Shuffle Back to Buffalo

by Emanuel Fried

0ff I'm gonna shuffle. . . . Off I'm gonna shuffle . . . shuffle back to Buffalo. Wagon wheels, wagon wheels, keep on turning, wagon wheels . . . buh‑hus wheels, buh‑hus wheels, keep on turning, buh‑hus wheels . . . car‑reeee meeeee ho‑o‑o‑ome.

The bus roared along the snow‑covered highway, bringing home the scarred wreck—the prodigal son who had left the protecting confines of his parents' roof to crash the big lights of the big city.

Snow . . . small towns . . . whizz and gone . . . dead. Pull in the sidewalks at nine o'clock. What if he got off at a small jerkwater town and disappeared? Who would miss him? His friends? Friends? What friends?

Seven years ripped up, torn apart, and gone. Seven years of hell. The theater . . . the theater. Bright lights of Times Square. Put my name up in bright lights. I'm going to be the greatest actor in the world. Who needs money? Pooh‑pooh. It's determination that counts. I'll rip New York City up by the roots and balance it on the small finger of my left hand. I'll take the whole Broadway theater district and shove it into my vest pocket. What if I only have two dollars to start with? I'll get there by wiggling my thumb. Going toward New York City, mister? Who needs money? Seven years of hell. Hurrah for the stage. Stop crying. It's all over. Wipe the books clean. Relax . . . if you can.

Go‑o‑o‑ing home . . . go‑o‑o‑ing home . . . shuffle back to Buffalo . . . shuffle back to Buffalo. God, the pain in the head. Skyrockets shooting Northern Lights at an exploding torpedo. Hang on. Dynamite in his head. You'll blow into a million pieces. Hang on. Shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle.

Seven years . . . famine and plenty . . . plenty and famine . . . wine, women, and song. . . Wheeeeeeeeeeeee . . . Nuts! Money . . . fifty a week . . . sixty . . . seventy . . . one hundred and fifty a week . . . sixty . . . seventy . . . one hundred and fifty . . . show closed . . . notice on the board at the stage door . . . walking Times Square . . . tired . . . shoes wearing out . . . coffee and cake . . . broke . . . no work . . . no shows . . . not the type . . . too young . . . too old . . . too tall . . . too short . . . too fat . . . too thin . . . not the type . . . broke . . . cheap hotel . . . small furnished room . . . smaller room . . . still smaller . . . empty tenement room . . . walk up six flights . . . spring and mattress . . . box . . . beer barrel . . . latest Queen Victoria furniture.

No cigarettes . . . no butts . . . eight dollars a week . . . unemployment insurance.

The pain in his head. Shuffle back to Buffalo . . . shuffle back to Buffalo. . . . Ho‑o‑ome on the range. . . . Hang on. Don't explode. You'll disturb the other passengers. How peacefully they sleep.

Weeks with nothing to eat but raw carrots, raw cabbage, canned sauerkraut, bread, and potatoes, rationed out in tiny quantities, stretched out over the long dragging days. Burning hunger in the stomach. Long days of emptiness and futility. Not enough courage to get out of bed and face the world. Lying in bed all through the day with the blinds drawn to keep out the hated sunlight, wanting darkness, wanting to hide from the hated world, wanting to cut off every connection with the hated people. A stranger in the world, hating everything, hating everyone. Every man his enemy plotting to bring him greater bitterness and unhappiness.

You are a Jew. Remember that. You are a Jew. You're different. You're a dirty kike. You heard them when they said, "Stop Jewing down the price." The penalty of being a Jew and not looking like a Jew. You hear what you never should hear. "You a Jew? G'wan, you're as Irish as Paddy's pig." No, I'm a Jew.

You lost respect for yourself. You hated the Jews. You hated yourself. You were one of a hated race and you couldn't understand why. People are cruel. Father always gave money to all charities. He was one of the kindest of men. He never asked what church a man went to. He gave to all charities, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, or Holy Roller. Yet when a woman lost her purse, she accused him of taking it and called him a cheap, stealing, chiseling, dirty kike, and then she found her purse in the A&P store where she left it. And you hated yourself because you were Jewish. You ran away to hide behind the greasepaint of the theater.

