Niagara Nights
 

Ciro T. De Rosa
 

© Copyright 2003 by Ciro T. De Rosa

 

Photo of stone cliff.  Copyright (c) 2003 by Richard Loller.

 The drive from Manhattan over the Throgs Neck Bridge into the Bronx and over the Tappanzee took a little under two hours. I headed north on 90 to New England, then got on the Thruway north to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The rest of the trip was uneventful, simply requiring stops at the Hot Shops for coffee, a bite to eat, and potty time. After about eight hours on the road, I decided to stop in Rochester and get a motel for the night and head to the Falls in the morning.

My name is Myra Gilbert and one might ask why a single woman would drive over five hundred miles to the Mecca of matrimonial bliss. The answer is really simple. I was on assignment for Lady’s Day, a magazine devoted to making the humdrum lives of shut-ins and bored housewives a little less deadening by dealing up saccharin stories about unrequited love, lost love, found love, no love and just love. I was to interview a James Paige, the former General Manager of the Niagara Hotel, One of Buffalo’s oldest and most prestigious tourist attractions along with the Falls. The hotel boasted that over a million honeymooners spent their first night together there. Mr. Paige had also become something of a tourist attraction himself. Apparently over the years many of the guests who met him when they stayed there returned to visit him and relived old memories of which he was a part. It seems he began working at the Niagara as a page when he was eleven years old, rose to the general manager’s position of the establishment and after 75 years, retired. He was given a suite there for the rest of his life for services rendered where he held forth greeting and chatting with the steady flow of folks who came to the hotel expressly to see him. The management realized that this was great PR and made Mr. Paige available. From what I could gather, he didn’t mind it a bit. In fact, he “delighted in the attention,” the ads read. My job was to interview him for the human-interest section in which he would tell our readers about his years at the hotel and some stories about the honeymooners who crossed his path during that time.

It was eleven o’clock when I arrived at the hotel. My appointment to see Mr. Paige was arraigned for two, where I was to meet him in the lounge. Across from the revolving doors stood a massive mahogany check in desk that dominated the entire section of the brocade covered wall. Two desk clerks were checking in guests while the concierge tended to his own duties. The red of the Axminster carpet, no longer rich and vibrant after millions of shoes trod the lobby, stretched across the entire entrance and down the wide aisle toward the lounge at the far end. The daily newspapers sat on beautiful cherry wood side tables that were next to Queen Ann chairs, which were placed strategically around the lobby. Beige drapery filtered out the light from the East End of the room, and I could see the lounge at the far end cordoned off by a low balustrade with planters holding low greenery surmounting the ledge that separated it from the rest of the lobby.

I introduced my self to the concierge who immediately showed me into the manager’s office. The manager, a rotund fellow with an unctuous smile plastered on his florid face, told me ”How happy the management of the Niagara was having such a prestigious magazine to do a story on the hotel and Mr. Paige.” The moment he called the magazine “prestigious”, I knew right then that he hadn’t the slightest notion what Lady’s Day was about. But who was I to argue with him. I’d get the story, pound it out on my trusty PC and collect my pay. (I don’t mean to sound so cynical, really I don’t. I guess it’s just that I would like to produce a piece of work that won’t eventually be used as a repository for bird cage droppings. ) Anyway, he smiled; I smiled and headed for my room.

I decided to freshen up, then head for the bar. I figured I was entitled to a couple of Johnny Walkers before meeting Mr. Paige. I was starting to imagine just what this interview would be like. The old boy would probably totter over on a walker and whistle through his false teeth as he regaled me with homespun tales of “gay young couples” having him as surrogate father while they learned the rudiments of …well you know what I mean. As I started to apply my makeup the face of a forty-five year old hack stared back at me and told the whole story. I checked the “laugh lines” around my mouth. They looked more like ruts in a very bad road. Even my eyes, which everyone told me was my best feature, reflected an indifference that dulled them. I made a face, put on some lipstick and ran a comb through my hair and headed downstairs.

The clock behind the bar read one and I was into my second scotch. Before I could order another an elderly fellow with salt and pepper hair combed in a fashion that reminded me of Cary Grant sat next to me. He had cobalt blue eyes that shone brilliantly as the light played on his tanned face. His voice was deep and strong as he annunciated each word clearly and crisply. “Miss Gilbert?” I was surprised at how handsome he was. He had that rugged look you see in a movie star that has passed his prime, but still turned heads. I took his extended hand and literally found myself speechless. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was, in a word, beautiful in the most dignified manner. When I finally got my tongue unstuck, I acknowledged his smile with one of my own. “Mr. Paige?” I said, lowering my voice, and just enough feeling to let him know I was impressed by what I saw. He flashed a marvelous smile and glanced at the bar tender. Moments later a couple of drinks were before us.

