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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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The Disgrace

By Arthur Whitman

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 14.

HERE he was, walking, or rather trudging along, with the weight of the world bearing down on his narrow shoulders, trying desperately to crush him. He wondered how long he would be able to stand up under its force. How many days of sanity he had left. For he was surely going crazy. With everybody in the whole wide world against him, what else was there to do but go stark raving mad? He wondered what color the walls of his padded cell would be.

Was it his fault that his brother, and his sister, and his cousin, and nearly everyone else who had ever gone to school before him was smarter than he was? Could he help it if he couldn't learn Chemistry, French, and Algebra? What did he want to know that junk for anyway? Weren't there enough crummy subjects to take that weren't hard? Weren't there any useful subjects to take?

A dope, huh? His own father had just finished telling him how dumb he was. What a disgrace he was to his brother, his sister, his cousin, and everybody that was fortunate enough to be related to him in some remote and mysterious fashion. That's the trouble with having a smart family! He didn't mind that dope business, because a fellow just has to be honest with himself, but where did they get that disgrace stuff from?

Disgrace! That's what they called him, and that's what he'd be, or know the reason why, and it would have to be a good reason.

Might as well get started on the road to ruin as soon as he could. And he could right now. The first thing he had to do to become a good no-good was to get in with bad company. Well, he had heard about those poolrooms. He could get enough of that there to suit anybody. He didn't know why he could, but they all said he could.

He turned a corner. He knew where there was a poolroom. He had passed it occasionally. A blight on the family name, huh! When he got through with them, the family would be only too glad to change their name.

He got to his poolroom. A large affair, it was situated one flight up, over a row of furniture stores. It had a sort of narrow entry, but this led down to a comparatively huge back. In the narrow part, there was a row of tables, and in the back there were many of them. Those green coverings on the tables reminded him of one of his sister's hats. It was the same color, and just as flat on the top.

As he approached the rear of the place, which was well lighted by the large bulbs that were burning above the tables in use, he began to wonder. Where was all the cigarette smoke? This was an awful let-down, a poolroom without cigarette smoke. It was almost as bad as an ice-cream soda without whipped cream! Why all the dime detective stories said there were "...dense clouds of acrid smoke, hanging like a shroud over the place..."

Say, it all these fellows in the poolroom were supposed to be disgraces, there were an awful lot of them! Well, at least he wouldn't be lonely. He wasn't the only disgrace in the vicinity, but he wondered whether all those guys were dopes too. Misery sure has an awful lot of company today!

He had taken the first step toward being a full-fledged disgrace. Now he really had to get into the swing of things. He looked around him, much as the Babes in the Wood must have done. He noticed, or rather studied, a bunch of kids that looked to be as young as he was. Wondered if they were trying to become disgraces too. He would go over and find out. But then, he thought better of it, for, suppose they weren't just trying to be disgraces. What would they think of him?

No, he had better leave the innocent looking ones alone. He had heard of those baby-faced cop killers who would shoot at the drop of a hat. He would try looking for a tougher bunch. You never knew when you would stumble on a starving Harvard graduate who couldn't afford to open an office, and used one of these dumps as his headquarters.

That gang over there. by that table—if they didn't look like a bunch of babies that had knocked around a bit! Most of them needed shaves, and all of them had cigarette butts hanging from their mouths. Look at the dark rings under their eyes. Boy, if they didn't look like disgraces!

They were all older than he was, that was obvious, but he would take a chance. What, after all, did he have to lose? He adopted what he thought was a wise-guy look, and strode bravely over to their table. But, by the time he reached them, his bravery had dissolved in the cold sweat emanating from his forehead. He leaned weakly against a wall, and again he wondered. He wondered what it was all about. Wondered why he felt so weak around the knees. He wouldn't let that worry him, though. He was sure he could learn enough to get by by watching them. Hadn't he reamed to play pinochle by watching his father?

What the heck were all the balls different for? Weren't they just as good when they were all white, or all red? He looked to see if there really was an eight-ball. There was! Boy, if he wasn't behind that—!

