Authors: James Baldwin
Ida stepped up to the microphone. “This song is for my brother,” she said. She hesitated and looked over at Vivaldo. “He died just a little before Thanksgiving, last year.” There was a murmur in the room. Somebody said, “What did I tell you?”— triumphantly; there was a brief spatter of applause, presumably for the dead Rufus; and the drummer bowed his head and did an oddly irreverent riff on the rim of his drum:
klook-a-klook, klook-klook, klook-klook!
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
Her eyes were closed and the dark head on the long dark neck was thrown back. Something appeared in her face which had not been there before, a kind of passionate, triumphant rage and agony. Now, her fine, sensual, free-moving body was utterly still, as though being held in readiness for a communion more total than flesh could bear; and a strange chill came into the room, along with a strange resentment. Ida did not know how great a performer she would have to become before she could dare expose her audience, as she now did, to her private fears and pain. After all, her brother had meant nothing to them, or had never meant to them what he had meant to her. They did not wish to witness her mourning, especially as they dimly suspected that this mourning contained an accusation of themselves— an accusation which their uneasiness justified. They endured her song, therefore, but they held themselves outside it; and yet, at the same time, the very arrogance and innocence of Ida’s offering compelled their admiration.
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Take my hand, lest I fall,
The applause was odd— not quite unwilling, not quite free; wary, rather, in recognition of a force not quite to be trusted but certainly to be watched. The musicians were now both jubilant and watchful, as though Ida had abruptly become their property. The drummer adjusted her shawl around her shoulders, saying, “You been perspiring, don’t you let yourself catch cold”; and, as she started off the stand, the piano-player rose and, ceremoniously, kissed her on the brow. The bass-player said, “Hell, let’s tell the folks her
.” He grabbed the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to Miss Ida Scott. This is her first—
” and he mopped his brow, ironically. The crowd laughed. He said, “But it won’t he her last.” The applause came again, more easily this time, since the role of judge and bestower had been returned to the audience. “We have been present,” said the bass-player, “at an historic event.” This time the audience, in a paroxysm of self-congratulation, applauded, stomped, and cheered.
“Well,” said Vivaldo, taking both her hands in his, “it looks like you’re on your way.”
“Were you proud of me?” She made her eyes very big: the curve of her lips was somewhat sardonic.
“Yes,” he said, after an instant, gravely, “but, then, I’m always proud of you.”
Then she laughed and kissed him quickly on the cheek. “My darling Vivaldo. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“I’d like,” said Eric, “to add my voice to the general chorus of joy and gratitude. You were great, you really were.”
She looked at him. Her eyes were still very big and something in her regard made him feel that she disliked him. He brushed the thought away as he would have brushed away a fly. “I’m not great yet,” she said, “but I will be,” and she raised both hands and touched her earrings.
“They’re very beautiful,” he said, “your earrings.”
“Do you like them? My brother had them made for me— just before he died.”
He paused. “I knew your brother a little. I was very sorry to hear about his— his death.”
“Many, many people were,” said Ida. “He was a very beautiful man, a very great artist. But he made”— she regarded him with a curious, cool insolence— “some very bad connections. He was the kind who believed what people said. If you told Rufus you loved him, well, he believed you and he’d stick with you till death. I used to try to tell him the world wasn’t like that.” She smiled. “He was much nicer than I am. It doesn’t pay to be too nice in this world.”
“That may be true. But you seem nice— you seem very nice— to me.”
“That’s because you don’t know me. But ask Vivaldo!” And she turned to Vivaldo, putting her arm on his.
“I have to beat her up from time to time,” said Vivaldo, “but, otherwise, she’s great.” He stuck out his hand to the short man, who now stood behind Ida. “Hello there, Mr. Ellis. What brings you all the way down here?”
Ellis raised his eyebrows exaggeratedly and threw out his palms. “What do you think brings me down here? I had an uncontrollable desire to see Sammy’s Bowery Follies.”
