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Previous Condition

James Baldwin | from: English

Introduction by Zohar Elmakias

“I got no story, Ma”. In these words Peter, the protagonist of the short story “Previous Condition”, ends a two day nightmare in a life of struggle and anguish. While Peter’s words declare an end, he opens to the reader gate after gate to his personal hell, using a clear and sharp voice. What are these gates, but a story? What are these collections of interactions – with a lover, a friend, a landlord, with the police, with drums and pianos – if not stories? Baldwin’s main action in “Previous Condition” is a strive towards and against (simultaneously, and both – fearlessly). He asks, in every way, to make a story of it. Somehow, miraculously, his actions rise above the literary “story-making” (creating from the materials of life, writing, choosing characters, time and place, to tell of these), and soars, yes soars, into the mundane, the realistic. Facing the socio-political reality, facing his own protagonist’s explicit determinist stance, Baldwin insists on making a story of it. And, just like a notorious story-maker, he can allow Peter to speak through him, and to deny that it is a story at all. We face this non-story and our beating hearts are torn,  for we know this is a truthful story indeed. 

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I woke up shaking, alone in my room.  I was clammy cold with sweat; under me the sheet and the mattress were soaked.  The sheet was gray and twisted like a rope.  I breathed like I had been running.

I couldn’t move for the longest while. I just lay on my back, spread-eagled, looking up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of people getting up in other parts of the house, alarm clocks ringing and water splashing and doors opening and shutting and feet on the stairs.  I could tell when people left for work: the hall doorway downstairs whined and shuffled as it opened and gave a funny kind of double slam as it closed.  One thud and then a louder thud and then a little final click.  While the door was open I could hear the street sounds too, horses’ hoofs and delivery wagons and people in the streets and big trucks and motor cars screaming on the asphalt.

I had been dreaming.  At night I dreamt and woke up in the morning trembling, but not remembering the dream, except that in the dream I had been running.  I could not remember when the dream—or dreams—had started; it had been long ago.  For long periods maybe, I would have no dreams at all.  And then they would come back, every night, I would try not to go to bed, I would go to sleep frightened and wake up frightened and have another day to get through with the nightmare at my shoulder.  Now I was back from Chicago, busted, living off my friends in a dirty furnished room downtown.  The show I had been with had folded in Chicago.  It hadn’t been much of a part—or much of a show either, to tell the truth.  I played a kind of intellectual Uncle Tom, a young college student working for his race.  The playwright had wanted to prove he was a liberal, I guess.  But, as I say, the show had folded and here I was, back in New York and hating it.  I knew that I should be getting another job, making the rounds, pounding the pavement.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t face it.  It was summer.  I seemed to be fagged out.  And every day I hated myself more.  Acting’s a rough life, even if you’re white.  I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.

The room I lived in was heavy ceilinged, perfectly square, with walls the color of chipped dry blood.  Jules Weissman, a Jewboy, had got the room for me.  It’s a room to sleep in, he said, or maybe to die in but God knows it wasn’t meant to live in.  Perhaps because the room was so hideous it had a fantastic array of light fixtures: one on the ceiling, one on the left wall, two on the right wall, and a lamp on the table beside my bed.  My bed was in front of the window through which nothing ever blew but dust.  It was a furnished room and they’d thrown enough stuff in it to furnish three rooms its size.  Two easy chairs and a desk, the bed, the table, a straight-backed chair, a bookcase, a cardboard wardrobe; and my books and my suitcase, both unpacked; and my dirty clothes flung in a corner.  It was the kind of room that defeated you.  It had a fireplace, too, and a heavy marble mantelpiece and a great gray mirror above the mantelpiece.  It was hard to see anything in the mirror very clearly—which was perhaps just as well—and it would have been worth your life to have started a fire in the fireplace.

“Well, you won’t have to stay here long,” Jules told me the night I came.  Jules smuggled me in, sort of, after dark, when everyone had gone to bed.

“Christ, I hope not.”

“I’ll be moving to a big place soon,” Jules said.  “You can move in with me.”  He turned all the lights on.  “Think it’ll be all right for a while?”  He sounded apologetic, as though he had designed the room himself.

