Dick is shaken awake by a random man who has passed him in the street. Dick spent the night there, curled up in a wooden box. Upon awakening, Dick realizes that he’s late for work—he tells the man that he’s a bootblack, or shoeshine boy—and rises quickly. He admonishes himself for having gone to the theater the night before, and thus staying up late and subsequently oversleeping.
The novel was originally published chapter-by-chapter in a magazine, and as such Alger immediately dives into his plot. These opening lines quickly illustrate who Dick is—a hardworking street urchin with a habit of overspending—and set the action in motion.
The man is curious how Dick came by the money for a theater ticket. Dick assures him that he earned it honestly, through work and not stealing, which Dick considers to be immoral. While the two talk, Dick gets ready for his work day. This routine consists of little more than dusting off his clothing, which is far too large for him and in a state of utter disrepair. Despite this unkemptness, the narrator asserts that Dick is an attractive boy with an honest look about him.
Dick will reject the thought of thievery throughout the novel, underscoring his lack of criminality and admirable morality in spite of his economic circumstances. The narrator does most of the work here, occasionally peeking into Dick’s thoughts or describing his motivations. Though not a part of the story per se, the narrator seems emotionally invested.
Parting ways with the stranger, Dick begins to solicit clients. He jokes with his first customer, telling the businessman that shoeshine prices are so high because of the exorbitant rent charged on Fifth Avenue mansions and by tailors. He adds that his wardrobe appears to be a hand-me-down because it comes from such famous people as George Washington and Napoleon.
Dick’s humor is a bit acerbic, and it always comes from his poverty. It would be easy to think of him as bitter as a result, but it’s clear from his interactions with successful adults that they don’t see it that way. Instead, it seems best read as a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor.
The man, Mr. Greyson, is amused and takes an instant liking to Dick. When Greyson pays for his shoeshine, Dick is unable to provide the man with the necessary change. Running late already, Greyson gives Dick his address so that the boy can drop the change off later. Greyson thinks to himself that this probably won’t happen, but that it will say a lot about the boy’s character if it does.
This is an early moment of fortune favoring the industrious. It will eventually lead to Greyson giving Dick the religious education he needs to thrive in the world, all because of Dick’s work ethic and decision to return the man’s change.
When Mr. Greyson departs, Dick continues to search for customers. He is a hardworking young man, the narrator declares, though not without his faults. Dick spends what little money he earns quite freely, often going to the theater or to vaudeville shows. He likes to treat his friends to lavish meals, too, when he can afford it, and—even worse—he smokes and gambles. Nevertheless, the narrator says, Dick would never steal or cheat and is at heart a “noble” person.
No moral argument is supplied by the narrator as to why smoking, gambling, or going to the theater are the wrong way of doing things. Instead, it’s assumed that the reader will see these as faults or weaknesses intuitively. Here, as throughout the book, the narrator will work to endear Dick to the reader through both an honest dissection of his faults and assertion of his innate goodness.