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Sue and Johnsy are aspiring young artists who have come to the great city of New York in order to earn their livings at the kind of work they both love. Sue is from Maine. Johnsy came all the way from California. According to the narrator, they met at a restaurant where they both ate their dinners.
They had met at the table d'hote of an Eighth street “Delmonico's,” and found their tastes in art, chicory salad and bishop sleeves so congenial that the joint studio resulted.
It would appear that both Sue and Johnsy had been living alone in furnished rooms, such as those described by O. Henry in another great story, "The Furnished Room." In such rooms it would have been impossible to do any cooking, and it was probably forbidden anyway. So the two girls had to eat out every night, and like a lot of struggling artists they probably only had one good meal a day. When they met at Delmonico's they soon realized that it would be better for both of them in every way if they shared a studio in Greenwich Village. They could save money by doing their own cooking at home, and they could save more money by splitting the rent. It would also be safer for two young women to live together. Both of them are probably having a very hard time surviving in New York City. Things are especially tough when the story opens because Johnsy is sick and can't work at all. Sue is working on some sketches to go with a story to be published in a magazine. As O. Henry notes:
Young artists must pave their way to Art by drawing pictures for magazine stories that young authors write to pave their way to Literature.
Evidently Sue is doing the sketches "on spec." She doesn't know whether the editor will accept them or not. She is a newcomer and does not have any bargaining power with editors. She is under special pressure because she has to do her work while she is nursing and worrying about Johnsy. Sue tells her:
Try to take some broth now, and let Sudie go back to her drawing, so she can sell the editor man with it, and buy port wine for her sick child, and pork chops for her greedy self.”
O. Henry did most of his best writing while he lived and worked in New York from 1902 until his death from alcoholism in 1910. He must have known people like Sue, Johnsy and Old Behrman.
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