Down With All Hands

A novelist who lives close to and often writes about Chicago, NELSON ALGREN is best known for his two powerful novels NEVER COME MORNING and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM. Not long ago he had his initial experience as a firstclass passenger on a transatlantic liner, with the following surprising results.


AT PIER 86 a blue-uniformed baggage hustler took both my bags and the electric typer off my hands, and I asked the elevator guy, on the way up, how much does a baggage hustler get per bag?

“He gets what you want to give in your heart,” the guy instructed me.

“I don’t want the man to starve,” I explained. “How much does he get per bag?”

“Let me tell you something?” the guy asked, just as if I could stop him. “The intelligence you breathe, that you were born with, let that be your guide.”

If I were going to keep a count of people I met who were in their right minds on this trip and those who were out of them, I decided, the kooks would already be out in front by one. I gave the baggage hustler a dollar and he looked unworried, so I knew I’d overpaid him. Well, easy come, easy go.

This was the first time I was crossing the Atlantic first class. My ticket assigned me to stateroom S-1, meaning sun deck and first to chow, but a man in a seafaring cap told me my home was now in U-68. I looked around to see if U.S. Lines had put me on a submarine by mistake, but the only raft in sight had three decks above water level, so I realized that what traveling first class means is that even if they put you down in the galleys you still don’t have to row.

I kept going down stairs until I hit the engine room, and, as long as I was there, I felt I might as well inspect the turbines and the rest of that crazy stuff. The stuff looked to be in better shape for a crossing than I was, for I was a mite self-conscious about the pin that kept my topcoat from flapping against my knees. The bottom button had been missing for some time, so I went upstairs again to see if anyone would sew it on. In U-68 I found my bags, but nobody else was home. I went to sleep until I heard someone hollering, All ashore that’s going ashore. Then I looked out of the porthole and saw the whole New York literary scene moving past.

I had seen it closer up than I’d ever see it again, and having come to know two crowds there, one around Broadway that takes a cut off the commerce in fighters and horses, the other that takes its cut off the commerce in books, I had found the track crowd a more trustworthy bunch than the “Have you read Norman Marathon lately?” crowd. Not only because they drank less and knew more, but because, by and large, they were more true to themselves than the bookmen. The sporting people seldom pretended to be something they were not, whereas I had never known a junior editor who knew who he was, and becoming a senior editor only seemed to compound the corruption. I mention this only to explain why the bottom button of my topcoat was missing.

As the sun sank slowly over Manhattan and I watched vigilantly for the Statue of Liberty out of The wrong side of the ship, a deck steward entered. I told him the object in the brown metal box was an electric typewriter so he wouldn’t try to feed it, and he suggested I go up on the sports’ deck.

“I didn’t even know you had one,” I told him, for the news came as a pleasant surprise. How the naan could tell I’d played poker the night before I still don’t know. I went up to look around.

Sure enough, there w as a young couple leaning on the rail waiting for a game, so I just leaned on the rail beside them and didn’t say anything. If they wanted a game, they’d have to make the first move. Neither one said anything, so I thought, You both look like poor losers to me anyhow, and went to a part of the rail I could call my own. There I looked down at the water and let memories flood in.

Like the time the MPs pinched the chaplain for auctioning off the ambulance, or the time in Marseilles, just before embarking, when I got the letter saying, Honey, don’t come back. Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder for somebody else, is what I always say. But after a while I got tired of saying it, so I went back down to U-68 to see how much the steward had gotten for my clothes.

Apparently he hadn’t even had a decent bid, because all he’d done was bang up my topcoat, a new experience for us both. If I had a needle and thread I’d sew you up myself, you sonofabitch, I told it, so at least you’d bang straight; you’re trying to make people think I’m a bum. I went to the mirror and. sure enough, I’d made it.

It wasn’t because I needed a shave so much that I made my next move, but out of curiosity about whether the electric razor would work on the bathroom current. It worked fine, so I cleared the dresser, took the typer out of its kennel, and plugged in. At the first jump of smoke I thought, Women and children first, but after I got the plug loose it kept jumping smoke at me, and if that wasn’t lead I smelled burning I can whip Chico Vejar. A lucky thing I didn’t bring a dish dryer, I thought, half the crew would have been washed overboard.

“Your dirty current blew up my nice typewriter,” I accused the steward, but he looked as if he’d anticipated that event. “Lots of people do that lately,” he assured me contentedly.

It just goes to show you, you can’t plug a typewritcr into the S.S. Meyer Davis and expect good sesults. It just wasn’t a friendly ship, that was all there was to it.

