Saturday, June 9, 2012

I was beautiful at the Hotel Sterling

--> It was 1941, and I was dancing in circles in the Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Sterling while the rest of the room looked on, enviously delighted by my carefree whimsy on the dancefloor.  I was wearing a yellow dress with ruffled sleeves and a big scarf that shimmered a great deal in any direction I moved.  The weather was warm and breezy.  There had been a terrible storm the night before that served only to polish some coal dust off of the Wilkes-Barre landscape, supplying my memories of that night with a kind of glitz not often observed here in the NePa.  This recollection comes 61 years later, yet I remember it so fondly.  I was growing into a mature young woman and spent the night spinning like a top on the dance floor with my Senior Prom Date, Cousin Vince.

Even though my Walter and I had known each other in high school, I continually turned down his propositions when we were students, and thus, l did not have a date.  My sister Iris convinced me to ask Cousin Margie's permission that her husband, Vincent Seracino, accompany me to my Senior Prom, held at the swanky Hotel Sterling in Wilkes-Barre, PA.  Oh I was so excited for a night of dinner and dancing at the Sterling!  Margie hated to dance, but Vincent was an absolute dreamboat on the dance floor.  We always danced together at weddings and family outings.  Back then, Daddy taught us to hate the Italians, for the jobs they took away from our boys, so when Margie married Vince, many of our relatives disowned her and she needed to curry favor from all of us every chance she got. But I never believed that Italians were bad deep in my heart.  I loved the foxtrot and so did Vincent, and he was all smiles when he was in his element.  

Mother taught me how to work my thick Eastern European tresses, and she assisted with the incorporation of tiny grape hyacinth buds into my hair,  plucked from the clay of our modest Swoyerville backyard gardens.   I remember wearing my shiny raven hair in an upsweep, spending almost the entire day getting every tendril to drape perfectly, having received my first permanent wave the week before.  I have always had poker straight thick hair.  Naturally, I still require the perms, and still receive compliments for my coiffures even now at my advanced age, although I am salt and pepper.   More pepper than salt if you can believe it!

Mother and I wove grape hyacinth blossoms through my hair and also festooned 2 golden barettes with the posies on each side.  The curls and purple blossoms that we grew ourselves were tucked everywhere for a marvelous effect.  My Mother was so very clever and had a wonderful sense of artistry.  She also fashioned a corsage with the Peonies from our backyard garden.  All the details were in place, and last year's corset from The Boston Store Bargain Basement still fit me like a glove underneath the sophisticated yellow dress I had borrowed from Iris.  But with the really important things, my family was less helpful:  How was I to act on my first date?  Do all gentleman 'expect things?'   I needed practical advice on how to powder myself, and at what intervals depending on the given activity of the moment, but mother never gave advice to prepare me for sexual awakenings, so I never knew them when they occurred.  When all of these new feelings swept over me, I felt like a helpless victim.  A longing began to grow inside of me, but I swept it under the carpet.  Delight had always turned into guilt, something which both confused and comforted me.  Mother witnessed a lot of horror in Slovakia, and now there was a big language barrier.  She couldn't read and barely spoke English, but her fear of the Almighty iron fisted ruler of our destiny had a profound effect on all of the kids.  Father Olexy's advice was to say NO, and to allow suitors the ability to kiss only my hand.  But how could I stop from sinking into nothingness if our lips met on the dance floor?  I banished all thoughts of Father Olexy and his stern warnings from my mind.  I just wanted to smell Vincent’s aftershave.

Vincent had a pretty redness in his cheek on this night.  He wore a jet black mustache that shined and gleamed the same as his thick wavy hair. I gasped when a maroon Lincoln Zephyr pulled into the driveway!  Now, let’s do some math.  Vincent Seracino was a local businessman who owned a Paper Supply Shop over in Pringle.  I'm guessing since he was Italian,  he obtained this luxury car through mafioso ties out in Pittston, for I had never seen him driving it before or after, and how else would a cardboard box salesman afford such an indulgence? I didn’t care. When he stepped out of that car wearing a rich brown tuxedo, strutting confidently in my direction, my neck got warm; my skin flushed with a wave of gooseflesh and nerves.  This kept happening to me all night, and I thought these sensations were new and exciting and terrific.  Cousin Margie could have been one thousand miles away for as much as I thought about her.  Whenever I stole a glance of Vincent's pretty eyelashes, curling up on the ends,  I became trapped in a daze for a few seconds.  His dark brown Italian eyes seemed to be surveying my figure as never before, and at times, they engulfed me with deadly force and undaunted magnitude. 

Now The Hotel Sterling was an impressive hotel for us coalmining folk.  The ediface stands to this day, dilpidated and abandoned, but back then was it was a showpiece for out of towners, and where the locals went to exude style and class.  All the gals were excited and nervous to see the legendary two story lobby with the grand marble columns we had only read about in the papers, and heard about from my older sister Zlata.  We giggled like boobies in the Ladies lounge about the soaring towers of shiny marble that made us feel like tiny peanuts in comparison.  A string quartet was playing in the lobby as we entered, and the violin music filled my ears--nothing like my sister Iris' violin when she practiced at home.  Our school had booked a salon for an hour of hors d’ouvres and conversation before dinner, and it required us to go to the tower portion of the hotel connected by a sweeping long corridor in between called Peacock Alley.   Oh the food at the Sterling was marvelous, but I hardly ate a thing that night, beginning a lifelong obsession about food and my waistline.

We arrived in a bustle of traffic, car horns and naysayers, who were mostly angry that we prom goers were holding up traffic on River Street and also over the Market Street Bridge.  With my Chickadee Yellow dress and Vincent’s dapper tuxedo--certainly, we turned heads and stopped traffic.  There were tall vases stuffed with plumes and ornamental grass at  the entrance of the grand Hotel, and a band in the distance played Moonlight Serenade and Green Eyes.  Still later, this band was playing a Charleston.  The elegant hotel was dimly lit by candles and diffused Hollywood lighting.  I drank it all in emphatically, and when I heard the charleston it caused me to let out a heretofore unfamiliar low pitched sigh and ironic chortle.  Dancing the Charleston made me feel quaint and mature, and all grown up.  The air smelled of bacon, garlic, flashpops, Green Goddess, fruit compote and my own Chanilly by Houbigant, something my three sisters and I afforded by sharing a spray bottle of the classic eau de parfum between us. 

When Vince and I marched down Peacock Alley on the way to our surf and turf, my footsteps were tiny and light, so wistful and delicate on the tile floor.  In my white two inch heels with cutwork over the toes, I don't think my feet made any noise at all.  And when I was dancing, he twirled me everywhere and I felt weightless.   Just like a moviestar, but something terrible happened that night.   I will post Part II when I can muster courage and write it all out.  I've never told anybody before.

Yours in the Love of Christ,
Mrs. Walter J. Katsellas, Jr

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