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Chapter Six

I sit on this curb and watch these kids that stand in line. Their faces pale and pinched, tired and hungry. They wait, and fidget back and forth. Tin buckets, battered and rusty, are in their hands. They have had a lot of wear, these buckets. This is not the first time these kids have come after their suppers. One at a time they go into this mission. One at a time they come out with a bucket of soup and a stale loaf of bread.

This kid walks up to me.

"Mister," he says, "will you watch my bucket of soup and my loaf of bread while I go in and get some more?"

"Buddy," I say, "how much of this belly-wash[1] can you eat, that you want to go after two bucketfuls?"

"One bucket is not enough," he says. "There are six of us. One bucket is not enough. They will only let you have one bucketful in this mission, so I leave one outside while I go in after the other."

"How do you keep them from knowing you?" I say. "Mission stiffs have sharp eyes. I do not see why mission stiffs don't get jobs as detectives, they have such sharp eyes."

"I am too smart for these guys," he says. "One time I wear this cap I have on. The next time I take it off. They do not know me."

"O.K.," I say. "I will watch your bucket."

He sets this bucket of belly-wash down at my feet and gets back in line.

I let my eyes wander over these women that stand in line. In a soup-line like this you will always see plenty of women. Their kids are too young to come after this slop, so they have to come themselves. I look at them. I look at their eyes. The eyes of these women you will see in a soup-line are something to look at. They are deep eyes. They are sunk in deep hollows. The hollows are rimmed with black. Their brows are wrinkled and lined from worry. They are stoop-shouldered and flat-chested. They have a look on their face. I have seen that look on the faces of dogs when they have been whipped with a stick. They hold babies in their arms, and the babies are crying. They are always crying. There are no pins sticking them. They cry because they are hungry. They clench their tiny fists. They pound them against their mothers' breasts. They are wasting their time. There is no supper here[2]. Their mothers have no breasts. They are flat-chested. There is only a hollow sound as they pound. A woman cannot make milk out of slop. How much milk is there in a stale loaf of bread?

They shift their babies from hip to hip. They do not say anything. They do not talk. They do not even think. They only stand in line and wait. It does not matter how long. At first it matters, but after a while it does not matter. They are not going anywhere. When they have taken this stuff home and eaten it, they will be just as hungry as before. They know that. These babies will keep pounding their fists against their mothers' breasts. Tomorrow they will have the same hollow sound. They are all old, these women in the soup-lines. There are no young ones here. You do not stay young in a soup-line. You get crow's feet under your eyes. The gnawing pain in the pit of your belly dries you up. There are no smart ones in this line. The smart ones are not in any soup-line. A good-looking girl can make herself a feed and a flop if she works the streets and knows how to play the coppers right. She don't mind sleeping with a copper once in a while for nothing if he will leave her alone the rest of the time.

It is getting dark, and still they stand here. Their hollow eyes and their crying babies get on a guy's nerves. When this kid comes out of the mission, I hit down the skid row towards Karl's room. I huddle in these shadows across the street and watch this light in the window. It is the landlady's light I am watching.

This Karl is a friend of mine I met in the park. He has a job carrying out the garbage in a restaurant. He makes two dollars a week. It is dirty work, but two dollars are two dollars. He pays one dollar a week for this room. On the other he eats. He does not have to worry about coppers grabbing him by the scruff of the neck. He can tell all coppers to go to hell. When it is too cold to sleep in the park, I sleep on the floor of his room.

This friend of mine, Karl, is a writer. He is always hungry. You cannot stuff yourself on a dollar a week. It is not his fault he is always hungry. It is that nobody buys the stuff he writes. He writes of starving babies, and men who tramp the streets in search of work. People do not like such things. For in Karl's stories you can hear the starved cries of babies. You can see the hungry look in men's eyes. Karl will always be hungry. He will always describe things so that you can see them as you read.

I see this light in the window go out. Now is my chance. I cross the street and tiptoe up the rickety stairs. I can judge these stairs pretty well in the dark. This is not the first time it has been too cold to sleep in the park and I have used the floor of Karl's room. On cold nights the fifth step will squeak. On other nights it is all right. The one next to the top will always squeak, warm or cold. I am very careful to skip this one. This landlady has sharp eyes, and ears that are even sharper. Karl says she has a heart like a thermometer. Each ten degrees means one day you are behind in your rent. He says he likes to keep three days behind, as she is then nice and cool.

I turn the knob to Karl's room and walk in. It is dangerous to knock. Last night she caught me right in the doorway. I do not want to freeze to death again tonight. This room is only a hole, but it has a roof over it. That is something. It is not so much the cold, as the wet of the dew that you mind in the park. There is no furniture but a narrow cot and a rickety table. Karl is bent over the table writing. His pale, lean face and his deep-set eyes show that he does not sell any of the stuff he writes. You can believe that this one lives on a dollar a week for food. He jumps up when he sees me. He eyes the sack I have in my hand and grins. He has not eaten today. I can tell. When you are on the fritz long, you can tell when a guy has not eaten.