SHOULD evening ever bring you the need of an apple at sea, either go to bed or keep your fat mouth shut. All I did was to make some casual inquiry about where I might buy one and go for a short stroll, to find, on returning, a basket heaped with apples, three hues of grapes, pears, bananas, oranges, kumquats, and litchi nuts. My first thought was that I must have an admirer aboard, probably the captain.

Now, if I could smuggle this heap down to tourist class, I thought, I might make the price of my ticket back by the greatest seagoing financial coup on record. Finally, I felt I was being treated better than I, or anyone, deserved. A feeling from which I recovered swiftly by eating my way through the heap down to the wood. It didn’t occur to me that this could happen twice in my life. Actually, it happened thereafter every time I left U-68. I couldn’t take a ten-minute stroll without returning to find a basket of flora transported from the gardens of four continents to rot in my stateroom. Either I was being secretly watched or the Stull was growing out of the wall.

Once, however, I became accustomed to the admiration implicit in the presentation of these baskets, it was like a sudden backhand slap when one showed up definitely short one kumquat. Let the chef collar the clown who perpetrated this cruel mockery or come in and be flogged himself, was my thinking in the matter. Yes, and be damned to the cowardly rabble traveling second and third class over my strictly first-class sea.

Had I only been able to sustain this mood and had I only learned a few words of French, I might easily have qualified as a drama critic for Partisan Review or a mutuel clerk at a fifty-dollar window. I might even have been able to hold both jobs, because men are needed in both these lines. And not everyone is presentable enough to qualify. But the mood was melted by the strains, faint yet clear, of Meyer Davis’ orchestra swinging Drink, Drink, Drink to Old Heidelberg — it was teatime in the cocktail bar and teatime in the lounge! leatime in the powder room and in the hearts of men. For who can hold bitterness in his heart when music like that comes along?

“Oh, good for you, kindly Meyer Davis and your kindly orchestra,” I thought and hurried to the lounge.

I loved that lounge because it was there that some of the most right-thinking people aboard were to be found, drinking tea just as that evening sun went down. I didn’t even mind when the evening sun sank, because then the lights came up and I could see them all better. In fact, I was so moved by the consciousness of being among these great-souled men and women that, when the music stopped, I planted myself directly beneath the orchestra. “As for Meyer Davis orchestra, announced, “I say hurrah!”

The ladies joined me in three rousing cheers for Meyer Davis and I retired, assured that Mr. Davis was pleased to have found so frank an admirer aboard his ship.

EVERYONE wanted to know, in a sort of teatime huff, What is she so quiet about, Why don’t she say something? Why they figured the poor broad should make more noise than anyone else because she was a duchess I couldn’t quite catch.

But there she’d be, evening after evening, waiting for the duke to finish his creamed spinach so She could get started on her sirloin. The duke had had his quota of sirloins by the time she was born and must have been over the hill even then. Now only God and creamed spinach were keeping him pasted together. But, for some reason, he didn’t want to fall apart till he was eighty-two. What his reasoning was, I don’t know. But if he had more than three days to go, his reasoning was faulty.

Nobody held the duke’s extreme age against him but myself. It was the little broad that had the nerve to sit there as if she wasn’t yet thirty, when everyone knew she was every day of thirty-four, that made the ladies so salty. Myself, I didn’t dare to say she hardly looked twenty-six.

In fact, I approved of the match from her standpoint, which seemed to be the only tenable one. What was the difference who spooned spinach to the duke the last week before he was buried? was how I felt. Either he had had it or he hadn’t, and if he hadn’t, not even Meyer Davis could help him. If I pulled a chair up beside hers to ask, “Baby, exactly what are your plans?”, it would show her whose side I was on. But I never got around to it, being too diverted by the carryingson of my own table.

At the head of it, in full command, was a seagoing Fatty Arbuckle, a ship’s officer who looked like he’d lived on gold braid and some of the threads had caught on his sleeves. Since he was at the head and I was at the foot, there was no chance of pasting him one without knocking over the ffoweis. He took an immediate liking to me, too.

“Try the gin-ger, it’s tan-gy.” Fatty would recommend a dish of sweets to Mrs. Di Santos, and then leave his mouth hanging, tongue thrust into his cheek in a way that made me want to eat snake. The first time he pulled this on me I got a better grip on my fork in case he came closer. I thought he was after my salad. When you’re a victim of overprivilege, you have to be ready for anything.

(The way you know you are traveling first class, really first class, is by the way the olive looks up at you, when the glass is gone dry, with a special appeal, saying, “Please eat me.” Another way you know is by the way the waves back off, bowing, across a strictly first-class sea. It may look a bit rough and wild for the brutes two decks below, and if it isn’t, the crew is entitled to knock them about a bit. Otherwise, what am I paying for?)

