Tag Archives: poor

selections from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt. Continue reading

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The Bartender and Her Wife

Once there was a bartender who lived with her wife in a shabby Tenderloin studio. Paying rent always proved difficult, so the bartender regularly worked long shifts at her bar down the street.

One particularly slow afternoon, a slovenly hobo waltzed into the bar. His eyes were bloodshot, spittle leaked out the edges of his mouth onto his dark, dirt-encrusted denim jacket, and he reeked as if he hadn’t showered in several years. This was an ordinary sight, unfortunately, so the bartender barely lifted her gaze when she said, “Sorry, sir, but you have to leave. Come back once you’ve cleaned yourself up.”

The hobo, however, quickly gathered his composure and replied with silver tongue: “Excuse my appearance, barkeep, but the truth is I’m an enchanted prince simply passing through your world. If you would be kind enough to serve me a single scotch, I’ll drink it speedily and be on my way.”

Taken aback by the hobo’s eloquence, the bartender finally looked up and relented. She poured two fingers of scotch and handed it to the hobo.

“Thank you, kind lady,” said the hobo, who instantly emptied the glass, bowed his head, and walked out the door, leaving drops of blood in his wake.

Later that night, the bartender returned home and related the encounter to her wife, who was incredulous: “You idiot!” she shouted. “You met an enchanted prince and didn’t make a wish?”

“Make a wish?” said the bartender. “The thought didn’t cross my mind.”

“You go back to that bar and ask the prince for a nice place to live in Pacific Heights,” said her wife.

“Pacific Heights? But why?” asked the bartender.

“This place is disgusting!” said her wife. “Every day we step over used needles just to reach the front door, there are always people convulsing and talking to themselves in the stairway, and our bed smells like a bathroom. Now do you understand?”

Though the bartender felt uneasy about the situation, the next day she returned to her bar, which she found to be mostly empty besides a few regulars in the corner. At length, she spoke:

Hobo, hobo, of the city,
If you’re a prince, then speak to me.
Though I don’t agree with my wife’s request,
I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.

Immediately, the hobo walked through the front door and said, “What do you want?”

“My wife wants to live in Pacific Heights,” replied the bartender.

“Go to her now,” said the hobo. “She’s already there.”

And so she was. Magically, all their belongings had been transported from the grungy Tenderloin studio to a newly remodeled, two-story Victorian in Pacific Heights. They had a full garage, more than enough bathrooms and bedrooms for any number of guests, a beautiful kitchen, and even a hot tub on the roof.

“This is grand!” said the bartender. “We’re set for life now.”

“It’s nice,” agreed the wife. But a week later, she found herself dissatisfied with all the space and decided she needed something to fill her time. So she went to the bartender and said, “Call up that hobo prince and ask him to make me CEO of a tech company.”

“But why do you need to be CEO of a tech company?” asked the bartender.

“Don’t question me!” said her wife. “Just do as I say.”

Reluctantly, the bartender returned to work the next day with the request weighing down on her mind. It was happy hour, so she saw the usual regulars plus some strangers who had dropped in from the street. When she found a free moment, she spoke:

Hobo, hobo, of the city,
If you’re a prince, then speak to me.
Though I don’t agree with my wife’s request,
I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.

The hobo walked in and said, “Again? What do you need?”

“My wife wants to be CEO of a tech company,” replied the bartender.

“Go to her now,” said the hobo. “She’s CEO.”

After her shift, the bartender found a black car waiting for her outside. The vehicle whisked her away to a corporate office in SoMa, where she found her wife wrapping up a call. As soon as the wife hung up, she dove into a box of farm-to-table gourmet lunch that had been dropped off by a food delivery startup. Between mouthfuls, she shared her eagerness to see first quarter results.

“So you’re CEO,” said the bartender.

“I am,” replied her wife.

“I’m very proud of you.”

“Thank you, but I’m not quite content. I think it’d be great to have a few billion dollars for investing. Can you ask that hobo to make me an angel investor?”

“Aren’t you happy being CEO?” asked the bartender.

“Not at all,” replied her wife.

