"It's a five dollar fee in advance," the agent behind the counter said. He was overweight but his suit was still a size too big for him.
"I don't have any money," Sol replied. "Can't I just pay you after you give me a job?"
"Save me the trouble, will you? I have this conversation a hundred times a day."
"I'm down to my last quarter, sir."
"Well go beg another four dollars and seventy-five cents and then come back to me!"
A spark of anger ignited behind Sol's eyes. He'd spent all morning trying every labour agent in a one-mile radius but they all wanted money up front. He thought about saying something else to the man, but instead, he turned his back on him and walked out.
With his daily defeats out of the way, he stepped back onto the street with every intention of finding a street corner on Fifth Avenue to unpack his sax and earn money the only way he could, but after only a few feet, he felt something wet touch his cheek. He cursed at first, expecting it to be his old foe, the rain, but then a tiny white speck floated past his face and he realised it was snow. For the first time that day, Sol smiled. With renewed vigour, he turned his feet southward and started walking as fast as he could.
By the time he reached Fourteenth Street, the snow was falling thick and fast and dusting the ground in a fine layer of white powder. He spied a trio of men already assembled outside the street cleaning station, but to Sol's eyes, they were old and weak of body. He trundled up behind them just as the station's foreman came out to speak to them. He had a bad limp.
"The snow's only just started to fall, boys," he said. "We won't need any shovellers today."
"We'll wait," the old fellow in the middle said, and the other two nodded.
"Then you'll be waiting overnight. Why don't you save your warmth and come back in the morning when there might be something for you?"
"Tomorrow there'll be a hundred other people here."
"Two hundred," one of his pals said.
"And they'll all have had a good night's sleep and a hot meal," the foreman replied. "Come back in the morning and if there's still any snow left to shovel, I'll find something for you. Don't worry, I can remember your faces."
The three old boys mumbled something but soon shuffled away, probably in the direction of the nearest speakeasy. The foreman was about to go back inside when he spotted Sol standing there alone.
"Didn't you hear?" he said. "There's no work today."
Sol took off his hat. "If you don't mind, sir, I'd like to wait anyway."
"Wait for what?"
Sol shrugged. "I don't know, but I figure I'm due some good fortune. I've got nowhere better to be, anyway. At least here there's a chance of work."
"You'll be standing out here all day."
"If I get tired, I can go."
The foreman shook his head and limped back inside.
Sol put his hat back on and went about unpacking his sax.
* * *
After an hour of playing, Sol had earned a dime while the pavement had all but disappeared, hidden under a white carpet of snow. The road was in much the same condition, though the frequent passing of horse-drawn wagons and automobiles had formed a lattice of black lines.
Sol had to stop playing after every song to brush the snow from his shoulders and wipe the melted water from his sax, but he didn't mind—he only willed the snow to fall faster. The deeper the snow, the better chance he'd have of being given work. He knew the foreman hadn't been lying when he said he didn't need any more workers—there were over two hundred men at that station alone—so he was all the more surprised when the station door opened again and the foreman reappeared with a curious expression at the ready.
"You're still here," he said.
"Still here," Sol replied. He lowered his sax and removed his hat again.
"You sound pretty good on that thing. What are you doing here? You should be playing in clubs."
Sol shrugged but gave no answer. The foreman looked down at the lone dime lying on top of the case.
"Well, it seems that good luck you said you're due has just arrived," he continued. "One of my boys slipped on some ice on the way here and hurt his back so I'm a man down. How do you feel about shovelling snow for seven hours?"
Sol resisted the urge to grab the foreman's hand and shake it.
"Yes, sir," he said instead. "Just show me where to go."
* * *
Sol had been so pleased to finally get some work that he worked twice as hard as any other man he saw with a shovel for the entire day, clearing entire sections of street in half the time. After six hours of scooping up snow and dumping it onto the back of a truck, his arms and back were sore and aching and his shoes were soaked through, but he hadn't been happier in weeks.
As the day went on, cars started to drift carelessly around the corners as their wheels lost traction with the road. At one point late in the afternoon, Sol heard a scream and turned just in time to see a car skidding to a halt mere inches from a lady with a young boy. While she proceeded to shout obscenities at the driver, Sol became aware of another car skidding towards the first, it's wheels locked tight. It wasn't moving very fast, but it still made a loud bang as it struck the first car and came to a stop. The woman stopped shouting then and walked quickly away with the child, and Sol continued shovelling.
After the sun went down, conditions only got worse and the sounds of automobiles crashing into one another became just another instrument in the mad orchestra of the City. The snow finally stopped falling fifteen minutes before the end of Sol's shift, and it was with a grateful sigh that he climbed into the truck to be escorted back to the station.
"I hear you worked hard out there," the foreman said as he processed Sol's time ticket. "Didn't stop all day."
"I like to work," Sol replied.
The foreman smiled, then pushed his chair back and reached under his desk. "I suppose you'll be wanting this back." He straightened up holding Sol's saxophone case and passed it over to him.
"Thanks. I appreciate you looking after it."
"You mind if I ask you something?"
Sol shook his head.
"Where'd you get that scar?"
Sol felt his face grow hot. He cleared his throat.
The foreman nodded. He stamped a piece of paper and handed it to Sol.
"I wish I could pay you in cash, but I'm afraid this is the best I can do."
Sol looked at the ticket and saw that he'd been paid for ten hours instead of seven. The value of five dollars was printed in bold black letters.
"You've paid me too much," he said.
"I don't make mistakes. You should be able to cash that in in the morning."
Sol folded the slip and tucked it away safely in his pocket.
YOU ARE READING
* Next chapter this weekend * Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a si...