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The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren

Doubleday, 1949

“It’s not hard to mistreat the homeless.”

-Frankie Machine

At the end of the world there’s a city. A hollow place. A metropolis of concrete and stone. An asphalt center. Lonely and ugly. A vacant tomb where people might go. Might run into one and other. Might meet someone for the very first time. Or lose them forever. Possibly forget them altogether. Forget why they came and who they are. You could possibly forget yourself. It’s a gentle place and a savage place and thug-street world that could very well rip your heart out. Steam hisses through the drain holes. Roof tiles plunge like meteorites. Taxis zoom. Cars dart. Road-cycles roar under black girders past the sweet under-things of night. You could get kicked in the head at any moment. Might lose your shoes. Your watch. Your wallet. Belt buckle and briefcase. Might lose yourself completely. If you’re lucky.

Overhead the wavering warning lamps of the El began casting a blood-colored light down the rails to guide the empty cars of evening down the nameless tunnels of the night.

It’s a dark. It’s light. There are winos and hobos there. The street-worn. The shopworn. The tattered and the weary and the falling many. All the dispossessed armies of the night. They deal cards and drink whiskey. Sell their bodies on sidewalks. Sell their souls to any devil bad enough to make them feel good. Shoot their veins with the star-glory. The golden rush. Sweet angel juice. Cut their wrists with sharp dice. Why? Because it feels good. How come? Because everything else sucks. Everything else hurts. Stings. From the ragged first wails of sliding out into this foul world. To the agony of growing up and out of it. The losses and the pain. Freaked-out girlfriends and flophouse boyfriends, dirty dads and dirtier uncles, lost lovers and friends, mothers and cousins and in-laws who slap you everywhere but where it doesn’t hurt. Tramps and bums. Bouncers and boozers. Factory workers and farmers. Miners with black-scorched lungs. Humans. Millions of them. Because no one’s rich enough to live in the big pretty house on the hill, so you had better bunk in this one. It smells. But the alcohol’s cheap and will suck your brain out. Make you forget. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The smell of despair, the odor of whisky and the scent of the night’s ten thousand dancers, the perfume and the powder sprinkled across the deep purple roar of barrelhouse laughter, the armpit sweat cutting the blue cigar smoke and the hoarse cries of those soon to grow hoarser with love, scents and sounds of all things soon to be spread up through a thousand rooms into her own room. Till the drinkers and the dancers, the gamblers and the hustlers and the yearning lovers came dancing and loving, came gambling and hustling in a wavering neon-colored cloud down her walls.

This book made me move to Chicago. Showed me the underside of what life is truly about. Everything else before it was fake. Unreal. Everyone should at least live in a big city once. Everyone should ride the bus. The El. Hang out at train stations, subway stations. Shop in second hand stores. Sleep on park benches. Shopping baskets. Drink beer at noon. Buy drugs on the West Side. Lie on the grass, the broken beach, watch the clouds roll by slowly, see the hustlers and the dreamers, the aching ones, the tired ones, retail workers and shop associates, fast food migrants and sidewalk hookers. The cheap and the poor. The minimum wagers. Minimum lifers. Minimum humans living in a minimum world. The sky breaks open and the rain falls like lead. The thunder slaps. The joints are hoppin’ and the lights on the Jesus sign (or was it the Abbott Hotel?) are buzzing red and hot and wanton and lighting your way along the dark rooftops of nowhere. You can get there fast. You can feel really good. So slip it in.

This was the fellow who looked somehow a little like everyone else in the world and was more real to a junkie than any real man could ever be. The projected image of one’s own pain when that pain has come too great to be borne. The image of one hooked so hopelessly on morphine that there would be no getting the monkey off without another’s help. There are so few ways to help old sad frayed and weary West Side junkies.

“Fix me. Make it stop. Fix me.”

“I’ll fix you dealer.”

How do you learn compassion? Maybe you have to feel first. You have to care. You have to look and you have to watch. You take notes. You ride along. You stop. You reach out your hand. You try to imagine what it’s like. Perhaps you’ve been there before. You learn what it’s like to be another human being. Nelson Algren was a watcher. A looker. A fabulous Mensch. Few writers can make a Jesus out of a Junkie. But Nelson did. This book taught me how to empathize. To understand. Put the whole toilet bowel into perspective. Because it’s a short rope between rich and poor, healthy and sick, ugly and pretty, happy and sad, successful and broken. Who’s the judge? You could very well piss your own pants. Ask for change. Sleep in a box. Will anyone care? I met a real junkie in a very real Chicago shortly after reading this novel (one of life’s mad twists). My heart was broken by his agony. To meet such a kind individual so shattered and alone. I’m still shaking from the misery. Today I’m a better a person because of the experience. Just. But there’s a very, very long way to go.

When she looked up it was a night without a moon and the luminous crucifix on the wall had begun to glow dimly. She wheeled toward its small sorrowing face, wondering that it could seem so filled with some inner motion while the whole great house could seem so still. With no light down Division Street nor either way down the El. . . . Mad, of course, quite mad. The Christ above her eyes, she saw, was no less mad for seeming so gentle: and knew she shared that madness. That she had become wiser and more gentle than anyone in the world for sharing it.

Sleep sad angels of the night, nod off and rest under the moon of the shadowy lands. Stay warm. Dream softly, dream sweetly, the weight of the world sleeps with you. Weeps with you. Sleep, Oh broken, worthy disciples of the night.