The bartender, as usual, found it difficult to resist her wife’s demands. The next night, the bar was packed with college students and people from the suburbs ordering fancy vodka cocktails. It wasn’t until late when the bartender finally spoke:

Hobo, hobo, of the city,
If you’re a prince, then speak to me.
Though I don’t agree with my wife’s request,
I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.

In walked the hobo saying, “What is it now?”

“My wife wants to be a billionaire angel investor,” said the bartender.

“Go to her now,” said the hobo. “She’s already investing.”

Sure enough, the next time the bartender saw her wife, she had one cell phone glued to her ear and another one firing off email after email replete with investment decisions, startup valuations, and hearty acceptances of board director positions. In her free moments, she drafted exposés on technology, business, politics, and even philosophy.

“Looks like you’re an influential angel investor,” said the bartender.

“I am,” replied her wife.

“Can’t imagine anything better.”

“That’s because you’re not very imaginative. You see, money brings power to a point, but I’m aiming beyond that point. Next time you see that old hobo, which I trust will be soon, tell him to make me the president.”

The bartender started to argue, but she was shot down with a glance.

The next night the bartender found herself at work, a momentous sporting event blared on TV, bringing out not just the regulars and bridge-and-tunnelers, but even the people who normally stayed at home. The place was loud, messy, and just nearly out of control.

In a brief moment of respite, the bartender again summoned the hobo:

Hobo, hobo, of the city,
If you’re a prince, then speak to me.
Though I don’t agree with my wife’s request,
I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.

“What do you want?” said the hobo.

“My wife wants to be the president,” said the bartender.

“Go to her now,” said the hobo. “She’s already president.”

It took the bartender several hours to prove her identity in order to get past several tiers of Secret Service agents guarding her wife, now president of the most powerful country in the world. Sitting in the pristine Oval Office, the president busily ordered which countries were to be bombed and which were to be spared, which global leaders were to be treated as friends and which were enemies, which millions of people were to be considered human beings and which billions were to be slaves. At the end of hours of this, she reclined in a plush seat, puffing a full-flavored cigar while a masseuse worked her shoulders.

“You’re the president,” said the bartender.

“I am,” replied her wife.

“Then there will be no more requests.”

“We’ll see about that.”

That night, the bartender’s wife could not sleep thanks to her unquenchable ambition. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, she watched the sun rise in the east and she realized what she wanted.

Though the bartender still lightly slept, the wife tapped her on the shoulder and said: “You must return to the hobo and ask him to make me a god.”

The bartender fell out of bed bewildered by the ludicrous wish. “You cannot be serious,” said the bartender.

But her wife did not smile.

When the bartender finally remembered to make the request, it was already 1:00 AM on Sunday morning. The bar was jam-packed with drunk and obnoxious patrons screaming loudly, singing 80s songs completely out of tune, and picking fights with one another. A thin girl swaying in heels had just puked in the corner.

Plugging her nose, the bartender again summoned the hobo:

Hobo, hobo, of the city,
If you’re a prince, then speak to me.
Though I don’t agree with my wife’s request,
I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.

“Now what?” asked the hobo.

“My wife wants to be a god,” replied the bartender.

“So be it,” said the hobo. “She’s back in the Tenderloin studio.”

Indeed, when the bartender went home that night, that’s where she found her wife, and they lived there until the end of their days. Continue reading

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morning BART poetry

Natalie was seated to my right. inspired, i whipped out my phone and penned this in one or two stops. when i handed it to Natalie, she read it, smiled wide, and asked, “did you just write that?” “yup.” Continue reading

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thoughts and Walden

The sun is but a morning star. (382) Continue reading

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“Bad! Bad!”

from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, VIII (141-148)

“‘Ere you are!”

A range of gabled little houses, each with one dim yellow window, on the ground floor, surrounded the dark open space of a grass plot planted with shrubs and railed off from the patchwork of lights and shadows it the wide road, resounding with the dull rumble of traffic. Before the door of one of these tiny houses–one without a light in the little downstairs window–the cab had come to a standstill. Mrs Verloc’s mother got out first, backwards, with a key in her hand. Winnie lingered on the flagstone path to pay the cabman. Stevie, after helping to carry inside a lot of small parcels, came out and stood under the light of a gas-lamp belonging to the Charity. The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolized the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.

