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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 33


  As we approached the clearing which held the old ladies’ home, just coming off the trail, now, and walking on level ground, one of the old ladies, silver hair and silver spectacles flashing, stepped down from the porch with astonishing speed and came running toward us, waving a newspaper above her head as though it were a banner. Barbara and I were too astounded even to look at each other. We were both afraid that the lady would fall, and we began to run toward her so that she wouldn’t have to run toward us. But she kept running, just the same. When we reached her, she was out of breath, and she just sat down on the grass. “Look,” she said, “look!”

  We were afraid that she was ill, and we simply stared at her.

  “Look,” she said again, “look!” With one hand, she pounded the newspaper into the grass. “The war is over. The war is over.”

  Then I saw that she had been crying. Some of the other ladies were standing on the porch. We looked down at the newspaper. Well, we understood that the war was over; for a long time, that was all that we understood. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities we had never heard of, had been leveled with single, unprecedented bombs. At first, I only wished that I had paid more attention to mathematics and physics when I had been in high school; what did it mean to split the atom? The old lady kept making sounds between tears and jubilation. I kept thinking, They didn’t drop it on the Germans. The Germans are white. They dropped it on the Japanese. They dropped it on the yellow-bellied Japs. I stared at the old lady. She was still sitting on the grass. She stared up at me, but I knew she wasn’t seeing me. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she cried. “Isn’t it wonderful? This terrible war is over. Over!”

  We helped her to her feet.

  “Yes,” said Barbara, terribly pale in the merciless sun, “yes, it’s wonderful that the war is over.”

  “Truly wonderful,” I said, parroting Father Divine—I did not know what I was saying.

  We began walking the old lady back to the porch. The other old ladies had gathered now, and they, too, were jubilant. But, unlike the first old lady, they were not blind with jubilation. Behind their spectacles, they watched Barbara with a disapproving wonder and they watched me with a profound distrust; they made a sound like dry pebbles on the bed of a vanished stream. Some they loved had died in the war, in this particular war, for they remembered others. Some they loved were coming home. Their hands, their faces, their voices shook, wavered, cracked, climbed. They looked at me from time to time, and they were not unwilling to include me, but they addressed themselves, in the main, to Barbara. Something made them know, somehow, that their day of jubilee might not be mine. And I was base, I must say. I watched them, and I pitied them. I pitied them with a pity not easily distinguished from contempt, which was yet informed by wonder. They were rejoicing. The faith of their fathers—living yet!—had made them victorious over their enemies—had they ever considered me their friend? What was most vague in their consciousness was most precise and alive in mine. But they were old—old ladies rejoicing in the light of the August morning. I felt that they had little enough to rejoice about.

  At last we were moving away, waving, smiling to the last. We got into the car. They remained on the porch, and waved as we drove away. Then, Barbara said, with a shudder, “Maybe we better not drive through town. They’ll all be in the streets.”

  And so we drove back the way we had come, but we were not left in peace for long. As night was falling, some of the Workshop kids came over, to carry us to the San-Marquands. They were having a Victory Ball.

  Caleb had been wounded in the European theater, and they had shipped him home. And, again, my memory here is vague. I talked with Caleb about it only once. He was wounded in the lung, and he very nearly died. He was in a military hospital for a long time, but I know I didn’t see him in the hospital. I can’t remember why. I know my mother and father went down to see him. I remember that they wanted me to come, too, but they couldn’t find me—something like that. I think that I was simply afraid to see Caleb. He had already written us a couple of letters about having found the Lord. When he came back to New York, I don’t know where I was; by the time I saw him, he had already joined The New Dispensation House of God. He told me he was saved. And then I didn’t see him.

  Barbara and I came back to New York when the summer ended. We made the mistake—though I don’t know if one can accurately describe as a mistake what one couldn’t help doing—of returning to Paradise Alley. Well, I had a feeling that we should not have gone there: but we had no place else to go. And, at least, we knew Paradise Alley. It was a decrepit slum, and it didn’t matter to the landlord who lived there. We didn’t have the courage to tackle a strange landlord, and I didn’t have any money.

