After their marriage, Johnny and Katie go to live on Bogart Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Johnny chooses the street because he likes its “thrilling dark sound.” The couple is happy in their first year of marriage. Katie persuades Johnny to give up the singing-waiter business. They start a job together taking care of a public school and they both love it. Their day starts in the evening. The school that they look after is “old and small and warm.” They walk there together, arm-in-arm. Sometimes, they even skip. They play games while they work. Katie likes to pretend to be a teacher. They especially enjoy cleaning the assembly room, where there’s a piano that Johnny can play. At 2:00 AM, they go into the teacher’s room and make coffee and eat sandwiches, then they lie in each other’s arms on the sofa. They empty the wastebaskets but save pencils and chalk that are “not too stubby.” When Francie is growing up, they’ll feel “rich” for having so many pencils and so much chalk.
Though Johnny and Katie do not have much, the strength of their love enriches them. Before the children come along, they have only themselves to worry about and this greatly diminishes their worries about money. Katie, early in her marriage to Johnny, mirrors a lot of her husband’s whimsy though she maintains her natural practical sense when she asks him to give up the unreliable singing-waiting business. Johnny, at this point in their lives, adopts some of Katie’s practicality by agreeing to give up a job that he likes in favor of pleasing her. The children did not exactly spoil this cooperation between them, they instead pushed both Johnny and Katie further over to their own sides, so each could have something to hold on to.
At the public school job, Katie and Johnny each earn fifty dollars a month, which is a good salary for people of their class at this time. In a few months, they are surprised to find out that Katie is pregnant. She continues working, but it becomes too difficult for her to dust under desks. Johnny takes over all of the tasks. The couple is still happy, but Johnny is becoming increasingly worried.
Johnny feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of becoming a parent. He also likely worries about the personal compromises he will have to continue to make to care for a child. Furthermore, Katie will need to depend on him for the latter part of her pregnancy.
Katie is screaming in pain when Johnny and Mrs. Gindler, the midwife, finally arrive. The apartment is filled with women from the neighborhood who reminisce about their own birthing experiences. They shoo Johnny away and attend to Katie, who is in labor all day. He goes to see his mother, but Ruthie uses the occasion to complain about how Johnny will never return to her with a child to look after. He then goes to drink with his brother, Georgie, who is working on a dance. The brothers go to a saloon and Johnny forgets that he is supposed to be at the school working. Towards dawn, Johnny goes back to Ruthie’s house and falls into “a troubled sleep.” Though he does not yet know it, that night, after twenty-four hours of labor, Katie gives “bloody birth to a fragile baby girl.” The infant is born with a caul, which is an indication that she will do great things in the world.
Ruthie uses the occasion of Francie’s birth to lament her loss of Johnny, to whom she has an unhealthy attachment. While with Georgie, Johnny neglects his responsibilities. This occurs not only because he is drinking but because Georgie reminds him of the pleasure of singing and dancing, which he agreed to give up to become a husband and father. Johnny’s “troubled sleep” likely comes from his feeling that he is living a life that feels inauthentic to him. Meanwhile, Francie is born with little strength but a distinguishing characteristic. The caul foreshadows her extraordinary will to live.
Aunt Evy comes over soon after Mrs. Gindler leaves. She brings along some sweet butter and a package of soda crackers and makes tea. Evy looks at the baby and thinks that the child doesn’t look very well, but she says nothing to Katie. When Johnny arrives home, Evy thinks about lecturing him but, seeing his pale and frightened face, she thinks better of it and chooses to kiss him and make him fresh coffee.
Evy notices that Johnny is overwhelmed and has a lot to think about in regard to his new parental responsibilities. Her demonstration of love and her silence are ways of showing him support. Though Francie looks physically vulnerable, Johnny exhibits emotional vulnerability.
Johnny looks at the baby. He is holding some avocadoes that he bought, then he collapses and cries beside Katie’s bed. Katie cries, too. She is weak from delivering the baby, but she is the one to comfort Johnny and assure him that she will take care of him. Johnny begins to feel better. He then suggests that they name their daughter after Francie Melaney. They think that it will mend her broken heart if she can be the baby’s godmother. The child will also have the name that Andy’s fiancée would have had: Francie Nolan.
