The Girl Who Loved Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce portrait in oil by Dale Hartman

(I wrote this in 1968 for a college freshman writing class. The teacher gave it A+ and suggested sending it to a magazine.)

My brother barged into my room just as I was starting to get undressed for bed. I opened my mouth to yell, and closed it again after a quick glance at his face. He looked kind of strange, almost like he been crying or something.

“Are you drunk?” I demanded.

“Keep your voice down and sit for a minute. I’ve got to talk to you.”

I sat on the edge of the bed and waited. Donny walked around the room, picking things up and putting them down. He regarded the picture of my army boyfriend that was stuck in the mirror frame.

“You in love with that kid?” he said abruptly.

“I happen to think so.”

“Then you’ll help me,” he said determinedly.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m in love with this girl. You’ve got to help me.”

“Now I’ll tell one,” I thought, but said aloud, “What did you have in mind? A Captain John and Priscilla sort of thing?”

“Be serious dammit and listen.” He sat at the desk and lit a cigarette. “This girl, she works in Kresge’s. I got to meet her. What you use for an ashtray?”

“The wastebasket.”

“Good way to start a fire, Genius.”

“You’re welcome to go to your own room and use your own ashtray. Why not just go up and introduce yourself, or pick her up her hankie, or something? I notice you scored pretty good so far. What was that blonde’s name? Desiree?”

“Shut up. This girl doesn’t talk to guys.”

“Not any?”

“None. I hang around there on my lunch hour and after work, and I’ve seen her give the brush to every man who comes within 10 feet of her.” Donny’s voice was despondent.

“If they all look the way you do on your lunch hour, covered with grease and crankcase oil and whatever else, I don’t blame her,” I teased.

“It doesn’t matter,” he insisted. “College types, creeps, businessmen, Boy Scouts, freaks, it doesn’t make any difference. She won’t give them the time of day.”

I was completely in the dark. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Well, you could sort of make friends with her. Be pals. Just bring her over to the house once, and I’ll take it from there.”

“Donny, are you nuts? You think I can just walk up to some standoffish girl and invite her home, and she’s going to fall all over herself thanking me and run right over here and dive into your waiting arms, and marry you, and everybody lives happily ever after. Right?”

“For God’s sake, Chris, you know how to warm up to somebody. And I don’t care how long it takes.”

Obviously he intended to stay planted in my chair and keep me awake all night, if necessary. I gave up and said, “Okay, tell me about this peerless specimen of womankind.”

“She takes care of the counter where they sell scarves and gloves and things. Near the lunch counter – that’s how I got to see so much of her. She’s small, has dark brown hair to her shoulders, wears a lot of black. About your age, I guess. Yeah she looks maybe 19.”

“Do you know anything about her? Where she lives, who with, where she hangs out?”

“She disappears at 5 o’clock. I’ve watched all the doors and she must have a private tunnel. None of the guys has seen her anywhere either. Except in that store.”

“And you do get around, don’t you? Well all right. I’ll think about it. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

Donny started to go to his own room. “Wait a minute,” I called. “Do you happen to know her name?”

“That’s your job.” He disappeared into the darkness of the hall.

I had to laugh, even though it was kind of sad. My poor helpless big brother, 23 years old, a Navy veteran, and the most-chased guy in the neighborhood – in a situation like this! It really was pathetic,

The next day was Monday. I took a bus home from school, borrowed the car, and drove to Orange Street. Surprisingly, there was a parking space in front of Kresge’s. Once inside the store I headed straight for the lunch counter. A bleached blonde waitress asked for my order and fetched a cup of coffee. It arrived half in the cup and half in the saucer but I didn’t bother to complain since I hadn’t wanted it in the first place. I poured in some sugar and stirred the mess, glancing casually toward the glove and scarf counter.

So this was a Donny’s intended. She did have longish brown hair, but it was a fall. Men never noticed those things, while I could tell from 15 feet away. She was wearing a dreadful red lipstick and a black sweater and skirt. A very confused man was trying to pick out a pair of gloves for his wife, and the girl assisted him politely. Her voice sounded shockingly young, coming out of that red smeared mouth.