  Being back in Paradise Alley meant that we were confronted with the debris of our recent past. Jerry’s socks and shoes, sweatshirts, jockstrap, blue jeans, ties, notes in his handwriting, a photograph of Jerry and Barbara, a photograph of Jerry and Charlie and me—all of us looking historical. There was all my old shit, my winter clothes—by which I mean, principally, sweaters—and heavy shoes, everything referring to a life we had ceased to live. But all of it menaced the life we hoped to live. Silently, we were sickened by it, silently we were reproached. We put it all in two boxes and hid the boxes in a corner of the room. (For, one day, the owners might arrive.) And we settled down. We tried to settle down. Barbara got a job as a waitress. And I got a job at the West Indian restaurant as a waiter, a waiter who sang. Late some nights, after we had finished serving, I would take down my guitar and sing a few songs. Barbara had been right. They liked it, and it was good for me. That job held Barbara and me together, that winter, longer than we might have stayed together. And the job had an effect, obliquely, on my career. A singing black waiter in the Village in those days was bound to be noticed, and so, without realizing it, I became what I was later able to sell: a personality.

  It went this way: my working day began around five or six in the evening, when I unlocked the restaurant. There were about eight or ten tables. At capacity, we could serve about forty people. I was the only waiter. The restaurant was set down about three steps below the sidewalk. I unlocked the door, I swept out the joint. I checked the garbage cans, both inside and outside the restaurant. If I had left pots soaking, I scoured the pots. I set up the kitchen, putting out the cleaver and the chopping board. I chopped up the salad and made the salad dressing. I peeled the potatoes, poured the water off the black-eyed peas we always left soaking overnight, and washed the rice—for our specialty was a black-eyed peas and rice dish, called Hopping John. Then, I paused and had a drink—of black Jamaican rum. Hilda always kept a bottle in the kitchen. And by this time, Hilda, the cook, who was also the nominal owner, a big, black, and, on the whole, rather mysteriously unattached lady from the islands, had arrived, and was in the kitchen, hacking away at the ribs and the chicken. Hilda and I never said a great deal to each other; this meant that Hilda liked me and trusted me. She worked hard, she worked silently. I understood her reasons, although we never discussed them. I was sure that whatever she had saved from the years of working as a cook in private houses had been invested in this restaurant; and now she was terrified, although she masked this terror very well. She had, after all, taken on something quite formidable. With or without partners—and I didn’t know whether she had any partners or not—for a lone Negro woman to open a Negro joint in downtown New York was the kind of challenge that could easily lead to reprisals. For one thing, Hilda’s joint, which we called The Island, would certainly bring other Negroes downtown, and the people who ran the Village were not anxious for this to happen. Hilda and I both knew this, but there wasn’t much point in discussing it. Of course, our emphasis was very heavily on the islands, mightily exotic—this may have helped; and we anticipated, if we didn’t indeed help to create, the Calypso craze that was shortly to sweep the nation. Negro entertainers, working in Village clubs, very often dropped in, and this gave the place a certain “tone,” a certain vi
brance, and they sometimes, if the spirit so moved them, sang or danced.

  And there was something very impressive in Hilda’s stolid, silent single-mindedness. I don’t think she ever really liked running that restaurant—it was something she had to do. We knew nothing about her life at all. Unattached she certainly appeared to be. She spent very little money on herself. She sent nearly all of it back to Trinidad, without ever telling us who, there, was dependent on her efforts. And this gave her a black dignity, hard to assail. I think she liked me because, in my different way, I was as single-minded as she, as closed, and, in my way, as bold. We were a good team. If we hadn’t been, we would never have been able to manage the tremendous amount of work we had to do each evening. I surrendered the kitchen to Hilda, and set up my tables. I always brought a book with me, and, after I had set up my tables, I poured myself another glass of rum and sat down to read until the people arrived.

