Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
Nat Lime, a Jewish liquor dealer in Harlem, is searching for understanding, trying to explain his attraction to African Americans. He begins his monologue by describing his cleaning woman, the kind but puzzling Charity Quietness. He addresses an imaginary audience from his Brooklyn three-room apartment, where he has lived alone since his mother died. On his day off from his liquor store, he eats lunch in his kitchen while his black maid eats in the bathroom.
Although Nat jokes about this absurdity, he is hurt by Charity’s refusal to join him and says that the rejection is her choice. He has offered to let her eat in the kitchen alone, but she prefers lunching in the bathroom. On an earlier occasion she accepted his offer but could not finish her meal. For nearly two years now she has eaten alone in the bathroom. Anticipating his audience’s objections to this point, Nat says, “If there’s a ghetto, I’m the one that’s in it.” As a Jew he has a historical right to define the ghetto, even though his joke implies a more contemporary definition of the word: the urban areas containing large concentrations of minorities.
With Charity, as with the other black people, Nat’s attempt to develop an individual relationship fails, leading him to consider contemporary racial issues. His characteristic response to anything is to analyze it, and he tries to place his personal experiences within a larger context. In his defense, he offers two illustrations of his “fate with colored people.” The first is the memory of his attempt to befriend Buster, a twelve-year-old black boy whose neighborhood bordered Nat’s in prewar Brooklyn. Both were poor. Nat’s father, a garment worker, died when Nat was only thirteen, and his mother sold paper bags on the street until she was stricken with cancer. At ten Nat was obsessed with the differences between his and Buster’s neighborhoods, and he fantasized about them.
His clumsy attempts at closeness led only to one visit to the black family’s home. This was Nat’s introduction to a worse poverty than his, and he found it repellant. Buster rejected Nat’s friendship, leaving Nat puzzled and feeling guilty about having stolen money from his mother to buy movie tickets for Buster and himself. After receiving many gifts, Buster ended their encounters by surprising Nat with a punch in the mouth. Buster’s accompanying personal and racial slurs bewildered Nat, who had felt a kinship with him. Asking what made him deserve such treatment, Nat received no answer. Even at forty-four, Nat does not accept the idea that gifts might be considered bribes instead of tokens of friendship. He tries to make a joke about his own ignorance of Buster’s evident dislike of movies.
Aside from his late mother, Ornita Harris, a black woman, is the only love of Nat’s life. At first, Ornita ignores him when he picks up her glove on the street. Later, when she buys liquor at his store, he recognizes her and gives her a discount. She is cautious about his overtures, being skeptical of “white men trying to do me favors.” After Ornita becomes a regular customer who receives discounts, she eventually goes out with Nat.
As Nat describes their romance, obstacles to interracial relationships and his complex attitude toward black people dominate his story. This Jewish merchant who operates a liquor store in Harlem with “colored clerks” wants to see himself merely as a man trying to romance a woman. Ornita, however, is constantly aware of society’s barriers as she falls in love. After their dates, she insists on taking taxis home, but when a taxi strike forces them to ride the subway and then to walk home, they are assaulted and robbed by three black youths as a kind of punishment. Nat’s attempted explanation of his respect for black people only makes matters worse.
Eventually Nat’s interest in Ornita moves from curiosity to genuine love. His marriage proposal, however, forces her to leave without saying good-bye. When her brother reveals her departure without plans to return, Nat is struck nearly senseless. As he painfully makes his way home, he tries to help a blind black man cross the street and is overpowered by a neighborhood woman who misunderstands his motives. Once again Nat opens himself to physical and psychological pain.