Snapshot Stories: Road Trip

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features an image taken by Vivian Maier. Click here to look at other stories in the series. For a more in-depth look at Maier’s work, take a look at Artsy’s page which includes images, articles, and information about upcoming exhibitions.

Vivian Maier, August 16, 1956, Chicago

I know what you’re thinking. A clear plastic gemstone set in a fake silver band doesn’t look like much. It’s probably the cheapest engagement ring you’ve ever seen.

Johnny will be back any minute. He’s probably brushing and teasing and gelling his hair until it forms a poof in the front. I wish he would just put on a hat, like Marlon Brando in that motorcycle movie.

I know you think it’ll never last. That a bunch of sixteen year olds won’t last a twelve hour road trip with nothing but ten dollars for the both of them. Well, first of all, I’ve got seventy-nine cents in my back pocket that I haven’t told Johnny about. We can get two super jumbo banana split sundaes with that once we get to New York. Second, we’ve got nothing to return to here. I don’t even have a bag with me. Lean in and check, if you want. All I’ve got is this ring and this car and a bucket of ice water melting at my feet.

I’m telling you all this because I can see you’re not from here. Prim and proper, with leather shoes in this heat. If it wasn’t for that wide brimmed hat I’d say you look like one of my schoolteachers whom I won’t be seeing come September. She’d be pleased at my proper use of “whom,” less so for this ring.

There’s Johnny now, holding a pair of boxing gloves and leather lace-up boots. I swear he thinks he’s made for a street gang. Don’t tell him but I think he’d get knocked out before he even tried.

Have you got your shot yet? I can’t imagine what you’ll get out of it. It’s hardly the cover of Life, now is it?

Plastic Auguries

Photography by Lost Meridiem Productions

At precisely 8:10 every morning the pigeons settle on a branch overlooking the corner of 92nd and Madison Avenue, where a flock of women wait in line outside a coffee shop. The pigeons are not particularly interested in conversations about children just dropped off for school, or yoga classes yet to be attended, or husbands too old to care.

No, the pidgeons study the complex system of ritualized postures and displays of affection — tousling blonde feathers, standing on one leg, squeezing clear containers of milky-brown liquid — within the group they’ve come to know as the plastic flamingoes.

Like the augurs of ancient Rome, this eminent group of pigeons selects a spot of high ground and uses their nuanced understanding of the flamingoes’ habits to determine the right course of action — usually regarding the correct time to defile a public monument.

With his eyes fixed on the exit door of the coffee shop, the senior auspex poses a straightforward — “do you approve?” — to the higher powers and finds the answer in the direction the flamingoes take once they disperse in clusters, drinks in hand.

The Department of Lost Dreams

Photography by Lost Meridiem Productions

You would think that a department responsible for recovering readers from falling into the illusory realities of their books would merit an office in a less obvious state of disrepair. The exterior gives all the appearance of abandonment — letters disintegrating into nonsense, glass so hazy with grime that the more respectable brownstones across the street bear the smudged edges of a charcoal sketch.

If reading is a collective experience, there are some who pass through stories and others who get stuck in them, unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. It happens gradually, through no fault of their own except perhaps an unusually strong attachment to a word or phrase which steers them along a narrative thread too plausible not to explore.

Let them get lost, you might say, but the department would point out cases when the reader becomes a victim of his own curiosity. Just yesterday they had to clean up the mess of a man who got so absorbed in a murder mystery that he failed to anticipate, turning the last page, the knife in his back.

As you can imagine, these kinds of situations require discretion, so, in a way, it’s convenient that no one in the department wants to bother with window cleaners and sign painters. Like many non-profits, the hierarchy is tangled at best and remains stuck in a strange loop of its own; those that seek a higher position inevitably end up where they started.

So how does department avoid the fate of their clients? It’s the details — the peeling “R”, the clouds of mud encrusted on the glass — that lead them back, nine to five, until the weekend loosens their grip on reality in favor of more devious pursuits.

