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Chicago is unreal. It’s loud, dark, and grey; everyone moves too fast; and they all look scared. You know who’s not scared? Richard, who is no longer looking over his shoulder waiting for someone to swing a whiskey bottle at him for being black.
Except he has no idea what he’s going to do now that he’s achieved his goal.
The next morning, Richard bundles up against the freezing cold and heads out to find a job.
An old Jewish couple hires him almost immediately as a porter. Richard can’t understand their accents too well. Since he’s so used to understanding the world in terms of white oppression of black people, he mistakenly decides that they’re trying to keep him down.
He’s wrong, and grown-up Richard wants us to know that. We get twowhole pages of parenthetical asides about how stupid this was and how going to the North is scary for a black person from the South, and being mistreated by whites could be easier to deal with than being treated as an equal because, well, if you’re used to being beaten for forgetting to say "Sir," sometimes it’s just easier to keep on the way you’re used to. Or something.
Once we’re out of the asides, Richard hears that there’s an examination for postal clerks coming up. He applies, but then wonders how to swing time off for taking the exam. In the South you could never tell your boss you were looking at another job. Richard assumes it’s the same with his new boss, and he plays hooky for a few days.
The problem is, Richard tells a huge lie. He says that his mother died and he had to go bury her. Who makes up lies like that, aside from college students who accidentally forgot to write their term paper? Richard’s boss can smell his lie from a mile away, and he’s bummed that Richard doesn’t trust him.
Then, because Richard is the biggest baby ever and can’t deal with knowing A) that he hurt people who liked him and B) that they figured out his lie, he leaves the job the next Saturday. This kid is really bad at personal relationships. Also at keeping jobs.
After a week, Richard gets a job as a dishwasher. Seriously, this kid’s resume is way over a page by now.
He’s the only black person working at the cafe and he can’t believe that the white girls working there don’t seem to find him disgusting. That’s pretty awesome, but he still thinks they’re sheltered.
Parenthetical Richard pops up again and waxes philosophic about the materialistic aspects of the United States. That’s right, nearly 100 years ago and he already thinks people are too materialistic. We’d hate to see what he’d say now that you can buy nearly anything you want with the click of a button on Amazon.
Back out of parentheses, something is afoot in the cafe. A Finnish lady named Tillie is spitting in the food, and Richard doesn’t know what to do.
It is gross, seriously gross, but Richard isn’t sure if the boss will listen since he is black and the lady is white. Eventually he tells the owner and she gives the lady a Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares style talking-to before firing her.
Soon after that, Richard gets a temporary job at the post office and he has lots of moolah. Everything is awesome. He works and when he comes home he writes.
Hang on a tick. First, he has to pass a physical examination and weigh at least 125 pounds. Not only does this sound like some sort of crazy thin-person discrimination, but Richard is worried because he has never weighed anywhere close to 125 pounds.
He attacks the problem with the same kind of dedication to diet that only the most serious bodybuilder could achieve. We’re talking tuna, cottage cheese, and raw egg smoothies, and counting points like a Weight Watcher.
All the while Richard is reading more than ever. Instead of making friends (he has none, go figure), he reads and writes in his room. Gee, sounds like us in high school.
Eventually this approach agitates his Aunt Maggie, who tells him that reading books won’t help him get ahead in life. He ignores her and writes on, even when he learns that he didn’t pass the weight requirement.
Skinny Richard loses his job at the postal office, so money is scarce and the family has to move into a rat-infested apartment. Richard force feeds himself in preparation for the next exam.
At night, he reads Proust, which inspires him to write about the lives of people around him. He just doesn’t know how.
Right now, Richard is high on reading and writing—or, let’s make this more family-friendly: he’s like a baby who is just learning how to figure out the world around him. Reading and writing are opening up whole new worlds to Richard.