Gladys Bentley sings the arcade blues


Thursday night I dreamed I went to an arcade.

Yeah. Me. At an arcade. Me and my total lack of ANY discernible inclination toward attack strategy, and even less obvious hand-eye coordination.

We can’t all be Felicia Day, folks. G’head and take a moment to mourn that fact, and then let’s move along.

Ready?

Okay.

Takes all kinds of game guts to make an arcade.

So Thursday night I dreamed I went to an arcade. I was wandering around by the older games in the back, a twenty dollar bill in my hand. I wanted to make sure there was something I really wanted to play before exchanging my cash for what would be a pretty heavy pile of quarters.

There weren’t many folks actually playing anything. Mostly the place was just one machine after another crammed into the space side-by-side at odd angles, creating passageways through the arcade. I kept thinking how this would probably be a pretty fun dream for, say, Wil Wheaton, and how it was a shame it was being wasted on the likes of game-oblivious me.

I turned to head out when I noticed an open door tucked in a back  corner, and heard laughter coming through in short streams. I poked my head in, and saw the room was packed with rows of folding chairs filled with women watching something projected up on the wall. I want to say it was an episode of M*A*S*H. A few of the ladies saw me, said hi, and waved me over to an empty seat in the back so I could watch the show with them.

We laughed and chatted as the women introduced themselves to me. They were all dressed pretty casually, looking like they’d just left work at jobs where they don’t interact with the customers. One of the women threw an arm around the shoulders of the woman beside her, and I realized she wasn’t the only one doing so. I surveyed the room again, and saw that most of the women appeared to be there in couples.

In that dream kind of way you get where you just “know” what’s going on without anybody telling you, I realized all the gals around me were lesbians, and that this back room at the arcade was where they’d go to hang out and socialize after work. It was their place to unwind and share a few laughs away from the public eye before heading home. But something about it was– well it felt kind of secret, you know? Like they weren’t just hanging out so much as they were hiding out. I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t dreaming of the present day, but of some time in the past when this sort of secrecy would’ve been in all ways necessary.

Wondering if that was the case, I now felt really clumsy for intruding on their secret spot. Like– what the heck kind of right did I have to know where they’d found to chill out in private if it was, in fact, a secret room? The whole time they’d been totally cool to me- very friendly and welcoming- with not a hint of concern that someone had discovered their hiding place. As such I figured they must’ve just thought I was gay too since I knew about this place, not realizing I’d simply stumbled across it by accident. But I still felt bad for my unintentional intrusion, so I decided to head out. I said my goodbyes, was met by cheerful farewells, and ducked back into the arcade.

Gladys Bentley, an American blues singer during the Harlem Renaissance

As I walked toward the front door to leave, I came upon a family walking in — with speed, with purpose, with furious indignation. First came a husband and wife dressed in all black Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, complete with hats and gloves. They were followed by their two teenage sons, also dressed all in black.

In another flash of dream-knowing I realized I was back a few decades, and that trouble was coming. I knew this family was heading back to the secret room to kick all those women out of it before exposing them publicly as lesbians, with the specific intention of getting them in trouble over it.

I looked at the mother. Studied her face real hard. African American, mid-40s, married, mother of two, and sad. I knew she was sad. I knew the only reason she knew about that hidden room was because it was full of her friends. Her family had no idea, but I knew. I knew her secret. I knew who she really was.

I tried to catch her eye as she passed. Like– what? What did I think I was going to do, you know? Was I going to figure out some kind of coded way to say “Stop!” Some way to say “You don’t have to do this?” Some hand signal, some whisper, some look that would say there was still time to not bust up movie night and get all those women kicked out and sent to jail?

But she would not look at me. She knew that I was on to her, so she kept her eyes up, up, up high over my head, the black feathers on her hat bouncing as she marched through the bells and the whistles and all the tiny lights as they blinked on and off.

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