“The Lena Horne stamp is out,” the woman serving me at the counter of the Post Office said. I had come to purchase “The Snowy Day,” a special stamp offered by the Post Office. The clerk’s co-worker interjected that the Lena Horne stamp would not be available until the next day. I expressed interest, then left with my Ezra Jack Keats stamps.
I purchase a lot of stamps, though I pay few bills by mail; checks sent to my landlord for the last five years are almost numerically sequential. I like to send cards and letters, with interesting stamps on the envelopes. The US Post Office has special, “Forever” stamps for every occasion, and I mail “Love” stamps around Valentine’s Day, Christmas-themed stamps in December and stamps honoring African-Americans during Black History month. Ezra jack Keats’ story and illustration of the children’s book, “The Snowy Day,” was one of my daughter’s books, and is now on my granddaughter’s bookshelf. But the news of the advent of a Lena Horne stamp gave me a frisson of joy: I had a special relationship with Lena.
I was a poor, first-year student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, awaiting the start of a class when another student called out to me: “Lena Horne is at Gimbels!” Gimbels Department store was on the same street as my school. I knew who Lena Horne was; my family’s history is steeped in music, but in 1965, she was at Gimbels to autograph her new memoir, “Lena.” I bolted the class and went to the big store on the corner. On the ground level, a large gathering was facing a figure at a table. I edged into the crowd, and carefully worked my way toward the front. When I reached the inner edge of the group, I stopped, stunned: sitting at a table, behind a small mound of books, was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. People approached the table with purchased copies of her book; I watched her hair flow across her cheeks as she bowed her head to sign the books. I don’t know how long I stood there, and I may have been open-mouthed, but Ms. Horne looked up, glanced at me, and gave a little smile. My heart may have stopped, but it started again when, minutes later, she looked at me again. She made eye contact and smiled more widely — DIRECTLY AT ME. And then — to the sound of trumpets — she looked once more, and motioned to me to come to the table. “I’ll sign something for you,” she smiled. “You don’t have to buy a book.”
A great storm of paper erupted and swirled around me as I clawed my clothing for something on which to record a signature. I found a card of some kind, and mutely handed it to her. She did not ask my name, and since I’d done nothing but gawk and drool for about an hour, I doubt that I would have been able to speak. She wrote in a graceful script, “All the best, Lena Horne.” I floated back down the street to school, walked into class, late, and sat in silent happiness.
When I went back to the post office to buy her stamps, the clerk smiled at me and asked if I was there for that reason. As her co-worker rang me up I told that clerk that I was 18 when I got Lena Horne’s autograph in 1965. She laughed, and whispered, “I was born in 1965.” I said to her, dryly, “Thanks.” And I laughed, happily cradling my stamps.
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- “Singin’ in the Rain” at Garfield Park
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