A copy of this book was sitting on the nightstand of Melissa's guest bedroom. I knew vaguely about this book, knew it was a classic, and had never read it. So, I picked it up and read it, what with my mission to read the books I should have read decades ago or some such.
Suffice it to say, HAD I read this book in high school or college, my life would have been a lot different. I would have moved to New York, instead of staying in Los Angeles, after college. I am uncertain what jobs I might have had, but aerospace and computers would not have been in my future, I wouldn't think.
But, I didn't read this until this summer, and here we are, a have-read book about New York City somewhat around the turn of the last century (hoo boy, are we really nearly a fifth of the way through this century already?), when one's imaginings about how things were is better than how they actually were, and I'm minimizing how stressful living in New York City might have been.
I can see why this book is a classic. I enjoyed reading it.
The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody's business.
Oh, to be a Chinaman, wished Francie, and have such a pretty toy to count on; oh, to eat all the lichee nuts she wanted and to know the mystery of the iron that was ever hot and yet never stood on a stove. Oh, to paint those symbols with a slight brush and a quick turn of the wrist and to make a clear black mark as fragile as a piece of a butterfly wing! That was the mystery of the Orient in Brooklyn.
SCHOOL days were eagerly anticipated by Francie. She wanted all of the things that she thought came with school.
What's free about it, they reasoned when the law forces you to educate your children and then endangers their lives to get them into school? Weeping mothers brought bawling children to the health center for inoculation. They carried on as though bringing their innocents to the slaughter. The children screamed hysterically at the first sight of the needle and their mothers, waiting in the anteroom, threw their shawls over their heads and keened loudly as if wailing for the dead.
"Papa's at Headquarters waiting for a job. He won't be home all day. You're big enough to go alone. Besides, it won't hurt."
Sending a six year old kid off to the doctors alone. Different world.
The doctor was a Harvard man, interning at the neighborhood hospital. Once a week, he was obligated to put in a few hours at one of the free clinics. He was going into a smart practice in Boston when his internship was over. Adopting the phraseology of the neighborhood, he referred to his Brooklyn internship as going through Purgatory when he wrote to his socially prominent fiancée in Boston.
A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel up climb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. Yet, as she stood there, she knew that years later she would be haunted by the sorrow in the face of that starveling child and that she would wish bitterly that she had said a comforting word then and done something towards the saving of her immortal soul. She had the knowledge that she was small but she lacked the courage to be otherwise.
This explanation satisfied Francie because she had never been able to tell her left hand from her right. She ate, and drew pictures with her left hand. Katie was always correcting her and transferring the chalk or the needle from her left hand to her right.
He taught them good music without letting them know it was good. He set his own words to the great classics and gave them simple names like "Lullaby" and "Serenade" and "Street Song" and "Song for a Sunshine Day." Their baby voices shrilled out in Handel's "Largo" and they knew it merely by the title of "Hymn." Little boys whistled part of Dvorak's New World Symphony as they played marbles. When asked the name of the song, they'd rely "Oh, 'Going Home.' " They played potsy, humming "The Soldiers' Chorus" from Faust which they called "Glory."
OH, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!
For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word. But one day, she looked at a page and the word "mouse" had instantaneous meaning. She looked at the word and the picture of a gray mouse scampered through her mind. She looked further and when she saw "horse," she heard him pawing the ground and saw the sun glint on his glossy coat. The word "running" hit her suddenly and she breathed hard as though running herself. The barrier between the individual sound of each letter and the whole meaning of the word was removed and the printed word meant a thing at one quick glance. She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read!
Indeed, Francie was the only one in her classroom whose parents were American-born. At the beginning of the term, Teacher called the roll and asked each child her lineage. The answers were typical.
"I'm Polish-American. My father was born in Warsaw." "Irish-American. Me fayther and mither were born in County Cork." When Nolan was called, Francie answered proudly: "I'm an American." "I know you're American," said the easily exasperated teacher. "But what's your nationality?" "American!" insisted Francie even more proudly. "Will you tell me what your parents are or do I have to send you to the principal?" "My parents are American. They were born in Brooklyn."
All the children turned around to look at a little girl whose parents had not come from the old country. And when Teacher said, "Brooklyn? Hm. I guess that makes you American, all right," Francie was proud and happy. How wonderful was Brooklyn, she thought, when just being born there automatically made you an American!