“Oh, sure.  D’you think I’ll have any trouble?”

“I don’t think so.  The rent’s paid.  She can’t put you out.”

I didn’t say anything to that.

“Sort of stay undercover,” Jules said.  “You know.”

“Roger,” I said.

I had been living there for three days, timing it so I left after everyone else had gone, coming back late at night when everyone else was asleep.  But I knew it wouldn’t work.  A couple of the tenants had seen me on the stairs, a woman had surprised me coming out of the john.  Every morning I waited for the landlady to come banging on the door.  I didn’t know what would happen.  It might be all right.  It might not be.  But the waiting was getting me.

The sweat on my body was turning cold.  Downstairs a radio was tuned in to the Breakfast Symphony. They were playing Beethoven. I sat up and lit a cigarette.  “Peter,” I said, “don’t let them scare you to death. You’re a man, too.”  I listened to Ludwig and I watched the smoke rise to the dirty ceiling.  Under Ludwig’s drums and horns I listened to hear footsteps on the stairs.

I’d done a lot of traveling in my time.  I’d knocked about through St. Louis, Frisco, Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, worked at just about everything.  I’d run away from my old lady when I was about sixteen.  She’d never been able to handle me.  You’ll never be nothin’ but a bum, she’d say.  We lived in an old shack in a town in New Jersey in the nigger part of town, the kind of houses colored people live in all over the U.S.  I hated my mother for living there.  I hated all the people in my neighborhood.  They went to church and they got drunk.  They were nice to the white people.  When the landlord came around they paid him and took his crap.

The first time I was ever called nigger I was seven years old.  It was a little white girl with long black curls.  I used to leave the front of my house and go wandering by myself through town.  This little girl was playing ball alone and as I passed her the ball rolled out of her hands into the gutter.

I threw it back to her.

“Let’s play catch,” I said.

But she held the ball and made a face at me.

“My mother don’t let me play with niggers,” she told me.

I did not know what the word meant.  But my skin grew warm.  I stuck my tongue out at her.

“I don’t care.  Keep your old ball.”  I started down the street.

She screamed after me: “Nigger, nigger, nigger!”

I screamed back: “Your mother was a nigger!”

I asked my mother what a nigger was.

“Who called you that?”

“I heard somebody say it.”

“Who?”

“Just somebody.”

“Go wash your face,” she said.  “You dirty as sin.  Your supper’s on the table.”

I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face and wiped my face and hands on the towel.

“You call that clean?” my mother cried.  “Come here, boy!”

She dragged me back to the bathroom and began to soap my face and neck.

“You run around dirty like you do all the time, everybody’ll call you a little nigger, you hear?”  She rinsed my face and looked at my hands and dried me. “Now, go on and eat your supper.”

I didn’t say anything. I went to the kitchen and sat down at the table. I remember I wanted to cry.  My mother sat down across from me.

“Mama,” I said.  She looked at me.  I started to cry.

She came around to my side of the table and took me in her arms.

“Baby, don’t fret.  Next time somebody calls you nigger you tell them you’d rather be your color than be lowdown and nasty like some white folks is.”

We formed gangs when I was older, my friends and I.  We met white boys and their friends on the opposite sides of fences and we threw rocks and tin cans at each other.

I’d come home bleeding.  My mother would slap me and scold me and cry.

“Boy, you wanna get killed?  You wanna end up like your father?”

My father was a bum and I had never seen him.  I was named for him: Peter.

I was always in trouble: truant officers, welfare workers, everybody else in town.

“You ain’t never gonna be nothin’ but a bum,” my mother said.

By and by older kids I knew finished school and got jobs and got married and settled down.  They were going to settle down and bring more black babies into the world and pay the same rents for the same old shacks and it would go and on—

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When I was sixteen I ran away. I left a note and told Mama not to worry, I’d come back one day and I’d be all right. But when I was twenty-two she died. I came back and put my mother in the ground. Everything was like it had been. Our house had not been painted and the porch floor sagged and there was somebody’s raincoat stuff in the broken window.  Another family was moving in.

