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Other Voices from the Depression

In a Coffee Pot
Alfred Hayes

Publishing Information

    Originally published in the Partisan Review (February-March, 1934).

    Tonight, like every night, you see me here
    Drinking my coffee slowly, absorbed, alone.
    A quiet creature at a table in the rear
    Familiar at this evening hour and quite unknown.
    The coffee steams. The Greek who runs the joint
    Leans on the counter, sucks a dead cigar.
    His eyes are meditative, sad, lost in what it is
    Greeks think about the kind of Greeks they are.

    I brood upon myself. I rot
    Night after night in this cheap coffee pot.
    I am twenty-two I shave each day
    I was educated at a public school
    They taught me what to read and what to say
    The nobility of man my country's pride
    How Nathan Hale died
    And Grant took Richmond.
    Was it on a summer or a winter's day?
    Was it Sherman burned the Southland to the sea?
    The men the names the dates have worn away
    The classes words the books commencement prize
    Here bitter with myself I sit
    Holding the ashes of their prompted lies.

    The bright boys, where are they now?
    Fernando, handsome wop who led us all
    The orator in the assembly hall
    Arista man the school's big brain.
    He's bus boy in an eat-quick joint
    At seven per week twelve hours a day.
    His eyes are filled with my own pain
    His life like mine is thrown away.
    Big Jorgensen the honest, blonde, six feet,
    And Daniels, cunning, sly,—all, all—
    You'll find them reading Sunday's want ad sheet.
    Our old man didn't know someone
    Our mother gave no social teas
    You'll find us any morning now
    Sitting in the agencies.

    You'll find us there before the office opens
    Crowding the vestibule before the day begins
    The secretary yawns from last night's date
    The elevator boy's black face looks out and grins.
    We push we crack our bitter jokes we wait
    These mornings always find us waiting there
    Each one of us has shined his broken shoes
    Has brushed his coat and combed his careful hair
    Dance hall boys pool parlor kids wise guys
    The earnest son the college grad all, all
    Each hides the question twitching in his eyes
    And smokes and spits and leans against the wall.

    We meet each other sometimes on the street
    Sixth Avenue's high L bursts overhead
    Freak shows whore gypsies hotdog stands
    Cajole our penniless eyes our bankrupt hands.
    "Working yet?" "The job sent come
    Got promised but a runaround."
    The L shakes building store and ground
    "What's become of Harry? and what's become
    Of Charley? Martinelli? Brooklyn Jones?"
    "He's married—got a kid—and broke."
    And Charley's on Blackwell's, Martinelli's through—
    Met him in Grand Central—he's on the bum—
    We're all of us on the bum—"

    A freak show midget's pounding on a drum
    The high L thunders redflag auctioneers
    Are selling out a bankrupt world—
    The hammer falls—a bid! a bid!—and no one hears . .

    The afternoon will see us in the park
    With pigeons and our feet in peanut shells.
    We pick a bench apart. We brood
    And count the twelve and thirteen tower bells.
    What shall we do? Turn on the gas?
    Jump a bridge? Boxcar west?
    It's all the same there's nothing anywhere
    A million guys are sitting on their ass
    We always land
    Back where we started from—a parkbench,
    Cold, and spitting in the sand.

    Who's handing us a runaround?
    We hold our hands for sale arms brain
    Eyes taught to figure accurate ears
    We're salesmen clerks and civil engineers
    We hang diplomas over kitchen sinks
    Our toilet walls are stuck with our degrees
    The old man's home no work and we—
    Shall we squat out our days in agencies?
    Or peddling socks shoelaces ties?
    We wrench green grassblades up with sudden hands
    The falling sun is doubled in our asking eyes.

    And evening comes upon us there
    Fingering in the torn pocket of our coat
    The one cold nickel of our subway fare .

    Night after night in this cheap coffee pot
    I brood upon our lives. I rot. They rot.
    The Greek's awakened from his dream. The dead cigar
    Drops ash. He wipes the coffee bar.
    He goes to fill the boiler once again.
    The clock hand moves. A fly soars down
    And stalks the sugar bowl's bright rim.
    And I compare myself with him—this fly and I—
    He crawls head downwards down a peeling wall

    And I crawl after him.
    You ask "Tomorrow?" . . . Go ask Fernando in the eatquick joint.
    Ask Jorgensen pounding Sixth Avenue. Ask Martinelli too,
    Watching the hole enlarging in his shoe.
    And ask me here—alone with the crawling flies—
    And I . . . I have seen the pain there in their eyes.
    We shall not sit forever here and wait.
    We shall not sit forever here and rot.
    The agencies are filing cards of hate.

    And I have seen how men lift up their hands
    And turn them so and pause—
    And so the slow brain moves and understands—
    And so with million hands.