Drink Up Darling: Part 3

Who is Darling Valentine? Grab a glass of whiskey (gin will do, too) and read on. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of the story. Oh, and if you’re a fan of vintage photographs take a look at some Snapshot Stories.

Pictured, clockwise: various images of Louise Brooks, ’20s Shoes, and more shoes

“You heard the man. Put your bottles and glasses where everyone can see them.”

Lesley walked to the bar, opened the suitcase, and took out three bottles in each hand. He set them carefully on either side of Darling and stepped back.

“Clive, how’s your aim?”

“Decent.”

“Then these should be easy.”

Without a sign of hesitation for wasting quality whiskey, or concern for the proximity of Chubby’s head, Clive took out a Colt 1911 from under the table and fired. Lesley threw his jacket on the piano to divert the liquid from reaching Darling’s legs. She heard it slowly dripping on the keys and cringed for Gene’s sake.

“Which one of you is Izzy Einstein?” Lesley was leaning over the piano, now covered with shattered glass.

“That’s me,” Chubby said. “Moe Smith is my one-time saxophonist. Now if you’ll –”

“Are there any journalists in this room?”

“Lois Hunt.” Sleek black hair hugged her ears and cut across her forehead in a straight fringe. She looked at Lesley with steely detachment while her dark lips curled slightly.

“What paper do you work for, honey?”

“Town Tattle if I give them the right story tomorrow.”

“You will write about Izzy and Moe’s attempt at entering O’Connell’s and confiscating Canadian Club Whiskey dressed as musicians. They got close to the arrest but failed to secure any evidence. Clive Delaney – fresh from prison – shot every last bottle. “Comeback Kid” has a nice ring to it but I’ll leave the details up to your imagination.”

“Don’t bother,” Izzy got up and grabbed a pair of handcuffs. “We won’t-”

“Mr. Einstein, Clive is a good shot, as he just demonstrated, but moving targets are a whole different game. I suggest you take a seat and watch the show. We’re just helping you do your job. A word of advice. Next time, get your evidence before you’re busted.”

“You tell me which one, Darling,” Clive said.

“Will I be mentioned in this article of yours?” she asked Lois.

“Depends how interesting you are.”

Her remark stung and brought back the voice of her theater teacher Mrs. Riggs, telling her to sell it or go home. To this day the memory sent a shot of fear through her.

“All right. The deuce spot goes to Mr. Raymond Wilson and one-two-three ladies desperate for his letters to be as sleazy as his still unpublished verses. Just last week a girl who sat where you are now stuck her head in an oven because he insulted her poetry.”

Wilson had no time to respond before fragments of glass scattered over his table and the girls drew back with gasps.

“The flash act goes to the table of three boys and two girls with full glasses and two bottles that they won’t miss too much. Don’t let their disheveled hair and sloppy dress deceive you. This little incident will scare them off to spend the rest of their summer in Provincetown or Martha’s Vineyard or wherever they belong.

“Now for the headliner. Or two. First, we need to sober up those on their way to success. Let’s take Pretty Sid and Little Francis and their table of three other boys who have all been perfecting the art of petty crimes since they could walk. It’s time to step up and organize, fellas.

“Our second headliner should be Mr. Cornellius Grant, who, with every drink, loses another thread of hope that he will be the star he was at Harvard five years ago. Captain of the crew team with a faultless academic record and a pedigree to match, so why is he here?

“The haircut act, as always, is the one we can all do without. I don’t know his name but the clean shaven man with the smug look on his face no doubt works on Wall Street. And that’s the most interesting thing about him. Maybe lives in the neighborhood because of it’s – what do the guidebooks say? – old-fashioned charm?”

“Not a single missed shot,” Lesley said. “Clive, you should be a cop with your record.” Laughter loosened the room and a few started to move towards the stairs.

“I think we’re being unfair to our Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They did provide some fine entertainment this evening and they deserve their share. Darling, do you know any places nearby that would accommodate these gentlemen?”

“There’s Sal’s Groceries on Houston, near the Academy Theater. The door’s open and when you get to the back, you’ll meet a heavily mustached man sleeping on a pile of newspapers. Wake him gently and ask if he would like to sell a pint to a deserving agent. He’ll think you’re kidding and give it to you right away.”

