The narrator arrived in New York harbor on a spring afternoon; he found it enchanting, “the most fatally fascinating thing in America,” like a charming witch who crushes, condemns, and laughs at the masses. Feeling its “dread power,” he felt as though he “was just beginning to live” in the dangerously addictive city.
New York is at once promising and foreboding: the narrator recognizes its storied charm as a place of unlimited opportunity but also sees the hidden underbelly of its individualism. Johnson continues to mix history, experience, and fiction by taking the image of the Statue of Liberty as a “witch” from an earlier poem of his own.
With three other workmen, they went to a lodging house on West 27th Street. Its proprietor, “a short, stout mulatto man who was exceedingly talkative and inquisitive,” began planning the men’s futures for them. They went out, ate supper and met some old acquaintances, who sent them to a bar full of “well dressed men.” The narrator went to watch the boisterous game of pool in the back parlor and noted that the patrons called one another “nigger” freely and affectionately.
The lodging house’s proprietor, a caricature of fast-talking New Yorkers, confirms that this may be where the narrator pursues his ambition. The narrator also sees how the word “nigger” can get re-signified; in Connecticut, whites used it in its usual, violently derogatory sense, and his mother told him never to say it, but now he sees that the black men in New York have inverted its meaning and turned it into a positive affirmation to use among one another.
The narrator followed his friends upstairs; they passed a contrastingly “aristocrat[ic]” poker game on their way to the back room, where a group of men—including some white men—were playing dice. One “tall, black fellow” shook and threw the dice with an exaggerated energy, yelling nonsensically. And the narrator’s new friend convinced him to play: he dropped a 20 dollar bill on the table and immediately “gained the attention and respect of everybody in the room.” They wondered who he could be; he was immensely but vainly pleased. It was his turn—and he shot seven, seven, and eleven, winning over 200 dollars.
The secret, integrated game of dice in the back room fulfills the narrator’s hopes to make it in New York. He is thrilled to win attention and status by showing off with a bet he cannot quite afford in a room he emphatically does not understand; in fact, his own anonymity to the other players makes him even more remarkable, and his beginner’s luck recalls the bizarre turns of fate that have diverted him from his original plan to attend Harvard or Yale to this underground gambling ring.
The narrator remarks that this success “afterwards cost me dearly”; the others persuaded him to buy them back in, and he “noticed that several of them had on linen dusters,” which he soon learned the proprietor gave patrons who gambled away the clothing off their backs. Some, with nothing to wear, were trapped inside until they could win their clothes back. The narrator went downstairs, bought everyone a round of drinks, and headed with his new friends to “the ‘Club,’” which was a few blocks away, in a house above a Chinese restaurant. He was “positively giddy” at the patrons’ flashy jewelry and rolls of cash, and after they ordered drinks he noticed a man singing in the back room with piano accompaniment.
The dice game fulfills the narrator’s fear that New York would prove “addictive”; much like the porter who stole his money, the others use his vanity against him, ingratiating him in order to get money and drinks out of him. The unluckiest gamblers become literally imprisoned by their addiction and must rely on the goodwill of people like him, but he does not seem to realize the unfairness or despair in this predicament; rather, he simply moves on, remaining fixated on wealth and the accessories it can buy.
After the singer finished, the pianist at the “Club” started playing “music of a kind I had never heard before.” The narrator could not help but tap his feet and fingers with the beat; it was ragtime, which had just arrived in New York from Memphis and St. Louis, where it was developed by players with no training “guided by natural musical instinct and talent.” White men often transcribed, slightly altered, and sold their songs, but fortunately “a number” of black performers were also getting credit and compensation for their talent and effort. Of course, the American musical establishment rejected ragtime, like most popular music, even though all great music is “gather[ed] from the hearts of the people” and ragtime had won fans around “the civilized world” (meaning in Europe).
Johnson introduces the genre of music that soon becomes the narrator’s most important source of identity and status; like his earliest playing, it requires putting one’s whole body into the performance and learning through imitation and innovation rather than formal training or sheet music. Johnson is also subtly undermining conventional ideas of artistic value here by claiming that ragtime comes from both “natural” individual ability and “the hearts of the people.” While he notes that ragtime sometimes crosses the color line, he also emphasizes how this happens within the unequal power relations of the art world, as whites freely take credit for black innovation.
The narrator went to the back room and chatted with the pianist, who had no training and miraculously played everything by ear. Were he trained, the narrator suggests, perhaps he would only be imitating “the great masters” or trying to innovate and rejecting harmony—“it is certain that he would not have been so delightful as he was in ragtime.” His friends had to drag him out of the bar at daybreak.
In lauding the pianist’s creativity, the narrator indirectly comments on his own musical training, which has led him to see artistic merit in only a narrow range of works, but he also seems to ignore the possibility that one might have both originality and training, which undermines his own coming forays into ragtime and contradicts his insistence in his childhood that he had a strongly individual way of interpreting the “masters.”