III: Black Renaissance
In New Orleans, I wanted to live on Rampart Street, the leading Negro street, so I found a room not far from the railroad station, with a lady who rented out rooms, both transient and permanent.
On Saturday nights, her second-floor flat was very gay, because she held fish frys there and sold home-brew, and sometimes had so many transient couples wanting rooms temporarily that she rented mine until I was ready to go to bed. There was no piano, but she played marvelous blues records on an old victrola: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Ma Rainey. And sometimes a wild guitar player would come in off the street and plunk a while, providing somebody bought him a drink or two. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans I heard many of the blues verses I used later in my short stories and my novel.
In the district where I lived there were some amazing voodoo shops and drug stores that seemed to deal almost exclusively in magic medicaments with strange names, good for whatever might ail you. Roots and herbs and powders that had much more power, the vendors said, than ordinary roots and herbs. There was one window on Poydras Street, displaying more than fifty conjur and voodoo preparations: High John The Conqueror Root, Go-and-Stay Powders, Love Lucky Load Stone, black cats’ bones, various kinds of incense, and tall, black luck candles. Signs announced: Good Business Water, 25¢; White Dove’s Blood, 50¢; Follow Me Seeds, 10¢; Genuine Calabar Spirit Beans Cheap.
I bought some Wishing Powder and I think it brought me luck, because the next day, quite unexpectedly, I found myself on the way to Havana.
I was down at the docks, watching them unload bananas from the West Indies off a United Fruit boat, when I noticed, tied up at the next pier, a small, rusty freighter named the Nardo, with all the hatches open and the winches rattling, looking as though she were ready to put out to sea shortly since there didn’t seem to be much cargo left on her dock. I walked along beside the Nardo under the swinging cargo nets, wondering where she voyaged to, and feeling a bit homesick for a job on a boat myself.
Leaning over the rail I noticed a wizened Filipino steward.
I yelled: “Hey, Steward, don’t you need a mess boy?”
He beckoned me to come up on deck. With all the noise of loading going on, he couldn’t hear me, but nevertheless he knew what I said.
“Glad you come,” he said. “I need one mess boy. I take you go see Captain now.”
And in a few minutes I was signed up for a trip to Havana and back. It was just what I wanted—a short trip that would still allow me a week or so in New Orleans on the return, before having to go North to college.
The entire steward’s department on the Nardo, with the exception of myself, was composed of Filipinos and Chinese. The crew were mostly Spaniards, with a few Americans thrown in. They were not quite so rough and rowdy a bunch as the fellows I had worked with on the S.S. Malone to Africa. On the New Orleans-Caribbean runs, the crews were frequently in port, and so had plenty of opportunities to let off steam. Sometimes the Nardo went to Jamaica, or Haiti, sometimes to Panama, sometimes to Norfolk or New York. Had I not had to return to Lincoln in October, I would have spent the winter on the Nardo.
The Chinese cooks and I became good friends. For themselves they prepared food Chinese style, usually fish and herbs and rice. And I almost always ate with them, when I had finished waiting on my sailors and firemen in the fo’c’sle.
In Havana I went with the Chinese to visit friends, who lived in a single enormous room with about forty other Chinese, all sleeping on straw mats on tiered shelves, packed in at night side by side like sardines in a tin. In the center of the room was a common pipe with a stem three or four feet long. Whoever wished, and whenever he wished, could squat down beside the pipe and take a puff or two. It wasn’t opium, only some sort of musty tobacco with a very strong smell.
We bought red Chinese whiskey, flavored with lichee nuts, in brown clay jugs. Then we went to a house of pleasure exclusively for Orientals, although the girls were Cuban. The house had a large, dusky patio and the rooms opened all around the patio. A girl sat in the doorway of each room, rocking or fanning, or doing fancy work or smoking, and the men moved silently from doorway to doorway, looking, as one would move from cage to cage in a zoo. It was very quiet, because the girls and the men did not speak the same language, so there was little verbal communication.
Sometimes ten or fifteen Chinese would be standing before the door of an attractive girl, just standing and looking, not saying a word, the girl calmly rocking or fanning as though quite unobserved. If one of the men decided to enter, she would rise from her rocker and close the door behind him. Then the others would move on, to stand in a ring before another girl’s doorway, circling thus around and around that big dreary patio in a kind of mass silence. It was the most depressing brothel I have ever seen.
The sailors’ cafés on San Isidro Street did not seem very amusing either. The weather was terrifically hot that August and everybody sort of lifeless from the heat, and not much dancing. Bad little orchestras played rhumbas and sones, but nobody bothered to move from the tables. It was too hot even to get drunk.