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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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By William Nachbar
Illustrated by Harold Altman

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 6.

"Thirty-fifth floor, going down." The people rushed along the glassine corridor and crammed into the waiting elevator. The operator pressed a button, and the streamlined metal doors slid silently together. The car began to slip its way downward. The operator leaned back against the smooth maple panelling and listened dully to the busy hum of conversation that went on about him. Businessmen, lawyers, secretaries, stenographers, salesmen clerks and executives milled about in the cramped space. A group of solid middle-agers were cackling rather loudly over a Confucius gag. The operator caught the last part of it. It wasn't so funny. "Main Floor." The little group disentangled itself, and emptied into the broad lobby of 1374 Broadway, to join the hurrying streams of humanity out of doors.

The operator lounged over to the tobacco booth.

"Let's have a slice of gum, Mac.

"Sure thing." Mac pulled a stick of Wrigley's Double-Mint from under the counter and handed it to him. "There y'are. What's new, Joe?"

"What's new?" Joe laughed as he peeled the paper wrapping. "That's funny. Is there ever anything new around this dump? Wheelin' a vertical buggy up forty odd stories, day after day. Listening to them dames gab, and them big shots talk about how big they are. Someday, yuh know what I'll do? I'll go on up, and keep on going until I bust through the skylight or something."

Mac laughed. A red light dashed on the board. "Your call, Joe," he said. "Okay!" Joe popped the gum into his mouth, and resumed his post. "Step to the rear of the car, please!" The door closed, and the car shot upward. It came down again on the sixteenth, and Joe chanted, "Down car! Going down!"

"Yes, in a moment," answered a small, tired looking man in a grey business suit. He had stopped for a last look at a nearby office. The door was open, and inside could be seen men, moving and packing furniture. A cleaner was at work, scraping the gold lettering off the glass door. The man tore his eyes away, "Another bankrupt," Joe thought. Business sure is getting tough. I'm glad I'm not in that game. The main floor was reached, and the little man plodded through the revolving doors, and on out.

Joe never saw what happened afterwards, for Joe was but a bit player in the drama. He did not see the worn little man climb into his car, and head for a well-to-do residential neighborhood, and what's more, he couldn't read the man's mind, as he drove. "Lucky the family is not at home today. They'll find out quick enough when it's all over. My insurance will be enough to cover—" The sedan rolled up a gravel driveway, and the man cut its motor. Then into the empty house, and up the long stairway to his room. "Now, if it's only there. I left it in the top drawer of the dresser." It was there, and the man took it with him into the bathroom. He faced the open window. The autumn sun streamed down upon the garden outside, and a cool breeze rustled the flowers. The man's fingers jerked.

The neighbors, who heard the shot, found him sprawled on the bathroom floor.

Joe almost had the door shut on the twenty-eighth, when he heard the sound of flying footsteps in the corridor.

"Hold the door a second! For God's sake, hold the door!" The door opened, and a hatless, coatless, and very breathless young man raced up, and into the car. "I gotta important call to make. Down, quick, hurry!" The young man tied all his words together in a neat bundle.

"I got calls to answer, Bud. You'll have to wait." Who the devil did that guy think he was, a doctor or a fireman maybe? He was just a measly, two-bit clerk in Lytal and Barnes, with no more important business than his lunch. Joe finished his stops without further interruption, although he could hear heavy and anxious breathing behind him.

When the Main was reached, the man tore out of the car, and through to the street. He waved on the sidewalk, "Taxi! Taxi!" A Yellow Cab pulled up to the curb. "Maternity Hospital, hurry." The driver gave an understanding nod, and started his machine. The man sank back into his leather seat, and then suddenly started forward wild-eyed. "Oh my God! What if it's a girl? With all that sporting equipment the fellas chipped in for, I'll be sunk."

Joe walked slowly back to the elevator car, absorbed in fixing the lapel of his neat brown uniform. He was met at the elevator door by a slight, auburn-haired girl in a worn cloth coat. "Tweed and Harris? Thirteenth floor," Joe replied tersely, stepping into the car. The people began to file in, a buzzer signal sounded on his left, and the elevator moved toward the upper ozone again. Joe leaned back against the control panel, and looked at the girl standing alongside. "Probably trying for a stenog's post," Joe deduced. He mentally weighed her outward qualifications. "Nope, too plain. You had to be at least a Hedy Lamarr to crash that firm. Then you get loaded up with jewels and furs, like Marcus' secretary, what's her name? Some life." The car stopped. "Thirteen! Watch your step getting off, please!" The girl headed down the hall.

Thirteen rang on the next trip, and Joe picked her up. She stepped back into the car again, looking a bit more tired, a bit more drawn than when she had come. Joe watched her until she disappeared and was lost in the crowds.

Onto the concrete pavement, and toward Thirty-fourth Street she headed. "Refused again. Well, that's the last of The Post ads. Try again tomorrow." She turned up the narrow dark canyon of Thirty-sixth Street instead, toward Sixth Avenue. Her head felt light. "Maybe I ought to grab a bite to eat, or I'll be no one's secretary." She jangled the few coins in her purse. "Running low." Her foot stepped off the curb at Sixth. There was a Nedick's right across the street, where she could purchase a nickel hot dog and coffee. You could almost smell 'em frying. Just a few more steps, hurry now, hurry—there was a sudden grinding of brakes and a shriek of tires. The driver fought frantically with his wheel, for the figure in front grew monstrously large.—A lady on the sidewalk screamed. The driver stopped a few yards ahead and looked back,—too late.

"Yuh know, Joe," Mac said lazily. "I don't see why you're always kicking. You've got a pretty soft job here, just pushin' buttons all day. Seeing all those guys that are looking for jobs, I'd say you had it pretty easy."

"Yeah," Joe retorted, "of all the dull, ill-paid, rotten jobs this is the worst. No future, no security, no rest, no nothing. For two cents, I'd take this kettle I'm running and smash it on the roof. You wait and see."

Mac smiled indulgently.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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