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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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Fortress of Laughter

By Arnold Israel

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 64.

As soon as I opened the door, I knew he was there. The sweet aroma of his cigar hung lightly on the air, and, as I became aware of it, I smiled, for I looked forward to his visits and always remembered them as symbols of happiness and good fellowship. I hadn't expected him this time, and his coming was the nicest thing that could have happened this rainy Sunday evening. I hurried toward the sound of his voice.

He was seated in the big easy chair, completely filling it, for he was a big man—220 pounds I should judge—and his fat face was wreathed in smiles as I entered; He had the perpetual cigar clutched in his pudgy fingers and now and then he'd pause in his conversation and take a slow easy drag from it. He enjoyed those cigars—I think that without them he would have been lost.

He was telling a story as I entered, and instinctively I tiptoed into the room, fearful lest I break the spell that somehow always hung about an audience that listened to him. His voice was smooth and warm with just the slightest touch of a Russian accent that made it interesting and different from the others that one hears around New York. This particular anecdote concerned his early days in America and had those spots of genuine humor that I've always associated with him. We chuckled appreciatively, and when it ended, we sat back with a sense of well being and then someone broke out into a laugh as a recollection of one of his jokes resumed, and he joined in and the whole room rocked with laughter. Sometimes we knew not why we laughed except that the sound of his laughter was so human and full of warmth that I guess we naturally just had to join in—we couldn't help ourselves.

The evening passed swiftly, as it always did when he was there. The rich humor of his stories, his hearty laughter and his gentle banter seemed to shut this room off from the outer world, as if it were a fortress of laughter, far from the follies and strife of foolish mankind. As I brought in the drinks and held the tray so that he could help himself, I couldn't help but realize as I looked at him that here, at last, was a man truly happy.

At midnight he got up from his chair and in a booming voice challenged me to our everlasting battle of the Boroughs—pinochle. He was Brooklyn and I was the Bronx, and inevitably I lost, for he played shrewdly and brilliantly every time he sat down to a card table. To him pinochle was an art and as such, complete mastery over it had to be his before he would rest. Once when he took a little longer than usual to play a card, I looked into his face and saw there a perfectly calm, almost benign, expression as he considered his hand. His eyes were the only features of his face that betrayed the fact that he was thinking deeply, and they held a serious look which suddenly fled as a fleeting expression of mischief showed itself. He played a card, I played mine, and in the next instant I fell neatly into his trap and once again the Bronx "bit the dust." As we rose from the table, he teased me over my defeat and began to extoll the beauties of the borough of Brooklyn as opposed to the sordid surroundings of the Bronx. I retorted in much the same vein, and for nearly a half hour our mock insults flew back and forth until, exhausted for lack of anything more to say, we sank back into our chairs silently smoking—he his cigar and I my odorous pipe.

It was two o'clock in the morning and I switched on the radio. The speaker blared forth the latest "swing" favorite and for the first time that evening I saw a slight—ever so slight—frown of displeasure on his face, until I found a little station with recordings of the classics on it. Then he smiled with sincere enjoyment and settled his huge body more comfortably in his chair—listening with the appreciation of a true connoisseur of fine music. At the moment Fritz Kreisler's "Caprice Viennois" was on and when, in years still to come, I may think that all is lost, and that nothing remains that is fine and beautiful, I shall remember that night—those few moments—when the strains of a lovely violin filled the room and a big man and a slim youth listened. One with the look of perfect contentment, gazing off into space, drinking in the music, as a flower welcomes the warming rays of the sun; the other watching and learning a little of life as he searches every line of the man's features—and finds there naught but peace.

* * * *

He looked at his watch and in mock alarm proclaimed the fact that it was nearly three and that he was in serious danger of catching it from his wife. We laughed—you know, when he's around, laughter just seems to thrive—and as I helped him on with his coat I evoked a promise of a quick revisit. I took him as far as the elevator and shook hands with him just before closing the door. His hand was huge and his grip firm enough to cause my fingers to ache for some minutes after. I went back into the apartment, and as soon as I entered, I became aware again of the delicate sweet aroma of his cigar. It brought back a quick memory of one of the evening's jokes, and I walked back to my room, my body shaking with silent chuckles.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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