Saturday, December 3, 2011

Thumbnail Lotharios

By Ben Hecht (from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1922)

Here's the low down, gentlemen. The Miserere of the manicurist. Peewee, the Titian-haired Aphrodite of the Thousand Nails has been inveigled into submitting her lipstick memoirs to the public eye.

Peewee is the melting little lady with the vermilion mouth and the cooing eyes who manicures in a Rialto hotel barber shop. She is the one whose touch is like the cool caress of a snowflake, whose face is as void of guile as the face of the Blessed Damosel.

There are others, scissor-Salomes and nail-file Dryads. Mr. Flo Ziegfeld has nothing on George, the head barber, when it comes to an eye for color and a sense for curve. But they are busy at the moment. The hair-tonic Dons and the mud-pack Romeos are giving the girls a heavy play. Peewee alone is at leisure. Therefore let us gallop quickly to the memoirs.

"H'm," says Peewee, "I'll tell you about men. Of course what I say doesn't include all men. There may be exceptions to the rule. I say may be. I hope there are. I'd hate to think there weren't. I'd get sad."

Steady, gentlemen. Peewee's doll face has lost guilelessness. Peewee's face has taken on a derisive and ominous air.

"I'll give you the low down," says she with a sniff. "Men? They're all alike. I don't care who they are or what their wives and pastors think of them or what their mothers think of them. I got them pegged regardless. Young and old, and some of them so old they've gone back to the milk diet, they all make the same play when they come in here.

"And they're all cheap. Yes, sir, some are cheaper than others, of course. There's the patent-leather hair lounge-lizard. I hand him the fur-lined medal for cheapness. But I got a lot of other medals and I give them all away, too.

"Well, sir, they come in here and you take hold of their hand and start in doing honest work and, blooey! they're off. They're strangers in town. And lonesome! My God, how lonesome they are! And they don't know no place to go. That's the way they begin. And they give your hand a squeeze and roll a soft-boiled eye at you.

"Say, it gets kind of tiring, you can imagine. Particularly after you've been through what I have and know their middle names, which are all alike, they all answering to the name of cheap sport. Sometimes I give them the baby stare and pretend I don't know what's on their so-called minds. And sometimes when my nerves are a little ragged I freeze them. Then sometimes I take them up. I let them put it over.

"You'd be surprised. Liars! They're all rich. The young ones are all bond salesmen with wealthy fathers and going to inherit soon. The middle-aged ones are great manufacturers. The old ones are retired financiers. You should ought to hear the lads when they're hitting on all six."

Peewee wagged a wise old head and her vermilion mouth registered scorn at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A very cold light, however, kindled in her beautiful eyes.

"Yes, yes, I've taken them up," she went on. "I've let them stake me to the swell time. Say, ten dollars to one that these manicured millionaires don't mean any more than the Governor's pardon does to Carl Wanderer. Not a bit. I don't want to get personal, but, take it from me, they're all after one thing. And they're a pack of selfish, mushy-headed tin horns with fishhook pockets, the kind you can't pull anything out of.

"Well, to get back. About the first minute you get the big, come-on squeeze. Then next the big talk about being strangers in your town. Then next they open with the big, hearty invitations. Will you be their little guide? And ain't you the most beautiful thing they ever set eyes on! And say, if they'd only met you before they wouldn't be living around hotels now, lonesome bachelors without a friend. I forgot to tell you, they're all single. No, never married. Even some of the most humpbacked married men you ever saw, who come in here dragging leg irons and looking a picture of the Common People, they're single, too. I've seen them slip wedding rings off their fingers to make their racket stand up.

"Then after they've got along and think they've got you biting they begin to get fresh. They tell you you shouldn't ought to work in a barber shop, a girl as beautiful as you. The surroundings ain't what they should be. And they'd like to fix you up. Yes, they begin handing out their castles in Rome or Spain or whatever it is. Cheap! Say, they are so cheap they wouldn't go on the 5- and 10-cent store counter.

"Sometimes you can shame them into making good in a small way. But it's too much work. Oh, yes, they give tips. Fifty cents is the usual tip. Sometimes they make it $2.00. They think they're buying you, though, for that.

"As I was saying, the patent-leather hair boys are the worst. They're the ones who call themselves loop hounds. They know everybody by their first name and sometimes they've got all of $6.50 in their pocket at one time. And if you're out some evening with a friend—a regular fella, they pop in the next day and say, 'Hello, Peewee, who was that street sweeper I see you palling with last night? Oh, he wasn't! Well, I had him pegged either as a street sweeper or a plumber!"

"That's their speed. And they come again and again. They never give up. They've got visions of making a conquest some day—on $1.50. And when a new girl comes into the shop—boy, don't the buzzards buzz! I came here six months ago and they started it on me. But I wasn't born yesterday. I'd been a manicure in Indianapolis. And they're just the same in Indianapolis as they are in Chicago. And they're just the same in Podunk.

"Now, I'm not going to mention any names. But take your city directory and begin with Ab Abner and go right on through to Zeke Zimbo and don't skip any. And you'll get a clear idea about the particular gentlemen I'm talking about."

Peewee sighed and shook her head.

"Are you busy?" inquired the head manicurist.

"Not at all," said Peewee, "not at all."

Peewee's biographer asked a final question. To which she responded as follows:

"Well, I'll get married. Maybe. When I find the exception I was telling you about—the gentleman who isn't a stranger in town and in need of a little guide. There must be one of them somewhere. Unless they was all killed in the war."

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