A Visit to Swanktown
I put a token into the turnstile and walked behind Uncle Billy to the People Mover platform at Greektown.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"To Swanktown," said Billy.
I know the city pretty well, but that was a new one. “Swanktown? Where is that?"
"Don't worry, just follow me."
I shrugged. "Okay ... I hope it's cheap." I was thinking about the $30 I just lost in the casino.
"Don't worry, nephew ... I'm buying."
The train pulled into the station and, after the crowded car emptied, Billy and I got on. I sat next to Billy. “How did you find out about Swanktown?”
Billy shrugged. “By accident.”
I sat quietly, watching people get on and off at DTE Plaza, Financial District, Bricktown. Suddenly, I realized that the next stop was Greektown … we’d gone around the whole loop. “I didn’t think I remembered any stops at a ‘Swanktown’, Uncle Billy.”
No sooner did the words leave my mouth than the train slowed down and the computerized voice announced, “Next stop, Swanktown.”
I looked around and the half-dozen people in the car along with Billy and they seemed oblivious, thumbing on their cell phones or staring vacantly as the train eased to a stop. The doors opened automatically and the voice said, “Swanktown.”
Billy stood up and said, “This is us.”
I nodded stupidly and followed Billy through the door.
A man and women, and dressed to the nines and smiling and laughing to each other, waited for us to pass and then boarded the train, the doors closed and the train pulled away, leaving us alone on the platform.
“Come on, nephew.” Billy walked toward the stairs that led down to street level.
As soon as I stepped off the final stair, I realized I was somewhere I’d never been. I didn’t recognize street names … we were standing on the corner of Despair and Hope … and everything had a kind of retro vibe. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on … cars looked modern, passersby looked normal, but slightly hipper than usual … architecture was the usual mix of old and modern, but the lighting was softer and more flattering.
“Where are we, Uncle?”
“But where is that?”
Billy smiled. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it … just go with the flow.”
The light changed and he started crossing Despair. I followed dumbly as we cruised down Hope toward a flashing marque for the Hotel Alto Nido.
Billy opened the door for me and stepped into an art-deco lobby of a hotel that was old and slightly musty smelling, but still seemed clean and neat. Billy stepped in behind and lead me to the elevators.
The door to the middle car open and we stepped in. It was surprising to see an operator, but the car was old and still had the manual controls.
“Well, nice to see you Mr. Tysinger,” he said to Billy.
Billy nodded. “Good to see you, Robert. How’s business?”
“Up and down,” laughed Robert.
We all chuckled as we the ascended to the top floor. Reaching our destination, the doors opened to the Royal Palm Court Lounge.
The scene was, well, swinging. Muted lighting casting a purple hue on people arrayed along the mahogany bar or clustered in small groups around tables that dotted the main floor, adorned with several large palm trees.
In the far corner, under one very large palm, was a huge, Borsendorf piano, occupied by a guy in a white shirt, dark green stripped vest and topped with a black, snap-brim fedora, crooning something about a martini being so cold you could ice skate on it … sounded cool, literally.
“That’s Sly Crooner,” said Billy. “A very cool player.”
Sly looked up from his keyboard and nodded in our direction.
Billy waved and Sly waved back, indicating us to come toward him.
“Come on … I want you to meet Sly.”
“You know him?”
Billy ignored me and started to walk toward the piano. I shrugged and followed.
Sly finished his song as we approached. “Hey, Bill … how you doin’?” he said away from the microphone.
“All good, Sly … how about you?”
“Very swank, mavajavy.” He looked at me. “Who’s your friend?”
“Oh, hey, Sly, this is my nephew, Chris.”
I reached over to shake Sly’s outstretched hand. “Groovy, Chris.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Crooner.”
“Sly, my swank cat … and I know you’re swank ‘cause you’re hanging out with this very smooth operator.”
I nodded, glancing at Billy with a very puzzled look on my face. He just smiled at Sly and said, “So, have you learned any Spike Jones songs, yet?”
Sly laughed. “Not yet, my hip friend, ol’ Spike is just too ‘out there’ for moi.”
“I’m going to bring you some of my 78’s of Spike next time, so you can pick up some of his stuff.”
Sly laughed again. “Don’t worry, mavajavy … Sly is hip to the Spike meister … maybe someday I’ll pick up one of his grooves, and if I do, I’ll call you right away so you can saunter down to the Royal Palm Court to hear the premier.”
Sly looked at me and winked. “So, what are you cats doing in Swanktown?”
Billy patted me on the shoulder. “I just thought it was time that nephew here find out about the hipper side of life.”
“Oh, yeah. Very chic.” Sly winked at me again. “So, what’s your groove, Chris … I mean, what do you do when you aren’t chilling in Swanktown?”
“Mostly chasing Uncle Billy around … trying to keep him out of trouble.”
Sly laughed. “I hear you … this cat is very slippery.”
“Yep … only Uncle Billy could find Swanktown here in the Motor City.” I looked around at the scene in the lounge. “By the way, how is that, Sly … I mean how is there a Swanktown here?”
Sly nodded. “Swanktown is everywhere … you just have to know how to look for it. It takes groovy cats like Billy here to find the swank vibes in their town.”
I scratched my head. “You mean this scene is going on in other cities?”