"Toppin's[3]?" he says.

"Toppin's," I say, "and more than toppin's. This is our lucky night."

He takes the sack out of my hand and looks in.

"Great God," he says, "a coconut pie! A real honest-to-God coconut pie!"

He pushes his papers to one side and spreads this stuff out on the table. We are both excited. Our eyes glisten. Our mouths water. Never have I seen a prettier sight than these doughnuts and rolls, and in the center, standing out proudly above all, this coconut pie. It makes a sight for sore eyes. Some of these rolls are filled with jelly. Some are covered with powdered sugar. But this coconut pie is the prize. It is two days old and squashed in the middle, but it is something to look forward to, squashed in the middle or not.

Karl fills the coffee-pot with water. I unscrew the mantle from the gas-jet. It is a small flame. It is a hard job to hold the pot over it. The handle gets red-hot. We take turns holding it. We are both sweating when it is done, but it is good coffee. I do not lose any time screwing the mantle back on. We must have light, and besides, if the landlady found out we were pulling this little trick on her, it would be just too bad for us.

"Werner?" says Karl.

"Why not?" I say. "I saw him on the street this morning. He had a look in his eyes like Jesus Christ. He gets that look when he has not eaten for three days."

 Karl goes across the hall to get Werner. Werner is an acquaintance of ours. He is an artist. He paints pictures of people he sees in the park. All the people in his pictures have a hungry look in their eyes. He has no better luck selling his pictures than Karl does with his stories. They are good pictures. People will not buy them, though. I think it is because of the hungry look. Even the picture of the fat millionaire leading the Peke[4] dog had a hungry look in the eyes. Karl says it is more than an empty belly that puts a hungry look in people's eyes. I think that if Werner would take the hungry look out of the eyes of the people in his pictures, he could buy more hamburger steaks and take the hungry look out of his own eyes. Karl and Werner say this would be sacrilege to art. I do not understand such talk as this.

Whenever Karl and me run into some extra money, we buy groceries with it. We keep them in a closet for a rainy day. For a while our groceries disappeared. Not much. Only a little. A can of beans, a loaf of bread, a few stale doughnuts. We locked the door when we would leave the room. It did no good. Any key will fit his door.

"We will have to do something," says Karl. "We can't always be staying in the room."

"Leave that to me," I say. "I know a little trick that will stop a guy from stealing another guy's beans."

I go to the drug store and buy me ten cents' worth of croton oil[5]. We pour this into a bowl of beans and mix it well. We leave this bowl on the table and go down the street. We are gone ten minutes. We come back, and our bowl is there, but our beans are gone.

"Now what?" says Karl.

"The toilet, that's what," I say.

"What about the toilet?" he says.

"We watch the door," I say.

The toilet is across the hall. We can see it from our door. We open the door a tiny bit and watch through the crack. For a half-hour nothing happens. Then comes this commotion down the hall. Werner lives down the hall. We see him shoot out his door. He is headed for the toilet. He is not losing any time. We watch through the crack till he goes back to his room.

"Now for the fun," I say.

"Fun enough already," says Karl. He is doubled up on the floor from laughing. "Did you see the look in his eyes when he turned the knob of the toilet door? 'Oh, God, don't let there be anyone in there,' they said."

"Wait," I say. "You have not seen half. Do you know what I am going to do?"

"No," he says, "what are you going to do?"

"We are going in the toilet and lock the door," I say. "He will be back. There was plenty of croton oil in those beans."

"But," says Karl, "if he can't get into the toilet he will— No," he says, "we can't do that. That is more than he deserves. He has suffered enough."

Karl is too soft-hearted, but we have fun enough through the crack in the door. Three more times Werner dashes through the hall. Each time we roll on the floor and laugh till the tears roll down our face. After that there is no more stealing. We can now put anything in the closet. It is not bothered. But when we run into an extra treat like this coconut pie, we invite Werner.

Karl comes through the door. Close behind him is Werner, with his pale face, and his coal-black eyes in hollow sockets. Tonight he looks even hungrier than ever. His eyes pop when he sees what is on the table. He licks his lips. We should not have put all this stuff on the table at once. A shock like this is not good for him. It might kill him. Werner's masterpiece will never be such a picture as this.

There is but one cup for the coffee, but there is the bowl and the glass. I fill up the cup for Karl. I take the bowl. Werner must take the glass. Karl sits on one edge of the bed. Werner sits on the other. I squat cross-legged on the floor. It would be more comfortable in Werner's place on the bed, but I am making up for giving him the glass. First we pass the doughnuts. One to each. When we finish this one, we pass them again. Each time Werner is finished long before us. He waits until we are finished. He licks his lips and glues his eyes to the table, then shifts them to the only thing on the wall, this sign which says: "Anyone stealing blankets from this room will be prosecuted."

