Though most of Brooklyn in the summer of 1912 could be described as “somber,” the word “serene” more appropriately applies to Williamsburg. There is one tree in Francie Nolan’s yard. It looks like “a lot of opened green umbrellas.” It grows lushly but struggles to reach the sky. Some call it the Tree of Heaven. It grows in “boarded up lots” and out of trash heaps. It is the only tree that seems to grow out of cement. It seems to like poor people.
The tree appears throughout the novel as a symbol of endurance. It takes on human-like characteristics in some instances, which is the author’s effort to indicate that Francie, like the tree, struggles against her circumstances (not only to survive, but to be great and unique in an environment where failure seems predetermined).
It is Saturday in Brooklyn, which is when most people get paid. People eat well, make love, and enjoy their lives before crowding in to mass on Sunday morning. They then sleep for the rest of the day with free consciences. On Saturdays, Francie and her brother, Neeley, go to the junkie. Like many other Brooklyn kids, they collect rags, paper, metal, and other bits of trash during the week, then they haul it in to Carney’s. Other kids taunt them for being rag-pickers, though those children also pick around in trash to earn much needed money for their families.
Life in this Brooklyn community revolves around pay day. People are not particularly interested in money, but it is the means with which they can live meaningful and enjoyable lives amidst the drudgery of their obligations. Though rag-picking is a good way of making money, the poor children are too proud to admit that they scavenge in exchange for cash.
Carney’s junk business is located in a former stable that is in disrepair. He always gives Francie an extra penny if she does not shrink away from him when he pinches her cheek. He gives her sixteen cents for the junk, which Neeley divides. Francie allows Neeley to handle the money because he is the boy. He puts eight cents in the bank, according to their rule, and splits the remaining eight cents between them.
Carney’s behavior with little girls foreshadows Smith’s later exploration of the exploitation and abuse of little girls. What seems like a harmless action is indicative of Carney’s strange need for attention from little girls and his willingness to reward that attention with money.
Francie and Neeley then head to Cheap Charlie’s candy store. It is a penny candy store that caters particularly to children who have just turned in junk for cash. It is, however, “a boy’s store,” so Francie only stands in the doorway while Neeley picks penny candy over a penny prize. Francie has never heard of anyone winning one of the nice prizes behind the counter, including roller skates, a catcher’s mitt, and a doll with real hair. Francie decides that, one day, when she has fifty cents she will buy all of the picks on the board and win all of the prizes.
Cheap Charlie’s is one of the places where Francie engages in her fantasy of having all of the things that her parents cannot afford to buy for her. The fact that Charlie’s is regarded as “a boy’s store” suggests that these items are more elusive and unattainable for Francie due to her gender. Though Francie will one day work, like her mother, there is an understanding that her wages will be for her children.
Francie then goes across the street to Gimpy’s candy store. Gimpy was long regarded as a gentle man who was kind to children, until he lured a little girl into the back room of his store to molest her. Francie thinks about spending one of her pennies for a Gimpy Special—a prize bag. She stands in line behind Maudie Donovan. Maudie chooses a large bag and gets a few pieces of candy and “a coarse cambric handkerchief.” Once, Francie got “a small bottle of strong scent.” Francie decides not to spend her penny at Gimpy’s.
Strangely, the community allows Gimpy to keep his candy store open, despite the common knowledge about his crime. This willingness to keep his open secret implies that the community values Gimpy’s business too much to run him out of town. It is significant, too, that a child molester would choose a business that gives him direct access to children and that he specializes in gifts for girls.
Francie walks up Manhattan Avenue to Broadway, which is the location of the finest nickel-and-dime store in Brooklyn. With the addition of Carney’s penny, Francie has a nickel to spend in the store. She enjoys touching all of the things, with the possibility that she can buy something. After “an orgy of touching things,” she settles on a nickel’s worth of pink-and-white peppermint wafers. She walks back home down Graham Avenue, which is a Jewish ghetto. She remembers how her mother told her that Jesus was Jewish, though Francie thought he was Catholic.
For Francie, there is more pleasure in the possibility of buying things than there is in the actual act. In a way, her poverty gives her more appreciation for things and a greater understanding of the ephemerality of objects—she can never possess all the things that she wants, so she enjoys her short time with them. Her misunderstanding about Jesus is less the result of possessiveness than childhood ignorance.
