Additional Poetry and Prose by Herman Spector
I am the bastard in the ragged suit
who spits, with bitterness and malice to all.
needing the stimulus of crowds,
hatred engendered of coney-island faces,
pimps in a pressedwell parade,
I, looking into faces
(some say nothing; or with a leer
see what the years have done to me,
and be confused,
at times the timid christ,
longing to speak . . .
women pass hurriedly, disdainfully by.
men, pigsnouted, puff
and puke at the stars . . .
recalling the verses of sensitive men
who have felt these things . . .
who have reacted, to all things on earth,
I am dissolved in unemotion.
won by a quiet content,
the philosophy of social man . . .
The high hat gods go down the aisles.
I am at one with life.
New Masses, March 1929;
We Gather Strength
After a morning of pounding the pavements in search of a job, answering Want-Ads for any kind of dirty, ill-paid work, available, a guy feels that he's just about done-up, and is entitled to a rest. There's no point in plugging at it any longer: after eleven o'clock there's nothing doing. Some guys go straight from the joblines to the breadlines. But I had a few pennies left. So I headed for an automat, thinking to warm up with what I call a "coffee-minus", before spreading myself around in my various hang-outs: the 42nd Street Library, free art galleries, penny arcades, etc.
It was too damn cold to walk around much. The wind was hitting it up with a vengeance; a thin, cruel glaze of sleet covered the streets. Pushing through a revolving door, I found myself in the warm, clean-looking restaurant: milkwhite tables glistening all around, people furtively or thoughtfully munching their food, the glint of nickel and neat, clever dishes spotlighted behind glassware like star performers in some vaudeville show. There's nothing that appeals more to the ordinary New Yorker, in weather like this, than an unpretentious, busy cafeteria. In the first place, it has a sort of tabloid look: bright, easy to understand, and optimistic. In the second place, it clicks, and that makes it authentic.
So I held the knob just a little longer than was necessary, and the last drop of coffee dribbled into my cup, and the guy behind me was ready to curse with impatience. Choosing a vacant table, I sat down and slapped my paper down beside me. Other people, I noticed, were sitting alone by preference, and silently regarded each other. Cynical lot of egotists, I thought. I sipped the coffee: it was delicious.
Through the plate-glass window I could see Sixth avenue, the pillars of the El, the cheerless plot of park beyond: bare now, rimmed with ice and snow. The good warm coffee inclined me to take a better view of life. Things are bound to change, eh? A guy can't go on existing like this forever. How long, now, have I been on the bum? Oh, pretty long, a pretty long time. Being battered around gets a fellow dizzy: his memory goes back on him. Or maybe--there is too much to remember. Well it does not matter: nothing matters, much. I drank the coffee slowly, not to lose any of the flavour.
The last night had been a tough one. I'd caught a little sleep on the trains. At 14th an accident had tied up the line for over an hour. A guy had knelt down on the platform as the train pulled in, and flung himself over. A sudden shower of sparks, the engineer's quick fearsome Toot! as the train grinded to a full stop in the center of the platform, and it was all over--for him. It was messy. Parts of him were found as far back as the third car. The pavement below had received a fresh, steaming gift of his intestines. In the morning paper I noticed the item: "GROUND TO DEATH UNDER 'L' TRAIN--Body Mangled Beyond Possible Identification." I watched while the emergency crew collected all the pieces--large pieces and when they called out, "All Aboard!", went back to the car again and carelessly stretched out to sleep. But as the train rumbled and clattered heavily, ponderously on, while the still night grew colder and colder, and crystallized into dawn, I dreamed . . . of huge steel wheels rolling and rolling, wet with blood, with snowflakes that melted instantly upon contact with the metal; of huge steel wheels grinding and spattering bones and flesh; of upraised arms, mute mutilated torsos, guts . . . .
Gar: will I be next. then? They had found his hat lightly poised between two ties, untouched. The engineer was a tall, fat, smiling chap, wearing a cap too small for his head. This was the tenth he'd "got," he said. The other nine hadn't been so lucky: they'd lived--for awhile. Like a thunderbolt in my brain, the question: What thoughts had this human being entertained, while he deliberately kneeled and measured the distance from himself to the monster train, approaching? Was he any more miserable than I? Why was I so anxious to keep my own guts inside me?--
I took my eyes away from the grim pillars of the El. Forget it: it won't do you any good. I reached for my paper. It was no longer on the seat beside me. I looked up. A heavy-set fellow had seated himself at the table, and was reading it.