"Who gave you these?" says Karl: "the baker?" "The baker's daughter," I say.

"Is she beautiful?" he says. "She must be beautiful. None but beautiful women should touch such toppin's as these."

"She is so-so," I say. "Very pretty; but beautiful — I would not say that."

"Marry her," says Karl. "Marry her and bring her and her beautiful toppin's to live here." "You never can tell," I say.

"How would you like that?" Karl says to Werner. "A beautiful baker's daughter to furnish inspiration to your art, and toppin's to put meat on your skinny shanks[6]?"

Werner does not answer. He keeps his eyes glued to the doughnuts on the table. Before we are too full, we cut the pie. We still want to be hungry when we eat this pie, because it is a treat. Not often do we run into such a treat as a coconut pie.

That was a good guy, that baker. His heart is in the right place. He is not a beautiful girl like I tell Karl and Werner. He has a straggly mustache and wheezes through his nose when he breathes. If he has a beautiful daughter, I do not know about her. I only say she gave me this stuff in order to show off a little bit in front of Karl and Werner.

We finish this stuff and loosen our belts. We are filled to the brim. Already the haunted look is gone from Werner's eyes. He has even smiled a couple of times between mouthfuls.

"Some day there will be an end to all this," says Karl.

 "Some day we shall have all we want to eat. There is plenty for all. Some day we shall have it."

"Revolution?" says Werner.

It is the first word he has spoken since he came into the room.

"Revolution," says Karl. "Not now. There is no leader. But some day there will arise a leader for the masses."

"You are right," says Werner. "Some day there will be plenty for all."

He looks at these crumbs still left from the doughnuts on the table, and his eyes light up. If I was a capitalist, I would steer clear of Werner when the day arrives.

I am tired of such talk as this. You can stop a revolution of stiffs with a sack of toppin's. I have seen one bull kick a hundred stiffs off a drag. When a stiff's gut is empty, he hasn't got the guts to start anything. When his gut is full, he just doesn't see any use in raising hell. What does a stiff want to raise hell for when his belly is full?

"It is not right," says Karl. "There is no justice in this world. They do not know, they do not see what I see in the parks and in the soup-lines. Yesterday I sat in the park and watched these clouds that hung low and black in the sky. I like to sit and watch the stiffs that sprawl in the park. I watch them as they look at the clouds that roll through the blackening sky. They sniff the air. They can smell the storm. I watch them scurry to their holes like rats. I am lucky, I think, to have a hole. This woman on the bench beside me has no hole. The baby in her arms has no hole. I can tell. I can tell by the way she glances at the sky above, and the way she frets with the blanket on the baby as she hears the thunder roar. She is a young woman, a young woman who has forgotten what a hamburger steak looks like. I can tell by the look in her eyes. A hungry look. A look like Werner gets, and you and me. A look like Jesus Christ around the eyes.

 "'You had better hit it for cover,' I say to her. 'This is going to be a real storm.'

"She stares at me as though she does not hear me.

"'Storm?' she says. 'Oh, yes, storm.'

"'The baby will get wet,' I say. 'The blanket is not much. You had better get in out of the rain.' "'No place to go,' she says.

"'It is hell,' I say.

"'Yes,' she says, 'for the baby. For me I don't mind. I'm used to the rain and the wet.' "'How old?' I say.

"'Two weeks,' she says. 'Two weeks tomorrow.'

"Straight ahead she looks into the dark. I sit there and wonder what she is thinking. If I knew what she is thinking, I would not be living in a hole in the wall, I think. I would write the book that I will write some day when I find out what they are thinking when they sit in the parks and stare unseeing into the dark.

"This cop comes up the walk and looks at us sharp.

"'Better get your wife and kid home, Jack,' he says. 'Regular hurricane blowing up. Be here in ten minutes.'

"'Yes, sir,' I say, 'yes, sir. She sure is blowing up.'

"I get up. The woman sits there staring. In my pocket I am holding twenty cents. I finger it.

"'Lady,' I say, 'you can't sit here in the storm. The baby will die of the croup.' I hold out one of my ten-cent pieces to her. 'Go over to that coffee joint and wait till she's over. You can get yourself a good meal in there for a ten-cent piece.'

"She holds out her hand and takes the money. I can tell by the way she takes the money that I was right. She is starved.

 "'Thank you,' she says, 'oh, thank you.'

"'That's all right,' I say.

