caught my breath. The bandstand looked a block away. Bright. About five thousand sailors in blue, soldiers in khaki brown, and girls and guys in civvies out on the dance floor.
Manny swayed from side to side with short boxer’s steps, ridges of his neck muscles branching into his muscular back even in his brown uniform, big brow like a banner above his handsome face.
I followed him around the fringes of the floor, along a few rows of spectators’ seats, elevated like a box circle, which ringed the floor, through some cleared circles where couples danced, then into a corner right next to the bandstand where all the Oakland people hung out. Most of the guys were in civvies around us. I recognized a lot of them, even if I didn’t know them all, guys who grew up here, and guys whose families had come out to work in the shipyards, who looked good in dress-up clothes, and so did their girls in high heels and swishy dresses like movie stars.
Manny started greeting guys and girls he knew from around the neighborhood and from all over Oakland, because he was a boxing champion and in the papers. It made me proud to be with him, the way he looked, wavy-haired and husky, with a neat drop of his tailored gabardine slacks down to his military shoes, the oxblood polish below his cuffless pant legs, yet with a polite, thoughtful mood, not smiling.
Up close by the bandstand, Hamp was blowing vibes, furry balled sticks fluttering over the keys like a hundred moths, sweat on his brown face, smiling down.
The shiny mouths of the brass horns behind him blew out a hot chorus and swung back and forth in rhythm to the base hum and the drum beat, and some people in the crowd cried out, “Yeah! Yeah!” and the dancers swung with style, too.
Most of the Oakland guys were fine dancers, especially a guy named Gene Malone, Manny said. Dressed sharp in a pinstripe suit, with curly hair and pink cheeks, he could really go, really do the whip with swishing steps. His feet in suede shoes seemed to float over the floor, and he sanded the hardwood toward us as soon as he saw Manny, keeping step with Peggy, the pretty brunette from our neighborhood, who kept good time too, and was lovely as a movie star herself, with that 1940s look: high pompadour and plucked fine brows and pancake makeup like a perpetual tan.
“Hey, Manny! How come back so soon?” Gene asked, with a smile and a handshake.
But Manny didn’t smile, his chin came right up and his back arched and his chest puffed out, and he answered, “Got pull,” and pulled his hand free from the guy, then turned away without even talking to Peggy, who had danced with him at our Christmas party, and made me hurry through the crowd to catch up with him.
“What about him?” I asked, by the bandstand, trying to keep up.
“Talks too much,” Manny answered, and kept working his way around people.
The band was loud here, but I heard him and it surprised me
and hurt a little bit to hear him say it in such a curt way. I followed him closely through the crowd, towards the hallway, skirting the box seats again, slowed down right behind him as he worked his way through a bunch of sailors and their women who were laughing at a short, skinny, blond sailor burning a twenty dollar bill.
Suds plopped over the sides of the drunken sailor’s beer cup, splashed on the floor, and sprinkled drops of foam on his black shoes, as he waved the burning bill around and shouted, “… ’cause awm shippin’ owoot ta-marra, an’ awl be de-ud in a munth.”
A big-busted woman with a flower corsage as big as one of her boobs, squealed, “Oh! Nooooo!”
Manny got a pained look on his face like he didn’t like the guy putting it on and tipped his head for me to follow him, then tried to step around the tall, slim sailor, who had been teasing him.
He looked like a mean Okie, wrinkles crisscrossing the back of his red neck, so countrified he wore his white sailor cap round as a bowl on top of his head, instead of shaping it to his skull. He swung his shoulder in Manny’s way, for Manny to bump if he dared and to let him know that the mean cat didn’t like no city boy and a soldier to boot putting his buddy down.
But Manny swung back his own shoulder as if to make sure I was following him and slipped by the guy’s shoulder without even touching it, and put the guy down as not worth a bust in the mouth, not worth a bother, and showed plenty of class for doing it, I thought. This was really exciting, really exciting.
Manny then worked his way out into the hall without even bothering to look back at the guy, but didn’t get twenty steps past the exit before he met Peggy, who had been dancing with Gene, and who stopped him as if she had been looking for him, and, smiling, said, “How good to see you. You look good, Manny. What a lucky guy to get a furlough so quick again.”
“Yeah,” Manny said without smiling back, then looked away, giving her his jawbone instead of a grin, and her mouth pinched up.
I couldn’t look at her.
“You’re a good kid, Peggy,” Manny said and squeezed her shoulder, but stepped past her, saying, “I want a beer.”
He walked down the big hall to the closest bar, which was only a cubby hole in the wall spread out barely long enough for six bartenders to hustle in. I wondered what was up when Manny ordered two beers and a coke in a low voice, then started chug-a-lugging the first beer while the bartender was filling the second.