I guess I was past feeling uncommonly jumpy. Anyhow, I had a bad shock. The guy sitting there so calmly, reading the day's news, was the suicide of the night before! This impression was so strong and startling, that for the moment, I could not move. Integrated again were the large pieces and the small pieces: the shoulder with gaping wound where the head had been, pinned beneath the carriage of the train, the bits of flesh and bone strewn along the rails, the mangled legs, the hat jauntly reposing upon the crossties, the blotch of guts in the center of the gleaming crosstown trolley-tracks about which an awed crowd had collected; the body was made whole again, animated with moods and visions, it was turned into a jobseeker again, words spelled out backwards, a movie wound up wrong. With a wrenching effort of the will, I closed my eyes . . . and the obsession passed. I felt my cheeks wet with tears, and inwardly cursed my weakness. Gulping the last of the coffee down, I glared squarely at the man.
He looked like a truckdriver or dishwasher, with a strong skull and serious, squinted eyes. Laboriously he pored over the Want-Ads, much pencilled by my own hand, and evidently found little that was encouraging. Somehow this big fellow seemed pathetic to me. He had muscles to heave a case or lift a great log, yet these muscles were valueless to him. Civilization had outsmarted men like him; machines had made a mockery of their strength. He glanced up from the paper and looked at me dully. He was intimidated by all the bustle and activity of a big city, which now bore no relation to his needs. I could read fear in his eyes. Probably the man had a family. Would he starve then? Would he turn bandit, or beg? I saw him look out the plate-glass window, at the base, relentless streets, and I saw a shudder pass over him.
I would have spoken to him, I think, and he would have responded in puzzled, sullen monosyllables, evasively, but an ejaculated greeting startled him, and he turned around. A little, weazened youth shook his hand and sat down beside him. It was lunch-hour; the place was crowding up with hurried diners.
The newcomer was comical with his air of animation and self-assurance. Well Jim, whatcher doin? What's new--nothin"? Still lookin' around fer somethin', eh? 'Stough. More 'n more guys outa woik, they say, than ever before. But wot's de use o' hangin' crepe, I say to 'em. I just got a raise, coupla months ago. I ain't got nothin' to kick about. Know dat dame I useter go out wid?--Jim nodded--Well, I got anudder now. Boy, you wanner see her: Some dame. Nifty. See dis suit?--Jim saw it--Dis ain't no 22.50 rag. Feel it: go ahead, don't be afraid. Some cloth, eh? All wool and a yard wide. Forty-two bucks is wot dis stood me.
The little fellow sort of squared off, pugilistically, daring the other to disbelieve him. Then he went on: Ya got be pretty smart, nowadays. I don't let nobody put nothin' over on me.
He was full of small talk. Finally, he got up. Aincher gettin' nothin', Jim? Coffee? No?--He hesitated for a moment.--Well, I guess I'll get me some ham 'n eggs . . . And he walked off toward the counter, a little wiseguy in natty clothes, cocky, puny, and puerile. The man called Jim kept gazing soberly out at the streets, the lines around his mouth deepened, despair in his eyes, unconscious defeatism in slouched shoulders and apathetic hands.
Sure you'll get a job soon, Jim. You gotta live, eh? You gotta be smart, that's wot. Jumping under a train won't help very much. Naw. On the other hand, maybe you were not cut out to be a little pimp. Nature fashioned you differently. It's a problem, Jim, it's a "problem."
So I got up, feeling a little empty and jagged and not so steady on my pins, and shuffled over to the 42nd Street Library, to read a book.
When I got down near the Library, I got thinking about Jim. Funny the ideas a guy gets on an empty stomach. But I thought I'd hate like hell to be in Jim's way if he and a lot of others got it into their heads to go out and take enough to eat, job or no job. I'd been hearing some of them talk that way.
New Masses, February 1931
from Bastard in the Ragged Suit: Writings of, with Drawings by, Herman Spector. Ed. Bud Johns and Judith S. Clancy. San Francisco: Synergistic Press, 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Synergistic Press. Reprinted by permission of Synergistic Press.
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