“Lois, follow them and you’ll double your chances.”

The sound of glass crushing and tables groaning across the wet floor drowned Lesley’s last words. Darling wondered how many of the witnesses would come back.

“These aren’t government issued, are they?” Lesley was holding up a pair of handcuffs against the light as Izzy and Moe were about to close the saxophone case.

“We got them at a flea market, just in case.”

“You come prepared. I like it. I tell you what. How does this sound for one pair? You still have three left.” He held up a fifty dollar bill.

Izzy glanced to see if Lois was still there. She was gone, along with everyone except Lesley, Darling, and Clive, who hadn’t moved since firing his last bullet.

“We’d better go,” Darling said. “Mrs. O’Connell’s not going to ignore the sound of that many bullets. One or two broken bottles sends her into a fit. You don’t want to be here when she finds her basement swimming in glass.”

Moe grabbed the bill and closed the case with the delicacy of a policeman. Clive got up and handed the pistol to Lesley. Darling followed the company of four up the stairs, trying to avoid looking back at the damage. She would come back in the morning.

With one last glance at the Russell brothers, she took the keys out of her pocket and locked the door. Cool, smooth metal touched the back of her arm and she lingered for a moment before turning around. She felt a crushing pressure on her wrists.

“There’s no evidence left. You can’t arrest me after –.”

Lesley held two sets of keys and her hands were empty. Clive’s grip right above her elbow was too firm to protest.

“You said you wanted to take the Hudson for a drive. It’s a little tight but I’m sure you can manage.”

She saw a blonde head resting on the side door.

“You think you can force me into your car like a cheap chorus girl.”

“Are you referring to your spectacularly drunk blondes?”

“Where’s Gene?”

“He left at the first gunshot,” Tommy said from inside the car. “Get in the car, Darling. I can’t stand this many people breathing down my neck.”

“I stay here or I’ll tell the papers you take girls at will. I’ll tell Lois.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Lesley said. He took hold of her arm while Clive held on to the other. As they forced her near the car, she dug one of her heels into the side, adding to its collection of scars.

to be continued…

Drink Up Darling: Part 2

Who is Darling Valentine? Grab a glass of whiskey (gin will do, too) and read on. Here’s Part 1 of the story. Oh, and if you’re a fan of vintage photographs take a look at some Snapshot Stories.

Pictured, clockwise: Callot Soeurs Dress; Dorothy Stone; The Russell Brothers

He didn’t have Tommy’s aggressive charm, or his large, athletic build. The precise tailoring of his cream colored suit, lined with thin, pale blue stripes, suggested a slight figure more accustomed to a game of polo than a back alley. His eyes were such a light shade of muddled blue that they seemed to disappear into the whites. Burning with controlled ambition among his delicate features, they gave the impression that he was capable of reciting poetry before ordering someone killed.

“Is Clive in tonight?” Lesley’s manner of speaking, like his liquor, traveled along the New England coast.

“Why? Do you want to get him into trouble again?”

“In a way, yes.”

“He’ll be happy to hear that. He’s been restless since getting out of Sing Sing. It’s only been a few weeks and his old habits are starting to show.”

“Good. I want him to work for me.”

“And you’re not worried he’s going to scare off the old society ladies?”

“He’ll be the highlight of their lunch conversations for months to come.”

He turned to Tommy.

“Keep the car ready.”

Darling watched him move towards the door with a light, almost musical step.

“Why is he suddenly so interested in Clive?”

“I don’t talk before my first full glass.”

“Never mind that. I’ll get it before you leave. Tell me. Is it because he’s afraid Clive will be snatched up by one of his old buddies, if there are any left?”

“He wants to make the Hampton Club the finest in New York. Dancers swimming in fountains of champagne and a jazz riff for every politician willing to fish one out. Intoxicated chaos disguised as sophistication. Those are his words, not mine.”

“So he’s abandoning his cabs?”

The otherwise empty street amplified Tommy’s easy laugh into a harsh, almost grotesque sound.