  We ran a rather late joint. My working day never ended before one in the morning, and sometimes not until four. Some very odd people floated through the doors of that restaurant, and I guess I learned a lot there. One of the things I learned, without realizing that I was learning it, was how to dominate a room. I certainly dominated that one. If I hadn’t, I would have been trampled to death.

  Here they came: a blond girl, say, with very long hair, svelte, an uptown girl, in snooty black. Her beau, crew-cutted, gabardined. They are slumming and they more or less know it, but, nevertheless, they look rather hard at me. For very dissimilar reasons, I look rather hard at them. But, as they are now in my territory, and my mother raised me right, I close my book and rise and smile—I almost said, rise and shine.

  “Good evening. Can I help you?”

  Hilda avoided the customers as completely as possible, for she couldn’t bear them; and at moments like these, I always seemed to hear the cleaver in the kitchen coming down particularly hard.

  “We thought we might eat something.”

  She is looking pleased, or looking bored; with some girls, it’s very hard to tell. Anyway, she is certainly looking bright.

  “Certainly. Would you like this table?”

  They are seated. The menus are before them. She is still looking bright, but he has decided to be a regular fellow. The mother doesn’t know how much I know about him. He might not make out with her, but I might know somebody, or maybe he can make out with me. I’m black, but I’m friendly, and no doubt I remind him of someone he knew in college.

  “Would you like a drink?”

  And wham! goes the cleaver, and I go behind the bar to prepare their martinis. I am also, I forgot to say, the only bartender. From my position behind the bar, I look into the kitchen at black and surly Hilda. The first of our signals are exchanged. Just the usual fools, I silently inform her, no trouble. I wink at her, and she winks back. Then she raises the cleaver again. Wham!

  “You make a pretty good martini.”

  “Thank you. Do you want to order now, or—well—have another martini?” And it was on this line I managed my most artless and dazzling smile.

  “Well. We’ll see.”

  “Okay. Just make yourself at home.”

  Here they came: she middle-aged, fretful, all in green and orange, he balding, harried, in dark blue.

  “What’s the name of this place?”

  “We call it The Island. Good evening.”

  “Your food any good?”

  “Some people like it. Some people are addicted to it.”

  Looking back, I suspect that one of the reasons they looked at me so hard was that I really didn’t give a damn if they never ate another meal again, anywhere in the world. I certainly wasn’t drumming up trade, and that was the secret behind my carefully open smile.

  “Well, I guess we might as well try it. What do you think, Anita?”

  They look at the other couple, look at me. I leave them in their valley of decision, and light a few candles. They sit down—at a table very near the door. I give them their menus.

  “Would you like a drink?”

  “Can you make a Manhattan?”

  “I believe I still remember. Two?”

  “Yeah. And make it snappy.”

  Distrustfully, they taste their drinks. The cleaver continues to fall, and the pots are boiling, Hilda rings the bell which informs me that the first couple’s meal is ready. I serve it. He smiles at me, and winks. I smile. Then, back to my other couple.

  “Would you like to order now?”

  “Yeah. We’ll try the chicken. We don’t like no spices.”

  “Very good. Thank you.”

  Here they came: two boys, certainly under age, certainly from the Bronx, in the Village for the first time.

  “Hi. Can we eat?”

  “If you can’t, you won’t live long. How about this table?”

  I light their candles.

  “Are the ribs good?”

  “I like them.”

  “You the cook?”

  “No. I’m the waiter. The cook is in the kitchen.”

  “What’s your name?”

  “My name is Leo.”

  “Can we have a couple of beers?”

  They are probably under age, but, on the other hand, so am I. I don’t know what Hilda is paying for protection, but I know it’s a lot.

  “Okay. And two ribs?”

  “Right.”

  “Thank you.”

  Here they came: four Southern sailors, a little drunk. This can be very tricky, but Hilda and I have this set of signals, and I always maneuver myself at such moments so that I am near the poker in the fireplace.