Their furniture was stacked along the walls and their children were running through the house and laughing and somebody was frying pork chops in the kitchen.  The oldest boy was tacking up a mirror.

Last year Ida took me driving in her big car and we passed through a couple of towns upstate.  We passed some crumbling houses on the left.  The clothes on the line were flying in the wind.

“Are people living there?” asked Ida.

“Just darkies,” I said.

Ida passed the car ahead, banging angrily on the horn. “D’you know you’re becoming paranoiac, Peter?”

“All right.  All right.  I know a lot of white people are starving too.”

“You’re damn right they are.  I know a little about poverty myself.”

Ida had come from the kind of family called shanty Irish.She was raised in Boston.  She’s a very beautiful woman who married young and married for money—so now I can afford to support attractive young men, she’d giggle. Her husband was a ballet dancer who was forever on the road.  Ida suspected that he went with boys.  Not that I give a damn, she said, as long as he leaves me alone.  When we met last year she was thirty and I was twenty-five.  We had a pretty stormy relationship but we stuck.  Whenever I got to town I called her; whenever I was stranded out of town I’d let her know.  We never let it get too serious.  She went her way and I went mine.

In all this running around I’d learned a few things. Like a prizefighter learns to take a blow or a dancer learns to fall, I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong.  What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else would be insufferable arrogance in me. After the first few times I realized that I had to play smart, to act out the role I was expected to play. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken.  When I faced a policeman I acted like I didn’t know a thing.  I let my jaw drop and I let my eyes get big. I didn’t give him any smart answers, none of the crap about my rights.  I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him.  I never let him think he wasn’t king.  If it was more than routine, if I was picked up on suspicion of robbery or murder in the neighborhood, I looked as humble as I could and kept my mouth shut and prayed. I took a couple of beatings but I stayed out of prison and I stayed off chain gangs. That was also due to luck, Ida pointed out once. “Maybe it would’ve been better for you if you’d been a little less lucky. Worse things have happened than chain gangs.  Some of them have happened to you.”

There was something in her voice.  “What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Don’t lose your temper.  I said maybe.”

“You mean you think I’m a coward?”

“I didn’t say that, Peter.”

“But you meant that.  Didn’t you?”

“No.  I didn’t mean that.  I didn’t mean anything.  Let’s not fight.”

There are times and places when a Negro can use his color like a shield.  He can trade on the subterranean Anglo-Saxon guilt and get what he wants that way; or some of what he wants.  He can trade on his nuisance value, his value as forbidden fruit; he can use it like a knife, he can twist it and get his vengeance that way.  I knew these things long before I realized that I knew them and in the beginning I used them, not knowing what I was doing.  Then when I began to see it, I felt betrayed.  I felt beaten as a person.  I had no honest place to stand.

This was the year before I met Ida. I’d been acting in stock companies and little theaters; sometimes fairly good parts. People were nice to me. They told me I had talent. They said it sadly, as though they were thinking, What a pity, he’ll never get anywhere. I had got to the point where I resented praise and I resented pity and I wondered what people were thinking when they shook my hand. In New York I met some pretty fine people; easygoing, hard-drinking, flotsam and jetsam; and they liked me; and I wondered if I trusted them; if I was able any longer to trust anybody.  Not on top, where all the world could see, but underneath where everybody lives.

Soon I would have to get up. I listened to Ludwig. He shook the little room like the footsteps of a giant marching miles away. On summer evenings (and maybe we would go this summer) Jules and Ida and I would go up to the Stadium and sit beneath the pillars on the cold stone steps. There it seemed to me the sky was far away; and I was not myself, I was high and lifted up. We never talked, the three of us. We sat and watched the blue smoke curl in the air and watched the orange tips of cigarettes.  Every once in a while the boys who sold popcorn and soda pop and ice cream climbed the steep steps chattering; and Ida shifted slightly and touched her blue-black hair; and Jules scowled. I sat with my knee up, watching the lighted half-moon below, the black-coated, straining conductor, the faceless men beneath him moving together in a rhythm like the sea. There were pauses in the music for the rushing, calling, halting piano.  Everything would stop except the climbing of the soloist; he would reach a height and everything would join him, the violins first and then the horns; and then the deep blue bass and the flute and the bitter trampling drums; beating, beating and mounting together and stopping with a crash like daybreak. When I first heard the Messiah I was alone; my blood bubbled like fire and wine; I cried; like an infant crying for its mother’s milk; or a sinner running to meet Jesus.