“You know, I wish I could get away with wearing so little.” He paused, settling deeper into the cushions now starting to fray at the seams. Her suit consisted of high waisted shorts that were part of an old sailor costume and a black corset embellished with a white beaded collar, given to her by a pansy tearful that it didn’t fit him anymore.

“No, he’s not jumping ship. Would you, if you had a fleet of five hundred already in place? He doesn’t have the muscle for dealing with thugs like Francis and Sid. There are more of them now than ever. That’s why he needs Clive.”

“And what are you going to do?”

“Concerned?”

“Only about my whiskey.”

“Since you asked, I’m not working for that pisswit who can’t think two steps outside guns, women and boxing. Lesley suggested I work the bar, but can you imagine, me, taking drink orders?”

“You’re right. Half of them wouldn’t get past the counter.”

“Why don’t you join us? How much longer are you going to waste your legs in a place like this?”

She reached for his cigarette, took two puffs and snuffed it out with her heel.   Walking down the five small steps to the basement door, she paused to look at the smoke in its last efforts to escape the pavement. The music had stopped and she heard only a muffled rumble more dangerous than outright revelry. She waited for a gunshot that would give her a reason to get in the car and leave West 10th for higher ground. Five seconds was enough for her hand to turn the handle and reach for the railing, well-oiled by the grease of steadying hands. Still air followed her into the dark staircase, now layered with the pungent fragrance of smoke, sweat, and leather. Somewhere beneath it all were the sweet notes of whiskey, gin, and, to a lesser extent, bourbon, seeped into every table and floorboard. She inhaled the familiar smell and locked eyes with the Russell Brothers, framed above the landing as patron saints. John, or was it James, dusted his signature wearing a long white dress while James, or John, grasped a broom with a face full of gossip. The two chambermaids had performed while Darling was a child, and, in her mind, continued to judge the crowd every night.

Won’t you strut Miss Milly
Get busy!

Darling heard Gene’s voice, cracked by a decade on the vaudeville circuit, pierce through the sea of overlapping conversations. She turned to see him sitting at the piano, gesturing to Milly and Mabel as they stumbled to the center of the room. The mica shade lamps gave a copper tint to their blond hair, falling in tight curls on skin kept a light shade of porcelain by hats and parasols in their youth. They were dressed in identical Collet Soeurs dresses, trimmed with gilt lace embroidery that crept up to honey colored velvet. Darling remembered that the men watching cared only for the deep V-shaped decollete.

I wanna see you walk;
Oh, the folks all see the way you syncopate

Linking arms, the sisters were trying to cakewalk around the piano, but their failed attempts to step sideways in unison turned into another dance entirely. Darling was sure they could call it the Saxby step, name a cocktail after it, and soon every girl in the city would want both at the same time.

Hear the whole town talk!

She walked to the bar, if that’s what you could call five antique chests pushed together to make a long table. They were nothing compared to the marble bars uptown but excellent for hiding the bottles and runaways. At the moment, they were all empty and the suitcase was left on top, reminding her to take it upstairs and put it in Mrs. O’Connell’s dresser. Lesley stood leaning against one of the chests and scanned the crowd.

“He’s over there.” She pointed to the far end of the room, where, barely visible through the thick haze of smoke, Clive’s feet were propped up on the table.

When you move so preety
It’s a pity
The other girlies frown

She noticed Chubby inching towards her. He made no effort to reach for his handkerchief anymore.

“Pardon me, Miss, but when do you suppose we should start our set?”

“The sisters won’t last much longer. You’ll have our attention soon enough.”

But the men you meet
Like the way you shake your feet

Only two men were not witness to Mabel and Milly’s efforts to dance with each other. Clive sat upright, leaning in towards Lesley who was talking deliberately and moving his navy blue fedora with the music.

Oh, you knock’em dizzy
Strut Miss Milly!

At the end of Gene’s last flourish on the piano, Darling lifted Mabel out of Pretty Sid’s lap and pulled a reluctant Milly away from the keys before she could strike a chord.

“Gene, will you take the girls outside for some fresh air?”

