June 1, 1929
The humidity that day was extreme. Shoes turned velvety green with mildew. Towels hung out to dry came in so damp they had to be cranked through the clothes wringer again. Saltines drooped limp as slices of bologna.
But nothing and no one was going to wilt me. Not today. I had already been a lot of things in my young life—vaudeville performer, dance instructor, waitress, dishwasher, pants presser, babysitter. And other things I won’t mention. Mostly, I was always what Mamie, my mother, needed me to be to earn money.
Today, though, today was the first day of the life that I chose.
By some miracle, I had won a scholarship to study at St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing located on Galveston. I sat up even straighter on my dusty maroon velvet seat aboard the Houston-Galveston Interurban Railway. Even though the island was barely more than an hour away, this was my first visit.
The cabin—sleek and modern as a rocket ship out of a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century comic strip—was the perfect vehicle to launch me into my future. I was so terrified of what lay ahead and so thrilled about what lay ahead that, had I been a dog, I would have stuck my head out the window and panted and drooled from sheer excitement.
But, being a seventeen-year-old girl from Houston’s notorious Vinegar Hill neighborhood determined to hide who she really was, I sat up primly and folded my hands in my lap instead. My palms were sodden with sweat and butterflies churned through my gut. This was worse than any case of stage fright I’d ever endured back on the vaudeville circuit.
School had just let out and jolly vacationers packed the car. No one else onboard appeared to have a care in the world. Not the women in crisp white linen dresses and open-toed sandals. Or the men in straw boater hats. Or the boys in sailor suits. Or the little girls with long curls and short dresses with bloomers.
A party atmosphere pervaded the car. The men talked too loudly. Mothers let their children stand on the seats. A couple of the women, giggling behind their hands at their daring, lit up cigarettes and carefully blew the smoke out the window.
Everyone acted like naughty children playing hooky. And why not? Back on Vinegar Hill, we all knew that Galveston was a wide-open town where Prohibition was a suggestion instead of the law of the land. Where gambling wasn’t considered any worse than chewing tobacco. And the prostitutes who worked openly along Galveston’s infamous Line outnumbered spotted dogs. The island was drenched in a dark and irresistible glamour so potent that the biggest-name entertainers in the country performed in the nightclubs, casinos, and supper clubs there. Duke Ellington. Glenn Miller. Sophie Tucker. Harry James. Phil Harris. They all came.
What impressed us most, though, was that the whole operation had been created and was still run by a pair of brothers who’d emigrated from Sicily. They’d started out as poor as any of us, working as barbers, cutting hair for a quarter a head. When the island’s biggest bootlegger, looking for an inconspicuous spot to stash his hooch, offered the brothers a dollar a case to hide his haul, they snatched up the deal. But, though they didn’t know much English, they knew business. Instead of taking the payoff, they bought their way into the bootleg business. In an astonishingly short time, the brothers, and their network of family members, had created a glorious empire of vice and were running the island.
I tried to recall the family’s name but could only remember how all the small-time Vinegar Hill chiselers always spoke of the island’s ruling family with a combination of admiration and fear.
“Don’t ever cross that family,” they’d warned us kids who stood around, soaking up their street-corner wisdom and lies and not caring which was which. “Unless you want to end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Halfway to Havana. With your throat slit. And nobody in the entire state’s gonna do a goddamn thing about it. Because that family’s got every deputy and every sheriff in the county in their pocket. Shitfire. That bunch even owns the goddamn Texas Rangers.”
An empire of vice, even if it was run by a family, seemed an odd place to start a new, a decent life, but my one and only chance to leave Vinegar Hill and Mamie behind waited for me on Galveston Island. If only I could impersonate a normal girl well enough to seize it.
Gripping my hands so tightly the knuckles whitened, I forced myself to concentrate on the view. We were hurtling across the Galveston Causeway. A vast flatness of sea and sky extended as far as I could see. A flock of gulls circled in a vortex outside my window. They hovered so close and so nearly motionless that I could almost touch them.
When a chubby boy in short pants tossed the crust of his sandwich out the window, the birds responded as one. In perfect synchronization, they all angled their bodies toward the crust and pivoted as if they were one creature. The sunlight momentarily transformed the flock into solid white paper sculptures. The origami seabirds floating in the sunlight were the purest, most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
I relaxed. What was I so nervous about? A place was waiting for me at St. Mary’s. My scholarship application had already been accepted.
Under false pretenses.
My mother’s hissing reminders became the voice of all the doubts slithering through my head.
We passed under the high arc of a sign that read “Welcome to Galveston. Playground of the Southwest.”
Three porpoises, their sleek bodies arcs of silver, leaped from the water at that moment. They dove back under and a fizz of hope bubbled through me.
Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Bird