Together the man and the girl found a satisfactory pair of gloves. She put them in a bag, rang up the purchase, and returned the change. The man said something in a low voice and the girl’s salesclerk smile disappeared. She turned quickly away and walked to the other end of her counter. The man looked bewildered for a second, shrugged his shoulders, and left.

When I got home that afternoon Donny was in my room, sitting at my desk. He started questioning me even before I had my coat off. To get him off my back I said, “All right I’ll take the case. I’ll need your car a lot though. Daddy’s not going to let me use his every day.”

“Did you find out anything? Her name? Nothing?”

“No, I just looked at her. She was giving the brush to some married guy. I don’t blame her. Everyone seems to think that girls who work in public places have loose morals or something. She probably gets 100 propositions a day.”

Donny groaned. “Chris, get busy. You can have the car every day. I’ll give you money. Anything.”

I couldn’t let him down. I don’t know, the offer of payment was just too much. It was surprising enough to hear him give me unlimited use of the car, when I usually had to twist his arm. I laughed and said, “Come on, you make me feel like a moneygrubbing creep. Consider it a favor. You can do one for me some time, ‘kay? Now get out of here.”

The next day I parked in front of Kresge’s again, this time in my brother’s car. At 5 o’clock I started scrutinizing everyone who came out the door. I saw Donny’s secret love, although he never would have recognized her. She had removed the fall, scrubbed her face, and put on dark glasses. Her hair was boyishly short. She wore loafers and a tan all-weather coat, and carried a huge brown purse. In the car, I followed the girl by circling blocks and catching up with her again until she reached a three-story apartment house on the edge of the downtown area. She went in by a side entrance, and I drove home.

So that was how she got away without being noticed. Poor Donny was so dumb. He had probably stood in front of the store every day for a month, and she could have stepped on his toes every day with him none the wiser. I had to admit that her appearance off-duty was 100% improvement over the way she looked while working. High school age girls just don’t wear red lipstick!

I reported to Donny at home. “First,” I told him, “you wouldn’t know her if she walked in here right now.”

“Are you telling me I wouldn’t recognize the girl I’m in love with, for Pete’s sake?”

“Right. Her hair isn’t hers, if you follow me. It’s what you call a fall. The front part of her hair, the bangs, is real. The long part is hooked on with hairpins and stuff. She takes it off at 5 o’clock and probably carries it home in that big purse.”

Donny looked like a person in shock. Up until that moment I don’t believe he’d even heard of such a thing as a fall. “That’s not all,” I continued. “She takes off that ghastly eye makeup and lipstick, and wears shades. She really is quite pretty.” I promised Donny again that I would get his girl, and he went away to dream his dreams

On Wednesday I bought a pair of gloves. I waited until there were no other customers nearby to interrupt, and started a conversation with Donny’s love. Somehow I found out that she lived alone and that we were indeed the same age. I waved a cheery goodbye and left Kresge’s. It wouldn’t be quitting time for another hour, so I put in time lurking around a department store. At five minutes before five I was back at the now familiar counter in Kresge’s. “Forgot to get a scarf to match,” I explained, holding up my new gloves. Just then an older saleslady bustled over to us.

“Janet, remember to tape up that tax schedule before you leave. It’s just too much trouble opening the book every time.”

Janet asked me if I could find a scarf tomorrow, since it was too close to closing time and it would inconvenience several people if she made another sale. I said that it was perfectly all right, I’d be glad to come back another time, and turned to go.

“Oh,” I said, turning back, “do you know a good place to eat around here? I mean cheap but edible food, you know?”

Janet thought a minute and said, “Wait for me out front. I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine down the street, and you can get a discount at his place for ever after.”

I pretended not to recognize Janet as she came out of the dime store. “Come on,” she said. I let a suitably surprised expression cross my face for a second, and we started walking toward Arnold Avenue.

“I would never have guessed you were wearing a fall,” I said innocently.