Ida turned, smiling, still leaning on Vivaldo. “My God. I saw you down there at the bar, but I scarcely dared believe it was you.”
“None other,” he said, “and you know”— he looked at her with tremendous admiration— “you are an extraordinary young woman. I’ve always thought so. I must say, but now I’ve seen it. I doubt if even you know how great a career is within your grasp.”
“I’ve got an awfully long way to go Mr. Ellis, I’ve got such an awful lot to learn.”
“If you ever stop feeling that way, I will personally take a hairbrush to you.” He looked up at Vivaldo. “You have not called me and I take that very unkindly.”
Vivaldo suppressed whatever rude retort was on his tongue. He said, mildly, “I just don’t think I’ve got much of a future in TV.”
what an abysmal lack of imagination!” He shook Ida playfully by the shoulder. “Can’t you do anything with this man of yours?
does he insist on hiding his light under a bushel?”
“The truth is,” said Ida, “that the last time anybody made up Vivaldo’s mind for him was the last time they changed his diapers. And that was
a long time ago. Anyway,” and she rubbed her cheek against Vivaldo’s shoulder, “I wouldn’t dream of trying to change him. I like him the way he is.”
There was something very ugly in the air. She clung to Vivaldo, but Eric felt that there was something in it which was meant for Ellis. And Vivaldo seemed to feel this, too. He moved slightly away from Ida and picked up her handbag from the table— to give his hands something to do?— and said, “You haven’t met our friend, he just came in from Paris. This is Eric Jones; this is Steve Ellis.”
They shook hands. “I know your name,” said Ellis. “Why?”
“He’s an actor,” said Ida, “and he’s opening on Broadway in the fall.”
Vivaldo, meanwhile, was paying the check. Eric took out his wallet, but Vivaldo waved it away.
heard of you. I’ve heard quite a
about you,” and he looked Eric appraisingly up and down. “Bronson’s signed you for
Happy Hunting Ground
. Is that right?”
“That’s right,” said Eric. He could not tell whether he liked Ellis or not.
“It’s kind of an interesting play,” Ellis said, cautiously, “and, from what I’ve heard of you, it ought to do very good things for you.” He turned back to Ida and Vivaldo. “Could I persuade you to have
drink with me in some secluded,
bar? I really don’t think,” he said to Ida, “that you ought to make a habit of working in such infernos. You’ll end up dying of tuberculosis, like Spanish bullfighters, who are always either too hot or too cold.”
“Oh, I guess we have time for
drink,” said Ida, looking doubtfully at Vivaldo, “what do you think, sweetie?”
“It’s your night,” said Vivaldo. They started toward the door.
“I’d like to mix maybe just a
bit of business in with this drink,” said Ellis.
“I figured that,” said Vivaldo. “What an eager beaver you are.”
“The secret,” said Ellis, “of my not inconsiderable success.” He turned to Ida. “I thought you told me yesterday that Dick Silenski and his wife would be here—?”
Something happened, then, in her face and in his— in his, wry panic and regret, quickly covered; in hers, an outraged warning, quickly dissembled. They entered the wide, hot street. “Eric saw them,” she said, calmly, “something happened, they couldn’t come.”
“The kids got into a fight in the park,” said Eric. “Some colored kids beat them up.” He heard Ida’s breathing change; he told himself he was a bastard. “I left them waiting for the doctor.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” cried Vivaldo, “Jesus! I’d better call them up!”
“That isn’t what you told me, either,” said Ida.
“They weren’t very badly hurt,” said Eric, “just bloody noses. But they thought they’d better have a doctor look at them and of course they didn’t want to leave them alone.”
“I’ll call them,” said Vivaldo, “as soon as we get to a bar.”
“Yes, sweetie,” said Ida, “you’d better do that. What a terrible thing to have happen.”
Vivaldo said nothing; kicked at a beer can on the sidewalk. They were walking west through a dark wilderness of tenements, of dirty children, of staring adolescents, and sweating grownups. “When you say colored boys,” Ida pursued, after a moment, “do you mean that was the
for the fight?”
