After the finals, I moved out of Hartley Hall at Columbia and down into Harlem, where I began life on my own. I was twenty.
Before June my mother had gone back to Cleveland. So I took a room alone and started to look for work. In those days there was no depression—at least, not much of a one—so there were lots of ads in the morning papers. I bought the papers and began to answer ads regarding jobs I thought I could handle—office boy, clerk, waiter, bus boy, and other simple occupations. Nine times out of ten—ten times out of ten, to be truthful—the employer would look at me, shake his head and say, with an air of amazement: “But I didn’t advertise for a colored boy.”
It was the same in the employment offices. Unless a job was definitely marked COLORED on the board outside, there was no use applying, I discovered. And only one job in a thousand would be marked COLORED. I found it very hard to get work in New York. Experience was proving my father right. On many sides, the color line barred your way to making a living in America.
I finally got work on a truck-garden farm on Staten Island. The farm belonged to some Greeks, who didn’t care what nationality you were just so you got up at five in the morning and worked all day until it was too dark to see the rows in the field. They paid you fifty dollars a month, with bed and board. The bed was a pile of hay in the loft of the barn—but it was summer, and the hay was pleasant. They had two Greek hired hands, a couple of Italians, a Jewish boy from Brownsville, and me. These were good-natured people to work with, and the Greek owners, two brothers and their wives, worked hardest of all. They woke us up at daybreak, and worked along with us, or ahead of us, in the fields all day.
We had a breakfast of goat’s cheese and coffee. At midday, a big dinner, at four o’clock more cheese and coffee in the open field. And a late supper after dark, of sandwiches and tea. Healthy food. Plenty of watermelons, onions, cheese, and tomatoes. We worked hard, ploughing, hoeing, spreading manure, picking weeds, washing lettuce, beets, carrots, onions, tying them and packing them for market, loading the wagons, and standing by lantern light to watch one of the indefatigable little Greek brothers drive off in the night to the New York market.
The food we had grown went off to market to feed a big city. There was something about such work that made you feel useful and important—sending off onions that you had planted and seen grow from a mere speck of green, that you had tended and weeded, had pulled up and washed and even loaded on the wagon—seeing them go off to feed the great city of New York. Your onions!
It was a pretty good job, and I liked it—that is, all but the mosquitoes in the dawn, that bit your ears off before the sun came out, blazing and strong.
We even worked Sunday mornings. Sunday afternoons we had off. Usually we slept then, dead-tired, among the flies in the heat of the barn, or else lay out under the shade of a lone tree, the only one on the whole farm. Sometimes some of the fellows went into Port Richmond to find girls and wine. Or occasionally to New York, but not often, for most of them were saving money to send back to the old country.
The Brownsville boy and I were the only two native Americans. The Brownsville boy confided to me that he wanted to stay away from Brooklyn until the police forgot about something he did not want to face.
Only once during the whole summer did I go to New York, and that was to see Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand, because I liked bullfights and I wanted to see if they had a real one in the picture. They didn’t have much of a one. I guess the censors cut it out.
After a visit to Harlem, I got back to the farm after midnight. The other men had taken all the loose hay in the loft and were asleep on it, so I had to roll down an unopened bale for my bedding. The heavy bales were packed compactly one on top of another, so I had to climb to the top of the block-like heap and roll down a bale from there, eight or ten feet up. Unfortunately, however, not one but several bales came rolling down, shaking the whole barn, and making a great racket.
The next thing I knew, I was alone in the big loft and all the Greeks and Italians were running for dear life through the barnyard.
Astonished, I went to an opening in the loft and called out: “Hey! What’s the matter?”
“Terremoto!” they yelled. “Terremoto! Come down quick! Come out!”
I began to shake with laughter. They thought it was an earthquake!
When the truck-farming season was over, I went back to New York with enough cash to buy an overcoat and pay a few weeks’ rent in advance. I took a room with a kind woman in Harlem named Mrs. Dorsey, who had a son and a daughter about my own age. I wrote a few poems and sent them to the Crisis. Then shortly, I found a job delivering flowers for Thorley, but I didn’t like the job.
The flowers were terrifically expensive and they usually went to very comme il faut people—the Baroness d’Erlanger at the Ritz, Marion Davies on a yacht, the Roosevelts at Oyster Bay, Vivienne Segal at the Empire. Each box I delivered was billed, as a rule, for more than my month’s rent—more money for a box of flowers than I could earn in ten days—and those receiving the flowers seldom gave you a tip for bringing them! Butlers and maids usually took the boxes, so you didn’t even see the celebrity whose flowers you carried. Sometimes you would catch a glimpse of the great one, though, and then you would feel a little more cheerful, having laid eyes on some famous and successful person. But when you got back to the shop, the boss would always ask why in the hell you took so long to make a delivery.
“Hurry up and get the next order out,” would be his command. “Quick now! Hurry!”
My father would have loved his efficiency. He and Mr. Thorley could have been good friends.
On the day following those nights when you worked until nine o’clock, or more, you were entitled to come an hour late the following morning. One night I worked until almost midnight, making a delivery on Long Island. The next morning I came at ten. Mr. Thorley himself happened to be standing at the door, looking down Fifth Avenue. He said: “Don’t you know better than to be showing up here at such an hour?”
I started to explain that the night before had been my late night, and that I had worked four or five hours overtime, but he cut me off to order me brusquely to take the whole morning off—because he would take a morning out of my pay, anyhow! He told me to come back after lunch.
I never went back again. But finding another job that fall was not easy. Want ads, employment offices, the Y, the railroad stations, the big hotels, the shoe shine stands. No luck.
But all those months in New York I’d kept remembering the smell of the sea on my first night in Vera Cruz. And it seemed to me now that if I had to work for low wages at dull jobs, I might just as well see the world, so I began to look for work on a ship.