The Vault Nightclub

Me on the leftThe Vault Nightclub
      The Vault nightclub was in a basement in downtown Seattle. It had always seemed odd that there were doors in the basement that went nowhere. There was a door in the musician’s room and another in a side wall that couldn’t be opened, and there were double doors in the back of the building, big enough for a truck to unload, that were stuck tight. “Don’t ever try to open the doors.” Ronnie would tell people, “There’s nothing but dirt behind them. They’re nailed shut anyway.” I didn’t find out until 30 years later that part of downtown Seattle had literally been buried in dirt up to the top of the first floor, turning the ground floors of many buildings into basements.
A low, wide musicians stage had been built against the end wall of the club, and the go-go dancers stage, small and high, was against the side wall by the bar. This was Seattle in the 60’S, a partially dry town. Alcohol was not served at this bar because a large part of the customers were teen-agers. The basement was large, dark and rough, with cement floors and plaster walls. But on a busy Saturday night it would be filled to capacity with dancing, laughing, pushing crowds. It was the most popular club in town, the In place to be. Of course there wasn’t any way to keep people from bringing their own bottles in under their jackets. Ronnie had hired a local beat cop to help control the door; when the ships were in the place filled with sailors and the place could get rowdy. The middle age cop, Al, was perfect, a big man, tough but friendly, and Ronnie told him not to check too closely for hidden bottles.
I started out as a secretary there. I had come to apply for the job,  and Ronnie and I were in each other’s arms before the first bill was filed. It was love at first sight … sort of. Ronnie and I arrived in the late afternoons to do the office work before the evening pandemonium broke loose. He was 37, slim and youthful, an accomplished jazz saxophone player. I was 22, just back from all the trauma and wildness of the New York scene. I don’t believe I talked about it much. I didn’t want to think about it. Soon after starting work I was dancing go-go on the high stage in the evenings after finishing the office work. I had taken a couple of years of  modern dance training in high school and still loved to dance. Ronnie hired dancers; various peppy and pretty girls who came and went rapidly.
On looking back, it was like working on a movie set with all the cliche characters of a night club scene. The barkeeper, Ralph, was a young man in his twenties. He was stocky with light brown hair in a crew cut, serious about his duties, responsible and courteous. The cola glasses sparkled in neat rows, the soda taps and ice never ran out. He was polite but firm to the dancers, who doubled as waitresses. The well built girls pouted and stalled when it came to waiting tables, but danced with enthusiasm on the stage. The resident horn players, Bob, who played trumpet, and Edwin, were washed up, out of work jazz players, who Ronnie  fondly kept around.
      The dancer’s costumes were becoming more and more elaborate, and the      girls needed more space to change. Ronnie turned an unused side room into a dressing room, with makeup tables and lighted vanity mirrors. I didn’t get to hang out with the  other girls very much since I  was older and was the bosses’ girlfriend. Ronnie expected me to keep to myself and take my breaks and evenings off in the musician’s room with him and the guys. I didn’t have to do waitress duties and that  bothered the other girls a little. .
     At first I just wore my light blue leotards and net stockings. There is an old photo of me in them, chugging away on stage with another girl. The GoGo costumes were a major issue with the dancers, who made their costumes out of bikinis, or bra and panties covered with a bit of satin, and a shiny fringe applied to the edge of the bra and around the hips. Ronnie decided to treat me to a costume and took me to a professional seamstress in the neighborhood who specialized in dancer’s costumes. She made a spectacular costume for me, a white satin bikini all trimmed in iridescent white sequins. It had a gleaming white fringe two feet long, hanging from the edge of the bra. When I danced the silky fringe swayed like a hula skirt. It was very expensive, but what the heck, I was the bosses girlfriend.
    Ronnie and I and the horn players, Bob and Edwin, decided to go out to dinner at their favorite place, a steakhouse at the edge of town. I was sitting in the front seat of Ronnie’s big dark blue Lincoln Towncar between Ronnie and Edwin, and Bob was in the backseat drinking beer. Edwin, the trombone player, was a thin man with a white goatee. Bob, the trumpet player, had reddish hair  and a florid face. As we pulled up to the restaurant, Edwin said, “By the way, Ronnie, your wife called.” Ronnie ducked his head and got out of the car. What wife? We had been together for six months. Wife? I got out of the car on Edwin’s side and took his arm as we entered the building. Ronnie wound up sitting with Bob as I glared at him across the table all the way through dinner.
    His wife, Lorraine, found out about me also, and started calling me at the office, not with resentment, but to tell me he hadn’t paid the garbage bill or the lawn man. The garbage was piling up on the sidewalk and the gardener was threatening to tear out the lawn. She had heard I was in charge of bills and please make out checks for them. We became quite chummy. Maybe that was the best revenge.
    One crowded and bustling Saturday night Ronnie and I came back from a break. The door cop’s wife tugged at his sleeve and whispered something in his ear. He blanched and rushed off. “Loraine is here,” she told me. “Surprise visit.” I tiptoed through the crowd cautiously, staying in the shadows, and peeked over some shoulders. She was standing by the coat check room. The little rock band was blaring away, but she looked very serene. She had sounded nice over the phone. She was Ronnie’s age, 15 years older than me. I was expecting a plump little housewife, but she was petite and slender, with a river of tightly curly light brown hair down her back, and she had a straight and slightly long nose. She was wearing a tight black sweater and a straight skirt, and looked smart and attractive. Why would Ronnie cheat on her?