When his coattails, flanked by two sets of white satin shoes, disappeared up the stairs, Darling took her seat on top of the piano.

“If I find whoever put that many drinks in Miss Mabel and Milly, I’ll thank you for it later. But now it’s time for some new blood. Chubby Miller and the Arcadians. Consider their saxophone your cool drink of water for the night, ‘cause you sure aren’t getting any from me.”

She looked down at Chubby.

“Mind if I stay up here?”

“Please.”

“Playing anything I would know?

“We’re starting off with You’re Busted.”

“I’m not sure I’ve heard of that one. You go ahead without me.”

Walter opened the saxophone case to a selection of handcuffs. Her eye caught a pair made of solid brass that looked like it predated the Civil War. She felt blood rushing to the back of her neck, moistening the ends of her wavy hair.

to be continued…

Drink Up Darling: Part 1

Who is Darling Valentine? Grab a glass of whiskey (gin will do, too) and read on. Oh, and if you’re a fan of vintage photographs take a look at some Snapshot Stories.

Pictured, clockwise: Clara Bow (inspiration for Darling); Izzy & Moe; Mugshot (inspiration for Tommy); 1921 Hudson Super Six Speedster

Darling Valentine’s pale legs shone in the dark, a beacon for the car driving without headlights along a tree-lined row of brownstones. She sat on the front steps of one, listening to faint sounds of drunken jeers and high-pitched laughter accent a scattered piano melody. The still air, thick with the day’s heat, lay on her skin, digging out streams of sweat that mingled with powder and dropped onto the dusty pavement. She began tapping one of her old numbers to distract from her swelling feet.

“Is this O’Connell’s?”

Two men stood at the bottom of the stairs wearing black velvet jackets.

“We’re the new talent.” One of them took off his straw boater to a bald head glistening with sweat. “Chubby Miller and the Arcadians. Pleasure to meet you, Miss. I’m Chubby, vocals, and these are the Arcadians.”

He loosened his bow tie and pointed to his companion. “What’s left of them anyway. Our piano man and trumpeter are tied up with the Follies tonight. Now it’s just me, Walter here, and his saxophone.”
Walter put down his suitcase gently and opened it just enough to reveal the red velvet interior reflected in polished brass. Darling walked down to get a better look. They were a few inches shorter than her and looked over two hundred pounds.

“Do you hear that?” she said, pausing to let them catch a few verses of Milly and Mabel’s off-key duet. “That’s the sound of thirty saps and burned-out nobodies all sitting in a crowded basement without killing each other. I’d like to keep it that way, at least until the end of the night. Now if you want to play here, you’ve got to keep them all interested in something other than their petty problems and that means the Saxby sisters have to keep acting like fools.”

Chubby took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his fleshy face. “We want everybody to have a good time same as you, Miss.”

“Well then follow the music, boys. Let’s hope you can do better.”

She didn’t recall talk of hiring new talent. Gene wouldn’t stand for it without a fight. But Lesley’s men had pulled up farther down the block. She waited until the basement door closed and motioned to the car.

Streetlight illuminated scratches and dents in the Hudson’s burgundy surface. Those weren’t there last time. She crossed the pavement and opened the side door.

“How dare you damage this beautiful car? You can’t even pass this off as an accident. And I was just thinking I might try it out myself. Now where’s my –”

She stopped, realizing that she recognized only three of the four faces.

Little Francis sat in the back seat, twirling his pistol with the greedy pleasure of a boy just getting to grips with his first weapon. Pretty Boy Sid watched him nervously, grabbed the gun and shoved him out of the car. Resting one foot on the ledge they lifted up the cushion and pulled out a brown leather suitcase. Darling suspected that it cost more than the cargo inside, but Sid and Francis disappeared through the iron gate before she got a chance to examine the fine detailing.

Still at the wheel, Tommy Nash leaned out and looked at the damage.

“I almost got nicked myself and here you are worrying about the car,” he said. Tommy always had a casual attitude towards death, which, she suspected, kept him alive. “If you get me an Old Fashioned I’ll tell you all about it.”

