There were four year old ladies sitting in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. They were four of the oldest ladies to be found anywhere. They sat facing one another in a quartet of lackluster wing chairs, holding themselves as motionless as a photograph. Across the lobby, a whey-faced man in a colorfully stained overcoat and an Army hat read loudly from a racing form for the obvious benefit of a young hatcheck girl who chewed gum and said nothing.
One of the old ladies had a garishly painted scarf tied sportily around her neck. Her mouth was lost in an enormous circle of red lipstick and her cheeks were made up to the color of a runover peach. She fingered the tip of her scarf lightly, as if it were a corsage.
“This scarf…” she said suddenly. She stopped, out of breath, as if she had just run a great distance. One of the other ladies turned her head and looked away. “Mary gave me this scarf,” the lady with the red mouth declared. She tightened her grip on the scarf and flapped it at her three companions. “I think it’s quite lovely, really.”
Another one of the ladies leaned forward and examined the scarf with interest. Her eyes swam around behind a pair of thick-lensed spectacles like tropical fish in an aquarium. She reached out a bony hand and nudged the lady sitting beside her, who gave the appearance of being dead.
“Mary,” the lady with the fish eyes said, “Alice is speaking to you.”
Mary awoke with a start, as if there had been a loud explosion. The lady with the aquarium spectacles pointed gently to Alice who was waving her scarf gaily in their direction.
“A lovely scarf,” Alice repeated, “in my opinion.”
Mary stared in terror at the lady with the lipstick mouth. Her hands tightened around the arms of her chair as if she were floating away. Her mouth began to tremble and open slowly, like a monster coming to life. A thin thread of saliva ran unheralded down her chin.
“Filth!” she cried out loudly. “Nothing but!”
Her words were drowned out immediately by the high-pitched sound of a radio turned to full volume. The music swept through the lobby like the heralding of trumpets, bringing with it an exuberant crowd of people executing an impressive Fellini-like costumed entrance.
Leading the pack was Stevie Wonder, wearing a pair of wire-framed aviator sunglasses and a black leather outfit intricately splattered with metal studding. He had a matching cap that he wore cocked smartly to one side, Dead End Kid-style. His head bobbed about freely on top of his tall, erect body, as if it were on a broken spring.
Stevie’s brother Calvin held his left elbow lightly, moving him through the lobby to the elevators. Pulling up alongside in a semi-jog was a heavyset black man wearing the bluest of all possible blue track suits with snazzy red-and-white piping running everywhere, a pair of white Adidas sneakers and a terry-cloth tennis cap. He carried a combination radio-and-cassette player, which he held up to his ear and listened to intently every now and then, as if he were about to receive instructions from headquarters.
Following at close quarters was the rest of the entourage, several men with leather coats and embroidered briefcases and a sprinkling of ladies, some breathtakingly beautiful, others surprisingly unremarkable. Trailing the group was Ira Tucker, Stevie Wonder’s general factotum. Tucker studied the lobby from behind a pair of lightly tinted heart-shaped glasses, apparently finding nothing of interest in what he saw.
“Steve!” a man’s voice boomed. “What’s your hurry?”
Stevie stopped moving, tossing his head to one side, pulling Calvin slightly off balance. Everybody else wound down to a halt.
“Hey, Pat!” Stevie called out in a small shout. “Where you at?”
Pat came over and took Stevie by the hand. He was the manager of Feathers, the bar and restaurant of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Pat was a stocky, full-faced man who was a museum of New York reflexes. The waistband of his trousers rode low on his bulky frame.
“So,” Pat said, still holding on to Stevie’s hand, “you’re back to do the Garden?”
“Tomorrow night,” Stevie said. His head wandered over to one side until his chin was almost touching his shoulder.
“That makes two shows in New York on the same tour,” Pat said. “That’s big stuff.”
“The first gig was on Long Island,” Ira Tucker said. “Uniondale, someplace way out. An entirely different part of the country.”
“The Garden is the big one,” Pat told them.
“It should be,” Stevie said, “a beautiful thing.”
“Then what? Back to the coast?”
“Well, it looks as though we might be going to Japan,” Stevie said. “Maybe Australia, New Zealand…”
“New Zealand!” Pat said. He looked around and beamed at everybody. “You folks are too crazy for New Zealand!”
“New Zealand’s supposed to be very cool,” Tucker said. “My sister did a tour in New Zealand. She said New Zealand was funky.”
“If it is not cool,” Calvin stated, “it will be cool when we arrive.”
“Maybe there are a lot of women down there,” Pat said. “Who knows?”
“Now you understand, of course,” Stevie said, pulling himself so close to Pat’s face that he was practically whispering in his ear, “I don’t go in for that sort of thing at this point.”
“So then,” Pat said at length, “it was a good tour for you guys?”
“Pretty good,” Tucker said. “We made about 26 cities in something like 30 minutes.”
He shrugged this off, “We did okay, though.”
“The people were beautiful,” Stevie said. “Everywhere we went.”
Pat clapped Stevie on the back and waved them off as he went back into the restaurant. “Come in for a drink later,” he called after them.
“I had a Tequila Sunrise in there today,” Calvin shouted back. “There was no tequila in it, man. It was all sunrise.”
“You’re too young for tequila,” Pat told him, but by this time they had all moved on through the lobby and were waiting for an elevator.
The four old ladies, who had been watching the entire exchange as if they were sitting at center court, turned their heads and watched Stevie Wonder’s caravan trail away.
“Who was that?” the lady with the fish eyes asked.
“What?” Mary demanded in a shrill voice, nearly pulling herself out of her chair. “What is it?”
“I was asking,” the lady with the fish eyes said in a loud, patient tone, “who was that tall Negro man who was standing here?”
Her voice carried through the entire lobby. The hatcheck girl lifted her eyes momentarily and swung her hair lightly behind one ear.
“Too much noise,” Mary said to nobody at all. “Too much dirt, wherever you are.”
“I’m not sure,” said Alice with the lipstick mouth, “but I thought I recognized that young man. I’ve seen his picture.” She tapped her forehead with one finger, a pantomime of thought. “I believe he’s an athlete of some sort,” she said at last. “A basketball player, unless I’m incorrect.”
The hotel room was a low-level still life; everything within it was tainted by its dreary karma. The flowered drapes hung lifelessly by the windows like flags on a muggy day. The faded wallpaper and the worn-out carpeting were testimonials to the unglamorous appointments of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.
“This room is a mess!” Stevie said, walking from the bedroom into the living room. “It is a terrible, terrible state for a room to be in.”
“It is,” Ira Tucker agreed, “a mess.” He picked up a stray electrical cord from a chair, reflectively tossed it on the floor and sat down. “For a star of your magnitude, man,” he said, “you are a disappointment to us all.”
“It’s blind people,” Stevie said, standing thoughtfully in the middle of the room. “Blind people are messy.” He turned his head and faced Tucker with an innocent grin. “They are not to be blamed for their personal … uh … appearance.”