He had been paid decently–four one-shilling pieces – and he contemplated them in perfect stillness, as if they had been the surprising terms of a melancholy problem. The slow transfer of that treasure to an inner pocket demanded much laborious groping in the depths of decayed clothing. His form was squat and without flexibility. Stevie, slender, his shoulders a little up, and his hands thrust deep in the side pockets of his warm overcoat, stood at the edge of the path, pouting.

The cabman, pausing in his deliberate movements, seemed struck by some misty recollection.

“Oh! ‘Ere you are, young fellow,” he whispered. “You’ll know him again- won’t you?”

Stevie was staring at the horse, whose hind quarters appeared unduly elevated by the effect of emancipation. The little stiff tail seemed to have been fitted in for a heartless joke; and at the other end the thin, flat neck, like a plank covered with old horse-hide, drooped to the ground under the weight of an enormous bony head. The ears hung at different angles, negligently; and the macabre figure of that mute dweller on the earth steamed straight up from ribs and backbone in the muggy stillness of the air.

The cabman struck lightly Stevie’s breast with the iron hook protruding from a ragged, greasy sleeve.

“Look ‘ere young feller. ‘Owd you like to sit behind this ‘oss up to two o’clock in the morning p’raps?”

Stevie looked vacantly into the fierce little eyes with red-edged lids.

“He ain’t lame,” pursued the other, whispering with energy. “He ain’t got no sore places on ‘im. ‘Ere he is. ‘Ow would you like–”

His strained, extinct voice invested his utterance with a character of vehement secrecy. Stevie’s vacant gaze was changing slowly into dread.

“You may well look! Till three and four o’clock in the morning. Cold and ‘ungry. Looking for fares. Drunks.”

His jovial purple cheeks bristled with white hairs; and like Virgil’s Silenus, who, his face smeared with the juice of berries, discoursed of Olympian Gods to the innocent shepherds of Sicily, he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured.

“I am a night cabby, I am,” he whispered, with a sort of boastful exasperation. “I’ve got to take out what they will blooming well give me at the yard. I’ve got my missus and four kids at ‘ome.”

The monstrous nature of that declaration of paternity seemed to strike the world dumb. A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp.

The cabman grunted, then added in his mysterious whisper: “This ain’t an easy world.”

Stevie’s face had been twitching for some time and at last his feelings burst out in their usual concise foam.

“Bad! Bad!”

His gaze remained fixed on the ribs of the horse, self-conscious and sombre, as though he were afraid to look about him at the badness of the world. And his slenderness, his rosy lips and pale, clear complexion, gave him the aspect of a delicate boy, notwithstanding the fluffy growth of golden hair on his cheeks. He pouted in a scared way like a child. The cabman, short and broad, eyed him with his fierce little eyes that seemed to smart in a clear and corroding liquid.

“‘Ard on ‘osses, but dam’ sight ‘arder on poor chaps like me,” he wheezed just audibly.

“Poor! Poor!” stammered out Stevie, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets with convulsive sympathy. He could say nothing; for the tenderness to all pain and all misery, the desire to make the horse happy and the cabman happy, had reached the point of a bizarre longing to take them to bed with him. And that, he knew, was impossible. For Stevie was not mad. It was, as it were, a symbolic longing; and at the same time it was very distinct, because springing from experience, the mother of wisdom. Thus when as a child he cowered in a dark corner scared, wretched, sore, and miserable with the black, black misery of the soul, his sister Winnie used to come along and carry him off to bed with her, as into a heaven of consoling peace. Stevie, though apt to forget mere facts, such as his name and address for instance, had a faithful memory of sensations. To be taken into a bed of compassion was the supreme remedy, with the only one disadvantage of being difficult of application on a large scale. And looking at the cabman, Stevie perceived this clearly, because he was reasonable.

The cabman went on with his leisurely preparations as if Stevie had not existed. He made as if to hoist himself on the box, but at the last moment, from some obscure motive, perhaps merely from disgust with carriage exercise, desisted. He approached instead the motionless partner of his labours, and stooping to seize the bridle, lifted up the big, weary head to the height of his shoulder with one effort of his right arm, like a feat of strength.

“Come on,” he whispered, secretly.