“I know our interview wasn’t to take place until one, but I hope you might indulge me. Perhaps we can do it now. Do you mind?” His words were mild and gently spoken. I was about to say that it was for two, but thought better of it. Something told me that this was going to be a very interesting interview. “Oh no, of course not, Mr. Paige…” “Please, call me James. Mr. Paige so formal and distant, don’t you think?” I nodded and began again. “James, it’ll be just fine if we talk now as later.” With a funny sidelong smile he said, “Now what would you like to know?”

I fumbled around in my tote and found the recorder. Placing it on the table, I nodded, he returned the nod, and proceeded to get comfortable in the fan backed chair. He watched me as I prepared my pad and adjusted the volume control on the machine. As he waited for my first question, he made a little spire of his fingers and smiled at me over the top of it. I smiled and began. “ What would you say are your most memorable moments in all the years you’ve been at the Niagara?” I thought this question would elicit a flurry of anecdotes about young lovers and their romantic antics and how James Paige became a part of their honeymoon. Instead, the he laughed a light silvery sound like the laughter of a child and said, “ Wouldn’t you rather hear about particular people and how I remember them as young honeymooners?” “Of course, yes I would.” Mr. Paige continued to look over his fingertips, then closed his eyes and pursed his lips for a moment and began. “Let me tell you about Phil and Ida Levine.” His broad smile and the twinkle in his eyes indicated that he recalled this couple with real joy. “Phil owned Philly’s Kosher Deli on Fulton Street in Brooklyn and Ida worked for Moe Fisher, a bail bondsman, whose office was across from the Central Court Building on Smith and just a short block from Philly’s, so it was inevitable that they should meet over a pastrami on roll. Love, as they say, blossomed and they became engaged. The war began shortly after that happy occasion, and Phil was drafted within two months. It was then that they decided to see the Rabbi and tie the knot.” Well” I said, “You certainly know your clients. How did you learn all this?” He raised his hand to indicate there was more to come. “I met Phil and Ida when they arrived at the hotel famished and ready for a “good meal”, which meant, I later learned, plenty of everything. You see, Ida was rather large, to say the least, so besides enjoying their honeymoon, food was the next immediate priority for them. Zaftig, was the way I remembered he referred to her as he rolled his eyes, and rubbed his hands together while leering wickedly at her bosom, at which time Ida would chuckle with great enthusiasm and smile coyly at anyone who might be listening.

They booked the Bridle suite for four days. During that time, the waiters reported back that Mrs. Levine ate her way through mounds of food while Mr. Levine listened to Glenn Miller on the radio. The housemaids told me their bed was never made. One said, with eyes wide with remembrance of the sight, no doubt, that one morning she let herself in only to find Mr. and Mrs. Levine in bed making love and stopping every now and then for Mr. Levine to slip a piece of candy into Mrs. Levine’s mouth!” Mr. Paige grunted heartily at the recollection of that conversation and laughed out loud as he recalled what must have been an astonished look on the maid’s face. I laughed too trying to envision this comical sight. Before he could continue, I blurted out in a girlish giggle, “Oh, c’mon now, James. Are you telling me that their entire honeymoon was spent in their rooms? What about the Falls? Didn’t they at least go see them?” I started to imagine Phil and Ida Levine strolling along the promenade. Her with a fist full of goodies and him jitterbugging to Glenn Miller. The scene was hysterical.

James Paige nodded suppressing his own grunt at my question. “Yes, that’s exactly so!” “Tell me, did they ever come back?” I asked. He smiled now and nodded again.” Oh, of course they did. It was just after the war. Phil returned from France, and he and Ida made a beeline for the Niagara. Their specific purpose was to procreate a little Phil in the Bridal Suite. “ “And…?”I craned forward, “ I later found out that little Lydia Levine was born exactly nine months after their visit to us. And we’ve kept in touch over the years. In fact, Lydia spent her honeymoon here a few years ago in the Bridal suite.”

I envied this man whose life impacted on hundreds of people at the happiest moment of their lives. I had no problem envisioning his handsome face sixty years younger greeting these kids as they approached the check in desk, while hoping not to appear too anxious to be alone their first night. I could imagine his demeanor; perfect, neither aloof or too intruding, but with just the right amount of concern that indicated to the couple that his fondest wish was to make their honeymoon as memorable as possible. I could well understand why they continued to return to see the old man who still exuded Old World charm that seems to have disappeared of late and replaced by boorish behavior that reduced any element of romance to vulgarity. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been successful in any relationship I’ve had. I guess I’ve realized this glaring fact that appears to be lost on everyone I come in contact with. As if James Paige was reading my mind, he tapped my hand and said, “Would you like to hear another story of true love?’ He smiled benignly and settled back in his chair. I gave him a thin wan smile, nodded, and clicked on the tape recorder.

