Bessie loved the summer. Even more she loved the bus rides to the mountains when everyone would sing together, everybody on the bus, all the union members singing along, her mother up front leading them, the loudest, the best. Mama, her curls bobbing in rhythm as she sang:

There once was a union maid,
who never was afraid,
of the goons and gigs and company pigs and the deputy sheriff who made the raid,

Even Bessie, her four-year-old voice loud and off-tune, couldn’t destroy the special feeling in the bus, everybody together, as the song went on about the union hall and the meeting and the bad, bad boys from the Legion.
Then the everybody on the bus would join in. Bessie would rock back and forth in rhythm, the singing, her lullaby. She usually fell asleep before they reached Unity House.

For Bessie, the Union was like Santa Claus, better even – giving a vacation in the mountains along with ‘protection against the bosses’. Bessie didn’t know any bosses, but she was sure they were mean, ‘out to get’ people like her mama, who only wanted to make a living without being ‘wage slaves’, another word she knew, without knowing what it meant.

Mama worked in a garment factory. Tante Ida said it was because she had no patience for school. “See, Bessie, that’s what happens if you leave school too early. Your mama’s just as smart as I am. She could work in a store too but no, she had to leave school right away.”

But Bessie knew Mama was happy in the factory. Mama always said, “The International Ladies Garment workers’ Union is my salvation.” Tante Ida said Mama would be better off finding a nice man, then she wouldn’t have to keep going to union meetings. But Mama liked the union meetings. She loved the arguing and the protests, even the strikes. “It’s good to fight for what’s right!” she’d say. At least that what she told Bessie. And so, Bessie loved the union too, especially the trips to Unity House, the Union’s resort in the mountains. For Bessie, Mama was fun and freedom and fights for the right thing. Bessie didn’t remember her father, he was just a sad memory, someone who made her mother cry.

Every summer Mama and Bessie traveled to Unity House. “It’s Better in the Poconos” Bessie would yell out loud as soon as she saw the pictures of green mountains and blue sky on the roadside sign. The whole bus applauded, happy to have a vacation when times were so tough. It was 1934.

Tante Ida lived with them and always seemed to have her finger in the air, especially when she talked to Bessie, telling her the right thing to do and how to do it, “like a good little girl” she always said at the end.

When she started school Bessie found out she really was good, good at reading and writing and especially arithmetic. “Bessie’s good with numbers.” Ida would say to her sister. “She’s bright.” Then the sisters would look at Bessie and nod thoughtfully while Bessie nodded proudly.

At twelve, Bessie was tall for her age and looked like a fifteen-year-old. Never fearful, feeling as at home in the Poconos as she did in her neighborhood in Philadelphia, Bessie thought nothing of renting a hotel bike, using the money she had carefully saved from her allowance all year. She would ride over to the neighboring resort at Tamiment. It was union-owned too, but there were more kids at Tamiment and new shows every week in the big theater. Bessie loved to watch the rehearsals. Hardly older than she was, the kids on stage seemed so much wiser in the ways of the world, fast with wisecracks, teasing each other. Most of them came from New York. Occasionally one of them would come down, sit beside her and make comments.

Ben was the nicest. Tall and blond, older than she was, Ben would explain how things worked in the Tamiment theater. “Judy has a solo contract”. Every show – a new one every week – had to have a big part for her and good parts for Lucille and Murray, who were older. Sometimes, Max would make-up a part for them. Max was the boss, already ancient in Bessie’s eyes. Ben explained how important Max was, even for Ben, who didn’t really want to be an actor. Max was the director/producer. Everybody had ideas for the shows. Ben was the idea man, not the only one, but one of several who threw their ideas in the pot. Bessie watched the discussions at rehearsals, tried to guess whose idea would win – that’s how she thought of it – winning or losing- and who would get which part. She usually guessed right.

The summer she was sixteen she got a job at Tamiment, waiting on table in the huge dining room. The war was over. Families were coming back. She loved the hubbub, the noise, the competition with the other waiters and waitresses – who could get the desserts out faster, who could get more bread when the kitchen said they were all out. Bessie usually won. She went back every summer.

