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Chapter Seven

It snows. It melts as it hits, and the slush is inches thick on the pavement. The soles of my shoes are loose. The right one flops up and down as I walk. This morning I tied it to the toe of my shoe with a string, but the string wore through in an hour. Tomorrow I will tie it up with a piece of wire. It will stay a week if I tie it up with a piece of wire. My shoes are filled with water. I can feel it oozing through my toes as I walk. I walk and I can see the bubbles slosh from the soles. I am chilled to the bone. I pull my coat collar up around my ears, but it does no good. The chill comes from my soggy feet and the wind that howls round the corners. Besides, my coat is thin. I bummed it from an undertaker. The stiff that owned it croaked[1] in the park with TB[2]. There's still a smudge of blood on the sleeve from the hemorrhage. I could have had his pants and shoes, too, but they were worse than mine. This coat is my Christmas present. For this is Christmas Eve.

There are lights in all the stores. They are packed with people, buying. A big arch stretches across the street[3]. It is decorated with gold and silver tinsel. Across it, in different colored lights, it says: "Merry Christmas." The streets are choked with people. They crowd and shove. Everybody is laughing. I wonder how it feels to laugh like that? That fellow and his girl in front of me have been laughing for a block. He has bundles piled clear to his chin. When one starts to slip, she gives it a poke back in place, and they both laugh. They do not laugh because she pokes the bundles back in place. They laugh because they are crazy about each other. Besides, it is Christmas Eve. He is sporting a fur overcoat, and his shoes do not slosh when he walks. It is easier to laugh when you are warm and your shoes do not slosh.

Across the street is a restaurant. The electric sign over the door blinks on and off in the dark: "Eat —Eat— Eat." It looks warm in there. Warm and dry. Out here it is wet and cold. It would be nice to sit in there on Christmas Eve and watch how miserable it is outside. But that is not for me. I am holding a four-bit piece. A four-bit piece to celebrate Christmas Eve with. I stop and listen to this band that plays on the corner. They are playing Christmas music. I know the piece they are playing. It is "Silent Night." My mother[4] used to sing me that song when I was a kid. That was a long time ago. Long before I went on the fritz. Here I am now with the sole of my right shoe flopping up and down. Here I am now huddled down in my ragged undertaker's coat.

I walk towards my flop on the skid road. I am hungry, but I cannot eat. If I eat, I cannot sleep. It is too cold to flop in the park in the snow. It is Christmas Eve and I am hungry.

I pass this dark doorway and see this girl who stands inside. She is on the make[5]. I can tell by her look. She steps out of the shadows.

"You — you want to go with me?" she says.

I look at her in her cheap red dress and her blue tam. I look at the scared look in her eyes. She is not the type. I can tell. I have seen too many. She is nervous. She pulls at her handkerchief.

"Where are you going?" I say. I am only joking.

"I— you— you don't understand," she says.

She looks down at her feet. I notice that her shoes are worse than mine. The runs in her hose start at her shoes and go to the hem of her dress. I can see that she is the same as me.

"You are not used to this," I say. "You are not so good at it. Why don't you go to the mission?"

"I am not used to it at all," she says. "You are the first one. I Guess I am sort of clumsy, but I'll learn."

"Not if I can help it," I say. "You hungry?"

"That's why I am on the street," she says. "I'm damn near starved."

"I am holding four bits[6]," I say. "Let's eat."

"I should not be bumming meals off another stiff," she says, "but I'd cut your throat for a hamburger steak."

We walk down the street towards the restaurant on the corner.

"I've got an idea," she says. "Two meals in a restaurant will take all that money. Now, I've got a room with a hot plate in it. We will take this money and buy enough groceries for five or six meals."

"That is a good idea," I say. "I will do the buying. I am an old-timer. I know how to do this. I will go in the stores. You wait outside for me."