“How do I know you haven’t sold out for the overboard stuff? Did you hear about what happened over on Sullivan? Two dead, one paralyzed.”

“It’s the finest Canadian whiskey around,” a voice said from the passenger seat.

Tommy lit a cigarette.

“Don’t insult the boss, Darling. We went through a lot of trouble to find the good stuff for you.”

So that was Lesley Hampton. The Shadow for those who admired his ability to keep New York wet and his name out of the papers. The Snake for others who suspected he was just good at covering his tracks. During their last year at Princeton, a few weeks after the country went dry, he and Tommy stole the Hampton family’s Baby Grand to drive a paying stranger up past the Canadian border. The passenger turned out to be a bootlegger and offered to show them the closest stills. They bought a ten dollar case in Montreal and sold it for ninety in Manhattan. With the profits and a few more trips with the Baby Grand, Lesley built a fleet of cabs that delivered drunk debutantes back to their townhouses without a sound and Wall Street big shots to the clubs that welcomed their liberal spending habits. Rumors circulated that, for his wealthiest clients, he dipped into a vast storehouse on his family’s estate.

Lesley was the only man whose whiskey flowed into Park Avenue penthouses and tenement basements. He had enough New England blood in him to gain the trust of his kind, but instinct for making a profit led him to cast a wider net. That’s why he continued to deal with O’Connell. While a magnate might start worrying about his reputation, an Irishman would never let anything stand between him and a drink.

Darling knew all this from snippets of slurred conversation and brief exchanges with Tommy when she gave him what he wanted. But it was only after Lesley got out of the car, walked around the front, and stood next to the cloud of smoke half-covering Tommy’s face, that she could see why he was different from any bootlegger she had ever met.

to be continued…

Snapshot Stories: Golden Dawn

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features a photograph by Cecil Beaton.

Rose would have preferred to survey the wreckage alone, between sips of her earl grey, but the morning light drew her attention to blonde and jet black curls weaving into folds of fabric. She hopped up on a bar stool and watched them sleep. Both were blissfully unaware of how many cocktails had lulled them into soaking their hair in her curtains, now glistening with the star of the evening. Golden Dawn, Walter’s new concoction, was a hit. Even the bergamot notes in her tea could not erase the sweet signature of orange juice and apricot brandy that mingled with her sweat all night. It was the gin that caught up with these two.

Poor Blossom. She was used to the stage but inexperienced in the art of declining drinks. Rose knew she should have taken her out of the chorus line when her steps lost their usual precision. But her hair matched so perfectly with the beaded fringe that more than one patron had pronounced her the golden girl of the night.

The brunette deserved a less dignified exit. A college girl down from the convent, judging by the look of terror on her face when Legs gave her crooked smile through puffs of his cigar. He recognized her, so she had to be a politician’s daughter or something of the kind. Rose expected her to be out after a few nervous glances at the bar, but she was ready to throw away reputation for celebrity before the girls were on their third number. She was practically throwing herself on Sullivan and everyone thought it too funny to tell her he was a gossip columnist.

Rose finished her tea as the light moved on to uncover lost sequins and feathers. She was reluctant to wake them up. Sullivan would be back to ask her about the girl. If only every guest could come to her parties without leaving their reputation in her hands.

Snapshot Stories: Fulton Flapper

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features Girl in Fulton Street, taken by Walker Evans in 1929.

The Italian was late. She was supposed to come into the store, meet him in the back, and arrange to take the last of his liquor. The visit should have been over before the clerk had time to cut her half a pound of mozzarella. He was “tidying up some business,” the clerk told her, probably thinking she was a Wall Street wife eager to ask about the best way to prepare lasagna.

Fifteen minutes later, she was pulling her hands into her fur sleeves and looking out into the stream of identical wool coats and fedoras on Fulton. The men were in a daze, stragglers from Wall Street conflicted about their sudden freedom. The wind tugged one of her curls out from the confines of her hat. She was going to wait for the Italian, even if she would have to storm the back door into the grubby excuse for a bar.

