Took the last bit of money I had to make it to New York and everything went to hell not long after. Stock market. The hell did I know about the stock market and whether or not it was gonna crash? If what the papers said was true, white folks’ greed got the best of them—and this time they done took the rest of the country down with them.
I lost my room on 123rd and spent the past few weeks living rough. For damn sure Harlem didn’t have no work to be found, so I headed downtown. Man, so many whites on the streets, with no place to go, lost, tired... It wasn’t just niggas feeling the hurt from this... “depression.” It was everybody. The whole damn world done turned wrong-way up and changed how we live.
And wasn’t no end in sight as far as I could see.
By the time I reached 21st Street Old Man Winter came and I had to get my black ass inside some kinda shelter before I froze. Don’t know what I would’ve done if that English lady at the mission hadn’t taken me in.
My first job in Manhattan was washing dishes at a diner on the Upper West Side. The owner’s wife worked the register and I got paid under the table. She’d sweet talk me and act like she was my friend, but then she’d do things like short-change me on my pay and claim I was fifteen minutes late to work when she knew damn well it was only five—and she let other people slide who would come in a whole hour late.
Even that was better than back home, where they said this one nigga sassed some white lady when he swore up and down she spoke to him first. All the pieces of him weren’t found afterward.
White men were bad enough, but you took your life in your hands even standing near a white woman.
Then I met Edith Keeler.
She ran the mission. Over dinner, while I combed the want ads, she’d stand in the front of the dining room and talk all this mess about how the future would be better one day, only it wasn’t some pie-in-the-sky rap like the preacher man said. She’d say people would learn to get along better with each other on they own, that they’d quit hating and fighting and lynching and do things like send rocket ships to the moon and even other planets.
Was she touched in the head or something? Woman would have to be to think white folks would ever change. Maybe that was why she was here, unmarried, not living in some fancy house somewhere. Her people knew she wasn’t right, so they stuck her here, away from everybody else. For a moment I almost felt sorry for her.
Then I remembered the owner’s wife at the diner and the white lady back home and stayed the hell out of her way. I was grateful she gave me shelter and a hot meal, but that didn’t mean I had to get mixed up in her business.
Every evening at the mission round dinnertime, she’d talk that jive to the out-of-work men eating. Some of the people there liked listening to her ‘cause she was good-looking (for a white lady); others didn’t care so long as they got a bowl of soup in them, but not me. I had to ask myself: was Miss Keeler for real? She couldn’t be, but the way she spoke—so confidently, so reassuringly—made you want to believe the things she said about a better future were true. Some took her seriously.
But I had been fooled by whites before.
Days passed without no work. Every night I returned to the mission and lined up with the others for soup, looking for a reason to keep going through this Depression, which done took the livelihoods of more and more people. Hoover was against congressional relief to out-of-work folks—and why not? Man thought this would be all over in six months.
He wasn’t out here. He didn’t see.
Miss Keeler still did her song-and-dance, but then she found a fella, some guy named Jim. He and his friend arrived at the mission a couple of days ago. They weren’t as beaten down as the others who came this way, but they were new.
Early one evening I trudged down Tenth Avenue after another long-ass day, paper under my arm. I turned left on 21st Street and saw Miss Keeler outside the mission for the first time. She was with Mister Jim.
She recognized me. That was one hell of a surprise; I sure nuff didn’t stick out—or did I?
She asked how my job search went. Why? What business was it of hers? Did she think I was up to something funny?
I avoided her eyes and mumbled something about going from shop to shop in Hell’s Kitchen this afternoon. A beat cop strode across the other side of the street, eying me talking to Miss Keeler and Mister Jim, blocking the sidewalk, breathing the same air... He twirled his nightstick and walked on by and I exhaled.
“These conditions won’t last. People are working to correct them.” Miss Keeler smiled. “You’ve got to have faith that they’ll succeed.”
Yeah, and I’ll bet you got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell me too.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure they will.”
Her smile faded.
A man squeezed past us from the avenue, headed east.
“Have you eaten yet?” said Mister Jim. “You look like you haven’t had much today.”
That was the truth.
“Was on my way back to the mission for a bite now, sir.”
They looked at each other.
“Would you care to eat with us tonight?” said Miss Keeler. “You could have something other than soup for a change.”
I gawked at them. They wanted to be seen eating with a nigga. Right. They’d do me a favor and feel ten feet tall and then they’d tell people how they took a nigga to dinner out of the kindness of they hearts, and wouldn’t that make them strut?
Their eyes, though, suggested something else. It wasn’t nothing I ever saw in white folks’ eyes before, so I almost didn’t recognize it, but damn if it didn’t look like... compassion. Empathy.
I wanted to say yes. Man, I was tired of having to watch what I say around whites, to control how I behave and even think, lest my anger and frustration at them make me do something I’d regret for the rest of my short life.
These two, though... they made me feel I could be myself around them.
Instead I took a step backwards.
“Uh, that’s okay, ma’am, I’ll be alright eating at the mission.” Get your ass outta here, boy, too many people around watching... “Good night, ma’am. Good night, sir.” I back-walked a few more paces, turned and did my best not to break into a run. Once inside the mission, my heartbeat slowed and I could relax again.
My insides twisted into knots instead. Why couldn’t Miss Keeler be like other white folks and pay me no mind?
Why did she have to be so decent?
I wasn’t around when she got hit by that truck and killed. From what witnesses at the mission said, Mister Jim and his friend saw it happen right in front of them. One guy swore he saw Mister Jim keep some other guy from pushing her out the way of the truck. That didn’t make no sense... but who the hell understood how white folks acted?
I wish I could see her one more time. I wish I could’ve gone to dinner with her and Mister Jim to see if we had anything at all in common. I wish this goddamn Depression would end so the world could go back to normal.
What good was a better future without friends to share it with?
I left the mission behind and found a job in construction. Even got a room in Greenwich Village. There were times, though, when I thought I wouldn’t last one more day.
Hoover won’t get reelected. He mishandled this Depression and folks are getting wise to the fact. Governor Roosevelt talks like he’ll go much further than Hoover ever did to turn the country around. I almost feel I can trust him.
I think Miss Keeler would’ve felt the same.
Every now and then I think of her. I could never be as hopeful as she was over the future. Too much damn prejudice and hate gets directed at me every day to ever think the world will put all that mess aside... but thanks to her and Mister Jim, whites look less like one uncaring mob and more like individuals, some of whom are better than others—like FDR. And if some can be that way, maybe more can. I think that’s the most I can hope for in this life.
You can leave talk about rockets in outer space to the movies.
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