Limping, he led the cab away. There was an air of austerity in this departure, the scrunched gravel of the drive crying out under the slowly turning wheels, the horse’s lean thighs moving with ascetic deliberation away from the light into the obscurity of the open space bordered dimly by the pointed roofs and the feebly shining windows of the little almshouses. The plaint of the gravel travelled slowly all round the drive. Between the lamps of the charitable gateway the slow cortege reappeared, lighted up for a moment, the short, thick man limping busily, with the horse’s head held aloft in his fist, the lank animal walking in stiff and forlorn dignity, the dark, low box on wheels rolling behind comically with an air of waddling. They turned to the left. There was a pub down the street, within fifty yards of the gate.

Stevie, left alone beside the private lamp-post of the Charity, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, glared with vacant sulkiness. At the bottom of his pockets his incapable, weak hands were clenched hard into a pair of angry fists. In the face of anything which affected directly or indirectly his morbid dread of pain, Stevie ended by turning vicious. A magnanimous indignation swelled his frail chest to bursting, and caused his candid eyes to squint. Supremely wise in knowing his own powerlessness, Stevie was not wise enough to restrain his passions. The tenderness of his universal charity had two phases as indissolubly joined and connected as the reverse and obverse sides of a medal. The anguish of immoderate compassion was succeeded by the pain of an innocent but pitiless rage. Those two states expressing themselves outwardly by the same signs of futile bodily agitation, his sister Winnie soothed his excitement without ever fathoming its twofold character. Mrs Verloc wasted no portion of this transient life in seeking for fundamental information. This is a sort of economy having all the appearances and some of the advantages of prudence. Obviously it may be good for one not to know too much. And such a view accords very well with constitutional indolence.

On that evening on which it may be said that Mrs Verloc’s mother having parted for good from her children had also departed this life, Winnie Verloc did not investigate her brother’s psychology. The poor boy was excited, of course. After once more assuring the old woman on the threshold that she would know how to guard against the risk of Stevie losing himself for very long on his pilgrimages of filial piety, she took her brother’s arm to walk away. Stevie did not even mutter to himself, but with the special sense of sisterly devotion developed in her earliest infancy, she felt that the boy was very much excited indeed. Holding tight to his arm, under the appearance of leaning on it, she thought of some words suitable to the occasion.

“Now, Stevie, you must look well after me at the crossings, and get first into the bus, like a good brother.”

This appeal to manly protection was received by Stevie with his usual docility. It flattered him. He raised his head and threw out his chest.

“Don’t be nervous, Winnie. Mustn’t be nervous! Bus all right,” he answered in a brusque, slurring stammer partaking of the timorousness of a child and the resolution of a man. He advanced fearlessly with the woman on his arm, but his lower lip drooped. Nevertheless, on the pavement of the squalid and wide thoroughfare, whose poverty in all the amenities of life stood foolishly exposed by a mad profusion of gas-lights, their resemblance to each other was so pronounced as to strike the casual passers-by.

Before the doors of the public-house at the corner, where the profusion of gas-light reached the height of positive wickedness, a four-wheeled cab standing by the kerbstone, with no one on the box, seemed cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. Mrs Verloc recognized the conveyance. Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as if it were the Cab of Death itself that Mrs Verloc, with that ready compassion of a woman for a horse (when she is not sitting behind him), exclaimed vaguely!

“Poor brute.”

Hanging back suddenly, Stevie inflicted an arresting jerk upon his sister.

“Poor! Poor!” he ejaculated appreciatively. “Cabman poor, too. He told me himself.”

The contemplation of the infirm and lonely steed overcame him. Jostled, but obstinate, he would remain there, trying to express the view newly opened to his sympathies of the human and equine misery in close association. But it was very difficult. “Poor brute, poor people!” was all he could repeat. It did not seem forcible enough, and he came to a stop with an angry splutter. “Shame!” Stevie was no master of phrases, and perhaps for that very reason his thoughts lacked clearness and precision. But he felt with great completeness and some profundity. That little word contained all his sense of indignation and horror at one sort of wretchedness having to feed upon the anguish of the other–as the poor cabman beating the poor horse in the name, as it were, of his poor kids at home. And Stevie knew what it was to be beaten. He knew it from experience. It was a bad world. Bad! Bad!