Mrs. Di Santos, a dazzling blonde from the headwaters of the Amazon, sat at the officer’s light. She never showed up till evening, and by that hour was so zonked she had to be strapped into her chair. Everyone, for that matter, had to be strapped, with a view to prevention of personal-injury suits should the tub take a sudden dip, but Mrs. Di Santos would have had to be strapped even on a tennis court.

By the time she came to dinner she had just sense enough left to put stuff in her mouth — if it ran down the inside of her neck, she swallowed. If it didn’t run, she chewed it. She was a healthy young sot who liked the stuff that ran down the inside of her neck better than the stuff she was forced to chew. I think she had real class when sober, but I never saw her asleep.

On Fatty’s other side sat the Connecticut Child, a twenty-year-old of six foot one and a half, poor child, for I took her walking around the deck and she wasn’t wearing high heels. My private guess was that someone had sent her in hope she might gain spirit and elegance. God knows she needed a touch of both. But I couldn’t see how she was going to pick up either while she was sitting at our table. There was nobody there to pick up from. All she could learn was how to pass ginger.

Beside the Connecticut Child sat the Rearechelon Radical, ever ready and always right, a real Fearless Philip, Boy Barrister, of a type usually associated as a junior member with a combination of barracudas called something like Greensponge, Perjuretz, Coldcalk, and O’Posse.

This was a judicial-type phenom, it became too plain, of the kind who sees nothing untenable in demanding that Fagin be presented on television as a Cockney because Cockneys have never suffered a pogrom like us, poor us, even though we were never there ourselves either. Yet we had relatives, we have heard, who were, thus entitling us to draw an exclusive immunity to practice coldcalking shysterism in a strictly legal tradition, poor us.

The Rear-echelon Radical was inevitably against any form of censorship. He was for progress all down the line, of course. Yet you had to be careful about presenting Shylock, lest you give aid to the dark forces allied against Man. It made me wonder what made him think he was on the side of the forces of light. Particularly when he actually didn’t give a hang, one way or another, about what happened to Man any more than he did what happened on the stage. But his operation, with a few loans made from banks at 4 per cent reloaned at 12, required a certain degree of protection, which he drew, as I’ve already said, in the tone of the most fair-minded of men, from the persecutions suffered by others. First class, I ought to have told you before, was purely loaded with liberals.

I like fair-minded people myself, so I felt right home. In fact, I couldn’t have picked a better table to study fair-mindednew in action. I had a ringside seat, as it were. Because nobody is more fair-minded than a fair-minded man deciding whether he wants Filet avec Champignons done medium rare or rare. And what I liked most about him was that he didn’t mind keeping the rest of the table waiting at the chamber doors while he look the waiter into consultation. With one judicial finger on the menu designating the steak of his ultimate choice, the waiter leaning forward attentively, pencil in hand, the Rearechelon Radical would frown in thought, while the tension around him mounted and spread, till even the duchess, at the next table, would feel it and crane her head about to see what was affecting her neck. When hr had everyone’s attention, he would hand his verdic own: “Mceeee-deeeee yummmm ray-err.”

was done, tension relaxed, conversation up. He was the real thing in rear-echelon radicals all right. I wonder how he got his start,

got start, Then it would be my turn, and since the Connecticut Child seemed to expect something from me. I put a bit of spit on the ball myself. I’d hold the menu close to my eyes, one eye nearly shut, and ask. “What is poissoniere? Immediately everyone would shout in chorus, “Fish" espeMrs. Di Santos.

“Yeah,”I’d answer shrewdly, “but which one?" That menu was an honor roll of the Vasty Deep, Everything that disports itself in the trough of the water or hangs upsy-downsy by eyeless suckers to the roof the deepest sea-sunken cave, that scuttles sidewise across the sands, leaps in a spout of welcome and good cheer to swimmers off Cape God, or comes smiling down the Gulf Stream on its hunkers with no thought of tomorrow was on that card. Yet the best I could do, when I’d got through it at last, was to put it down and mutter, with a bored expression, “Nothing much in the way of sea food tonight, is there?" As if the one chance a person had for a decent meal aboard this tube was to harpoon something himself.

“Try the gin-ger, Gold-braid Fatly proposed, “ot’s tan-gy,”

“What do we do now?" the Connecticut Child asked in a voice she had, for some reason, lowered. “Jump ship and pan for gold,”was the only solution I could think of at the moment.

PALE fruit, blue flowers, and spangled hats loaded the table where we sat, when the night of the gala Captain’s Dinner came around at last. On the balcony just over our heads Meyer Davis and his aides stood ready. Gold-braid Fatty put on the most comical hat of all — and the fun even then had barely begun. I had never seen a table so loaded with favors since the last time I’d played pin the tail on the donkey.

This was it. We were traveling first class at last. We were almost too gay to bear.