The old guy noticed and stared at him with a pair of whiskey-yellowed eyes with wrinkled booze pouches beneath them that looked like basted eggs.
Manny smacked his lips when he brought the cup down and saw the old guy looking at him, as if to show that he didn’t care what the guy thought.
But the old guy was a rounder as sharp as his thin mustache, knew where the action was, even I could tell. When he put the second beer down and got my coke and picked up the dollar bill, he didn’t look at Manny again until he had turned around to the cash register to make change, where he watched Manny in the bar mirror without being seen.
I watched him as he watched Manny kill the whole cup without bringing it down from his mouth a second time, then picked up the second beer without wiping his lips or even waiting for the bubbles in his belly to settle and started on that one, too. He didn’t seem to see the bartender at all until he lifted up his finger to signal for another beer, saw the guy in the mirror looking at him and then poked at the cup for another one like he still didn’t care.
When he got back his change, he said, “It’s good for a guy to drink once a while, Boyd.”
I took a swallow of my coke so as not to have to look at him, or the bartender, who grinned crookedly, while I waited for Manny to finish off the second beer. He looked like he really needed it, a full paper cup in one hand and the other tipped bottom up and draining. I had to walk slow behind him as he gulped big swallows of the third one with every step he took all the way back down the hall to the dance floor. It seemed to me that he was hitting that booze like it was going out of style.
He’d almost killed the cup by the time we reached the exit from the floor where we had to slow down for a crowd of people bunched around the two yo-yos we’d seen before, who were now struggling over the burning bill or what was left of it, it was so black and crumpled and half gone.
The short, skinny blond who had been burning it tried to get it back from his tall, tough buddy, the mean one with the red wrinkles on his neck, clawing for it up high in his buddy’s hand, cussing as he did: “Somebitch, gi’me back maw mu-ney. Awl burn it if aw want to!”
But the tall Okie was only giving him the hard heel of his hand to the chin, and finally stiff-armed him so hard when he lunged for the bill that he lost his balance and fell down, but grabbed the tall guy by the arm and pulled him down with him. I saw them disappear from the outside of the crowd in a tangle of legs and arms that made it hard to tell which belonged to who when they hit, then lost sight of them altogether when two cops started clubbing their way through the crowd to get to them, scattering everybody close around.
A couple of beefy-cheeked bulls, middle-aged and fat, but the only cops left around during the war since all the young guys were overseas, they were still good enough to break up these two country boys with a thonk apiece on their skulls. Then they dragged them to their feet, panting hard, and cussing bad, and shook them around a little bit to get them to stand still and shut up. The burned bill had disappeared.
“My sister could have put on a better show than that,” Manny said and killed his third beer, dropped the paper cup in a trash can, then started to circle around the milling crowd to the dance floor, but stopped when the mean, Okie sailor said, “Better than a dog face could do, or shorty here,” and thumbed at me and snorted and turned to a redheaded sailor buddy standing next to him. He looked cocksure, but shut his jaw real quick when Manny answered back: “Take a chance, Yo-yo, and see what happens.”
The guy didn’t say anything back even though his big red-haired buddy, who must have been at least six-three and two-thirty, said, “Haw!” out of his puffy face and straightened up and got serious, too.
I was scared he might say something more and start a fight and held my breath as Manny turned away from him and edged by the skinny, blond sailor, who now had his cap planted low on his forehead and his hands on his hips and, with a smirk on his mouth, wouldn’t move for us.
Manny worked his way past him to the outside of the crowd, sort of sucking me after him in his wake, and then almost lost me again until he got to a clear spot in the hallway where he stopped and said in a dead serious tone: “Don’t think you’re not in it, if it starts, Boyd. So you better help or we’ll both take a beating,” and started through the entrance onto the dance floor as the band started blowing again, without even giving me a chance to act scared.
The rattle of the drums was a wind-up to get started and call all the people back to the floor. Then I saw the stamp of Hamp’s foot and off the band went into a half-time jitterbug number that got all the good dancers out there, including Gene, who swished around on the hardwood with his suave kind of dance step, and lots of people came in from the hall just to watch him, including the two fighting sailors themselves.
They walked toward him, both of them sweating and still panting, weaving back and forth: the tough Okie with one elbow on his little buddy’s shoulder, his hand resting on the guy’s hat, shoving it down on his head, his other arm around the shoulder of the girl with the big boobs and the corsage, crushing both her boob and her corsage with his clumsy fingers, both of the sailors cussing so loud and laughing so hard that they didn’t see any of the people they bumped into, and when the drunk one hit against me with his hip and knocked me to the side with a grunt, they didn’t even notice.
