Down and Out


So, you’ve come to the tropics, heard all you had to do
Was sit in the shade of a coconut glade while the dollars roll in to you.
They told you that at the bureau? Did you get the statistics all straight?
Well, hear what it did to another kid, before you decide your fate.
You don’t go down with a hard, short fall–you just sort of shuffle along
And loosen your load of the moral code, till you can’t tell the right from the wrong.

Panama Canal Cartoon, 1904

I started out to be honest, with everything on the square,
But a man can’t fool with the Golden Rule in a crowd that won’t play fair!
‘Twas a case of riding a dirty race, or of being an also-ran;
My only hope was to steal and dope the horse of another man.

I pulled a deal at Guayaquil in an Inca silver mine,
But before they found out it was salted ground I was safe in the Argentine.
I made short weight on the River Plate, when running a freighter there;
And I cracked a crib on a rich estate without even turning a hair.

But the deal that will everlastingly bar my soul when it knocks at Heaven’s doors,
Was peddling booze to the Santa Cruz, and Winchester forty-fours.
Made unafraid by my kindly aid, the drunk-crazed brutes came down
And left in a shivering, blazing mass, a flourishing border town.

I was next in charge of a smuggler’s barge off the coast of Yucatan,
But she sank to hell off of Cozumel one night in a hurricane.
I got to shore on a broken oar, in the filthy shrieking dark;
With the other two of the good ship’s crew converted into shark.

From a limestone cliff I flagged a skiff with a pair of salt-soaked jeans,
And I worked my way, for I couldn’t pay, on a freighter to New Orleans.
It’s kind of a habit, the tropics; it gets to you worse than rum.
You’ll get away and swear you’ll stay, but it calls, and back you come.

Six years went by before I was back on the job,
Running a war in Salvador, with an ugly barefoot mob.
I was General Santiago Hicks at the head of a grand revolt,
And my only friend from start to end was a punishing Army Colt.
I might have been a president, a prosperous man of means,
But a gunboat came and blocked my game with a hundred and ten Marines.

So I awoke from dream, dead broke–drifted from bad to worse;
Sank as low as a man can go who walks with an empty purse.
But stars, they say, appear by day, when you’re down in a deep black pit.
My lucky star found me that way, when I was about to quit.

On a fiery hot, flea-ridden cot, I was down with the yellow jack,
Alone in the bush, and all but dead, when she found me and nursed me back.
She came like a miracle man of old and opened my poor blind eyes,
And upon me shone a bright new dawn as I turned my face to the skies.

There was pride and grace in her young brown face,
For hers was the blood of kings;
In her eyes shone the glory of empires gone,
And the secrets of old-world things.

We were spliced in a Yankee meeting house on the land of your Uncle Sam,
and I drew my pay from the U.S.A., for I worked at the Gatun Dam.
Then the Devil sent his right-hand man (I might have expected he would)
And he took her life with a long, thin knife, because she was so straight and good.

Within me died hope, honor, and pride–all but a primitive will
To hunt him down on his blood-red trail–find him and kill, and kill.
Through logwood swamps and chicle camps I hunted him many a moon,
and I found my man in a long pit-pen, by the side of a blue lagoon.

The chase was o’er at the farthest shore–it ended my two years’ quest;
And I left him there with a vacant stare and a John Crow on his chest.
You see these punctures on my arm? Do you want to know what they mean?
Those marks were left by fingers deft of my trained nurse, “Miss Morphine.”

Of course you’ll say that’s worse than drink; it’s possible, too, you’re right;
At least it drives away the things that come and peer in in the night.
There’s a homestead down in an old Maine town, with lilacs around the gate,
And the northerners whisper, “It might have been,” but the truth has come too late.

They say they’ll give me one month to live–a month or a year is the same;
I haven’t the heart to play my part to the end of a losing game.
For whenever you play, whatever the way, for stakes that are large or small,
The claws of the tropics will gather your pile and the dealer gets it all.

Clarence Leonard Hay Contemporaries
Hilaire Belloc
Langston Hughes
Sara Teasdale
Edgar Guest

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