“There didn’t,” said Eric, “seem to be any
reason. They’d never seen the boys before.”
“I imagine,” said Ida, “that it was in some kind of retaliation— for something some other boys had done to them.”
“I guess that must be it,” said Eric.
They reached the crowded park at the bottom of Fifth Avenue. Eric had not seen the park for many years and the melancholy and distaste which weighed him down increased as they began to walk through it. Lord, here were the trees and the benches and the people and the dark shapes on the grass; the children’s playground, deserted now, with the swings and the slides and the sandpile; and the darkness surrounding this place, in which the childless wretched gathered to act out their joyless rituals. His life, his entire life, rose to his throat like bile tonight. The sea of memory washed over him, again and again, and each time it receded another humiliated Eric was left writhing on the sands. How hard it was to be despised! how impossible not to despise oneself! Here were the peaceful men in the lamplight, playing chess. A sound of singing and guitar-playing came from the center of the park; idly, they walked toward it; they each seemed to be waiting and fearing the resolution of their evening. There was a great crowd gathered in the small fountain; this crowd broke down, upon examination, into several small crowds, each surrounding one, two, or three singers. The singers, male and female, wore blue jeans and long hair and had more zest than talent. Yet, there was something very winning, very moving, about their unscrubbed, unlined faces, and their blankly shining, infantile eyes, and their untried, unhypocritical voices. They sang as though, by singing, they could bring about the codification and the immortality of innocence. Their listeners were of another circle, aimless, empty, and corrupt, and stood packed together in the stone fountain merely in order to be comforted or inflamed by the touch and the odor of human flesh. And the policemen, in the lamplight, circled around them all.
Ida and Vivaldo walked together, Eric and Ellis walked together: but all of them were far from one another. Eric felt, dimly, that he ought to make some attempt to talk to the man beside him, but he had no desire to talk to him; he wanted to leave, and he was afraid to leave. Ida and Vivaldo had also been silent. Now, as they walked from group to singing group, intermittently, through romanticized Western ballads and toothless Negro spirituals, he heard their voices. And he knew that Ellis was listening, too. This knowledge forced him, finally, to speak to Ellis.
He heard Ida. “—sweetie, don’t
“Will you stop calling me
That’s what you call every miserable cock sucker who comes sniffing around your ass.”
you talk that way?”
“Look, don’t you pull any of that
bullshit on me.”
“—you talk. I’ll never understand white people, never, never, never! How
you talk that way? How can you expect anyone else to respect you if you don’t respect yourselves?”
. Why the fuck did I ever get tied up with a
nigger? And I am not
“—I warn you, I warn you!”
the one who starts it! You
“—I knew you would be
“You picked a fine way to keep me from being— jealous, baby.”
“Can’t we talk about it
Why do you always have to spoil everything?”
“Oh, sure, sure, I’m the one who spoils everything, all right!”
Eric said, to Ellis, “Do you think any of these singers have a future on TV?”
“On daytime TV maybe,” Ellis said, and laughed.
“You’re a hard man,” said Eric.
“I’m just realistic,” Ellis said. “I figure everybody’s out for himself, to make a buck, whether he says so or not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just wish more people would admit it, that’s all. Most of the people who think they disapprove of me don’t disapprove of me at all. They just wish that they were me.”
“I guess that’s true,” said Eric— mortally bored.
They began walking away from the music. “Did you live abroad a long time?” Ellis asked, politely.
“About three years.”
“What made you go? There’s nothing for an actor to do over there, is there? I mean, an American actor.”
“Oh, I did a couple of things for American TV.” Coming toward them, on the path, were two glittering, loud-talking fairies. He pulled in his belly, looking straight ahead. “And I saw a lot of theater— I don’t know— it was very good for me.” The birds of paradise passed; their raucous cries faded.
Ida said, “I always feel so
for people like that.”