suddenly fall apart? From this vantage point, I also understand why I became emotional to begin with. Dad and I had been united in the adventure, fascinated with the small man, the big man, the police, the whole sordid scene. Just our kind of fun. As creepy as its genesis was, as much as it could have cost me, would have cost any other girl without my protections, my racial and economic privilege, at the time it seemed worth it, a small price to pay to be in league with my father. But then, so quickly, so inevitably, we were headed to our separate corners. The familiar gulf between us was rushing before me — and I was disappointed the seedy old man didn’t have the power to change that.

I had wiped my face and pulled myself together by the time we reached the restaurant. At the hostess stand, Dad tapped me on the shoulder. He was practically jumping in place. I figured it would take him a few stiff drinks to calm down. He nudged me forward. “There’s our gang. Come on — meatballs are really gonna hit the spot!”

As I started across the room, a headless woman’s bare torso met my eye. To my horror, I saw at least a dozen female figurines — heads, breasts, buttocks, thighs — scattered around the dining room. As if their nakedness called for celebration, the statues were festooned with ribbons, ivy, strands of bright beads.

* * *

Elizabeth Logan Harris has published short works in Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a non-fiction book that gets to the bottom of a dramatic family secret in the slaveholding South.

 

Editor: Sari Botton