Motion Pictures

She leaves their flat before her father comes home and walks the long blocks of the East Side. The sidewalks are icy and snow clings to the old iron railings. Saturday morning. She scans the marquee and waits her turn in line.

Stepping to the glass booth she takes a coin from the little black fabric change purse and closes it with a that satisfying snap. One coin she’s been saving from the week. She takes her ticket and walks through the velvet curtain to find a seat by herself, gathering her jacket around her. She does this every week.

One coin and no one will bother her, no one will hurt her. She can stay all day. Away from her father and his unpredictable rages. Away from work – she’d had to take a job while her girlfriends back at school prepared for graduation. One coin so she can sit all afternoon and lose herself in the gauzy images, so beautiful, so happy, or so tragic – these make believe, made-up lives – stories to transport the small, seventeen-year-old out of a cold city into a safe and gleaming world.

She’d settle in, wide-eyed, while Joan Blondell and Dick Powell sang and tap-danced on unbelievably glistening stages, surrounded by the military symmetry of Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers. She’d thrill to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood romancing his Lady Marian – maybe wondering if she could imitate Olivia de Havilland’s flirtatious smile. She could even pretend to be the delicate Merle Oberon and pour out her troubles to a tall and irresistible Gary Cooper. Twenty-five cents to stay inside and watch motion pictures while the depression continued to erode lives outside.

I imagine her back then and wish I could sit down beside her just once, offer her some warm popcorn, and tell her things would all turn out okay. But that was so long before I was born – her youngest of five. So many years later I had no idea what it might have meant to her to cuddle up on the couch together on a weekday after school, watching reruns of those old films. “Poor Gene Tierney,” she said once. And I had to figure out later what she meant. “And Tyrone Power, he was so handsome!” I watched with her then and learned how a story can possess the magical power of transformation. That beauty and grace, wedded with humor or even with sadness could transmute despair and provide a form of imaginary companionship. She’d smile as if she’d known all of them intimately, all those stars in merciful soft focus, like dear old friends.

The stories she finally told me of those days stay with me and I see that young woman in the dark so alone. Like the one shiny coin preserved all week for the glory and solace of a Saturday afternoon at the movies.


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