The idea that he was still on the last legs of his business began to warm her up. He was lucky anyone was willing to buy his liquor, but she had no interest in the money. She was there to raid his cellar like the police had raided hers, courtesy of his tip-off. The satisfaction of seeing his face hover between desperation and contempt was worth the trip downtown.

Snapshot Stories: 7th Avenue Local

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features this Subway Portrait, taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s.

The harsh lights of the 7th Ave. Local revealed dark circles that had remained hidden during Vivian’s performance. She had smeared off the heavy makeup at the Winter Garden and hurried to the station, hoping that she would avoid meeting the one person she had never expected to see Hellz-a-Poppin.

There was no mistaking it was Evelyn’s face that caught her eye during “It’s Time to Say Aloha.” Three years ago Vivian would have been mortified by how many of her former friends would know by noon the next day. Dressed as an Aloha Girl! Only yesterday was she a debutante dancing for charity. And now she’s dancing for money!

The monotonous rush of the train soothed the remnants of show tunes running through Vivian’s head. Perhaps Evie hadn’t recognized her. The bleached blonde hair, pulled back with severity, was a dramatic departure from her once soft mouse-brown curls. Vivian noted with some satisfaction that she wasn’t embarrassed at all. Evie’s face only reminded her of the day she had lost her faith in tradition, the Fifth Avenue Bank, and those who still believed in the virtues of either.

She was rummaging through her boot cabinet, trying to decide on evening slippers, when Evie arrived unannounced, holding a small bunch of violets. At first, she didn’t know what to make of Evie’s talk of optimism in the face of adversity, counting how many of their acquaintances had to cut back on their chauffeurs, opera subscriptions, and trips to Europe.

“I even stopped using the elevator in my own house to save on the electricity bill, so you shouldn’t feel bad.” Evie trailed on in between mouthfuls of the curried chicken she was saving for dinner. Before the last sip of her best St. Julien, Evie made the remark that still reverberated in her ears, even through the din of the subway.

“Oh, Vivian, how silly it must seem now to have held on to your railroad shares when your grandfather made such a fortune acquiring them! Now with poor Charlie’s pay cut and all…” The last part had been a whisper, but Evie might as well have screamed it. It was the first time Vivian became aware of why her husband had been squirming every time she bought a new bouquet of flowers.

The dark circles under Vivian’s eyes smoothed out a bit with a smile. She never thought that she would ever admit that Evie had spoken the truth. But if someone had told her three years ago that the theater was more stable than railroad shares, she would never have believed it.

Snapshot Stories: To The Upper East

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features Subway Passengers, taken by Walker Evans in 1938.

As the 5 train gained momentum away from Fulton Street, Helen took her seat with the alertness and suspicion of someone who had spent the day negotiating prices with dirty fishmongers. She moved her bag where she could see it, closer into her husband’s grey wool coat that was now gathering folds around her small arms. With that coat, a black hat smoothing down her hair, and a stern expression, she had almost passed for a man at the docks.

“City Hall!” a voice hollered after the train screeched to a halt and an influx of new passengers took the last of the available seats. Lydia kept her gaze fixed on some indistinct point past the blackened windows. To her the announcement meant that she had four more long stretches on this train to linger in fantasies of the past. The subway car was a carriage and the din of steel rushing over steel was the polite conversation of familiar faces. She was wearing her coat made entirely of fur instead of a black one with just the trimmings. Her fantasies never had any narrative or destination, but they always made the ride seem too short. The warmth of the carriage in her thoughts flushed the life from her face and she projected an image of royalty, clad in a crown of black felt.

The announcements for 14th Street and Grand Central were lost among the noise. Helen took stock of the passengers, categorizing each based on their possible destinations and general situation in life. When her eyes met those of another, she turned her gaze to a Lifebuoy soap advertisement in total absorption.

At 59th Street, Helen leapt from her seat and took a spot in front of the doors to make sure that she would be the first to get out on the next stop. Lydia waited until they opened to make her way onto the 86th Street platform. The two women emerged into the winter night without any notion that they had exited the stage together.