I: Twenty-One

Manhattan Island

I was glad to leave Mexico. My father came with me as far as the capital and when the train pulled out of Buena Vista station for Vera Cruz one day in September, 1921, I said: “Gracias a dios!”

The next day for the first time in my life I saw the ocean—the Gulf of Mexico, with its smell of seaweed and salt water, its wharves, and big boats. But Vera Cruz in September was the hottest city I have ever known and the mosquitoes were legion. You sweltered in a bed made airless by double mosquito netting, in a room that hummed like a beehive. And when you got on the boat for New York, you were mighty glad.

In Merida there was quarantine. In Havana there was quarantine. Folks were sick. We couldn’t go ashore.

But, boy! At last! New York was pretty, rising out of the bay in the sunset—the thrill of those towers of Manhattan with their million golden eyes, growing slowly taller and taller above the green water, until they looked as if they could almost touch the sky! Then Brooklyn Bridge, gigantic in the dusk! Then the necklaces of lights, glowing everywhere around us, as we docked on the Brooklyn side. All this made me feel it was better to come to New York than to any other city in the world.

I didn’t know how to get to Harlem or where to stay after I got there, so I went that night with two Mexican friends I’d met on the boat, to a hotel off Times Square. One was a young mechanic, coming to take a course at an automobile school in Detroit and he kept saying, as the taxi carried us up town: “But where are all the poor people? Caramba! Every one is dressed up here! Everybody wears shoes!” The other friend was an old man, coming to live with his son’s family in Jersey. He kept saying: “Where is the grass? Where will I keep my chickens? Puta madre! Is there no grass?” He had brought along a crate of game cocks, which he refused to surrender even to the bell boy in the crowded lobby of the hotel.

It was a gyp-joint hotel, between Broadway and Sixth. The clerk declared all their rooms came in suites, and he rented us a suite at nine dollars a day, each. We didn’t want a suite. And we didn’t want to pay nine dollars, but we didn’t know where else to go that night, so we paid it, and each of us slept in an enormous bed, in an apartment that looked out onto a noisy street off the Great White Way.

Toward morning, the old man’s chickens began to crow and woke me up, so we had breakfast early, shook hands, promised to write each other, and went our separate ways. I took the subway to Harlem and never saw either of them again.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.