Braverman and the Dancer from Soul City by J. Weintraub

Braverman had never been one of us, even though he lived down the block from me and my best friend, Frank Solomon. Braverman preferred hanging out with the toughs who gathered in front of Palermo’s Pizza every night. Italians and Poles from the projects, these hoods rarely suffered Jews to walk among them, but in Braverman’s case they made an exception, and perhaps that accounted for his coolness toward us and, in turn, our interest in him.

Image credit : Joseph Sterling
Image credit : Joseph Sterling

But if we saw little of him at night, we saw even less of Braverman on weekday afternoons, when from 3:30 to 5:00, he would, without fail, sit in front of his TV, engrossed in the spectacle of American Bandstand.

Of course, our parents disapproved of everything Braverman stood for. But in the case of Bandstand, my mother made an exception, largely because my older sister had been taking the el down to 46th and Market to appear on the show herself back in the late fifties, even before Dick Clark was the host.

“Don’t you want to see your sister on TV?” she would ask when I’d come home from school, and I’d be forced to sit there until the camera panned across the back row of the bleachers, where it would invariably find her dewy-eyed and shrieking over some South Philly greaser lip-synching his latest hit.

Naturally then, Braverman’s obsession with Bandstand was, at that time, more than a little distasteful to me. But one night, Mary Jean Fittipaldi dropped in on us like a goddess off of a shooting star, and I began to appreciate his unhealthy infatuation.

It was an appropriate evening for an epiphany of sorts — spring, a full moon rising above the row houses — and we lay sprawled across Frank Solomon’s sloping lawn. Braverman had joined us — too early for the boys to gather in front of Palermo’s — and I remember him standing above us, vowing to enlist in the Green Berets as soon as he graduated and afterwards joining a band of mercenaries based in what was then Rhodesia, or. . . he stopped short, his attention diverted by a shadow gliding by on the sidewalk.

“Hey!” he called out. “You’re Mary Jean Fittipaldi, ainchya?”

The figure halted. “Yeah,” she said, ruthlessly snapping her gum. “What’s it to ya?”

Frank Solomon was sitting next to me. “Who’s Mary Jean Fittipaldi?” I asked.

“She’s a regular on Bandstand! Pretty neat, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, disappointed by my friend’s familiarity with the dancers on Bandstand.

“You’re a long way from West Philly,” continued Braverman. “What’re you doing around here?”

“It’s a free country, ain’t it?” and then, viewing us warily, yet hungrily like a tiger eyeing a tethered goat, she asked, “Say, youse guys got any booze?”

“Sure,” said Braverman, “Solomon here . . . .”

“Braverman, no!” and Frank pointed to the light in his living-room. His parents were home.

“Solomon here,” said Braverman, ignoring Frank’s plea, “can always get us something.”

“Ok, so long as it ain’t beer,” and as Mary Jean clambered up the grass, Frank trekked across the lawn toward his house. He had just been handed the stiffest assignment of his life, but apparently he was willing to risk his all for the likes of Mary Jean Fittipaldi.

“Any youse guys gotta smoke?” she asked as she crouched down in front of us.

Braverman pried his Marlboros from his leather jacket, but the pack was empty. He looked toward us, and his anticipation turned to despair when he realized that none of us smoked.

In disgust, Mary Jean removed a cigarette from her own pack of Marlboros, lighting it herself, and as she inhaled deeply, a long, uncomfortable silence settled over us all. Finally, Stan summoned the courage to ask, “Say, whatever happened to Angela? She’s never on the show anymore.”

“Aw, some skank from Dobbins Vocational got between her and the camera, and when Angie pulled a blade on her to teach her a lesson, she got banned. For life.”

“Wow, Dick sure runs a tight ship,” I said, recalling my sister’s references to the Bandstand MC as a “stuck-up snot.”

Mary Jean turned her cold, feline eyes on me. “Who’s this creep?” she asked, and from the tone of her voice, I knew that she wouldn’t hesitate to pull a blade on me if I, too, got any further out of line.

“Aw, he’s nobody,” said Braverman, scowling at me as if I were some kind of insect crawling through the grass.

“You mean Angela’s not gonna be on anymore?” whined Stan, who the following year would be admitted to Princeton.

“Banned for life!” repeated Mary Jean. “And she didn’t even pull the shiv on camera!”

“Has Gloria gotten over her mono yet?” asked Barry, a future National Merit Scholar.

Mary Jean suddenly arose, apparently bored with our curiosity and the increasingly heavy burden of her celebrity. “You know what,” she said. “I don’t think youse guys are gonna come up with the goods,” and before we could say anything, she had sashayed down the slope of the lawn. “See ya’s,” and we watched as she rounded the corner, the sound of her gum snapping in the distance long after she disappeared from sight.

When Frank returned with a quart of Scotch bundled inside his shirt, and asked with a silly grin on his face, “Where’s Mary Jean?” I concluded that perhaps I had been missing something after all.

So, the next afternoon I switched on the TV as soon as I arrived home. “What’re you watching Bandstand for?” asked my Mom. “You never used to like it when your sister was on.” I replied that I wanted to learn all the new steps for the junior prom, and while I appeared to be practicing the Boogaloo, the Hully Gully, the Watusi, or the Cool Jerk, I was, in reality, enmeshing myself in the toils of Mary Jean Fittipaldi.