Now below the music I heard footsteps on the stairs. I put out my cigarette.  My heart was beating so hard I thought it would tear my chest apart. Someone knocked on the door.

I thought: Don’t answer.  Maybe she’ll go away.

But the knocking came again, harder this time.

Just a minute, I said.  I sat on the edge of the bed and put on my bathrobe.  I was trembling like a fool.  For Christ’s sake, Peter, you’ve been through this before. What’s the worst thing that can happen?  You won’t have a room. The world’s full of rooms.

When I opened the door the landlady stood there, red-and-whitefaced and hysterical.

“Who are you?  I didn’t rent this room to you.”

My mouth was dry.  I started to say something.

“I can’t have no colored people here,” she said. “All my tenants are complainin’.  Women afraid to come home nights.”

“They ain’t gotta be afraid of me,” I said. I couldn’t get my voice up; it rasped and rattled in my throat; and I began to be angry. I wanted to kill her. “My friend rented this room for me,” I said.

“Well, I’m sorry, he didn’t have no right to do that, I don’t have nothin’ against you, but you gotta get out.”

Her glasses blinked, opaque in the light on the landing. She was frightened to death. She was afraid of me but she was more afraid of losing her tenants. Her face was mottled with rage and fear, her breath came rushed and little bits of spittle gathered at the edges of her mouth; her breath smelled bad, like rotting hamburger on a July day.

“You can’t put me out,” I said. “This room was rented in my name.” I started to close the door as though the matter was finished: “I live here, see, this is my room, you can’t put me out.”

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“You get outa my house!” she screamed. “I got the right to know who’s in my house!  This is a white neighborhood, I don’t rent to colored people. Why don’t you go on uptown, like you belong?”

“I can’t stand niggers,” I told her. I started to close the door again but she moved and stuck her foot in the way.  I wanted to kill her, I watched her stupid, wrinkled frightened white face and I wanted to take a club, a hatchet, and bring it down with all my weight, splitting her skull down the middle where she parted her iron-gray hair.

“Get out of the door,” I said.  “I want to get dressed.”

But I knew that she had won, that I was already on my way.  We stared at each other. Neither of us moved. From her came an emanation of fear and fury and something else.  You maggot-eaten bitch, I thought.  I said evilly, “You wanna come in and watch me?” Her face didn’t change, she didn’t take her foot away.  My skin prickled, tiny hot needles punctured my flesh.  I was aware of my body under the bathrobe; and it was as though I had done something wrong, something monstrous, years ago, which no one had forgotten and for which I would be killed.

“If you don’t get out,” she said, “I’ll get a policeman to put you out.”

I grabbed the door to keep from touching her.  “All right.  All right.  You can have the goddamn room.  Now get out and let me dress.”

She turned away. I slammed the door. I heard her going down the stairs. I threw stuff into my suitcase. I tried to take as long as possible but I cut myself while shaving because I was afraid she would come back upstairs with a policeman.

Jules was making coffee when I walked in.

“Good morning, good morning!  What happened to you?”

“No room at the inn,” I said.  “Pour a cup of coffee for the notorious son of man.”  I sat down and dropped my suitcase on the floor.

Jules looked at me.  “Oh.  Well.  Coffee coming up.”

He got out the coffee cups. I lit a cigarette and sat there. I couldn’t think of anything to say.  I knew that Jules felt bad and I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t his fault.

He pushed coffee in front of me and sugar and cream.

“Cheer up, baby.  The world’s wide and life—life, she is very long.”

“Shut up.  I don’t want to hear any of your bad philosophy.”