  “Good evening. Would you like to eat?”

  “Yeah. We’re hungry.”

  “You’ve come to the right place, then. This table suit you?”

  “Yeah. Can we get a drink?”

  This is also rather tricky, for one doesn’t want sailors getting drunk in the joint. But I can’t really claim that they are too drunk to be served.

  “What would you like?”

  They would like boiler-makers, all around.

  “Hey, where you from? You from around here?”

  “I’m from New York.”

  “You know where we can find some pussy?”

  “All over the street. I guess.”

  “Man, we been looking and we ain’t found nothing. This town is full of fagots.”

  “Cheer up. It’s early. What do you want to eat?”

  Looking back, I have to recognize that most of the Southerners who came into that joint surprised me. It was the Northerners who were dangerous.

  “Might have me some pigs’ feet. They smell like pussy.”

  “Man, they look just like a prick.”

  “Now, where did you ever come across a prick with claws?”

  Laughter.

  Here they came: the nice blond girl from Minneapolis, who lived in the Village with her black musician husband. Eventually, he went mad and she turned into a lush. I don’t know what happened to their little boy. Here they came: Rhoda and Sam, the happiest young couple in the Village. She committed suicide, and he vanished into Spain. Here they came: two girls who worked in advertising and who lived together in fear and trembling, who told me all about their lives one drunken night. One of them found a psychiatrist, married a very fat boy in advertising, and moved to California and they are now very successful and vocal Fascists. I don’t know what happened to the other girl. Here they came: the black man from Kentucky, who called himself an African prince and had some ridiculous name, like Omar, and his trembling Bryn Mawr girl-friend, whose virginity he wore like a flag. Her family eventually had him arrested, and the girl married somebody from Yale. Here they came, the brilliant, aging Negro lawyer who lived on whiskey and benzedrine and fat white women, here they came, the bright-eyed boy from the South, who was going to be a writer and who turned into a wino, here they came, the boy who had just fled from his rich family in Florida and who was going to live a different life than theirs (?
??I don’t need all that money, I just want to be me”) and who turned into a junkie, here they came, the fagot painter and his Lesbian wife, who had an understanding with each other which made them brutally cruel to all their playmates and which welded them, hatefully, to each other. Here they came, the lost lonely man who worked in the shipyards and lived with his mother, who loved young boys and feared them and who jumped off a roof, here they came, the nice, middle-aged couple everyone was always glad to see, the husband of which couple, weeping and sweating, once threw me down among the garbage cans and tried to blow me—“Don’t tell Marcia. Please don’t tell my wife!”—here they came, the beautiful girl who painted and who ended up in Bellevue, here they came, the beautiful girl who was going to be a dancer and who ended up in prison, here they came, the brilliant Boston scion who liked to get fucked in the ass, and who threw himself before a subway train—which chopped off his head—here they came, my God, the wretched, the beautiful, lost and lonely, trying to live, though death’s icy mark was on them, trying to speak, though they had learned no language, trying to love although the flesh was vile, hoping to find in all the cups they tasted that taste which was joy, their joy, without which no life is worth living. Yes, I learned a lot. They frightened me, but I learned a lot. Here, one night, came Sally, with whom I was to live for nearly two years, very cool and sleek and distant, with two white, male NYU students. They were talking sociology, I thought they were full of shit, and eventually I said so, and Sally and I had a fight. Then, I haunted the NYU campus until I found her again and I made her speak to me again, like a person this time, and not like a poor relation, the object of sociological research. Here, one night, came Steve, from Pennsylvania, the wayward son of a famous general, and he fell in love with me. I have to put it that way because that’s what happened, although I know I didn’t handle it very well. But he meant a lot to me and he taught me something very valuable, a certain humility before the brutal and mysterious facts of life. Sally eventually married a Negro lawyer, a very nice man, and we’re still friendly—I guess we cost each other enough for that. Steve went off to Tangiers, and I am told that he is drinking himself to death there. Yes. My days of anger.