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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Changing Waterfront

By Leonard Nash, '35

The Magpie, May 1935, p. 35.

The waterfront presents a kaleidoscopic panorama. No hour, no minute is exactly like any hour or minute before it. Some changes have evolved over a period of years; others have occurred with stunning suddenness. Change, whether fast or slow, is the keynote of the seaboard.

It is hard to distinguish nationalities on the waterfront, for they are all hopelessly mixed by the whirl of that giant egg-beater, Change. Indeed, the waterfront of any large seaport is a composite picture of the world. All races, all climes, all colors are here represented. Rich and poor, good and evil persons pass at some time over the worn boarding of the docks. Ships from the North, from the South, from East and West, from all the lands of the festering planet which is our earth, have at some time nudged the decaying piles of the wharves. The snout-nosed tugs have joyously welcomed newly arriving ships, and have towed them, great and small, to their slips. These very same tugs have pulled the ships to the open sea, and the ships have not returned. From the deep they came, and to the deep they have returned.

Some of these docks were built back in the days when the mighty bowsprits of the clipper ships towered over the river avenue and converted it into a closed corridor. The proud mountains of rope and wood and canvas have disappeared, but the docks have remained on, changing slowly to crumbling ruins. Their piles are in a state of decay and the docks themselves have many loose boards and protruding nails. At one of these docks some great steamer may moor during the evening. During the night the sky is ensanguined by a crimson glow and the eerie wail of fire sirens is heard. The next morning the ruined ship lies on the river bed beside the ruined dock. An overnight change has accomplished the devastation time might wreak in a century.

We glance away for a moment from sea to land. Careening over the cobble-stones go taxicabs, their spare tires bouncing so furiously that they look like bobtailed rabbits, leaping frantically on ahead of the pursuing hound, a weighty truck lumbering on behind them. The ships, on the contrary, sway but little in the still river waters. They seem supremely lovely as they disport their streamlined beauty after their grim contest with the ocean.

Here they are unloading a ship full of bananas. Suddenly there is a shriek of pain and terror. The men pulling at the bundles of bananas scatter and run. One remains standing dumbly, gripping his left arm convulsively. From near his feet a slender green snake glides smoothly over splintry planks into the dark hold. The man screams again, and . . . tumbles over, in a stupor that will end with death. Many a mulatto workman has been done to death by the vicious denizens of an innocent bunch of bananas, which always has its fingers uplifted to God. In this haven, tarantulas and the dreaded snares of the tropics come North to accomplish a murderous destiny.

Many are the strange passengers who arrive at the waterfront. Here they are dragging some wretched Chinese coolie from the Mexican ship on which he attempted to enter the paradise he had been told of. The callous officials drag him along, regardless of his frantic pleas in his native tongue. It is thus that man treats his fellow man,—in paradise.

Here a ship from Russia is making fast. The passengers have no beards, and despite a careful search, no bombs have been found in their hip pockets. They stand transfixed, for it is their first sight of our bourgeois world. This is the land where the best society rubs elbows with gangsters. This is the land where each workman may have three or four rooms for his family. This is the land where there is an unemployment problem. As I said, they must pause, to grasp the idea that they have finally arrived in the fabulous land of their fancy. Here is a ship from Germany. The passengers seem careworn and they are for the most part silent. As refugees they have learned that it is best to remain silent when one is surrounded by spies. They brighten, however, as they step ashore. Even in the putrid air of the waterfront they sense the breath of liberty. Here is a vessel from France. In its hold there are many bottles of so-called American champagne. This is inferior champagne shipped by the cunning French to America. The idea abroad seems to be that any slop, so long as it contains plenty of alcohol, is good enough for even the most discerning of American palates. Here is a ship with a black-shined delegation from Italy. Fascists and anti-fascists are massed at the waterfront, and soon there is a whirlpool of humanity about these isolated representatives of the cooperative state. Scenes like this, some culminating in violence, are by no means rare among the shining scenes of the waterfront. Here is a ship from Spain, land of dissension; here is another from the stolid British Isles; another from "down under" Australia; here are still others, and more, and more.

The waterfront changes from season to season, but at no time is it a healthy or a pleasant place. In winter the cobble-stoned streets are slippery with snow, and frigid winds blow up the river valley. In spring the snow melts into muddy rivulets and slush; and the only spring breezes evident are tainted with the overpowering odor of garbage that has been frozen in the snow for the winter. During the summer the cobble-stones absorb the heat of the sun which beats directly down upon them, and soon burn right through the soles of one's shoes. Not a breath stirs; the waters about the ancient mariner's ship rippled no more than do the oily waters of the Hudson. Even in autumn the ever-present odors of gasoline, garbage and stagnant water are far from pleasant. At all times, in all kinds of weather, the mighty liners vomit forth great volumes of smoke, which fall, like a heavy pall, over the entire region.

From hour to hour we have constant change. At five in the morning we have the first rosy tint of dawn. A pastel light overspreads the sky. This is the first time we see anything delicate or pretty on the waterfront, but the hurrying peon pie below do not look up at the sky as it is slowly reddened by the sun. They have no time to look or admire. By midday the sun is hanging like a radiant orange, immediately above the workers' heads. Its beams beat down mercilessly. By evening all is over, and the workers, with drooping heads, give way to the night shift. The sun sets. Crimson streamers spread over the sky. Below them float heavy, oily columns of smoke. Blood and earth meet in the sky.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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