The avocadoes are indicative of Johnny’s wish to provide. When he cries, it is a demonstration of his fear in response to being a father. Johnny’s choice to name the baby after Andy’s fiancée is not only an attempt to honor his brother, it also suggests that Johnny is living the life that Andy should have had.
While Johnny is in the kitchen, drinking coffee, a boy comes from the school with a note from the principal saying that Johnny is fired due to neglect. Johnny is to come to the school and collect his last pay. Johnny destroys the note and says nothing to Katie. It turns out that some pipes burst while Johnny was away from the job. The principal says that the Board of Education will pay for the damage. He then pays Johnny out of his own pocket after Johnny signs a voucher turning over the coming paycheck to the principal. Though Johnny tries to explain his circumstances, the principal says that he should have been more careful about his job, knowing that he had a baby on the way.
Johnny’s firing from this job will be the first in a series of failures due to his neglectfulness as a result of drinking. He says nothing to Katie because he doesn’t want her to worry about money. Johnny’s attempt to explain the situation suggests that he overestimates others’ willingness to sympathize with circumstances or personal weaknesses. The principal’s reaction is typical: the property that was destroyed is deemed more important than Johnny’s ability to support his child.
After Johnny takes Mary Rommely to see Katie, he goes out to look for another job. Katie confesses that she knows that she can’t count on Johnny and will have to look after him. Katie wishes for no more children. Mary says that she and Thomas had little in the old country, but, in some ways, life in America has been harder. Katie asks why her mother emigrated from Austria. Mary says that, in the old country, a man can be no more than his father. He is beholden to the past. In the new country, “he belongs to the future.” Mary insists that things are getting better for the next generations because Francie was born to parents who can read and write.
Katie’s mother explains the difference between being poor in the United States and being poor in Europe. In Europe, there was no hope in overcoming poverty. Education and the promise of owning property were only bestowed to those who were born into privileged circumstances. America’s promise lay in the possibility that anyone, through industriousness and optimism, could rise above one’s circumstances.
Katie insists that she doesn’t want Francie to work as hard as Katie does. Mary says that the secret lies in reading and writing. She encourages Katie to teach her daughter language through Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible. Mary prefers the Protestant Bible because it “contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it.” She says that Katie must tell Francie the legends and fairy tales “of the old country.” Mary also points out that Katie should encourage Francie to believe in angels, ghosts, and even Santa Claus to bestow her with imagination. Mary thinks that it’s good to believe in something and then not believe. It’s important, she says, for Francie to learn suffering; it builds character.
Mary chooses Shakespeare and the Bible because she believes that they are among the greatest works ever written. The legends and fairy tales connect Francie to the world of the unknown, reminding her that there are things beyond human understanding. By believing in Santa and then no longer believing, Mary thinks that Francie will learn early how to handle disappointment and loss.
Mary’s next bit of advice is that Katie must own land. Ironically, Katie finds this most absurd, given that she can barely afford to pay her rent. Mary tells Katie how to make a bank out of an empty can of condensed milk. She is to put five cents per day into the can. Mary says that she can do it in small ways, such as bargaining on groceries or suffering cold for an extra hour instead of starting another fire in the stove with a bushel of coal. Katie initially does not believe that this will work, but Mary says that she once saved enough money for a house but was swindled out of it because she could not read or write.
Mary’s next lesson is on the importance of frugality and using money as a means to plan for a better future. For Katie, money is so scarce that she can’t imagine having enough to put away toward savings. However, Mary reminds her that there are small things that one can do to prepare for the future. Mary’s story of being swindled out of land was a common one in the late-19th and early-20th century, particularly during the land grabs in the Plains.
Mary then saved again, though it was harder with all of the children. Then, when the Rommelys moved, Thomas found the money and bought a rooster and many hens. He said that they would profit from the eggs. On the first night, “twenty starving cats” killed some of the chickens, Mary says that some Italians stole more, and the police then came and told Thomas that it was illegal to keep chickens in the yard. The cop demanded five dollars not to take Thomas to the station. There, alas, went the last of Mary’s savings. Still, she is saving again.
