At Nick’s restaurant and saloon, a motley crew of individuals from all walks of life gathers to pass the time, converse, philosophize, seek employment, and fall in love. These colorful, odd characters all have their histories and idiosyncrasies. Joe, for example, sends Tom on errands to purchase toys—not for a child but for Kitty Duval, a woman who cannot stop crying. Tom grumbles that Joe is always making him do things that end up embarrassing Tom. When Kitty, a streetwalker who formerly performed in burlesque theaters, enters the saloon, Joe buys her a bottle of champagne as if she were royalty—a gesture that makes Nick exclaim that Joe is crazy.
Other strange characters who enter the saloon are Dudley and Harry. Dudley constantly telephones Elsie Mandelspiegel from the restaurant and begs her to marry him; Harry is determined to relieve the world’s sorrow by becoming a famous comedian. Another newcomer who arrives on the scene is Wesley, a gifted black musician with a flair for the piano. Nick, the owner of the saloon, is dumbfounded at the eccentric people who frequent his establishment. Joe makes Nick stock expensive champagne although the place is a dive. Kitty expects the others to treat her like an elegant lady.
Comedians and musicians beg to make their debuts at Nick’s obscure old honky-tonk. The customers and visitors feel a sense of belonging and experience a sense of home. At Nick’s saloon, they feel secure and protected from the hostile outside world. There they encounter the acceptance, friendship, generosity, and goodwill that they do not get from the world at large, a world that appears to them mad and absurd.
A threat to Nick’s restaurant, and thus to the modicum of happiness it brings to its customers, comes from Blick, a police detective who suspects the saloon to be a den of prostitution. Nick warns Blick that his moral earnestness for reform is doomed, saying that Blick is “out to change the world from something bad to something worse.” In defending his saloon, home and haven to a motley crew of humanity, Nick notes that although the restaurant is in the worst part of town, no one has been murdered, robbed, or cheated on his premises in five years. He refers to his honky-tonk as a humble, honest place, saying that his patrons “bring whatever they’ve got with them and they say what they must say.”
Several of the characters who frequent Nick’s saloon explain their thoughts and feelings. Krupp, a disillusioned policeman, is disturbed by the corruption and avarice of the world, the inability of humans to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, such as taking a walk. He comments: “Here we are in this wonderful world, full of all the wonderful things—here we are—all of us, and look at us. . . . We’ve got everything, but we always feel lousy and dissatisfied just the same.” Arab summarizes his whole life as an existence of unending hard work: “Work. All my life, work.” He finds life inscrutable and incomprehensible, repeating, “No foundation. All the way down the line.” McCarthy, a longshoreman, also has much to say. He believes that each person has a choice to be a “heel” or a “worker,” confessing, “I haven’t the heart to be a heel, so I’m a worker.” A great reader, McCarthy expounds on poetry, William Shakespeare, communism, and writers. He theorizes that all maniacs once aspired to be writers. Failing in their great ambitions, they changed their careers “by becoming important heels.” Those who cannot be Shakespeare become senators or communists.
Although these diverse characters come...
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from varied backgrounds and have different ambitions and philosophies, it is clear that a common humanity unites them. At the core of these individuals dwells a simple goodness that transcends the political and economic problems of the world and the chaos of life. Tom expresses his heartfelt gratitude for Joe’s kindness, especially the brotherly care Joe gave him in a time of illness: “You made me eat all that chicken soup three years ago when I was sick and hungry.” Joe fondly remembers the magic of toys that cured the tearful times of his childhood; thus he urges Tom to take toys to the distressed Kitty in the hope that they will again effect a miraculous cure. Joe also encourages a romance between Kitty and Tom, hiring an automobile for them in which they ride to the ocean, where they watch the sunset and delight in the pleasure of dancing. This time, out of the generous goodness in his heart, Joe goes on an errand for Tom.
The customers in the saloon protect Kitty when she is pursued by Blick and his vice squad. When Blick interrogates her and learns that she was an actress who performed in burlesque theaters, Blick demands that she mount the stage and dance for his pleasure, shouting for her to take off her clothes. Joe, Wesley, Nick, and others rise to her defense and honor her dignity. Their essential decency transforms the lowly saloon into a noble, chivalrous institution. Although Nick warns Blick that he had better leave, the detective is determined to make his arrest and destroy the humane world of the saloon. Suddenly, there is a gunshot. Kit Carson, who tells tall tales in the saloon (for example, he once fought a six-footer with an iron claw for a hand), has fired a gun. The teller of tall tales who boasts about herding cattle on a bicycle states the simple truth: “Killed a man once, in San Francisco, name of Glick or Blick or something.” Kit Carson’s crazy statement and wild shooting make more sense than a policeman’s arrest of a lawbreaker.