The name you took . . . Clyde Colburn . . . glittering, brittle, artificial . . . not Jewish . . . . Clyde Colburn with a phoney British accent. Then sick of that yourself . . . Theodore Matthews . . . not so glittering, brittle, artificial . . . . but still definitely not Jewish. . . . very much Anglo Saxon. But you were always Jewish. A Christ‑killer.

What a farce! A living drama in one long drawn‑out act. My father and mother? They're dead. They were both atheists and they brought me up with a complete contempt for religion. I don't believe in religion. It causes nothing but hatred between people. My grandparents? They were atheists, too. All my relatives as far back as I can remember have been atheists.

The pain in the head swelling like a balloon. A pin‑prick and explosion.

And the women . . . the dear women. How they loved your act. Poor boy . . . so bitter . . . so frustrated . . . so disillusioned . . . so romantic. I want to mother you and protect you . . . you're so unhappy. . . . I love you, I love you, I love you . . . . I'm the only one who really understands you . . . I can make you happy. . . . I know you act crazy like you do because you're unhappy . . . you really love me. . . . I know you really love me. . . . I know you do. . . . I know you do. The dear women.

Goodbye to the dear women. Back to Buffalo and respectability. My home . . . my native land . . . no‑man's land. . . . Shoot me like a stranger . . . do not hang me like a dog . . . for I fought for Irish freedom on that cold September morn . . . . The prodigal returns . . . the failure. . . . With a song on my lips and a melody in my heart. . . . Stop singing. Stop singing to yourself. You'll go nuts. But the dear women would love you more than ever. Poor boy . . . so bitter . . . so disillusioned . . . so romantic . . . I love you . . . I want to mother you.

Dear Betty . . . the Long Island Catholic convert. She felt so good after confession. He waited in the church while she went into the little booth. The black curtain was drawn and she confessed all her sins. Sunday mass . . . the priest with his richly colored robes . . . the smell of incense . . . the flickering flames of the candles . . . a feeling of mystery and awe giving a pleasure that he could not explain. He liked being in church, but it was something completely apart from the religion itself. Did Betty ever confess that she was cheating on her successful businessman fiance? It was so much more romantic to make love with a poor young actor. Five years since he saw Betty. Was she married?

Mona Lita . . . featured in the Dance of the Seven Veils at a fifteen­cent burlesque house . . . college graduate . . . graduate of Academy of Dramatic Art . . . fatalist . . . what will happen will happen . . . rationalizing her twisted life. I'll live with you but don't fall in love with me. I'm too old for you. I'm almost old enough to be your mother. You're so cute. Give me a big hug. Now don't fall in love with me. We'll just be good friends and when the show closes and you leave town we'll forget each other completely. No strings . . . eight weeks together at the hotel . . . no strings . . . show closed . . . goodbye, Mona . . . maybe we'll run into each other on Times Square ten years from now. Never saw her dance.

Women, women, women. What were you looking for? Love? Hee-haw, don't make me laugh. Ring around the rosy from one bed to another. And now goodbye to the dear women. Goodbye to Bohemia. Hello, Buffalo. Hello, respectable middle class. Oh, Christ, what's going to happen when I get home? Will I be able to stand that goddamn middle‑class respectability?

Goodbye, Virginia . . . usherette at the theater in Chicago . . . Catholic apostate. I got tired of the Catholic church, so I joined the Episcopal. I think it's much more refined. Are you going home to Mona Lita now? I don't blame you. A man has to. But a woman must wait until she's married. A woman can't afford to ruin her reputation. Good night. Please don't fall in love with Mona Lita. I love you. I'll always love you. . . . Merry Xmas from Virginia . . . every year . . . forwarded from address to address . . . Merry Xmas late in January . . . Merry Xmas from Virginia . . . . I still love you.