I go into this cigar store on the corner and change two of my ten-cent pieces for pennies. I am going to penny-up on these store guys. We pass this meat market. There are chickens strung across the window on strings. They look good. We lick our lips as we stand outside and watch them. They would go good doused in mud and baked over a jungle fire. But baked chickens are not for the likes of us. We are only a couple of hungry stiffs, and we are on the make for a beef stew. I walk into this joint. She walks up the street to the corner and waits.

This butcher is red-faced and fat. His belly hangs in folds over his belt. If I was holding what it took to put that belly on him, I would not have anything to worry about. He grins at me when he sees me. He thinks I am a cash customer. It is cash customers who buy the chickens that hang from strings in his window.

"Buddy," I say, "I am on the fritz and only holding three cents. Could you sell a guy three cents' worth of old baloney butts[7]?"

The grin comes off his face. I knew it would. Nobody has any use for a stiff, not even a pot-bellied butcher. He scowls and reaches down in the box where he keeps his dog meat. He fishes out two baloney butts. They are green at the ends. Not for me, mister. I see a stiff almost die one night from eating green baloney butts. No, sir, there are too many baloney butts in this world for me to eat green ones.

"Jack," I say, "these baloney butts are green. I can't be paying good dough for green baloney butts."

"What do you want for three cents?" he says.

"I want some good baloney butts," I say. "Baloney butts that are not green at the edges."

"You are damn particular for a stiff," he says.

"It is my dough and my stomach," I say.

He cusses under his breath, but he digs up two baloney butts that are not green. I hand him my three cents and he takes it. The tight bastard. Soaking a stiff three cents for a couple of green baloney butts. I walk up to the corner and give this package to the girl. We walk on.

"We have got the meat," I say. "Pretty soon we will have the bread. I know how to do this."

We pass this bakery, and I go in. There is a woman behind the counter.

"Lady," I say, "I've only got two cents. Could you maybe sell me a stale loaf of bread for two cents?"

She hands me a stale loaf of bread. She does not reach out her hand for the two cents.

"Keep the two cents for the onion," she says. "You can't make a decent stew without an onion."

I can see that this woman is all right. I can see that she knows what it is to be hard up. She is not like that pot-bellied butcher. He is a bastard. I go outside and give this bread to the girl to carry. I do not want to be carrying anything when I go in the stores. It does not pay to look too prosperous when you are pennying-up on the store guys. When we pass a place that looks good, I go in. Pretty soon we have all the stuff we can carry. My twenty cents are gone, but we still have thirty cents to use when this stuff is gone. You cannot beat pennying-up. Once in St. Louis I ate for a week on three cents. I made the restaurants.

"Could you maybe give a hungry stiff a half a cup of coffee for three cents?" I would ask them.

I am not begging anything. If a whole cup of coffee costs five cents, a half a cup will only cost two and a half cents. I am giving them a chance to make a half a cent on me. But they do not give me a half a cup. They give me a whole cup, and something to eat with it besides. I would be eating yet on that three cents only some bastard like that pot-bellied butcher took my capital away from me. Some guy like that is always taking a stiff's capital away from him.

We walk towards her room.

"How long have you been doing this?" she says.

"So long I have forgotten how long," I say.

"Do you mind it very much?" she says. "Do you mind asking for two old baloney butts when there are people to hear you ask?"

"I used to mind," I say. "I used to live on doughnuts and coffee because I was ashamed for people to hear me ask. But you can't live forever on coffee and sinkers. You get all greasy inside. Some time you have to get a square meal to hold your stomach in shape. It will shrivel up on you on coffee and sinkers."

"Does it take long to get used to it?" she says. "Don't you always mind a little?"

"It is the bastardly butchers who take your pennies away from you and cuss you under their breath that you mind," I say. "You don't mind the ones like the woman in the bakery. She knows that times are tough. She has been hard up herself. She will help a hungry stiff with a stale loaf of bread."

"Why don't you hit the houses for something to eat?" she says. "Won't they feed you at the houses?"

