It's 7:30 in the morning, and the arcade in the Mercantile building, downtown, smells like good coffee as usual.
Across from the Kaffee Klatsch is a piano, set up just for the holidays. And there, Shirley Jester is playing her heart out. It's so cold that she's bundled in her mink coat, but her fingers - four of them sore from merciless use - never miss a note.
She plays as though all the ''day people,'' as she calls them, have paid a cover charge to walk through her music. She is a ''night people.'' And, although it's a wonderful and unexpected treat to come upon ''Winter Wonderland'' played with such style before work, her venue is a nightclub. Or maybe somebody's home.
She played at attorney Stanley Chesley's private party not too long ago. ''He gave his secretary a car, a convertible,'' she crows. ''Isn't that wonderful? Of course, I knew him when he was selling shoes at Shillito's.''
Shirley Jester knows everybody.
The good stuff
I wasn't sure she saw me until I heard the first strains of ''Laura.'' I smile and nod, afraid to interrupt her train of thought.
''Hello, you sweet thing,'' she says, somehow continuing to play, sip her coffee and wave. ''I would have played 'Pulfer,' but I didn't know the words.''
Well, if a song is worth singing, Shirley does know it. The old stuff. The good stuff. The classy stuff. Cole Porter. Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern. George Gershwin.
''I was doing a wedding, and a boy about 20 asked me if I knew any Led Zeppelin. Ha.'' She put her hands on either side of his head and pulled him toward her, then said, ''Do you think I do Led Zeppelin? Look at this face.''
And what a good face it is.
A fearless nose, lines that came from real and sustained laughs. Hair twisted in a slightly old-fashioned but completely appropriate chignon. Her voice is a little hoarse, always. Cigarettes? ''Gave 'em up 20 years ago.'' Booze? ''That too.''
She says she doesn't sing, not really. ''I'm sort of a stylist like.''
She is a pianist. And has been for 60 years, since the age of 3. Growing up in College Hill, she studied with two piano teachers. Singers love her, as do other musicians. She never steps on their notes.
The thing is, she listens. That's good news for the audience as well. She hears what they say, watches them, picks out people in the crowd to match with one of the thousand songs in her repertoire.
Show biz dues
Like Anne Chamberlain, who sings with Shirley on Wednesdays at diJohn restaurant in Covington, she could work anywhere. She's plenty good enough. She's at Dee Felice Cafe on Sunday nights and Sak's on Saturdays. She plays a regular Sunday brunch at a country club and one other evening club gig.
After that, she picks and chooses. She has paid her dues. Big time. For nearly 25 years, she played six nights a week until 1 a.m., at the Cole Hole, at the Vernon Manor, at the old Top of the Crown, now the Regal's top-floor restaurant, Seafood 32.
Her flirtation with show business outside Cincinnati was brief. After one appearance on The Garry Moore Show in New York City, she came home.
''I was sitting in the dressing room in about 85 petticoats, and some stagehand walked in,'' she remembers. ''I screamed. I thought I was naked. I wasn't ready for that city. Besides, I was in love.''
She worked at WKRC, married George Palmer, who was news anchor there, and stayed married until his death in 1982. Their daughter, Haven Palmer, named for a Cole Porter song, lives in Wilder.
''George was the love of my life then, but I guess you'd say I've had some other ones since. I have one right now.''
And she will probably tell you about him if you ask. Or her bypass surgery or her breast cancer six years ago. ''Knock wood.'' And she does. The least secretive or artificial person you could imagine, she is, if I may say so, right where she belongs. In this city. Especially at this time of year.
Stylish. A little old-fashioned. Substantial. Unexpectedly bawdy at times. Pretty. Warm and funny. Generous.
Shirley Jester. I would sing it if I could.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.