“Sorry.”

“I mean, let’s not talk about the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

“All right. But don’t sit there holding onto your table manners.  Scream if you want to.”

“Screaming won’t do any good.  Besides I’m a big boy now.”

I stirred my coffee.  “Did you give her a fight?” Jules asked.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“Why the hell not?”

I shrugged; a little ashamed now.  I couldn’t have won it.  What the hell.

“You might have won it.  You might have given her a couple of bad moments.”

“Goddamit to hell, I’m sick of it. Can’t I get a place to sleep without dragging it through the courts? I’m goddamn tired of battling every Tom, Dick, and Harry for what everybody else takes for granted.  I’m tired, man, tired!  Have you ever been sick to death of something? Well, I’m sick to death. And I’m scared. I’ve been fighting so goddamn long I’m not a person any more. I’m not Booker T. Washington. I’ve got no vision of emancipating anybody. I want to emancipate myself. If this goes on much longer, they’ll send me to Bellevue, I’ll blow my top, I’ll break somebody’s head. I’m not worried about that miserable little room. I’m worried about what’s happening to me, to me, inside.  I don’t walk the streets, I crawl.  I’ve never been like this before. Now when I go to a strange place I wonder what will happen, will I be accepted, if I’m accepted, can I accept? —”

“Take it easy,” Jules said.

“Jules, I’m beaten.”

“I don’t think you are.  Drink your coffee.”

“Oh,” I cried.  “I know you think I’m making it dramatic, that I’m paranoiac and just inventing trouble!  Maybe I think so sometimes, how can I tell?  You get so used to being hit you find you’re always waiting for it.  Oh, I know, you’re Jewish, you get kicked around, too, but you can walk into a bar and nobody knows you’re Jewish and if you go looking for a job you’ll get a better job than mine!  How can I say what it feels like?  I don’t know.  I know everybody’s in trouble and nothing is easy, but how can I explain to you what it feels like to be black when I don’t understand it and don’t want to and spend all my time trying to forget it?  I don’t want to hate anybody—but now maybe, I can’t love anybody either—are we friends?  Can we be really friends?”

“We’re friends,” Jules said, “don’t worry about it.” He scowled. “If I wasn’t Jewish I’d ask you why you don’t live in Harlem.” I looked at him. He raised his hand and smiled—“But I’m Jewish, so I didn’t ask you. Ah Peter,” he said, “I can’t help you—take a walk, get drunk, we’re all in this together.”

I stood up.  “I’ll be around later. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’ll leave my door open.  Bunk here for a while.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I felt that I was drowning; that hatred had corrupted me like cancer in the bone.

I saw Ida for dinner. We met in a restaurant in the village, an Italian place in a gloomy cellar with candles on the tables.

It was not a busy night, for which I was grateful.  When I came in there were only two other couples on the other side of the room. No one looked at me. I sat down in a corner booth and ordered a Scotch old-fashioned. Ida was late and I had three of them before she came.

She was very fine in black, a high-necked dress with a pearl choker; and her hair was combed page-boy style, falling just below her ears.

“You look real sweet, baby.”

“Thank you.  It took fifteen extra minutes but I hoped it would be worth it.”

“It was worth it. What’re you drinking?”

“Oh—what’re you drinking?”

“Old-fashioneds.”

She sniffed and looked at me. “How many?”

I laughed.  “Three.”

“Well,” she said, “I suppose you had to do something.” The waiter came over.  We decided on one Manhattan and one lasagna and one spaghetti with clam sauce and another old-fashioned for me.

“Did you have a constructive day, sweetheart?  Find a job?”

“Not today,” I said. I lit her cigarette. “Metro offered me a fortune to come to the coast and do the lead in Native Son but I turned it down. Type casting, you know.  It’s so difficult to find a decent part.”

“Well, if they don’t come up with a decent offer soon tell them you’ll go back to Selznick.  He’ll find you a part with guts—the very idea of offering you Native Son! I wouldn’t stand for it.”

“You ain’t gotta tell me. I told them if they didn’t find me a decent script in two weeks I was through, that’s all.”

