A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
AS MUCH AS ANY OTHER BELOVED BOOK IN THE CANON, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn illustrates the limitations of plot description. In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens. Of course that’s not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens, from birth and death to marriage and bigamy. But those things happen in the slow, sure, meandering way that they happen in the slow, sure, meandering river of real existence, not as the clanking “and then” that lends itself easily to event synopsis.
If, afterwards, someone asked, “What is the book about?”—surely one of the most irritating and reductionist questions in the world for reader and writer alike—you would not say, well, it’s about the pedophile who grabs a little girl in the hall, or about the time a man went on a bender and lost his job, or about a woman who works as the janitor in a series of tenement buildings. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.
When it first appeared, in 1943, it was called, by those critics who liked it, an honest book, and that is accurate as far as it goes. But it is more than that: It is deeply, indelibly true. Honesty is casting bright light on your own experience; truth is casting it on the experiences of all, which is why, six decades after it was published and became an instant bestseller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn continues to be read by people from all countries and all circumstances. Early on in its explosive success it was described as a book about city life, a story about grinding poverty, a tale of the struggles of immigrants in America. But all those things are setting, really, and the themes are farther-reaching: the fabric of family, the limits of love, the loss of innocence, and the birth of knowledge.
All of this takes place in the life of Francie Nolan, who is eleven years old when her story opens in the summer of 1912, in a third-floor walk-up apartment in the shadow of the hardy urban ailanthus tree, the “only tree that grew out of cement,” a tree “that liked poor people.” The scene is set immediately in the first few pages, of a hectic, vivid, hard-scrabble neighborhood where the children sell junk for pennies, spending half on petty indulgences and bringing half home to parents who can barely make the rent or pay for bread, even the stale next-day sort sold at the local wholesaler.
Francie’s mother is small and pretty but steely and tough; her father is warm and charming but feckless and, above all, a prisoner of his need for drink. And all of this would lapse into stereotype were Smith’s people and situations not seen by the girl in ways that are so undeniably true, simply told but full of the small details and moments that remind us of our own lives: the bank made from an old can Francie’s mother nails inside the closet to save money to buy a bit of land, the starched shirfront her father wears beneath his old tuxedo as he works as a singing waiter, the librarian who never looks up as she stamps the child’s books, the teacher who insists she write only about the beautiful and serene and never about what she really sees around her.
It is not a showy book from a literary point of view. Its pages are not larded with metaphor or simile or the sound of the writer’s voice in love with its own music. Its glory is in the clear-eyed descriptions of its scenes and people. When the Nolans move, their emptied apartment has “that look of a nearsighted man with his glasses off.” When the children watch their father drink, they “pondered how a nightcap could also be an eye opener.” When Francie writes the sort of grand essay her teacher expects, she rereads her own words and concludes: “They sounded like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them.”
There is little need for embellishment in these stories; their strength is in the simple universal emotion they evoke. Francie must go and be immunized at a public clinic to be allowed to attend school; added to her fear of the needle is the ignominy of listening to the doctor and nurse discuss how dirty she is. Across the broad divide of class that separates her from the well-to-do doctor and the nurse who has risen out of the same environment but turned her back on it, Francie finally says when her arm has been bandaged, “My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.”
“I had no idea she’d understand what I’m saying,” the doctor says afterwards, surprised.
This is one of those children who understands almost everything around her. The description of her passage into adolescence, when she suddenly sees the world as dingy and flawed, her parents as human and not omnipotent, the theater melodramas she had formerly loved as creaky chestnuts, is among the great descriptions in fiction of the turn of the kaleidoscope occasioned by growing older and growing up. Finally she questions the game her mother has created when food runs low, the game in which she and her brother pretend they are explorers at the North Pole trapped by a blizzard in a cave. “When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason,” Francie says. “But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?” Katie Nolan replies sadly, “You found the catch in it.”
Readers have met this sort of girl before in the pages of memorable fiction, the perceptive child who reads indefatigably, writes obsessively, dreams of a future different than what the past and present would portend. Jo March of Little Women is one, the eponymous Anne of Green Gables another, Betsy Ray of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books a third. But Francie Nolan and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reveal the inherent weakness in those stories, a lack of realism that has made them enduring novels for girls while this has as often been a book for adults.
In Francie’s beloved Brooklyn, a rapist stalks the hallways, young women give birth out of wedlock and are reviled and even attacked, the nice old man in the junk store is not someone a child should risk being alone with. The March girls of Little Women are poor, but their poverty is styled a kind of noble blessing; Betsy Ray is bound and determined to be a writer and this is portrayed as an inevitability. But the poverty of Francie’s family is degrading and soul destroying, and the possibility of really becoming a writer a considerable dream, given the need to leave school and work in factories and offices to provide food and rent money. When Francie goes to the theater, she is disdainful of the plot twist in which the hero appears at the last moment to pay the mortgage and save the day. “What if he’d been held up and couldn’t make it?” she asks herself, and answers the question the only way she knows how: “You betcha they’d live, thought Francie grimly. It takes a lot of doing to die.”
So why is this not a grim book, with Francie’s beloved father crying through delirium tremens and her teacher giving her “C”s in English when she dares to write about that real-life horror instead of gerrymandered tales of apple orchards and high tea? Part of it is certainly because we know Francie has finally triumphed. A wise contemplative voice oversees the action of the novel from time to time, and it is both the voice of the author, Betty Smith, and the unmistakable voice of a Francie grown to equanimity and stability. There is no doubt that this is an autobiographical story; originally written as memoir, it was reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor at its publishing house. Smith herself, describing the deluge of reader letters that accompanied both the initial publication of Tree and its subsequent editions, wrote, “One fifth of my letters start out ‘Dear Francie.’”
But even did we not suspect that Francie has in fact grown up not only to write but to write a spectacularly successful bestseller, there is already a kind of peace at the end of the novel that prefigures a better life for the beloved characters. Francie’s little sister, born after their charming and ineffectual father’s death, will know a life far easier than Francie and her brother Neely have; even as she irons the union label in Neely’s shirt, Francie is on her way to college far from Brooklyn. She is leaving, but leaving with everything she has learned from a place of great poverty and great richness. In a deeply affecting conclusion she looks across the tenement backyards where the tree has been chopped down and yet grown again and sees a little girl and whispers, “Good-bye, Francie” to her former self.
Is it only Francie to whom we say farewell at that moment? Of course not, or else this book would have been long forgotten. This is not simply a portrait of a section of a city nearly a century ago, nor a description of how the poor lived then in America. It is not, despite what some critics wrote, a book about social issues, about the class struggle and union membership and public education for the poor. This is not one of those social welfare novels in which the characters exist as marionettes, the strings jerked by the fashionable causes of their time. In life such issues only exist embodied in human beings, and to the extent that they are part of this book it is because of the portraits of people trampled or saved or scarred by them.
