II: Big Sea
Back in New York I got a job on a boat bound for Constantinople and Odessa. The former mess boys had all been white, but now they were changing the steward’s crew to colored. The boat was anchored in the stream out in New York harbor, waiting to load. One of the white mess boys was still aboard and a new Spanish-speaking colored boy had arrived just before I came. We slept in the same room on tiered bunks. None of us knew each other, but I thought the other two fellows looked all right. That night about ten we locked the door and went to bed.
The next morning when we woke up, as the white boy pulled on his pants, he felt in his pockets, and yelled: “My money’s gone!”
The Puerto Rican grabbed his pants, looked, and also cried: “My money’s gone, too!”
I jumped down from the top bunk and opened my wallet—and my money was gone, also!
The door was still locked. No one had entered, so we looked from one to another. Who took the money? Some one of the three of us had robbed the other two, that was clear. But nobody quite dared take a chance on making an accusation on less than a twenty-four-hour acquaintance. There was dead silence as we stared at one another suspiciously—the Puerto Rican, the white boy, and I.
“I had four dollars,” I said.
“Me, ten,” said the Puerto Rican.
“Seven bucks gone,” said the white boy. “Damn it!”
“Well, whoever took it, I hope he rot in hell!” said the Puerto Rican.
“Me, too!” I added.
“I hope he drops dead right here!” said the white boy.
But nobody dropped dead. We just glared from one to another as we dressed. All I know is, it wasn’t I who took the money, because I was flat broke all the rest of the week, without a penny in the world.
The next day we began to load supplies for the galley. Coming up from the wharf with a bag of potatoes, the Chief Steward fell from the top of the ladder and broke his arm. He was sent to the hospital and a new steward came aboard, who said he had never worked with a colored crew and therefore was sending for a set of white boys to replace us. When the white boys came, the Puerto Rican and I were promptly discharged. A day later, the boat sailed. And a month later it was at the bottom of the Black Sea! It was blown up by a stray mine, which had been floating there since the Great War, a stray mine that the mine sweepers had missed. The papers said more than half the crew drowned. When I read about it, I thought how lucky it was for me that a bag of potatoes had caused a broken arm. And a broken arm, a change in stewards. And that the new steward didn’t like colored folks.