Cinderella Man - chapter 2
Newark, New Jersey, September 25, 1933
Jim Braddock looked through the drawers below the same mirror that had shown him the face of a lucky man. Dressing was quick these days: he just put on what Mae had washed or fixed the night before. He didn’t have to kiss his gold cross for luck. He had sold it years ago. Everyone’s luck had gone now-even Jim Braddock’s.
Something moved outside the window, probably a rat. This was just a part of life when you lived in a single room in a dirty, crowded apartment building. Behind Jim, his three hungry children shared a bed in the cold family bedroom. Mae had hung a blanket across the room to turn one room into two.
He looked again at his and Mae’s wedding picture. In the last few years they had lost their house and most of their furniture, but they would always have this. In the picture, Mae looked beautiful; Jim stood next to her, wearing a suit he didn’t own now. The couple in the photo smiled, not knowing the hard future that was ahead. But Jim liked to look at the picture every day. It reminded him of the good things in his life.
He stepped into the kitchen, where Mae was cooking breakfast. She looked different now-thinner, with dark circles under her eyes. But to Jim she was still beautiful.
“I can’t find my socks,” he said.
“Jim!” whispered Mae, but it was too late.
“Mom, I want to eat, too,” said little Rosy, pushing through the blanket. Mae began to cut another thin piece of meat.
“Sorry,” said Jim.
Rosy couldn’t remember living in a big house, surrounded by nice things, with new clothes and plenty of food. The girl climbed onto her father, and Jim held her close to him. He hated seeing his children grow up like this; it was harder than any fight.
“We got a final bill,” said Mae, “for the gas and electricity.”
Jim’s shoulders fell. He took down ajar from the shelf, where they kept their money for a “rainy day.” He shook it and listened to the few coins in the jar.
“It’s clearly been raining more than I thought recently,” he said.
Mae picked up three dishes and put a thin piece of hot meat on each one. Jim began to cut up his daughter’s food.
“I’m fighting Abe Feldman tonight,” he told his wife. He didn’t tell her that Feldman had lost only one fight in nineteen. Instead, he told her what he would earn-fifty dollars, more than he could earn in one whole week on the docks.
Mae couldn’t hide the old fear in her eyes. Since hard times had hit their family-and the whole country-she had started to hate the ring, with its punishments and its empty promises.
“Mommy, I want some more,” said Rosy.
Jim looked at Mae and Rosy with their empty plates. “Mae, I had a dream last night,” he said, standing from the table. “I dreamed that I was having dinner at an expensive hotel, and I had a big, thick steak.” He put on his old coat. “I had so much food, I’m just not hungry now.” He spoke more quietly to his daughter. “Can you help me? Mommy cooked this, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
Rosy wasn’t sure whether to believe him, but Jim moved the meat from his plate to hers. With wide eyes, the child immediately began to eat.
“Jimmy-” Mae began, but he silenced her with a kiss.
You can’t work on an empty stomach, her eyes said to him.
Jim’s answer was simple. “You’re my girls.”
When Jim stepped outside, he remembered that things weren’t so bad for him and his family. Times were even harder for many other people. He walked past old, broken cars next to trash can fires. Those useless cars were homes now, homes to people with no jobs and no hopes.
This part of Newark was very different from Jim’s old leafy neighborhood. Most of the dirty brown and gray buildings around here had broken windows and paint coming off. Most of the stores were closed, and garbage cans lay empty in the street. People threw nothing away these days.
Ten thousand factories in the New York area had been closed down. Everywhere Jim looked, he saw people without jobs. Businessmen, teachers, office workers, lawyers, bankers… all were looking for work. There were men in four-year-old suits, happy to clean a yard for a dollar. Others stood in line at employment offices from morning until night.
Disaster had struck on October 29, 1929. Some people called it Black Tuesday, others the Crash. It was the end of America’s good times in the 1920s. The economy failed, and suddenly millions of people were out of work. At first, Jim thought that the problem wouldn’t last long. But then his bank closed and his taxi company went out of business. By 1932, the Braddock’s had lost every cent of Jim’s boxing money
New York wasn’t a city of bright lights and happy party-goers now. The city was filled with a gray crowd of people without hope. They stood in endless lines for soup or bread; they froze on street corners; they looked for work and found none. Hungry, empty, hopeless people.
Jim’s only hope had been boxing. The prize money was less, but boxing was still popular, cheap entertainment. But, after the crash, Jim’s success as a boxer had ended. In 1930, ’31, ’32-and now 1933-he lost more fights than he won. It was harder and harder for Gould to get him good fights.
Jim had to look for other work. With so many factories closed, he tried Newark’s busy docks. Early every morning, he joined the crowd looking for work there. In the dark and the cold, they waited by the locked gate of a high fence.
At last, the foreman pulled open the gate. He looked at the tired, hungry faces of the men there. This man had the power of life or death; he could change the luck of every man here.
“I need nine men,” he said.
Men began pushing forward-Me! Pick me!-as the foreman counted out workers. “One, two, three…” Jim pushed forward, too, but then:”… nine.”
Jim closed his eyes. After all of that waiting, it had ended in less than thirty seconds. He hadn’t been picked.
“I’ve been here since four o’clock,” said a man’s voice.
The man had stepped forward to complain. Jim had spoken to him once. His name was Ben and, like Jim, he had a wife and three kids to support.
The foreman began to turn away, but suddenly Ben was holding a gun and pointing it at the foreman’s heart. His hand shook and his eyes were wild. “I was here first.”
The foreman lifted his eyes from the gun to Ben’s face. “My mistake,” he said. “I need ten men.”
Ben stepped through the gate. Jim wanted to look away but he couldn’t. Ben had just put the gun away when several men fought him to the ground. That was the end for Ben now. How could he help his wife and kids from prison?
Jim spent the whole day walking from place to place and looking for work, without luck. Hours later, he returned to the apartment building. His eight-year-old son, Howard, was outside. Jim gave his son a smile. How could a young boy understand that one in four working Americans had no job? An eight-year-old child didn’t need to know that.
Suddenly, another child ran up to him. It was Rosy.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” she cried. “Jay stole!”
Jim carried his daughter to their apartment, where Mae was standing over their oldest son. The ten-year-old’s face was red.
Jim put Rosy down. “What’s all this about?”
Rosy pointed at the meat on the table. “See?” she said.
There was enough to feed the family for a whole week.
“It’s from the butcher shop,” said Mae. “He refuses to say a word about it. Don’t you, Jay?”
“OK,” said Jim to his son. “Pick it up. Let’s go.”
Jay looked up at his father and the message in his eyes was clear. Don’t make me do this. Can’t you see that we need it?
“Right now!” said Jim.
Then he was out of the building and marching to the butcher shop without another word. His son followed slowly behind, with the stolen food in his hand. At the butcher’s, Jay had to give the meat back and apologize. Jim met the butcher’s eyes. I am not bringing up my son to be a thief.
The butcher nodded. Father and son left the shop. As they walked, Jim was silent, giving his boy time.
At last, Jay spoke. “Marty Johnson had to go and live with his uncle. His parents didn’t have enough for them to eat.”
Jim turned toward his son. “You were scared,” he said. “I understand that. But we don’t steal. It doesn’t matter what happens. Promise me.”
Jay managed a nod. “I promise,” he said.
“Here’s my promise.” Jim was eye to eye with his son. “We’re never going to send you away, son.”
The tears came pouring from the little boy’s eyes. Jim pulled Jay into his arms and held him as tight as he could.
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