Instead this is that rare and enduring thing, a book in which, no matter what our backgrounds, we recognize ourselves. Francie does not say “good-bye” to the tenements or the tragedies but to the girl she once was, the illusions she once had, the life she once led.
SERENE WAS A WORD YOU COULD PUT TO BROOKLYN, NEW YORK. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan’s house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had that same fine feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring
pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green,
indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld.
The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.
You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone’s yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.
That was the kind of tree in Francie’s yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.
Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late—until late mass anyhow.
On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.
For Francie, Saturday started with the trip to the junkie. She and her brother, Neeley, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home slowly from school with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar. The junkie wouldn’t take an unmelted ball of foil because too many kids put iron washers in the middle to make it weigh heavier. Sometimes Neeley found a seltzer bottle. Francie helped him break the top off and melt it down for lead. The junkie wouldn’t buy a complete top because he’d get into trouble with the soda water people. A seltzer bottle top was fine. Melted, it was worth a nickel.
Francie and Neeley went down into the cellar each evening and emptied the dumbwaiter shelves of the day’s accumulated trash. They owned this privilege because Francie’s mother was the janitress. They looted the shelves of paper, rags and deposit bottles. Paper wasn’t worth much. They got only a penny for ten pounds. Rags brought two cents a pound and iron, four. Copper was good—ten cents a pound. Sometimes Francie came across a bonanza: the bottom of a discarded wash boiler. She got it off with a can opener, folded it, pounded it, folded it and pounded it again.
Soon after nine o’clock of a Saturday morning, kids began spraying out of all the side streets on to Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. They made their slow way up the Avenue to Scholes Street. Some carried their junk in their arms. Others had wagons made of a wooden soap box with solid wooden wheels. A few pushed loaded baby buggies.
Francie and Neeley put all their junk into a burlap bag and each grabbed an end and dragged it along the street; up Manhattan Avenue, past Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg to Scholes Street. Beautiful names for ugly streets. From each side street hordes of little ragamuffins emerged to swell the main tide. On the way to Carney’s, they met other kids coming back empty-handed. They had sold their junk and already squandered the pennies. Now, swaggering back, they jeered at the other kids.
“Rag picker! Rag picker!”
Francie’s face burned at the name. No comfort knowing that the taunters were rag pickers too. No matter that her brother would straggle back, empty-handed with his gang and taunt later comers the same way. Francie felt ashamed.
Carney plied his junk business in a tumble-down stable. Turning the corner, Francie saw that both doors were hooked back hospitably and she imagined that the large, bland dial of the swinging scale blinked a welcome. She saw Carney, with his rusty hair, rusty mustache and rusty eyes presiding at the scale. Carney liked girls better than boys. He would give a girl an extra penny if she did not shrink when he pinched her cheek.
Because of the possibility of this bonus, Neeley stepped aside and let Francie drag the bag into the stable. Carney jumped forward, dumped the contents of the bag on the floor and took a preliminary pinch out of her cheek. While he piled the stuff on to the scale, Francie blinked, adjusting her eyes to the darkness and was aware of the mossy air and the odor of wetted rags. Carney slewed his eyes at the dial and spoke two words: his offer. Francie knew that no dickering was permitted. She nodded yes, and Carney flipped the junk off and made her wait while he piled the paper in one corner, threw the rags in another and sorted out the metals. Only then did he reach down in his pants pockets, haul up an old leather pouch tied with a wax string and count out old green pennies that looked like junk too. As she whispered, “thank you,” Carney fixed a rusty junked look on her and pinched her cheek hard. She stood her ground. He smiled and added an extra penny. Then his manner changed and became loud and brisk.
“Come on,” he hollered to the next one in line, a boy. “Get the lead out!” He timed the laugh. “And I don’t mean junk.” The children laughed dutifully. The laughter sounded like the bleating of lost little lambs but Carney seemed satisfied.
Francie went outside to report to her brother. “He gave me sixteen cents and a pinching penny.”
“That’s your penny,” he said, according to an old agreement.
She put the penny in her dress pocket and turned the rest of the money over to him. Neeley was ten, a year younger than Francie. But he was the boy; he handled the money. He divided the pennies carefully.
“Eight cents for the bank.” That was the rule; half of any money they got from anywhere went into the tin-can bank that was nailed to the floor in the darkest corner of the closet. “And four cents for you and four cents for me.”
Francie knotted the bank money in her handkerchief. She looked at her own five pennies realizing happily that they could be changed into a whole nickel.
Neeley rolled up the burlap bag, tucked it under his arm and pushed his way in Cheap Charlie’s with Francie right behind him. Cheap Charlie’s was the penny candy store next to Carney’s which catered to the junk trade. At the end of a Saturday, its cash box was filled with greenish pennies. By an unwritten law, it was a boys’ store. So Francie did not go all the way in. She stood by the doorway.
The boys, from eight to fourteen years of age, looked alike in straggling knickerbockers and broken-peaked caps. They stood around, hands in pockets and thin shoulders hunched forward tensely. They would grow up looking like that; standing the same way in other hangouts. The only difference would be the cigarette seemingly permanently fastened between their lips, rising and falling in accent as they spoke.
Now the boys churned about nervously, their thin faces turning from Charlie to each other and back to Charlie again. Francie noticed that some already had their summer haircut: hair cropped so short that there were nicks in the scalp where the clippers had bitten too deeply. These fortunates had their caps crammed into their pockets or pushed back on the head. The unshorn ones whose hair curled gently and still babyishly at the nape of the neck, were ashamed and wore their caps pulled so far down over their ears that there was something girlish about them in spite of their jerky profanity.
Cheap Charlie was not cheap and his name wasn’t Charlie. He had taken that name and it said so on the store awning and Francie believed it. Charlie gave you a pick for your penny. A board with fifty numbered hooks and a prize hanging from each hook, hung behind the counter. There were a few fine prizes; roller skates, a catcher’s mitt, a doll with real hair and so on. The other hooks held blotters, pencils and other penny articles. Francie watched as Neeley bought a pick. He removed the dirty card from the ragged envelope. Twenty-six! Hopefully, Francie looked at the board. He had drawn a penny pen wiper.
“Prize or candy?” Charlie asked him.
“Candy. What do you think?”
It was always the same. Francie had never heard of anyone winning above a penny prize. Indeed the skate wheels were rusted and the doll’s hair was dust filmed as though these things had waited there a long time like Little Boy Blue’s toy dog and tin soldier. Someday, Francie resolved, when she had fifty cents, she would take all the picks and win everything on the board. She figured that would be a good business deal: skates, mitt, doll and all the other things for fifty cents. Why, the skates alone were worth four times that much! Neeley would have to come along that great day because girls seldom patronized Charlie’s. True, there were a few girls there that Saturday…bold, brash ones, too developed for their age; girls who talked loud and horseplayed around with the boys—girls whom the neighbors prophesied would come to no good.
