Photo by Annie Mole
This is a story about my grandmother, who was young in Manhattan in the 1920s. Speakeasies, nightclubs, drop-waisted dresses, bobbed hair, cloche hats, waist-length strands of dime-store pearls. Even for a middle-class workaday office girl like Frances Thornton, those were heady times. She was among the first of the gals in her office to bob her hair, which caused Chub, her beau at the time, to walk right past her at their standard meeting place, under the clock at Grand Central. Snubbed by Chub! And all over some hair! Never mind. A stuck-up boy like that wasn’t worth her time anyway.
One night, in 1926, Frances got out of work late. She threw on her coat and ran for the trolley, feeling totally in control of things as usual. It was a later car than she usually took, so she didn’t recognize any familiar faces – her work schedule usually brought her in contact with the same daily crowd between uptown and downtown. What’s more, this later car was standing room only, so she shifted her bags to her shoulder and grabbed a free hand-strap, bumping knees with a few other seated passengers. A strange man came along and took the hand strap next to her, leaning against her as the trolley sped and swayed between stops.
In fact, this guy standing behind her — he seemed to be doing more than just leaning against her. At first she thought it was her imagination, but soon she realized she actually did feel something – his hand, it must be, for god’s sake – teasingly tickling the backs of her knees around the hem of her coat. Well, for the love of Pete. Wouldn’t you know!
She turned and gave that pervert a killing look, but he seemed blissfully ignorant, reading the paper. He was pretending as if nothing at all was happening. Was she dreaming? She scrutinized the passengers seated in front of her, but none of them looked like the sex fiend type. Maybe she had imagined it.
Two stops later, the tickling began again, and now it felt like someone was tapping their fingers lightly up the backs of her legs, temptingly reaching toward her ample, feminine derriere. Well for the love of Peter, Paul and Mary! She turned and gave the man behind her a good smack.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing? What, you think I’m some ignorant dummy? Stop it right now or I’ll call a cop!” she said.
The man only looked surprised. And then, while she could see his hands still up in front of himself, holding his paper in a way to fend her off, she felt it again. This time, she felt the ticklish sensation start to skid and scamper from her tender backside down to her knees – to the hem of her coat – and then continue scrambling around toward the front pocket . . .
There was something – something alive — inside the hem of her coat!
She tore the coat off and screamed, realizing the horrible truth about what must have happened.
The office girls all hung their coats in a dank anteroom with uninsulated walls, and she had hung hers against a rickety corner. She had left a few candies in her coat pocket. Her coat pocket had a hole. Most likely, a critter of some kind – a mouse, or, god forbid, a rat – must have crawled into her pocket after the candies at some point during the long workday, and it had fallen down the hole in her pocket, and into the hemmed lining of her coat. Now, it was trying desperately to scramble up and out to freedom.
“EEEEEEEEEEK!” she cried. “A mouse! There’s a mouse in my coat!”
The poor man she’d been beating a moment ago, sighed and launched into action. He grabbed the coat she’d just hurled into the air, methodically felt around until he cornered the poor beastie in a corner of the lining, and smacked the corner hard against the trolley car window – “Ker-THUNK! Ker-THUNK!” — until the lump went motionless. Then, to the great amusement of their fellow passengers, he handed the coat back to my grandmother.
It was a lovely camel hair coat, belted, with a big rounded collar and horn buttons. Except for the dead, inert pulpy thing in the lining, it had been a perfectly serviceable coat, and still in fashion. However, our young fearless working girl was feeling suddenly charitable, and so she dropped it off at the Salvation Army that night. They were very happy to receive the donation. Ignorance is bliss.
Sally Pla is a San Diego-based writer with deep New York roots, currently at work on an illustrated collection of sartorial family vignettes titled “Life And What We Wore.” This story about her grandmother is a part of the collection.