“It was September of 1942. As the remainder of summer slowly faded the leaves started turning to flame, but the weather was exceptionally mild, as I recall.” He hesitated a moment as if deciding a question, “That’s quit the thing, you know.” He looked at me as if he was making an interesting discovery. “Lately I find those years are far more sharply etched in my memory than those more recent.” His eyes fixed on a distant point focusing on another time when everyone was young and world a bit more innocent. Then he snapped out of his reverie, and he said with wry humor, “I guess old age is really getting to me, eh?” I smiled. “ Well, with the war on young folks were marrying before the boys went overseas, so we were busy accommodating the hundreds of requests for rooms. I remember this one couple that arrived at eight o’clock to check in. They were seven hours late and the policy of the hotel was to let the room if the party was more than two hours late. I hadn’t, for some unknown reason, released the room. Call it a feeling, but I knew these kids would eventually show up. When they did, full of excuses of how the line at City Hall was backed up for miles, thus the ceremony wasn’t until one in the afternoon, then they had to get her father’s car in Brooklyn; then get through traffic…” He chuckled with genuine enjoyment at the memory that I began to laugh as well. “So,” I prodded, “What happened?” “Oh, I listened patiently to the young man recite the litany of events that eventually got them to the hotel and assured them that their room was ready. It was obvious that they were madly in love since they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. You know how lovers are, I’m sure.” I wondered what Mr. Paige would say if I told him that I hadn’t the vaguest idea when it came to that subject. I wrote about it, sure, but I never experienced any such feeling. “Is that it?” I reached out and placed my hand on his forearm, my disappointment at the story’s ending was obvious. “ What else?” Paige raised his hands in surrender and continued. His voice as light as before, as the image of the couple probably danced in his mind’s eye.

“ Leo and Elvera had been childhood sweethearts, They lived in the same tenement and their parents knew each other from the “old country” is how Leo put it. They were a sweet couple. She with her shinny black hair neatly held together in a snood and big black eyes that seemed to take in the world. Leo was a tall lanky kid who hoped to go into the bricklayer’s union with his father after the war. He too had a shock of thick wavy hair that defied gravity and seemed to pile itself into glistening black spirals around his face. I remember how polite they both were. Making sure never to appear as if the hotel staff or myself were intruding upon their privacy. In fact, Elvera always looked quite guilty when they exited the elevator, as if the world knew what had transpired the night before. I would take great pains to greet them with a gentle good morning and direct them into the lounge for breakfast.

Unlike the Levines, Leo and Elvera spent every minute going somewhere or doing something. She gushed to me how magnificent the Falls were as if she had just learned the real meaning of the word, or especially at night with the lights illuminating the great cascade of white water. They visited the attractions along the walk and bought ashtrays with decals of the Falls and two thimbles for her mother and new mother-in-law. In the evenings they’d dine here and walk in the moon light arm in arm for hours.” He reached into the breast pocket of his sport jacket and found a handkerchief. Fingering the boarder, and unfurling it, he dabbed his nose. “Did they ever come back?” I asked hesitantly as if I knew what his answer would be. He shifted his eyes and again looked off into that other time “Yes” he said quietly. “The girl, Elvera did return years later with a little boy of about ten. She came to show her child where she and his daddy had spent the happiest days of their lives. Leo was shipped overseas three days after they got back to Brooklyn. He was killed at Bastogne; Christmas of 1944” The way he said it, the sadness that punctuated the words brought tears to my eyes. The thought of that woman cherishing the memory of her husband all those years struck a chord in me that I had long ago lost and replaced with a cynic’s view of the world. He looked at me. “I’m sorry I upset you, Myra. There are too many stories like that, but I think they say something about everlasting love, don’t you?” He smiled benignly. The lump in my throat made it impossible for me to speak; I felt the tears slowly rolling down my cheeks. James reached across the table and patted my hand. His blue eyes responded with a steady gaze that clearly understood how the story had registered with my emotions. We didn’t speak for a time. When I got up I felt the need to be held. James sensed this and gathered me in his arms where I remained not wanting to free myself.

I was ready to leave a couple of hours later. When I returned to the lobby, James was waiting for me. His delicate embrace and peck on my cheek is the last thing I remember about him.

My work was well received by the editor. In fact she was quite impressed by the way I handled the whole piece and promised there would be more “substantial” venues for me in the future. A few months later when I called the hotel I learned that he passed away quietly and peacefully in his sleep. I can’t explain the profound sadness I felt at that moment. I wondered if all those couples who called him a friend over these many years would feel the great sense of loss I felt after only having one memorable afternoon with this wonderful unusual man.
 
 

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