Francie went across the street to Gimpy’s candy store. Gimpy was lame. He was a gentle man, kind to little children…or so everyone thought until that sunny afternoon when he inveigled a little girl into his dismal back room.
Francie debated whether she should sacrifice one of her pennies for a Gimpy Special: the prize bag. Maudie Donavan, her once-in-a-while girl friend, was about to make a purchase. Francie pushed her way in until she was standing behind Maudie. She pretended that she was spending the penny. She held her breath as Maudie, after much speculation, pointed dramatically at a bulging bag in the showcase. Francie would have picked a smaller bag. She looked over her friend’s shoulder; saw her take out a few pieces of stale candy and examine her prize—a coarse cambric handkerchief. Once Francie had gotten a small bottle of strong scent. She debated again whether to spend a penny on a prize bag. It was nice to be surprised even if you couldn’t eat the candy. But she reasoned she had been surprised by being with Maudie when she made her purchase and that was almost as good.
Francie walked up Manhattan Avenue reading aloud the fine-sounding names of the streets she passed: Scholes, Meserole, Montrose and then Johnson Avenue. These last two Avenues were where the Italians had settled. The district called Jew Town started at Seigel Street, took in Moore and McKibben and went past Broadway. Francie headed for Broadway.
And what was on Broadway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Nothing—only the finest nickel-and-dime store in all the world! It was big and glittering and had everything in the world in it…or so it seemed to an eleven-year-old girl. Francie had a nickel. Francie had power. She could buy practically anything in that store! It was the only place in the world where that could be.
Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floor-walker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say, yes, buy it and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided. After an orgy of touching things, she made her planned purchase—five cents’ worth of pink-and-white peppermint wafers.
She walked back home down Graham Avenue, the Ghetto street. She was excited by the filled pushcarts—each a little store in itself—the bargaining, emotional Jews and the peculiar smells of the neighborhood; baked stuffed fish, sour rye bread fresh from the oven, and something that smelled like honey boiling. She stared at the bearded men in their alpaca skull caps and silkolene coats and wondered what made their eyes so small and fierce. She looked into tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and smelled the dress fabrics arranged in disorder on the tables. She noticed the feather beds bellying out of windows, clothes of Oriental-bright colors drying on the fire escapes and the half-naked children playing in the gutters. A woman, big with child, sat patiently at the curb in a stiff wooden chair. She sat in the hot sunshine watching the life on the street and guarding within herself, her own mystery of life.
Francie remembered her surprise that time when Mama told her that Jesus was a Jew. Francie had thought that He was a Catholic. But Mama knew. Mama said that the Jews had never looked on Jesus as anything but a troublesome Yiddish boy who would not work at the carpentry trade, marry, settle down and raise a family. And the Jews believed that their Messiah was yet to come, mama said. Thinking of this, Francie stared at the Pregnant Jewess.
“I guess that’s why the Jews have so many babies,” Francie thought. “And why they sit so quiet…waiting. And why they aren’t ashamed the way they are fat. Each one thinks that she might be making the real little Jesus. That’s why they walk so proud when they’re that way. Now the Irish women always look so ashamed. They know that they can never make a Jesus. It will be just another Mick. When I grow up and know that I am going to have a baby, I will remember to walk proud and slow even though I am not a Jew.”
It was twelve when Francie got home. Mama came in soon after with her broom and pail which she banged into a corner with that final bang which meant that they wouldn’t be touched again until Monday.
Mama was twenty-nine. She had black hair and brown eyes and was quick with her hands. She had a nice shape, too. She worked as a janitress and kept three tenement houses clean. Who would ever believe that Mama scrubbed floors to make a living for the four of them? She was so pretty and slight and vivid and always bubbling over with intensity and fun. Even though her hands were red and cracked from the sodaed water, they were beautifully shaped with lovely, curved, oval nails. Everyone said it was a pity that a slight pretty woman like Katie Nolan had to go out scrubbing floors. But what else could she do considering the husband she had, they said. They admitted that, no matter which way you looked at it, Johnny Nolan was a handsome lovable fellow far superior to any man on the block. But he was a drunk. That’s what they said and it was true.
Francie made Mama watch while she put the eight cents in the tin-can bank. They had a pleasant five minutes conjecturing about how much was in the bank. Francie thought there must be nearly a hundred dollars. Mama said eight dollars would be nearer right.
Mama gave Francie instructions about going out to buy something for lunch. “Take eight cents from the cracked cup and get a quarter loaf of Jew rye bread and see that it’s fresh. Then take a nickel, go to Sauerwein’s and ask for the end-of-the-tongue for a nickel.”
“But you have to have a pull with him to get it.”
“Tell him that your mother said,” insisted Katie firmly. She thought something over. “I wonder whether we ought to buy five cents’ worth of sugar buns or put that money in the bank.”
“Oh, Mama, it’s Saturday. All week you said we could have dessert on Saturday.”
“All right. Get the buns.”
The little Jewish delicatessen was full of Christians buying Jew rye bread. She watched the man push her quarter loaf into a paper bag. With its wonderful crisp yet tender crust and floury bottom, it was easily the most wonderful bread in the world, she thought, when it was fresh. She entered Sauerwein’s store reluctantly. Sometimes he was agreeable about the tongue and sometimes he wasn’t. Sliced tongue at seventy-five cents a pound was only for rich people. But when it was nearly all sold, you could get the square end for a nickel if you had a pull with Mr. Sauerwein. Of course there wasn’t much tongue to the end. It was mostly soft, small bones and gristle with only the memory of meat.
It happened to be one of Sauerwein’s agreeable days. “The tongue came to an end, yesterday,” he told Francie. “But I saved it for you because I know your mama likes tongue and I like your mama. You tell her that. Hear?”
“Yes sir,” whispered Francie. She looked down on the floor as she felt her face getting warm. She hated Mr. Sauerwein and would not tell Mama what he had said.
At the baker’s, she picked out four buns, carefully choosing those with the most sugar. She met Neeley outside the store. He peeped into the bag and cut a caper of delight when he saw the buns. Although he had eaten four cents’ worth of candy that morning, he was very hungry and made Francie run all the way home.
Papa did not come home for dinner. He was a free-lance singing waiter which meant that he didn’t work very often. Usually he spent Saturday morning at Union Headquarters waiting for a job to come in for him.
Francie, Neeley, and Mama had a very fine meal. Each had a thick slice of the “tongue,” two pieces of sweet-smelling rye bread spread with unsalted butter, a sugar bun apiece and a mug of strong hot coffee with a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk on the side.