As always, she wore her West Catholic High uniform, and the combination of this shapeless dress with the raw vigor of her slim adolescent body wriggling beneath the gabardine produced an effect on me quite the opposite from that intended by the good sisters. Rarely smiling at her partner, she seemed intent on projecting her sexual energy outward, to me, and if the camera lingered over her hard, catlike features, she would close her eyes, tilt her head backwards, and whip her hair across her face as if prolonged exposure to the camera brought her to the brink of orgasm.

During the slow dances, she would press her body into her partner’s groin so tightly it became painful for me to watch, and if I hadn’t gone out for track later that month, I, too, might have been entrapped into an obsession as deep and abiding as Braverman’s.

By the time I next switched on Bandstand, Mary Jean Fittipaldi was gone, banned for life for having assaulted the attendant to the girls’ washroom.

Braverman, I was sure, would be devastated. But when I next saw him, he seemed untroubled by Mary Jean’s absence. “My old man’s installed an ultrahigh-frequency antenna,” he explained.

“So?” I replied.

“To hell with Bandstand. I can get Soul City. Loud and clear. Every afternoon.”

I sucked in my breath.

Originating out of Newark, Soul City was broadcast only to a regional audience. But due to a quirk in the atmosphere, a faint signal occasionally filtered into the Delaware Valley. At first, I hadn’t taken much notice, assuming that the dim figures — which appeared on a frequency midway between two channels — were merely negative images, ghosts of Bandstand. But one afternoon, during a thunderstorm, the Soul City dancers erupted across my screen as vividly as if the signal were being transmitted from next door, and I crouched there, fascinated by the driving, churning hips and pulsating female torsos. The girls worked their bodies like frenzied pistons, with a sensuality that was unbridled, visceral, and not until my Mom entered the room and asked me what I was watching, did I regain enough composure to twist the dial away and reply, “Nothing.”

As soon as she left, I tried desperately to coax the images back to the screen. But the storm had ended, and I could recapture only vague, undulating shadows.

Nevertheless, even though I was awed by Braverman’s now daily exposure to Soul City, I hardly envied him. Clearly, he had moved up to harder stuff. And, a few weeks later, I learned that my concern for him had been justified. Braverman never revealed who was responsible for the savage beating he’d suffered, but we assumed that he had been jumped by a gang of blacks for consorting with one of their sisters or that the boys from Palermo’s had turned on him for that very same reason. In either case, it was clear that he was no longer content with being a passive observer and had ventured into the heart of Soul City itself to experience its steamy pleasures first hand.

Rhodesia, Palermo’s, Soul City, and when, just after graduation, I learned that Braverman had actually married a regular dancer from Soul City, his stock with me rose even higher. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later when I saw him again that I had a chance to ask him about it.

I had returned for our ten-year high-school reunion when I ran into him outside his parents’ home, getting into his car. He was in a hurry, he said; he had to pick up his wife, Rita. They were going to the ballet.

“The ballet?” I asked. “You? Braverman?”

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s Rita’s idea,”

“That’s right,” I said. “She was a dancer on Soul City, right? That’s pretty neat. I’ll bet you spend a lot of time in discos and such,” but he told me that Rita didn’t do that sort of thing anymore, that she preferred ballet, and just as he switched on the ignition, I managed to ask him, “But how’d you get this all past your parents. I mean, what did they think? Her being black and all?”

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “Remember when I was dating that Italian girl, Mary Rose? Gino Leoncavelli’s little sister? Anyway, my Mom used to say she’d stick her head in the oven and turn on the gas if I ever married a Catholic girl like her. Guess what my old lady thinks of Rita?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Is she Catholic?”’

“Used to be a Methodist. Now she’s converted, and my Mom says that I couldn’t have found a nicer daughter-in-law if I’d ordered her direct from the Sears Roebuck catalog. And my old man thinks she’s the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me, that she’s shaped me up and settled me down. That’s just what he said. Shaped me up and settled me down.” And just as Braverman was rolling his window up, he said, “And now Rita’s spending her nights studying to be a CPA. A fucking accountant.”

Those were his last words to me, “A fucking accountant,” and as he drove off, the sharp image I had conjured up of Braverman and his Soul City dancer, one that had stayed with me for a decade, rapidly faded away, becoming as blurred and indistinct as those pulsating signals I had seen on TV so many years before, somewhere between the channels.

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Joe WeintraubJ. Weintraub has published a variety of fiction, essays, poetry, and translations in such literary journals as The Massachusetts Review, The New Criterion, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Cream City Review, and Crab Orchard Review, as well as in regional and specialty publications such as The Chicago Reader, Nevada Magazine, The Seattle Weekly, Modern Philology and Gastronomica. Many of his pieces have been anthologized, and he has received awards for fiction and creative nonfiction from, among others, the Illinois Arts Council, the Barrington Arts Council, and Holy Names University. He has been an Around-the-Coyote poet and a StoneSong poet, and, a member of the Dramatists Guild, and has had one-act plays produced by the Theatre-Studio and La Petite Morgue in New York City, Theatre One in Middleboro, MA, Black Box Theatre in Colorado Springs, CO, and by Second City, American Blues Theatre, Blank Page Theatre, Summer Place Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, and 8 Scribes in the Chicago area. Website:http://jweintraub.weebly.com