“Looking for Mr. Green” by Saul Bellow takes place in Chicago during the Great Depression, around Thanksgiving. In the inciting incident, George Grebe is tasked by his brand new employer, Mr. Raynor (who is younger than 35-year-old Grebe), to deliver relief checks to the black community. Grebe, an instructor of Classical Languages who has been working menial tasks since the Depression hit, wants to do his job well, even though it is not expected by Mr. Raynor. Concerning Grebe’s motivation to perform his low-position well, the text reads,
He wanted to know how quickly he could deliver a batch of checks, he would also know how much time he could expect to clip for himself. And then, too, his clients would be waiting for their money.
Grebe is motivated by the integrity of work ethic. Mr. Raynor warns Grebe that people in the black community will be resistant to helping him search for the people whom the checks are intended for because he is white, and so they will distrust him. He also says they may not answer him because they will think he is a “plain clothes dick” or “an installment collector” or a “summons server.” His advice to Grebe is to ask the postman first if he can. So, without reviewing details of the case, Grebe heads out to search for Mr. Green, expecting some conflict to arise with the locals.
The rising action of the narrative builds as Grebe encounters a variety of people as he searches for Mr. Green. First, he asks the postman, the local grocer, and the janitor. None of them are able to help him, or they are resistant to help him. Grebe cannot be entirely sure if they are answering him honestly or being distrustful, as Mr. Raynor warned.
Next, Grebe explores a shoddy apartment complex using a match to examine the doors for Mr. Green’s name. He finds “scribbles” on the walls, such as “Woody-doody Go to Jesus and zigzags, caricatures, sexual scrawls, or curses.” Finding these scrawls useless, Grebe knocks on a door, and it is opened to a black woman with a “dream-bound, dream-blind face” who holds a man’s jacket pulled around her throat to shut out the bitter cold of the frosty city air. She says she is three weeks new to the apartment and does not know a Mr. Green.
After that, Grebe is admitted into an apartment with 10 people, all of whom aree large men and women in comparison to Grebe. Grebe knows “all the currents run against him”; despite the smiles and general friendly atmosphere of the room, no one can help Grebe, and they seem amused by his persistence in searching for the man. The conflict builds as people are either resistant or unable to help Grebe find Mr. Green.
The story then takes a brief interlude to exposition regarding when Grebe was hired by Mr. Raynor. The atmosphere of the interview was “fun” and laid back—almost uncomfortably so—as Raynor was extremely blunt and asked personal questions of his new employee, who was recommended by an old mutual friend. They discussed the plight of the Great Depression as far as their educations and current income were concerned. Raynor’s law degree earns him a minimal weekly increase of pay compared to Grebe, and both men are working jobs with responsibilities and pay beneath their potential because of the tough economic times.
Grebe begins to question earning his education in Classical Languages during the conversation. He asks,
“Do you think my mistake was terrible?”
“Damn right it was terrible, and you know it now you’ve had the whip of hard times laid on your back. You should have been preparing yourself for trouble.”
A woman named Mrs. Staika interrupts the interview by making a ruckus about the injustice of the relief system. Known as “the blood mother of federal street,” she complains that she has six kids and sells her blood to take care of them while others “lay in their lousy beds and eat the public’s money.” This is a moment of foreshadowing to the circumstances of Grebe finding Mr. Green in the resolution of the story.
The story then leaves the flashback and returns to the search. Grebe asks an Italian grocer if he knows a Mr. Green, but he is answered with a rant about the crime rate in that part of Chicago. Referring to all sexes and ages of black people, he says, “They did every crime and abomination you ever heard of."
Growing frustrated, Grebe decides to look for Winston Field instead of Mr. Green. He finds him easily and spends some time going through the "ceremony" of checking Mr. Fields's identification because Fields insists that his identity be satisfactorily proved before he takes the check. Grebe has the feeling that Fields just wants the company, and it does seem to be the case, because Fields talks quite a bit during their interaction. He tells Grebe his “scheme” for making sixty black millionaires. His plan involves better organization of system and horse racing money, as well as job creation for the black community and small donations by those employees.
After leaving Fields's home, Grebe contemplates the “disorganization” of that “unregulated” part of the city, which is dilapidated and full of shut down factories. As if that part of the city is a microcosm of the economic system during the Great Depression where some are very wealthy and most are very poor, he also thinks about the nonsensical nature of economic systems. In his mind, he compares Fields’s nonsensical scheme to other successful schemes that seem to make just as little sense, but that have been effective. He also contemplates the plights that the poor have accepted.
After six o’clock rolls around, the stubborn Grebe continues to search for Mr. Green. In the climax, he talks to a man on the second floor of the apartment and convinces him to give him information about Mr. Green's whereabouts by complaining about the difficulty of finding someone to give them a relief check. He asks the man what good a name is to a man if it cannot function to identify him. The comment seems to reach the man, and he tells Grebe that Green is on the first floor.
Finding Mr. Green’s place, or at least a place with his name on it, Grebe gives the check to a naked, drunk woman. He fears he has made a mistake in handing the check to someone who may or may not be Mr. Green’s wife, but he did not want to go inside in case he would find Mr. Green drunk and naked in the bedroom. The woman takes the check without assuring him that she is Mr. Green’s wife, and Grebe consoles himself that at least he has been able to find the man by his name.