There was a special Nolan idea about the coffee. It was their one great luxury. Mama made a big potful each morning and reheated it for dinner and supper and it got stronger as the day wore on. It was an awful lot of water and very little coffee but Mama put a lump of chicory in it which made it taste strong and bitter. Each one was allowed three cups a day with milk. Other times you could help yourself to a cup of black coffee anytime you felt like it. Sometimes when you had nothing at all and it was raining and you were alone in the flat, it was wonderful to know that you could have something even though it was only a cup of black and bitter coffee.
Neeley and Francie loved coffee but seldom drank it. Today, as usual, Neeley let his coffee stand black and ate his condensed milk spread on bread. He sipped a little of the black coffee for the sake of formality. Mama poured out Francie’s coffee and put the milk in it even though she knew that the child wouldn’t drink it.
Francie loved the smell of coffee and the way it was hot. As she ate her bread and meat, she kept one hand curved about the cup enjoying its warmth. From time to time, she’d smell the bitter sweetness of it. That was better than drinking it. At the end of the meal, it went down the sink.
Mama had two sisters, Sissy and Evy, who came to the flat often. Every time they saw the coffee thrown away, they gave Mama a lecture about wasting things.
Mama explained: “Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away rather than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.”
This queer point of view satisfied Mama and pleased Francie. It was one of the links between the ground-down poor and the wasteful rich. The girl felt that even if she had less than anybody in Williamsburg, somehow she had more. She was richer because she had something to waste. She ate her sugar bun slowly, reluctant to have done with its sweet taste, while the coffee got ice-cold. Regally, she poured it down the sink drain feeling casually extravagant. After that, she was ready to go to Losher’s for the family’s semiweekly supply of stale bread. Mama told her that she could take a nickel and buy a stale pie if she could get one that wasn’t mashed too much.
Losher’s bread factory supplied the neighborhood stores. The bread was not wrapped in wax paper and grew stale quickly. Losher’s redeemed the stale bread from the dealers and sold it at half price to the poor. The outlet store adjoined the bakery. Its long narrow counter filled one side and long narrow benches ran along the other two sides. A huge double door opened behind the counter. The bakery wagons backed up to it and unloaded the bread right on to the counter. They sold two loaves for a nickel, and when it was dumped out, a pushing crowd fought for the privilege of buying it. There was never enough bread and some waited until three or four wagons had reported before they could buy bread. At that price, the customers had to supply their own wrappings. Most of the purchasers were children. Some kids tucked the bread under their arms and walked home brazenly letting all the world know that they were poor. The proud ones wrapped up the bread, some in old newspapers, others in clean or dirty flour sacks. Francie brought along a large paper bag.
She didn’t try to get her bread right away. She sat on a bench and watched. A dozen kids pushed and shouted at the counter. Four old men dozed on the opposite bench. The old men, pensioners on their families, were made to run errands and mind babies, the only work left for old worn-out men in Williamsburg. They waited as long as they could before buying because Losher’s smelled kindly of baking bread, and the sun coming in the windows felt good on their old backs. They sat and dozed while the hours passed and felt that they were filling up time. The waiting gave them a purpose in life for a little while and, almost, they felt necessary again.
Francie stared at the oldest man. She played her favorite game, figuring out about people. His thin tangled hair was the same dirty gray as the stubble standing on his sunken cheeks. Dried spittle caked the corners of his mouth. He yawned. He had no teeth. She watched, fascinated and revolted, as he closed his mouth, drew his lips inward until there was no mouth, and made his chin come up to almost meet his nose. She studied his old coat with the padding hanging out of the torn sleeve seam. His legs were sprawled wide in helpless relaxation and one of the buttons was missing from his grease-caked pants opening. She saw that his shoes were battered and broken open at the toes. One shoe was laced with a much-knotted shoe string, and the other with a bit of dirty twine. She saw two thick dirty toes with creased gray toenails. Her thoughts ran….
“He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago.” She kept staring at his feet. “He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he’ll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he don’t want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.”
The place was quiet. The summer sun streamed in and made dusty, down-slanting roads from the window to the floor. A big green fly buzzed in and out of the sunny dust. Excepting for herself and the dozing old men, the place was empty. The children who waited for bread had gone to play outside. Their high screaming voices seemed to come from far away.
Suddenly Francie jumped up. Her heart was beating fast. She was frightened. For no reason at all, she thought of an accordion pulled out full for a rich note. Then she had an idea that the accordion was closing…closing…closing…. A terrible panic that had no name came over her as she realized that many of the sweet babies in the world were born to come to something like this old man some day. She had to get out of that place or it would happen to her. Suddenly she would be an old woman with toothless gums and feet that disgusted people.
At that moment, the double doors behind the counter were banged open as a bread truck backed up. A man came to stand behind the counter. The truck driver started throwing bread to him which he piled up on the counter. The kids in the street who had heard the doors thrown open piled in and milled around Francie who had already reached the counter.
“I want bread!” Francie called out. A big girl gave her a strong shove and wanted to know who she thought she was. “Never mind! Never mind!” Francie told her. “I want six loaves and a pie not too crushed,” she screamed out.
Impressed by her intensity, the counter man shoved six loaves and the least battered of the rejected pies at her and took her two dimes. She pushed her way out of the crowd dropping a loaf which she had trouble picking up as there was no room to stoop over in.
Outside, she sat at the curb fitting the bread and the pie into the paper bag. A woman passed, wheeling a baby in a buggy. The baby was waving his feet in the air. Francie looked and saw, not the baby’s foot, but a grotesque thing in a big, worn-out shoe. The panic came on her again and she ran all the way home.
The flat was empty. Mama had dressed and gone off with Aunt Sissy to see a matinee from a ten-cent gallery seat. Francie put the bread and pie away and folded the bag neatly to be used the next time. She went into the tiny, windowless bedroom that she shared with Neeley and sat on her own cot in the dark waiting for the waves of panic to stop passing over her.
After a while Neeley came in, crawled under his cot and pulled out a ragged catcher’s mitt.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“Play ball in the lots.”
“Can I come along?”
She followed him down to the street. Three of his gang were waiting for him. One had a bat, another a baseball and the third had nothing but wore a pair of baseball pants. They started out for an empty lot over towards Greenpoint. Neeley saw Francie following but said nothing. One of the boys nudged him and said,
“Hey! Your sister’s followin’ us.”
“Yeah,” agreed Neeley. The boy turned around and yelled at Francie:
“Go chase yourself!”
“It’s a free country,” Francie stated.
“It’s a free country,” Neeley repeated to the boy. They took no notice of Francie after that. She continued to follow them. She had nothing to do until two o’clock when the neighborhood library opened up again.
