Down Second Avenue

Source: Es’kia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue (New York: Penguin, 2013 – orig. pub. 1959), pp. 48-49

Text: Soon, however, we forgot our hunger, weariness, everything else, lost in the exciting moments of the movies. We always had a large bill for fourpence. Often they showed four pictures and a serial chapter on one programme. Those were the days of silent films: the days of Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler, Frankie Darro, Buck Jones, Tex Maynard, Tim McCoy; the days of funny actors like Harold Lloyd, Richard Talmadge, Larry Simon [sic i.e. Semon], Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and a host of others.

We stood on chairs to cheer our screen heroes. A piano played a medley of noisy tunes which, however, made superb background music. The other boys relied on me to read the dialogue and titles on the screen aloud so that they might all follow the story. I felt really big and important and useful because I could read fast – as fast as the slow tempo of life in those years made it necessary.

‘But how do you read so fast?’ Moloi would ask me.

‘Just like that’ I would answer, smiling mysteriously.

‘No use asking you anything,’ he would say, genuinely disgusted.

The truth of it was that I used to pick up any piece of printed paper to read, whatever it was. It became a mania with me. I couldn’t let printed matter pass. I felt inferior to most of my class at school. I was pretty poor in English, which was the medium of instruction. I read, and read, till it hurt. But I also got a good deal of pleasure out of it. And I felt proud because I was overcoming my backwardness.

Often I didn’t have money for the movies. Then one of the boys would pay for me, just so that I should read for them. I managed to be heard above all the din from the audience accompanied by the klonk-onk of the piano, which was constantly playing during the performance.

Comments: Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008) was a black South African writer and activist, one of the leading figures in modern African literature. At the time of this anecdote (1920s) from his 1959 memoir he was living in Pretoria. Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler et al were stars of American westerns.