II: Big Sea


We had lived together six months, that crew of the old S.S. Malone, pal’d around together in dozens of West African ports, worked together, played together, fought together, slept with the same women, drunk from the same bottles; now, in one short afternoon, given our money and our discharge, the boat emptied quickly of sailors, firemen, mess boys, cooks, officers—everybody gone! Melting into the crowds of lower New York, I never saw a single one of those forty-two men again.

With my monkey, I went to Harlem. My former landlady had moved. Near her old place, I saw a ROOM FOR RENT sign in a window, so I stopped at the apartment door.

A woman opened the door and screamed: “What devilish thing is that you got on your shoulder?”

She shut the door swiftly to only a crack, as Jocko clutched my ear, chattered and trembled in fright.

“A monkey,” I said. “He’s tame.”

“Tame or not, I don’t take no monkeys here,” she shouted. “Get out of this hallway with that varmint—scarin’ the livin’ daylights out o’ me.”

Bang! and the door closed. With the next landlady, I fared no better. Finally, in desperation, I got a bartender in a speakeasy to let me tie Jocko in his back room for half an hour. Then I went to find a place to sleep. But in Harlem there was no resting place for a monkey, so I had to come back and get Jocko, put him under my coat, and take the subway downtown to a pet shop where animals were boarded, a shop that I had located through the classified telephone book.

At the shop they seemed delighted to have Jocko as a guest. They proclaimed him to be a rare species of red monkey seldom seen in America. Then they put him into a clean cage all to himself and assured me he would be well taken care of, and that the bill would be moderate. They couldn’t say offhand just what, but not much. So I left Jocko clinging to the bars, weeping and waving wildly after me as I went out. I hated to leave him there in a strange place in downtown New York, but the women in Harlem didn’t seem to like him.

I intended to stay in New York only a day or two, just long enough to get a new suit. Then I planned to go home for a visit to McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, where my mother was then living with my step-father. I wrote my kid brother that I was bringing him a present, but I didn’t tell him what it was.

I went from the pet shop to the Pennsylvania station and priced a ticket to McKeesport. Then I walked over to Broadway to window-shop for suits. As I passed the Metropolitan Opera House, I noticed two huge placards posted there, announcing the opening of the American tour of Eleonora Duse, the great Italian actress. My heart stood still and I knew I couldn’t go to McKeesport until I had seen Duse!

All my life, it seemed, I had read the legend of Duse—the hands of Duse, the eyes of Duse, how simply to sit in her presence, the core of your being would be stirred! On the boat up the Hudson, I had read d’Annunzio’s romance, The Flame of Life, through which she moved as a touring actress on the dusty roads of Italy, a virgin Juliet in the amphitheater of Verona, a wraith of beauty gliding along the leaf-strewn canals of Venice in the autumn, a great artist and a great woman. I had to see Duse.

But the opening was over a week off. Nevertheless, I decided to stay in New York until it occurred, so I paid two weeks’ rent. I bought a new suit and a coat. I put aside the fare to McKeesport and I had fifty-two dollars left.

I wanted to take my mother fifty dollars, then I decided forty would do, since I had to eat for ten days. I ate in fifteen-cent lunch rooms, went to the movies, and waited for Duse to come. All the cheaper seats were sold in advance, so I had to depend on standing room. I could not afford anything else.

Finally, the day of Duse’s opening arrived. I left Harlem in the early afternoon. There was already a line curving around the Metropolitan into Thirty-ninth Street. It was cold and people had folding stools, some of them sitting in line with blankets on their knees. I had filled my pockets with peanuts and stood in line all afternoon eating them.

Toward evening, it got colder, so I bought a newspaper and put half of it inside my coat across my chest, and the other part around my feet. Slowly the lights came on in the blue November dusk. Horns and headlights cut through the frosty air. People poured into the streets, home-bound from work. Newsboys cried the final editions. Then came that strange Broadway lull that just precedes the theater hour, when the streets are not so busy, nor the traffic so noisy.

But the line for Eleonora Duse had grown and grown. Soon the lights of the huge opera house were lighted and a crowd began to collect at the entrances to the theater. An occasional car glided up to the carriage entrance, some official perhaps, or a patron, or a very early comer.

Now, more often the cars came, and the crowds grew. Finally our line began to move. Slowly. Slowly. Too slowly, and an awful thought struck me! Suppose there was no more standing room left by the time I got to the box office!

The line moved. Halted. And moved. I grew nervous. But the two middle-aged women in front of me, Italians, were not impatient. They calmly edged their stools along as the line moved. After a while they picked them up and folded them over their arms, when we neared the corner. Finally the line turned the corner and we were moving along against the wall on the Broadway side, where two big cops kept outsiders from breaking into the line that we had held so long. My feet were very cold, and I was hungry, but finally I reached the lobby, and the box office, and at last had a ticket in my hand. Then—inside, early enough to get a place at the tall partition, leaning right up against the rail at the rear of the auditorium.

It must have been a good hour before the orchestra filed in, and it was finally time for the curtain to rise. Still it did not rise on time. People kept pouring into the theater—in the orchestra and boxes, a brilliant crowd in top hats and shimmering evening gowns.

Finally the lights darkened and the play began. It was Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea, in Italian. (I kept wishing it was a real Italian play instead of a Scandinavian drama performed in Italian before an American crowd.) The people were restless. It was very warm in the theater, and I was tired from waiting in line so long. The standees behind pressed against my back and coughed on my shoulders. I began to be sleepier and sleepier, but finally Duse entered—the famous, the legendary, the great Duse—and there was a wave of applause as a slight, weary, gray little woman stopped at the center of the stage.

Then she began to speak. But her voice was lost, and somehow the magic didn’t come through. Even when she lifted her famous hands, in the vastness of the Metropolitan Opera House that night the magic didn’t come through. She seemed just a tiny little old woman, on an enormous stage, speaking in a foreign language, before an audience that didn’t understand. After a while, behind me some of the people began to drift out and it was not so crowded among the standees. Before it was over, there was plenty of room.


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