It was a slow, horseplaying walk. The boys stopped to look for tin foil in the gutter and to pick up cigarette butts which they would save and smoke in the cellar on the next rainy afternoon. They took time out to bedevil a little Jew boy on his way to the temple. They detained him while they debated what to do with him. The boy waited, smiling humbly. The Christians released him finally with detailed instructions as to his course of conduct for the coming week.
“Don’t show your puss on Devoe Street,” he was ordered.
“I won’t,” he promised. The boys were disappointed. They had expected more fight. One of them took out a bit of chalk from his pocket and drew a wavy line on the sidewalk. He commanded,
“Don’t you even step over that line.”
The little boy, knowing that he had offended them by giving in too easily, decided to play their way.
“Can’t I even put one foot in the gutter, fellers?”
“You can’t even spit in the gutter,” he was told.
“All right.” He sighed in pretended resignation.
One of the bigger boys had an inspiration. “And keep away from Christian girls. Get me?” They walked away leaving him staring after them.
“Gol-lee!” he whispered rolling his big brown Jewish eyes. The idea that those Goyem thought him man enough to be capable of thinking about any girl, Gentile or Jew, staggered him and he went his way saying gol-lee over and over.
The boys walked on slowly, looking slyly at the big boy who had made the remark about the girls, and wondering whether he would lead off into a dirty talk session. But before this could start, Francie heard her brother say,
“I know that kid. He’s a white Jew.” Neeley had heard papa speak so of a Jewish bartender that he liked.
“They ain’t no such thing as a white Jew,” said the big boy.
“Well, if there was such a thing as a white Jew,” said Neeley with that combination of agreeing with others, and still sticking to his own opinions, which made him so amiable, “he would be it.”
“There never could be a white Jew,” said the big boy, “even in supposing.”
“Our Lord was a Jew.” Neeley was quoting Mama.
“And other Jews turned right around and killed him,” clinched the big boy.
Before they could go deeper in theology, they saw another little boy turn on to Ainslie Street from Humboldt Street carrying a basket on his arm. The basket was covered with a clean ragged cloth. A stick stuck up from one corner of the basket, and, on it, like a sluggish flag stood six pretzels. The big boy of Neeley’s gang gave a command and they made a tightly-packed run on the pretzel seller. He stood his ground, opened his mouth and bawled, “Mama!”
A second-story window flew open and a woman clutching a crepe-paperish kimono around her sprawling breasts, yelled out,
“Leave him alone and get off this block, you lousy bastards.”
Francie’s hands flew to cover her ears so that at confession she would not have to tell the priest that she had stood and listened to a bad word.
“We ain’t doing nothing, lady,” said Neeley with that ingratiating smile which always won over his mother.
“You bet your life, you ain’t. Not while I’m around.” Then without changing her tone she called to her son, “And get upstairs here, you. I’ll learn you to bother me when I’m taking a nap.” The pretzel boy went upstairs and the gang ambled on.
“That lady’s tough.” The big boy jerked his head back at the window.
“Yeah,” the others agreed.
“My old man’s tough,” offered a smaller boy.
“Who the hell cares?” inquired the big boy languidly.
“I was just saying,” apologized the smaller boy.
“My old man ain’t tough,” said Neeley. The boys laughed.
They ambled along, stopping now and then to breathe deeply of the smell of Newtown Creek which flowed its narrow tormented way a few blocks up Grand Street.
“God, she stinks,” commented the big boy.
“Yeah!” Neeley sounded deeply satisfied.
“I bet that’s the worst stink in the world,” bragged another boy.
And Francie whispered yeah in agreement. She was proud of that smell. It let her know that nearby was a waterway, which, dirty though it was, joined a river that flowed out to the sea. To her, the stupendous stench suggested far-sailing ships and adventure and she was pleased with the smell.
Just as the boys reached the lot in which there was a ragged diamond tramped out, a little yellow butterfly flew across the weeds. With man’s instinct to capture anything running, flying, swimming or crawling, they gave chase, throwing their ragged caps at it in advance of their coming. Neeley caught it. The boys looked at it briefly, quickly lost interest in it and started up a four-man baseball game of their own devising.
They played furiously, cursing, sweating and punching each other. Every time a stumble bum passed and loitered for a moment, they clowned and showed off. There was a rumor that the Brooklyn’s had a hundred scouts roaming the streets of a Saturday afternoon watching lot games and spotting promising players. And there wasn’t a Brooklyn boy who wouldn’t rather play on the Brooklyn’s team than be president of the United States.
After a while, Francie got tired of watching them. She knew that they would play and fight and show off until it was time to drift home for supper. It was two o’clock. The librarian should be back from lunch by now. With pleasant anticipation, Francie walked back towards the library.
THE LIBRARY WAS A LITTLE OLD SHABBY PLACE. FRANCIE THOUGHT it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass.
Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones. She remembered that the first author had been Abbott. She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and she was still in the B’s. Already she had read about bees and buffaloes, Bermuda vacations and Byzantine architecture. For all of her enthusiasm, she had to admit that some of the B’s had been hard going. But Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, time tables and the grocer’s price list. Some of the reading had been wonderful; the Louisa Alcott books for example. She planned to read all the books over again when she had finished with the Z’s.
Saturdays were different. She treated herself by reading a book not in the alphabetical sequence. On that day she asked the librarian to recommend a book.
After Francie had come in and closed the door quietly behind her—the way you were supposed to do in the library—she looked quickly at the little golden-brown pottery jug which stood at the end of the librarian’s desk. It was a season indicator. In the fall it held a few sprigs of bittersweet and at Christmas time it held holly. She knew spring was coming, even if there was snow on the ground, when she saw pussy willow in the bowl. And today, on this summer Saturday of 1912, what was the bowl holding? She moved her eyes slowly up the jug past the thin green stems and little round leaves and saw…nasturtiums! Red, yellow, gold and ivory-white. A head pain caught her between the eyes at the taking in of such a wonderful sight. It was something to be remembered all her life.
“When I get big,” she thought, “I will have such a brown bowl and in hot August there will be nasturtiums in it.”
She put her hand on the edge of the polished desk liking the way it felt. She looked at the neat row of freshly sharpened pencils, the clean green square of blotter, the fat white jar of creamy paste, the precise stack of cards and the returned books waiting to be put back on the shelves. The remarkable pencil with the date slug above its point was by itself near the blotter’s edge.
“Yes, when I get big and have my own home, no plush chairs and lace curtains for me. And no rubber plants. I’ll have a desk like this in my parlor and white walls and a clean green blotter every Saturday night and a row of shining yellow pencils always sharpened for writing and a golden-brown bowl with a flower or some leaves or berries always in it and books…books…books….”
She chose her book for Sunday; something by an author named Brown. Francie figured she had been reading on the Browns for months. When she thought she was nearly finished, she noticed that the next shelf started up again with Browne. After that came Browning. She groaned, anxious to get into the C’s where there was a book by Marie Corelli that she had peeped into and found thrilling. Would she ever get to that? Maybe she ought to read two books a day. Maybe….