Mrs Verloc, his only sister, guardian, and protector, could not pretend to such depths of insight. Moreover, she had not experienced the magic of the cabman’s eloquence. She was in the dark as to the inwardness of the word “Shame”. And she said placidly:

“Come along, Stevie. You can’t help that.”

The docile Stevie went along; but now he went along without pride, shamblingly, and muttering half words, and even words that would have been whole if they had not been made up of halves that did not belong to each other. It was as though he had been trying to fit all the words he could remember to his sentiments in order to get some sort of corresponding idea. And, as a matter of fact, he got it at last. He hung back to utter it at once.

“Bad world for poor people.”

Directly he had expressed that thought he became aware that it was familiar to him already in all its consequences. This circumstance strengthened his conviction immensely, but also augmented his indignation. Somebody, he felt, ought to be punished for it–punished with great severity. Being no sceptic, but a moral creature, he was in a manner at the mercy of his righteous passions.

“Beastly!” he added, concisely.

It was clear to Mrs Verloc that he was greatly excited.

“Nobody can help that,” she said. “Do come along. Is that the way you’re taking care of me?”

Stevie mended his pace obediently. He prided himself on being a good brother. His morality, which was very complete, demanded that from him. Yet he was pained at the information imparted by his sister Winnie–who was good. Nobody could help that! He came along gloomily, but presently he brightened up. Like the rest of mankind, perplexed by the mystery of the universe, he had his moments of consoling trust in the organized powers of the earth.

“Police,” he suggested, confidently.

“The police aren’t for that,” observed Mrs Verloc, cursorily, hurrying on her way.

Stevie’s face lengthened considerably. He was thinking. The more intense his thinking, the slacker was the droop of his lower jaw. And it was with an aspect of hopeless vacancy that he gave up his intellectual enterprise.

“Not for that?” he mumbled, resigned but surprised. “Not for that?” He had formed for himself an ideal conception for the metropolitan police as a sort of benevolent institution for the suppression of evil. The notion of benevolence especially was very closely associated with his sense of the power of the men in blue. He had liked all police constables tenderly, with a guileless trustfulness. And he was pained. He was irritated, too, by a suspicion of duplicity in the members of the force. For Stevie was frank and as open as the day himself. What did they mean by pretending then? Unlike his sister, who put her trust in face values, he wished to go to the bottom of the matter. He carried on his inquiry by means of an angry challenge.

“What are they for then, Winn? What are they for? Tell me.”

Winnie disliked controversy. But fearing most a fit of black depression consequent on Stevie missing his mother very much at first, she did not altogether decline the discussion. Guiltless of all irony, she answered yet in a form which was not perhaps unnatural in the wife of Mr Verloc, Delegate of the Central Red Committee, personal friend of certain anarchists, and a votary of social revolution.

“Don’t you know what the police are for, Stevie? They are there so that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have.”

She avoided using the verb “to steal”, because it always made her brother uncomfortable. For Stevie was delicately honest. Certain simple principles had been instilled into him so anxiously (on account of his “queerness”) that the mere names of certain transgressions filled him with horror. He had been always easily impressed by speeches. He was impressed and startled now, and his intelligence was very alert.

“What?” he asked at once, anxiously. “Not even if they were hungry? Mustn’t they?”

The two had paused in their walk.

“Not if they were ever so,” said Mrs Verloc, with the equanimity of a person untroubled by the problem of the distribution of wealth and exploring the perspective of the roadway for an omnibus of the right colour. “Certainly not. But what’s the use of talking about all that? You aren’t ever hungry.”

She cast a swift glance at the boy, like a young man, by her side. She saw him amiable, attractive, affectionate and only a little, a very little peculiar. And she could not see him otherwise, for he was connected with what there was of the salt of passion in her tasteless life–the passion of indignation, of courage, of pity, and even of self-sacrifice. She did not add: “And you aren’t likely ever to be as long as I live.” But she might very well have done so, since she had taken effectual steps to that end. Mr Verloc was a very good husband. It was her honest impression that nobody could help liking the boy. She cried out suddenly:

“Quick, Stevie. Stop that green bus.”

