Toward the back of the bar a few couples sit, demurely sipping their martinis while Alex Kalleo toys masterfully with his ivories. A square-jawed man with a foreign mien smokes too many cigarettes in an uneasy attempt to keep himself from looking lonely. He tries awkwardly to engage the bartender in a moment of conversation. She smiles with the understanding that comes with years of practice and dries off a wine glass.
In the Cork Room, Toledo's band is setting up. Their manager leans against the side of the stage, one hand shoved deep into the pocket of his slacks, a cigarette hanging limply from between his teeth as he surveys the room and consults his pocket watch. The club is crowded with neighborhood locals in various states of attire -- baseball caps and goatees, flapper dresses and pearls, and everything in between. Candlelight plays across the checkered floor and red lighting makes everyone appear healthy and pink. A stunning man wearing a velvet tuxedo jacket and black nail polish takes a seat at the twisting bar that acts as table space for the audience. Nearby, a bleached blonde with too much makeup and six-inch heels leans against the red brick wall that divides the Cork Room from the main bar. She looks hard and cheap, but in a theatrical way.
I take a seat near the brick wall and am instantly wrapped in a cloud of sweet-smelling cigar smoke. A reddish glow plays across the smoke screen, turning it solid for a moment before it breaks up in the crowd. A rich, sax-heavy wall of sound erupts from the small stage, gaining the attention of all the revelers. The music grinds down to a sultry jazz riff while Toledo -- the man of the hour -- stands center stage, his back to the crowd, his Stetson hanging off the vintage microphone stand. His pinstriped jacket twitches as he slowly turns around, his face obscured by a billow of smoke from his smoldering cigarillo. He flashes a large white smile and adjusts his dark shades with a skilled flick of the wrist.
"It's all about smoke, smoking, and sex," whispers Craig, a respectable-looking gent who has seen the show once before. "It's kind of awesome."
Toledo launches into a dangerous-sounding tune with his hushed, whiskey-born rasp. Spinning tales of lost women and dark alleys drenched in a backbeat of gently mutating jazz, he transforms the Mission club into a basement speak-easy in some sinister, faraway city. At this point Toledo's showgirls come alive. The bleached blonde leaning against the wall removes her coat and, with the world-weary grimace of a whore on a double shift, steps onto the dance floor, where she begins to writhe to the beat. Across the room a dark-haired women in a black slip lurches to her feet with the slack-jawed expression of a career junkie. The women undulate next to each other, jerking across the floor like animated marionettes, the straps of their slips crossed between their corseted breasts.
Toledo matches the squealing of a saxophone with a howl that feels like a balloon losing air. He stops, surveys the floor, and draws on his cigar, exhaling great billows of smoke in perfect time with the beat. His pinkie ring glints just so under the stage lamps.
Whispering something about back-seat blondes and sticky hand jobs, Toledo cradles his mike like a woman. The crowd nods appreciatively.
The dark-haired trollop gyrates between two customers sitting against a wall. She drinks too much, croons Toledo. A spasm shakes the girl and she focuses her attentions on a young man in a baseball cap. Sidling over, she slips between his legs like an animal in heat, sucking on her full, pouty lips, her eyes vacant and noncommittal. She fucks too much, howls Toledo, sweat glistening on his dark skin. The girlfriend of the young man puts her arm protectively around his waist. They lie to each other much too much, continues Toledo, as the dancer slides out from between the man's legs and cruises through the crowd. But they love each other just enough to keep coming back, sighs Toledo from his cigarette fog.
"Well, this is all very contrived," states a tall blonde in a cashmere dress as she pulls her thirtysomething date out of the club in a huff.
It's torture and tenderness, Toledo rasps around the cigar clenched between his teeth.
"See: smoke, smoking, sex," says Craig.
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By Silke Tudor