Sly just smiled. “Why don’t you cats find a seat at the bar and have Miranda brew up a couple desert-dry clear ones for you while I tickle the ivories for our very in-crowd?”
Billy hit Sly with a high-five and motioned for me to follow him to the bar. We slid into two empty stools and within 30 seconds the tall, willowy barmaid, looking absolutely stunning in a skin-tight leather jumpsuit and four-inch heels, was leaning over the bar, cooing, “What’ll it be boys?”
I sat there, staring slack-jawed, while Uncle Billy said, “Sly recommended a couple of your famous desert-dry martini’s, Miranda … we’ll go with that.”
Miranda smiled. “Why, sure, boys … coming right up.”
I watched Miranda retreat to her apothecary to prepare the potions. Billy tapped me on the arm and said, “When you quit drooling, listen to Sly kick out this tune … it’s great.”
I turned my attention to Sly as he played through a smooth intro on the Borsendorf and started singing a swinging song about the specialty of the house, “… the electric thrill of your very first kiss … yes, indeedy, the perfect martini.”
Sly’s dulcet tones where fading into the atmosphere of the Royal Palm Court Lounge just as Miranda manifested the very object of his song: a pair of ice cold, desert-dry martinis, each with an olive and a twist. “Here you go, boys.”
“Why, thank you, dear,” said Billy as he laid a twenty on the bar to pay for the libations.
Miranda smiled sweetly and pushed the bill back toward Billy. “First one is on the house for friends of Sly.”
“Well, now, this truly is a hospitable joint.” Billy picked up his drink, turned and tipped it toward Sly, who just smiled and nodded as he dug into another tune, something about easy money.
I did the same, but Sly was too deep into the tune to notice, so I just took a big sip. “Damn, that is a great drink,” I said.
“Yes, indeedy,” said Billy, “the perfect martini.”
I looked around the room, taking in the variety of patrons who inhabited the place. Amongst the various colorful and groovy patrons, the most striking feature was a striking red-head and six other beautiful women who were sitting at the piano bar, sipping on their drinks and grooving on Sly’s tunes. The red-head was clearly making eye contact with a guy who was sitting at a table underneath the King Palm Tree with another dude.
Miranda saw us checking out the action and leaned across the bar. “The red-head is Estelle. She comes in here with her crew at least once a week. I’m not sure what she does, but someone said is considering something drastic, like joining a nunnery, or something.”
“Wow, that is drastic,” I mused.
“The guy she is checking out is Damian. Believe it or not, he’s an accountant … but he and his buddy there, Cosmo, cut a wide swath through the ladies of Swanktown … the Swanktown Lotharios, as it were.”
I nodded and turned back to the action. Damian’s and Estelle’s gazes were locked onto each other from across the room and it obvious to anyone who noticed that they were engaged in a virtual slow tango.
Estelle’s friends seemed oblivious to the encounter, but Sly was watching with a wry grin on his face. Billy, who was taking it all in, too, said to me, “Sly is the mayor of the Royal Palm Court Lounge … he sees everything.”
What Sly saw next was Damian standing up and slowly crossing the room toward the piano bar, smoldering eyes locked onto to Estelle’s. At first, her friends were oblivious to this intimate interaction, but slowly, each in turn, stopped paying attention to her friends and tuning into the Estelle and Damian show.
Damian smoothly entered Estelle’s orbit, both now oblivious to the audience in the Royal Palm Court Lounge. Even Sly had stopped tickling the ivories to watch the courtship.
Damian was whispering into Estelle’s ear, so it’s unlikely that anyone could hear what was being said, but you didn’t have to be a detective to get the gist of it. Whatever it was, Estelle was nodding and smiling. At one point she said something back to him and they both laughed.
Then Estelle leaned over to one of her friends and spoke to her. The friend smiled and nodded while Estelle stood up and sauntered off, arm in arm, with Damian.
Sly smiled, shook his head slightly and dove into a cool rendition of “Misty”.
“Did you see that, Uncle,” I said.
“Do you think there was anyone in the bar who didn’t,” he replied.
I looked around the bar. To me, the only ones who seemed really interested in the scene were Sly and the six women who had been sitting with Estelle. A couple of people glanced casually at the two exiting the bar, but quickly seemed to go back to whatever they were doing. Even Sly, grinning and shaking his head slightly, went back to a nice improvisation on ‘Misty’.
Eventually, Billy downed the rest of his drink and said, “Well, nephew, you have been initiated … you are now among the swank … a cool cat … and now it is time for us to return to land of the mundane.” He waved to Miranda, who smiled and nodded.
I followed suit and stood up with Billy, waving to Miranda, too. “This is pretty righteous, Uncle. Thanks for bringing me.”
Our exit took us past the piano bar, where Estelle’s friends were deep in review of the little drama they had witnessed. But Sly noticed us and, without breaking stride on his flowing improvisation said into the mic, “Be cool, my swank mavajavies … see you on the flip side.”
Billy smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. I did the same and immediately felt uncool doing so. Flushed, I said to Billy, “Sly’s a cool guy.”
Billy laughed. “That my newly-minted hipster, is an understatement.”
(Editor's note: a shoutout to our friend, musician and comedian, Geoffrey Leigh Tozer, for his permission to visit his Swankness, Sly Crooner. You can learn more about the talented, and very swank, Mr. Tozer on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/geoffreyleigh.tozer)