She stood at the desk a long time before the librarian deigned to attend to her.
“Yes?” inquired that lady pettishly.
“This book. I want it.” Francie pushed the book forward opened at the back with the little card pushed out of the envelope. The librarians had trained the children to present the books that way. It saved them the trouble of opening several hundred books a day and pulling several hundred cards from as many envelopes.
She took the card, stamped it, pushed it down a slot in the desk. She stamped Francie’s card and pushed it at her. Francie picked it up but she did not go away.
“Yes?” The librarian did not bother to look up.
“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow.
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. The librarian recommended these two books over and over again. Maybe they were the only ones she herself had read; maybe they were on a recommended list; maybe she had discovered that they were sure fire as far as eleven-year-old girls were concerned.
Francie held the books close and hurried home, resisting the temptation to sit on the first stoop she came to, to start reading.
Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time. She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars. Luckily there was ice in the icebox. She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water. The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color. She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape. Once out there, she was living in a tree. No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her. But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.
It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the tree made fugitive patterns on the white pillow-case. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually it was pre-empted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbings and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a birthday present.
Francie breathed the warm air, watched the dancing leaf shadows, ate the candy and took sips of the cooled water in-between reading the book.
If I were King, Love,
Ah, if I were King….
The story of François Villon was more wonderful each time she read it. Sometimes she worried for fear the book would be lost in the library and she’d never be able to read it again. She had once started copying the book in a two-cent notebook. She wanted to own a book so badly and she had thought the copying would do it. But the penciled sheets did not seem like nor smell like the library book so she had given it up, consoling herself with the vow that when she grew up, she would work hard, save money and buy every single book that she liked.
As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed. About four o’clock, the flats in the tenements across from Francie’s yard came to life. Through the leaves, she looked into the open uncurtained windows and saw growlers being rushed out and returned overflowing with cool foaming beer. Kids ran in and out, going to and returning from the butcher’s, the grocer’s and the baker’s. Women came in with bulky hock-shop bundles. The man’s Sunday suit was home again. On Monday, it would go back to the pawnbroker’s for another week. The hock-shop prospered on the weekly interest money and the suit benefited by being brushed and hung away in camphor where the moths couldn’t get at it. In on Monday, out on Saturday. Ten cents’ interest paid to Uncle Timmy. That was the cycle.
Francie saw young girls making preparations to go out with their fellers. Since none of the flats had bathrooms, the girls stood before the kitchen sinks in their camisoles and petticoats, and the line the arm made, curved over the head while they washed under the arm, was very beautiful. There were so many girls in so many windows washing this way that it seemed a kind of hushed and expectant ritual.
She stopped reading when Fraber’s horse and wagon came into the yard next door because watching the beautiful horse was almost as good as reading. The next-door yard was cobblestoned and had a good-looking stable at the end of it. A wrought-iron double gate separated the yard from the street. At the edge of the cobblestones was a bit of well-manured earth where a lovely rose bush grew and a row of bright red geraniums. The stable was finer than any house in the neighborhood and the yard was the prettiest in Williamsburg.
Francie heard the gate click shut. The horse, a shining brown gelding with a black mane and tail, came into view first. He pulled a small maroon wagon that had Dr. Fraber, Dentist and the address painted on the sides in golden letters. This trim wagon delivered nothing and carried nothing. It was driven slowly through the streets all day as an advertisement. It was a dreamily moving billboard.
Frank, a nice young man with rosy cheeks—like the fabulous youth in the children’s song—took the wagon out every morning and brought it back every afternoon. He had a fine life and all the girls flirted with him. All he had to do was to drive the wagon around slowly so that people could read the name and address on it. When it came to a set of plates or the pulling of a tooth, the people would remember the address on the wagon and come to Dr. Fraber.
Frank leisurely removed his coat and donned a leather apron while Bob, the horse, patiently shifted from one foot to the other. Frank then unharnessed him, wiped off the leather and hung the harness up in the stable. Next he washed the horse with a great wet yellow sponge. The horse enjoyed it. He stood there with the sunshine dappling him over and sometimes his hooves struck a spark from the stones as he pawed the ground. Frank squeezed water out on to the brown back and rubbed it down talking to the big horse all the while.
“Steady now, Bob. That’s a good boy. Back up there. Whoa now!”
Bob was not the only horse in Francie’s life. Her Aunt Evy’s husband, Uncle Willie Flittman, also drove a horse. His horse was named Drummer and pulled a milk wagon. Willie and Drummer were not friends the way Frank and his horse were friends. Willie and Drummer lay in wait for each other figuring out injuries to do the other. Uncle Willie reviled Drummer by the hour. To hear him talk, you would think that the horse never slept at night but stood awake in the milk company stable figuring out new torments for his driver.
Francie liked to play a game in which she imagined that people looked like their pets and vice versa. Little white poodles were favorite pets in Brooklyn. The woman who owned a poodle was usually small, plump, white, soiled and with rheumy eyes just like a poodle. Miss Tynmore, the tiny, bright chirping old maid who gave Mama music lessons, was just like the canary whose cage hung in her kitchen. If Frank could turn into a horse, he’d look like Bob. Francie had never seen Uncle Willie’s horse but she knew what he looked like. Drummer, like Willie, would be small and thin and dark with nervous eyes which showed too much white. He’d be whimpery too, like Aunt Evy’s husband. She let her thought go away from Uncle Flittman.
Out on the street, a dozen small boys clung to the iron gate watching the neighborhood’s only horse being washed. Francie couldn’t see them but she heard them talking. They made up fearful stories about the gentle animal.
“Don’t he look still and easy,” a boy said. “But that’s only a fake. He’s layin’ his chance for when Frank ain’t lookin’ then he’ll bite him and kick him to death.”
“Yeah,” said another boy. “I seen him run over a little baby yesterday.”
A third boy had an inspiration. “I seen him do number one on a old lady sittin’ by the gutter sellin’ apples. All over the apples, too,” he added as an afterthought.
“They put them blinkers on him so’s he can’t see how little people is. If he could see how small they is, he would kill them all.”
“Them blinkers make him think people is little?”
“Little like pee-wees.”
Each boy as he spoke knew that he was lying. Yet he believed what the other boys said about the horse. Eventually the boys tired of watching gentle Bob just stand there. One of them picked up a stone and threw it at the horse. Bob’s skin rippled where it struck him and the boys shivered in anticipation of his going berserk. Frank looked up and spoke to them in a gentle Brooklyn voice.
“You don’t want to go and do that now. The horse didn’t do nothin’ to you.”
“Oh, no?” shouted a boy indignantly.
