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DRIFTING INTO A CAREER / Bettina Drew Nelson Algren, author of The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side and the National Book Award-winning Man with the Golden Arm, made himself a voice for the urban dispossessed. Algren graduated from the University of Illinois in 1931, the most stagnant year since the crash. That year, he escaped the mounting financial troubles of his parents—a Chicago mechanic and his domineering wife—to pursue respectability as a journalist. The following selection from A Life on the Wild Side, a forthcoming biography of Algren, describes how his search for work led to poverty, desperation, and finally jail, experiences which enriched his last-resort but inevitable career as a writer and determined forever his resolute stance against the status quo. AMONG THE MULTITUDES hitchhiking along the highways in 1931, Nelson Algren Abraham, standing alongside the road in his graduation suit, must have looked naive and somewhat out of place. Wherever he went, his attempts to find work ended in failure. The newspapers in the small towns suggested he try the big cities; the big cities told him to try the small towns. By now he probably suspected the card from the university certifying him as a journalist was just a gimmick: what did they care if he carried it in his pocket like a fool, waiting at the edge of Route 66 with his thumb stuck out? He seems to have drifted south, through "Little Egypt," where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River in southern Illinois. By boxcar or highway, through East Texas or due south along the Mississippi, he made his way to New Orleans, a city known to tramps as the cheapest in the nation. It was a city that beckoned the jobless: men who came to ship out to sea and women who came to be prostitutes without hope of anything better. They slept in the parks if they were flat broke and in the day walked past balconies with curved iron raiUngs and large windows shuttered against the sun, courtyards alive with flowering vines, the laughing babble of Creole and French. Despite its poverty, there was a slow sophistication about New Orleans that could never stomach the fanaticism of Huey Long, a European atmosphere that had long attracted writers and painters. It was a sensual city and nothing like Chicago. On the wharves, enormous bunches of bananas and huge crates of lemons were unloaded daily, scenting the air and splashing the dockside with color. An aroma of coffee wafted from a now-declining market. There were restaurants "acrawl with the living smells of lobster and shrimp, steaming with simmering oyster stew and awash with gumbo." One 224 · The Missouri Review of Nelson's first memories was of hitting the old French Market at its opening one morning. Eating a poorboy sandwich, he watched a muscled black man, naked to the waist, decapitating huge snapping turtles for soup. He looked on in amazement as the executioner stacked the still-moving bodies into a huge, headless pyramid. Elsewhere in the city jukeboxes played "Walking the Wild Side of Life." Another recollection, of buying a coke in a New Orleans store: a pretty girl came out to serve him—topless. "I just kept looking, like this" (standing rigidly erect, eyes forward). "I said, 'Have you got a Coca-cola? . . . 'I'll drink it here/ " And he drank it, his eyes still staring, unaware ofwhere he was. He was, it seems, in a whorehouse. But to those without money, the gumbos and the pretty girls were beside the point, which was finding a job. When the newspapers as usual yielded nothing, Nelson was willing to do any reasonable work. But there wasn't any. Was he carrying a suitcase? It could always be pawned. He too could sleep on the park benches, but in the morning they were cold and wet with dew. If he hit rock bottom there was a mission serving chicory coffee and coleslaw, but though he may have lived for days on bananas in those early days of 1932, the optimism of his college education, while somewhat tarnished, had not worn off. And then he did find work...


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