II: Big Sea


After the robbery, I had just a few lire left in a trousers pocket. I got out of the train at Genoa. I could not go into France without a passport and with no money at all. So I went to the American Consul. He was kind and nonchalant, but he said he could do nothing for me except, since I was a seaman, sign me on a boat to work my way home, should a boat wish to take me. He said he had no funds to help Americans stranded in Italy.

“Good day!” he dismissed me.

So I went to the Albergo Populare, the municipal flop-house, and for two lire a night had a bed there. It was a big, modern building, several stories high, with clean wire-cage rooms, having a number of beds in each of them. It had very strange rules. If you had no money at all, you could stay there for ten nights, sleeping in bed. Then if you still had no money and no place to go, you could sleep for ten more nights on the cement floor in the basement. But after that you had to pay the regulation fee of two lire a night or move out altogether. I never had to move out, because I found a few days’ work every so often relieving some seaman, who wanted a whole day off to carouse around away from his ship.

The only trouble with the Albergo Populare was that you could not come in the place at all in the daytime. It opened at four in the afternoon for the nightly registration, and you could sleep until seven in the morning. Then all out, until evening again. So I got plenty of fresh air daily, rain or shine, living on the water front. I became a beachcomber on the Genoa beach—a seaman without a ship and no positive source of income.

Some days I went hungry, and most days I worried. I thought of trying to hitch hike to Turin or back to Dezenzano, but I was not sure but that Luigi and Romeo had by now returned to Paris. And even if they hadn’t, as hospitable as they had been already, it seemed to me ungracious to expect them or their families to play host to me further. Besides, how could they help me to get a new passport, which cost ten dollars and took a long time and a lot of affidavits to secure?

I thought perhaps if I could find work, I might stay in Italy for a while. But in Genoa there was no work for surplus Italians, let alone me, and I knew nobody. The only name I knew in Italy was that of Gordon Craig, for I had read that he lived and worked at Florence. I wanted very badly to see Florence, of course, so I thought perhaps I might go there on foot and ask Gordon Craig for a job, maybe as a second cook—in case he liked chicken à la Maryland that Bruce had taught me how to make. But the week that idea came to me, it rained cloudbursts in Genoa, so I did not start out on foot as I had planned.

But it is pretty hard to starve to death. I got as hungry in Genoa as I’ve ever been in my life (except in Madrid, years later, during the Civil War). Sometimes I was so hungry I would stand in front of a bakery window or a store show case and wonder how I could steal something to eat and not get caught and locked up. But I never had the nerve, nor the ultimate necessity of stealing, for something always seemed to turn up just when I was the hungriest, so that I didn’t starve to death. In the first place, I was lucky about getting odd jobs in the harbor, and in the second place, I soon discovered and went around with a bunch of resourceful fellows, who had been on the beach in more countries than one, and who knew how to hustle up a few lire almost every day.

There were about a half-dozen of us who spoke English on the Genoa waterfront that autumn: two American white fellows and I, a Scotchman, a Limey or so, and one gigantic West Indian Negro, very tall, big-boned, and dark. The West Indian posed as a prize fighter and made quite a few lire letting much smaller and weaker Italian boxers knock him out, while the crowd roared at the prowess of Italy. No doubt, he is quite rich by now, this Negro, and is probably posing as an Ethiopian, and still getting knocked out.

The rest of us couldn’t very well pose as anything but the plain beachcombers that we were. But there was one Texas American, who was mighty clever at the technique of beachcombing. At the approach of a party of tourists, English or American, he would slump down on his water front park bench and look like the most woebegone mortal in the world. His eyes would droop and his mouth sag. But he would listen acutely to the twang of the tourists’ voices, as they paused to look down on the panorama of Genoa harbor spread out beneath them. As they walked on, Kenny, the Texan, would get up and run breathlessly after them and say: “Aren’t you from Vermont?” Or Kansas? Or Wales? Or Australia? Or whatever, to him, their voices seemed to indicate. And often he would hit it exactly right. He had an uncanny faculty for regional intonations, besides being a great actor.

If they said: “Yes,” Kenny would say: “I am, too. I’m from New England. And look at me, friends! A man from Vermont here, penniless in this Godforsaken wop country. And no ship to go home on.”

Sometimes the tourists would give him enough for all of us to live on for a week.

The Scotch lad in our gang had a trick almost as good, but not quite. Perhaps it aroused suspicion sometimes. If it was raining, he would take off his coat and give it to me or someone else to hold. Then he would approach a party of tourists hurrying for shelter and, in the name of a white man in a dark land with winter coming on, he would ask for enough to buy himself a second-hand garment of some kind to protect him from the chill mistral.

If it was a sunny day instead, he would quickly remove his shoes at the approach of tourists and hide them under a newspaper blowing on the ground or behind a tree. Then he would say that someone had stolen them off his feet while he slept on a park bench, and that now all the Italians were laughing at him, and surely an Englishman or an American—people of decent blood—would help him buy another pair. The party approached would usually help him, sometimes to the extent of half a crown, or a dollar bill.