Part of the attraction was Ben. They had become friends, shared their off-duty time, wandering around the grounds, discussing the latest show, who was good or bad, Ben’s ideas, Bessie’s opinions. Ben laughed at her, saying she was like a judge, “Your Honor” he called her, always sure she was right. For Bessie, Ben had too many ideas, he couldn’t decide which was the best. She called him “Mr. Maybe.” With him, it was all possibility.

When she wasn’t waiting on table, if Ben was busy working, Bessie was in the theater, sitting in the back, watching a show being made-up on the spot. It was fascinating the way Max managed everybody, how the actors maneuvered for more lines, more songs. Bessie became expert at spotting the talent.

Once Ben persuaded her to try out for one of the shows. But even he had to admit she really couldn’t sing and didn’t look at ease onstage. She was better offstage, judging the talent. She kept her opinions to herself, wouldn’t dream of saying anything to Max, even if she did wait on his table. He knew her name, that was all. Every summer he’d say, “Back again, Bessie?” When she was nineteen, she screwed up her courage and told him she wanted to “be like him”. He laughed first then said, if she was as good in an office as she was waiting on table, she could always have a job with him. That was the summer before he left Tamiment for good to open his own production office in New York.

It was Ben’s last summer too. He had a job waiting for him at a little theater in Philadelphia. Bessie told him about Max’s promise, admitted it wasn’t really a promise, but as good as one. Good enough to get her to the city. She tried to convince Ben to come with her. But he shook his head. “Maybe someday.” Bessie shook her head. “Mr. Maybe again.” They both laughed.

It was 1949, like a graduation for both of them, leaving the safe harbor of Tamiment. “I’ll miss you.” They’d said it together. Bessie, feeling euphoric, the future wide open, threw her arms around Ben and kissed him. She felt his hands on her hips, pushing her gently away. She looked into his face, saw sadness, regret and quickly stepped back, confused, as if she had stepped over a line she didn’t know was there. Quiet, they started walking back toward the theater, holding hands. “Keep in touch, Your Honor?”

“Sure, Mr. Maybe.”. “Come for a visit?” Absolutely.” “Check on you, see how it’s going?” “Of course.” “Promise?” “On my honor, Mr. Maybe.”
They separated at the stage door.

Bessie got her job in New York with Max. After about a year Max took her aside.
“So, Bessie, I have a producers’ conference coming up. Wanna come with me, see how the game is played?” “That’s what I’ve been waiting for.” “You wanna be like me someday, right, a producer?” She nodded enthusiastically “Or maybe an agent,” she added. He looked at her, eyebrows raised.” If you want to be a theatrical agent you have to start neutral with everybody, not Bessie Szymansky, little foreign kid from Philly, better Betty Smith or something, more American.” “You mean, change my name?” He nodded. “But you didn’t. You’re still Max Lieberman and you’re a success.” “Bessie, people here knew me already. They saw the shows up in the mountains at Tamiment, they know who I am. You’re new. What you wear, how you act, what your name is – everything about you tells people who you are, there’s no reputation to help -. If you want to be a theatrical agent you have to start neutral with everybody, the producers, the directors, the actors. Neutral – he repeated it – a clean slate, now, at the beginning.”
She thought about it a long time. Aunt Ida would hate it, but her mother wouldn’t mind, not when she heard it was better for business. A necessity, like the union strikes. Others had done it, why shouldn’t she? Edward G Robinson had been Emanuel Golderberg. Kirk Douglas was Danielovitch Demsky once.
She finally chose Alice, for Alice in Wonderland, how she felt in New York City. The last name was harder. What was neutral enough in 1950 America? Nothing German, Polish – like Szymansky, nothing foreign at all after the war. But what was American enough, neutral enough? She finally settled on Taylor, secretly for Ben Schnyder, her old flame in Philadelphia. She’d never told Ben her feelings, afraid she was just a friend for him, someone to hang around with, not someone to fall in love with. She kept it to herself. Schnyder in English was Taylor – her secret, her way of keeping him with her. A nice quiet name, Alice Taylor, not one to remember, like actors had to have.