“No,” answered Frank.
“Aw, go———yourself,” came the inevitable coup de grace from the smallest boy.
Still gently spoke Frank as he let a rill of water run over the horse’s rump: “Do you want to go away from here or do I have to break a couple of your asses?”
“You and who else?”
“I’ll show you who else!” Suddenly Frank swooped down and picked up a loose cobblestone and squared off as if to throw it. The boys backed away hollering out offended retorts.
“I guess this is a free country.”
“Yeah. You don’t own the streets.”
“I’m gonna tell my uncle, the cop, on you.”
“Beat it now,” said Frank indifferently. He replaced the cobblestone carefully.
The big boys drifted away, tired of the game. But the little boys seeped back. They wanted to see Frank give Bob his oats.
Frank finished washing the horse and stood him under the tree where his head was in the shade. He hung a filled feed bag on his neck, then he went to work washing the wagon, whistling, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” As if this was a signal, Flossie Gaddis who lived below the Nolans, stuck her head out of the window.
“Hello, there,” she called vivaciously.
Frank knew who called. He waited a long time and then answered “Hello” without looking up. He walked around to the other side of the wagon where Floss couldn’t see him but her persistent voice followed.
“Done for the day?” she asked brightly.
“I guess you’re going out sporting, beings it’s a Saturday night tonight.” No answer. “Don’t tell me a good-looking feller like you ain’t got no girl.” No answer. “They’re running a racket tonight at the Shamrock Club.”
“Yeah?” He didn’t sound interested.
“Yeah. I got a ticket admitting lady and gent.”
“Sorry. I’m all tied up.”
“Staying home to keep your old lady company?”
“Aw, go to hell!” She slammed the window down and Frank breathed a sigh of relief. That was over.
Francie felt sorry for Flossie. She never gave up hope no matter how many times she lost out with Frank. Flossie was always running after men and they were always running away from her. Francie’s Aunt Sissy ran after men, too. But somehow they ran to meet her halfway.
The difference was that Flossie Gaddis was starved about men and Sissy was healthily hungry about them. And what a difference that made.
PAPA CAME HOME AT FIVE O’CLOCK. BY THAT TIME, THE HORSE AND wagon had been locked up in Fraber’s stable, Francie had finished her book and her candy and had noted how pale and thin the late afternoon sun was on the worn fence boards. She held the sun-warmed, wind-freshened pillow to her cheek a moment before she replaced it on her cot. Papa came in singing his favorite ballad, “Molly Malone.” He always sang it coming up the stairs so that everyone would know he was home.
In Dublin’s fair city,
The girls are so pretty,
Twas there that I first met….
Francie, smilingly happy, had the door open before he could sing the next line.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked. He always asked that when he came in.
“She went to the show with Sissy.”
“Oh!” He sounded disappointed. He was always disappointed if Katie wasn’t there. “I work at Klommer’s tonight. Big wedding party.” He brushed his derby with his coat sleeve before he hung it up.
“Waiting or singing?” Francie asked.
“Both. Have I got a clean waiter’s apron, Francie?”
“There’s one clean but not ironed. I’ll iron it for you.”
She set up the ironing board on two chairs and put the iron to heat. She got a square of thick wrinkled duck material with linen tape ties and sprinkled it. While she waited for the iron to get hot, she heated the coffee and poured him a cup. He drank it and ate the sugar bun that they had saved for him. He was very happy because he had a job that night and because it was a nice day.
“A day like this is like somebody giving you a present,” he said.
“Isn’t hot coffee a wonderful thing? How did people get along before it was invented?”
“I like the way it smells.”
“Where did you buy these buns?”
“They make them better every day.”
“There’s some Jew bread left, a piece.”
“Fine!” He took the slice of bread and turned it over. The Union sticker was on that piece. “Good bread, well made by Union bakers.” He pulled the sticker off. A thought struck him. “The Union label on my apron!”
“It’s right here, sewn in the seam. I’ll iron it out.”
“That label is like an ornament,” he explained, “like a rose that you wear. Look at my Waiters’ Union button.” The pale green-and-white button was fastened in his lapel. He polished it with his sleeve. “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big, they said, that they could sell the waiting concession. Then I joined the Union. Your mother shouldn’t begrudge the dues. The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.”
“Yes, Papa.” By now, Francie was ironing away. She loved to hear him talk.
Francie thought of the Union Headquarters. One time she had gone there to bring him an apron and carfare to go to a job. She saw him sitting with some men. He wore his tuxedo all the time. It was the only suit he had. His black derby was cocked jauntily and he was smoking a cigar. He took his hat off and threw the cigar away when he saw Francie come in.
“My daughter,” he said proudly. The waiters looked at the thin child in her ragged dress and then exchanged glances. They were different from Johnny Nolan. They had regular waiter jobs during the week and picked up extra money on Saturday night jobs. Johnny had no regular job. He worked at one-night places here and there.
“I want to tell you fellows,” he said, “that I got a couple of fine children home and a pretty wife. And I want to tell you that I’m not good enough for them.”
“Take it easy,” said a friend and patted him on the shoulder.
Francie overheard two men outside the group talking about her father. The short man said,
“I want you to hear this fellow talk about his wife and his kids. It’s rich. He’s a funny duck. He brings his wages home to his wife but keeps his tips for booze. He’s got a funny arrangement at McGarrity’s. He turns all his tips over to him and McGarrity supplies him with drinks. He don’t know whether McGarrity owes him money or whether he owes McGarrity. The system must work out pretty good for him, though. He’s always carrying a load.” The men walked away.
There was a pain around Francie’s heart but when she saw how the men standing around her father liked him, how they smiled and laughed at what he said and how eagerly they listened to him, the pain lessened. Those two men were exceptions. She knew that everyone loved her father.
Yes, everyone loved Johnny Nolan. He was a sweet singer of sweet songs. Since the beginning of time, everyone, especially the Irish, had loved and cared for the singer in their midst. His brother waiters really loved him. The men he worked for loved him. His wife and children loved him. He was still gay and young and handsome. His wife had not turned bitter against him and his children did not know that they were supposed to be ashamed of him.
Francie pulled her thoughts away from that day when she had visited the Union Headquarters. She listened to her father again. He was reminiscing.
“Take me. I’m nobody.” Placidly, he lit up a nickel cigar. “My folks came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out. Fellow ran a steamship company said he’d take my father to America—had a job waiting for him. Said he’d take the boat fare from his wages. So my father and mother came over.
“My father was like me—never held the one job long.” He smoked in silence for a while.
Francie ironed quietly. She knew that he was just thinking out loud. He did not expect her to understand. He just wanted someone to listen to him. He said practically the same things every Saturday. The rest of the week when he was drinking, he would come and go and say little. But today was Saturday. It was his day to talk.