“Hey, Yo-yo! What do you think you’re doing?” Manny said, grabbing me and holding me up on my feet.
“What ‘a you care, Doggie?” the tough one asked, still holding onto his girl, while his drunk buddy pushed his elbow off his shoulder and steadied himself, then challenged: “Yeah! An’ whataya gonna do about it?”
“You make the move and find out, yo-yo!” Manny said and spread his legs to fight just as the sailor threw a flying block at his chest, but hardly touched it with his shoulder before he got hit by a flicking left hook uppercut, inside and up like a pure reflex on Manny’s part, that clicked on the underside of the guy’s chin and dropped him down to the floor.
He stayed down as far as I knew, because the tough sailor pushed the girl away when he saw what happened and leaned back and cocked a right hand behind him and threw it overhand at Manny like it was a baseball instead of a fist, and missed.
Manny bobbed to his left below it, then swung right back on a heel and toe to his right with a left hook and caught the sailor with a crack of knuckles that carried him two feet through the air, slanted sidewise, before he dropped. He’d flattened both of them. I’d never seen anything like that in my life.
“Watch yourself, Boyd!” Manny shouted, but I never got to answer because the girl with the big boobs squealed and staggered backwards on her high heels as if she was still off balance from the push the sailor had given her or had just got hit by Manny. People must have thought that, because the skinny, blond sailor staggered to his feet, poked his head out on a long neck and shouted, “Hey! Come see what this here dog face is doin’ to our gals,” then swung his arm in a circle for his friends in the hallway to come help.
Manny was already shuffling forward to fight the skinny guy again, his eyes glittering like icepick points when the big redheaded sailor came tearing through the sailors in front of him, throwing one to each side to make room, shouting,”Somebitch slug my buddy,” and threw a clobbering right hand that came down like a sledgehammer instead of going straight and thudded off Manny’s forehead when he ducked and buckled his knees, made him squint as if his skull was numbed and couldn’t see but a blur around him, and could barely hear the boom-boom of the base drum in half-time, or feel the crush of the huge crowd. He caught another one to the head and his knees buckled again, and I was sure he was going down this time.
I heard the loud crash of the cymbals just as I jumped up and grabbed the big sailor’s black neckerchief from behind him and jerked his head back and his chin flew up and his cap flew off and his mouth flew open and he clutched at his throat with the black kerchief knot up tight against his Adam’s apple.
But in the second it took me to do it, Manny hit his exposed chin with a hard right and buckled the redhead’s knees this time and kept on punching the big guy with both hands to the head and body, hitting the guy hard as he went all the way down to his knees in front of him, seeming to double-time the drumbeat, and kept blistering the guy’s face so bright red that I was scared he’d beat him to death, for the punches seemed to hold him up, keep the guy from falling forward and out, and I almost screamed for him to stop until I saw that it was me who was holding the guy’s head up by hanging onto the tail end of the black kerchief, and I let go, then skipped back with fright as the guy’s head dropped with a dull thud to the floor.
Manny stopped punching only then and stood over the guy, panting hard, to make sure the big guy was out, before he glanced up at me and grinned, but I got hit hard in the back right then by the sneering skinny blond and knocked, grunting, right toward Manny, who reached out to catch me and got hit, too, by the guy, who then shouted, “Ho! Ho! All you swabbies, he’p me kill this here dog face!” and charged at Manny again.
But Manny had let go of me and was already crouched to meet the charge of the guy and all his friends, with his teeth showing in a tiny smirk, and a doubled fist by each flexed jaw muscle. Then with his head down so that he only caught the punches that touched him on the back of his head and shoulders, he started banging to their bodies with both hands, blasting every sailor that got close to him with a crippling blow to the gut, caving each guy in, and getting the rest of them so excited that they got in each other’s way and hit each other by mistake and hit other people in the watching crowd, too, who got mad and hit back, while Manny, who backed up as he punched, bumped into the people behind him, who were pushing forward to see the big fight, who bumped into guys behind them, who got mad and started punching at them, and pretty quick there were about four or five other fights going on between sailors and civilians, and sailors and sailors, and civilians and civilians, too, while the cops were trying to beat their way into the center of the riot with their billyclubs to the bang of the drum, the blare of the trumpets, the curses of the sailors, the screams of the girls, who stampeded with fright and scared everybody around them, and got them wild with fright, too, and they stampeded, too, and many people fell and nearly everyone around got trapped in the huge, tussling, scuffling, punching, kicking, milling crowd, that kept revolving and revolving with such increasing momentum that it suddenly broke loose and surged down the dance floor like a huge wave, catching everybody on the floor up in it, sucking everybody along.