To be in style, he took out a cigarette. He lit it, and took a drag, and nearly choked. He had forgotten not to inhale. He watched the unknowing teachers to see if they inhaled. They were neutral. They just let their butts hang down between their lips without puffing at them. Thus, they did not take sides in the matter, and didn't incriminate themselves. Darn clever these pool players. He would do the same thing. He looked at them closely to see, for his own satisfaction, whether they really could eat the smoke. He decided that they could. And come to think of it they did not impress him as Harvard grads—more like Sing-Sing Alumni. Swell examples of what he would be in no time at all.

After a while during which he had been leaning against the wall and pondering over these weighty problems, the players finished playing, and put their shirts on and went over to the desk to pay.

He hadn't even spoken to theme A swell disgrace he was. Couldn't even get up the courage to talk to a few of his brothers-under-the-skin-to-be! He could see himself already—disgracing the poolroom bums of America.

He sidled over to the table that he had avoided before. As there was no wall handy on which to lean, he stood a little way back from the table. He watched the kids, for that's all they were, just kids. There sure were enough of them. About six or seven, and they all seemed to know what they were doing.

One of the fellows spotted him standing there. "Hey, Shorty!" he was six feet tall, Wanna get a game?"

"Sure," he said, assuming his wisest air and his worst English, "got room for one more?" He wondered whether his heart sounded as loud to them as it did to him.

"Listen pal, stop askin' foolish questions, and grab a stick. The chalk's over there, the table is the one with the green cover, and let s get started."

"C'mon, Glamour Boy, stop makin' faces, and grab a stick!"

He stopped making faces, and grabbed a stick. If these kids could, he could! And besides, he had just gotten his weekly allowance of one dollar, and he could afford to lose some of it if that would help him to be a disgrace.

He had long ago finished his other cigarette, and now he took from his pocket the pack containing eight or ten cigarettes, which he had bought three weeks ago. He passed it around. The other fellows wondered what they were stumbling into! This boy had potentialities! Here he comes along and starts offering cigarettes right off. Actually giving the things away! Well, you know what Barnum and Bailey once said! "If we don't, somebody else will."

He lit the cigarette in the best of style, then let it hang down from the corner of his mouth, still in the best of style. and finally, he picked up his cue continuing in the best of style. But at this point, he went as out of fashion as last year's hat. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what to do.

"C'mon, Glamour Boy!"

"You better go first. It's a jinx with me." That was quick thinking.

"Awright, step aside, and let a expoit show ya how!"

The "expert" who went, the same sparkling wit that had called him Glamour Boy, proved to everyone's satisfaction that he knew less about, infinitely less about, playing pool than he did about spoiling the King's English.

Well, in just a few seconds, he would be among the best of disgraces. Having played pool in a poolroom! It wouldn't be long before his parents would be pointed out in the streets while the "Did you evers—'s" and "Well I never—'s" flew thick and fast. They would learn the real meaning of a word they used so easily. A word that flowed off their tongues so smoothly.

As he was waiting for his turn to come, he heard a voice that sounded familiar. Not only was it familiar, but he would drop dead on the spot if it wasn't his brother's! His brother who was the pride of the family. And who was with him? Why his smart cousin! Both of them! All of them! in a poolroom! They should have brought his sister along, then they could hold a convention. They and the pool tables. And her green hat. Mustn't forget her green hall

Without an explanation to his companions-in-pool, he walked over to the desk and paid for the time that he had had his cue. His brother, who up to this time hadn't noticed him, began to turn all the colors of the rainbow. His cousin only turned one color—pale white. Boy, that was the crowning glory, those two in a poolroom!

When he got out into the street, he wore a strange smirk on his face. His brother and cousin in a poolroom! Virtuous Victor and the Pride of Poughkeepsie in a poolroom!

As he walked, the smirk changed to a smile that grew broader as the blocks rolled away.

So he was a tramp. A bum. A no-good. His smile stretched from ear to ear. He believed that if he hadn't been such a reserved and sedate young gentleman, he would have burst out laughing right there in the street...!

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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