And Stevie, tremulous and important with his sister Winnie on his arm, flung up the other high above his head at the approaching bus, with complete success.

from Joseph Heller’s, Catch 22, chapter 39, “The Eternal City” (421-428)

Yossarian walked out of the office and down the stairs into the dark, tomblike street, passing in the hall the stout woman with warts and two chins, who was already on her way back in. There was no sign of Milo outside. There were no lights in any of the windows. The deserted sidewalk rose steeply and continuously for several blocks. He could see the glare of a broad avenue at the top of the long cobblestone incline. The police station was almost at the bottom; the yellow bulbs at the entrance sizzled in the dampness like wet torches. A frigid, fine rain was falling. He began walking slowly, pushing uphill. Soon he came to a quiet, cozy, inviting restaurant with red velvet drapes in the windows and a blue neon sign near the door that said: TONY’S RESTAURANT FINE FOOD AND DRINK. KEEP OUT. The words on the blue neon sign surprised him mildly for only an instant. Nothing warped seemed bizarre any more in his strange, distorted surroundings. The tops of the sheer buildings slanted in weird, surrealistic perspective, and the street seemed tilted. He raised the collar of his warm woolen coat and hugged it around him. The night was raw. A boy in a thin shirt and thin tattered trousers walked out of the darkness on bare feet. The boy had black hair and needed a haircut and shoes and socks. His sickly face was pale and sad. His feet made grisly, soft, sucking sounds in the rain puddles on the wet pavement as he passed, and Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy that same night who needed haircuts and needed shoes and socks. He made Yossarian think of cripples and of cold and hungry men and women, and of all the dumb, passive, devout mothers with catatonic eyes nursing infants outdoors that same night with chilled animal udders bared insensibly to that same raw rain. Cows. Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and of all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere. Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged, and could not wipe from his mind the excruciating image of the barefoot boy with sickly cheeks until he turned the corner into the avenue finally and came upon an Allied soldier having convulsions on the ground, a young lieutenant with a small, pale, boyish face. Six other soldiers from different countries wrestled with different parts of him, striving to help him and hold him still. He yelped and groaned unintelligibly through clenched teeth, his eyes rolled up into his head. ‘Don’t let him bite his tongue off,’ a short sergeant near Yossarian advised shrewdly, and a seventh man threw himself into the fray to wrestle with the ill lieutenant’s face. All at once the wrestlers won and turned to each other undecidedly, for now that they held the young lieutenant rigid they did not know what to do with him. A quiver of moronic panic spread from one straining brute face to another. ‘Why don’t you lift him up and put him on the hood of that car?’ a corporal standing in back of Yossarian drawled. That seemed to make sense, so the seven men lifted the young lieutenant up and stretched him out carefully on the hood of a parked car, still pinning each struggling part of him down. Once they had him stretched out on the hood of the parked car, they stared at each other uneasily again, for they had no idea what to do with him next. ‘Why don’t you lift him up off the hood of that car and lay him down on the ground?’ drawled the same corporal behind Yossarian. That seemed like a good idea, too, and they began to move him back to the sidewalk, but before they could finish, a jeep raced up with a flashing red spotlight at the side and two military policemen in the front seat.

‘What’s going on?’ the driver yelled.

‘He’s having convulsions,’ one of the men grappling with one of the young lieutenant’s limbs answered. ‘We’re holding him still.’

‘That’s good. He’s under arrest.’

‘What should we do with him?’

‘Keep him under arrest!’ the M.P. shouted, doubling over with raucous laughter at his jest, and sped away in his jeep.

Yossarian recalled that he had no leave papers and moved prudently past the strange group toward the sound of muffled voices emanating from a distance inside the murky darkness ahead. The broad, rain-blotched boulevard was illuminated every half-block by short, curling lampposts with eerie, shimmering glares surrounded by smoky brown mist. From a window overhead he heard an unhappy female voice pleading, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t.’ A despondent young woman in a black raincoat with much black hair on her face passed with her eyes lowered. At the Ministry of Public Affairs on the next block, a drunken lady was backed up against one of the fluted Corinthian columns by a drunken young soldier, while three drunken comrades in arms sat watching nearby on the steps with wine bottles standing between their legs. ‘Pleeshe don’t,’ begged the drunken lady. ‘I want to go home now. Pleeshe don’t.’ One of the sitting men cursed pugnaciously and hurled a wine bottle at Yossarian when he turned to look up. The bottle shattered harmlessly far away with a brief and muted noise. Yossarian continued walking away at the same listless, unhurried pace, hands buried in his pockets. ‘Come on, baby,’ he heard the drunken soldier urge determinedly. ‘It’s my turn now.’