Fatty himself, without removing his hat, began hacking at a swordfish as if it had tried to attack him. Mrs. Di Santos was dipping shark’s fin with sherry down her neck in a way that made me glad they’d taken the trouble to pour it into a soup bowl instead of just handing her a fin and a bottle. Sharks wouldn’t be in it with this one, I strongly suspected, if she ever got sober. While the Fairminded Radical was inquiring about red snapper in a way that, had I been his waiter, would have caused me to inquire about him to a red snapper.

In an unprecedented action he had trapped himself between red snapper and lobster. Now he couldn’t move either way because he was committed to lobster if the lobster were fresh and not frozen, and no one, simply no one, knew for an absolute certainty, beyond possibility of doubt, whether the brute was fresh or frozen. It seemed he would take it on contingency if it were, and that was contingent upon how fresh, and just as I figured to solve the whole matter with one straight shot to the jaw, Fatty dispatched the waiter to discover the hour at which the lobster’s death had been registered.

The effect of this production on the Connecticut Child was disastrous, as it intimidated her to the point where she was afraid to order anything at all, lest she commit a misdemeanor. I told her everyone would be impressed if she ordered an eel, my private hope being that they might bring her a black snake by mistake. She liked the idea, but didn’t know how to ask for one.

My own move would have been to go to the rail and holler — maybe one would come in and give himself up. Then the waiter returned with the good news for everyone: a dead lobster they had there had been alive less than an hour before! that case, the Rear-echelon Radical decided, he’d take it after all. Nobody stopped to ask the lobster how it felt about its choice of being scalded death or frozen stiff. Well, that’s how it goes when you’re traveling first class.

Personally, I found myself wishing that the Rearechelon Radical would make up his mind about his own life, which he seemed to be living out on contingency.

The remaining problem, it now seemed to me, was, Here it was only Tuesday, and with waiters clearing dishes covered with remains of haddock and whale, sole, clam, salmon, and eel, would there be enough left out there to go around by Friday? Well, no news is good news, and it takes two to tango.

Now, it turned out, Gold-braid Fatty had fixed things with the kitchen for the surprise du chef. I resolved quietly that as long as I remained ablebodied I wasn’t going to be surprised by so much as a fry cook, not to mention a seagoing chef. But the big news was that the surprise du chef was actually Soufflé Grand Marnier, and upon that announcement Fatty took up a deflated balloon and began stretching it in a fashion that wouldn’t have been so suggestive if he had kept his eyes open and his mouth shut, or the balloon had not been pink, as it was — the effect sustained was of a minor rapture. It really wasn’t necessary, it seemed to me, to put all that into a simple thing like stretching a balloon. “You must have been at sea a long time, sir,” I suggested, nodding toward the balloon to indicate that he couldn’t have managed to stretch a balloon with such skill had he stayed on land.

For reply, Fatty blew the balloon up, tied it to keep it inflated, and then volleyed it toward me in a taunt as gentle as it was contemptuous. I had no choice but to volley it just as gently back.

“That was a good answer, Starbuck,” I had to admit. “If I see white water, I’ll let you know.”

I fought down the temptation to push half a banana into his puss and say, “Call this tangy.” The chief idea, I realized, was to get the hell out of there before the Soufflé Grand Marnier arrived, to be alone with the smoldering remains of my SmithCorona, and I would have made it too, except for the straps of the chair. I was trying to get free without a waiter’s help when Meyer Davis’ orchestra swung into Bluebird of Happiness, the ship hit a long swell, the chair of our High Prince of Creamed Spinach went sliding backward from the duchess with the duke himself still in it. And bravely, proudly, he held his little dish firmly so as to spill none as he went, like a man who knows that no man ever knows how many dishes of spinach are left in his life, while two waiters rushed toward him — though it seemed to me they might just as well have walked. They had almost reached him when the ship rose in the swell and the duke promptly slid back toward the duchess, who hadn’t yet missed him.

That was the moment, it seems to me now, though it is all made misty in memory for being so long ago, that Gold-braid Fatty rose in his seat with a fork gripped firmly in his hand and stabbed the pink balloon. It did not explode, though the faces of everyone at the table were fixed fast upon it. It gently deflated in mid-air, then turned itself into a tiny spill of green-gray dust, ceaselessly spilling over flowers long faded, fruit long decayed, and faces gone fleshless.

And lost and wandering through vast oceanic ages, the voice of the duchess came grieving to me forever:

“What are your plans now, Daddy-o?”

Then downward and down through deeps ever darker^ dark-green to dark-blue to total black, I yet feel the impact as the S.S. Meyer Davis settled slowly upon the emerald sands.

The sea-sunken sea-drifted sands.