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We are introduced to the narrator in this first chapter (who is nameless) and learn that he often returns to the places he's lived throughout his life. He recalls for us his "first New York apartment" (1.1), a rundown "brownstone in the East Seventies" (1.1) with old furniture and walls that are "a color rather like tobacco-spit" (1.1). Sounds charming, doesn't it?
The narrator tells us that, despite the "gloom" (1.1) of the apartment, he cherished it because it "was a place of [his] own" (1.1) and it was the location where he was going to become a writer.
As the narrator reminisces about his old place, he remembers Holly Golightly (this is the first time we hear of this very important character). He explains that she lived in the same building in the apartment below his and that the two of them used to go to the bar down the street "six, seven times a day" (1.3). This sounds like they're a bunch of drunks, but it turns out that more often than not they go to the bar to use the phone since they don't have their own.
Joe Bell ran the bar in those days, and it turns out that he still runs the bar when our story picks up. The narrator tells us quite a bit about Joe. To start, the guy's not married, he's not very easy to get along with, and "he's a hard man to talk to" (1.4). And there are a few things that are "his fixations" (1.4): Holly, hockey, Weimaraners (those are the gray dogs with the blue eyes), a radio soap, and Gilbert and Sullivan (they wrote musicals and operas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).
The narrator hasn't talked to Joe in years, so when he gets a call from Joe out of the blue, he figures it has something to do with Holly. Joe asks the narrator to come down to the bar, which he does, and when he arrives he finds Joe there arranging flowers (apparently this is something Joe has always done).
Joe tells the narrator that he wouldn't have called him unless it was pretty important, and the narrator assumes that Joe has "heard from Holly" (1.9), which tells us that neither of them has stayed in touch with her. The mention of Holly's name makes Joe's "complexion [which] seems permanently sunburned [… grow] even redder" (1.10). (Sound's like Joe's got a bit of a crush, doesn't it?)
Joe actually hasn't heard from Holly, but he asks the narrator if he remembers a man named Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. The narrator remembers him as a photographer who lived in his old apartment building, and it turns out that Yunioshi came into Joe's bar the night before after spending two years in Africa.
Joe hands the narrator an envelope with three photographs in it (that we can assume Yunioshi took and then left with Joe). The pictures are "more or less the same, though taken from different angles: a tall delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt and with a shy, yet vain smile, displaying in his hands an odd wood sculpture, an elongated carving of a head, a girl's, her hair sleek and short as a young man's, her smooth wood eyes too large and tilted in the tapering face, her mouth wide overdrawn, not unlike clown-lips" (1.17). It turns out that this carving is the "spit-image of Holly Golightly" (1.17).
At this point, Joe recounts for the narrator and for us the story behind the statue and the photographs. It seems that Yunioshi was passing through the African village of Tococul when he saw a man "carving monkeys on a walking stick" (1.23). The photographer finds the carvings quite impressive and wants to see more of the man's carvings. The villager shows him the carving of Holly, causing the photographer to feel "as if he were falling in a dream" (1.23). (Holly seems to have quite a hold on Yunioshi, too.) Yunioshi wants to buy the carving, but the villager "cupped his private parts in his hand (apparently a tender gesture, comparable to tapping one's heart) and said no" (1.23). (Let's recount here: so far, Joe Bell, Yunioshi, the villager, and probably the narrator seem to have a thing for Holly, who we still haven't met. This lady sounds pretty intriguing, doesn't she?)
The villager refuses to sell the carving no matter what Yunioshi offers him, but he does finally agree to tell him how he met the girl in the carving. Apparently, "in the spring of that year a party of three white persons had appeared out of the brush riding horseback" (1.24), a woman and two men who were sick with a fever. The men were shut away in a tent and quarantined while the woman, who we can assume is Holly, "[took] a fancy to the wood-carver, [and] shared the wood-carver's mat" (1.23). We're not exactly sure what this "sharing" means, but Joe seems to think it's something sexual since he feels compelled to tell the narrator that he doesn't believe this part of the story: "'I don't credit that part,' Joe Bell said squeamishly. 'I know she had her ways, but I don't think she'd be up to anything as much as that'" (1.24).
At some point, Holly just rides away from the village, and the wood-carver doesn't seem to know where she's gone. Yunioshi travels throughout Africa trying to find her, but he never hears another word about her whereabouts. However, Joe seems pretty desperate to have some word about Holly, and he declares Yunioshi's story as the only "definite news" (1.28) he's had of her in years. He decides that "She must be rich […] [since] you got to be rich to go mucking around in Africa" (1.28). But perhaps more telling of his character is that he "hope[s] she's rich" (1.28). (Joe seems to be kind of a teddy bear when it comes to Holly, despite the narrator's description of the guy as pretty difficult to get along with).
The narrator is decidedly less willing to believe that Holly has been having adventures in Africa, and he sounds pretty bitter when he tells Joe that she's probably "Dead. Or in a crazy house. Or married. I think she's married right in this very city" (1.31). (Pretty interesting that he lumps together being married and being dead or crazy, right?)
Joe thinks about this for a minute, but he decides that he would have seen Holly if she was still in New York, especially because he's actually been looking for her for more than ten years. He "see[s] pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight'" (1.32), but he never actually sees Holly.
Joe's revelation that he's been searching for Holly makes the narrator realize that the bar-keep was in love with her, and while Joe admits to this, he is also careful to make clear that "[…] it wasn't that [he] wanted to touch her" (1.35). He tells the narrator that as he ages, he thinks more and more about sex, but this wasn't the case with Holly: "And I swear it never crossed my mind about Holly. You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger, a stranger who's a friend" (1.35). (Joe gets more and more likeable, don't you think?)
A couple of guys enter the bar, so the narrator gets ready to leave. Joe wants to know if he believes that Holly was ever in Africa, but it doesn't really seem to matter since, "Anyway, she's gone" (1.39). The narrator walks past the old brownstone building and looks at the mailboxes to see who still lives there who he knows (apparently, it's just a woman named Madame Sapphia Spanella), and he remembers that, "It was one of these mailboxes that had first made [him] aware of Holly Golightly" (1.41).