‘Pleeshe don’t,’ begged the drunken lady. ‘Pleeshe don’t.’ At the very next corner, deep inside the dense, impenetrable shadows of a narrow, winding side street, he heard the mysterious, unmistakable sound of someone shoveling snow. The measured, labored, evocative scrape of iron shovel against concrete made his flesh crawl with terror as he stepped from the curb to cross the ominous alley and hurried onward until the haunting, incongruous noise had been left behind. Now he knew where he was: soon, if he continued without turning, he would come to the dry fountain in the middle of the boulevard, then to the officers’ apartment seven blocks beyond. He heard snarling, inhuman voices cutting through the ghostly blackness in front suddenly. The bulb on the corner lamp post had died, spilling gloom over half the street, throwing everything visible off balance. On the other side of the intersection, a man was beating a dog with a stick like the man who was beating the horse with a whip in Raskolnikov’s dream. Yossarian strained helplessly not to see or hear. The dog whimpered and squealed in brute, dumbfounded hysteria at the end of an old Manila rope and groveled and crawled on its belly without resisting, but the man beat it and beat it anyway with his heavy, flat stick. A small crowd watched. A squat woman stepped out and asked him please to stop. ‘Mind your own business,’ the man barked gruffly, lifting his stick as though he might beat her too, and the woman retreated sheepishly with an abject and humiliated air. Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran. The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been! At the next corner a man was beating a small boy brutally in the midst of an immobile crowd of adult spectators who made no effort to intervene. Yossarian recoiled with sickening recognition. He was certain he had witnessed that same horrible scene sometime before. Déjà vu? The sinister coincidence shook him and filled him with doubt and dread. It was the same scene he had witnessed a block before, although everything in it seemed quite different. What in the world was happening? Would a squat woman step out and ask the man to please stop? Would he raise his hand to strike her and would she retreat? Nobody moved. The child cried steadily as though in drugged misery. The man kept knocking him down with hard, resounding open-palm blows to the head, then jerking him up to his feet in order to knock him down again. No one in the sullen, cowering crowd seemed to care enough about the stunned and beaten boy to interfere. The child was no more than nine. One drab woman was weeping silently into a dirty dish towel. The boy was emaciated and needed a haircut. Bright-red blood was streaming from both ears. Yossarian crossed quickly to the other side of the immense avenue to escape the nauseating sight and found himself walking on human teeth lying on the drenched, glistening pavement near splotches of blood kept sticky by the pelting raindrops poking each one like sharp fingernails. Molars and broken incisors lay scattered everywhere. He circled on tiptoe the grotesque debris and came near a doorway containing a crying soldier holding a saturated handkerchief to his mouth, supported as he sagged by two other soldiers waiting in grave impatience for the military ambulance that finally came clanging up with amber fog lights on and passed them by for an altercation on the next block between a civilian Italian with books and a slew of civilian policemen with armlocks and clubs. The screaming, struggling civilian was a dark man with a face white as flour from fear. His eyes were pulsating in hectic desperation, flapping like bat’s wings, as the many tall policemen seized him by the arms and legs and lifted him up. His books were spilled on the ground.