Why didn't he love her? He didn't know. He wanted to but he just couldn't. What a mix‑up. In bed with one woman . . . thinking of another woman . . . in love with neither of them. Crazy . . . mad . . . insane.

Then "Georgie" Brown . . . cashier at the Sloan House in New York . . . half‑Jewish . . . played down Jewish side, thinking she was going out with a non‑Jew . . . father a minister who quit the pulpit and ran away, disappearing forever from his family when at the age of forty‑two he was told by his doctor that he was permanently impotent. I can't marry you, Georgie, I'm sorry, sorry as all hell. I can't help it, I don't love you. I'm sorry. I know you don't care if I'm sorry or not. I know it doesn't do any good. But I'm sorry. I really am sorry. Please, Georgie, please. Don't, don't. No, you're drunk. You're drunk. You'll be sorry tomorrow. What good will it do to jump out the window? No, I won't let you go. No, you're drunk. I don't mean to hurt you. I won't let you go. I'm not worth it. I'm no good, Georgie, I'm rotten. I don't want to hurt you. just lay still on the floor. What good will it do to jump out the window? Tomorrow you'll be sober and you'll be glad that you're rid of me. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't love you. I can't help it. Honest, I'm sorry as all hell. Now she's married and lives out in Flushing, happy with her husband and two kids, a boy and a girl. That's life. Did I love you, Georgie, or didn't I? Christ, I don't know. I don't know anything. I'm completely lost.

So many girls. So many girls. What a stupid life, glorying in going to hell, in being depraved.

Frenchy, the honky‑tonk cabaret dancer, whom he almost killed when he caught her in bed with his roommate. He almost killed both of them.

Lenore, the small‑town teacher he met at a summer camp, who confided that she was tortured with desire for the older boys in her classes during the long, lonely months that she was cooped up in a narrow‑minded small‑town community that did not permit its teachers to have dates or drink or smoke in public.

Billie who came to him one night after her husband left her for another woman and cried that she had always loved him and not her husband.

Peggy who got drunk and slapped his face when he refused to go into the house with her. Then when he went into the house, she threw up all over both of them while they were lying in bed.

Lisette who was committed to Bellevue on her own request to be cured of nymphomania.

Beautiful Janice, the college student, who sincerely loved him and who went home to Toronto to get away when he said that he did not love her. He could have loved her, but it was too late then. She was too good and clean to be involved with someone like him.

And through all the hell of it, seeking, searching, driving, trying to find something, yearning with an ache that kept him awake night after night, that forced him to walk the streets from Times Square to the Village and back again until the sun started to rise, that cornered him in his small furnished room and filled him with a hatred for himself and the women, that pained him until he beat his clenched fists fiercely against his forehead like a madman. If only he could find someone to love, someone to love him, someone he could love, someone to fill the emptiness that was driving him mad, someone to purge the rottenness that weighed him down with a complete contempt for himself and all his life.

And now home again. A failure in the eyes of his friends. Friends? Did he have any friends anymore? Could he speak to the gang he used to know? Carly who sells shirts? Duke who hangs around the dance halls and sells suits? Hank who clerks in a credit jewelry store and is married and has three kids? Gus who made a fortune selling apples on the wholesale market? Polly who is married and runs a beer joint with his old man? Can you go away for seven years and then return at the age of twenty‑seven after spending some of the most impressionable years of your life in the drab emptiness of the New York furnished room area and the decadent drunken barrooms of Greenwich Village, living a life that you yourself are ashamed of, and then return and fit in with those who still sell shoes and hats and go to a movie once a week for their entertainment like they did seven years ago?

And the political side? Would his politics fit in here? In the crush of poverty he had gained a new outlook on people and their relationship to one another. There are the rich and the poor and never the twain shall meet. There are those who work themselves to live and those who work others to live. He sided wholeheartedly with the former. He had learned about progressive trade unionism. This side of his life had been the one thing he held onto, the raft that held his head above water, the wall that kept him from drifting into the swampy morass of emotional breakdown. He had performed and written sketches and monologues for unions and, as one apart, looked at these people who worked hard for their living. He admired their health, their successful approach to life, their ability to face life without all the inner self‑torture and mad whippings of the mind. He had wanted to be one of them, but he could never break through the barrier that existed between them.