Downright servile begging was beneath both Kenny and the Scotchman. They always put on an act. And none of the boys, so far as I know, tried stealing. The Italian police, in making an arrest, were said to be most inconsiderate of one’s feelings.

Some of the beachcombers courted buxom market women or water front barmaids. And one of the American lads lived with a prostitute, on whom he had spent all his wages the night his ship pulled out prematurely and left him in her bed. So now the girl was reciprocating by giving him a place to eat and sleep.

The six of us, a mixed crowd, roamed around the water front all day together. And whatever we lucked up on, we shared. But toward sundown, everybody scattered. Some of the boys always tried to get on a boat in the harbor for dinner with the crew. The big Negro would seek out some Italian café or farmers’ inn, where often just to look at him and feel his mat of hair, some peasant, who had never seen a Negro before, would buy him a dinner.

I usually had spaghetti in gravy, or spaghetti in butter, or spaghetti in sea-food sauce, or spaghetti in cheese, or spaghetti in tomato sauce, or spaghetti in any of the different ways the Italians serve it, or just spaghetti, at a little restaurant facing toward the sea, where the single plate, steaming hot and full of pasta, was very cheap—with a roll and a bottle of red wine, to boot. Then I would go to my flop-house and go to sleep.

But one night I had an overwhelming desire for a piece of meat. I was dying for just one good, solid, hard, non-spaghetti-like piece of meat. I hadn’t had a piece of meat since I left Venice weeks before. (How far off the art museums were.) So I looked down the list of meats on the café menu and I couldn’t read one. I didn’t know what the Italian words meant, but I knew they were meats, so I put my finger on one that said “3 lire” after it and I nodded to the waitress to bring that.

Please, quick! Meat! At last meat! My mouth watered.

When it came, I could smell it afar off. It was liver. And ripe. In small restaurants in Italy they have no ice boxes. Besides, it seems the Italians are used to eating their meats somewhat gamey and advanced in age. Anyway, this was an old piece of liver. A very old piece. But I was hungry and I didn’t know how to ask for anything else, or get my money back, or make a scene, and I couldn’t afford to go supperless nor lose my three lire, so I ate it, every leaping morsel, and washed it down with red wine. And went to bed at the flop-house.

That night there was an earthquake in Genoa. The town trembled and shook and everybody ran out into the streets. The Albergo Populare was in an uproar. The cries of men rushing to get into their clothes woke me up and I felt the building shaking. But I woke up sick! And the more the building shook, the sicker I got. Not from the earthquake and not from fear. It was the liver! I could taste it in my mouth and it was a thousand years old. I could feel it boiling in my stomach. I could smell it green as maggots on my breath.

One of those Germans of the sort who hike all over Europe in schoolboy trunks with a pack on his back, came by my cot and saw me lying there. He shook me and said: “Vake up! The earth ist falling downt.”

I said: “I wish it would fall down! I’m sick.” So the German went on, rushing out with the others, and left me there.

I really didn’t care how much the earth shook, because I thought I was going to die anyhow. But it didn’t shake long. Shortly, everybody came back and went to bed. But I was sick for two days, and could just barely make it to a park bench every morning when we were ejected from the Albergo Populare.

One day, I sat down in the park and wrote an article about my trip to Africa and sent it to the Crisis and asked them please to pay me twenty dollars for it, because I was stranded and starving in Italy—but would try to live until the money got there. It was the first time I had asked the Crisis to pay me anything, or expected it. Now I desperately hoped they would like the article.

A lot of bad luck always comes at once. A few days after my illness, the six of us on the water front were chased by the Blackshirts, who knocked one of the American boys down because they had seen us laughing at a clown on a circus poster near the harbor. And the Fascisti thought we were laughing at a message from Mussolini, pasted up next to the circus poster.

A day or so after that, I got a job painting an old hulk of a boat in the harbor, anchored way out in deep water. They wanted the sides beneath the poop painted—a job that called for riding a painter’s stage with some skill. I didn’t even know how to raise or lower a painter’s stage and I didn’t know how to swim. But some kind sailor let me down and tied the ropes for me. So I swung out there all day over the water in one spot, painting away at the same six feet of bulkhead, not daring to let myself up or down farther, for fear of releasing the board, the paint, and me into the sea.

Shortly, I began to get acutely weary of Genoa, and I wanted to get away. But even way over there, the American color line stretched out its inconvenient prejudices. Several American boats came into the harbor during my weeks in port and, one by one, the white boys were signed on. But they would not take a Negro in the crew. I had to wait for a ship that had an all-colored crew or a colored stewards’ department, before I could have a chance. Finally such a boat came along, and the Captain agreed to sign me on as a workaway with no pay for the return trip to New York. I was put under the bo’sun to chip decks and wash paint with the ordinary sailors.

I was glad to be gone from Genoa.


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