"I hit up the street. I look back and see her hugging this baby to her and heading across the street to this coffee joint. I stay in this pool hall until the storm is over. When I come out, I go into this joint myself for my coffee. This woman is still there. She sits by the window. I get my coffee and walk over to her table and sit down. She does not notice me. She keeps staring out of the window. Across the street that glistens with the rain, is the park. It is miserable over there now. Miserable and black and wet.

"'Well, I see you got in out of the wet all right,' I say.

"She turns in her seat quick. She jumps when she sees me.

"'Oh,' she says, 'I — I thought you'd gone.'

"'I came back for my coffee,' I say. 'Yo get good coffee in here for a nickel. Up the street they hold you up for a dime. A dime for a cup of coffee, and lousy coffee to boot.'

"'Yes, yes,' she says. 'Lousy coffee.'

"She keeps staring out of the window. There is a wild look in her eyes.

"'I got my opinion of a guy who will charge a stiff a dime for a cup of lousy coffee,' I say.

"'Yes,' she says. 'Yes. Lousy coffee. Lousy coffee.'

"I can see that she is talking batty[7]. There is something wrong. I thought that there was something wrong when I first sat down at this table. I know what it is now. It is the baby. The baby is not here. She has not got the baby.

"'Where is the baby?' I say.

"She does not answer.

"I follow her stare out the window. Great Christ! Through the blackness of the park I can see a white splotch on one of the benches. I know what that is. It is the baby. She has gone back after the rain and put it there. She waits here to see if anybody picks it up. We do not say anything more for a while. We just sit here and glue our eyes to this white splotch on the bench in the park.

"'Can he roll off?' I whisper.

"'He can't roll off,' she says. 'I pinned his blanket to the bench.'

 "We watch this stiff come ambling up the walk of the park. He stops by the bench, peers down, and then hot-foots it across the street. He hurries back with this cop who stands on the comer. The cops looks at this white splotch on the bench and then walks back to the corner and makes a call from the box.

"This woman gets up. She has seen all she wants to see. She pulls her hat tight over her eyes. She does not want this cop to recognize her.

"'Thanks for the money,' she says.

"'That's all right,' I say.

"'He was only two weeks old tomorrow. He will not miss me. Do you think he will miss me?'

"'He is too young to miss you,' I say. 'They will take good care of him. You had better beat it.'

"She goes out the door and hurries down the walk.

"I sit there and sip my coffee. An automobile pulls up at the curb. The cop gets the baby and hands it to a woman in the back seat. When the car pulls out, this cop stands there and looks around the park. He is hunting for someone. He stops several stiffs that pass by. He talks to them awhile, and they go on.

"Christ Almighty! I happen to think. That cop is hunting for me. He thinks that is my kid. They would not believe me if I told them that was not my kid. They would put me in and throw the key away. I get up from the table and beat it outside. I stick close beneath the awnings and beat it home."

Karl stops talking. He thinks this is something new and something awful, this woman leaving her baby in the park because she cannot feed it. Karl is soft-hearted. That is nothing. I have seen worse than that. I know that that is nothing.

I walk to the window and look out. It has started to rain. It splashes and rattles against the panes. Below me the streets glisten and shine in the dark. A stiff slouches under an awning down there. He is soggy and miserable. He presses himself tight against the side of the building, but he cannot get away from the rain. You never can get away from the rain. I know. It is a miserable night, and he is miserable. I imagine him as he walks the streets in the rain. He passes houses and sees into the front windows from the street. He sees the people who live in these houses. They sit by their firesides. They are warm and dry. He is wet and cold. They are reading about him in their papers. They do not know it is about him, but it is.

"I see by the papers," they say, "where they are starting a new soup-line on Tenth Street. Things are tough. Too bad things are so tough."

They turn over to the next page. The stiff in the rain is forgotten. But the stiff in the rain cannot forget. The water trickling down his soggy clothes will not let him forget. The gnawing pain in the pit of his belly will not let him forget. There are many funny things happen in the park, and on the street, too.

I stretch out on the floor by the window and close my eyes.

[1] Belly-washed: “nasty tasting kitchen swill or liquid food for animals” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web)..

[2] Infant Mortality rate generally declined during the 1920s and 1930s. Please see for more information.

[3] Toppin’s: “a garnish (such as a sauce, bread crumbs, or whipped cream) placed on top of a food for flavor or decoration” ( Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).

[4] Peke: “any of a Chinese breed of small short-legged dogs with a broad flat face and a profuse long soft coat” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).; referring to Pekinese.

[5] Croton Oil: “a viscid acrid fixed oil obtained from seeds of an Asian croton (Croton tiglium) formerly used as a powerful purgative but now used especially in pharmacological experiments as an irritant” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).

[6] Skinny shanks: “very skinny looking; almost sickly.” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[7] Talking Batty: “someone who is talking in a tone of madness or eccentricity” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

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