    Things had been going smoothly around the club for the last couple of weeks. We did our office work, the bands showed up on time. Ronnie told me we were getting a visitor, a temporary employee. “She’s a dear, dear old friend of mine,” he said, “a professional dancer who travels all over the country. When she’s in town she’ll perform here for a couple of weeks.” And he added in a kindly tone of voice, “She’s not so beautiful, but she’s a great dancer, a real pro, and people like her. Her name is Shelly.” Oh, great, I thought, another one of his has-been old friends like the horn players. A few days later there was a commotion outside the office door as Shelly arrived. The door burst open and in she walked, followed by a couple of willing male victims who were carrying her large trunk. Yes, there she was folks, drum roll please, VA VOOM BOOM BOOM. Not beautiful? Neither was Mae West, but the guys liked her plenty. And here was Shelly, in all her glory, with short golden curls and voluptuous figure. She was wearing a tight bright orange dress and was about twenty-five. “Hey thanks a lot, fellas,” she drawled, “you can set that down right there.” The two men, the cab driver and a passer by, gushed, “Thank YOU ma’ am,” and “Oh, no problem, hey my pleasure.” “Ron, hon,” she said, “be a dear and tip the man.” Ronnie dug into his wallet and gave the cabbie a couple of dollars. The two guys walked out chuckling and punching each other’s shoulders. The trunk turned out to be full of her glittering costumes. She took a nearby hotel room and made herself at home in the club.
    One day I arrived a little early at the office, and was surprised to hear the sound of voices. Ronnie and I were always here alone in the afternoon. Who could that be? The office door was slightly ajar and I cautiously peeked in. Ronnie was sitting and talking to a young uniformed policeman. I hesitated, not wanting to interrupt. Just then Ronnie leaned across the desk and handed the young cop a wad of cash, who took it and shoved it into a jacket pocket. “Thanks’ pal, you’re all set up for the month,” he said and started to get up.
    Puzzled and alarmed, I backed away quickly and dashed into the dressing room. Later I asked Ronnie what was going on. “Don’t tell anyone what you saw,” he snapped. “That’s called protection. That means if anything bad happens down here, like a fight or someone gets hurt, they’ll destroy the report and not file it. If they filed it I could lose my business license or lease. I have to pay them a hundred bucks a month, and if I didn’t pay it, well, the club wouldn’t last long. They’d make sure of that.” I was amazed. “Does Al know about this?” I asked. “Yeah, he knows. Nothing he can do about it.” And that was that. I never mentioned it again.
     One foggy summer afternoon I left the club to shop at the Seattle farmer’s market and take a walk at the nearby beach. I was passing under the pier and was surprised to see a tall thin man pop out of a door underneath it. I must have looked surprised because he said, “Strange place for an apartment, isn’t it?” “An apartment under the pier?” I answered, and he invited me in. And that is how I met David Satermo, the Norwegian violin playing cabinetmaker. I was still mad at Ronnie for lying to me about his wife and I needed a friend. David became the greatest of friends; mentor, teacher and guide. He was teaching me to play the violin, and taught me all about health foods. He was thirty-something at that time. He encouraged me to buy my cello and take lessons. He had thin reddish blond hair and was quite pale, a man dedicated to intellectual pursuits and his spontaneous violin  playing. Ronnie was unaware  of  this friendship, which was just as well.
    Back at the club, we had another new dancer. Her name was Tara, and she was the most exotic girl I had ever met, with her dark complexion and long shining black hair. She was petite and had a very curvy figure, and the other girls were a little concerned and jealous. They weren’t paid very much and lived for the attention of the audience … and good tips. It was a competitive situation and a new girl was a threat.
    I came out of the back room after a break and crossed the dance floor. As I passed the go-go stage I realized something odd was going on. Everybody was standing, staring at the stage with their mouths hanging open. Tara was up, doing her slow rockin’ hula which was so hypnotic that I stopped in my tracks to watch. Just then a circle of colored light, a fiery yellow orange, emanated from her, moving outward like a ripple in a pond where a stone was thrown. It was electric; I don’t know how many of the audience actually saw it but they surely felt it. I had seen something like that before but I still was astonished.
     Ever since Shelly arrived there was a non-stop party in the office. I walked in one evening and people were milling around, laughing and pouring drinks. And there was Shelly, sitting on Ronnie’s lap in one of her sparkling costumes. I was pouting and stomping around the room. Shelly rolled her eyes and slid off his lap. The next evening I walked in and Shelly and Ronnie were alone and in each other’s arms kissing. I ran out to the bar and was breaking cola glasses on the cement floor. Ronnie was waving his arms helplessly, saying, “But she’s such a dear dear old friend of mine… ” It became obvious to me that they had been having an on and off affair long before I ever met him. Later he told me that she would be here only a few weeks and I could just put up with her. Shortly after that I quit, but then, of course, I had no rent money.
    Years later, in the eighties, I was watching a movie on T.V. called “Joe the Forgotten Kennedy”, about a Kennedy relative in World War two. There was a ballroom scene with a dance band on the stage. The camera focused on a man sitting on a wooden chair in the center of the stage. He stood up and began playing a clarinet solo. To my amazement it was Ronnie. He played beautifully, a sonorous melody that went on in the background for the next couple of scenes. I never saw him again.
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