“My folks never knew how to read or write. I only got to the sixth grade myself—had to leave school when the old man died. You kids are lucky. I’m going to see to it that you get through school.”
“I was a boy of twelve then. I sang in saloons for the drunks and they threw pennies at me. Then I started working around saloons and restaurants…waiting on people….” He was quiet a while with his thoughts.
“I always wanted to be a real singer, the kind that comes out on the stage all dressed up. But I didn’t have no education and I didn’t know the first way about how to start in being a stage singer. Mind your job, my mother told me. You don’t know how lucky you are to have work, she said. So I drifted into the singing-waiter business. It’s not steady work. I’d be better off if I was just a plain waiter. That’s why I drink,” he finished up illogically.
She looked up at him as though she were going to ask a question. But she said nothing.
“I drink because I don’t stand a chance and I know it. I couldn’t drive a truck like other men and I couldn’t get on the cops with my build. I got to sling beer and sing when I just want to sing. I drink because I got responsibilities that I can’t handle.” There was another long pause. Then he whispered, “I am not a happy man. I got a wife and children and I don’t happen to be a hard-working man. I never wanted a family.”
Again that hurt around Francie’s heart. He didn’t want her or Neeley?
“What does a man like me want a family for? But I fell in love with Katie Rommely. Oh, I’m not blaming your mother,” he said quickly. “If it hadn’t been her, it would have been Hildy O’Dair. You know, I think your mother is still jealous of her. But when I met Katie, I said to Hildy, ‘You go your way and I’ll go mine.’ So I married your mother. We had children. Your mother is a good woman, Francie. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Francie knew that Mama was a good woman. She knew. And Papa said so. Then why did she like her father better than her mother? Why did she? Papa was no good. He said so himself. But she liked Papa better.
“Yes, your mother works hard. I love my wife and I love my children.” Francie was happy again. “But shouldn’t a man have a better life? Maybe someday it will be that the Unions will arrange for a man to work and to have time for himself too. But that won’t be in my time. Now, it’s work hard all the time or be a bum…no in-between. When I die, nobody will remember me for long. No one will say, ‘He was a man who loved his family and believed in the Union.’ All they will say is, ‘Too bad. But he was nothing but a drunk no matter which way you look at it.’ Yes, they’ll say that.”
The room was very quiet. Johnny Nolan threw his half-smoked cigar out of the unscreened window with a bitter gesture. He had a premonition that he was running his life out too fast. He looked at the little girl ironing away so quietly with her head bent over the board and he was stabbed by the soft sadness on the child’s thin face.
“Listen!” He went to her and put an arm around her thin shoulders. “If I get a lot of tips tonight, I’ll put the money on a good horse that I know is running Monday. I’ll put a couple of dollars on him and win ten. Then I’ll put the ten on another horse I know and win a hundred. If I use my head and have any kind of luck at all, I’ll run it up to five hundred.”
Pipe dreams, he thought to himself, even while he was telling her about his dream winnings. But oh, how wonderful, he thought, if everything you talked about could come true! He went on talking.
“Then do you know what I’m going to do, Prima Donna?” Francie smiled happily, pleased at his using the nickname he had given her when, as a baby, he swore that her crying was as varied and as tuneful as an opera singer’s range.
“No. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to take you on a trip. Just you and me, Prima Donna. We’ll go way down south where the cotton blossoms blow.” He was delighted with the sentence. He said it again. “Down where the cotton blossoms blow.” Then he remembered that the sentence was a line in a song that he knew. He jammed his hands in his pockets, whistled, and started to do a waltz clog like Pat Rooney. Then he went into the song.
…a field of snowy white.
Hear the darkies singing soft and low.
I long there to be, for someone waits for me,
Down where the cotton blossoms blow.
Francie kissed his cheek softly. “Oh, Papa, I love you so much,” she whispered.
He held her tight. Again the stab-wound feeling. “Oh, God! Oh, God!” he repeated to himself in almost unendurable agony. “What a hell of a father I am.” But when he spoke to her again, it was quietly enough.
“All this isn’t getting my apron ironed, though.”
“It’s all done, Papa.” She folded it into a careful square.
“Is there any money in the house, Baby?”
She looked into the cracked cup on the shelf. “A nickel and some pennies.”
“Would you take seven cents and go out and get me a dicky and a paper collar?”
Francie went over to the dry-goods store to get her father’s Saturday-night linen. A dicky was a shirt front made of stiffly starched muslin. It fastened around the neck with a collar button and the vest held it in place. It was used instead of a shirt. It was worn once and then thrown away. A paper collar was not exactly made out of paper. It was called that to differentiate it from a celluloid collar which was what poor men wore because it could be laundered simply by being wiped with a wet rag. A paper collar was made out of thin cambric stiffly starched. It could be used only once.
When Francie got back, papa had shaved, wetted his hair down, shined his shoes and put on a clean undershirt. It was unironed and had a big hole in the back but it smelled nice and clean. He stood on a chair and took down a little box from the top cupboard shelf. It contained the pearl studs that Katie had given him for a wedding present. They had cost her a month’s salary. Johnny was very proud of them. No matter how hard up the Nolans were, the studs were never pawned.
Francie helped him put the studs in the dicky. He fastened the wing collar on with a golden collar button, a present that Hildy O’Dair had given him before he became engaged to Katie. He wouldn’t part with that either. His tie was a piece of heavy black silk and he tied an expert bow with it. Other waiters wore readymade bows attached to elastics. But not Johnny Nolan. Other waiters wore soiled white shirts or clean shirts indifferently ironed, and celluloid collars. But not Johnny. His linen was immaculate, if temporary.
He was dressed at last. His wavy blond hair gleamed and he smelled clean and fresh from washing and shaving. He put his coat on and buttoned it up jauntily. The satin lapels of the tuxedo were threadbare but who would look at that when the suit fitted him so beautifully and the crease in his trousers was so perfect? Francie looked at his well-polished black shoes and noticed how the cuffless trousers came down in the back over the heel, and what a nice break they made across his instep. No other father’s pants hung just that way. Francie was proud of her father. She wrapped up his ironed apron carefully in a piece of clean paper saved for that purpose.
She walked with him to the trolley car. Women smiled at him until they noticed the little girl clinging to his hand. Johnny looked like a handsome, devil-may-care Irish boy instead of the husband of a scrubwoman and the father of two children who were always hungry.
They passed Gabriel’s Hardware Store and stopped to look at the skates in the window. Mama never had time to do this. Papa talked as though he would buy Francie a pair someday. They walked to the corner. When a Graham Avenue trolley came along, he swung up on to the platform suiting his rhythm to the car’s slowing down. As the car started up again, he stood on the back platform holding on to the bar while he leaned way out to wave to Francie. No man had ever looked so gallant as her father, she thought.