II: Big Sea


We went to Livorno, then to Naples. In Naples I saw the ribald treasures of Pompeii in the dusty old museum there, but I did not have time to visit Pompeii itself. We sailed by Capri on the way out and I remembered Bunin’s Gentleman from San Francisco. We visited the Lipari Islands, gleaming-white and dusty in the brilliant sun, barren and chalk-like and terrible. (Mussolini has his prison colony there now, they say.)

In Catania we saw a marvelous fight in one of the plazas. It must have been a family feud, because there were men, women, and children on each side. Stones flew and knives flashed, and we got out of the way in a wine shop.

Around the island of Sicily we went to Palermo, where I saw the mosaics of La Martorana. Then we headed for Spain across the dancing Mediterranean.

In Valencia the Captain let the crew draw money, and we all went ashore. I had not a penny, being a workaway, but there was a colored boy named Beard aboard, who invited me to come along with him to see the town. From the port, we took a street car and I kept staring out of the windows in the dusk, because I didn’t want to miss anything. The Cuentos Valencianos of Blasco Ibáñez kept coming back to me, and I was perhaps looking for his little girl who sold flowers.

Beard wanted to go to a show in an open-air garden, where castanets were clicking and the guitar strings sounded gaily. We went in and drank sweet yellow wine, while girls in spangled gowns and red petticoats stamped their heels, and whirled and cried, and let their hips sway to the rhythm of the guitars.

An old Spaniard in a black suit came up to our table and asked us if we gentlemen wanted to go drink wine where there were only girls and no big crowd of people, so we went with the Spaniard. Through the narrow, winding streets of Valencia we walked under tall archways over the streets, past high grilled gates opening on flowered patios, where the moon cast silver shadows.

A bell tolled midnight. I said: “Maybe we’d better start back to the ship.”

The Spaniard said: “Ya no hay tranvias.

The street cars had stopped running! The port was miles away. Beard said: “If we stay here with the girls, we’ll wake up early in the morning and go.”

So I said: “O.K.”

But we didn’t wake up early in the morning. Everybody in the house where we stayed was still asleep at nine o’clock. Finally the madame came and knocked on our doors and said: “Oigan! Marineros, levantense! Ya es tarde.”

Ya es tarde was right! It was very late for sailors to be getting back to their ship. The girls brought us black coffee to drink and followed us with great concern to the door, jabbering directions. It was a long walk to a street car line. Then we were not sure which way to ride, so we decided to walk to the center of the city. We had thick chocolate and buns at a café across from the flower market and I kept thinking about the Ibáñez story of the little girl who sold flowers, as I ate my porridge-like chocolate with a heavy spoon.

Beard said there was no use to hurry now. He would surely get docked a day’s pay anyhow. And as for me, they couldn’t dock me anything, because I was a workaway. So about noon we returned to the ship in order to eat. But we sadly mis-timed our arrival.

Our boat was anchored offshore, several hundred yards from the wharf, and was being loaded from tenders. We had to pay a rowboat to carry us out to the ship. Just as the boatman was about to pull off, a voice on the pier cried: “Hey! Wait a minute! Another passenger.” We looked up, and who should we see crossing the dock but the Captain himself?

The Old Man stepped rather unsteadily down into the boat, took out his peseta for the boatman, then looked up and saw us sitting in front of him! He began to cuss. The Old Man had no doubt been out all night, too—but that was his privilege. He was the Captain. We were merely a mess boy and a workaway, and colored at that. He continued to cuss.

As the boatman shoved off, the Captain called Beard all kinds of illegitimate names and threatened to dock him to the limit of the law for coming aboard at that hour of the day. As for me—he called to the boatman to turn back. “Ashore! Turn around! Go back!” But the boatman didn’t understand English, or pretended not to, so the Captain turned on me again. He threatened to put me ashore, bag and baggage, leave me stranded in Spain, since I seemed to prefer (sarcastically) the pleasures of Valencia to my work aboard ship. He called me a variety of illegitimate names, too, and offered to lock me up in the hold in irons.

(But with all his profanity, the Old Man did not use a single racial epithet. So I sort of always liked him for that afterwards.)

But then I didn’t say a word, having learned from many months in Mexico that silence is as good as the next best thing in the face of wrath. (And the next best thing is to evaporate! Get away, leave.) But there was no way of leaving that rowboat in the middle of Valencia harbor, except to jump into the water, and I couldn’t swim. So Beard and I just sat staring at the Captain’s feet, planted in the bottom of the rowboat. We sat and took it. But that was the most uncomfortable boat ride I ever had.

Aboard ship, the Captain gave orders to the Mate not to permit us ashore again until we reached New York. There, he said, we could go ashore and stay! Again referring to our parentage.

A few days later we steamed on down the Spanish coast to Alicante’s beautiful beach of sand, bordered by a long row of palm trees, and a white town facing the water. The second cook still had some money left, so he invited Beard and me to go ashore. When the Old Man wasn’t around, we went. We had a swell time in Alicante, but we came back to the ship well before dawn that time.

When we passed Gibraltar, all I could see was lights, because it was dark and moonless. Being so close to Africa, I made up a poem about the face of England looking into the face of the Dark Continent, but I lost it, so it was never published, my poem about Gibraltar.

On the way across the Atlantic, I washed the Chief Mate’s shirt and he gave me a quarter, the first American money I had seen in a long time. When we docked early on November 24th down at the tip of Manhattan Island, I took a nickel of that quarter and rode the subway to Harlem.

Ten months before, I had got to Paris with seven dollars. I had been in France, Italy, and Spain. And after the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, I came home with a quarter, so my first European trip cost me exactly six dollars and seventy-five cents!

In Harlem I bought a pack of cigarettes and still had a nickel left.


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