The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
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A SLIGHT mist which shrouded the tops of the tall buildings hung over the harbor. A big ocean-going greyhound slid easily through the narrows, dwarfing the ferry boats and tugs which cluttered up the bay and the river winding itself through the heart of the city. Her deep throated boat's whistle sounded and echoed in the canyons of the city in a majestic gesture of farewell. As she proudly left the city behind, a battered tramp steamer crept into the harbor and headed for a pier on the east side of the river. Silently she docked, and with speedy efficiency a crew of stevedores proceeded to unload her. On her bridge a figure appeared, descended the narrow stairs to her deck and made his way to the gangplank that was slung from the boat to the dock. He stopped at a bulletin board nailed to a cabin wall and read, "All shore leaves end at 11 P.M. Ship sails at midnight." He turned and went down the gangplank. Across the pier his footsteps sounded dull and hollow as he hurried towards the street and the seething city.
He stopped walkingaround him swirled the orderly chaos of a big city's traffic. In his ears a thousand sounds made themselves heard the rumble of a horde of motors, the curses and shootings of the cab drivers as they maneuvered through the packed cars, the cheerful whistling of boys carrying packages from the clothing houses. A burlesque theatre doorman extolled the beauties of the girls performing within, and he stopped to listen and look, then caught himself and drifted on, wondering whether anyone was looking at him and thinking thoughts. He looked up at a street sign and crossed over to the other side. He stopped to light a cigarette on a corner, then looked up to find his way blocked by a fresh stream of traffic. A traffic light changed, and he crossed the next corner. He drifted along, just walking and seeing. The sun was starting to sink, and over the city a million fantastic shadows flung themselves on hundreds of buildings, as in a thousand windows the light of the disappearing sun dashed briefly in the eyes and then retreated from sight. A chill fell on the city, and he drew his overcoat tight around him, and then realized he was hungry. He looked around for a place to eat. Here was a corner coffee pot with its windows covered with mist from the heat of the coffee ums; in the middle of the block a cafeteria attracted attention with a huge red neon sign, while on the opposite corner was a Nedick's, offering hot dogs and orange drinks. He decided to go into the cafeteria. He pushed through a revolving door and took a check from the machine with the musical notethis one was broken, so only a dull ping came from it as he grabbed the check. He moved over to the counter and got his foodhe ate.
It was dark in the city, and millions of lights came on the huge neon signs, the motion picture advertisements done in lights and watched by the throngs from the sidewalks. The street lamps cast their gloom-dispelling rays through the long hours of the city's night. He was walking uptown and passed the deserted shops that had closed up for the day and made the business section of the city look like some ghost city that had lived long years ago but now was dead and forgotten. He saw he was coming to the theatre district. Its light and life attracted him, and he walked just a little faster, as in anticipation of something good to come. More lights, more neon signs, more theatre advertisements. He stopped to look up at a theatre marquee and gaze at the motion picture stills displayed in the lobby. He turned around and saw a huge electric sign which blinked on and off CHEVROLETIT IS NOW 6:48. His feet took him uptown and he looked into side streets and saw night clubs with their lavishly gowned and furred ladies and their top-hatted gentlemen. He watched these people stream into the night clubs and he knew they wouldn't emerge until dawn. He laughed and turned away.
A clock on top of a building was illuminated and its face could be dimly seen. It was eight o'clock. The sailor turned and went back downtown. Again he saw the night clubs, but now the ladies and the gentlemen were coming outheaded toward other night spots. He was in the theatre district again.
The sign said IT IS NOW 10:53. A young couple walking by had their pictures taken by a sidewalk photographer who handed the boy a card. The boy looked at it, then filled it out and handed the man a quarter and a few pennies "for postage." The boy and the girl walked on looking at each other as the sailor came out of the theatre. He looked after them for a few seconds with a wistful expression, then gazed at the clock. IT IS NOW 10:54. He walked slowly down a side street and headed for the river.
He heard the sound of music coming from a doorway. He stopped. A group of kids had a radio hooked up. Two kids were dancing while the others watched with tapping feet and approvingly nodding heads. The boy whirled the girl around at arm's length then drew her in again: they swung into a steady rhythm in perfect time with the music. He went on: it was after eleven, but he didn't careone minute or more didn't matter.
He was approaching the river, he could hear its noises and smell the tang of the water from the open sea. In front of the dimly lit candy store a gang of boys were playing cards. One had a cigarette dangling from his lips. Another chewed gum and stared up at the sky as the sailor passed. Behind him he heard the sound of an approaching truck headed for the waterfront, it passed by and he saw the luggage for the big ships piled up on it. EUROPA, NORMANDIE, REX; the truck turned right and went up the waterfront street, its wheels rumbling over the red cobblestones. Dimly in front of him he could make out the lines of his own ship as she lay at anchor, waiting to cast off for other lands. He walked through the huge empty pier and mounted the gangplank. Somebody had taken down the sign "All shore leaves end at 11 P.M." In its place was a notice of loadings and destination. He ignored it and went to his cabin.
It was midnight. A battered tramp steamer crept down the narrows escorted by a single tug. At the stern the sailor silently smoked a cigarette and gazed at the retreating city. Already the smaller buildings were disappearing from view, and all that could be seen were the lights illuminating the tops of the tall structures. His cigarette had burned down to his fingers and he flipped it away, then turned and went forward. The tug cast off and the ship slipped away into the night.
The Magpie Sings the Great Depression