Williamsburg, Brooklyn can be described as serene on Saturday afternoons in the summer of 1912.
We meet out first character, Francie Nolan. She loves the feeling she gets when the afternoon sun shines down in her yard; it makes her think of poetry she learned in school.
There is one tree in Francie’s yard. This tree is sometimes called a “Tree of Heaven” (1.4). It is a hearty variety of tree that thrives in difficult environments, and it can even grow through concrete. The narrator tells us that the tree does especially well in tenement districts. (Btw, tenement housing is found in many big cities during this time. It was housing for the poor, and they are pretty run-down areas full of overcrowded apartments.)
The narrator tells us that wherever you spot this tree, you can be sure that the area is (or soon will become) a tenement district, because the tree just seems to like poor people.
The tree wraps around the Nolans’s apartment's fire escape, and Francie, who is eleven years old, loves to sit on the fire escape and pretend that she lives in a tree.
Early in the day on Saturdays, she and her brother Neeley (and nearly all the other children who live in Brooklyn) go to a place called the junkie. Throughout the week these kids collect all sorts of scrap materials—like “rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk” (1.9)—and bring it to the store to get a few pennies.
The problem is that when they walk to turn in their stuff, the kids who get there first make fun of them as they walk home, calling them “rag pickers.” In other words, they are making fun of them for being poor, which is pretty harsh, especially since they are poor themselves.
They get to Carney’s shop. Carney is the owner of the junkie, and a real creeper to boot. He likes girls more than boys, and will often give girls an extra penny if they let him pinch their cheeks. Ick. Anyway, Francie lets him pinch her cheek for the extra penny, and she gets to keep this “pinching penny” for herself. All of the other money is split with her brother.
After they divide their loot, Francie and Neeley go to some neighborhood stores to spend it.
At Cheap Charlie’s, there is a board with numbered hooks and a prize in a bag hanging from each. You can buy a chance at the board for a penny. You could possibly win something cool like roller skates or a catcher’s mit, but all anyone ever wins is some penny prize or candy.
Neely picks and gets some candy.
Francie thinks about how one day when she has fifty cents, she will go and buy all of the numbers; that way she can get all of the good prizes.
Francie leaves the store and walks up Manhattan Avenue until she reaches Broadway. On Broadway in Brooklyn, there is a fabulous nickel-and-dime store where she buys some peppermint wafers. (For the record, this would not have been Shmoop’s choice.)
Francie gets home at noon and sees her mother, twenty-nine-year-old Katie Nolan, putting away her broom and pail.
Mama is very pretty. Everyone thinks it is a shame that she has to work as a janitress, but she has to work because her husband, Johnny Nolan—a good-looking and charming man—is a drunk.
Mama gives Francie instructions on where to go to get some food and how much she should pay. Today is special because she will also get sugar buns for dessert.
Coffee is a very important thing to the Nolan family, and their one luxury. Mama makes a big pot every morning and reheats it for dinner.
Everyone can have three cups a day with sweetened condensed milk to go in it. They can have even more cups if they just wanted a cup of black coffee.
Neely and Francie both love coffee but don’t drink it much. Francie loves the smell of coffee, and she loves holding on to the warm cup, but she usually just dumps it down the drain at the end of the dinner.
Mama’s sisters think this is horribly wasteful, but Mama says it is Francie’s right to do with her share of the coffee what she wants to. She thinks it is pretty cool that they have at least this that she can waste. It makes them feel a bit less poor.
After dinner, Francie goes to Losher’s bread factory to buy some stale bread for the week. She notices many families give this chore to the old people in their families who have little other worth. These old people linger in the bread factory because it is warm and doing something gives them a sense of purpose.
Francie looks at the oldest man, and is sad to think about what this man’s life has turned into. She realizes that most of the babies born in the world will end up like this man one day—and specifically, she realizes that this could be her fate, too.
In a panic, she boldly hollers her order and gets the heck out of there; on the way home, she is haunted by the old man’s feet.
She goes home and then follows her younger brother around, even though she is not welcome.
Francie gets bored watching the boys fool around and realizes that it is 2:00PM. She’s off to the library.