"I will always hit me a house if I can find me a yellow house," I say. "I have good luck at a yellow house, but not too yellow. Some stiffs will not hit any but a green house, but give me a yellow every time, but not too yellow. It must be just the right shade of yellow."[8]

"Do you ever hunt for a job?" she says. "Don't you ever try to get off the bum and live decent again?"

"Sure, sometimes I try," I say. "But what can a stiff do? You ask for work and they laugh at you for asking for work. There is no work. I hardly ever ask for work any more. Sometimes as I sleep in the park at nights, I wake up. I light my pipe and look at the stars in the sky above. 'I am a man,' I think; 'this is no way for a man to live. Tomorrow I will get me a job. I will keep on asking until they give me a job. I will make them give me a job.' I puff at my pipe through the night, and I can hardly wait for morning so that I can get me a job. When the morning comes, it is cold. I shiver on the street in my thin undertaker's coat. I go to the factories on my empty stomach, I go to the stores and the restaurants. 'Give me a job,' I say, 'any kind of a job. I will work for whatever you will give me. I will work for almost nothing.' They shake their heads; there are no jobs. Finally I can't ask at any more places. I am too hungry. A man hasn't even the guts to ask for a job when he is hungry. Besides, it is day. Things look different in the day than they do in the night. At night as you lie in the park and look at the stars, it is easy to find a job. In the day, in the heat and the glaring light of the sun, it is not easy. It is hard."

We are hitting the red-light district[9]. Her room is here. The red-light district is the only place where you can get a room for a dollar a week. I look at her. She looks at me. We are two people in the world. We know that we are the same. Our gnawing bellies and our sleepy eyes have brought us together. We do not say any more. We do not need to. I have these bundles piled up to my chin. She takes my arm, and we walk.

We turn into the doorway of this ramshackle[10] red brick building and climb the stairs to the fourth floor. The rug in the hall is ragged and dirty. The people who live here do not live here for the scenery. They live here because they have no other place to live. The cops will not bother you for working the streets here. That is what these streets are for. We go into her room. It is only a two-by-four hole, but is clean. She keeps it that way herself. It has a bed and a chair. A hot plate sits on a box. You eat on the bed or the hot plate. It does not matter which so long as you have something to eat. I notice that the bed is a double bed. That is thoughtful of the landlady, because if the beds in the rooms were not double beds, there would be no use for the hot plate. There would be nothing to eat.

"This," she says, "is my boudoir and kitchenette. How do you like it?"

"It looks like a mansion to me," I say. "I have lived in the missions for two years."

I put the bundles down on the edge of the hot plate and sit down on the edge of the bed. I have walked the streets all day hitting the stem. I am tired. A four-bit piece is hard to ding[11].

She takes off her tam[12] and starts to cook. I watch her as she cooks. She is pretty. Her hair, that is brown, and her eyes, that are blue, make her pretty. What she needs is a couple of square meals to fill up the drawnness of her cheeks and take the paleness from her skin. We talk as she cooks. I tell her about that bastardly butcher who took my capital away from me. She laughs. I laugh. We understand each other. We like each other. I am not like this because I want to be. She is not like this because she wants to be.

She peels the spuds. I clean the coffee-pot.

"James, the salt," she says.

"Yes, m'lord, and the pepper besides," I say.

We are having a good time. It does not take much for a couple of hungry stiffs to have a good time. The spuds that begin to sizzle on the hot plate are enough. The pot of coffee that fills the room with its smell is enough.

"People meet in funny ways, don't they?" she says. "It was funny the way I met you, stopping you on the street."

"A stiff is always doing funny things," I say. "We can't act as other people act. We have got to do what we can. A woman turned me down for something to eat one time. I went out in front of her house and sat there on the curb all day with my head in my hands. In the evening she came out and gave me my supper. I worked in her garden for two weeks straight. I write to her yet sometimes. We have to act the best way we can."

"What did you think of me when I stopped you?" she says. "What do you think of a girl who will go as bad as that?"

"I think she was awful hungry for a hamburger steak," I say. "I think she has not had a hamburger steak for a week."