“Really it’s kind of an infantile attempt at a disguise. Working in that place is such a comedown. That job is only until I find something better. Here we are. See, it wasn’t far.”

We entered a modest-looking coffee shop that was impeccably clean from floor to ceiling. Janet took me to the huge man behind the cash register and said, “Ernie this is Chris. She gets the discount just like me. Right?”

“Anything you say, baby.” replied big Ernie with an obviously fake leer.

“Oh, lover, you’re a million laughs,” said Janet with mock indignation. She stage-whispered to me, “You got a keep these old goats in line,” and rolled her eyes toward Ernie, who said,

“Sit down, ladies. My head waitress will take your orders. I’m honored” – he bowed so that his head nearly touched the counter – “to see two such lovely young women in my establishment.”

Janet said, “I really got to be going. I just wanted to get Chris settled.”

I quickly begged her to stay, even if it was only for a cup of coffee. We occupied a booth and gave our orders to the waitress. I chose coffee and toast, while Janet asked for a large orange juice. My new acquaintance, Ernie, slid through swinging doors into what I assumed to be the kitchen.

We talked about the weather until my toast and our drinks arrived. As Janet reached for a paper napkin I noticed a diamond winking from her ring finger.

“Oh, are you engaged?”

“The ring? It was my mother’s. I wear it to discourage the sharks. At least the ones who can be discouraged by that kind of thing. Some of them are more persistent.” Janet wasn’t beautiful, but even another girl could tell that she exuded some mysterious kind of appeal that would draw men in flocks.

“How do you know you won’t scare away some nice guy at first glance? The really nice boys are the first ones to get lost at the sight of a ring. They don’t want to cut in on somebody else’s territory.”

“Actually I’m not interested right now in any type of guy, so it doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference. What school do you go to?” Was she ever anxious to change the subject!

“Central. I’m a senior.”

“You live at home?”

“Oh yes. I have one brother. He’s 23.”

Janet didn’t seem interested in this information.

We discussed the educational system. I found out that she had quit school at 16, and that both her parents were dead and she had been raised by an aunt. Soon we got up to leave. When I paid my check I found out that the discount was worth about 30% of the bill. It sure would come in handy.

A few days later I went back to Ernie’s restaurant and had a talk with Ernie himself. I couldn’t get much useful information from him without seeming to pry too much, but I did listen to him sing Janet’s praises for about half an hour. On the way home I reviewed the conversation in my mind. Ernie had hinted about a great sorrow in Janet’s life that had to do with a dead boyfriend, fiancé, or husband. He didn’t really know which. I gathered that she had said something to him once about never being able to love another man. I wondered how I would feel if anything happened to my soldier. Would I think that I would never find love again?

Donny pestered me every day, but I didn’t get time to see Janet again until the next week. I waited for her at quitting time and suggested supper at Ernie’s.

“No, why don’t you come to my apartment instead? I’ll throw together some boxed Noodles Romanoff or something. I don’t feel much like being around people today. If quitting time had been five minutes later I would have screamed.”

So I drove Janet home, pretending of course not to know where she lived. Her apartment on the third floor was a small, comfortable place. We ate noodles and hamburgers in the miniature pink and white kitchen. Janet seem to be in a depressed mood. I asked myself a silent question about her. What was the tragedy she couldn’t forget? Why didn’t she even try to forget? During our second cups of coffee, Janet herself surprisingly began to reveal the answers. She just opened up and started talking, and it went something like this:

“Did you ever smoke?”

I looked at the smoldering cigarette between my fingers and back to Janet.

“No I mean grass. Pot. Weed.”

“Well, at a party once there was some. I think it was oregano though.”

“That happens. I smoke every night. Just sit here and get high by myself. I think it’s the only way to stay in one piece in this world.”

“Well,” I ventured, “lots of people get along pretty well without it.”

“They’re all twisted up inside. I can find everything I want from life right here in this apartment. Groove on grass and forget the weird situation I’m in.”

I hesitated before taking the plunge. “What weird situation is that?”