“Now that’s talking, Peter my lad.”

The drinks came and we sat in silence for a minute or two. I finished half of my drink at a swallow and played with the toothpicks on the table.  I felt Ida watching me.

“Peter you’re going to be awfully drunk.”

“Honeychile, the first thing a southern gentleman learns is how to hold his liquor.”

“That myth is older than the rock of ages. And anyway you come from Jersey.”

I finished my drink and snarled at her: “That’s just as good as the South.”

Across the table from me I could see that she was readying herself for trouble: her mouth tightened slightly, setting her chin so that the faint cleft showed: “What happened to you today?”

I resented her concern; I resented my need. “Nothing worth talking about,” I muttered, “just a mood.”

And I tried to smile at her, to wipe away the bitterness.

“Now I know something’s the matter. Please tell me.”

It sounded trivial as hell: “You know the room Jules found for me? Well, the landlady kicked me out of it today.”

“God save the American republic,” Ida said. “D’you want to waste some of my husband’s money?  We can sue her.”

“Forget it.  I’ll end up with lawsuits in every state in the union.”

“Still, as a gesture—”

“The devil with the gesture. I’ll get by.”

The food came. I didn’t want to eat. The first mouthful hit my belly like a gong.  Ida began cutting up lasagna.

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“Peter,” she said, “try not to feel so badly. We’re all in this together the whole world. Don’t let it throw you.  What can’t be helped you have to learn to live with.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I told her.

She looked at me quickly and looked away. “I’m not pretending that it’s easy to do,” she said.

I didn’t believe that she could really understand it; and there was nothing I could say. I sat like a child being scolded, looking down at my plate, not eating, not saying anything.  I wanted her to stop talking, to stop being intelligent about it, to stop being calm and grown-up about it; good Lord, none of us has ever grown up, we never will.

“It’s no better anywhere else,” she was saying. “In all of Europe there’s famine and disease, in France and England they hate the Jews—nothing’s going to change, baby, people are too empty-headed, too empty-hearted—it’s always been like that, people always try to destroy what they don’t understand—and they hate almost everything because they understand so little—”

I began to sweat in my side of the booth. I wanted to stop her voice. I wanted her to eat and be quiet and leave me alone. I looked around for the waiter so I could order another drink.  But he was on the far side of the restaurant, waiting on some people who had just come in; a lot of people had come in since we had been sitting there.

“Peter,” Ida said, “Peter please don’t look like that.”

I grinned: the painted grin of the professional clown. “Don’t worry, baby, I’m all right.  I know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna go back to my people where I belong and find me a nice, black nigger wench and raise me a flock of babies.”

Ida had an old maternal trick; the grin tricked her into using it now.  She raised her fork and rapped me with it across the knuckles.  “Now, stop that. You’re too old for that.”

I screamed and stood up screaming and knocked the candle over: “Don’t do that, you bitch, don’t ever do that!”

She grabbed the candle and set it up and glared at me. Her face had turned perfectly white: “Sit down!  Sit down!”

I fell back into my seat.  My stomach felt like water. Everyone was looking at us.  I turned cold, seeing what they were seeing: a black boy and a white woman, alone together.  I knew it would take nothing to have them at my throat.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

The waiter was at my elbow. “Is everything all right, miss?”

“Yes, quite, thank you.”  She sounded like a princess dismissing a slave. I didn’t look up.  The shadow of the waiter moved away from me.

“Baby,” Ida said, “forgive me, please forgive me.”

I stared at the tablecloth. She put her hand on mine, brightness and blackness.

“Let’s go,” I said, “I’m terribly sorry.”

She motioned for the check.  When it came she handed the waiter a ten dollar bill without looking.  She picked up her bag.

“Shall we go to a nightclub or a movie or something?”

“No, honey, not tonight.” I looked at her. “I’m tired, I think I’ll go on over to Jules’s place. I’m gonna sleep on his floor for a while.  Don’t worry about me. I’m all right.”

She looked at me steadily.  She said: “I’ll come see you tomorrow?”

“Yes, baby, please.”

