The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Home | Project Information | Resources
For an instant the silhouette of a boy's figure dimly contrasted with the faded light issuing from the doorway of a tenement; then the door slammed shut and feet were heard pattering down the cracked and broken steps. A broad smile illuminated the boy's dark features, for he was flush with money. A slight drizzle sprayed the sidewalks with gentle splashes of water, but the lad heeded it not and started up the street. Before he had taken two steps, a window opened with a bang, and a voice called to him angrily.
"Jesse! Jesse! You come back here and put on your rain coat."
The boy turned, saying, "Aw, Aunt Lil, it ain't rainin' hard. It's just drizzlin'."
"Boy, don't you fool around in that rain till two o'clock like you did las' week, and don't you spend that money I gave you." But while his aunt had been talking, he had slipped down the street and was now helloing up the stairway to his friend Heep.
"Heep! Heep! Hey Heep, com' on! It's ten-thirty."
A boy's voice answered hurriedly, "Commin'." At the same moment a door upstairs slammed and feet clattered down the creaky old wooden stairs. Together the two boys proceeded down the avenue. Finally they reached the subway station and, forming a sort of clique with some other boys, they rushed the turnstiles, thus cheating the company of its nickels. When the train halted at One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street they piled out, creating such a clamor that the guard came out of the booth to investigate the cause of the disturbance. But one of the boys had seen the truck that brings the Sunday papers which they distribute on Lenox Avenue Saturday night, and warned them in a shrill voice:
"Hey com' on; the truck's here."
Jesse led the mob in a wild dash to beat the truck, but luckily it had been stopped by a red light enabling them to get in a "load" (a hundred papers). With a loud roar from its powerful horn, the truck pulled in. The yelling, screaming crowd of boys rushed into line. Boys kicked, fought, pushed, and pulled and shouted in frenzied excitement. A woman who attempted to secure papers was ruthlessly thrust aside despite the efforts of some boys to aid her. The one officer on duty vainly attempted to restore order but was mobbed by a gang of roughnecks pushing and shoving their way to the front. Jesse called to his friend.
"Hey, Heep, stick with me," but in the wild hubbub and excitement his voice was drowned.
Jesse used his superior strength to get in front leaving Heep to help himself. When the lines assumed a more coherent form, the man on the truck called the check numbers, and the line began to move forward slowly. Jesse, having secured his papers and seeing Mickey' another of his friends, hailed him.
"Mickey! Mickey! Wait up!"
"Hullo, Jesse," Mickey answered, "goin' my way?"
After they had proceeded a little way Jesse asked:
"How many papers you got?"
"Fifty 'News,' three 'Americans' and two 'Mirrors."'
"Gee, yuh gonna sell all those tonight?"
"Naw, you know I got mornin' customers."
"Gee, you're dumb. I sell mine at night and sleep all mornin'."
"Suppose yuh get stuck?"
"I ain't gonna get stuck unless it rains, and even then I'd rather stay up all night than get up out of my warm bed in the mornin'," answered Jesse disdainfully.
The streets were still wet and the lights reflected upon the wet pavement seemed to add to the hubbub and excitement of Lenox Avenue. Going up a side street Jesse met Mono carrying a large box, and called to him:
"Hey, Mono, have you seen Heep?"
Mono answered hastily, "Naw, old man. If you see Popo up the street tell him I got it," and he continued down the street.
Finally, Jesse finished distributing his papers and, instead of going home, as he knew he should have, went to the candy store and bought a soda. A little later Heep came into the store and asked:
"Did yuh see Mono, Jesse?"
"Yeh, I saw him down the street two hours ago. I think they went 'on the score' (made or stole money) because he had a large box."
"Oh!! Oh!!! I just saw the man they 'clipped' with Sleepy, the cop, on Forty-Fifth Street." Heep paused for a moment then said quickly:
"Let's cut out. Here comes Sleepy."
As Sleepy walked up to the store, a patrol car crept silently along the curb, and a big, burly officer alighted, at the same time removing his large, heavy gauntlets. Then from around the corner came Blackie with two enormous detectives flanking him, all were heading towards the store.
"Let's navigate," Jesse whispered to Heep, "before Sleepy gets a notion we were in with Mono and them."
As Jesse commenced to move along, a heavy hand was laid upon his shoulder, and a deep voice said harshly:
"Where yuh think you're gain'?"
Jesse would have protested but something hit the side of his face with tremendous force, knocking him off balance. When he had recovered from the effects of the blow, he saw the stern face of the officer with the gauntlets. Jesse shut his lips grimly.
The other officers came out of the store. The big one with the gauntlets left silently the same as he had come. Then a large, sleek, polished sedan pulled up at the curb, and three detectives entered. The car drew away again, tearing down the avenue. Sleepy strolled down the street and warned some boys to move along. Jesse and Heep immediately vacated the vicinity.
"Gee," said Jesse, rubbing the side of his face, "guess we better not go 'on the score' tomorrow night as we had planned."
"No-oo, I don't think we should," said Heep, smiling, "we'll just sell papers; I guess by now Mono and Popo wish they had."
The Magpie Sings the Great Depression