Mary’s story about Thomas reinforces the notion that men sometimes believed that they had better skills than their wives with managing money, but often ended up squandering it. Thomas’s scheme to get rich off of chickens humorously alludes to the expression, “Don’t count your chicks before they hatch.” He was so sure that the plan would work that he didn’t account for these mishaps.
Sissy goes to Katie’s apartment after work. She declares Francie “the most beautiful baby in the world,” though Johnny is skeptical, given how “blue and wizened” she is. Sissy then goes out and buys deli treats on credit. She brings the supper of sliced cow’s tongue, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, and crisp rolls for she, Katie, and Johnny to share. Sissy announces that she is going to stay overnight, which worries Katie because there is only one bed. Sissy then says that she should sleep with Johnny so that she could get “a fine baby like Francie.” Katie frowns. Though her sister is joking, there is “something true and direct about Sissy.” Katie begins to lecture her, but Johnny announces that he needs to go over to the school. He cannot yet tell Katie that he lost his job there.
Sissy’s universal love for children, as well as her remarkable insight despite her naivete, allow her to see what is beautiful about Francie long before anyone else can. Sissy’s joke about sleeping with Johnny goes unappreciated because Katie thinks that, on some level, her sister may mean it. Despite their closeness, Katie doesn’t entirely trust Sissy due to her promiscuity. Meanwhile, Johnny fears telling Katie that he lost his job because he knows that she’ll worry about money. He doesn’t yet know that Katie has already made up her mind about him being unreliable.
Johnny’s brother, Georgie, tells him that they need another man at his restaurant to sing and wait on tables. As a result, he drifts back into the singing-waiting business and never takes another job. Katie tells Sissy about her fears and worries regarding the future. She also tells her older sister about the talk she had earlier with their mother. The idea of the bank interests Sissy so much that she gets out of the bed she is sharing with Katie and makes the bank right away out of a can of condensed milk.
Johnny’s choice to remain in the singing-waiting business is related to his need to maintain some connection to the singing career he could never have. Katie fears that his unwillingness to find any other form of work will keep them poor. Sissy takes action and makes the bank right away to help her sister feel better and more hopeful about the future.
Sissy starts the bank off by putting a nickel in. She then gets back into bed and gets excited again when Katie tells her about the two books for Francie. Sissy promises that she will get the books and that they will be the baby’s christening present. That night, Francie sleeps snugly between her mother and Aunt Sissy.
Katie seems to regard the ideas about the bank and the books practically, viewing them as ways to help her family get its start. For Sissy, it’s exciting. She envisions a hopeful new beginning that Katie can’t yet see.
Sissy gets “a worn-out copy” of Shakespeare from the files at the library. The librarian gives it to her for a quarter because they were about to discard it. However, they cannot help her with getting a Bible. A few days after buying the volume of Shakespeare, Sissy wakes up one morning “in a quiet family hotel” beside her latest “John” (a man named Charlie) and points to a book on the dresser. He confirms that it’s a Protestant Bible. Sissy says that she’s going to take it and he says that would be fine; that’s why they put it there. Sissy is pleasantly surprised to learn this.
Despite not having much money, Sissy finds ways to get Francie’s library started. In her naivete, she thinks that she’s stealing a Bible from the hotel. Though she’s spent plenty of time in such places, she doesn’t know that Bibles are always made available to lodgers. However, the fact that she cannot read would make her unable to tell one book from another.
Charlie worries that Sissy is taking the Bible to reform him, in which case he’ll have to go back to his wife. Sissy says that she has no intention of doing this. Firstly, she can’t read. Secondly, she has no interest in what others think. She learns good from bad through how she feels about things. Charlie says that he wishes he could marry Sissy, but he’s Catholic and can’t get divorced. Sissy doesn’t mind. She doesn’t believe in divorce either.
Sissy’s lack of education, in a way, makes her much freer than most people. Her reliance on understanding morality through her own feelings about things makes her more natural and authentic than most people. Though she, too, is Catholic, she doesn’t allow religion to dictate how she should live.