Chapter Four

THE HARDER times became, the more determined I was to stay in school. The shelter from the cold was, perhaps, a considerable motive, and I loathed the bone-chilling and lonely weekends. I would drift through them, missing the desks, the musty gymnasium, the oil and sawdust odor of the floors, the inflexible voices of the teachers and the warm halls and classrooms. It seemed that Monday came quickly enough. But there was more that compelled me to classes with such regularity. The necessity of learning came with the first pangs of hunger, with the first homeless night. It wasn’t enough to trust to chance or street learning. Already I had been refused several jobs because I didn’t have a high school education. Perhaps a diploma would deprive people of such excuses.

So I hung on, preying upon waste receptacles for newspapers that carried the daily ads. And I answered them. But it was always my “youth” or some other fabricated excuse that disqualified me. I hunted for the warm spots where there was light so that I could work on new lyrics and melodies; my ragged notebook was crammed with titles and ideas. And the futility of those days was so well reflected in those lyrics and songs my friends began to call me “Blue.” Every line in that notebook spoke of heartbreak and hard luck. But melancholy served me well at times; twice I got one-night jobs at an after-hours joint called Sperling’s, where people with the blues didn’t want to hear anything but the blues. And at Sperling’s, especially during the late hours, a drunk, a dejected lover or even a lonely stranger would empty his pockets when a tune lamented his fate.

My sister got what small change and food she could to me by a plan we worked out over the telephone. I would slip in through the alleyway at night and whatever she had she left in the milk box. Even when my brother-in-law was away he had an effective spy system; so all my excursions to the milk box were made well after dusk. My mother’s brothers, Charlie and Pete, lived somewhere in St. Paul. Uncle Pete was a Pullman porter who ran to Chicago and Seattle. He was a short, round, amiable man with a walleye. I had only seen him once since I had been north. He was running then to catch a streetcar. “Come by and see me sometime,” he had hollered, but I didn’t have his address. Uncle Charlie didn’t work at anything. I saw him a couple of times but he was too tipsy to recognize me. Each time I had spoken, but he had smiled blandly and gone on his way.

In time I became a master of self-exclusion. And it was a lonely business. When my schoolmates asked me where I went every night, I told them tales that made them envy me. I had either met some glamorous woman with a big car, or played the piano at a wealthy party, or met some publisher from New York or Chicago. Unfortunately, the lies were never justified by my appearance; yet I squandered my dreams freely. They were my only possessions; and I used them as a cover-up for my loneliness. But there was one boy I never tried to fool. His name was George Berry. He was lean, tall and soft spoken, with a special kind of warmth and understanding. I trusted him with my desperation; and many times that awful winter he brought me to the warmth of his home. And every time I came his mother would ask, “Are you hungry, son?”

“Well-no, mamma. I guess not,” I would answer.

“You don’t sound too sure, son. You’d better eat­­­­—just in case,” she would answer. I would pretend not to hear, knowing she had already gone to fix me something. It was always the same.