‘Help!’ he shrieked shrilly in a voice strangling in its own emotion, as the policemen carried him to the open doors in the rear of the ambulance and threw him inside. ‘Police! Help! Police!’ The doors were shut and bolted, and the ambulance raced away. There was a humorless irony in the ludicrous panic of the man screaming for help to the police while policemen were all around him. Yossarian smiled wryly at the futile and ridiculous cry for aid, then saw with a start that the words were ambiguous, realized with alarm that they were not, perhaps, intended as a call for police but as a heroic warning from the grave by a doomed friend to everyone who was not a policeman with a club and a gun and a mob of other policemen with clubs and guns to back him up. ‘Help! Police!’ the man had cried, and he could have been shouting of danger. Yossarian responded to the thought by slipping away stealthily from the police and almost tripped over the feet of a burly woman of forty hastening across the intersection guiltily, darting furtive, vindictive glances behind her toward a woman of eighty with thick, bandaged ankles doddering after her in a losing pursuit. The old woman was gasping for breath as she minced along and muttering to herself in distracted agitation. There was no mistaking the nature of the scene; it was a chase. The triumphant first woman was halfway across the wide avenue before the second woman reached the curb. The nasty, small, gloating smile with which she glanced back at the laboring old woman was both wicked and apprehensive. Yossarian knew he could help the troubled old woman if she would only cry out, knew he could spring forward and capture the sturdy first woman and hold her for the mob of policemen nearby if the second woman would only give him license with a shriek of distress. But the old woman passed by without even seeing him, mumbling in terrible, tragic vexation, and soon the first woman had vanished into the deepening layers of darkness and the old woman was left standing helplessly in the center of the thoroughfare, dazed, uncertain which way to proceed, alone. Yossarian tore his eyes from her and hurried away in shame because he had done nothing to assist her. He darted furtive, guilty glances back as he fled in defeat, afraid the old woman might now start following him, and he welcomed the concealing shelter of the drizzling, drifting, lightless, nearly opaque gloom. Mobs… mobs of policemen—everything but England was in the hands of mobs, mobs, mobs. Mobs with clubs were in control everywhere.

The surface of the collar and shoulders of Yossarian’s coat was soaked. His socks were wet and cold. The light on the next lamppost was out, too, the glass globe broken. Buildings and featureless shapes flowed by him noiselessly as though borne past immutably on the surface of some rank and timeless tide. A tall monk passed, his face buried entirely inside a coarse gray cowl, even the eyes hidden. Footsteps sloshed toward him steadily through a puddle, and he feared it would be another barefoot child. He brushed by a gaunt, cadaverous, tristful man in a black raincoat with a star-shaped scar in his cheek and a glossy mutilated depression the size of an egg in one temple. On squishing straw sandals, a young woman materialized with her whole face disfigured by a God-awful pink and piebald burn that started on her neck and stretched in a raw, corrugated mass up both cheeks past her eyes! Yossarian could not bear to look, and shuddered. No one would ever love her. His spirit was sick; he longed to lie down with some girl he could love who would soothe and excite him and put him to sleep. A mob with a club was waiting for him in Pianosa. The girls were all gone. The countess and her daughter-in-law were no longer good enough; he had grown too old for fun, he no longer had the time. Luciana was gone, dead, probably; if not yet, then soon enough. Aarfy’s buxom trollop had vanished with her smutty cameo ring, and Nurse Duckett was ashamed of him because he had refused to fly more combat missions and would cause a scandal. The only girl he knew nearby was the plain maid in the officers’ apartment, whom none of the men had ever slept with. Her name was Michaela, but the men called her filthy things in dulcet, ingratiating voices, and she giggled with childish joy because she understood no English and thought they were flattering her and making harmless jokes. Everything wild she watched them do filled her with enchanted delight. She was a happy, simple-minded, hard-working girl who could not read and was barely able to write her name. Her straight hair was the color of rotting straw. She had sallow skin and myopic eyes, and none of the men had ever slept with her because none of the men had ever wanted to, none but Aarfy, who had raped her once that same evening and had then held her prisoner in a clothes closet for almost two hours with his hand over her mouth until the civilian curfew sirens sounded and it was unlawful for her to be outside.

Then he threw her out the window. Her dead body was still lying on the pavement when Yossarian arrived and pushed his way politely through the circle of solemn neighbors with dim lanterns, who glared with venom as they shrank away from him and pointed up bitterly toward the second-floor windows in their private, grim, accusing conversations. Yossarian’s heart pounded with fright and horror at the pitiful, ominous, gory spectacle of the broken corpse. He ducked into the hallway and bolted up the stairs into the apartment, where he found Aarfy pacing about uneasily with a pompous, slightly uncomfortable smile. Aarfy seemed a bit unsettled as he fidgeted with his pipe and assured Yossarian that everything was going to be all right. There was nothing to worry about. Continue reading

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