She laughs.

"And you are right," she says. "Not for more than a week. Two weeks. I had some turnips here and some beets. For three days I ate them. For two days there has been nothing."

"You look at things different when you have not eaten for two days," I say. "I know. I have gone that long myself. I have stolen. I have done worse than steal when I have gone that long."

"Yes, you look at things different," she says. "What is supposed to be wrong does not look wrong when the only right thing looks like something to eat. When I stepped out of the doorway to you, I wanted something to eat. Nothing was wrong that would give me something to eat."

"That is the way I felt when I started to knock a guy in the head once," I say. "That is the way I felt when I started to hold up a bank once."

"But you didn't knock a man in the head or hold up a bank?" she says. "You only started to. You didn't really do it?"

"No, I didn't do it," I say. "I only started to. I lost my nerve on the man. My gun got caught in the lining of my pocket, or I would have held up the bank. Maybe it is a good thing it did get caught. Maybe if it hadn't of got caught, I wouldn't be here. I am glad that I am here."

"I am glad that you are here," she says. "I am glad that I am here. I am glad that I stopped you on the street."

"I am glad you stopped me instead of someone else," I say. "Maybe this other guy would not know how to penny-up on the store guys."

"We will penny-up some more," she says, "but there must not be any baloney butts that are green at the edges. We can't be paying good dough for green baloney butts. There are too many baloney butts in this world for us to be eating green ones."

She is mocking me. We laugh.

"And the bread from the bakery," I say. "That bread was a little too stale. I am afraid that after this we will have to do our trading farther round the corner. For two cents we should get a fine loaf of rye bread that will be fresh, and not stale."

"We will trade at no place where they do not throw in some good cow's butter when you buy an onion for the stew," she says. "Cow's butter and cow's milk."

I walk to the window and look out. Through the murk a million lights flash on and off through the haze of the snow.

She comes to the window and stands beside me.

"On Christmas Eve a roof is something," she says. "There are worse than us out there."

"Tomorrow where is the roof?" I say.

"Tomorrow is tomorrow," she says. "Tonight there is the roof."

I point to the rows of lights that span the bridge to the right of town.

“There are a hundred stiffs live under that bridge,” I say. “I have slept under there myself. I know. men with wives. men with children live under that bridge. That is their roof on Christmas Eve.”

She takes my hand in hers.                                              

"If you like, if you love the person you are under the bridge with/' she says, "the bridge would not be bad. Even on Christmas Eve it would not be bad."                                                 

We stand hand in hand by the window.

"I like you,” she says. "My name is Yvonne."

We laugh.

"My name is Tom," I say.

"Where are you staying at nights?" she says.

"In the park," I say.

"You can stay here," she says, "until the landlady kicks us out."

[1] Croaked: “killed, dead.” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[2] TB: Tuberculosis is a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects the lungs. (Mayo Clinic, web).

[3] Possibly a reference to Huntington’s 3rd Avenue, which also had electric arches in the early decades of the twentieth century.

[4] Kromer’s mother was Grace B. Thornburg Kromer (1886-1977), a West Virginia native.

[5] On the Make: “seeking sexual activity” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[6] Bits: “in monetary contexts, esp. a coin of low denomination; as a portion, a share” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[7] Baloney Butts: The ends of a tube of baloney that cannot be sold as slices..

[8] In his autobiographical sketch, Kromer notes: "I got my first taste of men trying to buck a machine. I got my first taste of going three days without food, and walking up to a back door and dinging a woman for a hand-out. It was a yellow house, but not too yellow, and I made it. Since then I have hit a thousand such yellow houses and have never been turned down. Women who live in green houses will not even open the door for me."

[9] Red-Light District: “a district in which houses of prostitution are frequent” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).

[10] Ramshackle: “carelessly or loosely constructed” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).

[11] Ding: “of an object, a small knock or dent.” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web); referring that it is hard to locate.

[12] tam: “any form of hat” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

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