The waiter brought the change and she tipped him. We stood up; as we passed the tables (not looking at the people) the ground under me seemed falling, the doorway seemed impossibly far away.  All my muscles tensed; I seemed ready to spring; I was waiting for the blow.

I put my hands in my pockets and we walked to the end of the block. The lights were green and red, the lights from the theater across the street exploded blue and yellow, off and on.

“Peter?”

“Yes?”

“I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Come by Jules’s.  I’ll wait for you.”

“Goodnight, darling.”

“Goodnight.”

I started to walk away. I felt her eyes on my back. I kicked a bottle-top on the sidewalk.

God save the American republic.

I dropped into the subway and got on an uptown train, not knowing where it was going and not caring. Anonymous, islanded people surrounded me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes. I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.) I looked at the ads, unreal women and pink-cheeked men selling cigarettes, candy, shaving cream, nightgowns, chewing gum, movies, sex; sex without organs, drier than sand and more secret than death. The train stopped. A white boy and a white girl got on.  She was nice, short, svelte. Nice legs. She was hanging on his arm.  He was the football type, blond, ruddy. They were dressed in summer clothes. The wind from the doors blew her print dress. She squealed, holding the dress at the knees and giggled and looked at him. He said something I didn’t catch and she looked at me and the smile died.  She stood so that she faced him and had her back to me. I looked back at the ads. Then I hated them. I wanted to do something to make them hurt, something that would crack the pink-cheeked mask. The white boy and I did not look at each other again.  They got off at the next stop.

I wanted to keep on drinking. I got off in Harlem and went to a rundown bar on Seventh Avenue. My people, my people. Sharpies stood on the corner, waiting.  Women in summer dresses pranced by on wavering heels. Click clack. Click clack.  There were white mounted policemen in the streets. On every block there was another policeman on foot.  I saw a black cop.

God save the American republic.

The juke box was letting loose with “Hamps’ Boogie.” The place was jumping, I walked over to the man.

“Rye,” I said.

I was standing next to somebody’s grandmother.  “Hello, papa. What you puttin’ down?”

“Baby, you can’t pick it up,” I told her.  My rye came and I drank.

“Nigger,” she said, “you must think you’s somebody.”

I didn’t answer.  She turned away, back to her beer, keeping time to the juke box, her face sullen and heavy and aggrieved.  I watched her out of the side of my eye.  She had been good looking once, pretty even, before she hit the bottle and started crawling into too many beds. She was flabby now, flesh heaved all over in her thin dress. I wondered what she’d be like in bed; then I realized that I was a little excited by her; I laughed and set my glass down.

“The same,” I said.  “And a beer chaser.”

The juke box was playing something else now, something brassy and commercial which I didn’t like. I kept on drinking, listening to the voices of my people, watching the faces of my people.  (God pity us, the terrified republic.)  Now I was sorry to have angered the woman who still sat next to me, now deep in conversation with another, younger woman.  I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me part of the life around me.  But there was nothing except my color.  A white outsider coming in would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar, perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes.  But the people here knew differently, as I did.  I didn’t seem to have a place.

So I kept on drinking by myself, saying to myself after each drink, Now I’ll go.  But I was afraid; I didn’t want to sleep on Jules’s floor; I didn’t want to go to sleep.  I kept on drinking and listening to the juke box.  They were playing Ella Fitzgerald, “Cow-Cow Boogie.”

“Let me buy you a drink,” I said to the woman.

She looked at me, startled, suspicious, ready to blow her top.

“On the level,” I said.  I tried to smile.  “Both of you.”

“I’ll take a beer,” the young one said.

I was shaking like a baby.  I finished my drink.

“Fine,” I said.  I turned to the bar.

“Baby,” said the old one, “what’s your story?”

The man put three beers on the counter.

“I got no story, Ma,” I said.


*”Previous Condition” c 1948 was originally published in “Commentary“. Copyright renewed. Collected in “GOING TO MEET THE MAN“, published by Vintage Books and Penguin Books. Used by arrangement with the James Baldwin Estate.

The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017

Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty

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