The life of the theater with its endless search for jobs, its petty goals, its shallow people, and its poverty finally filled him with disgust. He was going home.

Every turn of the wheel brought him closer to Buffalo, closer to the final showdown, the final crisis. Could he stand it? Could he bear living at home again with his family after all those years of unlicensed freedom. He would have to cut out the drunken debauches and the excess of women. He would have to get a job, a job where he would get up in the morning at a time he would usually just be retiring in New York. He would have to work at least eight hours a day, grinding away at a job that he might not like, earning his daily bread like the majority of the people.

Was this the way out? Would this remove the painful pressure that pressed against his head like a tumor on the brain? Would this take away the heavy sad ache that always had him crying inside the frozen face he maintained in the face of the outside world? Would this turn him inside out and make him face the world and deal with it objectively as it is instead of crying because it isn't different? Would this turn his whole emotional adjustment upside down and fix him up so he could fall in love with one woman and stay in love with her for more than six months?

God, God Almighty, to face it, to face it once and for all and forever overcome it. To face what? To face life. That was it. To stop running away. I am a Jew. That is definite. That is a fact. That is nothing to be ashamed of. So some Jews may be chiselers. But it is not a matter of religion. A man in business often learns to chisel. It doesn't matter what his religion is. A businessman sometimes has to chisel or go out of business. I am a Jew. I will not be a businessman. I will be a Jew. Goodbye to Theodore Matthews. He's dead back in New York City. Hello, Buffalo. Your yiddishe sonny boy comes home again.

Off I'm gonna shuffle . . . shuffle back to Buffalo. Williamsville. It won't be long now. Come to me where moonbeams light Tahitian skies . . . and the starlit waters . . . . Christ Almighty, here it comes . . . Main Street. The prodigal son returns . . . the failure . . . laugh behind his back . . . laugh . . . who cares? Find a job in a factory. Get to work. The hell with them all. Get back to earth. The Dellwood Dance Hall . . . still dancing . . . remember the blonde you picked up with the gang . . . kicked her out of the car in Angola and let her walk home. Off I'm gonna shuffle . . . shuffle back to Buffalo. Goodbye, Broadway. Hello, Main Street.

Here it is. God, hold my hand. My home, my native land . . . Buffalo, the City of Good Neighbors. Get out the golden key. The prodigal son returns. Back I'm gonna shuffle . . . back I'm gonna shuffle . . . back I'm gonna shuffle . . . back I'm gonna shuffle. For Christ's sake, take off the record. There's the dime‑a‑dance place you went to when you were just sixteen . . . girl from Kentucky with Southern accent clipped you for ten bucks . . . the front is boarded up . . . where do the girls go to work when dime-a‑dance places are boarded up?

Oh, God, I'm scared. Buffalo . . . shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle . . . shuffle. The pain in the head. Shuffle my native land . . . my home . . . my native land . . . the home of the brave and the land of the free . . . the land of the home and the brave of the free . . . the free of the land and the brave of the home . . . . Christ, Christ, Christ, here it is . . . here it is. Here I come . . . ready or not. So open up those go‑o‑o‑o‑o‑olden gay‑ya‑a‑a‑a‑ates. With‑ow‑w‑w‑wut a shir‑r‑r‑r­rt.

The bus rolled into the station and he saw his brother‑in‑law and his sister waiting to meet him.

SOURCE: Fried, Emanuel. "Shuffle Back to Buffalo", in: Meshugah and Other Stories (Buffalo, NY: Textile Bridge Press / Labor Arts Books, 1982), pp. 16-24. The stories in this book were originally written in 1941 and published in Upstate, a mimeographed literary magazine published by the late George Poole, his wife Charlotte, and Emanuel Fried.

©1941, 1982, 2003 Emanuel Fried. All rights reserved.

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