It is noon when Francie arrives home. Her mother, Katie, comes in soon after her with her broom and pail. She works as “a janitress” and keeps three tenement houses clean. Looking at her mother’s pretty face and well-formed hands, Francie thinks that people would find it difficult to believe that she scrubs floors to support a family of four. People in the neighborhood, however, know her situation: she is married to Johnny Nolan, a loveable and handsome drunk.
Katie is a woman who lives according to necessity, whereas Johnny is someone who lives according to his desires. Both are reacting, albeit in different ways, to the desperation of their circumstances. Katie finds meaning through her ability to provide for her family, while Johnny finds it by engaging in what brings him pleasure.
After Francie puts the eight cents from junk-collecting into the family bank, Katie instructs her on how to buy lunch. Francie is to take eight cents for “a quarter loaf of Jew rye bread” and is to ensure that it is fresh. Katie then tells her to go to Sauerwein’s delicatessen and ask for “the end-of-the-tongue for a nickel.” When she gets to Sauerwein’s, he tells Francie that he has saved this part of the cow for Katie because he likes her and he tells Francie to share this information with Katie. Francie does not like Mr. Sauerwein and will not tell her mother what he said.
Francie’s distaste in response to Mr. Sauerwein’s request comes from both her jealousy that a man other than her father would take interest in Katie and, possibly, from Francie’s growing awareness of the entitlement of some men. She seems to resent Sauerwein’s implication that his willingness to save Katie a piece of meat entitles him to special attention from her mother.
At the baker’s, Francie picks out four buns with the most sugar on them. Johnny does not come home for dinner. Usually, he spends Saturdays at the Union Headquarters, waiting for a job. Francie, Neeley, and Katie have a nice dinner without him. They slice up the rye bread and each eat two pieces with butter and thick slices of the cow’s tongue. They each have a sugar bun with hot coffee. Katie always makes a pot in the morning, then reheats it as the day goes on, adding chicory to make it taste stronger. Everyone in the household gets three cups a day with milk. Even when one is alone in the flat with nothing to do, a cup of hot, bitter, black coffee makes you feel like you have something.
Though the family has “a nice dinner” without him, Johnny’s absence is deeply felt. Francie picks out four buns, indicating that she never neglects him. Her ability to take comfort in a cup of coffee may also come from her sense of missing her father on Saturdays and of missing the companionship of children (other than her brother) in general. Her ability to appreciate the coffee while she is alone in her flat indicates her understanding that there are some people who do not even have this benefit.
After having her coffee, Francie goes to Losher’s bread factory to buy the family’s semi-weekly supply of stale bread. Francie waits for the double doors to open, which will release the bread. In the meantime, she plays one of her favorite games: creating stories for the other customers. She watches an old man with no teeth and battered shoes. She imagines what he must have been like as a baby and as a young man. Suddenly, the double doors open and the bread truck backs up. Francie intensely calls out for “six loaves and a pie not too crushed.” The counterman is impressed by her intensity, gives her what she asks for, and takes her two dimes. She pushes her way out of the crowd and drops a loaf, which she is unable to pick up; there is no room to bend over in the massive crowd.
Francie enlivens mundane tasks by engaging in the practice of storytelling. Her habit not only makes an excursion to the bread factory less tedious, it also enriches her connection to humanity and enhances her ability to sympathize with those whom others might normally overlook. Francie’s “intensity” in response to the counterman illustrates the competition for affordable food. There is no shortage of bread at this time, but wages are too low for people to afford bread at the normal price.
When Francie returns home, she finds out that Katie has gone out with Aunt Sissy to see a matinee, and Neeley is heading to the lots to play baseball. Francie follows him there, though Neeley does not want her around. She has nothing to do until the library opens at 2:00. Three of Neeley’s friends are waiting for him. They bully a Jewish boy on their way to the lot. They chase another boy who sells pretzels, until his mother yells at them to leave her son alone and get off of their block. When the boys finally arrive at the lot, they start a four-man baseball game. They play furiously, sweating, cursing, and punching each other. Francie tires of watching them. She walks to the library.
Though the Nolans are poor, they spend their Saturdays engaging in the leisure activities they like. Katie and Sissy choose the escape of the movies. Neeley, like many neighborhood boys, plays baseball but extends that competitiveness in his interactions with other children. The children compete for territory, determined by ethnic and religious loyalties, and they menace children who appear to have more than they, such as the pretzel seller.