Janet looked me over carefully and decided to trust me. “I’m in love with a dead man,” she said

I waited, trying not to let the expression on my face change.

“If anyone knew about it, I’d be sent away,” she continued. “Not only am I nuts about a dead man, but it’s a dead man I never met.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“About a year. I was going to see a shrink about it once, but it would be no use. Besides, I like being this way. It’s not a problem. Only people with problems get analyzed.”

“Don’t you plan to get married, have kids, and all that?”

“Oh, sure, in a few years. When I get this thing off my mind. Come here, I’ll show you something.” She took me through the bedroom to a closed door. “It used to be a double-sided closet. Now it’s my meditation room.”

The first thing I saw in the gloom was a 2-foot-high reproduction of the face of so-called sick comedian Lenny Bruce. Janet switched on the electric light, which filtered dimly through a gold filigree fixture on the ceiling. Two more posters were on the other walls. In one of them, Lenny Bruce had a beard. Plump, many-colored cushions were stacked on the floor, and there was a bronze candle holder sitting on a low table. The table also offered a small Chinese lacquer box and sheesham wood Koran holder, which embraced a hardcover edition of the comedian’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.

“Would you like to smoke?” Janet asked. “There’s a nickel bag and some Zig-Zag papers in the box.”

“Not right now. Let me take all this in first.”

There were a couple dozen bits of paper taped to the wall next to one of the personality posters. I took two steps into the tiny room and read a few of them.

“Any man who calls himself a religious leader and owns more than one suit is a hustler as long as there is someone in the world who has no suit at all.”

“I saw ethics erode according to the laws of supply and demand.”

“Do you believe that good nuts, the ones who blow up trains with 300 people or repeatedly try to kill themselves, should be sent to Bellevue or other institutions equipped with mental health programs, but bad nuts, who try to kill themselves with heroin and other narcotics, should be sent to jail?”

Churches: “Since they condone capital punishment, I want them to stop bitching about Jesus getting nailed up.”

“God made my body and if it is dirty than the imperfection lies with the Manufacturer, not the product.”

Janet interrupted, saying “I’ll be in the kitchen.” I read one more slip of paper which said:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if all the people who are lonesome could live in one big dormitory, sleep in beds next to each other, talk, laugh, and keep the lights on as long as they want to?”

I switched the light off and rejoined Janet in the kitchen. She poured fresh coffee and we sat down. Janet spoke first. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“A little mixed up, maybe. I really don’t know what to say. If you’re happy, who’s to say you’re wrong? Except for grass being illegal, of course.”

“I’m careful. The thing is, I’m not really sure I am happy. But I’m too scared to get involved with anyone. My parents didn’t exactly have a heavenly marriage before they were killed.”

“You know, I should have been home a long time ago,” I said. I didn’t want to say anything wrong, so it seemed best to leave and therefore not be able to say anything at all. “Tomorrow I’ll pick you up from work and you come to my house for dinner, all right?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t.”

“Come on, you fed me tonight so of course you should be my guest too. My folks will love it.”

When I got home I alerted my mother to expect an extra mouth at dinner the next night and walked slowly up the stairs to face Donny.

“I think she’s going to be too much for you,” I began, and went on to tell him all that I had seen and heard.

“Just never mind,” he said. “After tomorrow night I’ll take over.”

The dinner was a success. Janet, in another black outfit, liked Donny right from the start. Even my parents were on their best behavior.

Donny drove Janet home. At 11 o’clock there was a knock on my bedroom door and Donny stuck his head in and said, “I’m getting married.”

Well, he did it. My big brother did it all. First he got Janet to stop blowing grass, by taking her out so much that she didn’t have the time or the desire to smoke. He gave her sweaters and dresses in bright or pastel colors, and she stopped wearing black. He didn’t try to pry her loose from her idol, but read How to Talk Dirty and enthused with her about Lenny Bruce. Once he took her to a city 100 miles away where they saw a movie of Lenny at an art theater. She was hooked. Five months to the day after I first met Janet, I was maid of honor at her wedding.