Dancers and cops were knocked around by the smashing force of the screaming, stampeding crowd. Dancers lost their partners, and the cops their clubs. Manny got spun around in a circle like he was caught in a whirlpool, a stiff-featured set to his face, not even thinking of fighting anymore, only concerned with somehow keeping his hold on me now, one hand on the back of my coat collar, the other on my arm, to keep me from getting knocked down and stomped to death beneath all those metal-plated shoes and dagger-sharp high heels, and I had only one thought myself and that was to hold onto Manny’s wrist for life or death, too scared to even scream. Then Manny got swept down the floor and lost his grip on me.
Stretched out and battered by the bodies of people in the crowd like a small flag in a bad wind, I had the luck to grab hold of an iron railing which fenced in the spectators’ seats. I pulled myself up onto the elevated platform, then stood up on a seat and watched the tidal wave of people sort of batter itself down the dance floor with a rumbling roar that reverberated way up in the gallery, where it echoed and re-echoed like an unbroken barrage of cannon fire, against the ominous background sound of the band, punctuated by the man yells and the girl screams and the hoarse shouts for help of people who had got knocked down and trampled over, then left sprawled behind by the huge crowd that kept surging in a big circle like a whirlpool that went all the way around the floor and back to the bandstand where it had started from and where it came to a crushing, grunting halt with an interlocking of arms and legs, breasts and backs, shoulders and hips just as Hamp brought his arm down with the last beat of the half-time piece and stopped the band.
For just a few seconds there was almost absolute quiet and almost absolute stillness in the big arena, only a shuffling of feet and a rippling of heads as the whole mob seemed to set like jello, stick together so close that I could only see a bubble of blue uniforms below me, white caps like ducks at sea, and lipstick spots and pompadours where girls stood, and I could have never found Manny, though I kept looking for him.
But in those moments of silence so utter and so out of place after what had just happened, Hamp suddenly woke up and saw what was facing him, that the riot had stopped for just a second and he straightened up like a soldier, looked down at the crowd again, then spun around, shouted, “Gin for Christmas,” whipped his hand around to wind up his band fast, stamped his foot down, “Bam-bam-bam!” to start them off on the right beat, to hit it and hop right to it, and help him capture that mob before it got loose again.
His body movements seemed to crackle like fire. I could hear the rustle of his clothes when he swung his wrist around, then whipped his whole arm wide for the rhythm section to take it away as the stamps of his foot cracked like pistol shots just before the horns came in with a blasting chorus, as exciting as a marching band, and the rippling of heads and the shuffling of feet came to a complete stop as every face in the crowd looked up and looked long, as every guy and girl got caught up and swept along by the pulsing beat, the rousing chorus, then began to bob their heads after the first couple of bars, then sway in time with the groups around them, and the groups themselves to cause dips and swells like waves or heads in the middle of the human sea, because everybody was with it, and stayed with it.
Hamp had them and he kept them, and as soon as he knew he had them, he leaped over to his drums and picked up his sticks and started to rat-a-tat-tat for them, and everybody in the band grinned and hustled to help him, from the base man humped over his big-bodied baby to the horn men with their pursed mouths curled up at the corners, and grins began to flicker up like foam flecks from the crowd below, which made Hamp feel so good that he began to grunt to the chord sounds that the base made, and people in the crowd picked up and liked it and joined him, and pretty quick there was one big chorus of “Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!” and he kept tom-toming away until he was sure that they were hypnotized, hung up with him, then he stopped drumming and stepped out in front again, and stopped grunting, and spun back around to his band and twirled his drum stick up high and then down like a baton and brought the band right down to a quick blaring finish of the short piece, then twirled back around to face the crowd, and, sweating so hard that he gleamed, he threw up his arms and bowed low from the waist.
The whole gigantic crowd busted up in a great big shout for Hamp and his boys, a prolonged applause that was pierced by whistles and punctuated by stamping feet, and more yells and more whistles and more clapping for two or three more minutes because everybody realized that Hamp had saved the scene, had made them feel good when they had felt bad and had flipped out.
Then the whole crowd seemed to crack apart all at once like a honeycomb, when the applause finally began to quiet down, and the people headed for the exits, to hit that hallway and have a drink and come back down to normal once again.
As the masses of people flowed on by me, still standing up on the seat in the box section by the exit, and thinned out on the floor, I caught sight of Manny, about ten feet from the bandstand, and I waved my arm until he finally saw me up high, waved back, then started toward me.
I took a good look at him as he drew slowly near to me, then reached out and grabbed my hand and helped me down to the dance floor, where he squeezed both of my shoulders, then, resting his hand lightly on my shoulder, walked into the hall with me, relaxed and happy.
Excerpt from 7th Street Jump, by Floyd Salas