The parents were too American, too aware of the rights granted them by their Constitution to accept injustices meekly. They could not be bulldozed and exploited as could the immigrants and the second generation Americans.
It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable.
When the great day came, she was reluctant to set them off. It was better to have them than to use them
Francie, in company with other little girls, roamed the streets carrying a bit of white chalk. She went about drawing a large quick cross on the back of each coated figure that came by. The children performed the ritual without meaning. The symbol was remembered but the reason forgotten. It may have been something that had survived from the middle ages when houses and probably individuals were so marked to indicate where plague had struck.
You had tickets but you thought you could be smart and get something you weren't entitled to. When people gamble, they think only of winning. They never think of losing. Remember this: Someone has to lose and it's just as apt to be you as the other fellow. If you learn this lesson by giving up a strip of tickets, you're paying cheap for the education."
"I'll tell you why," broke in mama. "They want to keep tabs on who's voting and how. They know when each man's due at the polls and God help him if he doesn't show up to vote for Mattie."
"Women don't know anything about politics," said Johnny lighting up Mattie's cigar.
"What's free about it if you have to pay?" asked Francie. "It's free in this way: If you have the money you're allowed to ride in them no matter who you are. In the old countries, certain people aren't free to ride in them, even if they have the money."
"Wouldn't it be more of a free country," persisted Francie, "if we could ride in them free?"
"Because that would be Socialism," concluded Johnny triumphantly, "arid we don't want that over here."
"Because we got Democracy and that's the best thing there is," clinched Johnny.
As Teacher talked, a great trouble left Francie. Lately, she had been Oven to exaggerating things. She did not report happenings truthfully, but gave them color, excitement and dramatic twists. Katie was annoyed at this tendency and kept warning Francie to tell the plain truth and to stop romancing. But Francie just couldn't tell the plain undecorated truth. She had to put something to it.
Although Katie had this same flair for coloring an incident and Johnny himself lived in a half-dream world, yet they tried to squelch these things in their child. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they knew their own gift of imagination colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it. Perhaps Katie thought that if they did not have this faculty, they would be clearer-minded; see things as they really were, and seeing them loathe them and somehow find a way to make them better.
Francie always remembered what that kind teacher told her. "You know, Francie, a lot of people would think that these stories that you're making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won't get mixed up."
It was the best advice Francie ever got. Truth and fancy were so mixed up in her mind-as they are in the mind of every lonely child-that she didn't know which was which. But Teacher made these two things clear to her. From that time on, she wrote little stories about things she saw and felt and did. In time, she got so that she was able to speak the truth with but a slight and instinctive coloring of the facts.
Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction.
If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar
"Intolerance," she wrote, pressing down hard on the pencil, "is a thing that causes war, pogroms, crucifixions, lynchings, and makes people cruel to little children and to each other. It is responsible for most of the viciousness, violence, terror and heart and soul breaking of the world."
She read the words over aloud. They sounded like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them. She closed the book and put it away.
Each time Joanna passed, her cheeks got pinker, her head went higher and her skirt flipped behind her more defiantly. She seemed to grow prettier and prouder as she walked. She stopped oftener than needed to adjust the baby's coverlet. She maddened the women by touching the baby's cheek and smiling tenderly at it. How dare she! How dare she, they thought, act as though she had a right to all that?
Remember Joanna. Remember Joanna. Francie could never forget her. From that time on, remembering the stoning women, she hated women. She feared them for their devious ways, she mistrusted their instincts. She began to hate them for this disloyalty and their cruelty to each other. Of all the stone-throwers, not one had dared to speak a word for the girl for fear that she would be tarred with Joanna's brush. The passing man had been the only one who spoke with kindness in his voice.
Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hearts and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman ... whether it was by throwing stones or by mean gossip. It was the only kind of loyalty they seemed to have.
Men were different. They might hate each other but they stuck together against the world and against any woman who would ensnare one of them.
June 22. Mama turned my mattress today and found my diary and read it. Everywhere I had the word drunk, she made me cross it out and write sick. It's lucky I didn't have anything against mama written down. If ever I have children I will not read their diaries as I believe that even a child is entitled to some privacy. If mama finds this again and reads it, I hope she will take the hint.